Jungle visionary Roni Size discusses “the amalgamation of all music” with Tom Constabile who discovers that Roni Size is out to set the world ablaze with aural mystery.
The raw rhythm and melodic power of his organic jungle anthems are pushing ahead to new forms of music – hard hitting drum-and-bass filtering soul through an experimental jazz mentality. New Forms, the album by Size and his crew Reprazent, has rapidly surpassed Goldie’s Timeless as the quintessential drum-and-bass album.
Why? The tightest breaks. The most infectious melodic hooks. The fiercest rhythms. The most sophisticated song structures. Incredible beauty. Full-on energy. Still, this is not enough to explain the true significance of Size’s contribution to the new maturity of electronic music.
It was Size’s remix of Nuyorican Soul’s “Black Hole of the Sun” and his own single “Heroes” that defined him not only as an artist but a producer of futuristic music that is nonetheless accessible – even sexy! – to a large audience. Proof of this definition came last year, when Reprazent won Britain’s Mercury Prize for “The Most Influential Artist. ” And with Madonna taking a jungle rhythm into the American Top 40, there is little to stop the U.S. invasion of the real thing.
Speaking with Size, as I did recently by phone to his home is Bristol, you realize how passionate, if not obsessive, he is about music – and how normal and curious he is about everything else. He’s just a regular bloke from the streets of a blue-collar town, trying to make it large on his terms. For Size, soulful electronic music explodes with unifying potential precisely because it is instrumental – and has no one identity, race, or nationality attached to it.
Size says he is not interested in his being covered in the New York Times. He cares only about the nodding heads and sweating brows of the people he plays for – whether in Bristol, or New York, or Miami. A communicator of a vibe, not a message, is how Roni seems to see himself. No wonder people mistake him for Bob Marley reincarnate.
TOM CONSTABILE: I wanted to start by getting your thoughts on your influence in America. Since people seem to be unclear about your collaboration with Redmen, I was hoping you could tell me where that’s going, or what that experience was like for you.
RONI SIZE: [Laughs] People aren’t really clear about it?
RS: What aren’t they clear about?
TC: Well, whether or not it’s happening.
RS: It happened. We came over and we did three days with Redman. We did a track. Hip-hop is a massive, massive movement in America, and it influenced me so much. You know, I’m a million miles away from New York. You feel as if you know yourself so well, you get further into the thick of it, and then you realize that you just learned about this one thing. Working with Redmen, I’ve learned a million and one things. At the time, it was hard for me to understand what I was out there to do.
Now that I’ve come back and sat down and reflected on it, it seems like it was an experience – definitely an experience. Redman’s got the dopest flow in the world. The way he flows is incredible, and the way that he puts his lyrics down are unique. I’ve never been in a room where someone has worked like that. It’s taking me a while to get my head around the way that whole thing developed. But now when I listen back to it, I think that it just went off original ideas. We were thrown into a situation and both came out with what we knew best. Is that a little clearer?
TC: Certainly. So the track is going to be on his album?
RS: Oh, I don’t know. I just know that, as a project, it was something that worked.
RS: I’ve got a lot of respect for him: the way he is 100% fire-bred hip-hop, and he came and did what he’s used to doing on a new tempo. You’ve got to respect people like Redman, and Method Man, and Bahamadia, for wanting to experiment on something that is precious to them. You know what I’m saying?
RS: It was a total wicked experience.
TC: Do you foresee more collaborations like that?
RS: Definitely. We were supposed to work with Method Man a couple weeks ago, but there was a complication in time, and it never happened. We have our own MCs as well, and obviously I’ve done some stuff with Dynamite. We’re producers, and we want to produce something that’s got a flow and a vibe – whether it’s Redman, or Method Man, or someone from Jamaica, or a f*cking opera singer, for all I know.
TC: An opera singer?
RS: Could be.
TC: Yeah? Do you like opera??
RS: No, but there’s some people out there who potentially have got great voices.
TC: That’s a question I wanted to get to. Outside of jungle-specific artists, who would be a dream to work with??
RS: A few grunts from James Brown would do anyone justice.
TC: Of course.
RS: A few original grunts, you know what I mean? But I’m more interested in producers. Quincy Jones would be great. I’m sure I could learn a few things, or more than a few things, from Quincy Jones. I admire people like Mantronix, who have been around for years. There’s a lot of vocals out there that I would love to work with, and, no doubt, hopefully, it will happen. I would like to work with people who are not so much so established.
TC: I’ve read that you really enjoy working with female vocalists.
TC: What’s the real lure? The sensuality??
RS: I think it’s because I was always attracted to people like Gwen Guthrie and Jocelyn Brown – that whole thing in the ’80s, where there were a lot of female vocals and good managers. I was always attracted to the power and the strength of a diva, and I could always imagine it somewhere in my music. I was never really fascinated by male vocalists. I was never really a Barry White fan, or a Luther Vandross fan. Though I enjoy people like Stevie Wonder. My dream would be to work with someone like Marvin Gaye.
TC: Of course.
RS: Which is not going to happen.
TC: No, sadly.
RS: I’ve worked with Jocelyn Brown, and re-mixing Jocelyn Brown was more than enough for me, man.
TC: Was this the song she did with “Nuyorican Soul”?
RS: Yeah, “It’s Alright, I Feel It. ” I did a remix for that.
TC: It’s a great song. I have the remix.
RS: I’m very privileged to have been able to do that already, really early in my career.
TC: Jungle is very new to some people in the U.S. But you guys are really having an impact here. You’re being pushed. The New York Times wrote about you guys. How does that affect you?
RS: Well, the music won’t change, from us coming to America. It will develop. When we used to sit down in the studio – myself and Krust and Die and Suv – we always had this image of what we thought New York was for us. We were all on, like, the same idea. That’s why there’s a track on there called “Destination.” It’s got a little sampling. There’s something about, we’re going to stop in Harlem next. The sound of the trains…
TC: The horns.
RS: The horns, the whole thing. I was influenced by people like Afrika Islam and the Zulu beat. And WBLS tapes. Do you know WBLS?
TC: Of course.
RS: Before hip-hop started, some of my family moved over to America and they started sending me all of these tapes from Jamaica, and all these hip-hop and radio station pirate tapes. That was my perspective. Everyone had nicknames, everyone had a pseudonym; talking about driving around in their Caddies, with big speakers in the back of their car; everyone was giving requests to their friends. It felt to me like that vibe was happening over the whole scene and everyone was listening to that one radio station. They were catering for all their people. And that’s what we wanted to do – cater for all our people. So rather than making music for people that didn’t relate to us, I was always making music for Krust, or Suv, or Brian G, or Frost – never for a scene or a movement.
TC: Are you saying that jungle is, in a way, your urban music?
RS: We was making hip-hop… but it wasn’t hip-hop. Do you know what I’m saying? It didn’t feel right, because we didn’t understand hip-hop. When they started talking about gangster lyrics and guns and a lot of swearing – same with the reggae – we didn’t quite understand it. So I just started to disregard vocals. All the kids out here were wearing baseball caps backwards and saying, “f*ckin’ b*tch ho” and sh*t – and I was like, “Que?” I wasn’t sure about that. I started to like instrumentals and getting into producing just instrumental hip-hop tracks. Then I got bored of that and we just developed, from reggae through to the hard-core scene. Now it is hopefully our own interpretation, our own energy.
TC: What I’m sensing is that yours is a mentality similar to hip-hop, in that you have a collective and you’re creating for your own people, your own environment.
RS: That’s right. What we learned from hip-hop is about creating your own movement. I actually like the word “collective,” because we are just catching ideas, collecting sounds. That’s what we do. We’re not a band, we’re not a group.
TC: Can you tell me about your how your music relates to America? Why do you think that drum-and-bass – or Reprazent, in particular – is relevant here?
RS: Why is it relevant there? It’s as relevant there as it is throughout Europe, as it is all over the world. It’s a new music, and music goes all over the world and comes back. You know, hip-hop was derived from early Kraftwerk sh*t – you know, Bambaata and them. Electro was where it came from – people using drum machines and stuff. And now it’s moving again. It gets past backwards and forwards totally, comes out in different shapes and sizes.
Drum-and-bass and Reprazent owe a debt to hip-hop and to reggae, and especially to soundsystem culture and the idea of using dub plates and sound systems to play frequencies you wouldn’t be able to play on a house system. How would you know these sounds were there? Like when someone turns up your system full blast, and bass comes out of nowhere, which you can’t hear on a normal ghettoblaster in your house. Or people distorting the f*ck out of the top sections, getting it sounding like it’s just chipping away. – That whole idea of getting the dirty mix, which comes from having minimal amounts of equipment, in places like the ghettos of Jamaica and America. They had minimal equipment but created the best results.
TC: Right. You’ve been working with hip-hop artists from the States, so I’m wondering if you can tell me what your response is to people like Missy Elliot and Timberland fusing R&B and jungle rhythms.
RS: They’re doing their new thing already. People like Timberland and Missy Eliot have got their sh*t going down already, do you know what I’m saying? I’m not sure what came first, the chicken or the egg, but I do know there’s similarities between what we’re doing and what they’re doing. I just think what we’re doing has got a lot more energy. It’s a lot harder, and it’s got a bit of an attitude on the end of it.
TC: What would that attitude be?
RS: The breaks and the dirty bases are the attitude. I think that if people in America are feeling it, then things are going to happen – and not just with people like ourselves. There’s lots of artists in England who want to collaborate with artists from all over the world. There’s some artists in Japan that we’re looking forward to doing some stuff with; some people in France. It’s not just only America, even though America is the big pie in the sky where a lot of the music gets thrown around.
TC: How do you feel about the fact that you’re in the New York Times, or that you sold out when you performed in New York for the first time? New Yorkers didn’t know what to do with it, but everyone loved it.
RS: You know more than me. If I’d gone in there knowing what you just told me, maybe I would have known what to do. Because I live in Bristol, my small house, I’ve just got four walls around me and my studio, I don’t get caught up in the fuss of things. You know, I’m not in London, so I don’t get people on my back all the time, saying “Have read this one?” or “Have you seen that one?” I don’t switch my TV on much. I haven’t really thought about it, but someone told me about the New York Times, and I went “Oh, right, New York Times,” because it’s not a paper that I see every day. But I tell you what, when I went to America and I looked in the news stands, yeah, I saw my face, then I got a bit worried. I’m not sure what having someone write about you in the New York Times is. Is that good?
TC: Well, it’s just a major newspaper, the top edge of worldwide news journalism. It’s very rare that they have a grasp on something like hip-hop, let alone something like jungle in America. Britain may be more progressive, but it was interesting to see this respected newspaper doing a beautiful piece on jungle.
RS: I think I should read it.
TC: Tell me this, Roni: what makes the time and the place in the U. S., now, so right for your music? Why are people here responding to it – is it the energy?
RS: It’s definitely the energy. When myself and Krust and all that sat down and thought about places like New York, I didn’t think it was some relaxed place. I just sensed a lot of energy there. Especially on the track with Bahamadia. To me, that track was New York. I’ve just been mad fascinated about New York for years, and going there the first time, I couldn’t take it all in.
People said, “What did you do? What did you do?” And I was like, “I don’t know! I don’t know!” Then, the second time I went back, it was like, I’ve been there to work, I need to go there to play. To run around, to look around, to go across the Brooklyn Bridge.
TC: Platform is based in Brooklyn, actually.
RS: Yeah? I know parts of Manhattan – not much, just a few record shops.
TC: You should get some friends to show you outside of Manhattan. There’s a lot more going on. Are you looking forward to coming back here?
RS: I can’t wait. We’ve got the tour happening from March, and I’m going to see parts of the world that I never thought I was going to see. Travelling, some deserts, or whatever. I’m totally just looking forward to performing to crowds that are going to hear something different. Goldie’s gone and done some groundwork. Did you see Goldie’s show?
TC: I did.
RS: And? Did you enjoy it?
TC: I did. Your show was much more meaningful to me musically, but his show was fun. He was almost like an alternative rock star. One of the great things about Goldie is that the women go nuts for him, and for such a new form of music that’s a good way into it. If the women like you, then you’re going to sell some records.
RS: I really wanted to come out and see one of his shows, but I never got a chance.
TC: He’s got this whole performer energy. He runs around – and where he’s coming from, live, is completely different from where you guys are coming from.
RS: We know that we’ve got something that works.
TC: It definitely works. I saw it in October, and I’m sure it’s evolved since then – and will evolve by the time it comes back, right?
RS: Yeah. We had to cut that show short, because our bass player broke his leg that same day, doing a photo shoot.
TC: That’s right.
RS: It took a bit out of all of us, to be honest with you. That was supposed to be our big one, and then bam, the bass player breaks his leg.
TC: I don’t think it came across at all. The show was amazing and I think people are definitely ready and psyched. And plus, you’re in a bigger space this time – there’s more dance floor space at Irving Plaza. It’s going to be a great place for you. It’s going to sell out, for sure – not to make you nervous.
RS: [Nervous laughter]
TC: One thing your last show made me wonder is, Why is the live element so important to an electronic musician like yourself when you perform? Is it out of a love for jazz?
RS: It’s not just the jazz thing. It’s more about creating depth. On plastic, the music sounds okay, but it could sound bigger, it could have more depth.
And the only way you can really get that depth is by having the live elements in there. I love to use secret stuff and I love to use live stuff with it. You get the best of both worlds – all the dynamics. The dynamics change once you start adding. It sounds empty when you haven’t got the live stuff in there. When you bring it in, it just sounds even bigger – and that is excellent. You get extra rolls, which you can’t get just by doing computers. You get a live feel, you get stage presence. It brings character to the show.
TC: Portishead takes sort of the same approach. Geoff [Barrow] is a producer, and a DJ working through electronic medium, but for him the live element is important, as well. Actually sampling yourself, for example. What’s that been like for you? It isn’t how you started out, right?
RS: No, but that’s the way to go, because then you don’t get in trouble.
TC: It’s got to be more, though.
RS: Definitely. You start to find yourself creating. You start finding your own sound, and your own identity. Then something else comes up after that, and that just gives you the motivation, Yeah, this is what I really want to do. But we don’t just sample ourselves. We sample records as well. We use both together. To get a bass player in, and to EQ that, and to get him to whack it all down onto tape, and then to sample it back – that’s great.
TC: What music would you say is most influential for you right now?
RS: We listen to ourselves a lot. AT the moment, in the jungle scene, there’s people like Optical and… who else is there? There’s a few people coming through. I like David Holmes at the moment – have you heard of him? He’s got something, I think. I’m listening to another group called Kitachi, where there are really heavyweight roots.
TC: Dub stuff?
RS: Yeah – chipped up, hopped out.
TC: Are they Japanese? British?
RS: They’re British.
TC: What about Four Hero?
RS: Yeah, definitely, Four Hero always. Always Four Hero. I’m still waiting for their album.
TC: Me, too. OK, big question: Where do you see drum-and-bass going? Do you think it’s going to get more collaborative? One of the things I love about drum-and-bass is that it can incorporate so many different sounds, different genres.
RS: That’s why so many people are so excited – because there’s so much we can do, through vocals or percussion, and different formulas on stage, and films and TV. It’s a new music and it fits in with all other music. It’s the amalgamation of all music. It’s a myriad of sounds, a collection of ideas. It’s not just one thing. It’s many things, and there’s many different styles, and they’re all being developed as we speak.
You have European Swedish drum-and-bass, German drum-and-bass, British drum-and-bass, you have American drum-and-bass, Japanese drum-and-bass. And it’s growing. Because the music is instrumental, it has no face. So that allows people to create: you can put your own eyes in, and draw the eyebrows and the nose, mouth, and teeth. You can paint what color of skin you want, what color of hair you want, and people won’t mind, because the music doesn’t have one face. It’s not like rock, or reggae. With rock, you have to be able either to spit, drink lots of beer, or put two fingers up. With reggae, you have to talk about gangster lyrics. Jungle can be a moody vibe, or it can be a hard vibe.
TC: It transcends. It can be universal.
RS: That’s the word I would use. A lot of people try to reach out for words like “commercial.” I love the word “universal,” because that means that the music is actually going somewhere. Commercially, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going anywhere.
TC: I don’t think commercial makes any sense, because instrumental music is not commercial, in my mind. I mean, jazz music has never made anybody very much money. Let me ask you another question, while we’re talking about labels. How do you feel about people in New York wanting to refer to your stuff as jungle?
RS: I like jungle, I like drum-and-bass. Drum-and-bass is a reggae term. Jungle makes some people feel a bit threatened. I’m into beats, man.
TC: Drum-and-bass is a reggae term?
RS: Original reggae term, drum-and-bass.
TC: It is? Wow.
RS: They were calling reggae drum-and-bass for years.
TC: In Britain or Jamaica?
TC: That brings me to another question: You, Krust, and Suv are all dreads. Is there any Rastafarianism among you guys?
RS: It’s self-belief. My hair is more a symbol. I always wanted to prove to myself that I could be something. But where I was from, there were no opportunities for that. So growing my hair in dreads is my challenge, my trying to find my self-respect. And it made me feel like I did have the strength, that I did have the energy and the persistence to be able to do something. Our hair is a symbol of our strength. Rastafarianism is not in your hair, anyway; it’s in your heart. And there’s lots of Rastas in Jamaica, who ain’t got no hair.
TC: Of course. That’s a big misconception.
TC: So explain to me what drum-and-bass means to kids in Bristol? I’ve read an article in Dazed and Confused about Bristol and about the Basement. It’s a youth center that you used to work at?
RS: Yes. This was a place that took on my energies. They saw that I was a kid who needed to be treated a certain way – not like in school, where they just refused and wanted me to read books or write sums. I wasn’t having that. At this place, in Sutton Park, they could see that I had something and just needed to focus that energy. We didn’t have a lot of musical facilities there. It was always useful to help people to focus. The workers there were really understanding.
What the drum-and-bass means to people in Bristol – people have been seeing the success of what we’ve been doing and now have a lot more self-belief. They trust the music. They hear it beating on the TV and radio, and they can relate to it. They read about it in the magazines, they see us in the street, they go to a club and see us standing next to them. It makes them believe that they could do the same thing if that’s their true love and they’re doing it for the right reasons.
TC: How does that message relate to a worldwide audience of youth? There is a sort of universal youth mentality that goes along with hip-hop and that goes along with this type of music – that there are people in different cities relating to a do-it-yourself, self-belief, dreaming mentality.
RS: The dream only happens, it’s never there – do you know what I mean? Your ideas become your dreams. My problem is that some people get into it for the wrong reasons. If I offer someone a helping hand, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to do it all for you.
TC: Are you referring to kids who want to produce?
RS: I’m referring to people who want to look for short-cuts. Sometimes people can misunderstand, when you offer advice. I’m not saying, listen, come in and I’ll do it all for you.
TC: So you’re trying to promote self-belief and self-motivation?
RS: In a way. I’m not really promoting anything apart from myself. What I’m doing is working towards getting myself in a position where I can stop promoting that. Right now, I feel like I’m still one of those struggling youths, looking to keep on sustaining what’s going on. Until FC001, once again, the dream is over.
TC: Sorry, what is FC001?
RS: It’s the first record we put out on our independent label, Full Cycle Records. The track’s called “The Dream Is Over.”
TC: And what does that title refer to?
RS: The fact that once you get to where you’re going, the dream is over. So it’s best that you never even get there – just always have the idea. Do you understand that?
TC: Well, I guess you have to keep on…
RS: Keep on keeping on.
TC: Keep on keeping on.
RS: As soon as you feel that you’re there…
TC: There’s no reason to keep on moving.
RS: What I’m saying is that that’s wrong. That’s the mentality. It’s easy for me sit down and relax now, and think, “Yeah, man, I’m in the New York Times, I must be massive.” Instead, I’m like “Oh, I’m in the New York Times, I better read that.”
TC: Right. Listen, I know you have to go momentarily, so I just want to ask some other things. Do you read press about you guys? I’m curious to know what misconceptions there might be about you that you’d like to set straight.
RS: I haven’t read much of the press. One time they said, “Is Roni Size something, or just a hip-hop act? There’s always going to be misconceptions. I just think that then sooner or later they will. Since we won the Mercury Award, a lot of people think that things are given to us on a plate.
And, in a way, some things were – but we’re going to clean off that plate and eat it, too, and we’re going to go for seconds as well. A lot of people say to us, “Oh, you guys must be under a lot of pressure. ” We’re like, “No, we’re the ones that are applying the pressure. ” I’m not really worried about press and other people not understanding, because that means that they’ve still got a lot to learn. As soon as everyone understands, then where’s the challenge?
TC: So it’s the kids in your audience who motivate you, rather than the press?
RS: Definitely. I’m fascinated by what’s going to be coming out in ten years, by all the kids who are being brought up on us and WuTang, and the whole jungle movement. Just in electronic music, they bypassed the whole funk, jazz, rock, all that sh*t – they bypassed it! – and they’re going straight to the nitty-gritty. What are they going to be making in ten years? I’m looking forward to that.
TC: No doubt. Tell me, then, what are your favorite current hip-hop groups? Do you guys still listen to hip-hop?
RS: Damn right. Yeah, man. You know, Wutang is just raw. Redman is even rawer. And hip-hop has changed so much. You know, I’m a production man. I’m into the beats and I think what Timberland’s doing is so exciting.
TC: Me, too.
RS: I think he’s great. Good old Timberland.
TC: The thing about his music is that it’s commercial, but it’s his own sound. It’s really amazing how he’s been able to merge the two.
RS: He’s done it great. It wasn’t that hard. Just had to move a few snares, a few highhats, and bop with your own core. Good to know that there are producers out there who can put life into music.
TC: Do you guys hear underground New York stuff out there?
RS: We hear bits. I’m not really up-to-date, and to be quite honest, I’m in my own mode at the moment, where I’m just trying to create my own vibe and not be distracted by everything.