Talking Heads: Mr Scruff – DJ Kicks

interview by Ben Hogwood

When Arcana called to speak with Mr Scruff , aka Andy Carthy, about his DJ Kicks album earlier this year, we were locked down – but he was using the time productively. “I’m having a big tidy. Musically I’ve been all over the place and want to lay my hands on stuff quickly. I’ve been organising it like a record shop, just having a big clear out and all that. I know a lot of DJs who are doing the same thing. When you’re not pulling out all your records all the time your collection’s a bit static, so it’s easier to organise. I’ve got triple albums where the three albums have been reunited for the first time in about twenty years!”

Has he made any rediscoveries? “Loads! I’ve been going through whole sections like hip hop 12”s and house 12”s. Each section takes about a week to go through, and I’m listening to loads of stuff – promos I received 25 years ago. Two thirds of them are ‘see you later’, but one third is ‘wow’. You’re hearing stuff for the first time.”

We turn to his DJ Kicks compilation, widely acknowledge as one of the best mixes released this year. His approach to it is instructive. “However much you try it’s never going to be like a live mix”, he confirms. “When I started mixing in the 1980s, that was the decade of the megamix. It was still quite ‘in the moment’ but the tools at your disposal were different, and you could be more considered. It reminded me of being a teenager doing pause button edits, it was great fun!”

He starts with a long list…but inevitably elements such as copyright and clearance whittle it down. “It’s an odd one, because !K7’s initial advice was to pick 30-40 tunes – there’s your record box – and they would see what they could clear, and we’d do the mix. They also wanted a very wide ranging mix, and I said that would probably work if you were doing quite a linear mix at one tempo or texturally similar, like a box of DJ tools. This way it will probably go all over the place in terms of tempo, instrumentation and genre, by the very nature of the request. Each record is a very important piece of the puzzle, and if you lose one then the next five or six might not happen. It was a chicken and egg thing, so I did a draft mix, and then made lots of development. Then we would try and clear stuff and half of those tunes couldn’t be used, so it was a little frustrating. You’re normally used to taking records and putting them on, so I had to find ways of keeping interest and focus, and keeping the fun element of the project, without getting dragged down by the politics of licensing.”

He is familiar with such things. “Those frustrations are part and parcel of any licensing operation. On one hand you have the idealist approach – people need to hear this, this mix is beautiful, nothing should impede all the people hearing it – and when you’re DJing, nothing does impede it. Then it’s like, ‘We can’t have this one’, and I’ve had that before. You just need to get over it and keep reworking it, but not too much. You can’t get too bogged down or upset by not being able to use a certain tune.”

Was the idea to also give the listener a sense of discovery? “Kind of, but then on another level a lot of these tracks to me are classics. It’s an odd one because one person’s unknown and obscure is another person’s familiar comfort music, if you know what I mean. The recent obsession with many people of obscure ‘tropical’ music, for want of a better word, is a case in point. I’m thinking of K.Frimpong, something like that. When I first heard one of his tunes via a Ghanaian friend’s parents, I thought it was amazing and obscure, but they told me it was the Ghanaian equivalent of Sex Machine, everyone knows that tune!”

Some will be new to the listener, however. “There’s a few unreleased bits, or ones that haven’t been widely available. Quite a lot of them like the Tiger tune When, which is a classic from my youth. If you weren’t around at the time you’d be like ‘What’s that weird ragga tune by the guy with the slightly nasal, really weird comedic voice?!’ Some tunes on there like Fats Comet‘s Dub Storm are very important tunes from my teenage years. I’m not going out to be deliberately obscure, saying ‘look what I’ve got’ – the music has to be there for a reason. For me it was more about freewheeling, and the joy about putting the mix together is that each tune has to be a transition, taking it somewhere and passing the baton on to something else. With certain older tunes they are more dynamic and less linear than modern electronic productions. The transitions are very important, but that shows that if you take one tune out nothing can fill that gap, either in terms of key or lyrically. If you play an old tune that speeds up you can get from 90 to 110 bpm effortlessly in four minutes. You’re not having to do that as a DJ, the tune’s doing it for you. it builds the energy as a DJ set should do, but if I tried to do that with electronic music it might take me two hours! It’s letting each record do it’s thing, allowing the music to speak and breathe. It’s an especially important consideration when you’re overlaying lots of things, and you have to be careful not to get too much into showing off skills or obscure music. It’s nice to get technical and loopy but other tunes, let them breathe for five or six minutes. The records and audience are part of the conversation, and when you’re doing a student or bedroom mix it becomes a lot more between you and the music.

Is there even a similarity between the structure of a DJ set and a classical work? “You’ve got to have a strong start with a DJ mix, something that is arresting but also a little confusing. I think you have to have a bit of mystery, and it can be drama or ‘what’s happening here, where is this going to go’? It’s like introducing the character at the start of a film, with some plot building. After 3 or 4 tunes you’ve laid out your foundations and some reference points, so people are like ‘yeah, I’m strapped in now, let’s see where we’re going!’ I don’t think you can think too much about it at the start, other than mellow and a bit mysterious, then energetic and maybe comforting at the end. Any more planning than that and I think you’re taking out the opportunity for happy accidents, or just letting the records speak. They become part of the narrative, and it’s about how they add to the story. You’re creating a collage.”

He moves on to wax lyrical about Antibalas, and Battle Of The Species, the twelfth track in the DJ Kicks mix. “That to me is another massive classic. When the trombone comes in it’s like an elephant coming into the room! With tunes like that, ever since I received it, it brings back countless memories of seeing them live. Just the heaviness the guys in New York, like the Daptone Collective, Gabe Roth and the old school producers recording stuff on tape, recreating the 1970s but doing it in such a way that is heavy but nice to be able to introduce them in a mix without smoothing out the mad, raw energy. That’s the danger with a mix, in your rush to make everything seamless you can work against the dynamics of the music. You have to have an ear for what those tunes do. Many of these tunes I’ve played 150 times in a club, you know, so that wasn’t going to be an issue.”

There was an upside to wrangling over copyrights and permission. “The licensing provided some opportunities, because you might get to a certain point in the mix where you have to wait a week or two for things to come back, and you can listen to it from a less technical point of view. It’s good fun, and for me the challenge was trying to combine hard electronics and free, life affirming, organic music in a way that didn’t feel incongruous. Sometimes when you’re overlaying stuff you can lose the up and down dynamic, so it has to be more side to side or push and pull. The joy of playing with these different dynamics is mind boggling at times, the creativity that is inherently possible in mixing. It doesn’t detract from the narrative, and you can almost create a completely new tune! I never lose the joy in that creation of hearing two things that go really well together, whether they are from the same genre or not. In the early 90s I used to mix reggae over techno because the tempos went together – say 140 or 70bpm. There are so many different combinations, and they are unlikely but if you trace them 30 years back you can the genres lived next door to each other. For me though it’s the oddball records, the unclassifiable mutants, hopping and skipping around – they are the real heart and soul of the DJ sets. They really do help get you from A to B!”

These tunes fit in with Andy’s principal philosophy. “What I’m trying to do is connect with the feelings I get when I listen to something new for the first time, then try and pass it on to other people. You’ve got to at least awaken curiosity and excitement in people, and constantly look at it from different angles.”

The beauty of this – from my own point as a listener – is encountering new discoveries such as Andy Ash’s Ease Yourself. “Andy is a producer from Liverpool”, Carthy recounts, “and he sent me a CD of this tune about 15 years ago. From quite a mysterious sort of hazy drum and flute thing, it’s very effective, and I found that getting from something that was percussive and jazzy to some house stuff, it was the perfect transition record. Also in itself, in a dark club, it’s pretty intense. For some reason I remembered that tune, and it’s never been released. For two or three years I played that at every gig, and luckily I found the CD and it still works! He’s great, and a lot of his stuff is house tunes that sample the jazzy end of late 1970s soul. It’s a really nice thing, and that’s happened a few times. The Drymbago tune Chupacabra, they grew out of a regular night we had been running at Bangor University for over ten years. Bangor’s not the first place you think of for an appreciation of African and Caribbean music, but I love these incongruous situations where a whole scene can spring out of a small group of people’s love and obsession about certain kinds of music. This country is full of little scenes like that. It’s another of those brilliant head scratching moments!”

What is the ideal length of a Mr Scruff DJ set? “It depends. As much as it’s nice to play all night, it’s also nice to play alongside other people, to keep it free and easy. I’ve done it on my own for 15-20 years, so it’s been nice in the last few to do some back-to-backs. As long as people are versatile you can have a good back-to-back, a musical conversation. I would say 4-6 hours, depending on the venue. With festivals you have to go a bit shorter, but because I’m so used to playing for a long time, three hours feels like a bit of a rush. I love the whole thing of playing for a long time, as you can build a relationship with the people in the venue, set your own scene.”

There are moments of the live experience that Andy finds genuinely odd. “I do find when the support DJ is on people are standing around until the headliner comes on, which I find really weird. I’ll just swan in and everyone’s cheering for me, but these local people who are here week in and week out, who have actually created the whole scene which is the reason I’m here, you’re not giving them any love or attention. That’s a bit of a disconnect in club culture because of their reliance on headliners, but it’s also down to promoters and the way they curate their nights. If you start relying on headliners you’re going to attract a crowd who have this expectation. People are setting the bar too high and spoiling their own enjoyment, saying, ‘I can’t enjoy this music unless it’s played by someone who is sufficiently well known’. Sometimes I’m queuing up a record that they’ve played, and then suddenly people are getting into it. I’ve not started yet, but you’re dancing, because you think I’m DJing! It’s really weird, and at that point I’ll grab a microphone and give this person some respect. You can’t stand still for them and dance to me!” That said, there are so many community-based nights where that isn’t a problem. That might be remedied in the current climate where you can’t have these massive events.”

We move on to discuss the impact of the pandemic had on Andy’s personal life. “I spend so much time with people and loud music, so I’ve not felt a mad urge to replace my personal life with a screen. That’s been quite nice, getting outside and chatting to people I happen to bump into in the park. I’m in the luxury of not having to worry about my venue or festival, so it is an opportunity to rethink – where my money’s going, where I shop, who I’m banking with. One thing that hasn’t really been a big debate is why are these viruses happening? We need to behave a bit more as a species, aside from votes and that kind of thing. You think, what can I do in my everyday life to improve relations with me and the people around me, and make sure that I’m not inadvertently treating people bad by virtue of the companies that I’m supporting with my money. In a barrage of information where e-mails are flying at you like the credits from Star Wars, it’s kind of nice to take stock for a bit. Most of us are like rabbits in the headlights most of the time!”

Mr Scruff’s contribution to the DJ Kicks series is on !K7, and can be purchased from their website here

Let’s Dance – Detroit Love 4 mixed by Mirko Loko (Detroit Love / !K7)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Carl Craig’s Detroit Love mix series moves onto a fourth instalment under the watchful eye of Mirko Loko, who Craig recruited for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival back in 2001. With such a longstanding attachment to the city and its techno heritage, the Swiss DJ is a natural choice and takes the chance to say thank you to Detroit and its cultural legacy. He does so in the form of a 22-track mix including homegrown talent but also casting an eye further afield to show off the influence of the city.

What’s the music like?

This is a really fine set, mixed with impressive fluidity by Mirko Loko. From the start he creates a good deal of space, Fred P’s Vision In Osaka setting the scene beautifully before Loko’s own excellent Detroit Love Mix of It’s Like, with persuasive vocals from Ursula Rucker. As the mix proceeds Loko moves between quite minimal tracks and bigger, expansive moments like Chaos In The CBD’s Comfort Zone, or the blissful Aos Si of Takuya Yamashita.

However the real high point comes with Derrick May’s appearance on Loko’s Mentors Heritage, a mix made especially for the compilation. The booming voice and percussion are an ideal match, especially when segueing into the bare bones of the piano in Laurent Garnier’s mix of Gilb’R’s Pressure.

From then the mix rolls on, taking in the propulsive Madness of Temo Howard before an excellent finish from Mirko Loko and Stacey Pullen with Tronic Illusion – another exclusive mix – and Lady B’s Cruising Around Motor City.

Does it all work?

It does indeed. Well paced, structured and full of subtly euphoric moments uniting past and present in an effortless blend.

Is it recommended?

Yes – a very strong addition to what is proving to be an extremely collectable series.

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Let’s Dance – Róisín Murphy: Róisín Machine (Skint / BMG)

Róisín MurphyRóisín Machine (Skint / BMG)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

A new Róisín Murphy album is always a cause for celebration – whether it has been with her band Moloko or, in more recent times, a solo record in collaboration with a number of electronic music luminaries. This time around Róisín Machine, her first long player in four years, sees her working once again with Crooked Man aka Richard Barratt.

As if the new album was not enough Murphy has been busy making visual complements to the music under lockdown.

What’s the music like?

It is difficult to imagine a more stylish artist than Róisín Murphy. Even with Moloko it felt like her expressiveness matched the music in an effortless way, which made the finished result even more stylish and cool. Little has changed under her own name, though if anything the music is more dance based and the vocals even more meaningful.

Róisín Machine tells a story, threaded beautifully from start to finish, and as a result it works best when heard in a complete span. There are many telling lyrics, but the opening gambit, “I feel my story’s still untold, but I make my own happy ending”, sets the scene perfectly, after which Murphy and Barratt concoct a persuasive, loping groove.

Questions are asked as the album progresses. Kingdom Of Ends finds the singer “waking up every morning, thinking what the hell am I doing?”, while even during the cool chic of Shellfish Madamoiselle, with its bumpy beats and warm synthesizers, she feels that “I shouldn’t be dancing at a time like this”.

Difficult, though, when the music is so persuasive. The groove and vocal of Something More are a perfect match, the stylish slow disco-house brilliantly done. The same, too, goes for the effortless groove of Incapable. For the last two tracks, Narcissus and Jealousy, the tempo quickens and the pulse rate too, Róisín more obviously on the dancefloor.

The most compelling stories are told in Murphy’s Law, however, where she sings of how “I’d rather be alone than making do and mending”, but finds her instincts are pulling her in different directions.

Does it all work?

Yes – either as a single whole or as individual tracks, Róisín Machine is brilliantly worked through. The singer sounds completely at home, but at the same time there are thought provoking lyrics and feet-provoking grooves.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. This is an album that embodies the saying ‘Style never goes out of fashion’. Róisín Murphy remains one of our finest vocalists, and like a fine wine is just continuing to improve with age. Richard Barratt proves the ideal match in the production department, and together the two have made one of the best pop albums of the year.

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Let’s Dance – The Beloved: Happiness (Special Edition) (New State Entertainment)

The BelovedHappiness (Special Edition) (New State Entertainment)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Music can make you feel old sometimes. With the recent trend for deluxe reissues of older albums that is happening on an increasingly regular basis for this particular writer! However in the case of The Beloved, initial horror at their standout album Happiness reaching 30 years of age is replaced by the pleasure of a chance to listen to it again – now in the company of a number of exclusives.

The album has been remastered and reissued with its distinctive and attractive artwork, very much of its time but also falling in nicely alongside the misty-eyed memories people have been creating of Ibiza recently. After the Heritage Orchestra’s Ibiza Classics tour and the White Lines series on Netflix, the reissue of Happiness is timely – and it’s tempting to say it’s a shot in the arm for us late in the summer.

What’s the music like?

Inevitably Happiness sounds dated now, but when you hear it alongside the more clinical Ibiza sounds of the current year its analogue charm is only amplified. There is a strong, positive thread running through the album too which is enormously helpful in these times. Songs like Hello, Don’t You Worry, The Sun Rising and I Love You More all hit the ears sunny side up, with Jon Marsh’s husky vocals enjoying the Balearic climate.

The Sun Rising continues to stand as one of the very finest tunes from the early 1990s, its blissful piano-led house music fit for any dawn-themed chillout set. The knowledge that it was written while the sun rose over Nunhead only increases its likability, totally suited to everyday phenomena. The roll call of Hello is always fun but also meaningful, trying to picture all the different people Marsh name checks and also identifying how they match up. It’s a great set of soundbites.

The extra material offers a great deal of context, especially with the accompaniment of the booklet notes, where Marsh confirms that he and Steve Waddington were ‘doing our own thing. Absolute musical freedom.” That much is confirmed by Acid Love, Sally and Jackie (Won’t You Please Come Home?), all of which are footloose and euphoric if occasionally on the ragged side. The influence of New Order is put to good use on these songs in particular.

 

 

Does it all work?

Mostly. There are a couple of more obvious album tracks towards the album’s close, and some show their age a little more readily, but this is still a very strong set of songs suitable both for the singles chart and for the centre of a dancefloor. The Beloved really hit a rich vein of form around this time, and it’s great to be reminded of the artwork that complements it so well. They really were in touch with Ibiza clubbers at the time.

Is it recommended?

Yes. With lockdown, quarantine and external pressures creating anxiety like never before, the reappearance of Happiness provides just the sort of escape its listeners will be looking for, along with the simple assurance that maybe things will be alright after all. When you listen to any of the singles on here, The Beloved make you feel that could indeed be the case!

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Let’s Dance – Various Artists: The Ladies of Too Slow To Disco Vol.2 (How Do You Are?)

Various Artists – The Ladies of Too Slow To Disco Vol.2 (How Do You Are?)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

First, an explanation. If you are understandably wondering how something called Too Slow To Disco is put under the ‘Let’s Dance’ banner, then let me try to justify! For six years now, DJ Supermarkt has been making annual compilations of West Coast pop music, mostly from the 1970s, under the Too Slow To Disco label. In doing so he has anticipated the revival of so-called ‘yacht rock’, assembling a mixture of well-known and little-known names under the banner.

The compilations are well-planned and are on the slow side…but they could definitely be experienced in a club environment, or by the pool – hence their inclusion under Let’s Dance. And let’s face it, this is very high quality, song-based chill out music.

What’s the music like?

The first Ladies of Too Slow To Disco gained a lot of interest, with a Guardian piece exploring where some of its singers are now, and the second hits the same sweet spot. The songs are drawn from 1974-1982, and on this volume DJ Supermarkt looks to strike out further in the directions of soul, gospel and jazz.

The journey is a successful one, on the way enjoying the very smooth grooves of Marti Caine‘s Love The Way You Love Me, which if anything is ‘out-slinked’ by Diane Tell‘s Mon Ami-E. Linda Tillery sings beautifully of how she would ‘like to get to know you in a special kind of womanly way’, while Martee Lebous raises positive thoughts on the rather lovely For David. Lulu makes an appearance too, with the slow but very smooth funk of I Love To Boogie.

Each of these songs tells a story, and most of them have accomplished arrangements, such as the subtle brass colouring applied to Nicolette Larson‘s Baby, Don’t You Do It, while there is a good deal of funk around too – the best saved for the star of the show, Elkie BrooksThe Rising Cost Of Love.

Does it all work?

Yes. Anyone following this series will know the amount of work that goes in to digging out the tracks, but arranging them in the most coherent order is also a skill that DJ Supermarkt has in abundance. Not a hair is out of place here!

Is it recommended?

Yes. For breeezy sounds in the heat of the summer Too Slow To Disco has prove to be a series that is hard to equal, and for poolside holiday listening it has no equal. The ladies on this instalment fit seamlessly into an increasingly long list of excellent (and educational) compilations!

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