Matt Ford doesn’t really do the internet. Nowadays that’s something of a shocker, but for the DJ otherwise known as Format, it hints at a wider ethos that has proved very successful.
Since arriving in 2003 with his acclaimed album ‘Music For the Mature B-Boy’, DJ Format has continuously captured party-style hip hop as well as anyone else, as witnessed in the insanely funky - 'We Know Something You Don't Know' with Chali 2na and Akil from Jurassic 5. He has gone on to release three more albums, tour with Jurassic 5 and produce a mixtape for Fabric’s famous series and, in doing so, has become one of the most respected names in hip hop. DJ food called his most recent creation, 2013’s ‘The Foremost’ with Phill Most Chill, “Straight up Hip Hop, the way you like(d) it”.
Naturally confident in his talents as a selector and scratch DJ, his sets encompass funk, soul, hip hop beats, Latin, 60s, pretty much anything else he fancies. A quick scan of his upcoming gigs shows his popularity, jetting between Switzerland, Austria, France and London.
In 2010 he revealed an extra dimension when he released ‘Reverse Engineering’ with close friend Simon James under 'The Simonsound'. It was an interesting departure, pushing things in a new direction into 1960s soundtrack and electronic psychedelia. It was also a change of process for Matt but the high standards were the same – the album won staunch support from by Gilles Peterson, DJ Spinna, Kenny Dope and Lord Finesse.
Although he uses a laptop for producing, when it comes to DJing he is something of a traditionalist. He prefers not to let technology get in the way of his pure connection with the music. Like a seer’s stones, vinyl is his conduit - these objects embody his passion and remind him of why he got into music in the first place. Nothing against laptop DJs but, for him, turning up to a gig with a USB stick just feels wrong.
The last year has brought a self-assessment of whether he even wanted to continue. Lucky for us his love for hip hop beats triumphed and he is working on a new release as you read this. (It must be good because he didn’t want to reveal the artist involved!)
Matt took some time out to talk about the future of sampling, J-Dilla style of hip hop and why he's not worried about the outcome of the 'Blurred Lines' court case.;
What have you been up to recently?
Well to be honest I've had quite a long break. Over the last 12 months I've really been recharging my batteries. I wasn't very inspired and I do sometimes find it hard to find new ways of making old music. Because that is effectively what I like doing, making an old traditional type of hip hop - stuff that's pretty much outdated now largely.
So yeah I've just been recharging the batteries and I've just remixed a couple of the songs from 'The Foremost' [his 2013 album with Phill Most Chill] for 7" release later in the year. I did a James Brown tribute called 'Stealing James' and that was originally released in 2008 on 12" and then someone just released in 7" and it sold really well so I'm working on another mix by another prolific funk act whose material I'm working on - a tribute to in a b-boy style.
So you came onto the scene in 2003 with 'Music for the Mature B-Boy, since then has your career turned out the way you expected?
Well I never really had a plan or anything like that. I just made things up as it went along. I didn't think of it in terms of it being a career. I was just a music lover who wanted to make a record with his name on it. I grew up listening to hip hop in the 80s and I just wanted to make a record like the stuff I grew up listening to and loving and respecting and I just wanted to make my own little mark. And obviously by the time 2003 came around things had changed but I was just fortunate enough to be able to get a record deal and have my music released. I just grew into it you know.
But the industry has changed so much since then. It's frightening really. Back then I could sell a hell of a lot of vinyl and a lot of CDs, whereas nowadays you're lucky if a few people actually pay to download your music and most will probably download for free or listen on Spotify - for which the artist just gets so little money that it's barely worth noting.
I've still got my hardcore audience on vinyl and I'll probably sell around 1000 copies of anything I release on vinyl and, while that's not bad in the current climate, it can be a little bit disheartening when you wonder if anyone really cares about what you're doing. But ultimately you have to make the music because you're doing it for the love of it and because you're a creative person who needs to get that out.
That's what I've been asking myself over the last 12 months - have I still got the burning desire? Luckily after a bit of a break the answer is yes I absolutely still have a burning desire to make music that I'm proud of and the kind of music I want to hear played in clubs and that I want to play in clubs myself.
So...yeah..Bit of a long-winded answer but you get the idea!
No - it was a good answer! So has it made you focus on live performances more to support your income?
Well back in 2003-5 I was touring with Abdominal and later Decisive and that was my main source of income. Mind you back then I could actually make money from record sales, nowadays I'm relying on DJ gigs to pay my bills and free up my time so I can spend more time making music in the studio. Because releasing the music makes so little money, so little money, that I'd probably be better off working in McDonald's for minimum wage, if you count up how much I would earn for a record and the hours that I've put in. And that's a lot of the reason, apart from inspiration, why I very rarely do remixes these days, because it's just impossible to justify your time. I want to put my time into my own projects rather than other people's.
What do think the ultimate outcome of this lack of money for artists will be? Will it weed out those just in it for money or is it detrimental to the music because artists have no time to make it?
I dunno..I think you're always going to have the people who want to do it for the ego and not for the love of music. You get some artist whose careers have been on the downward slide for years but they're not ready to join the real world and get a job, so of course they keep making music because at least if they're not selling much they can continue to tour off the back of having a new album out. And I totally understand that dilemma, but it's not a path I've chosen because I only want to make music that I'm proud of.
My live performances these days tend to be just DJ gigs instead of live performances with MCs, but it's difficult to know what the knock on effect will be because you're always going to have passionate music people that make great music whether they're earning money from it or not. And you're always going to have people who are making really mediocre music whether they're making money or not.
I do fear for the good of music that a lot of talented people can't justify doing it because they can't make any money from it. That's a struggle I've faced myself because at times it is difficult to make any money to justify the time you put in. But because I get enough DJ gigs to keep me ticking over financially I am in a fortunate position and I feel I do need to keep making music to give something back almost. I don't know maybe that sounds bit pretentious. But I think it's the least I can do - stay motivated and inspired and keep making music that people enjoy. Because it's a dying artform this kind of golden era hip hop, whatever you want to call it - classic party hip hop, feel-good hip hop - hip hop with a b-boy mentality to it. Trying to use original breaks and do something different whilst maintaining a traditional style of hip hop. It's not easy.
A good drum break will be resampled countless times, it seems the potential is limitless. It it limitless or do you think there will be an endpoint for this style of music - five, 10, 20 years from now?
It's difficult to say - I'm still digging for original samples that haven't been used. Occasionally you find something and you think wow! I can't wait to be the first one to use this. And sometimes I really enjoy reworking old classic music - in some cases music that's been done to death like the James Brown mix that I did. That was just something...I wanted to do an updated version of all the James Brown mixes that inspired me in the 80s and 90s and the hip hop records that cut up and sampled James Brown records. I wanted to do my modern day retake on that and I still enjoy doing things like that with classic breaks.
But you know I think they'll always be people that want to play around with samples. But five years, 10 years who can say? It was only 10 years ago I was at the height of my success and it feels like two or three years - 10 years can go by in flash so I don't think much will be different in 10 years. Sampling is such an exciting thing of endless possibilities that it's not going to go away any time soon I'm happy to say.
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams getting sued by the Marvin Gaye estate for using his old record, is that a precedent that concerns you?
Nah I don't worry about what people in the pop charts are doing because they live on a different planet to the rest of us. I mean if someone was to come and sue me, they're not going to sue me for $7m are they, they're going to sue me for £50 because that's the levels of profit that they could justifiably say I've diddled them out of!
So no it doesn't worry me at all. In a way it's kind of liberating when music has got so little value at the bottom end of the ladder like I am nowadays - you can just sample what you like and get on with it and make the music how you want it to be. Hip hop really suffered from the mid 90s onwards when it started to become big business when people stopped sampling things or they couldn't clear things, it had a massive effect on the quality of the music. That's why I think that whole J-Dilla style of sampling where people just chopped up kicks and snares and stabs and create it in that way, whilst that's a very creative and credible way of making music, I much prefer just taking a blatant break and chopping that up and using that but keeping it funky. The idea of chopped up kick, snare, hi hat, just reprogrammed, it's just a little bit too formulaic. I like the natural swing of a drum break the way it was played by the drummer.
You've mentioned elsewhere how meticulous the process was for your side project with Simon James 'The Simonsound', I wondered how difficult it was for you compared with your normal creative process?
Basically it was experimental but me and Simon are very similar and both perfectionists and really OCD if you like. So we'll just continue working on things until we don't think we can get them any better and if they don't reach the stage where we're 100% happy with them, we just don't release them. It was kind of a learning process but it was a mixture of what I brought to the table was samples and maybe things to get tracks started and Simon was bringing his electronic expertise, various vintage synths and other equipment - we were kind of mixing the two together and in some cases replaying stuff and in others just straight sampling.
In some cases it wasn't that dissimilar - some songs were heavily reliant on piecing together samples and others were more creative with the both of us messing with keyboards. It was just a fun thing, even though we did nearly drive ourselves mad going into such detail trying to perfect everything, it was ultimately a really enjoyable process. We just made music we were really proud of an excited about it.
I actually bought a Simonsound EP but never realised you were involved...
Simon James started out working under the name 'The Simonsound', then when we started doing stuff together...because Simon is credited as far back as my first album - we've known each other for years and years. We've made various music together and he helped mix some of the stuff on my first album. He's always been my technical go-to guy, you know, my sound expert. When we started working on some ideas we didn't know it was going to take off and be its own project, we just started out with idea of maybe doing something for my next album and then we realised it was taking the shape of something entirely different and needed to be its own entity.
Instead of changing the name and putting my name in with it we just decided: "no we're 'The Simonsound', we don't need to trade off my name we'll let the music speak for itself", which of course is a big mistake - you have to use any little fame you've got to have your music actually reach people.
So now we're in this confusing situation where Simon's doing a lot of stuff on his own and, if and when we do do stuff together, do we need to state it's Simon and DJ Format? Neither of us are precious about it luckily - we're very good friends and there are no egos involved but I do worry that we've confused people and probably confused ourselves!
See DJ Format play at 45 x 45s @ The Book Club, 100 – 106 Leonard Street, London EC2, 9pm – 2am Saturday 4th April 2015. Click here for tickets and more information.
Photo Credit: Franco Rabazzo