With his Bona Fido label, the former Finger Lickin' boss is once again unearthing breakbeat gold, both old and new
He gets sent anonymous dubplates from old party people in Detroit who want him to release them simply to 'keep their spirit alive'. He's dusting off and putting out seminal big beat classics that have never been reissued in 20 years. He's even managed to get original breaks godfather Rennie Pilgrem back in the studio for the first time in god knows how long.
Welcome to the crazy world of Jem Panufnik, a man previously known as the co-founder of breakbeat institution Finger Lickin' Records and one half of breaks duo Soul Of Man. Over the last 12 months he's been casually upping his creative momentum, gradually dropping a surreptitious slew of sleazy, slow n' low funklets, bulbous beats and pants-down party pieces to the point they can no longer go under the radar unsniffed.
This new wave of consistent sizzlers can be traced back to his various releases under the new nom de guerre Jem Stone on Freshly Squeezed, Bombstrikes and Ghettofunk (among others), but the majority of his fresh material comes courtesy of his own Bona Fido label, which kicked into life with the 2015 album Stone Grooves.
Presented with his distinctive, comic book-style illustrations, visually the label reboots the aesthetic he developed on Finger Lickin'. But rather than taking up where Finger Lickin' left off sonically, Bona Fido takes us back to what sparked the London label's imagination in the first point - a thriving DIY musical culture where anything and everything felt possible.
Seize the time
"The late 90s, specifically 1998, was just a really, really inspiring time in music," says Jem who, before this point, had spent most of his 90s at art school while DJing funk and disco. "There was the French stuff like Super Discount, the US stuff like KenLou and Masters At Work. Fatboy Slim had burst into the scene. There was Kruder & Dorfmeister, Lemon Jelly, labels like Mo' Wax, Metalheadz, Tummy Touch and so many other really distinctive labels doing their thing. It was a raw, laissez faire, free-for-all attitude. It was a perfect fusion and a bridge between my original passions and what I felt I was moving towards."
Jem launched Finger Lickin' with Soul Of Man partner Justin Rushmore that very same year. "It was amazing fun," he continues. "Justin had opened the record shop Vinyl Addiction and we were exposed to so many great records. Right across the board from guys like Bowser, which was Andy Plump's earliest incarnation, to guys like Tipper and Bushwacka. There was never any homogenous breaks 'scene' - we were very disparate acts doing very different projects, but it all seemed to get tied together. Perhaps because we were all using beats and heavily sampling things, but also I think we were a very clear resistance to the superclubs and the bigger commercial house sounds that were emerging at the time, which all felt very slick and soul-less. Without even realising, a lot of this was natural backlash to that."
Jem is keen to stress he's not in any way seeking to get high off the toxic fumes of nostalgia or looking to "bring back a sound". But he has found himself returning to that mindset that inspired him and many other UK breaks exponents 20 years ago.
"I just want freedom," he shrugs. "Just do music for the pleasure and not aiming it at DJs or charts or any particular 'market'. Like where I was 20 years ago, before it all accelerated a little too quickly and too dramatically. One minute there was a sense of 'anything goes', the next we were playing main stage dance tents, doing BBC broadcasts and getting later and later set times when the tempo never seemed to get lower than 135BPM. You lose the groove element when it gets that fast, and it frustrated me. I'd take a box out and half the records I wanted to use as part of any type of musical journey became unplayable, because the warm-up DJ had already smashed up the vibe too much. It got harder, faster and more production-led and, I guess, snobby. People were starting to declare what was breaks and what wasn't breaks. For me that's when a certain sparkle was lost."
That sparkle has now been rekindled. This is evident right across everything Bona Fido has released so far and has coming up. From the curious case of Midnight Heist, whose true identity Jem doesn't even know, to bringing back one of the most iconic non-crossover big beat records of the mid-90s by Fuselage, read on for details of three projects that show Jem's in the most creative and inspired headspace he's been in for decades… and that we should all be paying attention.
THREE TO WATCH
When big beat was good, it was very, very good. When it was bad, it was pretty awful. But there's no doubt which category Fuselage's double bass-thumping bubbler Seize The Time has been filed under for all these years. Released in Jem's golden year of 1998, it's aged incredibly well. And because it avoided the curse of the commercial crossover, and hasn't been available for the last two decades, it's become a cult classic that Jem has gone to great lengths to remaster and release this month.
"I was amazed no one had jumped on this track for a reissue before," he admits. "This record has never left my box for 20 years, I've taken it to every gig I've ever played. So I found them on Soundcloud and said wanted to do a mix and bring the project back out. Gratifyingly, they knew who I was and had some confidence that I could do it respectfully, but I still had to do some persuasion and even knocked up a sleeve and logo so they could see what I had in mind. They had to track down DATs and a DAT machine and go through all the bits for the masters."
"Then in terms of the remixes, they didn't have the samples because there were all lost on floppy discs over the years. I also asked The Freestylers' Aston, who originally remixed the track as Sol Brothers, but to no avail. But thanks to the wonders of YouTube we tracked down every track they'd sampled and rebuilt the parts for remixes."
As well as Jem's new remix and Aston's classic Sol Brothers mix, there's also a remix from Dirty Barry, AKA Robin 12Tree from Slyde, an early 2000s Finger Lickin' success story who Jem felt were the closest to truly capturing the essence of Finger Lickin's sleazy funk disco spirit. There's more Fuselage fire to come, too. A whole album's worth. Old DATs have surfaced from the studio (run by Shades Of Rhythm/Drumattic Twin artists Nick and Lanx) that have never seen the light of day. Yet.
"They recorded a whole album for Kahuna before the label folded," explains Jem. "I actually had one or two of the tracks for years when we dabbled with the idea of starting a Finger Lickin' Funk side label. A couple of them majorly perked my ears up at the time: cool, carefree, quite big beat-y with big fat funky riffs. There'll be another EP around the end of the summer and, hopefully the album early next year."
When he's not actively tracking down classics and hunting down their samples, Jem appears to be being sent music from unknown sources. One of the most regular names on Bona Fido so far are Midnight Heist, a duo Jem has never met or spoken to in real life. Packing the same levels of treacle-thick sleaze and slap-happy use of samples and operating at a similarly smouldering mid-tempo groove to much of the rest of the Bona Fido catalogue, the records – which arrive sporadically from different countries – are a source of mystery.
"Not long after starting the label, I started getting sent these scruffy dubplates from random places," says Jem. "One from Panama, one from Madrid. I put them on and they had these amazing grooves! Then one came with a folded-up bit of newspaper that talked about these parties in Detroit in the late 80s at the Silver Klimax Factory.
"They were these week-long musical orgies held by an outfit called the Detroit Downtown Midnight Heist Association. There's not a lot online about them and no one I know from America has ever heard of them, but from what I can work out they were a bit of an amalgamation of singers, dancers, musicians and adult performers, and they ran these regular hedonistic parties for years. Apparently most of them have long burnt out, but there are two surviving members of the association active, making these tracks, and are keen for me to put them out and use the platform to spread their joyous party vibes.
"I guess they shared the crazy free-for-all we had back in the late 90s and identify with the freedom and anonymity. They're quite peculiar people - we only communicate by airmail letter - but if they want me to release their music, then I'm honoured."
If that's not quite enough, Jem has also convinced Rennie Pilgrem to return to the studio as one half of the Bush Doctors. Rennie, as anyone who's so much as sniffed a breakbeat in the last 30 years knows, was one of the central and unwavering forces in breaks since the early days of rave, first as a member of Rhythm Section (alongside fellow rave stalwart Ellis Dee) and throughout the 90s and 2000s with his label TCR. After a departure to pursue life as an artist in the early 2010s, it seems Jem and his rekindled free-for-all fire have lured Rennie back into the studio.
"I'd known Rennie from line-ups and touring for years but we 'd never actually socialised much. It turns out we should have done - we have very similar musical backgrounds and tastes," explains Jem. "Long story short, I returned a swap mix that Justin and I should have done about 15 years before. I slowed his track Can't Stop This right down into this very deep space funk groove, and somehow that triggered us into hooking up and recording a load of disco and funk together.
"That was about seven or so years ago, and we released three or four of the tracks on our own Bush Doctors imprint. It was great fun creatively and just what I needed when Finger Lickin' had all blown over. Then I moved out of town and he got very busy with his art. Since then we've actually ended up doing several art shows together, but we've got a load more music in the pipeline. Again, it's all about the music and having fun. We have nothing to prove, it's purely for the pleasure."
Words: Dave Jenkins
Fuselage's Seize The Time is out now on Bona Fido. Buy/stream it here