Dj Nature Talks
Back in early 2010 a package from New Yorks Golf Channel Records landed on my doormat and what with that being one of my favourite labels, I eagerly opened it and got the vinyl on the turntable while I scoffed my cornflakes and made half -hearted attempts to get ready for work.
Golf Channel Records has always had high musical quality standards but these records were different, they were house records but something about the sound was fresh, unique even, and it completely set them apart from pretty much anything else I was hearing at that time.
They were by someone called DJ Nature, a producer from New York Id never heard of, and Ive been obsessed with New York house records for more than 20 years. I thought he must be some young buck new to the scene, so I got in touch with Golf Channel to see if I could interview him, and quickly realised I my preconceptions about Milo Johnson, the man behind the DJ Nature project, has been pretty wayward.
Since 2010 hes gone from strength to strength, putting out a series of massive records on Japanese label Jazzy Sport and his home town Golf Channel, culminating in last years widely acclaimed album Return of the Savage.
His DJing prowess has seen him booked all round the world too and hes played a couple parties at Plastic People that are the stuff of legend. A stickler for quality sound systems and playing the right parties, Nature returns to the UK next month to play Thunder at the Dance Tunnel in Dalston on Friday 17th May and then at #notsosilent at The Garage in Leeds the following Friday, the 24th.
Heres what DJ Nature had to say back in 2010 about the DJ Nature project, Tony Humphries, slum rats, Japanese sound systems, minimal house and much, much more.
Your recent releases on Golf Channel and Jazzy Sport have really brought the Nature project to peoples attention, but its not a recent thing, is it? Can you tell us a bit about project and how it came about?
When I first moved to the US my intention was to release stuff on my own label as that was impossible to do at that time in the UK. I knew I could put out a limited amount of stuff whilst doing other things and not go broke. I started putting out stuff on a label I created called Ruff Disco Records, I took them to Charley at Vinylmania and he loved the stuff which meant a lot to me because the man's a legend. Also got a lot of love from a guy I used to buy stock from called Frank Mendez, who owned Nu-Groove. He introduced me to Felix Ortiz who was running one of the hottest new labels at the time, E-Legal Records, and he put out an album of stuff. All in all, I was very surprised by the interest in my product because it was extremely rough on the production side.
How would you describe the Nature production sound? If I had to try to describe it to someone who had never heard one of your records, I might say it is one part Prescription, one part Nu-Groove, one part Moodymann, and one part something else I cant quite put my finger on!
Back when I started it, I just wanted to put out really rough sounding material that stood out from the other stuff vibe wise. That was it basically just a rugged texture to nice up the dance. Kind of what Wu Tang did later in the hip hop industry to a much bigger effect. It wasn't like I woke up one morning and said that's what I wanted to do, it was more like a natural inclination. I dont really get involved with who it sounds like and comparisons, because I pretty much pre-date anyone that's around right now doing what they have just picked up. I am honoured to be mentioned along with the likes of Nu-Groove because of obvious reasons, but I'm pretty much in the dark about what's happening on the modern front. My influences are no one doing stuff in this field right now, but artists that gripped me when I was young.
Was Nature a conscious change of direction or do you see it as a natural evolution?
Actually I wouldn't say it was an Evolution in the progression sense, because it was a lot nastier than what I had done previously. But it was just another vibe I was always into that I needed to get off my chest. Was it a conscious change of direction? Well I had had tracks sitting around since my second trip to Japan around 86 or 87 that were incredibly rough draft, but had the foundation of what you hear today.
The current Nature sound, while still retaining a certain rawness, is a lot more polished, is that experience or just where you want to take it?
More the latter really! Different equipment changes your sound also. Back when I started I had pretty basic stuff, which is pretty obvious by the production quality. But some tracks worked sounding that rough and some didn't so they were put to the side. I like it raw because it gives the dancefloor balance in a general sense. All the equipment I used back in the first phase of what I did I don't use today, but I am thinking about dusting some of it off and incorporating it into my new set up.
Talking changes in direction, youre from Bristol originally but now live in New York. How long ago did you move there and why?
I moved here in 1989 after growing up in Bristol and spending the last 7 years in London. I had recently gotten married, and my wife and I planned to set up a small exporting company in NY. At the same point in time the fact that what I wanted to do musically around then didn't fit into what was happening in the UK so it just made sense on two fronts. Typically, as soon as I left the UK it became the hotbed of what I was doing, ha ha ha!
New York was a very different place to what it is now , I remember staying in the depths of Queens and visiting Alphabet City in 1992 and being scared shitless was it a shock to the system moving a city of such extremes?
Mate, I lived in Alphabet city back then it was rough as hell. Nothing but crack heads and dealers and rats like I never seen in my life. I remember going to see Levan down the next block at "Choice" and there were so many rats all over the street – and they didn't even move when they saw you, that shit was scary. Other than that the only thing I had to get used to was the cold. Absolutely disgusting how cold NYC gets! But back then it was just incredibly exciting, I really felt at home in many ways. People just thought differently down there back then.
Im a bit of a fan of the Sound Factory (pre-clichd sound) and Zanzibar era Tony Humphries, were you hanging out in clubs like that back then and what were they like? If not, where were you hanging out?
I used to go to Zanzibar with Frank from Nu-Groove, that was a sketchy place outside that club, but once inside it was killer. Humphries has always been my favourite DJ in this genre and to hear him playing my joints on his radio show was incredible, actually soon after he played my stuff I pretty much stopped the Natureboy/Ruff Disco stuff. Sound Factory I used to go to also sometimes, as well as Red Zone, Better Days and Shelter. I stopped going to clubs on the regular around '95 or so.
Who was playing at Better Days back then, Bruce Forest? And you mentioned Levan at Choice too. These guys are pretty much legends, was it exciting to catch them in their home town? And how did they match up to the DJs you left behind in the UK?
To be honest, I really don't remember who was playing at Better Days, the first time I went there it was the wrong night. I went with the missus and I thought to myself , "Damn! There is absolutely no women in this club and it was a hip hop night. We hung around for a bit then noticed these hard core looking hip hop guys kissing each other! Culture shock to the fullest! We went back on the right night and it was cool, just good music, house and some classic disco joints. Choice I enjoyed because I could walk there in about 4 minutes from my flat. It was obviously a great chance to see the legend that is Larry Levan do his thing, and like myself he wasn't the most gifted technically, but the selection was fantastic! I still have a lot of love for the DJs I first encountered after leaving school, they had a massive impact on me so they will always be the best for me personally and they were playing a lot of the same stuff. But what you have to love about Levan is that he played some left field stuff that just made every party incredibly enjoyable.
How do you think New York influenced your sound?
I don't know, I have always liked a particular vibe in my music but as opposed to the UK back then NY enabled you to go into it, in a productivity sense, without fear. You can just submerge yourself into it more profoundly, and the music was just around all day every day. I'm not knocking the UK at all, because it's grown to be the creative music capital of the world without question.
More generally, what are your influences? You have a bit of a hip hop/sound system background, do you draw on that in your production?
If I do it's not intentional, it's just a natural progression as a vibe. Without question what I grew up with for 20 odd years in Bristol is a massive part of my musical DNA today, more so than any New York influence in terms of sound, excluding stuff like Chic or Patrick Adams. I draw on influences from all genres because that's what I listen to, everything.
What about when you DJ? Hip hop and house are now seen as quite different DJing styles, although maybe not so much in the past, do you feel there they are distinct?
Funny you say that, because my sons listen to rap more than I do and the new stuff sucks ass to be honest! But a lot of them guys are rapping on house beats at the moment which I find surprising, as I think the down tempo house stuff would make a more sensible link between the two. I haven't played hip hop for a while, but I bought stuff that I felt was good like Tip and Dilla stuff. I like the Neptunes production and Dre, but I pinch those songs of the kids!
Are you on something like Serato yet or are you still rocking vinyl?
Overseas I was rocking vinyl up until a couple of years ago. I was doing some gigs in the UK and the air line lost my records. From that day I said never again and I bought Traktor Scratch Pro. I still play vinyl if planes are not in the travel arrangements, but my records won't see a plane again if I have anything to do with it.
As someone who really mastered vinyl DJing, do you think the advent of digital DJ technology, and how it easy it can make DJing detracts from the 'art', or does it open up a world of new creative possibilities?
It kind of does both really. I understand why a lot of people are kind of anti digital because lets face it, it makes it so much easier to beat match. But to me I don't really worry about that, because you can give me and another DJ the same records but only a few DJs really have soul, they can't work a track the same way. The artistry is not only making two tracks rock on beat, there are other dynamics which gives a DJ his identity. That's why DJs like Humphries and Kenny Carpenter will never be touched by anyone who comes up in my opinion, they are just different.
On the subject of DJing, you originally made your mark as a DJ and now your work as a producer is really coming to the fore. Do you see yourself primarily as one or the other, and if so, why?
Both! I never see myself stopping DJing, I was raised from a youth watching sound men in their 70's running shebeens and I want to be like that.
There was a big break between the original Nature Boy releases and the your more recent work what have you been up to?
This and that! I kind of mentioned earlier that when Humphries played my stuff on Kiss and I was hearing it on the WBLS live dance parties, I pretty much stopped making stuff. I think the last things I did was something Carl Craig wanted me to do for him Naomi Daniel Feel the Fire and a dodgy re edit here and there, under another name. I did some mix CDs for my homey's store in London called Hideout in Soho (Food vol 1 &2), some mixes for Soph in Tokyo (Real Players and Surface Tension) and Steppers Records also in Tokyo (Live 2 Peachtree's 1979). I also put a mix out myself called Live at the Cat Club 1979.
Jazzy Sport is a bit of an obscure label (well, to me with my London blinkers on anyway), how did you get involved with them? Do you have a bit of a following in Japan?
I know Taro through a mutual friend at another label that I was involved with in the 80's. I don't think I have a following in Japan or anywhere else to be honest, as I don't think I was consistent enough releasing stuff to gain one with Natureboy/DJ Nature.
Whats it like playing over there?
I like playing in Japan for the most part because people have more open minds in general musically, you don't have to run obvious tunes to get people dancing. I will say this though pound for pound, no city on earth has more banging sound systems in their clubs than Osaka. That place is ridiculous, I think it's primarily because they are really into reggae down there and that they are really a bit rougher on the attitude side than the Tokyo lot.
Do you DJ much in New York these days?
Once in a while, I did some parties with Phil from Golf Channel early in the 00's and with some other people also here and there. At the moment though I am really concentrating on production and building as big a catalogue of stuff possible, because once I get into a flow I don't want to break it for gigs unless it makes complete sense. At some point I want to try and get a regular spot and build a base for people who want to listen to this, but for me it has to be right technically.
Whats the scene like there now? Weve read a bit about the Brooklyn scene, do you get along to some of those parties?
I am the epitome of a hermit and I rarely venture out of Harlem on the casual! The only gig I went to recently was in Brooklyn and that was only because it was a DJ/producer that I rate highly from Germany. It's really quite strange, because it's not the same vibe as say Body And Soul when it was at Shelter or Zanzibar back in the 90's, those people have been replaced by something different today.
Do you still like a bit of a dance?!
I did that night, but don't make a habit of it. Only at home to give the kids a laugh!
You mentioned you did some gigs with Phil South, is that how you hooked up with Golf Channel?
Yes. When he was starting his label he asked to hear some stuff when I started doing stuff again.
Why the double 12" releases? Do you simply have a lot of material you want to get out there?
That was down to the label really and sound quality.
Golf Channel put a lot of effort into the quality of the sound and their product, like cutting straight to lacquer when mastering – is that attention to detail important to you when you're putting music out there?
No doubt! I wasn't too hip to that process, but it soon became something that I noticed a bit later.
Are you keeping busy in the studio? What should Nature fans look out for in the near future release wise?
Well the "Fwd Evr" stuff came out last year, I just sent some material to jazzy sport called "Suntoucher remixes". That will be out on double 12"s also, I have a mix CD that I will try to get out also and a CD album with Jazzy Sport after that.
You mentioned edits earlier and your mixes often contain an edit or two of your own. The market is full of edits at the moment, some good, some bad, do you plan to get involved put any out or do you just see them as a DJ tool?
I see them primarily as a DJ tool, I think it's the one thing that gives DJs an edge like white label promos did back in the day! I really like doing them , but I'm not great at it like some of the guys, but a few of the things I've done got some nice responses. I don't see myself releasing any of the ones I have done so far, but down the road there are a few things that I am working on that are quite good that may work.
You were (fairly) recently over in the UK playing at Plastic People, how did you find that?
Fantastic. The sound was like the old days in Bristol and the people were really good, that was with Andy Newcombe and the Discobox crew, impeccable jam. I hear the local constabulary have this unjustified quest to try and close that club at the moment. I think it's important for anyone reading this that are into listening to good music on a fantastic system need to really support that club, because when it's gone you will wish you did. Clubs like that are impossible to find in London I hear, so dont take it for granted.
Checking out a few of your mixes online, you drop stuff like Lawrence, Bookashade and Villalobos, do you keep up with the European house scene?
I at least try to, that shit is forward. Some of that stuff is incredibly motivating, but there is so much of it. Love Lawrence, Portable, Koze, early Cadenza stuff. Theres so much music out there right now it's outrageous. I'm not as deep in it as I would like to be, but I try to keep up with those doing interesting stuff. My set is always changing nowadays and becoming more polished selection wise. I really got into that minimal thing for a moment and kind of ignored a lot of other good stuff I had. What I found hard was being able to DJ after having long spells out of it, because back in the UK I was just playing tunes all the time at the Camp, so my set and technique was a lot smoother back then. Now Im trying to get back at least to that level.
Do you think it is important to keep looking forward then and wallow in the past? You could easily rest on your laurels given past glories, but you seem to be constantly striving to do something different?
You know what, it's incredibly hard escaping your past. You can give people distinct instructions not to do certain shit and they say yeah okay, and do something completely different. It's incredibly frustrating and a pretty good reason to scrap DJ Nature and do something else, so I don't know how much longer I'll continue under that. I have never really tried to be different, I just play what I like and completely ignore everyone else. That's not to say I don't hear stuff people play and think, I like that song but I can't play because he has, I don't think like that. I think Im just lucky to have a good outlook on music and what I think is good to play out. I think I'll always be doing something creative in one way or another. I just like making stuff too much to quit, contrary to what has been written about retirement and all that crap.
You mentioned Hideout earlier, are you into that New York street wear look Stussy, Supreme, etc? And if so, what's hot over there?!
I wish I could be into it, I just don't have the money for it though. My kids like it though so any funds I have go to that. I pretty much live like a bum and get stuff free most of the time!
Are you coming back play over here soon?
Well, thanks for taking the time to talk us, it's been an absolute pleasure.
The pleasures all mine mate. Peace!
Interview questions by Miles Simpson, you can check out his Beyond The Stars blog here
Check DJ Nature's RBMA Fireside Chat for more good stuff…