In order for an artist to create a healthy environment, “you have to have an understanding of the past and an openness for the future,” says Dego. The London producer has kept this philosophy close to his chest throughout his 25-plus years as a musician, during which time he’s covered and pioneered many styles, from jungle to drum ‘n’ bass and broken beat. His most notable accolades include co-running Reinforced Records and his work in 4hero, the Mercury Music Prize-winning outfit he co-founded in 1989. The group has taken a hiatus over the last few years, but Dego has kept busy concentrating on his jazz-funk, boogie and soul-informed solo work and his 2000Black label/collective.
Dego shares the sentiment that an understanding of the past is crucial to progress with Harris Elliott, a creative director, stylist and designer who also hails from London. Elliott is a true renaissance man; he originally studied interior architecture and design, but made a name of himself in the fashion world soon after graduating. He’s worked with Puma on their London Olympic advertising campaign and created accessories for the Jamaican Olympic team. Recently he moved into working on installations and curating exhibitions, most notably “Return Of The Rudeboy”, a photo exhibition he co-curated with Dean Chalkley that celebrated rudeboy culture. It was turned into a book last May, while the exhibition will continue to travel after its first stops in London and Tokyo.
Sven von Thülen met the legendary DJ/producer and the self-appointed visual storyteller on a sunny February afternoon in central London, where they got into talking about their experiences working in the arts and how to tackle the rising pressure of competition in a culture hooked on popularity and a low attention span.
Dego: Harris, you’re someone who comes with concepts and ideas that you want to present to the people out there. How do you feel about situations when you’re coming from a certain aspect or direction, but other people see something else and run with that idea of it? Do you have occasions of frustration with that, or are you accepting of the fact that people are going to interpret things how they want?
Harris Elliott: Early on in my career I was a lot more open and willing to let things slide. I don’t know if it’s because of getting older, but I’ve been more convicted or assured of what I’m doing. If I come up with an idea, it’s not like it’s “my way or the highway,” but generally there’s been a lot more thought and effort going into my concepts. I love collaborating, so I’m open to things and exploring. The project I did recently was meant to be an art project, but the client wanted to take it in a different direction and I had to dig my heels in because I don’t want to be sacrificing my time, regardless of the money. It’s taken me a while to get to that point where I’m comfortable with my own confidence and my creativity to the point where I can say, “If you haven’t quite got my idea properly, maybe we shouldn’t be working together.” What about yourself? I’m sure that kind of thing has happened to you quite often, no?
D: Yeah, it has. As a result, I’ve become more literal with my music. It is what it is. I realized that there’s no point in beating around the bush. I think it’s impossible for me to expect everyone to understand what I’m doing musically and hear where I’m coming from all the time. But what sometimes really gets to me is that nowadays, everyone’s an expert on everything. At least, they think that. Everybody has an opinion. I know music is subjective, but when a man has spent the last 20 years or whatever harnessing his craft, there seems to be no respect for that time and schooling. And that’s why the subjective thing only runs up until a certain point. How does that manifest itself in your world?
HE: I know someone who is employed by multinational advertising and creative companies based on their “opinion” on matters of fashion and contemporary culture. They pride themselves on that opinion. So it seems that these companies are buying into a notion of style without context and a limited amount of substance, not necessarily based on knowledge or historical understanding, which feels to me like form without function or “the emperors new clothes.” That notion sends me into a bit of a spin. I spent years developing my craft, and I find more and more with young people breaking into the industry that they have an opinion—I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man—but they aren’t interested in developing a unique vision or willing to research and understand the history of their chosen field. It’s almost like people have had this global stroke, which prevents them from acknowledging and remembering even the past two decades. They are happy to imitate and regurgitate without any notion that this isn’t acceptable and ultimately not creative.
D: It’s amazing if you think about it, because you can do the research so much more easily now. If I had this access to this shit in the ‘80s…
HE: That’s where that connection stops. One part of your brain stops speaking to another. Have you noticed that change, in terms of when you were working with young guys?
D: Luckily, there are a couple of young cats that I’ve met who get it. You realize that they’ve done their homework and they really put in the work. So there’s hope. But I think the problem of the times that we live in is what merits quality is measured differently today. They don’t use feet, inches, centimeters. They’re on some other scale. Everything seems to be based around popularity, regardless of quality, regardless of ethics, regardless of—there’s so many things that can be disregarded, as long as the figures are there. That’s what it seems to be for a lot of young people. And that’s frightening.
HE: Everyone’s always looking for content, whatever “content” is. There come these points where you’re like, “Is there something that you guys can see that I can’t see?” I’m not into hating anything, but there are times where someone has this fairy wand and certain people get given this opportunity. There’s one brand or person who grows really quickly, and then in a few years becomes head of a big fashion house, but in all the stories that you hear about this person before they rose are diabolical. This person would get away with quite unscrupulous behavior and in any other environment or industry—they’d be locked up or locked down.
But the thing about fashion is that it’s an unregulated industry. Everything goes. There’s no regulation around how things can or cannot happen, so people will get away with doing certain things, and that will then come across visually. There’s a current trend where designers try to shock people so that their stats go really high, but sometimes it distracts from the collection itself. At the end of the day, you’re selling clothes. So, for instance, when designers use transgender models because queerness a hot and subversive topic at the moment, it can feel like they’re trying to “buy” that identity in order to sell clothes.
D: It becomes a gimmick.
HE: And brands are like, grabbing onto almost anything to push that forward. There’s that point where the cream’s not rising to the top. It’s like, whatever we can chuck at the top. Let’s just put marshmallows. Let’s just put sprinkles. Let’s just put custard! Let’s put gravy on my cappuccino! People will do anything. And that’s what I find difficult. Brands and big companies are associating creativity with figures, so there’s that point where the industry is so caught up in consumerism in the sense of what is quality? What is a “good” image or “bad” image?
People are passing off other people’s work as well, and because no one does their research anymore, no one notices. I’ve seen it quite blatantly in the last two weeks. One is a spat between two brands. My friend’s brand created a hat two years ago and now another brand is getting so much hype in the States. But they’ve only ripped off this hat. And when confronted with it, they didn’t even lie or played it ignorant; they straight-up didn’t care. If you want to challenge someone, whether it’s DJ skills or creativity, for me it would always be like, “Okay, I’m going back and I’m gonna work my craft, and I’m coming back better than you.”
D: I’ve always given it up to those who inspired me, and in the end, I got to the stage where I was fortunate enough to work with them. You’ve taught me too much as it is, so I give it up. I’ve never pretended like certain things are mine. But do I sit in the studio with a Roy Ayers record and listen and then start playing the keys? No. Them things have been soaking into me, marinating, since I was 12 years old. So it comes out. But I’ve always thought it’s a great thing to admit that yeah, this has inspired me—so much that I named my record label 2000Black. But no one’s humble enough for that stuff nowadays. They done it. Brand-new work. Brand fucking new.
HE: There’s a feral mentality: “I’ll do whatever I need to do to get out there.” No longer is there tradition, patience or respect. If you go back to African villages, there’s this whole mentality where you hand things down. Somebody recently copied an image by a really famous National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. They’d recreated this exact image of someone in some part of Afghanistan, a shaman-type guy, and put it on their Instagram feed and got all these compliments without making any reference to the originator. They’ve ripped off one of the most renowned photographers of this century! They couldn’t even say, “I was inspired by…” They’d just ripped it off. So for me, those are my frustrations within the industry. People always used to say that imitation’s the greatest form of flattery, but I don’t buy that theory.
D: I get it to a point, but that’s some sort of bullshit mantra to keep you calm so you don’t wild out about it sometimes. What does it do for the person who done it first? How does that expand things? That’s the thing. To have a healthy environment in the creative scenes, you have to have an understanding of the past and an openness for the future. Things are changing a lot, and you gotta be accepting of a lot of things and be adaptable and flexible. And between those two things, it can make for a great environment. But if you cut off one or the other, it’ll be almost like, not fake, but a hollow world to some extent.
HE: So how did this new, highly competitive culture where everything’s easily quantifiable influence your work?
D: I work harder and make better shit all the time. I’m out there clashing. I’ve never been a competitive person, even when I play sport. But I’ve come to realize that it can’t be just that. I’ve gotta come out with cards—bam! I can’t just be casual about it. I’ve got to come with it every time. So when you come with it every time, it’s just undeniable. And for me, over the last few years since I’ve come back from New York, it’s been like that. You need content all the time? I won’t just do one album every four years, I’ll give you an album every year. And I’ll give you some singles in between.
HE: So you’re working more now?
D: I’m working hard. I was critical before; I’m hypercritical now. I can’t win on the popular scale, I don’t work like that. And I’m not comfortable with this aspect either. But one thing I do know: I know how to produce a tune.
HE: But if you’re not working in the same way that other people are choosing to push their stuff, how do you then get that message to people?
D: I serve the cats I know who’ve got that, and they do the work for me.
HE: You’re using the system.
D: Yeah, in a way that I feel comfortable with. I prefer things to develop in a more natural way. But you have to work harder doing it this way. You have to work the system to get the recognition.
HE: Do you find your creative process has changed? Did you find a new way to approach things so you are not competing against your peers?
D: Yeah, in some ways. I’ve been a little bit more flexible in certain aspects, where years ago I might’ve said to myself, “You’re watering it down a little bit there, Dego.” Now, I can still give them something that they can understand, but I add all my shit to it no matter what. It still works, you know what I mean? So that’s one of the ways of getting around it. Is there a similar thing in fashion?
HE: It’s taken me a while to figure out the best way to present my artform. It’s to create exhibitions. Fashion is what pays my bills, but it’s not necessarily what fills my mind. When Dean Chalkley and I created Return Of The Rudeboy, the amount of people that saw it was overwhelming. If I had spent the same amount of time creating ten fashion editorials for magazines, not half as many people would’ve seen the work because fashion is seasonal, and if you miss it, too late it’s gone. Return Of The Rudeboy put a flag in the sand, because no one else was doing anything like that, so we set our own visual metronome.
It’s about style and it’s about culture, but if you’re into fashion it would still have resonated. I’m moving into my own space where there isn’t anybody else that I’m competing against. By conceiving and curating exhibitions I can draw different audiences and different conversations, and it will have an integrity that isn’t based on selling products. We can see the fashion merit in it, but there’s many other layers that talk about other aspects of society. I want to continue to create work that has more resonance with a wider strata of society. I’m trying to find ways to make people stop and observe, take time, be inspired and think.