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Dobie, wise man of UK soundsystem culture, remembers working with Soul II Soul and how “hip-hop set London on fire”

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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.”

 

“Hip-hop set London on fire.”

 

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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