Dobie is the definition of an unsung hero, a London beatmaker whose shamanic aura and quiet wisdom once led Gilles Peterson to describe him, aptly, as “Stoke Newington’s answer to Ghost Dog”.
His work has graced records by a number of greats over the years: he’s collaborated with Soul II Soul, Massive Attack, Tricky, remixed Björk and Gangstarr’s DJ Premier, and gave London Posse the backing for their era-defining UK hip hop classic ‘How’s Life In London’. That’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his credentials – he also had a parallel career as a photographer, documenting early skateboard culture for Rad magazine back in the day. Despite his consistently innovative contributions to UK music, Dobie is not a name that many will have heard of, largely due to his total aversion to the spotlight.
His philosophy and approach dates back to a period when nightclubs were called sound systems, when DJing was a lifestyle not a way to make a living, a time long before press-shot saturation and blog-interview overkill, an era when the people behind the boards let their music do all the talking. 2013 brings with it a new phase in Dobie’s career, with a brand new solo album on Big Dada, entitled We Will Not Harm You, due February 4 and adorned with a hand-drawn cover by his friend, artist Chris Ofili. FACT spent an afternoon with Dobie getting a guided tour through 25 years of London music history and hip-hop culture.
Your first ever appearance on record was with a hip-hop group called NSO Force Organisation, a track called ‘Give It Up’, on Vinyl Solution, back in 1989. How did that come about?
“I worked with Dougie, who was a first generation hip-hop kid from Ladbroke Grove, he started this NSO Force thing. I don’t know how we ended up in a deal with Vinyl Solution, I really don’t. The record was produced by J Saul Kane, who later went on to make a name for himself as Depth Charge. You have to understand, we were all hip-hop kids. Everyone knows him in Ladbroke Grove, nah mean? He was tight with the label. So yeah, NSO Force was kinda the first record I appeared on. I was green, likely totally green. A seedling, not even sprouted any leaves yet.”
How was a record like that made back then?
“It was a home studio of sorts. We had what we wanted to sample, we went to this guy Brian’s studio. Brian played live bass on it. I did the drums, did the cuttin’ of the records, told ‘em what to sample. ‘I wanna sample this bit right here,’ and we pieced it together like that.”
What was it made on back then, in the days before software?
“God, I have no idea. Some keyboard sampler? Rack units…He had kit in the studio. It was like, ’88, ’89. We’re going right back here. After that me and Dougie and NSO got involved with Strongroom Studios. Some kid called Paul worked there, a tape operator or something along those lines. We got some studio time off him, and then the main honchos in the building heard it, and they were connected with Beggars Banquet. This is when Strongroom Studios just had an SSL room and a programming suite upstairs, not a crazy pro studio like how it is now. Way, way back. Same kinda process there, ‘cos I didn’t have a drum machine back then, I was just cutting and scratching. I had breaks. Go there with a bunch of records, like, ‘I wanna sample this, that.’ Guide them through it til we all got what we wanted.”
What I like about this period is how you describe it in terms of regions and areas, the feeling of it. The Ladbroke Grove hip-hop scene, the old courts at Notting Hill where hip-hop and breakdancing happened at carnival until it got shut down, the dances and soundsystems that brought people together from different areas.
“That time, London! London was on fire man, Hip-hop really brought something to the UK, a new energy, in the 80s. I don’t even know why, I guess kids could relate to it, all the different aspects – the graffiti, the breakdancing, the DJing, the MCing. It set London on fire. The warehouse party thing also kicked off around that time.”
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Where did you first experience hip-hop? Was it on telly, or on the street?
“For real, the first time would have been things like ‘Rappers Delight’, or Kurtis Blow, but I didn’t know it as hip-hop. They were just records on the radio. I remember seeing Kurtis Blow on Top Of The Pops, doing ‘Christmas Rappin’’ or a track like that. It wasn’t this thing called ‘hip-hop’, it was just an artist performing. And then ‘Rappers Delight’ came along, and it was like, ‘wow, they’re rhyming, this is catchy.’ Get what I’m sayin? A few years after that was when it really kicked in. I got introduced to hip-hop by a friend of mine, who kinda brought me into it a bit deeper, from what I had first seen on TV – another Ladbroke Grove cat, my man Ewan Wilson, he was a skater.
“He had all them Afrika Bambaataa records, he was well ahead of it. ‘You need to check this man, Planet Patrol!’ He was the first person that took me to see Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, at this spot in Victoria called The Venue, kinda like The Scala, he goes ‘you gotta come see this lot”’ I remember the first time I saw them cats, I said to him ‘are they gay?’ cause they was all in leather and shit. He goes ‘no man they’re not!!’ [laughs]. ‘Cos of course it was coming out of that disco fashion, the way they dressed. I remember Covent Garden became the hip-hop spot for the breakers, which started to centralize it, you could always go to Covent Garden and check it out, check the vibe. It was a great time, great energy, and the warehouse party scene gave another exciting vibe too. ‘Where’s this party?’ ‘Man, it’s over there, at that hidden spot’, get me?
“I suppose we were just trying to recreate what they were doing in America, with block parties and stuff like that. You had cats over here like Nutrament, man that guy was on it from time, he was definitely an early UK hip-hop pioneer, I’m sure only the older people you speak to will remember him. He was going back and forth to America, getting the records and seeing what was going on there. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was one of the first people to do a warehouse party, like, ‘right let’s kick down this door and set it up’.”
So you had all these different sound systems. Let’s take Soul II Soul soundsystem, we’re taught to believe it was a blend of lovers rock, soul, hip-hop, things like that?
“Nah, nah. Soul II Soul really played everything. Jazz, funk, hip-hop… Yeah they had come out of the reggae world, ‘cos Jazzie B’s older brother, Pops, owned the system, it had been passed down through the family, Originally they were called Jericho, they were a reggae sound, playing lovers and stuff like that. So they had all that knowledge, but when Jazzie took over, those guys were absorbing all the new music too, house, hip-hop…If they were feeling it, they were playing it.”
I remember you telling me a story about bringing a drum machine to a Soul II Soul meeting.
“Yeah…We used to hang out at their base in Camden. Another friend of mine, a friend of my brother’s, Godfrey, he used to work at FX Rentals, a big audio hire company, you could hire samplers and things like that from them. He used to get hold of drum machines and lend them to me. ‘What’s that man?’ ‘It’s a TR808, it’s the thing that makes that big booming sound on the records!’ He’d lend it to me for a few days, and I’d take it down to the camp, it was like a club house, you could string up speakers and decks and whatever you wanted. We’d plug it in, vibe out and muck around.
“My other friend Paul, who later started Slam City Skates, he was into Japan, Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark, Visage and things like that. It seemed like a very similar sound – hip-hop back then was all synths, all electro, there wasn’t much sampling. Paul heard the parallels between the two and played them to me. I’d be like, ‘how do they make these flippin’ sounds?’. He’d be like, “’t’s a drum machine mate.’ ‘Whats a drum machine?!’ Paul used to do piano lessons, he had a sampler, a synth, a Moog. He used to lend me his drum machines as well. I remember him lending me the TR606, partner of the Roland 303, I didn’t even know what the 303 was back then. I used to sit and play with that, give me the manual and off I’d go. I’d take it to work, when I was working at Lou’s Camera Shop, jam on it in my lunchbreak, fascinated by it. I did it for me, for fun.”
So how did you evolve from collecting records to being a producer and making beats on drum machines?
“I come from a DJ thing, that was the part of hip-hop I was drawn to. It was the DJ thing I was drawn to, of the four different elements I was exposed to, collecting breaks and stuff like that. I was just really into the studio thing, like, I like this, this is fun. So I graduated from the Vinyl Solutions years to the base camp at Soul II Soul, I think Jazzie saw I was into the studio zone as soon as I walked in. Later on, when they struck the deal with Virgin, by that time Nellee Hooper and The Wild Bunch [later Massive Attack] had struck a deal too and were living on Delancy Street in Camden, they’d come over a lot. Jazzie said ‘I want you to come and work in the studio with me and Nellee.’ So the next thing I know, we’re down the studio trying to put records together, down at Addis Ababa studios, on Harrow Road, run by a rasta named Tony Addis. A lot of reggae artists used to work there. ‘Fairplay’ was cut there, I was there when it was recorded, I didn’t work on that particular track, Marko from the Young Disciples worked on that one, guy from the Brand New Heavies played the bassline. The singer Rose was one of the girls who used to come to the Africa Centre.”
So I guess The Africa Centre, where the Soul II Soul parties were held, was almost like a recruitment centre in many ways, with Jazzie bringing different people into the fold from there.
“Yeah, exactly. As things went on it got more serious, I did a cut on the first album Club Classics Vol. 1, I did the scratching and produced the backing track on ‘Feeling Free (Live Rap)’, with Jazzie rapping on it. It grew and grew, I started working on the second album, Vol II – 1990, we were bouncing between different studios, one down in Regents Park. Howard Bernstein – later known better as Howie B – was engineering on that album, he was another cat who went to Africa Centre, ‘the mad Scotsman’ we used to call him.”
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The production on the Soul II Soul albums was largely credited to Jazzie B and Nellee Hooper, but your name is there too – what was your role in the group?
“I was directing all the beats, laying down the breaks. Howie was the engineer, and programmers would help out too, cause back then I didn’t program, you needed someone else to do that. I’d be like, “sample this, we need the kick drum to do that”, directing them ‘til we had it where we wanted it to go. After ‘Back II Life’, the hit singles, and so on, everything went crazy. We went to the States, to the Soul Train awards.”
That must have been weird, coming from such a humble background and being thrust into this mad world of champagne and industry bigwigs.
“It was weird. Everyone was like ‘you coming to America?’ I was like ‘nah I’d rather stay here, in the studio’. Jazzie talked me into it, going with the whole entourage. We did the Arsenio Hall show too. The awards were mad, sitting with all these people you’ve grown up listening to, Aretha Franklin standing over there, Barry White over there, Debarge, Big Daddy Kane, NWA, get what I’m saying! It feels strange but everyone feels the same, sitting in this room full of suits, but no one really knows each other. I’ve never really been into all that limelight stuff, always felt odd to me.”
Do you have any regrets looking back on that period now? Maybe you could have ended up as famous as all those people if you had played your cards differently.
“I didn’t know anything back then. I was just green. No one was trying to show you, either. That’s why when young people are coming up nowadays I’m always like, ‘you should be looking for this or that’, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’. Sometimes people are so hungry to get in there but they don’t know what they’re dealing with. I never had that hunger, none of it was intended, I just ended up in that place. I never decided ‘I want to be a producer’, I do this shit for fun, ‘cos I love it.”
“True. I think the problems only ever really start with the success, and the money that comes around, that’s what makes things go pear. Up to that point it’s fun, like ‘it would be so cool if we did a record’. The records went multi-platinum, international, worldwide, and we definitely weren’t expecting that.”
I love the interplay of that time as well – hip-hop exported from the US to the UK, transformed and shipped back to its birthplace, like a dub feedback loop.
“We were just trying to emulate what we were hearing from there, but we did it differently. There’s a heavy reggae music culture in this country, we have the second largest population of Jamaicans outside of Jamaica, with Canada as the first, we mixed that into the music. I can’t explain what it was about it – if we knew we could bottle it up and sell it – something caught the vibe. What we ended up coming up with was so different to what we were trying to emulate. It was new, and fresh, and I suppose, to have a young black band to come out of the UK, in the vein of Loose Ends, who had also made it in the States.. It just worked. Soul II Soul became a buzzword. All the bands of that era, like Brand New Heavies, we all knew each other, everyone got their record deals around the same time. Light Of The World, with ‘London Town’, laid the foundation before us – there’s a history.”
I wonder if you were feeding off a similar energy when it came to working with Rodney P and the London Posse for ‘How’s Life In London’. It’s a genesis moment in the history of the British posse cut, one of the first times in history you find a whole UK crew rapping to the camera like that.
“I think we had got to a point where we had been so busy trying to emulate the Americans, there was a kind of backlash about that. Rodney, and London Posse were on the American style initially, they went to America and kinda clocked that they preferred us to do it our way, a bit like if we had tried to sell sand to some Arabs, that kind of vibe. Everyone was like ‘we gotta get our own identity’. For me the true sound of British hip-hop at that time was London Posse, The Demon Boyz, cause they brought the soundsystem ting into it. These yoots were soundbwoys before the hip-hop ting came along, they knew their reggae. We spoke in our own English slang, Jamaican slang, the hip-hop thing felt similar to a soundsystem, and had been invented by a soundman in the first place in New York, Kool Herc. MCs on the mic, riddim, but the banter was different…You can see why it was easily adopted, it wasn’t far from what they were on anyway.”
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How did you fall in with London Posse?
“I’m a London Posse fan, I felt they always represented us, I used to see them at jams but never really knew them, even before Soul II Soul. When I left Soul II Soul, me and Howie B signed to Island Records as a new band called Nomad Soul, and worked on a remix of their track ‘Jump Around’. We were in the studio, they came down, and that was the first time we really spoke, even after seeing them for all those years. They heard the remix and wanted to re-vocal it straight away, like ‘yeah this is wicked!’ We built from there, that record ended up being a big record for them. Every time we saw them after that they were like ‘yeahhhh we smacked it!’. [laughs] We were all smiles, feeling like we were smashing up the place.”
When did you get your first drum machine?
“It was after Soul II Soul, I bought an MPC60. It was a toss up between that and buying a bass. I remember the first time I switched it on, I was fucking scared of that thing. That learning curve.. You’ve got the kit but now you’ve got to learn how to use it, ‘cos I had been directing the programmer for the years before, get my head around it. That was my workhouse for years after, I came into computers late in the game. The London Posse guys would come and check me for beats, the ‘How’s Life In London’ beat came straight out of that machine, they were like ‘yeah we’ll have that!’, and the other beat for ‘How I Make Papes’, same thing, which ended up being the flipside. I used to DJ for them at shows. We did the ‘How’s Life’ remix, with Tony from Aswad, went round his house and he laced the remix.”
Do u miss all that analogue, big studio world? Your latest album was all written in a home studio, on a laptop.
“Not really, ‘cos I don’t think those days are really over. I know more now. I’m more in control of my shit now. What has changed is no more big budgets for studio time, times have changed. The studio is still the best place to make music, but if times change you work with what you have. It’s like hip-hop, you take nothing and turn it into something. Dem man managed to make hip-hop with two turntables and a mixer in the first place. Work with what you have.”
Your first solo album, The Sound Of One Hand Clapping, came out on Pussyfoot in 1998, and was very lush and jazz-influenced, live strings and soul vocals – the opposite of your new album, which is much more chaotic, almost genre-less.
“I’ve just changed innit. Just writing tracks. Back then I could hear this person on a track, that person on a track, and I’d reach out to them. When I make albums there’s no big picture, I just go off and start writing, that’s what I do, there’s no big gameplan. The genre thing has gone out the window for me, I suppose what I do is still rooted in hip-hop, but it’s got other textures and layers in it, the foundation is still me being into hip-hop. I’ve grown, I’ve changed, I’ve opened up to different things. Back in the ’80s when you went to a warehouse party, you’d hear lots of different things: house, hip-hop, rare groove, soul, funk, electro, the odd left-of-center thing, the clash…Clubs now are segregated. There’s a ‘house room’, an ‘r’n’b room’, that’s bollocks to me. It was better back in the day, more open-minded.”
I think the album is quite challenging in that way, the ideas are so restless, you go all sorts of different tempos and places, but there are sonic themes that run through it,
“I’m experimenting, trying to entertain myself – if it’s not moving me I can’t see how it could entertain anyone else. I have to bounce around, I get bored too easily, if I get bored it stops me writing it. Pushing the palette, keep it moving around. I’m lucky that I’ve never really had to go out and shop for work, people come looking for me. Let the music do the talking, be genuine about it, none of that selling myself. There’s no big plan, I’m doing this for fun.”
Is the title We Will Not Harm You a reference to something?
“The story goes like this – I fell into this routine where I’d fall asleep, wake up at three in the morning, once I’m up I’m awake, tinkering around, starting to write. Sometimes that moment of waking up gives you a new energy, and a lot seems to get done. Fell into the pattern. Early one morning I was watching a George Clinton documentary, smoking a zoot, watching Parliament Funkadelic evolve from the doo-wop era through to their Parliament, psychedelic era, all high off their faces. At one point Clinton goes, ‘What is soul? We will not harm you.. Soul is the dirt around the bathtub.’ There is more to soul than soul music, soul means different things for everybody. But that part about ‘we will not harm you’, that struck me. I take it to mean, that for a black band, doing that music at the time, in racist America, they were freaking people out. But also, this music will not physically harm you.. .Me, and what I make, will not harm you. I’m telling them there’s nothing to be scared of, people are fuddy duddies these days. Playing with words. The cover is like us, two people having a drink. It feels peaceful.”