A veteran of London’s multi-faceted music scene, Charlie Dark has seen the lot, and has 10,000 records to show for it.
Walking into Charlie Dark’s living room, your eyes are drawn skywards. 10,000 vinyl records make for quite a sight.
A vinyl junkie born from the hip-hop school of record collecting, Charlie Dark is music man from the Gilles Peterson school of studies in wax. Contemporary records brush alongside the classics, and they brush alongside the world and the avant-garde. A collector and avid DJ from a young age, Dark’s London upbringing and love of all music of black origin has intrinsically informed his experiences.
From his early days as DJ and lying his way into parties, to forming 90s trippy soul sensations Attica Blues, to creating groundbreaking London night Blacktronica, Dark’s credentials have seen him become a revered selector and inspirational figurehead. His latest collaboration with Havana Club has seen him perform at a host of festivals this summer with a selection of artists brought together for the Havana Club Paladar. Digging deep into the plethora of records and curating a set from 10,000+ records is a challenge to say the least, Dark’s set at Glastonbury was a highlight of the weekend.
Harnessing the enthusiasm of a giddy teenager who just laid his first beat, or someone who has newly discovered a whole world of music, Crack opens the questioning door to Dark and he piles through with tales of wax, hip-hop, labels, heroes and London.
Charlie on his musical upbringing:
I started DJing when I was 13. I went to a private school in Dulwich, and I was one of the kids who was sort of bust in from the hood. Jude Law and Sam West were in my school and The Chemical Brothers went there. I was really uncool and nerdy, but my mum had a massive record collection so when people started having birthday parties, it was assumed that I could DJ cause I had records. In a desperate attempt to be cool, I was just kind of like ‘yeah, I can DJ!’
So that’s how I started getting into the DJing, but I was really into hip-hop, from going backwards and forwards to America with my parents. I was just really excited about the music. I’ve always been into words, so I always thought they way they were talking and telling stories over music was really clever, and obviously I’m from East Dulwich and they’re from the Bronx, so it all seemed a little bit more exciting, y’know.
The real turning point for me happened at the Bluenote in Hoxton Square when I heard a DJ playing the original of a tune I’d heard sampled. Suddenly I just realised – I can go and buy a record, then I can go and hunt for the original, it was just a mind-blowing experience for me. I remember walking home from Shoreditch to Richmond just blown away. It was at that moment I thought – this is what I wanna do. I’m gonna follow these DJs around, I’m gonna look in their record box, I’m gonna immerse myself in that culture, this is what I’m gonna do. I don’t wanna be an actor any more – cause I was at drama school – music’s the thing.
Charlie on his background in poetry:
I started writing poetry when I was bullied at school, and I had this cool Canadian English teacher who wore a beret and he gave me a black book and told me ‘this is your best friend’.
Later on, I had to accept that no one wants to hear you rap with an English accent, but I’d heard about this hip-hop poetry happening in New York, so when I was about 19 I worked the school dinners kitchen for a couple of months washing dishes to earn enough money to get a courier flight to New York with a list of all the hip-hop places that I needed to go.
I went to Afrikaa Bambataa’s house, in the Bronx … people act like I was crazy doing that when I was 19, but there was no internet back then, if you wanted to experience something you had to physically go and experience it yourself. I was just gleaning information from wherever I could, and I’m living in Dulwich but my whole life is pretty much modelled on trying to be from America. Y’know, how they stand, how they walk, the clothes they wear. I went to a Public Enemy show in Brixton, Chuck D comes onstage and says ‘don’t eat pork.’ Next day I’m like ‘Mum, I’m never eating bacon again’. That lasted about two years until one New Years Day when I really needed a bacon sandwich – and by that point Flava Flav was on crack, so he’d let the side down! But yeah, I went on this mission to every kind of hip-hop place I could think of, just ticking them off. I went to this place called the Nyuorican Poets Cafe and there was a group of guys freestyling outside, who I later found out was Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Saul Williams, and it was just like ‘this is amazing, I’ve never seen anything like it, I’m gonna go back to London and do it.’
So I go, get really inspired, come back and go to some poetry events and they’re all just like, ‘you’ve got a hoodie on, your wearing trainers – you’re one of those hip-hop kids, aren’t you? We don’t really want you in here. It’s not for you’. I think when you’re the geeky kid at school who gets picked on, you have this kind of revenge list, this mentality to prove people wrong. So I’m like ‘I’m gonna crush you, I’m gonna set my own jam up and I’m gonna have more people in my jam than in your dry jam, and eventually you’re gonna want to be in my jam, and I’m gonna say no!’ So I set this thing up called the Urban Poets Society, and we knew this guy who worked for UPS – you know the delivery people – and we got the uniforms, the hats and everything!
We basically hired this art gallery in Brixton, under the Brixton Rec, my mum made the food, it was free to get in, we basically called every person we knew who used words – singers, rappers – The Roots played for £25 and a Christmas dinner – because at the time they were living in London and squatting. It was like we’d really accomplished something.
Charlie on his big break with Attica Blues:
I was in Honest Jon’s in Ladbroke Grove around 92/93 and I was being served by a very young guy in glasses, and I’m immediately recognise the inner-nerd in him trying to be cool. I can relate to that. He tells me his name’s James Lavelle, he’s 17, he’s just moved from Oxford and he’s starting a record company, and he just peers at me over the counter and says ‘you look like you’re into hip-hop – can you make me some records?’. The inner blagger in me is just like ‘yeah, yeah – course I can, I make tunes all the time, I got beats coming out of my ears mate’. And he’s like ‘great, studio’s booked for Saturday, I’ll see you there’. I come out of the shop freaking out, cause I’ve never made a record in my life and I’ve got a week to go and make a record for this guy who’s showing some faith in me.
I’d met this guy called Tony who worked in Turnkey in Charing Cross. He makes records, he knows how to use equipment, he’s even got equipment. We go into the studio and start making music. That’s how Attica Blues got going. James, like a classic A&R man, comes down and basically just oversees, says ‘yep, that’s really good, turn that up’ then leaves – he’s 17, and everyone thinks he’s the man. He was just killing it. He had that same mentality as I did – you dissed me, I’m gonna crush you. I’ll always remember being in his office and he said: “I wanna make a record with the Beastie Boys.” At that time they were the biggest hip-hop band in the world, we were like ‘yeah, right, great, good luck with that’. I walk out the room, walk back in and he’s on the phone with Mike D. That’s how it’s done.
As Attica Blues we moved from Mo Wax to A&M, and then to Sony Records, and it got to about 1999/2000 and I’d bought a house. I basically thought I was gonna be a pop star. I went through a couple of years of going into shops saying ‘I’ll take those trainers in all 5 colours’, going into record shops and saying ‘I’ll take everything that came out this week’. We were making so much money, man. I became that guy who started to believe his own hype; I got the house, I got the cars and the girls and the trainers and the records. Flying around the world to all these amazing places, we went on tour with the Foo Fighters. Me and Dave just hanging out in the lift, hanging out with Radiohead … you’re not thinking anything of it because you’re a pop star – they’re pop stars, so you must be a pop star too. And then we got dropped. It was around 2000 and our A&R man just stopped calling us back. It seems like the cracks in the music industry were starting to show. It was a huge-wake-up call for me.
Charlie on his groundbreaking Blacktronica night:
Well about a year later, I remember playing a Dizzee Rascal record in a club in New York and it just cleared the dancefloor, 500 people, like wild pitbulls had been let loose, and I’m just like ‘do you people not realise, this record is killing it back in the UK!’ This made me realise that this amazing music that gets made in the UK, when it goes abroad, unless the culture goes with the music then there’s no context and people don’t understand it. The thing is, with American hip-hop, when it came, the record came, then the look came and the videos, and the dancing, the way of speaking. But with the UK stuff, you can keep going round the world playing these records, and the cool people will think ‘yeah, I know what this is,’ but at the end of the day, I’ve just spent 10 years trying to be cool, and where did that get me – it got me in debt!
So I made this list of all the clubs I’ve ever been to and loved, and what it was I loved about them. What I realised was the clubs I really enjoyed were the ones where there was wide spectrum of people from different cultures and tastes and backgrounds all in one place. The thing I really like about rave culture was that visual element, and the first time I went to Glastonbury I was blown away by how these people just create this separate world. All these factors came together, but the main thing was basically that I didn’t want to be in the clubs any more.
So that was that. Blacktronica. I went to see the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) and it’s got this long corridor you walk down and I just thought, that’s the spot. I just wanted to play Dizzee records alongside drum and bass records alongside reggae records, so people could see the links there. It was a pretty radical thing at the time.
Charlie on his current work with Havana Club:
I’ve worked with brands for the last 20 years, and Havana are one of those good brands, cause they just get it, and they’re not doing obvious stuff – that’s what appealed to me. I think it was Gilles (Peterson) who suggested we could do something together. We got talking about this ‘inspired ingenuity’ angle, which is about taking everyday things and using them for a different purpose. I’ve always been fascinated with that idea – maybe it’s a hip-hop thing, like taking a record player and turning it into a musical instrument and stuff – so that appealed to me.
Also I had retired from DJing and it was a chance to come back and do the festivals, but not in the kind of super impersonal tent, but to get that personal connection back. We did Glastonbury and we are doing Secret Garden, Standon Calling and Notting Hill Carnival. We have Vince Vella and the Havana Club Collective doing performances. Vince is a Cuban musician/producer/DJ and he’s put together this band which has some really serious players in it actually, a lot of serious jazz guys who are making this kind of Cuban/hip-hop/dubstep fusion mash-up. We also have Brass Roots, who are an all brass band who play loads of different stuff, then there’s myself. We also have Blaine Harrison from Mystery Jets, who I don’t know if you’ve seen him DJ but he’s really interesting. It’s a quality line-up.
Charlie on the future:
These kind of shows continue beyond the summer, they are just the beginning. It’s evolving. In the present climate, with the arts funding cuts, everyone’s panicking. I’ve always said though, I don’t want to have to jump through hoops to make my project happen, ‘cause I’ve never had to in the past. My thing has always been to do something with brands who will support you if the idea is good. They’re not just gonna say ‘if we do this for you, you have to fill out X amount of forms, do X amount of workshops, make sure you reach X amount of demographic’, so it’s almost a renaissance type of funding in the arts, where the brands are the ones who can facilitate good things.
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