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DJ Nature: A Rugged Renaissance

Over a prolonged career some artists have had to shape-shift and evolve to stay relevant. Others manage to stay true to their sound, but how often do you hear of someone taking an eighteen year hiatus, only to pick up where they left off as if they’d never been away? Maybe Milo Johnson has a magic wand stashed away somewhere, but more likely, it’s an unwavering passion for House music and uncompromising attitude to his craft that has enabled such a seamless transition.

These days he goes by DJ Nature, but Milo’s remarkable career dates back to the early 80s in Bristol. Fast-forward to ’89, and upon deciding he didn’t see a future in the UK, Milo set off across the Atlantic. Settling in Harlem, he found himself in the ideal setting to really kick things off, putting out rough and ready productions under the name Nature Boy. From thereon in, Milo’s career went from strength-to-strength. With a personal idol in Tony Humphries playing his music, and releases on the now defunct Black Label, Tomato and Dubweizer imprints under his belt, it may have seemed as if the sky was the limit.

Unfortunately, all good things have to come to an end and due to personal reasons, Milo retired the Nature Boy alias in the early 90s. People’s situations do change however, and with some encouragement from the likes of Taro Kesen (Jazzy Sport) and Phil South (Golf Channel), Johnson finally returned to the studio in 2010. A new start meant a fresh perspective, and since his personal renaissance, Milo has earned swathes of new fans with a slew of deep and rugged releases. Ahead of his set at Croatia’s Dimensions Festival this weekend, we got in touch with Milo to talk about sound systems, DAT tapes, New York’s early House scene and a whole lot more.

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Hi Milo, how’s Harlem life treating you?

Well to be honest I spend about 80% of my time here in my pyjamas, so I rarely go out. I go to the gym in the morning for a run and then back home and try and do something creative. Once a week I go and play football and that’s my routine pretty much.

I’ve heard that gentrification is becoming an issue in that part of New York. Has it impacted your life at all?

Yes, it’s changed a lot. I really only noticed it when I would go to play football on Sunday mornings. I just started seeing loads of European families in brownstones below 125th St. and above central at 110th. It was shocking how fast it changed.

Your main motivation behind relocating to New York was to start up a label focused on releasing your own productions. Was there a moment when you thought you might have been out of your depth, being in a huge, new city and faced with the competition of a burgeoning House scene?

I went into it only wanting to press up about 500 of my own records and wouldn’t do so unless I had total faith in what I was making on that little 4 track Tascam. I knew my stuff would be very raw, when a lot of the music that was being released was more polished. That’s why Patrick Adams, Thomas Davis and Todd Terry were influential, because they had a sound that stood out in a somewhat polished market. I never tried to copy them, it was just how it was going to be because I always liked the texture due to my West Indian upbringing. And listening to Ska and Blue Beat Records.

Seeing as you moved to New York to aid your career as a House producer, would you ever consider moving back to the UK with the House scene seemingly flourishing over here?

Well it wasn’t to just aid my career as an House producer. I was doing a lot of other stuff independently as well and it wouldn’t have worked in the UK at that point in time. My main source of income at the time was my micro exporting company which helped buy time to develop my production ability. I can’t ever see myself affording to live back in the UK. I was never interested in being really rich, but I found out money can buy you solitude and that’s as good a motivating factor as any for me at this point in time.

Moving to New York in 1989 and getting to see the likes of Larry Levan play regularly must have been a treat. Are there any special memories that stand out about the New York nightlife around that time?

I guess at the time you never really thought it would end. Luckily, I got to see folks like Larry and Tee Scott and Tony in Zanzibar. All special in reflection, but at the time it was quite normal.

You’ve described yourself as part of a vanishing minority that would attend clubs to listen to music. What do you think about the state of UK nightlife and the fact that so many venues attractive to these types of clubbers have been forced to close?

Obviously today we live in a society driven by how much money one can accumulate. It’s the same in NY. It’s lost a large part of its soul. I think the main difference between the two is that in London there seems to be less attention towards keeping the original fabric that drew people from all over the world.

You’ve highlighted Plastic People as a personal favourite because of the sound system they had. With the wounds left from the venue’s closing still fresh in the mind, do you think that quality Dance music is being marginalised due to the lack of spaces with suitable systems?

Without question! You see Plastic was really the only place I could feel right at home. I didn’t have to stress the system to get my message across. Never had to really touch anything on that system for the most part. When you have a system like that in a space as intimate as that, you can play anything and it will come across correct. If ever there was one reason for me to try and make obscene amounts of money, it would be to set up a club just like that.

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I’d read that you’ve been forced to go digital for the majority of your sets due to practical reasons. Going from somebody that built a career on distributing vinyl, have you found the transition to working with Traktor particularly frustrating?

When the airline you travel on loses half your set, you would be insane not to go digital. I wish some of these ‘purists’ would go through that pain of watching the luggage carousel going round all day, waiting for part of your soul to appear. I fought long and hard not to go digital before that happened, but when I eventually did convert I had a load of issues with Traktor. Many of the times I would only have one turntable working on the software due to various reasons. But you just get on with it. I seem to have those issues ironed out for the most part now though, touch wood. They say anyone can DJ with Traktor, but most of those people are really only thinking about mixing beat-to-beat.

Distributing for your sister-in-law’s record store in Japan led you to develop strong ties with Nu Groove Records owner, Frank Mendez. Was that a key relationship in building your career path as an artist?

Frank was an incredibly kind man to me personally, he helped me in that way by just being a decent bloke. I think my path was already set before I left the UK and I knew it could not happen unless I left that island, but Frank did make it easier for sure.

You’ve mentioned the likes of Patrick Adams and Todd Terry, but what was it that drew you to Tony Humphries?

Primarily his show on Kiss FM and his technique. He had perfected what I was trying to do back in Bristol around the same time. So when I heard him on tape, it was inspiring to say the least.

Frank Mendez hooked Tony up with some of your records. What was it like to have somebody you revered so much as a DJ playing your music?

Man, you will never know how that felt to me. I used to record every radio show and ship it to the store in Japan. So as regular as clock work I’d  be there Friday night listening to Tony, and then one day I heard my joint on there. I was totally unaware he had it as I only pressed up a few hundred and Charlie at Vinylmania took most of them and shipped them to Europe. I’ll never forget that feeling. It was really around that time I just thought I could take a break as I reached my own personal goal .

The birth of your children led you to retire the Nature Boy alias in the early 90s. With your stock growing and a good relationship with Frank Mendez at the time, was it a difficult decision to make?

Not at all. I was played regularly on Tony and the other dance party that was live in Brooklyn on WBLS, so I was happy with that. All that time I was putting that stuff out it was a side job and not my main income. I really don’t make mainstream music, so I knew I could never support a family by making music. So rather than conform to what was popular, I stopped and focussed on providing for my family. I still bought equipment so I just spent whatever time I could to try and develop my technical ability with the new bits of equipment I was buying.

Even after somewhat stepping back from New York’s party scene you’ve played the odd gig over in Japan. Why is Osaka such a great place to play in comparison to, say, Tokyo?

Because pound-for-pound, I have never seen a city with so many heavy duty sound systems in their clubs. Even small clubs had really good sound, unlike Tokyo.

The organic nature of your music meant you were always a good fit for the likes of Soundofspeed and Jazzy Sport. Do you think there’s a reason quite a few Japanese labels have such a penchant for that type of sound?

I’m not quite sure! I think they are a very soulful people so I could see why some of my releases made sense there. I have never given it much thought to be honest. I just really like playing there as you have a lot more freedom.

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There’s something seemingly effortless about your production. Does it really come to you as easily as I suspect?

Mate, I work so so slow it’s not even funny (laughs). Sometimes it takes a week to write one part or be happy with a groove. On the rare occasion though it just comes easy. ‘Everyone’ was like that and so was ‘Let’s Break the rules’ from my ‘Groovotica’ box set, and it’s probably my favourite track to date. I’m working on picking up the flow but it’s been a struggle.

Generally turning to a small stable of musicians to collaborate with, you have previously stated that you’re quite fussy about the ‘feel’ soloists can bring to a track. Is there a strict screening process?

Luckily for me, I met Fred McFarlane through Salaam Remi when we were working on some other projects. Fred was an integral part of the Disco scene with his work with Logg, Conversion, Finda Rae, Leroy Burgess, Unlimited Touch, Shep Pettibione, Madonna etc. and his big records such as [Jocelyn Brown’s] ‘Somebody Else’s Guy’, Robin S’ ‘Show Me Love’ and a tonne more. Through his connections and his fathers connections in the NY Jazz scene he had an unlimited supply of players available. I used to mix my stuff at his crib in New Jersey, so when I thought the track needed something he would say let’s give so and so a call. Every time he called a person over we did no more than two takes and none of them were shit. It’s an absolute gift to work with these blokes and I for one am fully cognisant of the fact that when these musicians are gone, so does the soul. Because they were raised through a different pain. Only through the pain of incredible social struggle can one play and sing with such emotion and feeling. I just wish every other person doing what I do understood this.

You also seem to have a great knack for sourcing captivating vocal samples. Does it come from research and digging, or do you just have a really good ear?

Well when you can’t play an instrument and every one else has rinsed out all the vocal samples , you have to dig around a bit. Arduous task indeed ,but for the Groovotica project i sourced loads of 70’s porn ,so that was actually quite fun.

You mentioned in an interview with Juno that the first DJ Nature tracks were built from old loops and samples you happened to stumble upon. Was that the moment that inspired you to get back in the studio?

Well as I mentioned I earlier, I was alway pottering around in my studio. So as the kids grew up they needed less of my attention, giving me more time to do my thing. I think that’s what primarily helped me decide to start shipping some of that material. And Phil [South] had always said he would be interested in putting out any thing I came up with. So I went through some old bits I had laying around on floppy discs and infused them with my new set up to see what came up.

Phil South happened to start up Golf Channel around the same time that you were getting back into the studio after your lengthy hiatus. Was it a matter of right place, right time, or had the seeds already been sown?

The seeds had been sown previously when he had me play at one of his regular gigs in NY. So when I had something half decent I sent it to him and Taro (who I knew from a previous project at File Records Japan) at Jazzy Sport. Both liked what they heard and it went on from there.

Golf Channel have been lauded for their attention to detail and the quality of their products and I think there’s an endearing juxtaposition between the label’s ethos and your own rough and rugged approach. Were you required to temper the more boisterous side to your music to fit in with the label, or was that a natural progression in your evolution from Nature Boy to DJ Nature?

I would say it was just me moving around aesthetically, rather than a progression. Of course as you go along you learn more and progress or evolve so to speak, but it’s still coming from the same place. In fact Phil was one of the first to enquire about my old Nature Boy catalogue. The thing I like about Golf Channel is the variation of projects they put out. It really does seem it’s about music rather than money, and that was incredibly important.

There have been murmurings about some of your old records seeing a reissue should you find the original tracks. Would you ever consider putting out some more music in the grittier vein of some of your Nature Boy material, like ‘Tobago’ or ‘Prayer’?

Well the amount of people who have enquired about that shit has been crazy in the last two years. The problem is is that all of that material was recorded onto DAT tape. Now I’m quite sure I am one of the last to know this, but if you don’t frequently use DAT players they break. I had two very good ones, but when recordable CDs came into play I stopped using them. When Phil asked about that old material I tried to find them, but I was really unorganised back then and never labeled a lot of stuff. So I have about 400 DAT tapes with god knows what on them, and in amongst them is the old Nature Boy material. So I don’t have a DAT player and can’t risk getting them fixed, as I can’t trust anyone outside of Japan to fix them and get them to play at the original speed. I intend on buying another DAT player when I go to Japan next.

What’s next on the agenda for DJ Nature?

Could be a long wait for new stuff I’m afraid. I started another project that will take me on tour until June of next year, if not longer. With only two weeks break in between stints, it will be impossible to rest and put anything together for the DJ Nature Project. I will give it a go, but I don’t hold out much hope due to the speed I work at in the studio. I do have a huge amount of ideas, but they’ll have to wait for now.

DJ Nature plays Dimensions Festival, 26-30 August at Fort Punta Christo, Pula, Croatia. More info here.

Words: Matthew Blair