After my chat with Sie Medway-Smith, we got to talking about producers in London, and he mentioned that Dobie would be a great guy to talk to, as someone who’s been around for a while and had tons of experience in the industry. So a few weeks later, I was able to have a sit down with him.Along with production credits on the first two Soul II Soul albums, as well as London Posse’s classic “How’s Life In London?“‘, Dobie’s also done remix work for Björk, Massive Attack, Tricky and Gangstarr, among others, all of which gave us tons to talk about.
Hi Dobie. Thanks for meeting up with me to chat about your work in music. Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I’m a hip-hop head. That’s what got me into music, though I’ve done other things besides that. When hip-hop landed in England in the 80s, it fascinated me, from the graffiti, to DJing and even break-dancing. I gravitated towards the DJing side of it, and started off as a bedroom DJ, learning how to cut, scratch, beat-mix and collect break-beats. Following that, I got interested in how to make the music. I had a friend named Paul Sunman, who I used to skateboard a lot with. He made music, and was into early electronic music, like Visage and Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark, which was sonically similar to hip-hop at the time. So I asked Paul, “How’re they making these sounds?”. He said, “That’s a drum machine”, and I’m like, “What’s a drum machine?“, and he explained that you make beats on it. He lent me a Roland 606, and I’d take it to work with my headphones and figured out how to use it in my spare time. Soon after that, one of my friends that worked at FX Rentals would start to lend me 808s, Linndrums and 909s. It was one of the perks of his job, since he worked as a delivery driver for the company. So I’d be able to use their drum machines for three days or so, before returning them. In addition to DJing for MCs at the time, I learned how to make beats, and once the MCs saw that I could do that, they’d say, “Make some beats for us“. That’s how things started for me.
And how did you become connected with Soul II Soul?
A little while later, I hooked up with Soul II Soul and started doing the whole sound-boy thing. Nellee Hooper, a member of another DJ crew at the time called The Wild Bunch (which later became Massive Attack) had moved to London from Bristol, and was staying around the corner from the lock-up where Soul II Soul kept the sound-system for the crew. Jazzy B knew Nellee from doing parties together in the past, and Nellee was a regular at the Soul II Soul night at the Africa Centre. Jazzy and Nelle got together to make music and formed a production team called Silent Productions. Jazzy could see that I was into that sort of thing, and he asked me to come work with him and Nellee in the studio. So we started doing the early Soul II Soul stuff in the mid to late 80s. People such as Simon Law and Howie B were also regulars at Africa Centre and that’s where a lot of the people met each other for the first time.
And what came after your work with Soul II Soul?
I worked with Soul II Soul for a few years, but eventually moved away from it. Along with Howie B, we formed Nomad Soul Productions, producing and remixing other artists. We also had Nomad Soul as an artist group, which included Diane Charlemagne as a vocalist. After Howie and I parted ways in the mid 90s, I did my own solo thing, doing remixes and production for artists like London Posse, Gangstarr, Björk, Massive Attack and others.
I did my first solo album in 1998 on Howie B’s label, Pussyfoot, called “The Sound Of One Hand Clapping“. My second album came out in 2013 on Big Dada, which is distributed by Ninja Tunes. I’m trying to get more into doing my own thing now, after having been the backroom guy for a while. Working on other people’s projects can get boring after a while, and you need to break loose every now and then.
What have been the most notable major label projects you’ve worked on?
Björk’s “I Miss You“, which was big in America. Gangstarr’s “You Know My Steez“, London Posse’s “How’s Life In London?“. These were all remixes, except London Posse, which I had production credits on. I’ve worked on adverts and sound design for Nike too. There’s been a ton of stuff over the years.
Have you ever had any moments where you heard someone’s singing, and thought “They’re good. I wanna work with them“?
Yeah. Roots Manuva. But he wasn’t singing, he was rapping. I remember his first solo single, “Next Type Of Motion“. I was in a record shop buying stuff, and this song came on, and I asked “Who’s that?“. A guy in the store answered, “That’s Roots Maunva“, and I said “I want to work with him“. So when I did my album deal with Pussyfoot, I went and sought him out.
Björk was a good one too. I got commissioned to do a remix for her “Telegram” remix album, but it ended up being more of a production. The label sent me the original tune, which was between 125-130 BPM, but I wanted to slow it down to more of a hip-hop tempo. I was speaking to her on the phone about it, and hadn’t mentioned anything about her re-singing it, but she offered to. She was like, “If you want me to come and do a re-voice, I can do that“. I went, “Great!”. Back in those days, there weren’t any time-stretch algorithms like we have today, so if I had tried to slow down the time-coded acapella on DAT tape to 98 BPM, it would have fallen apart. She did me a big favor by coming in to revoice. It meant I could do anything, remix wise. I sent her the rough drafts, she liked it, and came in to the studio shortly after. Meeting her was nice. She was one of those people that flip a switch and go into a zone when it’s time to work, and amazing things come out.
Sie Medway-Smith mentioned to me that you’ve had the chance to work on things that could have made you a lot of money, but you turned them down. Is that true?
Yeah. I learned a long time ago that it’s not about just getting paid. I have to enjoy what I’m working on. I learned that the hard way, after an experience I had when a major label reached out about remixing one of their big artists. Me and Howie agreed to do it without hearing the initial track, which was a mistake. I ended up sitting in the studio for three days, thinking, “I really not feeling this track“. There’s always the challenge of taking something and flipping it into your own, but I really didn’t like this track enough to be able to do that. So even though we were getting paid well, I wasn’t enjoying it.
I remember once when Disney reached out to me and Howie. They wanted us to do a megamix of The Jungle Book soundtrack, but once again, I wasn’t into it, and didn’t want to repeat what had happened before. Around 1991, there was a group of people in the UK called Jive Bunny And The Mastermixers, who were into making mashups, and were having hits with it. Disney wanted us to do the same thing for The Jungle Book, but I wasn’t into that, so I passed.
I remember when Spice Girls came along. I was looking for management at the time, and there was this manager I knew called Pete Evans. He had a company called Native Management, which is part of Simon Fuller’s company, 19 Management. I had been talking to Pete about needing management, and he said “I’ve got this girl group called Spice Girls, and I’m told you’re good at working with vocalists. Do you want to go in the studio with them to write some songs? “. This was before the group was signed to a label, but even then I could see that they ticked all the boxes for something that industry could make into a big act. So I said, “Alright“, and spent two days in the studio with the girls. Similarly to the last time, I didn’t end up feeling it. Both the engineer and the programmer I was working with at the time kept getting excited during the sessions, thinking “This track is the one“, because I guess it sounded like good pop music to them. But I was like, “This kind of music isn’t me“, and they thought I was crazy. But I walked away from it anyway. After I delivered the demos to Pete, he asked if I wanted to do more stuff with them, and I passed.
As someone who’s had a hand in both underground and mainstream music, what’s been your experience with label contracts?
Everything is negotiable, but generally they want to become the rights holders, and control the copyright, either for life or a long period of time, say 25 years. They might want your publishing as well. Either way, you’ll get a contract that’s always in the label’s favor. You can sign it as it is, and possibly shoot yourself in the foot, or you can negotiate. It all comes down to how your record performs at the end of the day. If it does well, that gives you leverage for the next contract, or to renegotiate the one you have, or you can just keep it moving if you’re happy with your contract. And if you sign a three-album deal, it doesn’t mean that you get to release three albums, since the label might drop you after the first one if it doesn’t sell well. Weird things happen when it comes to record label, man. I’ve seen artists go out to get a deal with their management, and all the labels act uninterested in signing them. But in reality, all those labels talk to each other. As soon as one label makes an offer, everyone wants to jump in, so as to not miss out on something that may be big. It’s all business at the end of the day; swings and roundabouts. No matter how well you get along with your A&R guy or label rep, if the project doesn’t work out, it’s over. These days, I wonder if people really need to do recording deals. The Internet changed all that.
I see what you mean. Let’s talk about music production; tell me about how your setup has changed over the years.
My main workhorse used to be an MPC60, and then the MPC3000, before the computer thing came along. Now I don’t use my MPC anymore. I’m strictly in the box now, using Logic and Maschine, which is something I helped Native Instruments develop in it’s early stages.
I try to learn a lot of different programs, so that regardless of where I go I can do whatever. I see it all as a bunch of toys to play with. I can use Reason, Logic, Pro Tools, Studio One or Ableton Live. I might bounce between them, though I’ll typically end up in Logic for the final stage of the record.
As someone who had their start in the analog era, how have you adjusted to the sonic differences between the analog and digital ways of recording?
I’m not too bothered by it. It was always a mixture of electronic sounds, live instruments, and digital sampling when we were working on Soul II Soul projects, and all the gear was analog. I think people can get a bit snobby these days when they get caught up in the whole “analog” thing. I know people who only have pieces of analog gear just so that they can say that they have it (laughs). I try not to get caught up in all that, seeing as I’ve already done a fair deal of analog work in my time. The most important thing to me is that the music moves you, rather than only using an LA2A on the vocals. If the music isn’t moving me, I don’t really care what they used, be it analog or digital.
As far as plugins go, I like Kontakt. iZotope Iris is great too. I’m really interested in the new Omnisphere 2. Being able to drag audio into the synth on the fly, and morph it into something else is crazy. I liked Kore a lot. Not the big version though; it was too processor intensive. But I liked the Kore Player, as it was really simple to use. It was basic, but you could get a lot out of it. I like plugins that do weird, odd things; plugins that sound crazy and trashy. I don’t always want polished sounds. Battery used to be my workhorse when I moved to using computers. It replaced my MPC.
I also really like PreSonus Studio One. I’ve been messing with it for a while and I really like it. The work flow is crazy, and it’s really good for making hip-hop.
I’ve had Ableton since version 1.5, but it never really clicked with me. I know people that love it. Don’t get me wrong, it can do some amazing stuff and I use it from time to time, but I’m not really drawn to it for some reason. Pro Tools is the same. It never clicked with me. The MIDI is a bit convoluted in Pro Tools, and the routing is confusing at times, but I do like editing on Pro Tools and chopping up audio. When I do re-edits on old records to DJ with, I like doing it in Pro Tools.
If an artist asked you to produce their work, but wanted to work with analog tape, could you do that?
Yeah, it wouldn’t bother me. I still know tape. I would probably show them RADAR though. It’s one of the early digital recording systems that sounds like tape. I was working at Miloco Studios and saw that there was some gear sitting in the corner studio from another session. I asked the engineer what it was, and he was like “That’s RADAR“. I asked what the deal was with it and he said “It sounds like tape“. But the studio hardly used it much, as everyone was working with tape anyway back then, so I never got to hear what it sounded like at the time. A few years later, when computers had pretty much taken over, I went to work at a different studio in West London with a guy called Antonio. He was using RADAR, and when I walked into the room, all I heard was tape. I was like “Bloody hell, it really does work!“. It’s the only thing I’ve ever heard that comes close to tape. If you want that tape sound, forget about all these Studer emulation plugins and what not. Get a RADAR system…if you’ve got £20,000 – £30,000 to spare that is (laughs).
To be honest, what people are missing is the noise. Plugins don’t make noise. If you go to a professional studio and turn up the volume on the board, even with all the other gear off, you would hear noise. You’re dealing with circuitry. One day the mixing desk will sound one way, and the next day it may sound a little different because it’s been on all night and the circuits are warmer. So when you’re recording, you might have a drum machine that gives off some background noise, the board is adding it’s own noise, as well as outboard gear. The patch bay may be a bit noisy too, and all that noise adds up. There’s even the natural tape compression that’s going on when going to tape. All that is being recorded, even if it’s too low to normally hear or notice at first. You don’t get that in the digital world.
One of the things I would recommend for people who record in-the-box, but still want a tape-esque sound, is to run your final mix to half-inch tape. You’ll get a beautiful tape compression from doing that, and it helps.
Thanks for the tips! Wrapping up, can you tell me what you’re going to be up to for the rest of 2015?
I want to keep busy this year. I’m wrapping up a remix, and might be working on some stuff with Trevor Jackson, which would be fun. After having been in the business for so long, I want to be picky about what I do. I’ve spent a lot of time working on other people’s music, so I’ll be focusing on my own stuff more.