As part of our look back at the biggest stories of 2018, here’s our interview with CJ Mackintosh, as part of our ORIGINS series.
The name CJ Mackintosh has been inexorably linked to the clubbing scene for more than 30 years, having made his name as both a former winner of the UK DMC Mix Championships, and as a key figure behind 1987 crossover dance hit Pump Up The Volume, by M|A|R|R|S.
As part of our ORIGINS series, 909originals catches up with CJ to discuss the formative years of his career, as well as the appeal of an often-called upon Jackson 5 bootleg.
Ladies and gentlemen… CJ Mackintosh.
How and where did your DJ career start off?
I started DJing in 1981, mainly at house parties. I suppose the first time I did it professionally was in 1985. I got paid £50 for a gig in a place called Flim Flam, in New Cross; I was DJing with Jonathan Moore from Coldcut. I used to go down there quite a bit, and pester them for a gig, and eventually they gave me a shot.
I was playing a real mixture of stuff back then – go-go, electro, hip hop, anything really. When I found out about scratching, I tried it out and realised I was quite good at it. But even back then, I soon realised I didn’t want to be a hip hop DJ, I wanted to be club DJ.
What were you doing to pay the bills at the time?
I had a few jobs here and there. I worked in Sainsbury’s for a bit, in the fresh department, but that didn’t really last long. I was working for my uncle’s car parts business for a while, as well as in a few warehouses.
I went to college to do bookkeeping actually, I got a diploma in that. It was around the time that computers were starting to get into offices, so I did a typing course as well. But in the end I just thought ‘I don’t want to do this’. From an early age, I knew what I wanted to do – I wanted to be a DJ.
Where did you get your musical influences?
My dad was big into jazz actually, as well as a bit of soul, and funk. But he couldn’t stand the early rap stuff when it came out, he always used to moan about it when I played it in my room.
My brother was a big inspiration for me. He was two years older, and he always seemed to be one step ahead of whatever what was going on at the time. He bought disco first, he bought go-go first, he was probably buying house records before we knew they were house records.
He used to work up in the West End, and I remember one time I was looking for a track, Let’s Get Small by Trouble Funk, so I could mix it up. There was only one place you could get it at the time, Bluebird Records on Edgeware Road, and he went up to get it on his lunch break. When he got home though, I saw he’d also bought these two other tracks; one was Adonis No Way Back, and the other was Marshall Jefferson Move Your Body, on Trax Records. It was really different, really new – I remember it sounded kind of like electro to me at the time.
The 1980s was pretty crazy actually, with the amount of different genres taking place. There was as lot to take in.
How did the Nasty Rox Inc project (a hip hop/rock crossover group, featuring CJ on scratch duties and managed by Dave Dorrell) come about?
I’d won the DMC UK Mixing Championships, and Dave rang me up, and was explaining the group to me. Nellee Hooper was originally in it, but he left to do Soul II Soul and remix Madonna, things like that.
I had always been into rock, and punk when it first started, and I thought it was a really interesting concept, to have a DJ alongside a live band. So I joined the band, and we did an album, Ca$h.
You were signed to ZTT, Trevor Horn’s label. What was it like to work with him?
Trevor Horn was originally supposed to produce the album, but he wasn’t there a lot of the time, so I suppose he was more the executive producer. The album was mainly produced by Steve Lipson, the engineer, he really taught me a lot about how to put a record together.
Unfortunately the album cost a lot of money to make, and we had a lot of guest artists on it like Keith Leblanc, the Sugar Hill Records drummer, which were expensive to bring on board. In the end, it didn’t do that well, and the whole project was dropped.
But when I look back, I think ‘what if I had never got that call from Dave?’ I probably would never have learned so much about making records. Steve really helped me out in terms of what equipment I should buy, and what I needed to know.
How did the M|A|R|R|S thing come about?
Dave had worked with Martin Young, one of the brothers in Colourbox, which went on to form M|A|R|R|S alongside A.R. Kane, and they had the basis of a track together, but they were stuck as to how bring it forward. They were thinking that they could put some scratching on it, so Dave gave me a call and I came down to the studio.
Actually, on the way to the studio himself, Dave had bought I Know You Got Soul by Eric B and Rakim, which had just been released. That had the ‘pump up the volume’ sample, and we just borrowed it.
It was put out as a white label soon after that, and there was some demand for a remix – Coldcut were in the running to remix it. But given that myself and Dave had already worked on it, we came back into the studio, and that’s when we started layering the samples on top of it. That version ended up being the one that was released, and made it to the top of the charts.
Some of the samples are really different, like when it breaks down into (Lebanese singer) Dunya Yunis’s Abu Zeluf. Where did you get the idea for that?
Somebody – probably Dave – gave me the record and told me to give it a listen. I found that sample, and it sort of worked. It’s actually sped up, the original track was at 33rpm, but on Pump Up The Volume, it’s at 45.
When the single was released, it was as a double-A side with Anitiиa (The First Time I See She Dance), which was very different. Did you have any part to play on that?
I didn’t; it was mainly Colourbox and A.R. Kane. I listened to it once, and I found it strange – it wasn’t my sort of thing.
Actually, because it was a double-A side, they ended up making most of the royalties on the track. I was credited with doing ‘scratches’ on the track, but in reality I had done a lot more than that. That was kind of disappointing, but I suppose it opened the doors for myself and Dave to do some remixing.
All the record companies wanted ‘the M|A|R|R|S boys’ to remix their track but myself and Dave were never really part of M|A|R|R|S. Not long after that, we did an Eric B and Rakim remix, and we called it the ‘Work, Rest and Play mix’; you know, like the Mars Bar..!
You were living in London around the time the acid house thing kicked off. What was it like then?
It was all kicking off. I used to do a night with Nicky Holoway called Special Branch, in a pub in London Bridge, so I went to The Trip at the Astoria quite a bit.
I didn’t get a chance to DJ there, though; at the time, everybody thought I was a hip-hop DJ, but I was into the same tunes that everybody else was playing. Most of the gigs I ended up getting were a mixture of hip hop or rare groove, things like that.
When I got then chance to play house music I relished it; because of my background, I was probably a much better mixer than a lot of the DJs around at the time..!
I read once that you were very much into ‘mixing it up’ at the time – playing a bit of house music, followed by hip hop, followed by funk or soul; things like that?
One of the places I used to play quite regularly was called Superstition, in Russell Square; it was a student night. That was a real mix of styles – I would play French Kiss, and then mix it into Public Enemy, and everyone would go mad. I reckon if you tried that today, you’d probably clear the dancefloor.
But that’s how we were brought up; we were listening to rare groove and hip hop, and then it sort of evolved into house music.
What were your ‘go-to’ tracks back then, if any?
There was a bootleg version of The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, over a James Brown drumbeat – that always used to work a treat.
Myself and Dave used to do a club called Raw, which was under a car park on Tottenham Court Road. It was a real mixture of styles. One night, we decided to play nothing but house music, and about two hours in, we realised we had cleared the dancefloor. Everybody was just standing around the edge, nobody was getting into it.
So I said to Dave, ‘they’re not feeling it, they don’t want to hear it. Get The Jacksons out’. And literally, as soon as we did that, the dancefloor was packed! It always worked.
You went on to be a resident at Ministry of Sound in the early 90s. Did you think that the opening of Ministry, and other clubs like it, changed the clubbing scene?
You could definitely see the change; it was because of Ministry that the house sound – particularly that vocal house thing, that east coast US thing – really took off. It was bubbling under for a while, but suddenly you had DJs like Todd Terry, Masters at Work, Tony Humphries and David Morales coming to London.
I lived about 30 to 40 minutes from Elephant & Castle at the time, so I had all these amazing DJs that I had always wanted to see on my doorstep. As well as that, the hip hop thing was starting to get a bit stale for me, and I decided to fully embrace the house sound.
It’s often been said that you are very good at reading the crowd, about knowing what tunes to play, and when. Do you think that’s a bit of a lost art in DJing?
That’s kind of tough to answer. The house scene is split up into so many different styles these days, it’s not the same as it was back then.
It’s not that difficult to be a DJ any more, with the technology that’s there now – there are probably a lot of DJs that are wanted to get there, but they couldn’t afford the equipment. Back when I first got into it, it was very expensive, I could just about afford it – the fact that my brother had a lot of records himself really helped me out.
Maybe some of the ‘art’ has gone out of it, I don’t know. A lot of DJs just pack their sets full of big tunes, and there’s not that much attention paid to ‘building a set’. You might get an hour, and what are you able to do in an hour?
At the same time, I’ve found myself doing it as well – people that come to my gigs, they want to hear classic house, they want to hear the big tracks. They don’t want to hear any special dub mixes that might have worked 30 years ago; they want to hear Crystal Waters, Voodoo Ray… the big tunes. It’s not always like that – of course I get to play some new stuff as well… sometimes.
What do you think of the emergence of the EDM scene, and major festivals like Tomorrowland – are you surprised at how commercial dance has become?
I’ve nothing against the EDM thing. I was looking at bits of Tomorrowland a few weeks ago, and to be honest I just didn’t get it. I think that for a lot of people that go out these days, they go out to socialise to music; they don’t go out specifically for the music.
A few DJs from my era have slagged it off, but that’s how things have evolved, and you just have to get on with it.
Besides, I’ve changed the way I do things as well. I’m selling most of my vinyl these days on Discogs. I used to be a collector – we all were – but in the end I just realised I’m not playing most of them any more, so what’s the point in holding on to them? It’s become quite a hobby for me, actually.
People still have this thing about a ‘vinyl-only set’, that it’s ‘more real’, or something. But why is it more real?
Whether you are playing on vinyl or from a CD or a USB you still have to do the same thing: find the right track, mix it in, read the crowd. That’s not going to change.