Perhaps more than any other artist who came out of the UK rave boom, Zinc has spent the last 20 years signposting where the scene will go next. He’s been around and shifted styles for long enough to have witnesses (and to a certain degree shaped) Britain’s dance culture going full cycle, from the early days of acid house, through to hardcore, onto jungle, garage, dubstep, bass and then right back round to house again. I’m not sure there’s a single other producer out there who has had such big hits over years and across genres in quite the same way- Ready or Not remix, On Fire, Ska, Reach Out, Super Sharp Shooter, and hundreds more were tracks that defined jungle – but just as importantly, 138 Trek ushered in the new age of bass heavy garage that paved the way for dubstep and grime, and Wile Out proved he could bring the same bass pressure to house music. In many ways, Zinc is the epitome of why I started writing this column; I was attempting to show the very strong links that have run through UK rave music from Soul II Soul to Skepta- Zinc doesn’t just show these links – he’s been making them for over 20 years. In advance of his appearance on the DnB stage at The Social Festival, I tracked him down for a rare interview, and found a DJ and producer still utterly in love with music…
What were the first sounds you got into?
When I was just getting to that age when kids get into music, 14 to 16 I guess, was just when the acid house thing was kicking off. I think it’s normal for kids to get into a scene heavily at that age, and you had Centreforce Radio and all the pirates playing this music that hadn’t existed before. There was nothing like it all. I’d been into hip hop a bit before, but not obsessed with it, but the pirates started playing this stuff and I got really into it. I don’t know if that was just the age I was at or whether I really clicked with it, but I was obsessed with it.
I’m guessing that since you mention Centreforce, you were in East London?
Yeah, I was born just by West Ham football ground, and I was living in Forest Gate from when I was little. I used to listen to the pirates, and got really into it. I wasn’t listening so much to certain DJs – although Randall was on pretty early, and there were people like Dave Corporation- I was more just generally listening to whoever was on. The pirates would occasionally be on during the week, but quite a lot of the time they wouldn’t be. I’d just sit there looking through the dial looking for anyone who’d play this sort of music. There were a lot of DJs who’d play a bit of soul mixed in with the early stuff – it was so different from today, because now if you wanna learn about something you just look it up online – then, some nights I’d be sitting there all night and not find anything at all. It’s really interesting to have witnessed the change the internet has bought – back then you had to work so hard to access the music at all – it wasn’t played on Radio 1, it was only the illegal stations who would play it
Were there any tunes that clicked with you at that point?
That era, stuff like, It Is What It Is by Rhythm is Rhythm. But the thing is, I used to buy all the records, but I didn’t know who was doing what – it seemed so far removed from where I was – now later on I meet these people, talk to them, then afterwards realise they made such and such classic, and I’m like fucking hell..! Anyway, I was really into the stuff coming out, but I felt removed from it, it was all American, mostly from Chicago, so I didn’t feel connected to it, I didn’t feel like it was accessible. Then all of a sudden all this stuff started coming out from Shut Up & Dance and Shades of Rhythm, all these sorts of things that had been made in England –Shut Up & Dance were two miles from where I lived, and all of a sudden I felt this instant connection with it. Rather than this alien music coming from another continent, it was people that weren’t so far away from where I was. So the music became a stronger obsession. Once it had started being made by people in the UK, they had the same influences as me. These guys in Chicago and Detriot, I loved what they were doing, but when Shut Up & Dance started making the music it resonated with me more, the samples they used were things that I knew. Growing up in East London, I used to listen to all kinds of music; reggae, Indian music, all different stuff from a really young age
I used to buy records from a young age, but I couldn’t afford turntables. Then my mate Trevor, who’s Swift, he got a pair of decks. They didn’t have any pitch on them – we used to do mixtapes, but we could only mix tunes that were really close in pitch to each other. Then one day one of our friends sent a tape of us to a radio station, and we got a show on radio. That was Impact FM. When we did our first show it was the first time I’d ever touched a pair of Technics, and it was so cool! It was a big deal. After mixing on Soundlab decks or whatever for years, it was great, it was wicked.
So from doing pirate radio I met a couple of promoters, and me and Swift played at a couple of raves. One of the DJs at the station put on a rave in Plumstead at Tasco’s warehouse, it was wicked. Around this time I met Bizzy B who was DJing on the station, and he had Brain Records. One day he asked me to drive him over to Tasco to give out some flyers, and I said, ‘well can me and Trev use your studio?’ and he said, ‘you can come and use my studio for four pound an hour if you drive me over to Tasco’s’ – I mean I’d have driven over there for nothing anyway, I was buzzing just to be involved- walking into a rave with a load of promos to give out seemed like the coolest thing ever. So yeah, we got to know Biuzzy and me and Swift started to make tunes. From going into his studio we learnt how to use the gear, and slowly me and Swift bought our own gear, and slowly progressed with production.
And was your approach heavily sample based then?
Totally. All the early stuff didn’t have any synths, not until about 1995. When we started in ‘93, we had two years where we were just using a sampler.
There’s a bit in one of the Brain Progression records where there’s a sound that sounds like it’s chopped up on the turntable – were you doing that live?
Yeah, exactly, all the samples we used were from vinyl, and sometimes we’d fuck about with the vinyl while we were sampling the stuff. And the samplers had a very small amount of memory, so we had to play the stuff at plus 8 so it didn’t use so much memory – you’d put it in at plus 8 then slow it down. You only had 31 seconds of sample time, all the tunes that we made were made from samples that were not more than 31 seconds worth in total when you added them all together.
It’s mental when you think that 6 minute tunes were being made out of 31 seconds
Yeah! You had to be really resourceful and really clever about how you were doing it. In some ways the limitations added to the art of it. We did the Swift and Zinc up to volume 8, and we had a release on Sub Base
Then, around ‘95, Swift started getting into garage. We were still producing stuff in the same studio, and we’d been on radio from 91-95, but when he started doing garage, I kept on doing radio on my own, and I started producing on my own. And the first thing I produced was Super Sharp Shooter.
That was literally the first thing you produced?
I think so, and that did really well. I’d started working with Hype then which really helped me.
How did you meet up with Hype?
I’d seen him in clubs, we’d be DJing in the same places pretty regularly. I remember I’d done Swift & Zinc Volume 6 or 7, and I saw him a couple of weeks later, and he said ‘the bassline on that tune could have been much better’.
That doesn’t sound like Hype…
Well, you know. Anyway he said, do this, this and this, and I really paid attention – it was really good advice, and straight away took my production to a next level, him just saying that’s not good enough, that’s not good enough, do this again, try this, try that. He was producing at the time, and I’d go round his house and see how he was doing certain things with the equipment. Before it was just me and Trev, like the blind leading the blind trying to work out how to use the equipment. There were no tutorials – these days if I want to learn something I look it up on Youtube and within a couple of hours I know how to do it. I’m glad I had my youth when I did, but also, I’m gutted there wasn’t Youtube because I was so keen and so eager to learn, and I came from Forest Gate – I didn’t know anyone who had a studio, I didn’t know anyone in the music industry
I wonder if you not knowing stuff and doing things the wrong way might have made your sound more interesting
Yeah, I mean Dilinja would do something crazy and we’d try and do what he had done, without knowing how he’d done it – in doing that we’d discover new techniques that were different to what Dillinja was doing
Was there a sense of competiton?
I don’t know if it was competition. I think that if you get a group of people that are creating something new… it was a movement, it was a movement of maybe 30 producers around the country, all trying to make the same music. Like, now I’m making bassy house music and there’s about 5 other people round the country making it and we’re all friends, but if there was 30 of us and we were creating a brand new scene that’s exploding, you know it’s so exciting. The jungle scene, there were 4 or 5 club nights every Friday and Saturday in London. There were big, big raves that could hold 6 or 7 thousand people – not festivals but massive raves. There were tons of parties, all the pirate radio, it was just really exciting, really inspirational. The technology was moving forward as well – everyone had the S-1000 sampler, then they made the S-3200, and as the technology moved forward you could do different stuff. It was great we were at the real cutting edge of what you could do. I didn’t feel like there was competition, it was just really inspiring. Everyone was making this sound that was completely different to the stuff the rest of the music industry were making. The scene was exploding and I was really lucky I was seeing it from the inside. The same with dubstep, I was lucky enough to be working with the first people who were putting the music out- I was working with Rinse who were the first guys putting dubstep on radio, FWD was the first dubstep club, and I was at the first FWD, I was really lucky to work with those guys.
Coming back to Sharp Shooter, had you had the idea to do a tune with a half speed drop for a while?
I don’t know. There were other tunes that did it before then. There was that London Massive tune that had half time beats – it wasn’t like a new thing I discovered. With Super Sharp Shooter, I was just lucky, there were other tunes that had hip hop samples, other tunes that had that bass noise, other tunes that had those breaks. Everything was sampled, so I used to work really hard to find samples. There was a series of records called Ultimate Breaks & Beats with loads of samples on – I didn’t even know about that ‘til around 1996, because I didn’t know anyone. I met Danny Breaks in the Boogie Times record shop, and he was really friendly showing me breakbeats on records – he’d been going to Mr Bongo’s [another record shop, now long gone] in the West End and talking to people but I just didn’t know anyone! I didn’t have any way of finding out about all that sort of stuff. None of the melodies in Super Sharp Shooter were samples, just the sounds I made them from – the noise at the start of it is from an old rare groove record, the JBs Blow Your Head, and I’d play it up and down the keyboard.
So, anyway, I started working with Hype and Pascal and that helped me move to another level. Pascal helped me with my mixdown, and again that was a real learning experience, I’d go to his house and just learn the whole time. They were good times.
And it was round this period you did the Ready or Not remix, although at the time it was really on the downlow whether it was you or Hype that was behind it.
That’s because it was a bootleg. Nowadays, the way things are, people wouldn’t worry so much about putting their name on it. Back then, even though we didn’t put out name on it, Sony still phoned up the day we put it out and said ‘obviously you can’t do this; this is a bootleg, you’ve got to stop right now’. After a while they sent it to the Fugees, and the Fugees didn’t like it – the funny thing was that their track was based on a sample of Enya anyway – their track is basically a cover... We pressed a few thousand and that was it, but there were loads and loads pressed after that, they were all just bootlegs – seeing as it was a bootleg in the first place, I just thought, fair enough.
Someone must have made a lot of money out of it
A few people did, but fair enough. That’s life innit.
I’m interested in how you’ve managed to switch over the years – 138 Trek was a big moment for you, but you got a bit of criticism at the time for switching tempos.
I just fancied making something different. If people are really into a scene or a sound, and an artist that they follow starts doing other stuff, it’s understandable that they’re gonna be upset about it. When I was 16 and got into acid house, if somebody made an acid house tune, and I thought, ‘this is wicked’ and then they went on and made something different. I’d think ‘what the fuck did you do that for man?’ You invest so much emotion into a scene and the people in it, and if they do something that’s not in line with the scene it’s easy to think, well hold on, this is not what I expected. Me as an individual I just do what I want, if people like it, cool, and if they don’t cool, I just do what I want.
Then you switched into the Crack House sound with Wile Out – I feel like you started working more with vocalists and making actual songs at this point
I did do a vocal on Swift & Zinc with MC Rage, but that’s going way back. But I started working with vocalists a lot more around the time of the Faster album. There’s People 4 on that, and a few other vocal tracks – I really enjoy doing vocal stuff, it’s a real challenge. I just started getting a bit bored with drum n bass, it got too self-referencing, and samey samey, so I thought let me go out and try something that does excite me. I know people who keep playing music that they’re not really into and they complain about it. I thought, well rather than do that I’m gonna go out and find something I do like, and if I can’t do that I’m gonna make it. So I did, and it worked out really well.
Do you ever mix up your sets and play the DnB with the new stuff now?
Sometimes. Sometimes people want to hear the old stuff as well, and I think why not? I love playing them - really it’s an honour and a pleasure to play Ready or Not or Super Sharp Shooter 20 years on and people still go mad. I’m aware that I’m lucky to do that as a job.
Have you ever thought of going live with it – you’ve got a pretty crazy back catalogue to draw on..
No. All of that stuff was made in a studio. I’m not a band. I’m not really a musician. When people generally go out and do a live show there’s some sort of compromise. I’ve sat and watched really big name artists, festival headliner type people, do a live show and it’s not live, it’s completely not live. And I’m just not into that. I’m not into pretending to play a keyboard when I’m not playing it. If they wanna do it, cool. But it’s not for me.
I’ve heard some guitar bands cover Super Sharp Shooter…
Hehehe, I think that’s great, it’s really cool, but I don’t play a guitar… I know what you mean, it’s kinda fun, but it’s not anything I plan to do at the minute. Lately I’ve been doing more of the Trust Me I Was There mixtapes, and that for me is really fun – tomorrow I’m gonna play a set of ‘91-‘95, and I really enjoy playing that music. There’s not many places I’ve found where you can hear the music. A lot of people go out and the play the same tracks – you go to an old skool jungle night and it’s cool, but a lot of the time you hear the same tracks, and it’s a little bit samey. I really like it when I get a chance to play genuinely what was getting played at the time, not just the highlights.
OK, last one, what are your favourites of your tracks over the years?
I guess the ones that really changed my life. Super Sharp Shooter, 138 Trek and Wile Out. Each time those came out things changed. Super Sharp Shooter meant I could leave my day job and start producing full time. 138 Trek meant I could start producing different kinds of music, I was taken out of the limitations of only making drum and bass, and Wile Out put me on the map for making house All those three have made a significant difference to what I could do, and they were a lot of fun to make. I love making tunes, I was in the studio today, and I was in the studio yesterday. Generally when I’m making a tune, obviously I haven’t made a better tune every time I’ve made a tune, but when I’m making them I think ‘this is the fucking best tune ever! I love it!’ The most recent one I’ve done is my favourite one. The reasons people make music change as the music industry changes, but I just make tunes because I fucking love it. I’m blessed to do it as my job!