Just the name – DJ Fresh – presents a lifelong challenge. How can a producer live up to that name some two decades after he was first bowled over by the newness and innovation of rave music? How, in a genre as notoriously demanding and sometimes conservative as drum'n'bass, can he keep opening up new possibilities without losing the buzz and aggression that his core constituency demand? How can someone passionate about the ideals of the underground reach out to new audiences without selling those ideals out or cheapening his music? How, in short, does DJ Fresh stay fresh?
The answer, perhaps, lies in the same urges that drove Daniel Stein to get involved with music in the first place. In his early teens at boarding school he was surrounded by people who took privilege for granted, while he had a very different understanding of life, his father being a self-made man who had come to England from South Africa with nothing aged 21. Already an outsider, Dan saw no reason to change himself to fit in, nor to accept a system that required everyone to be alike in order to be accepted. So when friends' older brothers began to return from early acid house raves with tapes, flyers and tales of people from all classes and backgrounds brought together by hedonism - “united under a musical banner” as he puts it – he was like a moth to a flame.
The music on those rave tapes also grabbed him instantly. Having learned piano from an early age, he had a natural affinity for keyboards, and loved the electronic side of his parents' record collection – artists like Tomita and Jean-Michel Jarre – as well as the “spacier, more experimental” indie bands of the late eighties like My Bloody Valentine, Happy Mondays, Spacemen 3 and Ride. Rave music combined all the elements that he loved in these acts with a huge injection of energy and, crucially, the DIY ethos that a huge record could literally be made in your bedroom. So before he was even old enough to get to a club or rave, Dan set about working out how to capture that energy in his own beats.
Dan went on to university, but his attention was really on the rave scene – and when he made contact with pirate station Scandal FM in the London suburbs aged 19, his initiation was complete and he dropped out to pursue music and DJing full time. There he met mainstay of the fledgling jungle scene MC Moose, who provided his introduction to DJs like Mickey Finn, Kenny Ken and Andy C, who in turn supported his home-produced tunes and provided the confidence that he was on the right track. By 1995, he had made contact with the Renegade Hardware label and got his first tunes out, and via the label met Future Forces – with whom he would go on to form the legends that are Bad Company three years later.
Like most people in the mid-1990s, his clubbing wasn't limited to one sound; he took on “a good range of underground electronic sounds”, with a lot of his friends being into the techno scene in particular. But it was jungle / drum'n'bass that he felt really had the rebel nature that had first attracted him to raving, and also “the progression within the beats, the futuristic sounds, the open-mindedness that could incorporate this huge range of different styles and producers.” From his first session on Scandal FM onwards, his life was focused on the studio, on trying to pursue that progression and bring the musicality of his early electronic influences into his productions.
Through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, drum'n'bass became less fashionable and more insular – but for a long time, Dan didn't feel this to be a problem. His life was a whirl of non-stop studio work and gigging at the weekends, Bad Company's success was stellar, and there was always a new audience to play to somewhere in the world. “Because drum'n'bass is always changing,” he says, “it gets big in different coutnries at different times as it matches up to different tastes. There always seems to be somewhere where it's new and exciting to people!” Dan began experimenting with live musicians too, and when Bad Company split, he was already nurturing the Australian trio Pendulum, who he introduced to his musician friends – but that's another story.
By 2004, though, frustration was starting to set in. The drum'n'bass scene was into its second decade, but having been forged in the chaotic black economy of the rave era had never learned to get itself on a proper business footing – and it felt isolated from the rest of the music world. But once again, Dan didn't see why he should operate like everyone else – and it was around this time that labels like Breakbeat Kaos (which Dan founded along with Adam F), Hospital and others made a concerted effort to set this straight, to become “better educated and more stable, to provide a proper platform and think long-term.” At the same time, Dan began to bring the melody and chord structures that had always been latent in his music to the forefront, stepping sideways from the rock influence that Pendulum were now exploring and into rich, complex song structures.
This idea that drum'n'bass could produce fully-structured songs as a matter of course chimed with a new generation of artists like High Contrast and Chase & Status, and – seeing that the labels had their act together and could be relied on to promote records on multiple platforms – radio began to take notice too. There were fresh faces on the dancefloor, too: young clubbers with diverse tastes brought bright colours and a party mentality into the clubs, steadily chipping away at the dark, moody, male-dominated stereotyping of the scene. Drum'n'bass was reborn and ready to take on the mainstream once more.
DJ Fresh releases have continued to push this renaissance further. Pushing the sound he describes as “future jungle”, he's managed to make tracks like last year's vocal rework of his 2008 track “Gold Dust” reach out to new audiences, while keeping the rude energy of the initial 1990s explosion at their heart. A perfect example was his recent genre-defying top 5 hit ‘Earthquake, a collaboration with Diplo and Dominique Young Unique. And as the support of Zane Lowe and Annie Mac has placed his tracks at the heart of the new eclecticism, so he has begun to expand his tempo range. Inspired by newcomers like Flux Pavilion, Jack Beats and Dillon Francis, he has taken on jump-up dubstep, electro, Dutch house and even moombahton rhythms, which provided the foundations for his recent top 3 hit ‘Dibby Dibby Sound. “Now I can begin with the song and the vocal instead of the beat,” he says, “and let it take the tempo that suits it... but always keeping the energy of drum'n'bass underlying it.”
Forthcoming tracks will feature a number of vocalists and songwriting partnerships – but one in particular has proved successful. Dan's first attempts at writing with singer Sian Evans resulted in new dubstep-tempo single “Louder”, and they found working together so easy that a further six Fresh songs featuring Sian are in the can. With 2 million record sales, two number 1 singles and a further two top 5 singles to his name, he is infectiously optimistic about the next phase of his career, seeing the current climate as being “as open-minded as those very first days of rave, back in 1990 or whenever when I started to get what it was really about”. Refusing as ever to fit anyone's expectations, and always driven by that idea of diverse minds uniting under a musical banner, he's not resting on his reputation but still pushing forward – still Fresh after all these years.
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