Next in our bass music foundation series we speak to a DJ who’s been entrenched in jungle culture since its earliest incarnations and has presented more new music and broken new artists to the world than many other DJs put together: DJ Bailey.
It’s inaccurate to describe Bailey as just a DJ. That title is way too functional. For Bailey, it’s much deeper. Playing music to people is about expression and his innate desire to share vibes and communicate through his passions. A feeling that’s been with him since childhood, his entire life has been spreading the good word and getting the best sounds he can find to as many ears as he can possibly reach.
This mission has led to 30 years on the airwaves from pirate station Energy FM to his current role at Mi Soul by way of a historic decade-long tenure at 1Xtra which climaxed with a final show where the likes of Dillinja, Andy C, Chase & Status, Hazard and many other acts made the effort to come down to the studio to say thank you.
Beyond the airwaves, he’s been one of the most consistent DJs on the circuit since his residency at Metalheadz famous Sunday sessions at Blue Note, he’s also a university lecturer, the co-founder of London D&B institution Soul In Motion and, as of late, a recording artist.
No stranger to the studio, he’s been working on beats for years behind the scenes (and using his creations as top secret ID missiles in his sets) but has only recently reached a headspace and philosophy where he feels ready to put the music out into the world. Following sporadic one-off dispatches on the likes of V and Mac 2 in recent years comes his debut single – Know Yourself / Step 303 on Dogger’s Precinct imprint.
With 30 more finished tunes in his persy stash right now, more is expected to follow, proving Bailey’s much more than a DJ – he’s an artist, he’s a teacher, he’s a promoter. Read on and you’ll find he’s a man who’s collaborated and worked around the biggest and most influential artists you can ever imagine in both funk and dub. But first and foremost, Bailey is a DJ. That’s where both his story and this interview begins…
Take me to your earliest sets…
It could go back to a house party, it goes that far. I was a hip-hop kid. I was obsessive about my records even back then. Friends would come to my house and I’d go, ‘listen to this!’ and they’d love it. Four hours later, I’m still playing tunes. I’ve lost girlfriends over it. Like, ‘I’m sorry, but you love your music too much!’ I think it was Fatboy Slim who said, ‘There are people who love listening to music and people who just have to play their music to people.’ That’s me. I’d spend hours just vibing off myself because I’d bought some amazing records. It’s really satisfying to play your vibes to somebody. At a party, with a mixtape…
Mixtapes were a great way to impress a girl from my experience!
It wasn’t like that for me, but one ex thought I was good enough to be heard so she was making copies of my tapes for everyone. They started doing the rounds and that’s how I became known. That’s when I got recognised around my neighbourhood.
Nice. So this was like 1990, 1991?
Yeah round then. So back then most early hip-hop DJs were good at scratching but not as good at mixing. But when the whole disco and house sounds came over, that’s when people realised blending and beat mixing was a big thing. My sister’s friend Garfield was collecting the house records. She told him I was into mixing and got me to go over his place for a mix. That was the first time I touched Technics turntables. I’d mix for hours and never really stopped since then.
Next stop – pirates?
I was on Energy FM. Garfield owned the station. He ran it out of his broom cupboard in a block of flats in Norwood. He’d do it for the weekend, not all the time. That was about 91/92. It was fun – no audience in front of me but the fact that people would be listening to the music I wanted to play was exciting.
Give me a particular tune that really stands out from then…
A Guy Called Gerald’s Anything. It was ‘91 and that record was so crisp and clear and dark and simple. The groove was amazing. I bought it at Rage which I’d become a regular at. I loved it there. If you stepped on someone’s foot at Rage they’d say sorry to you. But if you did that at a hip-hop gig then there would be a problem. That was a big part of what drew me into rave culture.
Amazing. Am I right in thinking you met Kemistry and Storm at Rage?
No, that was a tiny bit later. It was through Garfield, funnily enough. He was friends with MC Flux. I started hanging out with the Intanatty Crew – Rider, Fabio, a few of those guys. We went to Voodoo Magic and Flux introduced me to Kemi and Storm there. They told me they tuned in and listened to my show. I had no idea! So that’s what led me to be resident at Metalheadz.
Let’s linger in those Blue Note days for a bit…
It was a unique experience that will never happen again. 1995 was the first peak of ragga jungle. The same year, drum & bass was born out of the need to escape the trouble happening at a lot of the jungle parties. Drum & bass became the cutting edge. Blue Note became a major host for it. The weird sounds and experiments, the hard sounds and things that made you go, ‘What the hell?’ It was a haven for DJs and producers. They went down there, stood in the corner, listened to them, went home and went, ‘I want to make something like that!’ It gets cut on a dubplate, it gets played, things move forward. It’s not like now when everyone copies the same bassline but everyone back then wanted to standout in their own way. You also had the deeper side, but with the cold hard snares and drums. Powerful, powerful music.
Right on the precipice of the future!
Oh totally. And I think I actually witnessed the very birth of tech step. I was Grooverider’s boxboy. Watching him was a schooling. Seeing how he played in different clubs. Anyway, we were driving to a show somewhere and we veered off the motorway up to a roundabout. I thought, ‘What’s this about?’ Then this guy rides up on a motorbike and he gives Grooverider this dubplate. I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ We go to the party and he pulls the dub out and it’s Trace’s Mutant Jazz remix. It was that hardstep style. Not the clattering breaks we were hearing, but this hard clean beat and those synths. You know the tune?
Yeah man! I’ve spoken to Trace about it. So a courier delivered a dub half way down the motorway!
Yeah man. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. And, musically, I’d never heard anything like it in my life. It really was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ But this was 1995. A couple of years before tech step got really big.
We need to hear more moments like this! Anything else spring to mind?
Because I spent five or six years travelling around with Rider before I got too busy myself, there were moments happening at his fingertips. Every night. There was one time, MC Flux had started a club at a place called Bang in Streatham. It was previously called Ziggys, which is where the famous Acid House night Shoom started. Anyway, it was around ‘93 and the tunes were quite manic and choppy, lots of squeaky high pitched vocals and all that. Then Groove suddenly plays this tune. It’s a deep one, chugging along. Very very different to everything else. Everyone starts screaming for the reload instantly even though it’s brand new. Turns out it was the Helicopter Tune and Groove had just cut it that day.
What stood out for me was that it was such a different tune. So, to see the reaction to something so deep and different was great and that was the first ever time Helicopter was played. That’s the thing with Groove. He’d test out a tune in a small club if he felt that was the right place to test it. It went on to become one of the biggest tunes in jungle. That was special.
I like the idea of unsuspecting people not knowing how historic that moment is. I get goosebumps on behalf of them 30 years later! Give some personal goosebump moments in your career.
I got two that spring to mind which always blow my mind because I never thought I’d get to work with or alongside with such inspiring, influential figures. One time I was on tour in America and I was in NYC and got a call saying ‘we need to get you to Washington for a last minute booking,’. Because I had another gig to fulfil, I went and played and they flew me back to NYC. I have a very good friend in Washington, the first guy to ever book me in America – 2Tuff, run by DJ Slant, Peter and Andy. Peter came and met me when I was playing. The next day he messaged me and said, ‘Do you know what that VIP room was for?’ I said no because I had to fly back out. He told me – James Brown.
Yeah. I was playing the VIP area at a pre James Brown concert at a massive basketball arena. I was there and gone before I realised what it was for. I didn’t even check out of my NYC hotel, it was that quick.
When was that?
Early 2000s, I think. So that will always be a moment for me, to be asked to warm-up for James Brown in the VIP room, and I didn’t even realise what a moment it was until after. Then another time I was booked to play in LA and I was taken over to Costa Rica and played the first drum & bass party over there.
That’s not the moment… The guy who booked me, a man named Rob, called me up years later and said, ‘I’ve got a gig for you in San Diego.’ He said he wanted it to be a bit different and that I would be playing with Lee Scratch Perry. He invited us to get together before the show and I can play him some tunes on a Jungle tip so he can ad lib over your set. I was like wow!
I’m like wow right now
I’ve still got the playlist of tunes he liked. There were some Marcus Visionary tunes in there, Digital tunes, Benny Page, Shy FX & Breakage.
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Wicked tastes. What was he like?
He was a very humble guy. Very very chilled. He was quite old by this stage anyway so maybe he’d chilled with age. I was like, ‘What the hell?! This is Lee Scratch Perry here!’ But I had to keep it in my mind that we’re both booked to collaborate so I can’t be fanboy about this. But yeah, those were two times when I’ve worked with or for some legends. Like real legends, you know what I’m saying?
Two of the biggest ever. Without their influences, samples and ideologies jungle would not sound like it does now
Yeah! You’ve got the funky drummer on James Brown side and Dub from Lee Scratch Perry. These are the absolute foundations jungle was built on. It was a real honour on both occasions.
Love how you said fanboy, too. Do you still fanboy much?
In my head, yes, but I’ve also been in a position where people have expressed their appreciation for me and it can be a strange experience sometimes. So I try and hold it down. A Guy Called Gerald is a good example. Like I said, his music switched me from hip-hop to rave music. So one time when our paths crossed at a festival I got to tell him that. Just in a nice conversational way, not in an in-your-face type of way. I asked him about doing a remix of some of his tunes that changed things for me and we’ve since become friends. I keep it calm, basically. But there were times in Blue Note when I’d be surrounded by these incredible talents like Optical and Trace and I’d be like, ‘There’s all these dubplates walking round here!’ But you’ve got to keep it chill and natural. If you gel you gel, you don’t you don’t. Sometimes the flows not there and that’s the way it goes.
So let’s flow on to your radio accomplishments. You held it down for 10 years on 1xtra. But am I right in thinking you were only expecting to be there for four years?
Yeah, they told us all that there’d be a constant rotation of fresh talent and it wouldn’t run like Radio 1 where the DJs ran things a lot more. But yeah, I hung around for another six years! I don’t know why they kept me on for so long but I’m grateful for it and no moment was I more grateful when all these people turned up on my last show – Dillinja, Andy C, Chase & Status, Hazard. So many of the scene’s biggest talents. That was very humbling. You can chug along and not realise what your contribution is, but that was a sign of respect from everyone which was very touching and quite surprising because I’ve always wanted to help people who don’t get a chance to shine. I was always looking for new names, new clusters of sounds.
What was the link for you from Energy FM to 1Xtra?
Through Garfield. I was playing on Energy FM and Garfield first took me raving. I was hanging out with his mates; one guy was called Darrin who had a partner called Jane. Radio 1 wanted to start a sister station and Jane was working on the launch of it. Darrin introduced me to Jane, she introduced me to Wilbur Wilberforce who was a producer at the BBC and he just put in me in one of the Radio1 studios, put a DAT in the machine and said, ‘Do a show.’ Then he left the room. I made up some charts and did some chatting. That came very naturally because I didn’t have an MC on pirates so would talk a lot anyway. So, this went on for a few months’ then the next thing I know I’m being invited on to 1Xtra.
There’s a really nice link here with you as a speaker, or an orator, and the spoken word on your single about knowing yourself. That’s no coincidence, is it?
I guess not. That spoken word came about because, as you get older you start to look around and understand the value of things. Even with videos you see people posting, you know they’re hiring cars and chains and things like that. I’m interested in the realness. We all have things we like to buy or whatever, but you have to look at who you are and be the best person you can be. Like I say in the track, it’s about understanding your bad points as much as your good points. The best exercise you can do is to better yourself. You have to be comfortable looking at yourself in the mirror.
Love that. So, with you finally getting these releases out, is that you becoming the better you?
Yeah, I think so. I was making tunes and making tunes and making tunes but while I was making them I was thinking, ‘This isn’t working with the market, this doesn’t fit in.’ That was stopping me from finishing them. But then I came to the realisation that I should just do what I want to hear and what I want to play in my sets and on the radio. And that’s when things started to happen. I’ve now got about 30 tunes ready.
Wicked. In the spirit of Know Yourself, give me a bad side to Bailey…
As a Taurian I’m mad stubborn. You piss me off, the door is shut, I don’t care. So I’m trying to improve myself in that way and look for reasons why I do that. I spent so much time on my own, anyone who came along and added drama I’d be like bye bye bye. So I’m trying to give people another chance. I don’t know why I’m so stubborn and why I don’t talk about things but I’m trying to get myself to a place where I can overcome challenges and climb brick walls that I previously couldn’t.
I want to find out about Step 303 now. Shouts to Need For Mirrors
So prior to this I did a bootleg of Mr Fingers and I wanted to make something with Acid in it, something that links back to those really early sounds from America, especially Chicago and Detroit. So I played with some notes, came up with an idea and sent it to NFM who did his thing. I’m very happy with it. I love those Techno and House sounds from America and I wanted to do stuff that has that feel.
Music from late 80s / early 90s Detroit and London is linked soulfully and politically. I say this in so many interviews. It’s the sound of the struggles, of inequality, of poverty, of inner city hecticness. The tempo is the main difference…
Yeah and that’s why Metalheadz music sounded the way it did. It was the sound of stress being let off in the music. I want to hear people stories, I want to hear their struggles, I want to hear them and their emotions. Someone like Spirit. One of the most pleasant people you could have met but he made the darkest music. It’s like what’s going on in his head?
No wonder why you and Trex collaborated in the past. He’s as real as they come!
Yeah for sure and you can hear that in Randall too. You’re right. That’s exactly what I’m interested in – real people with real intentions
So what’s up next?
There’s a few conversations going on with labels and I’m more comfortable with what I’m doing so things might happen a bit quicker now. But in the meantime, you might hear things in my set or on my radio shows sin the mix. There’ll be things coming.
Good to hear. So we’ve had an example of a bad side of Bailey. Let’s sign out with a good side of Bailey.
I just love to help people. I make extra work for myself doing it but it’s a very fulfilling thing helping people reach their goals. I teach for Point Blank Music School which is linked with Middlesex University and it’s very rewarding to see the amount of people I’ve taught who’ve gone on to work in radio and launched their own podcast and all these great things. Even before that I was linking up people. I introduced Marcus Visionary and Benny Page to Shy FX, Phil Tangent and Marcus Visionary to Marcus Intalex. I introduced Trust to Photek. Jem One with Metalheadz. Teebee will tell you I played some of his earliest tracks ever. TC who handed me producer demos when 1Xtra took a trip to Bristol. Alix Perez when he was doing dubby rollers with a guy called Specific. I also heavily supported Breakage and Zero T in their early years producing. The power of 1Xtra and the power of someone going, ‘This is good, you need to hear this’ had a big influence. More than I thought it did at the time and I still do this now. I still dig deep for new talents to this day and always will!