X-Press 2 emerged in the early 90s on Junior Boys Own, a relatively early UK house label, born from a fanzine and party crew who were similarly early enthusiasts of the dance music movement exploding around them.
The label had an extremely high hit rate. Groups like Underworld, The Chemical Brothers and Farley and Heller started out on the label and X-Press 2, with early dancefloor hits like 'Say What!', 'Muzik Xpress' and 'London X-Press', were very much an equal part of the label's success.
In the mid 90s the band, which consisted of DJs Rocky, Diesel and Ashley Beedle, pursued a more breakbeat and jazz-influenced sound as The Ballistic Brothers, but around the time of the turn of the millennium returned to the house music of X-Press 2.
They released their debut album as X-Press 2, 'Muzikism', in 2002 on the Skint label. It contained the dancefloor favourite 'Smoke Machine' and the chart topping single 'Lazy', with vocals from Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne. Since that time, X-Press 2 have released a further two albums and Beedle has departed to pursue solo projects.
All of the members of X-Press 2 are first and foremost DJs, and both Rocky and Diesel will shortly be appearing in those roles at the 30th anniversary of Shoom at Pulse on Friday 8th December, the late 80s Ibiza-inspired party helmed by Danny Rampling, which was London's first contemporary Balearic/house rave.
Prior to the date, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Rocky to ask him about Shoom and the history of X-Press 2.
Hi Rocky! You're playing the 30 anniversary of Shoom. Why was that night so important?
I think, for us, it was the reason we started DJing as Rocky and Diesel. We'd both been DJs before then, playing soul, funk and rare groove, but going to Shoom and experiencing something completely different changed that. Up until that point, there hadn't been anything like it.
It was a eureka moment. From there, we would go out record shopping and try and hunt down these records that Danny was playing. We've since discovered that a lot of them were what Alfredo was playing in Amnesia over in Ibiza at the time. From tracking down those records we started getting gigs and it just rolled on from there. If it hadn't have been for Shoom there wouldn't have been a Rocky and Diesel and arguably also an X-Press 2.
When you say there was something very different happening there, how much of that was the music and how much of that was the drugs?
First and foremost it was the music. It was right at the tail end of 1987 and I was going out to things like Special Branch, the Mud Club and The Wag. It was all funk, soul and jazz with a little bit of hip hop, Go Go and house creeping in. Fashion-wise it was very rare groove.
I remember the first time we went to the fitness centre (Shoom's venue) and we'd gone by mistake, really. Some friends were doing visuals for Danny that night and their van had broken down, but I had a van so I got asked to help take some stuff over to southern.
I remember walking in, in our 70s rare groove gear, and all these kids from south London came in wearing baggy jumpers, ripped jeans, Converse and bandanas and they were doing this weird trance dance that, up until that point, we'd never seen. We were like, "my God, what's this?"
A girl I was with had been out to Ibiza that summer so she'd seen it and said, oh, this is that dance I was telling you about and this is the music that was being played. But most of us hadn't seen anything like it.
In what ways do you think it was different to the early house scene that was kicking off further north at The Hacienda, which was at weekends built around a more strict house music formula?
I have no idea. At that point, I'd never heard of The Hac and didn't really have any idea of what was going on outside of London. I had nothing to gauge it on at the time.
On early singles like London X-Press, Muzik X-Press, Say What, you seemed to be drawing inspiration as much from a New York sound as you were Chicago. Maybe even a bit of Italian influence too. Would that be fair to say?
Yeah, definitely. I was actually looking at an old diary just today to find out the first date we went into a recording studio to record as X-Press 2 and it was the 2 November 1992. When we first started making records we were listening to loads of DJ Pierre records, really into that Wild Pitch sound that just builds and builds.
And New York had always been a big influence for us too, lots of disco. Also there was a particular Hardfloor record that we loved at the time too, 'Hardtrance Experience', an acid record with a big breakdown and snare roll in it. So, definitely, it was a meeting of New York, the more traditional kind of US house, disco and some European influences.
With the fanzine and the parties, the Junior Boys Own stable seemed like quite a close-knit group. How did it affect X-Press 2 when the label folded?
Well, it didn't have any effect on us at all at the time, really. We worked together until about 1996 and then we all went off and did other projects, putting X-Press 2 on the backburner, so when Junior Boys Own folded we were off doing other stuff.
It wasn't until 2000 that we got back together again and started making music again as X-Press 2. At that point, with the help of our manager, we'd decided it would be a good idea to do an album, so we moved on to Skint.
Is it really so straightforward for a UK dance music act to secure a vocal off the singer from the mighty Talking Heads?
It was pretty easy for us, but only because the seeds had been sown prior to that. We did that in 2000, but prior to that, we'd done the Ballistic Brothers project which was us messing about with breakbeats and jazzy things.
Turned out David Byrne was a fan of Ballistic Brothers, and got in touch with us and the label to ask if we'd be interested in doing a tour with him because he thought we were a band. But we were just DJs, it was a studio project, so we thanked him but we had to respectfully decline and then just get on with what we were doing.
Then, in 2000, we had this backing track that I thought had a bit of a Prince vibe, but our engineer said it sounded more like Talking Heads. The lightbulb went on and we wondered if he'd remember us, so we got in touch to see if he was up for doing it. So, that was it. He did remember us.
Once we'd done that it opened doors for other people. We'd get in touch and people would be like “Who?”, “We did that song with David Byrne”, “Oh, right! OK” and they'd return your call then.
Did you have any second choice vocalists if you couldn't get him?
No, absolutely not. Once James the engineer said it, that was it. There was no one else who was going to do it. If he hadn't have agreed to do it, 'Lazy' probably would've ended up being some tracky, deep house instrumental thing.
Could you not have asked the label to commission a Tom Tom Club remix in order to deviously construct your own Talking Heads semi-reunion?
That would have been fantastic! Had we thought of it at the time. But we weren't that clever to come up with something like that. But yeah, that would have been a brilliant idea.
How is it different not having Ashley in the studio with you anymore?
To be honest we've always worked in the same way so if there's three of you or two of you it doesn't really matter that much. We're not musicians so it's always been just bouncing ideas off each other. We miss his personality and what he brought to the table, but in other respects, it's no different.
The digital version of your 2015 release 'MMXV' had 9 tracks. That's enough for an album. Why wasn't it released as such?
I've no idea. You'd have to ask the label about that. I really don't know.
On that release plus more recent outings like 'Cosine', which you did with PBR Streetgang and 'Metrowave', which you did with Leo Zero, one element that I thought was noticeably strong was melody. That's something I sometimes don't hear an awful lot because I have to go and review a lot of contemporary techno DJs.
Ha! Definitely. It's something we try and put in there. Perhaps not consciously, I mean we don't go out of our way thinking, oh, we've got to try and put some really musical stuff in there. Stuff just happens. We never really thought too deeply about things or gone with a great plan. We just mess about in the studio with rhythms, noises, beats and sounds.
'Metrowave' and 'Cosine', those were two collaborative efforts. Is that part of a new trend for you? Do you have any more coming up? What's next for X-Press 2?
Yeah, well, there are some things in the pipeline. We have quite a few bits of music that are done and almost done, but we have a few issues at the moment that we need to sort out before we can release them.
There's stuff that we've worked on for the last couple of years that's waiting to come out and yes, we've been working with other people, it's just I can't really say too much about them at the moment.