Aston Harvey might not be as much of a household name in foundation bass and rave culture as other artists we’ve featured in our Origins series. But scratch the surface and you’ll find he’s been neck-deep in the foundations of this culture since the very beginning and has been involved, or been fully responsible, for some of the most seminal records in hardcore, jungle, speed garage, big beat, breaks and dubstep.
A founding member of the massively influential UK breaks/hardcore act Blapps Posse, Aston began his career as an engineer working for major league artists across both hardcore, jungle and soundsystem culture from Rebel MC to SL2 via Ray Keith and DJ Rap.
As the 90s progressed Aston moved into various shades of house music and became a major protagonist in the UK speed garage movement in the mid 90s as one half of the Sol Brothers before forming Freestylers with production partner Matt Cantor and some of the most iconic MCs in the game: Tenor Fly (RIP) and Navigator.
Catapulting themselves into the scene with tracks like Ruffneck and B-Boy Stance, over the course of the late 90s and the 2000s, Freestylers developed a reputation as one of the most prolific, consistent and liveliest UK breaks acts. Never afraid to try new sounds, the Freestylers sound ranged from the chart-topping disco funk sounds of Push Up to the savage slo-mo jungle tear-ups like Punks and The Slammer via one of the biggest remixes ever to be uploaded to UKF Dubstep: Flux Pavilion’s remix of Cracks way back in 2010.
Still as inspired as ever, this month sees Aston and Matt release the sixth studio album as Freestylers. Entitled Other Worlds, it’s the sound of the duo going back to their open-armed roots and relishing in almost every genre they’ve ever touched. From the unashamed funk and euphoria of recent single Happiness to the all-out filth of tracks like My Sound (with another iconic MC Spyda) and Reality Check, blessed with posthumous vocals from Tenor Fly, it’s a no-nonsense dot-to-dot joining adventure that writhes and flexes between points in both breakbeat culture and Freestylers’ own discography.
We called up Aston to writhe and flex through his 30+ year life dedicated to underground bass music for this latest edition of our Origins series. Get to know:
Let’s go back to the Blapps Posse. That’s where it all began, right?
That’s right. I got this job in Noisegate Studios which was owned by Leigh Guest from Double Trouble, an act who’d had some big hits in the 80s with Rebel MC. I was going there as a punter to begin with, but I really wanted to learn how to use the studio myself so got a job there. I actually met Jason from Blapps Posse there, he was doing things as Dynamic Guv’nors. I heard his music and really liked it and then I started engineering for him. That’s how Blapps happened.
How did you go from studio punter to engineer?
It was a combination of Michael Mensen, who is sadly no longer with us, and Leigh taught me a bit. I picked it up quickly. Even as a kid I’d play with things and hope for the best. I’d never read any instructions. Instructions for the old gear was so complicated.
And the best sounds came out of people just working out the instruments themselves. Like the acid sound on the 303.
That’s right. The first sampler I had one bank of eight seconds and two banks of four. So we’d speed up the records we were sampling from 33rpm to 45rpm, plus maximum +8 on the pitch, to get the most out of the sample time. Thinking about it, that’s probably how hardcore settled into the style it had – because those sped up breaks sounded good.
Yeah totally. So Jason was the first person you engineered for?
Yeah, Michael threw me in at the deep end and we got along well so Blaps formed. But in those early days I engineered for Rebel MC, SL2, Quartz, Hijack, Definition Of Sound.
Just Rebel MC and SL2 alone were huge and represent a great cross-section of what was happening in the UK at the time. Some proper foundation stuff there.
We didn’t know it would be foundation at the time, we were having fun. At the time the studio was in a house in Brockley but then it moved to the West End on Denmark St. They had a great spot there and a lot of early hardcore and rave records were made in the new studio.
You engineered some of Ray Keith’s earliest tunes, DJ Rap’s, too…
Yeah I did. I met them both at City Sounds, the record shop where Ray worked. He’d come down with loads of promos and we’d sample all kinds of things and mish-mash them together. I’d been at the studios for a few years by then so knew my way around. I started at the end of 88, fresh-faced out of school, aged 19, and fell in love with whole process; early rave, UK rap, acid house. You’d have these legends coming in like Adamski and through Rebel MC I met guys like Tenor Fly and Barrington Levy. Huge reggae artists.
You must have been like a kid in a sweetshop!
It was pretty mad! It was totally up my street musically and I was learning all the time, which was the most important thing and everything was so new and exciting it all seemed quite magical.
Did you ever worry you’d become too much of an engineer and not become an artist? You were helping others make anthems when it’s clear that’s what you wanted to do personally…
Well the engineering paid me money so it was my bread and butter and a priority, but yeah I did want to become an artist in my own right and adapt the skills I’d learnt to the music I wanted to make.
What other tracks did you engineer that really stood out? I imagine Spiritual Aura is one?
Rap and I worked together as Engineers Without Fears and I actually didn’t really like Spiritual Aura that much at first, haha! I thought the vocal sample was a bit naff but I was proved wrong and that was huge. It was all very DIY. We’d make the tunes in her bedroom then mix them down in a place called Monroe Studios which was very historic in hardcore and jungle foundations. I’m very proud of the Suburban Base stuff Rap and I did. Also all the early Congo Natty productions I got to work on which became foundation tunes in the jungle scene like Junglist featuring Peter Bouncer and Tribal Bass. I’m also really proud of the Blapps stuff because that was the music I wanted to make.
Blapps caught that first wave of UK breaks. It had everything in the mix. Hip-hop, funk, soul. It captured UK’s first take on hardcore.
Totally! Music from the age of 14 – 18 for me was b-boy electro, then hip-hop, then house music. You’d hear Todd Terry taking house and techno ideas and fusing that with his own love of hip-hop. That’s where Blapps came from. The perfect fusion of hip-hop, house, reggae and a little bit later the acid and techno sound which was coming over from Belgium.
Were you ever a raver before you became an artist?
Not a proper one. But I was a huge lover of music and was shopping for records endlessly with money I didn’t have. I still have all the Ultimate Breaks & Beats albums now over 30 years later!
When I think about those breaks, they’re the link between Blapps and the Freestylers. Would you say Freestylers was natural progression from Blapps?
Yeah. But in between I was also working with Rebel MC and Definition Of Sound. Then, from 94-97 musically I was making house, then speed garage came along. I killed it on that.
You were part of the Sol Brothers
That’s right. We were signed to Fresh Records and I heard this record which had an Armand Van Helden tune with a Lisa Stansfield acapella over the top of it. I thought, ‘I can do that!’ So I got a Kathy Brown vocal (Turn me up) and put it over Armand Van Helden’s Sugar Is Sweeter. That blew up, so we did a load of records and remixes around that time in that style. By then I’d met Matt, the other half of Freestylers. He was also signed to Fresh Records, we got talking and he suggested doing a b-boy electro tune, which we put out as a white label. That was the early stages of big beat, around 97, with acts like Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim.
Mighty Dub Katz
Yeah. That was the time. So we did a track called Drop The Boom, Don’t Stop and a track called Dream World. That did well so we did a few more releases and one of the EPs had B-Boy Stance which was a breakthrough record for us. The first version we made had Tenor Fly singing the vocals in the melody of Wonderwall. Oasis weren’t having any of it but by then it didn’t matter because a buzz had been caused. That’s when we started taking Freestylers seriously I guess.
I just want to touch on speed garage. That was a proper melting pot and another exciting moment in UK culture. US culture, too. Todd Terry did some sick speed garage.
His influence was huge. He was the first person I can think of who was fusing hip-hop with house and elements of early rave. Arman Van Helden captured it the most I think, though. Then us Brits took it to another level.
Yeah his remix of Tori Amos, then Nu Yorican Soul…
Then the Sneaker Pimps remix. But the whole thing with speed garage was that it came from jungle vibes– everyone making those tunes was listening to jungle and that was the influence you could hear.
Totally. Then big beat. That became a dirty word very quickly didn’t it?
Yeah I could never work that out. Maybe it was too happy? But there were a lot of darker elements in it, too. Our first album never fit in with the more cliched elements of big beat like the surf guitars and all that. We Rock Hard came from rave, b-boy culture, jungle, hip-hop, house.
You were a crew. You had MCs, you had Navigator and Tenor Fly!
Yeah we had that underground, street vibe. That’s what I came from as a kid musically
Was that the same for Matt?
Yeah exactly the same. That’s how we connected – we shared very similar interests.
Having Tenor Fly on that album gave you character and identity. You came across more like a band even before the live band started.
Having Tenor and Navigator honed our identity without a doubt. The label suggested a band later because it would give us the edge over just DJing. Having Tenor Fly on our first radio hit gave us a huge boost. The second big single Ruffneck was a massive tune all across Europe. It didn’t get support on the radio in the UK though
I don’t think it fit in with the pop and brit pop stuff in the UK charts at the time. They’d supported B-Boy Stance but not that one and I think we did expect support, but the whole process of getting songs on the radio is a very weird and unpredictable art.
One thing I’d always say about Freestylers though is the hooks. The new album has hooks you feel you know like old friends within two or three listens of the album…
That’s nice to hear. We started it at the beginning of 2018. I had Lady Waks over from Russia. She’s been a massive supporter of us. We were doing some music and she said, ‘no one does what you do, maybe you should go back to your roots?’ I thought I’d give it a go. That’s how the album sounds like it does. It’s gone back to what Freestylers were originally and delving into the old school elements of what we’re about. I wasn’t following any trends.
You’ve never followed trends. Push Up, for example. After a whole load of really raw breaks records you dropped this poppy funk record which blew up!
I just try and do my own thing. There’s no point in copying people, taking risks sometimes is part of making music. If it pays off, it pays off. Sometimes you can do a tune and you think it’s amazing and no one likes it. Other times you make something you think is okay and it goes crazy. I’ve always made music that excites me and that initial version of Push Up was inspired by the Zapp song It Doesn’t Really Matter. I played around and had a rough sketch which I sent to my publisher. A month later I got sent the full song and I was like, ‘Okay we’ve got something here.’ We tweaked it a bit and the rest is history.
Would you say that was your biggest hit?
Certainly one of them. Push Up charted in a lot of places. It was number one in Australia and in Belgium, it won various awards. Good times. Very strange times. We would be rubbing shoulders with celebrities and big pop bands.
I remember queuing for a shower backstage at V festival early one morning and having a chat to the lead singer from the band Embrace. Natalie Imbruglia once told us she was a fan of B-Boy Stance and apparently I kinda moved past Jay-Z like ‘scuse me mate’ in Terminal Studios where we used to rehearse. Also I once shared a lift with Metallica and Jam Master Jay from Run DMC. In the USA, where we got to tour a lot with the live band in 99 and 2000, you’d see all kinds of celebrities hanging around with rock bands. It was very surreal and a bit of a blur now.
Push Up was a real peak in the breaks scene, it’s a shame breaks became such a dirty word, too.
Yeah, I mean breakbeats have always been in music, and we always did a lot more than just breaks, but it never had the staying power. Like jungle and drum & bass have always been there. Whether it’s up or down it doesn’t matter, it’s been there and always will be now. But breaks never had that consistency. The problem with breaks was that there were never enough young kids involved making it. In the early 2000s there were – guys like Breakfastaz and the Hardcore Beats label. The Spanish embraced it so there was a big wealth of Spanish talent. The US embraced it but it had a different sound to the UK. I think here in the UK we had much more of a melting pot.
Just like big beat, just like jungle – the breaks were the canvas to put anything you loved in there. I always think about The Slammer when I think of Freestylers in pure breaks mode…
The Slammer was inspired by Adam F’s Metro Sound actually. I still play Slammer to this day, that mad bass and that vocal loop.
That squeaky, aggy break!
It’s from R.A.W from Big Daddy Kane but I don’t know where I got the exact chop from. I’m giving you all my trade secrets now… haha.
That was released as Raw As Fuck wasn’t it?
We were signed to a label called Freskanova and when they went under, due to contractual obligations we couldn’t use our name Freestylers for a while .That’s why our third album was called Raw As Fuck, as we started to release music under that name. The first release as Raw As Fuck was a track called Punks which had the Chopper beat and the same Blow Your Head noise from the JBs that Public Enemy used on the seminal track Public Enemy No 1, the track itself had a very hard jungle vibe but at a slower tempo.
Funnily enough – when those tunes came out was when D&B had become almost too technical and had lost a lot of the crowd to garage
Yeah that’s right. That’s when Zinc started stretching his legs and making tracks like 138 Trek and his label Bingo Beats was killing it. That fusion sound of breaks and garage really invigorated the whole scene at the time.
Yeah that was a beautiful era. What’s your most beautiful times when you look back and think ‘wow’?
Oh there are a few! The first was 1999 Glastonbury, seeing an empty field when we started then seeing 20,000 cascading on us. It was incredible and mind-blowing to see all those people. And then a few years later, with Push Up, we went on the Big Day Out tour in Australia which was an amazing life experience. We had the full band on tour over there and shared the line-ups with bands like Beastie Boys and System Of A Down, Slipknot, Chemical Brothers. I’ve been very fortunate to do underground dance music all these years. I’ve had some crossover successes but have never sought after them. A few people have said to me, ‘Why don’t you make another Push Up?’ But it doesn’t work like that. I start every tune with a fresh clean slate, I want to be excited.
Yeah, that’s got to be the best starting point for any tune! So let’s chat Cracks which was huge for UKF as well as you guys
Yeah, so we made the original in 2009 which was a throwback to the old R&S records sound. We’d just been signed to Sony Music and were experimenting. We worked with this guy David Pen who was a songwriter and he suggested another singer Belle Humble who he’d been working with to help come in on the track. We just wanted singing on the breakdown, which was inspired by Trentemoller’s remix of What Else Is There? By Röyksopp. We had a few ideas and then Belle came up with those famous four words. The very original version we released ourselves then Tommy (SKisM), who owns Never Say Die, heard it, signed it and got a young up and coming producer to remix it, that person being Flux Pavilion!
SKiSM came from breaks too didn’t he? Ctrl-Z!
That’s right. And one of Never Say Die’s earliest releases was an updated version of Ruffneck which Navigator re did his vocals for . Cracks was one of those first big anthemic dubstep records that blew up. It was huge in America. Obviously UKF had picked up on it but what helped its popularity was it got used on a big USA talent show and the winner of that show used Cracks as their music to dance to.
Oh it was huge here too!
Oh yeah, I didn’t know that. I still find it funny that a two minute clip of the song on UKF has had 35 million views and it’s not even the full song.
Classic. Obviously it really boosted Flux’s career. What did that do for Freestylers?
Not as much as maybe I hoped. We had a really poor agent in the US at the time and he didn’t capitalise on it. Our work didn’t increase because of the success of it but it was amazing to see what it did for Flux. He had a whole load of great tracks out around that time and it was great Cracks kicked that off for him
Interesting to hear you didn’t get dubstep at the time?
Personally I just wasn’t quite into the sound or energy in general. Obviously there were some really great tunes coming out of the scene but on a whole it wasn’t really my cup of tea.
You stike me as a vibes man. Do you work off a spark?
I do very much. And it’s usually after I’ve found a good sample. You’ll never guess where the sample on Slammer comes from….
One bass note from Brown Paper Bag, distorted in a sampler and looped in a groove.
Yeah you’d never guess. I do love samples and the sourcing and use of samples is where I do get technical.
Has that changed with issues over clearance and copyright? There are some big samples on the new album!
For me, if a sample works in a tune then I’m not afraid to use it. There is so much music out there it’s hardly likely to be spotted on this level of underground music. Plus, if someone does want to make it a hit then they will pay for the use. I don’t want to hear any more of that ‘Oh no you can’t sample’ stuff because it’s bollocks. If someone can make money from it, it’s going to happen. It happens all the time. Arman Van Helden is great at finding samples and they always get cleared. Maybe it’s different for the new generation of artists, but for any artist who came through when I did and throughout the 90s, it was all about the samples and that hip-hop mentality. I loved the whole process and that’s how I became a big collector – I’d hear a sample, find out who it was and then buy all of their stuff. In a way sampling caused sales because of how it reintroduced artists to a new audience.
Just like there is now in jungle and dance music for anyone getting into it now! And for anyone looking to dig into Freestylers, the new album captures everything you’ve done, too…
Thanks. For me it’s the best of the two most successful albums the first one We Rock Hard and Raw As Fuck, the two albums I had the most fun making. Not following any trends, working with samples and going back to everything that inspired me in the first place.
Like the first album; it’s a manifestation of everything you stand for
I think so. We’re just doing what we’ve always loved to do and been very blessed to be able to do it like this and hopefully always will.