In 1993 Richard Blair was invited to Colombia to work with Toto La Momposina. He’d previously worked on Toto’s La Candela Viva album during his time as an engineer at Real World Studios. Initially the visit to Colombia was for just a few weeks. Blair stayed 9 months. A love affair with the country, that endures to this day, was ignited.
Here Richard Blair gives an insight into how the early years he spent in Colombia began to influence him as a musician and producer and sowed the seeds for the formation of the band sidestepper, whose new album is available this month on Society of Sound.
“I’d immersed myself in Bogota’s club culture for the years I was there, which for me meant old school salsa, played off vinyl for couples on a central dance floor with tables and chairs round the edge where you left the bottle and your cigarettes. There were some discos playing a mix of US funk, a bit of rock, Colombian folklore and good time Caribbean music, but I stayed mostly in the salsa clubs. I realised how skilled the DJ’s were, how they’d ride the waves of tempo and intensity, stoking and building the fire up ’til the time came to give us a breather with the most unexpected drop in time, a slow montuno and ten minutes of Cuban trance ’til we were ready to let rip again with some soaring mambo. Clubs ran all night then, and if people went out dancing, they’d be up for the full plan. None of this out for a pint and in bed by midnight, this was the most intense and wild partying I’d even seen, riotous and sweaty, an uproarious full tilt ram jam where bodies got in close and tight, where for a moment we all felt the thrill, the pure and total abandon of collective joy.
On my few visits back to England I was checking what was happening in London clubs too. I remember going to Metalheadz, Goldie’s drum and bass night at the old Bass Clef in Hoxton Square and being blown away by the sounds I was hearing. I loved the heaviness of the production, but above all the grooviness of the basslines and those beats. It was basically a Jamaican dancehall feel at double time, big and swinging.
Ever since those formative days at Real World with Smith and Mighty, observing Massive Attack and what they’d done with their remix of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I knew I wanted to be a part of this new global beats and bass culture. This was really the second wave, after the house, garage and hip hop producers of the 80s, and samplers were playing a huge part. I’d seen what the NY producers had done to 70s funk to make it hip hop, and what the Bristol bands had done to soul, funk and reggae to make trip hop. Maybe it was possible to do something similar with Latin music.
It didn’t seem such a big leap to make the connection between the Bogota salsa clubs and what was going on at Metalheadz. Even though the music was at face value wildly different, I realised that those great salsa tunes I’d heard the DJs playing in Bogota were using the same universal musical techniques to fire up the dancers. With a simple repeating bassline as the anchor, the trance would build as big joyous horn melodies and flowing vocals took the tune up through the gears.
I’d heard a lot of looseness in the drum and bass beats, almost jazzy sometimes, and crucially the bass drum patterns didn’t fall on the 4’s like house music, or even 1 and 3 like hip hop. The snares didn’t follow that pop rock two and four thing either. Some kind of spark went off and I realised that maybe drum and bass would be the language most suited to trying out some Latin beats, to get sampling and looping, to figure out how to get my take on this amazing music, and give it a sound that could compete with the heaviest dub plates being dropped in London.
I bought some basic gear and got on with it. The first few sidestepper singles were dance floor instrumentals, Latin drum and bass. Andy Morgan’s Apt 22 label put them out and we began to get a little underground recognition. Meantime I was going back to Colombia for a few months every year. I was producing bands in Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and beginning to work as a DJ.
I’d played Colombian musicians and DJ’s these early sidestepper tunes, and people liked them, but in the mainstream down here it was just too out there, weird and incomprehensible. The first time I can remember thinking ‘there’s something brewing here’ was in 2000. We’d signed to Palm Pictures and they had given us the tour support to come and do some gigs in Colombia. We played at a small club uptown and there were a hundred kids going crazy and two hundred musicians standing with their arms folded, studying intensely.”