Tony Thorpe - Part 1 (of 2)
© Brian David Stevens
This is a greatly extended version of an interview that originally appeared in Woofah magazine, with some snippets up here. Since I conducted this interview I’ve been lucky enough to work more with Tony Thorpe, including one of his recent tracks on my Adventures In Dubstep And Beyond mixed compilation for Ministry Of Sound, and getting him onto a discussion panel for the Are We Here? arts festival in November, which celebrates and examines the contribution of the much-under-appreciated London suburb of Croydon to the cultural fabric. This latter I’m greatly looking forward to - as you can see, Tony has a good deal to say…
Tony Thorpe was, literally, a very bad influence on me. I’m not really one for epiphanies, but one of the clearest moments of musical realisation I remember in my life came in 1990 at the age of sixteen, just after going to my first rave club. The club experience itself and the music played there was great, exciting, disorienting, all the rest of it – but it was as we carried on at some friends’ house afterwards that I first heard the KLF vs The Moody Boys version of ‘What Time Is Love’. Its combination of a complete re-wiring of the instantly recognisable riffs of the original with sonar bleeps, soundscapes, synthesiser sounds the likes of which I’d never heard before and what I would later discover was a sample of Misty In Roots: “When we tread this land we walk for one reason, to try to help another man think for himself. The music of our heart is roots music, music which recalls history because without the knowledge of history you can’t determine your own destiny. Music about the present because if you’re not conscious of your present, you’re like a cabbage in this society.” It tore the top of my head off and made soup with the contents.
I was already vaguely acquainted with electronic music and, even more vaguely, with dub at this point – but this track was a shattering revelation to me of the possibilities of both, of the fact that dance music needn’t be for the dancefloor, that cultural boundaries were there for the breaking, and that music could be both very serious and utterly ridiculous, both profound and hedonistic at the same time without contradiction. And it was this track more than any other that set me off on a course of spending my life seeking out preposterous music wherever I could. I quickly discovered that the Moody Boys were actually a man called Tony Thorpe who already had quite a history in music first in the band 400 Blows and then with early UK acid tracks, and proceeded to buy his records whenever I found them: ‘First National Rapper’, ‘Acid Rappin’, ‘Journeys Into Dubland’, ‘What Is Love’ with its remixes by the KLF. He never became an iconic figure or underground celebrity in the way many contemporaries in electronic music did, but he never stopped making interesting, unpredictable and often brilliant records either, on labels like Guerilla and his own much underrated Language, and I was thrilled when I heard him completely in tune with current sounds with his 2007 dubstep remix of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Love Is A Losing Game’: a gleaming, futuristic, precision-tooled monster of a track that amplified the gambling metaphors of the original to gloriously glamorous proportions, but somehow maintained its fragile heart of blues; had there been any justice in the world would have been the first Bond theme for the rebooted franchise instead of that Chris Cornell monstrosity.
I refrained from telling Tony that I thought this, though, when we met in the café of Brixton’s Ritzy cinema. I had already embarrassed myself by telling him how much that ‘What Time Is Love’ remix meant to me as a kid then immediately realising that he was not someone who liked to trade on past glories. It was an awkward start to the interview, then, but things quickly warmed up, and the hour and a half we spent together ended up providing as fascinating overview of linking threads that run through British music of the last quarter century as I could have hoped for.
Tony’s Studio Rockers label compilation / DJ mix Studio Rockers @ The Controls is out now.
So Tony, you’re known for your music but also for having run quite a number of interesting labels. When someone who doesn’t know you asks what you do, what do you say? Musican? Producer? A&R? Label boss?
Musician, really, I suppose. Producer? I don’t know really. People tell me what I am – I don’t go round saying I’m anything, never have done. It’s up to people to come to their own conclusions. I’m just a music lover, I suppose a music lover that got lucky – and that’s why I’m still doing it after all these years, that’s why I went beyond ‘What Time Is Love’ or whatever and did so much more above and beyond that. That’s why I’ve still got enthusiasm for it, and why I’ll still be doing it until I end up in whatever old people’s home or nuthouse they stick me in. So I’ll just keep doing it and look forward to that nuthouse…
And the latest thing to spark your enthusiasm has been dubstep. The Studio Rockers label and your own remixes lately have been squarely within the dubstep sound, so what is it that attracted you to it?
For me it’s just gone round full circle, the whole dubstep, dub-whatever thing, it just feels to me like what I was doing twenty years ago, with Journey Into Dubland. When I did that album [actually a 5-track EP on XL Recordings] people thought I was mad, mixing reggae, dub, electronics, acid, everything I could find and the kitchen sink, it just seemed like some novelty one-off record - so to be able to go out and see people dancing to what Benga’s dropping or what Skream’s dropping, or Kode 9, or Appleton [meaning, presumably, the ex-Skull Disco duo Appleblim & Shackleton], what those guys are doing is brilliant. When I did that record I felt really restricted but now it just feels like those restrictions aren’t there, there don’t seem to be anyone telling me that I need to do this, or I need to play at this tempo, or I need to conform; I suppose dubstep is the only music where I don’t feel the need to conform to anything. It’s just my interpretation of whatever new label people have given to it, but to me it’s just dub, mate, it’s just sonics. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve always been into sonics with all my stuff, the background’s always been the sonics; I’m just really into sound, pure sound. When I was in 400 Blows, when I first started, it was about manipulating sounds, playing with sounds, trying to make sounds – and that was before computers, bruv, know what I’m saying?
When you made those early tracks, did you think that it was obvious there was a link between dub and the bass and effects in house music?
I don’t know, it was just what I was into. What you’ve got to understand there is that I was doing house when it was underground, when there was about two people into it. In those days London was just rare groove and hip hop, that was it – we had to go to the Hacienda if you wanted to hear house music, people thought you were gay and looked down on you if you liked anything with a 4/4. I remember it being completely divided, but it’s amazing how things can turn around isn’t it? How things can become popular then die out. But what I really love about dubstep is how so many of the producers seem to be on a road of progression, of constant progression, which is what I’ve been doing my whole life, so it’s good to meet people who are on that same wavelength, not standing still, constantly moving on and constantly trying to move on within their particular area. My problem’s always been, like when I was doing my label Language, that I’d put out a drum & bass record, I’d put out an industrial indie record, I’d put out a soul record, and no-one could ever really pinpoint it or get what I was really doing. At least with the dubstep it’s wide, but it’s still one entity, one angle – and I can throw all my influences and experience into that angle. With Studio Rockers, though, it’s not like DMZ or a label like that where you can say there’s a signature sound – our records are all over the place, a bit like myself.
Well the remixes you’ve done recently certainly show how broad dubstep can be – the Amy Winehouse one, for example, is very different to the VV Brown mix…
That’s just because they’re led by the vocals, though. Obviously with Amy Winehouse, she’s got an amazing voice, I love what she does and the production was amazing anyway, so I hardly needed to do anything – just adding those extra sonics to her, and it just works for some reason. All I did was built around her music, so everything there is hers, I just added the sonics and the rhythms, but otherwise I used everything that they gave me and just recreated something else out of it. I don’t do those kind of remixes where there’s nothing in there that resembles anything from the original – although sometimes doing that can save a song, but with Winehouse the strings were amazing, everything was amazing, like “oh my god, wow, I can’t throw any of this stuff away” so I had to use it all, mash it all up but stay true to it. Thing is, I’m a song man, I’m into songs; obviously I’m an older type of geezer and I love song structure, song arranging, so doing stuff like that is easy, is fun, I love bending sonics in a song structural sort of way.
But you’ve never done a whole project of your own with vocalists?
No. I’ve produced records with full vocals, but I’ve never done anything of my own with all vocal tracks. I’ve got quite bored with those kind of albums where there’s ten different guests on each tracks – I’d rather find one or two people that are really amazing and keep it at that. But I’m sick of hearing vocals there for the sake of it. Massive Attack can get away with it because those guys constantly change and they’re aware of what’s going on around them – but so many acts get lost in their own little bubble and don’t see outside it. But Massive Attack are a special case – I mean, that Meltdown they did last year, you wouldn’t get many pop bands putting together those sort of lineups. Gong, Yellow Magic Orchestra, bloody Norah man, I’ve never seen anything like it, and getting me to do the Dubstep Chronicles thing for them – brilliant. There’s always been that love between London and Bristol though, dunno why, just an understanding I suppose.
And I guess they came from a similar collision of influences to you in the 80s – dance, hip hop, soundsystems and post-punk…
Yeah, I reckon so. It’s funny, man, looking at those starting points and what a rollercoaster ride it’s been.
Could you pin down exactly where your life in music started? You grew up in Croydon, right?
Yep, that’s my hometown, the grimy streets of Croydon [laughs]. I suppose it started in a place called the Old Barn in South Croydon. I mean before that I grew up with a West Indian background so there was always soundsystems around, always heavy all night parties, always music in the background, soundsystem in our front room, and I can remember just being really into the equipment, getting my first gramophone, buying my first single, all that. But it was just about the culture of the time, following whatever was around – the first record I bought was bloody T-Rex, I mean I was just like any other kid born and bred in Croydon, just like anybody else, into the pop of the time. Then after that I was a punk, I was a rasta, bloody new romantic, skinhead – I’ve been through the whole lot. I used to follow Pete Tong and Chris Hill, go to the Caister weekenders, northern soul gigs, Wigan Casino, Goldmine – we were the sort of South London Soul Patrol crew, and we were heavily into dancing in those days, going down to places like the Horseshoe with Paul Murphy on Tottenham Court Road where they’d have dancers, mate, absolutely amazing dancers every night. They were like ballet dancers, twisting, spinning, bending, always really original in their moves, and it was great going around challenging people to dance-offs, going around different places like we’d go down to Sutton Scamps on a Tuesday night and have a dance-off with all the Sutton lot, then another night we’d go down to Caister and have a dance-off with them lot. It was a constant like “waheyy!” fun thing, but also it was releasing your aggression on the dancefloor, challenging each other with dancing where these days you’d do it with a knife. So yeah I was into black music, into all the American stuff of the time…
What about electro? Or was that more a northern scene?
Well in the late 70s, early 80s it was funk stuff, then rap came. I remember someone on the radio when ‘Rapper’s Delight’ came out going “this is never gonna go anywhere” and we were sat there going “no! This is the future!” and if you knew what you were talking about, you knew that in the Bronx this stuff was there for real, it was a lifestyle, know what I mean? I think I’ve always been open-minded, but when that really started to open out was when I got into 400 Blows…
And how did that come about?
Well I was a DJ basically, that’s what I started off as – we used to do this club in Croydon called the Swamp club and, and… [laughs, looks disbelieving] it was sort of a rockabilly thing. But in them days you could play anything – I’d be playing Animal Nightlife with King Kurt, mixed in with James Brown and Kraftwerk! All over the fucking place – and all these people were there in quiffs and suits having a good time, all kind of smartened up and it was brilliant, mate. Bauhaus, B52s, James Chance, Bob Marley whatever – man, that’s when I used to really enjoy DJing because it would just be “right, what am I going to play today?” and it could be anything. And you drop the right classic and people would just go fucking nuts. I did Dr Jims, a classic old jazz-funk venue where all the soul guys played, sunday night jazz-funk fusion type place, teamed up with my mates Rob and Andreos, who was… [laughs] …he was George Michael’s cousin. ‘Cause he was in Croydon too, the whole bloody Wham! thing had its seed in Croydon, we used to play them and Animal Nightlife, all that kind of soul pop of the time. Haha I’m a bit embarrassed, this aint doing my dubstep credibility any good…
But George was a proper soulboy too, wasn’t he?
Oh mate, you can’t knock him! He’s someone who loves his music, and I love the way he constructed his whole success without trying to rip anyone off and developed his own style, which is what it’s all about in any kind of music. No George is a wicked guy, man. But yeah, a mate of mine, Mick Maguire, started this thing called the Forum, which was in the Whitgift Centre – just like a pub right in the middle of the place there, and we’d hire it out. And his dad did HP with us to buy a soundsystem, so we’d pay him money every month to buy the soundsystem which was total top-of-the-range. I mean the sound was like… phwoooarrr! And everyone else was on these silly little mobile disco things, flashing traffic lights and the lot, but we had decent Citronics turntables and proper bassbins. So we were this little sound and we called ourselves Midnight Groove… bit embarassing really…
That is such an 80s name!
Yeah… [cheesy grin and wink] “Midnight Groooooove!”. But we had t-shirts made and everything, “Midnight Groove” with stars and glitter, and don’t forget it was the early 80s, era of bad perms… horrible, mate! But the music we were playing was fucking brilliant, so who cares? Again, it was all sorts – hip hop, soul, rare groove, jazz, jazz-fusion funk…
And was there any kind of DJ mixing as we know it now?
Heh, it was probably a lot more just about song selection then, with the odd really terrible mix, but we tried our best, you know… I mean there was a lot of appreciation of that culture [hip hop] but things take time to filter through, I mean British people were still rapping in American accents too, not quite getting it right. But hip hop was just another musical element in my life that taught me about being open and trying new things. So anyway, I was doing the DJing and that was all going good, then someone came up to me and went “oh you should meet this guy called Andrew Beer, he’s got a record out”. So I met him, he gave me this record, 7” single, white label, track called ‘Beat The Devil’ and I thought “oh this looks interesting”. I took it home, put it on and was just like “nah mate!” - it was like it was devil music, like some white voodoo thing with backwards loops and trumpet solos… but I could tell there was something going on, even if I wasn’t into it.
Then I’d see him around, he’d come to some gigs I was playing at, and then I don’t really know how it happened, but him and his partner in the band put out their first record on a label called Illuminated, called ‘Keep On Fighting’ or something, then they had a tiff and the guy left, and for some reason Andrew rang me up and said “do you want to help us out on a tune?”. I’d never been in a studio, I wasn’t a musician at all, but I was like [nervous chuckle] “OK…” - the nearest I’d ever been to the studio was with some mates at school who had a band, I pawned my stereo to get them in a studio, didn’t know what we were doing, made some stupid track, just clueless… But there was always the mysticism of listening to records and going [hushed tones] “how the fuck do they do that? Wowwww…”, just totally lost in the sound. When I first heard Kraftwerk, I was like [jaw drops, dumbstruck expression] – I mean there was no idea how that had been done, I had no idea.
So I remember meeting up with Andrew, going up to the record company and the guy there Keith Bagley was like “alright Tony – who would you like to work with?”, so I said “Mad Professor!”, I mean he was just like a god to me – and Keith just went “alright, we’ll get him in”. I had no clue you could do that, it was just “whaaa…!” - but we got him in the studio, down in South Croydon, and we did a track called ‘Declaration Of Intent’, and it was mad. Mad record – I listen to it now and wonder how the fuck I did half the things on it. And it’s got me singing on it too… terrible! But yeah, it’s some nuts stuff, off the wall. And that was end of ‘83, beginning of ‘84, down in South Croydon, that was my first experience in a studio.
And we went on to make two albums, something like 20 12”s, I dunno, and it was like school days, two sort of mischievous boys playing with toys in the studio – two blokes who weren’t really musicians, but they tried to make music by any means necessary. I remember doing tracks one snare drum at a time, one bassdrum at a time, and just making this mad thing, like “what the fuck’s this?”. Tape loops, too – I know this sounds prehistoric but get a reel-to-reel tape, record the beat on two inch tape, transfer it onto the reel-to-reel, pull it out with a massive broomstick so you’ve got a big loop going through the machine, that’d be your loop, that’s your break.
That’s the sort of thing experimental musicians in Paris, or the Radiophonic Workshop at the BBC would do going back to the 50s and 60s – did you know about previous electronic music like that when you were doing this?
When I got together with Andrew, I was really the soulboy, the jazz funk boy, the reggae boy – that was my roots. Andrew came from more rock, punk, that was his thing, the post-punk mentality of anything-goes. So I was learning from him and he was learning from me – we were exchanging our musical differences, our heritages. These days you’d probably get a sampler to do that for you… but listening to our first album now, it’s pretty all over the place, pretty mad. But that was all the musical knowledge we had.
And you had Mad Professor in the studio, what about King Tubby and those original dub producers, were they an influence then?
Oh yes, I had my soundsystem, and I knew about soundsystem music. But Croydon wasn’t the dub centre of the world, and the UK side of that was still in its infancy then, still developing. For me the post-punk thing really opened up people to a lot of influences from dub, reggae, funk – The Clash, Cabaret Voltaire, they drew from all that stuff, and it was an amazing period, some of the stuff that came out of that type of crossover was just amazing, I still play it out now, and people go “what the fuck’s this?!”, they aint got a clue what I’m playing! That was a time of just trying ideas and seeing what worked.
And did you tour?
There weren’t no stadium tours, it was more of an arty thing: we weren’t really a performing band, we weren’t really into touring, we weren’t really into seeing our faces anywhere, we weren’t really into the limelight – we were just trying to make music that we couldn’t hear anywhere else. And when Illuminated gave us a platform to do it – when someone says “there’s a studio, go in there and do what you want” – I wasn’t thinking about business, I wasn’t thinking about fame, I wasn’t thinking about money, it was just “wow!”, doing something I’ve always wanted to do. So yes, I’ve always done it for the love of music, bruv, that’ll probably be on my grave – always done it for the love of music. It’s always been my first motivation – it’s great I can make a living from it, but that’s not the motivation. It’s odd, I’ve always found a lot of my so-called peers have had that problem of getting to a point where they say to themselves “I stop here, I can’t go any further, I don’t want to go any further”. But personally I feel that I’m still trying to find something else, to find something different, to search, to experiment, to evolve.
So what was the next step in that? How did you make the jump from a post-punk band to purely electronic music?
It wasn’t a jump, it was more of a crawl. I don’t think I jumped anywhere, mate – it was a long slog! After we’d had our albums out and all that, we decided to start our own little labels up, Warrior Records and Concrete Productions. I had this mad idea of – well, at the time we had the Streetsounds compilations out, which were everywhere, Morgan Khan was killing it man, so I had this idea of “why don’t we get all this post-punk music and package it like hip hop, really colourful like the hip hop street stuff, put it out and see what happens?”. So I approached Morgan Khan with the idea, and at the time Andreos – George Michael’s cousin – was working for Morgan Khan, so I had an easy way of getting in there, and he was umm-ing and ah-ing, so in the end we put it out ourselves and that turned out to be the ‘Funky Alternatives’.
And that was brilliant, we got to meet up with lots of people that we were really into, like New Order, they did a track for us, an exclusive thing: they did it in this studio in London and there was this barbers’ next to it, so we were sitting in the barbers’ chatting with them. It was really good to meet people that you admired and liked… so I did two of those, then left – we had this horrible thing where we became like two leaders, you know, when there’s not enough room for two leaders… I might have started as a learner, but I was always the one going out to all the clubs, giving out records to other DJs – I remember giving Pete Tong a copy of ‘Declaration Of Intent’, I mean was he ever going to play it – no – but it was just “here man, here’s my first record” ‘cause I felt I had to!
So yeah I went off and started my own label, BPM Records, at the time when you had that massive UK surge of underground music, Bomb The Bass was happening, all that Rough Trade period, Rhythm King, Coldcut, all that British, sample-based electronic dance music. It was all over the place. Dave Lee – Joey Negro – used to be in charge at Rough Trade distribution, and he said “I’ll give you a distribution deal” so I was just “oh bloody Norah, yeah mate!” and I started BPM, knocking out hip hop, acid house, anything I liked, just sticking it out, and I did my first Moody Boys track on there, something called ‘Boogie Woogie Music’ which was quite fun, I put it on some compilation album – it had a sample from some fitness programme, just stupid; but then I always had that childish mentality to my music, where I can be really childish then become very serious again straight away. It doesn’t matter what state of mind I’m in, just turn on the computer and go “let’s make music”.
And you could do that then, pre-1990, before the dance music industry had set its rules and formulae in stone…
Yeah, that’s right… but let me think, I’m trying to place this right, to get the story in its accurate order… I don’t know how long I can keep that up… So – at Rough Trade, around that time, actually before I left 400 Blows in fact, I was listening to John Peel, and he had this fucking record on that sampled the Beatles. It was all samples, totally mad, and I just thought “who the FUCK could be idiotic enough to get these crappy Beatles records and chop them all up?” Well it came to the end and he said “Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu” so I just thought “I have GOT to find out who these people are”. Not because the record was any good – it wasn’t – but just how could they have the idea to sample crap records, I mean at the time I was sampling James Brown, Muhammad Ali, cool funky shit, you know, so I thought “I’ve got to find out who these idiots are”. So I did a bit of networking… at the time we were doing ‘Funky Alternatives’, ‘Funky Alternatives 2’ in fact, and they had this track ‘Don’t Take 5, Take What You Want’ – so I said I wanted to do a remix of it for our compilation. They were all like “yeah ok sure wicked”, and I did a mix, thought it was great, lovely, gave it to them, they said it was shit. I think Jim actually threw it in the dustbin in front of me, like “this is shit!”. I was really “mrrrmrrrmrrr” [scowls] about it, but it was funny.
And what did you think of Cauty and Drummond as people at the time?
Well I did find the whole thing quite…. quite hippie for me – but really nice people. That rejection really got me, though, more than anything. But we kept in touch as mates, I went to some of their mad warehouse parties in Stockwell [at the infamous Trancentral squat / studio] – I mean those were the days when people were partying man, ‘87, ‘88, the whole thing was starting to move, the whole acid house bollocks whatever. So we became friends, and I don’t know what happened, but at some point they approached me to do a mix again, I think it was ‘Kylie Said To Jason’ which was for some house tracks compilation… now that record died a death, really, it wasn’t a big hit, although they really meant it as a pop single – by that time I was meeting up with them a lot, going out with Jimmy and Bill, Alex Patterson and Youth: it was this whole sort of Brixton, South London little thing going on. So then we were… [he is lost in acid house memories for a minute] Where was I? …sorry mate yeah, ‘Kylie Said To Jason’, we did that, then we did ‘3am Eternal’ with a Moody Boys mix and an Orb mix on it, and then suddenly they had a hit with… oh what was it called?
Doctorin’ The Tardis?
Yeah, Doctorin’ The Tardis! I remember them playing that to me, “diddy-di-dum diddy-di-dum” [Dr Who theme], and I just went “this aint very funky is it? This is rubbish, this isn’t going to do anything” - and of course it went to number one, so I was just “oh fair enough then!” Then I can’t remember how it all went exactly but I ended up doing the mix on their new version of ‘What Time Is Love’ which was the first of that batch, and somehow it just became like a day job. They’d had the Pure Trance ‘What Time Is Love’ but this was the “Stadium House” version, and from there it just became like a well-oiled machinery, really – like a really interesting way of working. They had their mad concepts of how these records should be, and we had this slick machine for making them and getting them into the charts.
And all this within a completely self-contained indie label?
Yeah, I mean the big labels still for the most part didn’t get dance at all. And I had experience of the little labels being bullied by the big label – we had this thing out called ‘Bouncy House’ by Adrenalin MOD, totally mad acid crazy turntable scratching acid house thing. At the time, one of the guys in Adrenalin was working in the mailing room in MCA; now I had a mate who worked there and I was up there meeting him for a drink, and he was “oh my mate Darren here’s got a track you might like, nobody here’s shown any interest in it”, so I took it, put it on and it was like “fucking hell mate yeah, this aint bad”. So I took him in the studio, did a mix, got it sounding fucking wicked, pressed up the twelve, stuck it out – next minute corporate at MCA is in touch going “you can’t put this record out, we’re banning you”. Some bollocks about because he worked for the company he couldn’t do it, some stupid clause – and you know what I did? I destroyed our original masters. So they had to recreate it. I just thought “I’m not putting in all that work on that track and you want me to hand over our masters – you’re joking mate, PAY US!”
That was a mad situation, but it was just us two against MCA, so we stopped the record, stopped the pressing and that was it. It got in the charts somewhere but fuck it – they could’ve worked with us and it would’ve been so much better. They just didn’t get it, the idea of licensing a track from a label that knew what it was doing. Tongy, really, was the only person who understood that at the time with FFRR – they were killing it around then. That album they put together, which I helped with, ‘The House Sound Of London’ – I remember going down to his office in London records and saying “mate, the future is producers making music in their bedrooms”, years before that all started in earnest. It was fun then, though – within dance labels, people were open, people were warm, people were more approachable.
Well people had no idea what a global industry it would become then, I guess…
No, and they didn’t know the extent of how they could murder it either. I think the [dance] industry is to blame for the state of music, and vice versa.
So – going into the 1990s, the studio work with the KLF was your main output?
Yeah, I was doing the ‘White Room’ album, ‘What Time Is Love’, the Tammy Wynette thing, doing videos with them, doing Top Of The Pops and all of that was just funny… so funny – I mean that was the perfect mixture of what I was talking about, being really serious in the studio but being totally childish with it, putting whatever ideas came in our heads into that. And then I had studio time in Jimmy’s studio as well for myself, in Trancentral, which was just like a twelve track studio – I did all that on twelve tracks – playing the basslines all the way through with one hand, I mean talk about making the most of technology. Twelve tracks is crap, bruv, know what I’m saying, I saw one of those machines the other day for about two pence! But at the time we thought it was – ooh – quality. And if you’ve got ideas you don’t need twenty-four tracks, you can do it on twelve easy – minimal, mate. So out of ‘What Time Is Love’ came being able to have a platform for myself, I was able to take the whole remix idea and evolve it into something else. ‘What Time Is Love’ didn’t just earn me money, it gave me more freedom, ‘cause Jim and Bill went “do what you want” and really meant it – and it’s not often someone says “do what you want” and pays you, trust me!
So you made ‘Journey Into Dubland’ with Jimmy and that came out on XL – that was starting to be known as a big rave label at the time…
Well I was signed to them already, I’d been signed to City Beat, which was their subsidiary, for ‘First National Rapper’ and ‘Acid Rappin’ in the acid days, before rave and hardcore started to come along.
And where did the Moody Boys name come from?
All I can say is that people used to accuse me of being a really, really moody git, “ah-ah-ahhh you’re a moody boy”, pretty tacky and cheesy but I got the name and it’s never gone away. And it’s the one thing I’ve always done that’s always been my most important project, my one platform that I’ll always be able to twist and alter and experiment with to do what I want. I don’t know why it should be that name, but there you go – it’s just stuck.
It’s rare for someone to stick to a project name or identity like that for so long – it’s over twenty years!
Well, you know, I’ve had millions of pseudonyms in that time, millions – but that’s always been the main thrust, the main thing, the one thing that had an identity, that more dubbier direction. You get people now who just sound like everything, a mixture of everything, and I wanted to make sure that I had something that was flexible but at the same time had a quite specific identity, just me, and my funky, hip hoppy, reggae side.
Did you find kindred spirits at the time? There was some rave with dub influences, and obviously The Orb and Andrew Weatherall were taking dub influences into the mainstream around then…
Well yes, I was talking to Andrew not long ago, and he said 400 Blows records were really important in inspiring him to make music, so I was like “wow”! But yeah obviously there were people at the time, the whole Smith & Mighty and that Bristol lot, there’ve always been people about – but I’ve never been much of a socialiser in the way of being out with musical buddies, I’ve always been a bit of a lonesome cowboy in that way I suppose. A moody boy. Hidden away from everybody in a dungeon mate.
So you didn’t feel the need to play to a scene or fit into an emerging sound, then?
For me, I’ve always had one foot in any scene and one foot out of it. I seriously think the dubstep thing is the first time since 400 Blows that I’ve felt like there were other people thinking like me: with the 400 Blows thing there were other bands, the 23 Skidoos and that who were totally on our wavelength – we were on the same label as them and all… So yes, dubstep is the first thing since then. Obviously I’ve always had a love for drum & bass and jungle, I’ve always supported that, I’ve always promoted it and pushed it, and actually I could say that I’ve helped… I was making prototypes at the time. There was that point when it was always 4/4 with breakbeats behind it, and people began to chop up the breaks to support the 4/4, and out of that you had your hardcore, your rave, and out of that your jungle, then your drum & bass, and it goes on, and on and on and on – and what I love about music in this country is that in five years it’ll be somewhere else!
Continued in Part 2