That isn't to say that Lee is all about house. He's gotten acidic on Transmat as M-D-Emm, he reported to the dance floor on Network as Energize and he founded his own imprints—Republic and Z Records—and introduced the deep house and garage sound of New York and New Jersey to a UK scene that was still busy with the jack and 303 blueprints the Chicago pioneers had left behind.
But a love of disco is what people most associate with Joey Negro. When house emerged, he not only used his vast record collection of classics as a resource for his own material, but was among the first to connect the dots between the genres by compiling several compilations of his own favourites. We caught up recently with the dedicated collector and archivist of house's primordial soup to play him some.
"What a Fool Believes"
Warner Bros, 1979
"What a Fool Believes" by the Doobie Brothers merged rock and disco.
There's other tracks, like the Alessi Brothers "Ghostdancer." I suppose that just shows how popular disco music must have been at the time when people like The Doobie Brothers and Carly Simon were actually making disco records. I suppose it's the same as nowadays people making a record with a more R&B-type beat. Or at the beginning of house music, there were lots of pop acts making house records.
I was listening to a best of ABBA a few years ago. It started off sort of glam-rock, sort of sweet, like Gary Glitter, that sort of production. And by the late '70s their stuff had got pretty disco-ey. And by 1982, it was folky. So I think the disco beat was just featuring on a lot of productions by acts who just wanted to make a contemporary sounding record. That's probably why a lot of the American rock establishment hated disco so much. It wasn't just that it was there: their favourite acts were making disco records! They hated the fact the Rolling Stones made disco records, it just wasn't allowed.
But the thing is, that when the disco boom ended, a lot of the rock acts who made disco records acted like they never did! They deserted it pretty quickly.
Yeah, once it became uncool they pretended they never liked it, that it wasn't their idea and all that. I tried to once do a compilation album of that sort of stuff. But it's too difficult to license it all. They're all on major labels, they're all big acts, and it's very hard to license that stuff. In fact I'd go as far as to say it's impossible: just too difficult and expensive.
Was it just because of budget reasons, or because the acts didn't want to be reminded of what they did in that area?
I think often those big acts have to approve every compilation album license. A lot of the time, for the people who work in the compilation album license department, it's easier for them to say no than to write to the management of Supertramp or Queen. And often, if they do see a title that has disco in it, they will say no. And a lot of them won't license the Rolling Stones to a comp[ilation] that's got a projected sales figure of less than half a million.
There's so many reasons why it's problematic. You could do it, but you'd have to leave off so many tracks, there would hardly be any point doing it. I did have a chat with a major label about doing it and that was one that owned quite a lot of them. But it's just so difficult. They want to see a big marketing budget, they want to see you spend a hundred grand on television adverts. Otherwise they just go, "Why are we on this compilation album?"
"I'll Be Your Pleasure"
The next one is more classical. "I'll Be Your Your Pleasure" by Esther Williams, which is a pretty rare Larry Levan mix. But it's not really a typical Levan mix...
Yeah, it's not really tripped out or whatever. We need the original mix for comparison, so we don't really know what he did. There is no original version, because the album has the Levan mix on it. I think this is before he became dubby, it wasn't until the Gwen Guthrie, that sort of era, the more electronic stuff, that he started to get more dubby.
How far back does your love for disco music go back? Were you into it when you were younger and then just stuck with it?
Pretty much. I'm 45, I was born in 1964, so in the early '70s I was into glam rock. All I remember about black music back then was things like Barry White, The Drifters which I wasn't that keen on to be honest. And then one day on television I heard Heat Wave's "Boogie Nights," and that sort of changed my mind.
I still listened to Earth Wind & Fire, things that were getting in the charts back then like Dan Hartman, The Jacksons, "Blame It On The Boogie." From buying those records and then discovering Radio Luxembourg, which five nights a week had disco charts. A disco sales chart, a disco albums chart, what's getting played in the disco as opposed to just selling, a disco import chart. So that opened my eyes, or ears, to a whole wealth of music. I didn't realise there was this much music being made that wasn't in the charts. I thought what's in the charts was it. I didn't realise there were loads of records that weren't even released in England. So I started buying imports. I never really stopped liking it.
I remember one of the other things that really introduced me to disco music was in a junk shop. I used to buy loads of music at junk shops, charity shops. Back then it was worthless, they'd be like, "Oh, you like this stuff? We've got loads of it out the back." It wasn't super rare, just like Philly MFSB albums and Norman Connors albums and those sort of things, but it was still very, very cheap. I built up a collection of records very easily, for very little money, as well as buying new stuff. I bought that West End 10th anniversary megamix, which starts off slow with "Heartbeat," Tony Humphries did it. One side goes from "Heartbeat" to Peech Boys, the other side goes from something like Bombers and goes up to faster stuff like "When You Touch Me."
I did like some really poppy, camp disco but I thought some of this stuff made in 1978 was too disco-ey in the wrong way, like pop disco. I liked "When You Touch Me" when I heard it back in the early '80s. I like some techno records, I like the odd R&B records, like Beyonce's "Crazy in Love," something like that. I like everything, but only a small amount of most things. I dislike most R&B, for example, if I turn on MTV and flick through the channels. But I still find things like the Phenomenal Handclap Band, Empire Of The Sun. But not everything, just the odd track. And there's a lot of dance music I hate.
But you never stopped digging for disco? You're still actively collecting?
Yeah, I mean I'll always look for old records. But I like hearing a good new record as much as an old record. It's just a question of spending time on Beatport or Juno, Tracksource. One night you might find three or four really good records. It's the same as looking for second hand records on eBay. Sometimes you search and search and you don't find anything. Other times you find four or five good ones in one month. I suppose the more you have, the chances of finding good things get lower. But I still think there's probably loads of good tracks on well-known albums that I don't know. I might even have the album, you know?
"If You Should Need a Friend"
The next one delves into your own career as a producer. A classic New Jersey track. You had that label back then, Republic, and you did these garage compilations. So you were pretty acquainted with this New Jersey sound I guess. What drew you to it back then?
Before I was running the label, I was working in the distribution of Rough Trade. I was just buying records, and I thought from what my friends were buying, and what I was observing, the British record labels seemed to be ignoring the New Jersey stuff.
I think it was because acid house was a real craze, and everyone was trying to sign acid house. I just thought quite a lot of these records from New Jersey, and New York and Chicaco have got that sound, and it's been ignored because everyone's going crazy for the acid stuff. I thought there'd been some really good songs. It was a different side of the house music thing. I put out "Can't Win For Losin'" by Blaze, but I always preferred "If You Should Need a Friend." But someone else had already put that out. And that other one, "Whatcha Gonna Do."
We did a bit of work with Blaze, they did some remixes for us and another compilation album. But mainly I just liked it, and I thought there were quite a few records, things like Turntable Orchestra was another one, Kym Mazelle, which were just good records. I was surprised, when I spoke to people outside record collectors, they didn't seem to know them. When I speak to guys who are more in the business, they were all more on this Todd Terry, Chicago, acid, kind of stuff. And I thought as a new label, we haven't got that much money to license tracks. I couldn't compete with what London were paying. If it got into a bidding war, they're definitely going to win. So the best bet is to go for something that nobody else is interested in.
So you would say that back then the New Jersey sound was restricted to the US East Coast?
I think that's always been the case. For a brief period, the garage stuff became quite cool around the time we put that album out. There were a few quite strong releases. Things like Phase II's "Reachin'" were particularly strong songs. And maybe Turntable Orchestra and other things. But I think generally, the more house-y house is more accessible to most people. And I think that when Phase II was out in the UK, they were big tracks. But they weren't as big in northern England as Todd Terry's "Can You Party." It was popular, but it's too soulful for the masses.
"Release Your Body"
What about the next track then, which was a British production on a Detroit label, which was funny enough. Would you say that track was a reaction to the New Jersey sound?
Well that was on a British label first, and it was licensed to Transmat. It was on a label called Warrior's Dance. That's a British DJ called Kid Batchelor, I'm sure you know. Derrick May just particularly liked it, and licensed it and put it out on Transmat. He put out a few British records at the time, he actually put out one of my early records.
It was nice to have a record out on Transmat, even if it's not one of the best ones. Probably one of the worst. But when that came out, it was a benchmark in UK house production. It was one of the best British house records when it came out, Bang The Party. I don't know if it sounded American, but it didn't sound British. Quite a lot of British house records were pretty lightweight, lacking in bottom end on the bass, a bit poppy, lots of samples being stuttered in all over the place, quite cheesy piano and whatever. I think it's normal for all countries to dismiss their own music, I'm sure a lot of Italo disco is dismissed in Italy by Italians. I listened to it recently, about five years ago, and I wasn't sure it still sounded amazing. I need to check it out again.
What is your relationship to this early techno stuff? As you said, you had a Transmat release, which was kind of an honour. And you also did some kind of bleep stuff on Network too?
That's right. I used to love "Strings Of Life," "It Is What It Is," I loved those records and I still do. Model 500, some of that early techno stuff. As has been documented by a lot of people, it was very original, a great combination of a few different influences. I wouldn't say that bleep Energize thing I did on Network was great, it was just what I made at the time. But I liked the early Warp stuff like LFO and "Testone." I guess your taste changes and stays the same in different amounts. I still like LFO, and I still like the early techno stuff. And I like some of the modern techno stuff, I like Martin Buttrich and some of the stuff he does. I don't know when it becomes techno, when it's deep house, tech house or progressive house. I think lots of things could be several of those. But I still think there's some interesting music coming out which is in that techno classification.
"Just Before the Dawn"
Nu Groove, 1991
Here's another legendary label you did a release on, Nu Groove. How did you end up on there?
At the time, I'd put out a few Nu Groove records on Republic, so I'd licensed Bobby Konders, Metro, I'd almost licensed Bas Noir's "My Love Is Magic" but Virgin stepped in and offered more money, which is fair enough. So when I made that record, I wasn't sure what to do with it. It was a record I'd made on my own, and I was lacking a bit of confidence.
Sometimes it's easier to give it to someone else to put out, and I thought, "I know that Nu Groove's a very cool label." Sometimes you're on a head start if you're on a cool label, people want to like the record. Whereas if you're on a new label then you've got to win them over first. Think of Get Physical, or Naked Music, or Warp. There's been lots of cool labels that have been cool for a while, and while they've got that glow, every release does pretty well. And eventually people go the other way. Then people say, "I don't like them any more, I liked them last year."
Yeah, a lot of them. But if you look at any label, like if you look at the West End catalogue for example: they put out a lot of turkeys, and some great records. No one releases all good records, I mean Salsoul released loads of shit. But as long as there's some good ones, you tolerate the crap. I'm a big fan of the Burrells, and what they were doing then. They put out some fantastic records with unusual chords. Again, it's quite jazzy, but with a house-y bottom end. The bassline and the drums are always pretty raw and house-y but it's got a sophisticated musical element on top of it, chord-wise. Which is always something that I like.
It's incredibly sophisticated. But I think it's the kind of record you have to be careful with as a DJ. It's very mellow.
It reminds me a bit of Paul Hardcastle's "Rain Forest" in a way. The only time I've heard it was DJ Harvey in a club called Moist, in London in the early '90s. And I asked him what it was, it didn't go down very well. It's an early morning record. Nowadays, the sort of people who still go to a club at that time in the morning, they're always just looking for energy to keep them going. They don't want to hear a record like that, they want to hear something more banging to keep them going.
I think in that aspect the times have changed a bit.
Yes, very much so.
I really miss club nights actually ending, and not going on forever. You have a structure: A beginning, a climax, an end. And in the early hours there's something like this record which I found is a really good way to let the people out of the club.
I agree. I much prefer a DJ to take it down towards the end, rather than try and keep the last 50 people there by playing fast and well-known records. Purely because you know you're going to lose the dance floor a little bit by playing those sort of tracks. But it makes more sense to wind down rather than keep it up at full throttle right to the end of the night.
"Where Were You?"
Junior Boy's Own, 1992
A landmark UK house record which was heavily influenced by disco. "Where Were You" was mainly an interpretation of The Trammps, and I think that must have been around the time where you were pushing that further, fusing disco originals with house. You did that at an early stage, but there was that time when it was getting very popular.
Yeah, I think so. Ashley Beedle who made that is a very good friend of mine, and he's very good at making those. It's somewhere between a re-edit and a remix of a new production. One of the things he did which was good, he didn't try and put loud house drums over the top of it. They aren't too imposing. I was definitely guilty a few times of adding drums that were too heavy-handed. So that's one of the things that makes things seem dated nowadays, too loud drums.
I think he was on a roll when he did that, "New Jersey Deep" was another good example of taking a classic record and doing something creative with it. That bit of The Trammps he sampled is just that end section. Much as I like the original, that is probably the best bit of it. I suppose back in the old days you would tolerate a record that was eight minutes long if there was a special bit, that was the peak. But when sampling came along, you just took that moment and repeated it. Which can work very well, and other times can sound a bit flat. But that one worked well.
Was it around that time that you decided to keep on merging your disco influences with modern house sounds?
I guess you just do what you do. I've never made a conscious decision to stop doing it, or keep doing it. When you get in the studio, when you first start making records, that was one of my main influences. I guess it's a thin balance, when you're trying to please yourself, you don't want to repeat what you've already done but you don't want to do something you don't like. People can be very fickle, they complain, "It's all the same." But if you change too much, it's like "I preferred the disco stuff." I think if it's a good song, that is the most important thing. Is it a strong song? I still enjoy making it.
Most of the last year, I've been making an Akabu album which is more sort of deep house, I've been trying to do that Larry Heard, Marshall Jefferson-style old school house. So I haven't been making disco stuff. But I've pretty much finished that, and I am making a couple of disco things. I normally make those records just to please myself and know that there's enough people who like that sound, which makes it financially viable to a degree.
the critics who said it was this
worthless, rubbish, moronic music."
But it's a lot more expensive making a disco-type record just because you've got a lot more musicians. If you want to make it with a live bassist, and guitarist, and singer, straight away that's a lot more time-consuming and more expensive. But you still do things sampling a disco loop. There was something last year, I can't remember the name, that sampled Musique's "Summer Love." Maybe something like the Funk Brothers. They did something pretty good with it.
Sometimes you think, every disco sample's been done. But there's always something out there, and as technology changes you'll be able to do different things to records that you can't do now. When they introduced the low pass filter it completely changed everything. All of a sudden all these records that had messy percussion, you could just isolate the bassline. It's interesting how technology changes, now it's a lot easier to get a loop in time. You can get a whole record in time quite easily. I hope I'll always be making it to a degree, but hopefully not in exactly the same way as 20 years ago.
Are you content with the way there was a renaissance of the fascination with disco? People are exploring the furthest parts of disco, it is getting really specialized. Did you expect it?
I didn't expect. But what is called disco now, I mean I bought a compilation album called something disco, and there was only one track on there that I would call vaguely disco. It's just music from the '70s. What I find funny about it, I remember at the time, even when disco was really popular, on the radio and television, a lot of people would sneer at it, saying this music is popular now but it will sound awful in a couple of years. And I think the opposite is true. It's actually, of all the music that's been made in the '70s, it's the one that's lasted and been plagiarized the most.
I think in the same way if you went to an office party in the '80s, everyone would be playing Motown records. Now, they'd be playing disco records. They're the records that everyone knows, and dances along to and sings along to. I'm proud in a way that disco music has defied the critics who said it was this worthless, rubbish, moronic music. And actually, of all the records that were made in the '70s it's the disco records you hear the most of on the radio, in clubs, coming out of shops, walking down the street. I'm pleased its legacy still continues.
"Found a Place"
Ostgut Ton, 2009
This was a massive club hit last year.
When I first heard that record it reminded me of why I still love house music. It is definitely a house record, it's very empty and simple. It's not got much in the way of drums. Just bass drum, snare, piano, a few filtering "neow, neow." It's just got a remorseless energy. Reminded me a little of the early French house music, but also of the early house-y house music from Chicago. Sometimes you hear a record like that and think "I love house music." What I also like about it is about half way through there's a breakdown, and the chords change... it reminded me of the Happy tracks, that label from Detroit. It reminded me of something like that, Unit 2.
It also reminded me a bit of Inner City too.
Yeah, maybe because of the chord. Inner City use a thing called a roll chord, which you can do on a lot keyboards. You play a chord, then it memorizes the chord. Then you just play up and down, playing single notes, and it does the chord. I know that's how Kevin Saunderson did that. Again, Inner City, "Big Fun" and "Good Life" are both records that have aged very well I think.
Would you say "Found a Place" is your ideal of what house should sound like now?
Yeah. House. Not soulful house, just house. I like the fact that it didn't have prominent drums. A lot of them now have these compressed, big sounding drums. And that didn't have that. I must admit, when I played it out, and I played it a lot, it didn't work everywhere. The drums were too soft for a lot of crowds. I think if it had the standard, modern house drums it would be a much worse record, because it would sound like everything else. The fact that it is so empty gives the rest of the music room to breathe.