Gavin King: Becoming DJ Aphrodite - Using Technology to Make the World Dance
Gavin King discusses his evolution from computer programmer to renowned music innovator, DJ Aphrodite, and how he learned to trust that what makes him want to dance will make the world dance too.
Gavin King, DJ Aphrodite
- Gavin King wasn’t a great student, but his natural programming skills carried him through school and provided a foundation for making music.
- An early gig working as DJ inspired Gavin to save up money to buy an Amiga, and DJ Aphrodite was born.
- Gavin is credited as one of the founding fathers of Jump-Up Jungle, which he says was his attempt to simplify rhythms and make his work more danceable.
- An avowed technology “late adopter,” Gavin says the latest technology isn’t necessary to make music that sounds good and gets people to dance.
IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business, and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Gavin King. If you’re a fan of Jungle and Drum and Bass you’re more likely to know Gavin by stage name Aphrodite.
He is a British DJ and Producer and has been described as the King of Jump-Up Jungle which is a sparse, high energy offshoot of Drum and Bass. He’s one of the world’s most travelled and renowned, and my favorite, Jungle Drum and Bass DJ, and I’m honored to have him on the show today. Joining us from the UK is Gavin King.
GAVIN KING: Hello. Thank you for inviting me on. I don’t do many podcasts, so it’s great to do one. Thank you.
IVAN: It’s lovely to have you on. It’s my pleasure. I’m glad you were able to make it today. So, a UK DJ, where are you joining us from the UK today?
GAVIN: I live in London. I’ve lived in London since I was very small.
IVAN: How’s the lockdown treating you? I understand that the lockdown order was quite severe in the last month. Have you been out much?
GAVIN: No. Lockdown in the UK, we are like the USA, we are absolutely rubbish at following instructions, guidelines, and we have loads of people who don’t believe in it, so the problem is we have shitloads of cases and people are dying like flies. My best friend's wife died two weeks ago of the disease, so it was very sad indeed leaving two children.
IVAN: I’m so sorry to hear that.
GAVIN: Yeah, it’s an absolute killer, but because it’s so rare, there’s a sense that it’s not really out there, but when it does come along it’s terrible.
IVAN: Yeah, it really messes up the whole situation and the whole lifestyle that we have, and just so smart to be staying at home and dealing with it that way. Now, do you consider yourself a native to Central London? I know that you were born in Wales on the west coast. I’d love to hear about your early life and how you made it to London.
IVAN: [laughing] Oh my gosh.
GAVIN: I lived in Wales for two years. Basically I was only born there because my father was working at Aberystwyth University. He comes from London, so I moved back to London when I was about two or three, and so I consider myself a Londoner and English.
IVAN: And did you go to school in London?
IVAN: And the whole experience through high school was all local and central London?
GAVIN: Yeah, that was all in Southeast London and then I went to the University in the Midlands in Warwick.
IVAN: Warwick University. You became a computer science student in the eighties and the things I’ve read say that you basically used your technical skills to teach yourself how to DJ. I’m curious to know what you thought you’d be doing with a computer science degree before you actually realized you could be making money off of producing music.
GAVIN: I am a product of my parents. My mother was a piano teacher so I played piano and violin from the age of four or five, and my father was a professor of computer science, so he taught me to program music when I was about six or seven, and I used one of those crazy handheld Sinclair. This was going back a long, long time. As soon as there were small programmable devices we had them in the house.
And I was a bit of a tearaway at school so I wasn't a student at all. I tended to get through on natural ability and the reason why I got to University is because I was a natural computer programmer because I’d been doing it for such a long time. My grades were the worst out of everyone in my year. But when it came to programming a flight simulator, I did really, really well. [laughing]
IVAN: So your evolution to using Amiga 500’s for mixing music and producing music was from a Sinclair that seems like a natural evolution
GAVIN: No. I got into DJing in 1988, and made the club Aphrodite happen, which is where I got my name from.
IVAN: Where was the club?
GAVIN: It was in the Midlands, while I was at University. We just used to hire it out and we used to put on nights and the nights were called Aphrodite. 1988 was the summer of love, everyone was crazy on drugs in the UK and Goddess of Love: Summer of Love, which is where the name kind of hooked from. So we did that and it became really well and it turned out I have a forte for DJing and so I became the head DJ. I was to do six hour sets for the university in front of 1,000 people and people used to come and watch me mix in the end. And it was during that era that I went into a friend of mine’s room about some computer science stuff to do with a course, and he was in there playing an Amiga, and some music was coming out of it. I was like, What is that? [laughing] So I bought one. My dad refused to buy me one and then I had to wait months to save up. So, I eventually bought one and because I didn’t have much money, I couldn’t afford that many records, but I had the Amiga. So, to bump up my mix CDs, I would make things from the Amiga to put into my mix tapes.
IVAN: The story I read in Amiga format that you were on the cover of, I guess, in 1992.
GAVIN: A good couple of years later.
IVAN: Yes. So, you had your Amiga and you had two of them.
GAVIN: Yeah, because you only have two channels, and you can play four channels at once and it gets split, so two going to the left, two going to the right. So, if you’re making a record, you can only ever play four things at once and it’s all in mono. If you have two of them playing at the same time then you can play eight things, and then you can have a couple of those channels in stereo put through a mixing disc and then you can make the appearance of the Bass and Drum being in mono and some of the sounds being more wide to make it sound good.
IVAN: Did you write any software to control the channels, and to control the music that was coming out of both of them?
GAVIN: No, but I became known as being quite forensic when it came to production. I’m the person that would go deep, deep, deep into how waveforms were drawn and all the rest of it, because of my technical skills.
IVAN: When you were producing the first song that you made out of an Amiga, did you ever end up publishing that, or did that end up somewhere in the scrap heap?
GAVIN: [laughing] I played it in a shop that was around the corner from me. I was working as an insurance salesman. There was a recession at the time, so computer science jobs were hard to come by. Interestingly enough I was offered a job, a small company then called Microsoft, which I said no to.
IVAN: [laughing] Well we wouldn’t have had Aphrodite in the world the way that we do now had you said yes.
GAVIN: True, but I might have a bigger house. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] Who were the first people that you collaborated with?
GAVIN: Well this is it. I made a couple tracks around 1990, and music was moving pretty fast in its style. So, Breakbeat came in, and the UK was going Breakbeat crazy. We called it hardcore. It hadn’t really kicked off abroad yet, it was still very underground. But it was the basis of Drum and Bass and Jungle, and it speeded up to that in about 1993 or 1994. But I made a couple of tunes and played them in a shop and in the shop there was DJ Mickey Finn. He was an established DJ at the time, so he said, Look, what is that? I love that tune? So he came over to my house, I lived with my mom at the time, and we finished the track, and then the track went massive. It became a huge anthem and then went into the national charts and got into the national charts at number 21, I think, or 23.
IVAN: Which one is that?
GAVIN: Urban Shakedown.
IVAN: Urban Shakedown.
IVAN: And after the work with Mickey Finn, how did that evolve?
GAVIN: Well, we worked together on quite a number of projects, and the projects that we worked together on always took a long time. However, that was a good thing, because two minds are better than one when making music, especially if the minds come together. So, if I like something and he likes it and we both like it, then it’ll work. If either one of us likes it and the other one doesn’t, then you have to keep going back to the drawing board and working on whatever it is you’re working on, bass lines or sounds, or whatever.
IVAN: You’ve been referred to as one of the founding fathers of Jump-Up Jungle. And to me I know what Jungle is, I know what the niche of Jump-Up is, it’s what originally got me hooked on Jungle and Drum and Bass. It’s been a lifelong obsession for me. For those of our listeners who don’t know what it is, could you give us a description of what it is and maybe play a sample of something that’s quintessentially Jump Up?
GAVIN: Okay, so in about 1996, there was a lot of accelerated breakbeats going on. And for me it was all a bit complex, and you danced to the bass line. And then I preferred the sound of stricter rhythms so that music. I love that because that was more danceable. And, when I add rolling bass lines and kind of wobbly sounds to that, that became known as Jump Up. I don’t know why it became Jump Up. I don’t even know who coined the phrase, but if it makes you jump up and dance, then it’s a good thing.
IVAN: Exactly. It’s happy and uplifting, that’s what I always thought. It made you jump up. [laughing]
GAVIN: A good track to start off and show that would be King of the Beats.
[King of the Beats]
GAVIN: So, I’m getting carried away listening to that now.
IVAN: [laughing] That’s okay. Actually that leads into a good question for me. Do you listen to your own music? I mean, you make it all the time. How does the music you make, make you feel?
GAVIN: If I could make music that makes me dance, then the likelihood is it’s going to make others dance around too. So, my mission is, I want to make something that I’m really happy with and I want to DJ and I’m going to play. If when I’m making it I catch a moment where I’m dancing around the studio like a nutter, then that’s a pretty good sign.
IVAN: [laughing] That’s your surefire way of knowing if others will like it, and you know what? I think I agree with you. One of your signature sounds in my opinion is the way you use a high hat and what you referred to earlier as those rolling beats. My wife and I met as a result of Jungle. I was in the United States. She was working in a record store. I walked into the store and asked for Jungle, because that’s what I knew in South Africa, and I wanted to see what Minneapolis had. And no one in the whole record store knew anything about Jungle except this one girl Suzie. We got to talking, and to this day we’re still listening to it. And, one of the things we’ve always agreed on is, we think you’re the master of building a track up and then dropping it. I wonder if you could play something that you think is quintessentially that, and then let’s talk about why you do that.
GAVIN: Okay. Well, I guess there are so many tracks of mine that do that. I could play Style from the Darkside, this is the original version as opposed to the one that was on my first album which was Darkside 99. This is the original from ’96 just before I turned the Jump-Up corner.
[Style From The Darkside]
GAVIN: It’s called the bass line power, but it’s got breakbeats playing together as opposed to a strict kick and snare.
IVAN: Yeah, you’ve got me moving around in my chair now when you play that stuff. [laughing] What I don’t understand is how remixes come together, why they’re done and how you can have six remixes of the same song. So, you refer to that as Style from the Darkside Pre 99 that came out on your record. Are you mixing all of them, and remixing all of them? How do you get other people involved? Why does that happen?
GAVIN: Well, basically you get bored of playing it, but you still like it. So in order to infuse more energy into wanting to play it again, you have to update it with things with sounds or styles that have moved on. At that time music moved pretty fast, much faster than it does today. So, people are very quick to say, Oh, that’s old school, so you kind of add more sounds. It would be slightly different style and be more pumped up, and so you could enjoy it again. The thing is for me, personally, I have tended to go back to the original of that track as opposed to playing Darkside 99. I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe I’ll go back to Darkside 99. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] Maybe. Well, I don’t think I’ve heard the original. I think I’ve only listened to the 99 one over and over again. Where is the original available? Is it available online?
GAVIN: Yeah. I released it. It’s on Spotify. You could buy it from our website. It’s out there in the world.
IVAN: Okay, good. Now I will make sure I look it up and listen to it with 99 as well.
GAVIN: Yeah, the original was called Style from the Darkside as opposed to Darkside 99.
IVAN: Got it. So, that was in the late nineties. What’re you working on right now? What is the track dujour? What are you working on?
GAVIN: What I’m releasing music in about two weeks is a remix of A-Zone: Calling All the People. Now A-Zone Calling All the People was the tune that started my Jungle story in 1994. I didn’t particularly like all the tracks that were out there, and I made it more as a piss take. I was skint, but when I did it everyone loved it, and it became one of the tunes of London and one of the tunes of Notting Hill Carnival that year, it became an anthem. It’s called A-Zone because I was skint and I couldn’t press it up myself, I had to come up with a name that they could sign to that particular record label which was Whitehouse Records. So, I came up with A-Zone, and it’s the only two tracks by the name of A-Zone but now it’s under me now. So, I’ve done remixes of that, and what I’ve done is updated it because it was very slow at about 168bpm, well actually 159 bpm, which is very slow for a Jungle tune or Drum and Bass tune. So, I’ve done 170 bpm version 175, so this is released in a couple weeks, and I’ll play the updated 170 mix.
[Azone Calling The People]
IVAN: Oh, I could keep listening to this [laughing] forever. It sounds 2020. It sounds updated. It sounds addictive. I could listen to that the whole day. What is it, do you think, about Jungle and Drum and Bass that makes so many people lifelong addicts to it?
GAVIN: I don’t know, because essentially that is the original track speeded up, and all I’ve done is mix down the sounds again and made them a bit cleaner, made them a bit tighter and pumped them up and made them more stereo. So, essentially it’s the same thing, but it’s just got a bit of nicer production to it. I don’t know, people are still making Jungle now. I find it amazing that the tracks that I made 25-30 years ago are still relevant.
IVAN: I find that amazing too. Back then you were taking on the giants with two Amigas and no recording studio. Did you ever think you’d be doing something like that? Being able to produce music back then and then still doing it now where the tools have changed so much and everyone can do this?
GAVIN: Well, it gave me an ethos that you don’t need the latest and greatest plug-ins, computers. You don’t need all this kind of the best-of-the-best stuff in order to make music sound good. Essentially it’s waveform. However you make that waveform shouldn’t matter. So you can make a waveform with any kind of computer you want. So if it sounds good, it really doesn’t matter how it’s made.
IVAN: That’s a great lifelong lesson to have learned, and it’s completely anti what Google and Apple and all the large companies want us to do, buy the latest stuff.
GAVIN: [laughing] Yeah, it’s funny enough, I am anti-update [laughing]. When it comes to updating I do it begrudgingly every single time.
IVAN: What are you using now to make music?
GAVIN: At the moment I’m using a laptop, which is actually quite a nice one. It’s called the MacBook Pro from 2018. It’s probably the fastest MacBook Pro at the time, so it’s quite a chunky one, and I plug that into my docking station where I’ve got several screens. Once it’s got all the screens attached, it feels like it’s a different computer, but essentially it’s still my laptop.
IVAN: Is that the laptop you take out to events to DJ with, or do you have a different setup when you’re in front of a crowd and mixing music live?
GAVIN: I would never take this computer to a club. [laughing] I’m USB sticks these days.
GAVIN: Yeah, I do USB sticks. I only went over to USB about three years ago. I was one of the last people to use CDs.
IVAN: You’re afraid of updates like you said, you don’t want to do them.
GAVIN: I was also one of the last people to kind of still use vinyl. I begrudgingly moved from vinyl to CD. I never got into the trackers.
IVAN: So you show up at an event when it’s not a pandemic with a bag full of USB sticks, and they have all the equipment and you just plug it in?
GAVIN: No, I just have two nice big 128 gigabyte USBs. It’s got pretty much everything. But yeah, life has moved on from that, because I did a large festival a couple years ago called Alpha Music Festival. This is a very big music festival in Russia, and I’ve got a good name in Russia due to one track called Ganja Man, which went massive there and became a radio hit. So, I’m well known in Russia and they put me on the main stage and so I was the first person on the main stage along with people like Tiȅsto and Afrojack and all these characters. And I was the only one, I was the only DJ all night that actually mixed, every single other person had a pre-recorded set with a lighting show, and I was the only one that had an actual setup of CDJs where I would turn up and did not know what I was going to play. I just kind of DJ’d the old fashioned way, and then choosing another record or choosing two records to play at once.
IVAN: Yeah. Is that anxiety, producing ahead of time? Do you still get nervous and butterflies before you do that when you don’t know what your set’s going to be and it’s all so organic?
GAVIN: No. I’m okay technically. I can get out of trouble DJ-wise if I mix two things together, then I have a way of getting out of trouble without you knowing. Does that make sense? So these are all techniques that you learn over many, many years.
But, essentially, no. I don’t get nervous about DJing in front of people, but what I do struggle with is a need to have in my mind the first few tracks I’m going to play and if I’ve got those nailed then I’m good.
IVAN: So you need the seed for the show and it’s kind of like that’s the starter.
GAVIN: I’m the person, I have lots of different folders on my USB sticks, and I have a list of lists, if that makes sense. It’s one big text file with all the tracks. And so, half an hour before I’m due to play, wherever I am, I’m the person that you will see on the phone just staring at all the lists of tracks, deciding what I’m going to play.
IVAN: I saw you play in South Africa when I lived there and grew up there at a club called 206, and this was in the late nineties, I think. I don’t remember exactly. It was a melting pot of a club. It was just after we had our first free and fair elections. All kinds of South Africans were there. I was there every Tuesday night to dance to Jungle, it was where I was introduced to Jungle, and you played there. Let’s talk about that. What were your impressions of South Africa? Why did you go there? How did that come up?
GAVIN: I was invited to play 206 in Jo-burg and then go to Cape Town, and in between the two we went to Sun City, had a couple days off there, went on safari. I had an amazing time. I had a brilliant time. With me, there were two guys traveling with me. One was white and the other guy was mixed race, and all three of us were essentially from London. The mixed race guy I can’t remember his name, he’s the only one who had been to South Africa, before because he had family there. But for me, I was expecting a problematic country when I went there, but what I found is, I found everyone was in there together. Bizarrely for me it was probably the least racist place I have been to at the time.
IVAN: Yeah, I remember those days. There was so much uncertainty of what was going to happen in the future, and as someone in their twenties who didn’t really care about politics and just wanted to get along, it was so nice to be able to go to a place where everybody had the same sort of vision. Did you realize you were exposing us to the world? We had been so cut off for so long and having these international, I guess, performances, come to South Africa, it was like, Oh my God, we’re being welcomed back into the world. Did you realize you were doing that?
GAVIN: No. For me it was like, Wow, I’m going to see South Africa which has been closed off to the world. And the South Africa we had grown up with on the TV was not the South Africa that I found at all. I thought it was an amazing place. Lots of trouble though, and pretty violent. It was an eye opener to me when we were driving around at midnight and driving through red lights at 50 mph. That was bizarre.
IVAN: And that still happens today. I have friends who are there who still have to do that. That has not changed.
GAVIN: Amazing. And the stories people had. At the after party there was a moment I remember where, or maybe it was the second time I went back to South Africa, but I do remember there was an after party, after being at 206, and every single person at the table had a gun story, or knew someone who had been shot. From itty bitty London this is not what I’d grown up with at all.
IVAN: No. You’re right, it was a very violent place. I also have those stories. I think if you speak to any South African who grew up there at that time, they will have a story like that. Can we talk about your most famous song and how that came to be?
GAVIN: Alright, well, there’s lots of songs that it could’ve been. It could’ve been Bad Ass, it could’ve been Ganja Man. It could’ve been Dark Side 99: King of the Beats, it could’ve been Summer Breeze, as we talked about. But, no, it became Stalker, and this is my most played track everywhere. And it’s because of the scene in Human Traffic, in the record shop where he says, “any jungling guy”? and he played some tune and that’s my tune Stalker, and that has become synonymous with peoples’ idea of Drum and Bass, and whenever I play it now people go crazy. They love it.
In fact, this is an exclusive for your podcast. This is a re-recording that only appears currently on the Mystery of Sound album that I haven’t put out into the world.
GAVIN: Yeah, I was just checking, that actually is so much clearer than the original.
IVAN: It’s beautiful. Isn’t it something to be known for this track? When people think of Drum and Bass and Jungle, like if you see the movie Human Traffic, and you hear that, that’s pretty cool.
GAVIN: It is. It’s the dancing, the crazy dancing scene. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] That’s so great. You mentioned Summer Breeze before we played the track, and we were talking off air that it’s still a mystery of who actually does the vocals on that track and Summer Breeze is one of my favorites. I’ve played it for my kids many millions of times [laughing]. Tell me why it’s a mystery.
GAVIN: Well, Aladdin was me and a guy called Mark QED, and he worked on the pirate radios as well. So you’d hunt samples together and come up with an idea. The vocals, I have no idea whose they are, because it’s an old white label acapella album and the vocals came off of one of these albums. These were albums kind of produced by sound engineers that were trying to make a few bucks on the side. I have hunted on the internet to find out whose vocals they are to avail. There is no way of knowing whose they are. They are a guy's vocals, but because I pitched them up slightly they sound like a girl.
IVAN: Well, let me ask you about 2021. What are you looking forward to besides the release of the new track that we talked about, and no pandemic?
GAVIN: Well, I’m looking forward to DJing again, but I’m hoping to not have to say yes to every gig, because I am back in the studio, and I enjoy being back in the studio. When you’re DJing every weekend in different parts of the world, it makes it extremely difficult to go in the studio and make music, because you recover from the weekend by Wednesday. And then on Thursday you’re preparing for the next weekend. So, you never really have time to make music.
IVAN: Have you done any virtual shows this year?
GAVIN: Yes. I’ve done pretty well in my Facebook streams. They’ve been going pretty well, and I’ve got a good audience for that. I’ve been doing normal mix shows where I play Go Crazy on four decks, and I’ve also done a few shows where I’m just playing my old school vinyl.
IVAN: When do those happen? I had no idea they happened. I have to listen to these.
GAVIN: They happen when I feel like it basically. I literally just decide I’m going to do a show and I’ll come in and do one. That’s pretty much how it goes. There’s no regular time for it. But, it doesn’t matter particularly because if you miss it, it’s still listed on my page, so you can still listen to it, you don’t have to listen to it live.
IVAN: Do you end up streaming it on more than one platform at the same time? Or do you have a particular stream you favor?
GAVIN: I have done, but I’m a bit suspicious about all the bandwidth that goes on. So, when I have done it my camera’s been jumpy, so I prefer sticking to one platform, and I prefer doing it on Facebook.
IVAN: Well, I have to join you on Facebook then and keep an eye out for you. I’m so glad you’re working on new music, and that you’re excited to release that.
GAVIN: Yeah. I’m able to go through, I’ve got a big old catalog, and some of it can still be made relevant, so I’m getting remixes done, and I’m doing updated versions myself.
IVAN: Have you had any trouble with record labels and ownership and issues around who has the copyright and who hasn’t? Or is the mere fact that you’re resampling and remixing those issues aren’t a thing?
GAVIN: Oh yeah. For the tracks on my albums I’ve got deals and publishing deals with the people I sampled for the vocals from Style from the Darkside or King of the Beats for example, but not for Summer Breeze. If one day someone says, “Oh, that’s my vocals,” and they prove it, then I’m probably going to be in trouble.
IVAN: Hopefully not.
GAVIN: I did get in trouble with an artist called Sheila Chandra, because of some vocal samples that I used on a track of mine called Calcutta. That interestingly enough, I only sampled her at the beginning and then the other two breakdowns I had sampled some weird, obscure, down tempo tune. Now unfortunately for me this down tempo tune had also sampled Sheila Chandra. The reason why they matched was because they were both the same artist. Anyway she came after me and I had to pay her a lot of money and she didn’t want the track up. So, I think in some countries, Aftershock is not available. So, the only way I’m going to get around it is if I re-record the whole album, not put Calcutta in it, or take her out of it, or contact her and ask her if she wants to make a deal with a re-recording.
IVAN: Wow. There’ve been so many issues with samples in the news over the last few years. I wonder what the motivation behind that is.
GAVIN: Well, if the record makes money, and the person sampled wants a cut, it’s as pretty simple as that.
IVAN: Pretty simple. [laughing] Well, it’s been really wonderful talking to you and getting to know your history and how things have evolved. We didn’t really get into what happened in the oughts and the tens here in the new millennium. Maybe we can get to that some other time in a subsequent episode.
GAVIN: Yeah, no problem. It’s been great to be on. I would suggest as the next track, if we can squeeze another track, definitely play Acid to the Sound. This is my most popular track played on social media these days.
[Acid to the Sound]
IVAN: Oh my gosh, I was literally standing up moving around, so thank you. [laughing] I don’t think any other guest has done that. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much for spending your time.
GAVIN: Thank you for having me on, and hopefully you can make the next part of the story happen with another podcast.
IVAN: That’d be wonderful. Gavin King is DJ Aphrodite, British DJ and Producer, one of the founding fathers of Jungle and you could find them online at aphro.co.uk and on Twitter @DJaphrodite, on Twitch, on Facebook. He is everywhere.
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