AFROPUNK INTERVIEW: MR. G, ON THE ART OF DANCE MUSIC
May 24, 2019
Though it most often gets classified as “house” or “techno,” the dance music made by veteran British producer/DJ Colin McBean, who performs under the name Mr. G, has a long and diverse set of influences across the entire sonic spectrum. Most potently, his love for jazz has shown up as an unexpected, but dynamic component of his personal sound and trajectory.
A wealth of history is laced throughout each of Mr. G’s selections and live sets. For over two decades, he has been forging a singular path, and he is making a belated stateside return on Memorial Day weekend, at upstate New York’s Gather festival. Ahead of that momentous and long-awaited occasion, Mr. G spoke with AFROPUNK about his career, his second life as a sort of sage-like figure in British club sounds, and as a person with particular insights into the ever-changing trend cycles and techniques of dance music. Listen to this banger of a Boiler Room set, as you read up on the wisdom of a veteran.
AFROPUNK: Where are you these days? London?
Mr. G: I don’t live in London anymore. I moved out of London a few years ago, out to the country. I wanted a quieter pace of life. I wanted a change. I’m from the middle of England anyway, so it’s like going back home really. When you’re on-the-go all the time, it’s nice to have somewhere to go where you can move at a slower pace.
You’ve been DJing for a few decades now…
Yeah, for a long, long, long time, since I was a very young age. Selector of old sound systems, early house, techno. I remember back in the very beginning playing all the things that I grew up with. Tunes that at the time you didn’t really realize how good they were, which was great. Lots of jazz.
DJing provides an interesting platform for discovering old tracks in new contexts. It’s cool to see old tunes be whipped out and work on people in real time.
Yes! It’s a good feeling when you play a tune that you love and you think, “oh they’ll never understand this,” and then you see people being moved by it. I think that’s the power of old records and music in general. That’s why I love vinyl. It contains that emotion that you can take you back to the same place that it did when you first pulled it out of the record box.
There’s something about putting a needle on a record and sucking out the information and emotion that’s in there. I was reading this book Jazz as Critique by Fumi Okiji. There’s a section in it where she writes about how a lot of jazz players found vinyl to be really limiting since it can only contain about 15-23 minutes on either side while retaining the quality of the recording, but I often like to consider the way vinyl captures a moment.
I only ever try to take a box of what I call “10 out of 10” records. I see those records as being definitive moments of a sound. Then I have to decide what to play based on the time of day I’m playing, what sort of venue I’m playing, asking, “Do they want it more disco? Do they want it more eclectic?”
Really, I go to the collection and pull out a broad selection. I go through them all and listen, to see which ones have a similar sound or vibe. Trying to paint more, take a journey or a picture of who I am within those selections. I record them all down and sit with them, and then listen to them back…and the ones that touch me are either in the box or they’re out. That process goes on until it’s time to do my gig. There’s a lot of thought that goes in. If you’ve done the work beforehand, it’s much more comforting to play the records out because you know them and know what they do, where you can cue them out and roll into the next one…
I always say that a good DJ is like a good lover and psychiatrist, and thusly really know how to work a room and use the tools that they’re bringing to the space to evoke emotion.
With vinyl, you can limit yourself. That’s my thing: you have to believe in your selection. There’s none of this “let me go back to my 10,000 songs to find something…’ No! I made a selection and this is where I’d like to go! If it doesn’t work, then you’ve failed. But that’s how I see the job.
That’s a good way to think about, I think. It’s like Occam’s Razor where you limit the options, know what those options are and because people are coming to see you play they should already be jiving with who you are, so those options should work.
Exactly! If alternative music is your entry point to music, then you’re in love, you’re going to have a great future. It’s taken me pretty much this length of time to get here, to show people that I make house, I make techno, and a little bit in between; but there’s so much more to me. I can go here, I can go there…but I couldn’t start my journey this way. Now people can kinda enjoy and go, “Oh! This is what he’s about.”
Mastery of technology in the dance music media and community is so over-considered when one should be looking at the love and faith one has in their selections.
I think the “master selector” thing is a bit of an industry thing. You’re a DJ, a DJ should select one or the other track and make it work. When I became involved in the ’70s, the DJ was the guy who did all of the above under a single banner, whether it was commercial, disco, rock, indie or funk. That’s how I saw DJing and that’s the school I come from and I believe in. You should be able to go anywhere as a DJ.
With the idea of mastery, you say it’s taken you all of these years to get to a point where you’re fluid and comfortable with your ear and selection. Music publications often don’t offer a way to trace these sorts of progressions for artists, there’s not necessarily a way to show an audience what that sort of progression looks like.
True. That’s a good point. When I was offered a promo at Worldwide Events at, they offered me three dates and said, “but you probably don’t want this one because it’s a jazz show.” I told them I wanted that one, and everybody was like, “Really?” I know jazz, I really do know jazz and I have a massive following. People were like, “Wow! I can’t believe that you’re into jazz.” Even Jeff Mills walked up to me at an airport and was like, “Damn! Your jazz roots are hard!” I’m like that’s always been there because jazz is apart of me. My trajectory does confuse people, absolutely.
I never know what to do with that confusion because it speaks to the use-value of the DJ in how the audience or general publications see the DJ. A DJ is like a laborer who is there to pacify or elevate an audience at any given time. There was a point where DJing was underground, and DJing was a personal thing in the community and with an archive; but once you blow this thing up to festival scale that kinda changes where the DJ sits…like they’re doing the same work, but…
It’s like anything. When money is involved, things change. I love my raw roots, whether they are underground or whatever jazz, funk and soul. They are a part of me, and I can stand toe-to-toe with anybody because I grew up with this shit. But I know many can’t, and that’s not my business. There is a weird midground. I don’t focus on the negative. You can only spread love and good music.
Where would you say your roots are? What songs have spoken to you the most throughout your years?
Helen Reddy’s “Angie Baby.” I love the Twister as a child. I didn’t really, I mean it was many years later before I actually have quite a dark song lyric. I just liked the vibe, you know, “Seasons in the Sun” loved that. Bob Marley’s “Natural Mistake.” For me it was just an open book, you know the UK scene, Sheffield, Cabaret Voltaire. Then down to London, you know, with the early two-step house kind of thing that came out, you know, 4 Hero. I mean they all spoke to me — or even in the midst of it all finding the band Yes.
Yeah, a friend once said that the only real difference between house and techno besides like maybe 20 bpm here or there, is that house is about the soul and techno is about the future. But I find that there’s a lot of soul in the future, that soul can be quite futuristic.
Yeah! Like Mad Mike. You know, some techno is very, very, very soulful. At the same time it takes power. People always get stuck on labels. If makes you dance, then it’s dance music. That’s it. That’s how I see it. I’m not really too bothered about the labels. When I listen to Gospel, I think Muddy Waters. I think of this whole lineage. It depends where you came to the door. It’s about the emotion. That’s my shock in the door.
I’m interested in how that history gets replayed every night in a club by every single DJ who has an attachment to this music or to the history of the music. Like as a whole.
Personally, anybody who knows me knows I live and breathe music. They know that my credentials are on the back of my neck like a stamp. I don’t think that a DJ shouldn’t just be about banging out tunes. There should be a certain amount of knowledge that you share. You know, whether it’s the one you want to throw in because you love it, or the one record that you want to play because you bought it last week. But there should be some connection.
Something that’s more than transactional.
Right, the tracks should take you somewhere. There’s moments I think that don’t happen as often. I think of being in a small set sweaty room, then you play soulful house or whatever it is. The festival thing is kind of doing its thing, taking from some, not taking from others, some complain. It spoils the whole thing. We need some kind of shake. But as the older guy at the end, I don’t see too many proteges coming through. I don’t see a clear next wave, you know? And it’s like, well how are you going to take the positive great music history that we’re passing along? If there’s no one that’s doing that job it’s strange. You don’t see so much young talent coming through and I find that weird. Maybe it’s because there are so many more people trying for the same thing.
I do think it’s up to you to show the world you are x, y or zed, and you will get there. And I think that’s also part of the journey, that a lot of people seem to think they can be quick to the jump, and ride the rail rather than realizing that the best way is to slow-learn art and then you jump on that train. But you know, I still think that people worry about not getting on. We’re not dealing. You have to work harder, try harder and not be in the box.
I think a lot of that comes from the idea of the archive itself for it. It’s knowing the history, knowing how to select music across an entire history. Knowing history is important.
Knowing and having too much in a weird way is the demon that is the Internet. Because back in the day when I’d go to Detroit to perform and I heard a record, you could see the record, but I might not show it to you. So you then had to go and hope that on some part of your journey, at some shop, that you might see it. I know records that I’ve had in my brain for eight to 10 years. Until maybe one day you find it. The history with that one record would be massive because of your connection to it, your search for it. I remember Norman Jay, a radio DJ here in the UK. He had a show and the theme-tune was “the Windy City” by Carl Davis. I remember thinking, “I’m never going to find this tune.” Then one day I found the album. I was amazed. I wanted to put the record on and then realized that’s not the version he played. And then another five years later I realized it’s a 7” instrumental that’s super rare. Now my connection with that record, when I play it, that’s what you feed him. When I choose to play it, that’s the freedom I want to give you. Now, if you don’t have that connection by buying something, I don’t think it’s the same.
Music trends are pretty tied to what can be played on the CDJ with added effects and easily detectable patterns, but also compact and storable on the USB stick. That’s not to say that I’m against CDJs or USBs at all. I think they’re necessary from a price standpoint…
Yeah, by any means necessary. It’s not necessary at all. In fact there is something to be said about having a slower selection process and about cultivating your own personal culture and experience, I mean, again, going back to the Detroit guys, it’s like an example just listening to the radio while driving home from work or whatever, you know, whenever they heard these tracks. That’s something that you can’t take away from them. Like hearing a particular song or a particular time. You know immediately who that is. Again, you got Drexciya, you know the sound. I think that that’s a special part of being the old guy in the game: you know, x, y or zed.
Putting that love into the music helps identify it, helps carve in an extra something that’s real. It’s an authentic sense and you know it came from, a real heart, a real source.
For me, there was no real urge to make lots of money. It was just a thing, and I think we feel can that. I just releasing music and the greatness followed.
Totally. I think that’s one of the reasons AFROPUNK paired us up to chat. I’m younger in the field and this conversation is an easy way to close the gap. I was curious, too: How do we carry on this like skill sharing together or knowledge swap.
Yeah. Yeah. And I’m the right person for that because I’m only here, I believe I’ve made a connection with you, you know, older guy who has the knowledge to share. It’s very honest and open, and I think that’s really important because I don’t see much of that going on. And you know, people I know kind of making sure that they’re all right, and I’m thinking, well, you know, I’m only about making sure that this will teach whoever is going to be around in another 10 years because I left the knowledge with someone. That’s kind of my only thing I care about. I don’t care about the bullshit and the nonsense, you know? Do you want to talk? We talk about amazing music. The rest doesn’t match what’s trendy or what’s up and I don’t give a shit. I’m about music. That is my sole concern, the music.