Interview with ThatManMonks

December 6, 2013

In my opinion, it all depends on the brief you’re given on a track-by-track basis. I guess it’s all about interpretation, and what you’re asked to do with it. If the original artist likes it, the label likes it, and you like it yourself then you’re probably on the right path.

ThatManMonks has quickly made a name for himself and has bursted onto the scene in 2013.  However his history goes back a lot more than that.  Not only has he played alongside Carl Craig, Phil Asher, Recloose, Sir Vinyl Instinct & Grandmaster Flash (the list goes on by the way) his music sounds like a masterpiece either Moodymanc or MCDE would create.  We caught up with the rising star to see what he’s all about.

How did you get into Djing?

I’d collected records since childhood, without ever meaning to really. Most of the hip hop and stuff I was into was import vinyl only, so by the time I moved away from home I had amassed a little collection. Getting into house and dance stuff changed it up for me though. I remember living with a few mates and one of them had decks set up. I had a go and took to it pretty quickly, learning house based beat mixing first really. When I got my own turntables I got more eclectic. Though I’d done some house parties and mixtapes, I had my first residency doing Hip Hop, Soul, and RnB at The Forum in about 2000, and got asked to be a resident at ‘The Store’ (legendary eclectic night in Sheffield) from that.

What type of music did you use to mix with back when you started out? Does any of it still creep into your sets these days?

I’ve kinda touched on how I started with house and 4/4 (probably leaning more towards the NY and New Jersey stuff) early on, but then quickly moving towards hip hop and soul. From there breaks, reggae, and disco, and then loads of stuff came onto my radar like broken beat and 2-step that opened me up to most things…. I’d like to think my eclectic side creeps in, even if it’s just as obvious influences and references in a straight club set. At ‘Join The Dots’ ,which I do bi-monthly with Sunit Vasir and James Mountain, we try to find room for it all, and it is great to get the opportunity sometimes.

There is so much good music around lately, it’s frightening, especially if you scratch under the surface of populist stuff. From a house perspective, I’m really checking for everything by people like Sauce 81, Lay Far, Ny*Ak, Opolopo, Max Graef, Seven Davis Jr, Ossie, HNNY, S3A, and Pittsburgh Track Authority amongst others, as well as my obvious staples like Andres, Osunlade, MCDE, Moodymann, Kid Sublime, and Theo Parrish…. I could (but won’t) do another list for hip hop/soul, and I’m always stumbling upon old bits and rarities from funk, jazz, and disco.

What do you look for on the dance floor to know you’ve made that connection with the crowd?

The old adage of finding the best female dancers in the room and playing to them, as they’ll get the floor moving, is probably still the one! I like to think you can do it by educating people to newer or less well-known music as well as being obvious, so long as it’s good music. If you get to play for a couple of hours or more, it’s easier to take people on more of a journey, with highs and lows and mood changes and so forth. That’s probably the most fun for me, and the best way to really try to make a connection.

You’ve said that you “don’t like the fact that house music can be defined and split into sections,” that you “think it’s essentially 4/4 music and there’s room for it all within the same sphere.” Why do you think you have this attitude towards house music when most British people seem far too keen to dream up the next sub-genre and label it? Do you think this compartmentalisation of music has a negative impact on the overall scene? Who’s most guilty of this attitude for you? On the flip, who for you best straddles these self-imposed boundaries like a care-free giant of all?

I think I said that mainly with regards to deejaying. There’s more room for stylistic change in an evening than we see at a lot of nights currently. I think there’s much more scope and fun to be had deejaying if you’re prepared to push the boundaries a little. I have different friends who describe tech house as ‘too ploddy’, or some soulful house as ‘too minty’, for a whole evening, so, I think if it’s around 115-120bpm or so, anything goes. Definitely the compartmentalising of the genre into small sub sections is, at best, lazy journalism, and at worst damaging to a scene that won’t be this overground and exposed for too long. As soon as the mainstream finds the next ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ then it’s back to the underground for most of us, so we might as well all be in it together instead of sub-dividing ourselves, and I think the best deejay’s in the genre are well aware of that.

As well as DJing, you produce your own music. How did you get into that?

Kinda by accident really. I’d played a bit of Guitar for a while, been DJing for a good while, and bought an Akai MPC 2000 XL because of, probably, my love for J Dilla and Moodymann records. Without realising it, I was developing the tools to produce for a while before I had ever thought about doing it. My friend Chris (Bare Knuckle Soul) heard that I had an MPC that I was messing around, invited me to his studio, and I was hooked. I’m lucky that it always felt totally organic to be making tracks, and, having friends like Pete Simpson and Ross Orton around just sped things along.

What type of stuff were you making during those first forays into music production?

Not massively dissimilar to what I do today really. A lot of hip hop and soul tempo’d stuff, deep house and broken beat; I guess kind of what you’d hear in a lot of the Small Arms Fiya releases at the time. I hadn’t really been doing it for very long at all before we had remixes and releases out there (looking back, it shows a little too!).

How did you feel after you’d made your first track?

Hehheh! Good. But, like, I needed to do another one, And that there was, and always is, plenty of room for improvement.

How has your production style evolved over the years?

For me, it’s always about improving artistically, though it took me a while to acknowledge the scientific side. The one thing I had to really focus on when deciding to come back to production was the more technical side of sound engineering. My way was always to approach it organically, and trust my ears, and I’m not much of a manual reader! That said, you have to get to grips with the basic principles, and which ‘rules’ can be bent or broken. I now feel like I’ve done that, although there’s always something new to learn. I’m always trying to improve my playing and writing on whatever instruments are lying around,; learning to work better alongside vocalists and musicians; trying to get the best out of everybody. And communicating effectively is a huge part of it too. Oh, and I’m blessed to have people like Pete Simpson, Ross Orton, and, Chris Duckenfield around to help and advise when I need it!

What technology out there has had the greatest influence / helped with this evolution in style?

Personally, the most important piece of equipment for me is the MPC (2000 XL). It’s the foundation point of most of what I try and do. I love the sound of it, and how intuitive it is to play/use. I like to play a beat with the quantize off, rather than ‘see’ or ‘draw’ one, though I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ way; it’s just that’s the most natural way for me. Even though I don’t always use the MPC, or use samples, that way of making music has had a massive influence on how I think about putting music together. Also, learning to play instruments better, at least a little, has also been a massive help with composition and in working with musicians and vocalists when they come through.

Who are the major influences on both you as a DJ and a producer?

As a producer, definitely J Dilla, Moodymann and also the Soulaquarians band. As a DJ, probably Jazzy Jeff, Spinna, and Andres. Also I love seeing people like Recloose, Mad Mats Karlsson, Benji B, and MCDE play..

Have you any advice on how to get noticed for the aspiring producers out there?

As one of those myself, I’d probably just say “do you”. It’s a lot easier to get noticed being yourself than by copying a style that’s working for someone else, or trying to figure out what’s ‘happening’ right now. Be true to your art, expect nothing other than to improve at your art, and you shouldn’t end up too disappointed with what happens. That, and being really good with social media.

You’ve also built a solid reputation as a remixer. How different is that to producing your own tracks? Do you take a different approach to each?

Really? You know, I haven’t done one for a while. To be fair, it’s kind of similar to producing your own tracks, but a lot of the initial hard work and creative process has already happened. I mean, there will often be a song or vocal to work with, and usually there’s a stylistic brief about genre or tempo, so you kinda know where you’re heading with it from the jump. For me,the fun part is about then getting creative within those set parameters….

What constitutes a good remix to you?

That’s a tough question. In my opinion, it all depends on the brief you’re given on a track-by-track basis. I guess it’s all about interpretation, and what you’re asked to do with it. If the original artist likes it, the label likes it, and you like it yourself then you’re probably on the right path.

Who out there is floating your boat remix-wise these days?

There’s so many out there, but I think that a good producer should be able to do a good job of a remix really. I’d have to say that Opolopo has knocked pretty much every remix I’ve heard him do out of the park recently, and I’ve always thought that Carl Craig is a beast when he gets the right track to reinterpret.

You’re the boss at Shadeleaf Music in Sheffield. What led you to setting up your own label?

Setting up my own label was always part of the plan, especially when I went full-time with this. I like the idea of A&Ring my own output, and it’s nice to cut out some of the length of time waiting on a release. To be honest, I thought it would be a little further down the line before I could do it, but an opportunity presented itself. And it’s great to have a friend like Chris Duckenfield to be able to sound out, as there’s not a lot he doesn’t know about this side of the game. It was really his advice when I played him some demo’s that gave me the incentive I needed to give it a go now, rather than wait.

How difficult has it been getting the label started?

There’s a lot of work involved, I’ve already learnt that much! It’s helped knowing people that do it, and by being in and around the industry for a little bit, you pick up things and develop a few contacts that can help. People like Chris, Karl Cox, Just Good Music PR, Neil Motley, Anthony at SoulOne London, Charlie at Ogle media, and a few other friends and colleagues that I’m probably forgetting to name (sorry!)have all been really supportive and encouraging, which has definitely made it easier!

<I’ve heard the logo is particularly meaningful. Can you tell us why?

Yeah, of course. The logo is an image of a very dear friend, who was really important to the music and social scene here in Sheffield, who passed away early on this year. I had been wanting to do something to commemorate him as a personal thing, and this seemed like a good idea. On speaking to his family, they really liked the idea too, our joke being that he would have wanted me to do it if he were still here.

Any advice for the fledgling labels out there?

Errrrr, I’ll get back to you on that one! I’ve probably got to learn more and realise what mistakes I’m making before I can pass that knowledge on. I’d say to get into it for the right reasons though, to want to support and develop art first and foremost, as that’s the product you’re working with. Oh, and treat everybody that works with you as you would expect to be treated yourself!

<What about yourself, what’s upcoming on your horizons?

I’m working hard on the label. Next up we have a release from Chicago-born Khalil Anthony, due in late January, which I’m really excited about. Also I’m working on some new material with J. Gordon, who is a hugely talented singer-songwriter from London, and more tracks with Dnae (who’s on the current release). I’m getting out and about deejaying and spreading the word, and am just finishing up a release for Local Talk, with Pete Simpson on one of the joints, which is pretty exciting as they’ve been smashing it lately! I’m scheduled to do another EP with my friends at Tone Control soon, I’ve been collaborating with Squarehead and Oushe Music, and have another S&M 12” due next year too.

Check out the Shadeleaf Music début by the man himself here

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