Colin McBean aka Mr. G, has been a vital figure in UK house and techno since his days as one half of The Advent with Cisco Ferreira in the 1990s. Having spent his youth in Derby as a box boy, building and carrying sound systems to house parties, it’s no surprise that the 54 year old is a master of frequency – renowned for pushing club systems to their limits with his weapon of choice, the Akai MPC sequencer. He’s an artist who’s stayed true to himself through the scene’s highs and lows, and continued to produce vast amounts of quality dance music through the years, whether that be via his own Phoenix G imprint, or labels like Defected and Rekids. His 2012 performance on Boiler Room saw fresh faces witness his skills and in 2016, he continues to enlighten younger generations on the power of club music, showing no signs of slowing down.
Ahead of his performance at Junction 2 in London this summer, we had an insightful conversation with Mr. G that spanned everything from his early obsession with record collecting to his days with the KCC sound system, and the importance of staying humble.
Hi Colin. You grew up in Derby, what early experiences in your hometown drew you towards music?
As a kid my dad used to tape records off the old gramophone; Studio One, reggae and all sorts of bits. I think one of the first records I went to buy was Gilbert O’Sullivan – ‘Clair’, which is like a slushy white ballad and was a really weird entrance into music for me. I ended up on this road that whenever I had money, I’d go and buy records, or if my folks took me back to Jamaica to see family, I’d go to Kingston and stand at the back of some record shop and buy 7″s. From there I had a vision of what I liked and what I didn’t like. I didn’t realise ‘til I was older that it was the analogue bass sound I was driven to – most of my collection is like that.
Then at some point I got a job in a record shop in Derby. It was a melting pot of people. They used to have imports come in every Friday and Saturday morning and I can particularly remember the first time Philadelphia International came in, with McFadden & Whitehead. Taking that record out of the box and playing ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’, it used to be amazing. You’d learn about Salsoul and then you’d try and collect it all. You’d learn about Philly, then you’d try and collect all of Philly. That became the backbone of my life because without realising it, I was collecting.
And how did your fascination with sound systems begin?
Whilst I was still young I would help with some of the local sound systems and became a box boy. We’d drive around in the van, find some empty house or party, get out the speakers and set up. It was a case of if you behave yourself, you can sit round the back, watch what’s going on and look after the system. Then as time went on it got to the point where it was my turn to have a go. I’d also be taking apart speakers and building my own little system in the front room when my mum and dad would go out, so I always had that love of playing sound.
Did your passion for record collecting take you out of Derby?
As I got a bit older I’d go down to London every Saturday and head to Record & Tape Exchange. I’d spend the whole day in there searching out George Duke, Father’s Children, 24 Carat Black, all for fifty pence. We’d go there with twenty quid and come back with bags and bags of records. It was amazing because they were sat there waiting for us; no one was really into that and we had the knowledge ‘cos I was from a record shop background. I’d always look at the production people on the back of the sleeves. Names like Charles Stepney – I’d get anything with him on – or I’d look at the synths and see Oberheim and buy anything with that on. Shops like City Sounds and the shops on Greek Street… I’d go on a Thursday or Friday when the records came in and there’d be like 10-15 man, all standing round waiting as the boxes would arrive. From the go you’d have to determine how bad those tunes were, you didn’t have time to play them properly because there’d only be six of the same record. That part of life for me was amazing because you learnt to understand digging. Today I can still know if a record is good with three dips. I’ll go through 100 records in a shop in twenty minutes, it’s no new thing.
You eventually moved to London and became part of the KCC sound system. How did you get on that path and what were you guys doing as a crew?
Well, where I lived in Kentish Town, Keith Franklin – part of Bang The Party – had a community-based studio. At that point I was doing music and realising, “I like records, maybe I should see if I can make something”. There was a course there and when I met Keith we shared the same passion, the same records, we could really talk on a level that many couldn’t. We decided we’d make music together and linked up with Cisco Ferreira, and that’s how we ended up as KCC.
Keith wanted to play at carnival and made it his dream. We met Mark and the Rocking Crew and they had a reggae sound system that had one of the first long throw speaker systems. That meant when you stood in front of it, it was one weight but if you went half a mile down the road you’d get a different weight altogether. Marc fancied the carnival idea and one year we got our pitch. It was a life changing moment. We went in there not knowing what to expect, and by halfway into the second day police were begging us to stop, every single crossroad was blocked. We were playing house, soul, funk, disco all on this reggae system, it was momentous.
From there we did the Melange club with Nicky Trax and LTJ Bukem. It was weird because I wasn’t from London so I didn’t really know who was who. Bukem was a crazy guy with his super loud headphone amp, that’s what I remember about him. Sunday nights we had people like Sanchez, Richie Hawtin, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson all playing for £30-£40. I remember Derrick or Kevin left their records in the club, which I still have. It was a great time in London. Warehouse parties were happening all over the place and the music was out there. That’s when I realised, “yeah I’m feeling it, I can live down here”.
So you were playing alongside the likes of LTJ Bukem, representing different styles. Were there fewer boundaries back then in terms of genres and club line-ups?
Oh, for sure! You had the big D&B stuff coming through and the early rave stuff, like T99. It was all just music, whether it was hip-hop, D&B, rave, street, I mean that’s kind of what we’ve lost today. A night at our club covered sweet soul stuff for the girls with vocals, right up until Cisco who would play the harder stuff at the end. Joey Beltram, all the early R&S stuff, it was all played in the same spot!
You and Cisco went on to play as The Advent throughout the ‘90s. Looking back, how important were those years in shaping you to ultimately become Mr. G?
Those years are part of my background and a big part of who I am. We used to leave London Friday morning and drive to Omen in Frankfurt, which was Sven Vath’s place. We’d turn up, two kids in this car park, set up, tear down the place and drive home. Even now, thinking you’d drive all the way to somewhere, perform, stay up all night and then drive home, it’s ridiculous. That was the hunger we had.
Along the way, we were playing with Underworld and at the big raves in Germany and Australia. We went from a studio to touring the world like kings. Also, I wasn’t really a show person. I don’t really like being around people too much – the music is what takes me. But I’d go out and get lost in it and have a boogie on stage. All these things obviously shaped what Mr. G is.
And when you two split in ’99, that’s how you ended up with your trusty MPC?
Without going into details, it wasn’t the best parting. But everything happens for a reason and me going back and grabbing that MPC was the result of not wanting to leave without something. I spent two years in a room learning that thing. I wasn’t an engineer. Cisco was always the scientist and I was the guy that could find a loop or a sound. I didn’t have any experience of making my own music so I had to teach myself everything and in two years it almost sent me potty, in fact it did for a while. You know – dark room, no light, smoking hard, drinking hard. You’d make a track and catch your foot on the lead because you were drunk, and realise you hadn’t saved the last four days of work. But you’d push through and it eventually led to Virgin offering me my first ever remix. I hated when we split, and the way we did, but life moves on and everything happens for a reason. I can’t deny I’m at a place now I never would have dreamt I’d see at that point.
One thing that draws me to your music is how you mix the heavy with the soulful and create a real human element. I feel tracks like ‘My Fathers Farda’ and ‘Shelter’ have as much sadness as they do rudeness…
It’s good to hear that because I’m quite an emotional person. Every track I’ve ever written has a title that I can relate to something. ‘Daily Prayer’ was me losing my best friend and thinking, “I have to put a mark on this so that I never forget”. You write something but it’s only later when kids say, “ah I feel that one”, that I realise they must get what I was trying to do. Certainly with ‘Personal Momentz’, I listen back to it and think that’s quite near the edge personally.
Are you able to use painful experiences as catharsis to create and do you identify with Albert Ayler when he said, “Music is the healing force of the universe”?
I was my best friend Lex’s carer ‘til he passed. He was an actor and gave me all this input about art. He’d left so much in me and I didn’t even realise that his knowledge was that dark. After, at some point, I knew I had to get back into the studio and get it all out. I mean yeah, throughout the rum and the smoke-filled room it is a nice feeling that when you come out you’ve actually left something in recognition of that.
I meet a guy on the train going to London every Thursday and at one stage we got talking and I told him my father died. He knows that I’m a musician and told me my father would be really proud of me, but in reality I was thinking, “he didn’t really know what I did; music for that generation was like you’re wasting your time”. Then the guy said, “but didn’t you tell me you wrote an album for him and it’s doing really well? That’s your father’s gift to you”. He left me thinking, and the reality is – that is the gift. I’ve done something. I’ve laid out for all to see what I felt about my father, and how I felt about his death without even thinking that way. So yeah, music is key!
Are there any other outlets for you besides music?
Yoga, meditation, chanting, Pilates. I still go out to the theatre. I think it’s really important you don’t fool yourself that the little tiny world of music is just that. There’s so much more to life!
You’ve stayed true to your sound and direction through the scene’s up and downs. Did you ever get tempted to move with what is trending or worry about relevancy?
I often say that when Âme’s ‘Rej’ came out I thought, “you know what? This is it, pack up and go home”. When I heard the clarity, the intricacy, the weight and the funkiness I thought, “I can’t offer anything on this”. But I realised my music was never going to be like this because I don’t have that in my body. And so you make your own sound!
I mean, I had five years in the wilderness. I couldn’t sell a record, I couldn’t write anything, but you are who you are. You find another door and little by little you get there. That bump has happened to me a few times throughout my career – you’re content and then something comes in that just stops everything. The scene changes but I’ve never been tempted to do what others do. I don’t write in any specific order or direction, I just write. I feel happy today, I write. I feel sad, I write. The sun is shining or it’s raining, I write. That emotion is what’s in the record. It’s never about, “today I’m going to make a tech-house record”, it doesn’t work like that for me. The kids don’t always get it because sometimes I go from a dark, heavy bass track to a light, skippy groove, but I just do what I feel.
Your interaction through Facebook with your fans is quite personal and you often leave thoughtful reviews of the clubs you’ve played at. Do you feel it’s important to show mutual respect to your fans and stay humble in your profession?
Anything I do, I don’t do with a thought – it’s just me. If you read what I write, I’m just me. I put up good music I remember, or find or have heard, and the reviews for the clubs really are just personal moments I share. I won’t promote just any club, if the night wasn’t good I don’t say anything. When the night is amazing and everything is spot on and you write about it, other clubs expect the same, which causes me a headache sometimes.
Staying humble… I died on the table at 44 from a heart attack, so every day is a blessing. It takes nothing to be kind, I don’t have time for the negative. Sometimes I say things and don’t know if I’ve said it right because I’m dyslexic but, hey, it’s out there. I prefer to use my knowledge in my way and share where I can. Sometimes I’ll post a super rare tune that’s whatever price on Discogs, then someone will message me telling me they’ve got a spare copy and they’ll send it to me. I love that, it’s the best part of the job!
Your Boiler Room set undoubtedly brought a whole new audience. It’s refreshing to see an artist translate their passion in an age where a lot of DJs don’t physically connect with the crowd. Do you feel that helps separate you from the pack and excites fans to come and see you play?
I’m a ‘70s guy. All the people from then; Earth Wind & Fire, Funkadelic… It was about performance. Not only were people on stage doing amazing things, there was a visual element or story that would draw you in. I’ve always known that the day I get on stage, I’m going to be a storyteller and tell a story with my own music while I’m getting down.
I’m a dancer – in the studio when I’m halfway writing a track that feels good, in the front room when I’m checking stuff. It’s the same with the live shows. When I feel free, dancing is just me getting down. It can cause problems at the same time because when I play at a club and the sound isn’t right, how am I supposed to dance? Some people think you’re a puppet. I can only dance if I’m feeling something.
Have you considered DJ sets as well as your live shows?
The ideal thing to do one day would be a nice eclectic set. I’m talking rock, soul, indie, funk, house, disco and just paint a picture but on a heavy reggae system. For now, I’ll look into it when the right moment comes along.
I still do mixes, still do podcasts, there’s a few Rinse shows coming. That’s the beauty of being real – I don’t have to try to be something. I love the radio shows. I didn’t want to do it originally because I’m shy and the last one was a nightmare, but when I play it back the energy of me getting there late and rushing around being under pressure adds to the picture, and makes it something quite personal. I like to control everything and I had no control there. But no matter what, I always believe the selection I’ve got will take me through.
Your label Phoenix G has mainly seen releases from yourself, but you’ve recently put out an EP from the young Jayson Winters, how did you two cross paths?
I’d met him at a show I played at and then at Phonica Records and Record Store Day. We’d got talking and he asked me if I was interested in mentoring him. I’m always happy to critique, I’m not into breaking hearts but I’ll always give some constructive criticism. The first lot of tracks he sent were like, “yeah, it still needs a lot of work”. Then he replied a few months later with some more stuff and asked if I could recommend where he should send them. I was stood in the studio, gave the record the usual three dips and what I heard just stood me in my tracks. It painted the picture I wanted, it was different. I remember all my friends were like, “what, you’re with somebody else?” But it’s worked well. He’s had a lot of interest since, he’s now looking at agencies, and he’s got other releases coming. I’m glad I can show that, “hey, this guy’s got skills, this is his first thing, show him some love and help him on his way.” It’s a nice thing to do.
A lot of people when they get to the top they’re pushing everybody down with their shoe heel. I’m always trying to help the kids – the youth is what keeps you fresh! It’s not about being in a certain position and not sharing the love. I feel blessed to be where I am and it doesn’t take anything to give a smile and communicate.
You’ve had a busy 2016 already, with full length Night On The Town? and archive album G’s Flashback 10 released. With so much music in the past, do you think it’s important to re-issue your older music to newer audiences who might not be aware?
I used to be quite militant with my releases, but it was my distributor who kept saying, “look, I know where you’re coming from, but you’ve got to understand there’s some kid in the backwaters of wherever who hasn’t got a town, a record shop, but he wants to support your music, you have to give them a chance”. When he put it like that, I understood. Music is for all. I want you to share your bad tune with me as much as I would share with you because that’s the only way you get to hear what’s out there.
You do learn a lot more about the Internet and your fan base by what you release. I still meet people who don’t know I was in The Advent. Some people come in to Mr. G through a random door like Bass Culture or Toi Toi, they don’t know about Phoenix G. So I find it’s best every now and then to just do something that says, “hey, here’s a compilation of some of the tunes that got me to this place or that you might have missed.” What’s nice is the tracks always stand the test of time, which surprises me. It’s great to share because you leave a nice legacy. As long as you have a good body of work that you did for honesty and love, it will only give you love back.
Vocals are often a recurring theme in your music, do you see yourself working with a live vocalist at all?
Last year when I was going to play DC10 in Ibiza, there was a driver girl called Sam. She’d take me to and from the hotel, and she told me she was a singer and songwriter. She played me some of her music and I thought, “actually, there’s something there, this girl’s got something.” Anyway, about a month later I was with the missus in the car when she reminded me that I said I was going to send a track to that girl.
So one day I was in the studio and did this late evening backing track. I specifically made it jet black, that’s the best way I can put it. It was never going to be something cheesy, if I’m doing a vocal it’s with my same nastiness. So we booked the studio, finished it and I thought it would fit perfectly with my old boy Simon at Defected. He’d said if I ever do a vocal thing to make sure I pass it by him first – so this was perfect and they took it.
We’ve just had Kai Alce remixes, it’s coming on vinyl. It’s been nominated for Most Wanted twice and it’s Mr. G feat blondewearingblack – ‘Precious Cargo’. You’ll hear the attitude of her singing, the roughness of the street, it’s almost a street demonic bass line. It’s nice to change things up and the remixes are proper house. I’m really proud of it and it’s trying something new!
Lastly, are there any musical projects you’d still like to try?
There are loads. I love pop. Tracks like Britney’s ‘I’m A Slave For You’ are just amazing three-and-a-half minute pockets. I would love to have a go at something like that. With me, it’s not about if, it’s just about when. You know the vocal thing, this time last year if you asked me to do a vocal, it’s not going to happen, but if the right things come your way and you speak to the right person then you take that chance.
Soundtracks… I would love to have a go at one. I think at the moment soundtracks are quite linear, people are doing the same sound. What about the randomness of dubstep or garage sound within a film? I think that could be interesting but no one wants to take the risk. At some point something different has to break through. I’d like a chance to write for something on screen!
In this game you’re always looking for the perfect beat, always learning. I’m still making schoolboy mistakes in the studio. I lost a whole new live show I’d spent a month on when I backed it up onto a disk that wasn’t formatted. I sat in the studio and cried, but you build it back and do it a hundred times better!
Words: Callum Wright