After 20 years out of the game, hardcore and jungle originator Ron Wells is making new music again. So why now?
For many first-gen hardcore and jungle tekno fans, Ron Wells is the sound of rave personified. From 1989 to 1996 he was involved in hundreds of era-defining records on labels such as his own Sound Entity and Smooth Records, and seminal jungle imprint Basement Records. Whether it was as Jack Smooth, Fast Floor, 20 Hurts, Electronic Experienced, Hedgehog Affair or Structural Damage, countless collaborations with the likes of Phantasy, Wax Doctor, Loftgroover, Alex Reece, Kev Bird and Alex Hazzard, or behind the scenes as an engineer, his fingerprints in the foundation footnotes are indelible.
His influence was such that his Sound Entity Studio became something of community for several years. A hub for any hardcore and breakbeat explorer active during rave's nascent chapters, over 70 artists from Carl Cox to Q Project to Urban 'A Trip To Trumpton' Hype passed through the doors during its peak. It was also home to Dance Nation Radio, a regular show they broadcast weekly on Sky TV for several years with mixes from the likes of Loftgroover, DJ Face, Carl Cox, Colin Faver, Phantasy, Alex Hazzard and of course Ron himself.
During those years, peaking in 1994, Ron couldn't have been more immersed in the game if he tried. As his work and involvement grew, so did his collection of synths and his fascination with synthesis and programming. Bucking the heavy-sampling culture of the time, his intention was to engineer as many elements as possible from scratch, resulting in a distinctive sound and innovative edge that characterised rave's acceleration during the early 90s. Electronic Experienced's archetypal acid techno jam The 303, Ruff With The Smooth's bouncy harmonic bass on Sounds Superior, the rising paranoid riff on Plight Of The Innovators, the list goes on (and on).
He also had a significant influence on the deeper side of drum & bass with his and Paul Clarke's Fast Floor project, an act that explored D&B's links to jazz and soul with tracks such the shimmering Trippin' On Sunshine, the dreamy On A Level, and the rare-as-hen's-teeth Fast Floor album On A Quest For Intelligence that's currently up on Discogs for £1,300. It's not the only record from Ron's discography that attracts collector attention. Many of his original records pass hands for triple figures - because after 1996, there weren't any more being made. In early 1997 he disappeared from the game for good, with no intention of returning.
In fact, it's only because of collectors and original hardcore and jungle tekno fans - notably the Back To The Old Skool forum community - that he's now returned. After 20 years in the IT sector, he's been coaxed back into the music world, and convinced to rebuild Sound Entity Studio and become a full-time musician again. It's clear he's relishing the opportunity: not only is he packing generous measures of remastered classics (On A Quest... was re-released this month) but also a whole slew of new EPs as Ron Wells, 20 Hurts, RWDS (with Daniel Silk) and other projects he's set to reveal later this year.
Yet just 18 months ago, he'd never have even considered being in this position again. This is how he got here…
It must have been a big decision to make to leave the industry entirely?
"By then, no. There were quite a few factors at play. The main factor was, when jungle tekno split into happy hardcore and drum & bass, you had 1,000 versions of the Amen Brother break coming out every week. I thought, 'If this is the choice I've got, then I can't do it with love. And if I can't do it with love then why am I doing it?'."
I'd heard you're not much of an Amen fan! Even if it's been properly dissected and reconstructed in an interesting way?
"I'm the biggest Amen whinger on the planet! And no. It's just lazy. You shouldn't have to rely on one break. It became far too popular and I wasn't happy to use it myself. I started my Fast Floor project to focus on the structure and composition that I felt was fading fast. I went on record at the time, because there was this real feeling that some producers were stopping it from getting any more technical in terms of musicality or composition. Or else they'd be out of job. People were slapping off-key basslines over Amens and banging them out. I wasn't happy to be in that game."
But you did still persist for a while?
"For a while. I'd been given a chunk of money from my publisher so I had room and time to experiment for a while. They gave me tens of thousands but they didn't seem bothered about trying to make any money off the music I was making. It was huge amount of money for me, because I'd come from nothing, but it was pennies for them - they didn't seem to care! But I have to be really honest about this, and it's something I've thought about for a long time: I made some really bad choices back then."
Bad decisions such as...?
"I desperately wanted to be commercial. I stopped sounded like myself and made some absolutely terrible music. Luckily not a lot of it came out! The major labels heard it and told me it was too commercial. I thought, 'Hang on, you're a major, you like commercial music!' But they were actually trying to be nice and not just tell me it was shit! It really was.
"My market turned into Amen Brother records and I'd already been public about how I was against that. So I had to find another market and I thought that was a more commercial market. If I'm honest, that music I made then was dreadful. But when you're doing it you can't see that. You think people don't get it... they did get it, they just didn't like it! Some of it, looking back, was borderline Whigfield-over-a-breakbeat and it deserves to stay dead."
Sounds like you were 15 years ahead of your time, given some of the commercial D&B records we were subjected to a few years back...
"Perhaps I was. But it was terrible, so don't give me any credit. I'd turned my back on the underground in the pursuit of money and made some bad decisions. Sometimes you have to look back and say, 'You were a twat mate'. I shouldn't have chased the pop path: I should have instead gone down a jazzier route and brought jazz musicians into drum & bass. That would have been a much more credible, creative and long-term path to explore."
So you felt you couldn't go back. But for a long time there was a real community around Sound Entity Studio, right?
"There was. It was a beautiful, short-lived thing and it broke up way too early. It's having a major resurgence now, and every new jungle tekno tune I make is getting a lot of demand, which is a nice thing. But I didn't have control over where the sound was going at the time, and I was running out of money. I never wanted to be a businessman. The last thing I wanted to do was sit in meetings. I just wanted to make music but I'd lost my ability to make money from it. Throw in the fact that digitalisation and MP3s were already beginning to dent sales, and I just felt there was no future for me in the industry."
Did you continue to follow the music?
"No. I fell out of love with it. I shut the book, got rid of the equipment and didn't want to discuss it with anyone or have any involvement. I listened to other people's music exclusively for a very long time. Jazz fusion, soul, funk, all the things I loved as a youngster. I did that for eight years and had a little niggle. A thought: maybe I should get just one keyboard?
"It was just a Roland Fantom X workstation with a little sequencer in it, so I learned that and started to make little electro compositions. I'd made some library music in the past so I decided to contact that old library company and offer to make some more. They were interested, so I embarked on a project for them. That was how I got back into things really. TV music was responsible for getting my love for making music back.”
So how did you get back into making jungle and drum & bass again?
"By around 2013, I'd done three or four library CDs, and was slowly getting back into music and investing in kit. So I decided to rebuild Sound Entity Studio. I also decided to learn to play the drums, because I've always wanted to make my own breakbeats.... how good would that be?"
Cool! How's that going?
"At first I was terrible! I felt I could never do it. But it's a slow and painful process and gradually you get there. I've been learning drums for three years now, on a Frankenstein kit I've made from a Roland Octopad with extra pads and pedals. So the latest drum & bass I've made as Fast Floor is all my own drumming."
And when did you officially decide to re-enter the dance music side of things?
"This started around six years ago. A guy called Joe from the Back To The Old School forum got in touch and asked if I had any old records to sell. I was still out of love with music and the scene, so I told him I'd left the records out for the dustman. They were heavy, I had no interest in them, I was moving house. So I left 100s of white labels out for the dustman."
"Yeah, I think he felt like that too! He posted my reply on the forum without telling me, and everyone went 'Oh my god' and began speculating why I did it, what was the matter with me and what the story was. He had to come back to me and say, 'Ron you've caused a stir, have a look'. I went on there to clear things up and stayed there. They're really cool, friendly and welcoming, it was such a nice feeling. Any question they asked, I answered. And they all told me to get back in the studio.
"I thought, 'I'm a businessman now, I've got a house to pay for, this isn't a game anymore.' But they kept on at me, and eventually said they'd pay for the records before I made them. I was like, 'You what?' They told me to contact Robin Allinson from Music Preservation Society (MPS), he'll sort it all out and they'll pay upfront. I thought, 'No way,' but Robin assured me it would happen. So we put an old record up and they went bonkers and ordered it all. That was early 2017."
Well, some of your old records do go for a lot of money...
"I was surprised at that. Some are silly prices. Some guy is trying to get £1,300 for my Fast Floor album, and everyone hates him! But for me, he's my marketing department. He makes me look amazing. I don't want him to make that money off it, but he's telling the world he thinks it's worth it. It's a very strange position to be in."
I respect how MPS democratises things. It gives the power back to the regular music lover who hasn't got thousands to spend...
"It's the most amazing thing in music I've ever been involved in. I can't tell you how connected I feel with people now. These people have become my friends. Like a family. There's a number of artists on the label growing now, as well. A lot of represses of old school and more techno and acid house on there too."
And now new material from yourself, of course...
"Yes. Waveforms 2 last year was the first new thing I'd released in over 20 years, apart from library music. Waveforms 3 has nrore new stuff, including a track I made a track for Ratty around 1993. It was untitled but when remaking it from scratch I called it Alta Ignota, which is Latin for Unknown Deep.
"No one played more of my tunes than Ratty, so I made him the track and didn't even save the sequencer data. No one else had a copy. Then someone posted it on YouTube saying 'what is this?' and someone got in touch with me saying, 'I know this is you. It doesn't sound like anyone else'. At first I thought it was someone trying to do my sound but then remembered it. I didn't even make a copy for myself, it was strictly for Ratty. The person who gave him the DAT didn't tell him that. We got in touch a few months ago and he didn't even know it was made just for him!"
So you remade it from scratch?
"Yeah, I had to go off this really crappy clip from a rave, with an MC over the top of it. I worked out the notes as best I could and went to the keyboards and worked out the sounds. It was only three minutes on the mix and I couldn't remember how it ended, so I made that bit up. So that was Waveforms 3 with a new jungle techno track and a techno track. I like to throw in a bit of techno here and there.
"Another record that went down well at the time was the 20 Hurts EP. Very tough techno music - more techno than jungle tekno. Now, after 23 years, I've just made volume two. They're both out this month."
And more to come…
"Loads! Here's a cool story: a few years ago a producer called Fudalwokit made a tune as a tribute to me and it was unreal. I thought, 'This is serious!' so I got in touch and said I'd remix it. I don't remix as a rule but it's bloody good. He played all the synthesis himself, it's properly crafted music. So I suggested he remixed a tune from the Waveforms 2 EP. Another artist I respect and enjoy working with is Worldwide Epidemic, or Dan Silk as he's more conventionally known. He's rising up the jungle tekno ranks massively and doing some amazing things. That's RWDS, Ron Wells and Daniel Silk, which is also up on pre-order now."
Can I ask how many copies you press or sell?
"The average selling amount is several hundred, and it's growing globally at an impressive pace. It's such early days. I've only been doing this eight months. I didn't even know that many people still had decks!"
Are you still a businessman, too?
"I'm rapidly moving away from it, so I'm very close to being a full-time musician again."
That must be a good feeling...
"It is. What's great now, is that I've invested my money so I don't have to work tirelessly to pay bills. I genuinely believe I make better music because of this. That pressure I discussed earlier, about making terrible music, was because I needed to make money. I made music I'm not proud of, that fortunately not many people have heard. But now I don't have to be successful - I'm making music out of pure enjoyment, and if it touches one other person, then my job is done.
"When I started out, I was 19 and didn't have a care in the world. Because of that I made the music I wanted to make, and that's back to where I am now. I'm very grateful for this - for years I never dreamt I'd be able to do this again. It's an exciting position to be in.”
Words: Dave Jenkins
Check out Ron's releases on MPS here.
Tags: Ron Wells, 20 Hurts, Fast Floor, Jack Smooth, Electronic Experienced, Hedgehog Affair, Structural Damage, Sound Entity, Dance Nation Radio, Ratty, Music Preservation Society, MPS, Back To The Old School, Run With The Smooth, hardcore, rave, jungle, jungle tempo, Amen break, Roland Fantom X, Whitfield