There is always the dance, that’s how it goes. Within us it rests, waiting for that moment of pure surrender. Loose limbs jerking, weightless in orbit. Deeper. Real. Ecstasy is a place on earth and it belongs to me and no else, this moment. Provoked by music that moves in jagged lines, all these 8O8’s and Moogs. Primitive instinct is to meet in the middle, with intense beats and hazy lights, the middle is the dance. Synchronization in day glo. Unique to you, freedom is the right to party. To smile, to fall in love. To cry, to surrender. We have no future and we were rich and famous in our past lives. Feeling the weight of all of those who have gone before us, what it means to be here and where we are going. The people we meet, the mornings we lose. All for that feeling of bliss. It all comes down to the dance, and the music that lifts us there.
Mella Dee is not interested in making vocal-led songs. Or making albums. Or signing to a label. He is content, as he puts it, “listening to fucking drums loops for hours on end.” It’s important to note this as in an era where dance culture is becoming an ever-increasing commercialised monopoly, Mella Dee’s simple ambition to “ just keep playing everywhere and do the best job that I can” is refreshing. He does not plan for the future but very much creates for the present, with his eye always on the club foremost. We meet at his studio in Queens Park, also home to chart bothering, mawkish violin players Clean Bandit and Redlight. Fresh from all night Dj sets in Sheffield and Birmingham, his demeanour is extremely placid and although he does not smile much, he is down to earth with his soft South Yorkshire tones lending a chilled atmosphere to proceedings. Hundreds of records are neatly organised to the left of us and multiple synthesizers of diverse quality and origin line the wall on the right. Today has not been a particularly productive day for Mella Dee. Sticking to a standard 9-5 work schedule, he is relaxed with regards to the length of time it takes to produce music, willing to only listen to the music of others as a reference point one day, or just experiment with his vast range of music equipment (he uses Ableton by the way and his favourite gadget is the TRA 9090, a drum synthesizer used to create his most popular track Techno Disco Tool.). He is never completely satisfied with his tracks, but denies being a perfectionist. “ I know when there’s a good vibe and a good energy but I don’t know what the reaction will be and I try not overthink it because you lose everything when you do that.”
Dance music is a rich, varied tapestry of sub genres, cultures and sounds so manifests itself in different forms giving the feeling that it has always been there for much of your life in some shape or form. It’s the adolescent years which shape your taste and show what tribe you belong to. Mella Dee found his when he was 8 through his sister who was heavily into the 90s hardcore scene. It was at that age he remembers the first album he fell in love with- a Bonkershardcore compilation, falling to sleep to it at night.
This was back in the days when he was known as Ryan Aitchison. And while his family were not musically inclined, his father would often play funk, northern soul and synth pop, the influences of which would later inform his sound. Forming a collective with his friends called “Mista Man”, he started making music and Djing when he was 20 the scope of which did not extend past small bars and clubs in his native Doncaster. The close proximity to Leeds led to his involvement with the cities pirate radio stations, as well as the student club scene, whilst being in the right place and time for the emergence of bassline (which originated from Sheffield in the late noughties) and later dubstep. It was from his experiences at pirate radio that gave him his current aalias (he briefly went by the name No Face), with Mella Dee being the South Yorkshire phonetic spelling of ‘melody’.
The subsequent years were marked by trial and error and the perfecting of his craft, whilst working for UK Roller Shutters. Mella Dee’s belief that hard work and practise are the most important virtues needed to become a good DJ is apparent throughout our conversation and it. “ You have to put the work in. You have to spend hours and hours doing it. Some people make a record and it pops off and that’s fine but the problem is that that isn’t easy to follow up.” It was not until he was 27 that things really began to gain traction with his move to London.
And the shift to the capital yielded results with sets at Bestival (‘14, ‘15, ‘16 and ‘17), Lost & Found, performances on the same bill as Maya Jane Coles and Dusky as well as features with Mixmag and FACT magazine Against the Clock Youtube series. His music is a blend of acid house (the track Movementevokes images of a sweaty, warehouse rave in 1990) and techno but things became funkier with the release Wm003. Containing disco-flicked tracks such as Cloud One, we were no longer partying in Leeds ‘90, but rather Paradise Garage ‘79. Techno Disco Tool was the jewel in the crown. Centred around a sample of Sister Sledge’s Pretty Baby, the track become one of the songs of the summer 2017 championed early by Annie Mac (and later featured on her Presents 2017 compilation) , and was later named Nick Grimshaw’s Hottest Record In the World and remixed by house legend Todd Edwards. Vinyl (the currency of a DJ) copies sold out, twice. It’s success surprised it’s creator due to the track’s original purpose of being solely used as a DJ tool within his sets (hence the title) but the reason for the track’s popularity is not lost on him either. “It makes people happy. That’s what everyone seems to say. It’s just energetic and makes people happy and people just want to dance.” It’s easy to see what he means. During his brilliant all night set at Hangar in Hackney, the track provoked the biggest and most elated response of the night. The song is ingenious in its simplicity, similar to french house tracks Lady (Hear Me Tonight) and Music Sounds Better With You, in that is an exhilaratingly joyful tune to lose yourself to. His follow up releases Donny’s Groove and the beautifully British titled Alright Mate were similarly disco-influenced but do not expect this to be a sound he clings to. Having recently released music under his own name (“darker, harder and more aggressive”) as an outlet for his more hardcore songs, his primary focus is for songs to “bang in the club”. Whatever shape they take. Mella Dee is a DJ first, and producer second (his own words, but “they both help each other”).
Not a slave to major label scheduling, he releases his music when he is ready through his Warehouse Music label, founded with his partner and manager Sarah. His reluctance to play the industry game has resulted in complete self-sufficiency and independence with his output, part of a rising trend of DIY artists in control of their own destiny away from controlling, industry figures. The freedom this gives him is that “Nobody can tell me what is or isn’t good enough or what works together or what’s not right. I make the music, I decide when to put it out there.” This no bullshit attitude is extended to bad DJ’s (the biggest DJ crimes are, take note, making a predictable set which Mella Dee describes as being like “one flat dynamic”, or just playing promos you are given) and he is not fazed by reputation fame creates. “You can market yourself and be super famous but shit don’t matter if your music is wack. I don’t give two fucks about it if your music is shit.” He has yet to make a studio vocal track, as he “cant be arsed” with all the complications that could arise, or could sell his beats but he prefers to do his “own thing”. There are no plans for an album but if there was, he would follow the template set by his favourite dance album of all time-Goldie’s seminal Timeless.
When it comes to the future of dance music, he can’t say for sure what it holds. Dance music is commercialised as ever, with acts such as Sigala, Sigma and Jax Jones reaching global audiences with homogenised, sugar-sweet pop songs which use the roots of dance culture but does away with any of the grit or soul. Yet, dance music is also as thriving, unique and innovative as ever, existing within a content underground status which does not equate to anonymity but rather success on it’s own terms. Mella Dee agrees: “I still think they are big (non commercial) acts but you don’t necessarily need to advertise to the commercial world as well.” He is not interested in innovation, rather “new energies and just having fun”. Fun being the key word. “ I just want do something to make people dance and have fun and enjoy it.” There are plenty of acts he loves, with Moodymann, Bicep (“the new Chemical Brothers”) and Artwork receive mentions throughout our conversation. Outside of dance, he loves UK rap artists Fredo and J Hus, and has a soft spot for Cardi B.
And with regards to advice for the future generation of DJ’s? “If you are going to do something it has got to have a reason. If there is a sound in a track, why is that sound there? What is the point to it? Everything needs to have a reason and a place. Same when it comes to mixing. Just think about what you are doing and your tracks will be better.”
Coming to the end of our discussion, the question still lingers: “what is it about clubbing and the atmosphere around dance music that makes it so special?”
Ever since the birth of disco, the club has been the place where each generation comes of age – a modern day right of passage into adulthood. There has been numerous studies into the psychology of raving and the effect dance music has on people, making links to eastern ritual cultures and tribes of the past, but what exactly creates that buzz where the body and music became synced together. A great night out leads to a warm, hopeful buzz in the morning. Dance music is freedom. So what made it special for Mella Dee? “I think it was just going out dancing and enjoying music and not really caring about anything but the music at that point, especially when you are young. As long as the DJ is good and so is the atmosphere then it’s the best time of your life.”
“ A good night out is just amazing. And club culture is an important escape from what you are doing when you are working outside 6 hours, 12 hours a day and it’s snowing and shit and then when it comes to it- ‘I want to go out this weekend’ you know?”
Words, Will Craigie – @blondedboiiii
Image, Andrew Rafter