“By 1994 I was concentrating on jungle. I thought I was over the old school and wanted to move forward. But I always loved the piano’s from the past, so I wanted to try something different with my jungle. I didn’t want to make something dark. I did it under Norty But Nice as I didn’t want anyone to know it was me” Roy AKA Ellis Dee AKA Norty But Nice tells me over the phone as we catch up to discuss this release in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Roy is always upbeat, and every time we chat its always a laugh. He is such a wealth of knowledge and for me, he is the daddy of the rave culture. He had the coolest name and played the coolest sets. A rave wasn’t a rave unless Ellis Dee was on the bill!
So it was a sunny evening in April 2020 when we chatted on the phone. With us all stuck at home on lockdown, it has been quite a productive time for music in the UK, though the unpredictability during these times has made me slow down my release schedule, which is a shame as I have many more Ellis Dee releases to share with you all. But lets for now focus on this release and why a new production name? “The name Norty But Nice came from my love of the Naughty Naughty label run by Wishdokta around the same time” he tells me. “It was a label that did unofficial remixes using bits and bobs of other tunes. What I was doing at that time was very similar as I was sampling bits and bobs off other tunes, so Norty But Nice just fitted. The label design was by some guy, I cant remember who it was now. I had an idea of what I wanted and he knocked it up, but no idea if it was done by hand or on computer, its so long ago now!”
Ellis Dee in his Underground Studio, Bethnal Green – 1993.
So how come you didnt move over to jungle when so many others were doing so? “When jungle first came out I didn’t like it to start with, it was just too dark and the beats were too experimental. To me it seemed like people just wanted to show off their technical skills rather than make a tune for people to dance to. I started to get into it when they started using reggae samples and the beats were more rolling. I thought ‘you know what, this is a sound that I like’. If it wasn’t danceable at the end of the day, it wasn’t for me. As a DJ I played the more uplifting stuff and that’s what I wanted to make” Roy explains. “I wanted to try something out myself but didn’t want anyone to know it was me, and they didn’t! It did pretty well sales wise as it crossed over nicely with the jungly uplifting vibes that Krome & Time were making as Higher Level. I was torn between jungle and the happier vibes but I always loved a good piano riff. I had the tune knocking about in the studio for a while unfinished, so when the time felt right, I got it finished off and released it”.
By this point in Roy’s career he had settled in Bethnal Green and had the Underground Studios which was a basement studio where all the Rhythm Section tunes were recorded. It was filled with producers and many famous names swinging by and catching the vibe; Krome and Time, Kenny Ken, Darren Jay, Mark and Everson from Ratpack, DJ Rap, Randall, MC Fats, MC Fearless and MC MC as well as a load of others Roy has long forgotten about. The studio consisted of an Ensoniq ASR10, which was basically the workhorse for Roy’s productions during this period. He was running Steinberg’s Notator via an Atari 1040ST and had a Novation Bass Station keyboard which was an incredible synth that was an instant success when it was released. It was great at recreating 303 riffs and fat Moog sounds and had a wealth of effects that were midi controlled. It was basically one of the first new analogue synths to hit the markets since the 1980’s. There was also the Roland JD800 on site but this got little use by this point in time and was a castaway from the Rhythm Section era. And of course a trusty pair of Technic’s 1210 which helped supply some of this releases samples! But the one thing that caught my ear and made Roy laugh when I instantly picked up on it was the use of the amazing E-mu Vintage Keys. A rack mounted bit of kit that, to me, just oozes 90’s drum and bass. The Vintage Keys was a piece of gear that Dave had in his studio when I first started making music with him and it features heavily on our first few Aquasky releases on Moving Shadow. So to hear it in another track just took me back to when I was 21 again! Great memories.
Roy with Earl Falconer from UB40, 1995.
At the time of this release there was a big void between the two genres that split out of the hardcore scene; Jungle and Happy Hardcore. For myself, I was heavily in the jungle camp. I was into the dark noise and the heavy vibes. I doubled down on this point of view even harder when in 1994, DJ Brisk use to come over to our house at 7am in the morning to make happy hardcore with Dave. There is nothing more likely to put you off a style of music than to be woken at that time of the morning by 160bpm piano riffs and chipmunk vocals! So for me, I never attended a Happy Hardcore rave, I was that moody kid skanking away to the half beat bassline’s of jungle. But for Roy, who was the poster boy of the rave and hardcore scene, it wasn’t that easy to just step away from your roots – “When hardcore carried on speeding up and the vocals and riffs were getting faster and faster it didn’t sound credible anymore. I couldn’t carry on with it and that was the time I made my move towards the jungle sound” Roy recounts. “Quite a few people around this time were transitioning, not just the DJ’s and producers, but also the ravers. So, around this time, it wasn’t hard to transition as the audience were on the same trajectory” adding “There were others out there who made the switch into jungle before me, like Mickey Finn, Kenny Ken and Darren Jay. They moved over really early, so were known as the pioneers of the sound. In reflection it would of been nice to have been known as one of those pioneers but hey ho, its just the way it goes. You played what you wanted to at that time”.
By 1994 Rhythm Section had stopped working together, so Roy had a void to fill – “We weren’t interested in doing sped up vocals, pianos and making tunes at 150bpm. So we just didnt see a future for the group and went our separate ways. Its funny actually, as still, to this day, people come up to me and say ‘I didn’t know you were in Rhythm Section’. I always thought everyone knew!”
Another reason that Roy wanted to do this project under an alias was to get a feel for the support before he started making jungle tunes under the name Ellis Dee. This release was between the end of Rhythm Section and the start of his time on White House as Ellis Dee, so he was able to gauge audience feedback to his new direction without them knowing it was him. “I played the tune a lot during 1994, as did Bunter, Slipmat and Vibes. It was also supported by Frost at Vengeance 5 at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, June 1994 and by Sy at Hard & Fast at Madisons in Bournemouth, July 1994. I found that out by checking Discogs!” Roy laughs.
DJ Stix and Ellis Dee in the studio, 1993.
Through our chat I found myself wondering why, as Ellis Dee was such a big name, he hadn’t released the record through a bigger label to benefit from their fan base? “At that point you could sell anything half decent on an unknown label or a white label. It didn’t have to be released on a big label to do well. Though I have no idea how many of this record we actually pressed and how many were sold, its too long ago now, but I know it did alright. By this point in time though I had become good mates with Mo at Mo’s Music, who distributed the record for me. I got to know him personally and he was always straight up and clear cut with me and paid me on time, which is why I started to record later that year on his White House Records label with the classic ‘One For The Ladies’ under the name of Ellis Dee”.
And this is where we wrap up this interview, before we embark upon the next chapter of the Ellis Dee story – ‘The White House Years’. Until then, make sure you keep things naughty but always keep things nice, ya hear!