Meet Five-star DJs and producers in this dance-musician summit.
Every genre of music creates new roles for musicians to fill–from the symphonic composer, to the opera diva, to the rock-and-roll star. As electronic dance music surges to new heights of popularity, DJs and remixers are defining the parts they play in the movement. These roles continue to shift, split, and recombine, just as the beats in a DJ’s set merge and flow from one to the next. I talked to five top producers and DJs about the role they play in electronic dance music and the methods and equipment they use.
Los Angeles veteran electronica producer James Lumb of Electric Skychurch has been churning out tracks since 1989. Lumb began as a bass player for the underground psychedelic funk band the Groove Trolls in 1987 and started writing acid house tracks in 1989, armed with a drum machine and a 4-track. In the spring of 1992, working alone, he released the first Electric Skychurch single on cassette. A year later, a party in the desert–Skychurch’s first live show–led to the full-blown Moontribe movement. In 1998, Lumb hit the road with DJ John Kelley and played 80 shows around the world. With a full band including drummer Alex Spurkel and singer Roxanne Morganstern, a light show, and a DJ entourage, they played to more than a quarter million people, proving themselves one of America’s few big electronic acts.
Original recordings such as “Creation,” “Deus,” “Knowoneness,” and the popular Together CD have earned James Lumb a reputation as one of the leading producers of electronic musicians in the world today, and after ten years of creating electronica, Electric Skychurch is still going strong. The group will release its long-awaited new material–preceded by a slew of new remixes–in the summer of 1999.
Chris Cowie produces electronic dance music under many pseudonyms but is best known for his trance act, X Cabs. Six years ago, he founded Hook Recordings, an independent dance label.
John Digweed has become one of the most respected and revered figures of the international dance scene. DJmagazine’s prestigious list of top 100 DJs recently voted him number 7. Since founding Bedrock Records ten years ago in Hastings, England, Digweed has sold hundreds of thousands of mix CDs worldwide. Famous for his extended sets and his residency at New York’s Twilo Club with longtime DJ partner Sasha, Digweed is one of the most sought-after DJs and remixers in dance music.
Paul Oakenfold is a true giant in the world of electronic dance music. From the start of his career as a hip-hop promoter and agent for the Beastie Boys and Run DMC, he has always been on the cutting edge of new music. Oakenfold was there at the very beginning–on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where itinerant Brits first began staging all-night electronic dance parties. He was one of the first people to bring this cultural phenomenon back to England. In 1985, he opened the first rave club in the United Kingdom, called the Fun House, and later he added the Project Club and the Future. All of these introduced emerging electronic dance forms to English music fans eager for a new and exciting form. This in turn led to the birth of the acid house movement in the United Kingdom., and eventually to the global rave movement.
Almost two decades later, Oakenfold continues to break new ground as a producer, remixer, and DJ. Three times he has been voted DJ magazine’s DJ of the year, and this year the readers of DJ magazine voted him the world’s number one DJ. Although he’s one of the world’s most sought-after DJs, Paul still finds time to run his U.K.-based record label, Perfecto. Over the past few years, he has remixed every group from the Rolling Stones and Snoop Dogg, to the Smashing Pumpkins and U2.
Dave Ralph, known for his energetic and uplifting sets, has been deejaying and rocking dance floors for more than two decades. A native of Manchester, England, he recently embarked on an intensive North American tour with Paul Oakenfold.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
LUMB: I’m working on a new single for myself, and I just finished off two remixes. One is the Led Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love,” which I produced for the band Quiet Riot. I ended up using the WarpFactory by Electrix and made the whole thing into a kind of dirty sex song. And I’ve just finished a remix of a Bob Marley song called “Mr. Brown.” I’ve been asked to remix a lot of rock bands lately.
COWIE: My current project is under the pseudonym Scan Carriers, and it’s basically an album’s worth of material. I primarily do dance music, but for this I’ll be using guitars and real drummers. I’ll end up sampling everything, but I’ll start out with real people so it’s more organic music, like a proper band. That’s how I started off years ago. I’m not doing the album full time; I’ll do a track here and there in between other stuff for the Hook and Bellboy labels.
DIGWEED: I’m doing a remix for Fire Island. We started work on a couple of tracks about eight months ago, but I haven’t had a chance to finish. It’s not that I’m doing loads of gigs, but I’m traveling and trying to do some remix work as well.
RALPH: We did a party in Panama City last night. We’re doing Tallahassee tonight and New York tomorrow night; then we’re off to Toronto and Cuba.
WHEN AND WHERE DID YOU FIRST HEAR ELECTRONIC DANCE MUSIC?
OAKENFOLD: Probably at the Paradise Garage in New York in ’84. Larry Levan was there at the time, and the tracks were coming out of Chicago and Detroit.
RALPH: The first time I heard house music was on a radio station called Q 103 in Manchester, played by Stu Allen. The track was “Mr. Finger’s Washing Machine.” This was very early stuff, around ’86 or ’87. They used to scratch and cut things up all over. I loved it immediately, thought it was amazing, and had to go all the way to London to about four shops to find the records. An old woman at Groove Records–she must have been around 70–totally understood house music. She had Traxx records, pressed on secondhand vinyl. They used to take old K-Tel LPs and re-press right on top of them. They always sounded bloody terrible, but you had the music.
DIGWEED: I was really into New Order and alternative stuff like Bauhaus, but at the same time I was into soul and funk and then later hip-hop. As new stuff came along, I was reading magazines and always trying to stay on top of things. I can remember when the early DJ International stuff and the Chicago tracks started coming to the U.K. Things were really stepping up a peg or two. The kick drums were just so in-your-face, and that’s when house music really grabbed a hold of me.
COWIE: When I first got into electronic music, I was still playing in guitar bands. A lot of people will say they heard Kraftwerk first or Jean Michelle Jarre or whatever, but those artists were never really an influence on me. It was listening to people like New Order and Yellow and Shriekback in ’82 or ’83. I was always drawn to music that sounded electronic. Even “Can You Feel It?” by the Jackson Five from the ’70s had a synthesizer sound.
WHAT ARE THE QUALITIES IN THIS MUSIC THAT AT AFFECT PEOPLE SO DEEPLY?
COWIE: Before dance music came along, people would dance to bands like Duran Duran and get up and dance to one or two songs and sit down again. When dance music came along, people got up and danced all night. On some kind of tribal level people just like to dance and jump about. You can basically put on a drum machine in a nightclub, and people will dance to that all night.
DIGWEED: There is lots of emotion in the tracks, and it brings lots of people together. This music has made a lot of friendships, and people have shared great nights and fond memories from going out and listening to it. Electronic music is very powerful. It’s playing a massive part in many films made today. You’ll be watching a scene in a film, and an Underworld track will come on and send shivers up your spine.
RALPH: If you listen to trance music, you’ll hear a lot of emotion and feeling in it. If you are on a dance floor with 600 or 700 other people hearing those lush strings and beautiful melodies, it has a euphoric effect, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of euphoria. That’s what it does for me. These tracks really take you somewhere, and a good DJputs these elements together and creates a journey.
OAKENFOLD: The energy, the melody–it’s uplifting and spiritual. There’s a lot of soul in it, and it really is about the feeling. It’s like soul music; you listen to it from an emotional standpoint.
SOME PEOPLE VIEW THE DJ AS A KIND OF SHAMAN OR SPIRITUAL GUIDE WHO LEADS THE LISTENERS FROM ONE LEVEL OF CONSCIOUSNESS TO ANOTHER
OAKENFOLD: Absolutely. That’s what I mean to do: take you on a spiritual journey.
WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES THAT COME WITH SUCH A POSITION OF POWER?
OAKENFOLD: It’s no different from being a lead singer in a band. You’re there to entertain and educate, and there’s a fine line between the two. People pay money to come and see you, so they expect you to deliver. As a professional, I take that very seriously and do my best. Not everyone is going to like everything you do, but at least you can take them somewhere they’ve never been. You just have to be open-minded and go with it.
DIGWEED: The DJ’s responsibility is to give listeners a good time, as well as to educate them. There’s a lot of new music out there, and for me it’s far more rewarding to play a track that no one’s heard before, programming it at the right time so the place goes absolutely mad, rather than playing an obvious record that you know will get a big reaction.
DO YOU PLAN YOUR SETS OR JUST GO WITH THE FLOW?
DIGWEED: Just go with the flow. I think it’s a mistake to plan a set because you don’t know what the night’s going to be like. You could plan a set that’s totally wrong for the crowd.
RALPH: I look at the crowd. At the end of the day, those kids are paying my wages, and have a responsibility to entertain them. I’m not into the idea of putting your head down to concentrate on what you’re doing and ignoring the crowd. I look at the people, listen to the other DJs, and then choose records that will pull people into my sound. It might take me 20 minutes to get them there. If they’re not dancing, I move on. A lot of DJs don’t do that.
OAKENFOLD: The two most important records of the night are the first and the last. Then there’s getting from one point to the other and building an arrangement and structure. A minor key makes you feel solemn, and a major key makes you feel happy. I need to find my rhythm in the journey; sometimes it comes right away, and sometimes it takes time to get the crowd where you want them. I can usually get there in a half hour. A three-hour mix is really one record with an intro, a middle, and an outro. I approach it the same way I would approach mixing a record.
IS THERE A TYPICAL METHOD YOU USE FOR A REMIX?
LUMB: You always start with a kernel or seed from the original piece of music. For the Bob Marley track I’m working on, they sent me vocals extracted from the original master tapes. I find one loop I like; in this case it’s the lines “Mr. Brown is a clown/that rides through town in a coffin.” I load that loop into a sampler and find a tempo I like, or I might use the sampler to change the tempo and the pitch. Then I use it to write drum grooves, maybe along with a drum machine. I might work on that loop an entire day to find the right groove. Then I zoom out and use a computer to start arranging the groove, and change the original vocal sample with some effects units to give it a certain tone. Finally, I glue it all together with a synthesizer, and you have a remix.
DIGWEED: It takes maybe a day or two of pre-production, then two days to mix it down. The method varies each time. If it’s a song, we try and work stuff around it. If it’s an instrumental, we work on rhythms and moods.
WHERE DO YOU START WHEN CREATING AN ORIGINAL TRACK?
COWIE: I could just be sitting in my house listening to something that sounds good, and I’ll get a wee surge of energy and pop into the studio. It’s not like you copy it–you just get influenced, driving down the road. Generally I start with a bass line or a bass drum, but there’s no set pattern. It can start with a sample. Some people have a method of working, but I think everyone is creative in their own individual way.
COWIE: I believe in not having too much equipment. A lot of people must buy the latest bit of equipment, and I don’t do that. I use a Roland S-750 sampler, an Atari 1040ST computer, a Mackie SR32-4 mixer, an Ensoniq DP/4 effects unit, a couple of Behringer compressors, and a Roland JP-8000 synth. I don’t have racks of modules and mountains of cables, and I’m still using the Atari 1040 with Cubase. When I play live, I have a Yamaha 02R, which is a much more expensive desk than the one use in the studio, but it has the recall functions I need for live performance. I also use an Akai MPC2000 and a Roland S-760 for live gigs.
LUMB: I’ve been doing this for about ten years, so I have 20 synthesizers and a full-blown recording studio with a Soundcraft console, a 24-track digital audio workstation, Tascam DA-88s, and a bunch of different samplers. For my live show I run two samplers, three sequencers, two drum machines, effects, and vintage analog keyboards. I also have a live drummer and a bunch of Roland digital synthesizers. I have so much equipment that I sometimes get lost–maintaining that much equipment is a pain.
WHAT COMPUTER PROGRAMS YOU USE REGULARLY?
LUMB: I use Steinberg Cubase VST/24 and Bias Peak. I also use Opcode Galaxy–a synthesizer librarian–and Steinberg ReCycle. What I usually do is load stuff into Peak from DAT, chop it up, ReCycle it, load it into my samplers, and then sequence it with Cubase.
DIGWEED: I use Emagic Notator an Atari. Nick Muir, who I work with, knows the Atari inside out, and he does all the programming.
I THOUGHT THE ATARI WAS OBSOLETE.
DIGWEED: [Laughs] Yes, it is. It’s not very fast, but Nick’s very fast. William Orbit did most of his mixes on Atari. It all comes down to knowing your equipment. You can have the fastest computer in the world, but it’s no good unless you know how to use it. When I did the Northern Exposure records with Sasha, we used Pro Tools for edits and filtering, but when we do remixes, we use the Atari.
DOES THE TECHNOLOGY SOMETIMES GET IN THE WAY OF MAKING MUSIC?
LUMB: Yes, that definitely happened to me a couple of years ago. It was great learning the technology down to the microprocessor level, but once you’ve mastered it, you are left with pure expression. What’s happened for me is that these electronic gizmos started out as musical instruments, then became pure technology, and now it’s coming back around to pure expression.
COWIE: It can do. You can spend a lot of time trying out new equipment and wind up forgetting about making music. When I was younger, I went through a period of buying everything, and a lot of the time it let me down. I’ve trimmed the studio to the bare necessities. Too much equipment can slow you down. I know my equipment inside out now, but if you are constantly buying new equipment, you are constantly learning how to use it.
WHAT PIECES OF EQUIPMENT WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO START MAKING TRACKS?
LUMB: The first thing tell people is to look around at what you’ve got, because you may have what you need already. If you have a computer, you can get freeware or shareware demo software and play with it. A computer may not be the most hi-fl way to go, but it’s a good beginning. I started out with an old Ensoniq sampler with a built-in sequencer, and I did loads of mixes and remixes on that alone. A good pair of headphones, a master keyboard that samples, and a desire to do it is all you really need. I did a mix last year for a movie called PI, a track called “Full Moon Generator.” I was on tour and I did it in a hotel room with a Kurzweil K2000, a Mackie 1202, and a set of headphones. It turned out to be the best work I did that year.
COWIE: The absolute essentials would be a sampler, a computer–if you are just starting out, you could pick up an Atari 1040 running Cubase–a mixing desk, and an effects unit that can do more than one effect at the same time, like an Ensoniq DP/4. You need a drum machine like the Novation DrumStation so you can free up the sampler. The last thing would be a sound module that you can get strings out of easily. I worked out the cost to buy a setup like this in the States, and it came to about $4,000. You don’t need to spend $20,000 and get a Mac and a hard-disk recorder and all that to start.
DIGWEED: I would recommend a sampler, a fairly decent keyboard, and a computer. But you could probably start out with an Akai MPC3000, which is a drum machine, sequencer, and sampler in one. You can do amazing stuff on that.
RALPH: It all comes down to how much money you have. There are so many innovative ideas out there now, but they cost a lot. The two pieces of essential equipment would be a mixing desk and a computer fast enough to do what you want it to do. You can find software these days that will do anything. If someone gave me [pounds]10,000 [approximately $16,140], which is not a lot of money to spend on a small studio, I would spend the majority on a mixing desk, a computer with software, and a keyboard of some sort.
COMPANIES SUCH AS ELECTRIX ARE NOW MOVING TOWARD RETRO DESIGNS AND EASY INTERFACES HAVE YOU HAD A CHANCE ELECTRIX GEAR YET?
COWIE: Yes, I tried out the FilterFactory, and I liked it very much. I didn’t have that much time to use it, but I could definitely see it has scope Personally, that’s more my cup of tea. Software companies will take any effects unit or EQ unit and make it a plug-in for VST. Some guys love that. If you can buy a brilliant reverb unit as a plug-in rather than spending a thousand pounds on the hardware, a lot of people will buy the plug-in. But then you are tied to the computer, and you still have to put the sounds into it to get the reverb unit to work. I’m more of a hands-on person. I prefer to press buttons, but I’m up for using both.
LUMB: I used the FilterFactory on the drum machines for the Bob Marley remix. It was great because it twisted everything inside out and made it sound really good. The Electrix gear is different because of the sound quality. Most digitally controlled analog gear doesn’t sound right. Any knob you turn on a MIDI system has only 128 notches on it, and you can hear a MIDI-controlled filter jump between step SO and step 51. What I really like about the Electrix stuff is that although it’s MIDI controlled, it’s smooth, so it sounds more like a vintage analog unit. That’s why people search out vintage filters, because they’re smooth and not gritty. When I look for gear, I’m looking for smooth. You can always make it jagged if you want, but you can’t make it smoother.
DIGWEED: A unit showed up on my doorstep the night before I went to Miami, so I didn’t have a chance to get my head around it before I left. I was planning to spark it up tonight and have a go. I’m pretty excited about getting my teeth into it. I spoke to Bruce at Twilo and suggested that he let Sasha and me loose on it, so he is having all three Electrix units installed at the club. By the time they are installed, we’ll both be up to speed on them. That should take it to the next level.
RALPH: I tried one at my studio in Liverpool recently and it looked really fine. I didn’t have time to hook it up to a pair of decks, but I patched it into my mixing deck, It was really interesting, and I would like to see where it can go. You can do a really big filter sweep with very little effort. I haven’t tried it in a working environment, but it worked really well in a studio in the short time I had to play around with it. I like the MIDI features that let you record the sweeps as you go.
WHAT ARE THE MOST EXCITING NEW DEVELOPMENTS IN ELECTRONIC MUSIC TECHNOLOGY?
LUMB: Cheap hard-disk recording. If you are using samplers, one of the big limitations is memory. Samplers really lend themselves to drums because a drum hit takes up a small portion of memory. But with a hard-disk recorder, you can record, say, a four-minute passage of music, like a slowly evolving synthesizer passage that’s never the same twice. All of a sudden, a producer with an $899 iMac has the ability to record a studio-quality vocal track, a bass track, or even a sound-effects track. So it can take electronic music one step away from the loop and help you focus on arrangement and composition. Cheap hard-disk recorders bridge the gap between electronic music and so-called real music. The successful hybrid artists are the ones with access to high-end technology-like the stuff from New York, where they put minimal beats behind a full orchestra. Everyone will be able to do that soon.
COWIE: In the next few years, digital desks and mixing consoles like the Yamaha 02R will get better. They are a bit cold sounding right now, but they will improve and have more knobs. Some people say mixing consoles will be obsolete because you can do it all with a computer, but I don’t think computers are powerful enough to do everything. Even if they could, you’d lose a lot of the human element. There will always be hands-on people who like to turn knobs and push buttons.
Of course the biggest developments are with computers. Look at Cubase VST and all the plug-ins you can get for that. The companies that make effects units must be getting a bit worried because you can buy loads of effects plug-ins quite cheaply. I’ve tried some, and they are very good. But you still can’t plug an XLR microphone into the back of a computer. All these things will come, but not every producer wants to sit there looking at a screen all day. I’m not against computers, but I don’t think people want to do everything with a computer.
WHAT ARE THE CONSIDERATIONS WHEN CHOOSING SOFTWARE OVER HARDWARE?
LUMB: The computer-based stuff isn’t really there yet. Computers are a great interface with the gear you already have. When I remix, I use my computer as an interface with my samplers. I digitally load all the information I need. If someone gives me a DAT tape to remix-five minutes of audio and some disembodied voices–I’ll load it into my computer and chop it up really fast, then shoot it down the wire into the samplers and start working on it in a more traditional way. The computer is supposed to do everything, but in reality it doesn’t do any one thing really well.
I’ve also found that the more applications you use, the more time you spend making sure the computer is still running. One of the biggest complaints I hear is, “I’m a musician, not a computer technician.” People are spending a lot of time keeping their computers running-cleaning off the hard drive, checking for viruses, updating and debugging software. There’s a lot to be said for sitting down at a keyboard with a built-in sequencer that works the same way every day and doesn’t crash.
I once did an entire recording session that completely failed because of a timing synchronization bug in the software–we lost a month’s work! The song was so fast that the MIDI port couldn’t keep up with the music, so we had to buy a Yamaha tabletop sequencer, which ran better than the computer. USB–a new interface standard for computers–will hopefully make it a little more solid in the future. At the moment, if you are doing a lot of really fast work, I recommend dumping it into a dedicated machine that doesn’t have to worry about drawing a picture onscreen. You might also find that you like the sound a little better.
IS THERE A TREND TOWARD USING MORE ORGANIC SOUNDS IN ELECTRONIC MIXES?
LUMB: We go out with field recorders and collect sounds. It’s something that the computer is really good for. With electronic music, people use samples and make a track, then the track gets sampled, and so on, until this audio is five or six generations down the road and it gets flat and loses its dynamic range. If you go back and listen to [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon or some classical music, the depth and detail in the recording will blow you away. You wonder how to get that depth back into your recordings. The answer is to get a microphone, record some stuff, and put it into the background of your electronic track. That will create a depth and ambience behind the beats and really open it up.
COWIE: Smart producers use organic sounds. Vocals are organic, and dance music has used them since day one. I don’t think there’s a conscious trend, but smart producers know that a little organic feel helps the track, especially if it’s a good track. In a record store, you’ll probably find nothing organic in 80 percent of the records. Sometimes when you hear an acoustic guitar in a breakdown, you don’t know if some guy came in to play the part or not. The samples are so good that you can barely tell the difference now. I can tell the difference, but the average club goer would think that it was a real guitar.
DO YOU THINK COMPUTER-BASED HOME-RECORDING STUDIOS WILL EVENTUALLY BECOME A THREAT TO EXISTING RECORD LABELS?
COWIE: The biggest threat to major record companies is the Internet. One guy can basically set up his own label in his house, make music, and distribute it anywhere. That’s a few years away, but it will definitely happen. As for the guy in his basement burning a few CDs, that’s not going to bother the major record labels. But the Internet will be a problem for the record stores. If a label like ours could bypass distribution and sell direct to the public, it would make a lot more money.
DO YOU SEE A TREND TOWARD DJS USING MORE EQUIPMENT ONSTAGE?
DIGWEED: Yes, definitely. I’ve had a Numark mixer for ten years now, and it has a little sampler and effects unit. It’s been a great tool, but things like the FilterFactory from Electrix, which can really buck up the sounds, take it to the next level.
RALPH: I don’t see why they shouldn’t. It’s not the most difficult job in the world to put two records together, and if you can make that sound more interesting by adding more technology, then I’m all for it as long as it’s not overdone. Some people with those Pioneer mixers just goon and on and on, flanging and phasing. Sometimes less is more. Ease of use is important, as well as whether you can understand the equipment quickly and put it into effect.
OAKENFOLD: That’s been developing for a long time. I’ve used live guitarists and live percussion. I’ve used vocalists and MCs and programmed drum machines. But it’s a fine line because you can program all your own rhythms, and nobody really knows you’re mixing them in.
WHAT ARE THE CURRENT TRENDS IN ELECTRONIC MUSIC, AND WHERE IS IT GOING?
DIGWEED: I have no idea. It is changing at such a rapid rate that it would be really hard to predict, but I think it will just get bigger. In the past five or six years I’ve seen it become a huge worldwide scene. I play in countries all over the world and get pretty much the same reaction everywhere I go. In the future, we’ll see more and more people making electronic music, taking elements from different cultures and just continuing to grow. The music is truly international. I can play in Russia and not speak a word of the language, but there are smiles on their faces, and they’re enjoying the music as much as anywhere I go.
RALPH: Right now, trance has become incredibly popular in the U.K. and all over Europe and America. A lot of DJsare really getting into that sound, and for me it’s a way forward. I don’t play breakbeat, but I know that people like the Chemical Brothers are incredibly popular. As for where the music is going next, new sounds keep coming in, and people keep pushing the boundaries.
OAKENFOLD: In the U.K. and Europe, youth culture is dance culture now. You have 24-hour dance radio and the biggest rock bands in the world, who all want dance remixes, The majority of the pop charts are dance music. One of the biggest music publications recently reported that turntables are now outselling guitars three to one. So there’s a big shift. Young people want to buy turntables and be DJs. You can make a dance record in your bedroom, and in the U.K. it can sell 2 million copies.
COWIE: My father likes to ask me when this dance-music thing is going to stop, but it’s not going to stop because it is the new rock and roll. I don’t know where it will be in ten years, but I’m 99 percent certain that people will still want to dance.