Mat 'Jam' Lamont is one of those rare artists who can specifically pinpoiont there place in the world. When Lamont started DJing, the phrases 2 Step and UKG didn't exist. A decade into his career and they had redefined British pop music for a generation. This was in no small part to Lamont's work, from DJing at legendary after hours club Happy Daze - the place where American house records were flipped over and sped up, so the bassier dub mixes could keep the UK ravers bubbling- to forming production duo Tuff Jam with former Double Trouble man Karl 'Tuff Enuff' Brown, an outfit who would go on to create one UK Garage's biggest anthems with their remix of Tina Moore's Never Gonna Let You Go. Matt still DJs week in week out, keeping the garage flame burning, and watching with interest as a new generation has started reviving the tropes of his mid 90s sound. We thought we'd ask him about those early days, then see what he thinks of the scene right now- here's what he had to say...
So I’d quite like to chat to you about the Happy Daze stuff and how you got into the Garage scene in the first place. What was the first kind of music that you started DJing when it all started kicking off for you?
Well there wasn’t really any “garage” as such back in 1990, as that’s when I started. It was more like Italian house, US house and British stuff as well, but my record box was mainly international stuff so it was really the early deep, techy stuff.
What tunes were really doing if for you back then?
Oh God, it was quite crazy back then, because we were lucky enough that there was so much music released week in and week out. There were so many obscure labels from Italy and the US and Germany and stuff. I was mostly hooked on the US stuff, even labels like Strictly were releasing like 5 things a week. It was things like Roger Sanchez stuff that was all being released under different names and then Todd Terry’s stuff was coming out a couple of years later. It was mainly the US stuff, even the Ministry of Sound caught onto it a couple of years later. Even they were finding stuff from America, they signed some stuff from Mike Dunn, God Makes Me Funky, and that was under their Open label.
That track still sounds big now.
Yeah. Well I signed it to my label in 2000.
I lived with a garage DJ (s/o to Martin!) at the time and he rinsed it. It was basically the sound of my summer when I was 20.
Exactly. I was trickling it for so many years. But yeah, I was mainly onto the US stuff, like early Masters At Work, Roger Sanchez that kind of thing. If I went through my collection now, some of the labels you wouldn’t even recognise.
Where were you playing around that time? Can you remember where your first gig was?
Yeah I do actually! I was a designer, right, and you were probably too young to remember, but we had a recession back in the ‘90s, and I had to leave my trade. I was trying to think of what other job I could do that wouldn’t be a massive hassle, so I thought about becoming a DJ. At the age of 14 I'd started DJing hip-hop and rare groove and soul and stuff like that. So in 1990, me and a couple of my friends called Aaron and Rodger – I’m originally from Luton- we came to London and were just hunting around for some inspiration. We got introduced to a guy from Happy Daze and he was doing the second room at the Paradise Club in Islington. It’s not there anymore unfortunately, it’s a library now… AWOL was doing the main room.
Yeah, I remember AWOL, I went to a couple of those.
Yeah, they did the main room at Paradise and Happy Daze did the second room. I can remember getting introduced to Ram Jam after I’d been going there every Sunday for about two months. I remember begging him for a half hour slot, I might as well have been clinging on to his ankles and cleaning the floor with myself. Then he said okay, I could have a slot. It was probably just to get me off of his feet to be honest with you. I ended up staying on for about an hour and a half and then the rest was history, I became his resident for many years. That was the beginning.
So that was 1990 was it then?
About 1991 probably.
It's usually viewed that in ’92 the whole rave thing really kicked off. Is that something you ever touched on, or were you not bothered by it?
The funny thing is, that music is kind of weird. You end up taking inspiration from loads of different types. Well, I do anyway. Genres are just names really, so if I’m playing house I normally end up playing anything from tech to soulful to bass all in one set.
I’m kind of imagining that you’d drop things like One Tribe’s What Have I Done, and stuff like that.
Yeah, you never know. I find that with music you can drop anything really. Just because Carl Cox plays tech, I reckon you’d go to one of his sets and hear stuff that isn’t tech, yet it fits into the set really well. Even with someone like EZ, yeah he’s a garage DJ but he plays house and breaks and everything. It’s not just one genre, it’s many genres under one umbrella. Back then though, I was really more into the deep house stuff. We were playing over a whole weekend, it wasn’t just a Friday and that was it, we were literally going from club to club from Thursday night up until Monday morning. I can remember us doing The Elephant and Castle after the Ministry of Sound. There were a few nights going on on Sunday's, there was Relish down in Kensington and other stuff, but after people had been going at Ministry from 10pm till 9am they were tired, so we decided to speed the music up a bit so that it wasn’t the same pace of 120 that they’d been getting all night, and we took it up to like 125, maybe 127 just to keep it bubbling through as we only had 4 hours in there. It was always packed out and there was always a big queue.
That area back then was pretty roughneck though wasn’t it?
You know what, it wasn’t. If you think about it, it’s the Ministry of Sound. It’s not just people from that area, it’s people coming from all over the country. It was a great crowd in there as the people there were from all over England, not just Elephant. Back then it wasn’t just a case of rubbing it out like it is today, people were really dressed up.
Yeah, they were out for the night properly.
Exactly, and they were hanging around waiting at Elephant & Castle, Relish or whatever, but they were still dressed up and it was a really great crowd. You had all sorts in there. You had actors, footballers, everything. It really was a great crowd. The roughness of the area was never even identified or thought of to be honest. Thinking back, I don’t think I ever thought to myself that I was afraid in there or that the crowd was a bit rough. They just looked a bit worse for wear, but that was expected as they’d been out for like 12 hours or something. The crowd came for two reasons; the music and the vibe.
There’s a tendency to think of that bass-y garage sound of the mid ‘90s to be inspired by what was going on in Jungle, but, from what you’re telling me, it almost sounds like it was happening at the same time but just didn’t get the same attention as rapidly.
It all evolved, but not everything evolves at the same time. There’s always something that’s bigger than everything else. I think it was the same with jungle. Jungle did what it did and it was the same with garage. It was always going to take time for it to build as you can’t really build something from just a handful of people. You almost need a movement to create a thing. From ’91 onwards, we were still collecting influences and trying to create our own sound. The people that were making a lot of money from the dance scene were normally from America. Every time you looked at a flyer there was almost always someone coming over and they were charging a lot. So, as British DJ’s we started to feel like we had to create our own thing. It was great with that lot coming over, but we wanted something from it ourselves. That’s the reason that you heard the sound change a bit, the bass got a bit higher in the tracks and the tracks all got a little bit faster. That created our own identity. The good thing about garage is that it pulls in influences from everything. From house to breaks to tech to soulful to rare groove – everything. That was a good thing as a lot of people were musical and they were into that because of all those different influences. It was hard to not get drawn into making the music that was being released at the time as there so much of it coming out. When you get a crowd responding to something that you’re making that draws on these different influences it’s great, and then it gets hard for people not to build on that and draw from it further. It was fresh. It’s not like we were recreating something. It’s hard to create a sound, but we were lucky enough to have done that.
I feel like when you had the big jungle expolosion in ’94 and then by ’95 it was over for a lot of people. Do you think you were there ready for the ravers who wanted to move to something different?
Yeah for sure. I think a lot of girls left jungle and came over. Then with that the geezers came. I’m not saying that everyone left jungle because that’s never going to happen. But there were a lot of girls at our events.
Was this still during the Happy Daze?
Yeah. We’d done Elephant & Castle, we’d done Heaven, The Arches at Suffolk Bridge and I think that was the main base. Don’t get me wrong, Elephant & Castle was where it started, but we had to move on to something bigger as there were so many people crossing the road and trying to get into this venue. We'd gotten so big, that we had to run in two pubs across the road from each other at the same time.
So who else was with you at that time?
We started off at Elephant & Castle with myself, Mickey Simms and Justin Cantor. This was just at Elephant though. We moved to other venues like Relish when we finished there at about 2 o’clock and then I think that would go on until about 9 or 10 o’clock. Then there was Gas Club that opened from 10 until 6 in the morning.
The Gas Club was central wasn’t it?
It was in Leicester Square. I think it’s a gentleman’s club now or something like that. But because the scene itself had parties going from early on a Thursday night through to Monday morning, it was very easy for people to find a party to go too. You didn’t have to wait three weeks for a party that you wanted to go to turn up. Every single week on a Thursday, without a doubt.
Was there a point where your sets were 80 or 90% UK productions?
You know what, that didn’t happen for quite a while. I was very much into my house. Even in the Tuff Jam days, if you listened to a lot of our vocal stuff, it’s very house influenced. We obviously put our own stance on it, and I remember an article in a certain magazine that interviewed a bunch of DJs from Tony Humphrey to some British DJ’s and Tony said that he loved ‘those house guys Tuff Jam’, and then you had all the British house DJ’s saying that it wasn’t house, it was garage. Then Tony said, ‘well it sounds house-y to me and it fits into my sets, so I love it.'
I think we were just lucky that we made music that crossed genres. That proves a point that genres really are just a name.
So when did you hook up with Carl 'Tuff Enuff' Brown?
My cousin introduced me to Carl. I think that was around ‘93/’94 and I had a project that I was working on with Justin Cantor. I said look, lets get this Carl guy in and do a track together. I had a remix by this group called Q-Rious and I called Carl to see if he wanted us to do it together, and that was the first ever Tuff Jam thing. So we did it and I took it out to play and I think it was at Arches or Heaven and that was it. The dancefloor went crazy so I said to Carl that we should do a few more things together and that was it.
So obviously Carl had his background of coming from Double Trouble, do you think maybe he brought with him that bassier UK rave sound into it a little bit?
To be honest with you, I did Feel My Love back in ’91…
So the sound was basically already there.
Yeah, and we just took both of our influences and turned it into one. It was the rough and smooth as people always say. Carls roughness against my smoothness. It’s amazing how you end up with that kind of sound. We basically sat down and said that we loved the American sound, but we’ve just got to make it rough. We were just more into dubs then, taking samples and stuff. Then we got more into vocals and remixes and then we found our feet. If I think about it now, those 5/6 years that Carl and I were together, it just felt like one year as everything moved so fast.
When I think of the Tuff Jam sound, it really does sound like a British sound to me, it's got that dub, reggae influence that's in so much UK rave music-
There’s everything in there. Because Carl and I had very much the same taste in music, we had influences from reggae, from drum & bass, soul, jazz and we were sampling tracks that you really wouldn’t even think about sampling. To give you an idea, Todd came into the studio once with a gospel record or something that he’d got down the flea market and he was sampling that. And we were drawing on things from that, as we really wanted to form our own sound and identity. I wanted people to be able to know that it was a Tuff Jam track within 32 bars of the track. People have their own identity. You can always tell a Wookie track, you can always tell an MJ Cole track. There are just certain peoples tracks who you now straight off as it’s coming into the mix. If you listen to what the kids are making today then it’s really starting to go full circle as they’re taking influences from the stuff that we used to make. If you look at Gorgon City, Tough Love, all of that lot, it’s very much what we did back in the day.
Say with the jungle scene, it took Shy FX a good 15 to 20 years before he had more than one chart hit. He only really got the big hits later on in his career, where as you lot were one of the only British underground movements to go straight to commercial success without abandoning the sound. How was that? It must have been quite strange.
It was weird because everything happened so fast. We were just doing stuff for our own direction. Sometime people make stuff just for the charts or have a label pushing it for the charts, but we were just making our own stuff and labels were saying that they’d have it. I remember when we were just doing our dubby stuff and our manager said that we needed to move forward with it. So we said that we wanted to remix top artists, as that’s what was going to come next. I remember when we remixed Usher and the original went to number one over in America. Then we remixed it and it went to number one over here as well. I can remember being told that in America, as soon as our mix had come out, that was the mix that they were playing on the radio in America.
So did you have any success in America? Garage never really got any traction over there as it’s only now that the mainstream is really starting to understand dance music over there at all.
America is weird, because there’s this thing called Google Charts isn’t there? I don’t really know what success we had out there to be honest. I know we had loads of remixes. I don’t think we really had major chart success though. I was just impressed at the remixes we were getting though as they were really quite high profile. We were mainly getting the US side of things with labels, and I know we got a load of radio play out there. We had a lot of success with our remixes, and I guess when you’re part of these high profile packages you’re going to get asked to do more of those kind of thing.
You and Carl got a little bit of a backlash for your success. Do you think that’s just part and parcel of being successful?
Yeah, it’s great. It’s like footballers isn’t it. No one is going to try and put off a footballer if he's crap. We were focused and had good managers and people around us, we had a great office. We were busy; if we weren’t DJing we were in the studio. We didn’t really have a life outside of what we did, it was that much. When you turn people down for things, just simply because you can’t do it or because it’s not quite what your management want you to do, I think people think that it’s big headed or you’re not helping out and stuff like that. It’s just what we do, we had a certain direction that we wanted Tuff Jam to go and we also have a certain charge for remixes and stuff like that. It’s what the industry makes us charge and whatever backlash that we got was great because if people are talking about us then we must be doing something right and that kind of proved that we were.
There’s a history of UK underground sounds going to a major label and the label not understanding what made the sound good in the first place, telling the artist to produce something different and ballsing it all up. How did you avoid that?
We never let the major labels into the studio. We never listened. If someone said that they wanted certain things, it just seemed a bit arrogant to me. If you came to us for our Tuff Jam sound and then try to water it down, it isn’t going to happen. If we wanted to water something down, we would water it down to the way that we think it should be watered down. But we hardly ever thought that. If someone wanted a remix we’d barely ever read past a bit if it said that they wanted a certain tempo or something like that. We never let ourselves get caught in that trap.
And what do you think of the current UKG revivalism?
I think the problem being, you can’t recreate something and hopefully have that same kind of success. Today, even when I get asked to do 2-step remixes and I think, ‘yeah okay I’ll do it’, they want that certain mystic sound. When I do them I bring them up to date a little bit, but you’re still trying to recreate something that was massive back in the day. It’s nothing fresh. If you think about it, it was about ’98 when 2-step really kicked in, that is when it was fresh. With the freshness, record labels and people grab onto it and pump the money into it. There’s nothing fresh about 2-step today, there’s nothing fresh about a lot of the stuff that is done today. There are good producers coming through like Preditah though. If you look at him now, he’s making stuff from house to garage to grime to bass. He’s a young kid and he’s got so many different influences. If he does a track, you don’t know what you’re going to be getting. You may think he’s just grime, but he’s coming out with something different every time.
When you were producing you were using a lot of hardware, computers, samplers, keyboards and the like. Do you think that the switch from that to a laptop setup is in some ways stifling creativity a bit?
Yeah, but to get a full hardware setup you have to spend tens of thousands. A sampler back in the day would have cost you like £1200, but now you probably couldn’t even sell it for a quid. So if you were going to go into the studio to make music and you wanted to buy your own stuff it would cost you a bomb. Now, all you’ve got to do is buy a laptop. You can even do it on a Playstation now. It just makes it easier for people to make music and it’s easier for people to buy sample packs. All people do now is just layer sample after sample and you can hear the same samples being used in different peoples tracks over and over. It’s quite funny really, there’s no creativity there at all. Back then, it was spending hours on an Akai sampler and then cutting up the samples on a little screen that you could barely even see. Now, everything is just easy so anyone can make a track.
So you think it’s just flooded now then?
Yeah of course, but it’s just about quality control I guess really. If you look back at the 90’s when you just had vinyl, if you were making a track, you would also have to have about 800 quid to then press it. If you were going to spend 800 quid, 98% of the time of it was good stuff, then the other 2% was crap. You’d just think about what you were doing if you had to spend £800 on it. Now though, all you’ve got to do is get the samples and put them together. You can get literally every piece of software you need to make music for nothing. All you’ve got to do is to master it a little bit and then how many different sites are there that you can put them on? There are certain sites that you can sell them on, on your own, then there’s Soundcloud with free downloads, then there’s Beatport, iTunes, blah blah blah.
Unless someone is pushing a track in your face, there’s so much crap to sift through until you get to the good stuff. Just because something is in the top 5 of Beatport, it doesn’t mean that it’s something you should play out. There are so many DJ’s out there now that just download the top 10 tracks on Beatport and play them out.
Who do you think does make the good stuff now then?
Everyone that I play.Haha. There’s loads of people to be honest. It’s like going to buy a packet of crisps. The main one you’re probably going to look for is Walkers. If you go to the shopping centre, everyone has got their own brands, but you’re just going to go for the one you know. I think with that, sometimes you miss out on the good stuff. If you go into a vinyl store, there’s only a certain amount you can listen to because you can only listen to what’s pressed up. Where as with mp3 – there’s millions of tracks out there.
I remember going to Catch A Groove in the West End in the early ’90s, people would be queuing outside the shop waiting for the deliveries at 11 o’clock to get what they needed. Now, you can play everything that everyone else plays unless you’re on a super duper mailing list.
I actually think there has been a slight return to people making dubs and people sitting on them. People are just becoming a bit more aware that exclusivity is a good thing.
Yeah, we did that with Tuff Jam. There’s stuff that we never released because we sat on it.
What’s your favourite thing that you never put out?
Oh god, there were a few. We did a track with Kristine Blonde that we only just about finished in terms of arrangement and vocals, but we never finalized it.
Where’s that track now? Have you ever thought about putting it out there?
I’m actually looking at it right now.
Well stick it on the Soundcloud! Hah. Everyone would love it, they’d go crazy.
Do you know what, I did actually say to someone yesterday that there was a record that had never got put out, I think it was a Michael Watt’s thing Reach On Up, because they’d been putting out an artist from France that they’d just signed so they decided to sit on it and they never released it so we took it back. Maybe we'd put that out...
Mat 'Jam' Lamont plays at Love Saves the Day Festival, Bristol May 23rd/ 24th - info and tickets over here