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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Switched On – Pop Ambient 2020 (Kompakt)

What’s the story?

Wolfgang Voigt has every right to be proud as one of the flagship series of the Kompakt label, Pop Ambient, reaches its 20th edition. Cologne’s finest label refuses to rest on its laurels, mind, delivering a set of old and new music, best enjoyed horizontally.

What’s the music like?

Blissful. Kompakt have not been doing this sort of compilation for 20 years without reward – they know the quick routes to peace of body and mind, as made possible in music.

There is a pleasing mix of familiar and relatively new names here. In the former camp sit Thomas Fehlmann and the bubbling textures of Liebesperlen, Raumschmiere‘s brooding Notre-Dame and two Andrew Thomas contributions, Song 9 and Sleep Fall.

Into the latter group come the easy paced guitar instrumental from Urquell, who also contributes Alles Bleibt Anders. On a similar plain is Gen Pop‘s Iron Woman and early Kompakt contributor Klimek‘s All The Little Horses, though the same producer’s Requiem For A Butterfly offers darker, widescreen strings. For even deeper ambience Yui Onodera offers the incredibly calming Cromo 4, while Joachim Spieth is even more immersive on Meteor.

The ambience deepens still further through the thick, soothing blanket of Markus Guentner‘s Clade.

Does it all work?

Yes. The ebb and flow of the tracks is ideally judged, and the high ratio of exclusives and new tracks make the 20th edition of this series as collectable as ever.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. Pop Ambient has a reassuringly regular place in the calendar of down tempo music, and this is it’s best collection for some time. On a personal level, with the world experiencing such stress and change at present, this is just the sort of music required to counteract it!

Stream and Buy (from November 29)

Switched On – Detroit Love 3 mixed by Wajeed (Detroit Love / !K7)

What’s the story?

Carl Craig is building up some healthy momentum with his Detroit Love mix series. With Stacey Pullen and Craig himself having delivered techno-rich instalments, attention turns to Slum Village co-founder and Dirt Tech Reck label head Wajeed.

His is a very personal take on the city’s music, having grown up with its soul and hip hop, not to mention the rich house and techno tradition to which he has more recently moved. He describes his contribution as a selection of tracks ‘from a small group of my favourite contemporaries from Detroit and abroad’.

What’s the music like?

Pretty bouncy – at least from the start. Wajeed fires the starting gun with a couple of mid-tempo tracks with a spring in their step, 14KT’s We Out Chea and BlackloopsHigher.

Wajeed’s references to hip hop and jazz are subtle but lasting, making themselves known in Tall Black Guy’s Coffee Room before the mix heads for deeper territory with Patrice Scott and the cool vibes of The Detroit Upright.

With the mix settling into its groove quickly this is an ideal way into the evening, whether staying in or going out. If it’s the latter you will definitely benefit from Rocco Rodamaal’s Someday, a gospel-tinged number reworked by Brian Tappert rework, and from the rolling drums of Ninetoes’ Stand Up.

The sound perspective widens for D-Love Music’s Celestrial, a warm-hearted addition with its big brush strokes of spacey synths, which leads into Damon Bell’s Mermaid Blues, with persuasive vocal contribution from Camille Syfia. Roddy Rod’s Overbite has a strong bit of piano work and Matthew Law’s Minimariddim a good instinctive feel, stripping the textures back.

The bounce is back for Joss Moog’s persuasive 196, before the drums roll more for Teflon DonsGonna Tell Me. LADYMONIX gets some really good warehouse-style percussion for WhoRU, leading to the chopped up vocal of Harry Romero’s Revolution.
DJ Rimarkable’s I’m In Trouble has an excellent vocal, one of the stand-outs of the mix, and this paves the way for a closing duo of Lux’s groove The Set Up and Preslav & C. Scott with warm grooves to finish on Achey Breaky.

Does it all work?

Yes. Although Detroit Love is likely to be labelled as a techno series Wajeed proves there is going to be much more to it than that, with a commendable willingness to bring in the city’s other important forms of music commendable and definitely suited for the long term.

Is it recommended?

Yes. It will be interesting to see where Detroit Love goes next, for although we’ve had three volumes there are so many more musical back streets to navigate. Even if it heads for techno again there is a huge pool of more than able DJs from which to choose!

Stream and Buy (from November 15)

Switched On – Dominik Eulberg: Mannigfaltig (!K7)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Few musicians can claim to have received an ‘Outstanding Contribution’ award from the UN Decade of Biodiversity.

Yet as you soon find out from the packaging around this release, Dominik Eulberg’s Mannigfaltig is not just any other project.

It is a musical and artistic plea for recognition. Recognition that although we are custodians of some weird and wonderful species here on earth, we might not be for too much longer if things don’t change.

A multi media release, Mannigfaltig (meaning manifold, diverse) combines twelve musical portraits of colourful species with a pack of cards featuring a pair of each of those animals, and an intricate video – another award winner – paying homage to the colourful mayfly on the single Eintagsfliege. The cover art is beautifully realised too, the animal portraits laid out in the shape of a ‘play’ symbol. Eulberg may have been eight years away from the albums game, but he has clearly given his return some thought.

What’s the music like?

Eulberg’s work is of intricate construction but colourful output, rather like the species he portrays.

If you were listening without any knowledge of the album’s subject, you would pick out the opening Eintagsfliege, the Mayfly, as a sublime sunrise moment. Eulberg uses the rich timbre of the lower register of the piano to make a piece of music that stops the listener in their tracks, especially once the clipped beats kick in.

As the album progresses, and Eulberg profiles moths, butterflies, birds and dormice, the little twists and turns make for a really substantial set of tracks. After the beautiful mayfly, Zweibrütiger Scheckenfalter (Meadow Fritillary) has a wavy profile with a glockenspiel at the top end, a tactic Eulberg often employs. Fünffleck-Widderchen (New Forest burnet-moth) plays subtly with the pulse, using some darker shades, while another moth, Sechslinien-Bodeneule, puts its foot down. Siebenschläfer (Dormouse) comes out as a persuasive anthem in waiting, a feel good moment, while Goldene Acht, a pale-clouded yellow butterfly builds its layers to a rich swathe of colour.

As the album moves on the music gets weightier. Neuntöter, a Red-backed shrike, brings out the heavier gear, and then the really substantial Zehnpunkt-Marienkäfer, at 11 minutes, its blissful, warm chords backing another clipped beat glockenspiel, ending in suspension with the delicacy of the chimes.

Does it all work?

Yes, and despite the album’s length it has enough light and shade, fast and slow, to work. The craft behind the music is considerable, but so is the emotion, Eulberg using harmonies that pull gently but insistently at the heartstrings. Throwing in a few genuine anthemic moments at the end with tougher beats completes the deal.

Is it recommended?

Yes – another very fine addition to the Dominik Eulberg discography, Mannigfaltig is his most meaningful album yet, and contains some genuinely memorable music.

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