By Rose Parfitt
Since Ashley and Simone Beedle founded Afro Art in the Nineties, the label’s had its fair share of ups and downs. However, in 1999 it sailed out of the doldrums that followed their split with two Black Science Orchestra smashes, “Keep on Keeping On” and Allison David’s “Sunshine”. Beedle also draughted in his old friend Murphy as captain after he left to rejoin X-Press 2 in the wake of their huge anthem, “Lazy”. Greatest Hits (2001) covers the first period; This is Afro Art (2004) covers the second, with Murphy at the helm, and despite a recent distribution catastrophe his vessel sure is shipshape now.
“Apart from a couple of tracks, this compilation is about what I’ve been doing myself – my own A&Ring – so it’s more of a piece than the first one,” explains Murphy. Many of the artists featured, including Frogsnatcher, Ashen & Walker and The Mindset, were discovered simply by keeping an ear to the ground – by word of mouth or even a CD in the post – all very much in the spirit of Murphy-era Afro Art, the label with no “label”.
“I’ve tried to make our character as elusive as possible,” he says. “Everybody’s so tied in with this idea that you must have a logo, and you must have this image so that you can say to people, ‘I am this’. But that’s something I’m trying to get away from. So I’ve kept everything very low key. I haven’t worried about creating a lot of hype. It does make it very difficult to make money, but it’s enabled me to go musically in any direction. If I hear a good record I can say, ‘Right, let’s put it out’ and now people are really noticing what we’re doing. I mean, some of the tracks on this CD are still so current, like the Neon Hights and Black Science Orchestra. Sometimes I think we’re almost a bit too ahead of the game. I mean, if we put them out now, everybody’d go, wow.”
In fact, a lot of people did go ‘wow’ the first time round. “Jazz Room”, Murphy and Marc Woolford’s jazz-with-teeth opener has been charted by more than a hundred DJs. “It’s not just big…it’s HUGE!” said the godfather of all things jazzy, Gilles Peterson, while Spiritual South’s “Green Gold” was voted Single of the Year on his BBC Radio 1 show, Worldwide. “Soul Call” (also the first single from Murphy’s forthcoming solo album) is a big Groove Armada favourite and provided the theme tune to The Clothes Show Live 2004 (“Great! Some royalties!”). If you didn’t catch these or any of the other tracks drawn from right across the deep and wide Afro Art spectrum, either you have no turntable (most were vinyl-only releases) or you’ve had your head in a box since the Millennium.
Even when it comes to where to play, which audience to cultivate or who’s “worth” sending promos to there’s a totally fresh attitude at work here. The point for Murphy is to get the music heard, which is why the post-soviet East – that inconceivably vast area, marooned for so many years and now probably the most enthusiastic fan-base for new music on the planet – is such a big focus.
“I’ve been working constantly out there over the last year,” he says [check the links for some Eastern Block parties]. “I’ve been to Lithuania, Slovakia, Estonia – I must have done all of them, except the big one: you know, Russia – the Empire formerly known as Evil. I’m going out to Belgrade at New Year’s just to do some guy’s party! There’s not much money in it, but it’s going to be such a laugh. They’re holding it in a Turkish Bath – whether it’s in use or derelict I don’t know, but I did a similar thing in Budapest three years ago and they had it in a swimming pool filled with water and they just swam to music! The hotel rooms, god, they’re like something out of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier Spy. Honestly, I was looking for bugs. But you go to somewhere like Sarajevo and it’s such a big thing out there. You think to yourself, nobody’s going to like this stuff – and they know every record! They’re so into it. They’re like, ‘Wow! This stuff is amazing.’ It’s just that they don’t have any money.”
For many it would end there: no cash, no sales, no point. But in addition to tracking down and sending promos to dozens of clued-up radio stations in places like Bishkek (capital of Kyrgystan, former Soviet republic sandwiched between Kazakhstan and China) Murphy has pre-empted the inevitable rip’n’burn chaos by negotiating a deal with Czech, Serbian, Slovakian and Hungarian magazines to give away a free one-hour mix of the compilation.
“We’re never going to sell any CDs out there because it’s just too expensive. We’re talking the equivalent of £25 just for a 12-inch single; a CD would be like £60, so all that happens is someone gets hold of one and then copies it ad infinitem,” he explains. “This way, at least we’ll get something out of it, and being a one-hour mix makes it a bit harder to chop up. The only people who are really against downloads anyway are the big companies because they’re going to lose millions of sales on Britney Spears and Madonna. I don’t really give a toss – what’s am I losing? A hundred? And anyway, how can I say to a guy in Russia, ‘don’t download my records’? How can I ask him for a week’s wages for a 12-inch single? That would be cruel!”
It may be breaking new ground both musically and geographically, but think about this compilation’s significance a bit too hard and it starts to reflect Murphy’s history in reverse. On the B-side you’ve got the “jazz, Latin and funky soul element”, which is exactly the bug that bit him back in (“Oh god. It was such a horrible place!”) 1970s Essex. The A-side is the housier side, something that for him came (ahem) a bit later:
“At the beginning when I started out, house music came along SO later that it was like science fiction,” he says, remembering the old Mecca Dance Halls (“Fucking horrible…that’s real life-on-Mars stuff in there.”) “If you’d have said to anyone back then, ‘Yeah, house music’s going to be major!’ They’d have said, ‘Yeah yeah yeah and we’re all going to have, like, personal communicators and everybody’s going to have one on their desk and we’re going to be able to communicate with, like, anyone in the world! Go away.’ And, well, here we are.”
As soon as he was able, Murphy got the hell out of Essex and pitched up in the Smoke to cut his musical teeth at a series of groundbreaking clubs (including Jaffas at The Horseshoe, the Wag, The 100 Club and, obviously, Jazz Room at the Electric Ballroom). He opened a record shop, Fusion Records, ran the Palladin Records label for two years, became WIRE Magazine’s first DJ of the Year in 1985 and generally saw the Eighties through acid jazz and the beginnings of house. Then he disappeared, to be rescued from oblivion after a 10-year sojourn in Ireland by Mod hero Eddie Piller (to whom The Mindset’s track, “Get Set” is dedicated) and returned in 1999 to a residency at the Blue Note in Hoxton just as house music looked like giving up the ghost.
“It was a strange period,” he remembers. “That whole, huge club Ibiza scene which had been dominant for the whole of the Nineties just went. One minute people were selling 10,000 12-inch singles and all of a sudden they’re lucky to do a thousand. You’d be watching Ibiza on Sky or ITV and there’d be all these football yobbos kicking the shit out of each other. It just took that veneer of coolness off it – and once you do that the dream is gone. And also, all those people – they got old! Everyone that was doing a Balearic jobby in 1987, they’re all in their late 30s and they’re mums and dads and stuff. So I came in going, ‘Oh no! Why did I come back now, it’s all ending!’ But at the same time, that just put a whole different dynamic on everything. It’s great now, clubs have definitely gone back to the way they were, small clubs. There’s loads of little splintered scenes and it’s more interesting – a lot more interesting.”
As for the solo album, it’s scheduled for release in April 2005 and is, we’re told, “very jazz”. Inspired by getting stuck on a train in India for three days, The Trip (think “journey” not “microdot”) features the aforementioned “dub-reggae crossed with Don Drummond/The Skatalites version of the music from Seven Samurai” – to be released in Spring as the first single (apart from “Soul Call”) with a Latin jazz cover of the theme from Withnail & I on the flip. “I can’t really say that I have a method,” manages Murphy, grappling with laughter. “It’s more just playing around and seeing what happens. But I’m really pleased with it; it’s exciting. Music – I wouldn’t say it’s the most lucrative profession in the world, but it’s good fun. Beats the call centre any day of the week.”