Dave Lee is a name lesser known than Joey Negro, but the house and disco legend is no stranger to aliases with several other production pseudonyms up his sleeve you may know of including Akabu, Raven Maize and the collective efforts of The Sunburst Band to name but a few.
His most well known pseudonym is that of Joey Negro, a British DJ and producer thats made a significant current and retrospective contribution to the world’s electronic music scene and more specifically, spreading plenty of house and disco to the masses over the years through his label Z Records, his sets and his productions alike.
Noted as one of the first artists to start sampling disco records in house tracks, his productions only begun years after his passion for disco and house records began, manifesting throughout his career in a lot more than just releasing music. Widely regarded as one of the most commercially successful DJs and most in demand acts on the scene for quite a few years now, we invited Joey Negro to give his retrospective view on how house music has changed, how real disco records will rarely be made again, the human love of familiarity when it comes to music and plenty more.
First and foremost, what change have you noticed throughout the years of producing house and disco tracks?
“I think that lots has changed, because music is technology driven. Some of it because of the internet, music being condensed to a sound file, also USB sticks/laptops. Both DJing and producing has become a lot more accessible because you don’t need to buy records or learn to mix and you don’t need to have access to a be a musician in proper studio anymore. Both have become generally more available to anyone with a computer. Apparently, there’s about 8000 releases a week on Beatport. Back when I was first buying records in the early 80s, there was probably about like 20 or 30 dance releases a week, because you had to hire a studio, pay musicians, then press up the result to vinyl. It required a lot more financial investment, it was just a different era.”
Throughout our conversation, Joey was constantly reassuring that change is inevitable and should be accepted rather than dismissed.
“I’m not one to give out about the internet or whatever, or moan about DJs using sync, or certain pieces of music being super hard to find back in the day which are now available to everyone on a compilation. I mean, things change. You can’t expect young DJs to do it exactly the same way that somebody did thirty years ago. With any technical development, there’s going to be some negatives and positives. If you’re somebody who learnt the old way you might think “oh, I had to practice for 9 months to do that well and now you just have to press a button and it’s done for you’. I mean, that’s just the way things are now, dry your eyes and accept that. It doesn’t make the button pusher a great DJ…but neither did practicing for 9 months.”
Referencing the difficult landscape that DJs and producers have faced and still do face in terms of the battle between financial support and what some may deem the consequent ‘authenticity’ of music, Joey showed concern as to why passable edits, remixes and more are constantly released. Showing the fault of the industry, and the extortionate costs of renting studio, vocalists and musicians, plus the natural human process of holding on to nostalgic pasts, he explains why he thinks disco won’t be making a ‘true’ comeback.
“When I first started producing records in 1988 people were starting to make sample based house music. Most of my early releases were made up of lots of samples, but there was a limit to how much you could take of one song. I could only get 7 seconds in the sampler at a time, so you needed to be creative and choose carefully. Maybe take little bits a pieces from different sources. Now everyone has almost unlimited memory in the laptop sampler and they often end up taking the entire record so it ends up becoming remix of the original, rather than something loosely based on another record. Until the general public get fed up with hearing remixes of familiar old classics, meaning they stop selling, I don’t think it’s going to change because it’s so much easier and cheaper for a producer to make that than something original.”
Aside from the usual questions, I really wanted to know more about the vocalists Joey Negro has worked with in the past. He’s one of the few artists in dance music that garnered the effort to go through the processes of collaborating with vocalists and recording them organically as opposed to the heavily oversampled vocals we hear a lot in more contemporary house music.
“You know what, it’s really really hard to say who my favourite vocalist is because i’ve worked with quite a few and people, being human, tend to excel in different areas. Diane Charlemagne will always be a favourite of mine, she sadly died a few years ago, she wrote and sang on many songs for me like ‘The Secret Life Of Us’ as The Sunburst Band. She was a really good writer, she was creative, sometimes quite experimental and clever with lyrics. She was also in tune most of the time and we didn’t need to do much to her vocals afterwards. Then there’s someone like Thelma Houston who has that classic soul disco diva voice. She had a rich tone to her vocals and was brilliant at ad-libbing and building intensity with her voice, but she wasn’t as strong as Diane as a writer or particularly interested in stuff like harmonies, but she was an amazing lead vocalist. Angela Johnson is another vocalist I work with a lot who has a great tone, very switched on musically and a good all rounder.”
Is the use of the iconic vocalist still as important in house and disco music, in your opinion?
“People like to hear the human voice singing a catchy melody, I don’t think that will ever change. The fact that those big old house records like ‘Inner City – Big Fun’ or ‘The House Music Anthem’ are still so popular 30 years later means something. They were anthems of the scene as new releases and still are now. New records like that don’t come along often these days and i’m not sure they’d be played across the board for long enough to become anthems like they were back in the day. It would be interesting to know if a record like “That’s The Way Love Is” would be as successful if it was released in 2018 as a new piece of music. Realistically I doubt it would, unfortunately. The scene is much more fragmented. Although, that Camelphat “Cola” tune was a vocal record that broke through, it does happen. It’s much more difficult for a song to get to that anthemic stage now compared to the 80s or 90s.”
Dance music is certainly cyclical. The hypes and fads are countless, and I was intrigued to know from such a mainstay figure whether there’s ever pressure on artists to keep up certain hypes throughout the years and eras.
“Having been at it a while i’ve gone through phases where what i’m doing is a little bit more in vogue or out of step with what’s happening generally in clubland. Right now the disco thing is quite popular, so i’m getting offered lots of remix work and more big gigs than I would have been maybe 6 or 7 years ago. However, this disco revival won’t last forever. It’s going to come to an end and there’ll be some sort of backlash in the next few years. Things will maybe go a bit harder and darker musically, more instrumental and techy for a while. I’ll probably keep doing what i’m doing but at slightly lower level when that happens.
I like loads of different sorts of music, not just house or disco. About 10 years ago when Martin Buttrich, Jimpster and Carl Craig were on a high, I really liked some of that deeper, more electronic stuff. I was inspired to make something along those lines and released an album as Akabu. However, I found some of the people who like me for the more disco sound found it too electronic where as it was too soulful for the techy types, so I ended up caught between two markets and not totally appealing to either. It taught me a lesson, of course it’s fine to do other styles, but maybe a whole album of it was a mistake.”
As our conversation came to an end, it tailed off nicely with some advice offered by Joey to fellow producers and artists of lessons he’s learned throughout his career.
“As long as I’m happy with the music I make and play I try to ignore journalists, or random people online, who are probably very fashion and trend based more than music heads. As long as it excites you, and you feel in your gut you love it, that is the main criteria. When i’m finishing something off I sometimes think “would I buy this?” The answer should be “definitely!”. However, making music isn’t an exact science and sometimes you’ll go into the studio with what you think is a good idea and it won’t turn out anything like you imagined. That’s just part of the creative process and i’m better at accepting that now and moving onto something else. Of course it’s disappointing if you work hard on a song and you think you’ve done something special but when released it doesn’t connect with people like you thought it would. However, that’s going to happen sometimes. Back in the 90s I was doing a lot more remixes for outside labels as I needed to do that in order to pay the exorbitant rent on the studio I leased. Normally they were turned around on a short deadline and the source material wasn’t always great, so many of them were in retrospect pretty crap. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore. Now I’ve got a studio in my house, so I can pick and choose what work and take on and only do stuff i’m reasonably sure I can do a good job on, it’s a much better situation to be creative in. Also, I can make sure I’m 100% happy with what I put out. Even after a long weekend with several gigs I still look forward to getting back into the studio on Monday. My aim is to keep doing what I’m doing until I either run out of ideas or die.”
Joey Negro returns to Dublin later this month, where he DJs at The Button Factory with Hidden Agenda. You can join the event page here.