He may be Fresh but he’s not exactly new. DJ Fresh’s sudden chart and radio ubiquity comes after a 15 year career as an underground drum and bass don. The 35-year-old producer from Maidenhead, real name Dan Stein, is proof that the ever changing world of dance is actually the best place to carve a long-term career in music.
Look at the DJ line-ups at this summer’s dance festivals, still dominated by wrinkly old hands such as Pete Tong and Carl Cox, or the Olympic Opening Ceremony, curated by fiftysomethings Underworld, and Closing Ceremony, starring 49-year-old Fatboy Slim atop a giant octopus. Fast-moving clubland doesn’t ditch its veterans, it venerates them. “At the Olympics it was great to see people embracing this music and realising it’s a big part of our culture,” Fresh tells me. “Dance music didn’t start in Britain but it is a very British thing. There’s so much dance in our charts compared to other countries, and it transcends people’s ages or their backgrounds. People just love a good piece of music and ultimately it doesn’t really matter who made it.”
Today the charts seem dominated by dance more than ever. While the biggest rap and pop stars clamour to work with electronic producers such as David Guetta and Calvin Harris, Fresh emerges in the same ballpark as the rowdy proponents of what he calls “bass music”, Chase and Status and Pendulum. The latter he signed to his Breakbeat Kaos label.
In the live arena these acts have proved to offer more sonic and visual excitement than the most headbanging rock group. Fresh will be joined by a full live band, including singer Fleur and “hype man” Messy MC, in Camden next week, his stated intention to blow the headliner Example off the stage. “It’s 100 per cent more fun than DJing,” he says. “You get to realise a vision that’s much more in depth than just going out playing records.”
After a decade and a half of playing records and releasing instrumental singles under his own name and in the revered late Nineties drum and bass quartet Bad Company (their growly track The Nine is a classic in its field), he only had his first hit last summer but did it in style. He scored the first ever dubstep number one – Louder – and then the first ever drum and bass number one this February – Hot Right Now featuring the latest pop diva, Rita Ora. “I always thought this music had the potential to be the backbone of what’s in the charts, but it’s definitely a surprise to be in the frontline as an artist.”
With so much experience, he seems to know exactly how to step up his game and make hits, though he insists that his current success has more to do with the likes of Radio 1 coming round to his sound rather than him softening it for the mainstream. “If you look at the tracks that were breaking through from previous times when drum and bass was supposed to be big, like Alex Reece’s Candles [which reached number 33 in 1996], you’d never hear them in a club – they felt watered down. Now what’s cool in the underground has become the basis of what can work in a crossover sense as well. I roadtested my big songs in the clubs first.”
His real concession to the mainstream has been the addition of a guest singer on every song on his imminent third album, Nextlevelism. He says it’s the difference between making “songs” and “tracks”. If you were after a one-stop sampler of the state of current pop music, this is ideal, with its contributions from Rita Ora, Dizzee Rascal, Rizzle Kicks and Professor Green as well as American rock stars The Fray and Juliette Lewis, all singing over hyperactive bass-heavy music that never flags.
Don’t come to his album if you want to know about his feelings or get a state of the nation address. It’s party time all the time here. Lyrics are not the strong suit. “I wanna party ’til my last breath, ’til there ain’t no air in my lungs left,” Dizzee raps on the recent hit The Power. “It’s gonna get louder/We’re gonna get stronger/We’re gonna feel better/You can’t tame this energy inside,” sings Sian Evans of Kosheen over the foundation-shaking bass of Louder. “Put your hands in the air if you want it right now,” Rita Ora suggests on Hot Right Now. It’s euphoria in MP3 format, clearly designed to function best on a hugely expensive nightclub soundsystem or extremely fast car.
However, Fresh, refreshingly, doesn’t seem to be in it for the partying. He’s no pop chancer but a genuine long-term evangelist for this kind of music who’s been working hard to get it into the charts for years, mainly in the background running his record label with fellow drum and bass veteran Adam F. He tells a story of a family holiday to Botswana as a 13-year-old, where he ended up playing a cassette of the clattering dance music then known as “jungle” to a group of village children.
“They were dancing around, they loved it, and I thought, they would never have heard ths music if I hadn’t been there playing it for them,” he says. “So I got on a mission to be a missionary with the music, to get it out there to more people. Even now it’s the same thing on a global level.”
For DJ Fresh is about to go global. He recently signed new record and publishing deals totalling GBP6 million including one with major label Columbia in the US. “They’ve said I’m supposed to be their ‘flagship electronic artist’,” he says. There’s a perception that America has finally “got” dance music in the past few years, leading to bigger potential rewards for electronic acts than ever before, but Fresh isn’t convinced. “Today reminds me of what it was like when I was going out there 10 years ago, when drum and bass was big,” he says. “There’s this massive underground in America but it doesn’t have much to do with what’s going on in the wider world of mainstream American music. Their own dance stars like Skrillex aren’t getting in the charts yet.”
He’s delighted that most people will think that his new album is his first – “It’s like having a clean sheet to start off on.” – but not being a real newcomer means he can see the bigger picture. “I’ve seen so many big egos come and go over the years. You start to realise everything goes in cycles.” And whether his beloved bass music becomes globally huge or shrinks back underground, it’s obvious he’ll still be in the thick of it for decades to come.
DJ Fresh plays with Example, Mon Sept 17 at the iTunes Festival, Roundhouse, NW1. Apply for free tickets at itunesfestival.com. Nextlevelism is released by Ministry of Sound on Oct 1.