Smell The Coffee: Mr. C
Richard West, better known to you and me as Mr. C has probably seen and done all there is to do in electronic music over his 25+ years experience. From being at the forefront of the rave scene in the UK and Ibiza and bringing the cultural phenomenon to the masses via his iconic outfit The Shamen to running of the London’s sorely missed The End Club and his newly reinvigorated Superfreq label he’s always been a man with his finger on the pulse and a story to tell. So we caught up with the enigmatic former MC before his performance at Below’s 8th Birthday at Rainbow, Birmingham on May 4th and spoke about his upcoming album ‘Smell The Coffee’, what exactly happened with The End and spending the night with South African gangsters…
If I could take you back to the beginning and ask you, what first drew you to electronic music?
I was always into dance music listening to disco & also funk & soul so my first real taste of electronic dance music was in the early 80’s listing to old school electro from the likes of Kraftwerk but more so Afrika Bambata & the Soul Sonic Force, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Egyptian Lover, Cybertron, Nucleus & the like. I started off Robot Dancing which then led to body popping & early break dancing which didn’t last long as at 16 years old, the 11 & 12 year old kids were wiping the floor with me & having thin hair, spinning on my head was out of the question as vanity & hair loss would not allow that.
I imagine in your distinguished career you’ve seen a lot of changes. What changes do you think have been for the better and is there anything you’d like to change back?
I think the house & techno scene is always changing for the better. Each year there’s new hardware & software, computers are becoming more & more powerful & also there’s so much new talent coming through, so the music to my ears is always improving. Also, there’s new clubs opening up all the time around the world & the sound systems & lights are also improving so I’d say there’s been a very steady growth in dance music in general. Also, back in the early days, there wasn’t many people into electronic dance music but now, the whole world is dancing to it so it has to keep evolving. I think that the laws in the UK changing also helped, with the Barry Leg Bill which made clubbing a lot safer. When the rave scene started, it was completely illegal & therefore somewhat dangerous which was fun, but there were some serious safety issues. Now, we still have events in alternative spaces & festivals which are no different to warehouse parties & raves but now they have to comply with certain safety regulations so again, it’s way better now.
If I could change anything back to how it was before, I don’t think I would. Human nature dictates that we’re constantly evolving so I believe we need to be inspired by the past & yet embrace the future.
You started your career as an MC not a DJ. Why do you think we have seen such a demise in the use of MC’s by so many different electronic genres in today’s electronic music landscape?
I not sure that we have seen the demise of MCs in the Electronic arena, I think it’s just become more specific. If you look in the Grime scene & still in the Drum & Bass scene you will still find MCs, just not so much in the house & techno scene. I still do get on the mic from time to time & people love it. However there’s a lot of crap MCs out there, people that just want to scream down the mic & load of raga bullshit which of course isn’t suited to house & techno music.
Tell us what are your favorite bits of kit both to play live and produce with in the studio? (Do you run analogue, digital or a mixture of the both?) Is there a special or any unusual process you go through when building tracks?
I don’t play live as a musician anymore, not since the Shamen days. I’m a DJ & the last thing I want to do is stand behind a laptop pretending to play live. Of course it’s well documented that I play with vinyl but since the re-launch of the Superfreq label I’m now using a lot more CDs, probably between 30-50% of my set, this is because I want to showcase my artists music. I now have lots as I have 2 EPs per month lined up for Superfreq right up until the end of the year. It’s also a great feeling playing loads of amazing music that I know nobody else has, it makes my sets that little bit extra special.
As for the studio, I like to use both analogue & digital synths. It’s important for me that the bass & acidic sequences are analogue to help give my music that thickness on the bottom end & also that unpredictable nature of analogue LFOs on the acid lines as it’s more organic in it’s movement.
During the making of my album, I wrote all of the tracks on my laptop with soft synths as instrumental pieces working with Daniel Mancini engineering. I always use an engineer as I simply don’t have time to spend a week or 2 writing a backing track on my own & with an engineer, I’ll have tracks generally done in a couple of days. I write all the music & drums myself, I’m very strict about that as I’m a musician, however I’m by no means an engineer but I do know electronic music theory 100% so can usually bark my instructions out about what sounds I want, how to process them, what effects I want etc. etc. Anyway, I digress. After writing the music, I lived with the tracks for a few months to really get to know them before I started writing lyrics. I then went into a recording studio along with Victoria Wilson James & we recorded vocals, one song for VWJ & 5 songs for me, one of which I decided was better as an instrumental so scrapped the vocals. Once I was happy with the vocals I then swapped all of the bass lines & acid lines from digital to analogue & then completed the arrangements around the vocals. After that, I sent all of the finished arranged tracks to New York where Francis Harris & Jordan Lieb mixed down the whole album for me in a multi million dollar studio on an SSL desk to give the album that huge high end production. Since getting the album back from those guys, after having them make several changes with the balancing & mix downs, I then took the whole album into post production with the Dance Spirit boys & added further sound effects & trippy noises, after which we then mastered the whole album.
Of course this was the making of an album with which I’m in a fortunate enough position to have all this amazing work done. When I make straight up dance singles, it’s a lot more of a quicker process.
How do you go about set building? Off the cuff organic mixes or do you have a rough plan for where your playing? Where are your favourite places to play?
I never plan my DJ sets but I am well prepared. By this I mean I go record shopping regularly & thoroughly listen to all of my news tunes, making marks on the labels as guides which assist me when I’m playing. I need to do this as my music is always very new so these markings on the label guide me through my sets. I have no idea what I’m going to play until I hear the last record of the DJ before me & from then I simply become one with the crowd & let the Universe take over. Of course the Superfreq events are my favourite places to play as the people are coming to hear a specific sound & they know what they’re there for. I do Superfreq all over the world but I’d say my favourite places are London & Los Angeles, my two home towns. The parties at Paramount are simply amazing & it’s always a pleasure to do Superfreq at Fabric & the warehouse events we throw in LA are nothing short of amazing. I do like playing all over the world though, every city has it’s own magic.
How did you come by the name Mr. C?
I have a few stories for this, the popular one at the minute is because I’m a cunt. However, the boring truth is that I’m a huge Chelsea fan. When I was a kid I used to use CB radio for which you need a handle (a silly name). Living in Holloway, I chose the handle Chelsea Boy, just to wind the shit out of the Gooners. When I hit 16 & as mentioned before, these 11 & 12 year old kids were making me look silly with break dancing, so I decided to become a rapper to step up my game. Of course rappers also have stupid names & at 16, I foolishly thought I was becoming a man (47 & I still haven’t grown up) so I went from being Chelsea boy to Mr.C.
Now obviously when most people hear your name they automatically think of the Shamen. What was it like working with such an iconic outfit?
I think you mean when most “old” people hear my name they automatically think of The Shamen? Most of these young whipper snappers have never even heard of The Shamen but many of them sure do know who Mr.C the DJ is. Working as a part of The Shamen was simply incredible. Colin Angus is a song writing genius & Will Sinnot (RIP) was a musical maverick so being bestowed the absolute honour of working with these guys was not only a great opportunity but a privilege. We managed to completely change the face of pop music for a few years there & open the door for the likes of Prodigy, Underworld & Chemical Brothers to follow through. Also, working on & performing such amazing songs that were pure information about human evolution was wicked. Our lives sets were pure acid & so much fun & we really got to take the piss with the media, so for me, the whole experience of being part of such an innovative band was 100% pure pleasure, the memories of which will live with forever.
How do you think your sound has changed since you departed The Shamen? Are there any other collaborations we’ll be seeing you engaging in the near future?
I think my sound has been a steady evolution but in all fairness hasn’t really changed that much. If you listen to my underground mixes of Shamen tunes, they’re obviously Mr.C productions. Of course now we have more modern equipment etc so making music is easier but I still have that same forward thinking & psychedelic attitude to my music making. As far as further collaborations, I’ve been making music for the last 10 years or so with Adultnapper (Francis Harris) as the Sycophant Slags, I’ve started a new project with Affie Yusuf as the Indigo Kidz for both Superfreq & Laila Music which is an amazing new project & I’m also back in the studio with Omid 16B working on a new track for Alola / Sexonwax, that’s trouble right there.
If you could play literally anywhere and with anyone where would you play and who with?
To be fair, I’m not into this whole egotistical, let me brown nose the super star DJ & play with them in a huge room kind of game as it’s a game for talentless wannabes. Give me Superfreq with my crew any day of the week, proper music being played by proper people & by that I mean my residents, Xo Chic, Luke vB, David Scuba & my boys Adultnapper, Jordan Lieb, Affie Yusuf, Omid 16B, Eddie Richards & our sweetie Magda is also a complete joy to spin with. Keep that shit real I say!
Now being from the UK I’ve spoken to a few of the older people and a lot of them rave about seeing you in Ibiza and London in the late 80’s and early 90’s. What do you think it was that made electronic music become such a phenomenon around that time?
Back in the mid to late 80’s, house & techno was just beginning as a scene in Chicago, Detroit & New York & as one of the first professional house & techno DJs on the British circuit, I was always cutting edge with my sound playing all this amazing new American music, never following as many DJs did back then & still do today (although I was hugely inspired by Eddie Richards & Colin Faver). This gave me a certain edge, so when people came or indeed still come to hear me play, they’re going to hear me playing my style, not copying the style of anyone else. As for the music becoming a phenomenon, it simply had to happen as in the mid to late 80’s, the music was so fresh & innovative & as an evolution of disco music, it just had to blow up in the UK. Rave culture is a British phenomenon, in fact let me be specific, rave culture was born in North London in the mid 80’s & spread across the world from there. Us Brits have always loved disco which was huge throughout clubland, so when the music became more excitingly electronic & MDMA appeared all at the same time, rave culture simply had to blow up.
Do you feel that mixing on vinyl is a dying art?
Not at all. Vinyl sales have increased year on year for the last 5 years or so. I know many professional DJs that are now switching back from digital to vinyl.
I’ve got to ask you about the End. You’ve continued running Superfreq parties across the globe after closing The End so why did you decide to shut it’s illustrious doors after such a long run at the top? I remember being greatly saddened by what was done to the place when it became the Den…
It was the right time to stop. Three years before we closed The End, we got a new landlord who wanted to develop the whole block into a luxury apartment complex. He harassed the granny out of us for 3 years to leave to which we said no as The End was the best nightclub in the world, bar none. In July 2008 the landlord said to us, “In January next year you will have 8 years left on your lease which of course I will not renew, so I’ll pay you 8 years profit at your best year (2007) to close your door & get out in January”. Well come on, it’s a no brainer. Do we work our bollocks off for another 8 years to maybe if we’re lucky earn this amount of money or do we close now, take the money & not have to work for those 8 years & start new projects or go for a lifestyle change? So of course we decided to close in January 2009 which was perfect for me as I’d given my poor family 30% of my shares so for them to get that money sooner rather than later was such a joy & seeing them with money enough to pay their debts & have change was amazing. It also allowed me to take the big step in moving to Los Angeles & putting a 50% deposit down on a dope house.
That’s cool. How do you feel the rise of digital software which has help breed a new generation has affected electronic music?
I think it’s amazing that there’s so much new digital software for making music as it allows kids who couldn’t afford a studio to be able to be creative & make music and this can only be good for the continued evolution of dance music. As far as digital software for DJing with music is concerned, I suppose in honesty, I felt threatened that a craft I’d learned over many years could be achieved with no skill whatsoever by young upstarts who could simply press a sync button, but now, with hindsight, it’s not a bad thing as it has allowed certain DJs to be extremely creative with the art of playing music to audiences. The important thing is that whatever format someone is using to play music with, they read the room, have a great selection of music & have as much fun as possible. Can I get an amen?
Haha, Amen! What do you do to relax?
Nothing, I’m a workaholic. I do take a winter holiday once every year in Mexico in January & do get some days off here & there when I’m spinning in Ibiza or South America. That’s it, the rest of the time I work my arse off, but it has to be done.
Have you any interesting/bizarre stories to tell from your time touring and owning the End?
So many bizarre things have happened over my 25+ years as a DJ & many of them may be too risque to share with the public… Fuck it, there was this one time in 1997 that Layo, Bushwacka & I were touring as The End Sound System, 3 DJs, 2 mixers, 4 decks, effects & a mic & we were doing a tour in South Africa. Well, we was on a day off & went to an after hours with the promoter of the tour. The place was owned by the top mafia guy & was just closing when we got there. So the staff invited us back into the kitchen / storage area for a spliff. Well we went back there & skinned up & while the boys were smoking these huge mafia heavies came back & the mafia bosses right hand man was extremely pissed off & on edge, his boss has just been shot that night so he was in a foul mood. He went ape shit when he saw us puffing saying we were all taking the piss & said we had 10 seconds to put everything away or he’d kill us. They had guns & I’m talking automatic shit & huge knives. Of course we were all scared shitless. He was screaming at us “who the fuck are you” & the promoter of our tour said they’re with me, I’m responsible for them. They disappeared into a room for a few minutes while we sat there under armed guard thinking our lives were about to come to an end. They then came out & the right hand man said “It’s lucky you lot are talented DJs & musicians as it’s the one thing in life that I can’t do so I have the most respect for music people”. He then went on to makes us all take his coke (except for me of course, I don’t take drugs…lol) for about an hour until it had all ran out. He then said OK, we’ll go & get more. All we wanted to do was go back to the hotel to get over this harrowing experience so we said we had to go back to the hotel as we had to prepare for our next show & moving on to the next city. So then it got worse, he said “OK, let me get you some more coke to take with you”. We of course declined but he insisted. He then called someone on the phone & said “I’m coming round & I want some stuff, but not like that shit you gave me last time, I’m with very important people so I want top notch stuff. So the 3 of us get into his Bimmer, were in the back seat, his whore is in the front with him & we drive off to god knows where. We pull up & now I’m scared, I have no idea who he’s going to see, it could be another firm & the car could get sprayed with bullets, so I tell him I need to piss & got out of the car as if it’s getting sprayed, I ain’t gonna be in it. He sends his bird to go get the coke & when she reappears only 2 minutes later with a smile, I know everything is safe & jump back in the car. The thug then drops us back off to the hotel & relative safety. The whole event from start to finish was like a movie with a happy ending.
Crazy! So Where has been your favorite place to play?
It has to be The End, hands down. It was always so special, especially the anniversaries & other special events. I really believe we got everything right about that place, the way the venue was designed by PKS was incredible, the sound was the best there was, the lights were amazing, but I think most importantly was the ethos with which the club which was run, which was to supply the perfect clubbing environment. This is why we installed a dance floor that was sprung on hydraulics so that peoples legs wouldn’t hurt at 7am, we installed a full air conditioning system, put comfortable furniture & even a free drinking water fountain so people wouldn’t get dehydrated. Of course the music programming was paramount, but the most important thing that made the whole experience perfect for the people coming to dance was the staff, we put together an amazing team in both the office & the club that gave The End a real family atmosphere about it, that was unmistakable for the people coming in to celebrate life with us. It meant we were all one big happy family together.
Can you tell us a few names of producers’ work you are really enjoying at the moment?
All of our Superfreq label artists music is what I’m really feeling & the best music I’m playing (& I do buy a lot of great music) is coming from the Superfreq family. As for what I’m going to be doing in the future, watch this space.
We’re pleased to see that Superfreq is to return to being an active label again in 2013. Why the hiatus and what can we expect from your imprint in the future? Any hot new talent you’ve uncovered for the future?
We put the label on the shelf simply because it was too much hard work at the time with everything else we had going on with the events & my crazy DJ schedule. However, once I completed my new album I really wanted to release it myself so it’d become the perfect time to re-launch the Superfreq label. For the future you can expect only the best in innovative house & techno, nothing cheesy, we’re keeping deep, dark & dangerous, just like the Superfreq nights. Of course there’ll be lots of music from me but we also want to use Superfreq as a platform for new talent. It’ll be all too easy to simply get established artists on the label as many of them are my friends but then Superfreq would be no different to the other labels out there, so instead we’ve decided to really push the Superfreq residents & new talent which was so then best move as the music we have coming up for the rest of the year is sick. New talent that we’re uncovering are both of my Superfreq partners, Luke vB & David Scuba, who have both really impressed me with their work, I’ve signed Dance Spirit which is the new name for Android Cartel, a couple of extremely talented lads from LA, My Mrs Xo Chic has made her debut single which is sick & her former partner with Dollz At Play, Bea Tricks has a wicked EP for us. I’ve also signed an amazing act from Florida called Joint Custody who’s first EP is just about to hit the shops on vinyl. I have some excellent music from Affie Yusuf & also our new project together as the Indigo Kidz. I’ve signed Jordan Lieb for his more dance stuff, he records as Black Light Smoke for Scissor & Thread from Brooklyn. I’ve signed David Gooday, former drummer from Nitzer Ebb as Stark, – his music is well twisted, he’ll blow up for sure & then I also have a few artists that have been around the block a few times like Jay Tripwire, Derek Marin & Brett Johnson, so lots of amazing music coming out with our unique Superfreq sound from here on in.
What would your advice be to the new generation of DJ’s and producers?
Firstly, develop your own sound. If you copy others you will be no more than a cheap imitator. However, follow you heart & be creative & you become an artist. Never sell out your sound & keep full integrity, no matter what.
Mr. C’s new album ‘Smell The Coffee’ will available via Superfreq 22-04-2013
Mr C plays at Below in The Arena in Birmingham on May 4th alongside Inner City, Todd Terry, DJ Sneak, Kevin Saunderson & Derrick May for more information and tickets click here