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390 /Winston Hazel: Steel City Pioneer / Mix & Interview

Journalist and DJ Matt Anniss arrives with an interview with both Winston Hazel and Parrott – Sheffield legends and people we always like to learn more about as we’ve got a soft spot for such things at Test Pressing and a mix from Winston Hazel joining all the dots. Quality stuff. Over to Matt. You should be hearing more from him at Test Pressing towers in future times.

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Dance music is littered with unsung heroes – those whose contributions during pivotal times in the sound’s development have largely gone unrecognized. This, of course, is partly a reflection of the way that the mainstream media has under-represented the cultural significance of clubbing and DJ culture over the last 40 years. According to the prevailing narrative, DJs and dance music producers have little wider significance: they’re simply men and women sound tracking soon to be forgotten nights out.

Try telling this, though, to anyone who was there during the great British dance music explosion of the 1980s and early ‘90s. This was a fertile time for club culture, where escapism was highly prized, especially by those living in towns and cities feeling the devastating effects of government cuts and aggressive free-market captalism. Living for the weekend has long been a great British pastime, but rarely has it been more relevant than it was during the height of Thatcherism.

It was at this time that unsung heroes began to emerge – a group of DJs and, later, producers who would unite dancers of all races and backgrounds, under one groove. Every city had their own heroes; in Bristol, it was soundsystem crews such as the Wild Bunch and Three Stripe, and the resident DJs at the influential Dug Out club.

In Sheffield, it was Winston Hazel, and to a lesser extent his sometime DJ partner Parrot. Hazel’s story is not atypical. Like others of his generation throughout the North of England, he was turned on to DJing at an early age through breakdance culture. And like others with a passion for breakdancing, he would go on to help create a pioneering strain of British electronic music, bleep techno, at the turn of the ‘90s. By then, though, his fame had spread much further than the Steel City, thanks to the acclaim heaped upon the Jive Turkey parties he DJ’d at and co-promoted.

I first met Hazel at some point during the 2000s, probably at the infamous Kabal parties that have done so much to keep the spirit of Jive Turkey alive over the past 15 years. Our meetings since have been sporadic, to say the least, but I got in touch again – via his old pal Parrot – last autumn, while researching an extensive article on “bleep” I’d been commissioned to write for Resident Advisor.

We met at Parrot’s hilltop retreat in the Peak District, a far more genteel place than the Sheffield that Hazel grew up in the 1970s and early ‘80s. As a Sheffielder myself – and one that, sadly, managed to miss Jive Turkey – I’d always been fascinated by a party that is still held in high regard far beyond the city’s sprawling boundaries. I wanted to find out more about how it came about, its’ legacy, and how its’ principal characters would go on to become such a key part of the British electronic music landscape, albeit for a relatively short period of time.

Hazel is warm and welcoming, a twinkle still in his eye. Parrot later described him – in the most complimentary terms – as “a dreamer”; a man who still sees the positive side of DJing and dance music culture, despite having spent the best part of 30 years in the music industry. It is arguably one of his most endearing traits, alongside a passion for music that still burns as brightly now as it did back then.

We start at the beginning. “I started DJing in the early ’80s,” he recalls, perched on the end of a sofa while trying to entertain his young son. “In terms of playing music in front of people, and getting paid for it, that started at parties. That must have been ’82 or ‘83.”

By then, Hazel had already been given a thorough musical education – first through his reggae-loving parents, and extended family elsewhere throughout the UK. “I’d had an upbringing where I was exposed to lots of funk and soul, mainly through my cousins in London who were into P-funk and proper off-the-cuff bands like Prince Charles & The City Beat band, mad stuff like that. I’d had a good baptism into funk and soul and got right into the electronic side.”

To begin with, he found few friends who shared his love for soul and funk. “When I told my mates at school I was into funk, they said ‘don’t tha mean punk?’ To me, I didn’t understand why people didn’t know the music I liked.”

Like many of his generation, it was the hard-wired beatbox sounds of New York and Los Angeles electro and hip-hop that changed Hazel’s life. It was through getting involved in Sheffield’s premier breakdancing crew, Smack 19, that Hazel began to DJ more regularly. He even became the crew’s unofficial spokesperson, appearing as an expert commentator on Yorkshire TV’s long forgotten breakdancing competition.

“It was a six-week competition, recording various heats then showing the final,” Hazel remembers. “Our crew did the judging of the competition, because we re seen as the main South Yorkshire crew as we’d been doing it a lot longer. During the recording I was sitting in with Martin Kilner, voicing over what was happening. It was very basic. It was at a time when breakdancing had stopped being outlawed by the media and was a bit more accepted as part of the changing youth culture of the times. We jumped at every opportunity to get on telly.”

It was through the breakdance scene that Hazel met many other dancers and DJs who would also go on to become British house and techno pioneers – the likes of E.A.S.E and Boy Wonder of Nightmares on Wax, and Gerald Simpson, later to spark the creative juices of Hazel and others with the peerless “Voodoo Ray”. Later, soul all-dayers – where DJs and dancers from across the North would gather to play and hear the latest underground black American dance music sounds – would foster a spirit of mutual respect, despite the natural competitiveness of the scene.

By then, Hazel was already well established as arguably Sheffield’s most renowned DJ. “My first regular DJ residency was for a guy who ran a club called Maximillions, which later became Kiki’s,” he remembers. “This must have been around ’85, because Parrot was just starting his thing at the club upstairs, Mona Lisa’s. At Maximillions, I used to do an ‘80s funk and soul set as part of a night that had a commercial DJ on. I got like 20 or 25 quid to play all the popular new American funk and soul stuff that was coming through at the time. I’ve no idea how long I did that for – it was all a bit of a blur.”

Parrot’s night upstairs was the first incarnation of Jive Turkey, and it wasn’t long before Winston was invited to become a resident DJ, largely on the back of his success playing elsewhere. “Musically, you just played the best of what was around,” Parrot says. “When I first started, I still played a lot of old stuff as well as new stuff, whereas Winston was much more current and it was all new stuff. The crowds were very different then. If I went to Turn Ups on a Wednesday night, quite frequently other than a couple of girls there would be no white faces at all. It was more segregated, whereas when we started Jive Turkey it began to become more mixed.”

Like all good DJs, especially those with weekly residencies, Hazel soon discovered what he could and couldn’t get away with. “One of the interesting things that I learnt, after meeting Parrot, was that the black crowd didn’t accept that ’70s funk and soul was funk and soul,” he remembers. “It was really weird. They’d created this distance between what they liked and what was actual funk. My crowd wouldn’t accept anything that was seen as ‘70s or old.”

With Parrot handing more of the older sounds – mixed in with the latest import records from the United States, of course – Hazel began to focus more on the cutting edge sounds that were emerging from Chicago, New York, and later, Detroit. The result was a mix of sounds and styles that would take in hip-hop, soul, funk, jazz, proto-house, house, early garage, electro and techno. It was a blend that proved attractive to both black and white crowds, especially as the 1980s progressed and Jive Turkey moved from Mona Lisa’s to the City Hall Ballroom and various illicit warehouse parties.

“It wasn’t like we were open one week and there was nobody in there, and there was thousands of people the week after,” Parrot says. “It was a very, very, very slow thing. The crowds got much more mixed over that time, and you got that combination of people who didn’t mix really, apart from a couple of names who would just go anywhere. They were black faces who would go into clubs as more of a social thing, because they had lots of friends who went to those clubs. In terms of dancers, up until Jive Turkey in my experience, the scene was very, very segregated. It wasn’t until ’85 onwards that the scenes came together in Sheffield. The thing is, Sheffield’s never had a right lot of things going off. If you’ve got the thing that’s going off, you’re going to get everybody. There was just nothing else.”

During the late ‘80s, Hazel’s renown in Sheffield was such that Rob Mitchell at FON Records – later to become the Warp Records shop – asked him to be their import buyer. “I took that job in there because Parrot was offered it but thought I should do it,” he says. “I also had this show on Sheffield Community Radio on Friday afternoons, basically playing records that we got into the shop. It had a much larger audience than I imagined – I didn’t realize that people in other parts of Sheffield could pick it up. Word got out that we would play techno, house, and so on, and on the radio as well as in clubs. Around that point people started bringing music into the shop for us to listen to, because it was an outlet in the North that had developed a bit of a reputation for itself.”

It was one of these records, dropped into the shop by an anonymous guy who’d traveled all the way from Bradford, that changed Hazel’s life. It was the original 1988 version of “The Theme” by Unique 3, an astonishingly raw and bass-heavy record that would become the blueprint for bleep techno.

“I remember hearing Winston playing it and the shop, and asking ‘what the fuck is that?” Parrot enthuses. “Yeah, it was mind-blowing,” Hazel agrees. “I don’t know how they recorded it, but it sounded particularly raw. It was so fitting for where we were going with what we were doing – just the next level. Unbeknownst to us, it just dropped in our lap at exactly the right time.”

Predictably, it quickly became a huge record at Jive Turkey. “In terms of the new electronic stuff that was coming, to have something that had been made relatively locally was brilliant,” Hazel says. “I knew the power of being able to play something local, whether it was a dance record, like “The Theme” or “Voodoo Ray”, or a reggae record…that was massive. Having this local track, which was really fitting of all the electronic music that was coming from the States, allowed us to be able to put our own stamp on the nights… eventually.”

He pauses. “All we knew was that when we put that record on, the footworkers would go mental.”

Parrot nods in agreement, before chipping in: “That and ‘Voodoo Ray’, they sounded like they were made by people like us. You could hear that in the sonics and they way they were put together.”

Certainly, it lit a fire inside both Jive Turkey residents. “I think there was a subconscious desire then. I heard ‘The Theme’ and thought ‘I wish I’d made that’,” Hazel admits. “I don’t think we thought ‘right, let’s go and make some music’. Circumstances then made it happen.”

Since his school days Hazel had been good friends with Robert Gordon, a soundsystem-obsessed reggae head who was making a name for himself as the in-house engineer and mixer at the FON Studio set up by Sheffield industrial funk band Chakk. Gordon had been a semi-regular presence at the parties Hazel played at the Occasions club. He didn’t “get” house, but there was something about techno – and the bass-heavy feel of “The Theme” – that interested him.

“Robert liked the construction of techno and its’ minimalist form, and the sonic imprint of it,” Hazel says. “It reminded him of dub. He decided he wanted to have a go at making some of this stuff, because it’s right up his street. That was it.”So, one night, Hazel popped round to Gordon’s house, where he had a relatively advanced home studio set up. “Robert had got his hands on this sampler,” Hazel says. “That night he was showing me how the sampler worked. We sampled this bit from the ’85 version of Manu Dibango’s “Abele Dance” on Celluloid. Then he worked out how to make it sound tight. That was the basis of the track, and we needed a techno beat to go with it. Robert already had this snare pattern that he liked to use on everything. The bassline was a chapped down sine wave. The track took four hours to make, and it was the first time I’d played on a keyboard, or any electronic instrument. It was the first time I’d thought about the structure of something, too. Because of what we were doing as DJs, I had a really close understanding at that time of what worked on the dancefloor.”

The track in question was “Track With No Name”, eventually credited to Forgemasters – the name of an infamous local steel company. Excited by the cut they’d created, Hazel played it off cassette on his radio show the very next day. “It went ballistic on the phones – all these people ringing up telling us it were really good,” he says. “The next day when I went into the shop, either the guys had heard it, or I told them about the response it had got. We all then thought we really should put it out. I think there had already been talk about setting up a record label around DJ Mink’s track. This was another reason to set up a really good label, to put all this good music out.”

That label, initiated by Robert Gordon, Rob Mitchell and Steve Beckett, became Warp Records. “Track With No Name” would be the outlet’s first single in the autumn of 1989, and go on to sell in huge quantities by today’s standards.

“Before we even saw the reaction in clubs, we knew it was massive,” Hazel says.“We thought ‘what have we done here?’ We just knew straight away. A lot of stuff like that is reactionary, and catching a moment in time. I think it reflects what we were experiencing at that time – experiences through music, the industrial devastation and the climate in Sheffield. It was the first time I’d found a way of really being able to express myself, because it had the sound of the city that I grew up in, imprinted within the track. I personally became quite aware of that early on when we’d done it.”

A UK-wide tour, alongside other pioneering bleep acts, swiftly followed, making this duo from Sheffield – supplemented by Robert Gordon’s housemate Sean Maher, who penned much of the flipside of “Track With No Name”, called “Shall We” – amongst the hottest acts in British dance music for a brief period.

“In late ’89-90 we did a big UK tour when rave culture was just becoming the big thing,” Hazel remembers. “There were massive events, like Telepathy in London, and we got on that circuit. It worked, considering I wasn’t a musician and I had to play the melody. Every time I did that it were wrong, but it didn’t matter – people just went mental as soon as it came in.”

All these years on, “Track With No Name” still resonates. Just like records from Cabaret Voltaire, B.E.F and the Human League before it, “Track With No Name” is a very distinctly Sheffield record. It packs all the punch of a steel hammer, while gazing skywards. When the present is bleak, you have to look towards the future.

There’s no doubt that it remains Hazel’s greatest contribution to dance music, despite years of DJing and the promotion of various legendary parties. It wasn’t the only Forgemasters record, either, though their follow-up 12” – released on Network after Robert Gordon fell-out with the other Warp Records’ founders – failed to make quite as big an impact. The Black Steel EP does still contain some terrific material, though, joining the dots between house, electro and bass-heavy British techno in their own distinctive way.

To celebrate Warp’s 20th anniversary, Hazel and Gordon re-formed the Forgemasters, performing a number of live shows and, later, a memorable Boiler Room session. There were plans for further performances in clubs and at music festivals, and even the possibility of an album containing material recorded – but previously never released – between 1989 and 1994. Sadly, Hazel and Gordon went their separate ways again before it could be released.

“We picked 11 tracks out of about 20 that we’d done in a five-year period between ’89 and ’94, which have never even been heard,” Hazel sighs. “It sounded like it was done this year. When we found the stuff, I listened to it constantly for about four months, because I couldn’t listen to anything else. I couldn’t believe we’d done this stuff but didn’t even know what we were doing at the time. It still sounded so current. That album’s just there, waiting.”

Hazel’s studio exploits don’t start and end with the Forgemasters, of course, though little he has done since has been quite so potent. Even so, there’s more than a little of that bass-heavy magic in Supafix’s “Ghetto: New Yorkshire” – a brilliantly wonky, bass-heavy house cut penned with Ross Orton – and Hazel’s own powerful “Break-Up”, a 2013 12” produced in the wake of the Forgemasters’ second split.

“The Forgemasters split knocked me for six, to be honest,” Hazel admits, more than a hint of regret in his voice. “When I thought about it, what I realized is that what the Forgemasters could have become rested on people’s past experience of working with me during the time we were dormant. I went back in the studio again and it became exciting again. That went quite well and Matt Swift wanted new material for his Shabby Doll label. It was an end and a start for me. I was really happy with the result.”

The sound of “Break Up” is, of course, very different to that of “Track With No Name”, doffing a cap to UK garage and broken beat as well as the bass-heavy house and techno with which Hazel made his name.

“When I went into the studio to do the first Shabby Doll thing, how it ended up was… well, I couldn’t get away from bass and rhythm,” he laughs. “That’s just how it had to be. I really didn’t want it to sound like I was trying to be the Forgemasters. Same with the SuPaFiX record. But I can’t get away from it.”

It’s that bass-heavy sound that Hazel has been pushing forward at the Kabal parties he runs with best mate and frequent DJ partner Raif Collis. After 15 years entertaining dancers in Sheffield via events in unlikely spaces, Kabal will call it a day later this year. It was Kabal that gave the world Toddla T, most famously (it was Collis and Hazel who have Tom Bell his now famous alias, due to his tender years), and updated the “anything goes” ethos of Jive Turkey for a new generation.

It’s perhaps fitting that it is now DJing, Hazel’s first love, for which he’s finally becoming recognized for outside of Sheffield. He still plays semi-regularly in the Steel City, of course, but is now getting out and about around the UK far more than he has done for some time (this Easter sees him playing in Glasgow and Bristol, for starters). Given his small but significant contribution to the development of British dance music, it’s no more than he deserves (particularly since he remains a terrific DJ). Still, though, it remains bleep with which he’ll be remembered.

“Bleep gave a blueprint into society,” Hazel says, while getting ready to leave Parrot’s Peak District home. “When we were making music, we were making it to play it in clubs, because we had to go to clubs to hear that music. All of a sudden it was getting played everywhere, it was selling and it was making money. The whole reason for making music then begins to be diluted because of outside influences, just having an effect on you regardless of your focus. The electronic sounds that you were exposed to when you were making your music, which were new sounds, are being tweaked and turned and manipulated in such a way as it sounds familiar, but it’s not quite got that… you know, something. Suddenly, you can’t see the wood from the trees.”

Winston Hazel plays Let’s Go Back at Le Cheetah Club, Glasgow, on April 4th, and Bedmo Disco Presents at Big Chill Bristol on April 5th.

Winston Hazel, Forgemasters, Warp Records, Sheffield, Interview, Mix,  Parrott, Jive Turkey, Party,

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