There have been many generations of British dance culture, but throughout almost all of them, only one Mr. G.
By his late teens, the Derby-born Mr. G, or Colin McBean as he was then better known, was saving his cash to regularly visit London. Immersing himself in soundsystem cultures and emerging trends beyond, his emerging tastes covered everything from classic soul to contemporary indie rock.
After departing the Midlands, McBean had assisted in founding the legendary KCC and the Rocking Crew Soundsystem, a carnival-demolishing, reggae-roored rig that welcomed Detroit masters such as Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Richie Hawtin, each on the cusp of their journey to international stardom.
As one half of electronic duo The Advent, along with Cisco Ferreria, McBean enjoyed his own success throughout the nineties. The pair extensively toured their brand of classic, Detroit tinged electro and acid techno on an international scale, before burning out towards the end of the decade. McBean, otherwise a trained chef, then went back to the drawing board, delicately mastering his MPC drum machine, ‘The Mistress’.
A steady stream of releases on his own Phoenix G imprint saw McBean chart his own course, while he also popped up occasionally on Radio Slave’s coveted Rekids imprint. A Boiler Room live set in 2012 suddenly introduced G to a new, young and festival friendly audience, and the following summer, a two-disc ‘Retrospective’ provided a neat primer on his now timeless sound.
Ahead of his appearance at London’s upcoming Junction 2 festival, where he’ll play live in the Electric Minds tent alongside Dixon, Ame, Move D and more. We spoke to McBean about defining career moments, being a Londoner and using pain to create passionate records.
Your live set for Boiler Room in 2012 seems like a good starting take off point for your current position in the music world. It seems to come up regularly as a bit of a classic, and I’d argue the performance introduced you to a new audience. Boiler Room wasn’t the force then it is now. Did you need to be convinced?
I’m really old fashioned, so I run everything past my Missus. Benji B asked me to come down and play, and I had no idea what it was. I said yeah, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t even know it was going out live!
I missed the concept completely, until I saw this computer screen, two, three hours later, and they told me it was all the people logged in. But it was life changing.
Prior to Boiler Room, you had a rich and long career. You didn’t emerge out of the blue. Prior to the past few years, what were the other defining moments in your career?
I was with The Advent, and we toured the world, saw everything. Then there’s stuff like my remix of Roger Sanchez, that went to number one, or my EP for Defected. So there are peaks and troughs all the way through, but I am always the guy who most people don’t know. And I like that in a way. It takes away a lot of pressure. I come out when I want to, and I hide when I want to.
I must admit, for somebody who’s been in the game for so long, I respect what seems to be a lack of bitterness or entitlement about what you do.
Oh no! I write because I want to write. I have a studio at home because I love to make beats. But I also buy a shed load of records. I go into the West End every Thursday, and I know pretty much what’s hot and what’s not, and where sounds are going.
If you have that love of music, you can’t really be jaded. And the day I get miserable is the day I step off the plinth, because there’s no point. It’s easy to sit back and say, “So and so’s been coming through, he’s only been in the game six months, I’ve been at it for years.”
But don’t pay attention to anyone around you. Keep your head down, do your thing, and slowly but surely, people will catch you up. Just work hard, and you can look back and say, “That looks good, it’s really interesting.” And other people will notice that too.
You’ve been record shopping in London, each and every Thursday, for almost thirty years. Do you think that sort of ritual keeps you grounded as a DJ and a music fan?
Oh, absolutely. Also, for me, it’s important to start in one side of London and walk through. So I see the latest restaurants, the latest clothes shops, what’s closing down, what’s open, what’s hot today, what’s not. It’s all part of the energy of the music and what I do. Whether it’s latest sneakers, latest magazines, whatever, it all adds to what I do. And without that, I’d get a bit lost.
And having travelled the world as a Londoner, is there anywhere else in the world you can see yourself settling?
Japan, all day long. I love Japan. If I was single I’d probably be living there now. There’s so much to see and learn from - culture, soundsystem, records.
I mean most of the rare records have all been bought in Japan and brought back. But it’s an alien place to me in some ways too. I think London’s great. I left Derby to make my name in London, to do it on my own. And that was really important.
I think of you as a Londoner, having been there for over thirty years. What was your impression of the city when you initially moved there in the early eighties? As a Midlands boy, were you going in somewhat blind?
At the age of 13 or 14, I’d save my money and get a train with a friend to London, where we’d buy, although we didn’t know it at the time, what were all the rarest records now. We’d go home with some old George Duke or Pleasure album, bought for about 60p, only to watch those records become hugely rare.
I worked in a record shop in Derby, I worked at a club in Derby, so travelling to London, I knew what I wanted to find. So I thought, I’’m taking coals to Newcastle, I have as much money as anyone down here, and so it proved itself.
And when you were there, you played a key part in establishing KCC and the Rocking Crew Soundsystem, who were notable as being one the first crews to incorporate emerging house music onto the dub and reggae scene? Knowing that every scene has it’s puritans, did you ever encounter any resistance to that?
No, not really, because it was a party. The Reggae system is to hold the weight of the tunes. We used to have that same system at a Sunday party called Melange. Nicky Trax's spot with us and LT Bukem, using it in a club. And Richie Hawtin, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson were regulars, coming over to play for £50..
So we never had a them and us thing. They were coming to our zone. So we did carnival, and the first year we had a few people turn up, and then the next year it was an absolute roadblock with the police trying to close it down.
What did the likes of Richie Hawtin and Kevin Saunderson make of the club and soundsystem? It must have been a very different vibe and crowd.
There were a lot of waifs and strays, travelling from far and wide on a Sunday. But the uniting factor was the music. And also what was kind of interesting, is that they were more worried about coming to play with us because we knew how to roll it. They had a quite hard time, we knew what we were doing, week in, week out. So it was always interesting to see who delivered.
They were really special times, but I don’t get nostalgic. I’m always looking for what will turn me on next. I’m looking for Al Dobson Junior, for K15, Borrowed Identity....
Despite you prominence on the London club scene around the late eighties, I don’t necessarily associate you with acid house or clubs like Shoom...
I went to Shoom, but it was a different crowd to what we had. Our crowd was straight underground. The club could have been a dangerous place if you misbehaved. But we were all into it for the music. And I personally felt that acid house, when it started, was more of a white sound. I mean, the music was black, but we were more about staying local around Camden Town.
You only got to grips with production, most famously with your MPC, relatively late in your career, after The Advent had split up in 1999, when you founded the Phoenix G label.
Well, Cisco and I had our differences. He was more the studio man, where as I’d bring the samples and the ideas. But towards the end, I wanted something more. And I had to take something to get started. So I thought, yeah, I’ve worked on the MPC, and then spent two years locked away in a box learning the machine. And I still probably don’t use it like anyone else in the world.
Do you think having limited means helps to evolve a certain type of creativity? Your records have a very distinct, deep sound, but until recently, you barely utilised digital production.
Music is like a Picasso; less is more. If you’ve got eight amazing sounds, it can’t be bettered. Also, I’m a Reggae man. When I listen to old dub, from the fifties and sixties, just six channels on a crappy mixer, and I hear the weight and sound, I was convinced that was always going to be my way.
That’s the way I work in the studio, and the limitation makes it far more interesting for me to take it out and do a live show. Eventually I end up with a sound and a set where every single sound counts.
You’ve been doing a Rinse show sporadically for a while now. Is that turning into a full residency? It’s interesting to hear you explore the wider reaches of your collection outside of the expectations and context that come with a dancefloor...
I do it when I feel it. I choose to do two or three gigs a month, because I want to be excited. It’s very important I get something back from being on the road. Less is more.
I still DJ, I still do mixes for people. I’d love to do a night, but it’s have to be right. It takes a lot of understanding and the right people to know what you’re doing, because I’m going from indie to funk to house to disco. I can’t stay on one plain.
You own over 40,000 records, but you still largely play live, often on a bill otherwise composed exclusively of DJs. What works for you about that setup, and what do you think the audience get out of it?
The interaction. I love to see the shock on people’s faces when this old black guy starts jumping up and down. But then, the energy from that transposes through the whole club, and you’re driving this club insane, as they’re feeling your energy.
I don’t want to be tapping my feet or nodding my head. I want to see people’s faces. I want to smile, I want to dance, I want to act the goon, to make a difference to their evening.
How does that go down when you’re playing after, say, Nina Kraviz at some European club where the crowd are seen to be as cool or understated? Do you ever feel feel a generation gap on those techno oriented bills you tend to feature on?
No, never! Because at heart, I’m a soundboy. And my attitude is, and always has been, you bring yours, and I’ll bring mine. Because I always see any musical venture as a soundclash, that’s just how I’m hot wired.
I love nothing better than seeing some young kid on his laptop, who thinks he’s going to tear the roof off, and I think, “Ooh, I’m going to show you something, son.” And generally, they do like or learn from it. There are far more people dancing now than in years previous, I feel.
You’ve managed to stay current, but without contriving anything. You’re not one to position yourself as a ‘legend’ of any sort.
It’s not about that to me. I like what people say about me, but I’ve been in this industry for so long, I know talk is cheap. The only thing that talks is each gig or piece of music you put out, says something. At the end of the day, a kid needs to go online, hear your music and say, “Yeah, that is something”, or it’s not. That’s all that matters to me, and I’m not really worried about anything else.
You talk very openly about your career, but also personally, in terms of setbacks - pain, struggle and heartbreak - all of which you’ve endured, and that seems to demystify you perhaps compared to other DJs, who position themselves as sort of wizards behind the curtain.
All the people I’ve loved and admired through the years, are very direct. They’re about constructive criticism without being a show off or being cocky. Everyday I wake up and go in the studio, I feel blessed. I want to give you the best music, and the best gig. The rest, I think, kind of does itself.
Some of the more difficult moments in your life seem to have resulted in creatively fruitful periods, be it the death of your Father, or your friend Lex, which inspired your LP The Flux. Even leaving The Advent resulted in you learning how to play the MPC. Do you reflect on this relationship you seem to have between pain and passion?
That’s a tough question. Getting to the place that others told me I’d get to - Lex would always tell me I’d be a star, he’d always tell me I could do it - and then, lo and behold, you end up in that spot, and you want to show him what somebody’s written, or play him a record.
Or with my father, he never really understood what it is that I do... As for the pain, I still haven’t played some of the albums for a long time. But nothing changes, you just learn to be more cathartic in what you do. My dad dying, gave me another album, and that’s the way I dealt with it.
As long as you know what to do with the pain, then the moods make the music. Like, if I have a row with the Missus, I go to the studio, and I think, “I’m going to make something really angry and dark”, and then something really pretty and beautiful comes out. And that’s what I love about day to day. Every single track is labelled with something current, so I can look at a track and think, “Ah fuck, I forgot all about that”.
What I love is that certain songs come back to me. Like, ‘Daily Prayer’, which I wrote for Lex. I’ll be having a bad day, and look at my Facebook or my email, and somebody says, “Having a bad day, thanks Mr. G for Daily Prayer.” It’ll take me back to Lex.
Or when I’m in a club and somebody will ask me for the most random thing, and I’ll think, “Huh, you’re feeling that one?” To hear back records you made, even in darker periods, when you’re better, it’s fascinating. And the person it talks to, they might be in Greece, Barcelona, Australia. Or it’s played by Carl Cox or Kerri Chandler, but in completely different ways.
And to round it off and mellow it out with that old chestnut of a DJ query; what’s up next for Mr. G?
I’ve signed a single to Defected, which is going to be really interesting. They always told me that if I ever did a full vocal thing, they would put it out. And now, after fifteen years, I met the right person, and I did it. It’s going to be interesting to see what people make of a vocal thing.
Tickets for Junction 2 are available from the box below.