Storytelling: Digging and discovery with Dave Lee
A history of record shops, parties and moments with Dave Lee.
There are very few producers and DJ’s with as much legacy and history as Dave Lee. Born in Essex he became a staple of underground dance and music culture in London moving between and helping to connect listeners of house, funk, soul and disco.
He has more than a few stories to tell, with tales of record stores and parties from days gone by through to life lessons which have helped steer and guide his path through a lifetime in music.
He’s released music on the likes of Nu Groove, Border Breakers, Virgin and founded a number of labels including his own Z Records which has been a prolific outlet for a great volume of his own records and productions.
He’s been a keen figure in the rise of the remix and edit culture, having been the go to guy for a number of pop stars and underground heads alike. Each remix with its own innovative twist which causes damage and disruption on the dancefloor.
This summer he will play an exclusive set at Campo Sancho, the much loved festival run by the team behind the former Sancho Panza stage at Notting Hill Carnival. It’s bound to be a tear up like no other and we invited good friend Sharon to interview Dave about a legacy in dance.
Hello Dave. Where are you today and what are you up to?
I’m in the studio (funnily enough), just been doing some final tweaks on my mixes of Mike Lindup’s (from Level 42) excellent “Atlantia” and bouncing the various masters
If you first heard Boogie Nights by Heatwave on Multi Coloured Swap Shop, we must have been wearing similar tank tops. What happened to you when you first heard this record?
Up until then my taste’s was more rocky stuff, glam rock, Sweet “Hell Raiser”, T Rex “20th Century Boy” were 2 favourites, its noisy, riff heavy, exciting music and the image of the bands with long hair and makeup appealed to me. Most of my exposure to music came from TV, particularly TOTP. The black music featured on there was mainly the likes of the Drifters or the Stylistics, often ballads which were too soft for the young me. When Boogie Nights started with its slow harp intro i thought this sounds like another slow song, then all of a sudden it explodes into this super funky groove and i was instantly converted to disco, funk and black music all at once. Though i still like glam rock.
When did you start working in Rough Trade exactly, and how did you get the job?
1986, a friend Steve Goddard told me about the job, not sure if he’d gone for it already but the money wasn’t enough. It was quite low, not enough if you had a family like he did then
Were you working in the shop initially before you set up Demix? What was Demix about?
I was working in Smithers & Leigh in Oxford Street for 9 months first. That was the job that got me into London and “the music business”. The shop only lasted about 15 months, unfortunately being located at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street just didn’t have the same passing trade at the Soho side. I loved being in London surrounded by records and record shops.
Rough Trade was started by Geoff Travis in ‘76. I know BMG bought them in early 2000’s, was Geoff still around the shop when you were there? What was he like?
Geoff ran RT Records, my first job at Demix was in RT Distribution, which were 2 separate but connected companies. However, Geoff was much more involved when i started Republic Records in 88, as that was a part of RT Records. We worked together a lot then. Geoff is a very intelligent, art driven man who is open minded with a broad taste in music. I’ll always be grateful to him for showing faith in my A&R abilities.
If you didn’t go to Rough Trade, what do you think you might have been doing? Is it possible you might have taken a different path or was a life making music your destiny?
I have often wondered that myself. Who knows. I was very conscious I had been given this big break with the record store job and I was determined to make the most of it. Smithers & Leigh went under 6 months after I left. If I’d still been there at that point i would have tried my damnedest to get another job within the industry but there would be some luck involved in my future progress. I was still commuting from my parents in Colchester at that point. I like to think i would have managed to get into another shop at least.
In ’88 you started Republic while you were at Rough Trade. One of the first soulful house labels in the UK pushing the New Jersey sound. What other labels were about then in the UK that you had your eyes and ears on?
UK wise, Champion were releasing a lot of the hot imports in the UK. They had an advantage as part of their company was a record importer that sold into the dance shops, meaning they heard all the new stuff first and could to some degree control the supply. It was still mainly about US music at that point. Neil Rushton’s label Koolkat were picking up some Chicago and Detroit material as well as signing some home-grown house. Jack Traxx also put out some great stuff. The majors had very active dance departments like Cooltempo, FFRR and Virgin 10
"I had their ear. I didn’t ask for an advance, there was no contract, so it was fairly easy."
I’ve always thought that Nuphonic is part of that London historic. Did you pay much attention to Nuphonic when it started?
Yes they spear headed the second wave of disco house in the mid-90s , along with people like the Idjuts. It was more dubby, instrumental and organic sounding. My early stuff, and the likes of disco house releases on Azuli tended to have house drums and be quite sample heavy. I guess that period was also the beginning of the re edit thing. I found it quite inspiring, and it was one of the reasons i started making Sunburst records.
Was Republic part owned by Rough Trade when you started up, how did that work?
It was pretty much owned by RT, I was paid a wage. If we’d had a massive success then I’d have made more in terms of some share of profits but that never happened
Disco samples have been a central element to your productions. Together Forever – Was this the first time you used a disco sample?
Many of the early M D Emm releases were full of disco/funk type samples, but usually more in a Pump up the Volume style with lots of a of short vocal snippets and breaks. The flip of Get Busy in 1988 looped a Black Heat clav sample, with a female acca over the top (I’m not going to say what it was), but they worked well together.
How did you stumble across the idea ?
Raven Maize was probably the first half decent thing we made. I had taped the original Exodus from the radio as a new release in 82, then picked up a copy a of the 12” couple of years later at a record fair. Obviously at the start of the house and sampling era there was so many potential grooves, riffs and acappellas waiting to be utilised. I was going back down to Clacton to get in the studio when I could at weekends, but it was slow progress as we were learning and didn’t have the right equipment. I recall hearing a little bit of Exodus sampled (I think the acappella was on a bootleg comp, so it was quite available) and it inspired me to get on with doing my own version, using some of the vocal nut with their Rhodes riff. One of the things we did on that track which I’d never heard before was using the hi hat as a trigger to gate the strings. I’m sure someone else will have done it before us but we didn’t copy them. I was doing some licensing from Quark of Blaze material so approached them to release it as i felt it sounded very New York, a little leftfield and would sit well on that kind of label.
You released ‘Do It Believe It’ on Nu Groove in 1990, the New York house juggernaut. How did you manage to get signed to them?
I was regularly speaking to Karen and Frank Mendez, plus also Judy Russell as I’d licensed a few things off them for Republic, so I had their ear. I didn’t ask for an advance, there was no contract, so it was fairly easy.
When you started Z was it just you, did you ever have a partner in Z?
No just me. It was initially just a way of releasing my own music without having to shop it around to labels, which I’ve never liked doing
Who makes up Z these days?
Danny and Tim work in the office. I have a guy Matt who comes to the studio one day a week.
I was trying to look at how many releases Z has put out on Discogs. That’s a pretty fierce momentum. How have you kept that fire burning?
I reckon 500-550. The first 10 years was just a few singles per year. We’ve stepped it up since 2000. I have to give some credit to BBE who inspired me a bit with their great comps.
So many great collections and comps to highlight. I loved the Under The Influence series. How do you go about choosing ‘who’ to curate?
I just look for people who’ve got amazing collections and knowledge. That’s the main thing. If they’ve got profile as a Dj then all the better but it’s not vital. Back in the 90/00’s there were a lot of comps from name DJ’s, but I thought giving the super digger a chance to put together a selection would be something I’d personally prefer to hear.
Have you got another one in the pipeline?
Yes Rahaan drops later this year.
“Obviously if you come up with a humdinger of a song then you’ll do well out of it but realistically the chances of that are slim. It might be good but it’s not REALLY good. It one of the reasons why there are so many covers as it ups the chances of the recoupment of the investment.”
You’ve been in high demand as a remixer in your time. What were the first remixes you did that attracted the likes of Diana Ross, M People, Pet Shop Boys?
It was a slow process over several years, starting with popular underground releases like Reese Project and Simphonia. That led to some major label remixes, some of which (such as Marathon “Movin” and Brand New Heavies “Dream come true”) did well. I was also signed to Virgin as an act in the early 90s which gave me a decent profile. M People initially came because we were signed to Deconstruction (their label) as Hed Boys. Diana was via the French office, and I talked the A&R into letting me do Love Hangover. These days I just don’t enjoy the quick turnarounds and also having in the back of my mind that what I’m working on has to be approved by the a&r, what happens if they aren’t into it etc. So, in general I prefer to please myself and do stuff for ZR as quickly or slowly as I feel like. I am aware I’m in a privileged position to be able to take this stance
MAW- Backfired, Erro – Change for Me. How much of a pleasure was it to remix such massive tracks?
Well as a remixer it’s always much easier working with great songs and vocals. Though I do recall when I was in the middle of “Backfired” a Dj mate called me up and he asked what I was working on and at that point it sounded a complete mess with far too much going on. Sometimes remixes (or productions) go through stages where the parts aren’t gelling, might be a question of tightening up timing, muting some stuff or getting rid of parts entirely, even if you like them. It’s rarely plane sailing all the way through
These tracks were trailblazers. When you did these remixes, did you know they were going to big?
Not especially. I’ve worked on loads of songs which I started imagining were going to be big when I was finishing them in the studio – in most cases they weren’t. When you’re immersed in a piece of music, it’s looping around at loud volume whilst you’re finessing the mix, it’s easy to loose objectivity and think it’s better that it is. Then after you’ve finished it and it’s not out yet then there is a tendency to get fed up with it and start to think it’s a bit boring. I didn’t think Erro was particularly accessible, I just licensed it because I liked it, but I’m aware my taste can be quite niche.
Soulful House has had a bit of kick-in the last couple of decades, but you can’t take away the authenticity of these events like Soul Heaven and Southport. Largely they weren’t dependent on drugs, it was all about the dancers and vibe. Do you think that club nights in 2022 experience the same level of high? Or is it just a different time
Maybe in the USA its more of a water, dancers thing but the UK versions of the soulful events have plenty of people heavily indulging, not that there is anything wrong with that. I played at SPW in April it was great, really friendly, and full of music lovers. Soulful house has never been “cool”, maybe briefly for a couple short periods in the 90s but the press has never really got behind it, or mainstream dance radio. Same as they completely ignored jazz funk, boogie, and soul back the 70/80s and endlessly wrote about punk, new romantic and 2 tone. The actual music often isn’t enough for press, there needs to be a visual angle and “a story” for them to get on board
At what point along your journey did the Sunburst Band form? Who was it comprised of initially, what’s happening with it today?
It initially started with making the music, something a little jazzier. The name, then the idea of making it into a proper band developed out of the sound of the material. The first 12” the “Sunburn” EP came out in 97, then a second 12” in 98 and the debut album later that year. The first couple of releases were based around jazzy samples with Jessica Lauren playing over them on her Rhodes and other analogue keyboards, but by the time I made the album there was more playing and less sampling. Long-time member and guitarist Tony Remy got involved at that point, whilst Taka Boom sang on a few songs. Second album onwards was more band like. I actually sent the first EP to a couple of nu disco labels – Disorient and Nuphonic before i released it to see if they might be interested. I thought it would be cool to have something out on that type of new label rather than sticking it myself. However, i didn’t mention Joey Negro in the note i put with the cassette, i just signed it Dave, then followed it up with a couple of phone calls but neither on them listened to it (or they did and weren’t into it) so eventually i put it out on ZR.
I bought The Best Of Disco spectrum from The Mighty Zaf in Love Vinyl, the one you did with Sean P. Do you and Sean P go back a long way?
The first time i met Sean was in Smithers & Leigh, he came in one evening with a wants lists and pointed to Clyde Alexander as one he was particularly keen to get a copy of. I’d never even heard of it but a few months later distributer G&M tracked down some copies and we actually had it in the store. I’ll always associate him with that song and the Heavenly Star group of labels it was released on. I stayed in contact with him after I left the shop as he was a genuine guy with incredible knowledge. My relationship with him over last 20 years has been mainly conducted via email and text. We often send each other music, links etc
I once walked into a record shop down the road from our office and Sean P was sitting behind the jump. Totally lovely bloke, full of knowledge. What work have you and Sean done together?
We’ve done quite a few comps together. Sean also does all the vinyl restoration for ZR as he’s the best I know at it.
The Disco sounds that were made between like 72 – 79, have never really been over taken. Jazz has been explored by younger generations with plenty of impressive nu jazz beats. Why do you think that original disco still gets sampled so much, rather than people making real disco
For me disco is about songs, not just the grooves and a lot of the nu disco made over the last 30 years has been more on dubby instrumental tip. Some of that is really good but it can sometimes feel like it’s the side dishes without the main course. There are some fantastic remixers out there, but many of them don’t originate their own productions in terms of brand new songs. Not many people do because its so bloody expensive and writing a strong new song as good as the ones we love from BITD is very difficult. Even if i don’t particularly like the result i respect anyone who attempts to do this. I’ve done both (a lot) and its much easier to remix a classic than create a new one. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Not sure its all strictly disco but as far as originating goes I like Str4ta, Crackazat, Crazy P (and the offshoots) The Vision, Art of Tones, Louie Vega, Opolopo, J Kriv, the Star Creature label – there are others i’ve just quickly looked what i bought recently. I heard the recent single from Lizzo “About Damn time” on the radio the other day, I think that is a decent pop disco song. Likewise the Jesse Ware and Kylie duet from last year.
The amount of music produced presently can be overwhelming. Do you think there is a lack of quality control? Is there any quality control?
Well, there’s never been any official quality control and there probably shouldn’t be. However, a major factor used to be the costs – both of making the recording and paying the musicians, then pressing up the vinyl. Now if you produce an edit, or a sample based / tech house release then your investment could be next to nothing, so a few hundred downloads is an acceptable return. Where go the opposite way and write/produce an entirely new piece of music with a singer and musicians and that could easily cost you £1000-1500 and there is a good chance you won’t even recoup it. Not many labels would be prepared to pay you an advance that covered your costs. Obviously if you come up with a humdinger of a song then you’ll do well out of it but realistically the chances of that are slim. It might be good but it’s not REALLY good. It one of the reasons why there are so many covers as it ups the chances of the recoupment of the investment. It’s also very transparent what is selling now on download sites and covers of the most obvious oldies do well.
You’ve been fiercely independent as an artist, keeping your quality high by doing everything by yourself. Are you a control freak at heart?
I probably am a control freak to some degree but I’m also quite experienced in many aspects of the business. I find it best to keep an eye on what the people who are working for you are doing and if needed direct them. I did have a couple of artist managers for periods in the 90s, it was mainly to deal with remix work, and they were good at that. As far as actually masterminding your career, then if you’re a pop act I suppose you need some sort of manager and i daresay there are ones who have been fundamental in their artists success. I’ve not personally met many like that.
Making vinyl records has become such a ball ache. Does it put you off making your lovely gatefold albums, or will you always want to release on this classic format?
The long wait to get the product makes the scheduling of releases frustratingly slow but these days the vinyl can be an integral part of the income on an album so whilst people are buying in the current numbers we will probably keep pressing it. Though i can’t help but wonder if the market will be there in 10 years’ time.
‘Produced With Love Volume 1’ was out in 2017. How long has ‘Volume 2’ taken to put together?
Quite a few of the songs were finished and being played in my sets pre lock down but once everything closed i knew we’d need to wait until it all opened before releasing the album. Shops being shut and especially clubs being closed, DJ’s not needing to buy music as no gigs – it’s not a great time to put out a project you’ve invested so much time and money into. it’s hard to quantify how long it’s taken, its done in dribs and drabs over a long period whilst I also work on other stuff. Some of the basic backing tracks were started up to 10 years ago but it took me a while to find the right song and voice. Plus, there was another 5 or 6 songs i pretty much finished i decided weren’t quite good enough
Must have been quite a frustrating time for someone who prefers to be face to face with collaborators..
Most producers work remotely sometimes and having the option to collaborate with singers/musicians on the other side of the world that way is a great thing but doing everything remotely is not for me. Things are often much slower, and it can involve writing lots of mails, chasing people up. Plus, there was no gigs to road test the material. Thankfully, I’m not someone who suffers with depression, but it was a bit depressing. However, i also knew the situation was far worse for some other people than it was for me, so I couldn’t feel too sorry for myself and knew it would come to an end.
How would you best describe ‘Made With Love II’ in a nutshell
I’m not sure I am the best person to speak about it tbh. I find it far easier to talk about other people’s music – both the stuff i love and also things i’m not so crazy about. I can say the album is out now on ZR and thankfully the response has been really good from punters and with positive reactions / play from Gilles Peterson, Francois K, Louie Vega, Natasha Diggs, Horsemeat Disco.
The album features a host of stellar talent including the silky tones of the mighty Omar on lead single ‘Starlight’. How did it come together?
I’ve been a fan of Omar since the days of the Kongo Dance label. I own many of his LPs and have also included a few of his songs on my comps over the years, so i guess it was just a matter of time before we did something together (or at least I asked him), but it’s a question of finding the right project I had been working on this mid-tempo backing track and thought maybe this could be a good one for Omar. This was doing the first lockdown, so I mailed his manager Lucia and she said he’s up for it in theory. i sent through the track and suggested maybe I could have a chat with Omar after he’s taken a listen. I was expecting him to tell me he liked the chords but when we actually spoke i got the impression he wasn’t that crazy about it. I have lots of unused backing tracks on my computer, some of which were done 10 years ago, others are quite recent. After i put down the phone I thought I’ll have a rummage though my hard drives and see if there’s anything else that might be suitable which he’d maybe find more inspiring. I found a track I’d almost forgotten about that was done for another singer I had over for the USA a few years before, I liked it but we didn’t use it. So I sent Omar it and said would you prefer to write over this? He called me back about 30 mins later and had already written the chorus of Starlight.
You’re both playing at Campo Sancho in July. Will you grab a beer or two by the campfire? Should have got him to do ‘Starlight’ live!
Maybe he will do it live? Omar and myself have been camping together a few times but on our most recent trip there was a disagreement after he spilt his baked beans over my sleeping bag which ended up with the tent being badly damaged.
This is your first time at Campo. Were you aware of Sancho Panza parties, they did like 20 years at Notting Hill, did you ever dance to them on Middle Row?
Yes my first one, I know of the event as some friends have played there, I attended one of their parties with Norman Jay playing many years ago
Historically Campo Sancho goes full-on disco on Friday nights so that makes you the perfect choice!
Whenever I spin I just try and play the best music i can within the perimeters of what the crowd seem to be responding to. I know the event has a great rep and the people who go are maybe a little older and musically minded, so I hope both me and them will have a bloody good time.
Catch Dave at Campo Sancho HERE.
Joining The Circus
What to do for British politics?
Solidarity with Ukraine
URL vs. IRL
Do DJs Today Need Social Media to Be Heard?
I Hear (Borusiade Remix)
Mother of MarsShop Now
Hologram TeenShop Now