Coldcut’s version of Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full’ launched their career and reinvented the concept of the remix at the same time.
This year Coldcut — Matt Black and Jonathan More — celebrated the 30th anniversary of their partnership. Over the span of those three decades, they were initially responsible for ground-breaking remixes and their own productions (featuring singers including Lisa Stansfield and Yazz), before they diversified into the development of desktop video, computer games and apps, and launched their highly successful independent label Ninja Tune.
More and Black, originally a pair of part-time DJs, first met in 1986 when the former, having halved his hours as an art teacher, was working three days a week behind the counter at Reckless Records in London’s Soho. Black, whose day job was as a computer programmer, was a regular customer and the pair began chatting and bonding over certain much-coveted records on the funk, soul and jazz scene known as rare groove at the time. But it was the Lessons series of sample collage 12-inch hip hop records made by American duo Double Dee & Steinski, featuring creative cut-ups of the likes of Little Richard, the Supremes and James Brown that first sparked their imaginations.
“We were some of the only people who’d forked out 45 quid a copy to get those records,” remembers Black. “That was because they were really fascinating artifacts representing a new way you could put music together, by cutting it up and making collages out of it. Hip hop was itself a new culture and energy and we were really into it. These records sort of put that party on plastic really. So we thought, well, we’d love to do something like this.”
So began the journey to More and Black becoming Coldcut and making their name — and having their first hit — with their landmark 1987 ‘Seven Minutes Of Madness’ remix of New York hip hop pairing Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full’. It was to be the first remix to enjoy chart success in its own right, reaching number 15 in the UK.
“I think we knew that we were onto a winner with it,” says Matt Black, looking back on their creative and commercial breakthrough.
“We’d cracked something there,” adds Jonathan More. “But we didn’t expect it to blow up in the way that it did though.”
‘Beats + Pieces’
Before joining forces as Coldcut, Jonathan More had been DJ’ing on the London warehouse party scene and hosting the Meltdown Show on pirate radio station Kiss FM. Matt Black meanwhile had already begun experimenting with making Double Dee & Steinski-styled sample collages using the ‘pause button’ method on cassette with a Yamaha four-track.
“I’d been living with a bunch of guys and we were just into getting high and making tapes,” Black remembers. “We’d try to outdo each other doing these pause button edits, to make them more and more complicated. Of course, there was no ‘undo’. In fact you could never be sure that you’d got it right until you went back and listened, and to go back and listen meant you had to stop what you were doing, which meant that you could then get an error when you went back to where you were. So it was a pretty risky process. That sort of thing did provide a challenge to get right.
“I was looking for a partner to work with, so meeting Jonathan who was really on the same track as me, it was like, OK, let’s work together and put this out as Coldcut.”
The first product of their collective labour was ‘Say Kids What Time Is It?’, a 12-inch white label single released in January 1987, cutting together James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’, Ennio Morricone, Sly Stone and even ‘I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)’ from The Jungle Book. The track received much attention on the UK underground scene as the first British breaks record. “That was recorded on cassette,” says Black. “Just pause button-edited together and then put in the Yamaha four-track for another couple of tracks of scratching over the top.”
For the more elaborate follow-up, ‘Beats + Pieces’ (featuring everyone from Led Zeppelin to Kurtis Blow), Coldcut used a professional recording studio for the first time in their career. “With that we were quite lucky,” says More. “Kiss FM had been given some studio time in exchange for some advertising. The boss Gordon Mac didn’t really know what to do with it, and he said, ‘Well, do you guys want to go and use it?’ So we had a day in a studio in Camden.”
“It had a two-inch 24-track machine,” says Black. “I remember working out on graph paper how to try and allocate the tracks.”
“We’d done a fair few kind of rehearsals and versions of it at Matt’s place,” says More. “I digitised all the cassette sketches a while ago and there’s quite a load of ideas that we didn’t use.”
Working with engineer Raine Shine on ‘Beats + Pieces’ opened Coldcut up to the wider possibilities of the recording studio. “Raine introduced us to the concept of the tape loop,” says Black. “I’d been trying to edit four minutes of the backing track together on cassette, from only a one-bar loop of Led Zeppelin’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’. Raine showed us how to do this tape loop which literally involved getting the break off vinyl, recording it on to tape, copying that multiple times and then editing that together using a reel-to-reel editing technique, which of course is a lot more precise. That became a physical loop of tape which ran off the half-inch machine and around a broom handle which we sort of strapped to a desk.”
Along with the various samples and scratches added, the pair used turntable stabs from rock records by Ted Nugent, Yes and Grand Funk Railroad, adding delay to them for further enhancement. “There’s no delay in Double Dee & Steinski or Grandmaster Flash’s records,” Black points out. “But there were certain records that did use it, like Steady B’s Bring The Beat Back, which is a dub hip hop record with these echoed stabs. I remember that was pretty influential.
“Run-DMC had made a record called ‘Rock Box’ [in 1984], a sort of hip hop-rock fusion. I didn’t actually like the track that much but it was like, Yeah, mixing rock and hip hop, that’s cool. So I spent a weekend going through all my mate’s heavy metal and rock records, which I didn’t like, but just trying to find those good scratchable sounds. We took our own delay down there to put the echo on the stabs. This cheap Maxim digital delay which was really shit quality, but we loved it.”
‘Paid In Full’
At the same time, Jonathan More was a big fan of go-go, the Washington DC syncopated funk sound that was popular in the mid-’80s and championed in the UK by Island Records offshoot Fourth & Broadway’s A&R man Julian Palmer. “I actually flew to Washington DC, to buy go-go records, like an idiot,” laughs More. “I was seriously into it. And I think I probably pestered Fourth & Broadway to get free copies of various go-go records that they were putting out at the time.”
Palmer was also aware of the cut-up records that Coldcut were releasing. As a result, the A&R man approached the duo — without telling his bosses at the label — to remix Eric B & Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full’ from their 1987 debut album of the same name. “He’d got his ear to the ground,” Black says of Palmer. “He knew we’d been putting out these underground releases and he thought, There’s something there. I don’t think we were his first choice. I think we were the third choice and the other people he didn’t get to do it. But we jumped at the chance.”
Since this was a furtive, exploratory commission, however, Palmer wasn’t able to supply Coldcut with the master tape of the track. “He gave us, like, 10 copies of the album,” More notes with a chuckle.
“Literally he gave us vinyl copies of the album and that was it,” says Black. “We just took elements. Like ‘Beats + Pieces’, the ‘Paid In Full’ remix didn’t even start in a studio. It was a small corridor in my flat. I had a couple of decks and the four track and we would try things out.”
One of the key elements that was to make Coldcut’s ‘Paid In Full’ remix stand out was their use of a vocal sample of Israeli singer Ofra Haza’s ‘Im Nin’alu’ from her 1984 album Yemenite Songs. “I’d been turned onto it by Charlie Gillett who was a Capital Radio DJ,” says More. “He was sort of the John Peel of world music. Fantastic DJ, lovely man, sadly passed now. I guested on his show on Capital and he played that record and I was like, I’m gonna have that. DJ’ing out, ‘slurping’ was one of the many crazy expressions we had to describe to people what we were doing.”
“Slurping was sort of you’re mixing it in but you’re not too worried about whether it’s in time or not because maybe it hasn’t got a beat,” Black explains. “So we slurped it in and it was like, ‘Yeah this could work, but it doesn’t sound quite in tune. OK if we pitch it down...’ And it was minus eight on the turntable, which is as far down as you can go. But at minus eight it was perfectly in tune, and in time effectively as well, by good coincidence. That turned out to be the hook.”
Elsewhere the elements that the pair took from the original ‘Paid In Full’ included the scratching of the line “This stuff is really fresh” from Fab 5 Freddy’s ‘Change The Beat’, the distinctive rolling bass line from Dennis Edwards and Siedah Garrett’s 1984 single ‘Don’t Look Any Further’ and the beat from the Soul Searchers’ ‘Ashley’s Roachclip’ from the 1974 album, Salt Of The Earth.
For their remix, Coldcut wanted to employ the same method as ‘Beats + Pieces’ and so requested two days in the Island Records studio to work again with engineer Raine Shine. “We actually had a sampler by then,” says Black. “We’d got a Casio RZ-1 drum machine, with 0.8 seconds sampling time, which was just enough to get four drum hits. But we wanted to do something with better quality, so the next step was to use a Bel delay as a sampler. Again it was Raine who showed us that you could take a loop into it and then edit the start and end point.
“What was weird was it seemed to enhance the bass of the kick drum. The Bel unexpectedly added that to it. So then we had a solid looping drum break, which we laid down for several minutes. That became the backbone of what we could lay stuff on top of. We were able to cut in bits of the vocal on top of that.
“This was our first use of an SSL desk as well, so you could do automation and write into it when you wanted which tracks to cut in and out. That was a way to make the mix more intricate and to automate the structure of it more.”
For the more complex scratching that Coldcut wanted to hear on ‘Paid In Full’, they brought in London hip hop crew Bass Inc’s DJ Cell. “He was a wicked talent,” says Black. “By far one of the best scratchers that I’d come across. So that was a good extra element to it. “
Among the other tracks Coldcut sampled for ‘Paid In Full’ were James Brown’s ‘Hot Pants’, the Peech Boys’ ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’, the Salsoul Orchestra’s ‘Ooh I Love It’ and Long Island rap combo Original Concept’s ‘Pump That Bass’. At the same time, Coldcut pulled out another Eric B & Rakim track from the Paid In Full album, ‘I Know You Got Soul’, for the key “pump up the volume” sample.
Non-hip hop spoken-word samples, such as Humphrey Bogart from the film The Big Sleep (“Wait a minute, you better talk to my mother”) and the standout “This is a journey into sound” introduction (by actor Geoffrey Sumner) were spun into the track using an ad-hoc technique the pair had first used on Kiss FM.
“We would mix spoken word and jingles,” says More. “They didn’t have a radio-style jingle cart machine as they were called in those days. Couldn’t afford it. So we used to get computer cassette tapes, which were like 15 minutes long, or something, the shortest cassette tapes. You were able to actually unscrew them, unlike a lot of other cassette tapes. So using the same pause button technique, we’d record a phrase onto those cassettes, unscrew them, cut the leader tape off, fit the tape back in again, and get it so that it was spot on, so as soon as we pressed the cassette button, it would play the phrase.
“I’d found a record called A Journey Into Stereophonic Sound and actually the music on it’s really boring. But there’s this guy introducing it. I took it home and put it on and that was the first thing that came up on it and it was like, Yes! It’s like gold mining basically, y’know. You sift through it. Most of it’s crap, but then every so often you find a nugget. We used that as an introduction to the record. It’s a good signature sample.”
One of the more surprising and unexpected samples on ‘Paid In Full’ is actually from the BBC Records album, Bang On A Drum, featuring songs from the kids’ TV shows Play School and Play Away. “All the hipsters were into these old James Brown and Dennis Coffey records and so on,” Black points out, still amused. “But you see a record called Bang On A Drum and you’re gonna buy that because you never know, there might just be something.”
“We put that in pretty much at the end of the mix and purposely didn’t allow any of it to kind of leak out,” says More. “It’s faded so that nobody else could take it [laughs].”
Plastering Over The Cracks
Even with an SSL desk at their disposal, the creation of ‘Paid In Full’ was still very much a process of trial and error. “There’s a sort of dodgy edit [at 3.13],” says Black. “We spent ages on it, but you can still hear it. We didn’t know how to get out of it, so we just sort of brutally cut in and put some delay on it and hoped that no one would notice. Sometimes when there were the joins and things, you sort of had to paint over them. One technique was to put some echo on, or another technique was to have some kind of exciting sound just before, so you get distracted by that and you don’t notice the backing.”
Although a record comprised entirely of samples, ‘Paid In Full’ was actually quite a tricky track to mix. “The complicated thing,” says More, “is that all of those records we’d sampled contained their own reverb. So the issue is that if you want to start adding reverb, which is a traditional kind of mixing element, you can very quickly make something that’s sample-based sound incredibly muddy and shit.
“Raine was a great engineer with a great ear. She was very, very careful about how to balance that record. Really it was a question of EQ’ing it so that it sounded really big and tough with judicious use of reverb and delay. I think there’s probably a tiny bit of reverb on the scratching to sort of seat it in. But actually for a traditionally trained engineer, it was probably quite a difficult thing to mix, ’cause it’s outside of their comfort zone.”
The success of the ‘Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness)’ remix was a huge profile-lifting boost for Coldcut upon its release, which was a fitting reward for the fact that they were only given £750 for it at the time. “It sold several million copies, I believe,” says Black. “Later we did a version called ‘Not Paid Enough’...”
“But we got full credit,” adds More, “which actually I think was unusual. We didn’t realise that. It seemed normal, but I think probably we were only the second or third remix artist to get a proper equal billing.”
“[The record label] could do that ‘cause it didn’t cost them any money and we were hip, so actually they gained from that,” says Black. “But it did get us on the front cover of the NME which was a pretty decent result, and so it was a big moment in our career.”
Apparently though, Eric B & Rakim, who suddenly found themselves with a surprise UK hit, had mixed reactions to the track: Rakim loved it but Eric B dismissed it as “girly disco music”. “Some people say that Eric said that about a different mix that was done of it at the time,” stresses More. “But they came over to do Top Of The Pops for it.”
“Imagine, they don’t know anything about this record,” says Black. “It’s not their single from the album, they don’t know that anything’s been done. Suddenly they get a phone call from the record company: ‘Guys, your record ‘Paid In Full’ is a hit in the UK, you’ve got to fly over and be on Top Of The Pops.’ They come over here and they get shoved onto Top Of The Pops, which was lots of girlies dancing around handbags.”
“It’s par for the course, as a hip hop artist though,” laughs More. “Having a good old whinge.”
‘Doctorin’ The House’
1988 was the year that Coldcut broke through as hit-making producers in their own right, with ‘Doctorin’ The House’, featuring London-born singer Yazz, which reached number six, before the pair produced her number one dance cover version of Otis Clay’s ‘The Only Way Is Up’. “We started doing our own programming and then used samples on top of that,” says Black, “so that took it to another level. For ‘Doctorin’ The House’, the drums were programmed on the RZ-1. The sounds weren’t that great though, and in the studio our engineer did manage to sort of beef them up a bit. The bass line on that is a Roland MC-202, and I hadn’t got the manual for it. It took me days of fucking around to get it to loop, ‘cause you had to get the notes to add up to 128 and I didn’t realise this.
“That record was very much us trying to emulate these Chicago records where it was like, ‘That’s just a drum machine and a sequencer and a sample on top. We could do that.’ For years our sampling workhorse was the Casio FZ-1 and then as the sequencer we used an Atari with C-Lab Creator. That was where my background in computing became useful because I wasn’t intimidated. We were able to start using that as our main engine for putting stuff together. It was the sequencer, the sampler, combined with turntable as our sources. That was how we went forward.”
Coldcut, however, were interested in more than simply music. In 1988, they formed Hex with Miles Visman and Rob Pepperell, a ‘multi-media pop group’ using Amiga computers to create the Top Banana video game and the Global Chaos CDTV CD-ROM featuring techno tracks and ‘rave graphics’. “I think we realised that there was a fruitful relationship between making music in a cut-up hip hop sampling style and then applying that to visuals,” says Black. “We realised we could do computer games, we could do desktop video. All these things could feed into a sort of combined art form, and so that was kind of the bridge into the next phase of our career.”
Having been signed to Big Life Records and then Arista, Coldcut soon tired of trying to churn out the hits. This led in 1990 to the launch of their independent label Ninja Tune, with them producing DJ Food’s series of Jazz Breaks albums (which helped to shape the trip hop and down-tempo genres) and signing the likes of the Cinematic Orchestra, Amon Tobin and Bonobo.
More recently, they’ve moved into apps, creating Ninja Jamm, which allows users to remix elements or ‘Tunepacks’ by Coldcut and other Ninja Tune artists. The program’s features include the Coldcutter, which chops any sample into ‘cuts’ and offers various ways of manipulating them. “Ninja Jamm is a culmination of more than 20 years work actually,” says Black. “We can trace it back to Top Banana, which had this ability to randomly chop stuff up and make these drum fills. That became the Coldcutter later on. I’ll say one thing — we haven’t made any money on the software, but it’s our R&D side, and we use it to perform, and we’re constantly updating it. I think the next version will be more of a fully featured music-making tool.”
In terms of their own music, this year the pair put out their latest release, Outside The Echo Chamber, a collaboration with Adrian Sherwood under the name Coldcut x On-U Sound. These days More and Black are very much aficionados of Ableton Live. “It’s the speed of being able to do ideas really more than anything,” says More. “That forms the basis of a creative part of any track. But subsequent to that, those tracks can come out of Ableton and go into lots of other different programs, have work done on them, come back into Ableton, go out again. So I do use Logic as well because some of the people we were working with use it. Sometimes I’ll mix stuff in Logic, ‘cause it’s got things that Ableton doesn’t necessarily have.”
“We used Cubase as well for a few years,” adds Black. “But with Ableton, you’ve got the session layout and then the arrange layout, so you’re able to jam in the session and then record that into the arrangement, then edit that later. In a way that’s what’s great about modern electronic music is that you can freak out, but then rather than all that being lost you can then take what you’ve recorded multi-track and refine it in an editing process.”
Coldcut recently developed MidiVolve for Ableton, a Max For Live arpeggiator, riff generator and sequencer. “Over the years we’ve designed various tools and toys, visual and audio, and they’ve not really been proper products,” says Black. “I’ve been a bit frustrated sometimes that I think actually these ideas are really good but they don’t fit into any existing box. So working with Ableton is a chance to work with one of the top companies.
“The MidiVolve product is an idea which is built still on the Coldcutter: taking something, chopping it into pieces and putting it back together. Again, it’s cut and paste on a kind of micro level. It’s been quite successful. It’s the best-selling Max For Live patch this year actually. It’s become our first software product to actually make a profit.”
Thirty years on, Coldcut continue to push forward and innovate. But does it really feel like they’ve been working together for three decades?
“I dunno, it’s one of those strange things that it seems only momentary,” says More. “It seems like it’s just started.”
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” Black laughs. “We look back and we can say, ‘Well, we could’ve done more, we could’ve sold millions.’ But if we had made millions, we probably would’ve Mansioned Out, which is our phrase for when you make a lot of money but you probably end up stuck in your mansion and don’t make anything interesting again.
“We’ve been very lucky to just be able to make enough money to keep doing what we do and keep pushing on with it. Building up a music tribe has been the key to the success really. Y’know, with advances in longevity, technology, we could be good for another 30 years, or another 300 years. We’ll have to see. But we’re still really into it.”