When it comes to dance music, there’s nothing more British than drum and bass. Originating in murky warehouses across Bristol and London, its pummelling explosion of breakbeats and stomach-churning basslines paved the way for legendary raves, the ecstasy movement and arguably rave culture itself. 30 years on, it’s a genre that stubbornly refuses to die. Despite rarely infiltrating the house-obsessed mainstream, its high tempo still sends thousands of moon-pupiled ravers into an absolute frenzy every weekend. Yet outside of our fair isle, the genre doesn’t quite get the love it so dearly deserves. Or it didn’t until the release of Xbox racer Forza Horizon 2.
Against all odds, scrappy London-based drum and bass label Hospital Records has found itself an unlikely champion – multi-billion dollar company Microsoft. Forming an unholy alliance for 2014’s Forza Horizon 2, ever since Hospital Records has been one of four permanent radio stations in the racing series. With Forza Horizon 5 being honoured as one of our best games of 2021 ( and it’s drum & bass bangers still relentlessly ricocheting around our head) we sat down with label co-founder Chris Goss, and talked D&B, the art of creating music for games, and why Hospital Records stubbornly keeps on going.
It all started in 2014. As drum and bass’ brief honeymoon period with the mainstream faded away with Wilkinson and Pendulum’s popularity, so too did the listener’s appetite for buying CDs. With Spotify paying a pittance and only the die-hard bassheads snapping up vinyl, Hospital Records was in trouble. Thankfully, Goss soon got a phone call that would change his label forever.
“I got a call from a long-standing friend of mine, Kyle Hopkins. He’s a drum and bass DJ called Kid Hops and a super knowledgeable music collector who found his way into the senior music staff team at Xbox.”
“As Forza started to take off, “ Goss continues, “they needed music for the game’s radio stations. Hops kind of floated this idea past us and we jumped on it. Just the pitch and the prospect of that project, it was really exciting.”
So, Forza X Hospital was born thanks to a raver hiding among Microsoft’s ranks. Initially the gig was simple – Hospital would offer Microsoft a bunch of previously released tracks for Forza Horizon 2. Yet as the Horizon series grew in popularity, Xbox no longer wanted recycled rhythms – they needed bespoke bangers. Happily answering the call, since 2016’s Forza Horizon 3, Hospital Records has contributed not only an original soundtrack to each entry of the series, but a fully scripted radio show, too. As one of the in-game radio hosts, Goss’ voice became a regular part of Horizon – making Hospital an integral part of what made Forza, Forza.
Yet for Goss, the collaboration was more than just a nice business opportunity: it was a way to spread the murky gospel of D&B in America.
“I think it’s fair to say that games like this categorically feed into that energy and growth in the D&B scene in America. I always say to people on the ground in North America that it’s hard for most of the rest of us to imagine just what it’s like, trying to stitch together a music scene in basically 52 countries. Because you got to fly everywhere OR drive for a day to do like, a Tuesday night in Phoenix. So, yes, massive projects like this categorically feed into that energy and growth in the D&B scene over there.”
Still, Goss is under no illusions that drum and bass is threatening to take over the mainstream stateside. “It’s always going in waves. Every sort of few years, there might be another injection of energy, another new wave. When EDM exploded in North America, that was a whole thing for bass music – for 4/4 music, dubstep and to an extent, drum and bass. The fact is, we’re lucky that this underground music scene is global. It’s populated by amazing talent on every level from all over the world. And North America absolutely plays its part.”
While Hospital Records previously best selling compilation CDs had long since died a death with the plastic disc, in Forza, Goss suddenly found himself with a new type of label compilation.
“Compilations have always been an integral part of the build of the label. They’re a really important springboard and showcase for us to introduce – or even test out – emerging artists. The streaming world changed all that – but now, Forza Horizon is that showcase compilation project.”
For the emerging artists that do make it onto Forza Horizon 5’s tracklist, the effect can be life-changing. Take drum and bass producer and Goss’ Forza Horizon 5 radio co-host, Degs, for example. Talking to us a few weeks after the game’s launch, he explains that the inclusion of his track ‘Unwritten’ has already had a huge impact on his popularity across the pond.
“Since the game has come out, I’ve got an American agent, and I’m trying to sort out my first tour in America, which will hopefully be in June 2022,” explains a smiling Degs. “A lot of that has come off the back of the game. Just being a presence on a title as big as Forza is very, very beneficial, particularly in the United States where drum and bass isn’t quite as big but is being kept alive by games like Forza. It’s been such a positive experience all round. I feel very grateful.”
It’s a sentiment shared by another producer who features on the game, Hugh Hardie.
“It’s great, man,” says a proud Hardie. “My track was this tune that didn’t quite fit with the EP that I was working on at the time, but now it has a home in this game. Forza’s a very good medium to listen to tunes, it just gives them a whole new meaning and energy. I’ve got some friends in Canada and they’ve been playing loads. It’s just very cool to be involved in such a grand reaching game.”
NDA’d up to their eyeballs, Goss and his colleagues know Forza Horizon’s setting far ahead of the time, and use that to help inspire the soundtrack. “The project is actually 20 brand new, exclusive, unreleased tracks, “ Goss explains. “Stylistically, picking those tunes is quite a fascinating challenge. The location naturally will have some bearing maybe on some of the musical content that we deliver. So, of course, being in Mexico is very, very specific. Having [D&B artist] Urban Dawn in Brazil, he can very naturally deliver some of that heritage and some of that flavour.”
“On top of that, placing music into Forza is a particular art, because the music doesn’t play super loud,” Goss continues. “There’s a huge amount of in-game noise: from me and Degs chatting rubbish, to the sound design from the cars and the landscape. So, it’s important that the producers understand that, and sit with the game for half an hour. [They] need to understand that maybe a very minimal, deep subby kind of tune is probably not going to cut through.”
Once the tunes are selected, actually getting them into the game is a marathon not a sprint. Where Goss and his colleagues are used to spending months guiding an artist from creation to album launch, getting your tracks onto a finished, playable video game is a far longer endeavour. “Liaising with Xbox and Playground Games… It’s a fairly detailed, slow process. Playground Games are an enormous team and are really focused on coding the game. The whole thing probably takes about two years, from the initial phone call of ‘hey, guys, you up for doing another game’ to us sending emails back and forth.”
Hosting the series’ in-game radio since Forza Horizon 3 has been a particular highlight for Goss: “It’s a new layer of production and nonsense. As a label, we never wanted to take ourselves too seriously and Degs and I had a lot of fun. You get pages and pages of scripts and I’ve never done anything like that before. I guess it’s like, a modest version of doing the voiceover for Toy Story, or something. They let us ad lib and sort of wing it a bit, but it’s a three plus game. So you also have to be incredibly mindful of your P’s and Q’s – no bad language. No, naughty references or anything, but it was wicked fun doing it.”
Now, the game’s out and fans have been enjoying racing around to Hospital’s station for weeks. “It’s actually really lovely to finally be at the point of, it’s out, it’s available,” Goss says with a grin. “Because sometimes on these really big projects, you think, ‘ugh are we ever going to get this finished’. We’ve been doing this for 25 years, so we’re very comfortable with our own processes as an independent record label, but when you’re delivering to one of the biggest global corporations in the world and all of their teams, you feel a huge responsibility to get it right. We feel really privileged to work with Xbox and to be doing a repeat project with this brilliant game.”