All about the funk: broken beat innovator Dego talks 4Hero, Cousin Cockroach and his new album

Dego is a producer whose contribution to British underground music runs deep.

From the pioneering jungle and hardcore label Reinforced, where he worked with Marc Mac under monikers such as 4Hero, Manix and Tom N Jerry, through to hip hop side projects like Tek 9, his label 2000 Black, and the birth of the West London broken beat scene, Dego’s music has always been defined by a maverick sensibility, and a restless search for new directions.

In recent years his output has narrowed somewhat as he cemented his writing partnership with keyboard player Kaidi Tatham, with the pair releasing on Eglo Records. He also recently recorded for FaltyDL’s Blueberry imprint. This year finds Dego releasing his first solo LP since 2011’s A Wha’ Him Deh Pon?, titled The More Things Stay The Same, and it’s a surprisingly consistent, direct and radio-friendly offering. Never one to mince his words, Dego’s always been a witty orator – if this chat piques your interest, you can catch him lecturing at CD-R at Dance Tunnel on May 28.

The More Things Stay the Same will be released on 2000 Black on May 26, and you can pre-order it at Bandcamp.

The album is called The More Things Stay The Same – what’s the significance of the title?

With my last album, I tried to hit so many bases – I tried to show that I can do this, I can do that. And at the end of the day I felt, “I shouldn’t overstretch myself, cause no matter what, whatever I do, if I do it well enough, it will have its place.” It might not be right there and then – it might be two years later, or five years later, or even 20 years later, ’cause that’s the cycles that go on all the time, with trends.

I’m at that age where I’ve seen it all – things I bought at the time, people don’t want to hear that, and then later on, well, everyone likes this again now do they? It’s the same with fashion, its the same with everything, everything goes in cycles. There’s nothing really new. There’s only the nuances of the day that it is. Like when people say things like, “This person invented drum ‘n’ bass”, or whatever – that’s nonsense, jazz musicians did that years ago! Hit that groove. And something probably made them do that. Nothing really is actually new.

Do you think the reason you have that opinion is because you’ve seen so many of these music styles come and go over the years? A younger artist might see things differently.

Oh definitely, everything’s new to them cause they’re experiencing everything for the first time. I don’t do that old man rant – if you’re 17 or 18, and someone tells you, “This is dub,” and you haven’t heard of King Tubby, and it’s blowing your mind, then you’re right to think it’s fresh and new. It’s subjective – the first time you’re experiencing it, you’re carried away. And then later on in life, if you’re really into music, you’ll find out. “They used to do this in Jamaica.” Whatever music it is.

Speaking of music coming full circle, I had some of the Reinforced records the first time around and collected the rest over the years, and that music still feels futuristic and totally ahead to me. Maybe more now than ever.

To me when I hear those records, I hear the excitement of youth. I hear the non-boundary, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude going on. Some of the tracks are well crafted, yes. But for the most part, those records are cringey to me – I cringe. I hear all the mistakes. I hear mistakes all over the place. There’s a couple where I feel like, “Oh, I was on it there!” But it’s mostly mistakes to me. That was the problem, I didn’t go to music school. You’re hearing us learn stuff right there, open book we are. You can hear our progression.

But that was part and parcel at the time – all these new machines that no one could operate or understand. Are there any tracks from that period that you’re proud of?

There’s a 4Hero remix of Tek 9 – I did two versions of it, parts one and two, and I think that was the best, most futuristic or whatever. Everything seems in tune.

Benny Ill did this track called ‘Swamp’ – it’s not out yet but I think it’s coming out – it has that rave element, like early drum ‘n’ bass, jungle vibe going on, it’s perfect. That is what I wanted to make back then in 1991. Photek made us buck up our ideas back then – you can have that energy and that rawness going on, but you just have to craft it a bit better.

The new album sounds very polished and accessible, as though you’re consciously trying to write something much more direct than some of your past work.

My idea is this – that the problem I’ve always had is that I move around too quick. I hit a groove, do it for a bit, and then I’m gone again. I can’t keep doing that, I have to get everyone on side first and then lead them where I want to go. I’ve got the tracks with the madder tings in ’em, all that stuff, but in my estimation, I don’t have the following like that, to be way out there and do that stuff.

Is that also why you choose to work with a single vocalist for this record?

Yeah, Charlene Hector did all the vocals. She had the time to do it and I thought it would be really nice to do the whole album with one voice. I didn’t want it to sound like a compilation. I’m trying to get people to understand something first. As an example, we might start a track, and it might have three parts going on, and it’s four minutes, 30 seconds long. I remember I was with Theo Parrish one day, and he’s like, “You lot are nuts.” I was like, “What do you mean?” All Theo’s tunes are 10 minutes long. One day I was listening to him spin, and at one point I just got it. Not everybody can digest music like I presume people can. I don’t mean to be rude but nowadays, it feels like musically people are generally a bit illiterate, if you know what I mean.

Like an attention span issue?

They can’t listen to too many things going on at the same time. That’s where the prejudice about jazz starts coming in. They go, “I can get this,” it has a very easy, simple melody going on. With Theo it’s like, “I’m gonna drive this point into you, listen, listen, listen.” By seven minutes in or whatever, everyone’s like, “Oh, I get it now.” Whereas with me and Kaidi Tatham, even after two minutes there’s been so many things going on already in the track. By the time it ends, everyone’s like, “whoa, what happened?” And that’s just talking about individual tracks. Take it bigger than that, if I keep doing what I do, make a hip hop album over here and then a musicals album over there, then a breakbeat dubstep rave thing, then something that sounds like Roy Ayers, everyone gets thrown by it. I believe I need to take my time, get everyone on side, and then I can do that. Make it a more controlled effort. It will be time again to start wilding out after this album.

“There were meant to be remixes, and no one wanted to do one!”

This alludes to another thing about you, which is that you always keep a lot of beats on ice in the vault. Cousin Cockroach’s ‘This Ain’t Tom N’ Jerry’ was made with a diskette of old sounds from the 90s wasn’t it?

Yeah, parts from the old Tek 9 and Tom & Jerry stuff. That was just for dubs, I’d been making loads of musical stuff and wanted something rawer to play as well.

‘This Ain’t Tom N’ Jerry’ actually got repressed recently by boutique label Berceuse Heroique – how did you feel about that?

I was into the fact that there was a younger generation of people who are into it. Purely for that basis. I liked the fact that they felt the demand for it and said, “This needs to be done.” That was funny as well ’cause there were meant to be remixes, and no one wanted to do one! I thought, “Come on, surely someone can take this on and do their own take on it.” If I was 20 today I’d think, “Give me that, I’ll fuck with it!” [laughs]

That was the sort of track you’d play when you spun at Co-Op – do you feel like you make those sort of tracks much less now that Co-Op’s ended?

I’ve still got loads of dubs, I still play ’em. I mean with Co-Op, for a club to carry on and carry on it has to evolve. You can’t do the same thing at a club for four years, five years. Somewhere along the line you have to change it, bring a different element to the music, or get bigger. Tour and come back, know what I mean? People didn’t share my vision with that, so I left.

I remember your final set at Co-Op in fact, you played mostly the hip-hop of the time: Doom, Dilla, Madlib, Dabrye and the like, and the weirder stuff you’d been making. Was that a conscious effort at the time, to say, “Guys, I’m off in this direction”?

Nah. It’s like any music, when you’re DJing. See this is the problem, I like DJs who teach me stuff when they’re DJing. Who make me go, “Fuck, what’s this he’s playing?” I need to find out what that tune is. I don’t wanna hear, the whole night, things I can sing along to. The karaoke bar is round the corner, we can do that another day. Sometimes, in context, maybe. Bring out a classic we can all enjoy. I grew up in a time where DJs, all they did was school people basically. DJs who don’t play for the crowd, per se. They play to let you know, “This is fresh, this is what you need to be on.” I come from that mentality.

The problem sometimes when people spin is they think like, “I’ve got to keep this dancefloor full at all times, all night.” Then you get less risks. DKD, ‘Future Rage’ –I made one track like that. I didn’t make 20 versions, 20 like that. Cousin Cockroach, I made one. That’s what we did, we made one, two tracks like that. That track might be the peak of the set – and this is a problem with dance music full stop, not just Co-Op – people see that peak, see that reaction, and think, “I’m gonna go make 20 versions of that.” I can’t be doing that, the set has to have movement.

It’s true that Djing has changed an awful lot in the time you’ve been doing it. Sometimes I feel like people go to the club expecting to hear what they expect to hear, and if they don’t the DJ will be handed someone’s phone explaining what he ought to start playing.

I grew up in a time where you’d get your phone thrown away and a slap in the face for that. Can’t be doing that! But this is how it is now.

“Kaidi said he likes working with me because I challenge him. And he challenges me.”

You mentioned writing with Kaidi Tatham and it feels like you two have become a prolific partnership, just as you and Marc were in the early years. How did that partnership evolve?

We get along really well. We have the same background, a lot of our influences are the same. We’ve been doing stuff for years together and it just works. Kaidi said he likes working with me because I challenge him. And he challenges me, I’ve got to play keyboards a bit better to do stuff with him. He grew up in a house with all brothers, I grew up in a house with all sisters so I don’t know about that kind of competitive thing, sibling rivalry, geeing each other up. But I get it a bit with him, nahmean!

What are the influences you share?

Jazz fusion stuff, roots reggae and dub stuff. Both families are Jamaican so we grew up with that music, and hip-hop. And he loves boogie as well, boogie funk type stuff. Those are the influences on what we do, we are trying to do a modern day take on all that music. My thing is that some people are into the arrangement, but I’m all about the groove. I wanna get you locked into that 16 bar phrase, have you thinking like, “I could listen to that going round for ages.” I’m not really one of those people whose really good at doing all these effects and movement, I’m about the funk, those basslines and chord progressions that catch your ear, hit the sweet spots, rather than relying on effects and sonics. I’m into the feel and the swing of it. Dilla is the prime example of what I’m trying to explain here, he’s got demos that are 30 seconds long and you wanna hear that shit for eight minutes.

You opened for Dilla when he played Plastic People didn’t you? How was that?

He played all his own stuff, lots of demos. It got to the stage where I’d asked about three times in a row what the tracks were – he was with Dank from Frank N’ Dank – and I thought to myself, you know what, I’m not gonna be that guy who keeps asking what it is all night, I’m just gonna sit here and take it in. He played a lot of things that no one knew.

It’s heartbreaking we’ll never hear those again. You mentioned Theo Parrish earlier and I wanted to ask about the breakfast show you guys have been doing with Charlie Bones on NTS. How did you guys develop a friendship?

He was living in London before – I know Theo from time ago. 1994, 1995, something like that. I know him from when he was putting out records on Music Is and stuff like that. He’s always remembered me ’cause I helped him out one time when some shit happened, and he needed a place to stay, I was like, “Come chill round my spot.” I’ve also got a similarly good relationship with the UR guys, Mike Banks and the Detroit guys. Theo’s had a girlfriend over here for the last few years so I’ve got to see him much more these days.

You moved over to New York a few years ago, right? How did that go?

I romanticised moving to New York and finding the spirit of the late 70s and early 80s still there. Which I knew wouldn’t be the same, obviously – you’re talking 20-odd years later. But I hoped something would remain, and when I got there I found not much of it was there. It’s a totally different town these days, so a bit disappointing in that respect. But I don’t regret it at all, it’s a great town and I loved it, had a great time and met some great people, did some great work out there. I used to come back here every four months or so.

Do you think New York is suffering from the same problems that we are in London, with the gentrification, the changing face of the city?

This is what I’m scared of, ’cause I’ve seen where it goes. New York’s ahead with certain things. What’s good about London is it’s a place where creative people congregate – people come to the city and do what they do. But in order to be creative you have to afford to be creative. You need time and space in order to be able to do that, London’s turning into to a space that ain’t the one for that any more. It feels like a lot of artists are moving out to Barcelona, Berlin, other places. I’m afraid of that. But the kids, the youth will always do what it does. They’ve got that young energy. But where will they go after that?

In any art form, you have to get paid, yes, that’s a given. But if you have a bit of a cushion, you don’t have to compromise yourself too much. London’s gonna end up being all about the figures. I think when were we coming up it was more of a hippy mentality, you know. Like, we’re just doing some music, having a bit of fun with it. It’s interesting to me, when I see the young cats coming through they seem to be really on it, in a business sense, maybe that’s a good thing. It’s not just a case of “I’m doing it,” it’s more “I gotta get paid for it.” Maybe it frightens me a bit. In terms of New York, I feel like since the glory days of hip-hop, Masters At Work and things like that, New York ain’t really come with a sound of its own. It’s all about LA now. They seem to have that creative buzz, creative circle going on.

“Some guys are spending 30 mins making a record and the other 23 and a half hours on Twitter!”

Do you think the internet’s making the world a smaller place? Maybe it doesn’t really matter where you live any more.

The internet’s a weird thing man, it’s meant to be a vast creative space where everyone gets their chance to do something, allegedly “access the whole world.” You can distribute to everyone, etc. It’s proving to be false, if you ask me, ’cause what are the merits that get you there? Being the most popular, is that what it’s about now? That’s a dangerous thing. Are you just gonna be appealing to the [lowest] common denominator? I dunno how that’s gonna pan out, you know. Everything’s a co-sign, everything’s a this, that or the other. Promoters now, looking to see how many followers someone has before they book them.

That’s normal now.

Some of the best DJs of all time, out there in the world – they aren’t even on the internet. There’s others that log in like, once every three months or something – they can’t even be bothered with that shit. Are they not entitled to a chance to do what they do ’cause they aren’t all up in everyone’s face trying to be their mate, or be funny or whatever you wanna call it, online? Some guys are spending like, 30 minutes making a record and the other 23 and a half hours on Twitter! What people are judging things by is dangerous.

I agree, but I can see the downside of the way things used to be as well – small scenes where DJs didn’t let anyone in for years, defending their patch.

I grant you that, but there’s a thing called paying dues. See it’s funny you mention this, I remember there being younger producers that thought that the community of my peers were very shut off, you know. Not the case. The only reason I’ve ever got together with anyone is that I’ve done certain works before, I’ve grafted, I’ve got to a stage where people can respect what I’m doing.

Some people have this sense of entitlement, where they think they can just swan in anywhere and do whatever they want. There’s a lot to be said for putting in some work, for paying your dues. For going out there and putting out your records, doing those small gigs, getting robbed cause promoters ain’t paying you – you have to experience those things to get to a certain stage. And then yeah, people will see you did the graft, and you’ll be always welcome. I think if you keep knocking on the door, you’ll get noticed at some point. I could say the same for me and those on the level above, that’s just how it goes.

Anyway, nowadays none of that matters ’cause people judge you on what lifestyle you’re living. What fresh kicks you have on. What things you have in common – you watch the same TV programmes, so you hashtag that to each other. Know what I mean? We may be similar, but do we actually like what each other do? That seems to be the last thing anyone cares about.

Is that behaviour all a bit too superficial for you?

It’s like when you get those records where they’ve done great artwork and great packaging, but you listen to it and just think, “Wow that’s terrible.” I know I’m not hip to some of the styles that are out there, but I think I know what a good tune sounds like. I mean it could even be a country and western tune, I hate that stuff! [laughs] But I think I would be able to respect good country and western musicianship.

Oh come on, everyone likes Glen Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, surely?

I prefer the Dennis Brown version.

It’s funny how your music has been adopted at Panorama Bar. ‘Find A Way’ became something of a classic there, from what I’m told. Have you played there yet?

Yeah, I played there recently – it was one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time. It was mad. Eight of us went over and Enrique Volcov was playing too, he brought 10 of his crew as well. We had a blast. You know what Panorama’s like, they’re wild out there, it’s how I’d imagine Studio 54 might have been back in the day. It was so fun.

It was funny ’cause some of my friends were a bit nervous for me to spin, ’cause they like it pretty hard-edged there – the bottom end is built for heavy stuff. I took it right down, started slow and they were really feeling it. One of the best sets I’ve played in a long time. I played Floating Points, boogie, house, all sorts.

What sort of new stuff are you feeling at the moment?

Al Dobson Jr is probably my favourite of the moment, new producer wise. There’s one track off that Rye Lane record I play constantly. I love Jay Daniel and Kyle Hall, Kaytranada, Sassy J, when she DJs, I enjoy that a lot. Sadar Bahar is ridiculous. I still enjoy finding new stuff I love, and when I love it I keep playing it – I don’t do that thing where I play something for a while and then move on.

There’s a new 2000 Black release on the way from Domu, returning from retirement under the moniker Sonar’s Ghost – how did that come about?

Domu’s been giving me stuff for years. He just don’t wanna be out there no more. He really did stop for a long time, he’s not trying to be out there again. He will never record under Domu ever again. That’s a conscious thing, that part of his life is gone. He’s having fun with Ableton, doing stuff as Sonar’s Ghost. So I told him, “When you’re ready let me know, I’ll put some stuff out.” I’ve started to think maybe it’s the time that I need to start wildin’ out on 2000 Black, myself. ‘Cause his new record is really far out – it harks back to some things back in the day, yes, but it’s quite different. I’m feeling confident about pushing elsewhere – that we don’t need to keep doing that signature sound.



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