GONE TO A RAVE #38: RONI SIZE AND THE RISE OF BRISTOL

Roni Size pulling it back to the early days of Bristol - foundation breaks and soundsystem memories...

GONE TO A RAVE #38: RONI SIZE AND THE RISE OF BRISTOL

Roni Size pulling it back to the early days of Bristol - foundation breaks and soundsystem memories...

Roni Size's Mercury Music Prize victory was something of a watershed. Not only did it make the prize itself seem more relevant - the panel were awarding jungle, that most outlaw of music, the one major UK music prize not associated with sales or fan votes, but critical appreciation - it also propelled Roni Size from feted underground concern into the spokesman for a generation. Whilst the media have often used Goldie as a convenient face for Drum N Bass's wild side, Size came to represent (see what I did there?) the musical complexity that lay at the heart of the scene's breakbeat manipulation. Having spent so much time recently writing about rave from a Londoner's perspective, it seemed like time to engage with the way other parts of the country developed - and Size's Bristol was a perfect place to start... 

There’s so much to do with the Bristol Jungle scene that I just don’t know anything about at all - I’d love to talk to you about what came before Jungle and how you found your way into it. So to kick things off, did you get into DJing or producing first?

I think I was a DJ first because I didn’t have anything that I could make music with. But I used to walk down Gloucester Road in Bristol and go into all the music shops and mess about with all the drum machines, or I’d go round my mate's house as he had a drum machine and I’d just mess around with that for a little bit. But really, to start off with, I was a DJ. The first thing we ever bought was a set of Yamaha P300 Turntables.

Learning to mix on those things is not easy either. 

It was belt drive with a Realistic mixer.

I remember those.

We bought them from Tandy.

Tandy was the place though wasn’t it! Everything came from there.

So what it was, back in the early '80s, you'd see the film Wild Style and, you know, try to scratch on your gran's gramophone. My cousin actually worked in a Technics store and he managed to get us a turntable for a few quid and we just went from there. So I started DJing and practicing scratching first and then my brother also became a DJ and so we’d watch the Wild Bunch and from there we thought 'right, we’ve got to get some Technics.’

So were you trying to go for a similar sound to them then? I’m wondering, are you in that Fresh Four video, because there are quite a few people from around then in there.

No, but we were ghetto celebrities.

Where about in Bristol were you hanging out?

St. Pauls. You had the big boys like Wild Bunch, 2Bad, City Rockers, they were all the main boys. Then you had some lower level people like myself and we did alright by doing smaller parties and things like that.

What kind of tracks would you have been playing?   

Hip-hop, RnB... We did a lot of pirate radio stations.

What stations were they? Do you remember any?

Yeah, there was a station called Bad Radio, another one called FTP – which meant For The People. I can’t remember the names of any others but there were loads of pirate stations in Bristol.

With the parties that you were doing, I get the feeling that there weren’t many clubs around offering the kind of things you were looking for, so were you setting stuff in social centres? What was the vibe?

Absolutely. There were a few clubs, like Traffic Club, Moon Club and Dug Out and there were a lot more venues in general back then than there are now. But, the thing is, people would just set up in their garden or their front room and have a party there. There was Mozart’s, Crystal Dove… There were loads of places back in the day. The way you’d break it down would be to play on a pirate radio station with your crew. The crew would have a show on the pirate radio station and then they’d also have a night. So it was like self-promotion and all these crews were from different areas of Bristol. Then you’d have the producers that knew someone that was part of a pirate radio station. For me, the story of Jungle starts with Smith & Mighty and a record called Dance To The Drum & Bass (actually a bit of research turned up the track was called Killa, "Dance to the Drum n Bass" is the sample in the tune) and then I think someone like Ray Keith got hold of this record and played it at the wrong speed and that’s when people started to hear this record.

Do you remember what kind of break it was? Was it an Amen?

It was an Amen.

It had to be didn’t it? Of course it was an Amen.

Yeah. Ray had taken a sample from a Smith & Mighty tune and made it his own. But it all happened by accident and it’s the same story with myself. Gilles Peterson took a record of mine called It's A Jazz Thing and played it at the wrong speed but it still worked. You hear all these kinds of stories from back in the day when that kind of thing used to happen though. That was the very first time that people had started to coin phrases and it was around this time that one minute you’d be playing a thrashing Techno record and the next an Amen Jungle record and that was basically Breaks.

Hold on, I think we’ve skipped a little bit here. There must have been a period between the Hip-hop and the Funk when people were playing the Rave and the Hardcore thing. Is that something that was big in Bristol, or did it not really have that much on an impact?

Oh yeah, it had a massive impact. What happened was we were all playing Hip-hop, RnB and Soul and then when we were going to all these free parties we started to see Dennis Murray aka DJ Easygroove's name everywhere. He used to play Hip-hop and RnB all over the place and then he switched to playing straight up Techno and Hardcore. We saw him play that and we were like, ‘Wow, fucking Easygroove!’

So, was he going in on more of the Acid House side or the European House side of things?

You had people like Jodie from Way Out West, he went on to do more of a house thing. But we all came from the rave because in Bristol we like to party and we like to party in a field. So everything came from being in the rave. At the end of the weekend when the pubs closed, we’d all get into a van drive out into the country and stand on top of the van to find out where the kids were having a party.

And hope that fields aren’t playing tricks on you! I’ve been out hunting for a rave before and it gets to the point where you’re just like, where the fuck is it?

It wasn’t a myth, this actually happened. You’d get there and there’d be thousands of people there in tunnels or a park somewhere. We did that every week. It was nuts.

What was the situation with the old bill like in the South West? Were they kind of okay about it?

Nah, there was no police. They didn’t get involved until Castle Morton.

They were more on it around London.

Exactly. In the country there was no police. We were harmless anyway though. You go there, do whatever you’re doing, listen to the tunes and then you went home. It wasn’t until Castle Morton that it got too much.

Was there much of a Reggae influence at the time as well?

Always. It’s not just reggae it’s the sound system culture. When I speak about this stuff and I speak about the whole culture and reggae and the marriage between those two there’s that whole culture of things and turntablism. There’s all these things and they’re all relevant and they all played a massive part. So watching DJs was a big part of it too. The first time we saw a DJ on TV was Nellee Hooper from Soul II Soul and he did an amazing job and that’s someone we recognised from being in Bristol. He was one of the main guys in Soul II Soul and he was a massive influence when we saw him on TV. We saw Massive Attack too, and Grant Marshall. It was amazing to see people that you saw every day on Top of the Pops. Then I think the big one was when Way Out West got a record on a TV advert and they blew up after that.

Was that The Gift?

Yeah that’s it, The Gift. But everyone like Tricky and Portishead blew up after that. This was a point where I was still in the studio, making music, going to raves.

I feel like when you say Tricky and Portishead were blowing up, that’s when you were already bringing out tracks as that was like ’94..?

I was putting out music but I was still very much absorbed in the studio and learning my craft. We were building up the foundations for something special.

So what was the first release? What was the record and what label was it on?

Well the first record I ever released was on WTP, which was Where’s The Party Records, and it was a track called 3 Way Split. It was me and two friends of mine, a guy called Alvin and another guy called Winston, and we put it out and it was just called the Easygroove mix. It was a tribute to him and he actually played it out!

What sort of thing was that?

It was a Jungle Techno record, you can still hear it on YouTube if you search for it. That was the first thing that I ever put out, it was the happiest day of my life. It was through a friend on mine called Chris Warton who later on became the label owner of Full Cycle Records and he was a massive influence. They were all connected with Universe and Circus Warp which were just these amazing party festivals that we were part of.

So did Universe start as a Bristol thing, as I remember  the Mount Universe parties in London in the late '90s.

It started in Bath, it was from the West Country.

So you were in the studio and put out this first track with the other lads, from there where does it come to the point where you’re at Full Cycle or Dope Dragon, which one came first?

Well, the record came first. What it was was that I had two friends in Bath and these two guys were producers, called Absolute. They were good friends of mine, and they let me come in and use their studio and make records with them

Yeah.

So I then gave them some of the tracks that I was working on and they used to work with Rhythm King. Rhythm King was a massive dance label back in the day. Do you remember them?

Yeah, they put out The Beatmasters at one point didn’t they?

Yeah. So Absolute used to work at Rhythm King and they met an A&R guy called Bryan Gee. Bryan Gee left Rhythm King when it folded but he took some music with him and he found this phone number on a tape that was from us. I’m talking cassette days here. So I get a phone call from Bryan Gee saying that he’s got some of my tunes and he wants to put them out. After that we had a face to face and he liked us and he liked our stuff, and from there was when we started recording.

Was he even DJing at this stage?

Yeah, him and Jumping Jack Frost were playing together and were a pretty well known duo at the time. So they then started V Recordings and I got involved and then that’s when my first record came out.

So did Philly Blunt exist at this time as well?

No, this was at the very beginning of the recordings. So we had some meetings with them and recorded some stuff and started the label.

Were they surprised that you were down in the West Country doing this stuff that fitted so well with what was going on in London at the time?

No, not at all. What people don’t know is that Bryan Gee is originally from Cheltenham anyway. Him and Jack Frost liked it and, you know what, they were great A&R. They liked us and they liked the music and after that they came down and we forged an amazing relationship and the rest is history, so to speak. After that we started Full Cycle because we wanted to have another angle to what we were doing that was feeding off of the energy of what we were recording at the time.

So when you started Full Cycle, what did you have in mind to make it different from V?

Well it was more the case that V had a lot of music, a whole catalogue of music, and they couldn’t put it all out. Some of the stuff that they didn’t get a chance to put out, we put out instead. Full Cycle was more of a musical label whereas V was about the breaks and the bass and the Hip-hop side of stuff. Full Cycle was about trying to add some musicality to the music and just trying to add in influences from the musical side of things.

So what about Dope Dragon then? As that came about at around the same time.

Dope Dragon was kind of an anonymous label because everything we did on Dope Dragon was sample based and we didn’t want to get caught. I mean, we used to smoke so much weed and one day we were like ‘Yeah, lets start a label and call it Dope Dragon.’ We basically lived in a comic and Dope Dragon was basically our weed state of mind.

Well there’s the comic The Way of the Dragon isn’t there?

The whole thing was based around being a bit high and living out our childhood fantasies in a comic. We just pictured ourselves as being different characters, which was great as we actually made a comic, which was great fun.

Can I ask, you were Mask weren’t you?

That’s right yeah.

Oh My Gosh is one of the most underrated Jungle tunes of all time. I still play it out now and people go crazy for it. 

Krust and I are in the process of bringing back Dope Dragon and full cycle. We’re looking forward toputting together a reformed album. What happened was we were doing a lot of remixes, not just through Dope Dragon but through things like Suburban Base and Moving Shadow, so not only were we making our name in the underground but we also got approached by Universal. That’s when our lives changed. When a label approaches you it’s like no wow, from there on the rest is pretty much history.

It must have been such a strange situation for you, going from being in the underground scene to getting a Mercury, it must have been a massive surprise for you when it happened.

It was a surprise for everyone. Of course it was. We just went along for the free food and drinks and to enjoy being part of such an occasion. But once we’d won the award we knew that people had actually been watching us and we took it and represented it us much as we could.

For a lot of people the Mercury hadn’t actually necessarily proved to be a blessing, as it comes with money and expectations. Obviously, you just carried on, but sometimes the money can fuck people a little bit.

Money changes anyone. But the thing is that kind of opportunity would and should change your mindset to go bigger and better. One minute we’re all sat in a one bedroom flat smoking weed, the next we’re in a tour bus going all around America and staying in hotels every night. It was a dramatic change.

Can you remember any real surreal meetings in America?

Of course, meeting Redman and Busta Rhymes and obviously Method Man. Meeting Georgeio Armani and making the soundtrack for his cat walk was great. But the thing is, as a person it never really changed me. However, as a group it changed us as you can’t take 15 people with you every single time. You just can’t do that, so you start to pick and choose and you get to a point where only a few people can go to the awards ceremony or you can only get a certain number of tickets and so on. It’s all that inbred kind of shit that happens. In hindsight though it was all going to happen like that as it happens with every band.

Is there anything that you personally feel you could have done differently in that period that you regret?

Oh yeah. I could give you a list of about a million and one things that I could have done differently back then. But the one thing in life that you can’t do is turn back time. I’ve lived through and I still feel like I’m pretty grounded. I’m in Stokes Croft in Bristol right now, I’m grounded, I drive a modest car, I live in a modest house, I keep my head in a good place and I still love the music that I’m involved in – which is Drum & Bass and Jungle. I also still feel like I’ve stayed true to who I am. Maybe I’ve made some enemies along the way but I’ve also made a lot more friends.

I always think it’s interesting, as when you won the Mercury, suddenly there was a lot of people that joined into this huge fan base and a lot of them really weren’t aware of your stuff before and suddenly you’d become these live Drum & Bass guys.

What I would say though is those people are still there now. That’s the one thing that I can say after all this time. Maybe the underground contingency who were originally there, when we won the award, said ‘Ah no, fuck off’, and they didn’t support. But those people that did start to support and follow in 1997, they’re all still there now. I’ve just done like 15 festivals all in a row and in the front row you’ve got people with their kids, you’ve got 40 year olds, you’ve got 50 year olds. You’ve got so many different ranges of people who came and supported us and then never left. They’re still there and waiting for the new album now. It’s fantastic.  I really wish the underground heads from back in the day would come and get down to the sound because without the original heads being a part of the vibe then its always feels like day one. Its great when you look out into the crowd and see those who are first generation junglists. I’ll will always play Jungle and I’ll play Drum & Bass as well as best as i can.

 

When you go in the studio do you decide, right I'm making a Roni Size tune, or a Reprazent tune, or whatever?

It depends on if I'm making a track with vocalist or for an album or maybe just a banger for the weekend. You make music for different reasons and, for me, even if I wasn’t going to be playing music out anymore I would still make music. I make music because I want to. Last night I sat at my computer and made a tune because that’s what I like to do.

Something I find quite interesting is that when you lot were making Jungle and Drum & Bass all the way up to the end of the ‘90s, it was almost entirely done with hardware. There might have been a computer in the mix but there was also a lot of hardware. A lot of the sound was about pushing this technology to make sounds that no one had heard before- there was almost this one-upmanship to it-

We tended to call them happy accidents back in the day. I still use all my old school samplers though. I made a conscious decision to take a step back and be more involved with family and friends, and not to get too engulfed by the music, because I have children, and you want to make sure that you have a life outside of music too. I don’t take it as seriously as I used too. In the past, I had to be in the Top 10, but now, I’m not that guy. My children are housed, they’re clothed, the bills are paid and they’ve got food on the table and that’s what it is for me now. But even now, even when I get off the phone talking to you, I’m probably just going to go make tunes. Do you know what I mean? Whether I put them out or not is another matter. I might not even make it in the studio; I might just make one on my laptop in bed. That’s the way that I work now, and that’s my attitude towards things now. I don’t need to get the next new piece of software, or the next piece of equipment. I mean, I like to sometimes, but I don’t need too.

Are there any young producers that you check for now?

I don’t really have my ear to the ground enough on that front. But I get sent so much music I like Decimal Bass, Konichi, Swift, I have some new Zinc bits, there is so much music around. We don't obtain music like we used to and its all done pretty faceless nowadays. Back in the day you’d all swap tunes and there was only a certain amount of tunes about. Where as now there’s enough for everyone to find there own style and be original sounding.

Maybe it’s just the younger generation though, as there was a period where a lot of kids were shut out of the Drum & Bass scene as they couldn’t get any tracks off of the bigger names.

Yeah, but I never shut anyone out.

You may not have done, but that makes you a minority. You know what I mean?

You know what, you’re right. There are a lot of kids that wanted to get into the scene but just couldn’t get in. So then they just thought, ‘fuck it, we’re going to do our own thing.’

I’ve got mixed opinions with the way that I look at it, but I guess people approach me differently to the way that they approach new artists. But then I guess there are some artists and producers that still know my name and show me love, but then some don’t and some don’t give a damn. I’ve tried to chat to some producers in the studio before and they’ve basically just told me to fuck off! But that’s just the way it is now though isn’t it.

Yeah, that is just the way it is. There’s a lot of new stuff that comes out now that I can’t get any feeling off, it's leaning towards this really compressed sound, and I’m not into that.

Well Its harder now to pin point an artist as quite a lot of the new music coming out is quite formulaic and I guess its become slightly saturated with the same beat patterns but its still music that is moving forward.

I mean, you’d know a Bristol tune, straight off. There’s always going to be a distinctive sound in that respect. So can you pick out 5 of your favourite tracks from throughout your career. They don’t have to be the most popular ones, but they could be the tracks that you’ve been most satisfied with.

Absolutely. The first one is going to be Music Box. That was a record that, when it came out, was a game changer. Everyone at that time was making pure Jungle, and then we came along and added a bit of groove, put the kick and the snare on the one and we felt that that made an impact. When people say that ‘you guys are responsible for this that and the other’, I think Music Box is usually the track that comes up.

Then second I would go to Breakbeat Era, and that’s the album. This one because we brought it out at a time where we didn’t really know what we were doing. It was first time that we’d managed to get all the drummers and vocalists in that we wanted and we’ll never be able to do that again. It’s an amazing record.

Thirdly it would be the actual track New Form, because I wanted to do a track with Guru, the rapper from Gang Starr, but he thought the track was too fast. But he knew someone who he thought would be able to do it for me, and hooked me up with Bahamadia.

Next I think I’d move on too Return to V. With this, we just managed to take it into an area where it was just getting a little bit harder and all in the box, and it was still Jungle but it had those Drum & Bass elements in there as well. I actually feel that that is one of the last records that I made that is truly who I am.

The last one is a track that not a lot of people know I’ve made with Cypress Hill. I did it ages ago for the Blade 2 soundtrack, and a lot of the grime boys really tapped into the vibe. There are groove elements in it for the floor,

I’ve got one last one. What’s your favourite remix that someone else has done of one of your tracks?

Uhh, it’s the Kruder & Dorfmeister remix of Heroes.

Okay. So it’s not Grooverider’s remix of Share The Fall then?

I love that tune, but I could also have said the Nu Yorican remix as well as that’s amazing too. I just love the Kruder & Dorfmeister remix though, absolutely love it. 


Roni is playing with Reprazent at the Arcadia Festival, Queen Square, Bristol, Friday 4th & Saturday 5th September 2015. Info and tickets here. You can also see him at Motion, Bristol on 30th August.

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