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How Black Science Orchestra’s ‘Where Were You?’ marked a coming-of-age moment for UK house

Black Science Orchestra’s Trammps-sampling, Frankie Knuckles approved 1992 cut ‘Where Were You?’ marked a key moment in UK house music, and embodied a sound that went full circle back to New York’s Paradise Garage legacy. Ashley Beedle and Rob Mello tell Ben Osborne its story

Black Science Orchestra founder Ashley Beedle mulls over last year’s activity and bursts into laughter: “I went to the doctor to get my COVID jab — that was exciting...” he grins.

It’s true that lockdowns have meant that Ashley’s not been out much. But he’s hardly been quiet. His Rotary Connection- referencing remix for Groove Armada was one of last year’s highlights. The North Street West remixes he's been doing for his wife's label, Ramrock Records have been going from strength to strength. And, to the excitement of fans of a certain age, he’s relaunched his original Black Science Orchestra partnership with Rob Mello — after an almost 30-year silence.

Ashley and Rob’s connections go back to the roots of house music in London: “We had history from way before Black Science,” says Rob, surrounded by vintage equipment in his North London studio. “We were both from the same area and our lives always intertwined.

“There’s a slight age gap between us. But in the ‘80s Ashley was a big Caister Weekender head and I used to follow some soul DJs around. I built my own soundsystem, used to do blues parties when I was 16, and was into the all-dayer scenes in Preston, Nottingham, Luton... And there were places like the Electric Ballroom, with Paul Trouble Anderson, and the Wag. I was trying to get into clubs before I was allowed to, while being schooled by the likes of Ashley. Before the internet it was the only way you could be schooled. Going places like Blue Bird Records [on Edgware Road] on a Saturday morning and putting your hand-up when the first records were pulled out the [latest import] box... You’d spend all your paper-round money there.”

“We come from Harrow,” says Ash. “It had a large Black community I called the Wembley overspill. It was brilliant. You had the Co-op disco, The Kings Head, amazing little clubs, and you didn’t have to go out of Harrow. But I used to go to Crackers in Soho in my last year of school.”

Populated by kids bunking-off school, George Powers’ Crackers club was an incubator for the next generation of dance music. People from Leee John of Imagination to Paul Trouble Anderson and Terry Farley were disciples.

“I got involved in Stateside Sound System in Wembley as a box boy — lifting speakers into the venue and looking in awe at the selectors and MCs,” says Ash. “Then I joined Shock Sound System, which the Zepherin Brothers (Dean and Stanley) started. That was an eye-opener; getting gigs at Notting Hill. We were probably the first to play house at Carnival. We started to DJ at the Clink Street RIP parties, which are seen as turning the course of house music in the UK.”

As Rob and Ashley started taking steps into the wider world, they continued to cross paths. “I used to go out with Rob’s sister,” adds Ashley, starting a recurring theme. “Rob was the first guy to teach me how to beat-mix. He’d got Eric B and Rakim’s ‘Eric B Is President’ and The Controllers ‘Stay’, and they match. So he showed me how to do it and started my beat-mixing career.”

“The mum of Del, the guy I’d built a soundsystem with, let us keep stuff in her garage,” recalls Rob. “So it turned into our hang-out. We’d play music and try and perfect out craft, and spent hours playing early hip-hop and stuff.”

Around this time Ashley’s production career began when Shock Sound System got signed to Universal subsidiary SBK. “They stuck us in a studio in South London owned by (future ‘Where Were You?’ engineer) Danny Arno. We were also approached by Nu Groove to release what would have been their first British house track. But something weird happened contractually.” Although neither label brought recording success, Ashley was smitten. “Even though technically I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I liked that you could go on into a studio with an idea and create something... Brilliant!”

Leaving Shock, Ashley started working for the seminal Black Market Records shop. “I got involved with Simon Mattocks and Eddie Jones (I used to go out with Eddie’s sister), and we did Psychic Vitamins. It was basically a breakbeat with a Hendrix sample. That was it! I found it on Discogs the other day for about £40! Why?” he laughs. Meanwhile, Rob had started working at Camden’s iconic Zoom Records in 1989. Here he met Zaki Dee, who would become his long-term production, studio and label partner. They would eventually run their own revered late ‘90s imprint Luxury Service, releasing as House Of Whacks.

“We just got on well,” remembers Rob. “I’d been collecting bits of equipment and started messing around, so in 1991 we did our first production, ‘Deep Collective’, and got a little space in Ladbrook Grove — when it was cheap! Then we started doing stuff for a new label — Azuli. The first EP became ‘Sensory Elements’, followed by the first in a series called Disco Elements.”

“I was a huge fan of Rob’s Disco Elements stuff,” says Ashley. “I’m not sure of the timeline, but it was serendipity for Black Science Orchestra. “I was in (notorious second-hand record shop) Cheapo Cheapo and Norman Jay was there,” Ash continues. “I was up a ladder, checking the upper shelves, and Norman said ‘You need that one’. Norman was pointing to ‘The Trammps III’ album. He said: ‘You love that Philly stuff, buy that Ash’.

“I took it home and the track that stood out was ‘The Night The Lights Went Out’. I didn’t know, but it was a bit of a New York anthem. I was bugging on it — playing it over and over. So I rang Danny Arno at his studio, and because I liked what Rob was doing with Disco Elements, I thought he should also be involved. So I rang him up and said: ‘Hey, we’re going in the studio!’”

The guys then spent a solid couple of days in Arno’s studio. “It’s funny because when you go to a new studio everything’s so different,” says Rob. “I had some familiarity with some things, but when it came to sampling everyone else was using AKAIs. We had a Roland S770 at our studio. So I only had a rough idea of how to get around an AKAI. There was also an Roland S950 and 303...”

“And he had a Juno” says Ashley. “Yes, he had a 106 or a 60?” recalls Rob. “So the main task was getting our head around his gear. But then it came together fairly quickly. We were all pretty much on the same wavelength with what we wanted to achieve. So it was really everyone getting involved at certain points, and if you got the nod then you knew you were going in the right direction.”

“I remember us doing lots of off-the-desk mixes,” interrupts Ash. “Yes, we did at least an hour and a half of them,” agrees Rob. “I have a cassette with all the mixes somewhere. But we just took the best one, I don’t think we even edited it. We just went ‘that’s the one’ and that’s what we went with.” 

The alchemy of how they actually manipulated the Trammps strings sample that runs throughout the track has faded with memory. “I had an SP1200, which had a mighty 12 seconds of sampling time,” recalls Rob. “So we used to do stuff like record an album in at 45, and then slow it down to gain time. So that could have been a possibility?”

“I think we might have done,” agrees Ashely. “But I’ve tried and can never get it to sound like that sample... It’s really bizarre. It catches it off beat... I mean, how did we do that?”

“The thing is,” says Rob, “nowadays you have elastic audio and things that move things into place — and all the rest of it. But back then you were dependent on how tight the drummer was. And obviously there’s the swing and feel the drummer had. So sometimes to get that matched to a straight four-four kick was a killer! Sometimes you had to take four beats and cut it all up to make it fit properly. “Everything took longer. So you had to do everything in real time and sit with it, and that meant you really got to get into the audio. And the more time you spent with the samples, the more you could hear in them. You kind of built a bond...”

Once recorded, the duo had to find a home for the track. Again, their history came into play. “I’d had a brief stay at Her Majesty’s Pleasure prior to Black Market,” says Ash, “And to get out, they said ‘You need to get yourself a job, son’. So a friend got me work at pop promotion in an office next door to Junior Boy’s Own. I never knew the guys at JBO before this, but I got to know Terry Farley and Andrew Weatherall and we started chatting. They were just coming out with their fanzine as well. I thought they were really interesting.

“So when we finished ‘Where Were You?’ I took the track to Steve Hall and Terry Farley and they were like, ‘This is good’. So then it was simply a process of choosing the mixes and then getting them out on vinyl. And that was it.”

At this stage the New York sound Rob and Ashley were pursuing was a niche interest, while mainstream house was sounding more and more European. “It was a slow process. It was not like, ‘Bang, here we are, folks’,” says Ashley. “People would say: ‘Oh yeah, you did that record’, but that was it. “But then I went to New York and was at the Sound Factory at Cheetah, where Frankie Knuckles had his residency. I was hanging out in the club and Benji Candelario came up and said: ‘Hey man, your record is banging, it’s takin’ over New York!’”

“I was like, ‘What the fuck is he talking about?’ And he said, ‘You know Frankie is playing it?’ and sure enough, Frankie [Knuckles] started playing it right then.” When Frankie took a break, Ashley was introduced to him. “I was in awe and said, ‘Thank you so much for playing our record’, and he said ‘No, thank you so much for making it’.” Ashley beams at the memory. “That was it really. The record then had history stamped on it. After that, it blew up in the UK.”

This was an important moment. Until then, UK records had often tried to appear to be US imports. Now UK house began to blend UK tropes into the music, to create its own version of the sound. “I think JBO and the whole Boy’s Own thing was so unique, so having Terry and everyone getting behind the record in such a great way made a difference. And Andrew (Weatherall) got behind it — he liked it because we’d put acid in it and said, ‘That’s good, it’s different from all that US garage music’. But it was Frankie that flipped it.”

“The UK was very house orientated back then,” recalls Rob, “but a lot of the stuff that was coming from New York was termed garage. It was kind of niche. The rave thing was big — and the European thing was very big. But there weren’t many UK producers simulating the American sound. There was Dave Lee (under his Joey Negro moniker), but everyone thought he was American...” “....and Black,” laughs Ashley. 

“So we were heavily influenced by what was coming out of America, as we had been buying imports all our lives. So it was important to get a sound as close as we could to that, from a UK perspective. That was still quite rare.”

“When you look back at the British house scene, there were quite unique recordings being made,” says Ashley. “I’ve got to give props to Rob and Zakie. I can honestly say I was a fan-boy of what they were up to. I got their records and could-not-wait to play them out. They were different. Even if we were trying to emulate the US sound, for whatever reason we were drawing influences from other areas. And Black Science was an amalgamation of everything we heard.”

The recent Black Science Orchestra reunion was precipitated by a random request for them to DJ together, followed by an equally out of the blue request to do a remix. The former didn’t happen and the second was released without any promotion, but a flame had been lit.

“We knew in our own hearts we wanted to do BSO again,” says Ashley. “Then my wife Jo had a track come in by Spaces In Between — featuring Terry Farley. So that’s when it kicked back into shape. We’ve gone full circle. The first release was with Terry Farley on JBO, and now the remix features Terry. We invited (third member) Darren Morris in and all of a sudden it’s blown up. It feels right.”

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Ben Osborne is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @djbenosborne