Gone To A Rave #42: Jack Smooth Sets The Record Straight
You may not have heard of Jack Smooth, but if you were dancing in the '90s, you've danced to one of his tunes. The producer, now going by the slightly more British moniker of Ron Wells, is a hero to the rave underground. Fanboy dissections of his career have created 30+ page threads on the Back to the Old Skool forum as heads try and trace a career that saw Wells produce and engineer over 200 tracks. Having started his discography by joining up with Chris Simmonds as Detroit influenced techno outfit Wax Factory, Wells went on to hook up with the Basement Records label, co-writing over 30 releases for the label, including classics from Top Buzz, DJ Mayhem, Jack n Phil and more, classic tracks that are widely held to have been instrumental in laying the foundations of jungle. Some time around 1992 he found himself entering rave notoriety forevermore by producing Urban Hype's Trip to Trumpton, a chart topping distillation of pure rave cheese that became both the pinnacle and the death knell of the 'Toytown' happy hardcore scene. In something of a sidestep, he then hooked up with keyboardist Paul Clarke to form jazz-jungle outfit Earl Grey, with the duo releasing a few acclaimed releases on jungle favourite Rugged Records, before siging a deal with a major and watching it all go tits up.
Today, Gone To A Rave guest writer Ian S (along with a few questions from the Back to the Old Skool massive) has conducted a mammoth interview with Ron, and it's remarkable – Wells, basically, does not give a shit. He's been through industry madness and come out the other side, older, wiser, and more than willing to deliver some home truths on the many, many names he's worked with. Alex Reese, Urban Hype, Basement Phil, they all get the once over from Wells – and the picture he paints ain't always pretty…
First question, 15-odd years after you stopped making music, was it a bit weird to find out that so many people were still interested in your work, and that forums you joined (Back To The Old Skool) would have 30-odd page threads regarding your stuff?
Yes, both flattering and humbling given the kind words and support of many.
How did you first get into electronic music and the scene? Was it the established route of hip-hop/funk/electro then on to house, or were you into the likes of Jarre, Vangelis etc?
Kraftwerk, and then Electro Funk, then Techno, I’ve always loved drum machines and synths.
Do you remember the first dance music event you went to? A lot of people have very fond memories of their first rave and usually find that the experience changes you. Was that the case with you?
It was a warehouse in Park Royal London in 1987, we used to go to Blues parties before that in Acton, which were mainly Soul and Electro (GTO, etc).
You produced hundreds of records, but still seemed to be fairly anonymous (except for the geeks and people who read the labels of records). Were you happy with that, or would you have preferred a little bit more of the limelight?
I'm wrongfully billed as an unsung hero but the truth is I never wanted any publicity or fame. This is why I never allowed photos – so I could remain anonymous and I managed it pretty well. Mixmag are the only people who managed to persuade me to send a photo and believe me they had to do a lot of asking – they contacted me and asked for an interview and then moved in to "no photo, no article" mode? I said "Fine no article", they quickly stepped of their high chair and used charm instead.
Would you have preferred to get a little more credit for your input though? Having engineered and produced for a huge amount of artists, but not necessarily getting the credit for all of your input?
Well… some celebrated 'artists' sit in the studio and do very little. I didn't want the credit, credit doesn't pay bills, money does. I don’t crave credit, but I don’t take kindly to those who do little or nothing and then claim the credit. I call these people ‘Talent Leaches’ and I’ve worked with a few.
You were signed to MCA in the late 90s with your Earl Grey project. Did you experience any tension that comes when being answerable to a major label, instead of your own label or a large independent like Basement Records?
Signing to MCA in 1996 was a big mistake in hindsight (although they paid handsomely). They didn't know what to do with us (Fast Floor / Earl Grey). We pulled away from the underground scene at the time as we thought with such massive backing we would break new markets – our music was always meant to be listenable outside of clubs. The fact is that MCA proved to be useless.
That experience taught me a lot, namely that being rich does not automatically mean being clever.
But… that experience, coupled with some of the other knob heads in the music industry, sent me on my way in business and I haven't looked back in that respect to be fair.
Any particular instances of Labels not understanding you, or misdirecting you?
We did a project for MCA with Shanie Campbell. The end product sounded nothing like the original mixes. Shanie was a commercial house singer – she sung 'Don't Give Me Your Life', which was a decent sized hit. When we were signed to MCA we were put with her. Naturally we tried to make a crossover album, to match her voice and style but MCA ruined the project by feeling the need to commission seriously heavy underground mixes of every track in favour of the originals (they/we should have just recorded the originals better). We (myself and Paul Clarke) thought the end result was complete rubbish and we were not surprised that the project failed. This is one of many projects that did not work out due to music business fools. The biggest problem with the music business has always been the people who 'work' in it.
Your sound developed from Techno influenced Hardcore (or hardcore influenced techno), how did you come to be making very live-orientated, jazz-based Drum ‘n’ Bass?
This sound was a result of the Jazz fusion collection I was building at the time, it made so much sense for me to go in this direction. This was my favourite and best sound. I'm often credited as the 'father of Jungle Techno', but I believe I played a even bigger part in driving the sadly short-lived, genuine jazz drum & bass scene (by this I mean playing original compositions with instruments over breaks – not knitting together samples from a few classics). It was short-lived because those who couldn't play or create their own music quickly saw that they would be out of a job if this scene took over, hence they went into ‘Amen Brother’ at 165 BPM and a few 'noises' – about 1000 pieces of shit like this were coming out every month – that's when I got out.
What did you make of a lot of the tunes coming out in the early 90s then? What with most of them being very sample heavy? I’m a big fan of that kinda stuff as I love my samples, but I take it that it’s anathema to you?
I don’t do people who use their sampler as a dialysis machine (if you turn it off, they die).
Did you play all the stuff yourself?
All of the difficult performance stuff on Fast Floor / Earl Grey was usually done by Paul (Clarke, the other half of lots of his later tunes) as he is a proper keyboard player, whilst I'm not a 'door bell pusher' (our phrase for totally inept 'players' – you know, the ones that put stickers on the keys and press once to trigger a sample) – it's quicker to hum what you are thinking and have an accomplished player, interact with you and put the combined version in. I could easily programme any chord progression myself – and I have done a large amount this way – but when the skills are standing next to you, you hum it to Mr Clarke and he in turn says, “what about this too?” and then the composition begins. Keys on the other stuff was mainly played by me.
When you were in the studio, how influenced were you by other records that were coming out at the same time?
I didn't really listen to anyone else as I was in the studio every day for years – so I didn't have time. I literally lived in my studio. Alex Hazzard used to call me Data (from Star Trek) on account of how white I was, due to a complete lack of exposure to the sun. Also I wanted my sound to be absolutely recognisable. I probably managed this by not being influenced too much by what others were doing (although you can't completely avoid it).
Which artists/producers/DJs did you always look out for though? You must have had some favourites.
I always liked Dave Angel, Joey Beltram and Frank De Wulf, there will be plenty of others, but these guys spring to mind.
Were you into synths before you started making tunes? Or was it making those early tunes that got you hooked? Did you use any other studios other than your own?
I have always loved synths and drum machines. I borrowed a Juno 106 from a mate and then bought a Roland 707. I had not a clue what to do with them, then someone told me I needed a sequencer, so I got a Roland MC300. The learning curve was seriously steep but eventually I got to a point where I could make something worth recording. I had just those two bits of kit into a Phonic DJ mixer! Then I got a Roland D5 and a very basic Tascam 16 channel mixer – that's when I was first able to work on achieving any kind of quality. After that I was hooked and reinvested pretty much every penny back into equipment and building a capable studio.
You said that you were pretty much in the studio 24-7, did you ever DJ out at all?
I hardly ever played out, I was always in the studio… but I did lots of radio as I ran a station from home.
What about your BBC Radio 1‘One In The Jungle’ mix with Dr. S. Gachet?
I was honoured to be asked by Gachet to share his limelight when he was given opportunity to do the show. Don't know why he chose me instead of doing the show on his own, or choosing someone else.We only ever occasionally crossed paths in clubs (as in we weren't big mates outside of work), so I was surprised to be asked.
I think I fluffed the first mix a bit and almost demanded to restart the recording, but he said, "leave it and carry on, get over it" – maybe it wasn't that bad and it was my OCD.
Producing so many tracks, did you ever suffer from creative blocks in the studio?
The good thing about working with lots of quite different collaborators is that enough inspiration would occur on most days. I had my fair share of horrible sessions where the 'artist' didn't have a clue and I ended up doing it all for them just so I could get out of the place – but I bet most producers and engineers have endured much of the same.
I've also done over 100 house tracks as well as hardcore tunes and this may have helped me to avoid getting too stale, but I've certainly shelved and deleted a fair amount of work.
The key is not to let your ego tell you that something HAS to be good just because you created it – if you start thinking like that you are speeding up the fast lane of becoming a complete asshole.
I have always reminded myself that I’m not nearly as gifted as many of the people whos CDs I’ve bought.
What’s your favourite track that you’ve written?
I don't know, maybe Fast Floor: 7th Heaven & Plight of the Innovators are up there.
So many artists passed through your Sound Entity studio, the likes of Top Buzz,DJ Mayhem, Wax Doctor, Alex Reece. How were they to work with?
Top Buzz – Those guys had a serious sense of humour, they were merciless at cussing, which had us all in stitches for most of every session – and we did a lot. In terms of Mayhem, he was one of the cleverer artists on Basement. I worked extensively on those classic early releases with him – good tunes and he's a great guy.
Kev Bird's a great guy, I did have creative input into his tracks but it should be noted that both Kev and Mayhem were probably the two most capable artists that spring to mind as they did more of the creative work than many of the others. They will tell you that I never ‘just engineered’ anything for them, I always contributed creatively though.
What about Chris Simmonds? Most of your early work seemed to be done with him, but he kinda dropped off the radar?
I don’t have anything to do with Chris Simmonds, unfortunately he took me for a considerable amount of money. You read about these people but never expect the best man at your wedding to turn out to be one of them.
Do you still keep in contact with Alex Reece?
No, those who know the history will say that he didn’t behave very well towards the key people who had helped him achieve his 5 minutes of fame.
From what I've read you became mates and had some of your formative raving experiences with him, then you produced with him and Oscar up until Metalheads time.
We went to the same school, go back a long way, so I naturally expected better behaviour
What did you make of his album?
Are you familiar with the phrase "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all"?
This is me saying nothing at all.
Personally, or musically? Or both?
I refer you to my previous statement.
What did you think of “Pipez”, DJ Furney’s release that heavily sampled Hedgehog Affair – The Pipe?
It sounds like a rather lazy rip off to me, not really impressed. Me, I'll just happily sleep at night in the knowledge that all of the records I make are mine – you can't put a price on integrity. On his Facebook he said he had backing from me to release it – I don’t think so.
How did you end up working with Urban Hype and making “Trip To Trumpton”? Did you get any shit about “selling out” from people? Also, why weren’t you with them on Top Of The Pops?
Urban Hype are another bunch who are somewhat lacking in integrity. The whole Trumpton thing was my idea, but they and their management team put it out as Urban Hype and cut me out of the record sales royalties. The Sun newspaper gave me a whole page to slate them as they (The Sun) had been told the truth by Carl Cox and other leading figures at the time. The article was headed "Top DJ Pumps Cold Water on Hype". I loved that.
I still got my share of the publishing money as luckily I had a contract in place for that, and I did fairly well out of it. But… they will never be forgiven – again I sleep very well at night, having never shafted anyone.
At the time of Trumpton being in the charts I was very aware of the potential PR disaster, but I did my best to make that tune a lot less cheesy than some others at the time, which is probably why it didn't get higher than No 6.
Urban Hype's appearance on Top Of The Pops was awful and I'm glad I played no part in it. Fortunately my reputation remained intact.
Looking back though I'm certainly very proud to be listed in the Guinness Book Of Hits. I used to be slightly embarrassed about that tune but I'm now proud of the achievement – given the millions of other people who have tried for Top 10 success and failed. And back then people used to buy music instead of downloading it for free. In this respect chart success today means absolutely nothing – that's why the BBC axed Top Of The Pops.
Were there many people who came to the studio without a clue? Or had terrible ideas?
A reasonable proportion of the sessions involved myself doing a lot of the composition for 'the artist' so I could go home sooner. In this respect it didn't matter how crap they or their ideas were, as I would just take control of the situation and get some kind of product finished. I imagine (in fact I know) it was/is the same for most studio owners, producers and engineers across the board. I don't think the quality of the idea is as important as the ability to make the idea sound good enough for someone to want to purchase. They say that 'you can't polish a turd, but you can roll one in glitter'… that's probably true of music production.
Turning up with a few tracks you want to sample and then having the rest done for you DOES NOT make you the creator of the outcome… it's genuinely hilarious watching those same people basking in the glory of 'their achievement' after the event.
So, why did you tolerate these people coming to your studio?
Everyone has got to make a living and especially when you are young and gullible you generally tolerate having the piss taken out of you because it's paying some of the bills.
When you grow up emotionally or financially (preferably both) hopefully you then set yourself standards that you will no longer fall below. So the piss takers are then excommunicated and left to fester in small-time hustledom.
Justin Drake(Peace Division) who was Marvin Beaver's (AKA Dylan Rhymes) engineer (and a good one), used to write and produce pretty much whole tunes for people (not Marvin, he can make his own) and he never got the credit he deserved… he was easy going and enthusiastic, like a lot of us were back then. We were young and just wanted to do well. I also really needed the studio booking money to invest in equipment. I wanted the best studio kit I could afford and I pretty much lived on beans in the early days so that I could invest every possible penny into Sound Entity Studio.
When you set up Sound Entity, did you have a clear plan as to what you were doing?
I had no idea what I was doing, I was 19 and utterly clueless in both music structure/notation and business, it was a ride that I was not in control of. I was lucky that I was good technically and was able to grasp the music composition side over time. I was both unlucky and stupid to put trust in some of the people I invested in.
I WOULD NOT do any of the same again with today's knowledge, but I did have many good times, despite having the piss taken at regular intervals.
Much of it was fun but I could have handled myself a lot better, but I was young, inexperienced and didn't take what I was doing seriously enough to make the most of it. I.e. I was genuinely embarrassed at being no 6 in the charts so I didn't make any opportunities for myself out of that success. Looking back I should have used it to open some better, more global doors.
When did you stop working for Basement?
Regular work ceased around BRSS44, with a few bits thrown in after that. I'm pretty sure I did everything from release 4 to 37 and then about another 6 afterwards. It was getting that I couldn't stand the place to be honest.
Since 1997 (gaining experience in founding and running multiple businesses) I can now see that Basement & Vinyl Distribution were extremely badly run, without any strategic business knowledge, it genuinely amazes me how they managed to wing it for as long as they did. I and a few others gave them a ready-made market which they failed to exploit to anywhere near the potential and they eventually failed as a result of that.
So, what should Basement have done differently?
They should have; 1. Actually signed everyone (there were no contracts), 2. Bought the publishing to everything they released. 3. Looked to grow the market globally instead of focusing on the UK. 4. Promoted their own music ABOVE everyone else's (very silly), 5. Not give DJs dubplates several months before releasing vinyl (everything available for sale was effectively old).
The list above represents the most obvious strategic mistakes, but there were many more centred around general business and money management.
So, it’s fair to say that you weren’t a fan of dubplates? It always seemed to me that it was a bad way to make money off your music.
I cannot tell you how MANY times I argued this with them. They treated the buying public – THE MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE – like shit, in favour of sucking up to DJs.
It's basically this: I love and worship you 'Top DJ' you can have our tracks and be a total hero because you are one of a select few that have them… then when the music is stale and people are dancing to the next best thing we'll sell them to the stupid fans. I HATED this practice!!!
You will note that there were not many (if any at all) Sound Entity dubs.
Do you miss the music business? Or are you glad that you got out when you did?
I couldn’t put myself through that again, some might think it’s glamorous, but it’s crap way to live.
What do you make of the recent releases and represses on the newly revived Basement Records? Basement Phil said a lot of nice things about you on Uncle Dugs’ show and your work is getting re-released.
Hmmm I heard the interview which is full of convenient inaccuracies and at times borderline fantasy – and for the record, I have never once merely engineered for anyone. Being an ex-salesman he’s great a turning on fake friendship and false charm on demand and he fooled a lot of people with his act over the years, but it wears bloody thin over time and he has earned plenty of detractors with it. He actually used to flick his fag ash on my studio floor and tread it in, I once asked him if he did that at home, that’s as good an example of lack of respect as you should need.
All of the re-presses and mixes have been released WITHOUT my permission or blessing. I’m not happy at all with Phil Wells in this respect. Any money to potentially claim would no doubt not be worth collecting after costs either. It’s sad to say that I have grown to have absolutely zero respect for Basement Phil (as he appears to have zero respect for himself or anyone else – and he does not appear to even understand the roles of an engineer, producer or composer) given his recent actions releasing stuff without permission – and what’s even more hurtful and disrespectful is his claiming to have written a large proportion of tracks that were 100% composed by me. All Jack n Phil, Mystic Moods tracks were made without him playing a single note, yet he has apparently managed to convince himself that they are his tracks? I have recently instructed him in writing to cease exploiting my intellectual property. I suspect he will again fail this simple request in the future – it’s getting tiresome. He does not own the rights to any of the Basement releases (save for the one or two that he made on his own). This does not include Basement Phil and the Engineers as he didn’t write a single note on that release either.
I said earlier in this piece “Turning up with a few tracks you want to sample and then having the rest done for you DOES NOT make you the creator of the outcome”.
You must have loads of unreleased material sat there, are there any plans to release any of it, or re-releasing some of your older stuff? Some of the re-releases other labels/producers have done seem to be a bit half-arsed.
Maybe… I’m not ruling it in or out. If I do anything it will be done properly and that takes time.
Any plans to get back in the studio?
I do Library Music project circa every 2 years, that’s it at the moment.
I’d like to give shouts to: Paul Clarke, Spencer T, Alex Hazzard, Mayhem, Kev Bird, Loft Groover, Gaschet, Phantasy, Top Buzz, Ed Rayner, Marvin Beaver, Justin Drake and sadly RIP Colin Favour you Legend.
Words: Ian S. Find him on Twitter here