Gerald Simpson AKA A Guy Called Gerald has been at the foundation of dance music for over 20 years.
Born in Manchester in 1967, Simpson was influenced by electro funk and hip hop culture from America as a teen. Tuned in to the likes of Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, he started a DJ crew called The Scratchbeat Masters – subsequently leading to the formation of 808 State.
His taste for house music soon followed.
Arriving through the funk and soul clubs around England in 1987, house music from America was being imported to record stores across the country, such as Spin Inn in Manchester where Simpson would regularly go digging. The store was run by Stu Allan, also a local radio DJ who after hearing Simpson’s demos started playing his music on his show.
Simpson’s ‘Voodoo Ray’ was then released through a small Merseyside label called Rham! Records and went on to set the sound for UK acid house at the Hacienda in 1988 – going on to become the best selling independent single the year after.
With a remix of ‘Voodoo Ray’ by Frankie Knuckles played across underground clubs in New York, Simpson’s popularity had reached America, the birthplace of his musical influences. A US tour entailed and Simpson found himself sat next to Derrick May mixing tracks in a studio in Detroit.
Back home, clashes with a major record label in the early 1990s caused Simpson to leave Manchester and it’s acid house scene altogether and bring his own label Juice Box Records to London.
Experimenting with breakbeats – first seen in his 28 Gun Bad Boy album – he then released Black Secret Technology in London 1995, six months before Goldie’s Timeless.
A couple of years later, Simpson moved again to Brooklyn in 1997, completely changing his sound and collaborating with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers and Tricky.
After the events of 9/11, Gerald returned to London briefly then moved to Berlin in 2004 where, releasing two albums in the duration, he has been residing ever since.
You once said you could only learn where you’re from after travelling around. What have you learnt about your music from the places you’ve been?
I’ve learnt that it’s unique. As I was growing up and listening to a lot of American music I was trying to mimic that kind of vibe you know? You don’t really hear what you’re adding to it until you go to that place and find out that it doesn’t really sound like their thing at all.
You live in Berlin. What features of the city do you feel are influencing your music?
The music has obviously permeated my system and I think that I’ve done the same too. When I went there, that place more than anywhere else has embraced electronic music. Not just electronic dance music but ‘electronic music’. I thought it would be this really great place to go and build something.
At the moment though I’ve actually been looking around London to find a space. I want to build a studio for a project.
Is that to do with the music changing in London or this out of your own accord?
It’s personal. But I’ve been trying to explain it to a couple of places that have studios that what I’m doing is art. They’re looking at me like, ‘No it’s yobbos taking drugs and making loud noise’. That’s what they basically see when they look at what I do and have done for the last 25 years.
I just wanna dance. If you give me the tune to play and it gets people moving then that’s good. I’m not interested in the rest of the politics
And it’s got me thinking, we need to form some kind of system you know? No one knows whose who, what’s what and where’s where. There has to be something that makes people take the music more seriously.
If you’re a music artist in this country, it’s really hard to find funding. If you go to Spain, Italy, any of these places – even America - and you say its ‘British dance music’ they know we’re at the cutting edge. Unfortunately this country that we’re in doesn’t see that. They still see it as these kids doing this rave stuff. Years and years ago it got a bad name and it’s still definitely on the outside. It’s in the baddie books and isn’t something that will ever be funded.
But I mean it gives this country a name. It put’s it on the map in areas that wouldn’t be on the map!
Has that always been a problem with the UK scene?
Yeah I think its stigma. There is such a thing as British dance music now. There wasn’t such a thing as British dance music 20 years ago.
It was something that I’m a part of and feel proud of. I’d love it to not be swept under the rug by the country and ignored. I mean it influences a lot of the culture here!
You grew up in Manchester, moved to Detroit and live in Berlin now. Do you feel you have an affinity for industrial places?
Yes. Somehow there’s a visual connection with what you do with you’re music. In Manchester I used to walk around the docks listening to my Sony Walkman.
I was listening to the music and also trying to invent music in my head.
I remember I had this dream flat, which was in Chorlton. It was looking over this industrial estate. I never got it in the end though... But yeah there’s definitely a connection between myself and these places. I never wanted to go and live somewhere that was really romantic like Ibiza, by the seaside and all this. It’s not like I’m going to be sat there with a sarong and an acoustic guitar, staring out at the ocean. My music’s not that kind of music.
Could you speak about the first time you went over to Detroit and the whole affect of that on you?
I’d gone over there to do some gigs. I was doing this tour of America and definitely wanted Detroit to be on there. So we set up a gig, which turned out to be really weird because there’s actually not much happening there.
When you’re getting all these records from there and you hear all this music you think, ‘Wow that place is like techno city! It’s gonna be full of it.’
Anyway I get there and I meet up with everyone there and these cats, like Carl Craig and Sean Deason, had just come out of college and were complaining because they wanted to do this college techno station but no one would get behind them on it.
They were fending for themselves because there was no support. They weren’t being taken seriously. So I started to see it in a different light. It made me look at their music in a more serious way and all. I was like, ‘Wow they’ve done all this stuff and have managed to reach us when they’re going through all this.’
You go to Detroit and everyone is just a normal person. They weren’t ‘techno gods’ in Detroit. Everyone had to look after each other.
Do you think that’s where the strength of their music has come from, this sense of community?
They’ve got to help each other out because there’s no way they’re going to get help from anyone else.
There’s a lot of them who share the same feeling for the music. I kind of admire it from afar and feel that I had a similar thing here with the drum‘n’bass scene where there was all this comradery.
Out of all the people you met from Detroit, it was Derrick May that you gelled with the most? There’s a great scene in that Granada documentary, Madchester.
Yeah definitely. I managed to drag them over to Detroit. They wanted me to do this about Manchester and I was like, ‘What is there in Manchester?’
All the dreams and influences and everything had come from America.
Are you still in touch with the music from Detroit today?
It’s totally different now and I’m not that in touch. I actually go out my way to not be in touch with any one type of music anymore.
I’m looking at music more and more as bits and pieces in production. Even with DJing... I’ve been training myself with the iPad. Just mixing tunes but then I end up chopping things up and creating my own music. When I hear something that I like, I’ll take it.
I learnt this lesson when someone gave me this hard drive and was like, ‘Look here are all the latest tunes and bla bla bla.’ I had a listen to them and just couldn’t play them. It has to go through a filter and I’ve got to imagine myself dancing to it or I can’t play the tune.
I’ve been doing this for a little while now. Just finding tunes that I don’t know the name of, don’t know who’s made it or anything else. I just like the groove. That’s just the way I play.
I mean you’ve got piles and piles of information but can you dance to it?
I just wanna dance. If you give me the tune to play and it gets people moving then that’s good. I’m not interested in the rest of the politics.
Do you think that’s something that came about through the emergence of the internet, this information overload where everything has to be categorised to ridiculous levels of specification?
Yeah people want to know everything that’s in it and whose done it but they’re not interested in the actual thing itself.
That as a hobby is great but it’s like trainspotters... They never ride on the trains!
There’s people who are really into the music but just want to know every single sample in the tune but not whether it’s danceable or not. It’s like these people who are really into old synths. I’ve got these friends who’d be like ‘I got this synthesiser and it’s got this VCF and LFO this’ but at the end of the day it’s a tool for making tunes. How fast can you pull off a b-line on there you know?
For the past 25 years, I’ve been through all the stuff I’ve seen them going through now. I try to talk to people and tell them there’s a short cut.
At some point you’re going to get to where I am. For me to be wishing and praying and crying and dreaming for an 808 back in 1986... There was a lot of time that took me to that moment.
The technology then was the latest but by 1985-1987 they were all getting rid of their drum machines because they wanted newer things. Digital stuff and samplers were just coming out. They had the synclavier, which was the big sampler, and the Fairlight.
These were all getting more and more affordable and the digital stuff was also coming around, like the DX7 and all that. People were getting rid of the analogue stuff because the digital sounded cleaner.
If electronic music works through technology and technology is always moving forward, do you think it’s important for people to take these shortcuts rather than falling back to analogue?
If you want to take the music further yeah. Looking at all the music that I’ve been into and all the eras that I’ve been through. I mean it was mostly in the ghetto where I learnt that everyone wanted to be an individual and shine out. If you copied someone else you were seen as an idiot or a fool.
People say its flattery if someone copies you. But when I grew up, it was like, ‘Come on do your own thing! Get your own!' You had to. I mean I listened to ‘Strings of Life’ but if I were to re-do it you wouldn’t have ‘Emotions Electric’ or ‘Voodoo Ray’. I would’ve just been following them. It’s what I’ve always been trying to say to younger people: ‘Get on with it! Do your own one man!’
The thing is, what I’m seeing is that they’ve had all this stuff before and I suppose it’s a bit harder because they’re like, ‘How can I compete with this?’
People should be like, ‘They’ve done it that way, let’s do it this way... let me do my own version.’
When I’m listening and I hear someone that’s actually brave enough to step out from that noise and do their own sound I think that’s a good thing.
Why do you think there’s been this so-called ‘acid house revival’?
Well I don’t think it ever went away. I’m actually surprised that there’s a ‘revival.’ I’m guessing that the kind of acid house that they’re into is the stuff from the 1990s with the smiley face. As soon as I see that smiley face then I know... I mean I’ll get booked to do the gig and I’ll start playing the original acid house stuff from the 1980s instead - like Adonis and all these guys.
How would you define acid today?
For me acid house is late 1980s disco basically. Personally I think that they should have called it something else. In a way, they weren’t making people aware how they were actually making the music or where they were getting it from.
In the early 1990s, they didn’t know anything about the music and they really needed to know. At first they didn’t even know what a bloody Roland TB-303 was. If you listen to some of the stuff from the early 1990s, they were trying to mimic the 303 with digital machines and all sorts.
Where did you see acid house as ending?
I think when ‘Voodoo Ray’ got into the charts. That was definitely not natural. Not a part of my scene.
At the time, I had a management team and I mean I didn’t want one but the way that things happened...
I was trying to get credited for ‘Pacific State’ but they wouldn’t take me seriously so I had to come down here to London and find a legal person and a management team so that I could fight against these people.
It was crazy and I kind of got roped into this whole thing and that’s where I had to go with Sony Records. I was basically underground and wanted to do stuff with underground music.
I never really got into the chart thing but because ‘Voodoo Ray’ and ‘Pacific State’ got in there it gave an impression that I was part of what I thought at the time, and I’m not gonna say it’s cheesy because that’s a horrible thing to say, but I thought all that stuff was totally cheesy… I never grew up with that. I grew up with reggae music and funk and soul. I never grew up with Duran Duran and stuff like that. That was chart music. I didn’t want to be a part of that. Never, ever!
So somehow, and I suppose that’s the curse of ‘Voodoo Ray’, I got roped in with these cheesy fuckers...
It’s horrible that’s the first tune that people would have known of mine got into that system when I am and still feel part of a different system.
No one knows a fuck about what I do or where I’m from. The media was never geared for it because I was never put into a system
How do you feel about Manchester now?
Manchester? It’s interesting because people can only equate things with the media that they get. And the media that they get is basically by how much you can afford to tell the story. So when it comes to things like the Hacienda that’s what you get. When they talk about dance music, and I’m not slagging anyone off, they’ll talk about indie music. They don’t talk about dancers – and there were some really good dancers back in the day. They never danced to indie music, they danced to jazz and funk, this sort of thing.
Could you speak about that b-boy phase of yours?
Well that scene was massive. It wasn’t just breakdancing, there was jazz dancing, the jazz-fusion type thing, loads of different styles. That was all we had basically, just that and the music. That’s where everything kicked off for me.
How do you think the way people approach dance music has changed then?
What we had has been fetishized and cut to ribbons.
There was a certain group of people who, as soon as they saw that there was a profit to be made, came in and chopped bits and pieces out of it that they wanted. They got rid of what ‘they’ thought was undesirable and marketed the rest to encourage people into their system.
Unfortunately for them, and unfortunately for me too, ‘Voodoo Ray’ was ‘pre’ that system. So it shouldn’t have been in there with that system. By the time everyone started to do their parties in Ibiza and all that, they realised that I shouldn’t have been there in that system.
Even today there’s people that have been in the dance scene for 15 years, some of them even 20 years, and they’ll think that I’m some little white kid from Manchester, some people think that I’m from America, some people think that I come from Detroit.
No one knows a fuck about what I do or where I’m from. The media was never geared for it because I was never put into a system. I didn’t go out to make loads of money and that wasn’t part of what they wanted.
Was that typical to the Manchester scene?
Yeah for sure and the Manchester scene was something I was never involved with. I went out making music for people to dance, like the Jazz Effectors and Foot Patrol. Dance people. Not lads coming home from the match who go out and pop a few E’s.
I never grew up with those people. I mean we grew up in the same city but...
The dance music was like our match. It was our beer and going down to the game to kick the shit out of the other team kind of thing. Our buzz was the music.
It’s like if I was to go take a bunch of footballers, if I had the money to buy a football team and a football ground, and then go make a bloody dance thing out of it. They’d be fucking freaking out. They’d be like, ‘What the fuck does he think he’s doing? That’s our thing!’ And I would go, ‘No, it’s for everybody!’
If I had the money I’d do it...
Was that image of all the hooligans coming together with their rivals and raving something important or just this overly romanticised portrayal by the media?
No I mean it did happen and it was important. But also at the same time these people who went out to dance were suddenly shoved off the floor because all these different people came in. That was the sad part. I guess you have to balance things out in a way and dancing just disappeared.
Will that ever come back?
No. No way.
Why do you think that is?
Basically, it’s something that’s been taken all over the world. Like I see these people doing this techno shuffle over here, in Greece, in Spain, in Iceland, everywhere it’s the same. People do the same thing everywhere now.
But that feeling of weightlessness when you’re actually just fucking dancing to the music... You get into a certain mode and everything just disappears. You’re inside the music you know what I mean?
Maybe it’s something to do with vibration. If something was to vibrate at a speed that was a half or a quarter to the speed to that glass on the table it might appear to hover over it. If you’re in tune to the music you can fly man, you can go anywhere. And that’s what people used to do. Inside that you’d see these people coming off with some serious fucking moves.
Is the purpose of dance music simply to create vibrations within other people then?
I think in ways. I’ve done these experiments, like I’ve been actually analysing people dancing. It’s like I’m from another planet, like this alien analysing people coming over and eating my fruit. I take notes on how they react to my fruit. I’m watching when they’re bored, what they’re up to, how many times they have to go off to the toilet before they feel the vibe.
When I play live, everything is separated so I don’t fall into anybody’s categories. So like all my music is actually made there and then. When it sounds like somebody’s tune or something, I’ll flip it around a bit.
I couldn’t do somebody else’s style or somebody else’s thing
I know that I can get them fired up a little bit but if you fire them up and want to keep them fired up there, it’s not going to work because people get numb. You have to have a wave that either get’s bigger or smaller, and as it get’s smaller you have to think about it getting bigger and the same the other way around.
I’m learning all this and it’s not really to do with the tunes. It’s the people. I focus on the people. If I go to watch a DJ, I go to watch the people and how they’re reacting to the music.
You’ve always tried to be an individual with everything you do but what do you think of the importance of roots? Going back to the first question, about learning where you come from, what was the importance of growing up in a Jamaican community, with King Tubby just coming out, and the sound system culture at that time?
It’s an important music dub full stop. The culture that I’m from, and I don’t know what happened in the 1960s, but in the 1970s you had to come with your own style. That was the main thing. If you were going to be an entertainer, or anything really, you had to have your signature. Your own fingerprint.
Like everybody would have their own way of wearing things. Three people had the same Kangol hat but everyone had a different way of wearing it. You could see how you might have the same thing but everyone’s doing it their way. You know that tune, ‘Every man do his ting!’
I think the Jamaican word for it is ‘version’. You would have one tune, say ‘Sleng Teng’ but there would be 5 million different versions. Everyone was totally different and would have their own little vibe that they would do on it. Then they would call it the something ‘style’. There were also different dances, like ‘the tree’, which you had to do in your own style. There was no, ‘You have to put that finger there...’ You knew what it was, you’d seen it done but you’d do your own thing. It wouldn’t cross your mind to copy. You’d take something and make it your own. Own it!
I couldn’t do somebody else’s style or somebody else’s thing. I can incorporate them and do head nods to people but the most important thing is being inside something that’s your own. It’s what you’re giving to the whole system. You’re giving them you’re story.
The main thing of actually doing the music in the first place is for people to be dancing – in their own style – and you passing your own music across as something that can inspire other people. And inspiration doesn’t mean ‘carbon copy’ it means, ‘Wow someone’s done that and has had the freedom to do it their own way.’ And listening to your music should give them confidence enough.