It's a testament to the quality of Ruff Sqwad's instrumentals that one can listen to them entirely detached from any narrative or historical context and they still stand up as—for the most part—immaculately crafted and emotionally rich works of electronic music. Set aside from vocalists and MCs, the glowing square-wave synth lines, euphoric chord progressions, and the overall sense of space often conjure up warmth and beauty in a way that isn't regularly associated with grime. But of course, to listen to White Label Classics and ignore its history would be missing the point; this 22-track compilation is a celebration of one of grime's most likeable collectives, a record that is in equal parts the first proper release of a host of well-loved, much sought-after beats and a victory lap for the artists that created them.
It's worth a quick recap of the history then: Ruff Sqwad was a collective of grime MCs and producers from the East London district of Bow, who first formed in 2001 while the members were still in their mid-to-late teens. Throughout the mid '00s, they built a reputation across London's pirate-radio circuit, propelled by two volumes of their Guns And Roses mixtape series and countless limited vinyl releases (i.e. the white labels of the compilation's title). While UK chart-topping, Roc Nation-affiliated MC Tinchy Stryder has gone on to achieve by far the most mainstream success of any Ruff Sqwad member, it's easily arguable that—critically, if not commercially—the group's legacy lies in the energy, feel, and touches of traditional songcraft that its producers brought to the production of their beats.
Amid the somewhat chaotic enthusiasm and relentless work ethic of Ruff Sqwad's peak, many of its best-known productions became lost along the way. Until now—unless they were lucky enough to snap up a 12" at the time—most grime fans have only had access to much of what's compiled here via low-quality radio rips on YouTube. As a result, it's taken Ruff Sqwad's core producers Rapid and Dirty Danger, along with No Hats No Hoods boss DJ Magic, a solid year of trawling hard drives and record crates to get White Label Classics together. Ultimately, there are few notable omissions—in particular the epic, colorful beat of "R U Double F," which by all accounts is lost forever—but on the whole, their efforts have resulted in a relatively comprehensive picture of the collective's instrumentals.
The compilation feels like more than just an archive though; for the majority of fans, it'll be the first real opportunity to properly indulge in these instrumentals completely stripped of MCs, vocalists, and shout-outs, and more often than not, the productions really benefit from the breathing room. Left on their own, tracks like "Down," "Your Love Feels," and "Burial" walk a delicate line between dark edginess and the sort of bright, cinematic tension that's always present in grime's best moments. Meanwhile, the hollow synth riffs of "Ting n' Boots" and "Anna" sound nothing short of iconic when given the space to dominate. That's not to say that the vocalists aren't missed in places—spartan, iconic pirate-radio beat "Pied Piper," for instance, feels slightly unnatural without an MC over it, and as excellent as "Together" is, it's pretty hard not to hear a Wiley-shaped hole in it—but on the whole, it's remarkable how engaging each instrumental is. Somewhat inevitably, the standout of the record is the utterly beautiful, much mythologised "Functions On The Low" (its producer, XTC, was more of an associate than a proper member of Ruff Sqwad, and supposedly never produced any other music). Still, it's a track that perfectly epitomises what's so essential about the collective's production style; equal parts mournful and optimistic, it's driven by both with the dark energy of grime and the hyper-emotional instability of youth. It's a track that would be worth the price of the album alone—fortunately, it's accompanied by 21 other classics.