Seb Chew has made a mark on music. His opinion, his hard work and influence has left a great imprint on not only the capital city’s underground music scene, but also the UK’s music scene as a whole.
Seb has an incredible taste in music and an innate understanding of its origins and its future. Having started out working in a small record shop and eventually rising to head of A&R for Polydor, signing and working with the likes of Ms Dynamite, Zinc to Feist and Scissor Sisters along the way. He is on first name terms with many of the UK’s best underground artists, producers and DJ’s and heavily respected by all.
With his best friend Leo (Greenmoney), he heads up one of London’s best club nights, which is also one of the UK’s most important in terms of its Hip Hop scene, Yo-Yo. Currently he resides at Rinse FM hosting one it’s most popular shows, who he holds great ties with, being involved with the station for the best part of decade.
We caught up with him in Notting Hill, where Yo-Yo is held, the week before it holds it’s 10th birthday party. Subjects covered were; Jordan Re-issues, that Skream remix, genre-less-ness, New York and Mark Ronson. Oh, and the special guest for the YoYo birthday party.
We got to chatting about where it all started…
So you started out working in a Record shop, were you running nights then?
I did a lot of nights early on around the Shoreditch area when it was basically just Blue Note and 333, pre-Plastic People… It was really just Blue Note for a long, long time, it was really the only thing round that way. And then 333, which used to be an old gay club and they changed it around, I think – this must have been about 1998, 1999. They changed it and put on eclectic nights, a lot of northern stuff like Mr Scruff and a bit of Drum and Bass, a bit of everything and I’d play that. I used to do so every Saturday.
The first A&R job I got was through being in the shop and it was for a label called Source, who were a French label who worked with Air and Phoenix for example. It was close with Daft Punk too. It was like a Parisian label that started in London and when they came to London the guy that started it just wanted… Well, his aim when he was hiring people was like he didn’t want anyone who has worked at a record company before – he didn’t want anyone like that, he just wanted fresh people. Which at the time I kinda thought I didn’t really understand but when I look back on it, it was quite a brave, cool thing to do. Like we were all 21, he was really good at what he did though.
There was 4 of us who started there and we were all the same age. Two of them had been to Oxford actually, very intelligent and very well educated… Anyway yeah, that was his idea and none of us had done it before. I’d never signed a band before and if you go work at that period of time, and I think probably the same now, if you go to work at a major and you’re that age you’re not going to get the opportunity of someone going ‘Here’s £20,000, here’s £40,000, do something good with it and try and make me some money back.’ which is what he did.
It was tough, that was probably the toughest… Well that was the only job I think I’ve ever been for where I’ve had to do about 4 or 5 interviews. And then he told me, the funny thing is, he told me 6 months in when we’d kinda started a friendship and stuff, he told me that he’d seen a load of people and it was down to a few people and he gave it to me ’cause of the shoes I was wearing!
What were you wearing?
I was wearing the first Re-issue Jordan 4′s, you know the ones they did in 2000, the black Re-issue Jordan 4′s and I was like ‘You’re fucking kidding me!’.
There must have been quite a bit of pressure behind you? Surely that must have been nerve racking?
Not really ’cause we were all very close and taste-wise we all very similar and we all just wanted to do good stuff. But there wasn’t that much of a commercial element, there was more of a taste than just making money. It was in a very different time in the label music industry and maybe there was more room ’cause it was part funded by Virgin, so it was funded by a major, but it had its own office and stuff and we did loads of good shit. Then I signed my first band that were, are, called ‘Kings of Convenience’, kinda like Simon and Garfunkel kinda thing.
So you then got ‘poached’ by Polydor from Source? Did you go in at the bottom at Polydor?
No it was weird, I was still really young, but because I’d done what I’d done before for 2 or 3 years, they wanted me to go there and I was just like ‘I’ll go there on my terms.’ I was really happy doing what I was doing, I didn’t have to move jobs and so from the start of when I started talking to Polydor I was like ‘It’s got to be on these terms.’ Without wanting to sound like a dick. I saw an opportunity to do some things there, but I’d only ever worked in a way that I wanted to work.
So you mentioned Kings of Convenience; that’s not dance music. Was that the genre you had in mind or were you literally just signing anyone from across the board?
‘I just like music, I’m really into all different sorts of things. I never have and never will try to look at it in any other way.’
I think that people always mess things up when they try and be too conscious about what they are doing or try and be too upfront and too new, you can fuck up or if you are trying to be too commercial you can fuck up. Where as if you are just doing what you are into you can’t really fuck up.
Do you find it really frustrating then that people give ridiculous sub-genres to dance music? Especially in 2011-12…
I find it funny, especially when it comes to my stuff because I do a lot of different things in a lot of different areas. Especially with relationships with artists, it just doesn’t translate. You couldn’t be a certain way with Rufus Wainwright as you could with Marcus Nasty for example. But to me if I can talk to someone who can sell out three nights at Carnegie Hall and make borderline modern classical music and also talk to someone who could tell you about Grime beef and be deep, serious in both of those worlds, and you can sit there and talk to them on a level – that’s where I’d like to be. Whether it’s Erlend Øye from Kings of Convenience or Marcus. I’m more concerned about what I’m into.
I think you’re in a very unique position where you can go to Rinse and do your show and then be on a level with someone like Rufus, and then be respected and knowledgeable in both situations. Not many people can do that.
I think so and it’s just something that’s happened. I don’t like being conscious of it, I just do it. I think it’s just generally what I am into and I care about all of those types of music. So I’ve done my time in all those kinds of music so it works out alright. It just makes me laugh occasionally when people do bring back segments and sub-segments and its like ‘do me a fucking favour!’ Are you into it or not? Yes or No? Does it make happy? Yes or No?
The other thing is I’d get fucking bored shitless doing the same thing.
‘I know a lot of DJ’s that are very very like ‘I play between 137 1/2 and 142 3/4 (bpm) and anything else either side of that I don’t understand’. That’s alright for some people but it’s just not right for me. I’d just get bored.’
That’s been in some ways to my detriment as a DJ because if I’d truly played the whole of what I was into it wouldn’t probably make sense to anyone other than me. And that’s why the whole thing now about being ‘eclectic’, to me eclectic isn’t mixing a 70bpm trap tune with a 140bpm grime tune – that’s just double speed and half speed. Come on, give me a fucking break!
So obviously with Polydor you left at the back end of last year is that right?
Did you go elsewhere? Are you doing anything in it’s place?
No, I’m in the process of figuring that out. There’s definitely room to do something else like at a similar level but it’s not going to be a similar job. I feel like I’ve sort of done that now and I’ve done it to a decent level and I’ve had the relationship with one company for a long time.
In that period then, which signing and which artist were you most proud of? Which would you look back at and say ‘do you know what, I’m really happy that happened and I found that person’?
I’m proud of all of them, there are some artists that have done commercially better than other artists but I don’t really have any that stick out. Probably Feist because she’s just a really cool person who’s done things totally how she wants to do them, on her terms and be massively successful as well. But I’ve had fun times with all of them and bad with all of them.
It’s probably a different type of thing but the Skream remix of La Rouxwas a massive highlight of just doing something that you are into and just when all the things line up. It was just very clear, and it happened very quickly in a couple of days.
Didn’t Skream already have the beat or something and he just stuck the acapella over it by fluke and it worked?
There are a lot of different stories. I’ve only heard Ollies’ story at 5 in the morning. He’d done something for me before on Klaxons’ ‘It’s Not Over’. When I sent it [the Klaxon’s remix] to Sarah his manager, I didn’t hear anything back – they just went quiet. And then when they finally got back to us, they, the band, didn’t like it and it was just one of those ones where I was like ‘bollocks’. I know this is good, I know it can work to a degree but the band don’t like it, it’s their song and it’s a difficult situation to be in.
Anyway, it ended up not getting used but then he put it on his Rinse mix without shouting us and called it something else. And when I got his mix I called him up and was like, I wasn’t going to grass him up or anything, I thought it was quite funny, a good exchange. And then when the La Rouxthing came up I expected to send it off to him and the same thing to happen and to just not hear anything. It literally came back in 2 or 3 days and it was that version, that one version came back as it was.
He sent 2 mixes, an electro-y kinda mix and that mix. That mix was one that he’d done as a dub for the last FWD at the end, just for that, just for his DJ set. I listened to it and I was just like ‘that’s the fucking one, don’t change a fucking thing, finish it, master it and lets get it out’. Then it sort of built and stuff, but that was just a cool experience, as normally when you do remix’s 99 times out of a 100 you’re not going to get anything back.
I think I’d be fair to say it was the first like, track in dub-step that went to the masses and I still think it’s one of the best, but then I’m biased. For me though, I don’t think anyone’s actually done a – and I’ll say this and a lot of people might not agree with me, but I haven’t heard as good a vocal dub-step tune since.
I think the thing is a lot of people now are trying to make hits, where as then he was trying to make something good for his DJ set and it just happened to have a very nutty kinda like shrill vocal that he put with a classic Reece bassline, a very simple beat and then a fucking ‘amen break’ for the last 30 seconds. It’s very simple and very effective with a really well written song that he hasn’t fucked with too much. And now I just hear people trying to have a hit or make a big tune.
When was the first time you booked someone for Yoyo that you thought ‘Christ, this is incredible they’ve actually agreed to come to this night’ and think you are really getting somewhere?
Probably Ronson. I don’t think people know this part about his history as much but he was basically the top hip-hop – one of the big top 5 hip-hop DJs.
Wasn’t he a total don in New York?
Yeah he was, he would be like Jay-Z’s DJ. He was in that era and that was an era I was very fond of – Reasonable Doubt, Bad Boy era. I’d go there [NYC] and the first time I went there I knew about the club. There were 2 things I wanted to do in New York, one of them was go to the Wu-Tang Wu Wear shop in Staten Island to buy some Wu Wear socks, as that was pre-internet and if you wanted those fucking socks or anything you had to go to New York and you had to go to Staten Island.
The first thing was that and the second thing was to go and hear this guy play at this club called Life, which was on a Friday night in New York City. It was the place where Biggie would go, it was the place whereLittle Kim was and Foxy Brown… That was the place and he was the resident. So he was basically the dude.
For me in that era, I was like, that was really my era. The first time you go to New York, the first time you hear like hot 97’, that was really my thing and he was the dude. So I went and I heard about him and I’d gone to hear him DJ for probably a couple of years. Then a friend of mine knew a good friend of his, a guy called Dominic Traneer who manages D’Angelo, and he knew Mark through New York. There was a few conversations that went down and that was when he had the first album ‘Here Comes the Fuzz’.
My friend Jade, who at the time I was working with at Polydor, we were doing this label P Records which did ‘The Ends’ and Ramp and load of different things. So she introduced me and Mark. Actually the first time he played he was already in London promoting it and literally the first time we met him was in the club, like shouting ‘You want a drink!?’ and it was kinda weird as it was kinda like I was a fan but like the promoter and it was quite a big deal.
That was just as a favour as he was passing through and then a few months after that we kept in contact. Then we moved ‘cause the first year we were at a club called Cherry Jam which is on Porchester Road which doesn’t really exist anymore as a club. We moved it to the Arts Club (Notting Hill). When we were starting it again at the Arts Club, we really wanted him to be the first DJ that we booked. So we got in contact and it got to that thing of we knew each other ‘a little bit’, but I probably didn’t know him well enough to ‘blag’ getting him from New York, do you know what I mean? I was kinda the role of promoter then, and it was a bit weird. But he was very generous.
I think that was a time where he was kinda trying to look to other areas and especially London with what was going on with other artists and he was really excited by the capital. We got him an upgradable economy ticket or something like that, he was usually flying around the world in private jets and we were like ‘here’s an Air India ticket’ (laughs). In turn though Leo and I went to Heathrow to go pick him up as his flight got in on the Thursday at like 6 in the morning. Who are these guys driving to Heathrow, going to pick this dude up? We were sitting there like ‘fuck, this is happening’.
‘There were people whose roots were in New York hip-hop but were also looking to do broader things and that’s just how really how the whole thing with Mark worked out.’
Yeah so that’s how we met and then I guess the relationship grew with doing Yo-Yo, Amy Winehouse and Lily, who he produced a bit of work for.
So there were just all of these things that just… Happened. We then started Yo-Yo in New York, we did Yo-Yo in New York for quite a few months… For a year, yeah.
Yeah, we were going to ask about that… So how was that working? You did Yo-Yo in New York every month for a year and in Notting Hill Art’s Club every week for a year?
We’ve always done it every week in Notting Hill but we did it once a month in New York and that was nuts. We did it on a Wednesday in New York so we would leave our houses, Leo lives around the corner from me, so we’d get in a cab just after lunch on Wednesday, go to the airport and get on our Air India flight.
‘There was no sponsorship, no money, it was literally ‘we are running a club in New York, to make it work we’ve got to take a bit of money off the door there to buy the first air ticket back’ and then we didn’t even have a hotel.’
In order to do the next one we’d have to make our air ticket back and enough money to buy the next one out on this door in this club where we don’t even live! But this would be the cheapest air ticket, it would be like a £300 Air India flight, it would be the cheapest of the cheap. So we’d leave on Wednesday early afternoon, the flight would get in Wednesday evening at 6/7pm we’d have dinner, go to the club make sure every things cool, do the guest-list, do the actual club night and then leave the club at 5/6am once everything’s done.
And you hadn’t slept or anything?
No, no, no. So finish the club, leave at 6ish and we’d get the 8am flight, no hotel, 8am flight from New York to London that leaves New York 8am Thursday gets into London 8pm Thursday and we’d go straight to Notting Hill and do that.
So you slept on the flight then?
Yeah and I had a day job that they didn’t know about, I did that for a year.
They didn’t even know you were going to New York every week? The day job?
Did you not have to go into the office or anything?
It was on my terms that job, and then sometimes we’d do festivals or like Ibiza or stuff on the weekend or whatever. It was tough, I mean it was brilliant, and it’s just a fun thing – you’re with your best mate, you’re going to this place where you’re like, to me, New York is still this incredible place where all this incredible history and incredible music has gone down. And you’re playing the music you’re into in this place.
‘It kinda blew my mind a little bit.’
It was just a bit like how is this even happening? ‘Cause we’d turn up at the club and be like ‘well, we haven’t really done much promotion this time and we’ve only booked a couple of people probably, maybe, this is the time where it’s going to not work’.
‘But when you travel halfway across the world you are just waiting for the downer to happen, but it never happened.’
We did a year and we had like fucking Q-Tip, Rakim… Crazy people like that would just be down to doing it. Mark helped a lot, though.
Was it through Mark that kinda got that connection with New York then?
Yeah, well he was still living there at the time, he lives here in London now but he was still there and still DJing a lot. He used to do a night with Q-Tip every Friday night or something.
I love it that pretty much 80% of people who know Mark Ronson don’t know this side of him.
Yeah, it’s weird, with like his music and ‘rep’. Most of the time I don’t really get into this kinda of things ‘cause I just feel that if someone’s done their homework then they know and they’re not going to be shitty about him. But then when some people go so hard on him, which they do, I just kinda feel like ‘man, I just wish people would do their homework more’, because I don’t think it’s fair a lot of the time and I think people are very quick to… Yeah, judge. He gets it in the press but you know he’s more than done his time. He’s also become a really good friend and I think he’s going to go on and do some really brilliant stuff..
You mean after doing such brilliant stuff already?
Yeah, yeah. He is kinda a beast with his work, he just works the whole time and he DJ’s the whole time and makes music the whole time and he’s always into new stuff. We can allow him for a few shiny blue suits.
He deserves it.
Yeah and it’s cool to have someone that’s supporting your stuff and there’s mutual respect for both ways, its just a good thing and we are still, he’s been a mate now for 8/9 years.
He’s definitely the special guest for the 10th birthday party isn’t he!?
Check out more of Seb’s Work: http://sebchew.com/