It was at the tender age of 14 that Tom Bell began his DJing career, taking to the decks in the pubs and clubs of his native Sheffield and earning himself his playful pseudonym in the process. Since then he’s added the titles of remixer, producer, label boss and Radio 1 DJ to his CV, all alongside being a recording artist in his own right.
Having just released his widely acclaimed second long player Watch Me Dance, we persuaded the busiest man in dance to take a break for a catch-up about the album, the infamous file-leak and his availability to DJ at kids’ parties…
Hi Tom, we hear you’re in Ibiza at the moment, what are you up to?
I’m literally in a hotel at the minute, in my swim trunks and my vest and I’ve just had some brunch. I’m here for the Radio 1 weekender, and I’ve been asked to programme a room at Space. So I created a line-up which goes Roska, Untold, me, Shy FX and Donae’o, then Breakage, then Jackmaster, then DJ Q. Should be really good fun, man! So right now I’m just chillin’ out before the madness begins, at about 5 o clock this evening.
How many years have you been going out to Ibiza?
I think this is my third year now. It’s funny because it’s got gradually better. The first time I came it was with a club night from England and it was just a complete disaster basically: the hotel was over-booked, there was a fire in the hotel, the promoter was too drunk to make his own night… And then every year it’s got better as I’ve found out how it all works over here – it doesn’t actually have to be like that! Ibiza’s an amazing place to just come and hang out at and party.
Can you tell us a little bit about your new album and how you feel you’ve progressed since your debut?
Well, I probably started making my first record subconsciously when I was 18, when I was in Sheffield and just making tunes for me and my mates to buzz off. And on this second one a lot had changed: obviously I got a bit older, I’d travelled the world with my DJing so I’d seen a lot more things, and also I was more confident in expressing certain things through the music, you know what I mean? I like soul, I like R&B and I like pop so, on this one, I thought I’m just going to do something that I really want to do. ‘Cause when I’m sat chillin’ at home, listening to music on my computer, I don’t listen to club music, really, I listen to records, proper albums: soul, compilations, proper dub and proper reggae. And I kind of wanted to put that into the mix rather than it just being a club record.
I travelled more on this album to get the content too: I went to Jamaica to record a bunch of stuff because I could afford it this time. And because I live in London now and my profile’s grown, it was easier to get vocals than it was when I was based in Sheffield. So, yeah man, I’ve got a bit more of a wider outlook on music, really.
There are a lot of big names guesting on the album: who was the most fun to work with?
(Laughs) I mean everyone’s really fun in different ways! But I think my experiences of recording abroad were quite special because obviously they were totally new. One track that I co-produced with Skream – it’s called ‘Streets So Warm’ and it’s got Wayne Marshall on it – I did that in Jamaica last year and we recorded it in my friend’s bathroom! It was just totally mental ‘cause Wayne is someone I’ve bought records from for years and I’m a big fan, but then I realised, actually, people work the same everywhere, no matter how big or how small you are. That was a really fun session – it was something I’ll probably never forget, to be honest.
Is there anyone you’d still like to collaborate with in the future?
Yeah man, plenty of people! To be honest, I’m really lucky because I’ve ticked a lot of boxes, because a lot of people I’ve always wanted to work with have been British people, so they’ve been quite accessible. I’ve wanted to work with Ms Dynamite, Wiley and people like that for years, and that’s happened so I’m blastin’ away! But I’m constantly on the look-out for new people who are really different and good, searching YouTube and Soundcloud. When someone pops out and I know I can feasibly work with them, then I’m just on the hunt, trying to get them into the studio! I’m always on that tip, man.
So are there any rising stars you could tip us off about?
Yeah man, there’s a good rapper from West London called Scrufizzer who I really rate. His rhymes are really fast paced, intense – like early Dizzee style. There’s a good producer from America called David Heartbreak, who’s making really mad music. There’s also a kid from Bristol called Zulu, who’s a young house producer making really mature, kind-of-African-influenced house. I’m always looking at that side of things because if there’s a 17 year old coming out and making next-level music, that’s what makes me step my game up!
Can you pick a particular track on the album that you’re most proud of?
Maybe ‘Cruise Control’. I like the way it references rougher music, with the heavy bass and the UK vibe with the sort of jungle break, but it’s got the soft chord sounds on it as well. Thing is, with this record I wanted to be more musical than my last record but I’m not musically trained so I struggle sometimes to get certain things. And on that tune I sat in the studio for an afternoon and I managed to get what I wanted – it was really painless.
You recently had to rush-release the album digitally because it got leaked online – how do you feel about it all?
Well, things are always gonna get leaked, that’s just modern life. But the only thing that really p*ssed me off was the earliness of it! If it got leaked today I’d be like “oh bollocks”, but when it was done six weeks in advance it made me quite angry and upset. The schedule was all planned and no one had heard the album and then all of a sudden, because some tw*t puts it online, that all stops and you’ve got to reassess it all. But you can’t help these things: it is what it is and we’re dealing with it in other ways, so now I’m totally fine with it.
This is your first album for Ninja Tune, how are you finding working with them?
Wicked, perfect! This might sound a bit daft but it’s a record label that likes music! Whereas other record labels chat sh*t and are just on a hype thing... It’s just a big ol’ office full of enthusiastic music lovers who are really open to music. The boss there, Peter Quicke, is a really nice guy and has been in the industry for years so just really knows what’s what but also says “just do your thing and I’ll facilitate it”. And I’m so different from the other artists (on Ninja Tune) – say if you compare me to people like Bonobo or Eskmo, I’m a totally different style. But at the label, they’re into everything equally, in different ways. It’s real stress-free and I feel really happy there, man.
You’ve had a crazy two years since your debut – what’s been the highlight?
Wow… there’ve been so many, man! It’s been an amazing time! I think getting on the radio was a big moment for me – when it actually happened I was like, “Bloody hell, this is crazy”. And over a period of, like, two or three months I noticed my DJ gigs being a lot more attended with a lot more energy, because a lot more people were hearing me all of a sudden. It was never ever planned and very overwhelming at first but I absolutely love doing radio now.
You’ve been DJing for 12 years now – can you ever see yourself tiring of it?!
Nah, I think I’ll just do it regardless – even if I’m, like, 55 and I’m playing at, like, my mate’s kid’s barbecue! It’s just something that’s always gonna be in me – it’s just normal now. And with producing, I still learn things every day. Every time I go to the studio I learn something and I find it really fascinating and interesting. Whereas DJing I can just do, default. I can’t imagine ever getting bored of it, because it’s just part of my life, man.
You DJ, you're on Radio 1, you run your label, you produce, and you record… You must be one of the busiest people in the business…
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah I am busy but it’s cool man – it’s all about juggling! If I took every remix I got offered, every production job or every gig, I would be f*cked and it’d probably mean everything I did would be watered-down and a bit sh*t. So it’s just about being clever with your time and even though on paper it sounds like complete madness – and don’t get me wrong, there are times of complete madness – if you juggle it right, there’s no reason why you can’t also occasionally have an evening off or something.
Can you tell us a little bit about your Girls Music label – any key releases coming up?
Well I set that up through Ninja Tune – it’s my label that I run with Raf Rundell, a good friend of mine who’s also one half of 2 Bears. We were always talking about doing a label, and then I got signed to Ninja. So basically, we sign the music, facilitate it, get the artwork etc. and then Ninja Tune distribute it. So it works really well because we can get the music right and the business end is a lot easier. It’s club music that we’re dealing with at the minute so we just had a release out with David Heartbreak, and the next release is that Zulu kid I was telling you about.
It’s just about finding music that hasn’t got a home that I can give one to. I mean, because of the radio show, a lot of music lands on my lap – I’m so lucky in that respect. And I hear things and play them in the club and they’re amazing but, a lot of the time, they’re just never gonna see the light of day. So this label is a really nice, self-indulgent way of being able to put it out.
Aside from your album and maybe the acts on your label, what record has excited you most so far this year?
I like Jill Scott’s album, it’s just quality, good soul. I thought the Metronomy album was pretty good as well, really clever in the production and writing. As far as compilations and mix records go, I heard Jamie Jones’ Fabric record the other night: I’d recommend it because it’s like house music but it’s not necessarily thumpin’ (it’s something you can chill out or dance to) and at the end he goes into disco, so it shows he’s got heritage and he knows his past.
And what are your plans for the rest of 2011?
Obviously my record’s out and I’m going to start making music again, see what happens. There’s nothing really regimented that I have to do, but I’m working with Sam Frank, a rapper called Elroy, Donae’o and a whole heap of people. I want to get more releases for the label, I’m DJing, there’s radio and I’m doing a project with someone from Jamaica which will take up quite a lot of my time. Things are always popping up, little remixes and things like that. I’m just keeping it moving really: it’s exactly the same as usual but without the pressure of having to deliver a record, I guess!