Photography courtesy of Sophea Photography
It’s 2001 and I’m side-stage at a sweaty club in Christchurch, New Zealand, clutching the first plate from Ram Raiders Part 3, waiting for Andy C to finish his set. Even back then, he’s recognised as probably the best drum and bass DJ in the world, a title he will hold for many years following. I’ve carted the vinyl around all night for a chance to get it signed – I don’t remember much about the interaction, but I haul that piece of wax around in my crate for 20 years, even during times when I lost touch with drum and bass.
It’s 2021 and I’m side-stage again, watching Andy C whip an arena full of fans into a frothing frenzy. I’m here to not only enjoy this performance (the fourth show of the first tour he’s done in a year), but to interview Andy about drum and bass in New Zealand. In my bag I’ve got my treasured piece of signed RAM Records history, and when I’m backstage with Andy after the gig, I pull it out to show him.
“Oh wow. Equinox was always one of my faves, thank you for bringing that along,” he holds the vinyl, his signature leaping out like a blast from the past. “Even though I’ve produced a tune, seeing it now, obviously life gets in the way, you get busy, but they’re all key points in time. I’ve been thinking it tonight, well every night. New Zealand is blowing my brains, honestly I’ve been coming here for a long time. I wanna say ‘99-2001, something like that. I went to Paris in ‘96, went to New York in ‘97, so I’ve been around the block…”
Up until COVID put a dampener on the world of live music, Andy has visited New Zealand nearly every year since the late 90s. So he’s in the perfect position to talk about just how much things have changed.
“It’s hard for my brain to accept! These are massive moments… Because, y’know, our music, drum and bass, has not always been universally accepted. This tour was originally meant to be happening last April and it had sold out, so… Something is happening in the water, because the last time I came to Christchurch, I played in a pizza restaurant!”
Winnie Bagoes City, Christchurch New Zealand. One of the main dance venues following the closure of Ministry, post-2011 earthquake.
He’s talking about Winnie Bagoes, a popular inner city pizzeria that doubled as a rave space, and an unplanned lunchtime gig where he played a rare, mostly liquid set that’s still talked about in reverential tones by the hundred or so people lucky to be there. Like other venues in town, it has since closed its doors, but the memories of that and other iconic venues remain.
“I’d been playing in Ministry years ago, I’ve been told that the earthquake was devastating… But how have we gone from playing a pizza restaurant to an arena?! For someone who’s been doing it as long as I have, it’s so beautiful. I love the music so much and I really do see a new beginning. It can’t help but make me quite emotional, especially after spending two weeks in quarantine. Everyone in drum and bass wants to be here, it’s crazy… seriously, what have you put in the water?!”
It is crazy over here. We talk about peaks and troughs of popularity with drum and bass, but over here the wave just seems to keep building and building…
“What’s good with that is the producers right? It keeps building because the producers are so on the money, they keep making beautiful music, whatever you’re into, whether it’s hands-in-the-air, whether you’re into like dirty jump-up, I love all of it. The beauty and privilege of us at RAM is we spawned a lot of artists. Whether it be Sub, Wilko, Chase and Status, all the other guys, Rene, Killbox, Loadstar, ALB…we cover every flavour, and there’s so much emotion in those tunes.”
I’ve got a quote here from another interview you did: “This music makes me emotional because each record is a trigger point from a memory or a time of your life.”
“Yeah. After all these shows, I facetime my wife and the kids and even though they miss me – they know I’m doing what I love. I’ve got 25 years of history with these tunes. Music is emotion, man…any tune I play has got a timestamp – a moment. Come Together by Urbandawn, that timestamp for me is when I did my Wembley show, when I played that for the first time. So yeah, people might be like ““I’ve heard this loads of times””, but for me, I debuted that at Wembley, everyone was there, it was a moment. So that tune for me, always means that moment – it’s a soundtrack for my life. Which is why when I’m playing, to me it means that much, and I hope it transfers to others. And I’m not bored of that. I’m not one to retire tunes.”
During the gig I spoke to Chachi, one of the most respected local DJs in New Zealand, and who has supported Andy no less than seven times. All the stories he told me about Andy revolved around times they had bonded over specific tunes and combos, which just reinforces how much it’s about the music. As well as Come Together, Andy’s set for the night included staples like Bassline Secret and Planet Dust, and when I mention the latter, Andy’s ears perk up.
“I was talking to Fresh this week, he hit me up…”
Are you guys gonna collaborate?
“Well…we might be, but you know what, I rewound a tune of his tonight, a new tune (with Buunshin). I’d just got out of quarantine and Dan hit me up like, ‘Yo – got this tune for ya’. And it’s late, I’m tired but I say, ‘go on then’. He says, ‘Don’t listen to it now – you won’t get to sleep! Listen to it in the morning!’ I woke up and listened to it and I’m like (he makes a ‘mind-blown’ gesture) – it blew my brains out! And then every set I’ve played on tour, it’s gotten a rewind, and no-one’s got a clue what it is.”
While a lot of high profile DJs tend to play sets nearly exclusively consisting of dubs (especially after a year of no gigs), Andy’s sets weave handfuls of fresh bits with bonafide classics, transporting both him and the audience to those special moments of time. It’s not about exclusivity – it’s about the shared experience and the magic of music to transport.
For Andy, records are a door to the past, a portal to specific moments in time. One of his trademark moves while performing is holding aloft two of his records, a gesture illustrating the central importance of the music itself to what he does, as well as a celebration of the specific medium he chooses. He’s one of the few remaining DJs using turntables and vinyl for performances, and it’s a concession he’s not yet willing to make to the digital age, so much of his enjoyment of performing being tied to the tactile experience of spinning wax.
It’s not without its technical challenges, though – especially on a tour taking place mostly in large arenas. On the first show of the tour in Wellington, he played a 3 hour set but had to struggle with skipping needles due to monstrous sub bass. Not usually one to soundcheck, he made sure to check the setups at subsequent shows, leading to an unusual rig for the Christchurch show, slipping some sofa cushions under the turntables for an added layer of vibration buffering.
Some eagle-eyed fans at the Wellington show spotted you using a Pioneer mixer rather than customary Allen and Heath?
“The reason for that is that the sound engineer had tuned the soundsystem to Pioneer. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pioneer. I was coming to shows and for the first part of my set the sound engineers had to recalibrate the sound system to accommodate the Allen & Heath, whereas the entire rest of the night is Pioneer. More often than not, the first 10 minutes sounded crap.”
So it was practicality?
“Yeah, pretty much.”
It’s impossible not to touch on the past year and how the enforced hiatus has impacted on the scene. What did you get up to?
“Lockdown gives you a chance to explore stuff. My wife went through the loft and dug out the original exercise book – I started RAM when I was at school – RAM001 and the business plan were done in the back of my science textbook! So you look at stuff and you think, when you’re here tonight, you’ve had a year off, it’s a long time to reflect on what you care about. I realised I wasn’t myself when I wasn’t doing this. So to get back to it – I’m just having the time of my life. I’m having the Time. Of. My. Life.”
The school book that birthed RAM Records.
This gratitude extends to the single livestream he did during the lockdown period. It seemed like every DJ was jumping on the bandwagon, and it didn’t take long for fans to ask when it was Andy’s turn.
During lockdown there was a rise in livestreaming, people were asking when you were going to do one. You did one livestream, how was that?
“Emotional. I loved it. I think my Facebook page got 18,000 comments, they were saying there’s tens of thousands of people watching, Tanya’s like, ‘This is amazing!’ and I was like ‘Oiii!’ We opened a bottle of red, and we watched it back, it was beautiful.”
Even though you were in a studio and didn’t have that usual interaction with a crowd?
“Yeah, but you know what, I really really care. I prepped hard for it. So even though it was a recording and it was only an hour and a half (there was loads I didn’t get to play), it was a snapshot of where I was at. And oh God, there were so many messages, I just couldn’t believe how many views the stream was getting, it was actually really wild.”
I’m a bit surprised by how blown away he is by that reception (he remains, after all, one of the most highly esteemed DJs not just in drum and bass but the whole of dance music), but it’s a running theme – for a guy who has toured the world for decades, he’s genuinely stunned by just how big drum and bass continues to grow.
“And this is the thing with coming to New Zealand,” he continues. “Our scene has always been the underdog. And when you do things like that, it was the biggest stream we’d done. And then to spend a year not doing a show and come to New Zealand… Suddenly you all treat me like Bon Jovi! It’s humongous! Like, how did that happen?”
It’s true that drum and bass has gone from strength to strength in New Zealand, something I covered in my first Rave Tales from New Zealand. For some of the younger generation, it will have been the first opportunity they’ve had to experience an Andy C performance, and the excitement that comes from being part of such an event. Andy sums it up: “It doesn’t matter how old you are, how long you’ve been doing it, this music scene is so beautiful, so wonderful, and we all live for that…”
Tonn Piper, Andy’s long-time touring MC, is especially aware that the eyes of the global drum and bass scene are focused on our country. He tells the Christchurch crowd: “The whole word is watching New Zealand right now. Be proud! Make the most of the moment.”
He’s committed to championing the NZ scene, and tells me about the mission he’s on to make sure that international DJs and producers don’t flood our market to the detriment of local talent. It’s not just hollow words, either: Andy has been playing out plenty of fresh Kiwi tunes, including new ones from Tali and Harriet Jaxxon, Lee Mvtthews, Twentytwo and Elipsa, and Tonn has been reaching out to support local MCs and producers. It’s a sign of the respect they have for New Zealand’s continually growing role in the drum and bass scene.
Before our interview finishes, I hand Andy another piece of vinyl I’ve brought along, his iconic Valley of the Shadows. He turns it over in his hands, marvelling at the label, no doubt having his mind transported to the first time he played it out (or maybe to the four-hour session when it was written). He signs it: RAM 21. Next year marks the 30 year anniversary of his label. I laugh and ask him if I should bring it along in another 20 years so we can remember this moment… He smiles, nods and heads off to sink some well-earned beers.
No matter what happens in the next 20 years, I’m sure of a couple of things: drum and bass will still be big in New Zealand, and so will the influence of Andy C. Like the music itself, he’s on a journey, reliving history and creating new memories. We’re just lucky to be along for the ride.