MJ Cole holds no truck with what people reckon he should do, wear, speak like or think. He strolls into the Voxstar suite looking relaxed, happy and at ease – no need for the showboating dynamics of the Gucci and champagne lifestyle that so unfairly shackles much of the UK garage scene.
Far from arriving today in some UV lit Beamer, Cole has done the decent thing and buzzed up on his motorbike. “Actually,” he grins, “it’ a Scooter, not a real bike man’ bike. It’ a Piaggio – one of the fastest you can get. It’ the cheapest and quickest way to get around London. No matter where you are you can always move forward.”
A bit like Matt Coleman then. Ever since Sincere exploded early in 1998, Matt’ been busy conquering both the underground garage and overground pop scenes. There’ been some stunning remixes, a hit single in the form of Crazy Love, his debut album, also called Sincere, and now a single, Hold On To Me, featuring Elizabeth Troy with mixes from K Warren to be released on October 30.
A blend of ruffed-up, out and out two step dancefloor action and slinky, perfectly realised soul numbers, Sincere is UK Garage’ first proper artist album. Just ask the experts, Matt has recently picked up Best Producer at both the Eriksson Muzik Awards and the Mobo’ as well as a nomination for the Mercury award.
If Matt seems slightly bemused by all the fuss – ‘My only ambition was to work as an engineer in a good studio, he claims – such accolades will hardly surprise those who know him. To them it’ almost inconceivable that Matt could have wound up doing anything but making music.
Born in 1973, Matt has always been surrounded by music. “My Dad used to play the piano. He was really into musicals, songs from shows by Sondheim, Gershwin, Cole Porter” Matt recalls. “My earliest musical memory is most probably sitting on his knee when I was about two, messing up his piano playing.”
The young Matt soon started playing himself. Taking up the oboe and piano, he spent most of his youth attending the prestigious Royal College of Music, getting the full on classical music experience. He was a regular at piano competitions and at one point even found himself playing in the BBC’ Young Musician Of The Year.
Then something hip-hop and acid-house happened, and everything changed. Almost inevitably, a set of turntables found their way into Matt’ bedroom. Add that to Matt’ computer love and, well, we all know what happens when you add computers to decks and tunes.
‘I had this one program which was a very rudimentary sequencer. My and a friend had a computer each, so we’d put in samples and mix between the two using a cross-fader.’ Matt had made his first ever tune. ‘I got into clubbing in ’89, ’90. I wasn’t out in the fields in ‘88," says Matt. He hit the scene when Fun City was going off in Busby’, when the huge raves of legend, Raindance, Telepathy and Living Dream were all peaking. Hardcore was everywhere and Matt was right in the middle of it.
‘I just liked the sound of it,’ explains Matt. The sound in question being the raw, frenetic breakbeat driven tunes on the cusp of drum ‘n’ bass. ‘There was a physical power in those clubs. I couldn’t get enough of it.’ Despite raving like a madman, Matt managed to finish off his college courses. After spending a couple of months in India, he came back to London and knew exactly what to do. Every studio he could think of received his CV, detailing his computer wizardry, his formal musical training and his self confessed obsession with all things drum ‘n’ bass. SOUR, the respected drum ‘n’ bass label liked what they saw and gave Matt the job. He was in heaven, almost. “I was meeting all the people whose music I respected. Even though I was on twenty quid a week and I was just a tape op – basically the tea maker, errand runner, the low down person – I enjoyed it because my heroes like DJ Trace would come down.”
Matt’ first ever proper engineering job was with Elizabeth Troy. "Elizabeth was shouting at me,’ he laughs. ’I’d got feedback. It was a mess.’ But not that much of a mess: not only was he soon SOUR’ engineer of choice, he was also working with the likes of Ed Rush, Trace and Freq Nasty. As for Elizabeth? She’ one of Cole’ favourite vocalists, appearing on many MJ tracks, including Crazy Love.
Up to this point, Matt had never been to an underground UK garage night. In fact he’d laugh at his girlfriend for getting all togged up while Matt and his mates skulked off to the latest dank tech-step cellar in trainers and combats. Then, midway through 1996, his studio boss asked him to press the buttons for Ramsey and Fen, who were coming in to do a garage remix of Kym Mazelle’ ‘Big Baby’ and ‘Quality’. The duo arrived, got Matt in the mood by playing him some of UK garage’ top tunes and the three of them got down to remixing. The results are now regarded as bona fide classics. Matt was converted.
Matt hooked up with the VIP label and produced six well-received EPs which shot his profile through the roof. Now very much a man in demand – both as a remixer and a producer. In early 1998 he launched his own label, Prolific Records, putting out such sterling tunes as ‘Flava Fever’/‘Guilty’ and ‘Talk To Me’/‘Treat Me Right’
Then one day, sitting at home in his bedroom with his sampler and trusty old Amiga, he put together a tune called ‘Sincere’. The distributors turned it down. Apparently it wasn’t pumping enough and wouldn’t sell. Matt was despondent until a guy called Arthur from Metrix records in Reading heard it. Matt walked away a very happy man, a nice advance in his pocket and some instructions to go and start on an album. ‘Sincere’ was put onto vinyl, a limited run of just twenty test pressings, which were dispatched to the scene’ top movers and shakers. One of those who received it was Pete Tong. ‘Sincere’ was caned on his national radio show, week after week after week before being snapped up by AM:PM and promptly going top forty.
The madness had begun. Matt signed to Gilles Peterson’ Talkin’ Loud label, began DJing all over the world and remixing everyone from Goldie and Gwen McRae to Incognito, TLC and Another Level. His album was a UK garage first. “I wanted to do a proper album centred around this new garage sound, something that wasn’t just a collection of 12”s, something which has a beginning, a middle and an end."
For Matt it’ all as simple as that. “If it goes into my ears and my brain likes it,” he concludes, “then I like it.”