909originals catches up with Black Box legend Daniele Davoli

As a founding member of Italian house pioneers Black Box, Daniele Davoli has been a key figure in dance music since its inception. Commencing his career as a DJ at Starlight nightclub in Bologna in the early 80s, by the end of that decade he was behind such seminal classics as Numero Uno (as Starlight), Airport ’89 (as Wood Allen)and the timeless Ride On Time.

Black Box’s 1990 album Dreamland, which featured tracks such as Everybody Everybody, Strike It Up and the aforementioned Ride On Time, was something of a high water mark for the group, as it helped establish a new piano-led pop-dance sound, with Davoli going on to hold DJ residencies in some of the world’s biggest clubs, such as Pacha Ibiza and Manchester’s Hacienda.

Now, Black Box are back, with Davoli and co releasing Dreamlanders last month; a modern update of Dreamland that includes a disco re-imagining of Ride On Time, as well as reworkings of the group’s biggest hits. You can buy/stream it here.

Black Box are also one of the competitors in 909originals’ Eurodance 2021 competition, which kicks off this Friday, and sees Ride On Time go up against a myriad of 90s classics. Click here for more information about that.

909originals caught up with Daniele to chat about why the time was right to get back in the studio, the Black Box legacy, and the influences that sent him on his musical journey all those years ago.

Hi Daniele, thanks for talking to us. To start off, how has the past year been for you, with the pandemic? Has it been a productive period?

We’ve been working quite a lot – I still work with Mirko Limoni from Black Box, and I also work with a friend of mine, Steve Evans, who I did Western Disco with. So you are seeing a lot of Black Box remixes of Western Disco tracks, and a lot of Western Disco remixes of Black Box tracks, because I’m split between the two.

Unfortunately due to lockdown, I wasn’t able to meet up with Steve that much because he’s based in Bath. We have a fair amount of material in the drawer waiting to be exploited.

We’re just finishing off the next Black Box single, which is a Western Disco club mix of I Don’t Want Nobody Else, the Motown version, which we did for Dreamlanders.

When was Dreamlanders released?

The album was released on the 7th of May, and the new single will be released the last Friday of June. The club mixes will probably come a week or two after that, because we’re waiting for the clubs to reopen, of course.

The album is really interesting, because you namecheck retro synthesisers in the track titles; for example, Everybody Everybody (TR 808 Appella) and Open Your Eyes (CR-78 Remix). You’re making the equipment the star of the show, in a way?

It’s all part of our collection. We have all the gear, so we said ‘let’s have some fun’! We’ve been collecting bits and bobs all these years and every time a new cheque arrived, we would buy something else. Once one cheque arrives, we would be like ‘ok, that’s a 808 paid for’, and then with the next one, we would go to buy a 606.

Why was the time right for you to revisit Dreamland?

A lot of fans were asking for it on social media. So we thought, right, it’s been 30 years, we have to do something. Of course, we’re not the same people we were 30 years ago, we don’t party the same way – first of all because we’re at the wrong end of 50. Also, there’s the issue of lockdown.

So we decided, ‘if we were making this album today, what would we do?’ It’s a bit more mature, a bit more musical. It’s not necessarily commercially friendly, but it’s something that we wanted to do this way, and we enjoyed doing it. In fact, all my musician friends are ecstatic about it, they think it’s a masterpiece. To me, its more Café Del Mar or Café Mambo-friendly than what we did before.

So would it be fair to say that you converted a club album into an album for home listening?

It’s an album to dance on the sofa to while cooking! I mentioned Café Del Mar and Café Mambo, they were in my heart, because I played them many times in Ibiza. I was resident at Manumission for a while, with Sonique, and also resident at Pacha with Paul Oakenfold in the early 00s, and then I started to play ‘sunset sets’ at Café Mambo.

I absolutely loved it – I went from being a club DJ, playing dark music for dark rooms, to playing to the sun. I never made music for that before, so I thought ‘why not give it a go?’

There’s probably a hark back to when you started making music as well, you started experimenting with 808s and things like that?

Funnily enough, we had a 909, because it was the cheapest thing we could get our hands on. I remember being in the studio with Mirko one day, and we were playing all this house music from Chicago. Mirko says to me, “Bloody hell Daniele, all these records have a 909 on them, and we’ve got one of them sitting in the corner!”

People used to find them in rubbish skips and things like that, didn’t they?

I remember walking through Islington one time, when I was visiting a friend. We were outside a house that was being renovated, and in this skip, we saw a Korg synthesiser. She grabbed it, and put a plug on it, and it worked! One person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure, you know?

A lot of producers these days are rediscovering the old equipment again, it’s almost like there’s been a rediscovery.

It’s so much more fun! At the same time, I’m not a big supporter of going back to vinyl. I would never sell my vinyl collection, but I don’t remember with joy carrying records on planes and up flights of stairs over the years.

But when it comes to making music, it’s a different ball game. Playing a real instrument is a different experience.

I want to discuss when you started DJing, you would have been in quite young when Italo Disco hit?

I was barely 18 when I started DJing, in 1983. I would mix the likes of Prince with Spagna and Koto and things like that, and retrospectively, these weren’t the sort of things that mixed well together. But it was a commercial club, so you had to play all sorts of things.

We spoke to Soulwax recently, and we were talking about the New Beat scene – of course something similar was also happening in Italy at the time, which started a few years earlier. What was it about Italy at the time that saw it produce so much music?

Funnily enough – and this was also the case with Black Box – Italians tend to love everything that comes from outside Italy, but don’t pay much attention to what happens in Italy. Everything that was made in Italy at the time didn’t really have great recognition until it became big in other countries.

I was friendly with Stefano Cundari, who was in [Italo disco group] Koto, and he didn’t really sell records in Italy. All his sales were in Japan, Germany or the States. We were playing his records in Italy, but in terms of what people wanted to buy, they wanted English or American records. It was only when you had a hit that people realised it came from Italy.

There were a few tracks that made it big overseas – I Like Chopin by Gazebo, Boys by Sabrina, Klein & MBO’s Dirty Talk. Would it be fair to say that retrospectively, people appreciate the Italian music of that period more than they do now?

For me, playing in the club, these sort of tracks were fillers. People wanted to hear Madonna or Michael Jackson. Everything else was for the start of the night, really just to get the night going. And now, of course, you hear something like Dolce Vita by Ryan Paris, and you think ‘wow, what a great record!’

You said that you started DJing in 1983. When did you make the transition to making music?

That wasn’t really until 1986. I started making remixes for [Italian label] Disco Magic, and a lot of bootleg recordings, which we would sell a thousand copies of, maybe 1,500 copies. We used to get a drum machine, and take a track that didn’t really have club drums on it, and give it a bit of a beat. If it was good enough, you would press up a few hundred copies, and that would give you the chance to buy more records for your collection.

And then one day, house music arrived from Chicago, and we thought, ‘wait a minute, this is something we should get involved in’. We could relate to it, we could spot the samples they were using. It was right up my alley. So we decided to give it a go.

I realised years later, when meeting people from Chicago like Marshall Jefferson, they were absolutely crazy about those Italo Disco records and were trying to emulate them, but they got it wrong, and made their own fantastic type of music. And then, we were trying to emulate what they did, and we came up with Black Box.

There was quite a good dance scene in Rimini back in the 80s; what was that like?

Rimini was the Italian Ibiza. I wasn’t DJing in Ibiza back then, that wasn’t until I had success. Plus, I was resident in the club in Italy, which gave me a wage, and while I was making records I was relying on that wage to carry on. They were open six days a week, winter and summer, so I didn’t really have the time to DJ anywhere else.

Actually, Ibiza was taken over by the Italians in the early 80s, and then they left because it became more expensive. After that, the tourist numbers started to drop, so that’s when they rebranded it for the English market. I remember in the late 80s, people would say that they ‘went to Ibiza, but it wasn’t any good’, so they went back to Rimini again.

Little did we know that the English were colonising Ibiza at the time. It was only after we had some success and went to play in Ibiza that I realised it was an English colony. I was the only Italian left.

You hit your stride from a production point of view pretty early on – with Numero Uno, Ride On Time, Airport 89?

Before all that, I made Grand Piano, which was one of the bootlegs I made with a sampler and two turntables. I didn’t release it until later on – only after the success of Black Box did someone come to me and ask if they could release it. It wasn’t cleared, so they asked me ‘if we clear it, can we release it?’. That was ok with me.

After that, I made Magic Atto II, and then Numero Uno, and then Ride On Time. They were all made within three months of each other, and became successful six or seven months later, again all at the same time.

Looking back, there must have been an element of luck about it? I read a story somewhere that Danny Tenaglia and Paul Oakenfold bought up all the copies of Ride on Time in Ibiza to distribute back home?

No, what happened was that Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling discovered Ride On Time in Ibiza. Alfredo, who was resident at Amnesia played it, and he put a white label on top of it because he didn’t want people to know what it was. When they asked him, he told them ‘I don’t know what it is, all I know is that it’s from Italy’.

So they didn’t think twice – they caught a plane and went to Rimini, and went to record shops and said, ‘We only want Italian productions. We don’t want American or English records, because we can get the easily’, A lot of those shops weren’t stocking Italian records, so they had to order them in. They would say ‘give us three days, and we can get them shipped in’.

When Paul went back to one of the shops three days later he couldn’t believe his ears; he had found Ride On Time! He brought 20 or 30 copies back to the UK with him, and it basically paid for his holiday. It was probably the case that the Italian record shops couldn’t get rid of them, they were flogging them for less than a quid each.

You mentioned that at the time you were working as a local DJ – were you aware of the whole acid house thing that was kicking off in the UK?

First of all, somebody called to licence Numero Uno. That was Beggars Banquet, now XL Recordings. They bought it, but were going to wait a few months before releasing it. A couple of months later, Deconstruction called and said that they wanted to licence Numero Uno, but I said ‘sorry, it’s gone’. So they asked ‘have you got anything else along the same lines’?

We said that we did, and we sent them Ride On Time. Nobody wanted it, and we couldn’t get rid of it. From the moment they heard it, they wanted it straight away. We signed the contract within the week.

That must have been surreal for you – it sort of came out of nowhere?

That was the end of June, and by the middle of July we got a call from the BBC, saying they wanted to come and interview us in Bologna, because apparently we had made the two hits of the summer, Numero Uno and Ride on Time.

So they came and talked to us, and we kept asking them whether it was real – did we really have a hit? It was then that we realised that there was something going on.

It probably got to the stage, not long after that, that you went from having just yourself and Mirko in the studio to thinking ‘we need to form a band now’?

That’s what Deconstruction said to us – we need to put a girl out front, because at the moment it’s just a DJ record. If we wanted to get into the charts, we needed to do something about it.

Deconstruction was an in-house label of RCA, a big record company, and they knew that the vocal we used in Ride On Time was a sample. They asked us, ‘have you cleared it, have you got permission?’ We had never thought of that, we had only pressed something like 1,000 copies. So they said that they would seek permission.

They asked whether the singer [Loleatta Holloway]  was still alive, and they were told that she wasn’t. I think whoever had the rights forLove Sensation didn’t want the singer to know that they were making money from it. But the RCA lawyer made a mistake.

They agreed to the deal, and we sent the contract and an advance to Salsoul Records, and then we thought ‘that’s it, job done’. We were number one in the charts! Then, the day we were supposed to go on Top of the Pops, we got a call from Salsoul Records to tell us we didn’t have permission for it. RCA said ‘what are you talking about?’ We had signed contracts and sent them an advance, but they had never signed the contracts back. There were a lot of people involved, and a mistake was made somewhere along the way.

So we had to re-record it, with a different singer, and we never got to know who that was. A guy arrived with a digital tape with the acapella on it, and gave it to us, and said that they needed to get it back to the studio that evening to put it on record. So that was that. We have our suspicions as to who the singer was, but we were never told.

Thinking back, did that whole saga tarnish your enjoyment of Ride On Time‘s success? It was the hit that most people associated with you, and yet it had all this legal complications attached.

The funny thing is, we got caught twice for the same thing. With Strike It Up, which we released in 1991, we also sampled a singer, and we thought ‘ok, now we know how the business works, we’re going to ask permission and pay them what they want before the record is released’. We did everything by the book.

But because everything was handled by Disco Magic, it ended up being very messy. We got sued, and we had to pay twice as much for the sample than we had agreed to pay in the first place. So from then on, we said to ourselves, ‘everything that we do from now on, we’re going to do ourselves’. And would you believe, we never got in trouble again. We learned the hard way.

Black Box are still touring, aren’t they? Who is involved with the group these days?

There are four of us – Mirko and Valerio [Semplici] aren’t involved. Steve from Western Disco is involved, and Celestine Walcott-Gordon is the singer. She’s fantastic, and she’s also part of a successful drum n bass outfit, so we often have to fight to see who gets to bring her on tour. Before COVID, it was a case that they had Celestine one weekend, and we had Celestine the next.

On the back of Dreamlanders, are you going to release any new Black Box material?

Yes, we have some new material that we want to release. There will be a couple more things from Dreamlanders, and then we have a great version of Strike It Up coming out in an Italo Disco style – with an 808 and a 4/4, sort of a 1983 Pet Shop Boys sort of sound.

We did it for a laugh but it’s come out really well; after all, if anyone is making Italo Disco, it should be us, right? 🙂

Davoli (centre) with Black Box in the studio, c. 1990

[Thanks to Daniele for chatting to us. You can purchase Dreamlanders here]

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