Technics record decks have displaced the guitar as the nation's most popular musical instrument, and in bedrooms throughout the land teenagers practise their scratching and perfect their mixing technique. Already, new industrial injuries like mixer's elbow and headphone-shoulder are appearing at doctor's surgeries. Since DJ-turned-producer Roni Size won the Mercury Prize earlier this month, the figure of the DJ seems even more prescient, but when the history books of the DJ phenomenon are written, the Coldcut crew will get some of the blame, as well as a fair share of praise.
Ten years ago, Coldcut, aka Matt Black and Jonathan More, were among the first generation of British DJs following the New York hip-hop wave. Their re-mix of Eric B and Rakim's rap "Paid In Full", into which they dropped a sample of Israeli singer Ofra Haza's keening wail, became a cult success and then a big hit. Along with efforts by Bomb the Bass, S'Express and Soul II Soul, it helped establish the soundtrack for club culture, through which the figure of the DJ marched to pre-eminence. Later, Coldcut worked with Yazz and Lisa Stansfield before returning to their independent roots.
Now operating from their own base of Ninja Tune, a record company and multi-media production house near London Bridge, with its own roster of DJ acts, Black and More have recently celebrated their 10th anniversary with the release of a new album.
They also survey the DJ monster they helped to birth with mixed feelings. "When we started, becoming a DJ wasn't like being a rock hero or a superstar," says More, the quieter, less caustic of the two. Black, the sharp, jerky one, agrees. "A moody guy with a gram of coke and two turntables doesn't maintain the fascination. Where's the Jim Morrison of the decks? There's no personality worth shaking a stick at among DJs. But there's nothing wrong with kids wanting to be DJs. The only danger is that there'll be no one left to dance, just moody DJs sitting on their record boxes."
When Black first told his mum that he was a DJ, she thought he meant something along the lines of Jimmy Savile. He has obviously given much thought since to this ambiguous term. "A disc jockey plays records," he says, "but a DJ plays with records, making a creative form out of mixing sounds."
Both Black and More can theorise all day about the role of the DJ, but they are so au fait with notions of bricolage, semiology and deconstruction, that when I suggest mildly that some of their own Ninja Tune records are a bit repetitive, a bit heavy on the old Fender Rhodes piano samples, they are momentarily nonplussed before rushing to agree. "We must never abandon the search for new colours on the palette," Black says. "But then, a drummer doesn't change his kit for every new song," counters More, in what is becoming a kind of Socratic dialogue. "The trouble with this music," says Black, getting excited again, "is that it isn't about anything."
At least Ninja Tune music is funky, at a time when the majority of dance music emphatically is not. The Fender Rhodes electric piano is an emblem of funk for those who still want their beats anchored to the rhythm and blues tradition. "Funk is at the core of what we do," says Black. "It's what got us interested in the first place, but we have to move on. And we are."
They have remained contemporary by sponsoring the young DJs on their label, by incorporating multi media, four- and six-deck mixing, and by keeping up with the club scene. The competition they face from the funk- less dance music that grew out of house into rave and techno is something they foresaw.
"I was DJing in Spain when I first heard `Jack Your Body'," says Black. "Immediately all the guys who were into Simple Minds were saying: `Wow, what's that?' It was obvious that this sound would conquer the world. We never believed that people could squeeze so many variations out of what was only half an idea." Compared to which a liberal dosage of Fender Rhodes and James Brown samples is barely a crime at all.
Coldcut's album, `Let Us Play', which includes a free CD-Rom, is available now on Ninja Tune.Reuse content