“You see that?” Dego asked. The woman who had just steamrolled through us eyes glued to her phone, was still oblivious as she walked on in the other direction. “That kind of thing really annoys me” he finished. Having been in the music game now for over 20 years and still donning it today, Dego’s principals have been key to this longevity ensuring no mincing of words or opinions. It was an early indication of the kind of matter-of-fact and unapologetic exchange to expect during our imminent conversation over coffee.
Referring to the delays that now seem common place in vinyl pressing these days, Dego described this year as a frustrating one. “The timing and planning of everything just hasn’t worked; not just my album but everybody’s”. Words that have probably been uttered by a few mouths recently. We made particular reference to the latest Dego and Kaidi EP Adam Rock Dissed!!, released on Theo Parrish’s Sound Signature label the other week, despite making its first airtime about a year or so ago. “Yeah, that wasn’t meant to come out now. Right when I’m in the middle of releasing my own LP”. Noted.
But it hasn’t all been bad. News of a new Tatham, Mensah, Lord and Ranks album in the making was the most exciting bit of news to mention for the year beginning (other than the release of his second solo LP, of course). It was the kind of information we were expecting to reveal at the end of the interview so from here we rolled back the clock to Dego’s younger years.
“The only thing I was interested in doing was typographic design”, was the response after a short pause following the original question on early ambitions. It was perhaps the pause rather than the answer itself that gave the statement special significance. “Yeah, designing typefaces and all that, I was also really into packaging too.” Even at the age of 15 it seemed Dego was of quite a modest and sensible character, “ I went into something else because I thought it made more sense… I never followed what I really wanted to do and it would’ve stood me in good stead now with release covers and stuff.” It seemed reasonable from this, and his back catalogue, to deduce that Dego was quite naturally creative, so we delved deeper into why he didn’t risk it and choose this route. We laughed after quickly arriving to the verdict that whilst the decision was his, it was made “also partly by [his] parents…you know what I mean?”.
Music had always surrounded Dego, both at home and from the burgeoning underground scene in London he immersed himself in. As with most, it started as a hobby, “collecting records, buying records, I was always into that. I played in sound systems and then I got asked to play on pirate radio. When the same pirate station guys started making music, they invited me to come and mess about with them. So I did. Everything just came to me”.
The opportunity wasn’t ever there in the more ‘traditional’ sense for Dego as a child. “I guess I just ended up there. I remember being young thinking it would have been nice to play the bass or the saxophone, but I didn’t even think about asking that kind of thing. That was just dismissed in my head, it would have been a waste of time asking. My mum and dad didn’t have the money to buy me no bass, let alone any other musical instrument. My school didn’t know about all that stuff. I didn’t even consider it.”
The striking thing regarding Dego’s musical foray, was that it wasn’t until after the first few 12” releases with 4hero that he considered it as anything other than a hobby. “Yeah, because I was still working and everything, it was 1991 then and I thought right fuck this and I just handed in my notice.” At the time he was in printing, “mainly adverts, in the city somewhere in this little boutique place, developing stuff for them”. With hindsight this wasn’t a far cry from the typographic design career that he had wanted all along, however there had always been this unrealised aptitude that it seemed could no longer be ignored.
Whilst it was still pretty much fun for Dego and Marc Mac at this point, a lot of their friends were in standoffs with the industry following the boom and wave of interest in underground music, especially UK hip-hop. “We used to be a part of the UK hip-hop and breaks scene in the 80s, so there would be people like Cutmaster Swift, London Posse, DJ Biznizz, MC Mell’O, who were all trying to get signed. We just thought ‘why are you lot wasting your time?’ Just put it out yourself. We had that mentality from the beginning, we thought if we ever made anything that we would put it out ourselves. We saw the example of some of our friends just sitting on what were thought to be bad tunes for about two years and it persuaded us we weren’t going to do that. So we just clubbed our money together and put stuff out. That was it from there really.”
Despite the mentality of their contemporaries at the time, their outlook on their own music and the newly created Reinforced label was still very much as a pastime. “It’s young energy innit. If you had to stay up all night; I’d go to work the next day no problem. And the weekends, it was easy then. Now I don’t know if I could do a nine-to-five and then make music, I’d be dead! I’ve got friends who used to do whatever and now they have kids and you know what, it’s over. They don’t have time to turn on the machine let alone making anything.”
Once they did make the step into the record business, it wasn’t the easiest introduction. Having been there for much less than a year they received a “good wake-up call” when, after the third release, their distributor went bankrupt. This left them with a hefty debt to pay off and a long period to follow where their releases wouldn’t make them any money. Dego reflects back on it as a good learning curve, having forced their hand to work at their craft whilst teaching them early on some of the risks that can occur. “I’m glad for it. Obviously at the time that wasn’t funny but I’d rather it happened then, than four years down the line”.
History is a great teacher and it seems these days it isn’t cool or necessary to delve into history
This event was also a big part for the many pseudonyms that came in the beginning of his career. Knowing they had to make the money back on the debt from the distributor, this meant releasing more and more material on the label. “We just wanted to make the label seem bigger than it was, in the beginning it was just the four of us so it was impossible to make all the stuff under the same name, it would have been ridiculous.”
The motivation changed after a while, and it was down to the different styles of music he enjoyed and wanted to make. While this is an accepted and common practice among producers now, it was quite the contrary when Dego first made that decision. “It was less acceptable, people would expect you to stick to one thing. It’s weird, something happened in the 90s and music became very segregated, I blame the press.”
Without disregarding the positives that have come from the press tapping into the underground scene, we explored these suspicions a little further. “In the 80s, where people were just playing whatever, there was nothing said about it. As soon as there was more coverage and the underground scene got bigger and bigger, everyone wanted to pigeonhole stuff and then you started to get nights that only specialised in that or this sound. I remember hip-hop being played alongside James Brown records, then over to some early cutting records, some techno kind of tune, then a Chicago house thing. That’s how we grew up in the 80s. But then in the 90s, as soon as money is at stake it all comes very politicised.”
It seems this shows no sign of slowing down. In Dego’s eyes, the modern day press are used to promote artists in a way that resembles a “popularity contest”. Status and hype holds more importance than the music, “because if it was about the music, there are a lot of people that wouldn’t be where they are now”. “The pop mentality is so entrenched in what is allegedly supposed to be the underground cool music and it’s hilarious to me nowadays.” While it is still achieved by some, it is even harder for an artist to keep making music of multiple styles under one name, let alone one or two monikers. “People don’t want to pay to read through record notes so now I don’t do things under different pseudonyms and if it’s under a different name it still has my name in it. Could be either Dego, Dego and Kaidi or Dego and the 2000BLACK family thats it.”
One personal discovery of Dego for us was through his more soul focused project Silhouette Brown back in 2005 so we wanted to find out a little more about where and why this project formed. “I got to a stage where I thought I just want to produce, I don’t want be at the front of it all, I want a phone call and that girl or guy says can you produce my album or can you produce a few tracks on my album. That’s what Silhouette Brown was all about.” Similarly to the current album, the project had one vocalist (Deborah Jordan and Lady Alma with lead vocals on Silhouette Brown and Two respectively) allowing for that continuity of one voice. But as he didn’t want to make hip-hop any longer, it also allowed Dego to do something that was a little more downtempo, “but could keep working the dance floor”.
Despite the challenges of making many different types of music, for Dego it was a personal need to keep things fresh and avoid “getting into habits and formulas; with those things its good to shake it all up”. A lot easier said than done, I thought to myself. “And it was funny thinking about Silhouette Brown, when you go from doing the whole downtempo thing, and when you back up tempo, you definitely learn from things you did and what was required in the downtempo stuff and vice versa. I think it helps you develop more and keep you on your toes. I constantly have to check myself and its good to stop yourself getting into a routine and not considering really what it is you are making.”
Having gone from a bedroom producer meeting with a few mates to where he is today, we assumed that Dego’s relationship with music has changed a lot over this period. He confessed that the main difference was no longer having the same wonder and naivety. “I guess the only thing I miss is from when I was younger. I remember hearing things and it was magical. How the fuck did he do that?” This seems to be the curse for most, if not all, musicians; that they start to listen to the music in a different way. It becomes more a technical, analytical affair, “it’s like you’re looking at a watch and all of a sudden you can see all the mechanics behind it”. But he insisted this hasn’t stopped him from appreciating something good when he hears it. “Don’t get me wrong, I still get down with it and everything and there might be someone who makes something and I’ll still be listening to it constantly.” We wanted names here. “Kyle Hall, I like what he is doing on his label. Him and Jay Daniel. I really like Abjo and some Al Dobson stuff too”
Considering the complexity in the musicianship of some of his work, it was even more admirable to be told that throughout his time learning music, Dego never once had any kind of formal training. “I don’t know anything”, he started, ”I’ve picked up bits and pieces that people have taught me. The things that Kaidi and Akwasi [Mensah] have taught me. I had this rock guy who taught me some things about bass, that’s how I first knew what was going on there. But my stuff is just open to my ears.
It was a case of just working things out, in the beginning “everything was just accidents”, but then as he developed and became a bit more courted in the process he learnt to process what was in his head. “Sometimes when I make things, I still find that it troubles me, I hear a chord in my head and I just can’t get it, and I can’t rest until that last chord comes out”. His other long-time collaborators don’t have such similar problems however. “Yeah those guys learnt, Kaidi went to music college, he was originally a flutist, and Akwasi I think he originally played piano. Even Matt too, I’m the only one who hasn’t had any training. They keep saying that I do things that are weird that doesn’t make sense but it works and I don’t know what they are talking about”, he laughs. “So there’s part of me that is scared to learn too much that will stop me doing some of the ‘odd’ things that I do now.”
In the 90s, as soon as money is at stake it all comes very politicised
Dego’s relationship with the industry was a topic we also wanted some clarity on and as the lunch rush in the hectic kitchen behind us died down rather conveniently, he was frank when indulging me in a response. “I didn’t hate it in the beginning, I was naive about it and I didn’t like it, and I still continue to dislike it. What annoys me are peoples’ motivations behind doing what they’re doing. If you are in it to make money that’s fine, I don’t have any arguments with that. But when people aren’t honest and believe their dishonesty that pisses me off. Don’t be holding someone up high and giving them accolades that you know just shouldn’t be given. Are you going to put that next to a Miles Davis record, an Art Blakey record? There is just too much of that, all for the sake of money.” He sees the industry now as becoming almost saturated, so much that people “are used to so much mediocre stuff that when something even slightly better comes along people they are so happy about it. There are not enough standards and too many superlatives, and most of that is because of money.”
And so the conversation finally came, albeit briefly, onto the album; well the album title in fact. For Dego, Things Stay The Same represents the cycles seen and heard in all walks of life. In music there are trends and phases, something will be in fashion or on a hype and when it comes round it’s never really that new. “Things that people are into now, just sounds like something else”. “Then you have politics with the Tories and this, that and the other, people are scared because they aren’t able to do what they want to do. I’ve seen it all before. History is a great teacher and it seems these days it isn’t cool or necessary to delve into history”
With the album representing a form of social commentary, we discussed how this seems to be something that isn’t massively seen in left-field and underground music. “There has always been social commentary and it’s more about what is being allowed to be put out and heard. If it’s not cool or not a party then generally it isn’t going to be heard, but of course in other styles there is social commentary.” What is heard is a reflection of the times.
There’s part of me that is scared to learn too much that will stop me doing some of the ‘odd’ things that I do now.
After A Wha’ Him Deh Pon? there was a one-off live performance, and Dego revealed that this is a project he would also like to see materialise for the current album. “People don’t seem to like bands anymore but I like it in the traditional sense. I don’t want to do it with a laptop and two people or whatever, I want to do it proper”. Therefore booking and investment permitting, the aim is to hopefully tour the album with a live piece towards the end of the year. We’ll certainly be queuing for a ticket.
In recent interviews Dego had mentioned that while he is happy with his signature sound he would like to move the label in another directions, more through signing different types of artists than changing his own style. With talks about some hip-hop and more far-out things to come, a bit of gentle probing revealed there’s releases from Lordamercy [Matt Lord] and Shokazulu’s [Kaidi] to look out for. “When I had FaltyDL on last year that was a bit different for me and the label, and then Dominic (Domu) as Sonars Ghost; that’s quite different. I might do it like that. I have things that are very different but you’ve got to work out the right timing for it. I’m trying to get people on side first. You know when you’ve sold a lot and you’ve done certain things you can do what you want.”
With that, it seemed Dego will be attempting to complete his own cycle in more ways than one, but with a greater sense of perspective and experience. No longer can he approach his craft with the rebellious attitude that characterised his earlier work. “Before I was a bit militant and I did what I wanted, but now you can’t do that anymore. This is my job so I’ve got to be a bit more sensible and realistic about the way I do things. I can’t just stick my fingers up at everything.”
All photos shot exclusively for Stamp The Wax, by Lewis Khan.