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25 Years of Solid Steel: an oral history of the world’s longest running mix show

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  • published
    6 Dec 2013
  • words by
    Joe Muggs
  • photographed by
    Credits on Page 5
  • tags
    Ninja Tune
    Solid Steel
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25 Years of Solid Steel: an oral history of the world's longest running mix show

Solid Steel, the world’s longest running mix series is 25. 

Launched in 1988 by Coldcut’s Matt Black and Jonathan More [above], the groundbreaking show eventually came to include PC, Strictly Kev and producer Darren ‘DK’ Knott.

With Solid Steel’s 25th birthday set to be celebrated tonight at South London club Fire, with a line-up that includes Four Tet, Actress, Trevor Jackson and The Orb (more on the event here), FACT’s Joe Muggs sat down with the team behind the show, plus Ninja Tune label manager Peter Quicke. This is the definitive Solid Steel interview, accompanied with classic photography from the show’s vaults.

Matt Black:
Initially, at the beginning of Coldcut, Jon was already on Kiss FM, which was a pirate station, and he got me on. My demo was ‘Say Kids, What Time is It’. So around 1986 Gordon Mac offered me a show…

Jon More: The Matt Black Mastermix Dance Party.

Matt: Yes, it was called the Mastermix Dance Party, which was ripped off Kiss FM New York where I’d spent a formative few months before university. Jon had his show which was called Meltdown; now Jon before Coldcut was one of the most successful warehouse DJs in London. This is even before Norman Jay and Judge Jules – Shake & Fingerpop and Family Function – this is around about the early to mid 1980s. That was called Meltdown too, so the radio shows were a continuation of the parties but with a slightly different emphasis: less about dance and more about listening. Those parties were pretty good because you’d get a lot of variety of people there and we’d play a lot of variety of music. We saw ourselves as sort of funky John Peels, because Peel had introduced us to the idea that playing a massive variety of music together was cool.

Jon: As had Charlie Gillett, not forgetting him.

Matt: So we naturally turned to doing something like that, but on pirate radio and informed by the London music environment, which was very influenced by black music but had everything else in the mix as well. And eventually, as Coldcut formed, it made sense for Jon and I to amalgamate our shows, so we brought them together.

Strictly Kev: But there’s an important thing, which is that they were mixing – and that was quite a new thing for radio.

Matt: Yep, so there was the John Peel thing of acceptance and openness to a lot of different styles, coupled with the DJ aesthetic and technique: the New York mastermixing thing and hip hop scratching. We worked out we could have all of these different sorts of music and actually have them mixed together in a DJ sense.

Jon: Well, I wasn’t technically cutting and mixing by that point – more like slurping and sliding.

Solid_Steel_logoMatt: I was the one that got really into mixing early on. There was a time when BPM mixing was the province of DMC guys, but scratch mixing was a completely separate world – but to me it made sense to learn both of them, and there weren’t that many people doing that at that time. Whereas Jon was known for something different. I remember speaking to this other guy on the warehouse scene, Steve Romney – Wicked Pulse, his thing was called; I was finding out about Jon and I asked “Does he mix?” He said “No, but he does these cuts that are really good – like the other day he was playing this electronic record and just cut into an African record and it was perfect.” It is possible to segue from one piece of music to another and keep the groove without making a long-running mix. Jon also used to make little cassettes by taking the leader out of a cassette tape…

Jon: Out of a computer game cassette, a 15 minute one, because they were the cheapest…

Matt: …so it would start instantly, he could cue it, and he’d use that to record spoken word, little jingles and so on – which was a primitive way of having your own sampler in the mix.

Jon: When I first started mixing, I made it up out of necessity because I only had one turntable. I DJed mostly 7”s and I would just press a button, let off a jingle, change a 7”, put the needle back on and off I went. It was only later on that I could afford two turntables. It wasn’t based on trying to be like a Jamaican selector or anything, just it was all I could afford.

Matt: By coincidence I used to play at my school disco with the same kind of setup.

Jon: Anyway, it was when we amalgamated shows that it became Solid Steel.

Matt: This being 88 – there’d been a year of Coldcut going before we brought the shows together and came up with the name. And for quite a while then it was just Jon and me – we found a good way to collaborate, with Jon having this fantastic record collection and me more into the technical side of mixing. It was great being on Kiss, because at that point Kiss had all the best DJs in London. There was a building scene, and we had Jazzie B, Norman Jay, Tim Westwood, Rodigan…

Jon: Jay Strongman…

Matt: …Colin Faver, Colin Dale…

Jon: …Judge Jules before he went house…

“It was really James Bond-style but clunky… James Bond made out of cardboard.”

…Manasseh, Paul Anderson – we had all bases covered of what was cool music then. The whole London scene, essentially, came out of this group of very dedicated DJs. Kiss at the time was a unique thing, none of this was represented on legal radio but the people wanted it, and we were providing that. Then Kiss got its license and became…

Jon: [drily] …what it is today.

Kev: [laughs] Ahhh it was good for a while though! It was ’99 when we decided to leave, it was definitely time to go but in the early 90s it was still a good station.

Jon: There’s a very good film of Kiss, that you can find on YouTube – my daughter just posted it on Facebook in fact – that has footage of Kiss in the early 90s, with footage of us, of the Dingwalls party [the launch of Kiss as a legal station]. That’s why Lily, my daughter, posted it in fact because there’s footage of me and my wife coming out of Dingwalls with her in my arms.

Matt: So Solid Steel was massively inspired by the Kiss thing as a whole, and Kiss was really strong at that time. The funny thing was that Jon and I were the first DJs on Kiss to achieve more mainstream success – as Coldcut – and because we were therefore more visible people came to associate us strongly with the station. I remember being in a cab at that time, talking about this and that with the driver, and he went “ahhhh Kiss FM, isn’t there supposed to be some men behind that with millions and millions of pounds? Some guys called Cold… cut?” [laughs] I think we knew there wouldn’t be any millions by that point though.

oldKissshotJon: I remember a funny time when it was broadcast from Walworth Road – it was really James Bond-style but clunky… James Bond made out of cardboard. It was in a builders’ merchant shop, in the basement, you’d go down then they’d built this tiny false wall with a space just big enough for a table and chair and actually you wouldn’t know it was there. That one survived for quite a while.

Matt: We had this incredible engineer called Andy, who created a microwave link to the transmitter.

Jon: Yeah, triangulation microwave, so they never found us unlike a lot of pirates.

Matt: We never had a studio bust because they can’t trace the microwave link. They can take the transmitter, but they can’t find the studio.

Kev: He was a wizard in fact. He wired up the Ninja Tune studio too.

Jon: The cloak and dagger was funny though. It’s strange looking back how little contact there was the audience. There were no phone-ins – on pirate you couldn’t do phone-ins anyway, you couldn’t have a studio phone, and there were no mobiles, and we continued that after Kiss went legal.

Kev: You wouldn’t really want to be doing a phone in at 1-3am anyway!

Jon: We didn’t really get any feedback from the audience, we’d vaguely know people were taping it and tapes were going here and there, but absolutely no idea of the extent of it, if that was just one person saving stuff or it was reaching a whole lot of people.

Matt: You’d get the occasional letter. “Katherine the Pirate Junkie” I remember writing in to say she loved the show but we played too much Fela Kuti.

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