Don't Be Scared Of Music: An Interview With Dobie

Dobie is one of London's best-kept secrets, a musician, producer and photographer who has worked with Tricky, London Posse, Soul II Soul and more. Now he's back with a second solo album, and speaks to Joe Clay about why his career has been all about pursuing enjoyment

Anybody with even a passing interest in black British music should know who Tony Campbell, aka Dobie, is. You should, but you probably don’t. Part of the reason why you don’t is down to the man himself – a humble, self-effacing bear of a man, Dobie shuns the spotlight (Gilles Peterson once described him as "the Ghost Dog of Stoke Newington") and isn’t interested in acclamation, despite being involved in some of the most seminal moments in black music on these shores. If you own any Soul II Soul records you’ll have heard Dobie’s talents as a producer and beatmaker. UK hip-hop heads might remember him for his work with London Posse in the early 1990s, producing the Brit-hop classic ‘How’s Life in London?’. He’s worked with Tricky, remixed Bjork, Fine Young Cannibals, Massive Attack and Gang Starr, as well as releasing an influential solo debut, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, for Howie B’s Pussyfoot label back in 1998.

Dobie’s entire career is based around the joyful pursuit of doing what he enjoys, rather than any ambition to be the best. "I’ve always got into doing things because they were fun, not because I could make any money," he explains when we meet for a chat in the café of the Vortex Jazz Club just off Dalston High Street, the area that has been his home for pretty much his entire life. "I’ve never sat there and said I want to be the Don Gargon producer. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done because I liked doing it."

And it’s not just music that Dobie has a passion for. He was one of the key protagonists and documenters of the British skateboarding scene, initially as a skater himself. Later he moved into photography, where he captured the skaters of London’s South Bank and beyond, and the breakdancers who congregated at Covent Garden in the early-1980s.

Dobie’s humility is his calling card. Even when he was working with Soul II Soul, he never told his fellow skaters what he was up to. In an online trailer for a documentary about the making of Dobie’s second album, We Will Not Harm You, Floyd Reid – one of the original South Bank skaters – recalls Campbell’s reticence to blow his own trumpet: "One of the biggest albums of the summer is Soul II Soul’s, and you helped to put the entire thing together and you haven’t told anyone about it."

It is this album, released 15 years after his debut, which is the primary reason for our meeting. We Will Not Harm You is an eclectic, genre-hopping collection of urban instrumentals; a showcase for Dobie’s awesome skills as a beatmaker, from the funky breaks of ‘Stan Lee Was a Hero of Mine’ and the skittering, jazzy fills of ‘She Moans’ to the clattering snares of ‘The Beginning’. There are songs that sound like Sun Ra remixed by µ-Ziq – properly bonkers fusion music, matched by cover artwork by Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili – balanced out by some welcome interludes of reflective ambience to break up the sonic craziness, and plenty of rib-rattling bass. It’s a real head trip, but at its heart is hip-hop. Just like the man himself.

You are such an important figure in the history of black British music, but perhaps not everybody will know who you are. Are you comfortable with that? Or do you think you deserve more props?

Tony Campbell: I didn’t get into music for props or status. I make music because I like making music and it’s fun. I’m not chasing glory. I’ve never been about that. I come from a production and remix background, so I am the background person. I am a facilitator. I’m there to help the artist get where they want to get to.

That’s a very selfless role.

TC: Yeah, that’s it. You do your job, you hope it goes well and you’re on to the next thing. It’s not like being an artist where you have to sell yourself, though I’m more comfortable with that then I used to be. I’ve grown up a bit and found my path with it. I’ve made my peace with it.

Why was there a 15-year gap between your debut and We Will Not Harm You?

TC: I’ve never played the artist role that much. My background is in production and remixing so I was never really out there looking for record deals. Most people start out as an artist and then get into production but I’ve come the other way round. When you’re always working on other people’s stuff it gets to a point where you have to do your own thing and that’s what happened. Once I signed with Big Dada, I started the album from scratch.

What sort of album did you set out to make?

TC: I spent about 18 months on it. I wanted to write all new material. Me and Will [Big Dada head honcho] had a discussion about doing something up-tempo and crazy. That’s what I like about Big Dada – they’re a leftfield label so that means that I can do what I want. I just sat by the computer and started knocking beats together. Mostly beats are my starting points for a track, but sometimes I have funny starting points. Sometimes it might come from a sound – a plug-in that I start playing around with until I hit on something cool and build it from there.

Are you very musical?

TC: No man, I call myself a non-musician. I take that from Brian Eno. I come from a hip-hop background, you know? That’s my thing. It all stems from hip-hop, from sampling and breaks. But over the years, through working with musicians, I’ve picked up things that I’ve brought into what I do. But I’m not a trained musician at all.

What’s the idea behind the title of the album? The “We Will Not Harm You” sample crops up a few times. Where does it come from?

TC: I was up at about 4am once, watching a YouTube documentary on Funkadelic. There’s one point in the video where George Clinton shouts “What is soul?” [the sample that opens Dobie’s album] and then someone says, “It’s the dirt around your bathtub.”

And that got me thinking – we all know about soul music, but there’s obviously a lot more to it than that. And then Clinton says, “We will not harm you”, and I thought, why did he say that? I take it as meaning that in America at that time in the 1960s, for a black band to be doing that kind of thing – it was out there, black music wasn’t known for that. So they’re on stage, war paint on, off their faces, so he’s saying to the crowd, who would have been mostly white, don’t be scared, we will not harm you. So there was that, but also maybe, this music isn’t going to harm you. Yeah, it’s a bit out there, but give it a chance. It’s just music. It’s not going to hurt you. And that’s how I feel about my album. It’s a bit out there, a bit nutty, but don’t be scared of it. Don’t be scared of music!

It’s interesting you say that, because in the video for London Posse’s ‘How’s Life in London?’ [which Dobie produced] in the opening scene, the posh newsreader voiceover says, “This is London” and it cuts to all you guys looking all threatening and moody. It’s a joke, but it’s playing on the fear of the black youth.

TC: Yeah, exactly. That was tongue in cheek. We’re looking like we’re gonna go and cause some trouble, but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. That’s a dangerous thing to do. We were all cool really, but that fear is still there. I was a London Posse fan before I worked with them. They represented who I was. I still know Rodney P, we’re still doing stuff together.

But there aren’t any vocalists on the album this time.

TC: I’ve spent so much of my time working on other people’s projects and I didn’t have the patience this time. I just wanted to get on with it. So I locked myself off. It used to freak my friends out because they wouldn’t see me for months. For this album I wasn’t in a studio, I was at home. I wasn’t out in the clubs, no one was seeing me. It was nice to not have anybody pestering me.

Did you feel isolated?

TC: Nah, it was fun. The thing is, when you’re working on your own and it’s your own thing and there’s no one else involved, you’ve got to have a bit of discipline. I had a deadline. It was cool. I’d still have friends round, I just wasn’t out and about as much.

What were you listening to when you were making the album?

TC: I didn’t listen to anything, unless it was just something that was on the radio or on the TV – the sort of stuff you can’t escape. But I wasn’t putting on albums to listen to. I’m trying to go somewhere else and find something different. I didn’t want any outside influences. I think subliminally there are influences, but nothing deliberate. I was watching a lot of documentaries online so the music that was on those was in my head. But on the whole I wasn’t bothered about what was going on in the clubs. The reason why the album moves around so much in style is because I get bored. I’ve been involved in making music for 20 odd years now. I’ve been at it so long and I don’t want to feel like I’m making the same record over and over again. I come from hip-hop and I haven’t left that behind, but I am into house music, I am into jungle and reggae.

This album is a lot less hip-hop than your previous material, there’s a wide range of styles.

Yeah, I wanted it to be that. It comes from beats, but it’s got other textures to it. I find a lot of other music that’s out there is just 8-bar loops, but because I’ve worked with singers and proper groups I’m into arrangements. I’m thinking about key changes and all that stuff. It’s not just about making a beat and letting it roll. I’m not just making music for clubs. I wanted to make a cool coffee table album. There’s joints on there you can play out, there’s joints you could just be walking down the street with your headphones on, or you could just be at home with it on in the background.

The term “coffee table music” became a derisory way of describing a certain sort of safe, trip-hop/drum’n’bass music to be listened to with the Sunday papers. You don’t mind that tag?

TC: No, I don’t mind that! It’s not an insult. It just means people are comfortable listening to it at home and I’m cool with that. I don’t think people want to listen to club music all day. I know I don’t. It’s all about what mood you’re in. You don’t always want to hear a banging mix.

So tell me about the cover of the record. How do you know Chris Ofili?

TC: I met Chris just before he won the Turner Prize. I was hanging out with Attica Blues and Charlie Dark and all those cats, and Chris was there too. We became friends. When he’s in the country we catch up. We used to go to Plastic People to Balance and Blueprint and the Attica nights. He’s a cool guy.

How the album cover came about is that Will [Big Dada] was hearing the tracks I was sending to him and thinking “Sun Ra!” He thought it would be great to get Chris Ofili to do the cover. They’d tried to get him to do stuff before but it hadn’t worked out. So I told Will that I knew him. He’s a bit hard to get in contact with these days because he’s mad busy, but I reached out and asked him and he was up for it. I spent a year chasing him down, but I had no idea that he was doing this massive ballet project [Ofili painted the backdrop for the Royal Ballet director Monica Mason’s final commission, Metamorphosis: Titian 2012], so I was hassling him saying, ‘Are you going to come through?’ not knowing he was on such a grind. But he came through and I’m really grateful. I like what he’s done. He asked me the title of the album and I sent him some music. I interpret the piece he did as peaceful. Two guys sitting at a table having a drink. It suits the title. It’s a bit abstract but it works well…

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Photograph by Tony Campbell

What was your role in the British skateboarding scene?

TC: I was into it from the start, the late 70s really. I was just a kid, but it was a big thing for me. It was skating before music. I’d always listened to music of course, but when the skateboard boom hit I was there. I was hanging out on the South Bank – there was a whole section there that by an accident of design was perfect for skating. People still skate there. It was undercover and lit up at night, so you could skate there 24/7. It was the home of the London skate scene before there were any proper skate parks built.

And when skating went into a dark period, where there was hardly anyone skating, just a handful of people, I carried on. It took me around and kept me out of trouble. I look at kids now and see them just hanging outside a kebab shop and I’m thinking, ‘When I was your age I was off all over the place.’ We used to go to all the competitions. This was sort of ’82, ’83. It was dying out, all the skate parks had gone, so people were building ramps. We didn’t look on it as being dedicated, we were just having fun. We never had any money. We’d have our boards, our sleeping bags and maybe a couple of quid in our pocket for chips. But because skating had fallen off there was only a handful of hardcore skaters left and we all knew each other. We knew the Scottish skaters, the Brighton skaters, Birmingham – even going over to France, Germany, Sweden wherever. You’d crash at people’s places. Someone’s parents would be away for the weekend and you’d have a party. It was a great scene. We were doing something, going places.

How did the music fit in with skating?

TC: A lot of the skaters were into punk and thrash. I got to hear all that music because my mates were into it. I used to go to the Lyceum and see the punk bands. We were all from different backgrounds – black, white, Chinese, Asian whatever – but our thing was, you skate, you’re in. You’re cool. If there was someone who was a bit aggy, everyone would have him up. We looked after each other. Some were into punk, some rock, some reggae, some hip-hop and electro. We always had a boogie box and there’d be loads of different tapes playing.

You ended up becoming a photographer, documenting the skate scene. How did you get into that?

TC: I met a guy called Tim Leighton-Boyce. He was a photographer, into what people now would call extreme sports. He’d been around skating from the start, working in Alpine Sports. They were the first shop to sell all the skate gear in London. Then he ended up working for the British version of Skateboarder magazine. We all knew him because he was always around taking photos of us. Then fast forward a few years to the dark ages when no one was interested in skating – about ’82, something like that. Tim came to one of the competitions and I said, ‘Tim, let me take a picture!’ And he just gave me his camera and a few little pointers, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I just ran around the skate park taking pictures and then gave him back the camera. A couple of weeks later I saw Tim again and he had the photos I’d taken and they were alright. Every time we’d be anywhere with Tim, I’d borrow his camera and run off and take loads of pictures.

Eventually I got my own camera. Then when I left college I was looking for a job and I saw one at a photographic shop and I applied for it and got it. What I didn’t realise was that Lee’s Cameras was a big, super-duper professional photographic shop. Everyone used to come in, from Lichfield to the Baileys and all that lot. So I somehow lucked out into the perfect place to learn. I had everything at my fingertips. The shop had a big hire department and one of the perks of the job was that I could play with anything I liked. The job itself was shit, I was the tea boy, but it was the perfect learning ground. I ended up taking photos for Trans-World and some of the US magazines. The first ever picture I took was published in Thrasher magazine. Me and Tim used to go and do all the BMX events when that got big. My heart was still in skating, but BMX was where the money was for a bit, so we did that. Then we got the two guys who ran R.a.D (Read and Destroy) magazine into the skater stuff, getting them to put that into the magazine – a few little stories. They ended up doing a skate magazine and we took all the photos. But then the music got really serious when I got into the Soul II Soul thing.

How did you meet Jazzie B?

TC: I got introduced to him by a friend who told me about Soul II Soul, but I was more interested in the fact that they had a machine that could straighten out records. I was really into record collecting then and I wanted to sort all my warped records. So I met Jazzie and went to check them at a warehouse party. This was about six months before they started the parties at the Africa Centre. Then they invited me along to take some photos when they started that up. The relationship built from there. I got involved in the soundsystem. But you can’t just DJ straight away, it’s funny like that. You’ve gotta earn it. You’ve got to lug the gear around for a bit until they think you’re ready to spin. They don’t want you to empty the dancefloor!

I’d started NSO [No Sell Out Organisation – early Ladbroke Grove-based UK hip-hop crew] by then too, so I was already hanging out in the studio. I ended up bringing my drum machine into the Soul II Soul base camp in Camden. It was out the back of a snooker hall. That was where they kept all the speakers. It was the club house, where everyone used to hang out. Then I walked in there with a drum machine and hooked it up to the system and rocked some beats.

So Jazzie saw I was into that, and so when he got the deal with Virgin and did the first album I did a track with him [‘Jazzie’s Groove’]. Then when they were doing the second album, Jazzie said, ‘I want you to come and work with me and Nellie [Hooper].’ So then I was in, doing Soul II Soul [Vol II: A New Decade] and all those remixes – for Family Stand, Fine Young Cannibals, Bjork… It just rolled from there. I used to hang with Massive Attack in Bristol, stay at Daddy G’s. I hooked up with Tricky too around that time, just when he was starting out.

You seem to have been quite lucky in the sense that you have been around when things were just starting to happen.

TC: Yeah I have. But it’s not like I was searching for it. It’s just the stuff I like doing. There’s no master plan.

You’ve been credited as one of the pioneers of trip-hop. How do you feel about the genre?

TC: The trip-hop tag came from the press. It’s just dubbed-out hip-hop to me. It’s just the reggae thing coming back – those big basslines.

Why do you think bass is so important in black music?

TC: I don’t think we deem it as important, it’s just part of the sound. When you check the older reggae guys out, it’s not about how heavy the bass is, it’s about the bassline. It’s about the pattern. A bassline is good, not because it’s heavy, but because of the rhythm. That’s what makes it dope. That’s what’s given us our sound. England’s got the second biggest Jamaican population outside of Jamaica – Canada is first. Reggae is part of Jamaican music. We brought our sounds here and now it’s permeating everything.

What do you think about dubstep? For those producers it really does seem to just be about how heavy the bass is.

TC: Yeah they’ve got it wrong. There’s no rhythm. It’s about the drop. It’s like, ‘Oh my god there’s a ten-ton boulder dropping on my head!’

Being an early face on the UK hip-hop scene, how do you feel about grime?

TC: The only connection grime has to hip-hop is that there’s MCs on it. It’s a derivative of hip-hop – I don’t see it as being hip-hop. It’s not funky. But UK hip-hop back in the day did have success. We had Derek B – he was a platinum-selling artist. It was in the charts back then. But we had our own underground thing going on – Demon Boyz, London Posse, Hijack, MC Mello – they had an English identity. They grew up around the soundsystems. They brought the reggae, the UK slang, and the patois. Then we had Roots Manuva. That’s us. It’s all about the record companies really. If they can sell it, they’ll jump on it. The big record companies ignored grime at first, but as soon as Dizzee and Tinchy started to sell loads of white labels, they got on it. It’s all about selling music at the end of the day. I want to sell records – of course I do. Then I can get on with making another one.

We Will Not Harm You is out now on Big Dada

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