DJ Zinc is a name that’s been synonymous with the UK underground for over twenty years. Growing up through the acid house movement, his first musical adventures were through the tapes he’d record off pirate radio for his friends to enjoy. It wasn’t long before these tapes were placed in the right hands and in 1991, Zinc was awarded his first radio show on London’s Impact FM, alongside friend and DJ partner Swift. The two turned their attention to production shortly after with their first Swift and Zinc release on Bizzy B’s Brain Progression label in 1993.
Zinc’s first solo effort, ‘Super Sharp Shooter’, was released on Ganja Records in 1995. A hip-hop/jungle fusion, the track become a UK anthem and has since stood the test of time, remaining just as pivotal on today’s dance floors. Being a member of the legendary Ganja Kru, and notable production releases for DJ Hype’s Tru Playaz label kept Zinc at the forefront of the D&B scene over the years. It wasn’t until 2001 that he crossed over into 2-step garage and breakbeat territory with hit single ‘138 Trek’, another dance floor classic that reached No.27 in the UK chart.
In 2007 Zinc made a conscious move to step away from D&B, coining the term “crack house” to describe his new sonic explorations. His 2009 EP, which uses the same name, merged his house & breakbeat influences and saw Zinc evolve his sound even further. The EP also featured the instrumental to his crossover single ‘Wile Out’, featuring Ms.Dynamite, and showed him as a continually rare figure that can maintain respect on both sides of the mainstream.
Ahead of his appearance at Croatia’s Hideout Festival in June, we called Zinc whilst he was in Vienna to discuss the changing nature of his DJ sets over the years, his love for early electro and how important pirate radio was for his musical career.
Hi Zinc. How have you found blending different genres in your DJ sets compared to the stricter boundaries when you first started?
I really like the way things are now. I played D&B and jungle for years, I loved it when I did it and was fully into it. I got bored of it to a degree around 2006, so I asked my agent to do a tour where I’d play a bit of house, dubstep, breakbeat, garage and D&B. He put it together and it was cool, but there were quite a few places where people would only want to hear one part, some people would dance to breakbeat and then stop dancing for the dubstep, and vice versa. So it took a while for it to be a normal thing where nightclubs would have a mixed music taste. The way I look at it, the whole motivation is just to play and be making music that I’m interested in personally. I figure if I do it like that then I can’t go wrong. I might be successful, or not, but I’ll always be true to myself and what I’m into. I think if you’re trying to second-guess what is going to be popular or copying other people, then you’re forever chasing your tail.
Did you feel pressure to create different aliases when you were breaking away from D&B?
It’s an interesting one. The thing about changing your name for certain styles of music is different people take different approaches. Redlight changed his name – which worked for him, Skream didn’t change his name and that worked out well for him. There’s no right or wrong, if you change you’ve got to pretty much build from scratch. If you don’t then you’ve got all the history associated with your name. When I decided I was going to stop playing D&B, I had the option, but I thought: “this is me, it’s a direct representation of me, it’s not a persona”. I was reading something about David Bowie recently and his missus was saying that “Bowie” was a persona and when he was at home he wasn’t like that at all, he was a normal guy, where as me, I don’t have this amazing onstage persona, it’s just me. So I decided to keep using my own name.
Taking it back, what was your musical background growing up and what were the early genres you were influenced by?
The earliest stuff I was influenced by was hip-hop and electro, but not the electro you hear nowadays. There was a series of compilation albums called Crucial Electro, and it was the first time I heard music made with electronic equipment. It was really different from everything else and I fell in love with that straight away. Then acid house came later on, and that was great.
And how important was pirate radio for you and your development as a musician?
I can’t overstate how important it was. It wasn’t until later that I realised how much importance it had in my development musically. When I was young I’d turn the radio on and there’d be some hip-hop, or there’d be dance music, it was like a gold mine. Pirate used to come on sometimes just at weekends, and in the week occasionally, it wasn’t like now with it being 24/7. There was no internet, so if you wanted to hear this new music you had to get a tape out and listen to pirate radio. So I listened to it all the time.
When I first started travelling as a DJ, in maybe ‘95 or ‘96, I’d go to other countries, ask to put the radio on, and the guys would be like, “the radio? Why? It’s terrible here”. So it was only in hindsight I realised how lucky I was to have pirate radio like it was running water in east London. I still listen to pirate all the time, I love the purity of it. All the big radio stations, they have playlists, they have meetings to decide what they’re gonna play, where as with pirates you just get DJs that are good, and who play what they want.
What are your thoughts on the recent surge in online radio, is it a continuation of the pirate model?
I think the Internet has solved the problem of access to good music. I was doing pirate radio shows where kids in London would tape them and then send them to places like Leeds and Manchester, so I’d get people saying to me that they listen to my show and I’d be thinking “how on earth is that possible?!” You know, it was a real pain in the arse back then. Where as now, anywhere in the world you just click on a button and you listen to a station like Rinse. So I think the internet has solved the problem of access to good music.
I mean there’s so much to listen to, so much choice, it’s almost unlimited. What stations like Rinse have become is a filter and curator of good music. Rinse pay massive attention to who they allow on to play, so if you tune in the chances are the track being played will be good, and there are a few other stations like that. There’s some DJs that you probably always check out, and you know that in the last two weeks they’ve been scouring the Internet to find some great tunes. They’re on the radio for an hour and they’ve done all the work for you, that filter and curation is where their value is now.
As a DJ today, do you think the constant stream of new music makes it more difficult to find great tracks compared to your early days of a tight-knit community, where fellow producers would send each other exclusives?
For me, it’s changed in two ways. Firstly, I took myself out of a scene that I had a really comfortable position in. When I did it there were quite a few D&B DJs that said to me firstly, “fucking hell, you’ve got balls ‘cos you’re basically gonna have to start again”, but then there were quite a few who told me they were jealous of what I was doing as they felt restricted, where as I was gonna do whatever I wanted. It’s scary because there aren’t any boundaries to keep me in line, but also it gives me freedom to do what I want.
I did used to have access to lots of music before it was released, but a big difference now is that people don’t tend to leave stuff unreleased as long because of leaks and stuff. I do play some music that’s unreleased, but because there’s such a huge amount of music that’s available, I think now it’s more important to have a sense of what you like as a DJ. There’s a few DJs that will have access to tracks I don’t have, but even when I see some of these big house DJs, a lot of the stuff they’re playing is available. So I don’t think it’s as much about exclusivity any more, it’s more about actually having good, individual taste in music. I end up buying more these days than I get sent to me. I get loads and loads of promo music sent to me, and it’s flattering in a way, but it’s just impossible to listen to it all, so I end up buying.
Your Fugees bootleg still stands as one of the greatest D&B remixes and you tweeted on Christmas Eve that you made it 20 years ago to that day, could you go further into that story?
It was Christmas Eve and I was round my mate Trevor’s house, that’s where the studio was that I used to make tunes; we shared it and used to DJ together as Swift & Zinc. There were about 7 or 8 lads who were saying, “Come on! Let’s all go down the pub it’s Christmas”, but I was really into the tune and wanted to finish it so I stayed in. There are two sides to it, on one of them it’s a good example of working hard and on the other hand, I’m not sure how good it is to be anti-social.
Were these kind of sacrifices necessary to get where you are today?
I don’t know if it’s a sacrifice or more of a choice. I come from Forest Gate near Stratford in east London, from quite a poor background and what I’ve seen over the years is that anyone can come from anywhere in the world and succeed and do well, but the further down the chain you are the more work you have to do. Growing up in east London I was blessed with having pirate radio and being able to make music and distribute it, where as I’ve seen people from Russia or Brazil who have had to work harder, they’ve had to spend more time on their craft. One of the sacrifices is that I didn’t socialise much when I was younger. I spent a lot more time in the studio on my own working on music, but I love what I do and think I’m blessed to be able to do this. Just after Christmas I was in India for the day, sitting there having lunch with a big group of famous house DJs, and I was like “this is our fucking job!” I fucking love it. So I did make some sacrifices for sure, but I’d say in hindsight it was worth it.
How important was sampling to your early production and does it still play an important role for your musical direction?
It was very important because in the beginning I had a sampler and no keyboards, so I when I started making music, sampling was the only way. I spent a long time looking at those little screens. I was using this sort of coding software which was really complicated, so using that with a sampler, I had no idea what I was doing, it was all trial and error, which adds to the experience. Every sound in every track I made ‘til Tru Playaz in ’97 was sampled, and to this day every track I make definitely has at least one sample from somewhere. I usually put loads in – stuff from old Japanese films, all different places. I love breakbeats as well, it feels like you’re bringing the soul of the drummer into your music, they bring a kind of element and feeling that you don’t get from machines so easily.
You’re known for your work with vocalists over the years, and your latest EP sees you working with a vocalist again. What kind of challenges and rewards does this way of working bring that working on your own doesn’t?
I don’t really use live instruments, so everything that I work with is controllable in the computer. With a singer, it’s a real person and they’re unpredictable. I guess it’s kind of like riding a horse rather than driving a car, it’s not as controllable and linear. It’s harder to control it but then you get this element that is alive and magical. A lot of the stuff I do, I’m in the studio alone with some keyboards and equipment. It’s pretty mechanical compared to a band – the way they sit in a room and jam, you’re getting all these people with souls. I think sometimes the music I’m working on doesn’t always have that magic, but then you put a vocalist on it and it takes it to a different dimension.
Do you think working with a vocalist makes your music more accessible and easier for a track to break into the mainstream?
Yes. If you make instrumental music, the odd one crosses over but people in general want to hear vocals on tracks. I like it and for me it’s a challenge. I made instrumental and sample based stuff for years and I really like the challenge of working with vocals. I mean, my kids will sing the bass lines to tunes but if there’s one with vocals they’ll really belt it out, so I enjoy the change.
So you’re currently at the RBMA Bass Camp in Vienna, where you’ll be hosting a lecture for the participants. From the experience you’ve gained over the years, do you now see yourself as a mentor and advisor to a younger generation of DJs and producers?
I don’t see myself as that but people ask me to do it and I’m happy to! Technology moves so quickly that I don’t think I’m particularly in a position to tell these kids anything really, I think I learn as much as they do, but they ask me to do it so here I am. I guess I’m an example of someone who is doing it and has done for 20 odd years, so maybe that’s useful.
What does the future hold? Are there any new platforms or musical projects you feel you still would like to try?
I really enjoy what I’m doing now. My answer has always been for years that if I’m doing this same thing in a year, I’ll be happy. I’ve worked with lots of people who make plans and say they’re going to do an album, they’re ambitious, and my ambition is just to continue what I do. I’ve got this release that’s just come out with Boy Matthews that I really enjoyed making. Sometimes I hang around with people that will go to places in private jets that are on that DJ superstar thing. I can see the attraction of that lifestyle but the way that I live right now, I see my kids every day, I sit in the studio and make music nearly every day, I DJ playing music I really like once or twice a week, and it’s a nice way to live.
My ambitions aren’t to not do anything but to just carry on. I’m going to spend today listening to participants play me music they’re working on, and I always hear things that I haven’t heard before – I’ll learn loads of stuff. Then I’ll go out and I’ll eat somewhere nice. It’s just a nice way to live, quite simple, and if I carry on like this I’ll be well happy!
DJ Zinc plays Hideout Festival, Croatia, 26-30 June. More info at www.hideoutfestival.com
Words: Callum Wright