Dego Interview: 'People are afraid to test themselves'
Dego spoke to Marko Kutlesa about his most notable productions, his musical influences and the broken beat genre.
Date published: 17th Oct 2016
In the modern age the success of a music maker can be measured in many ways, mostly using numbers. Amount of downloads, social media followers, times your YouTube video was watched, t shirts sold and what was earned. But not all value can be measured in numbers.
Success as gauged numerically is not something that Dego McFarlane has ever aspired to. Over a quarter of a century into his career, the more recognised measures of success have visited him a few times, but such instances occurred perhaps more out of accident rather than design.
Raised in London to a family of Jamaican descent Dego's youth was one filled with reggae and soul sounds to which hip hop, jazz funk and rare groove were added as he absorbed the inner city flavours of the time. In the late 80s he first became recognised as a DJ and joined college mates Mark Clair, Gus Lawrence and Ian Bardouille in forming 4Hero, a studio outfit, the core of a pirate radio station and the founders of Reinforced Records, a label set up to release their hip hop influenced breakbeat productions.
Reinforced's early releases in 1990 were all attributed to 4Hero, but within a year Dego was releasing solo material on the label using his Tek 9 alias. As the vibrant British dance music scene on the early 90s exploded with possibilities and innovative permutations of American derived sounds, Reinforced was at the forefront, pioneering first breakbeat hardcore and then, as the sound morphed further, drum n' bass.
As the project progressed the studio element of 4Hero slimmed down to Dego McFarlane and Mark Clair aka Marc Mac. Their second album, 1995's Parallel Universe was critically lauded and their third, the ambitious, intricate and boundaryless Two Pages earned them a Mercury Music Prize in 1998. Just a year earlier they had remixed NuYorican Soul's cover of Rotary Connection's 'I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun', which Louie Vega (Masters At Work, NuYorican Soul) correctly described as one of the best remixes ever.
4Hero would revisit the catalogue of producer Charles Stepney again when in 2001 they produced their own cover of Rotary Connection singer Minnie Ripperton's 'Les Fleur'. Just a year later they released the single 'Hold it Down', which proved to be one of the best loved vocal anthems of the innovative music scene dubbed “broken beat” which had begun to be spearheaded by London producers in the late 90s.
Through their genre crossing studio innovations, 4Hero were regarded as pioneers in this new scene and Dego was one of its most respected protagonists, releasing an ever varied selection of music across the scene's key labels, either solo or in collaboration. He was also one of the resident DJs at the scene's flagship club night, Co-op, held at Plastic People. Dego launched his own label 2000 Black in 1998 and it instantly became recognised as one of the most distinct, adventurous and consistent of all the imprints releasing the varied sounds of broken beat.
The More Things Change, The More Things Stay The Same. You used part of that saying as an album title and you're quoted as saying it referred in part to the cyclical nature of music and how age has granted you a perspective where you can see there's nothing new under the sun.
But in the days when you first started making music on Reinforced you must have thought differently, because that music was all about creating something totally new, pushing things forward. So what changed your mind and when did that happen?
I think it just happens after you've acquired more music, heard more things. The only new things that happen are the mixtures, the cross-pollination of different genres that makes the excitement for something new. But, basically, that kind of drumming has been done on that record, that kind of bass playing has been done on that record, that type of synth playing was done in that kind of music, so you have heard it all before.
It's just people get excited about the different mixtures when they happen. I realised that after the record collection became much more diverse. You start saying, “Hang on a minute, this kinda sounds like that”. Also, back in the drum n' bass days, it was mainly sampling anyway, you're not even playing anything properly yourself.
I don't want to spend too much time talking about the very early days because it's all been said before, but I did want to ask if Gus and Ian continued in music in any way? Did you keep in touch?
Unfortunately no. I don't know why but they didn't. I know Ian works for BT doing stuff. I forgot who Gus is working for at the moment. Even when we were doing music, after a while they were more on the managing things and other side of the business really.
You've changed tack so many times throughout your career. From the outside it looks like maintaining and cultivating an existing fanbase hasn't really been one of your main priorities. Are you ever conscious of your audience when you go into the studio?
Nah. I'm very selfish. I make stuff firstly to get a buzz for myself, secondly for my immediate peers, for Kaidi, Matt, Theo Parrish, Ge-ology and whoever and if they like it then I'm cool with that. But I don't think about people out there, no. I haven't got that skill of giving the people what they want. It's not what I do. It's more a case of, this is what I'm into, you can join us if you want to, if you don't then so be it.
In some ways your arrangement of 'Les Fleur' sounds very similar to Charles Stepney's. But you have that whole jazzy middle section that's all your own. It's such an intricate track, so much going on, so how did that middle section come about? Did you sit down and write it specifically or did it come out of jamming around the track?
I wouldn't know because it was mainly Mark who was doing that one. I couldn't tell you, you'd have to ask him.
Was your decision to cover 'Les Fleur' in any way influenced by the remix Masters At Work had asked to do of the Rotary Connection track 'I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun' a few years earlier?
No, it was mainly because we were listening to a lot of Charles Stepney stuff before that. The reason why there's a lot of strings on the Two Pages album was because we were listening so much to Charles Stepney and we wanted to get some element of that with what we were doing. It was just coincidental that Masters At Work did that cover version.
I'm guessing you did some digging around Charles Stepney's catalogue of work. Aside from Minnie Ripperton and Rotary Connection what other moments are particular favourites?
My favourite is the Ramsey Lewis album Mother Nature's Son where he covers The Beatles.
Accepting your evolution through sounds and styles, would it be fair to say that Roy Ayers is also an influence that you've carried with you for quite a while?
Oh yeah, a big influence. Definitely. He's Mr consistency. You can't go wrong with Roy's albums. When you think about how long his career's lasted as well. Brilliant. An excellent source of inspiration.
You grew up with Jamaican parents, with reggae and soul music in the house, then you discovered hip hop when you were quite young. So they are influences that have been with you for a long time. But concentrating on later years, what music makers like Charles Stepney and Roy Ayers have appeared to you while you've been digging that have had a direct impact on what you've wanted to do in the studio?
Oh, damn! Let me think about this. I like a lot of Brazilian stuff. One of my all time favourite Brazilian albums is a Ronald Mesquita album. That's so bad, near enough every track is killer for me. Getting into Brazilian music has helped a lot. What else has been influential? Er, I don't know.
Of course. He's the best hip hop producer ever, I think. For house music I really like this guy Andrew 'Rags' Richards. He had a wicked sound, very underrated. Who else am I into? I don't know! It's funny, I've got all these records and I can't even answer this bloody question! Ha!
At the moment I'm going through a bit of a Go Go music revival, I'm trying to find the bits I missed out on in the 80s. That's giving me a lot of fire at the moment.
One person you've had an affinity and friendship with over the years is Theo Parrish. But in contrast to your own music, what you do often changes a heck of a lot in the space of one song, whereas what Theo sometimes does is that he just hammers you with the monotony of a groove until it sinks in. Is that not something you've been tempted to do yourself?
I have been tempted to do it and I have been doing some tracks that are a bit longer, because so many of them end in four minutes, which Theo complains about. I have been more open to making longer tracks recently. There's a lot to be said for getting people on side by hammering them over the head with it. We're very niche with what we're doing, so I think it is worthwhile trying to get people on side.
So, there are some more recent arrangements that I've done that I would say are much longer and which are influenced by complaints from Theo. And other DJs. Ha!
Electronic music has always seemed to give opportunity at music making to people with no formal musical education. From the varied results, a lot of quite basic music that sounds great on a club system has emerged.
You've no formal musical training and yet you've never shied away from making music with melodies, music that actually demands a certain level of musicianship. Would it be fair to say that you're always working to the aspirations of your ideas rather than working within the limitations of your abilities?
Oh yeah, definitely. Most of the stuff I do is bloody hard to play live, for me. The goal is that I want my records to sit alongside other names in my record collection and not look out of place. I want to be as funky as James Brown, I want to be as melodic as Roy Ayers, I want to have arrangements like Charles Stepney. These are the standards. I imagine things in my head and I'm just trying to get them out.
I think maybe some people are afraid to test themselves in that way. More simple music is more easily accepted by people, there is an appeal. Most people aren't challenged much when it comes to music these days. Hopefully it's turning around again, but that's the way it seemed to be for a while. I just want to get better and better. Fortunately I worked with a lot of really great musicians. I refuse to sit in a room with them and not have my chops, my abilities up there with them, as best as I can make them. I want to have the respect of my peers.
Do you each have very defined roles when you go into the studio with someone like Kaidi?
No, there's no roles. Sometimes he does the drums, sometimes I'm playing the drums, sometimes he plays the chords, sometimes I play the chords. There's no roles. We work in a way where it's about getting the song done. It's not about, I do this, you do that. If you've got the idea, put it down. That's basically how we work.
In terms of composition, is it usually the rhythm track, the drums, which comes first?
No, no, it depends. Sometimes it starts with the chords or a melody line and we work around that. Sometimes it's the drums. We've intentionally, over the last how many years, not restricted ourselves to working in certain defined ways, because (if you do) then you possibly end up having some kind of formula.
We're always trying to approach things differently. Like yesterday when I was working I've not been using any programmed drums, I've been playing the drums on the last few things I've been doing. I always try and work in different ways, not have any guidelines and rules, or roles, whatsoever.
You've used double bass in your productions quite a few times. That's such a lovely bass sound, but it takes a very specific amount of skill to play. How do you write basslines yourself and how has that changed as you've progressed?
Nowadays I don't really use double bass anymore. When it's for someone else to play I'll do it on Midi or some sort of synth and show them the score or they can just hear it. The bass player can then play what we're doing and we usually give them some leeway to express themselves with it. But, for the most part, these days it's either bass guitar or mini Moog that we do the bass sounds on.
One bass sound that I always admired was in some Parliament/Funkadelic records where they would have two bass players playing two basslines, one lower, one higher, sometimes in an almost call and response type scenario. Is that a combination you've ever been keen to explore?
I've done it on a couple of things. Did they come out? No, I don't think they did. But it's definitely a nice idea to do. No, wait, we have done it on a couple of things, I just can't remember the names of the tracks. We just didn't have the synth bass as acute as how it would be on a p-funk record. E would have less resonance on what we do compared to how they do it. But yeah, we've done it a few times.
So you've had like a synth bass line and a bass guitar in the same track?
Have you ever worked with the combination of using sub bass in combination with a more regular synth or bass guitar bassline?
Yeah. Sometimes we get tracks where the bass guitar just won't go down as far as we'd like it so we might overdub it with a low synth bass, but usually when we do that it's out of necessity, trying to get that bottom end so that it sounds good in the club.
I was so excited by the music that people called broken beat. Naive as I was, I really had hopes that this music might displace house music or at least continue to develop in tandem. Because it was the right tempo, you could dance to it, but it was that much more interesting than listening to dumb-tish dumb-tish dumb-tish all night long in a club. But it didn't seem to go that way. What happened?
It wasn't my fault! Ahahahahaha
I'm not saying it was! But, from your perspective, what happened?
I'm just fucking with you [laughs]. What I think happened is, with any scene I think you need a couple of focal points, a couple of stars, for something to develop and become more worldwide. I don't think we had that one artist, that one vocalist, who could be referred to or who would be synonymous with the sound. It was all very producer lead. When we would do albums you'd find like six different vocalists on the albums.
If we'd had a couple of artists who could have been focal points on their own LPs, then maybe the scene could have grown into something more like what you'd hoped for. Faceless producer music can only go so far really.
For me, there did seem to be strong, identifiable characters within it, such as Bugz in the Attic and yourselves, or so many different combinations of the main protagonists. I still feel like it's an unfinished story, like there was a potential that wasn't really attained.
I saw Bembe Segue live one time and it was so knock out I thought, ”I'm going to be watching this band for the next 15 years” And Seiji was so prolific I just couldn't have imagined him stopping. Did any of your running mates from back then continue?
Well, Seiji moved to Berlin and he was doing a lot of production for pop acts for some time. Some people had kids and thought, "I'd better get a proper job now instead of being a musician." Bugz was a big crew. What was it? A nine man entity? Nine dudes doing something, how long's that going to last? Ahahaha. You know what bands are like!
I don't know. It was a funny combination of things. Some are still doing it and some have changed what they're into, they don't want to do that no more. Some might be into doing a harder kind of music or whatever. Each to their own.
There's a group of younger musicians/DJs from London who I've heard DJ a few times who really seem to be digging that sound, Al Dobson being one, Henry Wu another. It seems to influence some of the music they make as well. Do you think there's a potential for a new generation to take up the reins with that sound, follow that path?
Well, I hope they don't follow that path because then they're not going to get anywhere! [laughs] It's nice to know that some younger kids are influenced by what we did and they have an interest in it. Most of the younger generations are so focused on what's new, what's hot now, it's refreshing to find that some are digging back into dance music history, jazz, funk or whatever. It's always nice to see people having a real enthusiasm for music.
People say they love music, but many times you don't find them digging deep enough. And I don't mean they need to own a load of rare records, I'm just talking about having a basic knowledge of some things and being open to older music.
But, that is nice and I hope that if they take anything from the so called broken beat scene it's that we never did one type of music. We all were experimenting, doing various types of things whether it was more house, boogie, hip hop, soul, you could find so much of it in the repertoires of the people from that scene.
Have you had any interaction with any of those guys?
I met Al Dobson in Australia, I did a remix for him as well. I don't know Henry Wu. I met K15 once when I was DJing. But I don't really know any of those people. The nearest person I know from that scene, who I have a relationship with, would be Alexander Nut.
That reminds me to ask, why Eglo Records? Why not just release yours and Kaidi's stuff on 2000 Black?
Because I can't put out everything. Well, I could, but at the end of the day I want everyone to hear our music and some people might be more inclined to check out a release if it's on another label, because they follow that label and they don't follow mine. Alex is cool. And that's a big thing. I've got a lot of time for him. He's a proper sound guy, I like the way he carries himself, how honest and real about shit he is.
One person from that broken beat era who it's really great to hear new music from again is Sonar's Ghost (Domu). Is that stuff from the archives or is he actively making music again?
Some of it's from the archives, some of it is stuff that he's messing around with now. It's just fun to him. Now he's just having fun with music, he doesn't feel any pressure with it, he doesn't care if it comes out or not. It's just like he's playing a video game when he's making it, I guess. He's doing bits and pieces, definitely.
What's next for you and what's next for 2000 Black?
We're gonna have another Kaidi EP. I'm trying to do my own album at the moment. I'm going to do some more work on Sound Signature. That's about it, alongside trying to organise some more live dates for the band. There's two kinds of sounds, the more jazz one which has two keyboard players, two percussionists, drums, sax, trumpet, vibraphone, guitar and bass, then we have a more vocal style which is two vocalists, drums, bass, keys, guitar and synth.
Is there any chance of any 4Hero material happening again? Do you have any plans to work again with Mark?
There are no plans to do any 4Hero stuff for the foreseeable future, that I know of.