Over the last three decades, Chris Duckenfield has played a key role in shaping the sound of Sheffield’s club scene. He first rose to prominence in his home city at the turn of the ’90s as part of hardcore-loving DJ duo Asterix & Space, whose sets at the Limit nightclub and on local pirate radio station Fantasy FM have since become the stuff of local legend.
Alongside Asterix & Space partner Richard Benson, Duckenfield first ventured into the studio in 1991 to remix Altern-8’s “Infiltrate 202,” which featured a vocal sample from one of their radio shows. A year later, they resurfaced as RAC on long-forgotten Warp Records offshoot Nucleus. A string of singles followed before the release of the duo’s debut album Diversions on Warp in 1994.
By that point, Duckenfield had been working behind the counter of the Warp Records shop for a number of years. Despite this working relationship, he took his next production project, Swag, to Junior Boys Own in 1995. Alongside engineer-turned-production partner Richard Brown, Duckenfield enjoyed considerable success with Swag until the mid-2000s, and today, he continues to juggle DJ gigs with running All Ears Distribution alongside another Sheffield veteran, former Toko Records co-founder (and Attaboy member) Alec Greenhough.
In 2008, Duckenfield sat down with author and journalist Bill Brewster to talk about his formative years as a DJ and producer, focusing on the last days of Jive Turkey and the early years of Warp.
Tell me about where you were born and grew up.
I was born and grew up in Sheffield. Well, the arse end of Sheffield. I left there when I was about 12. I didn’t think much about music growing up, but it was all around. It was so omnipresent you didn’t even think about it.
It was a ethnically very mixed neighbourhood, so there was me and about three other white kids on our street. It was soundsystem times, late ’70s and early ’80s. Lots of the kids I knocked about with had older brothers who were DJs or into music and their parents had healthy record collections. So it was always around.
Was there a tipping point in your musical trajectory?
Hard to pinpoint exactly, but like everybody, when I got to adolescence I became a lot more intensely into things. At that time it would have been the Street Sounds Electro albums. That was when the penny really dropped. I’d heard a lot of Motown at home as a kid, and that sounded like futuristic Motown. We’d sneak into a club called Turnups where the soundtrack would be electro, hip-hop, all-dayer stuff and the more commercial end of ’80s R&B. Then, after that, I was old enough to go to Jive Turkey and get in.
Were you getting knocked back when you first went?
Oh, constantly. I tried to get into Jive Turkey loads of times. It was quite dressy, so I was even borrowing shirts off people to get in. But the baby face didn’t help! I got to know a few people who went regularly and I ended up going with three or four of those. They were good, but I was used to all-day hip-hop parties and house parties, so that really seemed odd that it was dressy and yet musical as well. I’d never seen that before: fashion and music. At house parties people didn’t really dress up.
Right after that there were these things called Hush Hush, which were right down by the Don Valley basin. There were all these disused warehouses and a guy called Tiny used to do these parties with Winston and Parrot, who played everything. But they were good, and because of the environment they felt a little a bit off the leash as DJs, so they’d go a bit more wild than they would in the clubs.
It was there where I first heard “Nude Photo” and “Hip Hop Salsa” on Tuff City, which was massive then. At that point I was going to Manchester as well and I didn’t realise at the time that a lot of the stuff played in Sheffield was very much just Sheffield stuff. They’d pick up on tracks and make them big where they weren’t really big anywhere else, which fascinated me.
They weren’t really enduring records, but they just became far bigger than they perhaps should have been because of the concentration of that scene. The fact that you could go and rock other parties with these records even though the people there hadn’t heard them before, that was the aspect that really drew me into DJing. The fact that you could do this and really put your own stamp on it.
A lot of the older guys who I’d grown with had never taken chances with their DJing. It was just hits, hits, hits, hits, whereas Winston and Parrot were the first two DJs outside of hip-hop that would just play anything as long as it had the right party-moving backbone. Club Superman at Occasions was amazing for that too. Disco, techno and soul all programmed according to energy and vibe rather than tempo and style. We were very lucky.
I’d always bought records and the opportunity came up to play at the Limit, which was like a rock club. The Friday nights there were run by Antony Genn. I can’t really remember much but there was some sort of Christian angle to it, like a Christian club night or something. It was all a bit dubious.
Me and Richard Benson had met at college, where I was selling mixtapes and he was giving them away, so we got to know each other and started the Limit, and it was everything from Soul II Soul to Belgian new beat to this week’s Detroit records with a lot of cheesy rave stuff thrown in. It really was a mixed bag. And that just went nuts, but it also crippled a little bit the comfy scene that was going on in Sheffield at that time which was late ’80s and early ’90s.
What was the club name?
I can’t remember. God, I really should know that. It was like a quid in and just full of dangerously high teenagers.
Now at this time you had a preposterously named DJ duo, didn’t you?
That was concocted on the back of a bus going up to do our first pirate radio show. The guy who’d met us said, “Oh, what’s your DJ names? I’ll ring the guy on before you so he can announce it.” We were going past a bookshop on West Street and they had a big Asterix & Obelix display and that was it, so I said, “Asterix!” and he was stoned out of his mind and said “Space,” and that was it. Simple as that. That badly conceived. And then there was the “Watch yer bassbins” debacle on the same pirate radio station.
Tell me the full story.
We’d just got LFO’s “LFO” on test pressing, which was a big fucking deal because it was a track that Parrot and Winston had played off cassette at warehouse parties for a year before it got released. It was by far the biggest tune. We didn’t even know what it was. Every time we asked, we were waved away.
We had a guy called Huggy, an old Sheffield DJ, amazing DJ actually, who played regularly here. Warp used to give him the test pressings and new releases and, at the time – as far as Warp were concerned – we were public enemy number one because we were contaminating a fairly musically pure scene with lots of lowest common denominator rave, so he would bring the TPs down to the Limit for us to play unbeknownst to Warp.
Anyway, we got them from Huggy, whose non-judgmental attitude to two idiot white boys helped us have the hot tracks before anyone else. I also got into the habit of getting the train to out of the way places with record shops to grab all the promos. It was a way to stay ahead and maintain a bit of notoriety – “Oh, they’ve been playing that for weeks” type thing.
We couldn’t wait to get down to the station because we knew no one had it, and it would also stick it up their arse that we had it because it was only their little collective that had it at the time. And on that, I said, “Check this next track, watch yer bassbins, I’m tellin’ yer!”
And that ended up on a record, right?
Mark Archer, from Nexus 21 and Altern-8, lived in Stafford, but had a friend up in Sheffield Uni and he used to send him down tapes from the local pirate stations and he used to grab bits and use, so because that was spoken on dead air with nothing underneath it he just whipped it for that hideous rave record, “Infiltrate 202.”
You get any royalties?
Ha, no, did I fuck! It’s going on my gravestone, that is. It was all very flattering, but it was odd. I never anticipated [it] and he didn’t get in touch with us either. Obviously there was no email or mobile phone action back then. The first I knew about it was when it came in the shop. I was like, “Oh my God.” We visited them in Stafford some point after and went to the studio to remix it, which was amazing to us at the time.
Did you realise it was you?
Yeah, ’cos I sounded about ten. We had the most popular show on the station, so that led to us being pulled into these raves that the guys on the station were doing. That grew and grew. Before I knew it, I was stood in front of 15,000 people in Donington Park. Absolutely shitting myself but also thinking, “I don’t want to do this and this isn’t really where I want to be.”
I liked the comfy, smaller environment of clubs where I felt you had control over the situation, whereas this was just vast and big and you became totally aware – not that I wanted to be the centre of attention – but you were aware that you were a small part of the whole experience.
The music that you cobble together quickly always gets a better reaction than the stuff you spend four weeks doing. It’s the spontaneity of it that makes it work in a club.
I had another moment around then when I looked in my record bag and thought, “I don’t like any of this music.” After that night I stopped DJing for about three years. I felt like I’d gone so far down this path… and at the same time I’d been offered a job at the Warp Records shop. So it felt like I was doing something tangible, by getting a regular wage.
How did you go from public enemy number one to getting a job with them?
Commerce-driven, probably. They saw that the quite nebulous scene that they were involved in was good as a backstory for the label, but not so good from a financial point of view when you’re running a retail space. Winston told me that they’d have all the new American imports in and kids would just be coming all day and asking for stuff that we were playing, which they didn’t have. So they had racks of stuff that no one wanted.
A guy called Ashley from York was in to replace their previous new release buyer Dennis, who I think was intimidated out of the job. Ashley used to go out raving and had heard Benson and I DJing at the Creation parties and put two and two together, I guess. He offered me the job.
The A&R at Warp was very loose at that point, so Steve [Beckett] would say, “If anything comes in, let us know.” So we’d give them a package every week, but they rarely bit. It was only when they drifted into Rhythm Invention territory that they started notice of what we were taking up there. It was a strange time and also pretty tough to remember because I spent quite a lot of the time, you know, under the influence of LSD. Which isn’t the best for memories.
You said you stopped DJing for three years. When?
That was probably 1992. Actually, three years is a stretch. I did a few local parties but nothing major. Then I became the Warp tour DJ. It was bands like Autechre, B12 and LFO who were touring and I became the default tour DJ. So I’d go on at the beginning of the night and I’d go on after the bands, playing pretty much all techno. It was a good time musically; the first few Prescription records appeared. It had felt like it was coming out of the creative lull it had been in and actually getting interesting again. But not as Asterix!
Your first studio project was RAC for Warp. How did that come about?
Not long after I started working in the shop, Rob Mitchell said, “If you’ve got any ideas, we can give you some time down at Fon,” which was their base camp where Phil Jones was the in-house engineer. We did this thing called the National Breakdown EP. It was done pretty much how I’ve made records ever since, which is take a load of other people’s records down to the studio and make something new out of them. That did really well. RAC was me and Richard Benson. It all felt very unbelievable, having a laugh with mates on a pirate radio, then being in a posh recording studio.
The second one I think we did with Richard Brown. I’d met Richard when he’d done this “Can’t Take It” record as Rhythm Invention, which we’d got in the shop as a white and it was around the time when Guerrilla and the whole progressive house thing was taking off. Warp liked it and signed it.
They got in touch with Richard and realised he was an engineer who lived nearby, so they put him in the studio with George from Nightmares On Wax. They loved the results of that, so they brought him into the fold a bit more.
So we then started working with him, in his back bedroom in Wakefield. We did the first few Nucleus EPs with him [Nucleus was a Warp subsidiary label] as RAC. By that point me and Richard Benson had grown apart. He got into, like, a much heavier drug scene than I was bothered about. As we got more comfortable working with Richard [Brown] and probably influenced by the music of the time, we started working on more house-style stuff. Swag was the result of that.
Why didn’t that come out on Warp?
I wouldn’t even have played them it, we were so far down the line with the electronic sound of RAC I don’t think I could’ve got them interested in it, really. It was coming from such a different place from where they were at the time. I think we only sent it out to two or three labels, Junior [Boys Own] being one of them. Terry Farley rang up, “We really like it, we wanna put it out.”
It was quite a shock, because I’d never had any dealings with any labels other than Warp at that stage so it was quite a big step, especially because we’d just done them and it was the most unintentional stuff we’d ever done. It was cobbled together. That was the time I learnt that the music that you cobble together quickly, and is very impulsive, always gets a better reaction than the stuff you spend four weeks doing. It’s quite an important lesson to learn and it stands true now. It’s the spontaneity of it that makes it work in a club.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. The club experience is very ephemeral, very forgettable. It’s a series of moments, essentially, and if you can be responsible for one of those moments, then that’s your clubbing memory right there. People don’t want any deeper involvement with music in a club space, really, and it’s an easy mistake to make when you’re producing. Over-polishing and adding elements. Less is more. Definitely.
How did your DJ career develop?
Doing the Warp tours was great because I got to play outside of the UK for the first time. Seeing that mid-’90s European scene was a real eye opener because I’d only been used to Sheffield up to that point. This was a whole new style of clubbing: much later, much harder and more drugs. I’d never associated underground clubs with spaces of that size before, like the Paradiso in Amsterdam. So I really got the bug.
I remember doing an interview and the first question was, “How do you feel about ruining the scene in Sheffield?”
This is actually the days when you got booked as a DJ rather than for your musical output. It was just at the beginnings of that. I think they’d booked a lot of American producers who’d never put two records together up until that gig. They became quite jaded. So if you can actually do the job, you get a lot more bookings. I got an agent in Germany so I started to play there more.
When the shop closed in 1996 I started doing the first few Primitive releases and the guy from Acid Jesus really picked up on it and Klang got in touch. It was all word of mouth essentially. I never jumped on that press bandwagon, so it’s good for me, because there’s no expectation. It’s not so good financially, but for doing good parties, it’s the only way. I’ve always enjoyed the DJing more than the producing, essentially.
What do you like about DJing that you don’t get from producing?
You are responsible for these paying customers to have a good time. It’s still really a humbling thing. So I can’t bear it when you get self-indulgent DJs. When you’ve been in the dragon’s den a bit and you’ve had a difficult home party crowd to play to and you’re surrounded by a very high skill level of DJs in your neighbourhood, it primes you for having that same mentality for every gig.
I’ve never gone lazily to a gig. I always prepare for them and I always make them as good as I can and the only way to do that is not doing three a week. That’s the other thing. I still enjoy it immensely. It’s got to be 50/50: presenting new music in as accessible way, but making sure people have a good time.
What do you get out of studio work?
Knowing that you’re creating something that wouldn’t exist if you hadn’t gone in the studio that day. Sometimes they’re great things, but more often than not they’re instantly forgettable. I’ve always struggled with the fact that, as a DJ, you always want to make big tracks, but by becoming that one-dimensional it limits what you can do creatively and it’s that paradox that annoys me about producing really.
What’s the solution to that?
I don’t know. I had a really interesting chat with Barclay, the Claude VonStroke guy, about this recently. He never had interest in producing but he’d made a documentary and interviewed just about every major producer in the US. And he condensed that in a really logical way: big tracks are all about drums, a hook and a few key elements. And because he’d condensed it to that point, he just made hit after hit.
It fascinated me, because I’d always just thought much too much about this and always tried to do something that’s gonna sound good in ten years time. But by being that deliberately up your arse about it, you’d never achieve it. I find it much easier to go and play in a hostile environment and win people over, but I’m just not as comfortable in a studio. I tend to go off on tangents too much.
If you had to pick one record that you’d made, what would it be?
Probably “Version One,” [on the Dark Corners EP] just because it was a special time and it was an accidental record in that the main bit of it was a broken keyboard that did that on that day and never did it again.
A lot of things came together. It was the perfect example of three people in a studio all with very specific ideas about what they’re doing and all managing to nail it. It took us literally about an hour, as well.
So when did Scuba start?
I used to play at a techno night called Naked Speedway. It always seemed to be temporary in Sheffield, nothing ever stuck. Scuba was the longest running night and we seemed to capture a great time musically and a really good bunch of people. I do lament the fact that there’s never been anything that has been as good as those early clubs in Sheffield because we had such a rich scene. It’s very fragmented now.
It’s a combination of things, but the fact that – apart from the early ’80s when they weren’t so important – students have been the lifeblood of the city’s nightlife and the university has just got really good at keeping them on campus. The entertainments department is second to none, really good acts, cheap beer, there’s no reason to look anywhere else for nightlife and they don’t.
I couldn’t get any joy out of Warp. I was literally blacklisted. It was like trying to buy a pint in a country pub.
Until about 2001 you could rely on the older crowd being replaced by a younger crowd, but that doesn’t seem to be the case any more. There isn’t that same affinity with house music. Your average 20-year-old clubber will go and see the Kooks one night and go and hear Sasha another night and not feel any allegiance to any of it, which is really healthy, but it just makes clubbing in the way we’re used to a bit redundant.
Do you think we were more tribal and now the youth are less so?
There’s definitely an element of that, but it’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve realised it is all tribal behaviour and badge-wearing, but I still think I was involved in the most important 20th century youth movements. At the time you don’t realise it. You just think, “Oh, I’m not a townie, I don’t go to the Roxy and snog some ugly old tart; I’d rather take loads of acid and listen to ‘French Kiss.’”
It didn’t seem deliberate at the time, but it was steered back then, by Winnie and Parrot and by Graeme Park, who made it as good as it could be. The quality control was really quite high. If they had been lazy and gone with the flow, it wouldn’t have been as good as it was.
How do you feel about killing Jive Turkey? Do you think if it hadn’t been you, it would have been someone else?
I do. I really do. It was becoming stifling. They were getting all the football hooligans coming in on pills and they’d just stop dancing when they put soul records on. It wasn’t a race thing, it was an incompatibility thing. You don’t wanna hear street soul when you’re pilled up. Or at least those boys didn’t. It wasn’t the right music that complemented the drugs. Winnie and Parrot didn’t embrace how large a part drugs were playing on that scene because they weren’t a factor before.
How did the racial complexion alter in Sheffield when the drugs came in? Because it went from black to white in Manchester once ecstasy arrived.
We were tarred with the same brush. “Rave equals working class white toe-rags.” A lot of the guys I’d grown up with who were black were very supportive, but a lot of the guys from different neighbourhoods who didn’t know me, considered us to be the death knell of black music in the city, which was really hurtful because it was the bread and butter of what I grew up on. It was my musical background. You feel a bit like a Klan member.
I took it with a pinch of salt, because we’d do an after-hours thing called CJs which was a seedy all-night place, and all the boys I’d grown up with were down there. Like any monopoly, they got lazy and took it for granted. I guess musically a lot of the stuff they played at the time I didn’t appreciate, but I’ve grown to appreciate later.
The only regret is that I could have perhaps made time for it if I’d had an older brother or something. I’ve got a real respect for it now, so given the choice between those sorts of tunes and the rockin’ the party options, I’d always choose the rockin’ the party. Which is a very young man’s thing to do. I don’t feel guilty about it, though.
I remember doing an interview with Rob Wood when he was at Jockey Slut, and he was very much a part of the Winnie and Parrot thing and his first question was, “How do you feel about ruining the scene in Sheffield?” If it hadn’t been us, it would have been someone else. We had the right opportunity and the right bag of records. I blame Eastern Bloc. I blame the Mancs. All that duff Belgian and Italian shit.
Did you go shopping there much?
It’s where I shopped because I couldn’t get any joy out of Warp. I was literally blacklisted. It was like trying to buy a pint in a country pub. I’d go in there and they’d all look away. I was completely stonewalled. It was when Nipper and Andy were there and Justin Robertson had just started working there [Eastern Bloc]. It felt really vibrant and alive, rather than stifled and protectionist over here. I clubbed there as much as I did in Sheffield.
They used to do a coach called “The Beat Route,” which went between Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham. I had a Saturday job in X Clothes which sold dungarees, stripey t-shirts, berets, etc. I was a Saturday boy in there and the older guys took me on this coach.
I’d go to places like the Kool Kat in Nottingham, which – when you’ve only been to Sheffield clubs like Occasions and warehouse parties, as amazing as they were – hearing Graeme at the height of his powers made a big impression. And we went to Nude at the Haçienda as well. And, at that age, when you’re really quite naïve and impressionable, that stuff leaves a real lasting effect on you. Graeme Park at Kool Kat, that really nailed it for me. It was like, “Wow.”
When did you start getting into the older records that you’d previously pooh-poohed?
It was having house records that you hold in very high regard and then realising that they’re essentially a crap remake of a brilliant disco record. It’s that regressive discovery thing.
So you find Harvey Mason’s “Groovin’ You” and realise it’s been the lifeblood of so many records that you like. I’d heard things like Slave’s “Just A Touch Of Love” because they’d drop them at hip-hop parties but I never realised that stuff ran so deep. Working backwards from samples, essentially.
When did you start your labels?
Primitive was the first in 1995. Primitive was just me wanting stuff that was Sheffield, percussive, stripped-down and bass-heavy, so that was what it was about. We had three or four things on that. But I was getting more demos from people coming in the shop that were more housey and I wanted to keep Primitive just as rhythm tracks essentially. That’s when I started Odori. After we parted ways with Junior I started Version to release only the Swag stuff.
Will you produce again?
I used to think it was saturated ten years ago, but we’re at a different level now. Unless I have anything major to contribute I shouldn’t be contributing anything. You’re just adding to the problem really. Gone are the days of boshing out four-trackers knowing that they are fillers. There’s just too much stuff.
That’s the job of a DJ, though, to filter out that crap. Do you think it’s harder to be a good DJ now?
Yes and no. You’ve got a less demanding audience now. It’s very easy to go and play sets now. I don’t want to sound big-headed. But they’re just happy to go with whatever.
When was the best time?
The mid-’90s. I used to love going to house parties nervously with five tracks and having to prove yourself with those five records. Playing those five records to 40 people was more demanding than playing to 15,000 at Donington Park.
In order to get the best out of a DJ, you need a crowd that’s quite demanding. If you’ve got a lackadaisical crowd, it makes you lackadaisical. If you’ve got nothing coming back, it’s hard to return anything and a lot of people go to clubs with a, “Right, impress me,” attitude which is not conducive to it working.
But there’s never been a time when good DJs are more necessary with the amount of music about?
And there’s never been a time when they have been lazier. It’s really annoying when you want someone to push the boat out and put a stamp on the night, like they used to do. Now is right for that and no one’s doing it. You know, “Oh, I like this one but it’s a bit weird, so I won’t play it.” But that might be the biggest tune of the night! Take a chance. There’s not that spirit of entertainment. You sound like a real old curmudgeon saying it, but I stand by it.
This interview was conducted in 2008. © DJhistory.com