Chuka Umunna is one of the highest profile young politicians in the UK. But did you know that he's also a part-time DJ, these days favouring the soulful house sound — having started out DJing garage and even running his own garage nights back in the day?
DJ Mag's Carl Loben lobbed Chuka a few curveball questions as he nestled into the Hot Seat...
As well as being a successful politician, you're a bit of a DJ yourself, aren't you?
“Yeah, well, when I first started going out with my friends and enjoying music I was right there at the beginning of the UK garage scene. The brilliant thing about it was that it was a fantastic fusion of all of London's different cultures — it was distinctly London, a very British sound.
"And what also appealed to me about it was that there was no element of us seeking to mimic what people were doing in the US — it was a very British sound, and it just completely captured my imagination.
“I first started writing about it on a freelance basis for Touch Magazine, which was the offshoot of Kiss FM. Then when I was at university, I bought some decks — they were very old skool decks, belt-driven.
"I didn't have any 1210s, my ones & twos were quite old skool, even in those days. But yeah, I ran a few nights with some friends while at Manchester University. I read English Law and French Law, and one of the reasons why I went there is that Manchester had such a good law faculty, but another big attraction was the whole music scene and Manchester's reputation for being quite a lively place from that point of view.”
How did Manchester take to your garage nights?
“It was quite big in London, it was only beginning to grow in Manchester, and while I was there there were a few people who were beginning to produce that kind of music in the north-west. I've forgotten their name, but there was a track called 'Flowers'...”
Sweet Female Attitude!
“Yes! To be honest, I was more influenced by the US side of the scene, four-to-the-floor was more my thing. My favourite DJ was probably Karl 'Tuff Enuff' Brown, I never heard a bad set from him in those days.
"Producer-wise, I liked a lot of MJ Cole's stuff, Todd Edwards, Grant Nelson... I'm just trying to cast my mind back. I moved on, I felt it was a bit of a shame that everybody got greedy, and it got too aggressive, the whole garage scene, which is why I slightly fell out of love with it. We allowed the MCs to take over, and it went from being quite a kind of happy, uplifting vibe to something that was a bit more aggressive — that I didn't like.
"People just wanted to make money too quick, and as it became more mainstream people were just selling out, I felt. A lot of the guys migrated to the UK soulful house scene, and that's what I did.
“The record labels I used to get a lot of my stuff from included Talkin Loud, Subliminal Soul — Erick Morillo's outfit but the more soulful end of that — Defected, Soulfuric, which was probably my favourite record label.
"The record shops I used to go to included Release the Groove, which doesn't exist anymore — that was just off Shaftesbury Avenue; Uptown Records on D'Arblay Street in Soho; Black Market, which is just still going... and it was strictly vinyl.”
So when vinyl started falling away, did you go digital?
“Well, it was at that point that I got a lot more busy at work and got a lot more involved with politics. There was less time to play out — that's a sadness for me, really. I will go digital at some point, when I have more space where I live, I will get some digital decks.
"I'm slightly old-fashioned, though — I do like vinyl, I have to say. I played out for the first time in several years actually, late last year — I was quite rusty.”
But it's like riding a bike, isn't it?
“Exactly, I love it, it's my escape really, I absolutely love my music. It surprises people in Westminster and people don't quite know what to make of it, but a lot of constituents identify with it because I grew up surrounded by music in Lambeth. One of the highlights of my time as MP was when the Performing Rights Society unveiled a plaque at The Fridge in Brixton in my constituency, which is now Electric Brixton. It was in honour of Soul II Soul.
"I'd never met the guys before, and I had to give a little speech — you can see it on YouTube, actually — paying tribute to those guys, because they were like my heroes. The first-ever gig I went to was to see Soul II Soul at Brixton Academy. I don't usually get too nervous, but I had Kym Mazelle, Jazzie B, Caron Wheeler and all these people in front of me who were like my heroes.”
What was the best gig you ever played?
“That's a good question. I would say the best one was probably one of the house parties we had in Manchester, to be honest. We would empty the entire contents of our lounge, put it into someone else's room on the ground floor, and rig it up with a massive soundsystem.
"All the neighbours were invited so there was no complaints — we just had a fantastic time. That would've been sometime in the late '90s.”
Apparently there's a general election coming up — which party will be better for the dance music scene, Labour or Conservative?
“Ha ha ha, you don't expect me to say anything other than the Labour Party, do you? Historically we've always had very strong relationships with — and a fair degree of support within — the music industry, and in particular within the dance music industry.
"I've been very pleased, for example, just to have got the endorsement of a drum & bass legend, Jumping Jack Frost, who is one of my constituents. He tweeted to say that he thinks I've been a good constituency MP.
“But in terms of the substantial stuff, many of our businesses in the dance music industry are small businesses, they work with a lot of the big label companies, but you've got a huge number of really dynamic, interesting small outfits across a range of different dance music genres, and so our pledge to cut and freeze business rates for 1.5million small business premises should help a fair number of those businesses.
"But also, more broadly in terms of the sector, I see the creative industries as one of those areas where we've got a competitive edge and comparative advantage, and you can see that if you go to the Miami Winter Music Conference or Ibiza. It is, largely, UK producers, DJs and media companies who are driving so much of the innovation.”
To an extent, though, dance music has become a multi-million-pound industry with no real help from government, hasn't it?
“No, I think you're right. I've grown up surrounded by it, Paul Oakenfold actually started his career at a nightclub in Streatham which was then called Ziggy's, I think, and a lot of local people are involved in the industry — especially in my part of London. And you're right, they may have gone on and succeeded in spite of government over the years, but there are lots of things that we want to do to support them.
“I'm part-Nigerian, and I led a trade mission in 2012 to Nigeria and Ghana where you've got this whole explosion around Afrobeat, which is getting bigger and bigger in Africa, and there's huge opportunities there for the West African diaspora who are UK-based — given our production quality is much better — to export into and feed into that market, and do work with artists in West Africa as well.
"There's lots of opportunities, and we've got big challenges as a country cos we've got a big trade deficit and we've got to turn it around if the UK is to pay its way in the world. So we've got to think about what those industries are that deserve medals for British industry trading and creating more jobs in the UK, and the music industry is definitely one of them.”
You used to be a DJ Mag subscriber, didn't you?
“I did, I used to subscribe to DJ Magazine.”
So what happened, why did you stop?
“I don't know, I think I did one of those deals that I think you did, and then it lapsed some time in the noughties.”
Do you want me to sort you out with a new one, bruv?
“Hey, I'd never say no to that, that'd be great, that'd be fantastic.”
I'll get my people to talk to your people...
“Thank you very much, that'll be much appreciated.”
If the election goes badly, what'll be stopping you cashing in your chips and going to be a superstar EDM DJ in Vegas?
“Ha ha ha! I'd probably like to carry on in public service working for my constituents, but it's a very attractive proposition — it'd be fun.”
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