Sir Stephen Fry, Dame Judy Dench and Shut Up And Dance, aka PJ and Smiley, might not immediately appear to have anything in common. It’s hard to imagine Sir Fry kicking the door off an empty house so that Dame Dench can wire up their soundsystem. But they are all now veritable British institutions, peculiarly English in their achievements and impossible to feel anything but the greatest affection and national pride for.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Shut Up And Dance’s first release, ‘5678’, a blistering melting pot of b-boy breaks, East End energy and soundsystem culture that still sounds excitingly raw, and launched them as pioneers in the nascent rave scene. But the story of PJ and Smiley began while they were still at school.
“We started on the Heatwave system in 1986 with DJ Hype before he was called that,” recalls PJ from their Hackney base, the area that’s often been at the fore of their inspiration. “He was the DJ, me and Smiley were rappers and Smiley’s twin brother was a reggae MC. Everyone did it back then, you had Soul II Soul and Mad Hatter, but we were known for being really diverse. The rave scene came quite a bit later.”
Massive hip-hop fans tired of being unable to get a record deal, they took the unheard-of step of starting up their own label.
“All our friends were laughing, but we gave ourselves three months to save and press out a record. We were going round the record shops with a box full of tunes on sale or return. Then we sent it to the pirate stations and they went mad for it, so the shops were calling us, asking for more. We were blessed. After that, it was a case of keeping up with demand!”
The result, as documented on ‘How The East Was Won 1989-2009’, is a career spanning everything from the string-laden hardcore of ‘Green Man’ to the gritty urban-realism of the Duran Duran sampling, ‘Save It To The Mourning After’. Journeying through rave, two step, breakbeat, house, hip-hop and jungle, with plenty of toasting from the Ragga Twins, Shut Up And Dance’s unique take on these sounds has remained distinctly rooted to their soundsystem upbringing.
“Other people in our position might have lived off their rave days but we believe in looking forward. Because our sound is a mash-up, we can adapt to anything that’s out there and make it Shut Up And Dance style,” says PJ, adding that their prolific output means they’ve adopted many pseudonyms along the way like Hackney Soldier and Youngstar.
Included in remixed form is the chart-topping ‘Raving I’m Raving’, a track that provoked a bittersweet experience on its 1992 release. Replaying the melody from Marc Cohen’s ‘Walking In Memphis’ led to record company trouble.
“We were allowed to release it but only what we’d pressed so far,” recalls PJ. “So it shot straight into the charts at No.1. We did Top of the Pops and everything. It’s a shame it went that way, but sampling back then was a new thing which nobody understood.”
While labels might now have departments to deal with sample clearance, the days of the dedicated dance music producer are effectively over, according to PJ.
“At the moment the music scene is on its knees. You have to be a DJ to make money because record sales aren’t really there. What I like on the dubstep scene is that the kids really support it, they go out and they buy the vinyl. For that alone, I have to give them the maximum respect.”
So what does he have to say to the Shut Up And Dance collectors who’ve suddenly seen all their rare records released on CD?
“Vinyl will never lose value,” he laughs. “I’ve looked online and seen our record for ridiculous prices. I just think, good on you!”