Sunday 3 March 2013

MTV IGGY: ICON: There’s No Dodging Artful, Ever

Words and Interview by Joseph 'JP' Patterson

Artful Dodger were one of the first UK garage acts to achieve chart success in the late '90s. Vocal-based hits such as "Please Don’t Turn Me On," "Woman Trouble" and the Craig David-featuring "Re-Rewind" were their staple tracks in a scene which many of today's popular UK dance producers are currently paying homage to. As garage music's popularity started to decline in 2002/3, when grime popped up out of the hoods of east London, so did Artful's passion for making it.

After a long break away from the industry, Mark Hill decided that it was time to bring Artful back to life in 2011. He got Ed Sheeran to co-write and feature on his well-received comeback single, "Could Just Be The Bassline," and he's been grinding to keep the momentum going ever since. Want to know what Artful really thinks about the future garage movement? Want to know what he really thinks of Disclosure's remix of "Please Don't Turn Me On"? Well, you can find out all of that and more in MTV IGGY's exclusive interview with the UKG legend...

You’ve been in the game for more than a decade now. For those not familiar with your work under Artful Dodger, let’s go back in time…

Me and my business partner, Pete, literally started out in a small studio in Southampton. We started off making bootlegs and what, at the time, was like speed garage – a bit like Armand Van Helden-type stuff. We did a few bootleg remixes, put them out on vinyl and then we met a young Craig David, who lived just round the corner from the studio. We wanted to do a few original tracks with Craig, so he'd come in his school uniform and started putting down some original vocals for us. The Artful Dodger name was used because they were bootlegs. If we got done, we didn't know if it would be dodgy so we didn't want to use our real names [laughs], but it stuck. Then, obviously, Craig's career spring-boarded off the back of what we did as Artful Dodger, and I went on to work with Craig and produce Born To Do It, his first album.

Artful Dodger were pretty much responsible for putting Craig David on the music map. Your first chart hit, "Re-Rewind," featured him and, like you just mentioned, you helped put together his platinum-selling debut album, Born To Do It. What was that whole period like for you?

It was amazing, really. We were doing it in isolation. I didn't really know much about the music industry at large, and I was kind of doing a favour in return for Craig vocalling our Artful Dodger tracks, as we didn't really know any original vocalists. As a favour to him, I kind of offered my services as a writer and producer to him to do his own stuff, which initially sounded like US R&B. We were doing a few US R&B and hip-hop remixes at the time, and it was only when we started fusing different stuff for Craig's album that it started to take off. It was really weird because it was all done in isolation.

There was no record company involved, no A&R people involved, we were literally just doing each other a favour. That went on for a few years, and then we started going around the industry with a five-track demo – which had “7 Days,” “Walking Away” and some other tracks that went on to be quite big tracks on the album. It was an amazing time and it’s good that we weren't too involved in the industry and [were] left to our own devices, just to experiment a bit until we came up with a sound that we were both really happy with. I can't believe it was that long ago! It still feels like yesterday.

From 1999 to 2001, Artful Dodger notched up a string of Top Ten hits and a chart-topping album. How did those couple of years change your life?

When we were making the tunes, we were completely broke. Me and my partner were running a little recording studio in Southampton and we had absolutely no idea about marketing, business or anything like that, so we were really struggling. We were in debt up to our eyeballs and had bailiffs knocking down our doors. It was like that from 1993 to 1999 and then all of a sudden, it exploded. From selling vinyls that me, Neil and Pete were dropping off, five at a time, to little record shops to hopefully get into the hands of some decent DJs, to what it became... It was insane!

It was actually Spoony from the Dream Team who started playing our first track, “What You Gonna Do?” That track put us in touch with Public Demand, who signed it and then signed “Re-Rewind” off the back of it. Relentless, who were under the Ministry Of Sound umbrella, then signed “Re-Rewind” and gave it the commercial release, along with “Movin’ Too Fast” with Romina Johnson. We were suddenly catapulted into a different world. So much happened in that period of time.

There was the All About The Stragglers album, we were DJing non-stop, and I was doing Craig's album. “Fill Me In” went in at No 1, then “7 Days” went in at No. 1 and then the Born To Do It album reached No. 1. From literally not having two pennies to rub together, to having— it was a really strange mix of surreal, stressful and fantastic. It was a really, really bizarre time.

You're rolling solo now. What happened?

I met my wife, got married, had three kids and I took some time off but I got the buzz back for making music again in 2010/2011. I've spent about a year producing for other people and writing for other people, but then I realized that the music business had changed so much from the first time around, and it was really difficult. Everything had to be done to spec and I was writing for people who I thought were really talented, but then they'd be getting dropped by their label or the A&R guy was getting sacked, so stuff would just go back to sitting on a shelf.

When you're not getting paid to do it but doing it all on spec, you've got no idea whether it's going to be released and if it does get released, it might be shared with a load of people anyway. I kind of thought, ‘Well, I'm making all of this music for free anyway. If I'm going to be doing that, why don't I just make music for me again and put it out like we did back in the day?’ Subsequently, I've learned how powerful and important social media is and that you can contact your fans directly, so I thought I’d get into it again and work with loads of young, fresh artists, with lots of talent, such as Ed Sheeran and Bluey Robinson, Cairo and Donae'o, and just really enjoy it.

But this time I knew that if I do a tune I thought was great, I could just put it out myself, on my own label, and just approach it that way and cut out all of the frustration. There's obviously a risk involved in that, and a cost, but it's much easier to do that without running up huge bills these days. I mean, even videos are much more affordable today than what it was. I was just excited about making music and having an outlet for it straight away, so I didn't want to do a deal with a major.

I'm not necessarily looking to sell billions, but it would be kind of nice to get the music out there and then do the live shows and everything else about the business that I love doing: DJing live with the band, putting out records that I want to put out, etc. With the opportunity there, I thought I'd be silly not to. With that being an option, it made me fall in love with making music again.

Your brilliant comeback single, "Could Just Be The Bassline," was featured on and co-written by Ed Sheeran back in 2011, before he blew up. What was it like working with him, and how did it feel when the great reviews started pouring in?

It gave me my mojo back! It was brilliant working with Ed, because he's young and fresh and part of a completely new generation. It was interesting to see what a big fan of the music he was, but it was a shame, timing-wise, that we didn't get it out quick enough before he got signed because we eventually had to re-vocal it. He put me in touch with Kal Lavelle and people really loved the track. It got great support from the likes of BBC 1Xtra, which I never believed I would get this time around. The young guys, the credible music stations and the blogs were picking up on it and supporting it, and it was just really exciting. I've been blessed to work with such great talent over the years.

Like yourself, garage music has also made a return for the second time. However, it has now been rebranded as ‘future garage’, with Disclosure, DJ Q et al at the forefront. What are your honest thoughts on the movement, and what do you really think of Disclosure's remix of “Please Dont Turn Me On”?

I love it! In a way, it's weird. Even when I wrote “Could Just Be The Bassline” with Ed Sheeran, he wanted to do a kind of 2-step garage track and I was like, 'Really?’ It was almost like I was feeling a bit typecast, and I resisted the temptation for a little while to go back and do those type of beats, but it's weird how and when the whole cycle has come back around. I love what the Disclosure guys are doing. I play a lot of their records when I play out. “Latch” is such a tune! So is “White Noise.” There are some great people making that kind of music right now.

I just did a two-day session with a guy called Shift Key, who does similar stuff – as well as a bit of trap. I'm just really excited about music in general at the moment, because so many exciting things are coming out and the fact people are going back and using our era as an influence but putting a twist on it is really exciting. Obviously, it's worked out great for me because when I go out to DJ, it means that I don't just have to play an old skool set – I can mix it up with a lot of new stuff I'm doing, as well as a lot of new stuff these guys are doing also.

Do you see any of the new guys as competition [laughs]?

Not so much now, because I’m 40 years old [laughs]. This time, I’m not in it for that sort of stuff. They've all been amazingly supportive and the Disclosure guys got in touch when they did “Please Dont Turn Me On”. I had an absolutely amazing run first time around and if that never happens again, I've done it, I've had a No. 1 album, toured the world and spent a lot of money [laughs]. I'm a family man now. I want to go out and DJ, but play nice crowds. I'm in a very lucky position to be able to pick and choose, and not have to put in all those hours I did the first time. I love it and I still get a buzz when one of my tracks gets played on the radio [laughs]. So no, I don't feel any competition at all. I'm really happy that people are loving the music and they're all really respectful of it. Even talking about it now gives me goosebumps! I'm so lucky to have had a career this long and still be able to make music and still get it played on the radio. It's a blessing in itself.

So, who else would you like to work with in the studio or do remix work for?

I really like AlunaGeorge, actually. I've not met them, but I love the track they did with Disclosure. I met Katy B today, and she's really cool too. I think Katy’s got a wicked voice. Years ago, Justin Timberlake apparently said that he would have loved to have been on an Artful Dodger track, but I don't know if that's still the case. I really like Robin Thicke's voice as well. There are so many great vocalists and great talents out there.

Okay, so your new single, "Like/Unlike," is out March 24. Tell me a bit about it…

Bizarrely enough, I think this is the first track I'll be releasing that I didn't actually write. I did it as a remix for an Australian band called Metals. There's a guy called Christopher Coe and a girl called Candice, who’s the vocalist on it, and their label sent me the track to remix last year and I loved it. It was kind of a bit rocky, a bit punk-rock, and she had such a strong vocal on it but they ended up not putting it out in Australia. I contacted them and told them how much I loved it, and how I wanted to sign it and put it out as a collaboration. They were really into the idea, so I met up with them last year and said, ‘Let’s do this!’ They're really cool guys and I'm going to do some more writing with them this year. I loved the vibe of the track and everyone I played it to was really feeling it so, again, I didn't want to see it sat on a shelf anywhere and not doing anything.

And what's your schedule looking like for the next six to twelve months, with regards to bookings and releases?

It'd be nice if the single does well enough so that it gets into the festivals and that sort of thing. I'm speaking to a few guys about doing a UK DJ tour, and I'm also speaking to some Australian promoters about playing out there. I've got a couple of gigs coming up in Russia but, really, it's at that stage now where I want to start putting everything together and start getting out there more. I want to travel and get to meet all these people and get a lot of writing in as well. So, the idea is to tour the UK as a DJ.

Bit of a long story but I'm just going under the name of Artful, as there are two guys already going under Artful Dodger. I sold the name to Pete when I left and then it somehow got passed on to the label, so they've actively had people out there DJing as Artful Dodger ever since. So I'm not actually doing it as Artful Dodger, it's just Artful. I've got to tread carefully and make sure we're not over-lapping, which is also the reason why I've taken this long to get on the DJ tour side of things. These things always take time, but I've got all the time in the world to get it right. I don't want to rush it. I just want to enjoy the process and work with the right people.

This also appeared over at MTV IGGY: H E R E