Jazzie B

Posted: July 9, 2011 in DJ

So: Mark Bright passed me on to Jazzie B. A proper hero to me as Club Classics Vol 1 pretty much sound-tracked the start of my adult years. I turned 17 that year, learnt to drive and because my mates all got their driving licences too, we started heading down to Brighton clubbing, eager to find some thrills out of the safe little commuter town we’d grown up in. We hammered the tape through the summer and heard it booming out of other cars, shops, houses and flats everywhere. Listen to the fabulously snappy, clean beat that is the first five seconds of ‘Keep On Movin’ – it smacks of an era while still sounding the absolute nuts. Dance music was in the ascendance then and the album just seemed like another brilliant variant to get hooked into. And then the Stone Roses came out that same year. Glorious times.

Got to admit I cheated on this one a bit. You will note, near the end, that this didn’t remain a strict Q&A and became something like a conversation. People say ‘Don’t meet your heroes’ so I didn’t. Jazzie was on his bluetooth headset driving home when we spoke.

-So how do you know Mark Bright?

-Everyone knows him! We work at the same radio station, Radio London, so that helps. He likes a bit of music so I try and encourage him, give him a few pointers.

-Do you know how much of a Twitter freak he is?

-Yep – that’s why I don’t go near it.

-I tweeted ‘Has anyone got a question for Jazzie B?’ and he was the first one back. He asked if you’ve got any recommendations of new music to check out?

-Loads of it. He needs to get himself down to If Music off Great Portland St.

-I was going to ask you where you get new music for your show. Is that where you find it?

-I’m not affiliated with any one person anymore but having been a record store owner and being someone that collects a lot of music, I’m a bit anal about music. I travel all over the place and wherever I go, if I’m there for a day I’ll ask the promoter where the best record shop is locally. I still go through me mates records trying to nick ’em, still go to car boot sales and second hand shops. I’m finding a lot more vinyl. I think it’s due to houses getting smaller and people not having the space. For the last few weeks I’ve been having a field day. I still love me records, still go out and I’m still an avid collector.

-Before you started making money out of music, did you ever have a ‘normal’ job?

-I did. I’m a sound engineer by trade. I worked at Nova studios, that’s where my whole professional music career began, I did that for two years. In between that I worked for the Royal National Institute for the Blind on Goswell Road, I was a sound technician for them. After leaving school I wanted a career in the music industry but my careers advisor advised me to become a milkman or work in the GPO, which wasn’t really part of my make up. I spent half of my time trying to find a job – the RNIB job came up so I could still be around electronic equipment. I was always into electronics. I was 21 or 22 when I took my final pay-check.

-So when did you start running sound-systems?

-From birth! I was born into it. All my brothers own sound-systems. I did all sorts of bits and pieces for them…carrying the valves. I’m from the days of the valve! I was always around sounds and equipment. That was my first real love. I liked the smell of everything. We were always in the back of the van or back at the lock up. The smell of timber and the valves, the heat coming off everything, if you combine that with dust…it sounds really gooey but its a really interesting smell. Also the smell of the acetate, the dub plate, everything combined. When I found a way into the recording world I was very lucky because I was one of the first black people who actually worked in the early 80s in a professional recording studio world, at Nova studios and Pye studios, which was on the corner of Marble Arch. They had cutting rooms there. I also spent a lot of time in Reuben’s, the Jewish sandwich shop. I was the tape op so apart from cleaning out the phlegm of all the brass instruments, I was always sent out to the shop. So I’m a dab hand at making a cup of tea and I know my way around a Jewish menu.

-I read this interview with you on Djhistory.com that you were able to do warehouse parties because you knew this Jewish guy who basically gave you the keys.

-That’s right. We used to go to the estate agent because we knew this guy in there and he would give us the key like we were viewing. All you had to do was do your best at clearing up and give him the key on the Monday and Bob’s your uncle. That was before that become popular and the wide boys started doing it. We pretty much got away with it.

-The Soul II Soul motto is peaceful but I wondered if you have ever had to deal with any violence in your life, either when you were the young up start running sound-systems or when you started doing warehouse parties. Did you ever have to deal with any unsavoury characters?

-That’s an occupational hazard bro! I come from a big family and we had a certain reputation so…

Anyone in the sound-system world knows there was a lot of pantomime. Djing is always about ego, whatever anyone says. Whenever there’s that much testosterone around, things can get misconstrued.

There were lots of situations when shit went on, lots of fights. With that warehouse thing you had to stand your ground as other guys were trying to take liberties. Sound-systems are all about that kind of camaraderie, call it a posse or even a collective, we had the full circumference when it came down to battling and it wasn’t just in the music, there’s also that bit about protecting your own. There were always things going off, someone trying to break the speakers or slashing your tyres.

We were up in Manchester one time and ended up spending the latter half of the night at the Hacienda – we came out to find the minibus had been bricked up (some one had taken the wheels) and they’d smashed up the windows. There had to be a bit of retaliation there. Whether it was the right person we got involved with who took a hiding, I don’t know. That’s just part and parcel of growing up as a teenager. In those days you could live to fight another day. It wasn’t as serious as it is now because most of it was fisticuffs. I never put out anything to suggest that I was a peacemaker like Kofi Annan. I was just a North London geezer who probably fancied himself a little bit.

-What was it like for you when Club Classics Vol One blew up in 1989?

-My life more changed in the 90s because the whole of the 80s was about being the biggest sound-system in the world. I think I drew the right straw in terms of the release of that record because it definitely set the cat amongst the pigeons, in America as much as it did in Europe. It was groundbreaking and the best thing about that was I got a residency in New York. The sound-system of Soul II Soul was very prolific at that time. We were doing what they called cultural exchanges with Japan and we were quite established there. We were playing nightclubs in places like Roppongi anyway. We were really fortunate because we were travelling the world. They knew about the warehouse parties and the Africa centre and they wanted a piece of that.

-Do you miss the old days?

-I do miss knowing when my sound was playing out on the Friday, the setting up the day before, buying more equipment, wiping down the cables, testing the sound. I miss falling asleep in the lock-up…they were just brilliant times.
-When you start clubbing it’s almost inevitable that you’ll come across drugs. Now that you’ve got kids of your own, how do you feel about them going through that stage?

-There’s only so much you can do as a parent and worrying is probably the most fundamental one! My son is a footballer and is at the gateway to all of this hedonism. My son came to me recently and said ‘Dad I want to taste beer to see what it’s like. Can we have a drink together?’ After I’d scraped myself off up the floor, it was one of me proudest moments of being a father, having my son ask me that. You know what though? A lot of these kids are smarter than we give them credit for. At 14 or 15 I knew about basic drugs like weed and speed because of what I was involved with. Now with more stuff out in the open those subjects are not as taboo as they once were. With my age group, we’re going to be open with the idea of drugs and the effects of taking them. In a reasonable household, kids are probably a little bit more open on that level. With parents like ourselves we live in Camden and we see a lot of shit and they know the effects. Whether its a cousin or an uncle or an aunt or whatever who’ve got themselves a bit fucked up, those questions are not hidden like it would have been with our parents who were trying to hide stuff. We live in a community where you do see people who are less fortunate than ourselves and people who have made the wrong choices in their lives. Kids are a lot more savvy. As my Grandmother used to say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’d be shitting myself if I thought about that all the time given the amount of nonsense I got involved with!

-What do you make of shows like X Factor?

-Brilliant, love it. I think it’s great. I’m probably one of Simon Cowell’s biggest fans. I like the way he does his business. I’ve come up in the business since I was a teenager and there are a lot of bullshitters out there. I love the way that he’s the got the equilibrium between the bullshit and ripping the arse out of you with no lubrication. When I grow up I want to be like Simon Cowell. There’s a level of sincerity, I’m not going to call it honesty. When you’re shit he tells you that you’re shit and that’s not an easy thing to do. He is doing so much for us on that sort of level so it’s all good.

-‘A happy face, a thumping bass, for a loving race’ sounds like a motto. Are you a religious person?

-I was forced into religion like most kids of my age by our parents who were made afraid of it all. With my scenario it was trying to get a combination of living in the melting pot, trying to get a little bit of all the different religions if that’s the thing that’s going to bind us together. I suppose I took the piss a little bit because the Africa Centre parties happened on a Sunday and it did become one of those religious experiences.. I found out a lot later from some of the people that used to rave with us how much it meant to them. It was a real eye-opener. It was like us being in school and having a gang. If you belonged to the gang you had that ‘happy face, thumping bass for a loving race’ motto and if you went to the Africa Centre it would have made so much sense.

There was a full circumference of music played and there were loads of individuals who all moved together. You know if you go to a club and everyone’s wearing Fred Perry or Nike and everyone sort of looks the same? Back in the day there were a lot more flamboyant individuals. You could almost call it camp. What was interesting was you had people of both genders across the cultural span and the most significant part of it was, at the time I was involved with it, the Africa Centre was a black run organisation that was set up by the church as a refugee centre. When you talk about religion…I want to sort of say more ‘spiritual’, its probably not an accident what went on. Everything just felt right. Here we are coming up to 25, nearly 30 years later with the same motto and its as fresh as Club Classics Vol 1 is. Even though I say so myself those records…it happens every so often in a muso’s life I think, not that I put myself down with the greats, sometimes you get a ‘moment’ and it means that much.

-That album came at the right time?

-That was a lot to do with it as well. So much of this game is about luck and timing and 10% of that is the hard work. That’s very evident today. Especially when you pump up a lot of people as we tend to do in Britain. We drive these guys until the wheels fall off, which is a little bit about commercialism. I can happily say that the innings has been fantastic and today I still play that record much the same like a punter. I’m very proud to be a part of that.

-I was 17 when that record came out and it was such a massively influential thing for the people that I was around. As well as the record we started to read about you and what you were doing at the Africa Centre and it made us go out and explore and see if we could find different sounds. That record touched a lot of peoples lives.

-I’m beginning to see that more and more as I’ve got older. I’ve gone to territories now in Eastern Europe and they tell me stories about what they went through in the 80s and how affecting listening to a cassette of this music was and I’ll be like ‘Did you understand the words?’ and they say ‘It wasn’t about that’. It was a bit of egg on my face because music is something that you sort of..feel. It becomes part of your daily make up…it’s unbelievable.

-I think that’s when music is at it’s best when it is something that you feel. You can listen to things and they don’t really touch you but if you truly feel something then that’s when its really working.

-Absolutely and it’s like some of the records that I’ve got. It’s why Curtis Mayfield is so important to me. I still listen to his music today and find his lyrics profound. Also people like Donny Hathaway…

At this point Jazzie yells hello to his neighbour so I guess he’s home. Which seemed like the right place to stop.

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