On the way home from an interview with Dexplicit in Enfield yesterday I heard a group of 12-year-old wannabe rudeboys (and their laydeez) playing DJ NG's "Tell Me" from their tinny mobile phone speakers on the back of the 307 bus. Also on their playlist was a pretty anonymous-sounding bassline tune and Mavado's "Squeeze Breast" (which the girls passionately sang along to). The latter two were sort of expected, but it was a nice surprise to hear kids playing "Tell Me".
For the past few years, funky house has been the sound of the back rooms of UK garage clubs. It has gradually taken over the urban clubbing scene in London. Very slowly producers have begun to combine funky house with elements of UK garage and the result is a hybrid that is being labelled "funky". "Tell Me" has been the biggest tune in the funky scene since last summer. Judging by yesterday, it has now obviously transcended just the club scene and it wouldn't surprise me if it goes Top 10 when it's released on Ministry in a month or so.
DJ NG feat. Baby Katy and MC Versatile, "Tell Me"
Pirate station Rinse FM is now the home to most of the DJs playing this music. DJ Bossman from South London grime crew, Essentials, now makes funky as Perempay, Geeneus makes it, even Dexplicit has produced a few tunes. The sound ranges from the female vocal side of things, like MA1's "I'm Right Here" to the darker, more grimey stuff such as Apple's "Mr Bean."
I went to meet DJ NG a few months back to ask him all about funky. Below is the resulting Q+A, which you can use as a rough guide to how the scene started and possibly where it is going.
Tell me how you got into DJing and producing.
I learnt to mix on jungle and drum and bass and when I moved to this area [Beckenham, Kent] a record shop opened up and garage was what my friends played, it was what everyone was raving to and I started going to that shop, picking up a few garage bits and the whole thing just developed from there. I followed the garage thing all the way through into the developments of grime. I had a crew in uni that was called Sound Squad—2 MCs and myself. We earned a little name up in Northampton, we set up our own club nights, and during that time I felt that grime, er, I wasn't really feeling it musically and DJs were getting pushed towards the background and the MCs were kind of taking over. We ended around 2003/2004 just after Musical Mob and "Eskimo" and all that. And then I started doing my own thing.
How did you first become involved with the funky house scene?
I moved back from Northampton to London and I started going out to a lot of these specialist parties, like the after hours events. They go on from 5 till the last man standing. It was in underground venues—everywhere from Jam Bar in Shoreditch to White House in Thornton Heath to Cube in Camberwell—all scattered all over the place.
What was it like at the after parties?
The music would be more specialist, more deeper. A lot of people would be hyped up. There was one thing at Jam Bar and then it moved to some place in London Bridge—the beats there, I couldn't go to any other club and hear these beats.
When was this?
This was about a year and a half ago when the UK production was coming out—a lot of the Invasion Records stuff that I could only hear with these few DJs playing there. The whole after hours thing started for me about three years ago, but that's kind of what got me into where I am now to produce "Tell Me". I was just blown away by the sound. When I was younger, I won't lie, I thought house music was for gay people. I didn't like the music, I won't lie. Even though I was playing house and garage, I kind of had a bit of, er, not hatred but I couldn't relate to the music. It was only until I got back from Northampton to London that I realised it was kind of a street thing. All of the old garage lot were on the deep house circuit and I could relate to it a bit more. Musically I just got blown away by the vibe, the music, the production.
When did you move to Rinse FM?
I moved to Rinse from Y2K in North London just over a year ago. It was kind of a recommendation from someone who knew the main guy on Rinse...
Yeah, Geeneus. A friend of mine, Versatile, put in a word to G.
Had you been producing stuff then?
Nah, this is the thing, "Tell Me" is my first release. I've been producing on the kind of bedroom scale and then got Fruity Loops and studied Pro Tools at uni but "Tell Me" is the first thing I've put out. It's only because Versatile heard the beat and was like, "Yeah, this beat is the one, put vocals on this."
What's your typical crowd for the darker stuff made by producers like Apple?
From what I see visually—it might be a stereotypical comment—but I'd say more the people who either like grime or bashment. They're more your typical "road" people. With "Tell Me" it's crossed over into the older lot that have been raving to funky and deep house for years and the "road" lot as well. There's two separate crowds. I've gotta be selective in what I play. I go out now and I find when I go to a funky house event the crowd there is from 18-22 and they like all the Apple stuff, "Tell Me", "Emotions", Invasion Records, that street sound. Then I go to another crowd who also like funky house / UK funky / whatever you wanna call it and it's a different selection I gotta play to them—more deep, not so UK sounding. Three years ago it would've been one box, one crowd.
Why do you think it's more acceptable to be in funky house now?
There's a number of reasons. Obviously the new production now is a hybrid – it's influenced from garage, grime, bashment, soca. So there's obviously a point of relation there. Beyond the music, culturally I think it's kind of talk of the town. You go out and everyone's on it, everyone's talking about it, it's kind of the in thing. A lot of people jumped on this thing because it's hype, the girls are there, it's like back to the good old days with garage. Another thing: the pirates are obviously playing it, the lot above them are obviously on it as well. There's more awareness.
Did you purposely make "Tell Me" sound quite dark?
I made "Tell Me" for the after hours crowd. I remember this one time I went to Jam, there was this one tune they played, and you know when you're not even DJing but the hairs on your neck stand up because of the reaction. I just thought I have to make a tune for this crowd to dance to. I dunno. I've always had a problem with my production. My close friends tell me my production is either really happy and cheesy sounding, really sad and depressing or dark. There's kind of no middle ground.
Are there certain funky DJs who won't play the darker stuff?
Yeah, there's been a lot of talk about it. It's weird 'cos it's kind of fragmenting. It was kind of one movement a couple of years back, now it's fragmenting where you've got your people who play to the old garage, bashment lot and then you've got your people who are following more the American way—like Dennis Ferrer, Charisma, Masters At Work. It's kind of two different sounds now and with that it's splitting into two different groups of DJs. That's what I recall back in the day with garage when it split from house into UK garage, speed garage, 2-step. DJs got split too. I know certain DJs are not feeling the UK production.
Can you see it splitting into two separate scenes? What are people calling the UK stuff?
So many names have bee put forward like afrobeat, urban house, but when you go out raving a lot of people just say they're going to a "funky dance". I know people are pushing this term "UK funky" to distinguish the new UK sound. There had to come a point with UK garage when someone came along and had to distinguish it from the stuff that started with what people like Larry Levan was doing at the Paradise Garage. I'm cool to roll with UK funky, but a lot of people just call it funky.
Do you ever plan to do full MC tracks?
I got a lot of stick putting Versatile on the track. People didn't wanna play the track because of the MC, but I was trying to say that with the UK production it needs a host. It's a UK thing to have a mic man—someone just to host. There's now an established five or six hosts at funky nights. I've got some stuff in the pipeline, I've worked with two of the hosts but I'm contemplating putting them out because when the hosts put out a tune, the MCs are gonna look at it and think if they can do it then I'm gonna ride a tune. Then, they'll start putting stuff out and it will get very MC-based. Then what happens—I've seen it with grime—the production level might drop a little and the beats will become very skeleton like, just for MCs to spit bars on. And when that happens, you know what happens. The soulfulness might go, the ladies will start going. I'm very cautious about that.
What's with all the DJ these days just using random letters for their names? Have all the names run out?
Haha. Any name I use has to have meaning. My name is closely related to the name on my birth certificate—part of my name. I know what you mean, though—MA1, IC, yeah it's true.