MORE tales of house music madness.
I was editing a short-lived Leeds listings magazine by the name of Brag and went down to Nottingham with Earnshaw to interview Neon Leon, a San Francisco DJ who was on tour in the UK at the time, ahead of a couple of dates in Yorkshire. Those naughty House of Maya boys in Bradford had played me a tape and I was very impressed. I think they’d got it from the DIY lot, some of whom had recently relocated to California.
He was playing at that place on the Lacemarket – at various times it was called the Ad-Lib and the Garage, and maybe also the Zig Zag. Paul had taken me down to an alternative disco there a couple of times in the early Eighties (Graeme Park was playing upstairs but it didn’t seem all that so we went back down to the basement to dance to the Birthday Party and X-Ray Spex instead), a couple of years later we went to see the Subhumans there, and here I was, a decade later, getting down to some seriously groovy house and garage in the same venue.
It was a good night. Me and Earnshaw got pilled up and danced our socks off but had been a bit too messy to really make any impression on the lovely ladies of Nottingham – needless to say, I was inexplicably single again at this point. Neon Leon did a great set and afterwards we went to some late-night café and I did this interview with him. We may have done another pill at this point ..
* * *
“HOUSE music saved my life! I’m not kidding. It saved my life. It gave me a focus when I was doing a lot of bad things and a lot of cocaine. If I wasn’t doing this I don’t what I’d be doing – probably gang-banging somewhere.
“House music is my life. It’s expression. House music has all the elements of gospel, soul, R&B, rap and disco but – I can’t describe it,” says reformed character and fierce San Francisco house music legend Neon Leon.
House is a feeling?
“Yeah! House is a feeling! That’s exactly what it is,” he replies with a gap-toothed grin.
I first heard Neon Leon doing his thing in a house of ill-repute in Bradford. Our hosts fussed around trying to find this amazing tape someone in the States had sent them over. They finally find it, after a long and slightly frantic search. Gradually, all the idle drug chit-chat and post-club bullshit diminish to nothing as everyone tunes into the gorgeous sounds slinking out of the speakers – a live recording of one of Neon Leon’s riotous hometown gigs.
Neon Leon plays dance music for grown ups. He specialises in layering sparse, booming, bass-heavy rhythms in a smooth, seamless mix, slipping in assorted vocal tracks and acapellas on top to create completely new music which sounds like it wasn’t meant to be played any other way.
But what really separates Leon from the rest of the pack is what he does with the microphone.
The soaring, soulful vocals and lush textures of Leon’s house music start to work their magic and feet begin to tap to the regular metallic splish-splash of the hi-hats and the heavy thump of the bass-drum. All of a sudden he starts to harmonise with the voices on the records, adding yet another dimension to an already irresistible sound.
And then, just when you think it can’t get any better, he stops singing, giggles and starts to lay down the Neon Leon dancefloor law with high-camp mock severity.
“Yeah! You gotta work it mister! Ooooh, that’s right, honey ..”
He goes back to singing along with Loleatta Holloway and Sounds of Blackness for a while before suddenly pulling up the music and all you can hear is a breathy, husky acapella vocal before he cues up another tune and the music rushes back like a big wave and he starts all over again.
“If someone, say Roger Sanchez, makes a record, and I feel it, then I buy it. I get records that say the same thing and I put them together,” he tells me when I ask him to explain what he does over a cup of tea one Sunday morning in Nottingham after a typically energetic performance at the Garage.
“I think anyone can DJ but it’s something else to be able to be a programmer. I think it’s important for it to make sense rather than just putting on one record after another. I sit down and choreograph how one record will fit into another and how they’ll play off each other.
“When people leave the club at the end of the night, I want them to feel good, I want them to be uplifted. Like when I go to see Roger S, Kenny Dope, Lil Louie, Derrick Carter, all those people. I might be in a bad mood but when I leave the club, everything that was bad when I got there, it’s released.
“The music soothes me.”
How does the singing fit in with the DJing? As well as singing over the top of his records live, Leon also has plans to produce his own material, and has already been in the studio with DJ EFX and Digit, two more rising stars of the SF clubscene.
“I’m not really comfortable with it yet,” he says to my surprise. “When I did the record with Raoul and Jeremy – EFX and Digit – I had to turn my back on them in the studio. When I’m DJing, I have to feel the vibe. I have to be mentality prepared because I don’t think I’m a great singer. Like, Loleatta Holloway was a great singer, you know? I’m not.
“But it’s gonna happen. I was tempted when I played at the Ministry of Sound but nobody could find a microphone.”
Their loss. So will you forget all about DJing if your singing career takes off?
He shakes his head. “No. You gotta keep with this DJing thing because it gets you one step closer to your audience. You can’t just sit in a studio and pump out records and not try ‘em out in a club. That wouldn’t be natural to me. I’ll probably be doing this til I 50 ..”
Leon began DJing in Oakland, San Francisco when he was 14, playing a mix of rap, disco and “progressive” which, it transpires, means synth-based pop rock like Blue Monday and Who’s That Girl by the Eurythmics. But it was house music that really fired him up and it’s house music that gets his pulse racing to this very day.
Somewhere along the line, I say the wrong thing and provoke something of a hissy fit.
“Listen, house music is an American thing,” he tells me. “It wasn’t accepted that well in the US – apart from maybe Chicago and New York – but it came to England, it was nourished here, it grew here and I thank God for that, because otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. But let’s not mince words here, it’s an American thing and always will be. You can’t deny it.”
“See, my thing is that I want to teach people where all this comes from – and I think that’s why people dig on me. It’s like a learning experience, cos I’ll play disco records you ain’t never heard before, like Make Someone Happy. You know who that is, don’t you?”
He starts singing. It’s not ringing any bells.
“That was Two Tons of Fun. You know who Two Tons of Fun is?” he asks me, shooting me an accusing sideways look.
I’m probably looking a bit blank at this point.
“Martha Wash. Now you know who Martha Wash is, don’t you?”
Martha Wash is one of the Weather Girls and I claim my five pounds.
“Alright. And she went on to do all stuff with Todd Terry. That’s what I’m talking about. History.”
Leon believes that a sense of history is precisely what a lot of British-made dance music lacks.
“Roots is very important. If you don’t know where you’re coming from, how are you going to know where you’re going? I think Britain needs a soul injection. I think you need to get right back down to the roots to keep it alive.”
Hasn’t Britain always had a pretty strong soul scene? How does that fit in with having to go back to our roots?
“Oh sure, Britain has some of the best soul acts I’ve ever seen – M-People, Incognito, D-Influence, all those groups. But they know it’s all about Salsoul, R&B and the disco thing that was happening in the Seventies. That was real instruments, none of this electronic bullshit.
“That was 48 musicians in a studio, pumping it out in all-night sessions, taking two weeks to make one record. That’s roots. And that’s why I’m so turned on by it.”
So are there any British DJs Leon rates?
He laughs, claps his hands together, throws his head back and squeals: “Harvey! Harvey, that’s my baby. I love you Harvey, yeah! This DJ is one of the most underrated DJs in England and it’s about time he got his props. His reputation goes back all the way to San Francisco. He knows the disco roots.”
He stops and considers for a moment. “I think people like – damn! I don’t wanna mention him. Shit!” He thinks again and carries on: “I think Sasha has ripped off the British public for too long. Have you ever heard him play? I heard him in San Francisco.
“The best stuff he did was with Urban Soul, the best! What happened? He was deep, I was expecting him to go deeper and then all of a sudden he went off on this money-making thing.
“Ashley Beadle said it best when he said that it’s all so corrupt now. People want to be rockstars. I want to be the best DJ I can be. I’m sorry, but it’s not all about woo-woo-wooo, beep-beep-beep! Fuck that!”
Alright. See, we’re friends again now. So come on, Mr Disco all-the-way-from-San Francisco, California, tell me: Neon Leon isn’t your real name is it?
“No, someone gave it to me. I was originally called ..” he hesitates. “Dangerous D! My friends at KAL-X Radio in Berkeley, California said to me, Dangerous D ain’t it. Someone handed me a box of Applejacks with this thing in it, called a neon leon, which is a necklace which glows in the dark. You put it in the freezer, it’ll last forever. I liked it so I kept it.”
Before we finish the interview, I ask him if he has any message for the people of Leeds and Sheffield, who will get the Neon Leon experience when he plays at Back to Basics and Rise later this month.
He rubs his hands together.
“Be prepared cos it’s going to be messy. Please come hear me with an open mind. Realise that it’s not about what you know you like, it’s about what you can get from what I’m playing. I’m an American DJ and I like playing for people around the world, sharing what’s in my heart.
“My music is a very personal thing. I hope you like it.”
* * *
So we wobble back to the street Earnshaw has parked up on. Neither of us can remember which side of the road it’s on so it takes us a while to find the car. Earnshaw, it turns out, is too fucked to even get the key anywhere near the lock so I have a go. I manage to focus but it doesn’t seem to want to go in. We wonder if someone has been trying to break in.
We check the hatchback and it pops open, obligingly. Earnshaw clambers in and opens the passenger door for me. Something doesn’t seem quite right. Earnshaw puts the key into the ignition. Or tries to.
We realise that we’re in the wrong car. It’s not the same make. It’s not even the same colour. We get out and find Earnshaw’s car a little way up the street, on the other side of the road, facing the opposite direction.
And then, deranged and irresponsible though it may seem, we drove back to Leeds for the last few hours of Back to Basics. Things rapidly went downhill from there, if I recall correctly.
You’ll be pleased to know that Neon Leon is still alive and kicking and rocking the discotheques of the city by the bay. MySpace and podcast action here. He has yet to start work on a three-record concept album with Sasha.