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Glimpsing The Pre-Internet Past: 25 Years Of Solid Steel
The Quietus , November 29th, 2013 04:34

To mark its quarter century, DJ Food's Strictly Kev looks back over the pioneering radio show and mix series

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Solid Steel's first appearance on the airwaves - a weekly two-hour mix fix where the past is mashed with the present plus a dash of the future.

Matt Black and Jonathan More started out on London's pirate radio station Kiss FM with separate shows, but then joined forces to form both Coldcut and present Solid Steel in 1988, a few years before the station finally went legal. In the early 90s they were joined on a regular basis for the two hour mix marathons by PC (Patrick Carpenter), shortly followed by myself - Strictly Kev - who both went on to inherit the DJ Food mantle. DK jumped on board in 1997, quickly rising to become the show producer. Today he captains the ship with contributions from Coldcut and myself and a rotating array of Solid Steel regulars like Hexstatic, DJ Cheeba and DJ Moneyshot, pulling in a diverse selection of guest mixes and the occasional special interview.

Coldcut, August 30th 2013

In today's ready-to-go world of mp3s, internet streaming and podcasts, we forget that the show wasn't always easy to come by and, for the first ten years, was only broadcast in and around London. Fans of the show taped it on cassette and some of these have found their way onto the web in the last decade, being the equivalent of musical gold dust, with anything before the late 90s being virtually non-existent.

It's important to remember the context that some of these mixes were made in, especially the early years. In the late 80s, although dance music exploded with the arrival of acid house and the masses bought into the second summer of love, it was still on a minute scale compared to the dance music culture we know today. Clubs and raves, whilst initially playing a broad spectrum of music, began to narrow their parameters to play a similar palette throughout the night. Scenes splintered off on their own paths - house, garage, acid, hip house, techno and rave went one way, while soul, funk, latin and jazz went another, likewise R&B, hip hop and reggae, occasionally meeting along the way. Hip hop was nowhere near the global movement it is today, chart hits were still a novelty, and the only superstar DJs were the winners of the annual Disco Mix Championship competition.

Chris Carter, February 15th 2013

Radio play for this kind of music was limited at best, almost completely ignored by the big, legal stations, save for a few late night specialist shows, and it fell to the pirates to provide the outlet for these sounds. At Kiss, Matt and Jon were the only DJs to attempt to actually mix all these styles together into one seamless collage, flavoured with soundbites, effects and jingles to produce something that was quintessentially 'Solid Steel'. The show was usually pre-recorded as a series of approximately 15 minute mixes, which were played live on the show with ad breaks inserted depending on that week's schedule. Later, when PC and I joined, shows were mixed live in one take, with all hands on decks to layer and dub up the recording, whilst turns were taken on the mic and attempts made to fill out the extensive PRS form.

Four Tet, August 17th 2013

Mixes were archived on DAT tape, full shows recorded on videotape as they were broadcast live and, post-Kiss (we left the station in 1999) we reverted back to the pre-recorded mix template as digital recording became more affordable.

In 91 Coldcut were struggling to get their fledgling Ninja Tune label off the ground, after enjoying immense success in the late 80s with international No.1s, award winning remixes and hot producer status. After label problems they went back to their roots and kept a low profile while maintaining their weekly two-hour radio show on Kiss FM. In 91 The Orb were just taking off into the big time, their own label problems a few years ahead of them. Their Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld album and its singles had gathered underground kudos, and they were recording the follow up: U.F.Orb. Most people would agree that 92 was the peak year for The Orb, in terms of success, with the second album touching down at No.1 after the first week of release and sold out shows everywhere. On New Year's Eve the two met, and this glorious offspring was the result:

Coldcut vs The Orb, part one, December 31st 1991

I have particularly fond memories of this show, as it was the first Solid Steel I actually recorded, mainly because of The Orb connection at the time. I had discovered 'Little Fluffy Clouds' the year before on the CND compilation Give Peace A Dance, and eagerly hoovered up everything I could find. Now the prospect of this great 'new' group coupled with old favourites Coldcut was too good to be true. A radio trail with a female voice whispering 'Coldcut versus The Orb' had alerted me to it, so I set up the tape machine, lay back and blew my mind.

A couple of years later I was put in touch with Matt Black and invited him to VJ at one of my Telepathic Fish ambient parties. Having listened to the aforementioned mix many times by now, I had always wondered what the opening track was, having never heard or found any details about it anywhere else. I asked him about it and straight away he said, "It's by me, but the others at Ninja aren't sure about it, so it hasn't come out". I told him it was totally relevant right now (this was just as the whole trip hop fad was about to kick off) and that he should push for it to come out. It ended up being included on the Ninja Tune version of Coldcut's Philosophy LP and on the bonus disc on the first Ninja Cuts compilation.

Coldcut vs The Orb, part two, December 31st 1991

Reminiscing about the session, Matt Black tells me: "I remember a couple of things from that show… Yes, we recorded it live at Kiss in Holloway Road, Alex and Thrash skinning up - to our delight, as it was a sackable offence but as The Orb didn’t work for Kiss they couldn’t sack them! - looking at each other, not knowing quite how to start. And then saying, "Fuck it, might as well start, shall we?" and sticking on just the Rickie Lee Jones spoken word [version] of ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ over some other music. They also played a lot of abstract, cool spoken word/cut-up stuff, which seemed really impressive and weird. We were like, "Fuck, how did they make that?" then found out it was mainly The Tape-beatles CD [Music With Sound] which we then tracked down afterwards and used a lot ourselves. That CD had a big influence on me, which fed into the later "alien sphinx"-style shows… it was just quite arty and clever and odd, looping spoken word, and showed anything goes in radio trip-style collage. It was after that I started collecting the weirder spoken word [material], like that exorcism speech (sourced from Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, I think) and The 500,000 Year Old Wisdom of E Yada di Shi-ite.

"I think we also played the 'Eine Kleine Hed Music' track for the first time on that show, which I remember was a fave of yours... the Invisible Man stuff for that, and a lot of the rest, was just done in a one man live mix, literally running round the studio, turning decks on and off! Raw but fun. Those were the days."

This collection of tracks is unique, in that there are some early versions of U.F.Orb tracks included that, to the best of my knowledge, still haven't appeared anywhere else - apart from the 14-minute segment that turned up on a lot of Orb bootlegs in the early 90s. The show also unknowingly turned me on to loads of material I later recognised as having heard here first, such as Eno and Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and The Tape-beatles' work. Pieces of spoken word like Jesse Jackson reciting 'I Am - Somebody' and the Brother Ah 'Love Piece' preacher sermon were first encountered here, and subsequently included on our Now, Listen mix CD in 2001. There are still pieces of the puzzle I'd like to find and I love the slapdashness of it, with Coldcut's tight mixing contrasting with The Orb's throw-everything-in-and-see-what-sticks approach.

This is what Solid Steel essentially represents to me - my template for an incredible mix and also a glimpse into the pre-internet past...

Postscript: To kick off the 25th year of Solid Steel we decided to get Coldcut and The Orb back into the studio and reprise their meeting, 21 years later. Matt, Jon, Alex and (this time) Youth convened at Butterfly studios for two jam sessions lasting nearly four hours. The multi tracks were then turned over to me to edit, condense and recompile into a coherent two hour show. It felt as if time was in a loop, although the resulting mix, dubbed 'The Return Trip', was anything but a trip back in time.

Coldcut vs The Orb, 'The Return Trip', parts one and two, November 1st 2013

Solid Steel and Ninja Tune celebrate the anniversary with an all-nighter at Fire in London on December 6, with Coldcut, The Orb, Trevor Jackson, Four Tet, Actress, Illum Sphere, DJ Food, DJ Cheeba and DJ Moneyshot and more on the line-up; for full details and tickets, head to the Solid Steel website