I grew up in a working class council estate in Hackney, in an area called Shoreditch, in London. Most people now know it as a vibrant area but it wasn't when I was originally growing up. It was an exciting area with interesting and good people but like any council estate, it also had its fair share of social problems on numerous levels due to poverty and so forth. I stumbled into music rather than actually encouraged, as none of my family are musical. As a child I originally played a lot of football, actually appearing on national T.V in the U.K. on the BBCwhen I was eleven years of age as a recognised future footballer. I never really thought about music as a career but I listened to a lot of it; you hear a lot of music in diverse neighborhoods, it helps people in various ways to escape reality I guess.
When I was a child, the primary school which I attended never offered music lessons to the students, other than learning to play a recorder. In hindsight, there was no encouragement for students in primary schools to explore music. There was no financial funding put towards music education in central London, or if so, it was very little. By the time I got to secondary school things improved slightly but not by much. Many friends of mine were really talented and with the right support, who knows what they could have become. It's upsetting to think that many people are deprived of opportunities due to their environment and financial capability, especially within art.
I started listening more to music as I ended school life, and I began going to a club in London's West End called Lyceum. If anyone knows anything about the London music scene, they will know of this place. I was young but fortunately I became friends with people who worked on the door and they would let me sneak into the club. I started hearing American music, stuff like, Change, Fatback Band, S.O.S, Frankie Beverley and Maze, just really great music, to my ears anyway. After a while they started also playing early electro and the begining of rap music. I saw Afrika Bambaataa and Zulu Nation there amongst other performers. That had a big influence on me. It was a really cool place to go for music on a Friday and Saturday night. Due to these first influences, I began to create what we eventually called, pause button mixes. Basically you play records and stop them where you wanted, pausing the cassette tape which was recording also, then start it again with a new record or a different part of the original record and releasing the pause button, creating an edited mix tape. We didn't have Technic turntables then so what we were doing was the best we could do. After a while we started putting heavy coins on the record needle of turntables with sticky tape so we could start scratching on records over our edited tapes that would play at the same time. The turntables were belt drives turntables, so they wasn't great for scratching, so to be able scratch, we would place two records on top of each other to help the records slide. We used early mixers then as well but they didn't have a cross fader, so we would put tape across the up fader, which meant when we were scratching, we would not go over the volume level and destroy the speakers or people's ears, (sitting back laughing).
Around this time I heard Grandmixer DST with Herbie Hancock doing a version of Rocket and it really interested me. I had become influenced by soul, electronics, jazz, electro and rap, but that connection inspired me greatly. I started diving into jazz more from around that time on, along with alternative electronic music, finding records to understand the music more in depth. I also really admired Prince as he was new and fresh, and he was just composing great music at that time and I think this broadened my music pallete. In my area no one at all listened to any jazz, or alternative music, so it was difficult to talk about what I liked, apart from my friends father who was a very cool guy. He was a painter and he'd drink wine after 6.P.M every night and put jazz records on. We would discuss our feelings about the music, the history and life of the great artists such as Monk and Davis. He eventually moved to Southern France and I had my first holiday outside of the UK there with a friend of mine. Whilst there I was introduced to Cubism and then slowly, many French writers who helped to shape and question my own ideas. Looking back, I now know this is where my early influences would gradually direct me towards Germany, where I would eventually feel love and appreciation for the first time, and as a culture, it has since shaped much of my creativity in both my music and private life.
I became interested with keyboards one night whilst hanging out with friends. A good friend of mine placed a small cheap keyboard on my lap, and I started messing around with it. To my surprise people started coming into the room saying it sounded good, I guess from that moment my musical journey started as a musician. I began taking music theory more seriously and I saved up as much money as I could, which wasn't easy, and I headed off to a wealthy suburb of North London. I walked into this splendid shop and walked straight up to the counter. I remember saying, I've six hundred pounds; will this get me a piano? They looked at me like I had just landed from Mars, but after laughing they actually helped, showed me around, and found me a refurbished piano. It wasn't great I guess looking back, but it was mine, and I loved it. I had to pay two hundred pounds more over the next year, which to me, was well worth it, so all in all, my first piano cost me eight hundred pounds. They delivered the piano to my home a few weeks later and on the day of the arrival, they turned up in a huge van. Everyone came out as these guys dragged this piano up the staircase of the council building I lived in; we lived on the first floor, (man they must have been happy for that). I think my neighbours thought I was mad as no one bought a piano in my area, let alone put it in their flat, and in my case, my tiny bedroom. Anyway, I finally got this piano into my small bedroom, and when all my friends had left, I just sat there. I opened up the frame, looking at the hammers, strings, board, just soaking up the instrument. I had never really seen how an upright piano was created, so I was eager to know. That was a good day. I'll never forget that. I learnt that the dampner pedal was a great feature; well I think my neighbours did when I started practicing scales.
After receiving my piano, I started visiting libraries, reading books about music, and practicing scales and finger exercises. I became disciplined and studied the mathematical structure of Western music, studying intenesly the theory of harmony and counter point. I found an old piano also in a library in Pitfield Street which is in Shoreditch, which was down in the basement of the building. The acoustics were great down there and I began practicing there as well as at home everyday. Whilst I was doing this with piano, I bought myself an Atari ST: 1020 floppy drive computer and I had a copy of notator music software (which over time has become Logic) that I could use with my keyboard. I couldn't afford a monitor, so I hooked up the computer to an old T.V set, and along with an old keyboard I had bought, I started making midi music and recording it to an old analogue DAT tape machine which I had bought second hand. I realised that the piano was great for my technique and for understanding art music, and midi music was a gateway to new expression. I just loved electronic music but I wanted to incorporate both. Before long I saved up enough money and bought an Akai S1000 sampler, an analogue mixer, and my mother helped me also by helping me buy an Ensonique keyboard to add to my little home studio. They were good times.
Around this period I started going to a recording studio which was near to the area that I lived, and I started creating music with my friends. Having more tracks on the mixing desk, and synths like a Juno and Yamaha DX7, was seriously exciting for me. I started using a lot more drum machines then, such as the Roland's 707, 808 and 909. From there, I began meeting people from various backgrounds, such as, pirate radio DJ's, musicians and generally creative people in and around London, and slowly we began making records, signing to independent record companies and getting our music on pirate radio around London. I started getting asked to produce and session for quite a few American house musicians and DJ’s at this time, and I just got deeper into music and recording, learning from others as I went along.
As this side of my life progressed, I started meeting music academics who had heard of me by then and they were very encouraging that I should enter the academic world of music. I really wanted to bolster my education within music, and before long my musical journey broadened into academic music. I met and studied under great scholars within both Western and non-Western music. I guess from that time I became an educated musician with a firm grasp of my instrument and also the history of music. I had lessons then in both jazz and contemporary music on piano, fine tuning my ideas and practical skills, learning about the greats and their individual styles. I began performing recitals and studied and listened to everything I could. I was fortunate that my natural, so called, 'raw ability', blossomed under the guise of more privileged or fortunate music academics, and I grasped the opportunities to understand classical, jazz, contemporary, orchestration techniques and art music.
I became fascinated also with electroacoustic music around this time, subsequently learning about how not only electroacoustic music was created and studied, but also how electronic music and sound treatments have developed from their primary stages. I really believe it's important in any subject to understand as much as you can about it. What's that saying? It's better to break rules, knowing the rules you are breaking and why, than to just break rules. I found that certain areas of music in my academic life became quite pivotal to me, such as, jazz, classical, orchestration, music theory, electroacoustic music and non-Western music, such as, Balinese and Javanese gamelan; which I studied and performed for three years whilst at University and have continued with since. I never forgot my early influences though either, one should never forget what helped inspire them.
Well, as I started to study and write academic papers, I became increasingly frustrated with the lack of knowledge and writing that was focused on electronic jazz related music. There are many great musicians who have created superb art music using acoustic and technological resources within jazz related music, but yet many universities and writers still focus on traditional jazz music or fusion. The way they wrote about technological related jazz music seemed completely out of sync with what was really happening regarding that particular area.
Now I totally agree that one should understand the traditional side of jazz, after all, it's the very basis of jazz and everything that so many gifted American musicians created, but to overlook the other progressive elements of jazz music that focused on technology, well to me personally, it made no sense. They, or should I say, we, wasn't creating fusion, we had moved far from that area of thinking. We were a new breed of music makers interacting with technology and all other music influences, such as non-Western music.
You see if you speak to many contemporary jazz musicians today, nearly all of them see jazz completely different to so called expert writers. Many musicians who I've interviewed or met, see jazz as a type of umbrella name now, meaning a multitude of elements combined with the essence of jazz. Jazz is as much a spirit as it is a music making practice. Most musicians have now an academic area of study within the grasp of their music knowledge, and it's obvious that influence flows through at some point. Now don't get me wrong, I've met tons of seriously great jazz musicians who are completely focused on playing traditional jazz, or modern jazz, where the infrastructure and solos are solely from the 1950's and 60's, but as much as we all study that era and music, many also just embrace alternative possibilities and look elsewhere, I guess I am one of them. I remember reading how Miles Davis felt this way. It's not that any music is better or more important, it's just where you want to be to completely feel satisfied that you can express what you feel inside.
The whole what is and isn't jazz doesn't make sense to me. Actually I doubt it does to many in truth. You can clearly see to first understand anything about jazz, you need to learn the traditional aspect of it, from the past masters of American music onwards. But from that time to our present time, the music progresses, although the traditional elements do not as much now, such as chord voicing's and scales which create the basis of solos, which really started becoming the standard study from the 1950's and 1960's. Now I love jazz, but I'm not going to embarrass myself playing Monk solos or Coltrane solos, and then pass them off as either mine, or state that I am improvising, when in fact I'd just be playing lines I've practiced over and over again for any fixed situation. I feel jazz has influenced me differently, I want to find my own voice but I want to greatly respect the past as well, as without any of those great musical minds, I'd have nothing to explore.
From that feeling and point of view, I began my life of studies within contemporary electro-acoustic jazz related music. I put it out there, not for me, but for all those people who were being overlooked, and to help progress what is happening in my own small way. I felt it was unjust that these musicians, myself included, was speaking and I could hear and see it, but many were choosing not to, for whatever reason. I felt frustrated, academically speaking.
For me, neo-classical, minimalism and such music, is a part of me and will always be. I am very influenced through my academic background and cultrual influences to embrace as much possibilities as I can. I love electronic music, but also I am very comfortable musically speaking within acoustic instrumentation as I started on the piano and this is my instrument, and I always need to return to it. I think we live in a wonderful period artistically speaking, and the borders for what is excepeted are slowly breaking down as people discover alternative music.
I have trained in classical and all Western music, but I am very connected to jazz and improvisation, so combining these forms of music expression or bouncing from one to the other, is natural to me, and my passion for academic music and improvisation is the discipline which gives me this strength. The very force of the history of music is paramount to the successful nature of any composer who learns from the past masters. I detach from playing classical, but only becuase I have my own voice, and I have one life to discover as much as I can about it. But as I am thankfully from the very beginning a self taught musician, who became academic, I am balanced in my appreciation of both. I think any composer, musician, DJ or such, needs this. If you just think of yourself as important, beyond the history, then in truth, you miss everything that can advance you. It is ok to be varied in your approach, actually I think it should be encouraged, but being also grounded has a reward within itself. To me, it is about getting that balance.