Phil South is, amongst many things, a purveyor of delightfully eclectic DJ sets, label boss at the wonderful Golf Channel Recordings and one of the mastermind’s behind New York’s legendary No Ordinary Monkey nights. We caught up with him recently to talk about why he prefers small parties to big raves, the gentrification of cities, why he’s got a particular issue with remixes and a whole load more.
What are you earliest memories of music?
Listening to the Bay City Rollers on repeat when I was like 4 till it drove my brother insane. Band on the Run and Simon & Garfunkel’s greatest hits in the car. Beatles greatest hits. My dad was really into classical music, trad jazz and bizarrely, Boney M .
Why do you think it captivated you so much?
My brothers were a lot older than me so in a way I was like an only child. I had access to their records and my parents’ nice hi-fi, so I could while away the afternoons with my brothers’ classic rock LPs and all that great artwork. I just loved exploring it all.
What was it like living in Manchester at the tail end of the 80s? Were you swept along by the whole Madchester, Hacienda, rave scene? How did the scene compare in reality to what you’d heard about it? How has that period of your life exerted an influence on you since?
I didn’t move to Manc until 1990/91. For me, The Hacienda seemed pretty over by then; it was all moving into hardcore, hoover noise, breakbeat, rave type stuff, which I wasn’t really into. It was pretty exciting to go to a place like Konspiracy and witness that mental, criminal scally energy, but I didn’t make a habit of it. But mostly it was over by the time I got there. I enjoyed myself at the smaller balearic clubs helmed by the likes of Justin Robertson.
You’ve said that you never really did any of the big raves, but opted for the smaller parties instead; why was that?
Maybe because I started out at the small clubs and the energy was just so tangible at peak moments. I also think I enjoy hearing new, fresh music that I’ve never heard before and, the bigger the club / rave , the lower the common denominator and you get less upfront, unheard music, more tried and tested sounds. I’m happy with 10 friends to be honest; I don’t need a thousand strangers.
How did you get into DJing?
It just seemed so exciting! These people were such rock stars, and it was right there; achievable. I loved that I could track down these records and string them together in my head. And eventually actually do it. I started at friend’s house parties, then we put on our own nights in random spots around Manchester.
What type of music did you used to mix with back then? Does any of it still creep into your sets these days?
All the balearic classics! Just really obvious stuff from the era basically – pianos, vocals, breakbeats, scream ups, acid etc, etc. We started playing a bit more hip hop influenced stuff eventually – it was a natural extension of the 100 – 110 bpm chugger – high energy, intense but slow records. I’m still chasing that vibe today! But trying not to play too many classics – that gets old fast.
You started out collaborating with Tom and Ed from The Chemical Brothers, before they had even created that guise. Who else were you mixing with back then?
There was a big crew from Most Excellent that all knew each other. Names you might know are Moonboots, Balearic Mike. But there were loads of others! We’d all see each other every week at the club or the record store.
What are some of your favourite memories from this time?
I loved to go and dance! I’d be at the club so early, on the stage, dancing all night. It was all very innocent for me, I didn’t really connect it with any kind of drug experience. I’m very glad of that in hindsight, it instilled in me a deep love of the music and the vibe.
I had some of my most amazing early experiences going out and hearing Danny Rampling play in 89/90; people were just so psyched and could not wait to completely lose their shit on the dance floor. I’d never seen anything like it!
You’ve said that you ”almost lost interest in a lot of dance music because of the way it was so regimented in the UK” during the 90s; can you expand on this a little more for us please?
From my experience it split down pretty clear lines…nerdy dudes and crusty types and techno on one hand and fluffy bra cheese fests, vocal poppy house – “handbag” – on the other. Neither really appealed. It was also the golden era of hip hop and I was loving that!
What brought about your eventual move to New York? How was it adapting to life there at first?
I moved for work and the chance of a fresh start & a job. NYC!! Who wouldn’t go? Took a bit of getting used to. It was pre social media and all that, which I think makes going to visit / live in a new place much easier these days. But just such an exciting place to go and live.
You started hosting what started out as a small intimate get together for friends, but it was something that quickly evolved into the No Ordinary Monkey parties. What would you say was the key to your success with this? Was it really “like ‘Cheers’ with drugs”, as Prince Language put it?
Initially the NOM parties were an extension of the earlier “record club” gatherings…once these had run their course we realized we just wanted to hear Carlos (who went on to create Whatever We Want records) play. He described it best as Rub n Tug’s ugly kid brother.
Carlos was a great deejay and opened me back up to the original balearic style of deejaying that people like Harvey & Thomas had never really abandoned. Instead they had both dug backwards into the black American legacy that birthed it all, and were at the same time ready to embrace any new and future sounds. Plus the Baldelli thing really came in around then for me and a lot of people.
‘The Cheers’ thing that Josh said – it’s a great quote! We had a long run at a spot way downtown in the financial district. Like way downtown. It was always the last spot you came to on your night out, plus deejays and bar people would come after work, so there was a lot of bonhomie and “Oh hey, how are you?” There was a nice social bar area. Plus it was late at night, so certain things are inevitable I guess.
You’ve said that the clubs in New York during this period were “just awful”, but that you “did everything right and really went the extra mile.” How did you mark yourselves as different from what was already on offer?
That sounds horribly arrogant. But I will say the bottle service thing really dominated the early 2000’s and that was just a natural extension of how clubs in the late 90’s were just places to go and try and get laid. The whole Giuliani era was not good for NYC nightlife: that’s been well documented.
We just always tried to find an unusual spot, somewhere fresh, bring in nice sound, and people were ripe for that. Plus the music was crazy fresh! it truly felt like a new experience for me, and I’m sure the same for a lot of people that came.
N. O. M. seemed to be as eclectic as Golf Channel in its musical ethos. You’ve said that in order to DJ in this way it’s about “knowing when the style fits.” How easy do you find it to read, and then work, a dance floor?
As a dancer, I wanna be like “What the fuck! Just what I needed to hear RIGHT NOW! And I never even knew it!” I think the best deejays anticipate that. It’s a magical thing, a great deejay set. It takes a lot of mysterious and often non music related events to align for things to truly go off. Of course it’s up to you to supply the necessary environment in which the spirit can flourish – smokes, strobes, nice speakers, that kinda thing.
What tracks are rocking your sets of late?
Verdo – Big Fish
Mark Seven – The Call
Tornado Wallace – Ferntree Gully
K15 – Gratitude
OB Ignitt – Let It Do What It Does
You set up Golf Channel in 2007. Is this something you’d always wanted to do? How difficult was it at first? Were you surprised by how quickly the label found success?
I had no idea what I was doing or how to do anything. I was lucky because the parties had a good reputation, and of course Carlos had been putting out crazily hyped music at the time – Map of Africa, Quiet Village…
Mark E’s ridiculously seductive ‘R & B Drunkie’ was your first release. What was your reaction to that tune the first time you heard it?
Yes thankfully I knew we had a winner there. It sold well, and still does – I try to keep it in print if there is demand.
How difficult did you find it putting out that first release?
Steep learning curve. Still learning it!
Miles Johnson, aka DJ Milo, had been “retired” from music for a while, and yet you managed to get him to release on the label under the name DJ Nature. How did that come about?
It wasn’t like some major coup or anything, just made sense at the time. He had played a few of the early parties, and knew co-promoter and good friend Nick Griffiths. We stayed in touch, he mentioned some music he was making and I immediately asked if I could put it out. He is a great deejay, so I was sure it would be good!
Do you think that the way people now consume music, cherry-picking what they want in the search for instant gratification, has had an adverse influence on the music that is being produced? If so, who out there, for you, is fighting in the vanguard against this?
I don’t see it that way really. I guess I’m lucky to exist on the fringes of music, I just don’t see that instant gratification thing so much. People I know will play me nice records!
A few times I have encountered it is witnessing late teens early 20’s kids playing 2 minutes of every song. I honestly can’t remember if I did that or not. These guys were playing quite nice music though – D’Angelo, A Tribe Called Quest..
Do you think that the ease with which people can get their music out there has led to popularity superseding quality in some way?
I’m honestly so divorced from pop music, I have no clue. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to get music out there at all though.
Part of it is me just being like a middle aged curmudgeon, I’m sure, but I swear to god, the music biz does throw up some awful, awful, shit, shit music. But it always has. There are always good tunes in amongst, and music thankfully has that voodoo more than anything else for me and many others; that magical moment when the song comes on, that track you couldn’t wait to hear etc, etc – I’d rather focus on that – the positive!
You have a fairly eclectic back catalogue; how important is it to you to keep things moving forwards in that way? Is it easier now, or when you started out, for taking such approach?
It’s not a studied thing. I listen to a lot of house, techno, dance music, whatever you want to call it. But I love all kinds of music, and I think everyone does too. I’ve honestly rarely met someone who only listens to, or likes, only one kind of music. I love specialist labels. But I love them from all genres! I’m just trying to put out really good music and as much as possible.
Who are the major musical influences on you?
Who was influenced by Alfredo…
Who was influenced by so many people but a direct link to Larry Levan, Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, Nicky Siano and, ultimately, David Mancuso.
Have you any advice on how to get noticed for the aspiring producers out there?
Oh jeez if you need my advice you’re fucked already!
Where in the world is your favourite place to play and why?
Looking forward to playing Limited Edition again soon! Oh man, anywhere that’s got a nice sound and good people really. I’m always excited to play wherever’ll have me. People that wanna book me are generally like minded folk, so that makes me feel at home.
What’s your take on the current scene in NYC?
I live a few hours north of the city now. I have always had parental responsibilities, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to comment on any scene. It does seem pretty healthy though these days, with all these clubs in Brooklyn opening and, more importantly, staying open, new venues popping up and a great DIY ethic. Seems like kids are more likely to try and make a techno record than a rock record these days in NYC. Maybe because you can for less?
You’ve talked in the past about how the gentrification of certain areas in New York and London has had a negative effect on the cultural, and more specifically clubbing, scenes in those areas. Do you think this is a problem that is becoming more and more widespread?
I just think cities are being very short-sighted if they are not actively trying to encourage young, creative punk / DIY type people to come and live there. A big part of NYC’s cultural image is music related, arts related – and that was driven by disenfranchised youth that were able to eke out a living there. It’s hard to do that in NYC now. Possible, but cheap living has been driven far from the city centre, and that’s when you get these creative places and scenes happening I think.
Golf Channel recently went back to back with Gala Drop for an i-d Vice mix, comprising of house, techno, funk and punk. What was the thinking behind that set?
Hahaha! I didn’t notice the punk?
We were asked to do a mix to promote the Gala Drop LP. Somehow it was decided that Nelson from Gala Drop would email me a bunch of mp3’s and I would make a mix using them and my own tunes. He sent some lovely, future music that I have to say I responded to. I dug deep in my basement and just hit record… Turned out nice I think!
Hasn’t Jerry the Cat, Funkadelic band member and Theo Parrish collaborator hooked up with Gala Drop? How did that come about?
They met him in Lisbon, got on really well, and roped him in for percussion as far as I know. They knew of his lineage. Apparently they asked him to try a vocal on one of the tracks and boom! The rest is history.
You’ve said that you’ve got a particular issue with remixes, in that you, “don’t know how and why some labels do it. To me, either you have a good song or you don’t.” What is it that constitutes a good remix to you? Who out there is floating your boat, remix-wise?
Well, its also that they are untenable financially for me as an indie label. If I pay for a remix, that’s the profit of the record gone. So yeah, that’s a bummer right there. But also I do hate that thing when a record has a load of remixes on it. I’d rather hear producers produce their own stuff. The remix is left over from major label times. Also, if you commission a remix, you’re kinda fucked if it isn’t that good.
That said – if you’re cool and reading this, I’m down for swaps!
What’s upcoming on your horizons?
Bed. Alarm clock. That kinda thing.
What about for Golf Channel; what’s next in the pipeline there?
Central Executives new 12, Gala Drop remix 12”, The Loose Control Band second 12”, LGK’s debut (2 NYC heavyweights with a snarling piece of filter house), Africaine 808 12 & LP, Project E 12 & LP, Payfone, Apiento, Cherry Garcia, Spike remix LP, Mangiami comp… Lots, plus a whole host of exciting new signings.
OK, a few fantasy questions now. If you sign up anyone to release a track on Golf Channel, who hasn’t already done so, who would that be? Or they be, for that matter?
D’Angelo. Curtis Mayfield. The Jam. Larry Heard. Prince. Can. Kraftwerk. Juan Atkins. Pharaoh Sanders. The Rolling Stones. Lee Perry. Shake Shakir. Aretha. Chaka. Joni Mitchell. Cannonball Adderley.
If you could pick one producer to remix one of the label’s tracks, who would they be and what would the track be?
I’ve got to add another wish there: that it actually be as good as I’m hoping! I’m gonna go with Ron Hardy. Maybe Scientist. Derrick May.
Who makes it onto your fantasy line-up for a club night and where would you host it?
Ron Hardy. At the music box. That’s it for me!