There are few producers who made their mark in the first flush of house still working today, but Lee is among them. He has continued to thrive and change in a climate clouded in uncertainties and, somehow, has always managed to pull of the tricky balancing act of underground don and pop maven. We asked him about his career, the various scams he's pulled and how to make a hit.
Do you regard yourself firstly as a DJ or a producer?
Firstly I suppose I would say record collector because that’s what I am. I started off as a record collector and a record collector often wants to DJ, as we discussed before, and also wants to make music. I’m a music enthusiast. But out of those two, I’d probably say a DJ but after DJing for a while everyone calls themselves a DJ. It’s not that difficult in lots of ways… I’ll have gigs where I’m pretty good and other gigs where I’ll be crap. Sometimes it’s the crowd and sometimes it’s…. Nah, t’s always the crowd, they’re arseholes.
Do you know what I mean? It’s everything: it’s the mood you’re in, it’s the records that are out at that given time, what’s going through your head when you’re DJing; if the equipment’s working properly and also if you’ve got some idiot going, “Mate, play it harder” in front of you. All those things do contribute to what sort of set you play. But everything I do stems from my love of buying records and also liking music and wanting to create music but also most of the musos I know aren’t record collectors. There definitely seems to be either a record collector or a muso. There’s not really many of the guys I know, the keyboard players or whatever.
What do you get the biggest buzz from in what you do – what’s the biggest thrill?
It’s a different sort of thing. I was DJing in Amsterdam last weekend and you’re in a big venue with a couple of thousand people, and playing pretty decent music. It’s a buzz, there’s no doubt about it. And you think, “Hmm, what are the other people from my class at school doing tonight?” There are a lot of people who’d think, “God, you’re a lucky bastard.” But it’s also a boring thing as well. All the travelling and all that sort of stuff so it’s not like it’s just the good bit. No pain no gain.
It’s also a great buzz when something’s going well in the studio and you’re mixing something that’s sounding good. Or maybe when you’re in the early stages of co-writing a song or a melody with a singer or maybe putting down live strings. But then, when something’s not happening in the studio it’s fucking depressing and annoying: “What’s wrong with this?” You know the bassline is good, the drum beat sounds OK (you know you’ve used that drum beat on something else and it was fine), so why is it somehow not gelling? But that’s part of the process of making music.
I often look back upon things and think well some of them, the better records have taken less time than the average record that has taken much longer ’cos you’re trying to make them something that they’re not. It’s the mystery of music. Why is something average? You can go through the component parts and they’re all alright, but somehow they make up less than the other parts and that’s why the magic on a great record is somehow more than its different parts.
Were you surprised ‘American Dream’ was a hit?
I thought it was when I did it and I was just pleased it was. It was one of those ones I’d had quite a lot of feedback over a long period of saying they really liked it but you can have that and nothing happens. But it’s amazing how you’re often just worried about how to follow it up. There’s so many things happening at the time, there’s not that much time to actually enjoy it. You’re always worried about the next thing.
Didn’t one of your hits, start out as the theme to Ibiza Uncovered?
Yeah it did. Well, a bit of ‘Gotta Keep Pushin’’ was used, so I went back in the studio and re-did it. I got Taka Boom in to do a new vocal and we re-released it under the name ‘Must Be The Music’. It came out on Incentive in the UK. Erick Morillo licensed it for Subliminal in the States.
Do you always know when you’ve made a hit?
Almost always. But I think generally you think it’s better than it is. When you’re doing it, you think it’s amazing for a bit and then you start thinking it’s not so amazing and then you start picking holes in it. There have been times I thought I’ve made a hit and I’ve been wrong But then there have been others where I’ve sat on them for a while got a bit bored and was surprised they did well – like ‘Garden of Love’ – where I didn’t think was anything great when I did it.
How easy is it to have a hit?
Unless you’re lucky it’s very difficult. If your record’s on an advert then it’s pretty easy. Say that Room Five the Oliver Cheetham cut up cos it was on that advert – something like that makes a big big difference but I think to actually make a hit – a lot of it nowadays is about having the major label machine behind you. And I’ve never really had the machine behind me until I’ve actually made the hit but I think if you’ve got the machine behind you then I daresay it’s a completely different ball game. So if you’re someone who’s managed by the same company as Peter Andre and they make a video for you and you know they’ve got the same radio plugger as they used on the last Rihanna single, it is different.
Do you fiddle with your productions after you’ve played them out?
Constantly. Sometimes you think it gets to the vocals a bit to quickly or the arrangement changes or the bass drum’s not cutting through. There are so many things that it could be. The best balance I think I’ve ever got on records is when I’ve listened to them on as many sound systems as possible. You know and then you maybe hear it in a hotel, a crappy thing in a hotel and you think, “Oh you can’t hear the Rhodes here, lets just turn it up.”
When you reflect on your life so far what’s the best thing you’ve done?
I suppose one of the best things that I’ve done is keep going for a long time. So I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been doing it for a while because there’s not that many people who were making records in 1988 who are still making music now. There are also bodies of work I’m proud of like the Sunburst Band. An album’s a lot different to making a single – especially when you’re the label, the A&R, the producer and everything, you’ve got no-one to take it to and say, ‘What do you think of this?’
How do you make music? What’s the process?
It depends on the song, you know I suppose everyone has to have a starting point and you might have a starting point that can be completely different for one track. I might have a title idea, another time it might be based around a sample; something else might be just trying to think of recent tracks I’ve done and how they’ve started…
‘Beyond the Dance’?
Well that’s a sample of Krystol’s ‘After The Dance Is Through’. But I suppose, if I’m honest, that was slightly inspired by some of those tracks by Floating Points and things like that where they’ve taken an ’80s track and done something a little bit more techy. I think it’s a lot easier for something to sound original if it’s not at 125bpm. You know if it was 125 it would just sound like a lot of other records whereas when you do something a little bit slower it’s a bit easier.
That’s become more prevalent recently – it’s a lot easier to play a whole set of new electronic music that’s around 114 bpm which was impossible 15 years ago.
I still think there are not that many places doing that outside bar pre-clubs and small parties. There are more now than there were 10 years ago definitely but I still don’t think there’s much like that in most of the big clubs in the world.
Oh yeah I’m sure most of the big clubs are not playing that but how would ‘Beyond The Dance’’s chances get affected in the market by being slow?
Sells worse. I think slow stuff doesn’t sell as well as fast stuff. Simple as that. On vinyl it sells pretty well. If you looked at the Beatport top 100, I don’t think there’d be much in there below 120bpm. With Beatport it’s very transparent what sells. So it’s not like the top ten in Black Market 10 years ago. You didn’t really take that as gospel but now what’s in the top ten at Beatport – that’s where you’re aiming to get and a lot of that stuff isn’t great in my opinion. Not that I’ve got a problem with it but it’s a lot of cover versions, lots of rehashes. If you do a rehash of ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This’ in an electro house style it will probably do OK.
It’s always been a bit like that though hasn’t it? 10-15 years ago a lot of the successful tracks were quite cheesy and crap
Yes I would say there’s always been a lot of cheese. But I think there’ve been small windows where more – not necessarily underground – but less cheesy records have crossed over; maybe even when house first arrived in ’86…
Well early ’90s and late ’80s?
Yeah and I think maybe we could even go back to the early ’80s when we had things like Mystic Merlin and Azymuth’s ‘Jazz Carnival’ hitting the top 20. These records were probably only singles in the UK. The records were just album tracks which became popular here and then were released as singles. But back to the point I just think slower stuff just doesn’t sell and you get less compilation album licenses. What we get a lot of compilation licenses for as a label is the more cheesy big room house. That’s what – and I say cheesy and I mean something like the David Penn remix of ‘Can’t Get High Without You’ or Nicola Fasano remix of ‘Must Be The Music’. But then something like the Henrik Schwarz one did pretty well, so it’s obviously down to how good the remix is and not just the name.
What format do you use when you DJ now?
I still use CD but only because I haven’t really had the time to switch over to Serato or another laptop type thing.
So would you do or are you planning to?
I’m planning to yes. For several reasons. Firstly because I think it would be a lot easier to be organised. I like the idea of putting a crate together for a night and thinking, “Right OK this party’s going to be a little bit like… I’d have thought maybe that thing I did 3 or 4 weeks ago so let me have a look at what I played then.” Then I could add in some new stuff, maybe with a few old records I wanna play or maybe last time I was there I played something that went down well so I could add it all into it. I also like the idea of it obviously space-wise for when you're travelling. But there are some negatives about it. It makes DJing look more boring there’s no doubt about it – and it doesn’t look that interesting with CDs or even with records. I do think it’s important to try and create some excitement and look like you’re doing something.
Is there a record that always stays in your box?
I’d say MFSB’s ‘K-Gee’ is a record I play at a lot of gigs. There are some records where I groan when I hear them now but I’ve never personally got sick of that one. I’ve edited it a little bit so it’s got more of an intro drop and then the intro drop comes back in again halfway through. But it’s always one that gets a reaction. Well it doesn’t always get a reaction, but if it doesn’t then you’re in trouble!
OK, let’s go back a bit. Where did you grow up?
Well, I was born on the Isle of Wight, but my parents moved to a little village outside clacton called Thorpe-Le-Soken when I was a baby, so I grew up in Essex. My parents are actually from Liverpool originally. My mum is Maureen Lee, the novelist, who has written a lot of books set in set there.
So you’re not from a musical family then?
Not particularly no, but I just developed an interest in the usual ways, watching Top Of The Pops and so on. Played a guitar and sang in a band in my teens, but I suppose the thing that changed was starting to collect records as a teenager. I was buying mainly soul and funk and other forms of black music and it was through a record collecting mate, I started working at a record shop in London called Smithers & Leigh in 1986. I worked in the Marble Arch shop, which lasted less than two years but it was a great time to be working in a record shop because so much was changing, hip hop and house was starting to become quite dominant and obviously rare groove was massive in London then.
What did you do after that closed then?
I got a job at Rough Trade Distribution. At that time they were mainly doing rock music, but they'd done a deal with Mute and as part of that, they had this new label Rhythm King and they needed a dance music specialist to deal with that side of things, which was me basically. I set up the Demix Dance Division and pretty quickly we were dealing with other labels and having hits with Beatmasters, M/A/R/R/S and Bomb The Bass. About a year later I set up Republic jointly with Rough Trade, which obviously became known for the US garage sound through the compilations we started doing (The Garage Sound Of Deepest New York). Republic is also where I started putting out my own early productions.
How did you discover house music?
House music or dance music? I suppose initially through records on television on like Swap Shop, then I heard things on Top Of The Pops, like Jacksons’ ‘Blame It On The Boogie’ and from that hearing more obscure ones on stations like Radio Luxemburg. A couple of years after that I started going to clubs which played specifically that sort of music and even then I didn’t do that that often. I was more into radio and buying the records. I suppose house music I heard through the same channels, radio shows and people like Robbie Vincent and Jeff Young.
What was it that made you want to produce house records rather than DJ first of all?
I always wanted to do both. I always wanted to DJ and I always wanted to make records. I think anyone who collects records wants to DJ to a degree – anyone who’s obsessively buying those records would want to inflict their taste on other people be it in a club or on the radio or do friends mix tapes. Originally I was in a little band with my brother. I always wanted to make music and I always had ideas for basslines and drum beats or songs or types of tracks to make throughout the ’80s. It wasn’t until house first came along that I thought, “OK now I can do it,” whereas before then I never thought I could actually make anything that was releasable. But when I heard ‘Jack Your Body’ and ‘House Nation’ I thought I can make this. And now with things like Sunburst Band I’m making the records which I didn’t think I could make when I liked Earth Wind and Fire.
What was the first record you released. Was it one of the ones you did with Mark Ryder?
Yeah MDM’s ‘Get Busy’. It was with Mark Ryder and another guy called Mike Cheal whose studio it was. Mike was a guy I went to school with – he was more a friend of a friend rather than a direct friend. He was into Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath nothing that I was ever into musically but I played him some early house and said about having a crack and he was up for it. Most of the stuff from that period was me and him and Mark Ryder. He was very involved in MDM’s ‘Get Busy’ which was the first one and he did all the scratching. I must admit when it came out I thought it was pretty shit – if you ask me one of the records I’m proud of that’s not one of them! But it did come out and it did OK. It got in the disco chart and I used to look at that disco chart throughout the ’80s and to have a record at number 18 out of 20 was like, “God, that’s amazing.”
Why was it important to have it out? From a confidence point of view?
Yes definitely confidence. I think that getting it out and seeing that people did actually go out and buy it and were playing it and hearing it on the radio does boost your confidence, it’s amazing! You know, other people ask me for advice and I mean it’s easier said than done getting something out there but I still think even if it’s just on a digital only label and it’s up on Beatport for sale and a few people buy it it’s better than it just sitting in your computer. So I think it’s better to get it out there. You know if it’s terrible.
What was the first record that made an impact – was it the Raven Maize or Joey Negro?
And that came out on Quark?
Quark yeah. I was licensing quite a lot of stuff on Republic from labels like Quark and Nu Groove and just being a trainspotter and record collector I just thought I know records on those labels have got a bit of an advantage over a record on a British label. I thought why not take advantage of that and also it allows you to make up a story behind it. Plus the Raven Maize record sampled Exodus’ ‘Together Forever’ which I always thought was a New Yorky sounding disco track so I thought it would be perceived slightly differently coming out on Quark than it would do on Republic. And it did – it worked and I had an album by the Reflections which had some guys with afros and mirror sunglasses so we scanned it in and we put a New York backdrop. Then we made up a story about the guy being an ex-convict and playing in a steel band in Disneyland. You know it’s fun to see people writing it – we were making it up three weeks ago now I’m reading it in Record Mirror or DJ. So it’s cool, it’s nice to do those sorts of things; it’s a laugh. Then the one on Nu Groove was less of a concept behind that really other than it was just the first song I’d done on my own and but nobody knew the Raven Maize was us for ages so I didn’t really get any more work out of it.
We kept it completely secret and by the time we told people the record had come and gone so everyone was like, “Oh really yeah right ok.” Raven Maize was a more popular record but then it was ‘Do What You Feel’ [by Joey Negro] was the one which really established me
How did the Joey Negro deal come about on Virgin?
Just because the record was selling well and back then the majors were picking up a lot of dance music. Anyway, I did ‘Do What You Feel’ and then for some reason it took me bloody forever to release it but I gave it to Paul Anderson who cut himself an acetate and he really really hammered it so by the time it came out six months later there was a big demand for it. There was quite a big buzz on it so it came out and it was doing reasonably well and then I got an offer from a few people who wanted to license it. I can’t remember who the other ones were but Virgin actually wanted to do an album so that’s why I went with Virgin.
Which didn’t come out that well really…
Well I was very naïve, I needed a manager. In retrospect I went about the whole thing wrongly. Firstly, I just didn’t know how to make an album and they didn’t really show me how to do it and I didn’t have a manager. So I’d made a few tracks but I didn’t really have a singer who I was really working with. Well, there was Debbie French who sang on ‘Do What You Feel’… But I don’t know how to diplomatically put it…!
Ha ha ha ha
I actually quite like her as a person but she can be an absolute nightmare. Shortly after ‘Do What You Feel’ she ran up a £800 bill on Virgin’s cab company so they didn’t want me to use her any more. It just took me forever to do it and I was just spending my time writing in the studio when I needed to deliver an album really quickly to them. Plus I was probably getting asked all the time to do remixes and I was probably still taking them on which I shouldn’t have been doing. The released album did OK… Actually it didn’t do that well at all ha ha ha. [Laughs] It was just too late, you know. It’s a shame cos ‘Oh What A Life’ could have done OK.
The Gibson brothers tune?
Yeah and the Gwen Guthrie one but they’d lost their enthusiasm for the project by the time the album got delivered.
Isn’t it easier now in the position you’re in now to just do a project and then shop it to bigger labels?
Often the way things happen is like with Jakatta. ‘American Dream’ ended up being big so that’s how I got the deal. I don’t know how interested labels would be without a big track. They’re a lot more interested in and they’d definitely pay you a lot more money if something’s out there already doing well. So you’ve got to make it happen yourself in someway. I don’t think there are that many A&R men who totally totally base their decision on the music. An average track with a big buzz on it or something that’s great but has absolutely no buzz on it whatsoever? The average one with the buzz is easier to stick out and know that they’re going to get their money back.
Tell me the Hed Boys story.
Me and Andrew Livingstone had just bought Unit 3 Studios and the first week we were there we were waiting for the parts for a remix or something and we thought we’d have a go at making a Cleveland City type track. Cleveland City was very popular then and that was the sort of stuff that was number two and five in the Buzz Chart. The equivalent of Toolroom now, I suppose. I bought that Jesse Velez record in Reckless a year earlier and I thought it had a quite quirky sound on it and I remember sampling that and Andrew and I sampled that other thing that we were never cleared on so I won’t mention that [laughs].
Anyway we were doing it with an engineer called John O’Donnell and he didn’t really know the desk very well and it came out sounding quite different from what we’d done before and I suppose the other thing it was influenced by was X-Press 2, the records with the big snares and the long drops. We did it and thought let’s let people think that this is somebody new ’cos people are excited about a new producer and a new label. It’s human nature. So we pressed it up on this label Seka Records which was completely red and shrink wrapped and it started doing well straight away. We really went to a lot of trouble not to let anybody know it was us and I remember a friend of mine Dominic was delivering the records to Amato. We communicated with them via fax. We never spoke to them. We started getting people faxing us. There was a guy from Emotive who was interested and I remember Azuli and then Pete Tong played the record and it pretty quickly became quite a popular record.
Then we started getting more and more major labels interested – Manifesto, Urban etc – and Deconstruction came up late but had the biggest offer. Andrew had a meeting with James Barton from Deconstruction wearing a wig. I knew a couple of people in Deconstruction so I couldn’t go.
So I was speaking to James Barton and I put on a rough voice like that (does Frank Butcher impression), “I’m looking after my friend’s baby so I can’t come out today mate,” or it would be, “I’m working in the parks today mate, I can’t get over to the meeting but my partner’s going to go.” We carried this on for quite a long time with other Seka Records. I had a meeting with a guy from Ministry pretending to be Egg. My name was Egg on all the faxes, and I used to just draw an egg and sign it ‘Egg’. We released this Bi-Boy Action Squad which was a Matt Darey record and Matt came over for a meeting and he really wanted to meet Egg and I was trying to put on a different voice and by the end of the meeting he realised I was Egg [laughs]. Eventually we got rumbled and then Decon said they knew it was us all the time but I don’t think they did.
What’s your favourite remix?
I guess I like things like Simphonia’s ‘Can’t Get Over Your Love’ and Reese Project’s ‘Direct Me’ from back in the old days. I thought they were two of the best remixes I did cos they’re completely different from the originals. Also, I think the Simphonia was the remix that really got me noticed so I started to get a lot of work as a result of that (it was also the first thing we did at Unit 3). I’m pleased with my remix of ‘Love Hangover’ but I would still say it’s pretty similar to the original. So in some ways you get a bit more of a satisfaction out of turning something on its head. But you only want to do that if that’s what’s needed. If there isn’t a definitive mix of the original, I get asked to touch up the original mix because that’s what they want.
Why do you still put out specialist compilations like Back Street Britfunk? What’s the motivation behind it?
I did question myself what the motivation of that particular one was because it was a bloody nightmare just tracking the people down. I guess cos a lot of the songs on there are white labels and didn’t get a proper release and it’s 30 years ago. But that one was quite personal to me and I didn’t think there’d been a compilation of that sort of genre, I mean at the time I guess there was the one on Soul Brother recently. I think it was called the British Hustle. But it still had quite a few of the obvious tracks but I guess I just thought there was a good compilation there. And I think there are a few reasons for doing it. One is that it’s a satisfying thing to do, when you actually get to the end of it. It can be quite frustrating; that took ages to get the right sleeve, it just somehow seemed to be a real ball-ache from beginning to end and some tracks you want to put on there and you can’t the people won’t license it to you or they want too much money for it. You’re trying to say,”Look this is a really obscure 30 year-old track and you want more than a big contemporary song?”
The Universal Records syndrome?
Not even, this was some small independent label. But I guess I just like doing it and you can still do OK with a CD. It’s not like I expect to make a lot of money out of it but hopefully we’ll make money and a CD is a catalogue item that will hopefully sell over a decent amount of time and all that crap that we convince ourselves of. A lot of Brit-funk is pretty shit and badly produced sub-Shakatak but there was some good stuff too, enough for me to put out two CDs-worth and make people realise there were more than just Hi-Tension and Freeez.
What do you hope you’ll be doing in 10 years time?
I often think that, I do wonder, “What will I be doing?” I really don’t know – living somewhere a bit warmer maybe? I wouldn’t mind moving somewhere else. I hope I’m still making music. People ask me, “Do you still want to be DJing when you’re 60?” I’d rather be DJing than a lot of things!
© DJhistory.com 2011. Interviewed by Bill Brewster in north London, 13th April, 2010.