Athletics the interview MR C OF THE SHAMEN TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON photograph by david sandison
"there is a definite magic to be found in rhythms," says DJ, rapper, club owner and part-time folk devil Mr C. "It's scientific knowledge that alpha and theta waves are altered by percussive sounds and light. And that throws you into an altered state of consciousness, releasing the neurons and getting you completely out there, which is connecting to something that some people call Gaia and some people call God, but whatever you call it, it's information."

Information is something that 30-year-old Mr C - or Richard West, as his friends, family and accountants know him - does not appear to be short of. So, do he and The Shamen (the shadowy gang of spaced-out techno-mystics he raps with) really see themselves as modern day equivalents of the ancient holy men who talked to the spirits? "We don't take it that literally," West insists, the hypnotic gap between his two front teeth framed by a broad smile. "We're not called The Shamans, which is the proper plural of shaman, and I don't run around in a grass skirt, bashing a drum and eating peyote."

Grass-skirt or no, Richard West's idea of a Friday night out still sounds fairly gruelling. It's half past six in central London on the coldest evening of the year. In an hour and a half's time, he will set off to drive to Bristol with some friends in order to appear onstage with The Shamen. Then, while all decent people are tucked up in their beds, he'll drive back to London to take the four till six shift on the turntables at his newly-opened nightclub The End, in place of the DJ who was supposed to be coming over from New York but got beaten up by some bouncers and couldn't make it.

This is what used to be known as a rock and roll lifestyle. But rock and roll - as anyone who saw Little Richard on The White Room a couple of weeks ago will testify with sadness in their eyes - has become one of those phrases that means the opposite of what it says. "Rock and roll has been done to death," says Mr C emphatically, "Who - please, do tell - is going to better Hendrix?" It will come as no surprise that Richard West is not overly enamoured of Brit-pop. "It's just the same old jingly- jangly guitars with four-piece boy bands in dodgy Seventies clothes," he scoffs. "I find it all a bit of a joke."

Ever since he became a pop star more or less overnight - on joining The Shamen after the death of their bass player in 1991 - Richard West has regarded it as both his duty and his pleasure to, in his own words, "get people's nuts". Or, more formally, "to inflict something a bit different on them in the hope that it will make them question the way things are". Hard though some will find this to believe, the man whose rap on The Shamen's tabloid-twisting chart-topper Ebeneezer Goode seemed to suggest that "E's are good," is actually more trousers than mouth.

Living off his DJ wages (admittedly no pittance: a cheekily eavesdropped phone conversation finds Mr C negotiating a continental club date at pounds 1,000 plus flight and hotel) he has nobly ploughed the rest of his income into "trying to give something back to dance music". The fruits of this novel initiative in an area where altruism is not the norm include a left-field techno record label, appealingly named Plink Plonk; a studio, The Watershed; and the aforementioned nightclub, The End - a gleaming monument to hi- tech hedonism in what used to be the Holborn post office's underground stables.

Going down The End's stairs into a wall of shrieks, as a sound-checking singer tests the limits of the hefty PA system, Richard West lists a few of the things he didn't want in his club. "Shit furniture, a crappy- looking bar, black-painted walls so you can't see the dirt and therefore the venue doesn't have to be cleaned, cockroaches dropping from the ceiling onto the turntables like you get at some clubs in London whose names shall remain unmentioned, wanky security giving people bad attitude on the door, and bar staff coming in looking like they've been rolling round in mud all week."

What he did want was rather simpler: a place where the social grouping he respectfully refers to as "the underground people" could "put on some decent clothes and not go home dirty". Isn't the whole point of being an underground person that you do go home dirty? "Not at all. I've had so many people coming up to me at illegal parties over the years and saying 'Oh God - look what I did to my trousers, they're a complete mess ... Why can't you get somewhere clean?' "

Not only is The End clean, it even has air-conditioning, and a water fountain. It is also not the first of Richard West's dreams to come true. In 1985, as an unemployed Holloway club-goer, he "visualised" himself on Top Of The Pops, and six years later it happened. What does "visualised" mean exactly? "It means if you have a dream, don't hope it's going to come true, know it's going to happen. Say hypothetically, on a material level, you want a car: don't just think you want a car, know what car, what make, what model, what colour, even visualise the registration on the plate - the more specific you are, the more chance there is of it becoming a reality."

If this sounds like the sort of stratagem L Ron Hubbard might keep in his cupboard, that is no coincidence. The role of self-help literature in dance music's positivity culture has been grievously underestimated. And Richard West gives much of the credit for his transformation, from teenage tearaway to underground entertainment mogul, to his step-father giving him of a book called The Power of Positive Thinking around the time of his 18th birthday.

He had already decided that rapping was his best career option. Silken body-popping skills had been rendered instantly obsolescent by the advent of the pre-teen breakdancer: "I've always had really thin hair," Richard West confesses with engaging candour, "so spinning on my head to try to outdo a load of eight year olds was out of the question." And an educational career which started brightly - at primary school West claims with heroic immodesty to have been "reading the teacher's Times when everyone else was struggling with Ladybird books" - had gone totally off the rails in its secondary phase.

The man who would be Mr C couldn't settle among the 1,300 boys of his Holloway comprehensive. "I thought 'Why do I want to go to school to argue with teachers and get in trouble when I can bunk off and sniff glue?' " Non-glue-sniffers tend to regard solvent abuse as a rather depressing activity. "Not at all - well, not for me anyway - it was very good fun and extremely psychedelic." If this sort of statement seems designed to get people's nuts, West's call for accurate information to be made available to ecstasy takers - "In clubs, not to the general public: you don't want to encourage non-users to start taking it" - is unimpeachably sensible. "If she hadn't been told that ecstasy definitely dehydrates you and you must drink lots of water," he points out earnestly, "poor Leah Betts might be alive today." (It is now known that Leah Betts, the teenager who died after taking ecstasy, had drunk too much water in the mistaken belief that it was an antidote to the drug's ill-effects.)

Hopes that The Shamen might prove to be the techno Beatles - triumphantly re-exporting across the Atlantic a British adaptation of music pioneered by black Americans - have run aground somewhat on the segregated nature of the US music industry. The group's multi-ethnic make-up renders them too black for "alternative" radio there and too white for the R 'n' B stations. Not for nothing is The Shamen's delightfully emollient new single called Heal (The Separation). For those who have grown up in an (albeit fractiously) multi-cultural society, the American way looks like a cul- de-sac.

"Even when I was a teenage skinhead glue-sniffer," West observes piquantly, "half our firm had coloured skin." Things don't seem to be going too badly for him though. In fact, reclining for the photographer's benefit in a beautifully designed chair on his very own deserted dancefloor, Mr C has the contented expression of a squire surveying his country estate. He grins. "I feel like a squire surveying his country estate."