STILL BALLISTIC AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
The Quietus' Manu Ekanayake speaks to ESTEEMED LONDON PRODUCER Ashley BeEdle about the return of Black Science Orchestra, mental health, Windrush, festivals, The Nation of Islam and even more…
I actually interviewed Ashley once, before for Ransom Note about five years ago, so check that out if you want to take a look through his storied career (without apostrophes for some reason – I swear they were in there originally, but something happened when the R$N bods moved over to their new site) from Shock Sound System as a young ’un to breaking out with his own tunes via Black Science Orchestra with Rob Mello and company, making X-Press 2 into 3 with Rocky & Diesel and tackling the charts, then leaving the crew to make music on his own terms again, via bassy interludes like Yardism and Afrikanz on Marz. If you’re reading this, you probably know the story – at least to a point.
But this time I saw an artist reinvigorated; back from serious illness in 2014 to being more musically active than he’s been in years; the illusive but totemic figure of British house who’s done it all, from the charts to the underground bangers, while trashing genre constraints in the process. We had lunch at Spritland in Kings Cross and I asked him everything we didn’t get to last time. He didn’t flinch as he answered, even when we got to some dark places for both of us. Clad in a Moton Records navy sweat and some Uniqlo selvedge denim, plus a sharp-looking checked Harrington, here’s the Ashley Beedle few get to see.
BOP: I want to ask you something that's relevant to both of us as men of colour, but especially you as someone who’s half Bajan. As far as the Windrush furore is concerned, how did that make you feel?
Ashley Beedle: "I just felt really angry. Not necessarily for myself, but it was about my mother being from Barbados. She's actually over here now. She retired back to Barbados just over eight years ago, but she's thinking of coming back again to be near me. I just felt betrayed by this country. My mother had come to this country and worked for 45 years. She'd been a nurse, done some odd jobs and then worked for the London Chamber Of Commerce - she was a citizen, she's got two passports! And the way they treated those people... I was angry. I went up on Facebook, which I don't usually do with this kind of thing, but I was very, very vocal about it. As far as I am concerned, it was racial. It was racially aggravated. I don't know what they're trying to do, the Tory party. But they showed their true colours there. And it was actually good in a way, because for me it was really a case of, 'Ok boys, flags are up, fists are out, come on let's go'."
Post Brexit it really does feel like that kind of open bigotry of the 70s is back, the kind of thing my dad will reluctantly recall. So can I ask you if it takes you back?
"It does take me back, especially to growing up in South Harrow, where I lived in Rayners Lane for a while. In what was a very mixed area there was also a very highly-charged racial atmosphere. I actually got stabbed..."
What? I had no idea...
"Yeah, luckily enough not too deeply. But it was a racially motivated attack."
Where? I mean, where on your body?
"In the back. Not too deep though. Luckily enough, my dad's girlfriend at the time she looked at the wound and she was like, 'I think you'll be alright, you don't need to go to hospital on this one. We'll see how it is.' And it kind of stiffened up but luckily enough it didn't need stitches of anything. My jacket was so thick - I remember it was a thick corduroy jacket - so it took a lot of the impact. But it was nasty, man."
How old were you when that happened?
"I was probably about 16. But it was totally unprovoked. There as a lot of that, especially outside of South Harrow station. There was one particular pub; the name of which escapes me now, but you did NOT go in there. It's funny actually because after I was attacked the pub actually burned down [laughs]. It wasn't me!"
Live by the sword I would guess?
"Yeah, I think it was due to happen."
On a wider note, are you a party political animal? Do you vote?
"I vote. I always vote. I come from a family that voted. My dad, bless his soul, has passed away now, but we were always a socialist. True born Labour. I like Corbyn, I like where his head's at. I want to see him in power to see what he can actually do. So I'm voting. And I speak to my kids about politics. They're good kids, man. And they've all got that socialist head on, which is nice."
That is interesting. Because I was re-watching that Chris Tubbs interview that you did for All Saints where you talked about your father – Colin Stanley Beedle, RIP – and how much of an influence he was on you musically, but you didn't touch on politics as such. But there is a link between those two things and I’m always interested in that. I mean if house music is about anything it's about freedom and equality...
"Yes... and it's about socialism. [laughs]"
Now I’m only a social democrat so I’m going to leave that there. But on a cultural note, can I ask you how much you feel being a Black Briton has influenced your musical life?
"I think that goes without saying. My mother and my father were both so important in that. My father, as I've always said, was an avid record collector and a lot of his influences from my mother and her friends would have been the Caribbean connection. So that was filtering through the house constantly. So it's been a massive, massive influence indeed."
Last time we spoke, you felt there were more black people in house clubs. Do you think that's still the case?
"Well it's funny you should say that, because I was talking to my partner Jo [Wallace, noted Northern Soul DJ and Ramrock / Ramrock Blue / F*CLR label boss – B.O Label Ed.] and I think it's changed again! I just can't put my finger on it. There's a real weird feeling around now. The travelling aspect of gigs, I enjoy still. Festivals, I like. But there is a real lack of... well, Black kids really. I don't know why. But saying that, Jo did a couple of sessions at the Bussey Building in Peckham recently and there was a lot of Black kids there."
You mean the South London Soul Train parties?
"Yeah, those are the ones."
I've never actually been to them, I have to admit.
"They're really good. Very young crowd and with a lot of Black kids, which I love to see."
When I spoke to Honey Dijon recently, I put it to her, is it because these days 'urban' music is marketed very much to Black and Brown kids? I remember being a teenager in the 90s and being part of that first generation who had hip-hop sold to us as 'our' music, whereas of course anyone can listen to anything. You have always had very wide tastes, like Bonnie Prince Billy to punk to heavy disco. I think marketing plays a huge, huge part…
"I find that I go on Spotify a lot these days and I enjoy it - despite the fact that we're not getting paid [laughs] but I enjoy playing around with it and making playlists I feel like things like that have almost made things too safe. People don't have to go out to find music, to a certain degree. But my son Harry, my eldest, he's been going out to a lot of warehouse parties again, which is a new thing to him [laughs], if not to me."
Well the authorities cut down on legal venues and it's going to happen, isn't it?
"Of course. So getting back to what we're talking about, who knows? But the fact we're talking about the Bussey Building is interesting. Maybe it's just pockets of people here and there, of where people go. But from my own observation it is still very white, basically."
Which of course a very sad irony when you look at the origins of this music, which is Black and Queer at its roots, but you look at a lot of crowds and you'd never know. But I think cost plays a part too. I mean festival tickets are not cheap.
"Absolutely, they are not. I'm going out to New York and LA soon to do a couple of gigs. The New York one's going to be right in the middle of Manhattan at the Standard Hotel and then I'm going out to play at the Standard in LA. So it'll be very interesting to see what the crowd's like there."
How different is it to the X-Press 2 era?
"It's a hell of a lot different. I mean I talk to Rocky & Diesel all the time and they tell me it's so different now - there's a lot of these heritage nights now and I actually played one myself recently, where people want to listen to 90s house."
Which one did you play at?
"Oh it was a party at the Hare & Hounds in Birmingham that was actually called Heritage. And I was a little bit wary, I will admit, 'Am I gonna enjoy this?' but it was great, I had a really good time. I think now, well, I had to dial it back on the gig front and then all of a sudden, my man Andrew Weatherall inspired me with ALFOS. He's just doing his thing like that, so I spoke to Dave Jarvis at Love Vinyl and said "Why don't we just reboot Heavy Disco?" Not for a nostalgia trip, because we're both still doing our thing. But we've got the big session on the 28th of July down in Brighton and those tickets - well, wristbands - sold out in two days. Madness! So we're working on that and of course my own gigs too. Nowadays I'm not in so much of a rush, where I feel like, 'I need to gig, I need to gig.' A couple of gigs a month, plus my studio work: producing, mentoring, that kind of thing. That's where my head is at now.
So when you say "mentoring" is that on your label, Back To The World?
"Yeah, it is. There’s Colin Waterson who I think is great. We just finished his album. And my manager Adam Dewhurst is just sorting out the deal for that soon. Plus of course I'm back in the studio with Rob Mello, the original member of Black Science Orchestra which is good."
We’ll get to Black Science, I swear. But are you travelling more abroad, or are you mainly in the UK these days?
"Well, funnily enough, I was doing more UK stuff – and the traveling does get harder at a certain age, I will admit. But then all of a sudden this NYC thing came along and then Brazil [for the Marisco Festival] and the guy headlining is Ed Motta! I mean to me he is an actual legend, so when things like that happen it makes it all worthwhile. So I'll be out there for five days, do the gig, hang out and I'm doing a panel out there, talking about music worldwide and maybe the Brazilian influence in what we do."
I was going to say actually that listening to that Off The Record podcast you did with Huey Morgan, you should do more stuff like that. After all, you can speak to artists as a peer, not just as a broadcaster.
"You know, people have been badgering me to do a podcast. Now in what shape or form I don't know yet, but I think it will happen. I need to basically get round to setting up some home equipment, so I can do that. Or just go round my mate’s house and do it from there. [laughs]"
And I wanted to ask you about festivals, because when I interviewed Harvey he told me that he had to "learn" to play festivals - as in he had to adapt to playing such a short set. Do you understand what he means?
"I really do. Festivals sets mean you really have to think about your crowd. You have to play for them: they've paid good money, they're out in the open and they want to have a great time. You can still be a little bit left but not like you can in the club. Saying that though, Craig Richards is doing a new festival, Haughton, and my manager Adam Dewhurst and his wonderful wife, Cosmo, they've got their own tent there. Adam's done it with Trojan Sound System, Rob Mello's done it with Jonny Rock and it went down a storm I hear, so I would love to do that as Black Science Orchestra, semi-live.
I’ve heard nothing but good things about Haughton either, I have to say. Festivals have really have changed the scene - I mean God forbid you're running a club night in the summer months, even the big clubs suffer.
"Yeah, that's right man. I mean that's why with Heavy Disco we're trying to keep it to 200/300 max capacity. You can't really do much more than that. I think it takes away from the vibe if you go bigger."
So let's talk about the history of Heavy Disco then, how did it come about?
"Now there's a lot of rumour and a lot of mythology, all created by us at various times. But we started many years ago above the North London Tavern in Kilburn. It was a Sunday and it was function room. We got Jazzie B's brother to do the sound, which was amazing of course and it all went off. I think from that first party, people saw that it was different and we decided to program it to what people would describe as 'What the fuck is this?" We played stuff like Deniece Williams 'Free', right in the middle of the set. And that's a slow record. People would come up and being saying, 'Oh my God'…"
Like coming up to the booth?
"No, no actually coming up on the dancefloor! [laughs] We'd play B-sides and pop records and then all of a sudden, between myself, Dave Jarvis and Diesel, we realised we had something going here. We talked a lot about mad records and it felt like this very exclusive club. It kind of ran for a while and then I think X-Press 2, Dave with his own career and the record shops, it finished. But when it re-started, we all asked Jo, like "Can you take control of this and make it work. Put some order into it, please!"
To control the madness?
"To an extent, yes. With Heavy Disco we do allow some of the madness to go on. You have to. It's that Bacchanalian vibe that was such an essential part of it. 'Heavy Disco' itself was just a term I came up with because disco meant dancing and, well, 'this track's heavy.' We've been doing loads of exclusive dubplates. And it's not unlike what the sound systems were doing back in the day. If you had a dance on, you'd go and get your exclusives and you'd have to be there, at the time, to hear it."
You of course come from that sound sytem world, so it's cool that you're cutting dubs again. And on that note, I wanted to ask you about playing the Oddbod Room for Confusion in the early acid house days. Was that an early bit of inspiration for Heavy Disco's sound? What I mean is dance music that many people wouldn't call dance music, in the strictly electronic sense?
"Well now, Confusion was a combination of myself, Shakespeare, a real character who was around in those days, plus Nicky Trax, whose club it was. And she told us 'I don't want you to play what they're playing in the main room, I want you to play Jimi Hendrix!' and we were like, 'Well, we can do that...' And I wouldn't say that was a conscious inspiration for Heavy Disco, but as you mention it I think maybe it did help plant the seed."
It’s just that in your RA Exchange you said that Confusion is never really spoken about and that it's probably as important as Shoom...
"You know, I'm not putting any gripes out there, but for me, it was as important. Kid Bachelor who for me was one of the most ground-breaking DJs. Keith Franklin from KCC too, was absolutely ground-breaking. I'd be there at the front, going "What's that? What's that?" I was annoying, basically [laughs]. But bless them, they told me."
And you were just a 20-something kid at this point, right?
"Yeah, this was the late 80s. So it was amazing stuff."
By the way, is that you correct birthday online – 1962?
"Yeah, that's the one."
You don't look your years mate, I have to say.
"Well, I don't feel it either – and I don't want to feel old. I mean, who does? But we're lucky in this business, to be involved in this and to, hopefully, be still adding something to it."
Terry Farley always says that for a Boy's Own party, he always wants to hear and play new music.
"Now Terry, I don't hang out with as much as I should but that's down to geography. We do talk though. But he’s always been like a little sprite where you'll be talking and he'll do something and you'll walk away and think 'Did he just ask me to do that? I'm going to go off and do that.' He's an amazing guy. Really, really interesting.
I think with the whole Boy's Own thing, I think people are realising how much of an underground influence it had. I'll say unequivocally that I felt like an outsider to a certain degree, because my head was down and I was in my own world I mean I was affiliated to them, so I'd turn up at the office with my DATs all finished. Then they'd say, "What's this then?" and I'd say, "Black Science Orchestra" and then they'd say "Oh, ok." And they'd take it from there."
You've said before that Black friends of yours said "Why are you hanging out with all these White guys?" and it took a minute for people to realise they were a bunch of sound old soul boys.
"Yeah, but I still don't see things in terms of colour - I mean I'd struggle, being mixed-race! [laughs] But from a Pan-African perspective, my politics come from that perspective too and I could go deep with you here."
"You know that my whole credo is that. I mean way, way back in the day I was involved with the Nation Of Islam."
"Then that went a bit tits-up and then I was questioning what they were doing."
When was this?
"This was in the 80s."
Until very recently I didn't even know they were in the UK, but then I saw a couple of guys selling their newspaper, bow ties and all.
"Back when I got into hip-hop I started to reason with certain guys, like the Five Percenters [aka the Five-Percent Nation or the Nation of Gods and Earths – B.O theology Ed.]. So a lot of my views on how this world come from a very Five Percent perspective and still do. It's not about race, which everyone thinks it is. It's really about inequality; about how this world actually works from a mathematical equation – the Supreme Mathematics. 85% of the world are ignorant i.e. the wool is pulled over their eyes. 10% are the ones who pull that wool over them and the 5% who are left over are the characters like me. We are the poor righteous teachers, like the band. We are the ones who will expound on these theories to help others."
Ashley Beedle, dropping science. I mean, literally.
"Exactly - I mean that's where that phrase comes from."
Those guys are hardcore man, I mean if you don't learn your lesson, you can get jumped by your own crew.
"Well, I mean luckily enough, I didn't. But I did spend some time in New York and hang out with some hardcore Nation Of Gods and Earths members. And it was very interesting.
I think my own personal view on it is you learn your lessons, but as you get older and you travel and you pick up a bit of everything - Buddhism, Taoism, a bit of this and that and you add it to your knowledge and from there you expound."
This is the thing - the Nation Of Islam's views on Jews are something I could never endorse.
"Now it's that but not only that, there's so much that I have never been down with. I felt like I was led in with interesting facts, but once you're in it..."
So I think we should probably go back to Black Science Orchestra...
"Well, that's a very Five Percent-ish name, isn't it? [laughs]"
Well now it all becomes clear, Ash [laughs]. How did you guys meet? I mean Rob was the first person who showed you how to mix records, right?
"I used to go out with Rob's sister, Grazia. That's how I knew Rob. But that was in Rob's dad's garage, I think. It was Eric B Is President and The Controllers Stay and he showed me how to mix…"
And that's how it all began, right?
"Oh yeah, I mean for me, absolutely."
This was all at Danny Arnos' studio in Bermondsey, I mean your later work together?
So that was you, John Howard, Rob and Danny right?
"Yeah. John was my flatmate - he used to do parties with Mick Robinson. Those parties were called Cheeky Half [laughs]. They would have me as a guest quite a lot, so I knew him from then."
So why the return now on Razor-N-Tape?
"Well, that's just for the remix we're doing. The label for the release proper, well that's something we’re still working on. We're working on tracks now too. But the Razor-N-Tape thing was an African track that Rob and I really liked, so we just went with it. I've not even seen it yet, is it out?"
I don't know to be honest. I just wanted to ask you about it as I've seen you mention it before. But can I ask you what your biggest memories of that period are, right near the beginning of your career?
"Well the weird thing was - and I was speaking about this to Jo recently - is that because there was no internet, not even mobile phones, a lot of it was myth driven. People would make up their own ideas about what Black Science Orchestra was about. It was ever-changing. But I was kind of the central core of it, while you also had people like Marc Woolford and Uschi Classen, you know?"
Will Uschi be back?
"I'd like her to be, it's just getting hold of her is the problem! [laughs]. Tommy D was involved as well. Loads of people were. I had the best time of my life, man. I was doing the thing that I love: going into the studio and coming up with these mad records. That's kind of where we're at now. But this time we're going to take it to the level of doing live gigs - this has been discussed. DJing with Rob and live gigs, next year I think."
So more versions of 'Save Us?'
"Well, we all need a bit of saving these days, right? [laughs]"
Indeed we do. So I wanted to ask you about Barbra Tucker's club, Cheetah, where you met Frankie?
"Right, so this was a Thursday in New York and I think it was Benji Candelario standing at the bar with me and all of a sudden 'Where Were You' came on, which was a shock to say the least. But Benji said, “That’s Frankie's jam, he loves it". So then he introduced me to Frankie and I said to him, "Frankie, thank you for playing my record." And he said back, ever so graciously "No Ashley, thank you for making it." And we met a few times afterwards and he was an extraordinary, beautiful man."
It is a real regret of mine that I never saw him play, though I did hear him speak for RBMA once. There were a few comments about the Continental Baths that got some knowing laughs and it was just amazing. But afterwards he was picking up his crutches and it wasn't the right time to bother him. I thought there would be another time, as you do.
"You know, I have a funny story about the very sad time we all found out about Frankie's death. I was watching Newnight with Jo and Jeremy Paxman came on and said "I've got some really bad news. The Godfather of House, Frankie Knuckles, has passed away. And I am not lying to you: he was crying."
"No one has mentioned this. He was really upset. I thought, "Well, you've got some connection here, haven't you?"
I knew house touched a lot of people, but that’s amazing… I’ll have to see if I can dig out that footage. But now I have to ask you now about X-Press 2, because you guys were championed by the makers of house music - the OGs like Frankie, Masters At Work, Junior Vasquez etc. How did the studio dynamic work?
"Yeah, it was pretty chaotic [laughs]. There might be a kernel of an idea, but a lot of the time you'd just turn up with a lot of old disco records under your arm and a snippet of this, a snippet of that and off you went. But obviously as our studio experience grew, so then we'd realise that we didn't have to sample things, we could use a sound instead."
Where was this all done?
"Now, let me see... 'Muzik Xpress' was Danny Arnos' place, 'London Xpress' was Boundary Studios, which was near Ministry Of Sound, 'Say What' was in Whitechapel. So all over the houses."
So what's an average day like nowadays then? What's the difference compared to you working with Darren Morris your studio partner and you working with Rob Mello again?
"Rob is totally different to Darren. He's taught me about using a [mixing] desk again and using ancient samplers, sequencers. Man, it takes a lot longer but I love the process."
You and Darren though, that's the day to day, right?
"Yeah, I mean we're basically telepathic by this point. And it's not just myself and Darren, I mean obviously we do Ashley Beedle productions and mixes, but we also have the North Street Crew, which is myself, Darren and Jo."
So that's the remixes you're doing for Ramrock right?
"Yeah, we put Ashley Beedle on it to sell records, I suppose [laughs] but if you look on the label it says "Mixed by Ashley, Jo and Darren".
That remix you did for Tom Glide and Chidi on Ramrock Blue was amazing, 'Old Skool Dayz'.
"Thank you. And then we're doing stuff on F*CLR which is doing really well. I'm so chuffed for her. I see as her partner how hard it still is for a woman in this game. In this day and age it’s still shocking. I can only applaud her."
Absolutely, this business is hard enough on men, but women face a whole other world of pain. But what's it like being involved with labels like Jo’s at this point in your career?
"Independent labels are great. As for the majors, I don't have much truck with them, mainly because the structure with them is very different now and the industry is on its arse really. So I hope things get better in that the communication between producers and remixers will come back."
So now I'd like to get deeper, because that's what Farley wanted when he approached me to do this and I told him that's what I wanted to do too. As far as your illness goes, what went wrong in 2014 and how does that affect you now?
"Well it made me a better person, for starters. Back in 2006 I was diagnosed as being bi-polar and looking back now, I think that showed me the way. I sat there with Jo recently and we were looking at certain albums of mine and there were all these peaks and she said to me, "I think you were having one of your manic phases, but controlled - at least in a way.
But obviously when it comes to 2014 that was when I fell off the cliff. I look back on it now as thinking, "My God what is happening?" But I knew, in some ways at least, "Ah, now this is what's causing the way I am. I need help." So I was checked into a mental health uni where I had six weeks treatment and after the six weeks I was looked after by an organisation called The Beacon, which is in Ramsgate and I haven't look back since. I am now on a very low dose of anti-psychotic medication. I could stop taking it, but I prefer to take it. It keeps me on an even keel."
I feel the same way about taking a low-dose antidepressant.
"Now something that I really want to do - and I am pissed off that I haven't done it already – is speak to an organisation and say "Now within the music industry there are a lot of people like me. And we need to highlight this."
I actually wrote about a new venue in Tottenham called The Cause for Time Out. They are going to run a very affordable membership scheme and 40% of that will fund local mental health charities like Mind in Haringey, CALM [the Campaign Against Living Miserably who are working to curb the upward trend in male suicides] and Help Musicians UK, which is a new helpline for people in the industry. I'd love to link you guys.
"I'd be more than happy to do that. I'm very vocal about this and I've had a lot of help. From Adam, my manager, from Jo, especially from Jo. People have been very supportive. I mean at first it’s so hard because what do you say to people? But when you realise that it’s happening all around you…"
Back in 2015 Benga came out and said that the touring life, the gear intake and the lack of sleep, was making him schizophrenic.
"It is so good we're talking about this stuff openly now. Plus I had personal stuff that went on with finances and ex-wives and you try and juggle it yourself, which is not going to work."
But so many DJs have come out and discussed their mental health very openly - Rustie, Scuba, The Black Madonna, Ben Pearce and many more. I think it's a good thing in any culture, but especially in ours, drugs are a fact of life and they do make people more vulnerable. We have to be looking after ourselves. I mean the government won't do it.
"No it won't. And that's a shame."
They're still thinking about prohibition - like you can't buy anything you want, if you want to. I'm glad we could talk about mental health, I have my own issues there and I think it's what anchors everything else.
"I'm glad we could talk about it too."
Heavy Disco returns on Saturday 28th July at Brighton Beach Café.