One of the most prolific and versatile producers of the 90s returns… Nookie looks back over his huge influential career and reveals news on multiple future releases.
Whether it’s as Nookie on Reinforced, Cloud 9 on Moving Shadow, his famous collaborations with Ray Keith, or his years at key record shops like Red Records, Gavin Cheung’s fingerprints are deeply chiselled into the most important blueprints of jungle drum & bass.
From his seminal hardcore/jungle crossover The Sound Of Music in 1992 (a track that continues to regenerate with every generation with recent covers from the likes of Jamie Jones and Dizzee Rascal) right up until he took a break from the genre in the late 2000s to create bespoke racing simulators, Gavin has consistently explored new territories and innovated.
In 1997 he wrote an album with house pioneer Larry Heard. In 2004 he launched one of drum & bass music’s first digital only labels (at a time when the genre was still heavily entrenched in dubplate and vinyl culture) He’s worked with the most influential labels that shaped this music; as well as the aforementioned Reinforced and Moving Shadow, he also worked closely with LTJ Bukem’s Goodlooking Records, Labello Blanco and of course Dread Recordings.
Famed for his versatility and ability to hit both hard and musically, Nookie set benchmarks which still exist today. And since last month, he’s back to set more. Due to lockdown’s temporary pincer movement on his simulator business, he’s been back in the studio and is now packing nothing less than two albums and a variety of EPs! It started in March with Kaeya on Metalheadz and he has no plans of stopping again. Here’s where he’s at and where he’s been.
What would you usually be doing on an afternoon like this?
I’m either in the studio or in my workshop working on things for my other business. I create gaming simulators, racing ones, we rent them out to corporate events. So I’m usually buying rigs and going to tradeshows. Because the event industry has been on pause we haven’t been doing very much, but it’s not all bad – I’ve had more time to make music and I’ve now got a few albums and EPs pretty much ready to drop!
So lockdown has brought you back!
Yeah, keeping myself occupied. I’ve built my studio back up over the years.
I was going to ask. Is this a comeback? Because there’s always been a Nookie presence, here and there over the years when you weren’t quite so active.
Yeah. I was signed to Goodlooking and all my productions were going through them so when that stopped I was like ‘okay what do I do?’ Then eventually led to my other business Radical Simulation, which I started around seven years ago. That took a long time to build up and once it was up and running I could spend some time on the music again.
I love how jungle pioneers have influenced so many things in their careers. Like Krust when he was consulting huge blue chip corporates on mindset or how you’re doing this. Were you making these type of things as a hobby?
Well I’ve always loved driving games and technology came to the point where it was affordable and there wasn’t really anyone out there doing this professionally. We’ve had some amazing times with it with clients ranging from BBC to Bentley and I’ve been all over the world with it.
Incredible. So let’s go back to your music career. I’ve got to thank you – The Sound Of Music was one of the earliest dance tunes I ever heard that put me on this path…
That was my second EP on Reinforced. They were good times. Originally it was on a white label called Gonna Be Alright. It was on an EP called Back To Detroit which I pressed on white label myself. Then Reinforced wanted to do some stuff with me, I took that tune, mixed it up a bit, put a different vocal on it and put it on the Return Of Nookie EP. That was the original version of it.
That tune perfectly captures that tipping point from rave…
Yeah definitely. I mean the times were changing so rapidly it was like every six months a producer would do something new which would influence us all. Like time-stretching or halftime beats or a sampling technique, the tempo was going up and up and up.
And you were right in the thick of it. There were albums, there were aliases like Cloud 9. You also started working closely with Ray Keith. Did you have other relationships with artists like that?
No, not really. I did one thing for Gachet and some close friends but never on that level. Ray got lucky. We met through a friend Pedro; me and Pedro were working at Red Records while Ray worked at a record shop called City Sounds round the corner. We’ve both got Mauritian backgrounds – my mum is from there, both his parents are from there – we got along so we tried a few things in the studio and they worked. I was always the engineer but in the early days he’d ask for creative input of my own, little ideas or lines or samples here and there, but I learnt I had to be tough on him. It’s not my tune, it’s his tune so he needs to go in and think about what he wants.
It’s quite a unique relationship between producer and engineer isn’t it?
Yeah, it can be tricky. He’d ask me ‘what do I think about this?’ or ‘what do I think about that?’ and I’d have to say ‘what do you think?’ I leant how to be tough on him and I’m proud of what we achieved and the tunes we made.
Teach a man to fish!
That’s right. I still get it now. A mate couldn’t get a vocal to fit in the groove recently so he called me up. I said ‘no, you need to learn or you’ll come to me every time you’ve got an issue.’ You need to learn or what’s the point in trying to make a tune on your own at all?
But the artist/engineer thing does work when it’s the right chemistry and balance, right?
Yeah, just look at Goldie and Rob Playford. Rob is an exceptional engineer but playing instruments and the whole musicality thing wasn’t his forte but he was able to translate all the ideas Goldie had in his head.
The best thing about this era was that you could hire and engineer and still make some money from the release. Or a producer could just produce and not have to DJ. There was enough money from sales to make sure everyone was paid.
That’s right. Although I was actually a DJ before I produced but because my tracks were quite successful at an early stage people recognised me as a producer. You’re right though, there is a thin line and not every producer can DJ and not many DJs can produce. You’ve got to stick to your strengths.
You were working with some of the most important labels of the genre; Reinforced, Moving Shadow and then, later, Goodlooking. They must have been very intense and exciting times.
It was wild but we didn’t know these labels were going to become legendary. We were just doing our thing. I knew Rob Playford since before he even set up Moving Shadow because he’d come in the shop. Same with the Reinforced boys when they’d come to the shop with white labels and promos to sell to me in the shop. Same with Danny Bukem. He’d come into the shop before he set up Goodlookin with his big afro and all that. So yeah while those times were very intense and exciting, it’s pretty mindblowing to sit here now and look back at just how influential they were on the genre. It was very fortunate to be part of that.
You hit in the nail on the head at the start of that answer – no one knew what was going to happen, no one knew we’d be here 30 years later still talking about it…
Exactly. Like when I made The Sound Of Music I had no idea it would be such a big hit. I made it, I liked it, luckily other DJs liked it and the people they played them to liked it. You can’t imagine that reaction when you’re in the studio. I’ve never sat there after making a tune and said ‘wow that’s an anthem, that’s going to be huge!’ It just happens that it’s caught the right wave at the right time.
You caught a lot of waves in the 90s. You were involved with Omni Trio weren’t you?
Yeah Rob Haigh from Omni Trio owned the record shop in Hitchin, Parliament Music. I’d bought that shop off him when I left Red Records. I changed that to Daddy Armshouse and was living above the shop.
I didn’t quite appreciate how deep you were in the record shop game!
Oh we were deep. I loved it. At one point Red Records was number one in London. We were the unofficial Kiss FM record shop. Not the legal Kiss FM but back when it was pirate. We had Trevor Mad Hatter, Danny Bug, Seamus Haji was my manager, we had so many labels come into the record shops and give us free promos. Big A&Rs from commercial labels like Paul Oakenfold and Norman Jay would come in and give us promos in return for imports which we were known to have before other shops. They’d then sign or licence these records for UK release.
Record shops were the information centres
Absolutely. We had all the Reinforced stuff first, all The Prodigy records first, all the Shut Up & Dance records first and because Red Records had the clout it did, we could demand exclusivity of the record for a week or weekend before other shops. I remember having The Prodigy’s Charlie in advance and we were the shop in London with it for a weekend before the full release. The same with Dave Angel’s Sweet Dreams. The Tom’s Diner track. Meat Beat Manifesto’s Radio Babylon. It was a very exciting time.
What I love is the fact that a lot of jungle came from house music in this way. So many of the pioneers were playing house music or acid house or were working at labels when you go back to the original late 80s / very early 90s
Yeah totally. I’d come from hip-hop and electro but the influence of Chicago and Detroit led me into acid house, then breakbeats, then eventually jungle. It’s all connected. The Acid Trax stuff, the Belgian stuff, then the UK boys were sampling it all and putting breakbeats on it and speeding it up. It was music from the streets, from the underground. Artforms like graffiti and breakdancing were very closely related to it. A lot of the parties were illegal, which added to the allure of things a bit and it just sounded so futuristic. It was ground-breaking.
Amen. You actually worked with Chicago legend later in the 90s didn’t you? How did work with Larry Heard?
Wow yeah that was quite an interesting one. I couldn’t believe it, I mean that’s Mr Fingers! He got me into producing and making music! To work with him was an incredible opportunity. We didn’t meet until around seven years after we made the album.
Wow. You must have just spoken on the phone a lot?
Yeah quite a bit. It was before emails or even text messages. Back then it was through the labels. Someone had some production from him and some acapellas and gave them to me and asked me to see what I could do with them. I put some tracks together and sent them over – which was all via DAT back then – and then he’d re-record stuff so it was all in time. It was an amazing opportunity to work with a house legend.
Amazing. D&B really caught the US’s imagination in the 90s. Todd Terry made a D&B album around this time too didn’t he…
He did! A lot of US artis were interested in it and were bringing in jungle influences. We were doing something different so it attracted their attention. The Detroit boys were influenced by it too. Kevin Saunderson went up-tempo and experimented with breakbeats.
Carl Craig’s Bug In A Bassbin!
Exactly. So there was this reciprocal thing going on between the US and the UK, that’s what made things so diverse and inspiring.
How about your own diversity? You had a lot of aliases but I’d say Cloud 9 was your most well known…
Yeah it was a bit. Cloud 9 was my Moving Shadow alias and Nookie was my Reinforced alias. You mentioned Todd Terry, he was one of my all time heroes and he did that back in the day with Black Riot and Royal House. I thought that was a nice trick; you could experiment with creating a different sound to each artist name. So Cloud 9 was a bit darker and more experimental and the Nookie style was a bit more musical and uplifting. I liked doing that.
You could keep secrets a lot easier back then couldn’t you? There was no social media and it was too underground for widespread media support so people didn’t know much about the artists and white labels would just have a logo or a name or a number if you’re lucky. The mystery around it was more exciting.
Yeah back then you could keep a bit of mystique about it. You could have a bit of fun with it all.
If you could re-live any of those projects or releases or eras, which would it be?
Probably that 93-94 era when The Sound Of Music was starting to be played in all the clubs. One of the first clubs I heard it in was Paradise Club in Islington, we’d be down there every week and Rider, Fabio, DJ Rap, obviously Ray, all those DJs would be playing and it would get rinsed out. That was a very special time for me which I don’t think I could ever top. It’s funny because that track keeps coming back to me. A few years ago Jamie Jones sampled it for his house mix of it. Dizzee Rascal sampled it and released it a few years later. It’s funny to hear it coming back.
I love that. Sampling has come full circle. It keeps the story of the music going…
Exactly. I sampled enough people over the years but never thought that anyone would sample me! But it does have to be done right, though. I get a lot of messages where people have sent me some awful versions where I’ve had to put my foot down and tell them. But Jamie Jones’ version was great. I don’t really follow much house music so I got a message from someone and he said ‘my mate has done a remix of The Sound Of Music, can I send it to you.’ I was thinking…
Here we go!
That’s it. But he sent it to me and I was like ‘this is alright!’ He’d used a proper vocalist to re-sing the vocal parts and it was done very tastefully. I’d never heard of Jamie at the time so I rang my friend Jimmy who ran the label Labello Blanco and I asked him if he’d heard of Jamie Jones. Turns out his was in Ibiza on holiday at the time and he said ‘yeah he’s the biggest DJ in house music right now, I was at his party last night!’ So he sorted out the licencing.
While he was on holiday?
Amazing. Serendipity. How about Dizzee?
That came through Dizzee’s manager, he said he’d sampled it and wanted to release it and I knew they’d do a good job on it. Dizzee wouldn’t release it otherwise. But the funny thing is; I wish these people had hit me up before they made it – I’ve still got the original parts! But fair play, those examples were exceptional and I’m honoured to have been reworked by both Dizzee and Jamie.
How about the other side of this? Have you ever been sent a version so shitty it made you cross?
Oh yeah, plenty of times! My reply is always ‘do not ever ever release this to the general public, keep it to yourself, I’m not feeling this and I don’t want any involvement in this at all.’
Come back when you’ve got some skills!
Every pioneer I speak to who smashed the 90s had a bit of dip in the 2000s where you need to rediscover your sound or your path. In the early 2000s you were still very active and set up one of the earliest digital only D&B labels I can think of – Phuzion in 2004 – but when did you fall out of love with the music?
I think the late 2000s. Everything was going well with Goodlooking, we were doing big tours all over the world. Sales weren’t great but were okay. They were a good label to be associated with and used their content well. I love Danny, he’s one of my favourite DJs and producers, his knowledge of music is incredible. But when the label had some issues I thought ‘maybe I need to take a step away from this. What do I need to do next? What’s my next step?’ I loved making music and being in the studio all day but I hated the pressure of it, that feeling that I’ve got to deliver an album in six weeks time or an EP or a remix. I don’t work well to deadlines; music happens when it happens.
You can’t force creativity
If it flows, it flows. If it doesn’t, don’t force it. That’s why I make other styles of music now like house and techno. My Binary State project is pure techno and I love doing that. But it will get to a point where I’m bored and I want to do some drum & bass stuff then I’ll get bored with that and I flip between those, depending on what I’m feeling. Recently I’ve been playing around with 145BPM stuff with breakbeats and kickdrums. I love all that.
Going back to the roots!
Exactly but with new technology and the knowledge and expertise I’ve picked up over the years, it’s been a lot of fun. A lot of my future releases will have different tempos and styles on but the main purpose is always about enjoying the music and feeling the vibe of it.
What vibes are we feeling next? You’ve mentioned albums…
Yeah I’ve got a Nookie album with drum & bass, some house things, some downtempo things on it. Before that there’ll be an EP, then the album and then with the Binary State project, I’ve done the remix of Inner City Life. Then we’ll put out two EPs then the Binary State album.
Yeah I’ve been busy over lockdown! It’s been really good fun, I’ve been working with a lot of musicians and vocalists and trying to take things to the next level. I’ve come back to the attitude of ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to make the music I want to make and if anyone enjoys it then great.’ Sometimes you can get too pressurised into making something that certain DJs will play or certain clubs will kick off to. It’s got to bang, type of thing.
Yeah and it’s got to feed your kids or pay your mortgage and everything…
Exactly but now I’m fortunate enough to not worry about that.
That brings us back to the start with your other career. I say this to so many artists but the ones who seem the happiest are always the ones who have other forms of income through other jobs or whatever. You can walk out of the studio at any point and no one is going to be demanding things from you. it’s yours.
Yeah 100% and it’s also enabled me to invest in some nice studio equipment. Back in the day I didn’t have much money so I had to sell all my equipment, it’s been good to not worry about all those pressures and just be free and write what I want to write. If anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus.