Tony Colman, aka Hospital Records head honcho London Elektricity, is something of a cult figure in drum & bass. Producer, label boss, mentor, DJ, vinyl evangelist and air pianist, his former live band is still held up as the benchmark for live d'n'b performance and his award-winning podcast brings up-front music and amusement to listeners all over the world. And he has an app called the Colminator made entirely of his own random soundbites – not even Andy C can claim that.
He has curated and mixed Hospital's latest compilation, Hospitality Summer Drum & Bass 2012, and we caught up with him for a few words about his DJ-ing history, tune selection and "gay jungle".
Hi Tony, how's it going?
It's going great thanks! In fact, I've just had the best weekend - DJing in Shanghai and Tokyo, saw the total eclipse in Tokyo Bay on Monday followed by a visit to the onsen, pork ramen and shopping in Shibuya.
A bit of history first, if you don't mind. When did you first decide to take up the turntables, and what sort of stuff were you playing?
I did my first gig at the Velvet Rooms (RIP) in 1996. I took up DJing because I was starting to make drum & bass and the main reason was to test out tunes on the dance floor. I never realised at the time it could become a career. I was playing everything and anything - disco, london nu house, lounge music, d'n'b, funk, soul, rock, jazz.
Was it something you took to rapidly, or was it slow progress?
It was a slow, painful grind - I am not a natural DJ and it took me a couple of years before I could claim to be any good at all. In those days there were no cue points on a laptop screen so you had to hear the cue points in your headphones. In fact that's how I still do it.
The "we don't stock gay jungle" line from Hospital's early days has become pretty infamous. Did you find that clubs also weren't terribly keen on the lighter, more musical side of drum & bass to start off with?
It was impossible in the 90s to feature the musical side of D+B in the main room of a club or at peak time - it was a ghetto, unless you were Bukem. When we first launched Hospitality at Herbal on a Friday night, we were the first people to do it - a whole line up of musical not tearing d'n'b. People said we were mad - it sounds silly now, but then it was a risk.
Could you name your best and / or worst ever DJ gigs?
Top three best gigs: Hospitality at Matter (RIP) in London - any of the six shows we did there; they were all unbelievable; Unit in Tokyo - May 2012 and Cargo in Seoul - June 2006.
Worst gig: Seoul (again!) - I played a World Cup party in 2010 and I was on right after the South Korea vs Uruguay match. Screen above the decks. SK lost and there was a massive crowd in tears. I had to start while they were still showing the highlights of their team losing. I played the first six tunes kneeling on the ground reaching up to put records on. Managed to get them going after about an hour!
You've compiled and mixed the new Hospitality mix CD. How do you go about putting together a mix like this? Do you try to squeeze in as many different labels as possible, find a balance between established and up-and-coming artists etc?
I do what I do when I play in a club - try to put together a set that builds and builds without sticking to one niche or sub genre of d'n'b; I love almost all strands of d'n'b and as I have a very short attention span I like to build a roller coaster and take people with me. As Hospital's 'elder statesman' (polite name) I do of course feature a lot of tunes from my lads on the label but I also love to play music by other artists such as Rockwell, Matrix, Wickaman, TC, Maldini, Technicolour & Komatic, Mutated Forms and many others. I am a musical DJ and have always mixed in key since 1996 - I still have a tuning fork (A = 440hz) in my record box so I can key my tunes. Software just doesn't cut it for me.
Can you name five tracks from the mix that you particularly love?
S.P.Y - Funk It: working up to our release of S.P.Y's debut album in September is this exclusive tune, a proper dark roller. Real d'n'b just as I like it!
Maldini - Snapfish: an incredible tune. Maldini was part of Bad Company along with Fresh, Vegas and D Bridge. He's been very quiet of late but has secretly been working up a game plan and this tune is totally next level - very happy to have it as an exclusive on the album.
Sigma - Summer Days ft. Takura: a perfect Hospitality summer anthem, this is gonna smash it at festivals this year.
Technicolour & Komatic - The Glow: Pete Rogers used to review at Mixmag and gave us 3.5 stars for everything - much to our frustration - but now he is proving himself as one of the leading lights of new soulful d'n'b. This tune is sublime.
Logistics - Crystal Skies: one of four stand-out cuts for me from Loggy's album Fear Not. It was hard to choose which one to put in this mix so I ended up including all four of my fave tunes from his album!
Your 2008 BBC Essential Mix remains one of my all-time favourite mixes. How long did you have to put it together and how many takes did you need to record it?
I did spend a good two weeks working on that mix and did many, many takes and retakes! I haven't listened back to it since I did it but I keep getting nice messages about it.
You seem to be just as happy to drop a filthy neurofunk roller as you are a euphoric hands-in-the-air number. Is it challenging trying to fit such contrasting moods into a set, and has it ever backfired?
Yeah, I do like a bumpy ride sometimes. I get bored if a mix is the same all the way through. I strive for a dynamic with peaks and troughs. The key is to make the troughs just as good as the peaks! Like I said above, I build a roller coaster and sometimes inevitably it collapses, but if you don't take risks it all gets predictable, which in my view is utterly pointless. One of my problems with a lot of MP3 DJs is they pre-plan their sets with cue points and it's all too easy and predictable.
As someone who likes harmonic mixing, do you spend a lot of time obsessively comparing the keys of different tracks to make sure they'll blend nicely?
I do have a method - I move in fifths, but sometimes it's important to deviate from that and switch up a minor third or use a dissonant clash to create tension. Mixing major key and minor key tracks is fun too.
Who, for your money, are the top d'n'b DJs doing the rounds at the moment, from both a technical and crowd-pleasing point of view?
S.P.Y. is coming through as an amazing DJ - he has the knack of playing across the board without ever being cheesy and as an added bonus he even sometimes plays vinyl! Also Nu:Tone and Logistics - if I'm on the same bill as them I always do my best to listen to their sets; it's proper heads music but not restricted to that. I have never heard a set by either DJ that doesn't make me smile, dance and want to get totally lost in the music.
Is the state of club turntables as dire as it's been made out to be?
Only if you are lazy. As I only play records and dubplates, I have to reach out to the promoter before each show and personally tell them that I only travel with records and that they have to hire in tip top 1210s for the show, otherwise if I have to play on the skaggy neglected ash trays that pass off for record players in most clubs I'll simply go home, which seeing as I get paid in advance wouldn't be good for the fans, the promoter or me! If you put in the effort in advance, and always do a soundcheck, it should be fine.
I travel with headshells and Isonoe anti-feedback feet, and you can guarantee that every promoter knows someone in their town who owns pristine decks so if the soundcheck reveals terminal problems they always manage to get good ones in... touch wood.
Can you give us any cryptic (or possibly not so cryptic) hints about what we can expect from Hospital over the next few months?
Yes! Signing of the year for me was S.P.Y and his debut album will be coming out in September. Also we are revisiting one of our classic compilation series for a new volume, getting very excited about that! And our Belgian boy Netsky's second album comes out at the end of June.
Finally Danny Byrd is making a sick album too - expect the unexpected! I have just moved house and I'm building a new studio and can't wait to get stuck in on a new album project.
Words: Stefan Mohamed
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