Having the pleasure to host somebody with the presence of Earl Gateshead leads automatically to the urge for an interview with him, especially when he is here to play for the Ibiza Reggae Yard Community at Las Dalias. It was a pleasure to have him in my house so we were sitting on a terrace overlooking the seaside of Santa Eulalia, after the gig in Las Dalias. Before he left he told me that returning to London will be a tough one because of this island being so beautiful. That brings his favourite words in my mind – ‘Yeah Yeah‘ – i know what you are talking about…
When i read about the name i knew Gateshead is the town you were born in, so…
Yeah, i was born Philip Ashford and when i moved into DJing, I tried several names and just felt comfortable with Earl Gateshead, when i thought of it, I said ‘yeah that’s right. I feel it.
And you were sure nobody else would be called similar.
When i decided to be a DJ full time. I left work and change my whole life. So the name had to last as well for the rest of my life and Earl Gateshead fitted the bill, it was who i wanted to be.
‘The non-working life’ – so you don’t consider DJing being work?
No, it is a vocation.
You started in 1978, how was DJing back then?
Well, I know there were DJs back then, but i did’nt consider myself a DJ. For the first five years i thought of myself more as creating an atmosphere at events. Providing music to people twho would dance to it. For me it was more like being a general vibes maker, and i was very particular about the vibes, i really cared about what music got played. I love music and the events were my very own promotions i wanted the right atmosphere, so i played music to create it.
Back at that time i imagine there was no such DJ booth where people were looking at and listening to the DJ…
No it was totally different, people ignored the DJ, you weren’t the focus of attention at all. People would listen to the music and notice what it was, but the DJ wasn’t recognized as an individual. I remember my first employers in bars, they would want me to collect the glasses and i never minded that, in its best form it’s an ego less occupation……
On top we read you were playing between live punk bands on stage, how was that, were you the only DJ?
It was ok, it was before dance music and I played anything that wasn’t rock music. We’d all got sick of rock music by that time Jazzy stuff, Reggae, funky stuff and generally all the black music that was around ,at that particular time. It wasn’t necessarily sequenced, except the dance stuff towards the end, and people weren’t critical at all. It was quite a random time,.People are used to one kind of music all night nowadays, that wasn’t the case back then.
How did you find music, the love for vinyls? It must have been a quest to find a vinyl shop…
Earl performing at his gig in Las Dalias:
Totally, and i must admit i borrowed a lot of records as well. I used to borrow them from my friend’s collections, as i did’nt have a lot of money at that time. I have never been particularly material, i don’t need to own things, so i was quite happy to go around my friend’s houses to pick the records i wanted and add them to mine. It’s the music that counts not who owns it.
Talking about owning music, you then built up your own sound system?
Yeah, even that was part of the promotion. I was massively impressed when i saw my first sound system and went aaah, i want one……….. and the only way to get one was to build it really. I wanted the big speakers, the booming sound and to build a promotion around that. So up to today, to get a real one, you have to do it yourself. I had no idea how to do it, so i took some advice and i was very lucky… When the system was finished it made this beautiful sound. The world of sound is a mysterious business, even if you have everything sorted out, you can still get a bad sound in a room. There is magic involved , so however it happened, with my zero knowledge, asking my friends and reading books, it had a beautiful sound.
It was meant to be.
Definitely, i feel that.
The crowd at the ‘Original Rockers’ festival at Las Dalias:
Talking about music styles, you played house when it first started, how did you get into that?
Through my sound system i joined a bigger sound system, and by that time, I was at the very center of music in London, my friends worked in record shops, all of them were obsessed with music, some as well, worked in record companies so i was right on the trends ,all the time,. When house music came to London it came like a tidal wave, at first i fought against it a little bit, because it was gonna sweep Reggae away, it was a really huge tidal wave and our system was made for Reggae music but then we got hired for House parties .We didn’t want what was offered in night clubs at that time, they were these upmarket places, a bit scummy with violent security people , crappy sound systems, and nasty discriminating door policies. We didn’t want all that , but as our system got rented out for raves some of us went into House immediately and i sort of gradually accepted the quality of a lot of the records that were coming out.
Would you agree to say that the only thing House muysic added was the kick and the bassline?
When you hear it now ,it was soul music with a footdrum, yeah………. I mean it sounded really radical at that time, but when you listen back now it sounds like soul with a big kick. drum.
Then you switched to Broken Beats, so you came from Reggae, switched to House to then come back to Reggae?
I never left Reggae to be fair, but i would do House as well. We had a studio at home, that ‘s what really got me into House, my studio partner , Jason Eli, was a House DJ with a residency at the Ministry of Sound, when you hear it all the time, you fancy making it .and then i realized there was far more work for a House DJ at that time then there was in Reggae. So i kept playing my Reggae music but played House as well, all over the place… I thought i wasn’t good enough to make Reggae music myself, the best Reggae records is like making a Jazz record, when i have been into John Coltraine you know you got to have a lot of talent and i felt i couldn’t even compare myself to the people who made Reggae records… I don’t think like that today, if you honestly want to do it, if your intentions are honest then anybody can make anything, but i was too intimidated to make Reggae at that time. So i made House and Drum n’ Bass, UK Garage all the way through the nineties, and we had some big records, Jazzy House, and other styles i liked. Our studio sold a lot of records in the early Nineties.
Talking about labels, tell us about your own one, the Trojan Sound System.
My friend Ade Fakela runs a club called Plastic People, an extremely influential person in the London club scene. I had a Reggae event there running for twelve weeks with the cream of Reggae, and I started working with MCs which i haden’t been before then i was more the selector and i hadn’ t bothered with MCs… That was around 1998, so i set up the sound system for them and i worked with MCs like Big Youth and singers and MC’s like Junior Delgado, Alton Ellis, Cutty Ranks, Sugar Minott, really big names and we did it Sound System style as the club did not have a proper stage… At that time sound systems went through a bad period, there was this style called ‘juggling’ whereupon all that was sounding was a guy playing two CDs in a CD player and he moved really fast from different versions of the same rhythm so you always had the same rhythm moving from song to song, it was very, very boring and i thought it was crap. So i wanted to do something different , go back to the old days of the eighties Sound System style where you put a record on, flipped it over and played the instrumental version while the MC improvised over the top. Thats what we did at Plastic People. Following the Plastic People nights where I worked with Brother Culture, who was my first MC i asked Daddy Ads to be my partner. He felt the same way as me about Sound Systems. So we began one called ‘Roots and Reality’ which was in the old style of operating a sound system with singers, MCs, not endlessly playing the same rhythm again and again and again… It was more of a live thing. That proved to be a turning point and now everybody does it, Trojan heard us do it and asked us if we would represent them for a few gigs so we called ourselves Trojan Sound System because they liked what we did, and we got a lot of people asking us to play… Because of my time in the House world and all the other worlds i was well connected everywhere. People of the non-Reggae world were quite intimidated by the people of the Reggae world, but not by me, as they knew me. We played at some big festivals like Glastonbury and Bestival so people saw us and started to do the same as we did. And so all the other sounds moved away from this juggling thing and went back to the eighties style like us.
Earl at the Original Rockers Festival:
With al this in mind how do you see this so called EDM world today? There was never as much money involved as right now with all this hype about big names flying around the world getting many thousands for a gig?
If i see somebody like, let’s say Calvin Harris, then i have to say he is a very talented producer. Most people presume that when you make good records you’re a good DJ as well , but the skills it takes for both are massively different… But you attract people to come to wherever you are playing, by making good records. He is a very talented producer, even Avicii has that little stardust that make his records bigger then other people’s records, but that doesn’t necessarily make them fantastic DJs, it is a massively different talent. That is how i really feel about the EDM world. There are DJs working in bars that are fantastic DJs, but they are never gonna get any work because they can’t produce fantastically, and make big records. That’s what’s weird about House. The people that get all the money for DJing, arn’t the best at it. I can’t think of any other music style where that happens.
You just gave the answer to my question ‘Are DJs overrated’ in our world and i totally aggree.
When you DJ the order that put the records in reflects you in some way, and what the audience feel is your heart. The order you put the records in and the records you choose from the millions and millions of combinations that are possible. Every DJ picks a certain combination and that reflects him in a certain way. The audience feels you, so what you are DJing is yourself and that is not necessarily linked to production.
So in some way we could say a DJ is an artist.
A good DJ is – a bad DJ isn’t.
Talking Ibiza, i guess it is not your first time being here?
No, the first time i came here Mark (Broadbent) who programmed “We Love” brought me over, probably the only programmer on the Island who would take a chance on a Reggae DJ… From the moment I landed i landed i liked it, i felt a kinship and i still feel it. The Island relaxes me, my subconscious connects with the Island on some level, so i do love it here, yeah.
And how did the connection to the Ibiza Reggae Yard come to life?
I was introduced to them by Andreas, who runs Reggae Beach, he has been the only Reggae thing on the island for many years, so everybody who was into Reggae made contact with him and he knows everybody here involved in Reggae. When i played at Space for We Love, one of the technical guys came up to me and told me i should play at Reggae Beach the day after so i thought fair enough, i support Reggae wherever i can and i did play there. And i’ve got quite a lot of good friends on the island now.
Plans are to introduce a bigger festival on the island, guess there is definitely room for it. A lot of people failed in trying to introduce something else than club music as they dominate the whole music scene but would you agree on that?
It could be very successful, as you say, if people try to fight it they won’t be able to stop it, they can only slow it down. There is no reason why anybody should fight it, there is certainly enough room for it, Ibiza is perfectly suited for downtempo music and Reggae music is very in tune with the island. The whole bass culture thing which is the base of sound system music, is on the up everywhere in the world and Ibiza should represent that area of dance music as well as the other areas. You can’t hold Reggae down ever anywhere.
Last question, how was the gig at Las Dalias, we did some great shots and the vibe was really good, seeing you live is a pure pleasure.
Las Dalias, was a brilliant night. It felt really special. People here are hungry for something different. When I played it was like giving water to thirsty people everyone was so happy. The music really rang out and the people really sucked in Reggae’s rebel story… As I say, it was special.
Part of the IRY crew:
Thank you so much, pleasure to meet and again i got his words in my head – Yeah Yeah – when he performs it it instantly burns into your memory, he got this special talent to make people listen to his words and the music he selects. A real artist.
Get more good Reggae and more at the upcoming Ibiza Reggae Festival, more info very soon, in the meantime look here.