Ray Keith has been a pioneer, figurehead and all round legend when it comes to jungle and drum & bass since its inception.
Whether recording under his own name or under a whole host of different aliases including Dark Soldier, London’s Most Wanted, Renegade, Terrorist, Tron, Dr Wootang and more, as well as via his own Dread Recordings label, he has brought it each and every time and continues to do so today.
With the release of the forthcoming documentary, The Rest Is History: The Early Days of Drum & Bass, Gavin Brown had the pleasure of catching up with Ray to talk about those early days of jungle and drum & bass and how it was for him as well as talking extensively about his vast career, music history and future in an extensive, informative and very enjoyable interview.
You’ve taken part in the documentary, The Rest Is History: The Early Days of Drum & Bass. How important is it for you, and the others that are in the documentary to tell your stories about those formative days of jungle and drum and bass?
I think at the end of the day, if you know the history of us, we’ve pretty much had consistency, whether the press embraces that or not. I guess we’re the household names that people grew up with, if you’re in your 40s, and your 50s, you know of jungle drum and bass, you grew up with us. We haven’t stopped doing what we’ve been doing, but I think it’s good to document things. I think, like anything, the story needs to be told, otherwise, it gets forgotten, and obviously, we were the founders of the scene. That’s what makes it interesting. There are lots of different characters. Everyone’s got their own opinion, and we respect that.
It’s a multicultural movement, whether you’re black, whether you’re white, whether you’re straight, whether you’re gay, it’s all the colours of white, all the colours of brown, all the colours of black, all the flavours of music. Nothing is in a set format. we sample soul, rare groove, jazz. Look at the other day, you had Goldie and Beverly Knight performing at the Commonwealth. Yeah, who would have thought that would have ever happened? She’s an r&b soul singer, and he’s from the electronic scene. That just shows you a great example that we push boundaries, our music has had a huge impact on the world now, and I think, yes, it’s very important to document each stage of what happens because as technology kicks on, people forget where the origins come from, it just gets watered down. I know who James Brown and Bobby Byrd are, but do other people? We need to educate where those breaks and samples came from.
How did you feel looking back at those early days, almost 30 years later?
I mean, I don’t tend to live in the past, I’m busy getting on with my life and producing and pushing boundaries. I’m we’re all still active. We DJ, we produce, we run record labels, we’re independent. My label is 28 years old this year, I can’t believe where the time got has gone. Ram is 30 years old, V is 30 years old. It’s just a great celebration of being independent. We never sold out. We kept our integrity, integrity is everything to most of us. Yeah, you’ve got the commercial side of things, but if you don’t have a commercial side of things, then you don’t expand to a broader audience.
I think everyone’s got a part to play. Everything’s a lot quicker, a lot faster. Email, WhatsApp, WeTransfer, Dropbox, it’s just instant. Whereas before you had the physical side, I’m still pressing up vinyl and work with Kniteforce putting out records independently still, so yeah, it’s been an amazing journey, man. I couldn’t have asked for a better life. it’s had its pitfalls, It is tough. Sometimes the music business is very testing, but you’ve got to be as hard as nails and hard as a rock. you’ve got to let it bounce off of you. There are a lot of egos as well but I just love the fanbase. I’m humble. We’re blessed and we make music for a living.
What if someone had told you back then you’d be still going all these years later?
I just think we believed in ourselves and to be fair, we ran the whole scene for 10 years. Nobody else came in, nobody else was doing what we were doing. We were there. Things obviously got fragmented. It obviously got commercial. People didn’t get paid as much as everyone, as in the documentary, which is quite sad but I’ve been knocked by majors and independents. That’s just a learning game. My label went bust as many, many labels did in the recession. We moved out of our offices and our studios, but you live and learn, do you not? I think we always knew that it would have legs, but for how long? I don’t know. I mean, like garage died very quickly. Dubstep died very quickly. The breaks thing died very quickly. They probably had a lifespan of two or three years, maybe five, and then they got bastardised, but jungle and drum & bass has just evolved. It’s household now. You switch on MasterChef or any of those programmes, and you’re gonna hear some of our breakbeats on it. It’s a business now, the independent electronic, dance music, it contributes billions to the UK turnover worldwide, so we are self-sufficient. I guess we’ve learned how to become independent businessmen. We didn’t have any feedback. It was networking. It was a culture. It was how we grew up. We didn’t know anything else.
Do you think that the networking culture still goes on with the rise of social media?
Yeah, I think there are pros and cons to that. I mean, our social media was Blackmarket and going to cut plates at The Cutting Place. We don’t have that now. There’s no communication, people don’t talk. I’m talking to you now, I see a face, I can look at your eyes, you can see the reaction. I think Instagram, Twitter, Facebook are platforms where you can reach people and you can contact them but via the likes of Tik Tok, everybody and his dog wants to be famous. I want to use my platform to encourage good vibes, we want to battle against knife crime. We want to adjust mental health. We want to talk about drugs, we want to talk about the fact that it’s okay not to be okay. We want to talk about wellbeing. We want to talk about health. We want to talk about things that are important to us, especially in a crisis that we’re in now where people can’t pay their bills. Through lockdown, we reached a lot of people by doing live streams. I was getting mad numbers. 5, 6, 7 hundred people watching me which was amazing. I felt like we needed to give people something because a lot of people were lost, so I think it has its pros and its cons.
The rave scene coming into jungle was the backdrop of what was going on in the country, the difficult times and constant social unrest then. Do you think that’s happening again and the scene will be there in the same way to help people and inspire them as well?
I think wherever you come from, say Motown and you listen to Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, or whether you’re a Beatles fan, every time there is oppression, people turn to the arts, whether it’s acting, whether it’s music, whether its film, whether it’s TV and they find solace in that because they can live their dreams through watching something else or playing something else.
Going out and dancing, its energies, its vibes, its vibrations. I think there has always been music. Music saved my life as it has an influence on so many people. Fabio & Grooverider, if it wasn’t for those two, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, God knows what I’ll be doing. I give out the same vibe to other people because we’re all independent, but we’re all under one umbrella. Jungle was the umbrella to everything else that led into dance music, whether you want to look at grime, whether you want to look at dubstep, whether you want to look at the breaks scene, now with drill and UK rap, it all had to come from somewhere. It was the likes of Kano and Dizzee Rascal and all of them listening to us and then going on to sing their interpretation.
I think music has always been there and always will be there, whatever is going on, whether it’s another revolution or social unrest, people will always rave because they find connections, they can talk, they can dance and friendships are formed. The big thing about jungle was that it was very multicultural. It didn’t matter if you were white, brown, black, Indian or Chinese, we didn’t give a shit. We were just raving, and there was no class barrier, as well. We were all together.
Looking back to the raves then, what sticks in your head the most?
Just the people, the vibe. You pull out a tune, play a tune, there’d be clapping from the back of the room, then obviously, the rewind jumped into what we do, and when you rewind the tune and you do a mix, there’s nothing like it. You know the energy that’s going on, you can’t describe it! We’re the conductors and we tell a story with a beginning and a middle and an end. If you hear a Ray Keith or a Grooverider or a Fabio or a DJ Rap or a Bukem set you just feel I’ve got my money’s worth tonight, you know, whether you’re straight or a little bit bent out of shape or wavy, you’re feeling what we’re giving to you because we’re very serious and professional and we love what we do. We don’t take it for granted. When we come off the decks were knackered because we give it 110%.
Obviously the MCs have always been a big part of sets. Who have you loved having on when you play?
I’ve worked with so many! Shabba, Skibadee (RIP), Stevie Hyper D (RIP). I mean, you’ve only got to go online and have a look at all the tape packs and you will see! MC Fearless, GQ, Moose, Carasel, SP:MC, Det, Ragga Twins 2 Shy. I don’t think there’s not an MC I’ve not worked with, I’ve worked with all of them and they all know how to adapt, we adapt with each other. They know what we’re about, we know what they’re about and it’s mutual respect. We’re there to entertain. That’s the main thing. In the early days, MC Charlie White and one of my MCs, Montana at Hellraiser in Belfast, that was crazy with Carl Cox. We’ve been working for so long together. It’s like a family, we’ve grown up with each other and you’re talking going into this thing, 30 to 40 years, and performing as an artist with when you were in your teens, going through your young adult life and now being mature adults, it’s just amazing.
What have been some of the highlights of your Dread Recording label l over the years?
I think it’s just really being able to showcase other artists. It has brought through Serum, Bladerunner, Voltage, Danny Twisted Anger, the new kids that are coming through, Jappa, we’ve had Slater, we’ve had Motive, you know, Covert Gardens, I’ve been working with E-Lisa and producing her. We’ve brought in so many people. Photek in the early days, Dillinja, Lemon D. I’m just proud of the body of work, we’ve been able to kick down doors and smash down the boundaries, we haven’t lost our edge. A&Ring and spotting that great tune or the next trend has been a great gift for me.
Some people have come and then gone on to do amazing things. The back catalogue speaks for itself, and even me as a producer, all of these guys have kept me in the game, kept me on top of the game and pushed my boundaries as well, working with Sandman, Nookie being my engineer for so many years, and him now doing stuff with Kniteforce and Code Labs. I’ve got a couple of boxset albums coming out, we found some DATs and I found 115 tracks that have never come out before, which are now being released. Just the continuity, and also the legacy that we left behind of our integrity. We invented a sound and if you listen to Metalheadz, or you listen to Dread, we have our own individual sound, and that sound has come back around now, with a lot of what’s going on with the resurgence of jungle.
We haven’t gone anywhere. Again, it’s not like we’ve come back, we’ve just been consistently doing shit, whether you take notice of us or not. We’ve been at the forefront and the cutting edge of where we need to be. We live by that honour of integrity, and we do our very best and we have such a mad fanbase. My book came out earlier on this year, it’s had some great reviews and that, again, was a testament to how we’ve carried ourselves. I mean, 28 years as an independent label. I probably have more than 25 independent albums as an artist. When I go on to Discogs, sometimes I shock myself because I don’t usually look back at what I’ve done, then I’ll go back and google my Discogs and we’ve done a lot of remixes and released under aliases. We don’t sit in the past. We’re forever moving forward, trying to break boundaries, bring the music to the forefront and get people to listen to what’s going on.
"The big thing about jungle was that it was very multicultural. It didn't matter if you were white, brown, black, Indian or Chinese, we didn't give a shit. We were just raving, and there was no class barrier, as well. We were all together."
Talking about those aliases. When you were making those tunes, whether it was Dark Soldier or London’s Most Wanted, did you make them with that alias in mind or was it, that sounds like it could be a Terrorist song or whatever and just what vibe was going on at the moment?
Yeah and also I was just producing constantly and I had so much fucking music that I was like, yeah that sounds like Dark Soldier, that’ll do! Otherwise, people would just be sick of your name, so whatever it was, Londons Most Wanted or Tron or Dark Soldier. They were outlets that gave me a blessing to go on to V Recordings or Chronic or on Nicky’s label to do Tron. It was just a good way of getting more material out, and even the Chronics, nobody knew who they were until 10 years down the line, and they’re like, bloody hell was that Ray Keith?! They were really seminal underground tunes because there was so much music coming out.
You just couldn’t physically get something out otherwise you’d be having something out every other week, but it was great fun. It was fun doing those and taking a risk because you never knew if it was gunna work. Dark Soldier, as soon as you hear that you already know, that’s Dark Soldier and I met a lot of people that were in jail, or that were from the ends that could relate to that music because it was the sound of the ghetto, it was the representation of 93/94 where it was moody, it was dark but it was a reflection of those times of oppression.
How much of an influence was hip hop on your music, especially with something like Dr Wootang?
We grew up on soul, rare groove and hip hop. If it wasn’t for Public Enemy and Eric B & Rakim, the original people that started hip hop, we wouldn’t be anywhere. We went right through that, whether it was breakdancing or UK hip hop with London Posse. I know Pogo, we grew up together. It was just an actual progression for us listening to NWA, listening to Public Enemy. I mean, I’m great friends with Hank Shocklee. He came to see me playing nine years ago in New York and he knew who I was, he had my records and I was just like fucking hell, that’s amazing! Public Enemy know who I am! I was like wow!
He emailed me when the Metalheadz video came out, he said, where’s the Dread documentary?! I’m actually halfway through the Dread documentary at the moment, so hopefully, we’ll talk again in the next year, when it gets released. I’ve got half of it left to film now but it’s been an eye opener. It’s our interpretation of where it’s from through our eyes and the people that we brought in, so that’s, that’s really important.
How much fun was it going through your music, when you brought out the Archives recording series, going back in and bringing all those tunes out?
It was just music that never got released. I’ve probably got 3 or 4 volumes put together. I’ve got two boxsets coming out, one is called 21st Century Junglist and the other one is called The Golden Years 1994 and that’s with Kniteforce. I think it’s really important because we made so many tracks and we weren’t able to put out everything at the time so much. I was making three or four tracks a week sometimes. What a great way to have your own little retirement fund and your little testimonial for yourself. Good music stands the test of time. Everything I’ve done has been seminal, and I’ve been blessed. It’s an art form and a piece of history.
Through lockdown, I played the tracks to my daughters and we were listening to the tracks. We listened to every single track of the 115 tracks. That is such a buzz for me to know that my young daughters sat in a room and we listened to each track. They were going fucking hell dad, are you having a laugh? You made this 20 years ago and I said yeah, they were like, we can’t believe it, and they’ve grown up, going out and listening to our music. Even that, just sharing that through lockdown and coming out of lockdown and thinking, look what I’ve got. Who would have ever thought that we needed time to stop, reflect, look back and reassess and look at where we are, that was a good lesson I think for all of us, even though it was a tough time.
Whether you listen to the conspiracy theories or you’ve got your own views, something wasn’t right for the world to stop like that, but it was a reassessment, really, and we don’t need as much as what we thought we did. I’m just glad to be alive and glad to be kicking on. I’m high risk. I’m diabetic. I’m a heart attack survivor, but I’ve changed my whole life and every day I live my best life. I don’t live it like my last day, I live it like my best day. I look forward to waking up. I’ve got involved in acting now, my kids are grown up, they’re around me and I’m blessed.
That’s been brilliant Ray, I’ve got one last question for you. What have been some of the highest points of your music career so far and what do you still want to achieve with your career?
I just think I’ve had an amazing career with longevity. It’s never just peaked and then dropped off. It’s been consistent. Some of the highlights are me going live with Fabio and Grooverider playing my tune with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Outlook orchestra, which I saw them performing live and what an honour. I’ve had an amazing remix career. I’ve managed to become one of the figureheads and one of the flag bearers of jungle and ambassadors for the music.
I’m very privileged and blessed to be in that position and it’s just 100% positiveness. I just want to push this music forward. I’m now doing acting, so you’ll see some other stuff that happened. I think as artists, we should be able to now crossover into different things and whatever my interpretation of the music was, it’s been flawless. It’s been an amazing journey and I’ve had great consistency. I believe I can do that within the arts, so I’m applying myself to those things. I’ve held residencies all around the world and in the UK, playing at pretty much every big party in the world. I’ve travelled the world tenfold and been blessed with meeting incredible people.
My music has reached hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people and I’m very grateful for that. It’s a legacy that we could have never wished for. To be recognised even in this documentary for our contribution to British black culture and music is humbling, and it’s an honour. I give thanks, it’s a legacy I pass on to my children, and they’ll pass on to their children. Grandad was a DJ and made music. My nephew is Joy Orbison. My daughter is Lo Selecta, she’s now DJing. My daughter she’s making clothes and produces clothes for Dread, so it never stops. The music just carries. It’s like beautiful pollen, it just flips up and floats, and follows me wherever in the world, and then it settles and it plants a new seed and someone else comes through. Bladerunner comes through. Serum has come through with their own sound, and it keeps going, as it did with Photek and as it did for all the other people that we touched.
That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s a flower that just keeps giving, and that’s what we need. We need more positiveness. We need more unity, we need more love, we need more empathy and we need less segregation. Music does all of those things together. You’ve heard some of my tunes and you’ve done some, raving and you carry that in your heart because you grew up with it. That’s amazing for me to be here and doing what I’m doing and thank you very much for interviewing me about it.
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The Rest Is History is showing in select cinemas now. More info here. Watch the trailer below.
I’m a music journalist based in the U.K. with a love for bass music in many forms from drum & bass and dubstep to hip hop and grime. Always looking to check out new music as well as digging back for the classics and attending as many events as possible.