Wookie may be regarded as one of the elder statesmen of UK Garage, but his sound was far more than that. Inspired early on by his reggae-loving father, Jason Chue spent time as a writer/producer for Soul II Soul and raving around the UK with drum & bass mainstay DJ Hype. After taking an extended hiatus from music, Wookie returned just a few years ago at a moment when genres were blurring yet again, giving audiences a perfect opportunity to realize just how innovative Wookie was – and continues to be. As part of his guest curatorial week on RBMA’s online magazine, the 3024 boss requested that he talk to Wookie directly. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Let’s start at the beginning – how did you get involved with music?
Musically, I got started because my dad was – or still is – a record producer but in the reggae industry. So I went to the studio with him a couple times as a youngster. I was heavily into reggae. That’s what I grew up listening to. My dad was a sound man, which is a present-day DJ really.
How did you get interested in producing music?
I was in the studio side of things from about maybe 13, 14. I remember one of the places where my dad used to go to was a dub cutting place called Music House. Subsequently, my dad and my brother worked there, but this was after. When I was about 15, 16, I remember being at Music House, and I picked up a music magazine, and it had an MPC on the front cover. It was an MPC-60, and my dad said to me, “You know what? Sly [from Sly & Robbie] has got one of those.” For some reason, I got fascinated with this MPC because Sly had one. I hadn’t done music or anything like that before. I’d read about this thing, knew how it worked, but never played on one before.
So when I went to work in a music shop called Turnkey back in the day, I was the one that used to show the MPC-60. Nobody else knew how to use it. Only because of what I was reading a few years before. Then I bought an Ensoniq SQ-1. Everything back then was the Korg M1, and I wanted to have something that didn’t sound like the M1. The Ensoniq was American. The Americans used that when all of Europe was using the M1. I remember I had it for about six months, and then I upgraded it to the ESQ-1, which had the sequencer on it. That’s where I started writing my own music. This was 1990. It was mainly R&B, some sort of R&B new jack swing kind of fusion.
And when did that transition into dance music?
That happened a lot later when I was with Soul II Soul. I started music in 1990, then I met up with Wayne Marshall, and we did “G-Spot.” I worked with him for three years, and after that I left and went to Soul II Soul in 1994, and for about two or three years I was there doing R&B, hip hop, the stuff that was expected of me really. Being at Soul II Soul, they weren’t… They were a dance act, but not that fast, the music. There came a point where I felt making R&B and hip-hop wasn’t very conducive to my surroundings as such. I was still raving at this stage.
And in the meantime you were raving!
Yeah. I went to Blue Note. Before that there was Jungle Fever, World Dance, Desire. I used to hang around with DJ Hype, so we were going up and down in the country, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Brighton… anywhere he was playing.
That scene, and those days, were great because there was an influx of amazing music in the UK.
I wanted to do something that was British.
Yeah, that’s true. That was one of the catalysts of me moving away from R&B and hip hop into a more dance sound. I wanted to do something that was British. Doing hip-hop and R&B, I felt, was just copying Americans. That wasn’t music that was from us. We knew nothing about it. We had to look at them to figure out how to do. I was raving drum & bass, and I was passionate about that for years. I wanted to combine the two worlds somehow. I used to always call all those producers technicians, because they were more than musicians. The things that they were doing were so technical. I learned a lot just from what I was hearing, and then I brought that into my music.
Did you ever make drum & bass?
I think I tried once. I made one tune, and I played it to Hype. He goes, “Yeah, it’s all right, but you’ve got too many cymbals in it.” But, yeah, being around those guys influenced me to want to change the music that I was making. I wanted to speed up the R&B chords and slow down the drum & bass breaks. I came to a tempo of about 125 to 128 BPM. “Time” and “Success” are two tunes that were written before the garage era. They’re exactly me trying to make my own sound out of R&B and drum & bass.
Tell me about Twice As Nice.
Twice As Nice was probably the only place I went on a regular basis around the era it was on because it was an older crowd. I was 28 years old at the time, so going to darker raves wasn’t really my thing. Kind of the more… Not glitzy, but a little bit more grown-up vibe. I liked that vibe more, you know what I mean?
The first time I heard 2-step/garage was when I went to a Metalheadz night at Complex, I think? I wandered into the second room, and it was hosted by Twice as Nice, and I was amazed by the much more friendly vibe. Guys and girls dancing together, not head nodding. Such a contrast with like Loxy and Ink in the main room!
Complex was the first place I heard Armand Van Helden’s “Witch Doktor” I remember that to this day. I can visualize myself hearing this tune, thinking, “What the fuck is this?” Really heavy bassline, kind of drum & bass-ish, but the 4/4 house beat. I remember it was really dark in that room, and the strobe lights.
You made an album in 2000, can you talk a bit about that process?
Everything was so fast. I did it probably in about four months. That’s how “Time” and “Success” ended up being on the album, because I needed to quickly take advantage of the labels looking to sign me and that whole whirlwind that was going on. I didn’t have that process of having 15 tracks and then choosing 10. I’m pretty rubbish like that. My output isn’t as high as it should be. I even say it now. My music now is like “Pay-As-You-Go.” You know what I mean? You get a Pay-As-You-Go phone, and you bap-bap-bap. You got a single, and then it’s, “What’s the next single?”
I saw you are releasing remastered versions of your old Manchu tracks digitally now.
Yeah, they’re licensed singles from my label. The single that I got coming out now, we’re putting it out ourselves at the moment. “Higher.” From what I’ve learned, I always want ownership of my stuff. There’s no point selling ownership to anybody out there. They’re not paying enough to warrant that. If this is my life, my business, then I may as well own it and shop it as that.
I read in an interview where you seemed disappointed how UK garage and 2-step sort of lost its most talented people to the majors at one point. People like Artful Dodger and MJ Cole.
I wasn’t disappointed. I was explaining what I believe had happened to the scene, because that’s what happened with me. At the time, garage was still in its infancy. It wasn’t ready to sell to the masses so quickly. Do you know what I mean?
You took a break from music for a while, got a day job and forgot about the scene, the studio and all that. What did that teach you? And why did you come back?
It taught me that that’s not where I’m supposed to be. I realized that where my brain power has been for the last however many years has been on the more creative side. When you go work in a 9-to-5 job, it’s hardly ever creative. It’s more process. You follow instructions. This is how you do this. This is how you do that. Being a creator, there’s no blah-blah-blah. It could be like this, it could be like that. For the first two-and-a-half years, it was new for me because I hadn’t done it in like 16 years. I was fine. Then you start getting into the political stuff of not getting bonuses and all that stuff.
Going through dips in the music industry will definitely show you who the fuck you are, you know what I mean?
At that same time, I started to get more conscious about myself, who I am. Going through dips in the music industry will definitely show you who the fuck you are, you know what I mean? You learn a lot. You learn about yourself. I was growing at that stage, and then I realized, you know what? I really do not want to work for the man when you’re not being appreciated for your efforts. That said, the first thing I tell people now, when they ask me about getting in the music industry, is, “You know what? Keep your job or whatever as a hobby until it actually pays you enough that you can stop working.” Don’t go that whole thing of, “Oh, I sold everything. I went to live in LA to make it.” That’s not reality, man. That’s only in the movies.
When did you decide to return to music?
In 2012. I felt at that time it was a good time for me to come back because musically, I felt that genres had crossed. There was no longer this, “Okay, this is this, this is that.” As a DJ, when you went to a club, “Oh, I play this and only this.” It was just a party, so there was an avenue for me to do my thing and to flow amongst it all. My sound was a bit funky, a bit house, a bit garage-y, a bit drum & bass, you know what I mean?
Another thing I wanted to ask you about – and I feel it’s not mentioned often – are the lyrics in your songs. Very often there seems to be something spiritual about it. It’s often a hopeful message, not just “I Love You.” Some of it’s even a bit religious, if I can say that? Is it important to you to convey that message to people? Are you religious at all?
Lain and I always had this idea that our songs would be uplifting, not about anything negative. Feel-good music. It’s just something that I want to portray with my songs. “Battle” is a gospel song, really. People were unaware of that. Years later, they’d be like, “Oh…” We’d be like, “Well, yeah. It’s about your faith. It’s about strength, and it’s about [how you] keep going on.” The lyrics for that are definitely Lain.
Do you let vocalists have free rein, or do you come up with stuff together?
I always would give them a scenario. I would make some sort of scene or whatever in my head and paint these pictures, and then the singer would write the words to that picture. We tried to… I like to be ambiguous, yet appeal to as many people as possible, whatever the scenario. I don’t want to just talk to one group of people, you know what I mean? I want it to be accessible for everyone.
To this day, I hate slack lyrics.
To this day, I hate slack lyrics. Jazzie B once told me, “When you make music, you want to make sure that you don’t regret what you’ve done.” Say you make a song about something, and ten years later you don’t feel that way anymore, and you listen to some of your work, which represents you, and it’s about some bullshit. You’d be like, “I fucking hate that record, man.” I don’t want to look back on any of my tunes and think, “I hate that record.”
Have you been influenced by people in the States who have very clearly put a message of faith in their music? Like Kerri Chandler or Roy Davis Jr.? Or do you not want to lay it on that thick?
I was born a Christian, but I’m not a practicing Christian. I don’t necessarily follow the faith. I understand it. I have my own idea, but it’s just positiveness, you know what I mean? With “Do You Believe?” I wrote the chorus for that. I had the song, and I had this beat just kicking around in my head, “Do you believe that we …” Then I got my friend Xavier to come in, and I told him the chorus and – again, painting this picture – we just started to think of different scenarios we could associate with “Do you believe?” Questions. Bringing in the positive.
Tell me how the rest of the year is looking for you.
It’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last year, but more. I’m working a lot with new people to help break them. I was once called the “elder statesman of garage,” and my management has taken that on as like, “You know what? You’ve influenced all these different people, so we want to put you across in terms of …”
You have put in the years, you may as well own it.
Exactly, yeah. Own the title. You’re not saying that you’re the inventor, but you’re one of the elder guys, so play that position in terms of bringing new artists through with what you know and what you do.
This feature is part of a week of articles guest curated by 3024 label boss Martyn.
“When I was doing my drum & bass thing in Eindhoven, I was asked to do a weekly residency at a small bar frequented by design academy students and music enthusiasts. The owner of the bar said to me, “I want you to do the whole night every Thursday, 8 PM - 2 AM, but I hate drum & bass!” So I went to dive into my collection, and played more melodic Detroit/UK techno like B12 and Stasis, Shake Shakir B-sides, and jazzier things like Ian O’Brien.
Around that time (2000-2001) there was a huge influx of great UK records, 4 Hero, early broken beat stuff from Seiji, Domu, Bugz in the Attic and – on the other side – the first strands of 2-step. Wookie was really the only one that was both tough sounding like drum & bass and soulful like broken beat and garage, so his music was the perfect link to switch between one and the other. And that’s why his music still sounds so current.”
To check out more of the features that Martyn picked out, check out his guest curator hub page.