Q&A: Joey Negro Revisits the ’90s

The dance-music doyen otherwise known as Dave Lee releases a collection of classic house and garage.
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Joey Negro Dave Lee

The London clubland lifer Dave Lee is a man of many monikers: there’s his main nom de musique Joey Negro, of course, but there's also Doug Willis, Raven Maize, Agora, Akabu, Z Factor, Jakatta, Plastic Ian and many, many more. One reason he might need so many pseudonyms is that he's a man of many talents as well. He's been one of the U.K.'s top producers and remixers for well over two decades; he runs the equally long-running label Z Records; he's one of the world's most respected DJs; and he's the main man behind the on-again, off-again Sunburst Band. He's also got a store of record-history knowledge that would put the average vinyl maniac to shame—and he puts that expertise to good use in his role as a royal regent of the dance-music-compilation realm. Well, he's metaphorical royalty, at least: He and Dimitri from Paris co-selected the tracks on the 2004 collection The Kings of Disco. He's also curated scores of further comps, covering (among many other things) go-go, Brit-funk, boogie, Italo sounds, leftfield material, house, and garage—and he's returned to those last two for the new 90s House & Garage: Compiled by Joey Negro, a release that looks back at one of modern dance music's most fertile periods.

Joey Negro 90s House & Garage

This is billed as a “house and garage” set, but if you ask ten different people to define "garage," you’ll get ten different answers. How would you define the term?
You know, we were originally simply going to call this 90s Garage. But if you ask the average person what garage is, especially somebody under 30, they’ll automatically think of U.K. garage…or garridge. And on this release, I’m using the term to basically mean the soulful end of house music, that warm, more musical end of house music—the kind that sprang from places like the Paradise Garage, which is where the word originally comes from. But we didn’t want to confuse people, so we put house in the title. It’s such a blurry line between house and garage, anyway.

"If I’m talking about deep house, I’m talking about someone like Larry Heard, not someone like Duke Dumont."

Terminology can be so tricky.
This has happened so many times over the course of dance music. A new genre, or a sort-of new genre, will come along—and rather than coming up with a new name for it, people will just borrow a name that’s already being used. “Deep house” and “electro” would be another couple of examples. Like, if I’m talking about deep house, I’m talking about someone like Larry Heard, not someone like Duke Dumont.

Most of these songs are at least two decades old, yet they can still fill a dancefloor today. What do you think the enduring appeal of this kind of music is?
I think people have always enjoyed old music. When I first started listening to music in a serious way back in the '80s, I was buying as many old records as new ones, if not more. I think people have always enjoyed old music. People generally don’t go back so far, maybe about 20 years; there’s probably not that many people still listening to music from the ’30s, for instance. In the '50s, I’m sure they were. But what’s made '90s house specifically more relevant is the amount of people, a new generation, who have been making music that sounds like its from the '90s.

People like Bicep, for instance?
Yeah. Particularly the house that’s released on vinyl—there’s quite a bit of '90s sound-alike music out there. But if you were around the first time, it’s probably not quite as exciting the second time…though if you weren’t, I guess maybe it is. It’s like, years ago, when I was first hearing people like Cymande because they were being sampled, and the older DJs I knew were always like, “Well, it was quite popular back then, too!” But for me it was new. And now I’m the older, cynical DJ, and I’ve heard so many tracks that sound like the '90s, it’s not as enthralling as it is to somebody who hasn’t heard the M1 sax and organ, or that swingy drum groove.

You don’t totally dismiss the new stuff though. I think I’ve heard you play some of it in your sets now and then, right.
Well, like anything else, there’s good stuff coming out, and there’s some stuff that just okay. A lot of that is just personal taste, of course.

You’ve put together a lot of compilations over the years. What are your criteria for separating the good stuff from the okay stuff?
The way I look at it when I put something like this together, is would I like this track if I was hearing it for the first time now? I try to separate that from the memories that I associate with that track, whether I was having a good night or whatever. You just have to look at it purely as a piece of music. I rarely go on Discogs, but occasionally I'll see what records are worth, like this record is worth 50 quid and this one is worth five quid. But if I prefer the five-quid one, that’s the one that goes on the compilation.

So it’s not about how rare a record is, or how difficult it’s been for people to get their hands on?
Sometimes we will look to see if a track has ever been available on CD. If it’s been on five compilation albums already, we probably wouldn’t bother using it. With this album, I was trying to get tracks from some of the people who I consider to be the seminal producers of the era. That’s not always possible, because some people don’t want to license their tracks to you.

Any examples?
Well, it’s not like I can say, “I want a Moodymann track” and actually expect that to happen. I actually did send him an e-mail…and he didn’t reply. [laughs] Some people just will never do it—fair enough. And we wanted to put a Global Communications track on there, but we couldn’t reach an agreement; it was just too expensive. But that’s okay. It’s not like this is meant to be my definitive list. You’ll make a list of maybe 40 records, then you find out you can’t license ten of them. You’ll find out that another ten have already been on compilations. Some others, you just can’t use for various other reasons. So you just do the best that you can. And just hope that people’s lawyers don't get involved. The money that we could offer probably wouldn’t even cover a lawyer’s fee!

Joey Negro Dave Lee

Ah, money—that’s always an issue, isn’t it?
Sometimes I’m shocked by how much people want. Like there’s this really, really obscure track that will be on the next Under the Influence compilation, and I quite like the track—but it’s not an extremely rare or sought-after record by any means. We got in touch with the guy, and he was like, “Yeah, it would good to get it back out there.” But his lawyer gets involved, and he started telling us, “Well, you can only use it for CD; you can’t use it for vinyl, and you can’t have it for digital.” We’re like, how are we actually make money out of this? Even so, we ended up offering a quite high amount…and they just got back to us and said, “No, we’re going to pass on this.” They’ll never get more than what we offered for that track! But you can’t make people do what they don't want to do.

Were the cuts on this comp the kind of house tracks that you would have been DJing at the time?
Some of them, definitely. But there are others that I might have liked and bought, but didn’t really fit into my sets at the time. I’m not one of those DJs who says, “I play house, but I never listen to it at home. I do listen to it at home, at least sometimes. And I would listen to these songs at home, or in my car—and I still do play a few of them.

When you put a compilation together, do you try to strike a balance between educating people and giving them what they want? Or is it just a case of gathering the best songs that you can?
You do try to educate people a little—but, really, they’re generally personal selections, and aren’t meant to be “best of” collections in any way. I did try to include songs like “Love Commandments,” which are maybe a bit better known, and balance them with a few more obscure ones—without disappearing up your own ass too much.

Dave Lee muses on five tracks from '90’s House & Garage: Compiled by Joey Negro.'

Mood II Swing feat. Fonda Rae “Living in Ecstasy”
“Living in Ecstasy" sounds like it was maybe inspired by Young & Co’s disco hit “I Like (What You're Doing To Me),” though it’s by no means a cover. As always, the ex–Dr. Buzzard's singer has a distinctive sultry tone to her voice. Of all the '90s house producers, Mood II Swing are my favorites. They managed to combined the classic soulful vibe with a more techy edge, while their drums are clear and chunky—not overly swingy or busy. Listening back 20 years later, they have the highest hit rate of killers within their body of work.

Astro Trax Team “Feel the Vibe”
To be honest, I’ve never totally understood why this record, as a new release, instantly became so popular with the U.K. garage crowd . Yes, it's a great track with a particularly strong bassline—but its much more traditionally soulful house than most of what was played on that scene at the time. if you’re DJing at a house club in London, this should be a guaranteed floor filler…so if no one cheers when the bass drops, you’re in for a bumpy night.

Mateo & Matos “New York Style"
The New York duo were probably more popular in the USA than here in Blighty. I view some of their early disco cut-ups, and the labels they recorded for like Henry Street, as the forerunner to the jackin'-house sound. But "New York Style" is built around the pulsing bass groove from the second half from Eddy Grant's Loft classic “California Style,” so it’s not your bog-standard sample track. By adding hypnotic organs and rasping percussion, M&M have created something of substance that I actually prefer to the original.

Gisele Jackson “Love Commandments"
I first heard “Love Commandments" in a David Morales set at Ministry of Sound, and it stood out amongst the new stuff he played as something I needed to get a copy of ASAP. With its live percussion-driven tribal beat, unusual chord progression and rock-guitar solo, it's actually a pretty unique sounding production. Add in a particularly strong vocal delivery and melody, and its not surprising it became an enduring hit. Also, with neither too soulful or hard an approach, it was one of those records that seemed to manage to appeal to lots of different genres of house lover. Similarly to Earth People’s “Dance," I still hear DJs using the bonus beats as a mixing tool to this day—yes, they are great beats, but personally I’d always play the whole thing.

Donnie Mark “Stand Up For the Soul”
Underground Resistance keys man "Mad" Mike Banks had his own Happy Soul imprint, which was one of my favorite labels of the early '90s. Unit 2, Jamerson, Yolanda Reynolds…they had a great run of rousing gospel-tinged releases in '92, '93. Though musically it could have been, “Stand Up” isn’t actually on on Happy Soul, but instead on Simply Soul—and is produced by Soul Man (a.k.a. Carlos Fusaro) though later pressings credit it as "with Mad Mike." If you like this, check Donnie’s lesser known “Hold On,” which is another goodie.