By Tim Barr
"I just want to change things.” As a 17-year-old being interviewed for the first time in the early 1980s, DJ Goldie’s manifesto was ambitious but straightforward.
Three decades on, he’s one of a handful of musicians on the planet who can claim to have shaken things up so radically that he’s effected a permanent shift in the cultural fabric. Now a father, husband, record label executive, celebrated visual artist, DJ and still, of course, active music producer, he’s also a much-loved celebrity in the UK. There he’s known, by people who’ve never heard a note of his music, as the larger-than-life star of family-friendly TV programmes such as Classic Goldie, Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment and even Strictly Come Dancing.
To anyone with even a passing interest in electronic dance music, however, he’s the don - an innovator who has delivered some of the genre’s most thrilling milestones and pushed the dancefloor soundtrack into new and hitherto uncharted territory.
Goldie speaks from his home in Hertfordshire, England, in the midst of a typically hectic 24 hours. The night before our interview, he tore the roof off a club in Nottingham with a spectacular DJ set, a drum & bass masterclass that spilled into the wee small hours (“I was having the granny off it,” he grins, “the place was euphoric”). He was up again before dawn for a breakfast television appearance in Manchester before travelling on to Birmingham for business meetings. We catch him back with his family, dressed down in tracksuit bottoms and a plain white T-shirt, but to say he’s relaxing might be overstating the case. “I’m buzzing,” he admits. “I feel like a teenager again.” Family life, he says, agrees with him. But he also credits Bikram Yoga - a kind of yoga on steroids also favoured by Jeff Bridges, Lady Gaga and his old friend Madonna - for helping him achieve the kind of physical fitness and stamina that most men half his age would envy.
As always, his conversation is rapid fire, those Midlands tones – softened only a little by the years he’s spent in Miami, London and most recently England’s stockbroker belt – zipping through a series of inspired and inspiring topics at the speed of light. Visual art, philosophy spirituality and anecdotes from his extraordinary career tumble out but, at the heart of it all, his passion for family and friends shines through. When it comes to interview subjects, only John Lydon comes close in terms of delivering the kind of extraordinary imaginative leaps that turn a chat into something - part rollercoaster ride, part masterclass – that inhabits an altogether higher plane.
But throughout it all, it’s music that he returns to again and again. Warming to the theme, he touches on Captain Beefheart, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the classical tradition of Rachmaninov or Beethoven and the raw junglist sound of General Levy.
But today we’re here to talk about his own music. From 1993’s game-changing "Terminator" single - which re-imagined new possibilities for the production technique of time-stretching - through 1995’s jawdroppingly ambitious Timeless album to his collaborations with David Bowie, KRS-One and Noel Gallagher on 1998’s Saturnz Return, Goldie has consistently redrawn and reshaped the boundaries of what’s possible both within the confines of a recording studio and in dance music itself.
“I’m an alchemist,” he insists. “I practice the dark arts of messing with the form of something structurally solid.”
But as he meshed his early fascination with hip-hop and electro into, first, house music and hardcore techno then breakbeat, jungle and, finally, drum & bass, he created a template that’s still influencing dance music producers today. Without Goldie there’d be no Skrillex, no Excision, no Diplo. Remove everything that bears the traces of his influence from the equation and Deadmau5 wouldn’t be within a whisker of where he is now, Holy Ship would be sunk and the Electric Daisy wouldn't have blossomed.
“Culture spreads, it evolves,” says Goldie. “Young people are coming out, and it's important to understand that they're having their time. It's their scene, but that scene's come from ours.”
It’s a point that’s well made across the three discs of his new compilation. The Alchemist: The Best Of Goldie 1992-2012 is a 36-track resumé that stretches from the dark and brooding “Menace” (off 1992’s Dark Rider EP for 4 Hero’s Reinforced label) to the brand new – and beautifully jazz-tinged – “Single Petal Of A Rose” (a title borrowed from Duke Ellington).
Naturally that extraordinary debut album Timeless is well represented by a handful of blissful, near-perfect cuts such as “Angel,” “State Of Mind” and the peerless “Inner City Life” (here in its "Bad Boy" remix version). But there’s also plenty to explore from the early period when Goldie was hustling his way through hardcore and jungle towards the flawless vision he unveiled on that record – and plenty from the aftermath too.
The collection also includes a string of Goldie’s best remixes – though, sadly, it doesn’t feature his dazzling 1994 rerub of Cutty Ranks’ classic “Armed & Dangerous,” which was lovingly retooled with samples from Eighties Ladies’ rare groove classic “Turned On To You.” Mixes for Garbage and Ed Sheeran are present and correct though, joined by his reworking of “Isobel” for one-time fiancée Bjork as well as his much-lauded “Toasted Both Sides” mix of Bush’s 1996 alternative hit “Swallowed.”
It’s a vibrant, varied collection that, overall, serves as a reminder to those dabbling with dubstep and the like, that—when it comes to electronic dance music - Goldie wrote the playbook.
“The whole thing about this music is that not one person can do it on their own,” he explains. “It takes a lot of people to put a piece of wood on the fire. Obviously, that’s no different from the way that any invention happens – you look at one idea and add another one and then someone else adds a piece and it all gets put together. It’s an ongoing process. So much groundwork has been laid by the house people and techno artists and hip hop artists … but everybody has a contribution to make if they’re interested in making music for the right reasons.”
Goldie’s success, his dogged determination to turn his ambitious artistic vision into sonic reality, his willingness to continually reinvent and confound in equal measure, has been achieved against the odds though.
Born to a Jamaican father and a Scottish mother in Walsall in the UK’s West Midlands, the young Clifford Price was put into the UK’s foster care system at the age of three, though his mother – a one-time pub singer – kept his younger brother. He still remembers, he says, the day the social workers came to take him away.
The boy who would become Goldie spent most of the next 15 years in a series of foster homes and local government institutions. He often suggests that his taste for eclectic music was the result of growing up in that environment, forced to rub shoulders with other youngsters separated from their families. “In one room a kid would be playing [local reggae outfit] Steel Pulse,” he explains, “while through the wall someone else had a Japan record on and another guy would be spinning Human League.”
The drive that has marked him out as one of electronic music’s most enduring survivors initially manifested itself in other forms though. He found solace in roller-skating and pushed himself to excel, earning a place as goalkeeper in the B Team for England’s national roller-hockey squad. After discovering electro and hip hop, he grew his hair – the “goldilocks” that won him his nickname – and joined a breakdance crew called the B-Boys in nearby Wolverhampton. He also discovered graffiti.
“They called me ‘the spraycan king of the Midlands’,” he says proudly. But his talent was undeniable, bringing him to the attention not only of Britain’s Arts Council but to Dick Fontaine, producer of a Channel 4 TV documentary on graffiti. Bombin’ captured a visit to the UK by New York artist Brim Fuentes at a time of intense social unrest on the other side of the Atlantic – the result of crippling unemployment and social inequality engendered by the policies of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Brim met Goldie and his B-Boys crew in Wolverhampton’s Heathtown area.
Next day, he travelled a dozen miles or so to the Handsworth area of Birmingham – home to, among other musicians, Steel Pulse – and witnessed the aftermath of rioting that had left four dead, 35 injured and dozens of local stores burned out. Several months later, Fontaine reversed the process and took Goldie to New York where his meeting with hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa was filmed. The experience fired Goldie’s passion for the revolution brewing in the South Bronx.
“I went back to New York,” he later explained, “started painting the trains and getting involved on the streets.”
Then he moved to Miami, working in the flea markets, “painting trucks for drug dealers” and developing a sideline in gold jewellery that included the distinctive “grill” which became a trademark on his return to the UK.
Back in Britain, a new girlfriend Kemi Olusanya - later one half of acclaimed drum & bass DJ duo Kemistry & Storm - took him along to the Rage club night at Heaven in London’s Charing Cross. He was immediately entranced by the mix of house and breakbeat that DJs Fabio and Grooverider were spinning. “I saw dreams,” he remembers.
Goldie found himself seduced by the atmosphere, the euphoria and the urgent, chemistry-set connections of rave. “It really flipped me out,” he confides. In the raw, hybrid style of Shut Up & Dance, A Homeboy, A Hippie and A Funky Dread and the bruising DIY output of Ibiza Records, too, he discovered a world of possibilities.
“Then I saw Manix and Nebula 2 at The Astoria,” he adds, “and it just got to me instantly. Once breakbeat catches you like that, nothing else really registers. I couldn’t deal with house after that. In my view, Detroit techno was always more like a mature version of house. But breakbeat is the bastard child of techno.”
Desperate to be part of it all, Goldie began working with the Reinforced Records crew, initially doing artwork then acting as A&R and—thanks to his ebullient personality – all-round ambassador for the label. “It wasn’t until Goldie became involved that anybody really found out who we were,” confides Reinforced co-founder Dego McFarlane. Dego—one half of 4 Hero along with partner Mark Clair (aka Manix) found Goldie a keen student. Soon he was in Reinforced’s long, narrow attic studio, looking over Dego’s shoulder as he and Mark developed tracks such as “Cookin’ Up Ya Brain” and “Journey From The Light.” “I was just watching what they could do, trying to gauge the possibilities of the technology,” recalls Goldie.
Eventually, he says, “I put my money where my mouth is. I went into the studio with all my favourite records and said, ‘Sample this, this and this’, then ‘Let’s do this, this and this’. It was literally like that. When I did 'Menace,' I started to get into the more technical stuff – I was thinking a lot about various theories but it was still quite a barbaric process. I just went in there and tried throwing nu-skool samples against old-skool stuff and then pulled other things in. It was just experimenting and trying things out. The name I came up with was Rufige Kru. ‘Rufige’ was way I described things that were left lying around on the surface, more or less scum, which you collected together and turned into something new. I was using fourth or fifth-generation samples, just trash sounds, but they had a grittiness and a roughness which identified with the feel of the street. So it was the perfect name to go with the kind of records I was doing.”
The tracks from that time – such as 1992’s “Dark Rider,” which is also featured on The Alchemist - sound like the vision of someone completely seduced by the energy and futurism of rave. They’re filled with colossal bruising sounds and the desperate, urgent desire to communicate through raw frequencies and accelerated grooves.
While hardcore in the clubs was descending into an increasingly frenetic collage of broad strokes, the mood at Reinforced’s Internal Affairs studio was focused on tiny subtleties and freestyle experimentation.
“I remember one session we did which lasted over three days,” says Goldie. “We did everything from my stuff to Mark and Dego’s stuff, just experimenting, pushing the technology to its limits. We’d come up with mad ideas and then try to create them and we filled tape after tape with this stuff. We were sampling from ourselves, and then re-sampling, twisting sounds around and pushing them into all sorts of places. We ended up with fifteen DATs, all numbered and catalogued – they’re called the Expo DATs – and I think we kind of wrote the manual over those three days. I still hear things today, ideas and sounds, which we first tried when we were reeling off all those DATs. I can hear a track and go, ‘Oh, oh, Expo DAT number such and such’ because it was such an intense time that I remember almost everything we did.”
Experimenting with an Eventide Harmonizer effects unit and the break from James Brown’s "Funky Drummer," the three friends stumbled on a revolutionary time-stretching technique. “Suddenly,” admits Goldie, “I found that things that I’d been trying to sample which hadn’t sounded right could now sound wicked.” The result was “Terminator,” one of The Alchemist’s stand-out tracks, which tore through the scene with a vengeance, coiling Clyde Stubblefield’s warping funk break around an enormous terror-drome landscape. It’s manipulation of time-stretching from a sampling utility into a revolutionary new sound effect (by pushing the circuitry way beyond its natural parameters) made “Terminator” not just a big tune, but a seminal one for the emerging and, by this time, identifiable new scene.
“The thing about the technology is that it’s like getting into a very fast car like a Ferrari or something,” explains Goldie. “But you’re not driving it the way the manual says you’re supposed to—you’re joyriding. And that’s what we do. We’re joyriding technology. Pushing it to the edge.”
“He doesn’t have any limits to his imagination,” insists Rob Playford, who became Goldie’s right-hand-man and principal studio collaborator during the period that spawned the Timeless album. “He isn’t ever frightened to explore or pursue ideas. Our basic principle on Timeless was to disregard all the rules. It was always about pushing the boundaries forward, continually striving for something new.”
“He works in quite a similar way to me,” adds Gerald Simpson, another former collaborator. Under the name A Guy Called Gerald, he translated his own sound from that of 1988’s all-time classic acid house single "Voodoo Ray" to the spectacular sci-fi drum & bass of his Black Secret Technology album (which preceded the 1995 release of Timeless by a few weeks). “There are no guidelines or restrictions when you’re working with him. It’s almost like artistic freefall.”
1995 was something of an annus mirabilis for Goldie. Living on the 18th floor of a tower block in London’s Swiss Cottage—where he kept an enormous collection of Stüssy hats hung on nails hammered into the apartment walls—he commuted to Playford’s Manic One studio in Stevenage where the pair crafted the lush, emotionally expressive and soulful landscapes of the album on a computer with a fraction of the processing power and memory of the average iPhone.
At the same time - along with Kemistry & Storm - he kicked off a series of seminal club nights at The Blue Note in London’s Hoxton Square. In stark contrast to the cavernous superclubs then in vogue across the city such as Ministry Of Sound, Club UK and Fabric, the venue was intimate and warmly personal. A former jazz club, it had been bought by Acid Jazz label owner Eddie Piller in 1993 for £225,000 after its previous owners had gone bankrupt. Back then, Hoxton, now achingly trendy, was a dark, sometimes dangerous backwater. Along with Piller’s own Acid Jazz nights and Talvin Singh’s Monday evening workouts Anokha, Goldie’s Sunday night Metalheadz get-togethers made Hoxton Square the place to be.
Recruiting a succession of first-rate drum’n’bass talent to man the decks – including DJs such as Peshay, Fabio, Storm and Doc Scott - Metalheadz (named after the label Goldie launched with Kemistry & Storm the previous year) pushed the new sound into the stratosphere. It wasn’t uncommon to see Goldie himself in the middle of the dancefloor, lost in the tangle of gilded beats, rushing b-lines and Blade Runner strings. Though he was dating British supermodel Naomi Campbell at the time, it was clear that his principal love affair was with the music itself.
To be in the centre of the dancefloor at Metalheadz—or at Speed, the city centre rival run by LTJ Bukem and his crew – was to find yourself introduced to the future of music on a weekly basis. A string of top-flight breakbeat producers such as Photek, J Majik or the Hidden Agenda crew would be on hand with their latest DATs or dub plates so, more often than not, DJ sets would be packed with unreleased gems, some of them designed specifically with the Blue Note’s dancefloor in mind.
Metalheadz stayed in Hoxton for three extraordinary years—up to and including the release of Goldie’s second album Saturnz Return – before moving into new premises and finding a new lease of life as a touring phenomenon. Last year Goldie and long-term sparring partner Bailey threw a Blue Note Sessions party in Miami with some impressive talent from the contemporary scene.
Along the way, of course, Goldie found himself an acting career. He landed the role of Bullion in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, starred with Bowie in Everybody Loves Sunshine and took the part of Bad Boy Lincoln in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch.
But music has never been far away. His most recent releases, such as 2007’s “Monkey Boy” or “Special Request” - both on The Alchemist - testify that his desire to innovate and push forward is as strong as ever.
“My music is constantly evolving,” he insists. And you wonder how that care home kid must have felt when, in 2009, he was invited to compose a classical piece for that ultimate expression of the English establishment The Proms. Those who feared his success on the British TV programme Maestro - where he learned to conduct an orchestra - might lead him to change his ways, however, will have to think again.
“Technically, breakbeat has managed to surpass all other forms of music to date,” he says. “There isn’t an engineer alive who can tell me that there’s any other form of music which is more complex than the music we make.”
With a new album promised later this year and plans for his long-cherished dream of a full orchestral version of Timeless moving apace, The Alchemist, he says, is a summary of the story so far. “I haven’t done my greatest work yet,” he insists. And given the story so far, you wouldn’t bet against it.
The Alchemist is out now on FFRR.