Zed Bias - Part 1 (of 2)
I won’t do a long intro on this, because this time I can let the story, and the music, do the talking. Dave Jones – aka Zed Bias, Maddslinky, Phuturistix, ES Dubs, etc etc – is someone whose own journey through the music world is an excellent illustration of the inseparability of mainstream and underground, of the long and deep traditions that run through even the most ephemeral of club genres, and of the power of sheer tenacity combined with obsessive love of music. It’s a warts and all picture of the music industry and club scenes over the years, but shows someone determined never to get embittered or jaded, and although he found himself seemingly in commercial and creative cul-de-sacs more than once, brings us to a present day when he is making music as relevant and exciting as ever.
To go with this interview, as a Christmas gift, Dave has been good enough to have dug out for your enjoyment TWENTY his rare and unreleased tracks from the 1998-2000 heyday of UK garage, which he found in a box of old DAT tapes and has remastered to sound as crisp as you like. These show the full range of the garage sound, from rugged breakbeat tracks via the jazziest and most soulful nods back to the scene’s US roots to those morphing, resonant basslines that were such an influence on today’s dubstep. None of these have ever been available digitally before, and eight of them never even got a vinyl release so the chances are they haven’t been heard in a club context since they were played on dubplate over a decade ago – as you can hear, though, they absolutely chime with today’s club sounds, and as they’re now available to download for free, I feel confident they’ll be getting club play from now on. A full breakdown of the tracks’ influences and history will follow on this site shortly, but for now, enjoy them, and enjoy the story of a true original of British music.
Some sections of this interview appeared earlier this year on Fact.
OK Dave, let’s try to get to the roots of your music. You’re known as the producer from Milton Keynes – is that actually where you grew up?
No, I didn’t, I moved there when I was eighteen, just ended up there because my friends were there and stayed for about eleven years, ‘til I was 29.
So where did you grow up?
Well, various places around the home counties and southeast really. I went to school in a little place called Brackley, which is near Banbury in Oxfordshire. It’s not a bad place to grow up… well, I mean it seems idyllic but actually it was mostly full of heroin addicts and nutters, it felt like. Nah, it was nice, I’m still in touch with a few people from school – but then who isn’t now? Facebook is pretty amazing on that front, you feel like you stay connected to people from years ago nowadays. And then from there I grew up around a few places, mainly around Northants, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire – we got around when I was a kid.
So you were hardly growing up surrounded by urban soundsystem culture then?
Oh no not at all! The only hint of musicality I could trace back to my childhood was my mum – she passed away when I was ten – and she gave me a load of the records she was into when she was young: Motown records, especially Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album, and actually quite a few Jackson Five albums she gave me when I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, and I had this really very old fashioned record player with something like a rusty nail for a needle, and proceeded to ruin half those records. That was my really early experience with music: Motown, and obviously all the chart music that you listen to when you’re a little kid – but certainly no soundsystem vibes! That came much later.
But Off the Wall was the one you homed in on? It’s pretty easy to see a direct connection from that to what you went on to do, soul with a club groove…
Yeah it doesn’t take a genius to join the dots there, does it? I’m a very simple soul and I just love what I love – give me lots of soul music and I’m happy most of the time. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Anita Baker – don’t get me started on the soul or this’ll be a three-day chat.
Not wanting to sound insensitive, but did your mum’s passing give you a more intense connection to those records, because they were hers?
Maybe… Yeah, maybe – I’d not really thought of it like that, but those records I did definitely cherish more, and I dare say I just played them a lot more as a consequence. Yeah, that’s a good thought, I think it’s probably true, that.
So were you one of those people who sat down and listened to music closely, on headphones or whatever – rather than it just being a social thing?
Oh that’s not even the half of it. I learned every note, I could hum all the solos, all the guitar riffs, I was one of those who just always deconstructed it. Funnily enough, the lyrics always came last; melodies, beats, grooves, everything – even the little noises, the little rattle and hum in the background that probably weren’t even supposed to be on the record – I’d listen out for all that stuff. One record in particularly that really struck me when I put headphones on was produced by Herbie Hancock in the ’70s, an album called Identity by Airto Moreira, where on the cover he’s holding his hands out towards you with the fingerprints coloured right in the foreground. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his stuff, but he’s a Brazilian genius, married to and works with Flora Purim…
I don’t know the record but they mix jazz fusion, Boss Nova, all sorts, right?
Oh yeah, all that. And Identity is the darkest record, if you can get hold of it somehow, online or whatever, I really highly recommend it just for a complete listen. It has this 70s production, the big 70s production – and obviously Herbie is a genius anyway – with this incredible detail, but because Airto is a percussionist, and obviously a really tactile person, he’s knocking and hitting things in the background, and you just think “what is that sound doing there?” And this pretty much opened my mind to what could be on a record.
So the sleeve says it all, it’s all about the palms of his hands and his fingertips, and the impact they make?
Deeeefinitely! The sound of that is so clear. I’d go so far as to say that was one of my first production inspirations. When I was listening to that, sometimes I’d sit there and have a smoke, get into one of those moods where you might sit down and listen to, like, five Pink Floyd albums… Well, I’d go through that with my Airto album, or with Deodato as well, just really well-produced jazz funk and Brazilian funk, just totally immersed in it.
And what about social listening? Would you either get mates round listening to music, or go out clubbing in your teens?
When I was in my teens, no I wasn’t really clubbing too much… I did a bit of travelling – the time I felt I had the most connection to music actually in my teens was right at the end of my teens, possibly into my early twenties I suppose, and I went to Israel to work for a bit, travelling really, and ended up in Tel Aviv staying in a hostel with eight other English guys. Now one of the guys had a tape player, and pretty much my most treasured possessions were my cassettes, copies of mixes from my mate’s brother who was into rare groove and soul and so on – and there was stuff on there that you literally couldn’t buy, even if you wanted to buy the record you couldn’t because they were that rare. And when you take yourself abroad and out of your usual surroundings, where people don’t know you, your identity almost… you’re searching for it, and you cling onto or grab hold of things to reaffirm who you are. Give yourself a couple of months abroad, and that’s what you’re looking for; you haven’t got any of your old friends or family reminding you who you are.
So I found for that reason that I developed a stronger bond with my music because I could just put the headphones on my Walkman, sit on the beach in Tel Aviv and go “Oh yeah, right… it’s me! I’m not just some beach bum out in Tel Aviv, but I’ve got a connection to something.” And it was a sharing thing as well because you could really buzz and bond with other types of people who might like similar kinds of music or similar things in the music, you can introduce types of music to other people too, which I used to really love doing whenever I came into contact with people, I’d get a real kick out of going “How about this? You’ve heard Jamiroquai, you think that’s funk – now check out the real deal!”
And what about electronic music, house music, rave culture – were you aware of or into it at that time?
Not until I got back actually – and I mean literally the day I got back. I went back to my old flat, and my old flatmate had burned down the block of flats, basically. So there was probably a couple of hundred of my most prized records turned to ashtrays. And the only place I could move, ironically – but fortuitously – was above my mate’s record shop, which really did put me in the right place at the right time, meeting the right people, getting to find my way around a set of Technics, getting into jungle for the first time… I used to do a lot of back-in-the-day happy hardcore and jungle, but the ones that really caught my ear were DJ Krust “Jazz Note”, Roni Size “11.55”…
So that would make it ‘94, ‘95?
'94, yeah, that's when I got back.
And in Milton Keynes?
Yeah, well, in a little place called Wolverton where I ended up living for about four or five years. Right on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, the only place for miles where you could get that sort of music… Obviously not now, there’s no record shop there now, but back then it was a bit of a hub for Milton Keynes if you wanted to get your rave tape packs or your tickets to go to the Sanctuary to see Ratpack or Mickey Finn or whatever. And that was basically my introduction to clubland and the music world full stop – it was a horrible way in, I don’t think there was even a bath up there in this flat, it was pretty horrible, but I just hung out in the record shop for a few months, then started working there, unpaid, and started meeting people with samplers and things – basic sort of Cubase setups, way before PCs, people using Atari STs and things…
Yeah, Amigas – that was actually the first thing I ever started on, with Octamed, which used to literally send me dizzy, all those zeros scrolling down the screen, just this endless stream of zeros and the odd other number, absolutely amazing that you could make any kind of music out of this, let alone some of the great tracks people managed.
So did you see the jungle breaks that people were playing around with as a continuation of the funk and fusion you’d been into, in terms of the rhythmic complexity as well as direct influence?
Absolutely. At first I just wrote it off as a bit of a noise. There was already a bit of a division between me and the cheesy quavers as I used to call them – when I was at college I used to have the piss taken out of me for liking R&B and swingbeat and stuff like that, new jack swing and stuff, and I guess that’s stuck with me a little bit, ‘cos I’d look at the people who were taking the piss out of me and think “knobends!”, taking acid all the time, making those stupid fuckin’ hand movements…
You never got the bug when you heard “Acid Trax” or anything like that, then, or early techno tunes?
In a different way. I bought some of the early Detroit techno tunes, particularly Kevin Saunderson’s stuff, and this is when I was at school… then when I was about eighteen, my first proper clubbing experiences were at AWOL down in Angel, listening to proper US garage and house, the swinging stuff, that post-jacking soulful American sort of groove, lots of vocals – Masters At Work, all that sort of thing, that’s when I started getting into that music. But the rave thing I didn’t really get so much, unless I was completely off me head …which happened occasionally in my youth. [smiles] Where I really started to get the whole rave mentality was when I started to work down the Sanctuary, probably about ‘95…
Sorry, going back to your question about the samples and everything: working in a record shops, I realised that a lot of the breaks I’d started to collect – the Paul Winley Super Disco Breaks, and obviously Ultimate Breaks and Beats, stuff like that – all of those were being used as the backbeat in these jungle tunes, or in the tunes that were coming through from people like Wax Doctor, Doc Scott, Roni Size, DJ Krust, just off the top of my head, and even the Amen and Hot Pants and Soul Pride that were used by everyone in jungle, all these breaks that I had in my collection, I could hear them now, sped up and chopped up… So this set off this whole process of thinking, listening to new stuff and thinking “have I got that break?” and “oh, I could use this record to do that sort of thing”, it just started throwing up questions – and as a collector you could feel part of it, of this exclusive little thing which it was back then. So that’s how I got the bug if you like, started chopping up my breakbeats, it was all those people like Krust, Roni Size, Rob Playford – he was a massive influence – that’s where I got my inspiration to do things like that.
The actual scene, though, the thing that actually opened my eyes to the jungle scene and rave scene, that melted my frozen heart towards it, was working the door on the Sanctuary. It was quite a place, it was the Hacienda of the south, a crazy place. I worked the door there between ‘95 and ‘97, and I saw some mad, mad things there. More than anything, something that stuck in my head and will never ever leave me, would be walking Shy FX – quite a young Shy FX – to the decks, it must’ve been about four or five in the morning, so walking through a busy crowd of just complete mongoids… You know what people are like in a rave at that time in the morning…
Yeah, heh – the vibe was just lulling a bit, to say the least. But I took Shy FX to the decks, he put the first record on, and I saw three thousand mongoids turn into frenzied animals like that. It was the first time he’d ever played “Bambaataa”, I actually had to tap him on the shoulder, cause he’d set his record box down, he was late so he literally just set the record box down, pulled the first record our and whacked it on, and I had to go “what is that?” - he went “ah I just made it last week”. And I couldn’t believe what I’d experienced, it was three thousand people going from literally just bobbing a little bit to the previous guy, if that, to standing still in shock and looking at each other, to absolutely exploding. At that time in the morning, that was really quite something – so that will never leave me.
So there was that – then there was just a couple of tunes that used to completely tear the arse out of the place regularly, one being Origin Unknown “Valley of the Shadows” – that was just too big, and well ahead of its time – and “Ready or Not”, I have to mention that, you know the DJ Hype mix of the Fugees, that sums up about three years of my life basically… It’s not my favourite tune, but every time I used to turn up for work that would get played without fail about four or five times in the night. But yeah, the whole jungle thing, that was my intro into the music world – it caught my imagination.
The power of the music was really visible with jungle, wasn’t it? I mean, there was so much villainy and dodgy doings around it, and yet somehow the music would hold it all together and stop it flying apart in chaos or violence.
Yep, 100%. I think it was interesting seeing how it organised around that. You had this initial rush of people to the front, hands up, going “yeah, I invented this” – and then once that was over, and the scene was established, the key players were established and the majors had come and gone, it become more than a scene then, it was more like a worldwide movement, one that was particularly nice for the UK because it wasn’t copying anything else out there, it was something where the world was copying us… Would you agree, Joe?
I do think there’s something in that. I remember some guys at the time, well actually before jungle, these friends introduced me to 2 Bad Mice and all that sort of stuff just as it was becoming jungle, around ‘92 – they were going “this is the first ever British working class music of the modern age”, and my instant reaction was “what, really?”, and only after thinking about it a lot, I realised that everything before that, R&B and ska and even punk, all came from American or Jamaican music – but hardcore and jungle genuinely was new, and it was British and nothing else.
Yeah that’s right, but yet it was made up of loads of different influences. It’s like our cooking in that way, the English don’t really have a tradition of original food or original music, but we do other people’s music really well I think. And we can do our version of it, or we can do our music that is a complete pile-up of other people’s different sounds. That’s one of the things I do love about this country, you don’t have to go too far to find a bit of inspiration.
No, and we don’t have ghettos to the degree that America or even France do – of course there are areas that have different character, that are cut off by social group or race, and you could say that this is getting worse, but to a big degree we do mingle, those estates or neighbourhoods are relatively small and close together so we can’t help but have cultural leakage…
Yep, and we’ve got no raised eyebrows if you try to fuse elements or vibes together – or very few raised eyebrows, certainly anywhere I’ve ever been or hung out; I dare say there are some nasty places where you are only allowed to do it one way or another. But especially Manchester where I live now, it’s a great mixing pot of vibes, I love it actually.
So you were right into the jungle and drum’n’bass scene, but it was garage tracks that made your name – did you get into that out of disenchantment with the jungle scene, or was it just trying your hand at something different for the sake of it?
Well, I was never part of the jungle scene – I used to bug people in the jungle scene, to hear my demos, which weren’t very good, and I used to be in awe of the jungle scene, certainly enough for me to want to get off my backside and learn how to use a sampler and computer. When I started to do my own thing that’s when things started to get better for me – but I suppose my foray into jungle was my training, my beat-chopping pressups, that’s what it was, really. It was like, OK you want to learn how to chop up rhythms, do it with the best – and it was obvious that the jungle producers were kicking everyone’s arse at that time.
I was very, very fortunate that one of my best mates at that time was in Foul Play – Steve Gurley, obviously you know his history. He was more than an influence, he actually taught me quite a lot when it comes to chopping the actual beats, the software intricacies, little tips, the practicalities of it basically – not just “oh you need make a tearing beat mate” and more “here’s all my Octamed samples on a floppy disc, go and find yourself an Amiga, this floppy disc has got “Amen Brother” break chopped up on it and a load of 808s, go and have fun”. That was obviously more help in my career than I could ever have dreamed of happening, and I never took it for granted: I used to get the bus right the way across Milton Keynes to sit with Steve and have him nod or shake his head at my demos, which was amazing… and I don’t think Steve will ever realise the full extent of his abilities or importance, which is sad, but that’s another story altogether…
OK, well sticking with your progression, then – you’d had this practice in the finesse of beat-making and production, but you weren’t getting anywhere with the jungle scene?
I think the problem was, and it’s not something producers nowadays have, but it was a sound quality problem. If anything the problem now is that a young producer will have too much sound quality, it’s too bright, too nice sounding, and you somehow have to dirty it up using plugins. Back in the day, unless you were a Rockerfeller, or selling huge amounts of weed or holding up the post office, you didn’t have a full big studio setup where you could achieve that sort of quality. It would cost thousands and thousands of pounds, maybe £20,000 minimum, to get a setup that’d produce the sort of quality you’d get today just off a demo from Cubase or Logic. It’s crazy. But back then I had the quality problem – didn’t have a sampler, didn’t have any way of getting a sampler, was on the dole, and I remember samplers back then, one Steve bought was the Akai S2800, and in ‘93 or ‘94 that cost him £3,000. You could get that for £50 now if you could even be bothered to seek one out.
…And you could get a £3 app for an iPhone that would do the same thing.
Yep, and the iPhone’s got a hell of a lot more memory on it. Unbelievable. So my problem wasn’t necessarily that I couldn’t do it, or wasn’t good enough, or any of that – but I didn’t want to bug Steve, he was busy doing his own thing, so I’d go over once a week, play demos, get samples off him and get general encouragement, but I wasn’t going to push it and ask for studio time or anything – which is the only way at that time I’d have got any good quality material out there.
But I stuck in there, and in ‘95, late ‘95, my dad sent for me – he was working in Germany, he’s a bricklayer, and he got me a job there hodding for him, the result of which was that in ‘96 I got a sampler. I saved up and I brought it back on the boat from Germany, an Akai S2000, and I then proceeded to get rid of all my friends pretty much, and stay in my bedroom and do nothing but listen to music and play with this sampler for god knows how long, probably until… ‘99! Just still learning.
I’d had a couple of records out – my first record was in ‘97 on DMC, or a little offshoot label called Stress-Related, it was a track called “Leone” by Almighty Beatfreakz, but that never went anywhere, an ashtray in waiting that one [laughs]. I’d say I was pretty much just learning the craft until ‘98, which is when I started to do the first Sidewinder records with DJ Principle – and even that, if you’ve got a copy of that you can hear the quality is pretty rubbish, but it was a first attempt at making something that’s got a sort of swingy, 2-step groove.
So had you kept track of how the garage scene had developed? Obviously if you’d been to those very earliest AWOL things where they were playing the American garage, that’s where it had all started…
No, I’d not kept tabs on it at all. What I had heard was basically Steve making tracks on Social Circles with Jason Kaye – Ordinary People I think they were called – and I said to him “how do you get that – that shuffle?”, and he told me about 16T programming [i.e. the setting on Cubase that gives triplet beats]. At the time I was doing this stuff for DMC, doing this big beat, breakbeat sort of sound, and I wondered what it would sound like given a 16T rhythm, and that’s what it was really – just about programming in a sixteen triplet. So through no fault of my own I started making UK garage – I just took one technique and bastardised it, and was putting my own frustrated drum’n’bass textures in there, just a big mish-mash of things, frankly.
And so you were dipping your toes in here – starting to think that you could make a go of it… was it exciting to you, to feel you were going to be stepping into the music industry?
Yes and no, mate, yes and no. Quite quickly I got to see the good and the bad. You can really see that old-school record labels, you can see that how they became so big back in the day was essentially because they were just out to shaft people, and I think the real test of time for record labels to stick around these days is whether they’ve been able to come in line with being honest and having really good relationships with the artists – or else, of course, just being next level criminal, so the artists simply daren’t say anything to them. They’re the only two ways you’re going to make any money out of it.
There’s a romanticisation of the indie label for a lot of people, but there’s as many crooks and piss-takers in the independent sector as in the corporate world…
Well, in my cynical view, having dealt with a lot of record labels over the years, particularly in the garage scene, I’ve only ever come across a couple that were on the up-and-up. Most people were doing it out of ill-gotten gains, or doing it to put their own material out, and if another producer wants to put your material out there’s only one reason for that on the whole and that’s because they want to make money out of you. And there’s only one way to make money out of selling records, and that’s to not pay the artist. Maybe I have got a little bit cynical over the years, but I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, you know what I mean Joe?
Well it’s something that maybe isn’t made clear enough to artists – that it takes severe tenacity as well as talent to make anything approaching a living out of music for most people, and these are the hazards that people have to deal with: very often, you will get ripped off.
Well, I’ve put out hundreds of records, certainly well over a hundred, with lots of different people, and I’d say possibly there’s four or five labels that I’ve actually enjoyed the experience and I’ve got something out of it and I’m proud to have something out on that label. Even though it’s not always ended up sweet, not always ended up great, there’ve been a lot times where I’ve been able to say that was a really good relationship. Mainly due to my relationship with Andy Lewis, who was at Locked On – he signed myself, he signed The Streets, he signed Artful Dodger’s “Moving Too Fast”, he signed Shanks & Bigfoot – basically he had about five or six top tens, plus all kinds of other things, he did the Sound of the Pirates [albums], he went on to do quite a lot… and now he works at the company that publishes me. And he’s someone I knew, and know, I can trust. Something like that certainly helps, when you’re in a label situation on another label, and you’ve got a good relationship with one guy there who’s looking out for you, that’s a good situation to be in.
Yeah, it’s good, but of course only as long as they’re there: I know so many people, bands and producers alike, whose career has taken a swerve when their A&R leaves the company and nobody else there wants to know.
Tell me about it. Nightmare.
Continued in Part 2