It’s easy to overlook quite how seminal the 90s were in birthing pretty much everything that has since come to dominate UK culture. In just a matter of years garage, jungle, UK funky, bassline and many more genres would explode out of one another like firecrackers. On the coal face of it all was electronic spearhead MJ Cole, whose pioneering 2-step sound went on to influence everything from grime to dubstep to bands like The xx. His breakthrough track, “Sincere”, was one of the first proper garage songs to penetrate the UK top 40, and even now it is the track played religiously at 6am during every house party from Hackney to Hartlepool.
Over the years, Cole has established himself both as one of the most consistent producers in Britain and a mastermind for bringing through new talent. He’s produced tracks across the spectrum for artists like Dizzee Rascal, Katy B, and Example. In 2014, he co-wrote and produced “Nobody But You” for Mary J Blige, alongside Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes. Wiley and Kano are big fans, and just last year he teamed up with the ferocious young grime MC AJ Tracey to create “The Rumble” – a dark and industrial colossus that showed just how diverse his sound has become. “I like to throw those things in now and then and surprise people,” he explains. “The harder the better for those tracks. I really like that dirty and distorted sound; angular, energetic, anti-establishment.”
Aside from dropping “Bouldaz” on Disclosure’s Method White label, “Alcatraz” on Redlight’s label Lobsterboy, and the aforementioned “The Rumble”, Cole’s last two years have been spent on a secret side project. In the heart of central London, he’s taken over and renovated an old abandoned gin factory into a mecca for new artists and producers. Aptly named The Gin Factory, it is a 12 studio soundproof hit factory reminiscent of Cheiron Studios in Sweden. Danny Howard (Radio 1), SG Lewis, Bruno Major, Mr Hudson, Blonde, Red Light, Mele and many more have called this place home at some point over the last few years. “It’s a good vibe,” says Cole. “People are constantly nipping into each other’s studios to tune vocals or play keys or sing.” It’s here, on the basement floor in a spacious room decorated with synths, pianos and old records, that MJ Cole is crafting his new album. The first single, the piano-driven “Undo” featuring Alyss, dropped earlier in the year and showcased Cole’s ability to inject musicality, colour and a booming chorus into a classic garage framework.
Cole grew up in West London, near Twickenham and the city of London has always been deeply close to him. “People always like to go somewhere to write, like LA,” he tells me. “But the truth is, music always turns out best when you make it in London. There is something about it. It’s so multi-cultural, cross genre and magic.” His family home was always an intensely musical environment. Dad was a singer and actor, starring in West End musicials, his grandparents both played piano and so did his mother. He ended up studying at the Royal College of Music, and that classical background still informs much of the way he crafts electronic music. He tells me: “Those earlier years learning in the classical world really trained my ears to understand how music works and learn the language of musical expression.”
As a teenager, Cole and his mates got a hold of a music program called Octalyser for the Amiga. They would set up two computers with a DJ mixer in the middle and start switching between different chunks and samples to create their own tapes. Quickly they upgraded to the Atari and got Cubase. “I’d go out to raves,” he tells me, “then I’d come back home to my little computer in my bedroom and try to re-create what I was hearing the clubs.” After sending his demos around, he ended up with a job at the cult label Sound of the Underground, and the rest, as they say, is history. By 1998, “Sincere” was into the top 40 and in 2000 he got his first top 10 single with “Crazy Love”.
Now, for his third studio album, he’s envisaging a record as vibrant and rich as it is thunderous, with a definite return to those 2 step roots. “It’s not going to be club house or breakdown anthems,” he says. “I want to go deeper. It’s going to be musically nourishing, with real instruments used as much as possible. There’s going to be a lot of chords and songwriting, but then on other tracks I’ll sod that off and go hard and grimey.”
A track which captures all of those ideas is “Shelter”. Born from endless studio sessions with the jazz inflected young vocalist Bruno Major surrounded by pianos and mics, the track is a rich concoction of ethereal synths and chopped beats, with pitched down vocals that give it an oddly magical atmosphere. The lyrical message of Shelter only lends to the calming club-tinged ambience of it all. “It has a slightly alien sound to it” says Cole, “which kind of adds to the mystery, and feeds into the whole song. There’s a warmth and meaning to it.”
Looking back on a twenty year career, it would be easy for Cole to become entrenched in the past and just try to re-create those 2000s days, but instead his obsession is the new. He talks glowingly about D&B, Amy Winehouse and early Radiohead, but what happened yesterday is still what is inspiring him the most when making music. His record label, 892, is one that rapidly adjusts to the changing face of the modern music industry, and when you add that to The Gin Factory, he’s created a innovative platform not just for himself, but for new artists as well. “The best stuff right now is coming from the underground,” he tells me, “the artists making stuff that’s real and connected to their lives, without this industry point of view. I am trying to capture that in this record.”