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DJ Uri on Playing With Prodigy and Bringing the Sounds of UK’s Electronica Scene to India

Ahead of his gigs in Mumbai and Pune this week, the Mumbai-based UK hip hop scratch DJ talks about his love for hip hop, vinyl and mixtapes

Rolling Stone India Apr 12, 2014
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(far left) Uri Solanki with DJs and MCs in the UK, circa 1990. Photo: Courtesy of DJ Uri

(far left, standing) Uri Solanki with DJs and MCs in the UK, circa 1990. Photo: Courtesy of DJ Uri

I got into music when I was seven or eight years old. The only source in those days for new music was pirate radios, which we were quite lucky to have in the early Eighties. Within a year or two, hip hop spread like wildfire in the UK. My older cousins were in breakdance crews, which hit the British shores in 1980. They were a lot older than me, but that’s how I got into hip hop. The breaking was cool, the graffiti was also cool, but the dedication with which fans bought vinyl was incredible. All I heard growing up was, ”˜I gotta get this [song] on record.’ That led me to start making my own compilation on cassette. I was too young to buy the music, but every Christmas or birthday, my parents would ask my brother and me what we wanted. It was always records for me.

The first records we got were Street Sounds compilations, called Electro 1, Electro 2 and so forth. I grew up on soul, funk, reggae and hip hop. That would be artists like [soul singer] Luther Vandross, [British jazz funk band] 52nd Street, [R&B band] SOS Band and a lot of soul and early hip hop like Run DMC and Rapper’s Delight. I started DJing at around 13, when my parents bought me turntables. If there were a lot of songs that you didn’t know, you couldn’t look them up on Shazam. If you wanted to know the name of a song, you just had to go up to the DJ and ask him. A lot of the times, they won’t tell you because they don’t want anyone else to play it. At a lot of gigs I went to, I would end up looking at the records on the console to make out what it is. They’d put CDs on top of it to cover it up. So there was no vinyl swapping or record trading.

Finding records you want was like finding a needle in a haystack. At record store, they were categorized by genre but not by artist. There was thing called crate-digging where your fingers turned dusty by the time you found your records. As far as the biggest find for me goes, I’d say it was Kraftwerk’s Computer World. About 10 years ago, I had the chance to buy the original version of the album. As a vinyl collector, you don’t want the reissue, you want the original pressing when it came out. I found it in Birmingham or Nottingham. It was released in 1981, but it was recorded in 1978 or 1979. This even pre-dates Charanjit Singh’s Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat. This album [Computer World] was electronic music for me. It’s timeless. You’d play it now in a deep house set and play it as the last song.

Listen to Kraftwerk’s Computer World here

When I went record shopping, I went to 10 different shops a day. My father used to work for British Rail and I used to get a free train pass to travel anywhere in the country. There’s a story behind every vinyl ”“ from when I bought it to how old I was and sometimes, I even remember face of the guy who sold it to me. You’ll also think of the times when you played this record at a club and the reaction of the people there. You don’t get that with MP3s. Now I go to shows with a hard drive and there are about 200,000 songs on there. If I went to do a gig 20 years ago, I’d take one record box, with about 80 records in there and I would have carefully selected each one of those records. You go to the gig with a plan. The whole thing of less is more is sometimes true. I could rock a party with one record box, concentrate on all the good tracks that I know will work.

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I first got into clubs in a serious way at the start of the Rave scene, in 1989-90, under the name Dazzle D. I played in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester and Liverpool. I used to be a resident DJ for [Coventry, UK nightclub] Amnesia House, between 1990-1992. You’d go to anyone’s house and you’d see flyers from the gigs at Amnesia House. You’d just spot them and say ”˜I went to that one and that one and this one,’ pointing at all of them.

In 1991, I played with The Prodigy, Sasha, Carl Cox, Grooverider, Fabio. These were before they were big names. Prodigy had just released this track called “Charly” and three months later, they became commercial success on the charts, and then they went international and now they’re biggest band in the world for electronic music. It was quite nice to see them at India a few years ago. They were big on an underground level. The energy level and the enthusiasm for clubbing back then in the UK is very similar to what’s happening in India right now. If you go to the UK now, everyone’s done it all. There’s nothing new to them.

By the early Nineties, the acid house scene was coming to an end and the rave scene took over. You could see it with the change of drugs as well. After LSD, by ’91, everyone was taking Ecstasy. The music was more happy. It changed clubbing .The early acid days were pretty dark. It was very much like the early days of the Goa scene, in ’91 or ’92. Nobody had any idea what they were doing. You’d go to these parties in the middle of nowhere, in a big field somewhere, and there’d be 20,000 ravers in a circus tent and massive laser shows. That was quite crazy to experience as a teenager. You had a lot of clubs as well. Big clubs weren’t the rage. In London, there were small places like The Wagon. Sometimes, the small places had just 50 people, but these venues were the only ones that allowed underground shows. They were open to any kind of music, because there wasn’t a choice. There was an innocence to things back then. There was no backstabbing among DJs. They had to be secretive about the stuff they shared but there was a sense of togetherness to it.

Everyone would sell mixtapes at these gigs ”“ eight or 10 cassettes of all the DJs playing and everyone would buy them. One of the most popular mixtapes called 2 Blacks and a Bubble, which was compiled by a band called Top Buzz, included Jason Kay, who went on to become a well-known 2-step garage artist and an MC called Matt P, who is still considered one of the best MCs for electronica in the UK. If you went to any rave in the UK, I can guarantee you’d still hear that mix in someone’s car. It was the most legendary mixtape at the time.

In 1994, I came to India. I just came on holiday with my parents. I thought if I ever came here [India] again, I’ll bring some records. Next year, I came back with a friend. I went to the Taj Hotel, to a club called 1900s. It was the only place I’d heard about. I went to the door and said I was a DJ from the UK and I wanted to meet the resident DJ. The accent must have helped. I went to meet DJ Akhtar, but he only had CDs. I told him I do scratching and he recommended I go to a club in Juhu called J49 and ask for someone called Kris. I went there, and they didn’t let my friend in ”“ the bouncer at the door said “No stags.” I didn’t understand what that meant. I was wondering, “Was there a wildlife path somewhere?” I’d never heard of this in England. So I told my friend to wait and I met Kris. I introduced myself and told him I’m a scratch DJ. He immediately said, “Go on and play right now.” I totally forgot about my friend. By the time I played the second record, I scratching and really cutting shit up. I tore the hell out of it. I looked up after playing two records and I saw my friend was inside with a beer in his hand! That DJ was Kris Correya, and he’s one of my oldest friends now. I’ve known him for nearly 20 years. That night, I played for about a hour and a half, and I was the first scratch DJ to play in India. At the gig, a lot of the DJs in Mumbai kinda put their second-in-command in charge and came to J49. When I finished my set, all those guys were standing along the DJ console watching what I was doing. They’d probably heard of scratching or seen a couple of videos, but no one had ever seen scratching live.

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A week after that, Lloyd, who was at the J49 gig, called me up and said he’d got turntables and needed records. For two weeks, I was training these guys. It felt nice for me. They were first wave of turntablist enthusiasts. I came back every year after that until 2005. Every time I came back, I brought records for the DJ friends I had made here and told them this was what’s happening right now in the UK. I remember Kris telling me when I played a drum and bass track, “Champion Sound” by Q Project, at J49 that it was too fast, but now he’s part of Bay Beat Collective, only the most popular breakbeat crew in the country! I took a three-year break and moved to India in 2008.

Listen to “Champion Sound” below

As for the India scene now, everyone here wants to play what’s being played in London, Berlin, Paris and all those places. The only thing lacking in the DJ scene is record-digging and the instinct to make something new out of your music ”“ knowing history and knowing your records. It’s quite a shame that there was never a culture of record shops here in India. I can see what’s going to happen in India in the next 20 years ”“ it’s exactly what I went through in the past 20 years being in England. I was quite lucky that I was there from the start in the hip hop scene. Then I saw the acid house scene, which turned into rave at an important time in my career, this was 1989-90. Then I saw jungle and breakbeat come in, house and trance and techno. After that, I’ve seen dubstep take over clubs. I’ve gone through the whole evolution of the scene in the UK ”“ I lived through it and brought records from all the years.

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