International DJ, label owner, producer and, of course, one-time member of highly successful dance act Underworld, Darren Emerson is a very busy man. musicOMH managed to pin him down for half an hour to talk about the upcoming Underwater Episode V mix album, his imminent debut solo album, DJ narcissism and the state of today’s dance music scene…
The Romford-born workaholic’s past week has seen him play Pacha in Buenos Aires, Argentina then to Uruguay and back to Argentina again and we speak to him as he is trying to take a week out, if you can call dealing with interviews for his Underwater label’s latest release time off that is. With Kuala Lumpur, the United States and Colombia next on his globe-trotting schedule, it’s little wonder he is suffering from a cold but he still sounds upbeat when he jokes: “It’s a lot of travelling. My office these days is a BA seat!”
One fact that is immediately clear from the way he talks is that Darren Emerson genuinely loves what he does and retains the same passion he had for music when he got his first set of decks as a 14-year-old. This passion helps fuel his career and record label and drives his urge to push new talent and raise the profiles of DJs and artists he believes in.
He explains his decision to share half of the Underwater Episode V double CD with Magik Johnson: “I really like what he’s been doing. He’s been around a long time, he’s from Manchester, he used to play at the Hacienda. He’s doing an artist album with us and it’s like what I did with Sharam [Jey, who helped mix Underwater 04] to let people know what’s going on, just to push his profile a little bit.” The mix showcases many of Underwater’s own talent including D Ramirez, Joel Mull and The Beckster alongside tracks from DJ Hell and Ian Pooley and various exclusives including a tribute to Emerson’s friend, the German DJ and producer Mark Spoon, who died recently.
With a heavy roster of artists to oversee and constant DJing commitments, it is hard to see how time could be found to produce his own music, a fact that struck the affable Essex man recently: “I’ve slowly found myself trying to be more like a businessman than a fucking artist! I’m an artist and a DJ and all of a sudden I’ve been running a record label. Of course I like running the record label but I need someone just to be the label manager and do the business for me.” Stepping back a little seems to have worked with the album now finished: “I’ve got a lot of interest from majors and they want to put that out which is good. I’ve been pushing a lot of people’s careers over the years and I just feel it’s time to start thinking about myself a bit more and just get the artist album done which is done now so it’s all good.”
So what can we expect from his debut solo release? “It’s dance based though it’s not all electronic, there’s a human touch to it. There’s some nice funky stuff, we’ve got some beautiful summer tunes. I’m really happy with it.” There are a number of guest vocalists involved too: “We’ve got Ben Cullum, who’s Jamie Cullum‘s brother, Joe Malik, Earth from Gus Gus, myself having a little blast.” Will it sound anything like his previous work with Underworld though? He replies with a direct “No,” before continuing, “you move on. If I carried on doing the same thing all the time I would get so fucking bored and I want to experiment and try different things.”
“The DJ has become a bit like a pop star and some people are enjoying the pop star bit more than others” – Darren Emerson on superstar DJs
Having left Underworld six years ago following the critical and commercial success of albums Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest In The Infants, and ‘lager-fuelled’ anthem Born Slippy, Emerson seems far from nostalgic: “I haven’t really looked back to be honest. That was a good 10 years of my life but after leaving I went back to my DJing, got Underwater rocking and I had a daughter so I’ve been enjoying that as well, so it’s all been good.”
While his phenomenal success sees him command large crowds wherever he DJs, the superstar DJ tag is not something that sits well with him: “There are some DJs that love talking about themselves a lot more than others. Not mentioning any names you know but some people if they’re not in fucking magazines they’ll get pissed off! I’m not into it for that, I’m into it because I like the music. The DJ has become a bit like a pop star you know and some people are enjoying the pop star bit more than others. I’ve just got my music man and I’m gonna carry on as long as I can, as long as people enjoy what I do.”
He has already enjoyed a remarkable longevity in the seemingly fickle world of dance music, a scene that has changed immeasurably since he started out: “Me and [Paul] Oakenfold and that used to go out and we used to do a Balearic club in the late 1980s called Future and it was mixed with alternative music like The Cure and hip house like Fast Freddy. It’s a shame because I think it should come back again. Why can’t you mix it up?” Perhaps he should attempt to bring it back? He replies, “I imagine I’d be known as the wedding DJ if I start doing it now which may look a bit cheesy!”
“I don’t understand why the programmers on Radio One are picking all this crap pop music” – Darren Emerson laments the lack of decent dance music on the radio
With dance music’s last rites read by the mainstream music press a few years ago, Emerson firmly believes it is a temporary lull, but says radio stations are doing little to help: “The thing that pisses me off is that if they play a dance record it’s usually a really shit fucking shit crap trancey fucking load of bollocks! I don’t understand why the programmers on Radio 1 are picking all this crap pop music because they could really have the power to educate people with really good music.” He also laments what has happened to progressive house, a style he is often credited as creating, describing it as “boring music that sounds all the same, that’s all done on a laptop and it’s all clinical. It’s disposable music. You could throw it away next week, it won’t stick in your head, not like those old records. A bit more effort went into it.”
More effort has also gone into staying afloat as a dance label in the age of downloads: “We don’t make as much money, full stop, because mp3 has messed it up. We’ve had some hard times but if I can keep on doing it, keep my head above the water, excuse the pun, and put out stuff that I enjoy doing, well I’ll carry on doing it. This label is 12 years old now and it’s got to be one of the longest running dance labels going so I should hold my head up high and be proud of that.” Indeed he should, and with that he’s off, positive optimism intact, to do some radio interviews along with a stuffy nose. With Underwater releases lined up including a Magik Johnson album, outings for Joel Mull, The Beckster and D Ramirez and Deep Groove‘s contribution to the new Solo mix series, along with his own mix and solo artist albums, there’s no rest for Darren Emerson, but you get the feeling he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Underwater Episode V mixed by Darren Emerson and Magik Johnson is released on Underwater on 31 July 2006.