DJ Hype interview: Still Smokin

DJ Hype spoke to Marko Kutlesa about his record labels, trends in UK genres, turntablism and much more.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 21st Jul 2017.
Originally published: 18th Jul 2017

DJ Hype is an almost unique figure within the world of drum n' bass. It's unquestionable that he's one of the figures that helped birth the genre itself, has remained true to its sound throughout and is arguably more popular now than he's ever been.

Raised in Hackney, London, while still in his early teens he founded a reggae based soundsystem with school friends Smile, PJ and Earl. Informed by hip hop turntablism, Hype was the crew's DJ, the others responsibilities ranging from lyric writing, dancing, rapping and Mcing. Their soundsystem would eventually become Shut Up & Dance, a group and a label whose fast paced, dancefloor orientated hip hop breaks heralded the innovative beginnings of the hardcore music that would develop into jungle and drum n' bass.

DJ Hype recorded the much loved hits 'Exorcist' and 'The Bee' (as The Scientist), these proto hardcore classics both released in 1990. But by 1993, when he scored a pop chart bothering success with 'Shot In The Dark', his sound was already well on its way to becoming drum n' bass before hardcore had even reached its musical peak. 

He consolidated his reputation via pirate radio shows which ultimately resulted in an extremely long running Kiss 100 residency. His first record label, Ganja Records, despite originally running only between 1994 and 1996, smashed all expectations, helping to launch the career of DJ Zinc and also to help establish a new sound within the movement sometimes referred to as jump up. 

His next label, True Playaz, was more longlasting but no less influential, becoming one of the genre's key players. Under the retwigged title of Playaz Recordings it still issues fresh drum n' bass music and is recognised, like DJ Hype, as one of drum n' bass's great brands.

We caught up with DJ Hype ahead of an appearance at One Tribe Festival on Thursday 3rd - Tuesday 8th August 2017, plus a cluster of other summer gigs. 

 

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After having worked with and alongside so many people over the years, just how do you decide which ones to invite to your own curated event like the Playaz takeover at SW4 or the Playaz event at the rainbow venues at the end of September?

I like variation. If I do a label night I don't just have my own artists. If you do that you're just going to get one label's sound, even though obviously each DJ doesn't play the same. I like the mixture, so people get some of my artists and some other ones. We did Fabric for 15 years and we had everybody.

Some nights or labels can go just for one style or exclude other people. There was a time when label nights just used to shut their doors, only have their own artists and took over festivals. I never liked that because jungle/drum n' bass is a melting pot of all different styles and flavours.

Having a festival as big as SW4 I wanted to reflect that and as we had freedom to pick, we've gone right across the board, from Congo Natty to Netsky as well as our own artists. 

There are a couple of artists you've put on the bill at SW4, DJ Marky and Calibre...

We've got Marky on, but not Calibre, although I do love him. It's Fabio & Grooverider we've got on with Marky.

Yes, you're right. My mistake...

I met Calibre before almost anyone in this scene because I used to work for this promoter in Dublin and he introduced me to him. But, because Calibre's accent is so strong, northern Irish, I just couldn't understand him. He gave me a DAT and I spoke to him a few times, but I totally missed the boat on that guy because I couldn't understand him on the phone, ha!

The tune Fabio signed him for 'Mystic', that was the tune that broke him, when I looked at the DAT that tune was on there, along with a hundred other tunes, but at the time I just couldn't understand him. But Calibre's not actually playing.

Apologies. As a Mancunian, I will always associate Marky and Calibre with a crew, scene and sound that came from my home city and which revolved around Marcus Intalex. What has the music scene lost in his sad passing? 

Well, he was a great artist. It's sad when anybody goes. I can't say I was tight friends with him, but we certainly weren't enemies. I used to work at a club called Angels with him in 1992 in Burnley. His brother wrote me a letter before he was famous. So, I knew him back then. Not well, but I've watched him have success since then and I love his music. It's a sad loss. I was gutted, it was a complete shock. But, like I said, we weren't close. I think the last time I saw him was at Outlook last year.

People from inside and outside the scene have shown him love and respect since and it's nice to see everyone come together and show they miss someone. And his music will live on forever.

A lot of DJs have been paying respect. As soon as I heard I had Randall come on my radio show, because I'm not an expert on his stuff, I've only got some of it. So, I thought I'd call on someone who is and I got Randall in and he did a tribute mix. I think a few people have done that. 

You went to school with the Shut Up & Dance guys. Do you still see Carlton and Philip regularly?

We're family. I spoke to them just yesterday. We're the pioneers in this shit. 

SUAD set out to be a hip hop crew, but they turned into something else...

Well, some of it, not all of it. We started off with a reggae sound in the early 80s, then we went to two deck mixing and Daddy Earl would reggae MC and Smiley & PJ would rap. They were dancers so, when they started writing music they were trying to make hip hop but at a tempo you could dance to. They just thought they were making fast hip hop, but a lot of it was reggae influenced too. 

Reggae and hip hop come from overseas, but in Britain there seems to be a trend of us taking genres like that and combing them or subverting them to make something new, like hardcore, drum n' bass, dubstep. Why do you think that happens particularly here?

Because we live in a multi-cultured country. London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, they're melting pots of different cultures, different musics, that all rub shoulders together unlike anywhere else in the world. Other countries might have different races of people, but it's not like living in England where all these cultures live alongside each other and rub off on each other. You've got afrobeat, funk, dubstep, hip hop, house, reggae, rock and over the years we've created our own stuff out of nothing. I really think it's because of that culture.

I grew up in Hackney in the 80s and all my mates were black and so I got into reggae. Then I got into the rave scene, but I wanted to put the reggae bit and the hip hop bit into there, so everything musically started mushing about. There was no rules at that age. Also, a lot of dance music is made by people who are not musically educated and good things can come out of mistakes. 

But I do think that the reason we have a new exciting thing come out every few years is because we're a mix of so many different cultures and we're not segregated like in other places in the world, where different cultures exist, but they don't live side by side. 

Also, pirate radio back in the day. Other cities didn't have pirate radio like we had. Mainstream music will promote the music once it's been discovered, but the mainstream doesn't create this music. New ideas don't come out of Radio 1 and the like, they come from the little guy doing his pirate radio station with his crew, which in the beginning is probably awful, but he builds on it and then all of a sudden it builds.

I've seen it happen time and time again. I've seen it go from one deck reggae in Hackney, to a soul sound, then you had a sound that had reggae and soul and hip hop, cutting it. Then it moved into the hardcore scene, which was all those musics mushed into a different tempo. Jungle came out of that, then it changed its name to drum n' bass. It's all just one big journey. Usually a new scene will credit the old scene for the influence.

That's why you see stuff like the SaSaSaS thing this year. Skibadee and Shabba have been around for years and never really broke through, but then grime got big and all of a sudden all these grime artists are crediting the jungle guys as their influence. So, all of a sudden they've broke through. It's like one big, long conveyor belt.

You were involved in Turntablism during the late 80s. Who are the best turntablists you ever saw?

You can't really say “ever”. It depends on what time you saw them. A competition DJ today is in a different world compared to my era when I used to play. 

When I started out in the 80s it was people in the UK like Streets Ahead and DJ Cheese who were big influences to me. Then in the later 80s it was Jazzy Jeff. Going forward to the 90s you had people like Q Bert. A lot of the scratch DJs of my era were technically amazing, but they didn't put it together to play to a dance crowd.

Today, one of my favourite DJs, purely because of the way he puts his routines together, is Craze. He's technically very good and you can dance to it. It's not like you're standing there staring at a guy. It's moved on so I don't have an all time favourite. I usually give credit to the older lot because it was at a time when there were no rules, no path to follow. Today, if you wanted to learn you can go on Youtube and learn quite quickly, whereas back then you really were creating it out of nothing. So, I credit them for originality, but the newer lot have taken it to another level.

Ganja Records must have been a very exciting time for you – striking out on your own and being massively successful. Why did you decide to stop doing that? 

We stopped doing it because of the ganja leaf (logo). Every so often I think I might bring it back. But it's a label. When you're buying music do you really care? Especially in this day and age. If you're 20 today you probably never heard of Ganja unless you're searching for that era of stuff. Today it's more about the product. 

I was getting problems all around the world with artwork. Some countries you couldn't put the leaf on there. I liked it, I would've kept it going. I didn't stop it because I didn't like it anymore. 

When I started it, it wasn't meant to be a big label. I just did it as a little side to Suburban Base. If I did extra tracks I would just put them on Ganja. Then I started realising I might as well do them all on Ganja, but it wasn't a plan to build a label. It was just a little side thing.

Pascal had his Frontline and that was the same kinda thing. It was at that point that we thought that maybe we could build something better. I was just signing a deal with BMG at the time so, instead of signing solo, I brought in Zinc and Pascal. Zinc was an artist on Ganja but I invited him to be partners with me and Pascal in Playaz and we started from scratch. 

I never had any ambition to build this empire and call it Ganja, but I am very proud of that back catalogue. I like listening to it. We are trying to remix a couple of its tunes at the moment, but it's difficult trying to create that old vibe today. You've got to change it up a bit, move forward. I'm old, but I'm not old school. I never do old school sets. I like the new stuff. I can listen to old stuff and I don't mind playing some of it on the radio, but when I play out I've never really played it. I say to people that I played those tunes when they were dubplates, I don't play them when they're old and worn out. 

You mentioned DJ Zinc. When he started making tracks like '138 Trek' in 1999 did you think he was going to move away from producing drum n' bass in such a permanent way?

I've always encouraged all our artists and we've always done music at different tempos. At that time there wasn't really a market. We'd done a couple of slow tunes before, but '138 trek', it was just a track on a drum n' bass EP that we released and it was a good tune.

I kept playing it to people who were housey and breakbeaty, cause I liked it. And everyone liked it, but nobody made a big fuss about it. Then Heartless Crew started playing it and a girl from a garage distributors rang me up and told me there was a buzz on it. I went back to my distributor to say, you know that tune off the EP....And the distributor was like, what tune? I was like, what tune? You're selling it and you don't know what I'm talking about? So, I took it off him and gave it to the girl who distributed garage and it became a big hit in the garage scene. 

From that he went on to do a lot more. You can see, he's doing well. If that was now I think he would have done d+b and that, but back then the scenes weren't like that, it was almost taboo, you're not allowed to make a non d+b tune. Stupid.

Do you prefer DJing and A+Ring for the label than spending time producing music? 

Well, I've got kids and I'm older. I'd prefer to do it all. DJing's easy. You turn up to play for a crowd, you know instantly if you're doing well or not because you're getting instant feedback from the audience. 

I've been getting back in the studio this year, not doing loads, but a couple of bits. And when I'm in there I really hate it, ha! I think because I lost a bit of confidence. I can advise you on your song all day long, but when it's your own it's sometimes hard. Because of my age, I think, whatever you do is not good enough. I'm constantly beating myself up in the studio. When I come out usually the tune's alright, not the best, not the worst.

I did a remix for MJ Cole and AJ Tracey, that was alright. That got played by everyone from Marky to Noisia and Hazard. So, for me, that was good enough. I'm not trying to create a hit at the moment, I'm just trying to get used to writing again. But it's not easy cause I've not got the time to be there three or four times a week, every week. Yeah, obviously Djing's more fun. Production's alright once you've finished it, you forget all the stuff you went through. But I can't say that I totally enjoy the making of it. It depends on the vibe.

What's coming up next for Playaz?

The next release is a Tyke EP, which is very underground. I like the tunes, but it's a bit strange. They're dancefloor, but I don't think they'll be big like anthems. They're solid. Following that is an Annix project with about six tracks, a couple of collaborations and some solo stuff. Then we've got a G Dub remix, then a Jam Thieves & BassBrothers.

Hazard has got numerous tracks, but for some reason he's saying, I don't like that one, I don't like this one, yet every time I play one people are coming up asking 'what's that?' I let him decide. He always delivers the goods. There are another couple of artists that I haven't actually signed yet, but I'm looking to do projects with them and get something out this year. 

Tickets for One Tribe Festival, where DJ Hype will play in August, are available below. Find other DJ Hype tickets.

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