Darren Emerson - Interview!

Darren Emerson is without question one of the most influential dance figures of all time...

Eva Oyon

Date published: 29th Sep 2009

After joining now world renowned dance act Underworld at just 18, he helped propel the group into the mainstream and contributed to one of dance music’s biggest tracks in ‘Born Slippy’. Initially signed to legendary London imprint Junior Boys Own, Emerson and Underworld were one of the label’s most prolific and successful artists. We caught up with him to discuss his punk rock roots and the group’s influence on the Acid House explosion. 

Darren - one of our UK House music dance heroes. Another outstanding year. Where have been your highlights of 2009? 

"Ibiza obviously has been brilliant - as always. 'Pure Pacha' was incredible. Also, Sander Kleinenberg who I love playing with, we did the 'Exit Festival' together in Serbia back to back this year. We are old friends, loved getting it on again with him spinning tunes we both loved. France and Singapore really great also - especially the Formula 1 after party. " 

Junior Boys Own - an immense part of the world of House Music. It's where we kids got started, the tunes made our lives. An amazing part of dance music culture... 

Good, fantastic times. We had great parties with a great bunch of people. They were mostly older than me as I was one of the young lad's back then -  I was the whippersnapper knocking about with my brother and his friends so I was always knocking about with older people. Also people like Steve Hall, Terry Farley, Pete Heller and Simon Eccles were there - and they were all the cool guys." 

So some big respect as an 18 year old for this pioneering crew...? 

"Well yeah. I respected what they were doing, especially with the parties, and I ALWAYS respected Andrew Weatherall. I was a big fan of him and he was doing some killer mixes at the time. His James ‘Come Home’ and his Happy Mondays mixes - I was really inspired into that kind of thing because it wasn’t all about House and Techno - this was the alternative side to our sound which I was really pulled in to. I was going to ‘Phuture’ on Thursday nights and I used to love going down there because it was all about good music, not just House music. House music was exploding at the time, but down there, they moved away from that slightly and played stuff from The Cure and a bit of Carly Simon - that’s what got me into alternative music even more. I was always an electronic kid, cutting and scratching in my bedroom and always into DJing but that was what really pulled me away - and also knocking about with punks  which really opened my mind and got me into guitar music and stuff like that." 

Amazing times... 

"Yeah they were. It was the Acid House explosion and everything was new and it was a new era and with a new explosion of music coming through. It was the Acid House 303 sound and that’s what it was all about..." 

So how did the adaption from loving music, being a bedroom DJ, admiring producers and DJs too, to actually making music and DJing...? 

"At 18 I kind of moved into making records. I was DJing since I was 16 in the clubs in Essex and I worked my way up, then one day I was asked to play at the Milk Bar on a Monday nigh with Nicky Holloway. The first gig I did in London though was at The Limelight and that was on a Saturday night and I played downstairs, it was really fantastic and proved to be a good break into London for me. From then I never looked back really and from there I played at the Milk Bar off Tottenham Court Road - and that’s where THE people were coming down. I managed to get the DJ Of The Month Award's in The Face and i-D magazine's, both in the same month. It was all blowing up for me and I was still only 19 at the time and the Monday night's were really going off for us and it was packed. The night was called 'The Recession Session' and it made Monday night a night to look forward to." 

How did the mental sound of Acid House and also the drug side influence your own musical direction that took you to musical stardom with Underworld and as superstar DJ? 

"I was a proper House fanatic and I was listening to LWR which was a rock pilot radio station and I was a proper train spotter. I knew everything that was coming out. It wasn’t like today when there’s thousands and thousands of tracks coming out on Beatport or Juno and practically anyone can make music from a laptop. In those days, we used to go to the studio and it was when I met Rick Smith  (Underworld) who was in a rocky/new wave kind of band which had just been dropped. He was looking for a DJ and at the time I was the local DJ in Essex and I knew his brother-in-law and that’s how we hooked up. I started to show Rick what was good and bad in the dance scene because he didn’t really know much about dance music and he was teaching me a lot about the studio and before long, we were writing tunes. Then we started to get a few remixes under the name ‘Stepping Razor’. Karl came back from L.A, he was doing session work over there in order to make ends meet. He came in and at first he didn’t know how to fit in with me and Rick because we were doing all of these instrumental tracks and it was dance music. We started cutting up Karl’s vocals in a William Burrows kind of style and that was the birth of us working together. I was DJing but was also able to be in the studio with two talented musicians." 

How did the introduction to Junior Boys Own come about? 

"I think Andrew came down to check me out one night at the Milk Bar and he liked what I was doing because I was really mixing things up and cutting things and scratching things up - nowadays you just have to hit a loop button, but in those days I used two of the same record and that was my style. Myself and Rick had quite a few tracks by then too, and we went to Kensal Rise where JBO had an office there which they were sharing with Pop Promotions. We were going there to meet Pop Promotions and we started talking to this guy called Jonathon who we thought could maybe be our manager and look after us. We played him one of our tapes. In the corner of the room Steve was sitting. After the meeting finished Steve got in contact with me said "I really like that stuff, it’s really good, lets have another meeting" and that’s how we got the show on the road with JBO. We first started out under the name ‘Lemon Interrupt’ and we did ‘Big Mouth’, ‘Eclipse’, ‘Miniappolis’ as Lemon Interrupt. ‘Big Mouth’ is the one with Karl playing his harmonica and they put out these tracks just to feel around really -  and then came ‘Skyscraper’ which we put out on Boy’s Own records which was still on London Records. That kind of finished that deal and we went back to JBO which was when we started doing ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’, ‘Second Toughest In The Infants’ and ‘Beaucoup Fish’ – they’re the albums that I was part of anyway." 

Junior Boys Own DJing memories...? 

"Well there’s one in particular that stands out - usually the one's which were really good you can’t really remember much about, but the one that sticks out is the one where Andrew asked me fill in for because he couldn’t make it and he asked me to play for him. I was honoured because I looked up to Andrew and thought it was a fantastic thing to be asked to do, at a young age as well. It was in Bogner Regis so it was a weekender, I remember going on and doing my usual thing of using two records and starting off with a long intro. I remember Norman Cook was there and it was the first House party he’d been to and he always says now in interviews that I was the first person to get him into House music. I remember using Robert Owen’s ‘I'll Be Your Friend’ over and over again just looping it and going back and forth. Justin Robertson was playing there as well, it was really good fun to play that weekender. I remember waking up the next day and feeling a bit hazy sharing hair of the dog with promoter Charlie Chester. I spent that Sunday with him at the bar having Sunday afternoon pints. So yeah, I’ve got some good fond memories of that party." 

Many people think that ‘Born Slippy’ is the biggest dance record ever made. Do you agree? 

"I was actually in Miami with Liam Howlett from The Prodigy and he popped up one time when we we’re talking and said "I was reading the NME and there was the top 100 dance records ever made, and you we’re Number 1 and we were Number 2!" We laughed about it, but The Prodigy are definitely up there, they’ve got the big tunes such as ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ and ‘Firestarter’ haven’t they? But I’ve heard ‘Born Slippy’ so many times. It’s hard for me to say. It's amazed that a lot of people still like it and I still play it when I’m DJing at a big arena party. I do mash-up’s of it just to make it sound better for me because I’ve heard the original so many times. But it still goes off. It’s quite annoying actually when you go on Youtube and type in my name and all the first results that come up are just me playing 'Born Slippy' even though I play so much different stuff. But it’s THE big tune and it still manages to get people rocking." 

Which other Junior Boys Own tracks did you love and/or play at the time? 

"Definitely X-Press 2 ‘The Boys’ - they’ve done some fantastic and big tunes and I love what they’ve done. That track was an early one which really stood out. Boca Juniors and the track ‘Rays’, that was a great track, - I used to love it. Also ‘The Dust Brothers’  which is what they were called before they turned into The Chemical Brothers, the track ‘Songs For The Siren’ I got to know that track when I was playing on a Thursday night at The Drum Club and I remember this guy with curly hair coming up to me with a white label with the title ‘Songs For The Siren’ saying "this is our new one’, and it was Ed from The Chemical Brothers. I thought it was a great track with really haunting vocals on it, and it was the one which really kicked things off for them." 

Do you miss the label running side of the music industry? 

"At the time it was tough for me to say I don’t really want to do this anymore’  because I'd been running ‘Underwater’ for the previous 15 years and started it up when I was in Underworld in 1994. I think spending 15 years running an independent dance label was pretty good going, I had a good innings. But to be honest I think it was the right time to move on, I don’t miss it at all. It was good though, we did have fun times, we did some great parties and I was doing nights in Ibiza and we had the residency at Pacha for four years. But times change and you have to move on. We were selling vinyl at the beginning, now record sales have completely gone. I had to change with the times and I didn’t want to be doing it anymore because I wanted to focus on doing some of my own stuff again. I was looking after a lot of other artists and their creativity and not myself and my own creativity. Also as I said, we did Ibiza for four years and each time we went it took up half year. I’ve been writing on and off since 2002 and recently I’ve been writing with a friend of mine called Nick who I met at 'The Big Day' out in Australia many years ago who I actually once signed to ‘Underwater’. Over the years we’ve wrote loads and loads of stuff and there’s an album there that’s going to come out. I was talking about doing a small digital label just for my own releases so that I can get them out quick and into the digital market. I’m sure that won’t be as big a headache as the Underwater label was…" 

What's next from you? 

"There’s my digital label which will be called ‘Hard4slow Records’, where they’ll be plenty of tunes coming out on that in the near future. I’m looking to get the album I was telling you about finished because at the moment I’m just sifting through a load of different mixes which are spread over quite few files, and I’m looking to get a mate of mine called Steve Doug who is the Chemical Brothers engineer in on it too. Then find a home for it and put it out!"