NYC legend Timmy Regisford tells us about his new album '7', why he's moving away from the Afro-house sound and why the song is everything…
Timmy Regisford is an artist whose career, as the song says, goes back – way back. Yet his has been far from a typical path.
Starting out as a DJ and remixer in the early 80s, he made his artist debut alongside Boyd Jarvis on 1985's Battle Of The Beats EP, but it would be over 20 years before his name graced a record label as the lead artist again. Instead, he pursued a career first in radio, becoming Music Director at New York station WBLS, before moving into an A&R capacity. Over the years, he served as A&R Director for both Atlantic and MCA at different times, before becoming Vice President of A&R at Motown: during those years, artists that he signed included Colonel Abrams, Blaze, Loose Ends and Eric B & Rakim.
Alongside his A&R work, he chalked up an impressive catalogue of dancefloor remixes for soul and R&B artists such as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Patti Labelle, The Pointer Sisters, Aurra, Midnight Star and Jody Watley, as well as the more diverse likes of Steel Pulse, Kim Wilde and Dan Reed Network. But he's perhaps best known as the man behind Club Shelter, the New York party that recently celebrated its 28th birthday, and that helped shape the soulful house sound for the 21st Century, particularly in its more Afro-oriented forms. He remains a highly sought-after selector, his wiry, shirtless boxer's frame and full head of dreadlocks a familar sight in those spots worldwide where soulfully-inspired house music is the dancefloor fuel of choice.
Just over a decade ago, though, things changed, and Timmy Regisford the artist/producer came to the fore. Starting with Africa Calling in 2007, he's released eight studio albums to date, the most recent of which is 7, which dropped on DJ Spen's Quantize Recordings on 3 May. It's an album that will surprise some, because despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of Afro-house in recent years, it's actually one of his least Afro-flavoured albums: just compare track titles like Lie To Me, Falling In Love and Taken By Dreams to, say, 2015's Branded Shelter, where you'd find cuts called things like Nakupenda, Nguwe, Izikhal and Lolabola.
By comparison, 7 is much more of a straight-up soulful house affair with excursions, even, into slightly tuffer, bouncier territory – see Budea or Can You Feel It. So was this a deliberate move, or did the change of pace come about more organically? Only one way to find out…
The first thing that struck me about 7 is that it's not as 'Afro-y' as I expected, compared to previous albums and given how the Afro-house thing has really taken off in recent years…
"Well, what I was finding in New York was that a lot of the African stuff that's being made now, it's good but it seems to fall short of delivery on the dancefloor. All of it was seeming to blend into one song, so I wanted to move away from that and do something different."
When you say "the African stuff that's being made now", does that mean Afro-oriented tracks made by UK/US producers or the actual African stuff as well?
"Just in general. All of it."
How does the process of making an album work for you – do you write constantly and then compile an album from that, or do you sit down and say, 'Right, time to make an album'?
"I think everything's about opportunity and timing. The opportunity was there for this album and I had the time, so I got in the studio and put it together."
Were the songs already written, or were they written especially for this album?
"No, all the songs were fresh."
So how long does that process take, going from scratch to finish?
"A couple of months, about two or three months I guess."
Wow, that's quick! Okay, let's talk about some of the contributors on the album. Obviously Arnold Jarvis is a bit of legend but I must admit Tiger Wilson and Felicia Graham are new names to me…
"Tiger is pretty much my music guy, he was my main keyboardist on this album. He comes from the church, he's a church-going conductor and singer. He sang and played on my last album and he does most of the keyboards on this album, too."
So that's more of a partnership than just a case of getting a vocalist in?
"Yeah. And then Felicia Graham, she came out of the church too. She's an undiscovered church vocalist."
There were a couple of track titles I specifically I wanted to talk about. Firstly, Tokamak, which takes its name from a piece of scientific equipments used in attempts to achieve cold fusion. What's the story there?
"To be honest, Tiger came up with that name in the studio."
What about Fadjamou?
"That's from an African tribe from Senegal. It was originally an African song that I did a remix of, but the version that's on the album is the instrumental of the remix because the vocal wasn't licensed."
"Exactly the same story as Fadjamou, except the tribe are from Mali! And again, I couldn't use the vocal but I loved the instrumental so I just put that on the album."
So there is still a clear African influence on the album… is that connection important to you as an African-American man?
"Not really, it's just what I love and it's a sound that's always been strong at Shelter and in what I do."
But it's not like… you haven't gone off and trained as a Yoruba priest like Osunlade, or anything like that?
"No. [laughs] Not yet!"
Talking about your career more generally, you've almost done it the reverse way round to a lot of people! Most people start out as DJs and producers, then go on to run labels and go into management and stuff. Whereas you started out as a remixer and A&R guy, and the production seemed to come later…
"Well, I was always making music, I just didn't release a lot of it! But it seems like now, with technology and the way house music seems to come and go so fast… it's like if you're not current, then you're off the grid and no-one knows who you are."
Was there a point, then, where you consciously decided 'Right, I need to concentrate on my own productions'?
"Not really, because as I say I was always making music to play, so the only thing I'm really doing differently, now, is releasing it a lot more. In fact, we've already got another album in the can! That should be out before the end of the year."
So what should we expect from that album – will it be similar to 7 or are you exploring different musical territories?
"Well, the big difference is that I've been working with a new girl from South Africa, called Toshi. She's done most of the vocals on the next album. I love what she does and the musical chemistry between us seems to work really well."
Let's talk about Club Shelter a minute. The club's 28 years old this year – that must be getting on for some kind of record?
"That's right, we had our 28th anniversary party in March. I don't know about records but I'm just happy that I'm still able to do it, and that people still want to come out and hear quality music – and I hope that's what I give them!"
You're in a different venue now to the one I came to in 2002 though, aren't you?
"Oh yeah, Shelter's been in about five or six different venues in New York by now."
And are you happy at the current home?
"Yeah, we've been there for two years now and we have no plans to move any time soon."
Your career goes back to the mid-80s. What are the best and worst changes you've seen in the music industry since then?
"The best thing is that technology has made it easier for everyone to hear more music. The downfall is that the generation that comes now don't have the history of understanding what it takes to make a record, how the process works. And what's killing our industry is that people aren't writing songs. When you don't write songs, it means that everybody can make a track, and then you make a track, it gets big and all of a sudden you're famous, but you didn't put in the work to get to that point. That's not good for anything.
"The other day I was reading an interview with Michael Jordan, and he was saying that the kids now, they come out of college, they get endorsements and sponsorships worth millions of dollars a year, but they're not proven. And they never get to appreciate what they really have, because they didn't have to put the work in to accomplish that. When he was playing, the sponsorship deals only came once you'd put the work in and proven yourself."
"So all these kids now, they don't realise that if you write songs, you'll go a lot further than someone who's just making instrumental tracks. That's how you make yourself different from everyone else, but they don't have that history, and no-one's teaching them that. That's why we're in the state we're in now: no-one's writing songs, everyone's making tracks but they come along quickly and they go away again just as quickly, they don't last. When you write a song, the lyrics stay forever – music comes and goes."
Is that part of Shelter's role now, do you think – to introduce the younger generation to more song-based forms?
"Well, only in the sense that that's what you're gonna hear! I don't play a lot of instrumental music, because for me it's not that interesting – I need to identify with lyrics. If you identify with lyrics it tells a story, and when you tell a story, people follow you to find out what you have to say."
How do you see Shelter fitting into the current NYC club landscape?
"Well, there are a lot of big warehouse-style clubs but it's all more techno-oriented. I think what confuses people is that we haven't changed! I understand commercial music and I could have gone down that path but I choose to stay in my lane and be good at what I know how to do, instead of doing something that, okay I can do it, but I don't really have any feeling for it."
Will you be touring to promote the album?
"Yeah, I'll be touring for most of the summer. I'll be going to France and Amsterdam, and I think there are couple of UK dates as well."
Finally, what else is going on with Timmy Regisford right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"We've covered most of it, I think. I'd just say, stay true to what you do and don't try to be somebody that you're not."
Words: Russell Deeks
7 is out now on Quantize Recordings