If you ask anyone who has contributed the most to drum and bass and dubstep, they’d probably say DJ Fresh. We talk to the super producer at the height of his success about his new single ‘Make U Bounce,’ working with Ms Dynamite, not selling out, and staying sane in a world of crazies.
DJ FRESH – THE MAN
Mention the name DJ Fresh to any contemporary music fan and you’ll be greeted with a knowing smirk and a nod of admiration. Despite his recent ascent to stardom, the DJ and producer is no overnight phenomenon. Since the release of his third album, Next Levelism, he has firmly established himself as one of the key figures in drum and bass, electro house and dubstep.
He started as a minor league DJ, then transformed from a mere fan to now a leader in the field, a poster boy for the genre, turning out catchy hits. His work is impossible to ignore. These days, if a DJ or radio station requires a dance-floor-ready soundtrack, chances are it’ll most likely be one of his.
DJ Fresh is the man who introduced us to Rita Ora on the chart-topping ‘Hot Right Now,’ Sian Evans on ‘Louder,’ the first ever dubstep song to hit No.1, among many others. Born Daniel Stein, the 37-year-old first achieved acclaim in the late ‘90s as a member of music collective, Bad Company. Right now, it’s impossible to keep up with who is emulating his formula for success and longevity.
“I’ve had five different electronic genres in the top 5, which I don’t think anyone has ever done before, not that it will ever get into the Guinness Book of World Records, but it’s cool for me to know that my music is having such a positive effect,” he says. I imagine, at this point, attaining legendary status is the ultimate goal. What do you think makes a person legendary? I asked.
“Being old,” he says, laughing, “it’s funny because when I was in Bad Company, we started getting refered to like, that in reviews and it was really weird when that started happening. When people say that to me now — I just think it’s really crazy that I’m doing something so different and still getting that level of respect which I’m really appreciate of. It’s great.”
THE SECRET OF HIS SUCCESS
I’m analysing his achievements for him. He’s eyes are open wide. He’s glaring back almost blissfully unaware. It’s almost too much for him to take in at once. We’re sitting in a room at the Ministry of Sound offices in south East London. His power is alive in the room, bouncing of the wall, a power which holds your attention. He has been doing interviews all day, and looks as if he isn’t quite familiar with it all: unlike today’s pop stars, there’s a kind of shyness, a modesty about him that is unexpected.
He is the guy who DJ’s at famous parties across the world, and who has a track record that few can imitate, but despite his sudden celebrity, he maintains a sense of humility about his success. He’s feet is still firmly rooted on the ground. “I don’t really go out that much. I mean, for example, Rita Ora and I came through at the same time. She’s obviously out there in everybody’s face and for her career that’s important.”
“I avoided all that. I deliberately tried to keep myself away from it, but then I realised that when people buy your music they want to know more about you. They want to know who you are. I thought maybe it would hold my music back if I didn’t give that to people,” he adds with a smile, “I’m kind of relaxed about it now.”
THE LONG WALK TO FAME
To the glory of his notable triumphs you have to understand his trajectory. Even though, it may seem as if he ploughed his way smoothly towards the realms of grass-roots success, like many other artists, his career also showed signs of a struggle. Understandably, he was exhausted after years of trying to make it. “All I remember is that in 2009, I was about to throw the towel in and go study orchestration for film,” he says. While most of his contemporaries were busy experimenting, Fresh found success with ‘Gold Dust,’ a track that was distinctly out of line with prevailing trends.
“Everything just went mental. It was really weird because I had always wanted to make music like that, but it wasn’t accepted in the world that I was in at that time. So, because I was about to start a new chapter in my life I thought, ‘Fuck it!’ I’m going to make the music I want to make. And as soon as I did — everything started going nuts,” he says, amused, leaning forward off his chair.
Now the bad times are behind him—how do you see yourself now? I asked. “In a mirror? I don’t know. I’ve got no idea,” he says thoughtfully. To him, “DJ Fresh” is here to stay for however long he can remain a prominent name. When did it occur to you that DJ Fresh carried so much weight to the extent that Daniel Stein is virtually unknown to the world? I asked.
“I’ve been known as Fresh since I was 18. I’m use to him now. The line is quite blurred, I think. My life is so focused on my career. I suppose to the extent where everything is all about DJ Fresh. There isn’t much Daniel left, to be honest, probably just a little bit,” he laughed gleefully.
When he gets it right, he can easily make chart history. The chemistry he shares with artists can make them a sensation. He prefers working with relative unknowns, but when it comes down to his viable relationship with Ms Dynamite, none of them can quite transform into something of such commitment.
“With Dynamite, I think she’s got such a strong sound that it’s quite easy to workout what’s going to fit. I grew up around a lot of Jamaican people and a lot of Jamaican culture, so in my mind I can kind of differentiate the things that she might like. ‘Dibby Dibby Sound’ — obviously was an Ms Dynamite record. I honestly think it’s all about the right connection with the music,” he says.
So, how do you decide you want to work with someone, I said, who you’re going to give your essence to? “It’s weird. Sometimes when the record label wants to get something finished, you become pressured. You start collaborating with people or accepting the idea of something that you might not agree with. There are people who I’ve reached out to and I’ve sent them a track, but in my heart, I know it’s not really right for them but I need to get it done, even though they are not the right person. It’s difficult sometimes.”
Those who know DJ Fresh don’t necessarily think of him as a songwriter, at least until now. He is very much involved in the creative process of his records. From producing the beat to writing the hooks — he likes to have complete control. “I like to try and have as much input, just to make it sound like DJ Fresh,” he says. “On ‘Earthquake,’ I wrote the rap section to the intro and Dominique wrote the verse. With Ms Dynamite, she will write most of the verses and I would do the chorus and the little melodic hooks.”
THE HIT MAN HITS AGAIN
If his previous releases were great, then this follow which looks like it could top the charts is fantastic. His latest single, ‘Make U Bounce,’ is a collaboration with fellow drum and bass producer TC, and rising star Little Nikki. But this joint effort will be more than a summer anthem. The goal is to get people jumping. Ripping up the rule-book, DJ Fresh is throwing out records which bring out the best elements that every dancefloor has thrown up. It sounds a bit, if I had to describe it, energetic, I said.
“I love the tune. It’s one that I’ve been getting a really good reaction to on my DJ set,” he says. “It’s a track that definitely kills it on the dancefloor. As a DJ, I really love it and if I’m bouncing to it, I’m really happy.” It is going to be interesting to see the fans’ and critics’ reaction when they lay their hands on his upcoming album. He has constantly faced criticisms about his music, even before he came to prominence. But even the most difficult of critics will find anything to dislike about his willpower. After all, in spite of the sell-out police, he has kept going when others have dropped out of sight, and for that alone, he deserves more praise than resentment.
“It’s something that I’ve always had to deal with, if I’m honest,” he sighs heavily. “Even back in the drum and bass days — people were saying, ‘Why don’t you make more tunes like this?’ But the thing is… I remember making those tunes and still hearing and seeing the same comments on message boards. I do try and listen to people, because I feel like that’s my job, but sometimes you have to take it like a pinch of salt. I’m making music that I love.”
DJ Fresh refined dubstep, setting the genre free from it’s shackles — but it’s his pulling power that will catapult him to national notoriety. He wants to achieve the rare feat: combining commercial success with artistic integrity. He is focused on milestones instead of trying to fit it. He wants to be one of music’s living legends. How appropriate, then, that the day before our interview he was preparing for a hectic summer of live dates. After all, he is showing no signs of slowing down musically.
I ask him what’s been the most embarrassing moment he’s ever had on tour. “The worst is when you’ve got a bad cold and you have to keep blowing your nose. I’m always convinced that people think that I’m doing coke,” he says, grinning. “I’m having to fucking mess around with my nose — ducking beneath the decks to blow my nose. It’s really awkward.”
‘Make U Bounce’ is released June 29.
Words: Noel Phillips.