For this week's Gone To A Rave we're going back - waaaaay back.... CJ Mackintosh is one of the Godfathers of UK dance music. He's perhaps best known for his part in the creation of MARRS's worldwide hit Pump Up the Volume, a career defining moment. But he's also won the UK DMC as one of the countries first scratch DJs, remixed everyone from Whitney Houston to The Jungle Brothers, and played in clubs around the globe for nearly 30 years. To me he represents the close links between hip hop and house that have been crucial to UK rave history- so much of our dance music has been made at that intersection between breakbeats, reggae and house music and it's this interplay that have given our music it's unique vibe, from house and beyond.
I grabbed an interview with CJ because I found out we were playing a gig together later in the month - shameless plug alert - and if you fancy seeing a master of the craft killing a dance floor, catch him at Handsome, at the excellent East Bloc on December 20th - facebook details here
I just wanted to give people an overview of your career and how you’ve got to where you are now. As I see it, you’ve been there for the whole development of electronic dance music in England. Is that fair to say?
I suppose so yes. Actually, next year it’ll have been 30 years.
Yeah. 1985 was when I actually started getting paid. But before that I think I actually started doing parties in about ’81.
What was the first gig that you got paid to do?
I think it was a party in New Cross…
Where in New Cross was that?
Do you know The Venue?
I know The Venue really well. I was kidnapped and held in the basement once by the owner…
No, I’m not. It’s another story though.So was that where you started?
Yeah it was there. But that was before it was turned into The Venue. It was actually run by two guys from Coldcut.
What kind of vibe was it then? What was the crowd and music like?
The music was anything. Literally from James Brown to Go Go to Hip-hop. Whatever you felt like. Back then there was another guy scratching and MCing but I thought I was better than him and my MC was better than that. So then the guys at the club gave me a shot at it and they liked what they saw so they gave me a regular slot. It started off at half hour slots than went up to an hour and then it was just regular DJing.
I’m wondering if there were any breakbeats that you used to really go to and work with?
Yeah, I suppose, like Magic Disco Machine, it's more of a disco thing but it’s got a nice bassline. I suppose there are obvious ones like Funky Drummer but even things like Soul Searchers. I was really into my beats from around that time. When I was performing though my MC would come on and I’d do a little bit of scratching for about 10 minutes and then I’d play some music. It wasn’t ever a scratching thing for half an hour or an hour. It was always a mixture.
It must have been a lot harder to find the breaks then. Do you think there was a great difference in what the English DJ’s were playing to what American DJ’s were playing?
Yeah of course. You’d have to go out an find stuff. Although if you knew bands like The Pleasure you’d get their albums and just try and find stuff on there. You’ll always be looking for something a bit different.
Did you ever find yourself buying any old British rock and roll records? Anything like the Beatles?
Actually yeah. Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Band, I can’t remember the first track on there but I used to use that.My brother was two years older than me and he was my closest relation. He was always buying music ahead of me and he was always finding new styles of music and he was buying rap. One day he came back with Rappers Delight before I even knew about it. In ’86 he came home with a big house anthem before I even knew what house was. He was just always ahead of me. I was always looking at what he was buying and in the end we put our collection together as we did parties together under the name of Brothers Slide. We had a card that said ‘House Parties, The Brothers Slide’.
Did you find that there was a time when it switched from this freestyle of playing everything to more going down a house music avenue?
To be honest I think I was more into playing music than I was scratching. Scratching was something that I can do and in a way it was a way to hold business. I was inspired by Froggy.
The soul DJ?
Yeah. I kind of got dragged into the hip-hop scene, even though I was so inspired by Froggy.
Who was the first scratch DJ that you saw? How did that get over to you?
I’ve actually discussed this with my brother. I think it might have been Wild Style maybe? Or maybe seeing a video of someone scratching? I can’t quite remember to be honest.
So the technique, you must have just had to teach yourself then?
Yeah. I just did the basic stuff and then you’d hear certain things on records as well. I actually found it quite easy to pick up and I used that to my advantage. I used to play drums too so I had a bit of rhythm and I just found I could do it.
And you doing it yourself must have inspired a load of other people to do it as well.
Uhhh, yeah? I’m not sure. I went to the DMC Finals in 1987 and I won the UK Final and then came 4th in the World final. I changed my mix but everyone said that I should have used the same 7-minute mix I used in the UK finals. I mean, DMC… I dunno… I knew this guy, Andy Shaft, who used to write for South London Press. He had a load of contacts and was helping me out and he entered me into the competition. And I was like, ‘what are you doing that for?’ as it all sounded a bit cheesy. However, after winning the UK Finals, it changed my life. All of a sudden I was getting calls from record companies and getting records sent to me. After all those years of buying records I was suddenly getting tracks for free! I couldn’t quite get my head round it. That’s when it all kicked off, definitely.
Was there a big moment in your routine that you think won you the finals?
The only bit I really remember is when I did the transformer scratch. A lot of people say I was one of the first guys to do it here, and I wouldn't totally agree with that, it was around. I just think that the people that were entering the DMC Final were just cheesy DJ’s as real underground scratch DJ’s wouldn’t necessarily enter something like that. I hadn’t even thought about entering it up until Andy put me into it. I was a bit sceptical about it, like I said, I thought it was a bit weird. Then DJ Pogo was in it the following year, and Cutmaster Swift - there were a lot of other guys around that were doing the same thing as me and probably better than me, but I dunno, it must have just been DMC that really kicked it off for me.
Do you think the other guys, when you entered DMC, where wondering what the hell you were doing?
I think so yeah. Back then, it was just one heat and I couldn’t get into the London one because it was fully booked. So I had to enter Newcastle and get the train all the way up there. I remember one of the other guys that was in there, and we’re still friends now, he said that when we were doing sound check and I was scratching, testing everything out, and I did a bit of transforming, he said to the other guys, ‘well he’s won then hasn’t he.’ I felt kind of bad as I’d come up from London and it should have been one of those guys winning it really, not me.
So after that, doors were all opening for you and, famously, you were involved in the MARRS track. How involved were you with that? Because it’s hard to tell…
I wasn’t actually anything to do with MARRS at that point. It was for this band called Nasty Rocks. Their DJ had just left and they were looking for a new one to take his place in the band. I got invited down to do a rehearsal with them and there was a drummer, bassist, singer and me. It was so different to anything I’d done before, but my musical background is not just black music; it spans a load of genres – rock, glam rock, and so many other things. So doing something like that with a band was such a buzz. But whilst we were recording that album, they called me one morning saying Martin from Colour Box has got this track that’s just some simple basslines and some drums and they wanted me to collaborate on it. Anyway, he rang me and asked if I was down to do a bit of scratching on the track and he was going to grab some records from the shop on the way down there. When I got down there he handed me this record that was Pump Up The Volume. At the start he just wanted me to do a bit of scratching over the track and I got paid £200! And that was initially what happened. Then the test press came out and it had the Pump Up The Volume sample and the scratching on it, as that’s all he wanted for the test press, and then people were starting to play it and it was getting a big buzz and everyone was wanting to remix it so me and Dave decided we’d remix it. So we went in and we did a remix with all the samples on it and we did it in 8 bar sections. So it ended up as me co-writing it and all I ever got on there was ‘scratching’.
I was just like ‘hold on a minute, I didn’t do any scratching.’ And then obviously it blew up.
Did you end up getting more than the original 200 quid?
Well originally they said that there was 12 points on a record and the manager said that Dave and I would get a point each and I was fine with that. Then we started getting cheques and then after a period of about 2 years I think I was given about 50 grand. Maybe a little bit more. Then after those 2 years the money just stopped. We didn’t think anything of it and then 20 years later still nothing.
So after the first 2 years, you didn’t see any more money from Pump Up the Volume? That’s probably quite a bit of money
Yeah. Probably like 100 grands worth? I don’t know to be honest. I mean, that record is a big point in my career as well, but I just ended up saying I’m going to leave it. And as well as that, if it’s used in anything I don’t get publishing’s because I wasn’t credited properly on it.
Yeah… It’s a story I hear quite a lot from people that were involved in the early days of things. I spoke to Man Parrish and he only got pennies from Hip Hop Beat Bop, whilst his manager went a bought a plane.
He said that he knew something was up when the geezer bought the plane but he couldn’t even pay his rent. I think it’s quite a common problem.
I don’t think Marshall Jefferson saw anything from all that Trax stuff that he did, maybe not even to this day.
Trax are notorious for it aren’t they.
But what do you do? Do you want to re-mortgage your house chasing it or do you just leave it? I’d rather just leave it.
And I guess because it did kick start things for you in a massive way, and you started working with American artists, people that you were originally just buying records of. Was it a bit crazy to find yourself suddenly working these big name soul artists?
Yeah. With the hip hop stuff and the soul. I’m a pretty level headed guy, and I’m fairly normal so I’ve never really given it a thought. I was just really into the music and the technology and what was happening with that. I mean, it was cool when you got asked to work with the Jungle Brothers, like yeah definitely. Wow! But I just got on with it really. It was just another job.
So what bits of kit really revolutionized things for you?
I think it has to be the SP 1200. That was the first bit of kit I ever had! Or the SP 12. You only had 12 seconds of samples though so I’d speed everything up so that it’d take less time! Then when you slow it back down again it gives it that crunch. The Todd Terry sound that he has; that’s what he uses. He knows that machine inside out. He’s unbelievably quick on it. But then I guess I was pretty quick on it too as I knew it inside out. I guess it’s moved on now though as you’ve got the Akai’s S1000 and MPC 6B’s and 3000’s. You’ve also got the Korg. Basically everything you’re hearing now in house music is from that era. They’re reusing all the old sounds.
Does it feel strange that when you were chasing or buying those bits of kit you wanted them because you wanted to sound like the future but now people want them to sound like the past.
Yeah. We were looking at new sounds. The Korg M1 has got the piano sound and that special Korg sound and eventually these sounds just got hammered so you waited for the next thing to come out. The money I made from MARRS, I did buy some property with it but to be honest with you most of it went on equipment. I had so much equipment it was ridiculous! It is weird now hearing people use the M1 piano though. I never even used that. I think I was using the piano out of the Yamaha module, although sometimes I’d mix them together. It’s weird hearing all that stuff now.
When you’re DJing now you use a laptop I’m guessing? Do you still keep up with technology?
I just use USB sticks. Which is pretty similar to CD’s except that it’s all there already and you don’t have to take a CD in and out, all you have to do is scroll and select. I’ve always said to people that I’ve never been the same DJ since I stopped playing vinyl.
You don’t think it’s been a positive switch?
Well it’s a positive switch because my back is better! With vinyl you knew what was in the box and you were limited. 2 boxes, maybe 150 records, and that was it. You’d go out and play what you had and you’d have to work hard. Now, you can go out and have 1000 tracks and that’s with me trying to limit what’s on my stick. I take stuff off!
Do you think it maybe encourages people to be more bland? Because, if they’ve got the ability to go through everything and the crowd is a bit tough that might see themselves drawing for obvious tunes rather than just playing your bag of new records.
Yeah I agree. It has killed it in a way as people will go for the obvious things. You don’t have to work that hard anymore. The amount of times that I’ve been in trouble, and you sweat trying to keep that floor busy,
Grabbing through your record bag to try and find a tune. Yeah, I know it.
Checking all your B-sides! Now it’s easy. Drop something commercial and everyone goes mad! But that’s what I don’t like and that’s what I see a lot; people just being really obvious. I suppose it goes on everywhere now though. The thing is, it’s not necessarily the DJs, it’s the people that go out. They don’t want to hear new stuff anymore; they want to hear stuff they know. I think the 90’s generation wanted to hear new stuff.
Now, it’s just very commercial. Kids want to hear things they know. Back then if I had something that I'd just had sent to me, I’d be playing it and people would react to it.
In the nineties you were playing at the Ministry of Sound for a long time weren’t you?
Well my residency started in ’94 I believe. That was with Harvey. Then I think I left in January ’97 as it just wasn’t happening. We’d had a few arguments and there was a difference between what they wanted to do and what I wanted to do. It was tough though as even though I was associated with Ministry I didn’t just want to be associated with Ministry. I wanted to be an individual as well. But obviously when I left I had to question what was going to happen next, but it was cool because there was a lot more work coming in as people would book me pretty much direct without having to worry the Ministry. So it actually worked out that I was getting more work.
Where were the best parties that you played in that period? Do remember any venues or parties being particularly wicked?
I think my favourite party ever was in Japan in 1997. I think I played for 6 hours and went over by an hour because it was so good. Just the sound system and the atmosphere were incredible. I suppose because Japan was coming up as well I was only playing new stuff and they were going crazy for it. I remember playing Sound Factory Bar in New York in the 90’s. I’ve had a lot of good times everywhere really although to be honest the best times were at Ministry I think. ‘95/’96 was just madness really. It was great being a resident there and building your own crowd and sounds. That’s quite satisfying when you see regulars coming in. Some of the people that came to see me there are good friends of mine now as I still see them and they come out now and then.
Do you remember any particular anthems from that period?
Things that maybe people won’t know very well but were your signature tunes.
That’s a tough one. Funny you ask that though, as I’m actually doing a lot of nights now where I’m looking back at what I used to play and I’m trying to find exactly the things you just asked me about. I can’t really remember though as it’s hard to remember anthems that aren’t really anthems to anyone else but me. My record collection is all boxed up in storage as when I moved 5 years ago I just boxed it up. Going and sifting through it all is a pain in the arse, but I do do it every now and then. It’s just finding the right ones as there is a lot of shit in there!
Are there any tunes you regret playing?
No, never. I would play what I liked. If there was a pop track with a Morales mix or something like that, I’d play it. It doesn’t matter, why should it matter? I think sometimes I used to play quite tough nights and people would come up to me and say, ‘You played it quite hard tonight.’ But that’s because I like all styles of house really. You’ve got to know your limits though; I’m not going to play techno.
Do you listen to any modern hip-hop?
No. I’m totally lost on that. I’ve looked at it but I don’t even know where to start with it. You get caught up with the certain sounds that you’re playing. If I want to listen to other things I don’t really know where to start. I kept up with it years ago when I would buy records as I’d get given a bunch of stuff that ranged from soul to hip-hop, I mean it’d all be CD’s but it helped me keep up with things. Although when the record shops started to disappear I found it hard to keep up with. I’d take peoples advice on it but then you’ve got to sit at home and try and find it online. I just find that a bit unsociable.
It’s the way things have gone man. I miss record shops myself. Do you keep up with the house scene then?
Yeah I try to! Like I said, I do a lot of classic nights so I don’t have to keep up with it as much but I’m still getting stuff sent to me by people that I’m into so I can survive on that. But if I’m looking online, there’s so much stuff out there. I can only sit down and do it for a certain period of time. It doesn’t help that a lot of it sounds the same. People are trying to do something different but they end up just doing what’s already there and it’s no better than the last track. It’s hard to sit there for a few hours listening to stuff on your compute
Talking about being a bit different makes me think about producing stuff. All the remixes you’ve done over the years, and you must have done god knows how many, do you have any particular favourites of your remixes?
I suppose Jodeci, even though it was just a dub, the way it came out was exactly how I wanted it to come out; which is quite rare. Sounds of Blackness, The Pressure. Some hip-hop stuff too like the Jungle Brothers What You Waiting For, I loved doing that. There are quite a few actually! But then there are also a lot of remixes that didn’t come out how I wanted them too and I feel like I could have done better on them.
The last thing I’m going to ask you, we’re doing this interview because you’re playing the Handsome night at the end of the month- what can people expect from you?
That’s a good question because I’ve been asking that! I think a bit of a variety - I'll play classic stuff from the 90s Ministry days, but I always like to stick in some new things to mix it up a bit.