This ain’t Chicago: Richard Sen talks about the overlooked early days of the British underground scene
Whenever electronic music enthusiasts look back on the history of the genre it’s usually Detroit and Chicago that get the most attention, for obvious reasons. But the first wave of British house rarely gets a look in, despite its highly influential, innovative output – granted much of the UK’s acid house and rave music has had its fair share of shine, but there was a slew of underground house music that has been overlooked. Thankfully DJ, and crate digger extraordinaire, Richard Sen has helped Strut Records to compile a collection of tracks from that early period, showcasing some of the tracks that have, until now, not had as much attention as they deserve. Here’s a chat with Richard himself…
So, what was the idea behind doing the compilation?
It’s a selection of some of my personal favourites. I bought most of these records at the time so they’ve been sitting on my shelves and every so often I dig them out and realise that they still sound pretty good. I wanted to choose some lesser-known tracks from the UK as I thought that they deserved a wider audience than just my room. The US stuff has been documented and compiled many times, as they were the originators, but I’m English and wanted to represent the underground sound of the UK, which was largely ignored. I’ve kept a few well-known classics on there but mostly wanted to dig deeper and darker. I also wanted the compilation to appeal to the new generation of kids and DJs out there who wouldn’t have heard any of this stuff and also the old gits like me for whom a certain track might jog some happy memories.
Why do you think so much of this music has been overlooked so far?
I don’t know. Some of the more well-known British tracks have been compiled many times but maybe because some of the labels (like Chill and Catt) only released a few 12inches, they seemed to have slipped under the radar and they became better known for Hardcore/Rave music. Also, people seem to dismiss what they have in their own back garden in favour of the US stuff, which seems more glamorous or cooler. Most of these tracks you can find for 50p on Discogs!
Which of the tracks holds the most significance for you personally?
I was inspired at the time by the DJs Eddie Richards, Kid Batchelor and Andrew Weatherall so their productions in particular reflect my taste and have shaped my sound. There’s a Julie Stapleton track on there, which was a cult hit on the pirate radio stations at the time and is quite dark and melancholic but still with pop sensibilities. So much so that Kylie Minogue covered it on her 1994 album, Deconstruction.
Any tracks you couldn’t include but think are worthy of a mention… likewise with producers, who really made an impact but maybe didn’t get the props they deserved?
Strut are amazing and licensed everything that I wanted. I really wanted to have a Window Smashers track on there, Rob Elliot (RIP) was a character and had a unique sound.
What were some of the key differences between the US music and what was being made here in the UK?
The UK artists may have used some of the same drum machines and synths as the Americans but definitely had their own unique style. Many of the tracks on my compilation have a certain naïve charm to them and are a bit rough round the edges. I think the reggae sound system culture among the West Indian community and the working-class kids of the inner cities was a huge influence in the UK then, as it is today with dubstep and drum n bass.
What’s your connection to this era of music? I guess it was when you were first going out and discovering electronic music?
Yes, it was the first music that I started seriously buying. I had a job at the time so every Friday after being paid, I’d go down to Red Records in Beak Street and see Nick The Record who’d play the latest cuts to me alongside disco oddities that were big with the DJs at the time. In the late eighties I started taking trips to New York for records and I’d buy a lot of old disco, Chicago house and Detroit techno stuff that was going cheap then. I’d ring up legendary NY labels like Nu Groove and Strictly Rhythm and say I was a DJ from London and they’d invite me over to their office and load me up with promos! Most of their sales were in the UK so they loved English DJs. The guys in the record shops over there, particularly Vinylmania, schooled me on the Loft and Garage sound.
Where were you going during this period? What were the crowds like?
I grew up in Wembley. When acid house came along there were parties in warehouses round the corner from where I lived. One that stood out was by Nicky Holloway at Lee Film Studios, I think it might have been called Apocalypse Now. There was also Hedonisim and Shock Sound System. My introduction to ecstacy was at The Astoria on Saturday nights (Trip/Made On Earth/Sin). This was a weekly ritual and Nicky Holloway’s selection ranged from Chicago and New York house to hip-hop, Balearic beats and Belgian new beat. Most people were on E so there was a lot of energy and good vibes flowing. Even the football hooligans who’d usually want to fight you were hugging you!
As it was so new and exciting, I guess there was a lot of music that you didn’t even know the names of/who it was by… how did you go about finding the names of tracks?
Yeah, back then you’d have to physically hunt down tracks and even travel to other countries to get them! The only way was to ask the DJs what they were playing or listen to pirate radio stations like LWR or Centreforce in the hope of hearing them. I’m still finding tracks 25 years later that I heard back then but didn’t know what they were called.
Who were the big DJs in this time? Is there anyone who, like some of the music on the comp, has been overlooked in your opinion?
Most of the big DJs at the time are still playing now, although some of them went down the more commercial road, rather than the leftfield and underground sound, which I favour. Some of my favourite DJs back then were Eddie Richards, Kid Batchelor, Andrew Weatherall, Harvey, Fabio + Grooverider, Mr C, Colin Faver and Colin Dale. Frankie Valentine is a superb DJ and was on all the flyers back then and still plays now but maybe isn’t as well known as he should be.
Can you describe a few of your most memorable experiences during this time?
I can’t remember too much but I did go to the famous Sunrise orbital rave in an old aircraft hangar in the summer of 1989, I think it was called ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. There were thousands of people there, almost like a small town of ravers E’d up dancing in this huge hanger. I’d recently come out of prison (for graffiti – but that’s another story) and bumped into someone who I was inside with who’d escaped. I remember the DJ playing Phil Collins “In The Air Tonight” and it suited the mood perfectly (I know, it sounds awful but you had to be there). You’d never get someone playing such a slow record to 10,000 people in a massive warehouse these days… The next day The Sun newspaper wrote a double page feature which carried the headline ‘Ecstasy Airport!’ with a drawing of an aircraft hangar and people flying out of it! I still have the flyer.
Why did you end up going to warehouse raves etc… because, prior to that period, you were a graffiti writer right?
Yes, I was part of the first generation of UK graffiti writers and started writing in 1985 and retired in 1988. During that time we would go to the warehouse parties happening in London including Newtrament’s Rock Box and Bash St Kids parties with DJ Harvey and J Saul Kane (Depth Charge). Some writers like Harvey, Choci and Rev would be DJing and the music policy was mainly hip-hop, rare groove and some early house. When the acid house scene came along, I had grown out of graffiti and had also served a couple of prison sentences for it, so it naturally came to an end – music and ecstacy took over. Also, the hip-hop scene at the time was starting to get moody and darker and it wasn’t uncommon to be robbed at some of the concerts and jams.
Do you see any parallels between graffiti and music?… There seems to be a fair few ex-graffiti writers who have become musicians, what would you pinpoint as the connection, if any?
I think a lot of graffiti writers tend to be outsiders and don’t fit in to normal society so music is just another form of creative expression which can be done independently and on your own terms. Music has always attracted talented outsiders who can’t get other jobs. For me, DJing and making music is very similar in a way to painting as different sounds or tracks are put together to create something completely new.
You now DJ and produce yourself, when did that all start?
I got my first DJ residency in 1989 at The Crazy Club which was at a club called Busbys on a Sunday afternoon. People would go there after they’d been out raving all night and carry on all through Sunday. It later moved to The Astoria on Saturday nights and I would play in the back room, an alternative to the heavy rave and techno and early hardcore in the main room. My sets would include US and European House and slower funkier tracks also. I started producing in 1997 with DJ Regal under the name Bronx Dogs and now produce under my own name and as Padded Cell with Neil Higgins.
How’s it all going at the moment?
I’m still wrapped up in music – DJing and producing. We have a new Padded Cell single “Guardians Of The Night” finally released on Different Recordings in a month or so. I’m currently working on a Padded Cell remix and a solo one for Roxy Music. I’m also working on a solo single to hopefully be out before the end of the year. I have DJ gigs lined up for Berlin and Paris also in Aug/Sept.
What do you make of the resurgence in house music at present?
There is definitely a revival of acid and early house, I’d say sounding more like Chicago or New York productions of the late eighties. Artists like Tensnake and the Rush Hour label have been spearheading that sound for the new generation and it’s great that you can now dig out the old tracks which fit perfectly with these new ones. It’s around 25 years since the early house stuff was made and musical trends seem to go in cycles just like the disco revival a few years back. I think kids now are exposed to much more music and therefore more open minded in their selection. It’s not unusual to hear disco, early house alongside new productions all thrown into the mix.
And finally, is there anyone in today’s scene (in the UK) who you would say is an unsung hero or underrated and deserves more exposure?
My friend and also legendary graffiti writer Cazbee deserves to be heard, he has history, knowledge and understands good music and plays it properly. As for UK producers, Ben Williams AKA Gatto Fritto is hugely talented. He has a lot of analogue gear and is a great guitarist and singer which he incorporates into his style of dance music.
Check out a promo mix for the compilation below.Acid House, Chicago, House, Padded Cell, Richard Sen, warehouse
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