This contrast is amplified by his famously fastidious intros. Clarke is consistently three turntables deep and pulls off at least one double, often triple, drop—usually comprising an unreleased dub and at least one scene-defining classic. These mixes are executed with such control you can see his hands tremor with tension as he counts the eighths and sixteenths. It's a tradition he's continued since the days his label, RAM Records, had a residency at the legendary London club The End.
While the intensity and attention to detail never subsides from his intro, it's clear that Clarke's nerves do. He gradually looks up more and more to check he has the crowd on-side. And whether that crowd is the 400-capacity dance floor he commanded for 13 weeks at his XOYO residency last year, or 20,000 fans at drum & bass festivals such as Let It Roll, once he thinks people are locked in he settles into the groove. He bounces with the same moves he's had since he first got bitten by the mixing bug at the age of 14.
Almost 30 years later, Clarke still seems to get the same thrill from DJing that he did in his early sets at London's famous Telepathy raves. He debunks the cliché of the moody elder statesman and remains hyper-enthused by the music, by his job and by the raw art of mixing, which he still practices during his off-time for upwards of 20 hours a week.
Take us back to your first setup.
Citronic belt drives. I seem to recall the pitch was rotary. They were very wild beasts to tame. You had to be so delicate and mother them. And the mixer wasn't even a DJ mixer. It was a live six- or eight-channel mixer with no crossfader. Each turntable had two channels, one panned hard left, one panned hard right. So when you're bringing a tune in you'd be bringing two channels in. I don't think I bothered with EQ in those days!
Wasn't one of your first records you practiced with Madonna?
It was "Vogue" with "Wicked" by Shut Up & Dance under their Rum & Black alias. A strange combination, but those were the two records I spent hours and hours and hours learning to mix with. The mission was all-encompassing. When I got in from school, when I got up in the morning. Every single minute until I worked out what I had to do and felt that first instance where the tunes went together. Or at least a semblance of being together. And once I had that, I sought a few more tunes.
You just had two records?
I had one or two others. Stone Roses' "Fools Gold." A bunch of other things but none of them were even in the same solar system. So I got on my bike after school and camped out in Boogie Times, Romford. They got sick of me. I'd ask for every record I'd heard on pirate radio that I wanted. I couldn't buy loads of them because I only had my pocket money.
I'm assuming lists were involved.
Oh yes. I'd have lists and try and decipher what the tunes were called from what the MC or DJ was saying. This was the start of really getting into the music and knowing the tunes. I had quite a collection going and I'd detail them all in my school exercise book—what records I've got, what other kinds of records in that category, what sounds good together. I'd have these lists while I was daydreaming at school. I found them the other day in the loft. I found the exercise book with the first-ever RAM logo and the profit and loss account for RAM 001. It was a science book.
Weren't you pursuing sports before DJing?
I wish. I was going to try and get a job in a printers. But, to be honest, the minute I had decks I knew I was going to pursue nothing but being a DJ. I know that sounds pretty random, or even cheesy, but that was really it. And when I left school, at 16, there was nothing else I'd rather do. I was handing out flyers, doing the label, trying to make records, practicing relentlessly.
Still on belt drives?
No, I got Technics on one of my very last days of school. I'd saved up some money and my parents helped out. I came home and I could smell Technics when I opened the front door. They were in my bedroom. I was so excited. The smell really stayed with me. That thick rubber platter especially. The house smelt of Technics for weeks for me. I was in heaven. I felt I could really start to learn to DJ then. These are what the real DJs use in the clubs. Now I can really go for it. I started doing tapes and Scott [Bourne, Clarke's manager] hooked me up with the Cyndicut FM pirate station. I'd go down to wherever it was broadcasting at the time, and that was a massive learning curve.
By then your collection must have been shaping up?
Massively. One of the lists I've found has got one of my first releases, as Desired State, among all these classic hardcore records and Formation Records releases. Then LTJ Bukem's "Demon's Theme" is listed alongside Andy C's "Sour Mash." Bizarre.
So these lists went on for some time into your career.
Yeah around 1993, '94. That was when I decided, OK I know I have a substantial amount of records now. And I also started getting promos. But even when "Valley Of The Shadows" came out I wasn't on any DJ lists. I was buying records, quite rightly, as a young collector. Not even just to play out, but as a fan who loved the music.
So while you were making scene-defining records with Origin Unknown you were still on the dance floor side of the booth soaking it all up?
Absolutely. I was out as a raver with Rob Playford from Moving Shadow and Danny Donnelly [Boogie Times / Suburban Base founder], who I got to know working at Boogie Times. That was a dream job. I'd be mixing in the record shop, trying to get people to buy records. Trying to pull off mixes in a record shop on a Saturday afternoon with all the local heads in attendance was a good schooling. I'd be there for hours on a Friday night practicing these mixes to show off. Anyway, yes we were very much ravers at that stage. Telepathy at Wax Club, Roller Express, then AWOL at Paradise Club. That was the game-changer.
Let's go back to AWOL for a second.
It was church. I can't put it any simpler. It's where you heard the records, where you learnt about the records and, more importantly, learnt about the mixes. For me the mixes are the standout memory. Before then you had big tunes. I'd go out and hear these big tunes and I'd want to know them and collect them. AWOL was about brand new tunes you'd never heard before and big, really creative and head-spinning mixes.
You'd go home remembering them. I even remember GQ flowing this rhyme over a Gachet mix and his rhyme got called for a rewind. This was a new level of appreciation from the crowd. Everyone in the building slapping the walls and someone went up and rewound the tune for him to do that lyric again. That was special. If I analyse things, that was the moment when I learnt it's much more than just DJing. Coming away from nights with memories like this sit with you for life. I remember Randall rolling out mixes for a minute and a half and you'd get that moment where the tunes would sing in unison and it would be magic. The whole place would explode.
You don't get that at every night.
You don't. And that was exactly why I did the XOYO residency. Rediscovering that intimacy and that vibe where every single person in that room knows exactly what's going on. That's what I wanted to capture, and I think we did.
One particular memory I have from XOYO was you playing a Calibre track and letting it roll out for its entirety while you blended five or six different tunes in and out of the mix. I could see you bouncing higher and higher like you were discovering the mixes.
I remember that! That's literally what I was doing. I was enjoying the tune so much and trying out little teases. I thought, "Sod it, I'm going to let this play and bring another tune in and another and another." That's what I do when I'm mixing at home. Just buzzing, trying things out. You can't do that at every gig. That's special.
Was that another reason for doing the residency? You now play very big shows and maybe you lose that flexibility to go off-piste?
No, the real draw for me was the same venue, two-hour sets, every week. I do get to have those moments at larger shows like the All Night ones because I'm playing for over six hours and I can go deep and play everything. Festival sets are a different proposition, of course, you only have an hour and you have to pull out bigger tunes. But the All Night ones were my outlet for being able to draw deeper and more experimentally and play what I want to play. For XOYO it was more about community. People knowing what I'm doing and appreciating the mix and the set structure.
So the All Night sets were your way of combating the challenges you face when you're playing to big crowds?
Yeah. It was also a response to the fact that DJ sets were getting shorter and shorter. I know this might sound ungrateful because some venues are serious clubs and you're lucky to play there at all, let alone 45 minutes. You should appreciate it. But the constant feeling of not being able to play all the tunes I wanted to was very frustrating. It affects the set. You don't think about the peaks or troughs, you don't let it flow naturally.
You feel you have to go in hard?
You do have to go in hard. And that's a shame because it's so nice to go off on tangents and take people to places they don't know about. They might not be going crazy for a while but they know if they stick with me we'll go even crazier later on. That makes for a much more enjoyable set, and shorter times did stop that for a while. We were always anti-short set times, even during our days at The End. I did two-hour sets, which felt like a proper marathon, and I would practice for hours with the new dubs I'd cut that day, right up until I'd have to leave to get to the club.
Yes, about dubplates. Can you remember your first trip to Music House?
Well, the first place I cut dubs was Porky's Prime Cuts in Soho. I remember I had "Valley Of The Shadows" VIP. I went into Blackmarket and told them I had a remix and Nicky [Blackmarket] said, "Here's £50, run over to Porky's and cut me a dub." That was my first experience doing it. I was like, OK I need to be doing this. Then Music House became the centre of everything. That was where everyone would go. Me, Hype and Brockie would meet up every Thursday afternoon and go round all the record stores. At that point stores would have promo slots for certain DJs. So I'd have promos to pick up in Blackmarket, Lucky Spin, Unity. I'd get the promos then pick up some DATs from people's houses with my mini DAT recorder. Then we'd end up at Music House.
Who were your most frequent house calls to?
I'd pop in and see Dillinja quite a lot. I'd go to Peshay's house and his mum would answer the door and make us a cuppa. I'd go and see Bryan Gee and he'd have all the Bristol stuff. It was a crazy time.
Drum & bass was still a niche at the time, with a small amount of DJs and tunes being made. You needed dubs to make sure everyone wasn't playing the same tunes. Like a trickle-down effect.
That's exactly what they were about. It was a very small scene and these things would set you apart. Having those special tunes was the ultimate. I remember hearing Micky Finn dropping Deep Blue's "Helicopter Tune" for the first time. Imagine being the first person to have that on dub?
That type of hierarchy and exclusivity must have put noses out of joint from time to time, though?
That was dubplate culture. That's the vibe. You'd be hearing all these tunes being cut in the cutting house. So you would know who's got what. And yeah there were times when I'd ask someone for something and they'd say, "You know what mate? Give it a week and yes, but I got to make sure this other guy has it for a week." And you'd be like, "Erm… OK cool, thanks mate." And yeah, you'd be a bit humble about it. But then you get moments when you're the first person to have Leviticus' "Burial" on dub. It was swings and roundabouts, and it made all of our sets unique… Then came the trick of making sure you were mixing them differently to everyone else.
Let's talk about double drops. Can you remember your first-ever double drop?
That would have been at home practicing. I can't remember the very first one, but I remember that cueing up anywhere besides the first kick was alien to me. I'd have to work out mathematically where to start the records. That came from making records in eight- or sixteen-bar segments and realising I could play a record from certain points. But you'd get moments practicing and think, "Whoa what was that? They kicked in at the same time!" It would happen by accident and then you'd reverse engineer that accident and work out where to drop them.
But when that penny dropped it became the holy grail, and every tune had to drop together. It made things even more fun. The concept of DJing for me is to be excited. So mixing was great. Rolling out was amazing, but getting two tunes to drop together at the same time and smash in together to create a whole other level was just the one. I became obsessed with it, doing it with every record I own. I would stand there for hours trying to work the mix out. Obviously the more you'd mix, the more you'd know the tunes and when to drop things instinctively. But a lot of early records made it harder because they had off-key intros or weird arrangements because the tunes weren't being made for DJing.
You'd get records with one extra bar or even one extra beat and you'd have to bring things in at a really weird time for them to come together, right?
Exactly. And that made it even more fun. Pulling off mixes with tunes that you know a lot of people in the dance and a lot of your peers around you know are hard to mix, that was such a thrill. Crossing my fingers that things would come in at the right time. Sometimes it goes against all your DJ muscle memory to drop it because you're dropping it on the third beat or something mad like that. But it would add an extra dimension to pull of those mixes. It becomes a challenge. That's why I still use turntables. I love the art of DJing and everything that goes with it. That was a geeky thing for me during the week to work out those mixes.
Practicing at home is one thing. But in a place like The End where those decks shook, sweat was coming off the ceiling and everyone is expecting something special because that's the standard you've set—these are high-stress situations.
The most high-stress situations I've ever had as a DJ were doing those intros at The End. I would be shaking and sweating myself. But again that was the thrill, and the adrenaline was something else. But then at XOYO I approached it differently because I found thinking too much about the intro means you're not thinking about doing a good set. So some nights I'd set up the intro pretty much on the night when I arrived.