When I was making some of the original demos during lockdown, I wasn’t DJing in clubs. So, I guess I was just thinking about myself as the audience.”
Dynamic Brighton-based producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist J-Felix is contemplating what recently took him back to basics. A familiar face on the city’s clubbing scene, he’s forged a fearsome reputation for himself with pumped up grooves and the freshest funk around. But now, not least due to some enforced time out during a global health crisis, he’s gravitating towards the influences which first informed his love of music.
Denied the febrile atmosphere of live shows, he’s spent the last couple of years installing new kit in his studio near Lewes Road. The influx of equipment has opened an exciting period of creativity. His first two albums, 101 Reasons and Whole Again Hooligan, provided a delicious mix of nu-soul, vintage R&B, disco and nu-skool jazz aesthetics. Now he’s moving away from the electronic formality of modern production techniques in a search of something a bit warmer and organic.
He’s been embracing ‘modern vintage’ kit like the iconic Juno 106 synthesizers, lots of valve processing, and even experimenting with a mid-90s Tascam four-track tape machine – sourcing cassettes with the right bias from eBay. “I just like the control it gives you. I suppose I would like to have a reel to reel, but that gets really expensive. But I get natural saturation, and the pre-amps are really good on what I’ve got.” He says much of what he’s got can be replicated through software plugins, but there is something entrancing about the original electronic instruments, even with all their slight imperfections. “It’s a bit battered and there’s all these happy accidents.”
Having things go off-course in the studio is all part of music innovation. When Roland released their TB-303 Bass to simulate bass guitars, it was largely ignored by ‘serious’ musicians and deemed a commercial failure. But when placed in the hands of a few inquisitive kids who didn’t really know how to use it, the odd little box triggered a revolution in dance music. “That whole acid sound was just someone messing around on an old 303. Turn it up, see what happens. A lot of that happens in this studio,” he jokes.
He’s gearing up for an EP series, his first new releases in two years, which provide an insight into what he’s been writing recently. Dropped last month, giving us a succulent taste of what’s coming, was Like a Queen. Powered by sensational vocals from Victoria Port (one half of Tru-Thoughts label-mates Anushka), it offers a breezy old-school UK hip-hop vibe. Shuffling breakbeats bubble under dreamlike analogue keyboard layers and jazzy guitars.
It sees a new flowing sensibility to J-Felix’s output. “The playing is purposefully pushed and wonky on keys and guitars. I program the drums, so they’re ‘on’, and then play a hi-hat to get some looseness.” From here he often performs other instrumentation, either as 16 bar loops or live throughout the track, to capture a more vibrant feeling on the production. It’s a happy compromise between having a full band in a room and the electronic approach’s practicalities.
One canny technique is recording the keyboards on his tape recorder, changing the speed to adjust the pitch up or down, then recording back into the computer to be chopped up and manipulated. While some of the instrumentation floats over everything, the rhythm section keeps the arrangement tight.
The blissed out hip-hop groove of Like A Queen heralds a new direction of sorts. “I wouldn’t say necessarily what I listen to has changed. My first love is always hip-hop, that’s what got me into the jazz, disco and boogie.” The enforced time away has allowed him to be a little introspective and indulge himself more. As it continues, the EP series, entitled The Mint Experiment, sees him embrace more song-focused arrangements, as well as bringing in more ambitious elements like string sections.
The series’ title refers to ‘Mint’, a laudative slang term from his Bristolian roots, and ‘Experiment’ because he’s venturing into new territory. The releases are coming out on his own label, called OVN Records after the initials of his three children. It means he can concentrate on doing his own thing, without having to compromise or worry about working to schedules. “With the collaborators, I’ve had a bit more say in what we write about.” He’s based the series around anemoia, the nostalgic sense of longing for a past not lived. “It’s something I’ve felt a lot in music and life. I’ve got friends who go about the 90s rave thing, and I’m like: ‘Man, I was never there.’ That emotion for something that you never experienced in the first place is really interesting.”
The experiment in starting a new business is a daunting one, but he’s got distribution support from Brighton’s Republic Of Music and publishing is handled by the ever-present Tru Thoughts label. So, it’s all a bit more modular than starting everything from scratch. He admits he did enjoy not having to think about much of the work demanded by having your own record label. Particularly the scale of resources and manpower. But that’s all part of the experiment.
He says there’s an album’s worth of music ready to be mixed and released. This month sees the release of the series’ second EP featuring Bessi and Bigzy, The Love That Hurts is out on Weds 26 Oct. The bare bones of this track were created in just one night. “It was my first time in the studio with Bigzy, who is a real firecracker MC and singer, showing us his gentler side on this one.” A session musician, producer and singer, Bessi plays bass on the track, and sang its hook almost instantly after the beats were built.
After that session, J-Felix asked Alice Russell and Bonobo collaborator Mike Simmonds to come in and help write and record the string arrangements, layering up violin and viola. Then there’s at least another The Mint Experiment release coming after that, featuring collaborations with grime MC Juggernaut and neo-soul singer/songwriter Chloe Bodur. Perhaps there’ll even be another volume of releases and some vinyl next year.
He’ll forever be influenced by Bristol. But, more than ever, he’s open to collaborating with Brighton artists. “I’ve been doing bits and bobs with guys from the hip-hop scene, meeting them through my work at Audio Active. A lot of my influences come from LA beats, things like P-Funk, but there is a lot of really good hip-hop, R&B and jazz coming out of the UK now.” In addition to record releases, there’s a range of live shows being planned for the next few months, including a slot at Soho’s prestigious PizzaExpress Jazz Club. He says organising his nine-piece band is a delicate balance between being a musical director and allowing players to bring their own interpretations to his output.
“On a few occasions, like with the horns, some of them have played on the record. But the band takes the record, practices as it is, then I just let them make it their own. I try to work with good players, and they’ll often give it more of a jazz/funk flavour.” Fri 18 Nov sees him heading to Brighton’s WaterBear for a smaller scale show, featuring bouncy jazz flavours from Werkha and Jack Chi (who recently produced much-acclaimed Tru Thoughts act Tiawa) on DJ duties.
J-Felix is drifting back towards his hip-hop roots, producing something which both draws from the past and offers something fiercely innovative. And it’s possible he’s only just started to demonstrate what he’s capable of. Starting a new imprint and bringing different artists into his orbit has given a greater sense of creative freedom, even if the path ahead isn’t instantly obvious… for now. “It’s really exciting. I’m building new relationships, working with people from the US… We’ll see. It’s all part of the mint experiment…”
J-Felix and The Extended Family play Soho’s PizzaExpress Jazz Club on Fri 4 Nov. He also plays at Brighton’s WaterBear on Fri 18 Nov. His single Like A Queen is available now, and The Love That Hurts is released on Weds 26 Oct, via OVN Records.
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