Mark Hill is the producer behind Craig David’s debut album, “Born To Do It“, and subsequent singles like “Hidden Agenda” and “All The Way“. Prior to that, he’d already established a successful artist career as one half of Artful Dodger, who’s album “It’s All About The Stragglers” was a landmark release within the UK garage scene. Having had questions about his work for many years, I reached out for an interview and was happy when he obliged. We chatted for some hours about the UKG scene, dealing with record labels, and how he produced the above-mentioned albums.
– Hi Mark. You studied music at the University of Southampton as a teenager. Why did you choose Southampton over of a city like London, where the music scene is bigger?
I grew up in South Wales in a reasonably large town and always wanted to live by the sea, so the idea of being in the middle of a city didn’t really appeal to me. Also, I wasn’t aspiring to be a producer at the time. My original intention was to attend university and only have music as a hobby; that’s what my parents wanted me to do. So I was a planning to be an architect, but it became apparent around sixteen that most of my time was being spent on music and I wasn’t getting good enough grades for the architecture program, so I changed my plan and applied to music school instead.
Because I was a percussionist, rather than a woodwind or string player, I knew it would be tough to get into the well-known music schools. I applied to places like University of Liverpool and University of Salford in Manchester, but failed miserably. Those schools had very specific criteria for admittance and offered limited spots back then, so I looked at the University of Southampton as a more reasonable prospect, and they accepted me when I applied.
– You opened your own studio during your final year at the school, correct?
That’s right. I was doing a three-year program and joined a jazz-funk band in my second year. The bass player, Neil, had a Mac and audio gear in his dorm room, so we’d hang out there and produce music. But once he graduated, I didn’t apply myself much to studying anymore, and we decided to start a studio together. His dad lent us some money and we got a bank loan too. Then we gathered together whatever instruments we could and rented a space. But unfortunately, we hardly got any work because we had no reputation nor marketing plan, and our only bookings were for student bands that would only pay £10 an hour. So we’d have to work twelve-hour sessions to record their albums in one day. But in the long-term, that experience worked in my favor because it allowed me learn how to make my own music, rather than just record other people.
– But why did the bank give you a loan when the prospects of your success weren’t that good?
We had a good pitch (laughs). We honestly believed we would do well, and I had a good-looking CV because I’d been working as a session musician. Also, since Neil’s dad had lent us some money, he was willing to act as a guarantor for the loan. So the bank gave us the £20,000 we needed to buy equipment and pay for our first months rent. Whilst we did make enough to cover the rent, we earned no profit and got into debt after a few years. But then we started working with a guy called Howard who introduced us to some people in London that owned a distribution company called 3MV. They saw the potential in what we were doing, so we created a new company that they invested in, which kept the studio going even longer. It also gave me and my later-bandmate, Pete Devereux, the freedom to focus on making music as Artful Dodger.
– You’ve said in past interviews that Artful Dodger had some potential breaks in the mid 90s that could have led to your success, but they fell apart at the last minute. What were some of those?
One of them was a little crazy: Neil and I were really struggling to make money at one point, and a guy approached us with an idea for an animated TV series. He wanted to build a film studio in Southampton and was talking to some big names in the TV business. He invited us to a hotel event that was packed with industry people and said someone was bankrolling him for millions of pounds. We were even shown around a building in Southampton that he wanted to turn into a film studio, and he would allegedly give us a space there to build our own recording facility. The whole thing seemed legitimate based on the names and the amount of people involved, and he kept coming by our studio to show us storyboards and CGI that his animators had done, which was impressive by 90s standards. But it turned out a year later that he was insane; there was no money behind him and he’d just been hoping for the best. Ultimately, it turned into a disaster for him, and our dreams of a new studio facility and millions in financing disappeared. But it would have taken us in a different direction from the Artful Dodger project, so I can’t complain that it didn’t work out.
There were some other incidents too. We had a manager at one point whose name was Jan Simmons. He had a plush office in West London with gold plaques on his wall, and he was able to get us loads of remix work. But after we’d completed a few remixes, he disappeared with our fee money. I later heard that he left the country and got married.
There was another guy called John Freeze who had loads of ideas about our career and said he wanted to manage us. But he pressed up tons of vinyl of our track with Craig David, called “Something“, then sold all of it and disappeared with the money. We couldn’t get a hold of him after that – his phone was disconnected and he disappeared from his offices, like a ghost. So we had quite a few instances were we thought, “This is it. We’re about to make it! “, only to be disappointed. But it was a learning process.
– You had already become successful in the UK garage scene as Artful Dodger before producing Craig David’s “Born To Do it”. Which one of those projects seemed more promising to you before your mainstream success came in the 2000s?
In the beginning, working with Artful Dodger and Craig David weren’t separate projects. Pete and I started off by releasing vinyl bootlegs of tracks like Gabrielle’s “Dreams” and Olive’s “You’re Not Alone“. Even though it made us no money, the bootlegs sold enough copies to pay for the next vinyl pressing, and they also got decent radio play on pirate stations. A few years into that, I met Craig at a club and asked him to write music with us. He already had some of our vinyl and was a young kid who wanted to be an artist, but since we couldn’t afford to pay him, we offered to collaborate on music together. Pete and I would be responsible for the instrumentation and production, whilst Craig would handle songwriting and vocals. So the original intention was that Craig would be the front-man for Artful Dodger. But when he got a manager, the idea shifted to using Artful Dodger’s music to springboard his solo career. By that time, we’d already written the music for “Born To Do It“, and Craig was passing around the demo CD, hoping to get a record deal.
When we started out, our bootlegs were released on Fagin, which was a throwaway label that we created in case of legal problems from not clearing samples, but we later set up Centric Records to release our original music. So if the music released on Centric attracted interest from the industry, we’d license it to a bigger label. The white label record of “What Ya Gonna Do” was the first track to get picked up after it sold a few thousand copies and was played by DJs like Dreem Teem. We licensed it to a label called Public Demand. Part of our deal with them was to provide a follow-up single, and since we already had “Rewind“, we gave them that as well. “Moving To Fast” was later picked up by Locked On, who were owned by XL Recordings, and “Woman Trouble” got released by FFRR. So we had a number of singles spread across different labels, which is why things got messy when it came time consolidate them into an album. “Rewind” was on Public Demand, but they later licensed it to Relentless Records, adding another label to the mix. It created a situation where we had to licence back our own tracks just to release the album.
– What was the album release process like?
We ended up releasing “It’s All About The Stragglers” on FFRR, but only because they pressured us into it. The A&R’s sales pitch to us was basically, “We’ve bought most of your records from Public Demand, so if you don’t sign an album deal with us, we won’t license them back to you “. And things only became more complicated when Public Demand got involved in the negotiations, and it’s why Artful Dodger only released one album. As successful as the first one was, it created a lot of stress for us that we didn’t want to go through again.
– Out of all the labels you worked with, which relationship was the most favorable or fruitful for you?
In terms of favorable, I really enjoyed working with XL Recordings. They had really cool people there, so we had a nice relationship with them.
In terms of fruitful, my relationship with Public Demand did the most for my career since they released “Rewind”, and that led to where I am now. But it was a weird relationship that wasn’t the most enjoyable. They also acquired the rights to the “Artful Dodger” name in 2001 and are using it for another duo, which is a bit weird.
– I read somewhere that you once had a sub-label on Universal. Is that true?
Yes it is. Lucian Grainge got in touch with me about creating a sub-label. He felt that Universal needed someone in the street who could find and develop new talent for them to promote, so he and I started a label called Sound Proof – but it never went anywhere. We had it for about three years, and I signed a group called Bang-Stick that was made up of two guys and girl from Southampton. We recorded a single that Pete Tong heavily supported, and did well in Spain too. But it soon became clear that Universal and I weren’t on the same page. When it came time to press white label vinyl of Bang-Stick’s single, the label didn’t get it done on time, even though it was meant for DJs in Ibiza to play that summer. I ultimately had to press it myself, as well as take it to Ibiza, but we missed the boat on the promo. I also got talked into spending more money than needed on mixing the Bang-Stick album at Metropolis Studios. I was quite happy with the mixes done at their studios in Southampton, but the head of A&R at Universal insisted we spend more money on new mixes, and since Island Records had already spent a fortune on Amy Winehouse’s debut album, they looked at our expenses and decided to scrap our album before the release.
That experience was a learning curve for me. Looking back, I should have just stayed in the studio and focused on what I was good at: making music. But I suppose the idea of having a label with Universal was tempting, and I got sucked into the idea of creating an empire. I even set up a publishing company and revamped Centric Records to release new music. But given the decline of both album sales and publishing revenue in the 2000s, it wasn’t the best time to start a label or a publishing company. I can also admit that I took my eye off the ball; because of the stress of dealing with the Artful Dodger album, I moved to Ibiza in the 2000s and got relaxed. Had I stayed in London and really worked the label, things would have been different.
– Why didn’t you call Lucian Grainge when the problems with Universal arose? He could have made executive moves to solve any issue.
That’s what I thought, but he went off to America not long after we did the deal and gave me a contact at Universal to work with. It was the guy working the Amy Winehouse album. Lucian kind of disappeared from the picture after that and this guy didn’t have much interest in Bang-Stick since he was primarily focused on Amy, and rightfully so.
– What was the biggest lesson you learned from the difficult experiences you had in the music business?
Make sure you have a good lawyer (laughs). I had one called Kieran Jay and I still work with him today.
Back in the day, Pete and I did what we did because we needed the money and had bills to pay. We had to learn things the hard way because we knew nothing about how the business worked. Sure, I could have had more control over my releases and made more money if I’d made better choices, but it is what it is. Despite the bad experiences, I’m still earning a living in the music business today, so I’m happy.
– Tell me about the UK garage scene. What DJs were responsible for kicking that genre off, and what records influenced you?
The records that influenced Pete and I were Double 99’s “RIPGroove“, Tuff Jam’s early stuff, Booker T’s releases, Armand Van Helden’s music, and M-Dubs as well. We also loved the music Public Demand was putting out like with artists like Steve Gurley. Pete and I would go to the Soho record shops and buy all the vinyl we could of those artists.
– How did you meet Pete and what were your early experiences like?
There wasn’t much of a UKG scene in Southampton. We had two or three promoters that threw garage raves but they were really low-key, whilst in London you had event companies like Twice as Nice and Cookies and Cream throwing much bigger nights.
Pete had been DJing for a few years and had his own club night by the time we met. We came to know each other by working in a production crew called Back To The Future, which had some minor success doing R&B remixes. The group had potential, but the money we got paid for remixes wasn’t enough to live on, so we disbanded, and Pete and I partnered up to do Artful Dodger.
I started off as a songwriter and producer, and only learned how to DJ once Artful Dodger started to take off. My girlfriend at the time bought me some decks and I taught myself how to do it. So Pete and I just promoted our own club gigs in Southampton until “Rewind” finally kicked things off, after which we got a booking agency involved. But since we were an underground garage act that had crossed over into pop music, our gigs could vary quite a lot. There were times we’d play three shows a night, starting with an under-eighteen gig in the evening for the pop crowd, then play at a commercial club at night, and finally do an underground venue at 2am. It took a lot of Red Bull to get through those times (laughs).
– Were UK garage DJs well-represented by booking agents at that time, given the mainstream explosion?
Artful Dodger didn’t get an agent until we became a pop act. It’s possible artists like Dreem Teem may have had an agent, but it’s hard to say because we weren’t properly involved with the music business until after “Rewind”. That’s when we signed with Mission Control to represent us.
– I’ve heard that once the UKG scene exploded, it wasn’t uncommon for artists to get ripped off by labels and for agents to promote rubbish gigs just to make money. Were there any dirty practices that you saw being used often?
People were taken advantage of, but not beyond what happens in any industry that experiences a boom. But yeah, there was silly stuff going on at times, like labels signing singles for $400,000, which they weren’t worth. There was a massive bubble in the industry and record sales were huge, so some people took advantage of that.
In other genres of music, like rock and classical, you have huge production costs, but in genres like UKG, you had one or two guys in a small home studio who could make millions off a DAT tape, and that kind of business model attracted people who wanted to launder money. A lot of cash was moving around, whether through promoters or at the record shops, which created an environment for shady dealings. Also, you had to rely on the labels and publishing companies to track the data on how many units were sold. I can imagine that a lot of money disappeared because of that. Loads of vinyl was probably paid for in cash, and then vanished. I’ve seen copies of Artful Dodger music on vinyl with completely different logos, serial numbers and phone numbers that were illegally pressed and resold by people we never met, who never gave us a dime. I recently saw one on eBay that was selling for £40, claiming to be a Fagin release, with a cartoon picture of Fagin that had nothing to do with us. But like I said, it happened in other industries too.
– Were there any other Oliver Twist references that you used in your career? And were there any legal issues with using the name “Artful Dodger”?
No, those were the only Oliver Twist references. Look, the whole Artful Dodger thing was meant to be a throwaway project. It only came about because Pete and I wanted to release our bootlegs. We weren’t making much money, but would still order 2000 – 3000 copies of vinyl at shady pressing plants, and we only dealt in cash because we were paranoid about getting sued by a label and didn’t want to leave a paper-trail.
As for the name itself, we wanted something that sounded like London, since the UKG scene was based there. Because the “Oliver Twist” book is in the public domain, we never had any legal issues with it. There was even an American rock band in the 70s with the same name, which we discovered later through Discogs.
– Once “Born To Do It” blew up, did it affect your Artful Dodger career in any negative way?
The touring schedule became a bit punishing after that because we had lots of DJ gigs, TV appearances and radio promos. It got to a point where I just kept my passport in my pocket in case the label asked us to fly to Germany on a moments notice. I also did the US tour with four boxes of vinyl that I had to carry everywhere. UK garage had become big business, but the labels knew the bubble wouldn’t last forever. They decided to cash in whilst they could, and we just went along with it. Looking back, Pete and I probably should have given more thought to our brand and been more selective about our gigs, but we were youngsters who got thrust into the limelight unexpectedly. Like I said, the initial idea was to have Craig be the front-man for Artful Dodger, but he got signed to a different label that wouldn’t even let him appear in the “Rewind” video, so Pete and I became the front-men instead, which we weren’t prepared for.
– Do you still own the copyrights for “It’s All About The Stragglers” and “Born To Do It”?
For “Born To Do It”, the publishing was split between Craig and I, fifty-fifty. That was always understood in spite of whatever negotiations happened elsewhere, and I still own that. It’s a bit different for “It’s All About The Stragglers”. FFRR was a part of London Records, which was eventually bought up by Warner Music, who shut the label down for a while. But I think Warner recently sold all of London Records’ back-catalog to London Music Stream. I’m not sure what’s happening with the album at the moment, since it’s not available on Spotify or iTunes.
– Is it true that you didn’t get any publishing for “Movin’ Too Fast” because you lost an important fax?
Yeah, that did happen (laughs). Romina Johnson was the singer and Rolando Bacci was her partner who released the original version of “Movin’ Too Fast”, but it didn’t have much impact. What people know as the official version today was actually an Artful Dodger remix that we released on Centric Records as a white label. We created a lot of hype around it, and it ended up doing so well that it was later re-released as the official version on Locked On. Since the original hadn’t done much, and Artful Dodger was becoming popular with “Rewind”, Roland was willing to let us release our version and our manager promised to give them a piece of the publishing in return. But when it came time to register the publishing, Roland went back on his word and said “No we didn’t agree to that. The publishing is all ours “. Since our record-keeping was pretty slack back then, we couldn’t find the fax agreement he’d sent us, which would have supported our argument. So even though “Movin’ Too Fast” was one of our biggest radio hits, but we didn’t get 1% of the publishing, and no remix fee either, which was a shame.
– What kind of money was Artful Dodger making for DJ gigs at the height of your popularity?
It’s hard to remember, but the majority paid us a few grand. A few gigs earned us £15,000, which doesn’t compare to what DJs make today, but at the time, we thought it was an incredible amount.
Do you know how many units “It’s All About The Stragglers” sold?
No I don’t, sorry. It went platinum in the UK, but it was so hard to keep track of things because the album rights changed hands so many times, and only the rights-holders have access to the Soundscan information. I still get some royalty cheques for it and I’ve chosen to just accept the validity of what I get.
– So when Artful Dodger split up, Pete continued using the name, correct?
That’s right. Pete left the band first and I finished up the US tour on my own. When it came time to negotiate a second album, Warner had bought FFRR, and my talks with them didn’t work out. Besides, doing “Born To Do It” with Craig was a lot less stressful and made me more money, so I chose to focus on that. I contacted Pete and we made a deal: I had lent him some money in the past, so he’d pay me back with some interest and I’d let him keep the rights to the Artful Dodger name. But I later discovered that Public Demand had acquired the name from him. I don’t know what led to that and there’s a lot of stories floating around, but I can’t comment on them. However they did it, Public Demand legitimately got the name from Pete and created a new duo. The label boss is Jimmy Low, and his younger brother, Dave Low, is now the DJ for Artful Dodger. MC Alistair had done some touring with us in the 90s, and the label convinced him to get involved to add legitimacy to the group. That’s been the new lineup since 2001, and it’s got nothing to do with Pete or myself.
– In an interview from 2017, you mentioned that you were about to release a comeback album under the name “Artful”. What happened to that?
That project began taking shape in 2011, and I was able to write songs with different people, including Ed Sheeran. The album is almost done and it sounds great, but it’s probably going to be released under the name “Mark Hill” now, as it turns out that Public Demand also trademarked the name “Artful”. I only discovered this a few years after starting the project, so I had to re-brand, which is why Pete and I decided to rejoin and create “Original Dodger“. It was just getting ridiculous that we’d put all that effort into Artful Dodger and were now being blocked by the label from doing anything with the name. I’d even released a few tracks as “Artful” on one of my own labels, Workhouse Records, before finding out the name was trademarked. From what I’ve come to understand, Public Demand seems to have trademarked “Artful” in 2011 once I started making new music. If that’s true, it’s obviously a bit petty of them, and it shows that they weren’t keen on me having anything to do with the name.
So “Original Dodger” is now you and Pete working together again?
Yes. There was never a falling out between us, and Pete had continued to make music under the name DEVolution, together with Tim Devos. After my failed attempt to relaunch “Artful”, our managers suggested we start making music together but use a name that indicated we were the original duo. Pete’s manager, who was also an A&R at Warner Music, was able to get us a record deal with the label, and we decided to give it a try. We put out a few good tracks, but looking back, my A&R efforts were a bit misguided, and the sales numbers weren’t what Warner wanted to see, so the label deal came to an end in 2018. Pete and I will probably release “Original Dodger” material independently, and I’m setting up my new label, 60 Hz, which I’ll release “Mark Hill” music on.
– Let’s talk about your work with Craig David. Did you ever sign any kind of label or production deal with him in the early days?
No, I didn’t. I was young and naive, and never thought about offering him a production deal. He’d been forthcoming in helping us with the Artful Dodger stuff and I did him favors in return. So it was a loose relationship and we never had any paperwork in place. Craig would later sign a management deal with a guy called Paul Widger, who’s job was to spread the world about him and secure a record deal. Their contract was signed when I was away from the studio, which I felt it was a bit underhanded of Paul. It didn’t turn out to be the best thing for Craig either, and I think his next manager, Colin Lester, saw the opportunity to step in quite quickly with a deal from his label, Wildstar Records.
– In your opinion, was the Wildstar deal a good one?
I don’t think so, though I mainly say that from second-hand knowledge that I got from others. My own experience was that Wildstar soured the relationship between myself and Craig, and I think it was a bad decision to not give us more time to work on the second album. I never had a great relationship with Colin either, which made some things difficult. So no, I didn’t think the deal was great, but I never saw the paperwork, so I can’t say anything definitely.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that I’d have managed the situation differently if Craig had been signed to me, or if we’d been given more license to write together, but in reality, there’s no guarantee that I’d have done a better job than Colin. So it is what it is.
– You mentioned earlier that Wildstar wouldn’t let Craig appear him in the “Rewind” video.
Yes. Basically, Colin thought it was just dance music and didn’t want Craig to be associated with that sort of thing. It was only after the track became a hit and we played on Top of the Pops that he made Craig available to do the bigger appearances. Ironically, we were later asked to remake a version of “Rewind” for the album, since there was an issue with licensing the original from Public Demand.
– I’ve heard that you lost the original project files for “Rewind”. Is that true?
Yeah, it is. We were in the middle of recording the vocals when the computer crashed and corrupted the files. I hadn’t saved any of our progress up to that point and each time I pressed a button, the words “End of File” would flash on the screen. So I had no choice but to restart the computer, but since I didn’t save the project, we lost most of the track. Luckily, we’d recorded an earlier version to cassette for Craig to play at home, and that was the only copy we had. Months later, I drove to Craig’s flat to pick him up and he played the cassette in the car. We were like, “That track was pretty good. We need to redo that “. So we got back in the studio for a full day and night to remake the track, and the new version was better than the first because we put more effort into it. But it was a scary moment – the track could have been lost if we hadn’t taken the time to redo it.
(Below: Mark in the late 90s)
– It’s always struck me as obvious that Drake was influenced by Craig’s music. They’re both singer-rappers, and I’ve heard similarities in Drake’s lyrics to Craig’s. Have you noticed that?
– Why do you think we’ve yet to see any collaborations between the two of them?
I suppose Drake has chosen to collaborate with grime artists instead, which could be seen as an extension of the UK garage scene. I’ve reached out to him numerous times about doing more obvious UKG collaborations, but whether he and his team see that as a viable move right now, I don’t know. But who knows what will happen in the future?
Let’s talk about the production on “Born To Do It”. There’s a noticeable difference between the drum sounds on Artful Dodger tracks and Craig David’s music, so who was it that actually programmed the drums on “Born To Do It”?
That was me. I was trying to come up with something that sounded like R&B, and took inspiration from urban music in the US, without explicitly copying it. But I felt that the drums needed to be heavy-hitting with lots of low-end. I got the drum sounds from all over the place. Some were sampled from records, and others came from the Roland JV-1080, the Roland JV-2080, the E-mu Mo’ Phatt and the E-mu Turbo Phatt. I don’t have a go-to drum kit, and have always built drum loops from whatever sources I have.
You’re right about the drums sounding different on the Artful Dodger stuff. That music was meant to fit the DJ sets of the time, whereas Craig’s stuff sounded different so it would work on radio and be accepted in the US. But even though we made “Born To Do It” with an American market in mind, I found it a bit annoying that critics in the US would later say, “This is a UK garage album “; you see it on Wikipedia too. There’s nothing on “Born To Do It” that was UKG apart from “Rewind”, which is an Artful Dodger track, and “Fill Me In”. But even “Fill Me In” was originally an Artful Dodger remix of BBMak that we took the guitar riff from. It was only meant to bridge the gap between the UKG scene and the R&B music we wanted to make. So I think people just over-associated Craig with Artful Dodger and called his album “garage”, when in fact it’s an R&B/pop record.
When I look on Wikipedia and Discogs, I see names like Wayne Lawes and Ceri Evans as being involved in the production of “Born To Do It”. Why is that? Were there any other people involved, apart from yourself?
“Can’t Be Messing Around” was added to the album at the last minute because Craig went on tour with the guy who produced the track, Frazer T Smith, who also played guitar at his live shows. Other than that, “Born To Do It” was entirely done by Craig and I. False information has always been an issue with Wikipedia. The Artful Dodger page is a joke as well, but I don’t have access to change it. Even when someone else corrects the information, the admins just changes it back.
Can you tell me about “Fill Me In Part 2”. It’s included on some versions of the album, but not on others.
That’s actually a Full Crew remix – they were a London-based collective who did R&B remixes. Craig had the habit of getting together with people who were remixing his songs to re-sing the vocals with different lyrics and melodies, which happened with the Sunship and DJ Premier remixes. So even though “Fill Me In” was a commissioned as a remix from Full Crew, it ended up sounding like a different track altogether. I’m not sure why it gets titled “Part 2” on some versions of the album though.
That was me. I play all of the instruments on the album, from drums and bass to keys and guitar. Sometimes other guitarists like Frazier T Smith are credited because they may have toured or done live shows with Craig. I don’t mean that those guitarists claim the credit, but people just add 2 + 2 to get 5, and just assume it was them on the album.
I’ve never considered myself a guitarist; it was just a tool I used as a part of my songwriting. To be fair, a lot of the guitar parts on “Born To Do It” are comped together and multi-tracked. That was part of my style, so I could edit or reverse the recordings later.
Did Pete Devereux have any involvement in the creation of “Born To Do It”?
No, he didn’t. He was only involved in creating the Artful Dodger music.
Steve Fitzmaurice mixed “Fill Me In“, “Walking Away” and a few other tracks at Metropolis. He was brilliant and made a big difference to the music. Andy Ward might have been the engineer that was in room with me when we mixed “7 Days“, but I don’t remember the studio I worked at. Goetz Botzenhardt rings a bell, but I don’t remember what he worked on.
The whole album wasn’t mixed though. In order to get Craig a record deal, we had made a demo CD to pass around. When it came time to release the album on Wildstar, tracks like “Fill Me In” were mixed by Steve because they were lead singles. But half of the tracks on the final CD were released as the demos I’d done in my studio. “Booty Man”, “Time To Party”, “Follow Me”, “Once In My Lifetime” and “You Know What” were the same mixes as the original demos.
– Regarding the second album, “Slicker Than Your Average“, the narrative is that it received backlash because people felt it sounded too “pop”, and wasn’t similar enough to the fist one.
I wouldn’t say there was a backlash. The first album was made between me and Craig and our collaboration was the common thread through-out, but second album was recorded with different producers and studios. Craig and I did spend some months recording at my place in Ibiza, but the process wasn’t the same as before, and I think the label acted a bit underhandedly after that. Once he left my studio in Ibiza, I didn’t hear from him for twelve months, and Colin was having him working with other producers to get a different sound. Because the first album had some degree of success in the US, Wildstar wanted to make something suited for that market. But my opinion was that “Born To Do it” had success in the US because it sounded different from American R&B, so making an R&B-sounding album didn’t make much sense. Ultimately, I only did four tracks on that album and most of the rest was done by a UK-based production duo called Ignorants, consisting of Trell and Marshall.
No it wasn’t. The vocal top-line was inspired by “Don’t Talk” by Jon B, but the backing track was played me. I was just jamming on the guitar whilst Craig was singing. I’ve never heard of “We Fit Together”.
Tell me about the third album, “The Story Goes…“. It feels like an overlooked part of Craig’s discography, and didn’t have the same commercial success as the previous ones. What was your involvement in that album?
Well, I was noticeably annoyed because I felt like I’d been screwed over on the second album. Granted, Craig was a superstar at the time who was traveling a lot, but I felt a little duped that I had given up months of studio time in Ibiza to produce what I thought would be the whole second album. So when it came time to do the third album, the label came back and said, “You and Craig should get together and write like you used to “. But I communicated through my management and said, “Sure, but it’s going to cost you “. It wasn’t the right move on my part. Rather than put the bad experience behind me and say, “Sure, let’s just make some good music “, I chose to have a bad attitude. So I probably priced myself out of dong the whole album. There wasn’t a lot of time dedicated by the label for the recording process either, so Craig and I had limited time in the studio together, and perhaps there were some feelings over what had happened before. The relationship we had the in 90s and changed over the years, but some great music came out nonetheless.
But when you look back at “The Story Goes…” and “Born To Do It”, do you have an opinion on which was the better album?
“Born To Do It” seems like a clear winner because everyone else likes it, but I really liked “All The Way” and “Don’t Love You No More” on the third album. Also, some of the tracks I produced were later redone by other producers, without me knowing. “Never Should Have Walked Away” was butchered by someone putting a horrible beat under it. It was supposed to be an acoustic guitar track with Craig singing, but the vocals got rerecorded and track was made to sound more R&B, which I don’t think worked well. It even happened on the second album; I really liked the original version of ” You Don’t Miss Your Water“ ; the piano had more emotion behind it, and there were strings and an oboe in the intro that worked well. But the track got re-recorded, and they put a beat under the music with a hi-hat that I hated. The track is a ballad, so the production elements they added made no sense.
“Johnny” is a great track from the third album. How did that one come about?
I think it was something we did at my studio in Southampton at the end of a session. We always wrote best when it was Craig singing and me on acoustic guitar; I’d mess around on the guitar until something came unexpected about. He would sing a melody on top of it, and once the hook was developed I’d produce the track a bit more and give him a copy to write with at home. “You Know What” came about that way as well.
“Johnny” was quite poignant, and was Craig at his best, writing-wise. That was when he opened up and did his non-typical material, similar to “Walking Away”. I always thought those kinds of songs were brilliant of him.
– After making a successful comeback with “Following My Intuition” one would expect you and Craig to reconnect to make “Born To Do It 2”. Has there been any talk about that?
We have chatted on different occasions about making “Born To Do It 2”, but it’s only been via email or Twitter, and my position has always been the same: I think it’s a fantastic idea, but I don’t want to do it by sending beats over the Internet. We never wrote a single song that I’m proud of that way. Sure, I could email him a beat that I think he’d like, but I’ve never had success with that kind of writing process. I don’t know of any great songs that were created that way, although some commercially successful ones have. So I’ve suggested that we get into the studio together in order to established the writing relationship we used to have.
I don’t need to make “Born To Do It 2” for the sake of the money. I live in a beautiful place, have three lovely kids, and am happy with my life. But I’d like to do it because I really enjoyed making the first album, and I’ve expressed that in the past. But I don’t know if the resistance is coming from him or Collin. Craig’s doing really well right now with his TS5 DJ sets, so he may not need to do “Born To Do It 2” for his career, but if the time comes where he wants to reunite in the studio to write music, I’m always open.
If Craig were to show up at your studio to make the album, do you think you could even make something comparable to the first album, given today’s change in technology and the sound of pop music?
I think so. We used a lot of generic sounds for “Born To Do It” that weren’t specific to that time. Things like nylon string guitar, synth strings and synth basses still work today. But the key is in the songwriting. All of our songs had to work as stripped-down, acoustic versions because I usually started them on guitar, with Craig on vocals. So we knew that we had a solid track before we added more production from a synth or in the computer. That’s why sending tracks via email is hard, because there’s no way to see how the songs work on their own.
Let’s wrap up by breaking down the production on “Born To Do It”. I’ll mention a category, and you can tell me what instruments or techniques were used for that.
Recording medium: My DAW was Studio Vision Pro by Opcode, and the recording medium was Digidesign Session 8, which was an eight-track hard-disk recorder, and I also had two eight-track ADAT machines, which gave us 24 tracks in total that I would later master to DAT. So we would first record eight tracks in Studio Vision, and then bounce them down to the ADAT recorders, which we had to run in sync with the computer, although that caused some problems when we were mixing at Metropolis. They had a RADAR system, and my ADATs would always play out of sync with it, so we had to manually move them by a few milliseconds, which was a headache.
Most of the album was done on a cheap Soundtracs Topaz desk, which cost less than £1000 and had only very simple EQ, with no automation functionality.
Drums: The drums came from sound modules like the JV-1080, the JV-2080, the E-mu Planet Phatt, the E-mu Turbo Phatt and the E-mu Proteus. Others would have been taken from samples CDs by companies like Time + Space and Zero G, which I loaded into Studio Vision. I also remember using The BBC Sound Effect Library CDs to layer sounds with drum hits. We layered the snare drum on one track with a basketball bounce effect from that CD, though I don’t remember which track it was. We would also record some percussion sounds live. The sound of glass smashing on “Rewind” was recorded in my studio.
Acoustic guitar: I mainly used a Yamaha nylon string electric-acoustic, though I can’t remember the model. But it cost around £150 – £200, so it wasn’t fancy at all. I also had a steel string guitar that was probably a Yamaha too.
Synths: We had quite a few E-mu modules, like the ones I’ve mentioned previously, including the Proteus 2000. You could put different soundcards into it, and we had an orchestral one that we used for strings a lot.
Vocal mic: We used the Rodes NT-1 for all of Craig’s vocals.
Effects processors: Unfortunately, I didn’t have any Lexicon reverbs, so we had to use a guitar effects unit that was made by ART Audio, though I struggle to remember the model. It could have been the SGE Mach II. In any case, we used it for all our reverbs and delays, both for guitars and vocals.
Guitar mic: There wasn’t any guitar mic. I recorded my Yamaha guitars through the DI, with parts being double-tracked and run through the ART unit.
Compression: I had the Focusrite Producer Pack for that, which comes with the ISA430 MKI. It contained the pre-amp and compressor we used for the vocal recordings, though we might have used the Soundtracks Topaz compressors also. But even though we sometimes compressed the vocals, I would ride the fader a lot too, rather than over-rely on compression. The ISA430 MKI was probably the most expensive piece of gear we had. Everything else, except Studio Vision, was low-budget stuff.
Let’s breakdown the following tracks from “Born To Do It” and a few other albums.
Fill Me In:
Guitar: I recorded my Yamaha nylon string into Session 8 through the Soundtrac Topaz, and then bounced it to ADAT. Some guitar parts are reversed, and I had two techniques for that: I’d randomly reverse bits of the guitar in Studio Vision after I’d recorded it, and if I got lucky it would sound good. Even if the bits played out of time, I’d shift them around in the editor until they fit. At other times, I already knew that I’d use a reverse effect later, so I’d play the riff backwards on the guitar, and then reverse it in the editor so it would play forward.
Drums: I don’t remember where the drums came from for “Fill Me In”. I would have been flicking through sound libraries until I found something usable. But I’m guessing they came from one of the E-mu modules.
Strings: Some of those came from the orchestral card on the Proteus 2000, whilst the pizzicato strings were from the JV-1080.
Bass Synth: Some sounds on “Born To Do It ” came from my bass guitar, but the subby stuff was either done with the Novation Bass Station, the E-mu Turbo Phatt or the JV 1080.
Vocal Delay: That would have been done by Steve Fitzmaurice during the mix, which is why “Fill Me In” sounds more polished that other tracks on the album. Steve had racks of gear to use, and I remember he had some uncommon delay units.
Vocal Recordings: I had the lead vocal in the center, with four backing vocal tracks panned hard left and right. But we comped everything to get the takes accurate. It’s possible Steve added something extra to the vocals during the mix, but I’m not sure.
Guitar: I was taking inspiration from Spanish flamenco music where they split the guitar parts between multiple players. So I played three separate parts on different sections of the guitar, which is what you hear in the beginning. One part was played higher up on the neck, and another was done with a pick on open strings. I also used two different guitars – the main riff is a nylon string, and the other two are steel strings.
Drums: Not a lot changed between the demo and final version. But the drums are quite compressed, which was done during the mix, either by Andy Ward or Goetz Botzenhardt.
Bass: I think it was the Novation Basstation.
Chorus Vocals: There would have been one lead vocal from Craig, and four background vocals (BVs) on each part. I’m singing the lower BVs on this one, and my girlfriend at the time did the high ones during the pre-chorus. So if Craig did two different harmonies in the pre-chorus, we’d have eight tracks of his BVs, plus my eight and my girlfriend’s eight. That made for 24 tracks of background vocals, which would have been bounced down to a stereo track on ADAT. We used to go a bit mental on stacking the vocals, but they’d be low in the mix and panned at different degrees.
Intro Harp Sound: That came from the JV-1080.
Drums: It sounds like the same kit I might have used for “You Know What”, which would have come from a sample CD.
Guitars: That’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. I played the opening guitar part on a nylon string, which was double-tracked, though I play slightly different rhythms on each take to create some counterpoint. It was then sent to the ART unit and was also EQ’d.
Percussion: There’s a hat going through a delay, and the “bing” sound is a sample is from one of the orchestral kits on the JV-1080
Bass: I think it’s a live bass. Probably a Music Man that I recorded through the DI.
Chorus Vocals: There aren’t any lead vocals in the chorus; it’s just the panned BVs. I think there’s two of them in the first chorus, and four in the second one, since we added in harmonies.
Harp: That was the same one we used on “Rendezvous”, from the JV-1080.
Staccato string stabs: I think it’s the orchestral card on the JV-1080.
DJ Scratches: I recorded them live on a Technic deck in the studio. But to be honest, it sounds I like just took one scratch and copy-pasted it three more times (laughs).
Wah Guitar in the Verse: I think that came from a sample CD. It was probably something from Zero G, since I didn’t have a wah pedal at the studio.
Key Stabs: That’s a Fender Rhodes synth patch, probably from the JV-1080.
Craig’s Intro Phone Talk: We just recorded it through the Rode mic, EQ’d it with filters and maybe distorted it. It was all intentionally done for the track, and the girl that does the Spanish bits was a friend of Craig’s that came in to help.
Time To Party
Guitars: The steel guitar in the intro is a synth patch, probably from the JV-1080, played on a keyboard. The other guitar might sound like an electric, but it was an acoustic DI. I think I used the ART unit to make it sound electric.
Strings: I don’t remember that one, but I’d have to guess the JV-1080 though.
Did you ever have legal problems for recreating Busta Rhymes “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” at 1:10?
That was Craig’s idea, and at the time I thought it was a bad move, for different reasons. We got someone else to reproduce it, but I can’t remember whether the label had to credit Busta Rhymes as a songwriter or give up some publishing for that track. But listening to it now, it does work in the track.
Craig and I recorded that at Jacob’s Studio in Alton, New Hampshire during a two-week session. “Hands Up In The Air” was done there two. I had two big racks of gear that I brought with me, and the studio had a really nice desk, probably an SSL.
That one was done in Ibiza. The stabs at 00:02 and 00:04 are a synth guitar sound I played on a keyboard. The guitar is an Ovation nylon string recorded through the DI. The girl’s vocals was recorded through a Mackie D8B desk, with a plugin reverb that I can’t remember the name of.
The guitar sounds came from my Ovation nylon string, which was double-tracked, and the strings probably came from the JV-1080.
All The Way:
That’s me on a Fender Telecaster playing the hook, and the keys playing underneath are from a real Fender Rhodes. The percussion sounds are mostly samples. There was additional production on that track from Spike Stent, who mixed it as well. He may have done the string trills on the chorus, and maybe added some drums sound, including the snare.
The original version was a bit jazzy, and was a bonus track on the Artful Dodger album. The version most people know is actually a remix that we did later to be more accessible for radio.
The chords and bass are influenced by “What You Won’t Do for Love” by Bobby Caldwell, though they’re a little different. We got the key sounds from a module called E-mu Vintage Keys, which we also used to emulate the Korg M1 bass.
– Thanks a lot for the interview Mark. It was great talking to you. Do you have any projects in works that you can tell me about?
My latest single, “Happy Without Me” came out on March 1st. The vocalist and co-writer is the daughter of Lynn Eden, the singer on “Outrageous“. Lynn was pregnant in the photo-shoot for that track, and her daughter, Nat Slater, is now eighteen and we’re writing music together, which is a nice way to come full circle on that relationship. I’m also putting together a club night and will be doing a radio show every few weeks. The tracks that were meant for the “Artful” album will start coming out this year on my 60 Hz label, and I’m also doing a track with Becky Hill, which should come out on her label later in the year as well.