This is the extended version of an interview I did with PJ from Shut Up And Dance. which originally appeared in the excellent Woofah magazine in spring 2008. Thanks to Woofah ed John Eden for correcting my notoriously bad spelling and grammar,
Straddling the lines between hip-hop, acid house and rave, Shut Up and Dance were true pioneers of UK dance music. Starting as a soundsystem, and predating hardcore’s use of sped up breakbeats with their releases in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the label is regularly name dropped as one of the pillars of what later became known as Jungle. Vanishing from view in ’93 after a string of hits from The Ragga Twins, Peter Bouncer and SUAD, label founders, PJ and Smiley, reinvented themselves with the ragga jump up Label ‘Redlight’ and went on to put out a series of some of the ruffest jungle tunes ever pressed to wax in 94 and 95.
In the first of an occasional series of interviews investigating the roots and offshoots of bass culture, The Droid speaks to head honcho PJ about S.U.A.D’s 20 year reign. From breakdancing and stringing up sounds, to raving, sampling, and chart success…
Your place in the history of jungle/hardcore was acknowledged in Soul Jazz’s recent Rumble in the Jungle compilation – Considering how influential you were as a label, it seems like this was well overdue – How did that come about?
Yeah, They approached us initially, I think it was just for a couple of tracks, there was a Shut Up and Dance track and a Ragga Twins track, and then they came back and asked for some more – it sort of came about that way. They were obviously well aware of us, they came down, did an interview with us, to add to the cover notes and that. But yeah, there’s like a good mutual respect going on there…
And you were happy with the results?
Have you ever considered putting out represses or compilations yourselves?
We get asked that all the time. But to be honest we view it like we’re trying to concentrate on the future. We’ve been going a long time now, 18 years or whatever and a lot of people in our situation, they’ve sort of stopped – so it’s not a problem for them to go back and press up all the old classics. But we’re still making music now, so we’d rather people focused on what we’re doing now. We appreciate what we’ve done in the past and that there’s people still into it and that, but we’d rather personally, look forward. We sort of see it like – there’s more to come.
So you haven’t been tempted to cash in?
(Laughs) Nah – trust me. We’ve been asked literally since we started till now. ”Ain’t you gonna press ‘em up? Ain’t you gonna press ‘em up?” And we’ve resisted all the way. But y’know, I never say never to anything – you never know what the future will hold.
And you’re not bothered by seeing your releases go for silly money on Ebay?
At the end of the day – it’s an open market innit. People are free to do what they’re gonna do. There’s not an awful lot you can do about that – if they bought the tune legitimately back in the day, then good luck to them.
We’re not going to see any High Contrast remixes of old Shut up and Dance tunes then?
To go back to your roots – you started out in the mid 80s by forming the Heatwave soundsystem, but you guys were hip hop heads, what was the story with that sound?
Well basically, me and Smiley went to school together, also Daddy Earl and Hype [DJ Hype of Ganja Records fame], we all went to the same secondary school – in fact them three guys went to the same primary school as well. So we all knew each other from then.
This is about 84/85, I left school in what, 84 – so yeah, I was about 16 in 84. This was a time when rap was massive in the UK, it was fresh, it was new. But back then it was people like LL Cool J, The Beastie boys, Public Enemy, it was all slower stuff, and there was breakdancing and all that stuff. And I was well into that – every lunchtime we used to have breakdance battles, and body popping battles.
Just by chance I bumped into Smiley about a year after leaving school, and it turned out we were both still into hip hop, still into rapping and that, and we just got together and basically started dancing together. We entered competitions – we even won a few. We were just generally into rap and the whole hip hop culture, we loved it all, the dancing, the music, the writing. We were doing all parts of it, and basically that’s where our love came from; it came from hip-hop and rap.
So would it be fair to say you were more inspired by hip-hop than reggae?
I assume you were aware of the big UK reggae sounds of the day?
What happened there was, back at school we was going to all the soundclashes and that, we were going to all the Saxon, Unity and Coxsone dances. That was like what we did at the weekend sorta thing. And we had a soundsystem, we bought a little soundsystem, y’know, young, not really knowing much, but it was a good soundsystem. We used to go round the roads, kick off doors, string up the set, put on a little blues, people used to come to our dances and that.
So the whole soundsystem culture, is like, we grew up on that as part of everything else. Which is why when we had the soundsystem, me and Smiley were rappers on it. But we also had the reggae side of it which was Daddy Earl, who’s Smiley’s brother, and Hype, back then he was our DJ, but he was a wicked hip hop DJ, he use to cut and scratch in the mix an that. So you’d have these two mad guys rapping over this guy cutting up – this was when no other soundsystem was doing it back then, that was like “what they hell are these guys doing?”… Basically, you were either a reggae sound or a soul sound. You wasn’t rapping and scratching and have some reggae MC also doing his thing over this guy cutting up tunes, it was like “what the hell is this?”… (Laughs)
So from a vocal end of things, UK Reggae MC’s like Tippa Irie and Smiley Culture didn’t have much influence on you as MCs?
Just a general influence from the whole soundsystem vibe, the whole thing, the whole y’know, MC on the mic, chatting really good lyrics, smashing up the place, the whole soundsystem vibe to this day we still carry it with us. The whole energy of that vibe. You can’t beat it. You just can’t beat it.
After acid house and the rave scene kicked up, did you see any parallels between what you were doing, what soundsystems did, and what rave was?
Well, funnily enough, when we eventually started our label – I don’t know if you know how we actually decided to start our label… Me and Smiley were basically making music with Hype, but the direction we wanted to go in, Hype wanted to try his own thing. So we said fair enough, we stayed friends and everything, and he just sort of went off and did his thing and me and Smiley were trying to get a deal. So we were rappers making what we thought was British rap, but because we had the dance background, we wanted to make music that you could dance to, so our rap music was a lot faster than rap.
We were going round trying to get a deal with this demo with all of these mad rap tunes (Laughs). It turned out we didn’t get a deal, and that’s how eventually we started our own label. We sat down one day and said “y’know what, lets just try and do it ourselves” So we set ourselves a date and we said, right, we’re both going leave our nine to fives, and we’re going to take what money we have and put out a record. And that’s what we did.
So it was like the whole DIY thing of rave a few years beforehand?
Yeah that’s right.
I think you’ve said before in interviews that you didn’t go to any of the early raves in the late 80′s like Sunrise or Genesis…
No we didn’t, cos what happened was, the music we was making, like the first 3/4 singles we put out, we thought it was British rap, but as I said, it was faster than everything else. What we used to do is put a rap single on one side, and then we’d just do an interesting instrumental where we’d get a break, speed it up. Which again, back then, no one was doing this, which is why people say now, that we were the creators of drum n bass or whatever.
We used to get hip hop beats, cos that’s what we knew, and get a little part of the break and then just speed it up and rap over it. Smiley had a younger brother, and he was a raver, he used to go to all the big nights and he used to come home and say “you guys gotta come out and hear this stuff, their killin’ your stuff, their playing it everywhere” and we’re like “What? What’re you talking about?” And he’s like “Yeah, it’s this rave, you gotta come to this rave”, we’re like – “what the hell are you on about?”
So eventually we went, and we walked in, and just to see these people kicking off to your tune, it was like “what the hell is this?” It just opened our eyes to it, and then when we saw the love out there for the stuff we were doing it obviously encouraged us, and that was it really. We sorta got thrown into this rave scene – but really we saw ourselves as UK rap. We sorta complemented the both.
I guess it was pretty lucky… almost a fluke that you were making 130bpm breakbeat when all this house and techno was coming through at the same speed?
Definitely… Exactly, yeah, exactly.
Did you ever feel like you were really part of the rave scene? After a couple of years, I suppose in ‘91 or so, when you were, I assume, selling a lot of records?
We always embraced it, but at the same time, the true rave scene was a lot of that piano stuff, y’know “Plink, Plink Plink, Plink, Plink” stuff, and we never any made stuff like that. All our stuff was just like raw beats, fat basslines, either one of us on it, or the Ragga Twins on it. So we didn’t really see ourselves as rave, but it fitted obviously, to the whole rave thing. Cos I see rave as glowsticks, hands in the air, “Plink, Plink Plink, Plink, Plink”, which is all fine, but that’s not what we were making, we were making a lot rawer sound than that, a lot rawer – keeping it with the soundsystem vibe.
Just out of curiosity, how many 12”s of each release were you pressing back then?
I can’t remember to be honest, but trust me sales were good back then. (Laughs). Our first single ‘5,6,7,8’, we were literally selling it out of the back of my boot, I had a little orange Ford Escort… and trust me, sales were good back then – even a shit tune would do 2 and a half, 3000.
So you were probably talking 10,000 at least for the big tunes?
Yeah, you were going from between say three up to 10 upwards depending on the track. And you were always guaranteed a repress to come back and press more and more…
Things have changed a lot haven’t they?
Now – There’s been a few anti-drug tunes on Shut up and Dance stuff like Ragga Trip/The Killing and even Raving Im raving, though not explicitly anti drug, kinda had a dark side to it with the ‘Do I feel the way I feel’ vocal. The only other producer I can think of from the same period who did anything like that was L Double, who did that tune ‘leave it alone’ … maybe some of the anti-crack tunes from ’93 How did you reconcile this with the fact that there were loads of people going out and dancing to your tunes on E?
Well, we didn’t really see it as a conflict, ‘cos we’ve always from day one, just did what we do. We don’t preach to people but we’ve always tried to have a message. Like if it was a rap tune we would have a message in the rap, like “A change soon come”, or “this town needs a sheriff”. We was always on about things. And if it was an instrumental there was a message in the title. Like ‘The Green Man‘ – people think that’s just a title, but The Green Man was actually the local pub where all the people used to go to get their crack. We always had a message to put out.
So you never actually went out to a rave and dropped E’s and danced around?
We went to all of these places, cos you had to see what was making the people… obviously if you go out and you see the environment and people reacting to it helps you make better music. So we took part on that side of things, but on the other side of things, we were never really into that, we’re drinkers (Laughs) we grew up on that.
Just to go back to Hype for a sec. You were obviously doing really well in the early 90s, and Hype was producing stuff at the same time, and he had a hit with ‘The Exorcist’. How come he never put out anything on Shut Up and Dance?
That’s’ a very good question! It took till about three years ago before we did anything together – I dunno if you know the track ‘Reclaim the Streets’? We were all still friends and everything, but he was doing his thing, we were doing our thing, and it was all great – it just didn’t come about…
Were you close to any other producers or labels? Rebel MC for example? Or Paul Ibiza, or people who were pushing similar sounds?
We knew of everyone, because most of the people making music in that scene came from our area anyway. Hackney is responsible for a lot of music people – not even just in the rave scene, but everyone, from Soul 2 Soul, Trevor Mad Hatter, now known as Trevor Nelson, Rebel MC – all came from Hackney. Ragga Twins, Tenor Fly – everyone was all in the same zone.
Along with XL, you were probably the most commercially successful hardcore label. I know the ragga twins made it into the charts a few times, but how many times did you make it into the top 40 in total? 5/6 times?
Quite a few times. Most of our stuff used to hit guaranteed top 60. A few of it made top 40. The Ragga Twins were always bubbling around just outside the top 40. We were always floating around in that zone really.
It was around the same time you did the LP for Nicolette as well. Did you have ambitions to be a mainstream label – taking the majors on at their own game?
Not really. As I said we were sort of forced into it. We started out own thing, and luckily from day one it was successful, and it built and built, just roller-coasted really. Next minute we had management, and then we were signing artists, and it was like “bloody hell we have to get organized – we have to do an album for these people now”… it just naturally rolled along.
Just to move onto 92. In the 2 years before that, you put out some of the most influential tunes in breakbeat history – and then you had that ‘trouble’ in mid 92 – which was a real shame, cos that’s when the jungle sound was really starting to come out. Can you give any more details about the ‘I’m Raving I’m Raving‘ episode?
Not really – I don’t even like talking about it to be honest (laughs). It’s history y’know. We made a track. The writer of the track wasn’t happy with the similarities or whatever, we tried to do a deal, we said: “let’s give all the money to charity”, he said no. End of. That was it. We were only allowed to sell what we’d already pressed.
And you were hit by a bunch of other claims by the MCPS for more uncleared samples… Did you feel like you had been scapegoated?
When I look back know with hindsight – we were just ahead of our time. It’s not like trying to get sample clearance is now. Back then, they didn’t even know what a sample was, they were like “Who? What?” even trying to speak with the publishers, no one knew what anything was. Now you’ve got whole departments set up just to sit down and deal with it – whether it’s a sample or you’ve replayed it or whatever, now you’ve got sections that can deal with it. Back then they didn’t know what the hell you were on about. So we were just sort of 10 years too early (laughs).
It just seems strange – I can’t think of another big label that was burned as badly as you were.
Yeah, this is true. But y’know, out of these things, there’s usually someone who ‘gets it’ (laughs). At the end of the day – I’m still here. I can’t complain. Things could be worse.
You never thought about giving up then?
Nah, definitely not – that’s not my mentality
How did it affect your approach to sampling? you went on to sample Tracy Chapman in ‘The Burial‘ (on Redlight) – obviously a much smaller pressing, but were you worried at all about getting into trouble again?
Not really. It’s how you do things. You just have to be clever with things, and obviously be careful – but y’know, you must express yourself.
You obviously had trouble from the mainstream with sampling, what about from the dancehall end of things? You sampled a lot of ragga and reggae on Redlight, and I’ve heard that DJ Ron and Frost were both approached by rudeboys looking for cash for samples – did anything like that ever happen to you?
(Laughs) No it didn’t. But we always spoke to most of the people that we dealt with anyway. We spoke to them and sorted out some sort of deal or whatever. That’s how it came about, us signing the Ragga Twins, they were known from the Unity soundsystem, and we sampled a bit of their voice from a soundsystem tape, and we went to them and asked them for permission to use their voice on ‘Lamborghini’ (which also sample the Eurythmics! – d)and that’s how it started. So we always tried to deal with people.
I’d like to ask a few questions about Redlight. As far as I’m aware it’s a relatively unknown label – and the 12”s are quite rare, so obviously you weren’t pressing too many…
It was a very limited thing anyway. Everything was like limited edition sorta thing.
So how did you get sucked back into the scene? Were you just waiting for the dust to settle after the court case?
Well after that happened, we just took a little bit of time out. We were just writing in the studio, like everyone thought we’d given up or packed it in, but we were just in the studio – regrouping, writing some new stuff, changing our sound a bit, cos by then everyone was sounding like us, but we were just keeping it fresh in the studio, probably for a year, two years.
There’s wasn’t really much else that sounded like the stuff you were releasing on Redlight at the time – Maybe early Philly Blunt and Ganja and people like Remarc – were you influenced by any other producers or labels?
We were just being influenced by ourselves really (laughs) and our love of the whole soundsystem thing. We were just so into it, and we thought it worked well, the hardcore soundsystem vibe – bringing it on a piece of plastic in a format that works, that people can dance to.
It was quite a departure from what you were doing before – no live vocals, and a much more full-on dancefloor vibe. If you were writing those tunes in 93, I would have thought they’d have been well ahead of their time.
Yeah… (laughs) They were, definitely. You get the odd person now when we’re out DJing, and they’ll come up and mention a track off the label, and I’ll be like “Bloody Hell”, Cos I haven’t heard half of these tunes in so long myself. I haven’t even got copies of every one… people come round and y’know, borrow it and this and that, and before you know it you can’t find them.
One thing that strikes you when listening to the Redlight catalogue is the rawness of the sound and the way you use samples. When most jungle labels were becoming more sophisticated you seemed to be hanging on the rave aesthetic – simple song structures, being led by the samples… was that a reaction to they way the scene was going?
Not at all. We were just doing our own thing, doing it our own way with our own flavour. Because you have to be yourself in the studio or you just get lost – you don’t know who you are musically. You’re following people instead of doing what you wanna do. But obviously don’t run away with yourself.
Something else that’s obvious in your approach to using samples in general is your sense of humor. From ‘£20 To Get In’ to ‘Bastards’ – you never seemed to take things too seriously…
That’s right yeah. As I said, there’s always a message in our songs, whether it be a little one or a big one, but we don’t do it in a way that we preach. So it’s either gonna be funny, or something obscure… y’know, we’re gonna do it in a clever way basically, not just an obvious way, cos we don’t want to preach to people. To me that’s not what music is about.
Who is the MC featured on Bastards?
That’s me. (Laughs)
That’s a pretty good disguise you’ve got there, I thought you’d gotten some nerdy white guy to do it
(Laughs) Yeah that’s me…
You were obviously listening to a lot of 90s dancehall and reggae when you were making those tunes judging by the artists you sampled – Simpleton and Garnett Silk, amongst others – were you heavily into dancehall at the time?
Erm.. Just kinda of a broad stretch of it. There’s so much music out there that from most artists you’re gonna hear something you like. I don’t like it all – definitely no way, but like Garnett Silk, I was well into him. Just so many, I could be here all day if I started namedropping…
What did you think of the more reggae influenced stuff that labels like Suburban Base, Tearin Vinyl, SOUR, Proper Talent etc were putting out around the same time?
I thought it was fine, cos we sort of view competition as healthy. It drives you on, so I was fine with all of that.
And when you played out as DJ’s would you play out stuff from other jungle labels?
Nah, cos when we DJ, we play breakbeats full stop. We’re into breaks when we play out and that’s what we’ve always played.
Even back when you were producing jungle?
Yeah, cos we started DJing late, back then we weren’t DJing. We didn’t start DJing til 95 possibly – maybe 96. We started quite late. We were always in the studio. We always saw ourselves as producers, but then we had to get into the DJing thing, because that’s the way things were going, even more so now. You have to be a DJ to do anything in this game now.
And DJ’s have to get into production to get DJing gigs…
That’s right yeah – you have to do both now…
What about the UK reggae labels like Greensleeves, Fashion and Jetstar moving into the jungle scene – did you see much friction between the reggae crowd and the more established labels and artists?
I didn’t, but I did hear the rumors as well. I did hear about lots of things going down, but I didn’t personally see none of it.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the Jungle ‘Council’ and the campaign against ragga jungle – DJ Rap allegedly received death threats warning her not to play ‘Incredible’ at Jungle Soundclash in Edmonton, and S.O.U.R.’s Dave Stone cut General Levy out of the BBC’s ‘Jungle Fever’ – did scene politics affect you in any way?
Ri-iight. Yeah I did hear at the time about all that politics, but y’know, as a label and as people, me and Smiley don’t get involved in all of that. No politics, we just wanna make music, and that’s all we wanna do. Get people dancing and that’s it.
And what about all the negative press attention that jungle got in 94 and 95?
Y’know it was one of those things, when a scenes getting too big, or people are making too much money, the media or whatever always kicks in and snuff it out, the same thing happened later on to garage. I don’t know what it is…
That’s happened to Grime as well recently…
Yeah, exactly, exactly
Do you think there was an element of racism about the whole thing?
It’s definitely politics… I don’t know if I’d use that word, I don’t know if it’s that strong, but there’s definitely politics involved.
Redlight finished up in 95 – had it run its course?
I think the scene had just changed or whatever. It was always going to be a limited thing since we started. We didn’t press up a lot and it was going to be very limited, and it just ran its course and we stopped it. Same with the Ruff Quality label, same thing. We ran it for a bit and just stopped it.
Your 1995 LP ‘Black Men United’ on Pulse 8 is like a summary of all the different sounds you’d explored since 89 – breakbeat/house/rave/jump up – was it intended as a swan-song to your rave and jungle days?
That was just a collection of the stuff we’d been writing from say, when we disappeared a bit, stopped putting out stuff – It was like a collection of all the stuff we’d been putting together, cos we were still working with artists, you can hear that on the drum n bass tracks with Richie Davis and Peter Bouncer singing. We were always still writing and still busy, and that was just a compilation of everything we’d been up to. It wasn’t anything deeper than that really. We’ve still been busy, we’ve still been working with artists, this is what we’ve been up to, check it out.
And you actually got back in the charts with a single from that LP as well (‘Save it till the mourning after’)…
That’s right yeah, with me in that dodgy video. Me rapping and everything. That wasn’t for me to rap that song, I wrote it for someone else to do it, but we couldn’t find someone else to do it, so I had to do it (laughs) and I didn’t even want to do it…
Did you make many videos? I think I’ve only seen ‘Derek went mad’
Nah, we’ve got quite a few, we’ve got videos for ‘Take it Easy’, ‘Art of Moving Butts’, ‘Derek went mad’, ‘Save it till the mourning after’, ‘The weekends here’, the Ragga Twins have got ‘Wipe the Needle’ and ‘Hooligan 69’ . We’ve got quite a few. We are thinking about putting a collection together and getting it up on Myspace, so we’re going to be looking into that
Have you being keeping up to date with the drum and bass scene over the last few years? What do you think of the whole clownstep thing?
Of the what? Sorry?
Have you heard of clownstep?
(Laughs) I haven’t heard that name no…
It’s kind of a derogatory term to describe people like Pendulum, swing beats, 180-bpm techno style D+B…
(Laughs) No, not by that name, I’ve heard the music but I haven’t heard it called that. We still keep up with it. We’re good friends with Hype, and whenever we’re not out working we go out with him, so we’re still on the scene and we’re still locked onto the radio. We’re on a pirate radio station in London called ‘Origin FM’ Its actually a drum n bass station but we have a breakbeat show every Wednesday nights between ten and midnight, so we’re always locked onto that station as well as Kool FM. We keep our ears to the ground with all types of music.
As of that stuff you’re talking about. I haven’t got a huge problem with it, but some of its a bit noisy (Laughs).
What about grime and dubstep? Have you been keeping up?
Definitely. The whole Grime scene, I like a lot of that stuff. I like the energy, gotta lose the anger a bit (laughs), but I was like that at that age. Yeah, I like a lot of that stuff.
So you’re more into grime than the mainly instrumental dubstep side of things?
As I said, there’s good in all, but the whole Grime thing I like a lot of it, obviously not all of it. I sorta wish there were mature heads within the scene to help it grow. Cos obviously it’s a very young scene, a lot of the artists are very young, I wish there were someone in there with an older head sort of taking charge and organising things…
Yeah, there’s only Wiley who’s about 28/29…
Yeah, if there were more people like him within the scene it would bring things on a lot more… And as for the dubstep thing, I’ve been getting into that,. There’s a single from our new album that’s getting a dubstep mix by a guy called Rezo.
And do you still keep up with dancehall and reggae?
Yeah, yeah. Don’t go to many dances anymore cos there’s not many on. But yeah, still into it. The soundtapes from 15 years ago – we still pull them out and listen to them…
PJ and Smiley play breakbeat on London pirate Origin 95.2 FM on Wednesday nights 10-12pm