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GAME CHANGERS: 'SUPERSTYLIN'

The seminal tracks that changed dance music forever

Andy Cato met Tom Findlay through mutual friends after they both left college in the mid-‘90s. Andy was making trance and was in a couple of bands, while Tom was from more of a rare groove background, DJing in Manchester clubs when he was a student.

“It was an interesting mix of his studio nous and my love of music, I came more from the DJing end of stuff,” Tom tells DJ Mag. The duo started running a night called Captain Sensual At The Helm Of The Groove Armada in London’s Covent Garden, and used to make EPs on the label Tummy Touch, run by Tim ‘Love’ Lee, to publicise the nights. “We were quite Balearic at first, and I remember Tim coined the phrase ‘nu Balearic’,” Tom grins.

They made trombone-tastic chill-out classic ‘At The River’ whilst recording in the countryside, using a sample from a Patti Page CD and with Andy reversing the polarity of the trombone he played into the speaker, and when they signed to Jive Records for an album — which was surfing the chill-out wave — they got sent back to the studio by the A&R man to, effectively, write some hits.

“We’d been in Ibiza that summer, our first spell, DJing in the Manumission Hotel, and we came back from there and in a week we wrote ‘I See You Baby’ with Gramma Funk — who we’d met out there — and then ‘If Everybody Looked The Same’,” Tom recalls. “I’m really pleased we did it cos the greatest pleasure we’ve had from our career has been the live stuff, and you need the energy with a live set. I’m pleased we didn’t get stuck in a chill-out rut. It would’ve been a bit dull.”

Those two house hits were on their ‘Vertigo’ album, and for next album ‘Goodbye Country, Hello Nightclub’ — which DJ Mag put them on the cover for in 2001 — they were again conscious of needing a bit of energy when they DJ’d and started to play live.

“Superstylin’’ came about because we were working with MC Mike, whose background was Trinidadian, so the whole toasting thing came out of that,” Tom says. “It felt natural to make a record with him. Mike’s a real positive guy, he started out with the drum & bass crew Reinforced — and ‘Superstylin’’ was a phrase he threw around, a philosophy for the life we were living at the time. His genius came from moments of being really off the cuff — on tour buses and stuff, the things he’d come out with were brilliant; improvised and magical. That’s how we always recorded him — having a jam.

“We wrote ‘Superstylin’ off the back of us playing Room 3 in Fabric, where we had a residency,” Tom continues. “We were playing a record that had a bassline not dissimilar to ‘Superstylin’’. Mike hit that note while toasting over the top, so it was a combination of that bassline and Mike hitting that note. We were in that room, a little bit the worse for wear, thinking, ‘We mustn’t forget this moment’.”

Remembering the moment, the guys went to recreate it in the studio at the nearest available opportunity. “Dance music, with us, the bassline always comes first,” says Tom. “We both grew up playing bass in bands, it’s the glue between rhythm and melody, so we’d always just lay a kick-drum down without thinking too much about the beats — the bassline came first. Everything flowed from that.”

Making the groovin’, almost speed-garage bassline using three elements — pure sinewave over the top to rattle the speakers, some middle, and a gritty distorted sub — the guys set about building the track using their trusted EMU sampler. “We were using Logic, probably – or maybe it was still even Cubase at that point — to record the vocals and horns, and a really amazing, massive desk,” remembers Tom, showing DJ Mag a picture of the massive studio desk on the back of the 12”.

Very few samples were used to make the tune — the bassline, horns and loops were all their own work. “The kick-drum’s just a 909, and there’s a couple of little rhythm loops,” explains Tom.

Groove Armada BODY
Unlike many Game Changers that are often knocked off in one or two days, ‘Superstylin’’ took about a year to complete from start to finish. “At album time you’re juggling, you’re plate-spinning all the time, so we’d flit from track to track,” says Tom. “The main idea of the bassline came out in one splurge, but the horns were window dressing in a way. It’s lovely that they’re in there to give it that dubbed-out vibe, but they came later — after the vocal.The Eureka moment came right at the end when we decided to move the vocal forward — without that, it’s not the same song.”

Bringing Mike’s vocal in on the drop, before the bassline kicked in, was a pivotal moment in the track’s construction. “I remember that moment — when we brought that vocal forward eight bars or sixteen bars — distinctly, sitting in our Lazy Moon studio,” says Tom. “We both looked at each other and realised that something extraordinary had happened. We really felt that, and we now have no sense of how many times people have jumped up and down in fields to that. It was probably the most important thing musically that ever happened to me.”

Then, immediately afterwards, recalls Tom, about four o’clock in the afternoon, a couple of women came round to the studio with banoffee pie. “That’s what you did in Banbury — you didn’t get loaded, you ate banoffee pie,” he smirks.

Expert engineer Dave Pemberton, who worked a lot with The Prodigy, mixed down the track just before the guys went to Ibiza to DJ. Tom says he knew that the dubby house cut was a good club record straight away, but that it really came into its own when GA started playing main stages at festivals. “It’s a festival track, and playing it at Glastonbury for the first time was a real moment,” says Tom. “Since we played it the first time, we’ve never been able to end the set with anything other than ‘Superstylin’’.”

It became a chart hit, and Tom says that the track gave them a lot of confidence as they transitioned into being a live band who could headline festivals. The track crossed over various scenes such as garage, house and breakbeat as well, and Tom remembers a couple of breakbeat bootlegs of it that he says were good — and thought it could’ve made a good drum & bass track, too. “As a house record, you’ve got to keep the dub aspect of it upfront or it starts to get a little cheesy,” he reckons.

Tom admits that ‘I See You Baby’ started to grate for him in a way — “it’s just a bit of an irritating song if you have to play it again and again, we stopped playing it live” — but ‘Superstylin’’ has stood them in good stead. “I never regret making it or playing it,” Tom concludes. “It’s an anthem, and it’s great to make one of those.

“On my wedding day, when England beat Germany 5-1 [in 2001], the bit where they do the round-up of all the goals at the end was to ‘Superstylin’’,” he continues. “That was probably one of the greatest moments of my life. Beat the Germans, getting married, see your song used like that.”

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