Artist To Artist: Joe Claussell, Felix Dickinson & Tony Lee

Stories from Shelter in NYC, Brighton club life and counter culture.

Artist To Artist: Joe Claussell, Felix Dickinson & Tony Lee

Stories from Shelter in NYC, Brighton club life and counter culture.

This year has seen the remarkable revival of Ugly Music, a pivotal label first founded in the mid nineties by Felix Dickinson and Tony Lee. Based in Brighton the pair launched the label from a shop in 1995 and used the platform as an outlet to release innovative house and techno, inspired by the scenes in Detroit and Chicago, in the UK. The label became a home to many producers over a prolific two year period which saw them release music by the likes of Dj Assassin, Sir Lord Comixx, DA Rebels, Jaime Read and many more. 

It was decided that 2021 was the year in which to breathe a new lease of life into the project, despite over twenty years since the last release the label has returned announcing with it new music. Perhaps the most exciting new offering from the imprint comes in the form of a reissue of Underground Evolution's "Walk On Water". The EP comes accompanied by a fresh take from one of house music's most prolific innovators, Joe Claussell. He has recorded an epic live version which see's the track transformed into an epic long form groove built for soulful, late night dances worldwide. 

We wanted to find out more about the story behind the label and how the resurgence has come to light. 

Felix Dickinson Asks Joe Claussell:

Hi Joe, Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I first started buying your records when you did Jungle Sounds. 'Awade' was a firm favourite and really twisted my head and moved my feet, it wasn’t until about 10 years later that I first heard Macho’s ‘Not Tonight’ and heard what you’d done with it. It was almost like a hybrid of the overdubs/edits and the live instrumental records that you do now. Since that record you seem to have drawn a line between those two production approaches and keep them very separate, was that a conscious decision, and if so what made you make that shift? 

"First let me say that I’m just now hearing about a Macho’s ‘Not Tonight’ record. I wasn’t the member in the group who sampled the music and so I cannot take the credits for that one. However, I’m quite certain that both Instant House and Macho lifted the samples for the same album, of which I do own a copy of, but at this moment the name escapes me. As to your question of how I’m able to produce different genres of music during any given block out studio session... It could come from my growing up in a home where I was raised by music fanatics. My elder siblings and my mother were constantly listening to all kinds of music and so it’s a part of my DNA. We named our home the House of Music.  How I go about creating in studio I believe stems from that same deep love affair with music, and is also the reason why there’s literally isn’t any form of music that I cannot rightfully create once it speaks to me and I put my mind to it-it’s all with in me."

You have a lot of aliases on the go now, I particularly like some of the darker stuff you do as Teenage Music, Lower East Side Pipes and Forest Electrik, what’s the story behind all the different names? Are there other people involved, or is it to do with your own mindset going into each project? 

"One main reason why I create aliases is so that I can have alternate platforms to express the plethora of influences that are within me. The idea behind The Lower East Side Pipes, for example was inspired from my reminiscing on the days in New York back in the mid 80’s when I was playing the role of a young moderate skin head. I used to love roaming around the lower east side during the days when it was unique and dangerous. I partied regularly at event called Punk Sunday’s hosted and held at New York’s CBGB’s. The aliases could also be attributed to my finding it difficult to listen to any one genre of music for more than a certain period. And so, I guess that could also be a reason why."

I’d say your productions are always characterised by a high level of musicianship, do you have a long list of musicians you use, or do you have any regulars who you would like to name check?

"For me the key to any success that I’ve garnered thus far are all because of the musicians that I work with, and my engineer of more than 20 years Fran Cathcart, who I trained to have the ability to translate my ideas-from head to DAW. The Mythical Transition that we created on my Herbie Hancock’s “The Essence” Remix is a perfect example of the before mentioned. I’ve been blessed very early on to become acquainted with great friend, mentor and my Soul Feast partner, Grammy winning Producer/ A&R extraordinaire Brian Bacchus. Whenever I needed a musician in the past Brian, who is well known and loved by everyone, especially in the world of Jazz, would create the connection. Also, coming from a home of passionate musicians is a reason why I’ve adapted early on the importance of musicianship becoming a part of my music making. But equally I love my involvement in electronic music production. But in answer to your question; I do have a long list of musicians that I enjoy working with and who likewise look forward to working with me. Together we create magic in the studio."

Do you play any instruments yourself?

"Mostly everything I play is centered around the drum. I also play percussion instruments, an Isolator, and synths – all realized by ear and spirit." 

How did you first meet Francois K and Danny Krivit? 

"I met both Francois Kevorkian and Danny Krivit back in 1993 at a store that I was a half partner and music and vibe curator of called Dance Tracks Records NYC. Both FK and DK were regulars and would frequently shop with us." 

Do you still get to see each other much? Any plans to collaborate on any other projects in the future?

"We are in communication with one another. Unfortunately, this covid thing suspended an extensive Body & Soul tour that we had on the table."  

Tony and I were really pleased when we heard that Soul Searcher was getting played at Body and Soul. Which of the 3 of you guys was the first to pick up on it and play it?

"Yes, I used to play 'Soul Searcher' and 'Walking on Water' on the regular at Body & Soul and at Dance Tracks. The record sold extremely well at Dance Tracks. In fact, I can say with confidence that most of the US sales relating to 'Walking on Water/ Soul Searcher' may be due to us pushing it hard at Dance Tracks Records. Funny thing is not too long ago I produced and Edits & Overdubs version of 'Walking on Water' that I use to played on the regular during my gigs up until my last gig which took place round a year ago." 

I came to Dance Trax when I first visited the US back in ’96 (the same trip I signed 'Soul Searcher'). How long did you work there? How important do you think working there was to your education and development as a producer/DJ?

"It was the summer of 1993 when I took over Dance Tracks along with a partner from a friend, original founder Stan Hatzakis. I was the music and vibes curator of the store until 1998. I left Dance Tracks to focus my attention on my then new record label called Spiritual Life Music. Having a record store, early on I realized the importance of there being a space where people of all kinds could congregate and communicate about music, art, and life. I especially and specifically designed Dance Tracks, which included a living room setting (the first of its kind-sofas, coffee tables and a club like sound system etc.) so to better see our concept through and therefore best serve our clientele.  Dance Tracks, like Cosmic Arts today was always about building a music and art community first before profit. However, it was at a time when record sales were at their peak, the music was dope, and it didn’t hurt that Frankie Knuckles and Robert Owens lived just up the street and who were regulars at Dance Tracks, especially Frankie Knuckles." 

Tony ran the shop Ugly Records for a few years before we started the label. I’m sure we wouldn’t have started the label together if it hadn’t been for that social hub aspect of the shop, where me and Tony got to hang and hatch plans, as well as meeting some of the artists who later filled our roster. I miss a lot of that with all the online shopping now. It sounds like you’ve got something good going on with Cosmic Arts, I hope I can get to visit next time I’m in NYC.

Ben who was the half of Ugly Records with Tony made his way to New York where I think the two of you worked together at Dance Tracks. Ben also worked the Shelter parties, which I sadly never got to experience. Didn't you play Shelter? How was that? Were there other nights from that time that stood out?

"Funny, I had no idea that Ben was ever involved with Ugly Music, and I don’t recall him ever mentioning it to me. Great guy that Ben is… With Regards to the Shelter. I can’t really articulate with words how incredibly dope and important both The Shelter and Timmy Regisford was for Dance Music in NYC. It was a very influential and profound cultural movement and institution that was going on during a time in New York when it was it truly the place to be. I did play there once but only for a couple of hours. How that happened, however, can be another story for another time. Interesting enough, my good friend and brother Louie Vega was working the lights for me that evening.  How dope is that."

Yeah, Tony said he was there that night, and that it was indeed pretty dope!

I’m a fan of your “Unofficial Edits and Overdubs” series on Circuit, I love the sleeve notes bit “Part of Whatever revenues are made will support my music addiction, what remains will unfortunately go directly to my landlord”, how bad is your music habit? Where do you get your fix? Any shops/dealers you’d like to name check.

"Like so many of us who are out there in the world, I have a deep affection and addiction to records. But I have an even greater dependence and need for music period. For it’s how I can co-exist on this planet, especially nowadays. I give thanks to the higher powers for bestowing the world with sounds that are infinite so to keep us moving and grooving even when there isn’t a venue where we can go to listen and dance. But we also live amongst music, we just must realize its cosmic sounds, be still and listen."

There is clearly a spiritual side to your work and life ethos, did you have a religious upbringing?  Outside of music, do you currently have any other spiritual practice? 

"Let me just say that, with all my time on earth thus far, I have yet read or heard of a story such as how I’ve come up with music. Music is my life."

There’s also a bit in your sleeve notes for the “Unofficial Edits and Overdubs” series that say’s “Say No to MP3’s and Vaccinations”.  Some countries are talking about legislation that vaccination passports might be necessary in the future for admittance to clubs or festivals, obviously there are many people who would be willing to go through with this to get things back to ’normal’ as soon as possible, what are your thoughts? 

"That’s a sensitive subject. Next Question Please."

This last year has been tough on all in our scene. I've really missed being able to play music and being able to dance, thankfully a few bookings have started coming in again for later this year. Have you got any dates in your calendar yet? Are there any parties/festivals that you’ve particularly missed or are looking forward to coming back?

"I do have allot requests on the table, but I’m not giving any thought to that part of what I do right now. I am more focusing on how to navigate the road ahead. I am incredibly busy these days with projects I’m involved with such as Cosmic Arts. Cosmic Arts is a Community Center/ Music and Art Gallery that I own. It is a Cultural Community during the week and on the weekends a record store. Dope Brother/ DJ Jay Locke runs the record store side of things. There are two other major projects that’s been in the works; one of them involves developing a live music / cultural show coming out of Cosmic Arts. The other is too early to speak about. I will say that they’re some very influential and forward-thinking artistic minds involved, and that going to be both very interesting and dope!  And finally, continuing with my record label Sacred Rhythm Music and Atypical Dopeness Distribution. And of course, co-creating music and remixes - All this operating from Bushwick Brooklyn, New York City."         

Joe’s Claussell asks Felix and Tony:

How are you guys coping (musically speaking) with what seems to be the new normal?

T: "I have found it pretty OK as I have been spending time in Jamaica and hearing lots of dub."

F: "Music has definitely been my sanctuary during this time. It’s been hard having fewer opportunities to share my music with people (obviously) and I’ve even lost my studio during this last year as the owner had to sell the premises I rented, so I haven’t managed to be that creative. But having a dig for new sounds or having a dance around at home with my kids has definitely helped keep me sane, and reminded me that the healing power of music can be a very personal intimate thing even when the big soundsytems and parties are having a rest."

Who came up with the name Ugly Music and why?

F: "We took the name Ugly Music from the shop Ugly Records that Tony and Ben ran."
 
T: "I think it was Ben and at the time we were bugging on a lot of very raw, dirty sounding tracks from New Jersey things like Cassio and Jovonn and also Detroit jams from Labels like Acacia all sounded beautiful but also kinda Ugly it was really the name of the record store and it got carried across to the club nights and the label."

What was the inspirations behind you guys wanting to start a record label back in the 90s?

T: "We were truly obsessed with the fusion of sounds coming out of Chicago, jackin house. the Detroit techno sound and the Garage sound of New York, we were trying to bring that together under one label mixed with some great local talent."

F: "I’d known Tony for a number of years from shopping in Ugly Records and Jelly Jam before that. I was (still am) totally obsessed with dance music and culture, I’d been putting on parties and DJing in Brighton for a few years and wanted to try something different and thought a record label was a good new area of the scene to explore."

It’s been over two decades since Ugly Music’s last release. What prompted you guys to relaunch the label almost 24 years later?

F: "I was noticing a lot of interest in what we’d done first time, a few tracks getting played again which resulted in increased prices on Discogs (which allowed us to sell some old stock that had been cluttering up my mothers’ basement, it was a real joy to be able to pay some of the artists who didn’t sell so well back in the day, whose records had now come in vogue). This renewed interest led to a couple labels requesting to do re-issues. I thought it was a bit un-imaginative to do straight re-issues, but could be fun to re-contact some of the old crew, do something fresh with the old catalogue, release new music from the old artists and basically carry on from where we left off, but hopefully take it all a bit further this time round with mine and Tony’s deeper experience." 

How different do you see the scene now from back when Ugly music was first launched?

T: "We were both part of what felt like a true youth movement in the late 80s and early 90s it felt like acid house was going to change the world, I suppose it did. What felt anarchic and revolutionary back then is now an established part of mainstream culture."

F: "I’d agree with what Tony said, but also caveat that it’s all in the eye of the beholder, we felt part of a youth movement as we were youthful, maybe we feel more part of an established culture now as we are more established?  I guess the scene keeps on keeping on, so it may seem a lot different to us now, but I’m sure a guy in his 40’s would have seen the scene of the 90’s far differently to us back then."

What would you say are some major differences between UK and US dance music producers and DJ’s?

T: "I think the scene in the UK developed and evolved in different ways we had an explosion of Rave culture that saw an entire generation head out to warehouses and fields, in the US the scene remained underground for a further 20 years before E.D.M raves arrived."

F: "I used to think about this question when I was younger, and part of the reason I first went out to the States in 96 (on which trip I signed Soul Searcher), was to discover America and try answer this question. One thing I discovered is there is as much difference between the music producers and DJ’s of each state/city in the US as there between a US producer and a UK one. The United States is a massive country and the sounds and scenes from each different area are very unique to themselves. It’s impossible to discuss the differences between the UK and US without also discussing the differences between Chicago and NY or Detroit and LA, so I think it’s hard to try and draw such broad generalisations between the two countries."

For what reason did you think of me to produce a 'Soul Searcher' Remix for you?

T: "Hearing you play Shelter, and we also were hearing about the track getting air play at Body and Soul so you were the natural choice, totally love the energy and unique vibe of NY dancefloors, there also an unreleased mix by Tyrone Francis that captures the spirit of his legendary BKNY parties."

F: "We’ve always been a fan of your work, as I say all the way back to the Jungle Sounds days, but knowing that you had supported the record back in the day at Dance Trax and again at Body and Soul it seemed like a nice story."

I recently read somewhere that you guys were a couple of stoners back in the day.  Are you guys still getting high?

T: "I think back then smoking was also a part of the counter culture, now not so much."

F: "I had to quit smoking about 15 years ago as I’d knackered my lungs, but I’m still partial to reaching a higher state of consciousness, but by more healthy means these days."

What are your plans and what do you hope to achieve with the resurrection of Ugly Music Label moving forward?

F: "It’s been really fun connecting with Tony again as we’d drifted apart over the last 20 years or so, what with family and geography. We’re both still really passionate about the music, so it’s nice to come together again and realise some new releases together. We’ve also been connecting with some of the old rosta, doing some other cool things with remixes and new material from old artists. But that’s only half the story, we’ve got some new projects on the go, bringing new talent to the label, and hopefully getting that same balance we had back then of artists old and new from both sides of the Atlantic."

What do you guys hope for the future of human kind?

T: "This Pandemic has served as a reminder of the importance of human contact it’s also shown how globally we share equal vulnerability. So my hope would be greater equality and maybe the return of hugging."

F: "Short term I’d like to see a world were we can get out of our houses and see each other (preferably with dancing and hugging). I think Covid has allowed/forced a lot of people to pause/reflect and notice a lot of injustices that have been the norm for too long. I really hope that some of increased awareness and action/protest that has been witnessed during the Pandemic isn’t lost when everyone gets the distractions of their ‘normality’ again. It fills me with hope that not only have some of these issues received such global momentum, but also that humanity is able to come together and implement change".

 

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