We catch up with the disco don as his new compilation 'Le Freak: Music Innspired By Chic' hits stores
With a discography stretching back over 25 years, as a DJ, producer and label owner Dave Lee is an elder statesman of the UK house scene. In recent years, he's also taken on another mantle, becoming a prolific curator of soul, funk and disco compilations on his Z Records label. As well as three volumes in the Soul Of Disco series, there've been compilations dedicated to funk, 80s boogie, Brit funk, go-go, Italo house, 90s garage and probably others we've forgotten, all refreshingly free of big, obvious tunes and packed with rare gems.
His latest collection is Le Freak: Music Inspired By Chic. It gathers together tracks that - in Dave's opinion, at least - owe a clear debt to the polished disco sound of Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards and co, whether from contemporaries like Firefly, Change and the Michael Zager Band, or from more recent artists like Ultra Nate and Lee's own Sunburst Band. And it's a stormer.
With the album in stores now, we thought we'd get Dave on the phone to find out more...
So Dave - what can you tell us about the new album then?
"It was just an idea I had a couple of years ago. I was talking to someone about Chic and how, as well as making a lot of great records themselves, they inspired almost a whole style of music, with bands like Change and quite a few others, mostly from Europe, people that were copying Chic because they were so successful, both on a pop level and in the clubs. And then of course there's the Good Times bassline that spawned so many copies, from Another One Bites The Dust to Rapper's Delight.
"When I was first getting into music in a big way - when I got fed-up with Scalextric cars and skateboarding - it was around the time Chic were at their height, and their stuff was just everywhere - you'd turn on Radio 1 and hear a couple of Chic records or Chic-produced records in an hour. Whether it was Sister Sledge or Diana Ross or Debbie Harry, they had a very distinct style, and you'd know right away it was a Chic production. So it's not really surprising that other people copied that, even if they weren't doing so on purpose.
"So I just thought this album would be an interesting thing to do, because there are albums of people that sound like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but I wasn't aware of anyone doing anything like that with an influential black music act. Cover version albums maybe, but these aren't cover versions - there's one cover but generally it's just songs that have Chic reference points in terms of the style of playing, the basslines, the phrasing of the vocals and so on."
When you put these albums together, is there a lot of research involved or is it just a case of walking into the record room and pulling things off the shelves?
"Normally I'll start with a list on my phone, and I'll write down tracks as they occur to me. And then I'll talk to other friends, people like Luke from Horse Meat Disco or Sean P, and I'll say 'I'm thinking of doing a go-go comp, have a look at this tracklist and tell me if there's anything you think I've missed off, or anything you wouldn't put on there'.
"But what happens then is, you have a list of 10 or 15 tracks but some of them you can't license. Some companies just don't want to license their material, which can be frustrating; or the terms they want are just so bad that we can't agree to them. Often we license things on what's called a 'favoured nations' agreement, where a label will license something to us for X amount on the condition that we don't pay anyone else any more, and if we do, we up their royalties to the same. So if you've agreed things on those terms, sometimes you can't license something elsebecause it means paying over the odds for six other tracks just to get that one track on there.
"There's quite a lot of politics to it all, or people wanting stupid amounts of money, or someone says, 'You can have the track for the CD but not for digital downloads or vinyl,' stuff like that. Or with older tracks, sometimes just *finding the publisher is tricky and you end up having to track down someone's daughter or something. You can even get tracks where it's a major label but they can't confirm they own it, even though you know damn well they do and they know damn well they do, because the contract's been misplaced over the years!
"So it's not just a case of going in the record room and coming out an hour later saying, 'Here's the next album' - there's quite a lot of work involved. We usually start on the licensing about a year and a half before the album comes out."
But apart from the work involved in licensing, there's no 'musical' research, so to speak?
"Well, for a comp like this I guess you could say the research has been done over a period of years and decades! It's different if we were doing, say, a new Soul Of Discowhere it's more about rare records - then I'd be spending more time on eBay and rare record websites, hunting down things that haven't been licensed before. But for something like this, it's really just a case of remembering the records, seeing which ones still sound good and which ones you can license.
"And then I always try and have a balance between male vocals and female vocals, uptempo and downtempo, so it's a bit more of a mixture: you don't want 10 tracks that all sound exactly the same. So you might want to get an instrumental on there, or a foreign language track or something. There was one track we really wanted for this album which was like a really raw funk version of Freak Out, but again it turned out we weren't able to license it. Maybe we'll do a volume two in a few years' time and ask them again then!"
Nile Rodgers has been working with lots of different people lately"¦ ever thought of approaching him?
"I did send him a Facebook message once, but nothing came of it. To be honest, I get the feeling he's more interested in working with higher profile, more contemporary acts - people like Daft Punk and Aviici, people that will introduce him to a younger audience that might not know him. I'm probably a bit too niche and a bit too similar to his existing fanbase, albeit a lot smaller!
"Obviously, it's his guitar and he can do what he likes, and working with those sort of artists can get him places working with me never could. I mean, it'd be great if it ever happened - one for the bucket list, maybe, but it's not something I've actively pursued."
Compilations have become an increasingly important part of the Z catalogue"¦ does it get harder to come up with ideas for them?
"I guess it does to some extent"¦ and also, there's only a finite amount of tracks out there. Although that's one of the great things about the internet: it's unearthed a whole world of 'new' old music we never knew about. In the 80s and 90s I thought I had all the best 70s-80s disco records, and then the internet came along and you find a whole load of records that never made it out of Milwaukee or wherever. But even that's starting to dry up a bit - it's not a bottomless pit."
"So far I've done a go-go one, a Brit-funk one, three Soul Of Discos, a boogie one, Dave Hill did the gospel one, an Italo one, and then we do the Under The Influence ones compiled by my record collector friends as well. So we've done quite a lot, and yes, it is a challenge to come up with fresh ideas to some extent. But I think there's life in the format yet. I've certainly got a few ideas up my sleeve still - but then of course you're back to the licensing hassles again!"
If you did another Inspired By"¦ comp, who would it be about?
"I don't know... Earth Wind & Fire, possibly? They were another act that were much mimicked. Geordio Moroder... James Brown you could easily do... there's probably a few you could do but I think you'd need to start putting together a tracklist. And then if you can only get to five tracks, it's probably not that great an idea - but if you can get to 20 tracks, maybe it's a goer."
Finally, apart from the album, what else is going on with Z Records at the moment?
"Our last album release was Opolopo's debut a few months ago, he's a Hungarian guy based in Sweden who does sort of nu-boogie, synth-y house stuff. Since then, we did the 90s garage compilation, I've had a couple of singles out and we've had a single out from Sean McCabe, some Pezzner remixes of a track from the Opolopo album, and the next single is a Sunburst Band remix set, and then we've got a single from Rhemi, which is Neil Pierce and Ziggy Funk.
"The sound of the singles is still house, disco house, soulful house"¦ we're not releasing any 'new deep house' kinda stuff, that Duke Dumont-type sound. We're sticking with the sounds we're known for. We did do a couple of more big room things a couple of years ago that did quite well on Beatport, so you can see why people go for that more commercial vibe because you can make money! But basically we just put out music I like, and I find a lot of that 'Beatport house' stuff a bit"¦ obvious.
"Quite often you can look at the charts on there, and there'll be a track called Satisfy and you just know it's going to be a Loleatta Holloway vocal. There's nothing wrong with that kind of regurgitation, I've done it myself, but now people are regurgitating ideas that have been regurgitated 100 times already. For me, it's boring - I'm sure if you're 22 then it's all fresh and exciting, but personally I don't really need to hear Teddy Pendergrass You Can't Hide From Yourself sampled for the 50th time."
Le Freak: Music Inspired By Chic is out now on Z Records