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A rare audience with jungle pioneer DJ Dextrous

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A rare audience with jungle pioneer DJ Dextrous

 

Errol Francis was jungle years before jungle. Growing up in the same Hackney ends as luminaries like Shut Up & Dance, DJ Brockie and DJ Hype, he was immersed in the fabric that made the movement since his earliest school days. Throw in an avid interest in tech and a love for experimenting with all forms of music and by 1992 he’d become a certified pioneer of that movement.

Take any DJ Dextrous production since his debut Ruffneck Bizznizz and you’ll hear the pure essence of the genre; the rough, the smooth, the soul, the rudeness. Raw breaks, swooning samples, caverns of space and that overwhelming hum of analogue bass. You can hear it in his many savage co-labs with Rude Boy Keith. Collectively known as Kings Of The Jungle – a title that was never questioned by their peers – they were signed to Suburban Base, one of the biggest commercial harcore labels that were responsible for many of the UK top 40 crossover hits during the very early 90s.

You can also hear the pure essence in his deeper, more Detroit-influenced Solid State productions (with fellow Kool FM alumni Klass A & Phaze 3) and you can definitely hear it on the multiple labels he ran throughout the 90s and early 2000s – Subversive Recordings, State Of The Art Records and the self-titled Kings Of The Jungle imprint.

Perhaps most famously though, you can hear it in Lovable. Released in 1993, and timeless forever since, it’s one of jungle’s most quintessential early anthems that captures everything special about the music and its delicate balance of elements. Featuring the vocals of the late great Erin Lordan, whose voice also captures the heady rave spirit and unique time when the music exploded thank to her work with rave legends Shut Up & Dance, the track has retained its allure for almost 30 years… And it’s just enjoyed its first remixes in decades thanks to AudioPorn as Benny L & Shimon and Deep Jungle bossman (and avid early jungle archivist) Harmony. All proceeds of the single go to the Macmillan Cancer Support Trust.

A momentous reload that came about through lockdown, the Lovable reissue has re-triggered Errol’s love for making jungle music and more is set to follow. It’s long overdue; Dextrous departed the scene gradually in the mid 2000s having made major moves in the scoring and library music world. This work included a groundbreaking documentary Feltham Sings which portrayed young offenders’ lives in a way that no one had before and saw Errol being recognized for two highly respected accolades. To this day he is the only jungle pioneer to have won an Ivor Novello award for songwriting.

Beyond music he’s also a professional photographer and working more within TV and film, which is where we caught him last month for this epic and pretty rare interview. Get acquainted… 

I think you’ve been on set all day today haven’t you?

Yeah. I do a bit of supporting artist work and I’ve recently been doing a lot of stand-in work on set. It’s been a godsend during the pandemic, all my all my other income streams are from either making music or photography company. It’s been a very strange time, especially this current lockdown.

I’ve found shutting out the news helps keep the anxiety at bay…

Yeah same here. I haven’t watched the news in years. But there is that curiosity, because we need to know what’s going on. Shutting out social media is also very helpful. I just found it so intrusive. When we were younger, if there was any kind of conflict with anybody, when you got home and you closed your door that was it. But now it’s very hard to shut things out any more. But then I have these conversations and I think ‘is this just me getting old?’

Haha, nah. Doing what you love keeps you young, I reckon. You seem to have fallen into all kinds of great work that you clearly enjoy and I think that maintains a youthful energy or understanding of things…

Actually yeah, I’ve done a lot of youth work as well. I love hearing things from younger people’s perspectives. I used to do a lot of tutoring and I’d always say how much I learn from those I’m tutoring.  I think that’s why they engage with me, they appreciate the fact that I’m willing to listen to them. My whole thing is that we’re learning together. I need different perspectives. That’s what keeps you young – the thirst for knowledge and for trying different things. That said, I was always told not to be a ‘jack of all trades’ as a kid and that’s always plagued me. But on the other hand, I love variety and adventure. Is that the right thing? I don’t know. I look at my son, he’s a song writer/producer and he can play keyboards better than I ever could because he’s really focused on that. I said to him, ‘don’t be like me, don’t be this jack of all trades, don’t spread yourself thin.’

Ah but producers coming through have to be able to create their own artwork, make their own videos, maybe animate stuff or do bits of code script. I think being an artist means you have to be elbow-deep in a few trades… 

You’re right! What I like about my son is that he won’t release anything yet. He wants to do his 10,000 hours before he puts anything out into the world. So that the type of focus is very impressive. I still think he should release things and at least try and monetize them or get some momentum from them. Although, I listen to a lot of my early tunes and I cringe at times with my editing and mixes, but there’s a charm to that for me as there’s a lotta soul in that dirt. Although our studios weren’t virtual and we had different challenges to work around with the limitations.

Like trying to get the machines to talk to each other!

Yes! I remember seeing this program called Rock School in the 80s. They would talk about MIDI, which was a brand new thing and just sounded so intriguing. It was like ‘Wow, this keyboard can talk to that keyboard? I was just fascinated by the whole technological changes in music. I remember buying a Casio SK1 keyboard because it had a sampler on it.

Was that what started your love affair with music?

No that was already in place. We all wanted to be in a band like The Specials or The Beat back in school. You had the drummer, keyboard player, bassist, rhythm guitar and saxophone. The school we went to never had a sax so my thing was the trumpet. That’s where my love for making music started. I wish I’d kept that up because I was learning to read music and things like that. But then that kind of went by the wayside because my parents didn’t see it as a career. They wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. You know, a job that had some type of status.

There was no career blueprint for this type of music. People got into it because they loved it and didn’t think about career options or anything.

Definitely, so I’ve always understood where my parents were coming from. We always want our kids to do better than us. What’s really weird, is that my son and daughter have gravitated towards music but I’ve never tried to influence my kids to get involved in the music industry. They love the old music and the old technology. I’ve seen a lot of that; young photographers wanting to use film or young producers wanting to use analogue. They don’t want that digital sterility.

I thought about this when you were saying about learning of a new generation. I think we’ve reached this sweet spot where there’s generally a nice empathy between the oldest in the game and the youngest.

Definitely. I think we’ve reached saturation point, because the music now is in the hands of everybody. You can buy the cheapest laptop, get some dodgy software and you’re off. Now it’s great that everybody has access to that and it’s great you can release something with no outlay at all. That does create a danger of releasing music which maybe could be better than it is. Before, to release something, you’d have to make a decision on whether it was worth the cost of pressing to vinyl, you know, some real commitment. But now anything can be released and the whole emphasis and culture – in everything in life now – is that we’re being led to believe that ‘more is best’. If you’ve got more followers, or you’re constantly smashing out releases or you’ve got more of anything then you’ve got more status.

Less is more!

Totally. Too many people are in such a hurry to be noticed or to be liked or get some type of validation.  It’s like a reward system where we want everything yesterday. I’m hoping this whole pandemic may have slowed people down a bit to think about these things. We’ve taken time off the treadmill, which is a healthy thing.

I hope so! I think one thing is common whatever generation you come through in is DIY. It’s that ‘this is SICK, I want to explore this and pursue this as much as I can’ type of feeling. It’s still there now and that’s the fiery spark this came from isn’t it? Doing things yourselves!

Absolutely. It was amazing. It just felt like a movement. I think that a lot of stuff has always come from America musically. Blues, jazz, soul, funk, hip-hop. But the whole hardcore jungle movement was born and bred in the UK and it heartens me that I was a part of those building blocks in what it has become. It was so exciting, being a part of something that was so new, it was electric! I still get goosebumps thinking about what we’ve done. It was so raw. It wasn’t about money or any type of long-term plan, we just wanted to make music. And jungle reflected that. Especially when I heard some of the reggae influences in hardcore, I thought ‘that’s for me.’

It’s such a broad canvas. And you showed that very quickly in your releases that ranged from the Ruffneck alias to the Solid State project which sounded like it took its cues from Detroit and what was happening over there at the time…

Solid State was great because we were all on the same page with our musical influences and backgrounds. But I think some of the issues with Solid State were that we were a little self-indulgent. We were trying to be musicians, even though none of us were actually trained musicians. I think there’s a frustrated keyboard player inside of me. But on the flip side, I’ve always loved that rough with the smooth and the best jungle came out of that juxtaposition of something musical and something very raw and hardcore. I’ve never known a melting pot like it, where you can just go from old jazz references to film samples to even public information films. There was also a lot of inspiration, you’d hear an idea by someone else and go ‘wow, I need to sample this other thing.’ 

Ah… Like the Bonanza theme. Which one came first – your tune Wanted Dead Or Alive? Or Roni Size’s Firefox – Bonanza Kid?

Ah hah. Well mine was first but Roni’s was definitely more popular. I actually remember Bryan Gee asking to play my tune when we played up at the Hacienda in Manchester back in 1995. So I’m thinking maybe that night a seed was sown.

And I’m thinking if you actually heard real live shots in the club, because Manchester was pretty notorious for that around that time!

We were worried about that, too. I remember looking up at the ceiling and you could see where gunshots had been there previously. There were no shots fired that night, though, no. I’ve been lucky, I’ve never had to kind of run for cover whilst I’m playing!

Ha ha. At what point for you did realise how far the music was spreading and that this was more than just a passion and that you could pursue it for a career?

There’s one time that springs to mind. I remember playing Wax Club, Telepathy, and Det coming up to me saying ‘Danny Donnelly’s after you. You’re hot patty at the moment!’ I’ll never forget those words. And that felt mad. We had our own little DIY label but Danny’s label Suburban Base, along with labels like Moving Shadow and Reinforced, they were all huge in the scene. So that was definitely a turning point or a moment of realization.

Another time was at The Edge in Coventry, it was Jungle Fever and every tune was just fire. Hype played a lot of our dubs, Brockie played a lot of our dubs. It was just one of those nights where we were like ‘wow, is this really happening?’ Then the next day a friend of the family came around. He didn’t realize I was making music so he was saying to my mum that he’d been raving up in Coventry and mentioned Kings Of The Jungle and mum said ‘well a King Of The Jungle is upstairs sleeping right now!’ That was quite mind blowing for both him and for me. I hadn’t even mentioned to him that I was doing this and he was there. It felt like a strange sort of synchronicity you know?

Yeah! And anonymity. Unless you’d had an interview or a profile in a magazine people didn’t know what you looked like. There was a mystique to it all.

There was. And also you had the producers who made the music and the DJs who played it and were a lot more publicly known. I was a finance admin officer for the council while I was making these tunes and I’d go home, make music until sunrise, get a shower and go back to work. So it was rare that you would see me out. So there definitely was a mystique because I wasn’t a person that people had a lot of access to. I know Brockie really loved that because I supplied him with exclusive plates that nobody could get from me!

Ha! Well everyone had access to Lovable. That’s a seminal tune… 

That started life out as a full song. I’d just had Ruffneck Business out and we had a label get together. Everybody from Shut Up & Dance and Ruff Quality Recordings were at the headquarters and that’s where I first met Erin.

Yeah she’d sung on some SUAD tracks.

She did. We were talking and she said it would be lovely for us to do some writing together and in our first studio session we came up with the whole Lovable thing. At first it was called was Band Of Gold. It came together really quickly with verses, a chorus and a bridge but I was thinking at the time ‘are DJs ready for a full vocal jungle tune?’ It was an instrumental form of music, besides little licks here and there, so I didn’t think the world was ready for a fully written jungle song. But then we were going through the vocal recordings and there was that one refrain from the bridge ‘you really move my mind’. That really stood out to me so I had a play around with it after the session.

You treated her vocal like a sample.

Yes, which is what we were much more used to. So I was into the vibe I got from the vocal and I just carried on developing it. My mum always says it’s her favourite song of mine. And I do like the balance of everything in the track; it has something for everyone.

I was going to say that it captures the essence of jungle right at the source point and right at a time when everything was exploding all at once. Obviously, the re-release and new remixes are in memory of Erin aren’t they?

Yes. It Tony from Modified Motion who coordinated the remixes during the first part of lockdown. I was really into the idea and then the remixes started coming in. Lee Harmony’s mixes came first and I was like ‘wow.’ They were so fresh for me. Like a whole new energy. And then when I heard Shimon and Benny L’s remix and I was like ‘oh my god, they’ve taken it to a whole other level.’ They nastied it up and that inspired me a lot. That energy and the dynamics of their remix reminded me how much fun the music is.

Oh wow.

Yeah. Although I have to say that my remake of the track was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done creatively. Everything that could go wrong, did. It was like I didn’t have Erin’s blessing. The first thing that went wrong was my old G5 iMac blew up that I had some of the back up files on. So I tracked down an old Atari, with Cubase on it… And it wouldn’t load any of the discs. 

Nightmare!

Yes. So I thought ‘okay, let’s just remake it’. I knew how to play it and what went where. But the problem were the breaks. On that original record there are edits on top of edits, so it’s very hard to decipher which break was doing what. And on top of that, there’s a certain sound you’d get with the Akai filter that you can’t get on anything else. But I made some progress and, at one point, was actually excited about where it was heading. Until an even worse thing happened. I had the hard disc on top of the desk and I was trying to reach something and accidentally kicked the lead and it fell on the floor!

Oh man….

Yeah. I was hoping I’d be lucky because it fell on carpet but no, it was corrupt so I had to do it all again. At one point I pleaded to Erin saying ‘please, please, please let this happen.’ It was like she was happy to be remixed but not for the original to be touched. I had to convince her that the original will always be safe on vinyl. And, eventually, I got there but there were many points I didn’t think I would! When I eventually gave the track to Shimon the sense of relief was so intense.

What an incredible challenge. And it hasn’t put you off returning to jungle or drum & bass?

No not at all. If anything I think it’s inspired me more. If I can step up to a challenge like that, and recreate something brick by brick then I can definitely do something from scratch. What I want to avoid – and I need to avoid it with my usual job of writing library music as well – is having so many choices all the time. So as I get back into this more, it will be a lot more streamlined.

We’re back to the less is more thing aren’t we?

Definitely. If I think about my studio back in the day it was a dedicated working space. The computer wasn’t used for anything else like internet or gaming, and the units I had were the tools I had. I had to make the most of them. So I’m in the process of trying to go back to that type of workflow and those types of limitations.

I was going to ask about the library music and television and film scoring you’ve done. When did that come about?

I have to thank Ola from Stage One for getting me involved in that, he was doing my publishing. I didn’t know what library music was but when he explained it was for TV and film I was all over it. That’s where I wanted to be! I warmed to it straight away because it was faceless music. When I was making jungle it was like, ‘right, if this doesn’t move me enough so that when that first drop comes it doesn’t get a rewind then it’s not good enough.’  But that can be very limiting – music isn’t just to make you go crazy on a dancefloor. Doing library music allowed me to make whatever genre I felt suited the brief and I could take things wherever I wanted.

Can you remember the first time you heard your music on the telly?

Actually yes! It was my mum who called me. It’s funny. You get a buzz when you first hear your music on pirate radio, then you get an even bigger buzz hearing someone play your record whilst out, but hearing it on TV is a whole other level. And yeah it was my mum who rang me out of the blue and said ‘turn over to ITV, I swear this is your music.’ And it was.

Wow your mum spotted it without knowing you’d done that music or it would be used on that show?

Yeah! She’s like my personal PRS agent. She could hear me in it which was very touching. Although it always makes me wonder ‘have I gone stale? Am I that predictable my mum can identify me?’

Haha. So how about Feltham Sings. You are still the only jungle producer who’s won an Ivor Novello…

That was such a surreal moment. I remember going into recording in the cells and they were the most uncomfortable recording sessions ever, because there was no way to sit on like a bottom bunk without the top bunk in the back of your neck! I remember when we did it we thought ‘maybe this could get some recognition?’ Because it felt so different. But I didn’t think anything more of it. Then when the BAFTA nomination came about it was like ‘wow okay!’ I was happy with that but then my tutor Guy Michelmore suggested putting it forward for an Ivor Novello Award. That was crazy – that’s the award that actually acknowledges and celebrates writers. So he put it forward for that and, again, I was happy to just get a nomination but when they actually announced my name as the winner I think I blanked out. It was very special, though and a strange time. I think we expected it to open more doors and bigger commissions, which it didn’t because there’s never been anything like Feltham Sings since. It led to a lot more library music briefs but I wonder about that time and ask myself whether I pushed myself far enough or whether I was questioning my confidence too much?

You were making a lot of different things back then. There were garage things, house things, drum & bass things. You were busy!

That’s right. Even with the other guys from Solid State, we did some underground garage. It’s been a strange sort of career because it’s gone off on so many different tangents. I think one of the problems with me is because of all the different pseudonyms people don’t really know how much I’ve done or what I’ve done. But it’s nice to be back in this mindset, having these conversations and starting to develop a plan. It’s been hard because right now there are very few outlets for this music to be played in the way it’s meant to be played.

But you’re definitely bringing Dextrous back?

Oh yeah and it started with the Lovable remake. I’ve got some unreleased bits flying around, I’m going to bring back one of the old labels – Subversive Recordings – and I’ve had a remix done, which I can’t say too much on right now. But yes, Dextrous is back and it’s exciting to see what might happen next….

Dextrous – Lovable (Remixes) are out now on AudioPorn

 

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