The Mentor: The Untold Story of Bleep Pioneer DJ Martin

January 22, 2019

It’s a freezing Friday night in early March 2018, and several hundred hardy souls have battled through snowstorms to fill the conference room at Elland Road stadium, home to the northern English football team Leeds United. They’re here to watch a program of professional boxing, and popular local fighter Sam Smith is in the ring.

As the bell signals the start of the sixth and final round, Smith springs from her stool, the words of her trainer, Martin Williams, still ringing in her ears. She has just two minutes to secure victory in front of a loud and enthusiastic crowd.

Her opponent, the Polish fighter Sylovia Maksym, surges forward with a flurry of punches, but Smith is agile enough to avoid them. At ringside, Williams calmly delivers instructions to his fighter. Williams’s corner man, the retired Leeds super featherweight Carl Johanneson, is not as composed. He gesticulates wildly in Smith’s direction, urging her to finish the fight with one punch.

A few minutes later, Smith raises her hands skywards in victory, after a 59-55 points decision in her favour. Williams climbs into the ring with a broad smile on his face. Smith is the first woman he has trained, but he has been mentoring professional boxers for the best part of two decades.

It wasn’t always this way. Though few in his boxing circles know it, Williams was once a pivotal figure in Leeds’s underground club scene. During the height of Britain’s acid house revolution, between 1988 and 1991, Williams was one of the city’s leading DJs, a founding member of LFO and the studio engineer behind a string of hugely influential “bleep techno” tracks on the short-lived BASSIC Records imprint – a label set up by the owners of the Crash Records store on his suggestion. During the same period, the man popularly known as DJ Martin also worked part-time teaching IT skills to unemployed teenagers and spent much of his spare time nurturing the talents of a string of would-be mixers, MCs and producers from one of Leeds most impoverished inner-city neighbourhoods.

“I always use transferable skills – I’m a problem solver with a short attention span,” Williams later says of his eclectic career. “I was talking to [Back To Basics resident DJ] Ralph Lawson the other day and he said, ‘The music business is the same as boxing, Martin, just without the sanctioned violence.’ If you’ve studied the history of boxing like we’ve studied the history of house music, you see that people make the same mistakes.”

The key to success is being at the right place at the right time and seeing what other people aren’t seeing. That, and having the staying power to see it through.

DJ Martin

For years before I met him, I knew of “DJ Martin” as a near-folkloric figure whose contribution to the early northern English techno scene was often spoken of, but who had long since dropped off the map. Few of those who worked with him back in the old days had heard from him since, and one even claimed that he had passed away. He was very much an enigma – a footnote in British dance music history, unknown to all but a handful of diehard bleep enthusiasts and surviving members of Leeds’s turn-of-the-’90s club scene.

Yet as the years rolled by and I dug ever deeper into the story of bleep techno while researching my forthcoming book, Join The Future, the legend of DJ Martin grew ever more powerful. Each successive interview revealed new details of his story, with those he knew or worked with happy to share anecdotes detailing his generosity, enthusiasm and deep love of cutting-edge electronic music.

“He played a really big part [on our debut single],’” Gez Varley of LFO told me, via email, in 2014. “He was a great DJ with really good dancefloor ideas. Without Martin’s know-how, I doubt it would ever have been recorded and finished like it was.”

David Duncan, the man behind Ability II, whose 1990 single “Pressure” is widely regarded as one of the high points of the bleep sound, spoke of Williams in equally glowing terms. “When I got in the studio with Martin, I had a blueprint of the track, but it ended up being completely different,” he said. “Martin brought a lot of experience and expertise. He allowed me the freedom to take my game up to another level.”

Rapper-turned-music educator Paul Edmeade told of how a chance meeting with Williams changed his life: “I was walking along in Chapeltown, minding my own business, when this car pulled up. The driver said, ‘You’re that kid who can scratch – I need to talk to you.’ So, I went to his house, showed him some scratches and he said, ‘You’ve got to teach me how to do that.’ I said, ‘Can I come and use your decks when I want?’ He said, ‘Of course, and I’ll teach you how to mix.’”

Edmeade quickly became Williams’s “box boy,” carrying records to DJ gigs. In return, Williams helped him to build the contacts that would kickstart his career. “Martin took me to this seminar with Morgan Khan from StreetSounds because he thought I might meet somebody like-minded,” Edmeade said. There, Williams introduced Edmeade to the people with whom he would form the early Leeds hip-hop outfit Breaking The Illusion.

Academic Drew Hemment, meanwhile, was an aspiring DJ and rave promoter when he first met Williams. He remembers Williams inviting him to play back-to-back at an infamous, unlicensed after-hours club called the Twilight Zone. “I went down and played with him and literally the second or third time we did it, Martin turned round to me and said, ‘It’s yours,’” Hemment told me. “Out of nowhere, I found myself inheriting the most amazing gig anybody could want… If you can write Martin back into history, you’ll be doing the world a service. His story deserves to be told and doubly so, because he was such a nice guy.”

I finally got close to uncovering the man behind the myth in November 2017, when I headed to Leeds to interview Homer Harriott, Williams’s old friend and former studio partner. I wanted to know how someone who had contributed so much to British electronic music could be almost unknown, even in his home city. Harriott, who is now 58 years old, was happy to connect the dots.

“Martin gets into fads quite quickly. When he gets interested in something, he puts everything into it and gets good at it,” Harriott said. “Then he’ll just stop and do something else. If you talk to him, you’ll have a very interesting conversation.”

Thanks to Harriott, the opportunity to talk arrived 24 hours later. When we finally met, in a homely café in the sleepy Leeds suburb of Chapel Allerton, a couple of miles from his old stomping ground of Chapeltown, I was struck by Williams’s warmth and openness. Tall and broad-shouldered, the 52-year-old former DJ was jovial, yet modest about his achievements.

“In terms of music, there are loads of people who are a lot more talented than me, like Homer and the other guys from LFO,” he said, grasping a sea bass sandwich with both hands. “The key to success is being at the right place at the right time and seeing what other people aren’t seeing. That, and having the staying power to see it through.”

He talked first about taking up DJing as a dedicated soul boy in 1986, before recounting how the heavyweight soundsystem at Rock City in nearby Nottingham turned him onto the joys of bass. He also explained how he had been taught to mix by DJ Roy, AKA Roy Archer, a resident DJ at Leeds’s influential Warehouse nightclub who had learned his craft from northern soul stalwart Ian Dewhirst.

“Roy had started out at the Warehouse as a glass collector and eventually became Saturday night resident,” Williams says. “Ian taught him by asking him to do ‘minute mixes’ – every minute he had to mix in a new track. And he could do it, too.”

In keeping with British club culture at the time, Archer would play a wide variety of mostly black American dance music, including soul, jazz-funk, electro and hip-hop. Many of the regular dancers at the Warehouse, Williams included, were black teenagers from Leeds’s then-notorious Chapeltown neighbourhood. They demanded the freshest, most exciting music. By 1986, that meant early Chicago house.

Archer and Dewhirst, along with another forgotten Leeds DJ who had come through the northern soul scene, Steve Luigi, were early adopters of house music. It resonated with many in Leeds – even some of the soundsystem-obsessed “reggae boys” that dominated the Chapeltown scene – and changed Williams’s life forever.

“When house started coming over, I was all over that because I thought it was a breath of fresh air,” he said. “My head was just exploding with the sounds that were coming out of the early house scene. That’s why I wanted to make music.”

Unlike the majority of his peers in Chapeltown, Williams was already computer literate. Between 1988 and early 1990 he had a part-time job teaching IT skills to jobless teenagers at Side Step, a local youth training centre. Many who would later go on to make key early bleep techno records passed through while Williams was working there, with post-class conversations revolving around music-making ambitions. It was there that Williams met two techno-obsessed 16 year olds, Mark Bell and Gez Varley, who would later form LFO.

We’d finish at two and he’d give me a lift home. He’d be driving up my street in his racy Ford with the music blazing. I’d be like, “Martin, turn it down – you’ll wake my dad up!” Of course, my dad would be leaning out of the window shaking his head.

Gez Varley, LFO

By late 1988, when Williams met Bell and Varley, he was already established as a key figure in Chapeltown, an inner-city suburb famed for hosting the longest running West Indian Carnival in the UK. Catering primarily to “soul boys” and the dedicated dancers who had come through jazz-funk and electro, Williams built up a solid local following through gigs at various social clubs and community centres. Most notably, he was the first person to throw regular dance parties at the West Indian Centre on Chapeltown Road, later to become home to one of the city’s most celebrated club nights, SubDub.

Williams was different to many other DJs, though. It wasn’t the styles of music he played that made him stand out, but rather his willingness to offer like-minded young people help, advice or lifts to club events in other parts of the country. (On one occasion, he ferried Paul Edmeade and others to Rock City in Nottingham so that they could check out an early TRAX Records showcase.)

By the time Williams met Bell and Varley, Britain’s ecstasy-fuelled acid house revolution was beginning to hit its peak. Suddenly, DJ Martin’s audience was not merely dedicated dancers and local music enthusiasts, but also pilled-up white kids exploring Chapeltown’s growing party scene following life-changing trips to the Hacienda in Manchester or Jive Turkey in Sheffield.

It was at this point that he began to look further towards music production. Having bonded with the “very quiet” Bell over analogue synthesizers, Williams invited the future LFO pair to come and jam at his small home studio. This was nestled in the cramped attic of a small back-to-back terrace house on Bayswater Mount, close to the Chapeltown-Harehills border.

“I remember the first time we went up into Martin’s attic,” Gez Varley remembered. “It was like entering an Aladdin’s cave. Martin had thousands of records, even the ones we couldn’t get hold of. We were like, ‘How the hell did you get this?’”

Crucially, Williams already had an Atari ST with production software, as well as a sampler and a couple of cheap, second-hand synthesizers. “Martin was key because he’d already worked out how to use MIDI,” Harriott told me. “The good thing about him was that you could give him a track and he’d strip it right back to create a vibe and energy. I learnt a lot from watching him, seeing how things could work from a DJ’s perspective, rather than a musician’s perspective.”

As his working relationship with Varley and Bell deepened, Williams even went so far as to give them a set of keys to his house. “Sometimes we’d be there for days on end,” Varley said. “He’d be at work during the day, then come back and work with us all night. Other times we’d finish at two and he’d give me a lift home. He’d be driving up my street in his racy Ford with the music blazing. I’d be like, “Martin, turn it down – you’ll wake my dad up!” Of course, my dad would be leaning out of the window shaking his head.”

When I heard “LFO” off DAT for the very first time... Even then, it sounded like nothing else. You could really tell that it was something special.

Ralph Lawson

Williams worked on tracks with many different people in the attic studio. It was, however, his work with Bell and Varley – and in particular the 1990 track “LFO,” one of “20 to 30” mostly unreleased tunes he says that he completed with them – that would provide his first and greatest success.

“People say how great ‘LFO’ was, but that track was more or less a fluke. There were basically two instruments we used on there. One had this built-in feature where if you played one key it went like this…” Williams told me, breaking off to hum the now familiar “LFO” opening chord sequence. “I’m sure if you went to Leeds University, got a few monkeys, gave them a few beers and sat them down in front of that keyboard, they’d quickly come up with that.”

He was, as usual, being overly modest. “LFO” remains a timeless example of futurist dance music. Its weighty sub-bass was, according to Williams, inspired by his desire to make something that would sound great over the soundsystem at the Warehouse, a club he was now DJing at far more regularly thanks to his friendship with DJ Roy.

“The first time I played it at the Warehouse, everyone was gasping because it sounded so heavy,” Williams remembered. “Later, after it got into the pop charts [reaching #12 by early August 1990], people kept telling me there were loads of rip-offs around. I wasn’t bothered. By then I’d done it and moved onto something else.”

TV segment on LFO, Warp and Sheffield

That something would be without the company of Bell and Varley, who had decided to jettison Williams to become a duo. Instead, Williams took up a part-time job as a dance import buyer at the local store Crash Records. “I remember meeting Martin at Crash,” Ralph Lawson told me. “He was very friendly and invited me to his home studio. When I went round, I heard ‘LFO’ off DAT for the very first time. Even then, it sounded like nothing else. You could really tell that it was something special.”

As word of the uniquely heavy sound of “LFO” spread throughout the clubs of Yorkshire, Crash’s owners offered Williams the chance to partner in a new record label and studio named BASSIC. Williams ran the studio, which was based above a skateboard shop, and was in charge of finding local artists to work with. “People would come in to the studio and knock around ideas,” he told me. “I’d do programming and some arrangement. It was a real group effort.”

One such artist was Homer Harriott’s good friend Mark Millington, AKA Mark Iration. Together, the three of them made “Ital’s Anthem,” Millington’s first record as Ital Rockers. “DJ Martin was a genius in the studio,” Millington told me in 2014. “He knew how to work everything in the studio, like an engineer. We could just play the track and leave it to him.”

Although “Ital’s Anthem,” “Pressure” and “LFO” became enormously successful and highly influential, Williams quit music shortly afterwards. Switching his attention to a career in IT, he left behind an archive of unreleased deep house and bleep techno tracks that, for one reason or another, may never see the light of day.

“I watch a load of old films, where the little guy takes on the big, bad villain. That was my mentality with music,” he told me at the end of our first conversation. “I didn’t want to be involved in anything commercial. I’d much rather be in the background. It’s just the way I am.”

Fast forward to a cold Monday morning in March 2018. Williams is sat with Sam Smith, discussing her recent fight and planning her next bout – a title decider at York Hall in Bethnal Green, arguably British boxing’s most famous venue. “I don’t do all this for nothing, because if you win the title, I’m happy,” Williams says to Smith. “There’s purpose behind everything I do. There’s satisfaction seeing someone you’ve worked so hard with succeed.”

Williams was drawn into boxing at the tail end of the 1990s, thanks to a deep love of the sport and a personal desire to keep fit. It wasn’t long, however, before local fighters started asking him to train them. Over the years, he became a mentor to many Leeds fighters, helping some escape difficult circumstances and lives of crime. Williams has enjoyed notable successes – Carl Johanneson being the best known – but not everyone he’s mentored has repaid his faith.

“My friend Gavin Clark ended up being murdered – shot in the face with a shotgun,” he recalls. “He wasn’t coming to the gym, but I didn’t want to force him; I’m there to help anybody, but I can’t force them to train. For all the time I put into Gavin, it really upset me when I found out what had happened to him. He was the only one who thought I was worthy of being godfather to his children. I was just his trainer, but that’s how much he thought of me.”

On hearing this story, Smith turns to address me. “I don’t think Martin realizes how much he helps people,” she says. “We came in here the other day and I said, ‘You’ve done enough now.’ He just needs to know when he’s done enough to help someone, because often they don’t show respect for how much he’s done for them. Martin really doesn’t know how much he’s helped people over the years.” Williams has certainly helped Smith, a one-time “party girl” who, like her trainer, now devotes much time to mentoring young boxers at the Alliance Boxing Club gym she co-founded a couple of years back.

Her words about Williams remind me of something Drew Hemment told me months earlier. “I’ve always felt bad that I never just looked Martin in the eye, gave him a big hug and said, ‘Thank you, you’re amazing,’” he told me. “I felt like I’d let him down a little bit. So, if you see him, let him know that I have eternal gratitude for what he did for me.”

As I tell Williams this, he listens intently. He barely remembers Hemment and seems a little shocked. I point out that the former DJ is just one of many people who have told me similar things.

“I’m just a problem solver,” Williams says in his usual matter-of-fact manner. “Once I solve a problem, I want to solve the next one. I don’t want to do the same thing until the day I die. I’ve had enough music in my life to last a lifetime. If I died tomorrow, I can’t say I’ve not done ’owt. I’ve done a lot and it’s more good than bad. I’m more than happy with what I’ve achieved. If Sam gets a title, my job will be done.”

On a different note