Interview conducted by Dennis Kane.
“Enter the gate to the Wildstyle state….” – Grandmaster Caz
Richard Sen has a New York state of mind. A Londoner by birth, his sensibility and ethos have been forged in relation to the vital culture that blossomed in New York in the mid `70s and `80s. Specifically the work of early hip hop producers and graffiti writers, and the cultural context of their output, as well as the impact and perspectives that work created as it spread globally. I`d been a fan of Richard`s work with Bronx Dogs when we first met in the early 2000s, and subsequently we played a number of parties together over the years, building a valued dialogue and friendship. We had a chance in March of 2020 to sit down for a recorded chat when he was in town to see the Henry Chalfant exhibit at The Bronx Museum.
Dennis Kane: OK, so you are 10 years old, what are you doing? What is going on?
Richard Sen: Well I’m in London – born and bred. I grew up in Wembley, state schools, an ethnically mixed environ, Jewish, Indian, Afro-Caribbean. It was different classes as well as races, and that was a beautiful aspect of growing up in London. My father’s side of the family was musical. He was a guitarist, and my grandfather came to London in the 1920s and sang on the stage – a proper crooner. My Dad was born in Calcutta, his side of the family was very bohemian.
DK: I remember seeing photos of your grandparents on the set of a film they were working on…
RS: Yeah that was in India, the film was Northwest Frontier with Lauren Bacall.
Richard`s grandfather and grandmother on set with Lauren Bacall, in India, 1959.
On my Mum`s side, her father and brother both liked playing music all night and having parties. We lived in this big house – parents, siblings, grandparents and aunts, uncles – and in such a house there was always music playing, reggae, soul, James Brown. It was a very social place.
DK: Did you take guitar lessons from your Dad?
RS: No. I rebelled against that. I was anti-guitar (laughter), anti-rock. The first music I got into as a teen was 2-tone – The Specials, Madness, The Beat – essentially post-punk ska. I had stay-pressed trousers and tasseled loafers.
DK: Was graffiti a part of things for you at that time?
RS: There was graffiti, but it was different. It was punk, anarchistic, or football hooligan stuff, or racist slogans – “Blacks Out” “Paki’s Out” or just “NF” national front (The National Front is a far-right UK fascist party that was founded in 1967). Two of the first real writers in a NY-style were actually members of the band Madness. They`d seen some articles in the late `70s about what was going on in the Bronx, and they tried to copy it – Kix (Lee Thompson) and Mr. B (Mike Barson) were their tags (Others in the crew were Cat and Columbo). No one cared much at the time.
From Roger Perry`s book, The Writing On The Wall.
DK: Was your exposure to modern graffiti through magazines and film?
RS: Definitely. Wild Style and Style Wars had a huge impact, and the book, Subway Art (Henry Chalfant & Martha Cooper’s legendary tome), was like the Bible. Experiencing the mix of hip hop, breaking and graffiti was mind blowing- just a full immersion of sight, sound and motion. It set things on fire. It was unprecedented. At the same time, there were these Street Sounds Electro compilations that Morgan Khan was putting out – collecting music by Tyrone Brunson, Hashim, Time Zone, some of the Celluloid stuff – and at school we were really getting into this as the new thing. The electro sound hit us before we even knew about B-Boy breaks.
DK: This is early / mid `80s?
RS: Yes, and we would all be trying to break dance, but there was something about graffiti that really registered with me. I came to NYC in 1985 on a holiday, and that trip opened my mind and cemented New York City as an inspirational touchstone. Seeing graffiti on train, seeing boom-boxes being played, name belts, two-toned jeans, fat laces – it was a baptism that trip. My aunt took me and my brother to The Fresh Festival in the Bronx – LL Cool J, Whodini, The Fat Boys, and finally Run DMC, who were like rock stars, but totally black punk, with a drum machine – hard and minimal. Even the name sounded like it was from the future: Run DMC – what the fuck is that?
A young Richard in NYC, with Dustin Hoffmann.
DK: It was a unique moment because you have this culture emerge that is local and street driven, it has insane style, it is rooted in music, dance, and visual art, and all of these creative solutions happened despite the poverty. Just inventive ways to get over against the system. Tag an entire train, boost the electricity from a lamp post for your outdoor party, flip tired European design on its head and mix it with inexpensive work wear.
RS: Right and to us this culture and New York were inseparable, and it isn’t just hip-hop, it`s punk and it`s disco – you have Francis Grasso, and David Mancuso, and Nicky Siano… Bambaataa is cutting up disco breaks. It hit the UK like a bomb, and as someone who isn’t white, this complex culture really had a freedom to it. I Identified with it precisely because I saw brown and mixed-race kids as players in the scene.
DK: Coming back from that trip did your adventures in graffiti begin?
RS: I started to dedicate myself to it, working in a book. There was a graffiti competition held by a radio station, designing a poster or some such, and I came in second. I was good on paper, but at 17 or so I hadn’t gone out yet. We had a train yard near where I lived in Wembley, and a pal got us in. That first time I came directly from a wedding and was wearing a suit (laughter).
DK: How did that first piece come off? And did you see writing as a real possibility?
RS: Oh the first piece was shit (laughs), but I was addicted, so yes I kept on. At first we were obviously biting NY art and learning how to tag, but we were also trying to evolve. It took some time to get skilled and distinctive. People have no idea how hard it is. The touch, can control, scale, coverage and obviously speed are all necessary components to master, and to do it in the middle of the night, often on a high ladder or overhang, and to deal with the weather and to avoid getting arrested, I’ve such respect for any that master it. This isn’t some “street art” ersatz painting in a gallery – this was a subculture and public theater. Graffiti is high stakes with zero financial reward, it’s very pure. When you go through these experiences as a teenager it empowers your mindset. It definitely gave me a template as an artist and some fortitude for my ventures into music.
DK: How did you choose the tag COMA?
RS: Well it had to be short, I liked the letters, and there was the likelihood it would be seen by tired people on their work commute – COMA seemed fitting.
DK: What you are describing about the artform relates to early DJ culture as well. It was a real subculture – records weren’t easy to get, and DJ’s also had to show and prove to get a rep, develop a distinctive style, and learn to rock a party while competing for short time slots and eventually moving from their local neighborhoods to a wider audience.
RS: Yeah if you were wack, people would tell you. It would give you a kick in the ass to work at the craft to improve. Any sense of entitlement could piss off. A lot of people now leave their homes feeling special – perhaps that’s a generational thing, or class based – but I was seen and not heard as a kid. I was working so hard at this to finally have a voice and express myself.
DK: You are participating in a scene as a maker, you aren’t a consumer buying the identity for extended cos-play – “Look mom! I live in Bushwick, I’m a DJ” (laughter).
RS: A life, as opposed to a lifestyle. Now everything is so careerist – it`s the nature of this period in time. I don’t think younger people know any other way. The purity of a moment doesn’t last.
DK: I think also in street culture there was a romantic appreciation for outsiders, for people on the margins, iconoclasts who created something from their own fractured selves. Larry Levan didn’t have a five-year plan, most of the graffiti pioneers weren’t thinking about some lifetime arc, they were compelled to do something with urgency. It was very innocent and utopian.
RS: My uncle was talking about the pioneers of rock-n-roll – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, etc… they were just going for something with what they had. There were no considerations past the act of creating and performing.
DK: Conscious or not, living that way is also to be in opposition with the state – your existence stands in relief to any normative approach. “Gimmie danger” (laughter).
RS: Well I got that. At 18 I was the first person in the UK sent to prison for graffiti – my co-defendant and I. We were in a proper jail for months, then sent into this very militaristic “training” program – “yes sir, no sir”, run everywhere, head shaved, hard discipline. Naturally I came out more angry and bitter than when I went in. They made me physically fit, tough, and resentful. A tight fist of anger.
Richard`s last “public” piece, from 1988.
DK: The severity of your punishment in a way was a sure sign graffiti had made a social impact as well.
RS: Yes, we were a precedent in how they would deal with writers. Conversely it also got me some notoriety – “COMA” became infamous. Then I started to move on from graffiti – I got into acid house, took ecstasy, went raving and was on to a whole new trip.
DK: Aquarian Dreams.
RS: Peace and Love, a new level of unprecedented feelings. I got a job as a messenger, bought a Walkman and really went deep into music. I had an income so I could buy records. I would go to places like Red Records and buy from Nick the Record, and he would pull out NY house jams and disco for me. I got turntables and started to get serious about it. I got my first gig by giving a promoter a mix tape that I had made, it was a Sunday afternoon come down party for those who had been raging the night before (The Crazy Club, at The Astoria on London’s Charing Cross Road).
DK: Did you come back to New York around this time?
RS: Yeah, I would go to Vinylmania and see Emerson*, he would school me about The Loft and Garage classics, Danny Krivit edits… (*renowned and respected record collector / dealer – with connections to Patrick Adams and Peter Brown – who also helped out at the legendary Greenwich Village store).
DK: Emerson had great taste, and always had a great personal collection. He was a delicate guy and some less than cool people took advantage, but I would go see him at his crib for years.
RS: I also went to Downstairs Records. I remember digging there and seeing a Harvey tag. It was cool knowing that he`d been there. I was trying to absorb as much as possible – hitting shops and going to clubs. Then I started to phone up the labels – Nu Groove, Power Tracks – and I’d say I was an English DJ and ask if they had promos…
DK: The accent wins! (laughter)
RS: They were really responsive – Judy Weinstein, DJ Pierre, Frankie Bones, Adam X, they would all send me stuff…
DK: What a great way to experience New York, with such larger than life people.
RS: For me it was about the experience and the knowledge, informing myself and building sets to play. I was never really a collector or rare record type. Getting fried chicken with Emerson in Harlem and hearing a Liz Torres story, that was where it was at – living in those moments.
DK: It`s gaining knowledge, but it`s also a very social and real connection, it`s not about a cribbed playlist. How did you start moving into production?
RS: Well, in the `90s I started working at The Music & Video Exchange, a second- hand record shop, in fact I still work there.
DK: Shout-out to Sean P! (Sean P is an inspiring DJ who is known for his essential compilations. An extremely knowledgeable selector with impeccable taste, and an audiophile’s understanding of sound, his mixing, mastering and edits of older jams are always ace. Sean is a criminally unheralded figure in contemporary dance music).
RS: Sean has put me up on so many records, and he’s such a cool guy – he keeps me sane there – so I amassed a good collection of music and tools, and I met a lot of like-minded people. I met this guy Paul (Eve) who knew a lot about hip-hop and breaks and downtempo, and he had been making music before as The Wiseguys on Wall Of Sound. We connected on a b-boy level and made a record under the name Bronx Dogs.
There is a book by Stephen Hager (Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti St. Martin’s press 1984) and in it there is a photo of this three-legged dog in amongst all of this Bronx rubble, and we said, “Yeah, Bronx Dogs”. We did a track that was a tribute to Jazzy J – which was inspired by The Death Mix (A live breaks set by Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy J recorded at James Monroe High in the Bronx) – so we had the Edwin Starr break, the Chocolate break etc.… then the MC shouting out Jazzy J. It was very Double Dee & Steinski / Lesson-y, very cut-n-paste, but it blew up. I have to credit Harvey, who played it a lot at his party at the Blue Note, and who did a subsequent remix of it. After that Heavenly Records – who are an indie label – managed us, and with their help we got lots of remix work – The Jungle Brothers, Saint Etienne, Primal Scream. I was getting paid and we were playing festivals. Then I started working with Neil (Higgins) who also worked at Music and Video Exchange, and we began Padded Cell. Neil had been doing production and had a studio.
DK: Signal Failure?
RS: Well we had done one sort of proto-house inspired jam for Suicide which was an Eskimo offshoot, then Signal Failure…
DK: Great Rinder & Lewis loop.
RS: We sent Signal Failure to DC recordings (Jonathan Depthcharge Kane’s label), they really got behind us, and it did very well. We did four or five singles for DC and then an album, a number of remixes and I was touring again.
DK: We met early 2000s?
RS: I came to see you and Sal (Principato of Liquid Liquid fame) play at LOVE on NYE, and then we met again through Johnny Chingas (UK promoter), right? Back in London?
DK: I liked the Bronx Dogs jam, and then unrelated discovered Padded Cell which had a dark Italo horror feel. I played Far Beneath London the other day, and it still knocks hard.
RS: The Giallo vibe was a big influence. Goblin and Tenebrae flavors mixed with deep disco, b-boy accents and house.
DK: The vibe of the entire package was very cinematic, and each 12” had a really strong identity and graphic.
RS: The designers of the 12’s – La Boca – did a great job of capturing the feel. They referenced a particular vein of `70s horror and suspense, and they have gone on to do some amazing high profile work. I loved how their graphics seemed laminated to the ideas of the songs.
DK: I remember coming to visit you when you were finishing the album, and your studio was IN the tube station! (laughter).
RS: It was Neil’s studio, above the tube station on Caledonian Road, but you had to go into the subway for access…
DK: And there was a mental hospital right down the street! The setting was too perfect.
RS: Neil called the studio “the Padded Cell”.
DK: I remember we tried to go to a pub near the hospital. We walked in and it was like a horror film – the place was packed, and everyone just suddenly stopped talking and stared at us.
RS: Some truly grim personae there! (laughter)
DK: We got the fuck out of Dodge and went to some organic restaurant in Hoxton! (laughter) Shortly after you came and played with Darshan and I at Cielo, you did a night with me at APT, and you played my birthday party at Santos – with Sal P on percussion!
RS: Then in 2012 I did the compilation on Strut and we did a great party for it at Cielo.
DK: The compilation, This Ain’t Chicago, collected UK acid and house tracks from the mid to the late `80s. It features underground classics and some lesser known jams Ahead of the curve when released, it is increasingly widely admired.
RS: The records I selected were just my personal favorites that I`d bought at the time, and still played. I felt like it was an era that hadn’t been properly documented or represented. It was the real UK underground sound. I was very chuffed that an imprint I respected like Strut were up for doing it.
DK: You moved on as a solo artist and were focusing heavily on production around that time.
RS: Yeah after Padded Cell, I concentrated on my own tracks and remix work. I’ve done remixes for Bryan Ferry, LCD Soundsystem, Gemini, John Grant, The Asphodells, and Phil Gerus – which is one of my faves, but it’s as rare as rocking horse shit, as it was only released as a limited 12″.
DK: You also did an edits label, Mixed Blood Cuts, with Caz – who also did a few edits for my Ghost Town imprint.
RS: Caz is an old school graf writer, and he is as real as it gets. We haven’t put out any edits of late. It seems like everyone and their brother does them, so I kind of leave them alone, or do them privately for my own sets. Often I’ll add stuff to a track and make it more like a remix.
DK: Your new label is called Darkness Is Your Candle, what are the plans for that?
RS: I love the phrase “Darkness Is Your Candle” – it’s from Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī the 13th Century Persian Sufi poet / mystic). You can interpret it in many ways: hurt can make you stronger, suffering and hardship are part of existence, you have to have both for growth, dark and light, order and chaos. Straddling that fine line is where meaning is found. We all have a shadow self which complements our conscience. I put out one release on DIYC, then COVID happened, so I’m watching where we are at as I plan future releases.
DK: How have you been coping with lockdown? I`ve found it strangely positive, the quiet has been great. I think artists are built to function in isolation.
RS: I’ve loved it during lockdown to be honest. I’ve been more creative now than ever, and produced some of my best work. My C.A.R. remix, and my Rheinzand mix feel like I’m breaking new ground. I have a new single out in December on Grafiti Tapes with some of my old graff outlines and photos for the artwork. I’m also enjoying doing my radio show for Balamii. I’ve been building that slowly. I want to write a book on the `80s London train graffiti-writing subculture. I may do it as my doctoral thesis (Richard got his Master’s degree from the London School of Economics at the age of 50). I wasn’t going out to clubs much before COVID. I prefer nature to nightlife these days.
DK: As a parent I worry about how the isolation has impacted my son who is 15, but his world is so online engaged I don’t think I fully understand his perspective.
RS: I do feel sorry for the younger generations. I have faith in the UK youth though, as they seem like they will always find a way to have fun. Dance culture going back underground might be a good thing. Warehouse parties and small invite parties have always been where’s it’s at. Bring back spontaneity and creativity. Fuck ordering a £30 ticket on Resident Advisor 3 months before the gig to go to a prison / club to hear some mediocre nonentity. Who the hell made partying an industry anyway? Smash up the industry and the careerist DJs!
DK: It seems that even before COVID, dance music had gotten into a complacent place. It had become mainstream and diluted, but there are always good things at the margins.
RS: The world is definitely at some kind of turning point and there is so much pronounced division right now. The extreme left and extreme right are getting more popular, and there seems less interest in dialogue with people of different opinions and ideologies to move things forward and help solve what are very communal problems.
As an artist I am trying to survive, and continue to grow creatively – get my own ship in order and move outward from that point to engage others.
Richard by Alexis Maryon.