In line with the cult of anniversary, Ibiza via Leeds mastermind Nightmares On Wax is celebrating his 25 years in music by popping all kinds of career champagne. On top of releasing Feelin Good on Warp Records (with whom he’s been signed for 20 years), he’s been all over North America for the last month on his biggest tour ever. It doesn’t stop there. Warp has also dropped N.O.W. is the Time, a best-of retrospective full of new jams, old hits, and plenty of remixes on two 12” records. As a supplement to the retrospective, an eight-minute mini-documentary of the same moniker came out mid June recounting N.O.W’s history. The man’s been damn busy.
Born George Evelyn, Nightmares On Wax (aka DJ EASE) has been integral to the British house and hip-hop scene since the late 80s. But before he was Nightmares, Evelyn was a Northern B Boy with a hunger for the latest sound. He met his eventual partner in crime Kevin Harper, aka Boy Wonder, in 1985 at a house party in their native Yorkshire:
“I walked into this guys house and he’s scratching on his mom’s Hi-fi with this big volume knob, right in front of my eyes and I was just like: “you’ve got to teach me that man.” So Kevin taught me to scratch and the rest of that day I met the rest of the guys and I became part of this crew called Solar City Rockers.”
When they weren’t winning dance competitions, Evelyn and Harper were making beats, hunting for rare records, tuning in to John Peel, and dropping their mixes at clubs around Leeds. Obsessed with having “the freshest shit” the duo was preoccupied with the obscurity of their sources, and used to soak their vinyl in the bathtub so that the labels would peel off…thus protecting their trade secrets.
The story of Nightmares On Wax is a truly endearing one. Interested only in making music for the sake of having fun, Evelyn’s screen presence in the documentary matches his mission. Laid back and jovial the entire film, he shows the viewer his recording space, which is seemingly built on a foundation of mixers, synthesizers and a behemoth record collection, which he admits, has no order whatsoever. In a moment of nostalgic reflection he presents his first-ever sampling keyboard- a Casio SA1-which allowed for only 1.6 seconds of sampling time. He’s since moved on to bigger and better equipment, but the SA1 is a sort of career milestone.
Being privy to this history of the man behind the wax made Wednesday’s N.O.W. gig at Santo’s Party House all the more enjoyable…though prior to the headlining performance, I wasn’t so sure how the evening would play out. Santo’s is never a place of extreme comfort for someone who only dances in front of her kitchen stove, and has no passion for men in flip-flops. Throw my guest into the mix-one of my more reticent, mumble-prone chums-and you have a recipe for extremes: this could go really well, or really badly.
The opener was DJ Que Bajo, who, I’m sure would suit a house party very well. Unfortunately, when you’re a DJ the appraisal of your live performance is not as codified in formalism as a rock band; that is to say: your sound alone will not save you. The quality of these sets relies entirely on the reaction of the crowd, and this crowd wasn’t feeling it. Dance music-at least live dance music-is dependent on contagiousness, and quite frankly, whether or not people are dancing. People, were not dancing.
This pre-headliner span of time always becomes the observational period of a show for me. So I leaned against the bar, sipped bourbon, and surveyed the audience. There was a grand total of five people dancing, a few couples sucking face, six people not smoking hash, and one balding gentlemen in Bermuda shorts giving me a nod of approval, perhaps for my non-Bermuda length cut-offs.
After Que Bajo’s set we made our pilgrimage towards stage right, hoping that N.O.W. would live up to his colossal reputation. It was a silly concern, because the moment Evelyn walked on stage the crowd rejuvenated. Holding down the beats was drummer Grant Kershaw. Vocalists Mozez and Ricky Ranking supplied textural R&B harmonies, and Evelyn volleyed between manning the dials, rapping, and singing. Whatever his given task at any moment, N.O.W. never failed to pump up the crowd.
“Feel Good” is not typically a phrase I assign to things I like, but when it comes to this show, it’s difficult to find a more fitting expression. Projected on the back of the stage were sunny, kaleidoscopic montages of flowers blooming and bursting orbs of color. N.O.W. was conjuring a range of sounds reaching from reggae and soul, to old school hip-hop, house, and funk. Newer songs were tossed in with early hits, and there was a steady balance of instrumentals and tracks with vocal accompaniment.
N.O.W. interspersed anecdotes between songs, taking time to plug his friend’s charity organization (Last Night a DJ Saved My Life) which filters proceeds into digging wells for drinking water in impoverished South India. I’m not surprised one bit that Evelyn has a passion for philanthropy, given that his livelihood is based upon lifting spirits. Expounding on why he makes music, he’s said:
“The real heartwarming sort of thing about doing this project, and celebrating this project, is that everybody I asked to do a remix was honored to do it. This is what this has been about is really, really getting back to why you even make music, what is this relationship to music. Because it is fun and I love it. Full Stop.”
You can’t blame a man for that.
Check out Now is the Time: The Documentary below: