Celebrating the release of his Potent Funk debut Electric Fence, Dolenz puts down his homemade weed lemonade to discuss the project and making musical risks. From his hip hop crew in the Middle East to working with Jehst and Guilty Simpson, the formidable producer has more stories than The Shard.
"It's OK to not sound like other people"
Dolenz goes deep into his EP featuring Dabbla, Black Josh and Matt Frost, explaining how he sees humour as the way forward. He talks high school antics, sampling classics and experimentation at it's finest. Shock warning, do not touch the fence.
Jeffrey Dolenz, Wriggly Scott, DJ Solo, Spacebody… how’s life in your many shoes?
"I've got this bad habit where every time I become a little bit known I change my name for some reason. I came up with the Dolenz thing when I moved back to London seven years ago. DJ Solo wasn't really my name it was originally Hash Solo, but I was living in Dubai and I had a T-shirt with 'Hash Solo' on the back, and this guy was like 'You're gunna get in shit for that.' I had gigs coming up so it got shortened to Solo. Around that time I made more boom-bap stuff - part of a hip hop crew with rappers out there. When I moved back to London I didn't know if anyone would like my music and I didn't know many people, so I came up with another anonymous name, which is why I was hiding my face in a lot of press pics. I went through a phase of trying to appear more serious in my day job which I liked to keep quite separate. With all the names it's a nightmare but I've kinda stopped coming up with new ones now. Although the Spacebody one is an interesting one I'd like to pursue more."
What musical projects were you involved with out in the Middle East?
"It’s the beautiful thing about music: wherever you go around the world you connect with people musically. A lot of expats have the life where English people move to another country and fucking colonise it again basically. I’m English myself, but they'd only have English friends and blahblahblah. But through the music, I connected with a lot of Arabic people, African people, Sri Lankan... in our crew there were two Sudanese guys and a Sri Lankan MC. We were called Diligent Thought. The other producer was fucking amazing and the MCs were sick. I still work with Toofless when I can. We were very much into the sound of Grand Puba, Pete Rock and J Dilla. Quite soulful, jazzy stuff. I was making beats for them and then sunk into the DJ role. Around that time I released an EP on Foreign Beggars’ label Dented Records, so we were actually gunna do stuff. But it all fell apart.
"The problem with Dubai is that if you're slightly OK at something you'll get lauded over it. If you can play one song on guitar everyone thinks you're an amazing musician. Without blowing our own trumpet too much, we were pretty good. The problem is that as soon as we got the first bit of shine some of the guys took it differently. I've always been adverse to attention in that realm, but one of them loved it and they wanted to make videos and stuff. I was like 'Lets make an album instead', and that pressure pulled it apart. After that, the rubber band effect for me was that I moved into making more instrumental, industrial sounding hip hop with synthesisers. In London I took two years out to figure out how I should sound. I think that's why the drums in my songs are always pretty hard, because I've grown up with boom-bap where the drums are in your face."
I’ve heard you treat releases as “conceptual art projects” to discover things about yourself. What has Electric Fence revealed?
"Did you read that somewhere? Pfft. Well, Electric Fence was the first brand new project I started. Basically, I did an album for Exit Records last year and after that there was an EP that was some of the songs that didn't make it on to the album. Electric Fence again was like the rubber band effect were I wanted to do something fun. I find that some of my favourite tracks are the ones that I don't really think about too much. Sometimes if you have a radio show, a certain gig or streaming thing, then you'll be like 'I wanna make a few new beats really quick.' Quite often, those quicker ones where you don't overthink it end up being your favourite. One of them made it onto the EP - the one with Dabbla on. I did a flip of that Non Phixion track 'Black Helicopters' and he killed it. I'm quite old man, I started listening to hip hop around '89. My first cassette tape was Public Enemy's Fear Of A Black Planet, then my brother was into rave and hardcore so that came in, then I listened to acid jazz and I got back into hip hop properly around '95/'96.
"During that time, me and mates would get so fucking high at school. Ah shit, I hope my parents aren't gunna read this. They know anyway. But we'd get so high, they had a thrash metal band and I'd be sat in the corner because I was more into hip hop. All of the things we were watching around that time are the things I've sampled for the skits. I do try to theme stuff. The first Dolenz thing I did was a journey of self-discovery in terms of trying to figure out how I sound, and every now and again I try to do that again. Electric Fence was supposed to be a bit of fun, a bit more relaxed but still really raw. I bought a 303 to make beats on for it but I still haven't figured out how to use it. For me, there’s humorous elements because the album I did before was quite serious, effectively about the end of the world, and so was the one after that. So this was supposed to be more fun."
Both tunes with MCs sample classic hip hop tracks, (‘Black Helicopters’ and ‘NY State of Mind’), what made you choose those?
"I've dabbled a bit in the footwork realm and a lot of people a few years ago would remake a classic song doing the footwork thing. In a way hip hop has gone full circle and I was thinking today that I've reached that point in my life where so many new songs I hear I already know the sample that they're using. I've already reached that point which is kinda sad, but good in another way. The 'NY State Of Mind' one, I was just listening to that beat and thinking 'Why has nobody chopped up those drums?". I like the idea of chopping up drums where it has a sample on it. I'm obsessed with art where it has some sort of randomness to the end result, so I've always enjoyed taking apart breaks and samples, or sampling a kick that already has a hi-hat on it so you get a random hi-hat pattern that you haven't thought about. So that was why I sampled that one, obviously it's a sick track, probably still my favourite on that Nas album.
"The one with 'Black Helicopters', I basically had a streaming thing coming up and thought, 'I'm gunna flip this real quick and see if I can do anything with it.' I had the drums already, I need to reach out to this producer called Dayle. I haven't told him yet actually but he shared some stuff with me that we were supposed to be working on together and I think I sent him the drum pattern but he never worked on it. I tweaked the drums a little bit, put the sample on there and that kinda did it in not long at all. Someone said to me, 'Am I gunna get in trouble for playing this?'. I was like, 'I don't think Non Phixion are gunna be keeping a fuckin' ear out for what I'm up to.' Even if they did, did they pay royalties to the original guy? I think it's sampled from a Thai record so I'm pretty sure they didn't pay anything."
Tell us about the quote that opens ‘Howzer’: “Taking chances makes change in the music”.
"Yeah throughout the EP there are little snippets from a show. It's LL Cool J speaking on some sort of rap documentary and that's where I sampled the beginning of the one with the Nas beat as well. A lot of people say that I have a specific sound, which if they're right then I'm super happy about that. My beats are really simple. I kinda follow the whole thing of going to a dub sound system and turning the bass up so fucking loud that people don't have any choice but to move. So when I record my bass I put it almost on the red. The drums are on the edge of distortion most of the time and then there's distortion all over the thing. I'm not saying they're anything complicated but I do think it's important to have your own sonic palette. I guess that's what I meant in a way.
"It's OK to not sound like other people all the time. I hate the word 'halftime' but I don't know what other term there is for it: the sorta stuff between hip hop, drum and bass and dubstep. A lot of those people end up sounding the same or try to be someone else. How many wannabe Ivy Labs are there now? But yeah, I didn't overthink it. The interesting thing with the EP is that you've got Doogie Howser introducing it, he's the guy who's speaking to his mum on the phone. I dunno why that cracks me up. It's funny to me, it probably won't be funny to anyone else, but the fact that I find it funny is good enough for me."
Whose faces feature on the album cover?
"You've got LL Cool J, Doogie Howser, Screech from Saved by the Bell, and then because it's that '90s era, Nas is on there and Carol Vorderman is in the bottom right I think. You know the collage-y pink thing? The art was done by Frida Pain, I really like her collage work. She deconstructed Ren from Ren & Stimpy so that's what those shapes are. I like it."
I’ve got to ask, how did you end up making 'Pull' with Guilty Simpson?
"Interestingly enough, all of the sounds in that song I recorded in a model shop at work, there are no samples in that beat. It was originally because Bambooman had a track with Kashmere under this SUPERGOD thing. He asked me if I wanted to do a remix and obviously I said ‘Yeah’ because I love both those guys. So that beat was made for that song but I gave them two options and they went for the other one. Then I had this beat kicking around and I think Guilty Simpson tweeted 'Send me beats' to the Twitterverse and he had his email on there. So I sent him the beat and he was like, 'This is sick' and we just negotiated a price. Super nice guy and very professional. Did it all within two weeks and that's really it.
"The same thing with Jehst. I happened to have his email, (it usually happens when I'm drunk man to be honest), it was the end of the night and I was like, 'Fuck it, I'll have a pop and see what happens.' Once I sent beats to Sadat X years ago and he said he was gunna go in on a beat. Nothing ever happened to it but I've been watching him ever since to see if he just stole my beat. But yeah, purely by chance man. I was lucky Guilty liked it. Also, you've gotta be lucky to have labels that are supportive as well because the financial element obviously needs to be agreed on." [Laughs]
You’ve also been banging out radio shows. What tunes are you hyped to play next?
"Yeah, so I started a show on Subtle FM because I moved to East London. I was doing a show in Peckham with Balamii - I love those guys, it's an amazing radio station. I did it for four and a half years, almost five years, but then it just became a bit of a trek. Subtle is just round the corner and I wanted to simplify it as well, just play an hour on my own. I was tryna get guests every month for Balamii and it's a lot of work after a while. Usually on there I'd play the usual 'halftime' stuff and beats and shit, but last month I did an all-Brazilian vinyl special. I'm gunna do three specials a year and they might be all vinyl because during lockdown I've just been listening to all my old records. I've got a dope sound system here man but the amplifier has blown up.
"What am I gunna play first thing? I was listening to ‘Exibit C’ again yesterday and it's still one of the best tracks ever. I dunno, it's funny, when you do a radio show you tend to just play what's new at the time, but then it's nice to mix it up and play random stuff. Changes all the time for me. This lockdown has made me rediscover what I actually like. When there are nights every night in London and you see certain DJs getting a lot of attention on Instagram it can start to sway things. You see a lot of artists doing it, like 'Oh I need to make some 160' or whatever is popular. Once that hype has disappeared, it really makes you realise what you actually like and what you want to do. So, I've been going back and readdressing what kind of music I want to make. Maybe I'll be playing jazz records."
What does the future hold for Dolenz?
"Oh god. I've pretty much finished another EP after this one so I've got that already lined up, but that's on another label. I was thinking about just taking some time out to experiment in terms of music. I'm tryna find other things outside of music, like should I start painting again? Should I fucking take up yoga or something? I dunno. I've moved away from the path I was originally making with the album because that was very specific, sci-fi dread stuff. But I made a beat the other week that was actually quite a cheerful song [laughs] and I thought, 'Maybe it's OK to do this mellow, jazzy, cheerful shit.' I'd like to transition out of the sci-fi dread stuff and do something else, purely because I get bored of it man. Plus, after 2020 I don't think anyone wants to hear anything miserable to be honest. It's not really the time for it.
"I was looking to sample some bossa nova and I got a new organ so I've gotta learn how to play it. And I've got to learn how to speak French, so there's a lot to do. It all feeds in. I don't think you should focus on music, I get more inspiration when I walk away from it and do other stuff. I've actually been fermenting a lot of shit as well. I managed to make all-natural cannabis-infused lemonade over lockdown. It exploded in the end but it tasted fuckin' amazing and it did get you pretty high. I was making my own bread and pickling stuff. I like to move around man and do different shit. A few years ago I wanted to have my own hip-hop cookery show to be honest."