Now that music can be made by just about anybody with the right kit – sample CDs and plug ins, chord generators and midi files, online “construction kits” and YouTube tutorials, autotune and melodyne, laptops and games consoles – actual musical ability can seem almost obsolete. So perhaps this explains the recent trend towards old school sounds, methods and recording techniques that cannot be reproduced so easily. As disposable culture reaches its zenith, those in the know are going back to basics.
This is partly why Shy FX, aka Andre Williams, has moved from drum and bass to a classic reggae sound. Not that he’s done with drum and bass – his label, Digital Soundboy, remains a benchmark for underground dance music. But, ever the restless creative, Shy felt the need to try something different – “I had started making music by numbers,” he says, “and I got to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it any more.” So, for his latest album project, Cornerstone, he has written songs and sourced musicians and vintage instruments such as the infamous Casio MT-40 keyboard (eBay, after months of scouring the internet). He has collaborated with a mouthwatering line-up of special guests. And he has revived old-school studio techniques: recording first on tape, then onto dub plate, just as reggae pioneers like Shy’s hero, King Tubby, did.
“Tubby would say, ‘More than two takes and it’s an instrumental.’ That’s harsh, but he got the best out of the artists. And when you listen to those tunes you can hear all the mistakes and imperfections, but that’s part of the vibe. Musicians were were paid by the hour, so you couldn’t keep doing take after take.”
Cornerstone has been made with a similar warts-and-all ethos. But it is an upgrade, not a remake – there is a modern twist. The sounds were fed from dub plate back into Shy’s computer so he could fade and filter his own music as if it were sampled. The result? Bass-heavy, sun-splashed anthems with skanking grooves and timeless appeal.
This project has been two years in the making, hence the ironically titled first single, Soon Come (featuring Liam Bailey), which is a Jamaican saying that basically means “It will happen when it happens – be patient.” The whole thing began because Shy, who has always dropped reggae – Desmond Dekker, Bob Marley, the Specials –alongside drum and bass when he DJs, simply wanted to play reggae tunes nobody else had. Making an album was not on the agenda, until word spread about what he was up to. “I was really surprised how many people suddenly said they wanted to be involved,” he says.
What began as a “selfish project meant just for me” became an obsession that has seen him record nearly 50 songs with artists including Finley Quaye, Omar, Barrington Levy, Emeli Sande, Tanya Lacey, Katy Shotter, Roses Gabor, Ms Dynamite, Maverick Sabre, Kymani and Stephen Marley, Sweetie Irie, Tippa Irie, Beenie Man, Mayday, Donaeo, Dizzee Rascal and Ed Sheeran. Not everybody has made the final cut.
“There can’t be one tune on the album that I’m not sure about. Ultimately, it has to be something where I get butterflies, where I look back and go, yeah, I did good with this one. And I can still use the vocals that don’t make the album – I can turn them into dance tracks.”
This may be Shy’s first reggae project as an artist, but the music is nothing new to him. It has been the soundtrack to his life, through good times and dark times. His grandfather, Shelley Barrett, was a pioneering force in British reggae; he came over from Jamaica in the early 1960s, like many of his countrymen, eventually settling in north London where, in his spare time, he built his own soundsystem: this became the(ital) soundsystem around Tottenham and Stoke Newington, and one of the “big four” in London (the other three were all south of the river in Balham, Battersea and Peckham). There would be epic soundclashes at the Four Aces club in Hackney, where Shelley – aka DJ Count Shelley – was resident. His independent record label, Third World, released an astonishing 60 albums and about 140 singles: many recorded with visiting Jamaican musicians. Shelley, whom Shy describes as “a music man through and through, a businessman and an old-school Jamaican man”, would eventually move on to New York; he now lives back in Jamaica where he has a restaurant.
Count Shelley would also play at blues parties in Shy’s family home in Tottenham when Shy was a kid. “I’d be jumping around and I’d be told to go back to my bedroom. You’d have the Count Shelley soundsystem in there, and David Rodigan would come and do his thing as well.”
Of Rodigan, the veteran radio DJ now on BBC 1Extra, Shy recalls “he was one of the few white guys who would come to the house that people would talk patois in front of – and he would talk in patois back.” (They are still in touch and Rodigan has championed Soon Come.) Shy was 14 when he began to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, setting up his own soundsystem, Diamond Touch, with friends, and “playing at all-dayers and trying to emulate what I saw the big boys do”.
He left school two years later, at 16. His mother had sent him to be educated in Enfield, an outer-London borough, to avoid “all the madness” at the Tottenham schools, where there were problems with gang culture. There was a gang culture on the estate where the family lived too. Going to school in Enfield was meant to be a way out. In fact, it just posed a different set of problems. “There were only about 10 black people in the whole school, and it was a different time then [the late 1980s] – you didn’t feel safe unless you were with other people. The NF were very active in the area; one of my friends got beaten so bad he was blind in one eye.”
So that’s how Shy’s life was – shuttling between two almost entirely segregated worlds just a few miles apart. And then Shy went to his first jungle rave “and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Black people, white people, everyone just dancing how they wanted, nobody caring. I was like, ‘This is it. This is me.’”
The night was called Bass Box and it was in Edmonton. He didn’t even get in the first time, because he was too young. So he stood outside, soaking it all up – “You could still see the lasers,” which seemed impossibly exciting, almost otherworldly, at the time. The term “drum and bass” had yet to be coined; the music then was jungle: a breathless amalgam of sped-up hip hop breaks, seismic reggae basslines, and ragga chat or pitched-up R&B samples. Tunes like Hurt You So by Johnny L and Euphoria by The House Crew. It wasn’t particularly sophisticated, but through the right soundsystems it sounded devastating.
For Shy and many others, that early rave culture held a significance that went beyond the music. “I was talking to DJ Flight on 1Extra about this recently; she’s a mixed-race lady. She told me that era was the first time she had felt British. And I would say the same thing.”
Shy completed a sound-engineering course and, in the early 1990s, got a job as a lowly “tape op” at the independent underground record label, S.O.U.R. In between making the tea and splicing the reel tapes together – this was still the analogue era (CHK) – he took advantage of the facilities to record a jungle tune, Gangsta. This was his second composition – the first had been Everybody Needs Somebody, recorded and released independently with his cousin “the vibes man” and a friend, who had funded the thing; it had been big in north London. They had released it under the name Shy FX –Shy had been Andre’s nickname at school “because I’m socially awkward”, and FX, well, that just sounded cool.
When the bosses at S.O.U.R heard Gangsta, they signed Shy immediately – this time as a solo act. It was an unexpected development, because they had also just fired him for refusing to clean the toilets. Shy went on to record his third single, Original Nuttah, a granite-tough tune featuring a vocal from MC UK Apache. It became an underground smash, and established Shy FX as a mainstay producer on the jungle scene.
It was at S.O.U.R that he met another budding producer, Marc Royal, from Bow, east London, whose recording name is T Power. As the 1990s dance-music boom wore on they began to collaborate and experiment. The jungle scene had become fractious and bitter, less of a utopia than a dystopia, and “there were protection rackets going on and all kinds of craziness. And then nobody wanted to sample reggae any more or use the term ‘jungle’ – it became the drum and bass scene.” Shy FX and T Power wanted to bring the good times back, “to make a big vocal track but also do the most insane underground beats that were tearing people’s heads off”, so they began to fuse the music with samba, and scored their first Top Ten hit, Shake Your Body, which reached No 7 in the charts in 2002. (It came out on Positiva; the subsequent album, Set it Off, was signed by Pete Tong at FFRR.)
It seems odd now, in the era of Rudimental and Disclosure and Dizzee Rascal, when music can be uncompromisingly underground but also pop, and brand partnerships are the norm, and the debate about “selling out” has fallen off the agenda, possibly forever, but a decade ago being seen to be “commercial” could be the kiss of death for cutting-edge dance acts. Which is why Shy FX and T Power declined to appear on Top of the Pops. “It’s something I’ll always regret. At that point it just wasn’t cool for a drum and bass artist to be on the show. So we had a band, and they(ital) did ToTP. We were actually in the crowd watching them perform our own track.”
The squabbling and infighting on the jungle/drum and bass scene would subside as the music went global. In 2005, Shy launched his own label, Digital Soundboy, “a melting-pot of different things; I don’t care what it is as long as it connects with people – and it has to be something I would be comfortable spending my own money to buy”. This has meant funky house, dubstep, drum and bass, from acts as far afield as Jamaica and Australia, and releases that are harder to pigeonhole, such the super-talented producer Breakage’s 2010 album, Foundation, which remains a milestone in British urban music; as does the 2005 compilation album Diary of a Digital Soundboy. Before releasing anything, Shy tests every tune himself in his DJ sets, which range from “small parties for a couple of hundred people to festivals for 40-50,000”.
It is on the Digital Soundboy label that Shy’s own Cornerstone album will appear. He has come full circle. The title came to him after conversations with David Rodigan. “He was always telling me about my grandfather, and saying that he was a cornerstone of reggae music in this country. And reggae is also the foundation of what I do – all my tunes trace back to something to do with reggae.
“Seeing my grandfather go through all the stuff he had to do to either import music into the country or to make music – he had to work 24-7, and there was a lot of bad-man stuff going on around that period. But people were making the rules up as they went along – they were doing what they had to do. That’s what I saw there, and I think that’s also why I related to the whole jungle movement. It was a similar kind of hustle.
He never sat me down and taught me anything. I just know what I saw: you’ve got to be on it, and you’ve got to love it – and music always comes first.”