The stealthy workings of Michael ‘Mickey D’ Davis, brought about a distinctly Black-British take on contemporary R&B and the burgeoning neo-soul terrain that UK artists were beginning to invigorate. Ushering a freshness into the broader music landscape and bringing vivid colour into a great period of the ‘90s onwards. He has been responsible for a multitude of chart-topping hits that received international acclaim, from Mark Morrison, Cleopatra, Shola Ama, Eternal, MN8, Glamma Kid, D’Influence and more.
His record within the industry spans the breadth of three decades and though his name is caught confidently within certain enclaves of the music industry and music history, the esteem of ‘household’ unfortunately, has seldom been attached to his name. The DJ/record producer, A&R and all-around pioneer can be found jockeying on Mi-Soul Radio weekly.
'We never knew we were ‘trailblazers’ at the time, we were just doing it. We had no fear. I was never the person that worked in a record company and kept my head down. I was always very proud of my Blackness.'
Vuyokazi Mtukela: Why do you feel your name has largely gone unsung in these conversations despite being such a pivotal force behind those Black British successes we know of?
Mickey D: If you’re successful and Black in the music industry — most people know the artists, know the songs but they generally don’t know the people behind it all. It’s a new generation now. It’s very different. Unless you’ve got people in your peer group that are in the industry, you’re not going to hear about people like me.
When I started in the early ‘90s, it was a totally different business. When I first started in the business and I walked in at EMI records, I was the only Black person in there. The only other Black person I saw was the girl at the reception desk. The push now has to also be about getting [Black people] in the positions of power.
Vuyokazi Mtukela: Black Market Records in Soho sadly closed its doors in 2015. How do you feel the future of music will be affected by the loss of that space and others like it?
Mickey D: It was good training for A&R because I think a lot of A&R guys came from that background. Typically, you see they would have come from either working in record shops and DJing, because we had our fingers on the pulse back in those days. They wanted people like us in the record companies. They wanted you to start doing club promotion, and then you might work your way up, but I came straight in.
So much talent came out of that store. Steve Jervier, Frankie Foncett, Paul Martin. Soho during that period was the best place in the world. It was such a competitive place too, every time you went in you felt like you had to be on your toes because every man was waiting to challenge you.
Soul II Soul was breaking in and nearly everyone else around you was a creative. We never knew we were ‘trailblazers’ at the time, we were just doing it. We had no fear. I was never the person that worked in a record company and kept my head down. I was always very proud of my Blackness.
Vuyokazi Mtukela: Talk to me a bit about that trajectory. Why do you feel it took its course in that way?
Mickey D: I made friends with a lot of record industry guys because they’d always come into the shop to find out what the new thing was, and who they should be looking out for. There was a guy that came in from EMI and he’d just got a job at a label called Positiva, which is still around now.
He said to me one day ‘I’m thinking of doing this little R&B compilation; could you tell me what the hottest tunes are?’ and I said to him ‘Why would I be telling you what the hottest music is? I’d be doing your job for free. Pay me first.’
A few months later he came back and said his boss was looking for someone like me. Someone who works with the sort of music that I do and asked whether I’d be interested in interviewing. I didn’t think much of it really, because sometimes these things never do mean anything.
A short while later, I get a call from Clive Black who was the head of A&R at EMI records. So, I went in. Clive told me he’d spoken to a lot of people and that he liked my vibe, that there was something about me and on the spot he offered me the job. We negotiated everything right there and then. He was like my mentor.
I remember one thing he said to me was, now I was in A&R, I had to learn it wasn’t just about what I liked, what I would play in the clubs, or play to me and my friends. I had start thinking from a pop perspective and look at what would work in the mainstream.
'For us to have a Black artist, Black manager and a Black A&R, it had never been done before.'
Vuyokazi Mtukela: That time at Black Market Records and those early stages at EMI were also the beginning of a journey which led you to developing a reputation as a hit-maker…
Mickey D: One thing I had a knack for was discovering new producers. Just before I left EMI, I met these two guys from Denmark called Cutfather and Joe. They weren’t famous, they didn’t have work at the time, but they were really good.
Two months now at ECA Records, I found out about this guy called Mark Morrison who I’d heard a while back while I was still at EMI, and this time he was being managed by a Black manager. He showed us this video of [Mark] performing and girls were screaming. I thought ‘Who’s this guy? Never heard of him and he’s already got girls screaming for him.' Me and Clive signed him.
In that time, just before we put out his first single, we signed Shola Ama as well. So, I’m developing and working with Mark now and his first single, which wasn’t actually Return of the Mack by the way, it was a track called Crazy which entered the chart at number eighteen, and that was its final position. And we thought great, really nice video and everything, came out top 20, amazing.
The second came out at something like number twenty-eight so we thought we really have one more shot at this. I wasn’t feeling the production of this third one. Mark started saying he wanted a ballad for this next single I thought; ‘You can’t put a ballad out, without a hit first. We’re just gonna die.’ I wanted us to concentrate on this other song that we really liked. So I sent the track to Cutfather and Joe and they started working around it.
What came out of it was incredible. They made it into Gold, well, Platinum really all over the world. They put a sheen on it. And then the rest was history. I gave the record to a good friend of mine, Trevor Nelson at Radio One and he was the first DJ to play it on radio and he was essentially the first to premiere the song worldwide.
Vuyokazi Mtukela: Was there any resistance in seeing someone like Mark Morrison who was creating that sort of sound, in the UK?
Mickey D: I think in the early days. The first thing the CEO at Warner said to me was ‘How did you get [this record] from there to there?’ and I said to him that’s what we do. The way they promoted records in record companies during that time was standard, no matter if it was a rock record, no matter if it was a dance record. Six weeks in the clubs and then they’re taking it to radio. I said no, you’re not doing my records like that.
When I worked in the record shops and an American import record came out, the American import became a hit on the street before it became a mainstream hit. It took about three months before that would happen. I want my tune to be a hit on the street before you even think of releasing. When we sent the Mark Morrison record out to the pirates around November, the pirates were killing it. After Trevor Nelson had it, of course. We didn’t release until April the following year. By then Mark was already doing so many shows all over the country - discos an clubs all over - and he was just working that record before it had even come out. The people on the street are what make it cool for the mainstream to buy it. The people on the street love it, the mainstream love it because they want to be cool. George Michael was coming out the next week and they said you’re never going to beat him to No.1 and we did.
'People always ask how I did it. How I got my things through, had all these hits. Mostly I feel because I’ve got that sort of personality that can bring people into my way of thinking.'
Vuyokazi Mtukela: Incredible.
Mickey D: It really was. The success of that was amazing. No white A&R had done that for years, so for this little Black boy to come in and do all that. You could tell there were certain haters that were around, if you know what I mean.
For us to have a Black artist, Black manager and a Black A&R, it had never been done before. I was grateful because Warner were brilliant with me. They just let me get on with it. They were known for their American stuff because of their great American artists but nothing British, really. They had it now. We become the number one record company in the country. We were just killing it. We signed Shola Ama, Glamma Kid, Cleopatra. Act after act after act.
Vuyokazi Mtukela: Black Britain had something to say at this point as far as R&B and neo-soul were concerned. There was a real vigour among and behind everyone coming up. Not just with Mark, but Shola Ama, Eternal and the other great artists you were dealing with all did amazingly at defining and translating the sound internationally.
Mickey D: Kwame Kwaten discovered Shola on the tube. She actually had her headphones on and she was singing. He started working with her. He rang me and said they were putting on a show at the Jazz Café she was going to be performing. And when I got there all the other A&R’s were there. A room full of them. They were all walking out asking me, ‘What do you think? What do you think?’ and I had to keep it cool. I would never give anything away.
The next day I was on the phone to Kwame and I said immediately ‘Right. Let’s do this deal'. With her, she had the right songs and everything else but she just needed a bit of kicking off. I’m a very impulsive person so when I hear something, feel something, I go for it.
Later down the line, I’m sitting in a restaurant with my wife and I heard Randy Crawford in the background of the place singing You Might Need Somebody. I said to my wife this might be a good one for Shola. Again, I’m on the phone to Kwame. She was a bit apprehensive with it at first, but I was like just go in there, and just give it the best you’ve got. And she was massive.
She sold a lot of records worldwide, South East Asia, France. I remember going to a show in Paris, thousands of people just waiting to see her. I couldn’t believe it. I thought bloody hell, I’m really behind this. It went beyond these are ‘Black artists’ as well, I think part of getting your things through is having good relationships with people and I had that with everybody in the building.
People always ask how I did it. How I got my things through, had all these hits. Mostly I feel because I’ve got that sort of personality that can bring people into my way of thinking. It kind of worked for me. And they all kind of got behind the things I was championing, luckily.
Vuyokazi Mtukela: How is the gig at Mi-Soul going?
Mickey D: One thing you don’t ever lose is the ear. So I’ve been active behind the scenes and everything but it’s definitely a young man’s game. Mi-Soul is going well. It’s my little platform to be able to just play a lot of the music I love. I’ve not been in the studio for a while, probably for about six months because of everything going on but I record a lot of my shows at home. Just to be able to express that still, it’s good. It’s great. My son’s in musical theatre and dance at the moment and it’s not the best time for him really, all the theatres are shut. And my daughter, she writes music, she sings and does all her own stuff as well.
Vuyokazi Mtukela: What advice do you give them, as aspiring performers?
Mickey D: I tell them the truth. I always find it difficult when they ask me to critique their stuff, and I also find it difficult having to critique it, but I still try to. They know my story and they know what I did, they also know the pitfalls of the industry.
There are a lot of unsung people out there. I feel sad thinking there’s young guys in the industry who would say they’ve never heard of me. I think that’s sad. I would look at myself as an inspiration for some of them.
You can tune into Mickey D’s Mi-Soul Radio show on Thursdays, 11pm – 1 am.