North Street Collective: “The Spirits In The Air”

North Street Collective

From his role in X-Press 2, Black Science Orchestra and The Ballistic Brothers to his many solo projects, Gentleman Rudeboy Ashley Beedle is one of UK dance music’s most well-respected figures. We spoke to him together with Jo Wallace and Darren Morris who together make up the North Street Collective. 

The North Street Collective are a UK dance music success story. Based around the three-way team of Ashley Beedle, Jo Wallace and Darren Morris, they’re a studio, label stable and remix and production team. From their North Street West Studio in a secret location somewhere deep in St. Leonards on the UK south coast, they turn out their original projects and remixes, including all the productions for Jo’s Ramrock and F*CLR labels. 

The North Street Sound is hard to capture in a single sentence. They’ve remixed artists as varied as Smoove & Turrell, Honey Dijon, Tom Glide, Lay-Far, Lady Blackbird, Fuminori Kagajo, Ghetto Priest and many more. Style-wise, the North Street sound ranges across house, soul, electronica, dub, disco and downtempo. They’ve put their unique flavour on piano anthems like Sophie Lloyd’s ‘Calling Out’ featuring Dames Brown smooth disco house from Honey Dijon and straight-up 4/4 Balearic bangers like the North Street Dub of Ashley Beedle & Waterson’s ‘Ego’. Then there’s Afrikanz On Marz mixes, which often veer off into leftfield, dub or jazz. It’s an impressive catalogue of club-friendly, dancefloor-ready originals and remixes, high in musicality, low on pretension. 

Jo runs the labels and works on production and arrangement, Darren’s the multi-instrumentalist whilst Ashley brings the dancefloor vision, the samples and programmes the beats – and they all seem to chip in at various stages of the creative process. The North Street Collective are three people who found each other (Ashley and Darren are old friends, Ashley and Jo are husband and wife) and discovered that their collective skill sets – DJ knowledge, beats, studio skills, production, mastering, musicianship, arrangement, organisation, direction – have all added up to something that is greater than the sum of its parts: The North Street Sound. We spoke with Ashley, Jo and Darren about the secret of their sound, their influences and the “spirits in the air” that give them their music. 

Attack Magazine: First off, tell us how the North Street Collective began? 

Ashley: Basically, we started at North Street Studio 1 in St. Leonards which was on the top floor of Darren’s cottage, and there we began to develop a sound which was a happy accident. I was doing a lot of remix and production for Jo’s Ramrock and F*CLR labels and myself and Darren at the time were like Ooh – there’s a little bit of a sound appearing here. Then Jo started to come in gradually with her arrangement and production head on and all of a sudden it was like ok – we have got a sound here. 

So it’s been a growing process through two things: the spirits in the air who give us our music and Brainworx – a company based in Germany, we’re sponsored by them and we’ve been doing all their online beta testing –

In the dub mixes, we always try things out – there’s a lot of joy and excitement in the dubs

Darren Morris

Jo: – They said you can go in and choose what you like off the catalogue and they gave us all this amazing kit. It was a quantum leap for the sound. I said look, we’ve not got a remix moniker, why don’t we call everything we do a North Street Studio One remix and I’ll put it on every remix for Ramrock and F*CLR. And that stuck so when Ashley and Darren did mixes as Afrikanz on Marz it would be a North Street Studio One remix or an Ashley Beedle North Street Studio One remix. 

Attack Magazine: How does your creative process work in the studio? 

Darren: I’ve always had an affinity with DJs and working with them – that huge encyclopedic knowledge of music whereas I’m much of a very good ear: I can hear something and play it. It’s a nice marriage. Both Jo and Ash are very much the same in coming to the table with brilliant ideas. Ashley jumps on the drum machines and likes to get stuck in that way but generally, I’m left to put the sound together and, under guidance and referencing various tracks, come up with the overall sound.

Ashley: Me and Darren are usually the guys who go in with the technical end of it, we go in with the beats, and Darren’s very musical, he’s trained as a bass player, piano player and so on, and Jo usually comes in with her musical ear and starts getting her hands on the production and arrangements. 

Jo: I was classically trained from the age of eight as a royal chorister and I have very firm ideas on pitch! I‘ve got perfect pitch and I’ll sit there and listen to something and tell them you need to nudge that a couple of microns and you need to put some harpsichord and french horn in there while you’re at it. My love of 60 and 70s TV shows and [classic Jazz label] Blue Note and that stuff seeps into the bigger remixes. 

Darren: When I come up with something, Jo and Ashley usually just go with it. Looking back on mixes you can see that there are exciting little moments, especially in the dubs. In the dub mixes, we always try things out – there’s a lot of joy and excitement in the dubs.

So you cover a lot of different genres across all the various projects but what is the essence of the North Street Sound? 

Darren: The sound probably comes down to the fact that I do a lot of the playing and programming because essentially I’m a musician – I came out of university, hung around in London for a few years among the jazz free improvisation scene, doing gigs, making all kinds of crazy performances. 

We sometimes use sampled loops too which generally come from Ashley and his amazing encyclopaedic knowledge of music, he’ll bring something in and we’ll sample it up. Quite often though I’ll just play it, I’ll jump on the keyboard and create one using the Abby Road drum kit from Native Instruments. So the playing side of it really adds up to the North Street Sound… the bass playing, the keyboards, it’s all coming from myself – it sounds like there’s a lot of session musicians in the studio but there’s not. 

Ashley: The answer to that is knowing what we’re doing. And what I mean about that is the influences, the fact that myself and Jo are complete nutters when it comes to collecting records, knowing the stuff we like, all that goes into the music. 

This is not me having a go at new producers today but what I find when listening to a lot of new stuff on the radio, there’s a lack of depth, of history – and it’s not really the fault of the people making the stuff now, it’s the fact that there not feeding any more – on those records we used to buy. 

Jo: The essence of the North Street Sound is three exceptionally passionate people who believe in the quality of music. Three people who have been around the block with music over the last 30 or 40 years and who on a professional level have reached the top of their game. It’s about the quality of the music and because I’m the quality controller as well as everything else if I don’t like it, it won’t get past me. 

A lot of new stuff on the radio, there’s a lack of depth, of history

Ashley Beedle

Attack Magazine: So you’re about to drop a big Afrikanz on Marz remix of Glenn Davis’s ‘Special’, it’s like a contemporary take on the best of 1989…

 Ashley: I was absolutely flabbergasted by the original Glen mix and I said to Jo I’m going to use the two elements he used in his original mix – the sampled vocal and the M1 keyboard and to me that says to me one thing: Rave!

Jo: That piano sound, it’s completely summer of 89. If you were going around the M25 in your youth at that time you may have heard the strains of that piano sound…. I listened to it and I said to Darren “You sound possessed, it’s brilliant, did you channel your inner E?!” And he said: “Jo, I was learning jazz improvisation during acid house…”

Attack Magazine: And what other musical influences do you bring to bear on your North Street productions? 

Darren: Personally, I really like bands like Suicide, Can, early Pink Floyd… I quite like psychedelic sounds, so if we’re gonna spooky something up, I really smile inside – when me and Jo get stuck into a remix we really click in that area – spooky sounds. 

Jo: [US soul and jazz record producer, arranger, songwriter and musician] Charles Stepney – from 13 and 14 years old getting introduced to things like Earth Wind & Fire’s ‘That’s The Way of The World’, Rotary Connection, the early Ramsey Lewis albums and [Tamla Motown songwriting powerhouse trio] Holland Dozier and Holland. 

Ashley: And lest we forget -The Mizell Brothers.

Jo: And also Coxsonne, going back to Studio One…

Ashley: For me, Frankie Knuckles without a doubt, Eric Kupper who worked with Frankie a lot, Masters At Work… It’s funny, no ego intended, but I went into Cheetahs in New York just after Black Science Orchestra ‘Where Were You’ was released and Benji Candelario said he’d introduce us to Frankie Knuckles who was DJing – and he dropped ‘Where Were You’ in the club and everyone went bonkers. Then he came off the decks, Benji introduced us and I said Thank you so much for playing my record and he stopped me and siad No! Thank you so much for making it! 

Jo: And we’ve dined out on that story ever since! 

Glenn Davis ‘Special’ Afrikanz on Marz remix is released at the beginning of December.

Photos by Will Sumsuch

North Street Studio One are on Facebook.

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