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Tribe leader: Zepherin Saint
Zepherin Saint, enigmatic producer, DJ, talent scout and co-founder of Tribe records, sits opposite composed and alert. Unabashed he smoothes over my interrogation with an effervescent charm, that softens my line of questioning. Mastery acquired via two decades of flexing vinyl in the eighties London warehouse scene, and lighting up the dance floor for the likes of Michael Jackson et al. This tribe chief treads a tight rope between elusive party chameleon and all-around-nice-guy, nom de guerre ‘dream big brother’. His prominence as venerate artist is a far leap from the thirteen year old Cinderfella, who would enthusiastically pack rigging into the back of van for parties he was too young to attend. That was 1983, when folk transformed their homes into clubs, with a subsequent door tax – to cover breakages. Musical education was a diet administered daily; from funk bands (Parliament, Slave) to UK jazz funk, with soul, lovers rock and country (thanks mum and dad) melted into the pot. 1987 came to fruition with the debut release of Give me back your love feat. Carol Leeming, under the pseudonym Boyz in Shock on Jack Trax, regarded as one of the first British garage tracks.
In the years which have elapsed Saint has toured extensively, discovering an infinite appreciation of his music and the genre in general, in the most unexpected of places; Beirut, Syria, Egypt. Feeding into an obsessive love of soul music, Saint has devoted himself to discovering and nurturing new strains from around the globe. Producing a unique blend of afro house, referencing primary roots into a myriad of hypnotic layers, the sound is deep and intoxicating. Saint has attained the optimum position to convey Tribe’s message of One Sound, One People to the masses. Herewith we discuss the man behind that message.
Martina Randles: When did you get your first break?
Zepherin Saint: I finished school and joined a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) and it just so happened that the telephone company apprenticeship was based next to a record label and recording studio that I was devoted to, I followed all their releases, Jack Trax, it was like, the first house UK label. During my lunch breaks I used to go there and hang out. The scene was taking off at the time in London, it was 1987, eventually I gave them a demo and they signed my track, I was 17. We got our dj’ing break at Spectrum in Leicester; I was shocked to find that the house scene had been going strong for a couple of years. It was like a youth centre and they were (jacking) throwing each other high in the air, it was when those sayings ‘how high can you jack’ actually meant something. The midlands of England captured the essence of House music before London and that was a real eye opener.
Martina Randles: You worked at Blackmarket Records for 8 years; would you refer this time as a rite of passage?
Zepherin Saint: Blackmarket records started in 1988 as a pioneering shop for house music. I was 19 working behind the counter, meeting everyone that came through the door – Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries, David Morales. I didn’t go to university; this was my schooling, being able to choose records for all the big DJs around the world. Watching what they felt in a record, the records they picked – what they wanted, what they didn’t want. It’s interesting the people that worked behind the counter during that period are like a who’s who within the UK industry.
Martina Randles: How long have you been producing music?
Zepherin Saint: Over 20 years; although I actually stopped making music for five years, I was more focused on developing and managing talent through my company Xosa music, then a techno DJ – Jeff Mills put out a compilation of all time choice cuts and he put my very first record on there (Boyz in Shock feat Carol Leeming Give me back your love – Jack Trax), and I was like bloody hell, that’s kinda major, he’s a huge DJ globally. Everything suddenly came flooding back to me; why I started music in the first place. I remembered myself at my mum’s piano writing that song, I just felt I had to get back in the studio which I already had in the basement of my house just sitting there, dormant. I connected everything back up and thought what I am going to do, let’s just try something…; that was back in 2007.
Martina Randles: How important is construction and authenticity in your music?
Zepherin Saint: I listen to a lot of world music; I make it as well, music with different tempos, different time signatures using more traditional instruments. I use a mixture of synthetic sounds set to traditional rhythms, and live samples performed by musicians from around the world and myself of course. I have a soft spot for Middle Eastern and Afro Cuban percussion. It’s exciting to go to another part of the world and experience a new instrument – a Middle Eastern Bozuk, a West African Kora. There is a wonderful sounding Sim Simear, from Saudi Arabia, its primitive looking with four strings; the amount of chords I get from it is unbelievable.
Martina Randles: Where has your music taken you; that you might not have otherwise gone?
Zepherin Saint: I go to Beirut quite a bit to record music and there is a military presence everywhere, it’s a bit surreal, yet very warm and welcoming. Syria was a place I never thought I would go, and I found amazing talent there in musicians and singers.
Martina Randles: As well as being involved in the House music scene you’ve also rubbed shoulders with the likes of Michael Jackson and worked with R Kelly. What do you remember most about these experiences?
Zepherin Saint: R Kelly was very nocturnal, we couldn’t go into the studio until after midnight because that’s when he starts his day, he’s very talented; it was great working with him, we were in the studio for my artiste at the time Daniel De’bourg. Meeting MJ was bizarre indeed, I was booked for a private party in Bahrain – the special guest was kept a secret. I saw a familiar silhouette but could not place it. He came right up to the booth and stood there for most of the night, dancing with his hand on the speaker. It was a very special moment for me, playing, Don’t stop until you get enough, whilst he danced was probably the highlight of my career.
Martina Randles: Tell me about the birth of Tribe records?
Zepherin Saint: Tribe started in March 2009. At the time I felt labels were focused on quantity and little to do with quality – this was linked to the change from vinyl to digital I expect and labels used this as an opportunity to release more material. There was a gap in the market, and my partner Matt Langrish-Smith and I set about building Tribe together. The first release was a track I had produced for Nathan Adams called Circles. It set the tone and standard for the label and gave us the right step to get noticed.
It’s actually gone beyond my expectations, it never started with a huge plan, we just wanted to get good music out from around the world; the people have embraced us. We are currently on our 20th release of singles and have also released 2 albums with many more to come.
Martina Randles: Spawned from the Tribe label the eponymous parties have become an international success, was this natural progression in the development of the brand?
Zepherin Saint: As a label you got to have more than one avenue as a company and doing events goes hand in hand with what we are all about. Our international presence is continually growing we’re already in London, Paris, Toronto, Miami and Amsterdam. ‘Tribe Live’ has been really well received and we are definitely planning to do more live events in the near future. The Tribe 2nd anniversary at WMC for me was simply magical. The event has become a reunion for us where we meet old and new friends from around the globe. The expression of all these different energies in one place is a highlight and opening for our year.
Martina Randles: What’s in store for 2011?
Zepherin Saint: I have two albums for completion – Nathan Adams, a world music album both due out this year and there are also plans for Tribe compilations. I recently played in Sydney and Melbourne – the love for deep house music in Australia is incredibly strong so we are making efforts to feed this part of the world more with our style. Our mission is to get to pockets of the world that does not get enough of our music in its club scene and continue to spread the Tribe vibe….. One Sound, One People.