Is there a producer on Earth who has squeezed more life out of the Amen breakbeat than Ray Keith? It's full frequency assault has been clattering over his brutal bass lines since the early 90s. In fact, Keith's output has been so closely linked to the classic soul break that Jungle heads have been heard to call it the Raymen... Looking back at Ray's formative years, his use of the Amen makes perfect sense. As he discusses below, Ray grew up a soulboy, steeped in funk, disco and early hip hop and electro. His insistance on keeping a sampled breakbeat pounding through the heart of his productions - even as other DJs swerved off into writing rigid two-stepping patterns from scratch - maps out a clear lineage between drum n bass and it's original, soulful routes - a lineage that is often obscured by much of the current DnB generation's obsession with technological precision over dope rhythms.
After I spoke to Ray about the early days of DJing and producing, I got a bit of a surprise - it turns out he's been writing house, which - in theory - we're going to hear later this year. It also 'sounds like Kerri Chandler'. And on that bombshell.....
Hey Ray, how’s tricks?
All good man, all good. I’ve just finished my radio show, so all good. I do two a week, one on Origin and one on Radar. Origin is on a Thursday, they're a pirate station and still broadcast on FM, and then I do Radar every Friday, two till four, and that’s Internet based.
Do Origin get any trouble from the law?
Well yeah, but it’s all done now by using satellite dishes and bouncing the signal from here, there and everywhere, so obviously they’ve got to do quite a bit of running about.
Let's go back to your roots - most of the guys that I talk to started off by getting into Electro when they were younger. Was that your way into dance music?
Well, my mum and dad always had a lot of rock; Beatles and Elvis, 60’s music really. I was born in 1967 and my mum and dad were both registered SRN and RNSS nurses and they worked their bollocks off. So there was a lot of music in the house and my dad used to have mates round to play the guitar. One day I was mucking about with cars in my dad's garage and I heard Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, the 15 minute Patrick Cowley mix, I was like, ‘What is this?!’ It’s just out of this fucking world! That was the first thing I heard that really changed my life. So then I started to delve into music; Soul, Rare Groove, Jazz and some other stuff. Then I was influenced by a guy called Dave Malone, and also Raven Maize, who’s otherwise known as Joey Negro- he’s also from Colchester.
Joey Negro is Raven Maize?
I didn’t know that. I always thought Raven Maize was an American…
Nope, but there you go. He was also Masters of the Universe, which a lot of people don’t remember. At that time he was working for Rhythm King. I used to go to the Sunday Soul night and Jukes on a Monday and I used to listen to the radio DJs like Chris Hill, Robbie Vincent and a few others.
Did you ever listen to Froggie?
Yeah, DJ Froggie! All of those guys were about. There was Mr Toast in Colchester too, and that’s basically how I got schooled up. Then the whole House element came in and I had a really good friend at the time called Bill Hills who gave me a really good job to DJ at a club in Ipswich. At this point I was already on the circuit, playing small venues like L’Aristos in Colchester. Soul, Rare Groove and Jazz was my angle and that’s what I started to warm up in and then later on I started to move into Hip-hop and Electro.
Did you used to talk on the mic like an old school DJ?
Yeah. There was no mixing in those days, it was just fading in and fading out. But I was the new kid on the block, so DMC was very important to me. With DMC you were either a mixologist or a DJ. If you were a mixologist you did all the scratching and cutting- I knew what scratching could do as I was good friends with DJ Pogo at the time, but that wasn’t the route I wanted to go down, I wanted to mix smooth. Then on Monday nights and Thursdays I used to go to Land of Oz and watch people like Mr C, Kid Bachelor and Colin Hudd.
Which club was that?
Heaven, but this was mostly on a Monday night as I’d be working all the time and I’ve have work on a Tuesday. Then I’d go to Rage on Thursday, but that came later on. But Heaven on a Monday, fuck me. When I used to go see Colin Hudd, I would just be in awe of these DJs and learning my craft, buying records. On a Saturday morning I used to get up with my mate Bailey and we used to go to Chadwell Heath to go to Jip where we used to buy all our imports from. Then we’d go to Music Power in Ilford, then sometimes I’d make the trek to go to Edgware and then after that I’d end up at Sticky Sounds and after that I’d finally head back home. I’d do that all in one day. You’d just spread out and buy the best of what they had. But that’s what it was like. Then we used to go to Groove Records as well as they sold all the hip-hop, that was in the West End.
What were you doing for your money at the time? What were you working as?
I always worked in clothes shops and back in the day I used to work for See Menswear in Colchester. Around ‘86/’87 I got my break and I managed to get into City Sounds in Holborn. It was a very sought after record shop, Pete Tong used to come in all the time. We were the runners, we used to buy the records off of the van and then put all the records in everybody’s cubby holes so that all the big boys got one copy of everything that was coming into the country.
Okay. At this stage it must have felt like there wasn’t that much distance between the House stuff and Funk and Soul stuff. Did it almost just feel like a crossover?
Yeah. People like Colin Hudd had the Soul in the there but then you had the 4/4 so it was House, but it was very soulful. When I got my break in ’89 I was one of the resident Crazy Club DJs, along DJ Craze, Frankie Valentine, Danielle and Rochelle, Fabio & Grooverider…
When did the Crazy Club happen?
Well, in ’88 there was a whole house movement going on. Colin Hudd, Colin Favor, Kid Batchelor and there was all the Balearic music going on and then you had the big DJs like Carl Cox and all that. But come ’93 we all started to branch off and do our own thing as we were four years in at this point and already started to establish ourselves. Then suddenly the big rave scene came in in the early ‘90s and all the big raves started. Grooverider and Mr C and DJ Productions were all going up north whilst we were all still down here.
Anyway, ’88 and ’89 we were residents and we were playing all over the place, Black & White balls, I was resident at Primetime and playing with Colin Favor, Colin Dell, Bad Groove and we were playing all over the place. There was a big House scene going on, but then it started to move into Rave music and from there it went into the whole Jungle thing and kicked off massively.
Am I right in saying that around ’88 to ’91 you’d have these techno DJs that were mixing it up and playing breakbeats?
Yeah, exactly. We were all playing a bit of techno, we all played house, we all played everything and it was very eclectic. I think that’s what appealed to us in Drum & Bass and Jungle. You could play a tune that all those influences in it and I think it was a natural progression that as young artists, DJs and producers, that’s what we’d do. In 1992 I did a remix of Orbital and then Pete Tong signed it and put it out on FFRR.
So how did that remix come about? Did you know Orbital or did you just do it yourself?
No, I just did it off my own back. I was in the studio one day and just decided to do a mix.
So did you literally just take their track and sample bits of it and make a mix?
Yeah. That’s what we used to do and it’s what everybody was doing, apart from people playing the keyboard. That’s just what you would do, but obviously we were the new era of people sampling. So they put it out and it came out on an EP 12” and they kind of put me on the map for remixes and then it just fucking spiralled out of control from there really. From 1992 to ’95 I think I must have fucking remixed everyone.
So it went from Techno to Jungle and it seems the scene did seem to split a bit around then so there was a bit more of a gap between the people that pursued Jungle and then the people that decided not too.
No, I don’t think it was like that. I think we chose a path and the House thing was dying off, it was changing. It was going more the Techno way, like hard out Techno that wasn’t so soulful. We listened to it but it went too hard for us. It’s a natural progression though. If you listen to Soul and Rare Groove then you’ll eventually move on to Disco and then into House and, as DJs, you’re ever evolving.
Do you remember where you first heard the Amen Break?
Yeah, of course. That was back in my teens when I first heard NWH play it. That was when Mantronix was out with King of the Beats. So I lifted it from King of the Beats and left it clean on Renegade - Terrorist, and everybody then sampled it from me.
Terrorist was one of the biggest tracks of my youth. I only recently found out that the piano is sampled from the Japan song Nightporter
Well, you say sampled… At the time I played it differently.
So you replayed it?
Yeah, and I put my own twist on it. If you listen to theirs it’s a little bit more eclectic and leftfield but I made mine more of a Rave type of piano. That is where the original inspired me though, most definitely.
I think a lot of Drum & Bass listeners now wouldn’t necessarily be listening to New Romantic 80’s synthpop, but obviously that’s a genre a lot of the first DnB producers were influenced by
If you think about all the music that was coming through, that’s where we got influenced from, yeah. I think it’s sad really that the producers of today are only listening to electronic music. You need to go back and rewind two or three decades, not just one. And don’t forget, I was a Hip-hop boy. If you go through my discography, I used a whole heap of breaks before anybody else. That was my thing; I took and break and I made it work.
With your work there has always been a lot of element of classic House in there, there's the version of Strings of Life that you did early on, right through to the remix of Your Love
Yeah, at the end of the day I’m soulful and musical and that’s my musical background and I think that’s where it started. Now though, I’m engineering and it’s fucking brilliant. For years and years Nookie was my main engineer. Now that I’m in the matrix myself, it’s brilliant as I can just do it myself.
So how has that changed what you produce?
Well I’m just not seeing through anybody else’s eyes, I’m seeing it through my own. So when someone tells me I can’t do something, I just think ‘fuck that, I can do anything.’ I’ve been redlining the decks since I started and they’re always telling me not to redline it, but that’s how I get my sound and the weight across. Rules are made to be broken. I’m always thinking out of the box, and if it’s not distorted and doesn’t sound distorted and it actually sits well in the mix, what’s wrong with that?
So you’ve stuck with Drum & Bass now for the greatest proportion of your career, have you never felt like you want to experiment? Or maybe you have and we’re not aware of it.
Yeah, I’ve got some House albums that I’ve finished and I’ve also got a label coming later on next year. So I’ve already finished two or three House albums and I do a lot of productions for a company in Europe that does stuff for TV and film and that’s all House, down-tempo kind of stuff. I don’t really get any recognition for any of that, but I’m happy because I still make it. They took 50 tracks off of me the first time and then they’ve taken another 50 off of me for next year and they’ll be taking another 50 the year after that. So that’s what I do in the mean time and I’ve also done a couple of tracks that I sing or rap on. But, it’s only really when you get older and you get more confident and also when you’ve got the technology there to enable you to do it. I’ve had engineers from Sony at my place and apparently their studio that cost somewhere around five million sounds nowhere near as heavy as it does at my house as it’s all analogue/digital. So I am making different stuff, but the House is closest to my heart as that’s where I come from and first started.
Do you think people will be able to recognise your touch on the label that’s to come?
No, not at all. I’ve played a few things to a couple of people and they think I’m having a laugh. It just doesn’t sound like me, it’s the total opposite. It’s like hot and cold. I’m an old Soul boy, but the House stuff that I’ve got people like Goldie, who used to work at Black Market, to listen too have said it sounds a bit like Kerri Chandler. It’s quite deep and some of it has that Jazz element too it and some of it is almost verging on Techno. I love it and I think people will be pleasantly surprised.
Speaking of Black Market, what did you feel about its closure? It was so sudden.
They were all wankers man, it was just badly run. It was badly managed and badly run, end of story. At the end of the day, you’ve got to pay your bills. If you don’t pay them. people are going to shut you down. It was badly run, and things will come to end if people leave. Nick left, I left, Rachael left. If you haven’t got the right people there then it is never going to work. I mean, there was a part of me that felt lost when it closed, don’t get me wrong. I was at that place for 19 years, that’s a long time.
It was sad when it went, but at the same time I had to acknowledge that fact that I hadn’t bought a record from there for two or three years.
Mediums change. My kids don’t buy records - they just stream stuff. It’s a different market now and it’s now worse than it ever was. It’s hard to sell records. I’d only do 300 now, where I used to do runs of thousands. People don’t even buy the digital or the WAV either though, because they’re streaming it and they’re not interested in anything else.
I don’t think anyone has quite got their head round what to do now. People had long careers selling tens of thousands of records, but now you’d be lucky to sell two or three hundred. Talking of things changing, you’ve done Drum & Bass for so long do you feel that it’s still got new things to say? It’s a genre that’s trapped in a tempo, to a degree, so how can it keep on offering something new?
I don’t think that is a fair presentation of what we’re about. One of the major things that you have to remember is that this is British music. Just like the Americans have Hip-hop and RnB, just like the Europeans did with Gabba House. Don’t forget that our genre is the mother of genres. Out of Jungle Drum & Bass came 2 Step Garage, Dubstep, Trap, the Breaks scene… We’ve got a lot to be grateful for and yeah, it’s ever evolving because you’ve got a new generation and a new take on it. I’ve got kids remixing my tracks from twenty years ago and that’s their take on it. It’s fresh, it’s different and it’s updated.
Ray can be booked to play through the MN2S DJ Agency - get hold of him via them over here