MJ COLE HAS A STYLE ALL HIS OWN. It’s the kind of musical hybrid that combines the roughness of a broken beat with the beautiful melodies of a lush piano chord. He has made innumerable tracks starting from his Drum & Bass beginnings to the UK Garage scene. From his 1998 hit song “Sincere,” he has never looked back, remixing artists from Mariah Carey, Amy Winehouse, Shaun Escoffrey, Kym Mazelle, Aaliyah and, most recently, Tourist and Mary J. Blige.
We caught up with MJ Cole during his brief stint in Chicago, where he talked freely to us about his early days playing Drum & Bass, his initial dislike of House Music, why he separates himself from the UK Garage scene and his collaboration with other artists from Grant Nelson to Jimmy Napes & Disclosure.
Photos by Casey Moore.
I’m very fascinated by your background, I understand that your father was a singer and actor, you played the oboe and that you were sort of like a piano prodigy?
Yeah, I was really good at the piano and I won my first competition when I was five. I won scholarships and I was heavily into the classical stuff. That went on till I was about 15, 16 when I started going out basically. That was more fun for me… [laughs]
How was the early rave scene for you? Over here in the US I always remember House and Techno being in the main room and Drum & Bass (which I know you started off with) was in the smaller rooms.
I think when I was going out around ’89-’92 – especially in the beginning, it was a mixture. You might hear something what you might call Happy Hardcore (at 170 bpm), breakbeat with a kick drum underneath it and you might hear a more traditional House record with Italo piano House all mixed together. It was quite eclectic. It was all these scenes finding their roots and I think after the early ’90s things began to segregate a little bit. There was Drum & Bass (or “Jungle” as it was called), House, Techno, and so on.
What made you not like House?
For me Drum & Bass was the sound that I liked. I was into breakbeat, I liked the black feel to it… it was a bit more weed-smoking, dark, dingy, exciting. The House side was more people wearing shiny shoes and dressing up – it was a little bit chavvy. It was more about dressing up and trying hard to look nice for the ladies whereas the D&B/Jungle thing was about dancing.
So legend has it you were producing and engineering Drum & Bass records, and one day you had to make a House record and that’s when things kind of turned around.
I was working the studios as a low paid engineer and one day I just had to make a record at a certain bpm which I hadn’t done before. It was the Kym Mazelle thing. And I decided it was something I could do. Because coming from a musical background, playing the piano, suddenly there seemed to be more room for the music. So it excited me and I got more into it.
You know I’m surprised I didn’t see you in the UK Garage documentary Rewind4Ever.
Yeah, I said no to that.
Because I’ve been trying to get away from that. I spent a long time trying not to be associated with Garage music because it went so downhill. I’d say it’s pretty much what happened to Dubstep. You know, it got very, very big from probably like 1999-2002, then after that it took a big dive. So I really went off then and tried to not make any Garage. I didn’t play any old school gigs, you know, “reunion this” or anything like that. I started making a band record, guitar music, stuff that was as far away from Garage as possible.
It was interesting reading about the demise of that genre – you were seeing that the MCs were getting into it more. And all those fights at the parties…
Yeah they got a bit rough with the sound. If you were playing at a gig the police wanted to do a background check on you before you played there. There were quite a lot of shootings and people dying. I think I played two or three gigs where someone’s been killed. It got pretty dark, where clubs didn’t want to put on any nights. It became very mean and nasty.
So around that time you started a live band project. Tell us about that…
Yeah that started during the first album. It was about to be released and there was this big show in the UK called Jools Holland, and they were interested in me doing a live thing so I got a band together to do just that. It’s a very highly-regarded, long-running show that still runs now. It’s done in the round and there are like six bands. One plays live and the next one plays and it carries on. Then the band stayed together and we started doing things – mostly supporting Roni Size & Reprazent, because we were on the same label. We did a tour with him around Europe and the UK. It was me (I played Rhodes and synth), Elizabeth Troy singing – it was quite a big band.
There have been so many hybrids of bass music – I know you were speaking about UK Funky, Bassline… Have you ever heard of Trap? Because it’s huge in the US.
Yes a lot of people from Dubstep went into Trap. It’s cool – it kinda reminds me of Miami Bass and that very spaced out, bassy, sort of a follow up from the Mad Decent stuff, the Diplo bits, like “Pon de Floor” – it developed into that. I think it’s a very American sound, it’s the kind of thing you would hear in Miami, people playing out of their cars.
So what do you like to play in your sets nowadays?
I’m playing a proper mixture, see I’ve got my whole back catalogue to kinda mix into things. So it’s nice for me because I can suddenly slip in something from 15 years ago that people would know. It’s nice to feel like I don’t have to play what’s been “hot” for the past two weeks. I’m playing exciting new stuff, some kind of deep Housey bits that I make faster. I’m not playing big cheesy dance anthems or anything like that.
Where do you find a lot of your new music?
I often listen to radio like Rinse FM. You just listen to Rinse and you kind of know what’s going on. I get sent a lot of stuff and there are some really good promo agencies in London.
You get good promos? Oh my gosh my I find it so hard to weed through all those promos!
I know, it’s difficult isn’t it? But I’m in the studios with eleven other people like Redlight, and T. Williams is next door to me, Blonde, Tim Deluxe. And working with people like Grant Nelson. A lot of the music I get is from my mates.
I co-own a building in London called the Gym Factory which has twelve studios in them. So I’ve got one of the rooms, and aside from the guys I mentioned there’s also Delta Heavy (Drum & Bass guys), Blonde, etc.
So how long have you been working with the Disclosure team?
I’d say about a year or so. I’ve been close with Jimmy Napes – he wrote “Stay With Me” with Sam Smith, and sort of discovered Sam and did most of the album with him. He did all the Mary J Blige stuff, he’s also signed with Atlantic for his own EP. He was like the #1 songwriter in the world for about three months at the end of last year. He wrote “Latch” and loads of stuff with Disclosure and won a Grammy last year. So I’m really close with him and we’ve done a lot of work. We did the Mary J. Blige thing together. I’ve written the first single in his upcoming EP called “Making of Me.”
Through him I got closer with the Disclosure guys and the whole Method crew, which is their record label which goes through Capitol. I’m in the middle of signing a record with Method actually, it’s something called “Bouldaz”, a hard sort of instrumental track.
I know you’ve got multiple projects always happening, what else do you have working in the pipeline right now?
So T. Williams (who’s in the studio next to me) – I’ve got a track with him which is going to come out in his label at the beginning of April. It’s a big piano House record called “Privilege.” And then there’s the record coming out with Method that I had mentioned along with the Jimmy Napes song for Atlantic. There’s also a load of remixes that I’ve just done, like Jessica Lynn, I did that Illuminate remix for Tourist. I’ve been working with Venga the Dubstep guy, also Tinie Tempah, he’s kind of like UK R&B. He’s really massive in the UK. Grant Nelson and I have also got some stuff going on together.
I’ll never forget the first song in my first ever DJ mix was your remix of Amy Winehouse’s “Fuck Me Pumps.”
I’d say I did that at a time when UK Garage was dropping off… around 2004 or 2005. That’s when I was running my club night which was called “Prolific” after my record label. It was a monthly in London for two or three years. I like kind of doing the soulful remixes, that’s where I’m most comfortable. When I’m playing Fender Rhodes and playing some chords, just something very simple and not me trying to be “current.”
Do you often just use the acapella and build from there?
Sometimes, if there are nice strings or horns then I’ll use them as well. But I make a decision at the beginning about which parts I’ll use. If it’s synth parts, then I can probably do it myself. But if there’s some really nice strings that are really well-recorded, then I can definitely get in and chop them up, start using them. I love doing remixes because it’s kind of like playing a musical jigsaw puzzle.
I’m really happy some of us in the States got a chance to hear you play with this last tour that you did. But I do know that you were plagued with all sorts of visa problems, which is not the first time I’ve heard this happen with people coming from the UK.
So basically to come over here and work properly, you have to get a work visa and it’s a hardcore visa to get. You have to prove that you’re unique, that no one else in the US can do your job as an artist. In order to prove that you have to supply a huge deal of information to show that you’re deserving to DJ in the US. I had to submit 80 pages of press about me, list every single record I’ve done, whomever I’ve collaborated with, all the remixes I’ve done, any label I’ve gotten signed to, which countries I’ve been to, any awards I’ve gotten or been nominated for… I’ve had to talk about them all. It’s a really big effort. And my visa took a bit longer than expected, that’s why I missed my first gig which was in LA. So it’s good for three years.
What was your best and worst gig you’ve ever had?
My best gig, I think it was when I played the millennium, when it turned 2000. I was really successful then and I got offered a lot of big stuff and turned it all down and just played in London at an event underneath Waterloo bridge. It was outdoors, you could see Trafalgar Square, it was like a government gig. That was kind of special to me.
For the worst I’ve been to gigs where there’s only two people there. It used to happen a bit more in the early days I think. There was one gig where a fire extinguisher was set off and my computer got covered in white dust. This was a gig in Sweden about five years ago. It covered the whole crowd and it had to be shut down.
MJ Cole will be appearing at Electric Forest on Saturday, June 27th. He plans to return to the United States for more dates so stay tuned! You can reach him at soundcloud.com/mj-cole, @mjcole on Twitter and on Facebook.