WORDS

A Rare Audience With DJ EZ

Broadcaster, DJ, occasional producer, label owner, certified UK garage pioneer: DJ EZ is a man who likes to let the music do the talking.

Breaking through on the pirates in the mid 90s, the London DJ has been the most consistent and high profile champion of the UK’s most important and influential dance music genre since jungle. Without UKG and its phenomenal rise during the late 90s and early 2000s, in both the mainstream and the underground, there would be no dubstep, grime or bassline.  

Like all genres that have been so popular and had such an influential impact, UKG has had its fair share of low moments but EZ has been unfailingly loyal to the scene throughout its many highs, lows, dramas and chapters. As a result, you can find an EZ mix from any era and it’s an authentic snapshot of where the genre is at that time and how it all relates to its foundations.

Diligently finding gems no matter what the musical landscape is, his sets have always joined the dots; the dots between the sweetest vocal soulful sounds and darker heavyweight breakbeats; the dots between the pioneers and the young pretenders; the dots between the classics and the future anthems.

Catch him on the right day and he’ll join those dots for you over a 24 hour set; just like he did back in 2016, raising over £60,000 for Cancer Research, and again earlier this year with an incredible supportive marathon broadcast for all key workers and all key ravers locked in at home.

This year he’s also been joining even more of those dots on his new platform Nuvolve: a weekly radio show that launched in March and a brand new label which launched late last month with a massive six-track opening salvo that spans OGs such as Todd Edwards and Sweet Female Attitude to exciting new-gen talents like SHOSH and MPH. As if that wasn’t quite enough to keep him busy during the new lockdown, he also started a monthly residency at Radio 1… And made time to talk to UKF for a rare full length, in-depth editorial interview.

Famously spotlight shy, unless behind the decks or in the broadcast studio introducing the music he loves, EZ is also joined by his manager and longtime friend Paul Marini for the call. While this is a rare and slightly unusual set-up for a DJ interview, as the conversation unfolds and EZ reveals more, it’s clear why Paul is present and the message is self-evident: no man is an island.

To be the most consistent and high profile champion of the UK’s most important and influential dance music genre since jungle takes the work of a whole team and not just one individual. It’s how he still lets the music do all the talking and still has the energy, positivity and enthusiasm he had when he began in the 90s. Read on for a genuinely unique conversation and rare opportunity to find out a little more about UK garage’s most influential figure…

Let’s start with Nuvolve. This started as a radio show, but I think you already had the label in mind when you launched it?

EZ: Yes that’s right. We had the idea for quite a while but were waiting for the right time to launch it. Pre-lockdown everything was so busy and hectic with touring that we didn’t have enough time to focus on anything else. So we launched the weekly radio show – which is syndicated worldwide – in March which was something I was really looking forward to, with my radio history. That was great to launch and has been going really well. I’m very happy with it all. The whole idea – hence the name – is the idea of bridging the gap between the past and future. That idea of evolution and roots.

Paul Marini: Z’s been a pioneer in the industry and has seen things develop from the beginning. He’s seen how the legends in the game dug the foundations and made it possible for this music to thrive 20/30 years later, and we’re also seeing the new guys breaking through with some incredible talent. So Nuvolve champions both – it’s really important for us to present the perfect balance of the legends who are still paving the way and the new talent breaking through. It’s a place which celebrates the whole spectrum and brings it together. Highlighting the history and putting a spotlight on the rising stars. 

Is this your first ever label?

EZ: Technically no. I set up an independent label in the early days just for my own productions which I made to play on my radio shows. I was lucky that listeners and DJs wanted to get hold of them. But with the increase of my DJ shows and broadcasting I had to put it on hold because I was just too busy. Nuvolve has come about at the perfect time for me to really get into the music in this way again.

Labels play such an important role in this. There’s a responsibility to do the music, the artists and heritage justice isn’t there?

EZ: Absolutely. Tim, who downloads all the submissions for the radio show and the label, sends them over once a week and it’s crazy how much good music is in there. Just crazy. From legends of the scene to brand new producers. There’s so much music and we always wanted to do this – to merge these worlds and generations together. To have that responsibility is definitely something we’re really excited by.

Paul Marini: Also it gives us a chance to put a spotlight on people. A bedroom producer can take a chance, submit something and it’ll be heard by Z. If he likes it, it’s got the same chance to be played on the radio and maybe even signed and released as a track by a known artist. This is very important to Z – it’s about the music. Giving people their first airplay or breaking music in live shows and seeing these new talents getting picked up is something I know Z has always loved doing in all his capacities, be it on the radio, in his shows and now on the label.

EZ, what labels for you have done that best?

EZ: Honestly, if I started to reel off a list of labels the battery on your phone would run out before I do! There’s so much great history and so much great music I’ve played over many years it’s hard to highlight or single out names because I know I’ll forget some people and it’s not about that.

Paul Marini: One thing I’ve always noticed about Z is that he picks up on everything. It could be a DIY white label, maybe only 100 pressings. Or a little digital label that has less than 100 followers but is putting out seriously good music, Z will listen to it and celebrate them with the same amount of passion as something on a label with bigger numbers. 

That’s what this music is founded on really. Everything began as DIY and it’s taken so many different directions and had so many cultures come off it. Like dubstep and grime – they’re both directly part of the UKG lineage…

EZ: Totally. And let’s not forget that UK garage in itself is a direct lineage of the US garage and house. It’s great to see just how much came from that. Different people coming in and putting their own twist on things. You had UKG but then you also had speed garage, then as you mention you had the grime and dubstep and breaks in that mix, too. That mix is still just as strong today. There’s a lot of experimenting with breakbeats in all kinds of genres and so much of that is the garage influence. It goes on. I’d say there are more subgenres out there now than ever and who knows what will come of them? Big things grow from small seeds. I’m just as excited by that now as I was 20 years ago or longer.

There has been this consistency for you. From a fan point of view it seems like you’ve never had a quiet year, you’ve always been busy, relevant, in demand, no matter where the genre is at. I can only think of two other DJs in that type of place – Pete Tong in house, Andy C in D&B. It must take a lot to maintain that?

EZ: Thank you. This is something I’m probably most proud of. There are highs and lows in every career. There’s been blood sweat and tears. Not just me but from my whole team. There have been some incredible shows, on the radio, in clubs, at festivals. It’s been an amazing journey and it’s something we never get complacent about. It’s something we have to work hard towards all the time. It never stops.

Paul Marini: I think you said it yourself – it’s how you maintain things. You never reach the top. That’s something that our whole team understands. We keep things moving and fresh and we’re always looking for inspiration. A big part of this revolves around Z listening to music and finding gems and creating great live shows around it all so we give him the space to do that and we all think of different ways to make it happen.

EZ: That’s actually a really good point. Having the space to listen to everything I’m sent and really getting that fire in my belly is so important to me. This music gives me that drive to continue. I still feel like the best is yet to come. That excites me so much. I’m lucky enough to have always had that feeling.

Okay yeah. So having the team with you ensures you’re able to have space and time to enjoy that drive and make sure it never goes away. I think it’s very easy to get bogged down in so much stuff – downloading all the music, doing your social posts, getting back to people. Before you even make a show or a mix. Your team ensures you can do that.

EZ: 100% You’ve got it. And they’re an exceptional team. I wouldn’t be here without them. I wouldn’t be talking to you now. Although I would love to be communicating directly with fans but with the sheer volume of music to digest it’s just impossible without letting the music side of things down… I hope that the sounds I find and present are just as valid a means of communication.

Paul Marini: It’s probably worth mentioning that Z is hardly ever on social media. He doesn’t get bogged down in all that daily stuff as it takes away his focus from the music. So if he wants to make a statement it’ll be about something with meaning. Perhaps about mental health, for example. Then he’ll use it for that. But I think there’s a purity in how he listens to music and approaches it because he’s not in that social media echo chamber. It’s still about the music and focusing on what we do as a team. We wanted to create a lane of his own and maintain it. 

Give me some highs while you’ve been cruising in this lane…

EZ: Oh wow. There are so many. Leaving pirate radio to join Kiss was a big step where I could feel that things were leading to the next level in my career. Show-wise there are some incredible memories. Way too many to mention but, off the top of my head, my 24 hour sets have always been extremely special to me, as they are a way for us to give something back and hopefully make a real difference to people in a meaningful way. UK garage in Ibiza in either 97 or 98 was just out of this world. A huge event which I was so proud to be part of. The Pure Garage compilations were another big step for me that I’ll always be very proud of.

Okay so how about a career low?

EZ: Oh now you’re asking! You know what? Nothing major springs to mind. I’m a positive guy and I try not to dwell on lows. 

Paul Marini: This isn’t strictly a low, but not having enough hours in the day can be a challenge… Touring, as much as we love it, takes up so much time and it means a lot of plans can’t be implemented as quickly as we would like because – prior to lockdown – Z spent so much time on the road. That’s not a low, though. That’s a challenge. Gratitude is really important to us, no matter how big or small the moment.

EZ: You know, thinking about it now… The most challenging period was back in the day, and I wouldn’t call it a low either, when I didn’t have a manager and team like I do now. I was doing things off the cuff, confirming five or six shows in a night, leaving the radio show to do four or five shows in one night. I was burning the candle at both ends and not doing myself any favours. Now I have organisation and a great structure. I need that to give my best to my audience and the music.

Okay cool that’s interesting and refreshing to hear an artist talk about their team and the business side of the creativity in that way. So Paul, when did you come on board?

Paul Marini: We’ve been friends since Z’s Kiss days and I’d always been in the background supporting and advising, so it’s developed very organically over the years to the point we’re all at today. 

No person is an island! And having a team means you’re able to do things like the 24 hour shows. You’ve got full support. That one at the start of lockdown was so well timed by the way. We needed that!

EZ: That was for the people, the key workers, the scene. I was so proud we were able to do that and organise it in such a short space of time.

Paul Marini: It was about solidarity, wasn’t it? We were all thrown into such an unprecedented situation that we instantly wanted to do something for the people and put something positive out there. Support for the key workers and lifting spirits for everyone locked down in their houses. 

People train for marathons. Do you have to do any preparation for a 24 hour show like that? You still look like you could carry on for hours afterwards!

EZ: Ha! Well I don’t need to practice or train mixing because I’ve been lucky to have so many shows over the years that there’s no rehearsal / practice sessions needed on that front. I get very excited by things and that drive keeps me going through when I do get tired. I do try my best to get as much sleep as I can in before, though. At least seven or eight hours a night. Musically I prepare things so I make sure to cover all the styles, and implement vinyl sessions in the show which is nice to dig through those old records and break up the show with a different format to play on. But no, it all comes very naturally to me and I love what I do, which gives me that energy, too.

You’ve certainly maintained that energy this year. With the 24 hour show, the launch of Nuvolve and your Radio 1 residency. With your history in broadcasting, Radio 1 must have been a bit of touch to land?

EZ: Oh yeah amazing, when Paul called me to tell me that I was over the moon. Anything to do with radio I’m all over it. That’s been a massive part of my history and I was brought up on pirates as a fan, then as a DJ. Radio has been the most consistent thing for me and a platform I really enjoy working on.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that podcasts have become very popular during this. it’s the intimacy isn’t it? A unique audio experience.

EZ: I agree. And there is so much to choose from. In comparison to the pirates when I started, you’ve now got so many opportunities and platforms to broadcast the music and to share what you love with other people who might love it, too. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for radio experiences. We’re spoilt for choice.

Which makes it even more of a responsibility to ensure you do your show justice and spend that time curating the best music possible

EZ: Absolutely. And that’s the main thing I love. The whole selection and discovery aspect of it is part of that and what makes it so personal. Now with the label as well as the weekly shows, I’m able to do that even more. It feels like everything’s coming together.

It’s definitely a silver lining of an awful year and an example of using these strange times to your advantage. Let’s conclude on a positive forecast for the future….

EZ: To be honest, since lockdown one I’ve been positive and I’m still positive about things now as we enter lockdown two. There is light at the end of the tunnel, we will get to party again as long as we adhere to the rules and do our best to be mindful of each other’s safety, and I’m really looking forward to getting back on the road. I’ll appreciate it on a whole other level. But in the meantime, I’m very happy because I’m still playing music, I’m still making shows… Paul, I and the team are still going through music and sending things to each other with ideas about releases.

Paul Marini: I think remaining connected is an important thing here. With DJs not touring there’s a lot of potential to not be as on top of the music as you were, but I think Z is even more on top of the music than he was before – which is mad because I didn’t think that would be physically possible. The clubs are shut down, but the scene and sound hasn’t. There’s some incredible talent making music and Z has the platforms to share this.

EZ: Yeah that’s a huge positive; hearing how much great music is being made despite all these things happening, and hearing amazing stuff from the new generation coming through and the pioneers of the scene still very active and inspired and creative. That’s enough positive inspiration to keep me going and it will take a lot more than lockdowns to stop that!

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