How a 1996 filter disco hit became an unlikely dancefloor smash in 2019, with a little help from Illyus & Barrientos and Prins Thomas
"I'm alive, the man with the second face, and I'm ready y'all to rock the space!"
If you're in your late 20s or 30s, that sped-up hip-hop vocal refrain probably conjures memories of messy school discos, or maybe parties your parents had; if you're really old like us, perhaps it'll take you back to your peak clubbing years and the start of your dance music career. But if you're younger, it probably just reminds you of last weekend – because out of nowhere, Stretch & Vern's 1996 hit I'm Alive has become one of the dancefloor smashes of early summer 2019, thanks to a reissue and some fine new mixes from Illyus & Barrientos, Prins Thomas and Wax Worx.
Mid-late 90s records didn't come much more zeitgeist-y than I'm Alive. Rocking a hefty sample from Earth Wind & Fire's 70s classic Boogie Wonderland, it was a record that blended two of the era's most popular musical tropes, filter disco and big beat, and hence found favour with DJs of both persuasions. Stretch himself (real name Stuart Collins) describes it simply as "a fusion of house, disco and rap, my three favourite forms of music," and for Stretch & Vern it launched a career that continues to this day: Stretch is still out gigging regularly, while Vern (Julian Peake) has embraced the nu-disco movement in recent years, to not-inconsiderable success.
But neither of them, as Stretch admits below, expected to find their 23-year-old breakout hit once more gracing dancefloors from Pacha to ABODE in 2019. Read on to get the full story behind the unlikely feel-good hit of the summer…
I'll be quite honest: I didn't expect to find myself interviewing Stretch & Vern in 2019…
"Ha ha! You're not the only one, my friend – I don't know what's going on! I mean, both myself and Vern have always been involved in music, and we've done various different aliases and stuff, but to come back round to where it all began for us… Because I'm Alive was our first record and still our biggest hit. But then everyone's 90s mad at the moment so I guess it's just that circle of life that all the nature programmes talk about."
How did the reissue of I'm Alive come about, then?
"It's much like the first time around, really. Back then, I wasn't really doing very much and then I got a call saying 'Oh, your record's coming out'. This time around, I got an email out of the blue from someone, didn't really think it was legit, and then I saw it was from Because Music, which is a big label with Major Lazer and people like that on it. They'd bought the catalogue of London Records and been going through it, and they said they were going to use I'm Alive to kick off a series of reisssues. And, madly enough, it's been going right off in the clubs: the Illyus & Barrientos remix, the Prins Thomas remix and the Original Mix. It's unbelievable, but it seems to have kept its magic, so it's nice getting a second bite of the apple."
Did you have a say in who did the remixes, or was that all the record label?
"Yeah, we did. It's a difficult situation for London to be in, because obviously if artists are still around, they're going to be really precious about their records and their music. But for me and Vern… see, I'm Alive has never been digitally released. The original and Fatboy Slim remixes got remastered, but those were never released digitally. So that was the first thing we said: we wanted the remasters of our Original Mix and Fatboy Slim's mix released digitally.
"And then for the remixes, we wanted one on the disco tip, and we suggested Dimitri From Paris, Mousse T or Prins Thomas. And they went with Prins Thomas, who's deeper, a bit more on the cosmic tip, but his remix is just unreal! I suggested Illyus & Barrientos, because they're going right off at the moment – I still DJ out all the time, so I know how good they are and how effective their remixes are. And then Wax Worx is an up-and-coming guy, a friend of mine called Mike Wall, his remix is great too.
"I've played all the mixes out. Illyus & Barrientos is the most club-friendly, but Prins Thomas's is deep and funky and I play the Wax Worx dub as well, that works for me. That was played at ABODE on Saturday and someone sent me a clip of it tearing the place up."
"So I was instrumental in all the mixes, but we've also got Laura at London who's just brilliant, she battled for Prins Thomas for us. She's been brilliant. And it doesn't end here, by the way: Get Up Go Insane [Stretch & Vern's 1997 Underground Sound Of Lisbon-sampling follow-up single] is getting reissued next, and we've had all the remixes in for that now. I don't think I'm allowed to talk about those yet but it's an amazing remix package! Basically, London decided to reissue the whole of our huge catalogue… of two tracks, ha ha ha!"
Reading and listening around prior to this interview, I also came across your remix of the Spice Girls, which had somehow passed me by at the time…
"Yeah! [laughs] Fatboy Slim played that at Fabric on New Year's Eve, and made me stand on the stage with him. He turned the sound off and said 'You've all been dancing to The Spice Girls – remixed by this guy!' and they all cheered, and he put it back on again and they went crazy again. We had a lot of support back in the day from Fatboy Slim and Pete Tong. We're still the only act Fatboy Slim has remixed twice, I believe, and I can't count how many remixes we did ourselves.
"Robbie Williams, that was another one that got played in Fabric and places like that. We seemed to have the knack of turning a pop record into a credible dance track."
That doesn't seem to happen as much any more, does it? My 90s vinyl collection has remixes of people like Celine Dion and Mariah Carey but you don't seem to see that as much these days…
"I think what it is, good pop acts will always get good remixes, they'll always be a decent remix of Calvin Harris, say, or Sigma – pop acts that have roots in dance music themselves, but it depends on the label and on the artist's own background. What's changed since the 90s is that back then all the major labels had a dance department, so they'd pass on the Celine Dion ballad or whatever it was to someone in the dance department and suddenly Masters At Work or whoever would remix it and it was on all the dancefloors. That's what's missing today. I don't think the labels have the financial depth now, but lately I've been offered some big-label pop tunes to remix again so maybe it's starting to pick up."
There's the impact of Soundcloud and bootleg/re-edit culture too, of course…
"Actually, that's a very good point. Why pay someone to do a remix, when you can Google the artist name and find someone's already done it for free?! But then I also think that's a big part of why the 90s sound is coming back, because today's up-and-coming bedroom producers have been digging out a lot of old 90s tunes, remixing them and putting them on Soundcloud, and then big DJs like Annie Mac are playing them. All of a sudden it relaunches these tunes back into the public mind, whereas in the vinyl days you couldn't really do that. So many big tunes lately have come off the back of Soundcloud.
"I've got tons of Rebuke's remixes, for instance. And he probably only made them for his own sets, but it just takes that one mix to blow up and suddenly you've got a new killer artist on your hands."
Is the 90s revival partly a 'half-remembered' thing as well, do you think? Is it that tunes from that era sound familiar to young clubbers today almost without them realising, because they heard them as toddlers?
"Or when they were in their mummy's tummies, to be honest! But yeah, I think you're dead right. And here's something else to throw into the mix: I was in Dubai at the weekend – and shout out to the Hideout crew by the way, they really looked after me while I was there – and we went to this club before I played. And they were playing stuff like The Proclaimers and Grease Is The Word and Hi Ho Silver Lining and YMCA, and I kid you not, the average age was 18-30 and everyone in there knew every single word! They know all the words to all these songs from the late 70s, 80s and 90s, and that gobsmacked me. I was like 'Who still plays this music?' but they knew every word… to what I'd consider records you'd rather forget!"
But then it's easier now, because everything's just a Google search away…
"Well, yeah. But why tap into The Proclaimers, of all people?! I mean, I'm not talking about records like Where Love Lives or Show Me Love or Gypsy Woman – they know all the words to those, too, but fair enough, those are classic records. But why 18-year-olds in 2019 know all the words to Footloose and all the dance moves to Greased Lightning… that just baffles me."
"Then again, that's kind of helped us, hasn't it? So I shouldn't grumble, because we had an 80s revival that lasted far too long and it won't be long before it's the turn of Oasis and Blur and Britpop to make a comeback. I just wish I'd kept all my old 90s club clobber, cos that's right back in as well! [laughs]"
"So yeah, it's all part of the same thing and it's led to this reissue of I'm Alive, which is great for me! It's rebooted Stretch & Vern as a club proposition, although it's mostly me these days… I still play out all the time anyway, I can't get enough of it, but Vern's not too bothered. We'll do some of the big ones together but mostly it's me. But when I do a Stretch (And Vern) set, as opposed to going out just as Stretch, I'll throw in a few more old classics. And a lot of the old clubs are coming back now too… people like Peach and Clockwork Orange and Cream, it's great!"
So when you DJ just as Stretch, what sort of stuff are you playing? Is it 'back to the old school'-type events or is it more upfront?
"Well, I've had my hands forced a bit on that front. I've always been about listening to and buying and hearing and playing new music, new house and tech, but because of the 90s obsession and I'm Alive coming out, I'm getting asked to do more retro sets at the moment. The way I do it, though, is... just about every record from the 90s that you can think of has been remixed or bootlegged or re-edited at some point, so I tend to play a lot of those, rather than just the old 90s records as they were, mixed in with some less obvious 90s records that you might have forgotten about.
"But yeah, 'feel good' is the best way I can say it – a Stretch & Vern set is a feel-good set. Everything from disco and funky house to 90s classics. But when I go out just as Stretch, it's a lot more upfront and current."
And in the meantime, Vern's been doing his disco thing…
"Yeah, he's really into all that whole nu-disco vibe. He's got his two labels, Nude Disco and Home Comforts. He's always loved his disco and he's stayed true to his roots, whereas I love disco but I've always had a big weakness for house, I love tech-house and progressive house as well. Digweed and Sasha have always been my favourites to go see, especially cos back in the day Bedrock was on Thursdays so I could actually go there! But yeah, I've always liked it a bit more pumping but Vern's more on the pure disco tip. And then we come together we marry the two, so in a Stretch & Vern set you'll get a nice balance of both our influences."
So the obvious question, then… you've both been plugging away all this time, you're currently having a moment back in the sunshine, so what's next? Are there any new Stretch & Vern productions in the pipeline?
"Absolutely, in fact we've already got one finished. Like I said, we've got the two London reissues coming out, I'm Alive is out now and Get Up Go Insane will follow in June/July, with those brilliant remixes I can't talk about yet, and then we'll follow that up with our first new single. It's a real feel-good party tune, and I can't wait to play it and for you to hear it… but for legal reasons we've got to keep it under wraps for a little while yet. We're not sure what label it's coming out on yet, because London are kind of busy with all the reissue projects this year but hopefully it'll be on Because in some way."
Finally, what else is going on for Stretch & Vern right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"Well, keep an eye on Vern's labels for more killer disco tunes, and I've got a new solo alias as well, Unfriended, which is getting support from people like Fatboy and Brandon & Alex. And the gigs are coming in thick and fast at the moment... but really Get Up Go Insane is the next big thing."
Words: Russell Deeks
I'm Alive is out now on London Records. Get Up Go Insane will follow in June/July