British drum and bass pioneer producer and DJ discusses his past and future
Drum and bass pioneer Roni Size is currently in the midst of a world tour, one that sees him playing his longest stint of North American shows in some time. It’s the 20th anniversary of his Mercury Prize winning album New Forms, and the artist is taking it upon himself to reach audiences old and new.
Size recently won the Music Producers Guild’s Inspiration Award, and he’s using the opportunity to prove that he deserves it. Unlike many who might rest on their laurels after being awarded with such a career spanning achievement, Size has done the opposite, immediately looking for his next challenge.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Roni Size to discuss his ongoing tour, learn what it’s like to receive such an important award, and find out what’s next for the inspiring artist.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you’ve just set out on a North American tour. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Roni Size: Travelling the world for my job is always exciting. And to be able to play the music I love, play some new music, play some old music, meeting some first timers, I’m meeting some old school heads, it’s exciting.
CF: To peer back in time a bit, you began your career in your hometown of Bristol. The city’s underground scene at that time ended up producing some of music’s biggest acts. What do you think it was about Bristol then that proved to be such a fertile place for artists?
RS: To be fair, it has been well documented. It was at a time when it was still kind of breaking the mold, and we all sort of know the story – if you’re a music guy you know the story, Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky. It’s quite exhausting keeping on going backwards and forwards and talking about because it’s so documented. It’s kind of like asking, “Well I’ve got some eggs here and I want to make an omelette. How do you make your omelette?” And I would just say that everybody probably makes their omelettes a little bit different and my story’s a little bit different, where I was brought up with Western family. I went to St. Paul’s Carnival, it was my stomping ground. We are talking about 25 years ago. Asking someone to go back to their first omelette isn’t really something that hasn’t been said a thousand and a million and one times….
CF: One of the reasons I was asking is because this year sees the 20th anniversary of your Mercury Award-winning album New Forms with Reprazent…
RS: It is 20 years of New Forms and it is a different time than when we first started out making music and performing with the band Reprazent. It was a crew of us and since that time, the crew now kind of not disbanded, but everyone in their own way is doing their own individual projects, so for me to be able to now take my own individual projects on the road to celebrate… 20 years comes around once in a lifetime. It’s not just 20 years of the release, it’s 20 years of the Mercury Music Prize as well. To be able to take this version of the show on the road and to bring it to an audience who only just discovered this music, and to an audience who will rediscover the music, is quite exciting.
We put together all the remixes, some that were heard, some that were never heard. We put together the best of the best tracks and put it all into one show. And it’s just me in a show with a lightbox. The lightbox is something that is fresh and new, quite visual, and it’s myself and that’s quite exciting. I’m also out there DJing the music as well – me and this whole brand new audience who hear about the sacred legend, which is a word that I still find very, very difficult to embrace. I feel like I’ve inspired people to get to legend status. I do believe that you have to earn that status, and I still feel like I’m on the road earning that status. But it’s great to be able to celebrate this once in a lifetime opportunity, because it was a record that was many people’s first. It was the first time that they heard that beat. On this North American tour, most people are saying, “Ah yeah, I heard that beat, the first time I heard that beat was your New Forms.” It is kind of incredible to be the source of anything.
CF: I don’t want you to sell yourself short. You’ve contributed a lot, and you were just recognized for that by the Music Producers Guild with their Inspiration Award. What does winning a career spanning achievement award like that mean to you?
RS: I’m still waiting to find out. It’s only been six months since I won the MPG award, and it’s 20 years since I won the Mercury Prize, I won a few awards along the way. I think it is down to the integrity of the artist, whether they use that as a free ride or as an inspiration to be able to go out there and prove that they deserve that. Some people will be like, “Ah yeah, I won this. You can’t say nothing to me. I’ve got this. I’ve done that.” I’m the exact opposite, I’m like, “Okay what’s my next challenge now? Okay they’ve given me the Inspiration Award, it’s time for me to me to inspire,” so that’s what this new live show’s about. It’s about trying to inspire something that is different, something that’s not been done before. That’s where I’m at right now.
CF: That’s great to hear, and it’s nice to see that you’re an excellent statesman for dance music in the U.K. Can you speak a little on grime? That seems to be the moment that is happening right now, so are there any artists from that scene that you feel will go on to big things?
RS: Well grime is its own thing, and grime doesn’t need me as a spokesperson of that genre; they have many. I come from an electronic music background – drum and bass – and grime artists are being celebrated verbally for a number of years. You have people in America who embraced it and all over the UK, but grime doesn’t need me as a spokesperson – they need me as a music person to be able to show them that if they do ever decide to just take it into an arena where they can make it more of a live element, and “Look at what Roni Size did when he won the Mercury Music Prize,” but grime doesn’t need me as a spokesperson. They don’t need me. Drum and bass and jungle, that’s what they need me for.
CF: To talk about the tour for a minute, it’s been awhile since you’ve been in America, maybe four years before this tour….
RS: I was there last week (laughs). Not really, I’ve been doing it in pockets, but not a tour with Reprezent. I have been there, but it’s been quite subtle. I think the thing is with me, I have not released a lot of music because I was so prolific back in the ‘90s that it was almost overwhelming, where as now, when I release a record, I want it to be special. Every record that I want to come out now, I want it to be special. I want it to be looked upon as being an event rather than just being a record, because music today is so throwaway. People pick it up, and it’s gone. It’s like the vinyl days when people take it out the wrapper, they would smell it, they would clean it with their sleeve, they would put it on the turntable, take very much care in putting the needle onto the record so they didn’t scratch it, and play it. It’s like the romance between mp3s and vinyl are very, very different. The mp3s are like a one night stand, where vinyl is like a longterm relationship. I want to put out music that is like a longterm relationship. I think that’s the difference. I think when you put out records, then you tour these records, then people embrace that record.
It’s been four years since you’ve toured the U.S. but you continuously tour Europe and the U.K. When touring your records, do you find a difference between North American audiences, European audiences, and audiences all around the world?
RS: Everybody dances to the same beat, the difference is that maybe you might go to Japan, you might go to Eastern Europe, and the languages might change. You might not be able to speak the same language, but we are all dancing to the same beat.
CF: We know what a good concert feels like from the audience’s point of you, but what makes for a great night on stage for Roni Size?
RS: The thing is like you have to have your own formula one car. You have to be like Louis Hamilton, and it has to have the best performance. The equipment has to be the best and the environment has to be lively. A good club is sellout club, not all the time, but it is nice to have a full room, so you can play the room. Sometimes when you don’t have enough numbers in the room, you can struggle to find out what the energy is because the pockets are different.
I’ll tell you the one thing I’ve noticed over the years – there are a couple of things that have changed the environment of dance music. Number one is the smoking ban, where now people will stay for ten minutes and they’ll go outside and smoke for ten minutes, then they’ll stay for another ten minutes, and then go out, so it’s always forever changing. The second thing is the telephone thing, where a lot of people are standing there with their phones just recording rather than actually getting down and having a good time. Another thing in America is the age limit with alcohol. In the U.K. or in Europe, people can drink at 18, whereas in America it is 21, so it is very different. All of those three things, they all kind of add up to the party because before you could do all of those things in one room and that would be the party that’s why you go out. You go out to be able to drink and smoke and do your thing whether it’s on your phone or not. I know attention span is changing, that’s what I notice. But you know, you still gotta play the room.
I encourage people, “You know what just put your phones away for five minutes,” not text everybody where you are or what you’re doing. It’s like you can’t go an hour without having a smoke?
It’s definitely changed and it is challenging. It doesn’t mean people aren’t out there enjoying themselves because they are. It’s just different people expressing different ways of enjoying themselves.
CF: You’ve worked with a number of artists over the course of your career, from Zack de la Rocha to Method Man, but is there any piece of advice that you’ve picked up along the way that continues to inform your direction?
RS: I’m quite self-absorbed in the sense that I’ve got a good sixth sense that if I’m in the studio with someone who is one of my peers, I’m going to make sure that if I’m in the studio and want to get the best out of them then I’m going to learn the best way to communicate with them. I’m not going to jump on top of them and say, “Do it like this. Do it like that,” that’s not the vibe. You have to both have the same goal to try and get together. Working with a band is always going to be people politics. You’ve gotta be a people person. You’ve gotta have good band management and learn to get on with people. I enjoy working with Dynamite MC – we’ve travelled around the world together and we’ve experienced some great times together.
Making music is trying to make sure you respect everyone’s environment and opinion, and you just do your job. That’s what I believe. I try to never be late for a gig. I’m always on time. I always play my set. I always try to play the room, whether I’m live or DJing or in the studio working.
CF: Throughout your career, we can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. But is there a moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
RS: Yeah absolutely. I think every time I step onto an airplane and I look down onto the country below me and see the most amazing and beautiful sights. I travelled to Madagascar just a few weeks ago, which was very exciting. It’s just sometimes when you just meet people that you would never expect to meet along the way. I wouldn’t say a grounding experience, but I don’t take anything for granted and I try my best to just embrace it all. When I look out the window of an airplane and I see a sight no one else is ever going to see, I think that’s quite special. That takes me back.