Dave Lee

M caught up with disco house pioneer, DJ and Z Records head honcho Dave Lee, who under his many guises (Joey Negro, Jakatta, Raven Maize and Doug Willia are a few) has constantly hit the top of dance and pop charts alike.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 15 Dec 2011
  • min read
M caught up with disco house pioneer, DJ and Z Records head honcho Dave Lee, who under his many guises (Joey Negro, Jakatta, Raven Maize and Doug Willia are a few) has constantly hit the top of dance and pop charts alike. His release under the Jakatta alias - American Dream reached number 3 in the UK singles charts in 2000).

We picked Dave's brains about all things nu disco as part of our Goove Is In The Heart feature, and as what he had to say was so good, we decided to publish the interview in full.

How would you define nu disco?
A lot of what is catagorised as nu disco samples or plagiarises disco in some way. If there hadn’t been disco there definitely wouldn’t be any nu disco. If you look at Juno or any of the download sites at what is nu disco a lot of it is rehashes of old records, be it looping a bit of an instrumental section and doing something different over the top of it or they’re taking the verse of something and turning it into the chorus, although you can’t argue it isn’t creative.

There are some bands doing it from scratch, Los Charly’s Orchestra, Crazy P and Hot Toddy etc, but generally nu disco is old disco revamped for this generation, often made more repetitive and leveled out tempo-wise.

Often when I go to nu disco nights there’s definitely less vocal than there would be at an original disco night as the music is generally made by DJs, whereas original disco is more musicians and songwriters, they’re coming at it from a different angle, so it’s more repetitive, looping, they’re building up a hypnotic groove that way. Obviously the technology’s very different now to how it was in the 1970s and also the possible profits made out of a record are drastically reduced.

Doing it the old way with an orchestra and a band just wouldn’t be possible, although I still do that to an extent with The Sunburst Band. That’s a labour of love and a self-indulgence paid for by my DJ work rather than a profit-making venture.

Where do you think the nu disco scene came from?
It’s more house people, I’ve noticed this with the way nu disco is arranged, it’s got a more European sensibility, it’s more Georgio Moroder and Cerrone than Ashford and Simpson. Also, the whole thing with DJ Harvey and Daniel Baldelli and that whole Cosmic thing is what constitutes disco? I bought a compilation album this year where I didn’t know many of the tracks called ‘Disco something or other’ and found that a lot of the tracks to me aren’t really disco, it’s a pop record with a slight disco beat. So I think what is considered disco now is broader than it used to be. For the younger generation I think disco is almost danceable music from the 1970s so it doesn’t have to be The bee gees, it could be a John Miles record pop records that were made during the disco era, but are not what I would have considered to be a disco record at the time.

As far as the actual way the records were produced I think that you can see they’ve grown up with electronic house music and that’s what they’ve been hearing since they’ve been kids, so the younger produces are making the records in more of a repetitive way. It’s also influenced by the technology they’re making the music on Ableton and Fruityloops and those sort of programs encourage repetition and looping. So looping is very easy and I think often when I’ve been to these really trendy parties when I’ve been DJing and maybe gone to a trendy party in some warehouse space that could be in St Petersburg or could be anywhere really, the nu disco scene is like a cool alternative scene to the big-room Swedish House Mafia scene. They’re playing Eric Prydz in the big, more commercial room but the cooler underground places are playing nu disco and deep house and maybe playing it off vinyl, it’s kind of the opposite, the alternative to the mainstream.

A lot of people making nu disco are doing it from bedroom studios, as is a lot of dance music nowadays. You can’t record a string section in your bedroom you know, you have to go to a proper studio and its expensive, you’re probably talking about four tracks for five grand or something like that. Sampling off a record is definitely cheaper! I still enjoy making records based around samples as much as anything, it’s just a different starting point.

How do you think nu disco is developing?
There are a lot of re-edits but l but I think that some of those people will go on to do something more creative. What was a re-edit in 1978 isn’t a re-edit now – that was chopping about a master. What is a re-edit now would have been considered a remix in 1983, and a lot of re-edits go beyond that and they do start to become like an original piece of music. It depends on how you want to bill it. It’s all a very greay area and it’s one of the few things that’s keeping vinyl buoyant. That scene prefer vinyl and that stuff couldn’t come out digitally, they just press up 500.

With the way techonology has gone, if you’re a young producer you could sit down with some soft synths and try and come up with something which is one way of going about it – you might make something more tech-housey or the other way you could do it is get some old disco record, put it in the computer and Ableton will get it to a regular tempo quite easily, it’s not that difficult, and use that as a basis. So instead of starting from scratch you’re maybe looping and overdubbing little bits of keyboards. I think it’s a good way of starting out in your production career. You’re kind of buying off the peg because if you begin with an O’Jays sample then you’re starting off with something pretty good, which is a better starting point perhaps than a bass drum and a soft synth.

The Revenge started off with pure edits and now his stuff is more deep house, he’s originating more of the musical parts himself instead of adding drums to an already great piece of music and looping it, his stuff now doesn’t sound like it’s got any big samples in it. I think that’s probably a logical progression.

We all need a starting point with a song. It might be a bassline you’ve come up with yourself, it might be a chord progression you’ve copied off something else or it might be a sample.

I hear some of those guys who put their music online and they’re not names yet but maybe they will be in five years time – they’re doing some pretty clever things with maybe an old James Brown record, they’ve straightened it all out and they’ve made it sound a bit more modern, but personally I’m not a big fan of putting a Patrice Rushen record into Ableton and making it 127bpm. I like things slowing down and speeding up and it just sounds a bit rigid sometimes but it depends on how you do it, if you do anything well and anything badly.

In a way it’s like I’m like the person who has seen the original version of a movie who’s saying that the new version isn't as good, I’m probably not the right person to ask really. Sometimes it’s someone hearing it for the first time as a fresh piece of music with a bass drum, a hi-hat and a few space effects over the top, they prefer it like that, it’s a bit more repetitive and more contemporary to them. To me it’s a bit ‘Hmm, I’d love to hear the bit that came after that’.

Where do you think nu disco music is heading?
I’m terrible at predicting where things might head, it’s very hard. I don’t think I would have predicted most of the changes that have happened in music over the past few years, I would never have seen all these R&B singers making Euro pop records with David Guettas for example - trance sounds in R&B records.

You could imagine The Saturdays making a semi nu disco record, maybe they have done already. There was a project I was working on with an A&R guy with a girl band with songs with a nu disco bent, Euro-sounding backing tracks. It’s a commercial backbeat but You would need to have the killer songs over the top of it and at the moment I don’t think there are many nu disco things that are strong topline-wise because there aren’t the songwriters.