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Dego: striving for perfection

From his foundational work in drum & bass and jungle as part of 4hero and Reinforced Records, to his myriad production aliases and ongoing work with his 2000 Black label, Dego is one of UK dance music’s underground greats — and in 2021, he’s busier than ever. Dego sits down with Theo Fabunmi-Stone to talk about his new solo album, ‘The Negative Positive’, and how he’s shaping his legacy while guiding younger artists through a changing industry

Throughout 2020, like so many others, Dego spent months stuck at home. Unable to commit to his normal routine of studio time, he found himself combing through his record collection: getting into the spirit of deep listening, rediscovering impulse buys, and finding a new appreciation for familiar sounds. Old favourites by artists like jazz pianist and bandleader Ahmad Jamal and funky keyboardist and singer Bernard Wright saw him through those first six difficult months, and his creative and social solitude. 

“There are some albums I have at home that I think are practically perfect,” he says, “and I’m just trying to get to that place where I can put my own records next to them; next to the Mizell Brothers, early ’70s James Brown, those late ’60s productions. I don’t mean that in the sense that [my music] has to sound like them — I’ve got my own identity — but to have my albums sound as accomplished and well crafted [as those]. That’s what I’m striving for, that kind of perfection.”

Despite being at home, Dego has met 2021 head on, with a flurry of new music. There’s a solo album, ‘The Negative Positive’, and a collaborative album with Sonar Circle under his jungle alias Tek 9, ‘Anachronistic’; the former through his own label, 2000 Black, and the latter through DJ Stretch’s AKO Beatz. Also for 2000 Black, he co-wrote and co-produced R&B artist Samii’s debut EP, ‘Figuring It Out’, and released a collaborative EP, ‘BMX Beats’, with Matt Lord, of broken beat legends Bugz In The Attic. 

There are legacy projects, too. This June, 4hero’s 1994 holy grail album, ‘Parallel Universe’, was reissued on vinyl and CD through Reinforced Records. Through this writing, production, reissuing, and label work, Dego has re-introduced himself as a freshly-motivated legacy figure in Black British underground dance music; an avant-garde disrupter, striving for old school perfection in a contemporary scene. 

“When it comes to what you’re listening to, you need a balanced diet,” Dego says, of his approach to longevity. “Most scenes — techno, house, hip-hop — start off in a purist form, galvanising people and bringing them into a community. The music, its messages and its rebellious nature — that’s the driving force. Unfortunately, what happens with most scenes is that someone creates a hit, and the rest of the scene sees that as the path to go down. You end up having 200 copies of that one hit, and the scene peaks. Hip-hop, it used to be everything — it was disco, it was jazz — and now it’s 808 triplet beats, it’s pop music.” Looking back on Dego’s work, you get a sense of the “everything”-ness he talks about.

Innovation

Dego cut his teeth as a teenager on London pirate radio station Strong Island FM, and teamed up with producer and DJ Marc Mac in the late ’80s to run the Solar Zone (later Midnight Lovers) soundsystem in North-West London. By the turn of the ’90s, he and Marc Mac had met Gus Lawrence and Ian Bardouille, and the crew went full throttle; forming Reinforced Records and the group 4hero, and releasing the EP ‘Combat Dancin’, featuring breakthrough track ‘Mr. Kirk’s Nightmare’. Incorporating euphoric riffs into their beloved soulful hip-hop breaks, the rave scene locked into their work almost immediately. Dego and the crew did three vitally important things for jungle and drum & bass. 

They made “practically perfect” albums, in 1994’s ‘Parallel Universe’ and 1998’s ‘Two Pages’, and pioneered production techniques, like time-stretching. In a 2016 interview, Marc Mac told Red Bull Music Academy, “Time-stretching came about when me and Dego sat down one day with a 950 sampler... we thought that if we sampled the same break five or six times with a different pitch and put it back together, but made sure that the break stayed the same length, it should stay in time, but the sound would change. The first record we used it on was a 4hero track, ‘Journey From The Light’.” 

Importantly, they also understood the need for mentorship and scene- building. Reinforced Records sketched the blueprint for drum & bass labels like Metalheadz, Good Looking Records and Moving Shadow. Goldie also visited 4hero’s Dollis Hill studio early in their career.

“Marc and Dego basically programmed me,” Goldie told Electronic Beats in 2016. “We always have this running joke where I’d phone Marc up, sometimes randomly, and say, ‘Listen, I need you to switch me off, man’. And he would say, ‘We programmed you — you’ll never stop. You just keep engaging your own software’. A bit like the scene from Blade Runner. It’s a really personal thing with them,” he says. “I cut my teeth with Reinforced.”

Progression

Dego has released music through myriad aliases since those early days, but over the last 10 years in particular, he’s found a rewarding groove with 2000 Black and the tight-knit group of musicians around it, including Kaidi Tatham, Matt Lord and Akwasi Mensah; creating a niche in UK dance music that incorporates jazz, boogie, hip-hop and house. Though the sounds and eras are different, there’s a mirroring between what Dego did with Reinforced and what he’s now doing with 2000 Black — making boundary-pushing albums and building connections. 

What’s kept him going through the years? “My whole progression in music is just out there on the records,” he says with an endearing directness. “You can hear the out of tune mistakes and more.” In a sense, he’s right. Listening back to his older material, you can hear how his musicality has progressed. But even in the roughest moments, there’s a style that threads through Dego’s work to today — a deep unruliness.

He explains that this comes from his gradual move from those early, sample- based production techniques to a more fleshed-out, analogue studio set-up, with live instruments. Along the way, it’s been creatively liberating. “My frustration in the ’90s was that there were things I could hear in my head, but I didn’t know how to get them out because all I knew was sampling — you’re steered by the sample, by your keys,” he says. “What was great about that, though, was that I learned a lot of technical stuff. I was really good at editing and doing mad things on the sampler that it wasn’t even made for, or that I was meant to do. I used gear to make outboard pedals to make other sounds from samples — science lab-type shit, to tell you the truth,” he laughs.“And while I was doing all that, I was getting tips from musicians. I’d get session musicians to come in and do things that I couldn’t do,” he continues. “I’d get exercises from people about how to play bass guitar. Over a period of time, learning those bits and pieces, I became brave enough to put it out there afterwards.”

Though honest about past mistakes, Dego seems proud of his output. He’s unwilling to stand on ceremony, or be deterred by trends and critics. “I’m brave enough to handle judgment,” he says. “There are people who are extremely talented musicians, but always feel like it’s not quite right. They’re looking for this magical moment, but feel that they can’t find it. Unless you’re one of those gifted kids that have some mad level of intelligence and creativity, that takes a while, you know?” he continues. “It might be your second or third project that allows you to execute your vision, but if you don’t even try to make a first project, you’re never going to know. I’m not scared to put out music and go through that journey.” 

How has he adapted his approach to this ever-changing landscape of new technologies and trends? “I have to be a bit savvy with my releases,” he says. “I’d like to say that, when it comes to my music, I have no regard whatsoever for other people’s wants, but that’s just unrealistic up to a certain point. If there’s a four-track EP, one track is geared towards the DJs who follow the music that we make. “I’ll have that one thing in there for them, but within my style; something that gets our music across to the people, and bridging it to other people’s tastes in a certain way,” he continues. “The EPs might have more appeal, but when it comes to my albums? They’re much more self-indulgent.”

Dego’s sound palette has grown in tandem with his studio set-up, with new textures and expressions of feeling. On his latest records, he incorporates instruments like the 21-string West African kora, known for plucking polyrhythmic patterns, and the koto, the harp-like national instrument of Japan. Using them alongside analogue keyboards and bass guitar, Dego brings new richness to his deep, unruly style. His voice vibrates with excitement: “I’ve just finished an album with Matt Lord,” he says. “We’re playing viola on the record, and there was a time when I wouldn’t even dare attempt to play such an instrument. But now, I’m just going for it. Now, I don’t care.”

We wonder: would any of Dego’s old school drum & bass peers reach for a viola, kora or koto in the studio? He’s always felt like an outlier, actually, regardless of his set-up.

“I feel we’re in-between the cracks when it comes to this music world,” he says, of himself and the 2000 Black family of artists. “We’re not quite your soul or R&B lot. We’re not quite hip-hop, per se, and we’re not house either. We’re in this other world.” Though freeform in ethos, it’s not entirely freeing in practise. “It makes it challenging,” he admits. “I think it’s great that we keep trying to push this sound, but it doesn’t have a firm base because it’s very niche. It’s everybody’s other thing, not their main thing; we’ll get that house DJ or that hip-hop producer that likes a couple of our tracks.”

Rather than being connected to genres, Dego is better aligned with tenacious individualists like Theo Parrish, Waajeed and Geologist. Their public careers and behind-the-scenes work have redefined underground electronic scenes, allowed them to reach for new levels of live musicianship and carved paths for themselves and others, through parties, labels and collaborative releases. Though sonically divergent, their work orbits similar themes — of empowerment, Afro-futurism and escapism, forming Transatlantic connections through Black music. Dego’s latest solo album, ‘The Negative Positive’, is his fourth for 2000 Black. It’s a statement of where Dego sees himself on his own tenacious journey to sound as accomplished and well crafted as possible. Released this April, the album is a broad strokes, jazz-tinged trip, with messages of empowerment washed over soothing synths and syncopated rhythms.

The title and artwork are striking: the ‘negative’ at the forefront, outlined by firm white borders, and ‘positive’ in the background, blurred into the solid blackness. On the back of the artwork is a piece of writing: “Many adverse perceptions are envisioned when faced with a negative meaning popular opinion often thinks the worse. The Negative Positive sees the benefit of defeat, obstacles and a straight NO. The Negative Positive grows stronger under detrimental circumstances. The Negative Positive knows to truly live you must have felt pain.”

What does it all mean? “‘Negative Positive’ is basically saying, ‘Some shit that might appear bad to you ain’t always bad’,” he says. “You know that sometimes there are good things to be pulled out of a calamitous event.” 

The album opens with two instrumentals, ‘Stained With The Tears On Their Faces’ and ‘Is It The Whole Truth’. Both bassy, dubbed-out excursions, the former is punctuated by hard piano stabs and dub sirens, and the latter features mind-bending drum patterns and a vulnerable run of muted keys with a weighty acid bassline. They act as palate cleansers, setting the tone before the spoken-word sermon delivers the narrative.

Some tracks are ready for the post- lockdown dancefloor. ‘What’s An Inferiority Complex’ delivers crunchy drums, digi-dub effects and haunting keys, and ‘What’s Good For You’ is a sunnier affair, with a contagious melody driven by silky vocals, maracas and congas bringing beautiful percussive textures. Even tracks like ‘She’s A Virgo’, so short they could be considered interludes, offer richness; this with a jazzy hymn delivered through celestial flute lines.

Context

Much of the language of ‘The Negative Positive’ focuses on empowerment. On ‘This Is A Message To You’, Nadine Charles’s comforting, powerful vocals ride a deep groove.

“I wrote it as if the vocalist was having a conversation with her son, offering words of encouragement,” says Dego. As a veteran in the music industry, “I feel a responsibility towards the younger generation trying to make this type of music, or wanting to get into this field,” he says. “I want to lead by example. I have to show people that you can do things independently, that you can be creative and do some of the most lavish types of art without major backing. It’s possible. It might have to be scaled down, but it’s possible.”

In this moment, Dego is animated: “There’s an ageism that goes on in music, but there’s a lot to be gained from hearing from people that have experienced it already, and understand the context of what’s happened in the past. So when someone asks me about a record that’s been an influence on them, I could tell them, ‘Oh, I bought that record in 1984, you can learn about that time from me’.”

Appreciating context is something that Dego feels strongly about. If that practise is lost, a younger generation who go to drum & bass raves may not recognise Dego as an originator, or see 4hero’s fingerprints all over their favourite new jazzy house records. Having said that, we get the feeling that Dego wouldn’t feel slighted by this. His own knowledge of the past seems fulfilling enough. But he wants younger generations to reflect on their motives. “Why are you doing what you do?

Why are you making the record you’re making? Why are you spinning the track you’re spinning?” he asks. “Sometimes a lot of people need to ask themselves these questions and be honest about it. There’s a lot of people lying to themselves — pretending they’re a purist, but they’re really about numbers. That’s why a lot of DJs have no personality,” he laments. “You might go to an event with four or five DJs on the line-up, and you can’t tell the difference between them just by listening to them; they’re playing the same, tried-and-tested records. And that goes for producers too, not just DJs.”

2000 Black

When considering motives, 2000 Black is a reflection of Dego’s values. “I think it’s a label of obvious music lovers,” he says. “It’s not a badge that you can shine or show off to people, being down with 2000 Black. It’s because you like music that actually moves you, physically and emotionally. You like sharing it. It’s those things that you can’t quite say in words — you have to have that in you.”

Dego founded 2000 Black in 1998, to give artists he admired a place where they could try out alternative approaches to sounds that they were cultivating in their own scenes: “getting them out of their comfort zones”, as he calls it. 2000 Black has released music from cult favourites such as Titonton Duvante, Seiji and Domu, among others.

“A lot of them were making different types of music at the time, and I’d say, ‘I like this type of flex — if you’ve got an interpretation of those rhythms or music at this BPM, music that is a bit more left of what you normally do, then shout me in it.”

That early experimentalism has evolved. The 2000 Black ethos of “love and hope” is a key part of their messaging, for all signed artists. “My circle just became tighter,” Dego says proudly. “That’s the only thing that changed; between Akwasi Mensah, Kaidi Tatham, Matt Lord and I, I feel we can do anything. I don’t really need to go anywhere else for artists.”

2000 Black has several projects in the works for 2021 and beyond. “The Lord and Dego album is next,” Dego says. “After that, I’ve got this live project, then a jazz funk-type band EP, an EP from Kaidi Tatham, a very DJ orientated 12-inch, and then I’m scheduling Samii’s next project.” Dego is keen to usher through the next generation of talent; his latest signing, Samii, will be a focus. “I want to be less involved with her next project because she produces her own music,” he says. “It’s time for her to take the reins. I’ll hopefully assist as a co-producer, but I don’t want to restrict her creative process, or inhibit what she sees herself becoming.”

For Dego, legacy is defined not by numbers or accolades, but by life-long aims. One is to create a record that is “practically perfect”, something that could be considered a masterpiece. The other is to create traditions, something to pass on to younger generations. For the former, Dego’s working on it. For the latter, that’s happening through 2000 Black. He wants to avoid being a gatekeeper, and hopes to steer these artists away from the harsher trappings of the music industry. In all of this, he can find the positive in the negative, and show himself, and others, that anything is possible.

Want more? Read about how 4Hero's 'Two Pages' predicted the future of drum & bass here

Theo Fabunmi-Stone is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @theo_fab