DJ Shepdog isn’t a spring chicken when it comes to the music industry: from working for PR companies promoting The Gorillaz, Radiohead and Vengaboys (you win some, you lose some) to working at Kudos and being involved in the Big Chill Festival, he has done it all. But since this is not a job interview, we’ll put the CV aside and mainly focus on Nice UP!, the label he has been running since 2006.
Seeing DJ Shepdog mentioning on Twitter that Biz Markie bought a record off of him got me curious enough to get in touch.
You’re a record dealer to the stars now? What was that Biz Markie thing all about?
He bought just a random record off me on Discogs. I met him last year after he had done a show in London and I got a load of my seven inches signed by him. I got a load of Biz and Cold Chillin’ seven inches. He collects 45s as well and so he was instantly like “What else have you got? Do you wanna trade?” I would have expected that he already had them…
As you’d expect, he’s a little bit crazy. He’s like a big kid, basically. He collects everything. He has to have everything. He’s super nice, a really nice guy. I’m a massive fan but he’s probably a little bit mental.
Loads of people are…
This is true. I’m probably one of them myself, to be fair. A lot of my favourite artists are a little bit unhinged to say the least. It’s just weird when you get up close to them and you see that for all its realness! When I was thirteen, fourteen, I was listening to him on my Walkman and now I’m chatting to him…
So it was just a random record? I kind of expected him to be after a copy of Mardi Grass with the bells on it as the one he’s got is pretty useless, apparently?
That old story… There’s a little video up on YouTube of Biz Markie playing Mardi Grass with no bells. I supported him when he was playing in London a few years ago and managed to get a line feed. I recorded him and it’s there to be heard. Whether it actually exists on vinyl – I don’t believe it does. I think that’s bullshit. It’s one of those things… I think Biz Markie creates that kind of story just for his enjoyment. He just leads people along and gets off on it.
It definitely keeps people talking about him.
It does. I think that’s part of it.
People have been going on about that record for years and years…
It doesn’t exist. I’m pretty sure about that. Do you know Supreme? He’s guy in the States who’s a big collector and got some fantastic records. He put a video on YouTube of him showing everyone the CTI briefcase and then playing the 12”. I was like “Come on, man, you’ve blatantly just pressed up an acetate!” It’s obvious, because there’s a guy called Mr. Krum who made a mock up 12” of a Mardi Grass label and this guy just slapped that mock up on an acetate. If you’re gonna go through all that trouble, pressing up a fake copy, filming it and putting it on YouTube – why would you use something that’s already out on the internet as the actual label? That’s the myth debunked! Unless Biz Markie pulls one out and proves everyone wrong I think it’s bullshit!
He could have done that for years if he had really got it. For all I know, even Bob James doesn’t know of that 12”.
How many artists know what their label presses up? I think it’s just one big myth and it’s all come from one person’s brain, Biz Markie’s head.
Let’s talk about your label Nice UP! – what made you decide to start that?
The actual label… I wouldn’t say it came about by accident, because that would make it sound more mystical than it is. I had been running a club night called Nice UP! for about three or four years and I had been djing for a long time. While I always had these ideas about making tunes, at the same time I thought that other people did it better than me and so I never bothered. So I kind of got on with being a dj and a promoter.
At the time mash-ups were getting a lot of prominence in record shops. On the first birthday of our night, Jstar came down and played. I got chatting to him, asking him about distribution and all this kind of stuff.
I had been playing two tunes together, Bigger than Hip Hop and Welcome to Jamrock and thought they’d make quite a good mash-up. I had absolutely no technical ability or studio equipment. I had a pair of decks and an MPC and that was it. So I got my friend down in Brighton to give me a hand making Bigger than Jamrock and I put it out as a 7”. Actually, it was the b-side of the 7” because… What happened was, a friend of me sent me a mash-up that he’d done. I was working at a distribution company at the time and he sent it to me without putting his name on it as some sort of unsolicited demo. I listened to that, I liked it and I thought that I would play it out. Didn’t think any more of it and a couple of weeks later he came in:
“Have you had any good demos recently?”
“Nah, we haven’t had anything for a while.”
“Ah, shit! I sent you one a while back. Did you not get it?”
“Hang on a minute, it wasn’t the reggae one, was it? Fucking hell, that was real good!”
I felt kind of guilty because I had dismissed it and so I said to him “Let’s put it out. I’ve got an idea for a b-side if you want to help me make it.” His track, Mana’s Multiply, went on the a-side. I felt it was the better tune but it also was out of guilt for dismissing him. I put Bigger than Jamrock which he kind of produced on the b-side. I sat there and told him what to do and where to put things. I understand that it’s out of key – I’m actually tone deaf, I haven’t got a clue….
When you play with turntables you don’t have a keyboard. So if something mixes and it’s in beat it always sounds good to me – unless it is really hideously out of key. Anyway, I put it out and that was it. Almost instantly Bigger than Jamrock just took off. Mr. Scruff was playing it, Quantic was playing it… At the time they were playing festivals everywhere! As I was working for a distributor I was seeing other singles that people put out and you were waiting for djs to play them or waiting for a reaction whereas this one almost instantly took off. I was going to festivals and clubs and I was hearing djs play it and I was like “I didn’t send these guys a promo, these guys have bought it!” That was it, really! I got the taste for putting tunes out. I always had loads of ideas but I never had the means of putting them down. So once that 7” was out I thought I’d better get my shit together. I got a laptop, invested in Ableton and started putting together ideas that I had had while I was djing. That’s how it started. I only really started the label to put out one tune that I thought was really good. Like with most things, if you get a good reaction, you’ll think “I’ll try that again!” That’s how it grew.
The night Nice UP! wasn’t always just about reggae. We used to play everything. It was around the time when broken beat was kind of big and a lot of people were just playing broken beat or house or disco. I find that boring to this day. I can’t go to a club where they just play one style of music. I’ve always tried to incorporate a bit of everything: a bit of soul, a bit of funk, a bit of disco, house, whatever, drum & bass… To begin with, the night was just that. I was getting guests down that could play a bit of everything. Our second release on the label was actually a Dizzee Rascal mash-up which was done by one of the guys from Utah Saints. It has nothing to do with reggae, which is a bit of an anomaly when you look at the label now. It’s so much about reggae and hip hop and dancehall and all that kind of stuff. A Dizzee Rascal mash-up on top of loads of old school hip hop breaks stands out like a sore thumb, really. Once I’d started doing stuff with the name Nice UP!, it felt more natural to be more reggae based – because of the name and because I’m really into my reggae. I guess it was because of people like Jstar doing a similar thing as well. From early on he was always very supportive and helped to promote my stuff. So it felt more natural to go down the reggae line.
Jstar has to be the first person to get me interested in mash-ups.
He did some amazing stuff! He still does, he always knocks me back! He wasn’t the first to put hip hop and reggae and reggae and r&b together, but I think he’s definitely one of the best. No Diggity…
That was spot on!
When that tune was getting played, it kind of turned everybody’s ears. As I said before, there was loads of mash-ups before that but that seemed to signify the start of a genre of reggae mash-ups.
To be honest, I’m quite tired of mash-ups but there are a few people I’m still checking for because they put in the work that makes a mash-up stand out and he’s one of them.
I agree with you completely. I got bored of making them, I got bored of playing them, I got bored of hearing them… It’s such a limited resource to work from. Every acapella – as soon as it comes out, there’s two hundred Soundcloud links to a mash-up. Most of the big dancehall or reggae riddims have been done. I was getting to a point where it all felt a bit saturated. There’s not much that influences me in mash-ups. I still make them to this day but only for myself, really. I put them together to use them in dj sets to have an exclusive version of something. It’s great because anyone can make them and put them on Soundcloud but it’s a bit of a boring medium, isn’t it? When I first heard a mash-up it was like “Whoa! Hang on a minute, it’s that but it’s that…” That kind of novelty… I remember one of the first really creative ones I heard was Whitney Huston on top of Numbers by Kraftwerk by Richard X. That was crazy. A pop tune on top of a Kraftwerk tune and it worked! That’s the novelty of a mash-up. But it’s harder to impress us or shock us now. You’ve heard everything on everything else. The whole remix culture of today is saturated. There’s still a lot of good ones out there but it’s few and far between.
At the same time I’m quite impressed how some producers manage to make things that I’ve heard a million times before sound interesting again.
If you can find something good and creative with a well used sample it’s fine. That still happens today. What’s an example… Nas with the Apache break! It was slowed down, it was chopped up differently and it was a really good tune. Most people would go “Apache, that’s been sampled to death, I’m not making a tune out of Apache!” If you can find a different way to do it, I think it’s great! Familiarity is what people want to hear. They want to hear something that they recognize.
That’s how you get the people who aren’t record collectors on the dancefloor.
Exactly! You’re playing to people who haven’t heard Apache or to people who don’t care if they hear it all the time. I think DJ Format did a James Brown mash-up thing a few years back and that was amazing. They way he put it all together was really musical. You knew all the samples, you knew all the breaks, you knew all the guitar licks and everything but it was fascinating to listen to because it was done in such a good way. You kind of go “Wow!”
If you sample something, you don’t have to be obscure about it. Do it in a different way! Don’t just loop up a fucking James Brown tune or some tune that was on Brainfreeze and just put a kickdrum and a bassline under it!
Speaking of sampling and mash-ups, let’s talk about the Biggie remix you put out on Musclecuts.
Musclecuts was a little sublabel of mine for stuff that didn’t fit Nice Up! and didn’t fit anything else that I had at the time. The Biggie thing came about when a friend of mine sent me a remix that he had done where he had just put the acapella over some unreleased break or whatever. I can’t really remember. It was a bit boring and I said let’s both do it but do it in different way. A “Jackin for Beats” kind of remix. He went cold on the idea and so I just did it myself. It’s a bit rough around the edges but I played it off my laptop a few times and the reaction was great. So I put it out to see what happens. I had loads of great feedback about that one. It’s an instant party tune! It’s nothing too clever, it’s nothing too deep, it’s nothing too new. It’s just straight for the jugular! I wasn’t trying to do anything clever – it’s Party and Bullshit and so I was just trying to find fifteen of the biggest party tunes in hip hop and stick them all together.
I played it out quite often and it always worked well but it always left me thinking “I can’t play anymore hip hop now, can I?”
Hah! Exactly! It kind of uses all the tunes that you wanna play. It’s quite difficult to follow, I appreciate that.
I usually ended up playing funk afterwards.
It’s a good lead on to something else, isn’t it?
Anyway, looking at the last couple of releases, you seem to be going into a slightly different direction with Nice Up! at the moment.
The idea for the label was to just put out records that djs would want to play. That was the main idea. It got me a lot of profile, I got a lot of gigs out of it and it put the label on the map. But I wasn’t really getting taken seriously – not that I’m a very serious person… When I was getting bookings, it was like “You’re the guy that’s playing reggae mash-ups.” I do play other stuff. I play all sorts of music. But because I had only put out reggae mash-ups, that was what people expected to hear. I wanted to move a little away from that. While I still play that stuff, I didn’t want to be labeled as just playing reggae mash-ups. That was one of the reasons to go legit; the other was that it creates a little more longevity in the label when it’s legit. We can invest in artists and albums and actually become a proper label rather than putting out vinyl and watching our backs, hoping we don’t get sued. That’s not really a way to run a business. The Nextmen Sofa 7” was the first legit release that we did but people instantly thought that it was a mash-up… So I was looking for new stuff to put out and then a friend of mine sent me a jungle remix of Police Officer by Smiley Culture which was a brilliant, a really up-tempo type of roughneck jungle thing. I was like “Dude… I can’t really do this, I’m not putting out mash-ups anymore. But it’s really good! Thanks!” So he said that he’d get someone else to put it out and then my control freak part kicked in and I said “Fuck it! I’ll do it. I don’t want anybody else putting it out.”
We got it pressed up and the morning I got the test pressings I went online to get this guy’s address to send him a test pressing. Just as I logged on to Facebook, I saw that someone had put up “R.I.P. Smiley Culture!” So I had these test pressings of a Smiley Culture tune and he had just been killed or he had just died – whatever you want to believe… I couldn’t put this fucking tune out anymore. I’d probably lose my kneecaps and it would look like I’m cashing in on someone’s death. We had already got the tune produced, mastered and pressed up before that happened but if we had put it out, it would have looked like we were cashing in which I would have never wanted to do. Then the guy who manufactures a lot of my stuff told me that he knew a guy who licenses a lot of reggae. He put me in touch so that I could maybe get it cleared. I made the call and the guy said “I’ll get it cleared for you, don’t worry about it!” and two days later I got the all clear. “Put it out, just put out a white label, don’t put Smiley’s name on it, press 300 maximum and move along with it.” So I did that, pressed them up and took them to a distributors. I played it there and the guy said “Whoa! What’s this? You can’t put that out!”
“No, no, I’ve got it cleared!”
“Some dude said it was fine…” And he was like “No, no, no… Here’s Chris Lane’s mobile number!” Chris Lane is the guy who runs Fashion Records and Fashion is one of my favourite UK reggae labels. I had spoken to Earl Gateshead about maybe doing some remix stuff for Fashion years before but it had never gone any further. So I was standing there with this fucking bootleg that could get me into a lot of trouble and this guy’s number. I took a deep breath and gave him a call. He was like “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about this.” Whoa! I have only had it done for about five days, how has he heard about it? News moves pretty fast, I guess. He told me that there was no chance to do it. So I kept a couple of the white labels and destroyed the rest of them. But since it got me in touch with Chris at Fashion I thought that although I had lost a lot of money, I’d take this opportunity and turn it into a positive.
Which would be a whole album of remixes inna NICE UP! fashion ?
That’s the plan. It’s taking quite a while to get sorted. It’s taking quite a while to get in touch with people and convince them that they want to do a remix and then it’s taking quite a while for them to do the actual remix. We’ve already put one single out with Serial Killaz and Dub Pistols and we’ve just put the new one out with General Levy remixed by Wrongtom and Cutty Ranks remixed by Mr Benn. That’s kind of it for singles, I think. The next plan is to drop the album and look at some singles from that. We’ve got some really good names involved.
Which producers would that be?
Jstar, Mungo’s Hi Fi, Jahtari, Aries… I’m talking to Radikal Guru… We’re trying to mix it up a bit. Did you get the Greensleeves dubstep compilation a few years back?
I did. I wasn’t too keen on it though.
Me neither. I think it was a really good opportunity to do something with a fantastic back catalogue and they kind of spunked it by doing it all with dubstep. Also, they went for the big names of the time but things move pretty quick these days. If one producer is cool one month, he might not be so cool a month later. What I’m trying to do is to spread it across: do some dancehall remixes, some dub, some dubstep, some jungle, some drum and bass… To give more of a spread. The idea is to give it that Nice Up! vibe.
Did you get access to the whole Fashion catalogue for that?
Pretty much. We can’t actually touch any Smiley Culture stuff which is a real shame. It’s a catalogue that’s entrenched in problems and complications… But other than that we can pretty much get what we want as long as they still got the master tapes. They’re still going through the original tapes and archiving what they’ve got.
I had an idea that we shouldn’t really do any of the tracks that had been out there already. Limb by Limb or Request the Style, things like that. People would just think that it’s a mash-up because you can get the acapella on the 12” or download it online. There’s tons of other tracks by Top Cat that people haven’t heard or might not be so familiar with. There’s plenty of tunes to choose from.
Even if people wouldn’t think that it’s another mash-up, who wants to hear another version of Limb by Limb? It’s one of my favourite tunes ever and I love a lot of the remixes but…
Exactly! That’s exactly what I thought when I put out my version of it. It was me and a friend, actually. He sent it to me on Ante Up and it really worked. But that’s exactly what I thought. Ever since the jungle days… It’s been rinsed on jungle tracks. I remember every track having a Cutty Ranks sample. That’s why I think for this particular project it’s best to avoid those kind of tunes. It’s such a deep and vast label with so much stuff in the catalogue – why just choose the ones that everybody knows? All of the big reggae artists from the 80s and 90s recorded for Fashion. Horace Andy, Tenor Fly, all the UK lot like Asher Senator, Macka B…
To me it sounds like a massive opportunity to get the acapellas that you could never get on a 12”.
That’s the point, doing something that not everyone can do themselves.
So that’s the one big project you’re working on now?
Well, we’re also embarking on putting our first album out which is by Mr Benn who is a producer that’s been around for quite a while. He is sort of settled into his reggae, hip hop, dancehall… A bit of everything, really. When I went legit with the label, he was one of the people I instantly went to: “I’m doing this properly now, you need to get an album out! I want you to sign to the label!” He’s part of the Nice Up! family. It’s an absolutely amazing album! I know I’m pretty biased but there’s a whole load of big names on that: Top Cat, Tenor Fly, the Ragga Twins, Serocee, MC Zulu… Eva Lazarus, who’s fantastic, Nãnci Correia… We’ve got another single coming out from him as well as singles from Dirty Dubsters, a band called Mighty Leap, Turntable Dubbers… I think that’s about it for now.
Is the Mr Benn single featuring Serocee a tune off the album?
I really loved that!
That’s fantastic! That’s probably the most down-tempo tune on the album. That’s quite a deep tune. The rest of the album is more up-tempo party stuff but I thought that this was such a different tune to what Benn is known for and what our label is known for that it would be quite a good idea to lead with that to prepare people for the album. Benn is known for his party tunes but he can turn his hands to anything and I thought it was important to show people that he can do deep stuff as well. I have heard a lot of what Serocee has done, but I think Rising Star is his most introspective one, really quite dark and personal… Probably not the choice most labels would go with as the lead single of an album. It’s quite dark but it’s really positive as well. Sometimes as a label you’ve got to take those kind of risks.
It’s a beautiful tune but at the same time I’d probably only listen to it at home… Seeing Sero’s name on it, I didn’t exactly expect it to sound like that. When I first met Serocee, LeeN, the guy he was working with told me that Serocee was the kind of person who’d bully you into having a good time which sounded quite convincing with regard to the tunes by him that I had heard.
Definitely! He’s one of the hypest mcs I’ve seen on stage, which is obviously why Toddla T uses him and countless other people as well. He’s known as a hype mc but from what I know, he writes all the time and it was good to see a different side of him.
Since we started the interview talking about old vinyl, we might as well end it that way. Did you get anything good recently?
I got so lucky recently! Do you know Al Naafiysh?
That classic electro tune?
Yeah. I went to see DJ Format play and then he pulled that out on a 7”. Fuck of mate! On a seven inch? “Yeah, it’s a French version. I got it off a dealer…” So I put it on my eBay search list and eventually it came up for £6. So I bought it, payed for it and when it turned up at my house it was the 12”. I knew it had been too good to be true. The mistake was that it said “45 tours” in the description which is the speed of the record and I thought that 45 meant 7”. So I emailed the guy in France and told him that I had thought that I had thought that it would be the 7” and since I already had the 12” I’d need to return it. He wrote back and told me that he had the 7” as well but didn’t think that it would be worth anything. Then he asked if I wanted that instead. “Yes!” He posted it the next day and told me to keep the 12”. So I got the 12” and the 7” for about £6 which is unbelievable! There’s always stories like that. You’ve just got to be eagle eyed.