Read the unedited transcript of Joe Muggs's interview with El-B - and hear some audio snippets to boot
Hear audio snippets from this interview by clicking on the parts of the text coloured red
Can we have a quick recap of how you got to the point of releasing records? Were you London born and bred?
Yeah, South London born and bred. My dad's an old muso: he was a saxophonist for many a band, the most famous one being Incognito but he played with all sorts, with Ginger Baker's Air Force - we'd hear some crazystories about that, man... Now, one time he'd done a gig and the promoter had run out of money, so he'd got paid in studio equipment, and he said to me "alright, you've got chucked out of school, you're doing fuck all with yourself, bumming around, get on that equipment and see if you can turn anything out of that" 'cause he knew I was mad creative - and that was it, game over. I was 15.
For the next couple of years I knocked around with the Dale brothers, Colin, Mark and Trevor - they were all radio DJs, Techno DJs, promoters and producers, Colin was on Kiss FM and they raised me really, gave me my first schooling into that kind of world. After that I moved into Drum & Bass where I was still unheard of - I was giving those guys demo tapes, and it wasn't going further beyond that. Then, suddenly, in 1996 I met Noodles, he got one of my demos, thought there was some potential, got me in the studio, and just like that our first three releases were proper hits, underground club hits. We had status but also notoriety because these tracks like 'Stone Cold', 'Angel Body', the Myron 'Get Down' remix were so out there compared to anything the Garage scene had heard before - we were pushing the kind of jazzy boundaries, taking the jazz and the soulfulness as far as we could.
Yep, and that was the next metamorphosis, to bring that to the fore. When me and Noodles split up I took that heaviness back into my own corner, 'cause I was a loner now, and I perfected it. I perfected this new sound, and I stamped it with a name and a Pacman ghost logo just to save it from being another white label, to give it some identity, 'cause I knew there'd be a series of them - red one, green one, yellow one, all that - so people could go "oh it's them guys again"... basic marketing, you know. And boom, it went through the roof, and it started a whole b-line cult movement thing. [Later] when out of curiosity I went back to the beginning, to the first example of a bassline being put into a garage tune in a really vicious way, which was "Reflex Action LIke A Snake" [a remix by Zed Bias of ES Dubs' "Standard Hoodlum Issue"]. When I finally got to meet him and question him about the tracks, he said the only reason he made them tracks was because he heard 'Stone Cold' which was the first bassline tune I ever played around with. Before that he'd been a jungle producer and he said "I'd never realised you could do garage like that" but he made the switch and started putting his energy into that and, that was it, between him and me that was the beginning of the bass style that's lasted to this day.
And were you involved with the Croydon scene that took those basslines into Dubstep and therefore made that sound global?
Hatcha and them, they're my family. I knew all them before all of this, I used to go into that shop [Big Apple] when I was just getting into computers. Not the younger ones, Skream and Benga, I didn't know them guys - they're kids who came into the shop later, and started bringing their tunes in, really fucking talented youngsters. But the original crew were the lot that bought the shop, that did it up and started it in the first place, which is Arthur [Artwork], Hatcha, who was the first main employee in the shop, and this short guy John who was the owner, and this other guy who used to sit upstairs and work with Hatcha.
With the younger kids, it's a weird thing, I've never really met 'em properly, although they know everybody, they know my people, I know their people, but when it comes to meeting properly there's something to do with the reputation, the facade that comes with the name, the sort of psychological starstruck-isms that you might get. So one time we're in the club, I'm with my boy Roxy, and I'd said to Roxy "look, Oris Jay's over there, go and say hello", and he's "naaaaah! I couldn't!It's Oris Jay man!" and a bit later I'm talking to Oris and I go "yeah I'm here with Roxy, you should meet him" and he's all [mock bashful, looking away] "yeah in a minute, in a minute... ". And they're nervous of each other because of the hype, because of the gas as we call it, they've been gassed up. And same type of thing we have when, say, there'll be [FWD/Rinse/Tempa supremo] Sarah Lockhart in the middle, Benga on one side, me on the other and we'll both be just like [diffident voice] "hi!" "hi!" and leave it at that. It's not like there's any trouble, I've heard from plenty of people that we've both placed our respects as it were, but that's just how it is sometimes. All it'd take is one call, one "alright man how's it going, we've been meaning to talk for a long time!" and it all gets squashed, but so often on the scene nobody's talked to each other, nobody's broken the ice yet.
And what about the social networks of the old Garage scene? You've said before that faces from Garage pop up in Funky clubs...
Yeah - they are behind the whole works of it. I've got a little
girlfriend or two around town, and they like to listen to a bit of
Funky - well, a lot of it, actually - and to cut a long story short
and say it quite bluntly, I've been fucking to that "the whole
night... the whole night... " tune [Crazy Cousinz' "Do You Mind"],
I'd fucked to it a few times before I found out that it was Pale
[Paleface] who used to hang around that the Ghost studios way back,
which is quite ironic. And then I went clubbing, I didn't know
where I was going, my friends just took me to any old Funky rave in
Brixton. We walked in there, the party was live, it was kicking,
loads of women in there, going off - and I was brand new, I was
like "wow", this is refreshing coming from the Dubstep scene where
everyone looks like they fell out of Glastonbury, plus I was the
old guy in the dance. I'd been in there five minutes when I heard
the MC go "shout to Unknown!" - now MC Unknown is one of the
members from Hijack, the original UK hip-hop group and also one of
the goons in the video for [sings the Pied Piper song] "do you
really like it, is it is it wicked", so he's back - I mean he's
always been on the circuit doing any bloody thing he can, but I
hadn't seen him for years and already out of this we're
now going to do a project together. Then you had PSG, just jumped
up behind the box with a microphone in his hand, don't know where
he came from, aint seen him in years. And the DJ was a big old guy,
can't remember his name now but he's a friend [from Garage days]
too, and it went on like that til it got to the point where I
hadn't announced my arrival or anything, I've got my little glass
of drink and I'm dancing with a girl back here - but they've
spotted me and they're shouting out and they're playing all the old
stuff. And it's cool, it's nice, it's like being back at home again
in a weird way: I'm in a new house but all my family's back in
there. And the club that I was in turns out to be [Garage producer
/ DJ since 1993] Martin Larner's and so it goes on, there's just
names and names from your past, every conversation's like "oh
hello, what's going on here then, yeah we'll have to link up inna
studio, yeah it's business on again, OK!"
So why did Garage disperse in the first place? You told me before it was the aggression of your tunes and basslines that changed the scene.
I've been told that so many times I start to believe it now. I mean, you look at it now and it's nothing amazing, it's just the way the cookie crumbles. I've watched Zinc do it, I've watched it happen to a tune or two of ours... Benga's done it but nobody's copied him which is great. I'm talking about when you do a tune that's got two things: it's not just powerful in weight as a club hit, but it's really different to anything you've heard before, so it's got an impact and that impact changes the scene you're in by altering the sound slightly. Zinc's "138 Trek", you know [he sings/beatboxes] "dung-tsikka-dung-du-gungun-gung" - nobody had heard anything like that before that tune came out, and everybody copied that sound. And it was kind of the same when we started doing those beats that were [syncopated, offbeat] "dum-dum-chak dum-dum chak" - we used to call it the Conga rhythm, a tribal rhythm - I guess it was a Reggae beat, a Bashment beat really - but when you started putting that to the breaks it went off. And everyone started doing that exact same thing, nicking our drums and all. I watched it happen as well to my old partner Jason Maldini from the Jungle scene. When I first went to the Jungle clubs it was Jun-gle, with the samples, you know [he beatboxes the various classic Jungle breaks], Funky Drummer, Apache, Amen Brother. Now, he was the first guy to distort a kickdrum and snare and programme it [beatboxes again] and Alex Reece and everyone started doing those steps too, and then everyone else started nicking his drums and it changed and re-sculpted the sound. And that's what it takes to sculpt a scene. I was really surprised when I heard Benga "b-b-b-b-b-boo-boo-booo-booo", I thought "ah everyone's gonna want to sound like that", but then nobody jumped on it - which was great. I mean it was a shame, because I'd love to hear loads of tunes that sounded like that because that style really suited me, but fuck that - it's cool, it's nice to see a hit just being left alone and everyone just stick to do what they do best. Whatever I might say about Dubstep there is a nice bit of freedom in that music. Even though it's so ignorant and harsh, there's a nice potential to do different things in it.
And that's maybe one of the things that's allowed Dubstep to go international where other sounds like 2-Step haven't so much...
Yep. When you've travelled to Europe or the States a lot, you begin to pick up a feel, you know what sound is from where. In the states they'll go "yeah that Jungle it's good man, it's hard, it's all good, but it's too damn FAST, you can't dance to that shit", and they have the same thing with the Dubstep, it's a bit too Balearic [he regularly uses this term to refer to hard, instrumental Techno] for the big majority. But in Europe they're a lot more like us, a lot more dirty and grimy, a lot more gutter and bit gritty with it, so they can swallow that man. And that grit is why we're the best in the world at producing indie stuff too - the indie bands we've been producing out of this country in the last few years are just the best in the world without a doubt. The gritty, London style indie rock, Americans just don't seem to do that well. Then of course you've got Japan too 'cause they're open-minded, they're great.
So what were you doing after Garage died down and Grime and Dubstep began to take over?
I wasn't putting nothing on the street. I had so many records out, it didn't bother me, if I could make a living doing something else it didn't bother me at all. I'd worked myself to the bone for four or five years churning out beats and I had boxes and boxes just of tunes that I'd made, and a good third of them are total filth - although a third were just shite - so I was fine just doing studio bookings. We built ourselves a nice fucking studio, man - I had a long back garden, a studio flat with a kick-arse back garden, 200 foot long going right down the back of it - a big room about the size of this [gestures around], another room for a drumkit, big glass bit you could look through, air conditioning, spotlights, carpeted, canvas walls, and it was just plush. We built it with our own hands and just did studio bookings there - £20 for the hour from about 2002 when it started going shitty. 'Cause the Ghost reign went from about 2000 to 2002 - come 2003 and it was all washed, come 2003 I wasn't doing shit - so it was just studio bookings from then till about two thousand and... six? Know what I mean, that's about three, four years solid of studio bookings. So through doing studio bookings I got to work with every rapper in the city. So Solid been through, Big Brovaz been through, Rodney P, Skinnyman, Chester P, Dee Double E, Dirty Doogz, they all went through, Big P and Skeme, they all went through - anyone south of the river.
And were you not tempted to do Grime beats when that started getting a profile?
Ah hell no, never. I'm surprised I've even been doing Dubstep beats, even that to me is like going back to hanging out with the Dale brothers - and even then the techno we used to listen to was a lot more tasteful, like Felix Da Housekatt and shit, before Jeff Mills and all them motherfuckers came in and had their rein. It was sophisticated stuff, and it was a serious crowd and all, real class - you would have women that you wouldn't even dream of approaching, damn, some serious-looking babes. But everything changes once again, like the Jungle, like Garage, it got sweaty, it got harder, it got harder, it got harder and then it *PFFF* fragmented off and everything wasn't as strong.
So what brought you to start putting out those Dubstep sides in 2006 or so?
I was totally out of the game, I didn't know what was going on, and by this time new guys like... N-Type and Skream and shit were creeping through, and I'd never heard of them, I wasn't paying any attention to them either, but all of a sudden my phone just started ringing - for DJ bookings. And then it was "Have you got any of the tracks, any of the old tracks lying around, do you want to release an album of old Ghost stuff" - which is what's finally coming out in a couple of weeks. So it called me back - and the reason it called me back is that Sarah Lockhart, who had been fighting and supporting and running the whole Dubstep movement from the start, had finally got it to a good level where she could fill up a venue like the Ministry Of Sound, and export records all over the world. All of a sudden it's "Dubstep", and it's refreshing itself and it's got a bigger fucking crowd that it ever had. So now they book me for a Ghost set, playing in a "nostalgia room" - me and Zed Bias and Oris playing all the old classics to kids who aren't old enough to remember.
But in the meantime you're working on House tunes too?
Yeah that's what I'm persevering with seriously man - we've got vocalists back in the studio, full songs, Kiss FM in the daytimes style, like Incognito House tracks, almost gospelly even, US style House tracks but with a UK sound too and still with a ghetto edge. It's going great, too. And what I've got too is this new formula, I've popped off something new that you aint never heard before, which is going to tear clubs to fucking shreds. There's some stuff that's good that you just can't dance to but there's some stuff that's just really bloody dancey, something where you might not even like it but you can't help it, you have to move a hip or an elbow or something [he demonstrates, moving on his chair, progressively more animated] - like when you hear "b-b-b-b-b-boo-boo-booo-booo"[the bleeps from "Night" again], as soon as it kicks in, people who don't listen to that music are "oh I know this one", or even if they don't know it their foot starts moving. It's one of those sorts of appeal, it's infectiously bouncy - and it comes from Colombian Merengue-style Salsa music, which is obviously just really fucking dancey. So I'm just tearing shit out of these Colombian tracks - I'm taking fragments and influences off these Colombian tracks and throwing them into a house tempo which is only like 5bpm faster anyway, and the result is... Wow. Wow! The result is amazing, I aint never heard nothing like it. You hit play when my lot are come round - and my lot are very greazy, road, gangstery rappy type guys, drug-selling type guys, they don't listen to that shit, they aint got time for that shit - but when I put this stuff on they're like [he starts to bounce in his chair even more animatedly, sly grin on face] it gets the black blood in them going, they're like "fuckin hell what's this? I don't like House but this has got to move 'em!". And there's some little Spanish man singing "a teco teco", little quick fills in it, it's crazy, you got to hear it. I been pressing the hell out of them at the moment.
And why do you think that this Latin influence is growing and growing in UK music? Is it to do with the growing Latin American population? Peckham, Brixton, Walworth - they're full of South American shops and clubs now.
Well the reason why I've got the samples is 'cause I listen to Cumbia, Salsa all day every day. My friends think I'm stark raving bonkers 'cause I never turn this shit off - and the reason why that is is, well... My dad used to be in a very famous Cuban Salsa band, so I grew up with it, but also my daughter's half Colombian, and I went to school in Colombia for about two months to learn Spanish, dodging bullets and shit, in the hood. So that's probably why, it's just grown on me, my family and shit, know what I mean - with my daughter, and my babymother, she's got two sons from a marriage before I met her, so I kind of had one kid and got myself three. So for me, it's my family there, that's my Latin influence. But also my grandad's Nigerian, I'm quarter Nigerian, so that's where the tribal beats on the Garage thing came from, but as well he would always be playing lots of Soca, Merengue, that kind of shit too, so again the Latin influence comes back around. But anything that they talk Spanish on, I'll probably be into - Salsa, Cumbia, I'm crazy, I just need to be locked up, I can just never get enough of it mate. The only thing I can't handle is when it's all synthesisers, cause of my dad being such a jazz freak, them playing jazz in the house all the time, and the one thing I can't take is that Dave Sanborn modern jazz kind of shit running off a drum machine and shit. Certain types of music you can't make electronically. But yeah Saturday night just gone I was there man, I go to these Latino raves by myself - they think I'm fucking crazy, like "what's that white boy doing over there?" just skanking out having a dance up in the corner [sniggers at the ridiculousness of it], but they know me, man - they know my face, they know my babymother. I think it's the best music in the world but I keep it to myself.
But my new tracks, they sound so good, they are the way they are
because it's samples. Sample the fuck out of it, take
segments, reconstruct them Colombian riddims so it sounds exactly
like it's a whole Salsa song but it's totally rebuilt in House form
with a House kick behind it - job done. It's serious. 'Cause the
only way to do it properly with that impact in it is to have the
full autheticness to it - otherwise it's just going to sound like
electronical imitations, and I hate that. I mean I've tried it
myself to do the proper "ba-papa-bam-ba-bam-bam... " [sings and mimes out a
bouncing Salsa piano riff], I've been "right, instead of
using a sample let's find the chord and see if I can play it myself
on the piano", but it's always going to sound like the cheaper
version. It sounds like the tacky, cheaper, one-finger note
version, 'cause you're not the musician.
Going back to you playing your music to your friends who are a bit gangster, who live a hard life - is the input of people who live like that important for club music or pirate music, do you think?
Nah. Nuttin to do with it. Nothing-to-do-with-it. It just seems to revolve around rap. Rap only. That's them. It's just rap music that seems to have that appeal, and that's only half of rap music as well. One of its main selling points seems to be the negative image that it flaunts, and how certain kids with not much substance in their lives gravitate towards that. And they pay me money every day these kinds of guys - I mean, I've banned guys from bringing firearms into the studio, we've never actually had a fight break out in the studio but we've had guys come in, put a knife down on the side and do their lyrics. You have guys who are talented and they end up in jail, you've got guys who are not talented but they persistently carry on, spending loads of drug money because they've been watching too much MTV, chasing the dream - I've seen em all. Whatever the story, I've seen em all. But the rap thing's interesting, because I've played a big part in it, even though I'm not known to - only by the streets, but I'm not known to by the industry, for what the fuck industry we havein this country. There aint no fucking UK hip hop industry, cult, movement or scene, really - no labels, nothing. Even Rodney P and Skinnyman and them boys have always struggled; we've got R&B stars who can't get picked up for anything cause they can't see a market here for it either. So without being nothing but notorious in the streets for giving you a kick arsemixdown, no, I aint really known for rap. But I've been playing a big part, a big part in the underground gangsta rap scene coming out of this city.
We have got guys who are up-and-coming stars who are going to keep climbing and climbing til you see them on TV alongside some American rappers or something. Pacman is one of them, Giggs, and Blade. All of em know each other, all of them work with me, and I've supported them and preached their name from the very first time I ever spoke to them - and those three are the biggest gangsta rap stars we've got. There's probably about three more to come after, but they're the ones that are next to come, just around the corner, coming at you now. It's not grime, it's hip hop. It's rap. BUT it's not getting touched with a bargepole by the industry because it commands - not even influences, but commands - the kids to go and do bad things, it's real bad, man. The rappers say "I'm just reflecting the neighbourhood" or "I'm reflecting my life" or "I'm just telling you what I see, what I've been through" - which is cool, but the kids loveit, and it tells you that life is about selling cocaine, and about having your gun to shoot it not to have it in the cabinet, it's about being about your tings and shooting it, if you've got it shoot it off and do that [flicks Vs] to the police. And Giggs is one of the few left on the road out of somany who are all in jail and so many who are dead. I mean, anyone gets their head blown off in the neighbourhood, I get the full story, 'cause I'm going to know somebody who knew him through the studio bookings I do. And the things I hear are just boring me to tears by now, 'cause it's just the same old crap, you know: well he robbed him and heblew his head off over a babymother drama or 'cause he stepped on his trainers or some shit like that - and it's all bullshit. It's all bullshit. But that's the way it goes, man, and I hate to say it but the music really does scratch my back for me - you got something to do in the house on a Sunday morning, your wife has dogged you out and made you feel like a piece of shit or something, just put some of that on and it'll release the tension. It really does the job. I love it, it gets you ready for a Saturday night [too] man, it's serious - it gets you ready for a Saturday night clubbing in South London. Prepares you for what might be around the fucking corner.
But I love it, it's great stuff - and it's one to watch out for, 'cause they're all doing this [middle finger] to the industry, because they know the deal. I've preached this to them so much: ignore the record labels, don't watch the magazines, don't worry about anything promotion-wise. Magazines'll promote whatever the fuck they feel like promoting, they need something to talk about, they've got to fill a magazine every month, so no matter if it's positive or negative, as long as there's something exciting to write about they will write about you. So you're always going to get promotion, have the Benneton effect, go against the grain and you'll get loads of publicity through that. It's cool, you do you - but they are not going to touch you with a bargepole. As long as it's black-on-black murder you're promoting, selling cocaine you're promoting, police are always going to want to get you in that cell and shut you down and record labels aint going to touch you with a bargepole, promoters are never going to have no gigs, you're never going to have no club nights or nothing, understand what I'm saying? So they know now: it's pay for it ourself, or else we're not going to do nothing. It's put yourself up the ladder or you're not going to get up the ladder. And making a pop record's not an option - because you've got to get in where you fit in. If you're the softy and you try and be the gangsta, you're going to be exposed and you're going to be shut down, and vice-versa. If you're the gangsta and you try and play the pop card, you're as good as that one track, and when that track there finished and you don't bring in those units, we all know what the record label's going to do - shelf your monkey arse; that's you, bruv.
So it's good, like I always tell them, to not watch all the MTV shite, that's not you. Don't watch 50 Cent, that's not you. That's not how it runs in this country. You aint ever going to put an advance payment on a house on any advance cheque any record label's ever going to give you, those days are donenow - so they know now: they're putting their hard-earned money they've made on road into moving boxes of CDs themselves. And they're moving some fucking boxes, or they're beginningto move some boxes. SRD distribution who do some Garage labels, they called me and I told them about Giggs two years ago, so they got his album "A Walk In The Park". They called me again and said "we got the Giggs"; I said "good, good on ya - you'll eat from that, you'll eat well, everyone'll eat a piece from that", and 8000 flew out the door in four weeks or some shit like that, and they're still pressing them now and they're still selling all the way up to Scotland and units to Ireland and all across to Europe, it's gone crazy. So of course they call me up and go "have you got anybody else that you think'll be the next one to pop?" so it's starting to bubble on that sort of scene. And it's something that whether you agree with it or not, you're not going to be able to hold it back. Kids want it, it's what the streets demand. Now I'm telling all the rappers who are doing their own albums, coming through my studio: you do that album as hard as you fucking can. You do what you wanna do. Don't bar any swearwords, talk about what the fuck you want to talk about, and you put whatever you want to put on the front cover - because nobody can shut you down. And you won't sell if it's soft in any way. You have two or three tunes about girls on there, you aint going to sell. If you're trying to be a backpack rapper or breakdance rapper or some fucking Lupe Fiasco - aint going to sell. Because Rodney P and them boys been doing that for years and look where that's gone. Because now the streets are full of criminals, full of young little black kids getting thrown in jail, now the streets is rife with weed and crack cocaine and everyone just smokes and bums around and gets up to some kind of mischief. And it's what the streets demand now, whether you like it or not hard shit sells, it goes out the door and the kids fucking love it - and it's a sad thing, cause it's like America out here at the moment.
And do you see this as a real shift in society for the worse, or is it a trend - something that might burn itself out?
Nah, it won't change. Poverty and violence never burns itself out - it just gets worse. And that's what it is, it comes with living a life like that, you can relate to everything a rapper says in his rhymes - no money, babymama, police beating me up, my cousin got shot in his face - you can relate to that 'cause that shit happens to you. It's always going to be there, it'll just get worse - new rules now. Just new rules. Not long ago, I was doing a little clubbing Latino style by myself, and I bumped into my mate, in Brixton outside McDonalds. He said "what you doing?" I said "going to the party there", so we went to have a little look at the party and there was about ten kids hanging about outside, and when I say kids, that word is not to be taken lightly any more. I mean, when some seventeen, eighteen your old rough little black guy tells me to move the fuck out his way I'm moving, 'cause it's dem man dere got the thing down their pants, and it's dem man dere who's dumb enough to put you in the bloody hospital, not no guy our age - with someone our age we can try and talk our way out of it, and if a man forces you to, you give him one of them [swings fist] and slide out of there, do this man-style. But these kids are crazy, so my mate says "before we go in there, I got to go back to the car and get rid of this bloody chain", 'cause it's really shiny - and it's not 'cause we're scared, but it's because if one of them goes WHAM [mimes yanking chain off] then the whole night's ruined, then we've got to chase people and I might have to hurt somebody and all of that shit. So he's the bigger man, but he's putting it away because when those little mo'fuckers demand [squeaky, lisping voice] "respect", then they're going to do that shit to prove it to their next little mate.
So this rise in violence being wanton, unpredictable - that impacts on people who are into club scenes that are, more or less, positive in their outlooks too?
Yeah, well, it's true what they say about the violence and Garage. It ruined a lot of careers, a lot of careers. Now I don't know if the music caused it or reflected it, but as the basslines got darker you had more youths in the club coming out of their corner going 'I'm going to rob someone or stab someone'. My generation is Norris 'Da Boss' Windross, it's MJ Cole, Mike Ruff Cut Lloyd, Dreem Team - now, a lot of these guys were out of jobs by the time So Solid were there - and by the time So Solid hit the charts, they were way gone: I see so-and-so man's got a nine-to-five, see him driving a white van 'cause there's always bills to pay. But apart from that [the violence] don't have no influence on me, because I still live in the hood. I amfucking hood. I might have white skin, but all the black guys know me, I don't give a shit if I'm the only white face to be seen for a hundred miles - which is usually the case! They all know my name, I know them, and if some guy's got a gun down his pants I don't give a shit. I'm not being rude to nobody, I'm just a music man, here to provide a service and that doesn't bother me. I've done DJ sets in a club where you've got a gang of rowdy guys and they're young and they're putting their hands on your records - when they feel like they want to hear the tune again they lean over and spin it back then look at you like "what?". We've all had it, a hundred times. But to me that's love - I'm playing some good shit, gwan then, spin it up, we're all going to hear it again. Fuck it, you want to hear it we're all going to hear it - that's love. It's better than having a quiet crowd, god damn it!So no, ghetto doesn't really bother me - it's my people, you know?
So for you personally, does that environment contribute to your music?
Oh it does. It does. It has a hold on my music, yeah. If I live in the streets and I am the streets and I grew up in the streets then it's all there is in my head. I think the most excited I've ever been was when I was about sixteen, and my mum kicked me out so I got a little flat in a horrible high-rise block - but inside the apartment was gorgeous, carpets and big plants and shit everywhere, I did it real nice, splashed white paint through the whole fucking thing, just nice and plain. And I had my studio set up in there with a window view and the view there out of the sixteenth floor was crazy. And it was over the whole... I could see Brixton, Stockwell, Clapham, I could see 'em all - it was a grimy view, and that view went in here [points to eye], out my hands and into the music. Without a doubt, man. I used to just sit there and watch the view, and some of the fucking ideas I came up with were nothing but ghetto beats, man, you could blatantly hear it. Yeah of course it has influence, man!
Even for the listener... Take Dr Dre, and all that, that "bum-ba-bum-bum-bum" [he gets up and goes into a lolloping lean-back walk around the room as he sings and claps out a g-funk beat], that Snoop and Dre laid-back sort of shit - I always hated that kind of hip-hop, but then I went to Los Angeles. Big palm trees, t-shirt sleeves down here and everyone's walking like this [leans back into a cartoonish pimp roll], a little bit slower than on the east coast 'cause it's so goddamned hot, and everyone's just laid back. And it sounds like the way people walk "bom-ba-bom-bom-bom" [pimp rolls, sings and claps some more]. Or you can turn on the radio and it'll be a 24 hour rap station where they play nothing but Miami Bass [beatboxes a booty electro rhythm with "work it work it, hit it hit it" sample] and that stuff I hate even more, but you can understand how the state creates that sound with palm trees and bright sun in your face all the time, it suits it perfect "bum-ba-bum-bum", it's the music of the environment, no doubt. Same with the Salsa, you go down South America and you've got wild dogs and chickens running around and shit, guys with big fucking sharp knives slicing some big fruit on the corner all that [make rhythmic slicing sound] and hairdressers playing music out on the streets and all that shit, cutting hair [mimes haircutting with bandy-legged Salsa hip twitch] and the shoeshine boy [mimes again] - it's just very... very villagey and scruffy, and it suits the music "ga-dang-da-gang-ga-ding-da" it just goes in perfect! Same thing time and time again. It's the same reason dubstep goes down so well in Japan, 'cause it's the technology centre of the world, and that music's starting to sound a lot like techno right about now. Those boys are going to have more and more Japanese fans than they can imagine soon!That shit's just real Balearic now, I need a whole pack of Nurofen to be going to a dubstep rave for more than a couple of hours now. I do my shit and I go home, go in, get a quick juice, do my thing, go home. It's a shame but I'm dubstepped out at the moment man.
What about the side of dubstep that isn't just rave, though - Digital Mystikz, say, the people who are really dub?
I like that shit, and I like the fact that they've got their own
sound, their own little corner in that world. That's great - same
with my boy Scottish Steve... Kode 9 - he's got his own sound, his
own little corner. Really deep and leftfield, he knows what he's
Kode 9 is someone else venturing from dubstep into house at the moment - do you connect with what he's doing on that front?
It's a different thing - he's on that electronic sort of tip, while apart from the Salsa beats the house we've got going is much more classic American-sounding, big chords, all that sort of shit, full song verse, bridge, chorus.
And the names that you pick out as favourites in any scene, whether it's Kode 9 in dubstep or Bloc Party in indie rock - they're all people who carve out their own sound, they're not generic...
Well that's just being a marketing mind behind a record label maybe - I like originality and I like difference. And that's the thing in this country, if you have your sound, if you're original in your own sound, if you do it in character then we can market it. It's like I say to my vocalists - if you're just a good singer then you'll be a good voice on a good record and that's it. That's fine, you know big lungs, big fat black singer voice, gospel voice - but there's only so far they can push it in the media side of it. It's imaging, marketing, that's it. Everybody wants to fuck Mariah Carey, everybody wants to fuck Leona Lewis, everybody wants to fuck Christina Aguilera, everybody wanted to fuck Aaliyah - there you have the product. It's like I say to the girls, certain vocalists of mine, I say: you're great, 'cause you write the songs with the catchy choruses - which is always a fucking bonus 'cause we needthat - you write the good songs, you sing well, on stage everyone would want to give you one 'cause you look a million bucks, and that's the three of the four elements that you really need... but the fourth one is the character. 'Cause if you've got a great personality and a lovable personality then people in the industry will want to do things for you, they'll think of you when something's going down on the table, know what I mean? It's good to be liked in the game. A lot of people might say El-B's a fucking ignorant bastard, they might say El-B's stark raving bonkers, but when the cards are on the table they'll say honest, nice guy who'll tell you it as it is and won't fuck about with you none in any way.
And a degree of trust between people is what provides the glue in music and club scenes... ?
Sure. One of my female friends, one of my young girlfriends is young, she is on the young-arsed side. Now her and her young-arsed cousin and her young-arsed mates, they'll listen to that Funky day-in and day fucking out. They know all the artist, all the names of the tunes, all the release dates, all that shit. She is myeducation, and I refer to her when I want to know about DJ-who-and-where and what tune is done by who. Now, it's good because the stuff that she's playing, I think "that shit you listen to is really fucking mature", my mum'll listen to the exact same stuff. So it's from the bottom of the age scale to the top. Any adult will say that "the whooole niiiight" ["Do You Mind"] is a good track and a good video - even if it's not a complete song, it's a proper track, it's thumbs up for that product no doubt. When you go to the Funky club now, you'll hear a few tracks from UK Garage, from my era, and you'll hear a few old American classics too, they mix it all up and it all sounds the same in certain ways. There's some classy shit going on there, I'm really shocked. One club recently, every hour they would throw in three or four tracks of old school Garage, "Celebrate Life" and "Pleasure" and some of our old bits in there, and then when they split back to the House, the House just overshadowed the Garage - it made it sound very one-finger, push-button, toy-sounding, you know... and the production on a lot of the House stuff when it came back in the mix was just so much more classy and lush and well-put together with big chords and lovely harmonies and shit. It's better. It's just better. That comedy element to the old Garage stuff just sounds [grimace] ... I'd just rather listen to the House now. I mean it's great the nostalgia, everyone's like "waheeey, I know this one" and all that but that's about as far as it goes now for me. The only thing I can listen to now and think "ahh this is brilliant" is the odd one, "Stone Cold", "Pleasure"... and then all of Todd Edwards.
Todd Edwards is an interesting figure because he's both outside of but vital to the UK Garage movement - have you followed his music all the way through, even the strange vocoder Electropop-House he has done?
Yeah, all good. We're getting a remix off him for one of these Funky tracks we've got coming, the first one with a full song on. Everyone's like [awestruck voice] "Todd The God" but I was just "fuck that Todd The God shit, bollocks, let's get him". I said to my vocalists, "you've met him, I know him through working with Karl Brown, just get on the email and ask him right now!" and straight away he said "yeah! Just send me the acapellas through" and give man his phone number, email all that shit. 'Cause he's in New York and he's got big name for himself people are like, "ooh no, leave him to do his thing, he's got his sound" but fuck that, he's down with whatever's sounding positive. Same as all the Americans are, don't matter how famous you are, they're like that man - "if it's moving somewhere positive and it's sounding hot then I'm involved!" - that's what they're like out there.
And that's how they've kept their scene solid for 20+ years, I guess...
Yeah, they all promote each other, they're all on each other's records, they all feature on each other's products, they all wear each other's merchandising, they know how to make money, Americans - they know about merchandising and marketing and promotion and I love that. That's what I'm trying to preach to all these young rappers now. First step is fuck the majors, you got to do it yourself or you aint going nowhere; second step is find a producer that knows the fine details of it and get a sound, get a producer that does the beats that you marry with perfectly and stick with it, that's your sound; and then after that get an image, because eventually people are going to want to dress like you and walk and talk like you so get an image that's strong now. And it goes on, fine details and more fine details, so that's what I tell them guys: pay attention to Jay-Z, watch the Americans. Don't watch what the fuck they got round their wrist, you understand? Watch the lighting in the video, watch the graphics, watch the girls dancing in the background, how many of them there are and where they are: put your mind behind the fucking scenes is what I'm telling them, recognise what they went through to get that video on the TV.
It sounds to me like you think as much about structures of the industry, social structures, as you do about musical structures!
More! I don't think about making beats, I never think about making the tunes. I'm like a painter. You know the way artists are, the debates about art - I could talk about that all day long, I used to go to galleries since I was ten years old man, 'cause I'm originally a sculptor and a drawer, I do great comic book kind of illustrations and that, all my life I've done that shit from before I started doing music. But a good painter, a painter who's deep bordering on insanity might just let their mind go black, totally blank when the paint hits the canvas. Just blank. If you're in a shit mood that day then some angry, tense painting's going to come out, and if you feel nice and happy that day you're going to get good flow on the canvas with some soothing colours - but the man's not thinking what he's doing when he's doing it. And that's like me, when I'm doing a beat I don't think - if I'm in a hard mood we'll have a hard tune, if I'm in a nice mood we're going to have a nice tune. And anything other than that I'm thinking, right, is a DJ going to be able to play that in a club, when that bit drops is that going to move the crowd, I want them to scream on that piece there - can my man stick that into his DJ set there? And I'm thinking all the DJs I'm going to get it to blah blah blah, the magazines I'll be in, reviews, interviews blah blah blah, that's what I'm thinking man, that's how Noodles trained man to think, he was the business side of the duo. And I learned that I have to know all that, know what publishing is, know what mechanical rights are, know who's invoiced who, whose name is on what, the workings, the mechanisms, knowing what is what. That is what I'm thinking about when I make a tune man. And that also means know how to write a song with a kick-arse chorus that'll be infected in someone's head so they can't stop singing it when they walk down the road, know what it is to record that, know what it is to record a three part harmony, know what it is to write a verse that climbs [he's out of his seat again, moving around the room, miming the movement of the song] to a bridge then HITS you hard with a chorus, then drops back down to the verse and then we take that journey again up the bridge and HIT you again with the chorus. All these things is what I was doing while the Garage scene was in the shit, when kids was getting shot in clubs and promoters weren't having it, that's what we were doing - we were writing songs with the vocalists, the studio bookings again but in the night-times now, recording R&B songs. Just demos, for the singers' portfolios, maybe get themselves a publishing deal or an artist development deal, writer deal or something, just for hobby's sake for me, just for the learning curve - which is great, man, and now we're putting everything we learned in that onto the House, and you've got full songs in the House and it sounds great! Sounds like Kiss FM primetime to me!
So in fact you maybe even see the business structures and musical structures as one and the same - part of the same machine?
Yeah maybe... yeah. And the thing is if you want to know any of that shit you've got to want to enquire, you've got to want to learn it, you've got to go out there and find out. It's the easiest trick in the world to just be some studio boy with a big fucking spliff hanging out of your mouth, and tell you the truth as long as we've got some big bag of weed in our pocket and some food to eat we happy to just sit in there pressing buttons and just rot in the fucking studio. That's what a real producer's like, what a real engineer's like, pale and gaunt from being underground all the time, that's how we do man - so you know you've got to want to go outside and get involved. I was probably content when I was with Noodles, sitting inside pressing the buttons, I was just seventeen, eighteen, I was content getting the envelope full of money every so often - but that's not right, it's not the way it's supposed to be. But man, when we split up, it was good - I mean when we was together I thought it was good just rolling up to a club and them going "yeah Groove Chronicles [wrongly stated as Groove Collective in the print edition of this feature], how many you with, go straight through!" but when I split up with him, man, fucking hell I was making four, five, six grand a remix for major labels. That was something else. That was my fee, fine. I copped a five and half once, a six once off Sony BMG, but for them two, three years it was four, five grand remix every week. Every week. But I don't care about my record when it's done, it's not like a tune is my baby - if it does more than 10,000 copies then it's my baby! And now, my real thing is I want to make pop music, like real off-beam pop music, big time songs. Timbaland shit, you know, ghetto bass, but real songs. I've got a friend who does that, writes for Sugababes, people like that, and it's as hard as anything, and it's really fucking hard to break into. But if I'm going to sell, it means I've got to be serious about music, you know - like I said about the Colombian tunes, you can't fake what the musicians have done, the real musicians, you can't fuck with that shit. Even just playing the Congas from when I was 4 years old is enough for me to know that. You can make all the techno, all the one-finger computer beats you want, but you can't fuck with musicians and real songs.
The first time I heard El-B's garage tunes was in
the late 90s. I loved those tunes. He had a darker style than
others, colder and more hypnotic. His drums were like a dark art.
You knew that if you got one of his records it was going to be
special. Some producers have methods that just silence people and
El-B's got that. The space in the tune, the subs, the cut up vocals
in the emptiness. . Those tunes were rolling in a way you can't
describe. They were rough and deadly but also sort of graceful and
eerie, and they sound dark in a car. Perfect underground music.
El-B and Steve Gurley were the ones, I just wanted to make tunes like them. They had everything good about jungle and garage but it sounded like the future and still does. El-B had his tunes and his label, kept a low profile and made classic records. He brought other producers through too. He's done a lot for UK underground music .
When you got the vinyl with the Ghost logo, it was like you were in on a secret. you could get deep into them.
Its time he got proper recognition. This collection on Tempa shows a new generation what he was about and how legendary those tunes were.
There's a lot of unheard new El-B beats too... . . he could probably be a UK Timbaland if he wanted - he does street music with a darker UK edge to it. He can hold his own ground alongside big US R&B & Hiphop producers. But it was the garage where he took it to the next level.