- Mon, 2011-08-15 14:09
Pioneers of dance - predominantly house - X-Press 2 have been a constant underground favourite and occasional mainstream hit-makers since the early nineties. Though new material has been thin on the ground since 2006's Makeshift Feelgood, DJs Diesel and Rocky (Ashley Beedle recently departed their ranks) are getting ready to return to the fray with a new album in the coming months.
I Like Music chatted to Rocky about their new material, discovering house music, forming X-Press 2, scoring top ten hits and who the hottest new names in house music are.
”I Like Music because…it’s pretty much been my live and I’ve known nothing else.” DJ Rocky, X-Press 2
ILM: This Is War features the vocals of Doll. How did that track come together?
Rocky: Doll came to a studio that we were working at about two years ago. We’d done a backing track and were looking for a kind of Siouxsie Sioux, punky girl vocal. The track sounded like an Adam Ant kind of Burundi thing. Our manager had seen Doll & The Kicks perform around that time and reckoned that she would be amazing on it. He got in touch and she sent us a load of ideas for the track. Then she came down to the studio with us and said “look, I know I’ve sent you all that stuff, but I’ve actually got this other thing as well.” She stood there and sang This Is War and we were just blown away. We recorded the vocal there and then. We kept working on it for a couple of months, but couldn’t get it sounding right. Eventually it just got left and we forgot all about it. Then last summer a guy called Dennis Ferrer – a producer from New York – did this stripped back house track with a punky female vocal on it and me and Diesel realised that it was what we should have done with the Doll track. So we went back to it, got back in touch with Doll and asked her back up to re-vocal it.
ILM: So it’s been a bit of a round-about journey, but worth it.
Rocky: That’s it. From the first time that we met Doll we realised how amazing a performer and personality she is. Being in the studio when she actually sang it two foot from you was just like “my god, this is amazing!” So we knew it was brilliant from the first time that she sang it. It’s similar in a way to what we did with David Byrne [on Lazy]. We got that back and knew that we had something really, really special, and then it was just a question of going backwards and forwards and just getting it right.
ILM: You need to get that cohesiveness I suppose…
Rocky: That’s exactly it. When it’s your own stuff and there isn’t a third party involved you just have your quality control concerns. When someone else is involved you have to get it right. It’s really important to keep at these things until they’re as perfect as we can get them, which is hopefully what we do.
ILM: The song is taken from your forthcoming new album; what can we expect from that?
Rocky: There are a few collaborations on it… We’re just constantly inspired by music that’s going on, as well as stuff from the past. We’re both record collectors and have been since we were kids. We’ve always been into all sorts of music; predominantly black music, whatever that is… Soul, funk, reggae, jazz, r&b, house, disco. A real cross-section of stuff, as well as classical music and that sort of thing. So there are and always have been a lot of those kinds of influences in what we do. It’s a kind of mish-mash, although predominantly house-based. We’re really into this nineties house thing, and you hear a lot of that influencing what’s going on at the moment. People like Maya Jane Coles, who’s a massive inspiration for us at the moment. She’s one of these current DJs/producers who are making really incredible music, borrowing from the past and making it into something else. We’re influenced by that as well as stuff that’s gone on in the past.
ILM: What collaborations have you done for the album?
Rocky: We’ve done a couple of tracks with Roland Clarke, who’s an old-school US singer who sung that track Flowers with Armand Van Helden back in the day. The two songs that we’ve done with Roland are amazing. When we originally sent Roland the backing track he wanted an idea of what we were after, and the brief was that we wanted it to sound like a record that came out in 1987, but that everyone missed. He sent us this vocal back and absolutely nailed what we’d envisaged. We’ve also been working a lot with Tim Deluxe, and Leo Zero, Timo Garcia, Sonny Wharton. So all kinds of new and current producers as well. The beauty of technology now is that it’s so easy to bat ideas back and forth even when you’re on different continents. So there are collaborations on there, but there are also our classic dancefloor pumpers!
ILM: What’s your technical set-up in the studio?
Rocky: Hand on heart and in all honesty we have never been technically trained or anything like that. Even when there were three of us, none of us had any technical abilities when it comes to programming. We’ve always worked with engineers. We just come in with a bag of records and a bunch of ideas and translate that through our engineer. For the past couple of years we’ve been working with a guy called Justin Drake, who used to be part of a team called Peace Division. He only uses Ableton. But for the kind of stuff that we do we get a great sound with that. For someone who isn’t a technical person it’s so easy to comprehend how everything’s working. When we used to use Logic it went over our heads! We’ve always been lucky to work with brilliant engineers and programmers who’ve been able to interpret our inane ramblings and turn them into coherent ideas.
ILM: When did you first realise your love for music?
Rocky: Me and Diesel are both from Hayes in Middlesex, just outside the West of London. It’s got big West Indian population and quite a big Asian population, so we were always exposed to different kinds of music. I remember at school you’d hear so many different sounds; reggae, bangra, stuff like that. The first electronic stuff that I got into – and I can pretty much speak for Diesel on this as well – was hip hop around the late seventies and early eighties. I’d just started secondary school and I had a cousin who lived up in Ladbroke Grove. I remember him doing me a cassette tape with Planet Rock, Tyrone Brunson – The Smurf, C.O.D.’s version of In The Bottle and loads of other stuff on there. I can still see the cover now, with his hand-written tracklist on it. I played that tape over and over and over again. It was my first introduction to that kind of music. I’d heard it, but that had some of the more obscure things that you didn’t hear on mainstream radio, which was just brilliant.
ILM: Did you always have aspirations to become a DJ?
Rocky: Well from there I started buying the records myself, and started DJing when I was still at school. The first DJ gig that I did was a sixth-form disco. I remember speaking to one of the teachers and she was like “I’m sure we’ve got this DJ thing somewhere in the school,” and we went to this storeroom in the back of one of the old blocks and found this dusty thing that looked like a suitcase. You opened it up and there were two decks and a mixer built into it. That was it. From then on I loved it. I started DJing at a local youth club and doing birthday parties for mates. It just grew from there.
ILM: When did you get into dance music specifically?
Rocky: It was around about ’86 that you heard the first house things come along. We were going out at the time to The Mud Club, The Wag, City of Angels, Delirium…all these West End clubs, getting a train up from Hayes with a bunch of mates. We were laughed out of the local pubs because of the weird clothes we were wearing and we just wanted to get away from all that provincial crap, so we started going up town and hearing all these different DJs. You’d hear everything; soul, hip hop, gogo, funk, then you started to hear house coming through. It was a brilliant time. Mates of mine were doing visuals at the time, and the girl I was seeing had a van. In November ’87 a mate of mine called up and said “we’re going to do this party in South London but the van’s broken down, could you give us a hand getting the kit over there?” We got there, set up and a little later this fella called Danny Rampling came on and started playing house music and really weird pop and rock records. There was this bunch of kids in there from South London dressed like hippies and doing this mad dance. My girlfriend of the time had been out to Ibiza that summer and said to me “this is that dance they were all doing in Ibiza!” It got to about six in the morning and a lightbulb went off in my head and I thought “it’s all change from this night. Everything’s changed.” I was a convert. It just went from there.
ILM: What was the first set you played as X-Press 2?
Rocky: Well at the time of that November ’87 gig I was friends with Diesel anyway. We were going to all these mad parties, and this opportunity came up in June of July ’88; some mates were doing a night called Trance at a club called Barbarella’s in Greenford. They were looking for a DJ to warm up there. We both wanted to do it, but they only had money for one DJ, so we agreed to split the money and play back-to-back. That was when we first DJed together. X-Press 2 didn’t start until ’92 though. We’d been DJing for four years and doing the odd remix here and there. Terry Farley of Boys Own had put us up to doing a remix of The Farm, and then he suggested we make a record and offered to pay for the studio time. We were good mates with Ashley [Beedle; no longer a member] as well at that time. We were out somewhere and Ashley played this old Patrick Adams record, and we were shouting about it, saying “we should maybe get in the studio and do something based around this.” Terry agreed, and because Ashley had had a whole day studio experience more than us we all went in together! That was October ’91. We spent a whole day in the studio over in Bermondsey and the result of that was Muzik Express. That came out after Christmas in ’92 and the first gig we played all together would have been around that time.
ILM: You were always huge on the underground, but Lazy got to number two and was big in the mainstream; what effect did that level of success have on you?
Rocky: It was insane. All we ever do is make music that we’re into, and when we first made Lazy all we wanted to do was to make a deep house record with David Byrne singing on it. We did that and started playing it to a few mates. I remember playing it down the phone to Pete Heller the day we made it and asking him what he thought. He was like “mate, that’s a top ten pop record.” We knew it was good and couldn’t wait to play it in the pubs, but it was only once that you started hearing mates’ and peers’ reactions to it that you thought “we’re onto something here.” But it went insane from there. Doing Top Of The Pops and getting the Ivor Novello Award was crazy. Even now it’s quite bizarre. Yesterday I was in a little pub out in the country talking to the owner and the barmaid and he asked “what are you doing today,” and I was just like “oh, having a lazy day,” and she was like “oh, like the song!” I told them that I had written the music for that song and he looked at me and said “I fucking hated that song.” It was so brilliant! But no, it’s mad to think that it had such an effect, whether it’s good or bad. That’s why you make music; to reach people. Going back to Muzik Express, I can remember sitting down with Ash and Diesel and saying “wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could make tracks that still sound alright in two years time,” and here we are eleven years after we made Lazy, and almost twenty after we made Muzik Express, and we still play those records now, and people still go nuts. It’s such an amazing feeling.
ILM: What difference, if any, have you noticed in crowds today when compared to those you played to earlier in your career?
Rocky: They’re definitely getting younger (although that could just be us getting older to be honest!), which is part of the reason that we’re still here. I played at Audio down in Brighton a couple of weeks ago on a Saturday night and the crowd ranged from late teens to thirties – a fairly young crowd – and it’s just so brilliant to see them go bananas to the kind of new music that we play on our radio show, loads of our new productions from the album and older stuff as well, like Muzik Express and Lazy. You get the same reaction from twenty-year-old kids who are out raving for the first time to the kind of crowd I played a couple of weeks earlier at a mate’s fiftieth birthday party, where I played the same records. I love that you can reach different people and have the same effect. It’s the same thing with us DJing; you get a piece of music and it moves you, then you take it to the club environment and play it to two thousand people, and you can see them getting that same feeling as you. There really is nothing like it. It’s just a-mazing.
ILM: What have you been listening to recently?
Rocky: Loads and loads of stuff. The beauty of doing a weekly radio show is that we get sent so much music. We always did. We’d get between forty and eighty vinyl records every week at our peak, then it changed to CDs, and now we get forty to sixty emails every day with mp3s attached. There are loads and loads of exciting young new producers out there, who we’re lucky to have built up relationships with through the radio show. We’ve got this little gang of mates out in Spain who are fucking amazing! There’s Coyu, Uner, Edu Imbernon, Ramon Tapia…there’s a whole little gang around these guys, and they have their own little labels. They just make brilliant house music. It’s so inspiring to hear what they do.
ILM: Might you work with them at some point?
Rocky: Well Edu, Coya and Uner have remixed some of the old X-Press 2 stuff; Muzik Express, Lazy and Kill 100. Each of the producers did one track. That’s coming out later this year as a little Spanish posse EP thing. Hearing these guys makes you want to keep doing what you do. You get a new track from one of them and think “fuck man, this is so brilliant, why didn’t we think of doing this?” We’ve also got a mate over in New York called Feygin who is so prolific that he’ll send us two or three things every four or five weeks. Every single thing that he sends is absolutely amazing. We’ve got another mate based in London, a bloke called Tomoki Tamura who puts on some brilliant parties but also makes some amazing – I should stop using the word amazing! – house as well. A really big tune for us at the moment is by a bloke called Osunlade who’s got a track coming out called Envision ,on the Innervisions label. It’s an excellent label from Berlin run by Dixon. They always put out really interesting, soulful, funky, serious dance music. This track just encapsulates their whole sound. We’ve been hammering it loads over the summer. It’s our biggest tune at the moment. There’s so much brilliant, brilliant music out there at the moment, and so many talented producers who just keep it all interesting.
ILM: What it is about dance music in particular that you love so much?
Rocky: I think it’s the tribal thing. The early acid house thing was all about being together, having a shared empathy on the dance floor, or with the dance floor if you were the DJ. You do kind of get that with other things, but I’ve not experienced it. We’ve also found over twenty-five years doing this that everything is constantly morphing. You get little sub-genres and offshoots and new producers who will try and emulate something that’s gone before, but in so doing create something all of their own and completely new. That’s the thing that I really, really love about it. The flowing movement. There’s always something different and new. You think to yourself “it’s all been done,” but then a kid will come along with a completely different sound that you’ve never heard before. So that’s it for me, in a nutshell; the constant evolution and the shared feeling you get on a dance floor. You still get that. We did a party last week for a friend of ours that sadly passed away – Kenny Hawkes – at a club called East Village. Everybody danced all night, and it was just so, so brilliant. In that room last Thursday night was exactly the reason that I love dance music.
Guest Edit #46: X-Press 2 Take a look here