Sam Watts has had an exceptional 2011. A track he knocked out one afternoon – simply because he wanted to DJ it out that night – ended up being played by Annie Mac on Radio 1, and found itself in the best of the year poll from Beats In Space’s Tim Sweeney and the record box of Erol Alkan. That track was ‘Criticize’, a half remix, half re-edit version of Alexander O’Neal’s 80s hit. That might not sound like a life changing record but it crossed over from the disco crew to the house heads despite only appearing on vinyl via an obscure Finnish label, Kojak.
A teasing, explosive seven minutes of 80s sounds and 21st century production, it’s true to the original whilst being deceptively tough and dancefloor-aimed. Since it came out in January it’s given Sam the opportunity to play at Fabric, Sankey’s, The Rex in Paris, The Garden Festival in Croatia as well as Glastonbury and Creamfields.
“It’s almost direct now,” he says. “If you have a hit record you’ll be offered DJ work. People now are making productions and automatically becoming DJs based purely on one track. It doesn’t always mean they are going to be any good. I’m lucky in the fact that I’ve been DJing in Brighton for years, so I’ve had lots of practice.”
He certainly has had practice, being a stalwart of the Brighton house and disco scenes for years, mostly from the Schtumm parties he’s thrown with longtime DJ partner Neal Lewis. In fact it was Neal who first suggested a ‘Criticize’ edit. Sam set to work on the afternoon of one of the summer parties they ran under the Maxxi Soundsytem name, and after just a few hours it was finished.
“I just wanted a version of it to play out that night, so I made it purely for the dancefloor,” he recalls. “I guess the fact that it was done very quickly – just for me, I was never going to release it – meant it hit a few buttons. The original is quite a cheesy record. I think a lot of people liked it but would never actually be able to play it. And now they could. Plus it had that house sound that a lot of people are doing now.”
Sam’s rise has come as house music is having a real resurgence. As people come right out the other side of post-post-dubstep, house music has emerged as the sound of now, full of melody and emotion.
“Yeah, I’m really into what’s going on at the moment,” Sam nods. “You go to clubs now and you’re hearing some really, really good dance music. It’s not gimmicky. Gimmicky music was really popular in 2010 and I just wasn’t really into it at all. But this year it seems like there’s a lot of interesting underground music that lots and lots of people are getting excited about.”
One of the best places to hear that underground 4/4 has been The Tube, the two-tunnelled seafront club that has been reborn in 2011. Sam has been booking the Saturday nights and when his and Neal’s Schtumm nights aren’t at Riki Tik then it’s the best place to find him and some of the most interesting DJs on the worldwide underground. Danny Daze packed the place out for Halloween, and as he subtly worked the groove the crowd stayed locked in. Sam is back for New Year’s Eve, with Neal and We Love residents PBR Streetgang – all of whom will go back to back all night.
Like PBR Streetgang Sam has become involved in Jamie Jones’ white-hot label Hot Creations. So if he’s not opposed to digital releases, why did he only make the ‘Criticize’ release available on vinyl?
“Copyright,” he admits. “I didn’t think it was fair to issue it as a track and then try and make money off downloads. The vinyl made no money at all – it was just a nice thing to have. People wanted it so I just thought I’d do it on vinyl. I ended up going on this Finnish label called Kojak, which to be honest I didn’t really know too much about. They did vinyl and I thought that would be a good way to do it because I didn’t want to do it as a big digital thing.”
As a calling card it couldn’t have worked better. Straight away Sam got remix work, first for Hercules & Love Affair and for The 2 Bears. Then classic house label Nervous approached him to launch their new imprint with a purely original track.
“They have an amazing back catalogue and an amazing history,” he says. “I wasn’t totally into what they were doing on their main label but they were starting a new offshoot that was going to hark back more to their own house roots. A lot of people were referencing those tracks that they had on their back catalogue.”
They called the new label Nürvous and Sam’s ‘Get Up’, a dubbed out version of Afrika Bambaataa’s classic ‘Get Up And Dance’, kicked things off. Despite the vocal sample it’s very much Sam’s own track. Was he worried about moving away from remixes and re-edits?
“I think as soon as I realised there was a chance to get something released I worked double hard and the amount of time you put in can bear fruit,” he explains. “Since my days of working with Tom Gandey on Cagedbaby I’ve been working, trying to get good at what I was doing. But obviously the edits came quite a lot quicker, being a DJ for quite a few years. I can knock those out to a certain level.”
Next up is a three-track EP of originals for Needwant, plus DJing in Berlin and a collaboration with man of the moment Danny Daze for his album.
“I’m trying to work with more people,” Sam explains, “especially singers and musicians – people who can do stuff that I can’t. I love being in the studio, so I’ll be in there more in 2012 probably.”
Sounds like a good plan to us. And anyway, when it’s going this well, who are we to criticise?
WORDS BY JAMES KENDALL
PHOTO BY KENNY MC CRACKEN
ASSISTED BY MATTHEW RING
THANKS TO FAYE FILLINGHAM, CONRAD ROGAN, AMBER WILLIAMS