by Sterling McGarvey
MJ Cole is one of the first big breakouts of the UK Garage scene to cross the Atlantic. He has done remix work for a variety of artists, from Goldie and Roni Size to Jill Scott and De La Soul. In addition, he has had his tracks remixed by the likes of Wookie, Todd Edwards, Jazzanova, and Miguel "Migs." Lunar Magazine had a chance to talk to MJ during his first trip to Atlanta to play. In spite of the fact that he was functioning on a tour schedule that left him with two hours of sleep, he was more than happy to answer our questions!
Lunar: You attended the Royal College of Music before you moved into the arena of dance music. What were some of the deciding factors when you pursued your transition into dance?
MJ: Well, I didn't really have a kind of a transition, really. I used to go to the Royal College of Music's Junior department, between when I was 11 and 18. I'd go to school during the week, and every Saturday, I'd go there. So, really, I never decided "I'm going to stop doing classical music and suddenly start doing dance music," it was more like when I was 13 or 14, I had a computer at home and started making tracks on that but at the same time I was still playing the piano, so they kind of overlapped.
I never really felt like it had to be one over the other, you know; I've always been into both really. I played the piano professionally, I'm still into classical music. It kind of happened gradually, you know, going to clubs on the weekends while attending music college, but still making tracks at home on my Amiga computer. I'd always been doing it in my bedroom, so it happened gradually. I never suddenly thought, "I'm going to be doing just dance music from now on."
Lunar: You used to produce drum n' bass before working your way into Speed Garage and now 2-Step Garage. Who were some of the producers you worked with, and for the cratediggers out there, what tracks were you involved in producing?
MJ: Oh, yeah, the early days? I used to work for Sour Records, there were a few of them, Sour being the main drum n' bass one. Botchit and Scarper was another one that's still running now, that's evolved into a Nu Skool Breaks thing; there was Emotif. Emotif was another one of the early drum n' bass labels that I worked with. I was sort of the in-house engineer there for about three or four years. I started off as a T-Boy, but eventually worked my way up until I was the main engineer.
I worked with lots of different people on all of those different labels like B.L.I.M., who's known for his Breaks now, Freq Nasty, people like T Power, Raw Deal (who's also signed to Talkin' Loud), that's also how I met Elizabeth Troy, through engineering in those days. Loads of people then. I did work with Kym Mazelle then. Trace and Ed Rush were around. I didn't actually do any of their engineering; a lot of people say that I did, but they were around at the same time. They were just working with someone else. There was Elements of Noise, I worked with a few UK Hip-Hop groups, like Black Twang. I don't know if you know about them, since Hip-Hop's so big over here.
Lunar: Yeah, I think the only UK hip-hop I'm really familiar with is London Posse.
MJ: Oh, okay, like Rodney P? Yes, I've worked with him as well. People like Roots Manuva, Black Twang, lots of other people, but it was a good time. I was just engineering, really, so I was like a sponge; I got to soak it all up. It was a good place to spot singers as well. So when the time came to do my thing, it was like "Ah ha, I know who I'm going to ring" because I'd already worked with them before.
Lunar: Which artists can you say have been the greatest influences on you musically?
MJ: I'm real big on individual things more than on general areas. I'm a big Stevie Wonder fan and generally Motown.
Lunar: What's your favorite Stevie Wonder album?
MJ: Hmmm...Songs In the Key of Life. It all mixes. There's classical music; I went through a big jazz phase, and I was always into funk stuff; groups like Tower of Power, with tunes like "What Is Hip," and different kinds of hard '70s funk stuff. Tower of Power had that slushy but funky style going at the same time. I was never really into the slow or softer stuff. There's a soulful, funky side of stuff that's found an influence in my music. But then, there's a lot of the early drum n' bass tracks, and early Prodigy records. A lot of and bits from the production house and early Reinforced records. I would say that a lot of the drum n' bass from the early '90s had a strong influence.
Lunar: Roni Size's newest album is co-distributed by Def Jam in the U.S., but he is also your labelmate on the Talkin' Loud roster. An internet rumor was afloat on a top UK Garage site that Def Jam was distributing "Sincere" in the US.
MJ: Oh, they are.
Lunar: Really? So Def Jam is doing it? I thought it was Island Records doing the U.S. distribution.
MJ: Well, actually, they're combined, so it's Island and Def Jam bringing it out. It's both of them, I think it was a few years ago that they did that. It works out really well, because you've got people who associate with the Def Jam side of it, but then others who associate with the Island side of it. So in a different place, someone will perceive something differently. When I was in Dallas, they picked up on the Island side of the promotion, whereas in New York or back home, Def Jam is the thing they pick up on....
Lunar: What that brings into questioning is: Do you feel that your tracks can (or will) crossover into Black American radio and video Do you feel like your tracks will show up on BET, or do you feel that the overall shunning of dance music by the average American might prevail in the promoting of the album?
MJ: Well, I'm not sure; I'm not really good at that sort of predicting, y'know? And I don't really want to say that "I'm going to come to the U.S. and hit Black America with this" or "I'm gonna go the Dance way," because I don't really know, and I'm still learning about how it all works. The radio system here has a totally different structure, and there's not really a national radio. Plus, you've got R&B and Hip-Hop, which are massive, they're not even part of Dance music. Dance music (in the UK) is like R&B and Hip-Hop over here. Whereas, at home, R&B and Hip-Hop are part of Dance music. So, you've got Pop and then you've got Dance music on the same level of popularity. Dance isn't as commercial as Pop, but it's definitely comparable in terms of popularity. I dunno, it would be nice to crossover into Black Radio, but I'm not Black; I don't think that's a problem; after all, most of my vocalists are, but I mean, I can't just say I'm going to crossover.
Lunar: Yeah, I suppose it's the sound and influences that are very strongly Black.
MJ: Yeah, I'm just here to do my best, and go to the radio and keep on making music. I'm a big believer in my music, I'm not a big strategist in terms of how I'm going to hit a market. I'm a firm believer in letting the music do the walking and the talking for itself. Hopefully, my music will find its place and fit in where it needs to in America.
Lunar: When describing the vibe of UK Garage, American journalists love to compare the parties in Britain to the materialistic, designer-label oriented styles of hip-hop artists, like Puffy and Jay-Z, in the late '90s. What are some of the dissimilarities between the UK Garage scene and the American "jiggy" hip-hop scene?
MJ: Hmmm...I think it's less male-oriented in the scene. Well, I suppose R&B-wise, the female vocalist thing is massive...It's a lifestyle thing in the UK, but not as much as over here. I mean, Hip-Hop is a way of life over here; it's the cars, the clothes, the radio stations, the language, everything, and also, the Hip-Hop scene here is more of a portrait of urban life, about someone's experiences, like growing up in the ghetto and feelings coming off straight up. The Garage thing is more about songs and stuff, generally. So you'll hear a lot more songs about nicer things coming out in UK Garage. And it is about lifestyle, but it's not nowhere near what the Hip-Hop thing is over here. I mean, there are similarities, like the champagne thing. But it's not really like the main artists who do Garage in the UK act in the same way as Puffy or Jay-Z.
Lunar: What is your take on the alleged parallels between genres that have gotten their name in the UK, such as drum n' bass and 2-Step Garage, and the R&B/Hip-Hop tracks produced by Americans such as Timbaland and his many imitators?
MJ: It's very interesting, there's definitely been a sort of cross-fertilization between the UK and the US. Producers are people who have their ears open; that's what it's all about. You're listening and absorbing different styles of music and channeling all of that into your creative output, so I'd say that certainly, that I, personally, I've been listening hard a lot of Timbaland's stuff, and a lot of Rodney Jerkins' stuff, and Missy's albums. He changed up a lot of the R&B sound from the straight snare stuff and started moving it all around. People like that were probably listening to drum n' bass as well. One of the great parts of being a producer is that there is no red tape. I can be in New York in a club one night and be inspired the next day. There is the situation in which a sound takes a few years to cross over and the labels and marketing begin to catch on and all the official stuff goes on, but that doesn't really happen with producers as much. It goes on all over the world with producers, and that is definitely a good thing. I'm really into that kind of inspiration, of listening to other peoples' work and getting really jealous because it's really good and going to the studio to do something back, y'know?
Lunar: How did you end up using Elizabeth Troy as your vocalist? Her presence is very predominant on Sincere.
MJ: Yeah, I met her when I was engineering at Sour, back when I was a T-Boy, and she was doing a session with someone. She'd already had a Top 40 hit with a drum n' bass tune called "Greater Love," that must've been around '94 or something like that. When it came time to do my album, I dialed her up.
Lunar: I'm sure you've heard this one before: You're stranded on a desert island. Food and clothing aside, you only have five albums that you can take with you. Name them.
MJ: Songs in the Key of Life, the first Goldie album for posterity's sake, Aquemini by Outkast that's before they were really famous in the UK, Debussy and Ravel String Quartets recorded by the Borodin String Quartet, and, hmmm....Reggata de Blanc by The Police.
Lunar: Name off five tracks you want to remix someday.
MJ: "Jezebel" by Sade...I'm going to be working on a remix for Dina Carroll soon...let's see...another tune...I dunno, you know, I'm really not that good at naming off the DJs and tunes and stuff. If you asked me about chords and sounds, I can come up with those, no problem.
Lunar: Well, I've noticed a few of your tracks that you've worked on, like when I stumbled across your remix for De La Soul.
MJ: Yes, I've done some work with some American artists, like the Jill Scott remix.
Lunar: Yeah, I work next door to a clothing store and heard it one day when I was running to work.
MJ: Really? Wow. Cool. It's kind of interesting to hear your own stuff coming out of a clothing shop. Let's see...I've done a TLC remix, I did the remix for Bran Van 3000; ever heard of them? They're on Grand Royal Records, the Beastie Boys' label.
Lunar: I'm sure you're in the studio a lot, so you probably don't watch a lot of TV, but have you ever heard of that show "Survivor?"
MJ: Yeah, that's that show where they're all on a desert island, right? Where they kick each other off, right?
Lunar: Yeah, that's the one. Well, in the spirit of the show "Survivor," which of the following DJs would not get booted from Ayia Napa first?
MJ: I'd pick Armand Van Helden. He influenced a lot of people with the whole Speed Garage thing. You know, with the "Sugar Is Sweeter" remix and all. I mean, back in '96, he was doing what he thought at the time were House mixes, but it really kicked off the Speed Garage sound. If he got kicked off, maybe people would think of other reasons, but in terms of music, I'd say that he'd definitely be around. As for everyone else...Pete Tong's a really nice guy; I don't know Carl Cox, or Paul Oakenfold or Danny Tenaglia, but I do know Armand and I know Pete.
Lunar: If the Dreem Teem got in a fight, which one would win, and why?
MJ: I'd say Mikee. Yeah, Mikee would win. It would depend on what stage of the day it was at.
Lunar: I would lean toward Spoony myself. I'd think he'd have the edge.
MJ: Yeah, but he's too nice. Mikee's a bit more rough, a bit more ghetto. He'd be in there straight away.
Lunar: How do you build your tracks? What is your equipment setup? What sorts of computer programs do you use in your production? Do you have a specialized technique that you use every time you produce a track?
MJ: Hmm...there's loads of bits there. Well, we'll start with the equipment: I've got a simple Mackie Digital 8, Logic Audio Platinum on a G4, so that's my main workhorse, I use samplers; I've got MPC2000, I've got S6000 software, and just standard modules and things. Soundwise, I'm into using good bits of outboard vintage gear, and I've got my compressors and Urei stuff and Focus right bits. We live in a digital world, but the analog stuff still sounds nice at some stage in the whole process. I've got a piano in my studio; I've got a Fender Rhodes and some keyboards placed in my studio. But all of that aside, I don't really have a set way of making my tracks.
I try and always keep it fresh. I don't ever want to get to the stage where I'm saying "Well, programming it is like this: you start with a snare, and then you bring in the high hat and then...." I don't really want to be like that. Sometimes a tune will start with a sample I've taken from somewhere, and I'll put it through the processor and maybe reverse it. I'll put it against a keyboard and say, "Oh, it's some brilliant sounding shit; I've got to get some drums up for that," and it'll start from there. Or I'll have a load of new drum sounds and I'm saying "I can't wait to get in there with these." Or it might be that I buy a new bass guitar and I'll feel like putting that into a track. There has to be some sort of vibe there for it to grow, otherwise it feels artificial. So, I'm looking for that little spark that ignites the flame.
It's like a painter; I like to have a sort of a palate to work with. So I do a lot of sampling. Everytime I do a tune, I'll record a sample of those drums and I might crunch them up and redo them or resample them again. I'm big on preparation; on having a palate ready to work with in the studio. I never do the drums last, because you need some kind of meat for it to hang together. I try not to do one particular way, but I am prepared. Sometimes, I'll run my stuff next door to another studio and mix it there. I try to keep myself on my toes the whole time. I still do engineering work for other people; for friends of mine, so I'm not always sitting around writing tunes. One day I'll be doing remix work, the next day I'll be engineering for someone else. I try to keep it different. This DJ'ing thing fits into it as well. It's a totally different thing getting on planes than to sit around underground in a basement studio in Central London.
It's a common thread in my music; I'm into classical music, yet I'm into hardcore drum n' bass. I keep myself stretched out, because you've got to be creative. You've got to keep coming with innovative stuff, with something new, something fresh. You can't sit on your bum and say, "I've done this, and I've done that." Like U2, when they came out with that "Pop" record; it was something that hit everyone in the face like "(gasp)." It was something new. Like Whitney Houston, in a way; she had all sorts of big ballads in the early '90s, but then she comes with something much more street, that really had its effects. It's all about changing things around and keeping it new.
Lunar: Name any MC from any genre, be it Hip-Hop, Drum n' Bass, House, R&B, that you would want to have on the mic the most during one of your sets.
MJ: There's this female MC, when I played in Miami at the URB party at Space, her name is Chickaboo.
Lunar: Yeah, she's played here quite a few times.
MJ: Oh, really? I met her before, in Sweden, I think she was playing with Klute. I saw her at this party at Space, and I asked her if she wanted to MC for me. She was really good, I'd like to get back and do a record with her.
Lunar: How about a vocalist?
MJ: I'd like to work with Dido, actually. She's really good. I'd like to do more work with Jill Scott; she's great. I'd like to do some work with some of the top R&B divas, like Destiny's Child. I'd like to do more production on other peoples' albums. It's not just about the fame and big names; I want to work with talented vocalists. It's all about the talent and what they have to offer.
Lunar: Who else do you see, besides yourself and perhaps Artful Dodger, that will come across the Atlantic to tour the States? Who do you see being the big breakouts of 2001 in UK Garage?
MJ: Probably the Architects, DJ Luck and MC Neat....
Lunar: I'd like to see Wookie, but I'm not sure about name recognition over here.
MJ: Yeah, he's great. I mean, I don't know what's going on; is he getting a release over here or anything?
Lunar: I'm not sure. The only thing I know is that I saw his CD at Tower Records, but it was an import. So I have no idea what's going on with that. Most of the stuff we get over here is the $27 3-CD import of the same songs mixed in different order. I guess I'm gunning for crossover appeal over here, since you know who's who over there.
MJ: Well, I guess the thing is that I could name people who I think are good, but they haven't even hit big in Britain, so I'm sure they're not coming over here soon. Well, with Luck and Neat, you've got a DJ/MC combo, and that's good to package. With the Architects, I ran into their manager at the customs queue in New York, so I think they're planning to come over here with Island/Def Jam, I think. The only thing is: There's not too many albums out there, and you've got to have an album to come over here. You can't just come over with 3 singles, can you? You've got to have an album. I mean, there's only a few albums. There's Artful Dodger, myself, Wookie, Luck and Neat are working on one, and I think the Architects are working on one. It's much more lucrative over there doing one-off records than to do a whole album.
Lunar: Oh, and: What is that backwards sample? You know who is that singing?
MJ: Oh, you mean on "Sincere"?
MJ: [grinning] Who knows? I couldn't possibly go into that. Let's just say it was me. [laughing]
Lunar: Got anything else you'd like to tell Atlanta?
MJ: Yes, the album is out on Island/Def Jam. I'll be back in the US a few more times this year. I'll be playing the massive party in LA in August (JuJu Beats). I'm playing for Groovejet in New York, and I'm playing in San Francisco about every three months. Look out for some new stuff coming soon!
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