A few words with K-Jah
Words by Ant Christou
It’s a cold day, tendrils of frigid air rush up the nose and into the lungs, invasive yet refreshing, while overhead the sun beats, brightly but without tangible warmth. Sitting stoically, as it has done for centuries, is The Old Crown pub on Birmingham’s Digbeth High Street. It’s a building which looks surprisingly low, almost stunted and ancient in comparison to the slew of buildings around it, and this makes sense when you consider that the black and white timber framed structure is over 600 years old. Inside, we find a cozy space, supported by thick time-worn black wooden pillars, with an enclosed bar in the same brownish black hue and walls and furniture of golden brown. Tables and chairs run around the edges of the room. The bar is quiet, and not surprisingly so considering it has just hit noon, and an attentive bar man hurries over to check if a menu is required then just as quickly hurries away. It’s quite fitting that in this unassuming, and humble building with such a place in Birmingham’s history, I find myself meeting with one of the quietest and humblest members of the UK jungle scene, whose history is also intertwined with that of the second city : K-Jah.
He arrives minutes after I do, dressed plainly in jeans and a sports jacket, and after a quick glance around steps towards me, obviously recognising me from the quick description of my outfit I had sent him before we met. “It’s just like an old spy flick,” he’d jokingly replied, setting the tone for a talk with a man who despite a fair modicum of success remains as down to earth as you could wish for. He speaks quietly but is well spoken with a distinct Birmingham accent and is polite and relaxed. We go to the bar where he turns down an offer of a pint. “I’m boring, I don’t really drink,” he apologises, opting instead for a glass of coca cola without ice. Then we take a seat at a nearby table and begin to chat.
Logically, we start at the beginning, searching for the roots of his foray into music making. We begin by discussing his first exposure to music, which as with many, came from his parents. “I think everyone just grows up listening to what their mum and dad listen to,” he explains. “So I grew up listening to the mad music that they listened to, they weren’t into what I’d call good music, my mum listens to classical music, my dad used to like jazz which I grew to like, and folk music.” This early influence may come as a surprise to some and although he states that it wasn’t what he called good music, this immersion in multiple styles clearly informed his tastes, as he divulges later over a cigarette – for him, despite the style and form of a track, it’s all about music having soul and groove.
Obviously though, as a young boy Kieran was inclined to search out music that differed from his parents tastes; music that defined him. “I always liked dance music … things like Technotronic and Inner City, Beatmasters, and all the old European dance stuff, I thought it was pretty cool. When I was a bit older, 9 or 10, I got a radio and was flicking through all the stations, must have been around 1990, and I found a pirate station, Fantasy FM. It was playing all rave stuff, and instantly I kind of knew that was the music i wanted to listen to. Obviously fast break beats, the basses, all the samples, you know what I mean, that was the music that excited me a lot.”
Next there were the tape packs – “Dreamscape, Helter Skelter, Hysteria, Dance Planet,” as he tells me. Excitedly he carries on: “In school, Fantasia tapes, DJ Ratty, Lenny and Bassman.” He smiles nostalgically and you can see his minds eye transport him back to his youth. “Yeah man, that tape. Legendary.” After this he took the next natural progression and started attending raves at the Birmingham Institute at the age of 15. “I started going to Club Junglist, just being a wide eyed kid really, completely oblivious to all the dodgy shit that was going on. They’d have everyone on the scene, Micky Finn, Randall, Top Boys , Ellis D, Grooverider, Jumping Jack Frost, and they’d just have 3 or 4 of them on rotation along with a few Birmingham people like Shock C, GE Reel, Fallout, Ratty, Tango.”
Club Junglist seemed to solidify the grip jungle music had on his life – “going out to Club Junglist and going to some of the record shops that we used to go to back in the day… its a little scene, you get to know people” – and from here he took his first steps into a musical career, when he bought his first pair of decks. “I was about 17 when I went to college,” he reminisces. “I thought right as you do, I want to learn to DJ, bought some decks and just started practicing and practicing.” I ask if he remembers what they were and he responds quickly with “Soundlab belt drive decks,” before pausing and laughing “they were horrific!” As a DJ K-Jah started to bloom. He got involved with Kool FM Midlands, a pirate station which he had grown up listening to, and held down a regular residency on there for around 3 years. This was brought to a halt when, as he remembers, a hint of bitterness in his voice “We got shut down, DTI (Department of Trade & Industry) raided us, I wasn’t in the studio but yeah…”
Kieran’s journey in production began around the same time Kool FM was shut down and seemed to fill the gap left by it in his life, and he explains how he first started to dabble. “2003 or 2004, I bought a PC and got some software from a friend of mine – DJ Raiden, rest in peace. Then I just took it from there, didn’t take it as seriously as I do now, just starting from scratch, learning everything. I mean making a drum and bass beat is the first thing and you’re chuffed with that!” Within 3 years, his first release ‘Sentinel’ saw a vinyl pressing on Liverpool based Raw Records, released under his old alias Kieran J. He explains his studio process as one of two certainties: “Either I’ve got an idea, I know exactly in my head what I want to do and its just a case of making it happen, or I’ve got a bass or string sound I want to use and I just start building something.” He adds that: “The main thing in the studio is to catch a vibe, you don’t have to make a tune perfect in the first instance, just get that vibe down on the track for you then to come back on, that’s the main thing.”
As his production developed, so did the connections which he had made across the UK, fitting well with his observation that “it’s not until you start making the tunes that you start getting really noticed and your career starts taking off.” He developed links in cities like Manchester and Bristol as well as his hometown of Birmingham and was soon working alongside Hocus Pocus Records, artists like Gold, Aries, and Jinx, and more recently Bristol’s Ruffneck Ting. He explains these connections simply but effectively: “It doesn’t matter if they’re Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol or Outer Mongolia, if their head’s in the right place, and they’ve got a good vibe going on, I’ll work with them.”
One of these links in particular,Aries, seems to have played a strong part in his role as Birmingham’s sagely production mentor. Having previously spoken to Gold Dubs, who explained that Aries was a key figure in his production endeavours, K-Jah backs this up, explaining “he’s one of these people who’s very happy to help out you know. If he’s got time for you, which he has for a lot of people, he’ll give up a bit of time just to answer questions you’ve got or to explain a couple of things – he’s definitely helped a lot Aries, a hell of a lot.” And this seems to have rubbed off as well, adding to the humble character we see so evidently in K-Jah “I try now to help people in the same way he’s helped me, I’m not one for pulling the ladder up behind me you know what I mean, if someone hits me up and says ‘have you got 5 minutes to listen to a tune’, if I’ve got 5 minutes , I’ll listen to it and I will give them feedback, I’m not a big artist whose like I’m not talking to you or any of that rubbish.”
This again reinforces the humility which is evident in K-Jah’s character, and despite his claims that he is not “a big artist” music is a huge part of his life and this becomes more evident as we start to talk about some issues outside of music. “I’m quite political,” he says. “Only because of the fact that you have to be in this day and age. Those who say they aren’t political are lying, because politics interferes with every single aspect of your life.” He goes on to explain his opinions on the current NHS junior doctors’ action. “I’m very lucky, I’ve never had to use the NHS for anything major but it’s just what I believe, I believe in a civilised society where you pay your taxes and your taxes go to help other people but they’re there to help you when you need it. It’s just common sense for a civilised society and social living really, so you have to be political, you can’t just say I excuse myself from life and everyone else can get on with it…because it will affect you one day.” Apart from politics, he says he enjoys reading, and art; especially drawing and painting, but says “I don’t really have time for other things, I don’t watch films anymore because I don’t have the time and attention span to sit down and watch a film. I can’t play computer games anymore either, I feel like I’m wasting my time, I wish I was like that when I was younger.”
As time steadily ticks on, I hit him with some of our regular questions. He can’t pick a favourite vinyl that he owns, after a long stretch of “Umming” and “Ahhhing”, so I propose that he envisages a house fire where he can only save one. He responds that “there’s one record box and I’d save that, it’s all 92 jungle and hardcore in it, that’s coming straight with me.” Next up, if he could be a producer on the wall of a studio when any track was made, he chooses Bad Company – The Nine, “because I’d want to see who’s responsible for each little bit in that, they’re all very good producers and I’d want to see who did the beats, who did the mixdown, who came up with the bass, who came up with arrangement.” His food heaven is “Chinese!”, and his food hell is “Macdonalds and all that nonsense.”, while in a four way hell in the cell battle between Sonic, Mario, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, his money is firmly on Mario: “He can call on his mates and get Yoshi involved!” If he were reborn as an animal: “Honey Badger, because pound for pound the nuttiest, hardest, most solid animal ever, honey badger straight up!” meanwhile given a choice of yay or nay for David Cameron we get a long sigh followed by “absolutely nay.” Marmite is hated not loved, he eats his steaks medium and his drink of choice is the trusty English cup of tea.
Before we round things up, I enquire about some of his favourite things in music. His favourite rave was 19 years ago. “The first time I went to the sanctuary in Milton Keynes, it was really good because it was my 18th birthday that day, and my mate went and got MC Jakes, who was MCing with DJ Dazee to give me a shout for my birthday. Now, 19 years later, I’m working with DJ Dazee on the label, it’s sort of come full circle, and it’s nice I like that.” His favourite moment as a DJ is harder to pinpoint, and he responds as modestly as ever “every time I play out really, every time I’ve played at PST it’s wicked, it’s a great venue and a great crowd, playing in Belgium was great last year, and playing in Liverpool and Manchester’s always a good time, and Bristol, definitely can’t forget Bristol!” His favourite venues are “PST and Q Club.” Legendary Birmingham venues or “Les Caves in Liège, which is these massive caves, it’s like playing in a bass tube, it’s wicked!”
Looking to the future we find that for K-Jah, we can expect a lot over the next year, “More of the same hopefully, more gigs, more tunes, more remixes!” With EPs on the way for Hocus Pocus, Natty Dub, and Ruffneck Ting as well as remixes for Navigator and Top Cat, and a track for Regina on her Natty Dub album, he’s happy not to be resting anytime soon, “You know how it is, finish one project, you box that off and you’ve got other things waiting.”
As our chat draws to an end he offers a last bit of advice for anyone wanting to begin production themselves. “Work out why you want make music first, is it because you want to make a living out of it or is it because you just enjoy doing it?” He stops and thinks for second before adding: “Then listen to lots of other music and listen to lots of other people explain how they do their music, so maybe just pick your favourite artist and listen to how they do these things and if you can try and copy it and then afterwards turn around and make it original then you’re on to something, just practice with everything, it’s a long game and needs a lot of perseverance.”
With that, we wrap up, roll up a cigarette each and step outside back into that frigid air. The conversation keeps flowing for a while as we discuss the diversity of the Birmingham music scene and the strength of some of today’s top producers. And then we part ways, he shakes my hand warmly and as I go one way down Digbeth High Street, and he goes the other, I look back to see a hand raised in a final wave of farewell, as one of Birmingham’s humblest producers heads off to continue doing what he does best, making music.