Interview / Dave Lee / Joey Negro / Z Records

A passion that started with TOTP Glam Rock. Sweet, Slade. Then Disco. The Jackson 5 and Heatwave. Dave Lee went from humming his parents` Jazz, and broadway musicals, to pirate radio, and discovering a music that existed outside of the Pop charts. Artists such as Atmosfear, Azimuth, and Patrice Rushen. Names and releases that sent him digging in record shops around Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich. Whilst listening to Jellybean`s Wotupski, in 1984, he wondered what it would be like to be a DJ, and to remix your favourite tunes for a living. 

Moving from vinyl retail on Oxford Street to Rough Trade Distribution, Dave then A&R`d for the legendary Indie`s dance imprint, Rhythm King. Where, he worked with UK pioneers, such as Bomb The Bass, Cookie Crew, and MARRS. Gaining a thorough grounding in the “business” and “markets” in the process. 

Through Rough Trade, Dave, launched his own label, Republic, in 1988. Which was responsible for introducing the Second Summer Of Love`s Acid House army to the more soulful, sophisticated, Garage sounds of New York. Making connections with lauded production crew, Blaze, and the revered Burrell Brothers at Nu Groove, he broke anthems like Arnold Jarvis` Take Some Time Out, and Phase II`s Reachin. He even got Hippie Torrales` Turntable Orchestra on Top Of The Pops. Republic became Z Records, which Dave`s been running for nearly thirty years.

Inspired by Soul nights at Essex` Embassy Suite, and Tartan House, Rare Groove warehouse parties, and Norman Jay`s High On Hope, in central London, Dave started making his own music. Going by myriad monikers, but coining his most well known on the spur of the moment, during a trans-Atlantic call. Borrowing from Pal Joey and J. Walter Negro. 

Undoubtedly a Dance Music expert, Dave`s put together compilations, often in collaboration with friend and fellow font, Sean P., that have provided an education to those less versed. Opening windows into genres: Italian House, Go-Go, BBE`s Disco Spectrum. Defining one with Disco-Not-Disco, for Strut. His Under The Influence collections have celebrated respected selectors Sean, Red Greg, Nick The Record, Paul Phillips, James Glass, and Faze Action. 

At the beginning of August Dave released the second installment of his Backstreet Brit-Funk series. Rescuing the music of my early teens. Bringing with it memories of Farah slacks, Fila and Tacchini track-tops, Gabicci knits, Golf sweaters, hunting jackets, leg-warmers, and wedge haircuts. First kisses, first hangovers, and frequent shoe-ings. It was listening to this that prompted me to contact Dave. 

A busy Summer has since fallen into the Fall, and Z Records now have Dave`s Remixed With Love Volume 3 in the shops. Where the well-known, and obscure, are given a new lease of life. Legit, and re-worked from original masters. Classics and Unclassics by Venus Dodson, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Fatback Band, Eddie Kendricks, Mtume, Odyssey, and Michael Wycoff. Re-imagining peak-time dance floor fillers (see Ashford & Simpson`s Found A Cure), and and irresistible arms-in-the-air end-of-the-nighters (see Denise Williams` Free). Increasing and heightening the Disco drama. Introducing intros and breakdowns. Dropping A Cappella into echo. Pulling Jazzy solos out from deep in the mix. Tightening grooves and toughening kicks. Electrifying 80s ladies (Check Evelyn King`s I`m In Love). Making Proto more Proto. Moving Gospel backing-singers into the spotlight. Often transforming the song. Ignoring the chorus, and focussing instead on vamps that were previously confined to outro and coda (I barely recognized Gwen McCrae`s Doin` It). Turning the beat around.

When, why and how did you get into music and records?

My Dad was a New Orleans Jazz fan, where as my Mum would play things like Neil Diamond and Jesus Christ Superstar / Hair soundtracks. As a young child obviously I had no reference points so just liked what I heard, as long as it was reasonably uptempo. I bought records myself from around the age of eight. Chart stuff like Sweet and 10CC, that I was hearing on TV or the radio. I used to  like lots of TV themes, like Kojak and Star Maidens. 

How did you get into more underground music?

When I was thirteen or fourteen I started listening to the radio more in my room. Paul Gambaccini`s US chart show on Saturday afternoon used to play some interesting music. It’s where I heard Chuck Brown`s Bustin Loose, Zapp and GQ. Then I stumbled on Radio Luxembourg one night when I was ill in bed, which played loads of non-chart Disco. They had an import chart show on Fridays and the Record Mirror club chart on Wednesdays. Also Robbie Vincent on Radio London. By then I’d stopped spending money on Scalextric or skateboards. Everything went on records.

When and why did you start making music?  When did you start DJing? Which came first?

I made music with my brother in the early 80s. Just overdubbing ourselves on my music centre and his Waltham tape deck, with us singing with two guitars and some bongos. It was a laugh but musically absolutely dreadful. Some funny lyrics, but the problem was neither of us could actually play. Then I got together with a guy from school who could play a bit better, he had a little 4-track.  We made a few songs. I was singing, and writing the lyrics, melody, sometimes the music. There were pretty silly songs, like Ride The Purple Penguin and Day Of The Egg. I DJed occasionally in the early 80s. Just because people knew I had a lot of records, or I’d make people tapes to play at their parties. I didn’t have any equipment. I ordered a low-end DJ console from  my Mum’s mail order catalogue but had to send it back.

Can you remember where and when you first heard a House record? Can you remember the impact it made on you?

Not Chicago House but Proto-House, was Chocolette It’s That East Street Beat. I heard Pete Tong play on Radio Invicta. It`s got a Love Is The Message vibe and I quite liked, it but it seemed very fast. It stuck out as different from the norm. Chicago House was when I moved up to London, maybe Chip E Like This.

The first time I saw your name was on a Raven Maize record, Forever Together – which was 1989 – but you`d made a House record prior to this, M-D-EMM`s Get Acidic in 1988. With Mark Ryder and Emmanuel Cheal. How did you meet Mark? Was this your first  production? 

M-D-Emm Get Busy was the first one, Get Acidic was the remix  of it. It’s not great, we were just starting and learning. In 1986 I got a big break when I landed a job in the record shop in London called Smithers & Leigh. Mark briefly worked there as the in store DJ, but the guy who owned the studio was a school friend, Mike Cheal. He played most of the parts and was credited as Emmanuel Cheal, just so he could fit as the Emm in M-D-Emm. 

What equipment did you have at the time?

A very old 2” 16-track tape machine, Alessis sequencer, Yamaha tx81z  rack mount synth.

Raven Maize was released on New York label, Quark, and M-D-EMM came out on Derrick May`s Transmat. Your first 12? as Joey Negro was with Nu Groove. Pre-internet how easy was it to contact and sign tracks to these established and respected labels?

I was running the Republic label by then, so I was in contact with some of these labels because I was licensing music from them. However, even if I wasn’t doing that I don’t think it would have been that difficult. They were small operations, who were constantly looking for new releases. The Transmat thing happened because Derrick heard and liked the record. I didn’t send it to him.

Which clubs and parties were you going to around the time of Get Acidic and Forever Together ?

High On Hope at Dingwalls on a Thursday was somewhere I visited regularly. However, I was still going back to Colchester most weekends to make music, as Mike’s studio was in Claction-On-Sea. So I wasn’t in London many Fridays or Saturdays. Lots of people I knew were going to the big raves and other stuff happening in London, like Solaris, Shoom and Spectrum, but I didn’t. In some ways I wish I had been to those events, but things turned OK for me, and I wonder if I would have got too into the partying side of things had I started going out a lot more.

High On Hope Membership

How did Republic Records come about? When and why did you switch from Republic to Z Records?

Republic happened when, after a couple of exhausting years, I got burnt out working at Rough Trade Distribution and I approached Geoff Travis about starting my own label. Republic was basically Rough Trade’s dance label. It ran for three years. We had some success in the first year with Turntable Orchestra and Phase II, as well as the Garage Sound Of New York album. Things got harder in the second and third year as musically the vibe in clubland became more ravey. We were associated with a certain sound, so some of our more soulful releases like Simphonia  and the Paradise Regained album didn’t really sell the sort of figures we’d got used to.  I kept releasing some American material like Da Posse but I knew constantly licensing music from the USA was not the way to build a business, so I also signed some cool UK stuff like Adonte and MC Mell’o. But we were starting from scratch, and it was sometimes a long hard slog getting those things finished. Again they sold OK, but not amazingly well. Around this time Rough Trade was struggling financially, so at three years they called it a day on the label. Fair enough really. I’d started ZR around the time as a way to put out my own music.

Later you, together with Sean P, compiled the Disco-Not-Disco series – which defined a genre. They contained six sides of vinyl and were super cheap, and I have to say thank you for that. France`s Wewantsounds have just reissued Don Cherry`s I Walk, which made me think of this. Can you remember how the Disco-Not-Disco compilations came about? Where and when did you meet Sean P?

I’d had the Disco-Not-Disco comp idea for a while. I’d been a long time fan of stuff like 99 Records and Was (not Was). I’d approached Quinton Scott about it before when he was doing Harmless and he didn’t think it was the right time. But when he started Strut he came back and said “Lets do it”. The Don Cherry was Sean’s pick by the way. I’ve know Sean since he came into Smithers & Leigh in `86 with a wants-list and was raving over a song I’d never heard of by Clyde Alexander.

When I sold my flat in Finsbury Park, the estate agent handling it, saw my records and asked me, “Do you know Dave Lee?” He said he`d recently moved you, and not seen a collection like it. And that was about fifteen years ago. Do you still buy a lot of records?

I do still buy online, but don’t go to real records shops much. It’s a shame as I used to love digging in second hand record stores, and anytime I went to a new town or city in the 80/90/00s I would be looking on the outskirts of town for thrift stores, used vinyl etc.. Nowadays the internet, and particularly Discogs, has ruined it to a large degree. If you’re just starting out collecting it’s probably fine, but most of the stuff I want is pretty obscure, high priced items. Realistically I’m not going to find them in the 50p bin of a charity shop in Portsmouth.

Could you give me something new that you`re into? Can you also give me something old that you`ve recently discovered?

New. Fourth Kind Take Me To The Sky

Old. Tower of Power Just Make A Move.

Do you still go out dancing when you`re not DJing? If so which other DJs do you currently rate?

Occasionally, but not too often if I’m honest. I do a lot of traveling and spend plenty of time in clubs, so when I’m off I prefer to do something non-night club based. Also, it’s hard to just loose yourself on the dance floor these days. The reality is that people keep asking for photos. Which I’m fine with, but it’s not something I actually enjoy, or would go out my way to make happen. So you end up in the DJ booth, or back stage, which is a different experience to the dance floor. If I was out, I like to hear DJ Spen, Tony Humphries, Red Greg, Theo Parrish, Rahaan, Neil Pierce.

Has the advent of the internet and digital media altered your own record buying habits? As a collector, if you like something, if you have a file of it, do you still need to own it on vinyl? I ask this because I`m well aware of my own obsessive behaviour. 

Ideally I’d want to own every song I like on vinyl, but I realised a long time ago that’s not ever going to be possible. I’m not really into paying £200-500 for a vinyl copy of something that I already have a decent sounding wav of. I don’t tend to buy new music on vinyl. The occasional record I order from Discogs is likely to be a reasonably cheap old album or 12” that’s not available on CD. If I’m browsing on ebay, or an online collectors store, and something has a clip that sounds decent I might go for it. I’d probably check whether it`s been re-issued first, Discogs, etc., and see if I can hear the full thing on YouTube. I have found some good stuff this way though. In general I buy more CDs as format; it’s the most useful to me as I can play it in the car and at home and if I want to extract the songs for DJing, its easy, and in theory the quality should be very good. Also the grading and condition is often better than vinyl. Buying rare records on Discogs / ebay can be very frustrating in terms of the grading being wrong.

How difficult is it for a record label to stay solvent these days? Does the bulk of your revenue come from digital sales? Spotify plays? Does vinyl actually turn a profit?

Vinyl can make money if you sell over five hundred, and keep the costs down. I bank roll the label from DJing income. ZR does OK, but I`m not sure I could live off it. I guess it’s about a bit of everything – digital, physical, streaming, and a large catalogue coming together to make up to an OK amount. 

Raven Maize

For the first Raven Maize release you created a character from a “borrowed” photo and a fictitious backstory. Would it still be possible to pull such a promo “stunt” today, with the speed with which all information moves?

No I don’t think so, not using old photos like I did on that one anyway. Of course I could think of a fictitious name but then there’s so many unknown names releasing music these days I’d just be putting myself at a massive disadvantage.

You can purchase Joey Negro`s Remixed With Love Volume 3, physically, or digitally directly from Z Records.

There a few personal favourite memory joggers from Dave Lee AKA Joey Negro, and his late `80s label, Republic mixed up here.

Track-list 

Raven Maize – Forever Together

Kikkit – Love Fixation (Anal Exploration)

Joey Negro – Do It, Believe It

Da Posse – In The Life

M D Emm – Get Busy

Blaze – Can`t Win For Losing

Phase II – Reachin

Metro – Brownstone Express

Nomad – Devotion (Joey Negro Mix)

Simphonia – Can`t Get Over Your Love (Dave`s Mix)

Turntable Orchestra – You`re Gonna Miss Me 

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