McBean is anything but during our hour-long conversation in a cafe near London's BM Soho, a record shop he still frequents each week. Indeed, the only thing rude about the man is his music, an analogue techno built from the bassline up that fits neatly into his adopted home of Radio Slave's Rekids label. It's a sound that's been unfashionable and fashionable in equal measure since he stepped into the scene in the late '80s. But now, more than two decades later, it's decidedly back thanks in no small part to his debut album, Still Here, released earlier this month.
The new record is your debut album. I assume you came to Rekids through Radio Slave, right? How did you meet Matt Edwards?
Yes. I met Matt a long time ago, back when he was doing edits. I always knew he was going to be a star. In the quality and the production of the edits, it was clear that there was so much more waiting to come out.
Could you hear a similarity of sound or mindset in what Matt was doing with your own productions?
Definitely. Matt would send me these edits that didn't edit the track so much as they edited the instrumental, the stuff around it. That's when I began to hear what he was up to. I remember texting him: "Your time will come...and don't forget me!" Or something like that. Then he started Rekids. "My Bleep," the label's first release, inspired me to write "E.C.G'ed." I felt like I could do something like that with my spin on it, my philosophy.
What is that philosophy?
Stripped, old-school drums. That's how I hear Matt's sound. You've got the funk of the old-school drums with that digital edge, which I've always strived for. It's never going to happen. I love the long reverb, but I don't have that kind of equipment.
Trying to hold my label, Phoenix G., together. Sales were dipping. I wasn't as hungry. I think a lot of people felt that way. I was just banging out singles before the digital thing hit, and it became clear very quickly that you weren't going to sell if quality wasn't your starting point. I hit that wall, lost my direction, lost my way.
Was there a certain "a-ha moment" for you during all of this?
Hearing Ame's "Rej." I said to myself, "Why are you still making music, Colin? You're never going to make something like that." It had gone from this stripped down tech house through to this more linear, digital sound. The first ones had the funk, but that swiftly disappeared. And that's where I thought of giving up. I was thinking, "If that's how it is, I'm not going to join that party."
You had to feel like it was going to come around again, though, right?
It seemed so strong. I really didn't know what to do. I was trying to achieve a digital sound in an analog studio. The music I was putting out had its following, but it wasn't getting a response in the digital world. When "E.C.G'ed" came out, though, it caught a lot of people. It had a minimal aspect, but it's not a minimal track. I'm a soundboy, so when you would hear a track like mine on a big sound system, it's a whole different picture. That's the beauty of what I do.
When did you become a soundboy?
Quite early. We would show up at a derelict old house or a dance hall, pick up the speakers, the amps. I graduated from being the person that set up and would sit all night by the sound boy to make sure nothing got stolen or there was nothing wrong with the sound to becoming a selector. There was no mixing in those days. I went to London to get my degree, and met Keith [Franklin] there and we formed KCC along with Cisco Ferreira.
Tell me about the Confusion parties that you did with them.
Those were mad. I was part of the second wave, Keith was part of the first wave. It was basically a reggae soundsystem playing house music. We had Richie Hawtin, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May playing for 80 quid every Sunday night. You can't really imagine that early techno stuff played on a system like that. I remember one party where we nearly took out the power of an entire city block.
Not many. I just got back from Japan, though, and JB's in Nagoya was amazing. Each night in Japan, I learned something more about my set, but at JB's I had one of those sets where I said to myself, "I've never heard the resonance or the bass that way." I don't get that often. I'm looking for that club where you don't need a monitor to mix, where it's liquid clean and it will hold what you want to give it.
My thing is playing live with the EQ's. Usually you can get to a sweet spot on a system and know that you can't push it anymore before it starts to break up. As I was driving the bass at JB's, it seemed to say, "Is that all you've got, Colin?" I don't think I've had one of those moments since The Advent days.
Let's talk about The Advent days. You worked with Cisco Ferreira under that name.
It was a meeting of minds. Cisco was always Mr. Technical. He could make it happen. At that point, I would come with a rare record that had a sound that was worth sampling. And an understanding of what worked in a club. Cisco wasn't a DJ then.
Back then you regarded yourself as a DJ much more so than as a producer.
Definitely. Being around someone like Cisco, who is a great producer, and listening to records and figuring out how those sounds were made, you begin to understand how it's done. On stage, though, we were groundbreaking because I would go out there and dance. Halfway through the set, I'd do my street-style dancing and it was quite new. Nobody had been doing that sort of thing to techno or hard funk, as I called it.
Why did you make that distinction?
Because it had swing. It wasn't just driving, linear. It had that gap, something in between. It made a big difference.
Jack Iron Rum
One of the tracks on Mr. G's debut album is called "Firewater." There's a reason for that. He's a rum enthusiast. Here's McBean on one of his favourites.
There is an island off of Grenada called Carriacou that is a little piece of heaven. On it, they have this rum called Jack Iron. You can't take it out of Grenada because it's so flammable. They take it from you at the airport and give you a watered-down version. Everybody who drinks it can tell you a story about it. On one of the first nights there, my friends warned me to only drink one. I had one, it was good. Halfway through dinner, I asked for a second. Right after we paid, I ran to my hotel room! That's how heavy it was.
I started to drink this morning, noon and night, just to get its measure. (And got kicked in the butt a few times along the way.) A few days later, I was challenged to a competition. I knew the drink by that point. This guy, halfway through the contest, had reached his limit and started throwing the drink over his shoulder. I became a bit of a local legend that day.
That's all I know. When I start a track in the studio, it's a bassline. A rude bassline. If you haven't got a good bassline, what have you got? You listen to someone like Nick Holder, and you understand. Maurizio can make a bassline out of two notes and simply depending on how long or short it is, it'll fuck with your mind for days.
Like my music, it's all reggae-influenced. Burning Spear, King Tubby, Toots and the Maytals. That's what I grew up listening to. I also had some neighbors that were an older generation of soundboy. They were listening to Philly stuff, old James Brown records. They'd be making speaker boxes while listening to the latest Gamble and Huff production. That was the other huge influence on me. I'm like the ballad king.
Does London still feel like that to you? Does it feel like home?
I recently moved out to a quiet place in the country. I've got great neighbours for the first time in my life. London changed. It became a bit of a soulless place, I feel.
When did it change?
I suppose when the drug thing came in. When crack and heroin came in. It became a head down, lock yourself away kind of vibe. I remember when I first came to London, Mr. C was throwing parties on Suffolk Street, Clink Street, and I would walk from South London to Golders Green via every estate in the land in the middle of the night and never feel threatened. You couldn't do that today. That's sad. I remember when raves first started. It was a melting pot of creeds, colors, sexualities. There was no aggression.
It's the same thing with records in a way, though. It's here today, gone tomorrow. When I buy a house record, it's still going to be rocking in the studio in five or six months time. You can now buy it all in an instant, and you have no bond with it. I don't see shops surviving with how it's going. No one takes home a record, puts it on the stereo, looks over the artwork as it plays. That's the only reason I bought Bowie's "Young Americans." Luther Vandross was on the back of the record, and he was one of my favorite singers. Marcus Miller, a bass player, I'd follow him around from record to record. I'm going to be a dinosaur, I know. But that's just how I am.
You're OK with that?
I made a conscious choice. My hi-fi at home is a big valve system. The sub-woofer in my front room is working overtime. When I play something on there, it talks to me straight away as to whether it's good or bad. Sometimes I'll hear things where the bass is so false that it makes you sick. The bass needs to be in the breadbasket. Not in the head, not in the legs. In the breadbasket. Motor City Drum Ensemble does that. Kyle Hall does that.
You're talking about modern producers, but you don't DJ anymore, right?
I don't. I stopped a while ago, when it became competitive instead of eclectic. I was about playing techno from Maurizio, Jeff, Joey, Luke. Those were the boys. But they all had different pictures. The way I see it is that everyone's fed a top 10, and everyone plays it. Sometimes you need to go back to go forward. With the amount of stuff released now, you'd think that everybody would be really different.
Does Matt [Edwards] do that for you as a DJ?
There are periods where I'd say no. I wasn't feeling his sound. But everybody changes. And this last tour in Japan, I was like his box boy. He was like my box boy. Every night, I'd tear down the house, and then I'd watch him tear down the house.
What was he playing? In Japan, it seems like people feel a bit freer to play different things.
Free is a great word. It was weird to see people that came out to listen. Matt's coming with this sexy, tribal house with a tech edge. Very drummy, very rolling. And a lot of records with some abstract jazz going through them. Every night, I'd say "What is this?" He'd say, "You asked about that last night!"
It was inspiring. We're two very opinionated guys. I didn't realize that until we toured. We'd never really hung out until we went out on the road like this. But, from day one, there was something. He carried my MPC, you know? He was my box boy. I have to thank him. It was unexpected. He would stand right by the speakers while I was playing, and then come back and ask me questions about the set and offer ideas that I'd never thought about.
I saw you play earlier this year, and I was struck that you don't have a continuous set. That's out of the ordinary these days. Obviously you value the analog sound above anything, but do you wish you could somehow bring together a set that didn't have these stops and starts? Or is that the appeal for you?
Being different is the appeal. When I played at Berghain, it was funny to see the amount of people looking underneath the table. "Where is the sequencer? Where is the computer?" I memorize all the EQ points. I've got a little book of notes that I use, but that's part of it. I'm different. Sometimes carrying the boxes isn't pretty. Especially when you've been up all night. But when you get to places like Nagoya, and you can lean over to someone and say, "Watch this." It doesn't get better than that. [laughs] It's my moment. It's what I'm working for.