WORDS

Ray Keith is more inspired than he’s been in years. Here’s why…

Think Ray Keith, think dark, richter scale busting basslines. Think breakbeats so savage you can trim your beard on them. Think natty samples picked deep from the soul vaults. Think Dread, the sound it cultured and the artists who’ve come through on it.

Think more… While Ray Keith’s new album Prophecy is smashed with gully original jungle drum & bass schematics (Batman, Darth Dread, Cylon Dread, the list goes on and on) it’s the off-piste explorations and experiments that make it stand out from the many other albums he’s released since the early 90s.

Jacking old school Chicago house music? You got it. 4 Hero flavoured broken beat complete with Ray proffering a little spoken word? All good. Shiny, springy R&B funk? No problemo. Ray singing soul man style with his own lyrics? It’s there… And it’s the sound of the pioneer pushing himself to new artistic places, no matter how uncomfortable or vulnerable he feels about it.

Ray’s been pushing himself a lot in the years that have passed since his last album, 2012’s I Am Renegade. Not just as a singer but also as an engineer, a writer, and musician. He’s also been hard pushing new talent as his weekly Pyro Radio show has developed such a status it’s up there with Noisia Radio as a go-to source for next-gen drum & bass. And if that’s not enough, he’s also pushing ahead with his next album.

But let’s not get ahead ourselves. Prophecy hasn’t even dropped fully. Here’s how it came to be…

I’m trying to count how many albums you’ve done over your aliases but keep getting lost in the discographies and compilations. It’s well over 10 now… 

I’ve lost count myself. I think it’s either my 15th or 18th album. I can’t remember. But it makes the reaction to this album even more heartwarming. This week we’ve hit number one on Junodownload and that’s just blown my mind. All the DJs supporting the tracks as well. It’s very humbling.

Especially when it’s such a big body of work. 30 tracks… You’ve spent some serious time on this.

So much. A couple of the tunes go back over ideas I’ve been playing around with for 10 years. The house tune (That’s My Sound) the funk tune with my mate Nathan Thomas (She’s Gone). Even You’re My Angel started about three years ago. You never know what it’s going to be like when you’re trying something new, do you?

It’s important to push yourself though isn’t it?

Totally. I’m still learning the craft and getting used being out of my comfort zone like that. The same goes for the mixing. I’m gassed that I’ve been able to engineer a great deal of this record on my own.  That’s what makes this album’s success even more humbling. We’ve made some classic tunes, we’ve seen jungle drum and bass get to where it is, so for new material to be so well received? That warms my heart. Everyone reminisces about the old days and they draw reference points, which is great, but I think that would be cheap for us original guys to do that because we’ve already done it. We’ve got to keep moving and embracing new technology and new crafts.

I think your album does both, though. It nods to your roots and that classic Dread and Dark Soldier sound but also throws a lot of curveballs and things you wouldn’t expect.

That’s exactly what it is. It’s reflection of everything from the past to what’s coming up. Right at the start of a new decade it felt right. It’s a way of saying thanks to everyone who’s supported me and Dread and all our artists over the years. The DJs, the pirates, the fans, the interviews. Everything. We came from nothing and this is our legacy and this where we’re heading.

It joins dots…

Yeah and it feels very natural. For example the track She’s Gone. I produced a track with Reprise and Nathan Thomas and his uncle is soul singer Kenny Thomas. So we come from good stock. We carry that baton of soul and groove in our hearts. And I think people can hear that.

You can definitely hear that on Don’t Look Any Further with the Dennis Edwards sample…

I remember playing that at Fabric and some girl came up and said ‘you made my eyelashes fall off when you played that tune!’

Brilliant. Have you had any other feedback like that?

Recently I was playing in America and this girl came up and said I was banned from her front room because every time her fella goes in and plays my tunes the house shakes and everything rattles.

What a compliment

It is. But for me, with the album, what was much more important to me was the musical aspects. I’ve been known for that style but it’s nice to make other styles of music and have different people feature on the album. It’s more musical and no one was expecting me to be singing, but that’s part of my journey. So I wanted to surprise people but also keep things on there for everyone. Some tracks do both; like Dark Forces with DRS. That’s vintage Ray Keith but done in a contemporary way. Bless Del, he wrote it, he smashed it, bagged it, it’s a banger. To be able to work with vocalists like him is just a blessing. We had to work with samples back in the day, but the real thing can’t be beaten.

Did DRS give you any singing tips? He’s probably the best example of an artist flourishing as soul man…

He took that leap of faith didn’t he? That album with LSB was one of the albums of the year for me. Del is a badman and I’m inspired by and draw references to any one who puts their bollocks on the line and put themselves out there. That’s what I wanted to do. I know some people won’t like it, some people will be critical about it, but other people will get it and it will resonate with them. DJs and artists are storytellers and Del is one of the best at that. He’s an artist, singer, rapper, writer in his own right. That inspires all of us to keeping pushing and keep pushing this music. It reminds us that anything is possible.

But no, we didn’t have a connection until I made the album. He’s been inspiring me for years on records, though. dBridge, too. The way he sings on tracks is just beautiful. I’m just part of that tradition. A few guys have done it in the past. Twisted Individual, Dillinja, lots of people have experimenting and sampling ourselves. I suppose we’ve taken that leap of faith and gone fuck it, I’m going to do it. It’s the evolution of an artist.

And you don’t have to be longed out by singers!

I love working with other singers and collaborating, though, because you always learn something new. Floyd Dyce who was in the in-house producer at Production House and worked on so many classic tunes was schooling me on many things. Mark Deploy is an amazing singer I learnt a lot from. Antonio Soundman is involved in the project and if you look into his credentials then you’ll know how much I learnt from him. But this is the thing; it’s the people who are around you that inspire you.

Definitely! You mentioned Floyd, you did the track Open with him which reminds of 4Hero. You’re even doing a bit of spoken word on there…

Yeah it’s totally that 4Hero vibe, you’re right. With the vocal, I’ve actually MC’d before. I did a tune called Wasteman and MC’d on that but pitched down the vocal. So we tried this new bit on this track. But we’re writers, aren’t we? We’ve got this within us and we’ll hear more in the future. Drum & bass is still young compared to hip-hop, for example. It’s only now that the music is being accepted. Look at my radio show. We have anything from 7,000 to 15,000 people listening on a Thursday lunchtime. They’re incredible numbers for internet radio and that’s the popularity of the genre right now. It’s more accessible, people are giving it a try and finding they like it.

Yeah, drum & bass is coming of age. It’s 30 years deep so it’s where rock was in the 90s. There’s a duty to keep it innovating but maintaining traditions that make it special. The mixdowns, the dubplate culture, the lifestyle.

That’s really important. I think when we sowed the seeds right at the beginning we knew there was a bigger picture. We couldn’t see what the picture was but we could feel it.

I’ve also loved the idea that when all this stated no one knew how long it would exist for. Certainly not long enough to sustain a career…

Totally. We were living a culture. It was the music on the streets, it was on the pirates, it was everywhere. I’ve had guys like Mala and Dizzee and Wiley tell me they bought our tape packs to learn their craft. We changed the world. So maybe we didn’t know we could have whole careers but we knew what we were about, we knew we had something special and strong enough to carry. We didn’t want to be controlled by major labels and be told what to do, what to say, how to talk. We knew we had something.

You knew if Rider was on the decks, you knew if Fabio was on the decks, Darren Jay, Micky, Nicky, Kenny, me. You’d hear it and you’d know that man would be drawing tunes! We took risks. We played the unexpected. That’s how you made a hit. 30 years later we’re still doing that and still getting gassed off that. I feel the same way I did about this music when I was 20. I I still buzz off that energy now and everything in the album is part of that. The dark stuff, the soul stuff, the funk, the house, the collaborations. We built this. We’re part of this. This is where it’s at.

And where are you planning to take it next?

First things first, we’ve got the new Dread annual. Dub Dread 6, with 50 new artists on it. Then I’m looking to turn this into a live show in the next year or so and I’ve got concepts for my new album. I’m ready. I’m engineering a lot more, I’ve got a lot of ideas. I’m excited for what this next decade brings. I’ve got fire in my belly.

Sounds like it if the next album is already in the pipeline!

I haven’t stopped. I’m manifesting ideas, I’m doing my homework, I’m getting samples. You need to be prepared. And you need to do something different and new and constantly push it to a new audience. Breaking new boundaries, breaking new artists, breaking new sounds; that’s what it’s all about.

Ray Keith – Prophecy is out now on CD / Beatport. Full digital release: February 28. 

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