From his seminal mid-90s output on Richard D James’s Rephlex Records, through to his recent work as both EDMX and DMX Krew, Ed DMX’s music has had a huge impact on countless genres and numerous other artists. We caught up with him to discuss fiddly 80s synths, his problems with the concept of studio workflow and how he’s had to react to the changing music business.
Attack: Let’s start by talking a little about what you’ve been up to recently. What have you been working on? What can we expect to hear from you in the near future?
Ed DMX: What I’ve been working on recently and what you’re about to hear can be quite different because I tend to have lots of tracks recorded and then a label might pick some to release. Usually the stuff that comes out is a mixture of a few newer tracks and some older ones.
My next vinyl release is a fairly hard techno track called ‘Cerberus’. We had fun making a video for it last month.
This week I’ve been on holiday in the Austrian countryside and I took a very long power cable, one cheap synth and one sequencer and made tracks in various parts of a farm and in the forest nearby. It was really inspiring to be outside in nature making music.
The tracks are quite strange because of the vibe of the place and the very limited equipment used. I’m gonna mix them next week I hope and maybe do a mini album if they come out good, or just give them away.
I read an interview with you once where you said you make music using your ears, brain and emotions. The human element of music making seems to be forgotten occasionally. Do you think there’s too much focus on equipment and software these days?
Yep. I’m really interested in gear but mostly for the way it affects my decisions in making music. For example a synth that smells of dust gives you a different feeling to a new synth out of a box. Walking around a room is different to moving a pointer round a screen.
I was really inspired [by the challenge of] making tunes with just one synth this week.
What synth was it?
A Yamaha TX81Z – an 80s rack mount thing that’s very unintuitive to program. I like the FM sound but it’s hard to program, especially on a tiny screen with only 11 buttons. I’ve owned it for over 15 years but got better sounds from it this week than ever before because I didn’t have any other choices. I’m trying to mix the tracks now and there’s so much background noise from it.
It’s a great synth, though. Just a nightmare to program.
Yeah, the thing I like is all the velocity sensitivity you can do. It was the only synth I had with me so I was using it multi timbrally. Usually it’s just one sound in the background of a track but when you start multi-tracking it because it’s every sound in the track, the noise builds up fast!
In terms of the emotional aspect of your music, is there a unifying theme? What kind of things inspire you to start work on a track?
I think my mood often comes through in the tracks even though I’m not that consciously aware of what mood I’m in. I’m inspired by all sorts of things in life. Feelings, books, science, sounds, gear…
Are you creative in other ways?
Not very, other than making visuals for some shows and editing the video for ‘Cerberus’.
Without wishing to cast you as some kind of elder statesman, you’ve been involved in electronic music for a long time now. How have things changed over that time?
Musically, the whole fresh feeling has gone from electronic or dance or house or whatever you wanna call it. It’s not new. People seem very entrenched in whatever genre or subgenre they’ve chosen, whereas things used to be much more open. In ’90 or ’91 I referred to all dance stuff as either house or hip hop. Mr Fingers, AFX, Derrick May, Ragga Twins, 808 State: all house. Todd Terry I wasn’t sure if it was house or hip hop ’cause it had kind of breakbeats and samples.
You couldn’t look it up on the internet and be told what it was. The record shop didn’t have 100 sections. You could go to a rave and hear Rebel MC, Juan Atkins, Phuture, Soul II Soul, Adamski and Shut Up & Dance all in one hour. Now people seem to be re-treading old ground a lot, which is OK – and probably the basis of three quarters of my output – but please bring a new twist!
Business-wise, all the money’s gone from record sales so we all need to find other ways of making money if we wanna keep going.
How has that affected you?
I used to get a few quid from records but now it’s almost all from gigs with a tiny bit from MP3 sales thanks to all the honest and honourable people who actually pay for them.
I have my labels Fresh Up and Breakin’ which are still going, although Breakin’ is very slow now. I basically put out a DMX Krew record on Breakin’ if I haven’t got a release anywhere else at the time, because mostly I want to put my energy into making music rather than business and promotion and all that. I’m not interested in business, I’m not good at networking and all that, so if labels want to put stuff out then I usually do it as long as I have some input in the track selection and presentation, and as long as they’re willing to pay for good mastering. Basically putting out records is a business card to get gigs and a chance to get tracks mastered by someone talented.
Going back to the creative process, do you still work primarily with hardware and use computers simply for recording?
Is that mainly for workflow reasons? Are you not interested in making music using software?
The question seems to come from a point of view where computer music is the ‘normal’ thing. “Why would an artist bother with silly old paint instead of using a computer?” Computer stuff is one approach to making music, playing guitars and drums with three or four guys is another. I’m into playing keyboards.
If workflow means would you rather play a Rhodes or click on a screen, then I prefer the workflow of playing a Rhodes. In fact, the words we use are a giveaway – using a computer is work as in workflow, playing a piano is play. Putting the word ‘workflow’ in the same sentence as a piano or a nice synth makes no sense to me. I’m not a production line for making generic products.
I have made stuff on the computer but it’s a lot more like work – sitting in a chair, tweaking samples and EQing to get stuff to sound ‘right’, whereas you can just plug in a TR-808 and it already sounds like a record you want to listen to.
Electro has rarely been given the same respect as genres like house and techno. To play devil’s advocate, one of the common criticisms is that electro has an obsession with the past, to the detriment of progress. Is there something inherently retrogressive about a lot of electro or does the genre just get an unfair deal?
There’s loads of boring retro electro around. I’m not interested in it. From 1995 to 1998 I made a lot of electro retro stuff. I like some of my old tracks and don’t like others so much. I was just trying to find a place within music where I could be unique.
The only other electro around at that time was Detroit stuff like Aux 88 and Mad Mike which was much harder. I liked old electro sounds and I knew if I carried on making Hood and Mills-style techno and house I would just be one of 10,000 producers trying to get a foot in the door, so I found a different route.
The idea of genres is really tedious to me. Just make music and let the narrow-minded people put a label on it if they feel the need. They do feel the need!
I just do music. I make maybe one or two tracks a year you could really label as ‘electro’ but they still put electro on all my releases on internet record shops or whatever. There’s no point fighting it.
To what extent does other people’s music – either new or old – influence what you do now?
I’m strongly influenced by other music. If it’s good I’m inspired to go into the studio and do something better. If it’s bad I wanna go into the studio and make something better. Positive and negative inspiration.
When I was younger I copied a lot, luckily I’m not that good at copying so most things came out with some kind of twist that made it weird or different. More recently I try to be as original as I can or else to copy two or three opposing things in one track to make goth funk or new romantic reggae or whatever. It always comes out wrong anyway and then it gets interesting.
‘Cerberus’ is out soon on Power Vacuum. Ed’s blog and excellent podcast series can be found at http://dmxkrew.blogspot.co.uk/