After my chat with Sie Medway-Smith, he mentioned that Dobie would be a great guy to talk to as someone who has 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. 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, I gravitated towards DJing, and following that, I got interested in music-making. I had a friend named Paul Sunman who I used to skateboard with; he made music and was into early electronic acts 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?”, and he said, “With drum machines”. So I was like, “What’s a drum machine? “, and he explained that you make beats on it. He lent me a Roland 606 that I’d take to work with my headphones. I figured out how to use it in my spare time, and soon after that one of my friends that worked at FX Rentals would lend me 808s, Linndrums and 909s. He worked as a delivery driver for the company, having access to gear was one of the perks of his job. I’d be able to use their drum machines for three days or so before returning them. I was DJing for rappers at the time, and once they saw I could make beats, they’d say, “Make some beats for us“. That’s how things started for me. I hooked up with Soul II Soul soon afterwards.
– Tell me about that. How did you become connected with Soul II Soul?
Nellee Hooper was a member of a DJ crew called The Wild Bunch (which later became Massive Attack). He’d moved to London from Bristol and was staying around the corner from where Soul II Soul kept their sound-system. Jazzy B knew Nellee from doing parties together in the past, and Nellee was also 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, so he asked me to join them in the studio and we started doing the early Soul II Soul stuff in the mid-80s. People such as Simon Law and Howie B were also regulars at the Africa Centre and that’s where a lot of the people met each other for the first time.
– 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 thing of making remixes and production for artists like London Posse, Gang Starr, Björk, Massive Attack and others.
I did my first solo album in 1998 on Howie B’s label, Pussyfoot. It was 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?
I’ve done remixes of Björk’s “I Miss You“, which was big in America, as well as Gangstarr’s “You Know My Steez“. I also produced London Posse’s “How’s Life In London?“. 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 buying stuff in a record shop when the 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 contributed to 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 re-singing, but she offered to do it. We didn’t have today’s time-stretching algorithms in 1996, so if I’d slowed down the time-coded acapella on DAT to 98 BPM, it would’ve 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 said you had the chance to work on things that could’ve earned you a lot of money but you turned them down. Is that true?
Yeah. I learned a long time ago that it’s not just about getting paid – I have to enjoy what I’m working on. I learned that the hard way 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’m really not feeling this track “. There’s always the challenge of flipping someone else’s music into your own, but I didn’t like the track enough to be able to do that. So even though we got paid well, it wasn’t worth it.
Around 1991, there was a group in the UK who made mashups that went on to become hits. They were called Jive Bunny And The Mastermixers, and Disney reached out to me and Howie to do a megamix of The Jungle Book soundtrack that would sound similar to the mashups. I wasn’t into it, and didn’t want to repeat what had happened before, so I passed.
I remember when Spice Girls came along – I was looking for management at the time, and there was this guy I knew called Pete Evans who owned Native Management, which is part of Simon Fuller’s company, 19 Management. I’d 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 write some songs with them? “. This was before the group was signed to a label, but even then I knew they ticked all the boxes for what the industry wanted from a pop act. So I accepted the offer and spent two days in the studio with them, but I didn’t end up feeling it. Both the engineer and the programmer I worked with at the time kept getting excited, thinking “This track is the one “. 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. 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 the contract. Additionally, just because you sign a three-album deal doesn’t mean you get to release three albums. The label might drop you after the first one if it doesn’t sell well. Weird things happen when it comes to record labels. I’ve seen artists go out to get a deal, yet 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 to not miss out on something that might 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 record 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, followed by the MPC3000 before the computer came along. I don’t use my MPC anymore, as I’m strictly in the box now, using Logic and Maschine, which is something I helped Native Instruments develop in its early stages.
I try to learn multiple programs so I can deliver regardless of where I go. 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?
I’m not too bothered by it. 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 so that they can say they have it (laughs). Seeing as I’ve already done a fair deal of analog work in my time, I try not to get caught up in all that. The most important thing to me is that the music moves you, rather than using an LA2A on the vocals.
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 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 since 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; I don’t always want polished sounds. Battery used to be my workhorse when I moved to using computers.
I also 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. 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 and chopping audio with it. When I do re-edits of 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 some gear in the corner studio from a previous session. I asked the engineer what it was and he said “That’s RADAR “. I asked what the deal was with it and he said, “It sounds like tape “. The studio hardly used it since 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’d hear noise because of the circuitry. The mixing desk will sound one way today, and might sound a little different tomorrow 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 noise, plus the board is adding it’s own noise, in addition to the outboard gear. The patch bay may be a bit noisy too, and it all adds up. There’s even the natural tape compression that’s going on, all of which gets recorded. You don’t get that in the digital world.
One of the things I’d 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 some 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.