Interview: ORIGINALS… Roland Clark

DJ, producer, vocalist, songwriter, label owner… Roland Clark may well be one of the hardest working individuals in dance music.

Raised in New Jersey, Clark cut his teeth under pseudonyms such as Urban Soul, Jesus Jackson and South Street Player, with his productions interwoven with the New York dance scene of the late 80s and early 90s.

His reputation as a vocalist came into its own on tracks such as Armand Van Helden’s Flowerz, Fatboy Slim’s Star 69 (What The F**k), and his own I Get Deep, President House and Resist, opening doors for Clark to work with some of the biggest names in dance music, across a myriad of genres: Todd Terry, Mark Knight, Kenny Dope, Bob Sinclair and many more.

As well as his own Delete Records imprint – check out the excellent Afromation album, released on the label in 2015 – Clark also has a longstanding relationship with Strictly Rhythm, having been hand picked by the label’s owner to ‘take the label into the Millennium’.

His latest release, on Strictly Rhythm, is Dance Without A Reason, and sees him link up with Lempo once again, following their previous tie up for Todd Terry’s InHouse Records.

Click here to purchase the track.

In addition, in the past few days, Clark tapped into the collective consciousness with the release of I Can’t Breathe, a powerful piece of street poetry composed following the death of George Floyd [click here to listen].

Ladies and gentlemen, may we present… Roland Clark.

Hi Roland, thanks for talking to us. Let’s begin at the beginning. Your musical upbringing really started when you moved to New Jersey?

Yes, the love of house music started when I went to Club Zanzibar in lieu of my prom. The experience was my first real connection with the genre.

What clubs and/or recording artists had an influence on you at this early stage, that made you want to pursue a career in music?

I would say as far as clubs go it was the ones I attended early on, Club Zanzibar, Club 88, The Shelter. As far as an artist, it was the music I was experiencing in those clubs: Colonel Abrams, Burrell, Jocelyn Brown and so on.

Musician and multi-instrumentalist Calvin Gaines has been cited as a key figure in terms of you getting into songwriting – what sort of influence did he have?

Calvin is one of my best friends. He took the time to literally teach me how to write a song from point A to point B. Even to this day, he’s my go to when I need to hear the truth about something I’m working on.

Your first couple of releases – Why! And RU RU? on Atlantic – were released in 1987, just as the house ‘wave’ was getting in motion. Could you sense at the time that things were changing, musically?

To tell the truth, I really wasn’t paying attention. There were so many things happening in those days that I wasn’t really focused on the direction of the music.

I was just starting to learn my craft as an engineer and songwriting and I was very much into R&B at the time.

Would it be fair to say that your career really got in motion after the release of Urban Soul Alright at the start of the 90s?

I believe Alright was the first time I noticed that I had an international audience.

At what point did you start to develop your talent as a vocalist?

I really think I started caring about my vocal after I met Rhano and Rheji Burrell. Remember, I was a young man and like all young men, we liked girls. Burrell could sing their way into any girl’s… for lack of a better word, let’s say ‘heart’, back then.

I wanted to learn the skill for the sole purpose of wooing women, at first.

Where do you get the inspiration for your lyrics?

My inspiration for lyrics doesn’t come in a vacuum, usually there are certain sounds in the music that trigger certain words and rhythmatic patterns in how I sing a particular song.

I read somewhere that you welcomed the chance to work with Fatboy Slim on Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars because it meant that you wouldn’t be pigeonholed as a soulful house artist. Did you feel this opened up your career?

I believe working with Norman opened me up to an audience that I would not have been opened to if not for that record, and because of that release it made me believe that anything was possible.

It was a huge leap from soulful house to techno and I loved how it made me feel and how it developed my curiosity of writing other genres.

Do you think that too many artists are quite happy to remain within their comfort zone, that they become too associated with a certain sound (albeit one they can make money out of)?

To be honest, I do not think about what others do or don’t do. It takes a lot of energy just doing what I do. I imagine if they are still in the game, at some level they are getting something out of it.

As you put it a few years ago, “If house is a nation, I want to be President”. With that in mind, what is the house music ‘State of the Nation’ at present – what are the positives and negatives about the scene?

I do not see the genre as a scene anymore, it is much bigger than that, and I believe artists need to stop looking at the top five dance labels and creating music just for them.

They should expand their horizons; major labels also sign dance music, so they could perhaps lend their voice to a remix, or do some spec work for an up and coming artist.

I see the so-called ‘scene’ like a spider’s web, it starts off small but can get as big as the spider wants it to be, and the only thing that can intercept the web is us as artists giving up.

What artists or labels do you think are really pushing the boundaries at the moment?

Duke Dumont is definitely one of the guys who I see as understanding dance music outside of the norms. Also, Ant LaRock is another guy who knows his craft and then some.

Let’s talk about your current release – Dance Without A Reason. What was it like to work alongside Lempo again?

I met Lempo in Ibiza; there’s no magical story there, but I do like working with people with personality and Lempo is full of life and looking like myself for opportunities. We definitely saw something in each other that made us think that this could and would be a great working relationship.

There’s something very apt about the title of the track, and also the overall theme; how we ‘dance’ has changed due to the coronavirus lockdown situation. Do you think that dance music will emerge from the current situation in a stronger way?

Yes it will come back, but at a price.

[Thanks Roland for talking to us. Dance Without A Reason by Lempo and Roland Clark is released on Strictly Rhythm on 12 June, click here for more information].

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