In discussion with Holger “Groover” Klein on “The Call Is Strong” by Carlton (1990).
What was your first encounter with „The Call Is Strong“?
Alongside Daddy Gee, Carlton was featured on “Any Love”, the very first Massive Attack single which was a cover of one of my favourite songs from Rufus & Chaka Khan. I was a huge Chaka Khan fan by the way, I went to quite a few concerts. The very first time I saw her, I even waited for her at the backstage entrance because I wanted to have an autograph. Want some trivia? In the 90s, she had been living in my hometown Mannheim for a few years. Back to Carlton, I was really impressed by his crystal clear falsetto. I think “Any Love” came out roughly about the same time as the first Smith & Mighty singles, so this was the starting point of the Bristol sound. I first heard about the Bristol sound when I read about it in i-D magazine or The Face. So I already knew about Carlton when his first album dropped. I bought it at the local WOM store where I used to work back then.
1990 was a very exciting year for club music. Why did you choose this album over others? Why was and is it so important for you?
After you approached me for “Rewind”, I thought that I would have a hard time choosing “that” record. But then I stumbled across a 12” of his song “Cool With Nature” which contains killer remixes by Bobby Konders. So I remembered how much this album meant to me. When I listened to it for the first time, it blew me away. Smith & Mighty did a fantastic production job. At that time, it was very state of the art incorporating elements of Dub, contemporary US R&B, classic Soul, Reggae, electronic sounds as I knew them from House music and even some Swingbeat bits. I fell in love with the ethereal and often spliffed out vibe of the album and Carlton’s songwriting.
How do you rate Carlton as a singer? Why do you think they chose him, and could the album have been as good with another singer?
Carlton’s voice struck me instantly. I think he is a truly underrated singer and it’s a pity that the album wasn’t successful. His voice is really unique, that must be why Smith & Mighty chose him. It was his album, not a Smith & Mighty project in the first place. When you listen to him you can clearly tell that he’s coming from a Reggae background. On “The Call Is Strong” he sounds like a Reggae vocalist singing some kind of otherworldly UK version of R&B.
The album is taking quite some detours. For example „Love And Pain“ could have been a 2 Tone ballad from years earlier, while „Do You Dream“ is right on par with breakbeat pioneers like Shut Up And Dance or 4 Hero. How does „The Call Is Strong“ work as an album? How pioneering was what Smith & Mighty did?
It was very pioneering! The sparse beats, their very English way of bringing together the Jamaican sound system culture and US Hip Hop without sounding like eager copycats. And of course, as they grew up in England, they must have been in touch with 2 Tone stuff as well when they were teenagers. You’re right, you can also trace down elements that became integral with the Breakbeat scene which was already emerging at a very early stage.
I first became aware of Smith & Mighty when they appeared with their Bacharach reworks „Walk On“ and „Anyone“ two years earlier, to which „The Call Is Strong“ sounds like a continuation. I thought they sounded like nobody else at that time. Suddenly Bristol was on the map, making a difference. But could anyone predict how big that difference would be?
You could clearly hear that Smith & Mighty and Massive Attack were making a difference when their first 12”s came out. It all sounded so new and fresh. But I really had no idea how big this Bristol thing would become. Also I had no idea how misinterpreted the whole thing would get when the term Trip Hop emerged.
There were groups emerging in the late 80s that were deeply rooted in sound system culture, but why were Massive Attack and the London equivalent Soul II Soul so much more successful than Smith & Mighty? Were they less traditional and closer to pop music’s proceedings? And why do you think didn’t Carlton manage to establish himself as an ongoing fixture?
Massive Attack and Soul II Soul had the big hit singles. But not by accident, both had good labels with a staff that knew how to work their releases. Smith & Mighty signed a major deal as well – with FFRR, at that time a subsidiary of London Records/PolyGram. The first big project was Carlton’s album, which didn’t prove to be as successful as expected. Then Smith & Mighty were kind of locked in this deal. Under their own name, they only released a four track EP on FFRR. I would say they missed the right moment due to this deal. It took them years to get out of it.
You were one of the resident DJs of Mannheim’s seminal Milk Club, and very active in introducing UK club music to Germany at a very early stage. How important was the sound of Smith & Mighty and likeminded artists to that scene?
For me and my friends, for the people who made the club happen, it was very important. For those Milk regulars who entered the stage later, it probably wasn’t such a defining experience.
I could always understand the anglophile traits of Hamburg’s nightlife, as there always was a vivid cultural exchange of people travelling back and forth between Hamburg and London and other UK cities. But what made Mannheim so particularly UK orientated?
You have to be aware that Mannheim had this legacy of being a big US garrison town. A lot of US Soul and Funk artists came to town to play live. The roller skating rink which hired a DJ from New York City was legendary in the early 80s. So these anglophile traits are still some kind of mystery to me, even though I have to point to the fact that the Milk also reflected these US influences. At some point more and more people came to the Milk who were rather dressed like UK ravers. They didn’t look like the regulars of Sven Väth’s club Omen. Frankfurt is not far away from Mannheim, you know. We asked ourselves: where do they all come from? Many people who were involved with the Milk from the very beginning on came from the local Post Punk scene with the Hard Rock Club as its focal point. The Hard Rock was a legendary sweaty basement in Mannheim that closed down in the late 80s. Many of us went to London quite often, including myself. But I wasn’t really a part of the Post Punk scene, I would rather cite ABC’s “The Lexicon of Love” as one of my biggest influences. The Milk was founded by DJ D-Man in Autumn 1990. Him and Gregor “G.O.D.” Dietz who sadly passed away ten years ago, were the resident DJs of the early incarnation of the Milk club. He used to play Acid and House already in the late Hard Rock club, D-Man established a weekly Acid House club night named Planet Bass in Heidelberg in 1988. Two years later, the Sheffield Bleep sound was very popular at the illegal warehouse parties they hosted in Mannheim. The opening of the Milk was a big event. The first three months were really exciting, but soon there was a huge drop in popularity for whatever reason. Then I stepped in as a kind of stopgap playing records in a mostly empty club. Nobody expected how big the club would become from late 1991 on.
Smith & Mighty were part of every progression of what they originated when they first appeared, be it Drum and Bass, UK Garage or Dubstep. How relevant were their productions over the years?
You can most definitely say that they started something. Their early releases are legend – “Anyone”, “Walk On By” or Fresh 4’s “Wishing On A Star”. All the Carlton singles came with great remixes. One of the biggest things they did is the “Rushing Mix” of Carlton’s “Do You Dream”. This track is really far out, it’s uptempo with a slightly breakbeatish House beat. With their “Steppers Delight EP”, it came out in early 1992, they released a dope Proto-Jungle record. I would say the Bristol Drum And Bass scene around Roni Size and DJ Krust owed them a lot. Their 1995 album “Bass Is Maternal” and other releases on their label More Rockers combined the original Smith & Mighty approach with a rootsy take on Drum And Bass. Later on, they still did solid records, but I have to say that I wasn’t impressed too much anymore.
It was very common that DJs displayed different styles, grooves and tempos in their sets at the time „The Call Is Strong“ was released, and it worked. What happened?
Well, once there were songs, later on tracks took over and continuous, seamless mixability in one tempo became king. In the 80s, DJs were used to play a wide range of styles which included downtempo, midtempo or uptempo R&B, Italo Disco, dance mixes of pop records, House, Hip Hop, Electro, 70s Funk breaks, Electronic Body Music, New Beat or whatever – not necessarily all these genres in one night by the same DJ in the very same club. We all know there were instrumental underground tracks and DJ tools already, but DJs had to drop the big songs as well. When House and later on Techno took over, this approach to DJing got lost more and more. Younger DJs were not brought up with this versatility anymore. It all came to a point when the dancers regarded a change of tempo unnatural. The death of this versatility in styles and tempos was the invention of the travelling DJ who was booked to play in different clubs each and every night. It could only work with resident DJs who knew their dancers.