I'm honestly kind of unsure of where to start with you, simply because the biography portion of your website is so comprehensive. Maybe that's a place: Why did you feel the need to make it so comprehensive?
To be honest, I think after many years of interviews, I started realising that I kept getting asked the same questions. I had a very old press release which I didn't write, but mentioned that Madonna liked my Keep It Unreal album. And in every interview I'd get asked, "What do you think about Madonna liking your music?" After I realised why that was, I had the press release re-written and included a lot of relevant information. I still get some journalists who don't look at the website, but I figured if I can provide almost the definitive answers, then that will make the interviews more interesting for me. Maybe the interview can then take a step up into unknown territory or at least a more interesting and sort of meandering conversation.
Yeah. Although the difference between me and Greg is I'll put a name down and a link, and Greg will interview that person. I think he's got much more of a journalistic talent than I have. It's odd because obviously at the time when he was DJing and at his peak in the early '80s that was when I was just getting introduced to music and mixing and DJing, so he was influential both directly via the radio and indirectly via the people that he influenced. I mean there's a guy called Stu Allan who was on the radio a lot in the '80s for instance, who used to go out dancing to Greg Wilson before he got his own radio show—and that radio show was for about five years the musical bible for anyone who was into black music in Manchester.
Greg's had a lot of influence and I think reading his very precise history of things that he was directly involved in probably influenced my approach to my own websites. I think it's very important for me, and Greg as well, to say in an interview, "Look, I'm glad you're talking to me, and I've done a lot, but the whole reason I'm here and the whole reason I have this approach to what I'm doing is because I grew up on these DJs that haven't had nearly enough recognition internationally."
Do you feel like you're a Manchester DJ or that your style of DJing is distinctly "Manchester"?
I think the vast majority of the music—or the DJs that influenced me—were from Manchester, and it was mostly local radio that educated and inspired me. I suppose it's a product of Manchester, but also the era I grew up in. It wasn't nearly as segregated as it is nowadays. In the '80s it was all "dance music." I think until probably the late '80s most DJs had a very broad knowledge of music, because there might have only been, you know, three soul releases, five house releases and seven hip-hop releases in a week. Fast forward to today and there's so much music that I think even if you stuck to one kind of music you wouldn't be able to keep up with every release.
It was also the way that the music was presented. The radio DJs could talk about the music, so you would get much more of a sense of the history because they'd have guests on their radio shows or talk about old records that they grew up on and where it used to get played and that kind of thing.
How do you think radio has changed?
When I was, say, eight years old and I was listening to John Peel on the radio I wasn't going, "Right, I'm going to look out for a crazy specialist show that plays loads of stuff I've never heard." I just happened to have the radio on. I think nowadays if you leave a radio station on the only thing that's going to happen is you fall asleep. The vast majority of radio stations are so safe, whether that's middle-of-the-road or even specialist radio stations, which are very safe within their niches. Even if they're playing the latest new releases and it's being quite groundbreaking, they'll never really step outside of their comfort zone. I know obviously for someone like me who has a very wide-ranging approach to music, I wouldn't be where I am without the influence of specialist DJs, I think just because of my own inspiration a lot of the time was specialist DJs showing where the music came from on their radio shows as well as playing the latest things. That kind of thing gives you a bit of a wider picture.
But then everyone's going to pine for the days when they were inspired as a teenager I think. Obviously you can't go back there. All I can say is I'm very much a product of that era in terms of my musical approach, but I'm obviously just as excited about new music as I was when I was, you know, 10 or 15 years old.
Trying to get the next album finished. It's been nearly there for quite a while.
How are you approaching this one?
With albums I generally work on a lot of tracks separately, and then when I've got quite a few together I then start listening to them and kind of see what I'm getting at, rather than going, "Right, this album, I'm going to go for this particular sound or that particular sound." I'd rather kind of let it come out naturally. I think there's quite a lot that is kind of fairly midtempo 4/4 stuff, but it's still using drum breaks and things. I suppose I'm using a lot more synths than I used to. But it's still very important to me to keep the rough hip-hop attitude to the drums. In terms of what happens around that, though, it's anything goes really.
I'm interested to hear you're using more synths now.
Well, I love repetition and the kind of reliability of programmed music, so to speak, but I also like mistakes and a very human feel, so it's finding where man and machine meet in the middle. Sometimes that's going to be from manipulating samples, other times its going to be from playing a synthesiser quite badly and not tightening up the timing too much. For me, it's all about just pushing your own boundaries and what you work with. I think obviously nowadays with sample clearance it's becoming much more problematic in terms of people either refusing sample clearance or just wanting such a large percentage of the publishing.
It's quite odd at the moment with licensing and sample clearance. I remember seeing on your website that you were baffled by being asked to pay $10,000 for a one minute Jurassic 5 a cappella.
Yeah, I mean, well that's more for mix CDs I think. Mix CDs are just as bad because I think now that downloads have come in certain artists are like, "Right, we'll license it to you but you can't have single downloads." But licensing stuff for a mix CD or licensing samples for use in your own composition are both problematic in their own way. I think with downloads a lot of labels are so protective over their music whereas I think if I put something on a mix CD, then surely it's spreading the word rather than taking away from sales. People seem to be getting quite overly protective in the current climate with music. It's almost like they're kind of behaving as if the business model for music is still the same as it was five or ten years ago.
I'm quite enjoying it at the moment because the rules are all out the window. I suppose some people—because they might be a bit worried—are a bit more protective, or maybe a bit greedier, but it's to the detriment of their own career or their own label because it reduces exposure. It's strange, you know. It's all a game anyway. Everyone has a different approach, but I think some people are more forward thinking than others.
When Manumission started in Manchester in about 1994, I used to play all night upstairs. They had a weird cabaret lounge where I would play all sorts of music—myself and a few other DJs—and at five in the morning I just had the guy behind the bar make me a cup of tea. To me, that was fantastic. It was also going to things like Northern Soul nights, where alcohol wasn't such a big part of the night. The emphasis was firmly on dancing, so they'd have food there, and they'd have hot drinks. So, again, just going to the bar and discovering that you could get a cup of tea at two or three in the morning, I just got really excited about it.
I started my own night in 1999, and I basically tried to include aspects of things that I enjoyed at other people's nights. Very basic things: I don't like flashing lights, so we're going to turn all the lights off. I like good sound, so we're going to have a good soundsystem. I like being surprised by the selection of music, so I'm going to play all over the place. I like room to dance, so I'm going to make sure my events aren't too busy. I like drinking tea in clubs, so I'm going to sell tea. There was this little room that didn't really make sense for dancing so I thought we should use it as a space where you can get peace of quiet and have a sit down. (Which is going to make people less likely to stand and talk on the dance floor.)
I think it was good because obviously other people had the same reaction that I did when I was served tea at other people's events. Some people didn't like it, but either way it made people smile because it wasn't expected. That was quite an important aspect as well. It was quite a humorous thing to do. Kind of the complete opposite of a VIP area.
You've talked on your website about making a proper brew. What's the teabag on a spoon technique all about?
By far the best way to have a cup of tea is to have a teapot with loose leaf tea in it, and the next best way is to have a teapot with a teabag in. But most people, myself included, are just going to do it in a mug to save washing up. It's a very quick thing that most people do automatically. So I got the technique off a friend of mine who's also a real tea-o-holic. I've found that if you use other techniques when you're using a mug it can be a lot more hit and miss, depending on various factors, so it's good to have a definite technique. Everybody has their own way of doing it—and there are people who are very particular about the way they make tea—but as long as you have a technique, that's the most important thing. It leads to consistency, and that leads to good quality tea.
What's your favourite type at the moment?
I'm not sure. I mean, at this time of day—in the morning—it has to be a strong English Breakfast or Assam tea. Once we get into the afternoon, though, it can be anything really. It depends what mood you're in. It could be a mint tea or a nice gunpowder green tea or a jasmine. That's a bit like saying what's your favourite record. Every day I wake up humming a different tune in my head, normally something I'd listened to the day before so it's entirely down to mood, how you feel and what the weather's like outside. I think tea's quite a functional thing for me. You have it in order to make you feel a certain way, whether that's a little bit of a caffeine hit or you want to feel a bit healthy. It's like when you put a record on. You listen to that record because you want to get something out of it. I think the general default tea, though, is a good strong black tea.
What new tea flavours are you working on? You made mention of a cheese and onion once.
Yeah, absolutely, that's definitely more my imagination than anything else. A lot of my humour is quite absurd in the eccentric British Monty Python way. I do like the fact that even though I've got a tea company and the tea is very good, I can be stupid at the same time. I don't have to be austere or reverential. It's the same with music. It's about having fun and socialising. There are a lot of people that will take it very seriously, have very long tea-tasting sessions and that kind of thing, which is fine, but it's not my approach. Tea's about fun for me: You can have something quality without being really serious or snobbish about it.