Following a recent spate of remixes, reissues and brand new material, iDJ catches up with a true New York house and garage legend
There aren't many artists who are so revered that their fans actually start referring to them as 'God'. It happened to Eric Clapton in the 60s, and it happened to Todd Terry back in the early 90s, but that's about it, that we can think of anyway.
Oh, except for Victor Simonelli… who although admittedly not widely referred to by that soubriquet, was once described on-air as 'God' by the bloke who used to do the weekly Club Guide slot on Manchester's Kiss 102 FM back in the mid-90s. "That bloke" being, erm… me.
That was over 25 years ago now… but just lately, there's been something of a flurry of activity from the Brooklyn-born scene veteran. Most recently, there was The Answer, which was credited to Chris Lake & Armand Van Helden feat Victor Simonelli and Arthur Baker, but was really a remake of the latter pair's Why Can't We See, released under the name Blind Truth all the way back in 1991.
At around the same time, Sean McCabe's Good Vibrations label brought us some classy new rubs of Was It Just A Game, which was originally the B-side of one of Simonelli's best-loved tunes, Solution feat Tafuri's Was That It All It Was from 1993. And before that, there was a package featuring no fewer than 17 different mixes of recent single Don't Stop Keep Rising, which saw Simonelli collaborating with 80s legends Toney Lee and Status IV.
So with several big releases all out at once, now seemed like a good chance to have a chat with the man – to find out what's been behind all this recent activity, and find out some more, too, about all those classic 90s productions that led to this writer's younger self deifying the man on UK airwaves…
Let's start with the new mixes of Was It Just A Game on Sean McCabe's label. Now, I first met Sean through his work with the Southern Divide crew in Wales, who of course previously remixed Do You Feel Me back in the early 00s…
“That's right, and I believe that's how I met Sean as well! The Was It Just A Game remix came about because Sean contacted me saying he'd like to remix it and re-release it on his label, and asking for the acapella. And obviously I was happy to do that, because I love Sean's work.
“It's a tune I did with Tafuri back in 1993. Back then, it was out in the UK on Fruit Tree, and in America we released it on a label called Doghouse, and the A-side was a cover version of Was That All It Was. Andrea Tafuri sang it and the b-side was Was It Just A Game. There was just the one mix but I had the acapella, so I sent that to Sean and all his remixes sounded great.”
Thinking about it, there haven't actually been that many remixes of your work over the years – so do you turn down a lot of those requests?
“I don't, actually – in fact I welcome them. I always like to hear new versions of my tunes and I'm always open to working with new people because there's so much new talent out there. I think what you may mean is, because I've retained rights to the majority of my tunes, there's probably a bit less of a remix flow compared to things where the rights are owned by major labels.”
That makes sense. Okay, so let's move on to The Answer with Chris Lake & Armand Van Helden…
“Right, so that was an interesting one. Why Can't We See We was a record that Arthur and I did back in 1991, there were several mixes on that original release and there was an acapella that we did on it as well. Now between 1991 and now, I have about 120, 130 different versions of it that have been done – various different remixes and re-edits. I did actually put all of them together on one release, which is currently on promo on Traxsource.
“That project was completed around September, and in the meantime Chris and Armand had done their version of it. Now to me it's pretty much a remix of the Blind Truth record but they wanted to retitle it, so as I said we came to an agreement and it's come out that way, as The Answer.”
So having yours and Arthur's names on it, that was more of a respect thing – you weren't actually in the studio with them?
“No, we didn't actually work on the record ourselves, it was just that they'd sampled our acapella. And as I said we came to an agreement about that.”
Is that quite pleasing from your point of view? Because there are lots of records on my shelves that have Solution, Colourblind or Cloud Nine vocal snips on them but don't have the name 'Victor Simonelli' anywhere on the sleeve! Was it nice to get asked for once?
“Yeah, I appreciate it. And look, I'm a DJ too so it see it from both sides. I don't mind people sampling stuff, it's part of our culture, but it's definitely nice if they ask first, and yes, it's nice if they credit the original creators as well. But I understand that younger DJs don't always know how to do that, so…”
Then we come to Don't Stop Keep Rising… that was out in April last year and then later there was a 17-mix package. That's one of the most extensive remix packages I've ever seen…
“Well, it was but then we took it to the next level with 120 mixes of Why Can't You See! That's a record number of remixes for Traxsource, definitely – they told me so, because they had to adjust the way their website works to accommodate it!”
So what's the philosophy behind these mega remix packages? Because most people, with 17 mixes to choose from, would just choose the best eight…
“That's a good question. I think for me… see, I know what it is to want to get somewhere and have to work for it. So with that in mind, I get a lot of guys coming to me asking if they can remix stuff, and I'm happy to accommodate them because I've been there: I know what it's like to want to work but not have the contacts and not know who to turn to, so I like to give people chances. And now they're all together in one place!”
“As for the record itself… when Toney and I first met, through Paul Simpson, for some time it was in my mind to do something with him. But something special, not just something throwaway. So I had that thought for a few years and then when we sat down and talked about it, he told me he was still close with Status IV so we got the idea to get them back together for one release, because he was one of the writers on You Ain't Really Down.
“So that's what we did. I think they're all just such amazing artists – and actually we've had some more remixes done now, so they'll be released in 2021 as well!”
Okay, let's move on now to some of your older tunes. Starting with Cloud 9's Do You Want Me…
“I had the idea for this one pretty much ready before I got to the studio, so it came together very quickly. You see, in 1983 there as a record called Falling In Love by Surface, and I just remember hearing that for the first time and the feeling it gave: it was soft and sweet and gentle, so for Do You Want Me I went back to those opening chords of Falling In Love, because I wanted to try and get some of that sweetness into Do You Want Me.
“Now, Falling In Love was pretty much a ballad: it was a low BPM thing not a club track. So I wanted to get some of that sweetness in, but have it at a more club-friendly BPM, so that's what I did with Do You Want Me. I went into the studio very clear on what I wanted to do, and it all came together very quickly because there's not a lot of elements there: there's basically drums, bassline, Rhodes, vocals, synth strings, maybe a little top line and that's all that's going on. But it's not how many elements you put into it, it's the quality that comes out.”
And that record in particular has been sampled SO many times, in the UK garage arena especially…
“Yeah, I find that really interesting. People have told me it's influenced the rhythms that came after it in the UK garage scene, and I find that really interesting because I hadn't really set out to do anything particularly 'different' at all. I was a big fan of that early 80s R&B sound, when synths met soul – that whole 82-84 period. So it was really a homage to that, if anything.”
Which is interesting in itself, because that early 80s sound is very much back in vogue right now, but back then, when house first emerged, that whole period got sneered at a bit…
“Well, I tell you, good music is good music. I loved that record, that whole style, from the start, and I never let that go, really. But as you say, it's interesting how things go in and out of fashion with the masses.”
And what about Solution feat Tafuri, Was That All It Was – what can you tell us about that one?
“When I was growing up, I taped a lot of music off the radio – from the late 70s to mid 80s I was just constantly recording stuff off the radio. By the early 90s, I hadn't been doing that, I'd been busy working in the studio, but I'd often listen back to my old cassettes, and one day when I was doing that, Was That All It Was came on, the Jean Carne recording.
"The funny thing was it had kinda passed me by at the time – I must have heard it, because I'd taped it, but I can't say I was really familiar with it. But of course Jean Carne's version is fantastic – the whole Philadelphia International catalogue is! So when I heard it on the tape that day I just thought, I've got to cover that. And I played it to Tafuri, because her style is a little bit like Jean Carne's in some ways, and she loved it too. So there was Tafuri, Gordon Mac and myself – the three of us were working together quite a lot at the time and we got our friend Charles to engineer it so it all came together pretty quickly.
“I remember we recorded the vocal in someone's little studio apartment and it was so-ooo hot in there, because we couldn't have the air-conditioning on while were recording. We were all just glad to get the vocal down so we could put the AC back on!”
And Do You Feel Me by NY's Finest?
“Again, this was drawing on a song from my younger days… Moment Of My Life by Inner Life was a record that touched me at a young age, I just thought it was an amazing tune, and I thought that piano rhythm could work with what we were doing at that point. So I went to the studio and put that down, and that seemed to be working so we put a vocal on it – I was working with a guy named Mac Quayle at the time, he had a studio in Brooklyn.
"And again, it came together pretty quickly. The vocalist had been working with a guy called Dennis Pino who had a record store in Brooklyn, and a label called Power Trax. So those were the pieces of the puzzle, we put them together and that's what came out!”
What about Nothing Better by Colourblind – that was you and Tommy Musto, wasn't it?
“Yeah. Tommy originally did a demo of it with Barbara Tucker, which never came out. In fact, aside from Set It Off with Harlequin 4's, which was Barbara's first record even though I don't think she's credited on it – her first credited record was a thing she did on Fourth Floor with Tommy, and I think maybe Peter Daou as well? That was nothing to do with me, that was all Tommy and Barbara.
"Then things didn't work out with Barbara and Tommy's demo – I don't really know why, you'd have to ask Tommy or Barbara – and so it was re-recorded with Dina Roache on vocals. We were working together quite a lot as TMVS at the time – you might remember Don't Be Shy, or I Know Melody, and there was Do My Thing with Joi Cardwell that came out on SubUrban as well.
So Nothing Better was really an extension of the TMVS stuff we'd been doing. I remember getting the chords down: they sound like chopped-up chords, because they were. We sampled them and put them across a keyboard so we could play them with one key. That was fun.”
Are you still in contact with Tommy these days?
“Yes, of course. We're from the same part of Brooklyn, same sort of influences, so we hit it off really from the first time we met. It was Lenny Dee who introduced us, and it's gone on to be a lifetime friendship.”
Cool. And then the last specific tune I wanted to ask about was another Solution record, Feels So Right…
“That was the third in kind of a chain of records, after I Want You To Know and Dirty Games. When I did I Want You To Know, I released that on Nu Groove. I already had Feels So Right but I wanted the follow-up to Want You To Know to be something else and Nu Groove chose Dirty Games, so they took that and that left Feels So Right to come out third.
“But before that, after I Want You To Know… Todd Terry had reached out because again, he's from pretty much the same part of Brooklyn as I am. So we'd grown up with very similar influences, and what he said to me was, 'You've got something good here – do it again'. So that's what I essentially did with Dirty Games and Feels So Right – I just did it again! Just like Todd had done with Party People and Can You Party? because I'd seen how much success he'd had with a series of similar-sounding productions. So in a way it's really Todd you have to thank for advising me to do Feels So Right as it was done.
“But what had changed, between I Want You To Know and Feels So Right, was my life. I'd been making records from 1987, but in 1991 when I made I Want You To Know, that seemed to be the attention-getter. I didn't plan it that way, but that record came out and suddenly people were calling me, not the other way around! That record really made a difference, and I wondered why, because a lot of those people didn't know the records I'd made before. So that made me curious as to why people latch on to this record and not that one, but I'm not sure we can ever really know that. Sometimes it just takes a bit of time.
"But anyway that change had happened, so when Feels So Right came out it got a lot more attention than it might have done if I'd released it earlier. And then of course, that in turn opened up a lot more doors for me.”
Okay, some more general questions before we finish. Firstly: NY's Finest, Solution, Cloud 9… those three aliases at least, as far as I know are just you. What about Groove Committee and Brooklyn's own – were they just you as well, or were they collaborative projects?
“No, they were just me as well.”
So what's with all the names? Was it a deliberate attempt NOT to be in the limelight – a rejection of the star system, if you like?
“That absolutely has something to do with it, yes. I've not someone who's ever wanted to be in the limelight, I'd much rather lurk about in the background and let the music speak for itself. And I do like themes, so when you say those names – Groove Committee, for instance – then I get into that particular theme, and I start making music for that theme.
“So it's combination of those two things, plus when I was growing up I'd buy records by, say, Patrick Adams – and look how many names he produced under! So I'd buy records by the Universal Robot Band or whoever, and then you'd find out it was the same two or three people behind all of them! I liked that, and I liked how he created different styles under different pseudonyms. There's a freedom there, as an artist: you're not boxed in.”
So you see the different names as different musical identities?
“Oh, very much so.”
In that case, how would you describe the different aliases we've talked about today?
“Well Groove Committee, I always saw that (especially with that B-side!) as harking back to the 70s, to that band-led sound, so that's why it was a committee, because I was trying to emulate that feeling of it being a group effort. And that's why, although Groove Committee is really just me, I've involved quite a lot of different people on those records over the years.
“Whereas NY's Finest, that was a more independent project. Well, it was at first, but then later on I got into collaborating with Toney and Status IV late on so I guess I didn't stick to the blueprint! Actually, I'm not sure I'm explaining this very well!" (laughs)
Is it a case, perhaps, that it makes sense in your head, and it doesn't really matter if it makes sense to anyone else?
“Ha ha! That's an interesting point because yeah, maybe it is. I dunno, it just helps me focus on what it is I'm trying to do under that particular alias or pseudonym. Each name, to me, has certain sounds or a certain feeling that I'd want a record under that name to have. As you said… it makes sense to me!”
I read somewhere that when you first started out DJing, your Mum bought you an entire record collection from a local nightclub – is that true?
“Yes, that's right. Basically, when I was growing up my Dad used to do teen nights – this was in the disco era and he'd hire out dancehalls and put on dance parties for under-18s. So that led to me getting on the decks with him – or the console, as it was then! – and by the time I was 14, 15 we were doing events at a little local club. That takes us up to about late 1984, when was 16. The club was closing, and the DJ who'd been there before us, a guy named Drew, he'd left all these records there going back to the mid-70s.
“My Mom could see how much I loved DJing, so she asked if he'd sell them to her, and I've still got those records today… believe it or not there's so much there, I'm STILL going through it and finding new things!”
So both your Mum and your Dad were a big influence on you, clearly…
“Well, my Dad was a big record collector, so that was the first thing, because I was going through his records from a very early age. So my curiosity was aroused when I was very young, and my Dad encouraged that: if he saw me looking at a record sleeve when I was very young, he'd play it for me and then he'd ask me did I like it? What did I like about it? What did I think the lyrics were about? How did it make me feel? And we'd really dissect it after listening.
"So it was my Dad who taught me how to really listen to music. Then radio came along after that, and that was a big influence as well. New York radio was awesome back then, the programmers at the stations were out in the clubs every night and what you'd hear in the clubs was exactly what you'd hear on the radio – it was like all the clubs had loudspeakers right across the city!
"So I'd hear all this great music on the radio, and simultaneously with that I'd see my Dad on the decks throwing parties, so that was inspiring as well. It was just a hobby for him, though. I think he could have done it for a living if he'd wanted to, but obviously he had other aspirations. But he's still collecting records today, still buys all kinds of music."
So he must be proud as punch to have passed on that love of music to you?
“I hope so! I hope he is.
“But actually, I think what finally, totally locked it in for me was moving away. My dad worked for the government and at one point we actually moved away from New York for a while, and I really felt that void. I had friends in New York who'd send me cassettes, and I think my love of music really grew at that point because I couldn't get the music I wanted to hear where we were living out west. So I hit up friends for tapes and that really solidified my commitment to music.”
Which leads me to my final question – where are you based now, are you back in NYC? Because I know you lived in Italy for a while…
“Yeah, my wife is from Italy and we still spend a lot of time there, but right now we're back in NYC. Which has been a bit crazy with the coronavirus pandemic and everything.”
And how's that affected you?
“Well put it this way… 2020 was supposed to be one of my busiest years! I had a ton of bookings, there were gigs confirmed from March all the way through to 2021, and I was literally on the way to the airport when lockdown was announced. I was booked on a flight to Paris and that was supposed to be followed by a string of gigs all over Europe and Asia, but instead I just had to turn the car around and drive back home!
“It's night and day how it's changed, what can I tell you? And so many people have died. All we can do is just be grateful for what we have, be here for each other and try and help each other get through this as best we can. Right now we have our health, we have shelter, we have food – when you think of all the people that are no longer with us, we're really doing okay.”
That's about it for questions from me, but is there anything else iDJ readers need to know?
“Yes, actually. With lockdown there's been no travelling, obviously, so that's given me a bit more time to focus on releases. I've been working on a remix for Paul Simpson, and I've been working on a Robert Owens remix for Joe Ventura's label, too. Then I'm also working on one for Toney Lee, and on something else for Leee John from Imagination. And there's a project with D-Train, too, and a remix for Ann Nesby: I haven't started on that but the ideas are there and I'm looking forward to getting going.
“And for those that don't know… the labels I'm running at the moment are Bassline, Brooklyn Trax, Big Big Trax, West Side, Stellar and Unkwn Rec. And then there's my son's label, which is Good Groove. So that's seven labels I've got on Traxsource, and we're constantly uploading stuff… we're on other sites as well but Traxsource is the main one for us and we catch everyone else up when we can!”
Seven labels! Do you handle all the business/legal side of all those labels yourself – the contracts and royalties and licensing and so on – or do you have help with it?
“A bit of both. I deal with stuff in the first instance, but I have accountants and attorneys I can turn to for help if I need it. No man is an island.”
So you must keep pretty busy then?
[laughs – for quite a long time] “Yeah, that's putting it mildly…”
Words: Russell Deeks
Was It Just A Game, Don't Stop (Keep Rising) and The Answer are all out now, on Good Vibrations, Bassline Records and Positiva (respectively)
Tags: Victor Simonelli, NY's Finest, Solution, Tafuri, Colourblind, Cloud 9, Chris Lake, Armand Van Helden, Barbara Tucker, Tommy Musto, Toney Lee, Paul Simpson, Peter Daou, Arthur Baker, Blind Truth, Fourth Floor, Jean Carne, Surface, Inner Life