Talking beats, beans and rice, with a drum & bass pioneer.
"You're a vegetarian? Why?" Brazilian DJ, and drum & bass legend, DJ Marky is staring at me intently. I don't always do a very good job of answering this question but fortunately, as I begin to cobble together my various environmental excuses, his face spreads into a laugh. "No, I'm joking, I don't care. But I couldn't do it. I hate eating vegetables."
Ahead of the first solo LP release in his twenty-year-plus career, Marky and I are sitting in Floripa, a high-ceilinged Brazilian restaurant in Shoreditch that is full to every corner with all the sorts of carnivalesque stylings you'd associate with South America. We've met here in part to discuss his new album, My Heroes, but also for a taste of home. Since breaking on to the international scene at the turn of the millennium, Silva has been in constant demand. When he first appeared in the UK, he brought with him a standard of mixing that was previously unprecedented, seamlessly weaving break-beats into one and other with such finesse he was crowned 'Best New DJ' by British critics, within a year of arriving in the country. Yet leaving Brazil as regularly as he has had to since, means leaving the comforts of home, chiefly, the food. "When I stay somewhere for a while, or I'm away for a couple of months, I always try and find Brazilian food. Sometimes I miss my rice and beans."
The first plate to arrive on our table is a dish called Pao De Quejio, best described as a gooey, cheesy bread. Marky encourages me to take one, I do, pulling the doughy ball in two and shoving it straight into my mouth. It's delicious, and Marky seems pleased to see my first taste of Brazil is going down well. "The chef must be Brazilian, this is actually very good. You see, in Brazil, people will eat this in the morning with some coffee." I could get used to that, I decide, before we both proceed to decimate the entire plate. Having cleared it, Marky looks up, "my doctor said I'm supposed to be on a diet, so I probably shouldn't have done that."
Marky's story, even if you've heard it before, it pretty amazing, most notably down to how young he was when he first started mixing. "I was ten years old. I started listening to this radio show and couldn't believe the way he didn't talk, he was just placing two tracks at the same speed and making them one. I wanted to learn from that moment." The experience he gained was never formal, always reliant on chance encounters or the influence of the people around him. "They opened a club close to my house and one day, when the club was being cleaned, I went down on my bike. This guy was in there playing records so I went in very quietly, and looked at the equipment, I saw these reel to reel tapes and thought, 'shit I have to buy that!'"
From starting on reel to reel, Marky progressed through "cheap, shit decks", up to his first Technics. "I started entering scratching competitions, trying to mix as many tracks as possible into five minutes, and the last one I won, the prize was getting to play in a club." It's an interesting statement on his ability as a blender, that Marky actually feels he was too obsessed with the skill as a young man. "The boss at the club watched me sequencing the same set of tracks every week to the crowd, trying to get it perfect, to the point where the people in the club knew what sequence was coming from me. So he fired me! He said, "you need to learn a lesson, the DJs job is teaching the crowd about good music, the skills are important but it's about the tunes," so that day, I stopped practicing."
Despite professing skill isn't everything, throughout our conversation, Marky regularly returns to some of his frustrations in just how easy the craft has become, broaching everything from beat-matching technology which aids with slotting mixes into place without the selectors input, as well as DJs who rely solely on the familiarity of 'bangers' to get them through a set. Yet unlike many veterans selectors, constantly bemoaning the state of current affairs, Marky simply finds it sad that people don't discover as much new music from their DJs anymore. That rush of hearing a world-changing record is something he still remembers from his own early days.
"I will never forget hearing Rebel MC's "Wickedest Sound". No other track sounds like that one, it's so crazy. When Rebel MC made that tune it was completely different to everything else, but it still sounds so different today." Marky's enthusiasm easily fills the room, projecting a childlike joy as he animatedly tells me about the effect MC and other artists of this era had on him. "It wasn't jungle, it wasn't quite breakbeat, but it was the prototype for what followed. I've been in love with those UK sounds from the beginning, then, when Prodigy made the Experience album in 1992, that's when the breakbeat scene blew up."
It was this breakbeat scene that led to Marky being spotted by UK drum & bass pioneers, DJ Bryan Gee and Jumping Jack Frost. "They saw something different in how I was playing, the energy. I think they saw that I was very passionate about music, so they asked me to come here. I said no." I briefly pause, and stop chewing on whatever starter I was in the process of demolishing. Once again, true to form, the grin starts spreading again and Marky laughs. "At first I did say no! I wanted to be at home. I'm very laid back. It's not like I'm lazy but I like being comfortable. But they said 'you have to go...you have to go'."
At this point in our conversation, our table is refreshed with our main course: Feijoada. Marky's favourite dish from home. On seeing the size of my mine, I suddenly regret eating my first course with the tenacity of a middle-aged buffet grazer at a wedding reception. It's a huge plate, full of rice, kale, salsa, and a bowl full of a dark, thick, bean stew. Marky's has come with pork, mine with tofu – something he remains unconvinced by as I start tucking in.
It's a blessing, that Marky did decide to come to the UK, as his arrival signalled a powerful force within the drum & bass community. What he brought, alongside his unrivalled mixing, was a levity and a focus on beats that held melody and groove. It is something he feels is missing from drum & bass in most of its current forms. "New tracks are either very pop focused, or they are very underground, harsh and minimal. There is this gap, you can make drum & bass that the heads like but people who don't know it will love it as well. It's for clubs! I want to see people dance, not sitting on a sofa smoking weed."
Really, it is amazing that a name as widely celebrated as his has taken this long to make a studio album, but it certainly was worth the wait. The gap that he speaks of, creating breakbeat and drum & bass with an instantly approachable soul, is everywhere on My Heroes. "I actually had no idea I was going to make an album, but I started thinking, I've got all these records in my house, I know this music, so why not start sampling. So the first tune I made was "Silly"."
"Silly" is as appropriate an introduction to the record as you could wish for, combining Marky's ear for melody with a buoyant, rolling beat. It seems he knew he was on to a winner as soon as he started playing the sample around his house. After leaving it looping during a lunchtime, he found his son singing it in the car on the way to school, as well as coming home to his house-keeper singing it as well. "I thought then, 'oh my God – I've got something.'"
Family is another word that comes up a lot during our conversation, with the initial inspiration for the LP coming from a deeply personal place. "I had the cover in mind first, this picture of my mum and dad. I lost my dad three years ago. I've always wanted to do something for my parents. They bought so many records, I was so surrounded by good music, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, so I really wanted to do something for them." That being said, the gift of an album is going to come as news to one of the cover stars, "My mum doesn't know she's on the cover. I'm going to surprise her with that."
It's a good job Marky has such a constant energy when talking about music, because by this point, I'm about three black beans off a full coma. Feijoada, if you ever get the chance to try it, is a meal that seems to have so much goodness packed into it, you probably won't want to eat again for three days. It's rich and textured, which could be why it appeals so much to a producer that seems intent on creating music full of as many flavours as possible. "Producers at the moment are obsessed with synths and, in my opinion, the music just isn't very groovy. I always felt like I wanted to bring that groove back."
My conversation with Marky was characterised by this, a man on a mission to reinsert the joy he felt as young selector, back into a scene that has grown tired through the arrival of CDJs and Ableton-led productions. I genuinely believe he never thought he would make an album, rather the impulse caught him, wrestling the music out through love and experience. "When I started work, I made five or six tracks in a week. I just caught the vibe." There is a smile that barely leaves his face, especially when My Heroes is the subject. The record is the culmination of celebrating and playing music with friends and family. In testament to this, he tells me, all of his friends who worked on the album refused any payment. "They heard the tunes and they wanted to be a part of it."
It's a fitting gesture. Marky has given a huge amount to drum & bass, and this LP could be his greatest gift so far. A colourful, playful, wholly successful attempt to reintroduce a dancing soul into basements clubs around the world. As we come to finishing our meal, swallowing sinister burps and feeling like I honest need to sleep for a week, I realise it is probably best that we part ways. On our way out of Floripa's decorated doorway and onto the street, we shake hands. For a hero both here and in Brazil, Marky makes for refreshingly relaxed company. "I'm looking forward to getting the album on vinyl!" I tell him. "Excellent," he smiles, "I'm glad the vinyl revival came around. At least I know vegetarian hipsters like you will buy it."