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Interview: Curtis Lynch

Interview: Curtis Lynch

Interview: Curtis Lynch

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"Any time I feel sad I find myself in the studio. Alcoholics drink, smokers smoke, I end up in the studio!"

Sampler

Curtis Lynch Junior was born in Roehampton, South West London and raised in Shepherd’s Bush. He began as a jungle dj at age 15 before becoming a prodigious young producer embracing the reggae-dancehall sounds with which he grew up. After tasting mainstream success with Gorillaz and Alicia Keys, he started his own label Necessary Mayhem in 2006 and, along with Chris Peckings, is one of the few UK producers to cement an international reputation for excellence while defying the current specialist music climate with consistently healthy record sales. Recently he created a new roots based sister label Maroon, where he’s been reissuing the works of his hero Gussie Clarke, as well as working with Etana on her second album 'Free Expressions'. Angus Taylor met Curtis at the Sensible Studio in Kings Cross to discover what makes him tick…

Curtis Lynch

You’ve said "the good music is the poor people music" - were you poor growing up?

Yes. But being poor was in a funny kind of way like being rich. It brought people together musically and culturally. We didn’t have a lot but what we had was enough. I only realized I had experienced poverty at an older age. You start to see how other people live and think, “Wow, we don’t really have things like that”. Music brought people that didn’t have much together - and still does. There are so many countries with people that are not necessarily as well off as us but music keeps the vibes, keeps them going and helps them aspire to great things as well.

What was your first experience of music?

(thinks) Cracking question. There was a John Holt album, A Love I Can Feel, which was one of the first albums that I can remember studying the artwork and the writers and the musicians. Then obviously there were the house parties and the big speakers – those were my first memories of the music.

You started as a jungle/drum'n'bass dj in your teens. Was this a teen rebellion against the reggae of your parents?

It was that reggae was too easy for me. I’d grown up listening to it but the music that moved me more at that time was definitely drum’n’bass. And it still moves me – I still love it. It was different to traditional reggae but I liked it because jungle kept elements of the reggae in this new form of music which was highly charged. I’ve always loved the harder bass kind of tracks and you don’t get much better than jungle and reggae samples together.

Every genre of music has to evolve for the next generation. The next generation has to feel as though it’s their music

The strange thing about jungle in the 90s is that it got a lot of non-Caribbean people back into reggae yet some mcs say it pretty much killed off reggae sound systems in the UK. Where do you stand on this?

To me reggae was never going to die so I never really looked at it that way. For me it was more about the music. I felt I was part of something within the drum’n’bass scene rather it being a hindrance to the reggae. What I would say about jungle is it did get a lot of people involved and trying to find where those old reggae samples came from. Curtis LynchAnd in so-doing, it’s almost a branch of reggae as far as I’m concerned. Every genre of music has to evolve for the next generation. The next generation has to feel as though it’s their music. I always listened to reggae but I felt that jungle was more my music rather than my mum and dad’s music.

What made you move back into reggae and dancehall?

The jungle scene was very hard to get into. It’s like the Knights of the Round Table – if you know one of those Knights then it’s OK but if not it’s going to be a hard road! At the time I didn’t know any of them but later one of my best friends to this day was Adam F, but by then I already had my niche in the reggae industry. I always looked at reggae music as a fan and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve stopped being that fan so much. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still a fan of reggae music – but I used to look at certain musicians with that “wow factor”. Now it’s like, “No, I am part of this now”. Now I aspire to be like the best producers and musicians whereas before I was happy for them to be at the forefront and me to be behind.

What does your jungle background give your productions?

Jungle is a part of reggae to me and a part of it evolving. So when I produce my tunes now I do have that jungle influence because it is part of me. In terms of the bass sound, certain samples I use and how I chop samples up, it’s had a huge influence on what I do. Even my Police In Helicopter rhythm – if you stripped it and put a jungle beat underneath it, it would be jungle. But then I’ve got so many other influences like hip hop. I was in a sound system when I was younger and all I used to listen to was reggae and drum’n’bass and the other members of that sound had hip hop and R&B. I wasn’t into that vibe before they came in but then I listened to Biggie and Tribe Called Quest and then on the R&B side Mary J Blige. Being in England we are one of the most eclectic countries in the world in terms of having access to music. We’ve got indie, rock, R&B, hip-hop, but then there are sub-genres within. All these things influence us and help with the production of music because anything can inspire. It might sound crazy but I’m not a huge fan of dubstep. I do think dubstep is how jungle was in my time so now for people that listen to dubstep – this is their music. The next generation of people that produce reggae or hip hop will have influences of dubstep in their music. I don’t think it’s terrible. I do appreciate it – and the big bass-lines I can definitely appreciate.

In England we are one of the most eclectic countries in the world in terms of having access to music

The role of producer has changed in reggae over the years. It used to be that the engineer did a lot of the work and the producer just gave the thumbs up if it sounded like a hit. Now in the computer age the producer makes the beats. Tell me about your role and day to day duties.

I started off as a sound engineer so I learned how to make a great cup of tea, wrap wires, and a lot of it was watching and not taking part as much as I wanted to! Now I make all of the music for my tracks, I play most of the instruments and I’ll mix as well. Sometimes I’ll write songs, I sing backing vocals and guide the artists lyrically and vocally depending on how good or bad they are a certain aspect of their job. I’m pretty much an all-rounder. I also run the label so my day to day duties are crazy at times. Sometimes I just want to make music so I won’t answer my phone, just be making beats, some days I’m just mixing and some days I’m just vocal-ing – but it’s all scheduled and mapped out. Things are crazy different from when I first started out. Like you said, the producer was the person that bankrolled the project. They would hire in the best musicians for the job and get the best out of that project. Now you look at it and think, “Was Coxsone Dodd the producer [at Studio 1] or was it Jackie Mittoo?” Was it the person in the studio who was responsible for the hit or the person who paid that person for that hit? It’s a grey area but it’s a conversation that’s always fun after some beers! (laughs)

The producer is often cast as the bad guy in reggae history books. Is this fair?

No, and I’m not speaking with regards to myself, I’m speaking about other producers I know in the industry. Producers are funny characters. You don’t really see producers out living it large in the finest clothes. Most of the time they’re either in the office or the studio, so the way we spend our money compared to the way an artist does is completely different. We always look as if we’re loaded but that’s because we don’t have time to do anything but live in a studio. An artist will take an hour or an hour and a half of their time, sing a hit tune – and it is a hit tune! – but then they can go out because work’s done for the day! Whereas we’re still in the studio mixing it, making sure the marketing is done and so on. So I don’t think producers are the bad guys. People need to understand the amount of work that goes into making a record – especially if it becomes a hit. We then have to be the driving force to pay the TV and the radio to get it advertised. So when the money does come back numbers might not add up but they don’t because we had to spend in other areas.

"Was Coxsone Dodd the producer [at Studio 1] or was it Jackie Mittoo?" It’s a conversation that’s always fun after some beers!

Which producers do you admire most?

My favourite producer without doubt is Gussie Clarke. For me he is the bridge between the old style and the new. His catalogue is amazing because a lot of the old things I loved I then realized he did as well. One of the best deejay albums of all time is Screaming Target by Big Youth – I mean you don’t get much better than that! His ear, to this day, is so sharp and clinical. He might tell you to move a tambourine but when you move it, all of a sudden it does sound like a hit. He was the first person I knew that would have two singers on a track and a deejay – Home T, Cocoa T and Shabba! The songs were wonderful as well – he brought a team of songwriters in – backing vocals were tremendous, the mix was by one of my favourite engineers of all time, Steven Stanley – master engineer! So when you have all those ingredients, music production at its highest is definitely Gussie Clarke. I’m a huge fan of Joe Gibbs as well. You just know a Joe Gibbs record from the way Errol Thompson would engineer and mic the drums that everything is in its right place.

And outside Jamaican music?

I would say Quincy Jones is a huge inspiration. Again, his engineer with Michael Jackson, Bruce Swedien, was so clean, so beautiful the way they all worked together. There are so many producers I like but Quincy is definitely one. My favourite drum’n’bass producer of all time is DJ Zinc. He is one of the reasons why I produce.

The UK reggae scene gets a bad press. But people like you, Peckings and Gappy Ranks have had big success both here and abroad. What's the secret?

I think that music does the talking. I think as long as the right people are doing the right music with the right production and marketing it to a high standard, I don’t think it matters where you come from. Especially now when some of the biggest reggae artists aren’t from Jamaica and some of the biggest hip hop artists aren’t from America. It’s a lot easier to make music now and a lot easier to get it out so as far as worrying about a territory like the UK or Germany goes, as long as you’re making good music within yourself and your production team, it will get to the right people.

Rodigan has been saying that Jamaican reggae is in decline. You are the most featured name on his new mix cd for Fabric. Does that feel good?

It feels fantastic. And it’s simply because I still do reggae the way I heard it when I grew up listening to it. Obviously I’ve added some new things, my own personality and my jungle vibes and other genres. But as far as I’m concerned it’s still reggae the way it should be. So to a man like David, it would make sense because that’s what he’s used to as well. We’re not saying it can’t evolve but some of the things I hear that come from Jamaica, I’m surprised by. I think we had more choice of reggae from Jamaica before and it seems we have less choice now. If you wanted slackness you could listen to slackness but if you didn’t there were plenty of artists that were giving a good vibe. There were almost different sections of dancehall whereas now it seems it is in decline because there are fewer options.

Some of the things I hear that come from Jamaica, I’m surprised by. I think we had more choice before and it seems we have less choice now

Is this affected by mass filesharing? How does this impact your music?

Put it this way – there are bodies out there that can help stop filesharing being as rapid and rampant as it is. However, in a funny kind of way, if you look at filesharing sites and your tunes aren’t there you feel kind of offended! You could look at filesharing people as people that are never going to buy records anyway or you could look at it as generating interest – if people download two or three things illegally then they might see your album and buy it. It’s all part of a bigger picture. It is annoying and it would be cool if it wasn’t there but then piracy in some form has always been there. People have always copied videos, tapes and cds, and it’s on a mass scale now because we’re more aware of it.

Tell me about your label Maroon and how it differs from Necessary Mayhem. Why did you name it after the Maroons?

Curtis LynchThe Maroon label is a tribute to the Maroons – the first slaves that were able to escape, set up their own community and not be dictated to. But it was also set up because I looked at certain artists I had on my label who were not Necessary Mayhem artists. I thought there was much more of a seriousness about them which needed a more serious label. Brinsley Forde, as far as I’m concerned is not a Necessary Mayhem artist but he is a Maroon artist. I took myself back to when I used to buy records at Black Market or Dub Vendor and if I bought a tune on a label that wasn’t like the other one before I might be disappointed and not buy into the rest of the label because it was so helter-skelter. So the Maroon label is roots with great messages and I’m really proud of it. I put out No Exit No Entry by Augustus Pablo that Gussie Clarke originally produced. That came about because loads of people like Russ at Dub Vendor and my artwork man, Jack, told me I should do it. So I looked into it and Mr Clarke was only too pleased, and it’s been one of the biggest sellers of the year. I never thought I would press a 12-inch record and at times it was selling like a 7-inch.

You've been working a lot with Etana on her forthcoming album - what's she like to work with?

She’s one of the best artists I’ve ever worked with. She listens, she’s always learning, and I think what it is, is we trust each other in the studio. I would ask her to do a whole backing vocal layered with different notes and ranges and if it didn’t work I’d be like “Etana, it’s not going to work” and she’d be like “OK, cool”. I love her energy. When we did August Town I didn’t expect her to choose that backing track. I knew she was coming to the studio and had several tracks lined up – I was pretty nervous actually! – and she chose that one and started talking about something that had just happened. The song is a true story. I remember Mr Clarke having a conversation with her saying, “Maybe you shouldn’t attack it so much. It’s quite political” and her saying, “No. We’re going to do it this way”. It was put down in no time – in half an hour. She had it all in her mind.

Etana is one of the best artists I’ve ever worked with. She listens, she’s always learning, and we trust each other in the studio

You sing on the new Lloyd Brown album - is this a first?

(laughs) Oh no! I did backing vocals on a lot of the Etana stuff. But this is the first thing that I haven’t been able to hide behind! It was a demo. I’m a big supporter of Manchester United and we lost that day and any time I feel sad I find myself in the studio. Alcoholics drink, smokers smoke, I end up in the studio! So I did this song, it all came to me, and I sent it to Lloyd because he was working on his new album and said, “Look Lloyd, there’s a guide for you”. But he said, “No, no. I like it. I’m going to use it”, and I was like, “Aw, you’re only joking” but he said, “I’m not. I’m going to sing around you”. I thought he was only joking right up until someone else told me they heard I’d sung on the album! It’s flattering coming from such a great singer but it’s not something I’m going to do again. I do demos but I’m critical of the way I want things when I’m recording. I don’t please myself vocally.

You have a new lovers rock project The Love Directories in the pipeline. Tell me about it.

Over the last year I realized I’ve got a lot of lovers rock songs I should put together and the way the market is, I don’t trust it to be put out in singles. I think it should be a body of work because traditionally lovers rock fans have always wanted a body of work rather a single here and a single there. The Love DirectoriesIt’s mostly new artists and that’s where I’m at with the music right now. As long as I do my job and my ears are good and I can trust a singer, they don’t have to be well established. There are some established artists on there but there are some young fresh wonderful singers who are full of vibes. We’ve got Chantelle Ernandez, an artist who I signed in Jamaica, Tony Curtis and a lady called Angel in a duet, a lady from Japan called Masoko who sings in Japanese and English. We’re the next generation to take the music forward for you to continue writing about. No disrespect to the older artists – everybody knows I work with more established artists - but now I have established Necessary Mayhem, Maroon and myself as a producer, we have to build.

Who's on your list to work with?

Shabba. I want to work with Shabba Ranks, Supercat and Shaggy. I think I’m really close to getting Shaggy! It’s not just artists – I want to get in the studio with Dean Fraser to play some horns. (thinks) You’ve caught me off guard! Good question!

Describe yourself in one word.

Mischievous. Always full of mischief. You can even hear it my music. There’s always something weird or crazy that goes off in my music – like a horn for no apparent reason but it makes ME laugh!!! (big laughter)

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Read comments (2)


Posted by digital Tubbys on 02.13.2011
Serious interview.

Posted by treacle on 02.17.2011
Loved it!

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