An interview with Charlie Dark of Attica Blues
Attica Blues was a major act in the Mo’ Wax roster, and with some immense tunes such as “Blueprint” they certainly helped the label reaching a wider audience. I wanted to know more about their career and Charlie Dark aka D’Afro was kind enough to tell me a lot.
Hi Charlie! Let’s start form the beginning : who are you, where are you from and what’s your musical background?
My mother is from Ghana in West Africa but studied in New York during the mid to late 60’s before settling in London. A big music fan herself she accumulated an enormous record collection which brought to England and uses as an incentive to get me to do my chores on the weekends. As soon as the needle touched the record it was time to start sweeping and cleaning the house and I soon acquired a taste for long James Brown records and the various Jazz Lp’s that that she kept in her record boxes. When the Rare Groove revival kicked off in London I discovered that many of the rare tunes that people were digging for were actually siting in my house under my nose and I began delving deep into the collection picking out the gems.
With the proceeds from a Saturday job I started adding to my collection trying to find the tunes my favourite Dj’s were playing in the clubs and on pirate radio but my approach was haphazard. I’d hear an artist and then buy the first record of theirs that I found which more often than not was not the one I had heard but some obscure Lp that nobody else wanted. Jazz records at that time were easier to find than rare funk records and my new found spending power coincided with the Jazz Funk and Jazz dance movement that was popping off in London and around the UK. I wasn’t really allowed to stray too far from home when I was at school so it was difficult to sneak out to clubs at night so the day time events became my sanctuary because I could get home before curfew. One of the radio Dj’s that I liked was a Dj called Gilles Peterson and he ran a session with his then partner Patrick Forge that originally ran from 12 mid day to 4pm in a club called Dingwalls in Camden. Walking onto that building and hearing Jazz played at high volume on a booming crystal clear system changed my life forever and buried somewhere in my archive is a tape I taped on my Walkman of that very first session. A dark room, filled with dancers and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters ‘Sly’ on the system was the catalyst for a twenty year exploration into Jazz and and all of its avenues.
The name Attica Blues is a reference to Archie Shepp’s album, right? How much has Jazz influenced your music?
Jazz has perhaps been the strongest influence on the music I have made over the years because in the my early sampling days that was the genre where I would find my samples. Everyone else was rinsing rare groove so I jumped to Jazz, couple that with a fascination with complex rhythms and Jazz and my drum machine were a match made in heaven.
I got dissed one day in a record shop in London who questioned my ability to pay for a copy of Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues which at that time was an expensive album. I vowed that one day i would come back and buy that album and to rub face in the wound of the Jazz dealers I thought I’d name my band after a classic jazz album just to confuse them. I was a bit of an angry young man then and growing up in South London in the 80’s you had to fight your corner at all times. The Hip Hop head inside me had a point to prove that we had as much right to like the music as the they did even if we were initially only after the tunes for the samples. Eventually we learnt to love the tunes too especially when hunting for that elusive unused part.
Attica Blues on Mo’ Wax
Your very first release was the Vibes, Scribes & Dusty 45’s EP in 1994. Tell us about the birth of Attica Blues and the Mo’ Wax hook up.
I met James Lavelle in Honest Johns record shop in Ladbrooke Grove and we struck up a friendship through a shared love of record collecting and Star Wars. He was the first person I’d met around my age who was equally as geeky as me when it came to records and obscure facts. I liked the fact that he was a fellow Hip Hop head representing in the Jazz World which at one point wasn’t as welcoming as it is now to the Hip Hop fraternity. One day he said the following ” You look like you are into Hip Hop, I’m starting a new label and i’d like you to make some music for me’. I’d never really contemplated making music before but I was growing slightly disillusioned with the music I was playing as a Dj. It struck me that the records I loved didn’t have very much relation to my life, I wasn’t from the Bronx, I didn’t have a gold chain and I certainly didn’t have a gun and the life I was living wasn’t being represented on the radio. People can say whatever they want about James and Mo Wax but to his credit he gave a large amount of people a chance in the music industry that they would never have had without his vision. He gave me a chance and I grabbed it with both hands and for that I will always be truly thankful.
Big props have to go to Tony Nwachuku who I’d seen at various clubs around London but never really spoken to until I bumped into him in a Music tech store called Turnkey in central London. After James put the offer on the table i neglected to mention that I didn’t actually know how to put a track together so the hunt was on for a programmer to make the vision happen. I really liked the fact that Tony was also another African kid who’d had to fight to pursue his musical dreams because at that time a career in music was not something that was encouraged in African households. It’s funny to see the amount of artists with African heritage in the music industry now and in a small way I’d like to think that we helped pave the way for acceptance in the African community. We took the beatings so the next generation didn’t have to :)
Tony and I really got on from the moment we stepped into the studio and our energy bounced off each other into the music. The addition of Roba was the ice cream on the cake but Tony’s technical expertise meant that we had a head start with the technology and our records always sonically sounded on point. Put the three of us together and the Attica Blues connection was born.
Something for the collectors : is there a story behind the blue version of this record? I mean, was it someone’s wish, or just something that happened randomly? Do you remember how many were pressed blue and black?
James was an early champion of special releases and many of the records that we loved as Dj’s coming up in the game were released on multiple formats so it was a no brainer that when the chance came to have his own label he’d really go to town on the exclusives. The art direction of the music was just as important as the music itself and with all three of the band being big visual fans we wanted to do something special to mark the release. I remember long debates on the actual colour of blue that ended up being used but have no idea about how many of each were pressed. I was just stoked to be able to hold a piece of something that I’d played a roll in creating. The memory of coming home and putting the needle on my own record for the first time is a feeling that will never ever fade.
How was it to work with Mo’ Wax / James Lavelle in the early days? Were you involved in the full release process or were you just commissioned to do cool music?
In the Mo Wax days we were involved in the whole process from creation to release which is what made the A&M era so difficult. James was very hands on with the whole process and would allow you time to go away and experiment without pressure of conforming to an ideal. Those were definitely the luxury days, he was a great A and R man with a good eye for spotting talent but looking back the label could really have done with an artist development department to help the difficult transition to the major label days
Following the first EP, in 1995 Mo’ Wax released the fantastic single Blueprint, which in my opinion is one of the most iconic Mo’ Wax tracks of all time. For me this song was very special because it is the first track of a Mo’ Wax compilation called Faces Z – that Source, the Mo’ Wax distro in France, released back in ’96 – that got me into Mo’ Wax, so I played it to death! So, what did this release change for the band?
Blueprint was the accident that propelled us from a part time music makers into people who believed they could really have a shot at major label success. As a band we used to argue a huge amount in the studio but out of these arguments came some beautiful music and I think it was the tension between the three of us that created the magic. The drum loop came out of an abandoned tune and was a last minute attempt by Tony to rescue the session after tempers flared again. As soon as the loop entered the SP12 we all started nodding heads and went to work quicktime. The idea for strings came from Tony and his link with Steven Hussey from the Reggae Philamonic Orchestra, at that time it was rare to find black string players so it was a trip when he turned up to record the session with his players. One of the reasons why I stopped playing the violin as a teenager was the feeling of being the odd one out in the orchestra so meeting Steven and recording the strings on the Blueprint session was a personal landmark in my career as a producer. Deep down it was the moment when I realised that all of my influences could really be combined to tell my story. I have to give full respects to Tony for the score which he put together on either a very early version of Logic or a cracked copy of Cubase. One of the undisputed masters of making technology do stuff it wasn’t meant to do at a time when there was no Youtube to show you how.
There is always an air of nervousness when you work with string sections especially when the source material comes from programmed strings but as soon as the first note came through the monitor speakers I can remember all three of us putting our hands in the air and smiling. We were a very animated band both on the stage and in the studio and pandemonium did break out as we bounced around the walls. There are times in your life when you make a piece of music and you know that even if no one else likes it at that moment you have made something you will always be proud of. Blueprint was definitely one of those tunes and the day we played it to James will always be remembered for the silence that followed the last note. The moment when you dare your A and R man to tell you that what he’s just heard is not a bad bwoy tune. In those days we never ever delivered what was expected and perhaps that was part of the difficulty we had in finding an audience for our music. Tony always used to say we were ten years ahead of our time and in some ways he’s right as the musical landscape is much more open to genre bending music now. Thankfully James loved the tune but he really bugged out when he heard the remix and the rest is history.
The self-titled album came out 2 years later, after 2 more singles, Tender & 3Ree. That was quite long, has it something to do with the Mo’ Wax / A&M deal?
Attica Blues were one of the first bands to get signed to Mo Wax but after us came a ton of other acts and of course the success of Dj Shadow. With the A&M deal came an immense pressure to sell records and where as before when James could release records whenever he wanted he now had to adhere to a major label schedule and scrutiny. We seemed to spend an awful amount of time holed up in the studio creating tracks that would be loved one week and then rejected the next and it was a difficult period. Fortunately we were in demand as a live act and as remixers so time was spent crafting tunes for other people and playing shows. My Dj career really began to take off overseas particularly in Europe and America so I was travelling and the releases began to slow down.
The post Mo’ Wax Days
Your second album Test Don’t Test is in the same vein as the first one but with a more precise sound, I remember thinking it had a less “dusty 45” feel to it. Was it an intention or just the evolution of music production technology?
With the second album came a bigger budget, higher expectations and new technology. We now all had studios in our houses which I have to say is the most sensible thing we did with the money aside purchasing property. We’d go away and make tunes to play to each other and then argue about which one would be used. Tony was really pushing the boundaries of Logic and immersing himself in the new world of plug ins that were being introduced. I’d discovered the world of the MPC drum machine and was really trying to get inside the idea of the perfect beat and Roba was coming into her own as a vocalist with a voice that could be used as an instrument. The budget meant we could afford to mix the album in a big studio and it was mastered in America by Tony Dorsey who was and still is a well respected mix engineer behind many a Grammy award winning hit. The breaks were were using were of better sonic quality as we now had the money to buy tunes from dealers on our travels and if anything we began to rely less on samples and more on original compositions where the sample was buried in the mix underneath additional live instrumentation. I guess this creative freedom could be credited to an increased budget but at it’s heart was the idea of always pushing forward. We’d done the dusty samples album but now it was about live show music and with major label scrutiny you now had to declare all samples which only added to the delays so to speed things up we shifted things up.
This one wasn’t released on Mo’ Wax but on Columbia…
We began to feel surplus to requirements at Mo Wax and the A&M situation wasn’t really working for us so we parted ways. Island Records were sniffing about the A and R man for Columbia had a history of signing Soul to Soul and I think loose Ends so we signed with him. We also had friends at Columbia like Matt Ross who was one of the founding fathers of the now common street team campaigns you see particularly in the Urban Music movement. We liked what they had done with Destiny’s Child and Onyx and on a personal note as huge Sade fans it was special to be signed to the same label.
There was no single released out of Test Don’t Test, after this album Attica Blues has released nothing and we’ve never heard of a split up. Did the band take a break that never ended? Even solo works from each of you are quite inexistant, just a few remixes or collabs here and there…
At that time the big stars on the label paid the way for the smaller labels and artists and we were signed to a sub label of Columbia called Higher Ground which was run by Mick Clark , unfortunately he left the label mid campaign and we floated around with the other acts with no real and R man to steer the way. ‘What do you want’ was actually released as a single with remixes and a track called ‘The man ‘ was supposed to be the follow up with Groove Chronicals and Dj Spinna mixes. When the mixes came back we sent the Groove Chronicals Mix back for a little refix and were all ready to release the package when the whole project was pulled. The Sade album hadn’t really reached the expected numbers and cuts were being made all across the label. This was all happening at the time was the music industry was beginning to change and we unfortunately were one of the consequences. Having spent virtually every day for almost ten years together in the studio a break to explore other avenues was inevitable and what people fail to realise about bands who come together when young is that as you grow older together the way you interact begins to change. Being in the studio can often be a fight for independence especially when the pressure is on to deliver a hit and I guess we all reached a point when a break was needed.
After we departed from Columbia we started to do more work for independent labels so a lot of our remixes are difficult to find, Tony and I did less remixes together as our musical preferences changed until we stopped working together entirely. We are both strong headed characters and the hour long arguments about the level of a kick drum became too much for both of us. The advent of laptops for production also meant that the central studio was becoming a thing of the past and we shut down the group studio which we used to have in the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane meaning the meeting spot was gone.
Are you still in contact with Tony & Roba? What’s up with them?
The benefit of the extended break is what came out of the ashes which is the CDR organisation which Tony runs and my Blacktronica parties and subsequently the setting up of Run Dem Crew. Roba got married to our friend and artist Chris Ofili and moved to Trinidad with her equipment and still has her singing chops. We are still in contact and every now and again Tony and I kick around the idea of coming together again to make some music. We all still have studios and make music and Tony is still heavy on the remixes, production and educational teaching. We all have children and families now so time is increasingly precious but hopefully one day we’ll get back in the studio to continue what we started.
The present and the solo stuff
The last tune I heard from you is an House remix for LV & Message to Bears on 2nd Drop about 2 years ago, so you’re still producing. Can we expect more music in the near future?
I have at least 80 gig of unreleased music sitting in the hard drives but I am currently working on a new project exploring my spoken word work and marrying it with my rhythmic production ideas. I’ve made a couple of tunes with LV which are floating about on Sound Cloud and a collab with OM Unit for his new LP. It’s taken me a long amount of time to come to peace with music after the what went down with Mo Wax and Columbia and I no longer feel guilty if I make music and no one gets to hear it. My studio is an instrument I use to make tunes for myself, my children and friends. Sometimes I will spend hours working on a tune only to turn it of without saving it. I like the feeling of thinking of a beat and loading up the drum machine to bring it to life and it doesn’t matter to me anymore if anyone outside of the four walls of my studio ever gets to hear it.
At the end of the day I love and will always love making music but the process between leaving the studio and reaching the consumer is a process I no longer enjoy. I have a radio show on NTS radio that I really enjoy and when my arm is twisted I still bang out the tunes on the turntables in the clubs. The game has changed now and I always said that if I’m not pushing the boundaries then I don’t want to add to the noise. The record collection is still 10,000 strong and my kids are showing an interest in exploring the music so the torch is being handed down.
You also write and perform live poetry.
Some of the tracks on the first album were based on poems that I wrote and then Roba would take away and refix . Our thing was always rap style lyrics that were sung not rapped. As Roba took over song writing duties I got more into production and stopped writing. When we lost our deal I found myself in a tight situation with all of the trappings of a major label deal and no major label deal to pay for them. Writing and performing poetry has always been my first love and prior to Attica Blues I set up a poetry collective called the Urban Poets Society. In my darkest hours after the demise of the deal i started writing again and never stopped. I teach poetry and creative writing to people of all ages and work a large amount in schools with young people. Hopefully the new studio experiments will result in more of my music peeps hearing that side of me.
And now you run! Tell us more about the Run Dem Crew.
About five years ago I wrote and performed a one man show called ‘Have Box Will Travel’ about my early musical adventures and my time with Mo Wax and in preparation for a national tour I started running late at night home from the studio. Musicians are not the healthiest people in the world and I made it my point to invite as many as possible to come run with me. My theory is that If i like what you do then it’s important for me to whatever I can to make sure I support you to ensue you can continue to be creative. We need music and creativity in our lives and Run Dem Crew is my way of bringing my friends together at least once a week to share in a common experience. The internet and social media has meant that friendships can now appear more secure than they really are and it’s important to make virtual friendships real whenever you can.
Run Dem crew is a community of people from different walks of life with a common love of running, music and creativity. We work closely with Nike and have over two hundred members and are part of a larger urban running global community that is ever growing. For more info check us out at www.rundemcrew.com .
Please, tell us something interesting or funny, an anecdote we don’t know yet about Mo’ Wax or James Lavelle!
I remember the day James announced he wanted to work with the Beastie Boys and when we asked him how he was going to make it happen he said he was going to call them up and we all laughed. Pre internet, Twitter and Facebook there was no easy way to make direct contact with your heros but James simply picked up the phone and called them up like he was talking to his long lost school friend. James had big balls for a young man at that time and he never let any obstacle stand in his way and the label was filled with people craving a voice that had been previously suppressed. I doubt if anyone else would have taken a chance on an artist like DJ Shadow who I remember being slightly underwhelmed by when I first met. I couldn’t fathom how these incredible records were being made by someone so shy and humble and those two events really taught me valuable lessons which i carry to this day. Walk until you are stopped and always look out for the quiet ones as they have the most to say.
In the early days when the studio and office were in Central London there were always people in the building deep into the midnight hours. One night I heard a feint singing coming from the record room and was convinced it was a ghost. Eventually I plucked up the courage to find out who was making the noise and opened the door to see Bjork singing away to herself. Too star struck to say anything I just grunted, turned around and shut the door.
Peshay is a bad man at Mortal Kombat. Undefeated reigning Champion of the Braveheart Tour and a bad boy producer and Dj too.
Going record shopping with Dj Shadow in Australia and him pulling gems out of the rock section that you’d be mad sceptical to buy but getting them home to London and freaking out at the goodness within the grooves.
Going on a tour of Australia with the Beastie Boys, Smashing Pumpkins and the Foo Fighters and jamming in the hotel like it was a normal every day occurrence.
Having so much Bathing Ape and Supreme that i’d give it away to Oxfam and all my hardcore South London friends refusing to wear Bathing Ape in the 90’s because of the Ape on the shirt and never thinking that those early street wear labels would blow up as much as they have done.
Your last word?
Test Don’t test, This is not an intro…….
As time goes on the heads that really remember and understand what Mo Wax brought to the game are few and far between. They were a label of pioneers who definitely helped bring art, music and street wear together under one umbrella. One of the leading lights in shedding a light on what was going on in territories outside of America particularly Japan and a label that paved the blueprint for many labels that followed.
As i said before I will always have time for James as he gave me a chance when others fronted and that can never be taken away. Looking forward to seeing how the 21 year celebrations pan out. Got a heap of archive material to unleash so we’ll see if anyone makes contact when they start putting it together.
Thank you for your time!