“It was a really exciting time for Jungle/DnB. The landscape was so open to experimentation and the mainstream press suddenly seemed more interested in the movement of the scene. I felt like I was in a bubble, meeting all my heroes and pursuing my hobby. I kept telling myself 6 more months of this and then I will look for a real job …”
This month is my blog’s 10th anniversary. I never really expected that ten years later it would be still around, but here we are. Reflecting on those years, so much has changed in my personal life and everywhere around us that it seems like worlds apart from those timid beginnings. Reconciling the arrogance, the naivety, old obsessions and spent ideals of a past life with a new reality of different priorities, the blogging experience has been frustrating and cathartic at the same time, like a confessional love letter to music; wavering between posting and shredding it to pieces. So, once again, a big heartfelt thank you to all my guests and all readers, either regulars or those who have stumbled upon the blog by chance; the interaction with like-minded people across the globe has been the greatest reward.
The fundamental idea has always been to keep a personal musical diary and document those musical memories before they inevitably fade into oblivion; hidden annexes littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were conceived, music you’ll probably never have time to listen to again, locked in its own era. The anniversary features are traditionally retrospective and usually more private. Like all birthday celebrations, there’s a self-imposed mandate to make them somewhat special. Although I usually refrain from the obvious classics for the ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ series, the next installment captures a snapshot of that venerated mid-90s drum & bass sound I grew up with. A constant I always keep returning to, like browsing an album with faded photographs of a life I never really left behind.
James Spratling met with 4hero through his sister, who used to work with Marc Mac. Charter Road, Dollis Hill was a melting pot for UK’s most innovative underground music, with 4hero’s famous attic and FSOL’s Earthbeat Studio in the same building. Even Suede, before reaching stardom, used to rehearse downstairs, as Goldie vaguely recalls in his memoirs. That influential environment was the perfect catalyst for James’ undisputed talent to flourish.
Mentored by the genre’s finest, who introduced to the music world the likes of Goldie, Doc Scott and Peshay, James made his first foray into production at the tender age of 15 with the breakbeat hardcore classic ‘The Choice’ (Six Million Ways to Die) on Lemon D’s short-lived label Planet Earth under the alias Dexxtrous (a moniker he dropped shortly after and emerged as J Majik) and his rise to prominence has been nothing less than meteoric. That same year, Infrared Records was launched and the first three EPs (‘Innervisions I & II’, ‘World Of Music’) featured contributions from Reinforced stable-mates Keith Montague (aka Dream, Sudden Def), Goldie, Peshay and Nu Era (Marc Mac).
Around that time, Goldie amicably left the Reinforced camp to record the paradigm-shifting ‘Terminator EP’ with Mark Rutherford for Synthetic, which paved the way to realize his dream and establish one of the genre’s most revered brands. Impressed by J Majik’s productions he invited him to record for Metalheadz and Spratling reciprocated with an array of classics, establishing himself as one of the pioneers, who helped shape that venerated early Metalheadz sound. James’ unique ability to move gracefully between styles, his technical wizardry and trademark manipulation of the ‘Apache’ break, quickly elevated his reputation to the genre’s production elite. Take Irvine Welsh’s word, the acclaimed novelist of chemical romance, who name-checked J Majik in one of his obscure short stories ‘Victor Spoils’.
(Welsh published in 2009 an anthology of short stories previously issued in out-of-print magazines and defunct media in the 90s, under the collective title ‘Reheated Cabbage’)
J. Majik – Repertoire/Shiatsu (Metalheadz, METH028, 1997)
“A beautiful and revered piece of essential Metalheadz history from the ridiculously talented J Majik” – Repertoire digital re-master press release.
‘Repertoire b/w Shiatsu’ was officially released in 1997, at the pinnacle of drum & bass’ golden era and a seminal year for full-length artist albums and VA compilations. Drum & bass had already attracted the media spotlight, which in turn exposed the niche genre from a limited connoisseur circle to a wider audience, providing artists with a vital and creative space for experimentation. James reflects on those times:
“It was a really exciting time for Jungle/DnB. The landscape was so open to experimentation and the mainstream press suddenly seemed more interested in the movement of the scene. I felt like I was in a bubble, meeting all my heroes and pursuing my hobby. I kept telling myself 6 more months of this and then I will look for a real job.
In terms of labels, Metalheadz probably had one of the biggest effects on the crossing over. Everything that happened at Blue Note and the people who came to Blue Note – Björk, David Bowie, all different artists from the mainstream, who were suddenly coming into drum & bass. Obviously it helped with the media getting into it. I’d say Metalheadz, partly because of Goldie and his personality, has had a huge effect on the scene generally, whatever kind of drum & bass you’re into”.
I have a Metalheadz poster in my living room with DATs from the label’s archive. There’s one tape titled: ‘Repertoire/Possible album unfinished’. J Majik’s stunning debut album ‘Slow Motion’ was released the same year on Infrared. An extended review from the blog’s archive is available here.
“Yes, I’ve seen that picture. I think some of the ‘Slow Motion’ album tracks may have been on those DATs. One of the reasons that I started my label was because at the time we were all making so much music and would have to wait 9 months to a year to release it, as the labels had such busy release schedules and so many great artists. The ‘Slow Motion’ album was more of a collection of tracks that I had made in the previous 2 years and I saw it as an opportunity to get my music out there quicker in an album format”.
However, ‘Repertoire’ was written about 2 years or so, before the official release. In fact it’s been a different vocal-free version that had been floating around, championed mainly by LTJ Bukem.
“Yes, Danny used to live 2 minutes away from me and he was a massive inspiration and mentor at that time. He would sit for hours in the studio with me and I would often bounce down tracks with different intros or without vocals, so he would have had a slightly different version for sure. I so nearly released ‘Your Sound’ on Good Looking and felt really bad to Dan at the time that I didn’t, as he played that track more than anyone. Eventually, I chose Metalheadz, as it was a new project just about to launch. The Reinforced Camp, who introduced me to Goldie, were like family to me, and Goldie was like my big brother.
The vocal was by my friend Angela Anaforo, recorded on a terrible microphone I had bought from Richer Sounds. She also featured on ‘Slow Motion’ and ‘Mermaids’ among other tracks”.
‘Repertoire’ has been one of the few selected METH titles that have been reissued (in fact twice, in 2007 and 2012 respectively, on single-sided vinyl), which really says it all about the timelessness of the track. The re-mastered 2018 digital version – if it needed re-mastering in the first place – doesn’t include the vocal though, because the original DAT was probably lost.
Liner Notes and Credits
The compelling artwork in scarlet hues is by Jon Black (Magnet Studio), who has been responsible for an array of iconic sleeves for some of the genre’s most prestigious labels. After 2000, Michael A.Patist (Design by Engine) took over the Metalheadz sleeve design.
Note on the back sleeve : ‘Special thanks to Fabio’
‘Repertoire’ also featured on the 2nd Volume of the acclaimed ‘Platinum Breakz’ series (1997).
Obviously, ‘Repertoire’ is one of my all-time favourite Metalheadz records. I love the official released version exactly as it is and I literally wouldn’t change a note, let alone exclude Angela’s siren-esque vocals. It perfectly encapsulates the concept/theme behind the blog’s ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ series and captures elegantly a special time and place.
“I think it’s one of my favourites too, because it sounds so organic. It’s not trying to be anything, its ruff around the edges and not perfect in anyway. I was in a good place when I made it and it brings back fond memories”.
Well, don’t take my word only. Apparently, it happens to be also Paradox’s pick from the label’s back catalogue. (The excerpt is taken from a Red Bull Music feature published a few years ago).
Paradox Selects: J Majik – Repertoire / Shiatsu (1997)
“There are plenty of timeless titles in the Metalheadz catalogue, but there is one 12’’ for me that still grabs my attention. J Majik’s ‘Repertoire; is the epitome of sample manipulation. Breakbeats aside – which are also top notch – the music could be re-stripped down and sold as an instrumental, which I’d happily buy myself. A mixture of dry and FX sounds with synth loops that key change at the right places along with pads, searing horns and flute stabs take you on a journey, and towards the end a delicate vocal enters that adds that bit of shine. There are imperfections in Repertoire but I think they are done on purpose and it sounds better for it.
The flipside sees a darker slab of drum ‘n’ bass, which compliments this 12’’ well. Nucleus and I like the oddball mixdown compared to today’s modern studio techniques. James Brown loops interchange with other kicks, snares and distorted techno stabs. Sequence-wise Shiatsu is a lot less complicated than the A side but that doesn’t mean it’s sparse. This 12’’ was released in 1997. 22 years later it hasn’t aged and it’s maintained its status as one of my favourite Metalheadz 12’s from the vast back catalogue. A fine red wine-like vinyl.”
Fast forward to the present
‘Repertoire/Shiatsu’ was the 4th J Majik single for Metalheadz. After ‘Freefall/Transmission’ (released in 1998), it took James 13 years to return to the firm with the stunning ‘Ritual/Old Headz’ (METH093, 2011). Co-produced with his recording partner Wickaman, it has a touch of the old spell and is a fitting tribute to James’ Metalheadz musical legacy. Dee Freer’s heartbreaking vocals encompass feelings of guilt and regret. The sleeve artwork, designed by Richard Lock, is one of my favourite variations of the emblematic Metalheadz logo.
“At that time I was focusing more on my label Infrared and I was experimenting more with other styles of DnB that would not have worked on Headz. I will always see Headz alongside Reinforced as the most exciting labels in the 90s, so I’ve always intended to release on there again”.
While enjoying family life in the Canary Islands having taken a break from the music industry, James received an invitation from the Rupture crew (Double O & Mantra) to headline Corsica Studios Room 2 for Rupture’s 11th birthday. That night’s events (November 10th, 2017) rekindled his passion and love for music and J Majik made a spectacular comeback to the scene.
A collector of rare and unreleased gems considered buried in the sands of time, James resurrected and re-branded Infrared Records in 2018. Carrying the torch from the golden era to modern times, Infrared re-launched featuring previously unreleased music rescued from James’ DAT treasure trove, re-mastered versions, variations and re-issues of previous classics, as well as brand new music including two J Majik studio albums (‘Full Circle’, 2019 & ‘Always Be’, 2020). It takes a lot of confidence and artistic ingenuity to write 2 successive albums in a short period of time without sounding derivative or repetitive, but J Majik effortlessly avoided that trap, swinging between tempos and styles, reflecting on the various phases of his illustrious recording career; retrospective and futuristic both at the same time.
At the time of writing, Infrared (LTD) has released 20 singles/EPs featuring music from J Majik/Innervisions/Dexxtrous, Sudden Def, Adam F, Peshay, DJ Sense, Lemon D and Ruffkut/Heavyweight. For the digital versions, limited physical stock of selected titles and merchandise, follow the Infrared bandcamp page here.