In this climate of reissues and retromania it’s easy to turn your nose up at major labels wringing pennies out of dormant rock acts with best-ofs or anniversary releases full of leftovers. Retrospectives in dance music generally aren’t as cynical.
With far fewer heritage acts, it’s a chance for an artist to take a bow, fill two CDs with gems, draw a line and move on. After 25 years as captain of the good ship UK house, it’s Dave Lee aka Joey Negro’s turn to blow his trumpet. He’s sifted through hundreds of releases for his new compilation on Defected’s House Masters series — a house hall of fame with the likes of Kenny Dope, Masters at Work and Derrick Carter on the roster.
Speaking to me from his studio in north London, Lee says: “I could’ve easily put out four or five CDs but at some point you have to realise, ‘This is enough’. I’m not fed up with all those songs, but I don’t really think about them anymore. I end up just thinking everyone’s heard them but I forget there’s a whole new audience of younger people who listen to Defected and house music now who were probably about nine when these records came out, or younger even. I guess when you’re putting out old tracks that did well at the time, you’re generally less worried that people will think, ‘Well this is a load of shit.’”
Since he first started tinkering with drum machines and samplers in the late 80s, Lee has flitted between 30 or so aliases, including Raven Maize, Jakatta, Doug Willis and Akabu. The one that’s stuck is Joey Negro — an on-the-spot mash-up of obscure New York house don Pal Joey and proto-hip-hop pioneer J Walter Negro, when pressed for a name for his 1990 12-inch Do It Believe It. He has also dipped plenty of toes in the pop charts, with remixes for Lionel Richie, Diana Ross, Pet Shop Boys and Sugababes — and even produced Take That’s disco smash Relight My Fire.
His biggest underground alter-egos are all on House Masters, as well as his killer disco remixes for Martin Solveig, Kevin Saunderson, Blaze and Masters At Work. It’s a scatter graph, joining the dots between snappy piano rave on Raven Maize’s Forever Together, the Sunburst Band’s loose jazz-funk and the sleek polish of Jakatta’s American Dream, a UK No3 in 2000.
Lee straddles the retro/futurist divide well — a house trailblazer still in thrall to the disco and soul that mutated into house in the mid-80s. This love of flamboyant US music didn’t spring up in a vacuum. Before Dave Lee cut his first EP, before he got his first synth, before he started working as the first dance music distributor for Rough Trade, he was a normal 70s kid in Essex, glued to Top of the Pops.
“I was buying glam rock and the odd chart record, then from ’77 to ’79 I was into chart disco like Shalamar and Heatwave and the Jacksons and those sort of things,” he says. “Then around 1980, my other hobbies, which were Scalextric cars and skateboarding, fell by the wayside and music became my main thing. I’d go to the local second hand shops and listen to the specialist soul dance show on the radio. They’d play an old record and I’d think, ‘I’ve seen a copy of that in a second hand shop in Ipswich or something, then I’d go back a month later and it’d still be there for 30p. So I bought lots of things like Roy Ayers albums and BT Express, and 70s jazz-funk.”
In 1987, Lee was recommended by a fellow record collector for a job in Smithers & Leigh vinyl store in London, and he recalls: “The first week I started Jack Your Body had come out that week on US import. There was a point where it really took off, with Bomb the Bass and Cookie Crew’s Rock Da House, the first S-Express single, and Pump Up the Volume. The graph then went off the chart. Anything with ‘House’ in the title. Shops would say, ‘Is it house? Yeah I’ll take 30’. There literally wasn’t enough of it to give them.”
Lee admits we can all be armchair cultural historians and gush about the acid house second summer of love, but was harder to grasp at the time. He says: “It’s like that Woody Allen movie Midnight In Paris. Owen Wilson goes back in time to these different golden eras in Paris and all the people are harking back to another age. He’s saying, ‘This is it, this is one of the best times in history’. And they’re like, ‘Ah it’s a bit boring isn’t it?’ I think that’s the human psyche.
“I could see there was a big change when house music came along, and early rave stuff, and big parties like Sundance. — but I was bloody working at Rough Trade all the time. Rough Trade was hard work. I was just permanently worried they were gonna sack me because my job wasn’t really secure — and they didn’t really know what my job was. When I started my label Republic I was doing that during the week, using an old studio with an old friend from school. In retrospect, if I was to go back I wouldn’t mind renting a nicer flat than the shithole I was living in and enjoy what was going on in London more.”
Through the ’90s and noughties, Lee released scores of 12-inches on his own Republic and Z labels, as the soulful house UK counterpart to Chicago’s Derrick Carter and DJ Sneak. An underground champion, he’s also landed a “bucket list thing” on Top of the Pops a few times, as Jakatta (American Dream) and Taka Boom (Must Be the Music). “I Suppose as a kid I’d imagined myself in a spandex silver suit and a star-shaped guitar but I sat behind a keyboard dressed as an alien instead,” he says.
He reckons his TOTP slots were outliers, and he’s not ready to get his hands too dirty in chart politics and try to write another hit. He says: “Only the very odd dance track crosses over now with club play, but back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, most of the cooler records that crossed over were big club records. You could press up a couple of thousand white labels, all the DJs had got it, everybody was playing it but the punters couldn’t buy it. Then two months later you released it and everyone went out and bought it — in the charts with no radio play. Now to go in and make it a hit, unless it’s a huge fluke you have to make it cynically, but then you’ve even got to practice making it sound not cynical to pull it off.”
Whether he’ll be bothering the charts or not, Lee is buzzing about current projects, rhyming off around 10 different tracks or compilations he has on the go, from “80s Hi-NRG stuff”, a rerun of an under-wraps “favourite old Detroit house record” with the original singer, and volume 2 of Remixed With Love — adding his groove to The O’Jays, Grace Jones and Robert Palmer.
He laughs when the to-do list throws up the same word over and over: “I guess I’m gonna use that disco word again.” So what is it about disco that makes it his one constant? “They were just really good songs. The musicianship and production was amazing, with budgets for the top orchestrators. A lot of the disco wasn’t with proper bands but session players, but they were bloody good,” he says.
A big disco revival was predicted when Daft Punk’s Get Lucky earworm bored into our skulls for over a year, and their Random Access Memories album a throwback to live session players and pristine prog rock production. But aside from the odd blog reappraisal list and more disco club nights, it hasn’t translated into many new productions, and Lee reckons this is down to simple practicalities.
“I wish that had meant there were a few more records like that croseed over,” he says. “But more of the hits have been EDM and deep house rather than disco. Get Lucky was a massive hit but there weren’t a load of other tracks that sounded like Get Lucky. I think that whole Daft Punk album was one of the best marketing exercises ever. A fantastic job of pushing that sound to people. but I honestly think if Get Lucky wasn’t by Daft Punk and didn’t have that campaign behind it, it wouldn’t have been a big hit. I just think it was the amount of money and having those very famous people on board. Having Pharrell singing on your track is going to increase its profile by hundreds of percent — the same with Nile Rodgers.
“I don’t think there’s been anyone who’s managed to copy that or emulate that. Let’s face it, unless you’re just sampling a disco record it’s harder to make than deep house. When you sit down in front of your laptop there isn’t a guitar player or brass section. It’s much easier to come up with a house piano and sound 90s than it is to sound like a 70s disco record.”
Maybe after years of disco being mocked as house music’s daft uncle, it’s been hiding its sophistication in plain site — and Lee reckons the music that’s kept him in a job for 25 years is here to stay: “It was derided as worthless music for idiots who went to nightclubs and would be forgotten soon — but it’s maybe the most influential, sampled, rehashed music of the time. I love kraftwerk and other bands who arent anything like disco, but I guess I’m loyal in a way. I don’t just move with what’s in vogue.”
- Joey Negro’s House Masters is out now on Defected
Originally published in Irish Daily Star