Image by Chelone Wolf
If someone called me a "character", I'd probably give them a healthy side-eye or withering death stare, depending on how charitable I felt in the moment. A "character" usually makes me think of the person who shouts the loudest whilst having the least to shout about, but there are rare occasions when a "character" is a person apart; someone who leaves an indelible mark on just about everyone and everything around them. UK drum 'n' bass legend Goldie is a goddamn character. DJ, producer, label-head, actor, grafitti artist - with every new thread he pulls at across his decades long career, he unravels something more weird and wonderful about himself than before.
In the lead up to his headline performance at this Bank Holiday weekend's Streetfest Festival in Hackney Wick, London, his lecture on graffiti at Boxfresh's Fresh Out The Box event, and not long after his intense acting run in Roy William's play Kingston 14, THUMP had a chat with Goldie about his upcoming show at London's Southbank Centre (an orchestral rendition of his now 20-year old album Timeless), the legacy of the Metalheadz label, and how he sometimes talks to Jeff Mills about space.
THUMP: How are you finding the process of turning Timeless into an orchestral score?
Goldie: Well, the original music was about having huge string arrangements created by various electronics presets, so Timeless was an orchestrated album. Of course, there's a big difference between what lends itself in electronica today compared to back then, with all the new equipment we now have.... It's going to sound very different, but it just means that it's allowing me to experiment.
I remember watching you learn how to be a conductor for BBC Two's Maestro show back in 2008, so I know you have a personal interest in classical music. Did that experience translate over into this Timeless project?
Goldie: I'm very fascinated with the way written notes on paper translate, and the way an orchestra works. I've just finished a piece for the Glasgow Philharmonic which will be performed next month, but I think it's different with The Heritage Orchestra for Timeless.
Goldie: Because they're more into the idea of what we can all get out of this kind if project - as opposed the London Symphony Orchestra, which seems pretty stiff in comparison. The Heritage Orchestra is made up of people who can play five or six different instruments, and have an open mind about what they can add to a composition. I have a lot of respect for Chris Wheeler. He's a genius. The first thing he said was "I want this to be a rendition, not a replay".
What tracks are you most looking forward to hearing played? Any that were particularly challenging?
Goldie: We were challenging ourselves with tracks like 'Angel', especially in how we worked through that transfer using brass. I really do like those challenges. We're going to try and create new sounds that may sound completely different, but I like the idea of a small 15-20 piece choir belting out 'Angel'.
How do you feel having a 20 year old album reworked in this way?
Goldie: Some things are better left alone, granted, but all I'm trying to do is reflect on music in a way I see fit and exciting. People didn't think this music would last a year, so I like the idea of looking back on something and asking questions about how it all worked out. I think it's still very experimental. Timeless was a blueprint for ideas for the future. It was about a kid having a dream about something he wanted to do in his head. If I can transfer that blueprint into a real, tangible situation, then that's great.
What's the reaction been like to you doing this project? Have you encountered any snobbery?
Goldie: Most people who wrote the classical music that I listen to, the peasants who created this music in the 14th century, will probably be rolling in their graves when they hear how people have adapted their music. But, I'm still alive. Jokes. I'm about breaking down the snobbery around classical compositions. The idea that the only people who should listen to it are part of some hierarchy. This music belongs to everybody. I mean, I've seen Dudamel's Venezuelan Orchestra tear the Festival Hall a new arse! Classical music is fucking amazing.
With Timeless and Metalheadz both being 20 years old now, do you feel like the anniversaries and the Southbank performance are part of you becoming a legacy artist in the UK? You've always been respected, but this is a step up.
Goldie: I'm back in favour. All of a sudden, I'm an OG again. I'm Rakim again. Sure, it's a new generation, and there's new stuff out there, but what I've managed to do is outlast and re-invent. As far as Metalheadz is concerned, we've outlasted everything. A lot of electronic music seems to have lost its integrity - by its own admission. It's part of the pop machine. My view may not be correct. People may think, "Well, he can't say that", but I can say whatever the fuck I want. That doesn't mean that everyone understands Metalheadz music, but at least it's honest with itself. Sometimes the honesty in music doesn't sell.
What do you not like about current electronic music then?
Goldie: I think it has a lot of soul missing. My daughter was listening to 'Angie' by The Rolling Stones the other day, and she wasn't even conceived when that was written. I asked her why she liked it, why she likes band like Happy Mondays, and she just said "I just think it has something, Dad". Why does music from the 70s sound so soulful? It doesn't have half the technical equipment, so it's based purely on good songwriting. Now, all I hear is the technology in the music, as opposed to the soul of it.
I mean, don't get me wrong, there are a lot of aspects to it. When we were growing up, we were a bit older as ravers. Now, everyone's going out at a younger age, and that reflects back on the music itself. The older people aren't making it for their own age bracket. They're making it for the younger generation on the dance floor.
I guess it's the difference between why graffiti was so important in the 80s, as opposed to now. No one understands it, they can't read it, but as soon as you put bubble letters on a t-shirt? Everyone buys it. I guess that's what's happened to drum 'n' bass as well. It's the same as any subculture, but drum 'n' bass has gone through it more than anything else.
Do you listen to much footwork music? There's a massive influence of drum 'n' bass and jungle within that sound.
Goldie: It's alright, but it's like looking into a kaleidoscope, whereas jungle had its own, special kind of element. I think OM Unit is a great example of that shift though. He's had his biggest release on Metalheadz, he grew up on Metalheadz - it was his biggest influence, and footwork's been inspired by it all. What Metalheadz represents? People can take the strands of our DNA, and create something new and different.
When I was in New York, trailblazing with all the graffiti heads in the 80s, the original premise for Metalheadz was built on seeing blue collar workers in the Bronx with my own eyes. Buildings that had collapsed. Where working class communities first began. For me, it was very important for Metalheadz to represent the celluloid of that experience.
Who do you rate in drum 'n' bass right now then?
Goldie: I look at people like Sb81, who is doing some absolute damage at the moment. He's been pricking my ears up. People like OM Unit and DLR and Mako in Bristol too - they're all doing really cutting edge stuff. I think that the label's re-invented itself so much that it's come full circle.
Do you think a large part of the lasting appeal of Metalheadz is you yourself?
Goldie: Maybe that's got something to do with it. I call the boys up a lot whenever I hear something new. I like to be able to do that. I think that the people in New York took me under their wing when I was a teenager rubbed off on me. You need to have a strong approach with people. When I sit behind a desk with an A&R man telling me I have to change the formula, I know that what I do has nothing to do with that world. It's about the attitude of the music. If you want to make millions, this isn't the job for you.
I think record labels, especially independent ones, are more important now than they ever were. The internet and afforable software allows anyone who wants to try their hand at music production. I think we need labels to pin down sounds, movements, aesthetics - everything that creates something memorable. What do you make of this? Do you think this is partly why independent labels who can weather the storm - reach legacy landmarks like 20 years with a strong aesthetic and sound - are respected for doing so?
Goldie: Listen darlin' - can I call you darlin'? Do you mind? I just wanna be real for a minute here. People who just upload stuff onto Soundcloud are clutching at straws. They're so needy. It's like some kid waving from behind a phone saying "Retweet me! Tweet me!" Jesus man, have you got no self-esteem? Some people have an insatiable need to be famous. Good music is good music. A lot of things I hear now doesn't have anything going for it, and I think labels are very important.
Where do you think Metalheadz will go next? Are you gonna stay that character at the helm of it all?
Goldie: You're right in the fact that I'm heading it up, but I also think that the character of the label has passed onto different people. I still think it's got another generation in it. The industry at the moment is so on its head. People just want to be pop stars, so let them go through it. If people said to me that Metalheadz would be No. 1, I'd probably shoot myself in the head. We're the juxtaposition to everything else that's happening. I think a younger generation will be inspired by it in the future though, in a very big way.
What about the massive dance festivals in the US? You used to live in Miami and New York, surely you've seen massive changes in the culture both close up and from afar?
Goldie: I don't play those big EDM festivals anymore because there's no place for us. It's another generation's thing now. If we play a Metalheadz set at one of those festivals, it'll be dead. I would say though, the one good thing about electronic music is that it opened up into all different kinds of music. It's not just about drum 'n' bass, and I like the idea of that. We couldn't get away with that when we were younger. You had to get in a box and stay there. It was either drum 'n' bass or pop back then.
I'd ask what you're up to next, but it's been a pretty exhaustive year or so for you.
Goldie: Fucking hell, you're telling me! I've just finished Kingston 14. I'm fucking drained. I've done 35 shows. This weekend just gone really took the biscuit. I just got a text from Olivia Williams, who is a good friend of mine - we both do a lot of yoga to survive our lives - and she said "It's over! Thank fuck!" I did a show on Friday, then played Fabric, then went to Nottingham and did 4.30am - 5.30am set, then got back to London at about 7.45am. Got up, got to the theatre for a matinee show and then did a show in the evening. I don't know how I even survived. I think maybe a trip to the moon might help.
I just spoke to Jeff Mills about space actually, seems to be a dream of both of yours.
Goldie: Darlin', I know Jeff!
Goldie: Yeah, we talk sometimes - most recently about the sky pictures he was taking. He messes around with orchestral things as well.
Yeah, you've both done orchestral scores now. Do you speak about it all?
Goldie: We've had long conversations about his work. I was picking his brain about some of the stuff he was doing. I've got a lot of time for him. He's a very clever guy. He's got a lot of respect for me and what I do. Obviously it's very different, but it's still cut from the same cloth. Some of his ideas are very far out. I like the way he thinks.
Goldie will perform at this Bank Holiday weekend's Streetfest London event at Formans Fish Island, Hackney Wick, E3 2NT. For more information and tickets, go here.
You can follow Lauren Martin on Twitter here: @codeinedrums