From Attica Blues, spoken word nights in London to Run Dem Crew. Charlie Dark's view of the world is about connection, bringing people together to celebrate a common vision. Long time friend Harris Elliot catches up with Charlie at Ace Hotel in London to ponder how the current movement has influenced his outlook in music and movement
H: The first question, what makes your heart sing?
C: Sunshine, waking up to sunshine, positive energy, and good vibes. That’s what makes my heart sing.
H: That can be anywhere around the world, it doesn’t really matter?
C: Doesn’t matter where in the world it is, but just waking up to good energy. I am really trying to surround myself with as much positive energy as possible. From my environment, from people, from the food and liquid that goes into my body. I’m just trying to basically make my world a more positive place.
H: Do you have music that you put on at that time as well, or will it literally be the purity of the sunshine?
C: I like to wake up just to the purity of silence, because my world is filled with a lot of noise. If I’m DJ-ing the night before, the music is often so loud. And I’m surrounded by music when I work: when I’m working in the studio, when I’m driving my car… I like to wake up, and try to maintain silence for as long as possible: not speaking or hearing any external noise. Then I always go into my garden and drink my hot water and lemon in the garden. Then I will put some music on, and I generally try to not have something that’s too beat driven. There’s this guy called Nils Frahm. I listen to him consistently every morning, the same songs, and then I start my workout.
H: Because it sets you in the right frame of mind?
C: Yes, it sets me in the right frame of mind. If I’m going to go running or it’s workout time, then the hyped tunes come on. But, I have to start the day in silence.
H: Do you have a certain soundtrack that you run to?
C: I’m not dictated by tempo. I’m not a runner who runs faster because the music is faster or harder – I just like to listen to good tunes. I try to choose songs that are going to suit the environment that I’m going to be running in, and the time of day. If I’m going to do a crazy five o’clock in the morning, I’m not always going out with this banging soundtrack that I’m going to listen to at night when I’m running through some super urban environment
H: How important is that curation? Is it literally just depending on your mood or if you’re going out to DJ…?
C: I look at is as building a DJ set for my run, because I am going out on an adventure. So I try not kind of have a go-to playlist. It’s a time for me to hear new music, and I run with this thing called a SUBPAC (@subpac), which is a portable subwoofer and it’s a small kind of backpack that you wear. It looks a bit like a weights vest, and it kind of becomes an immersive experience.
H: Because you feel it?
C: Yes, because you feel it. Because you’re feeling the music as well. That’s my little thing that I do. They’re made for record producers. Timberland uses one. And he’s really into his fitness now. Look at his Instagram (@timbaland)– he’s losing the weight. He got really into bodybuilding, so he became, like, very hench. Now his thing is getting into his cardio.
H: I know a lot of people are also turning to veganism.
C: Yeah. It’s definitely something that I’ve flirted with. It’s a hard process to embrace with my lifestyle. When you travel, it’s sometimes really difficult to find. I try to just be aware of what I put into my body…he says eating chips! I’m not one of these people who’s on some super, hyper strict diet; I’ve been through those phases. I’ve been through every phase... Now I’m trying to find this really nice balance that basically fits my lifestyle, and fits the people around me as well, because I’ve got children. Know what I mean? I’m definitely more aware about what I put in my body, and actually, the effects that it has on my body. That’s really important.
H: And you’ve noticed that as well?
C: Definitely. Definitely. There’s certain foods that will affect my mood, and affect the way that my body functions.
H: Did that kind of awareness become apparent before you started running?
C: No. No. Running is the passport and the key to everything that I’ve done over the last ten years.
C: Yes. It’s changed my whole perspective on life; it’s introduced me to a whole new way of thinking, a brand new group of people; it’s made me a better man. If I hadn’t started running, I actually dread to think what I would’ve become. Most definitely.
H: For me, you’ve always been one of those inspirational people from Attica Blues through to DJ-ing, and to Urban Poets Society. Flick through ID magazine, Charlie’s there, and you’ve always been at the forefront of something.
C: You can be at the forefront of things, but if you are not at the forefront of yourself, it’s not long term. Understand what I mean?
H: Yeah, no, I hear you.
C: I mean, a lot of people who make...they’re very successful; they make a phenomenally large amount of money; they’re well recognised for what they do, but actually, they don’t recognise their own self. So there’s always going to be something missing. When I first started making music, it was very much about growing up in a school environment where there were 1,000 children there – I was privileged enough to get an assisted place and go to a private school, but I was one of the only black children in that school.
H: South London?
C: In South London. I felt very insignificant in that place, I felt I had no voice. When I started making music, that was a thing for me – I’m going to find my voice. But I then fell into the trap of feeling that the job defines who I am. When the music industry changed, and people weren’t DJ-ing at the super big raves, making the super big money, and hanging out with the super people anymore, lots of people really lost their way, because they actually had never found themselves. So, through running, I’ve learnt a lot about self-discovery, about who I am as a person, which means that if I walk into a room as Charlie Dark, Charles, Charlie, I know who I am now. So, situations which might have caused negative reactions before, now I’m just like, Namaste, it’s all cool. It’s all fine. Yeah, it’s all fine. I think you just come to peace within yourself, and food has a lot to do with that. The type of food you eat, and some of the places where you eat that food, as well.
H: So you’d choose carefully before you sit down in a spot.
C: I’m not going to eat somewhere where the food is not served with love. I don’t care how hungry I am. I don’t want my food banged on the table; I don’t want to be made to feel that I’ve got an hour window to eat. I want to feel like I’m eating at home, and the food has been prepared for me by people who love and care for me. Again, it may sound weird and very, kind of, mumbo-jumbo, airy-fairy, but I’m 45 years old, and I have a career when a lot of 20 year old people do not. I’ve had a long career, which is still continuing, so I really do believe that there’s something within this crazy Renaissance man philosophy. You know, if you think about it, you are the company that you keep – in the same way, you are the food that you eat, and the places where you eat the food. If I’m eating chicken and chips in the chicken shop every day, and it’s a very aggy (agitated) experience before I even get my food, that’s going to make me a bit more aggy.
H: Do you enjoy being a leader?
C: [Laughs]. My immediate answer is yes, but I think my partner would say no. Yeah, I do enjoy it. If you’ve spent a large amount of your time having no voice, when you get to the point where people do respect your opinion...
H: But, would you say that about yourself? That you had no voice.
C: Yeah, definitely. You always had to fight to have a voice. Everything I do is a reaction against a situation. UPS was a reaction against feeling like I have something to say and my peers have something to say – but there were no stages for us to go and say it the way we wanted to say it. So we started our own thing. Attica Blues was about the type of records that I wanted to hear and play as a young man living in London who doesn’t have access to a gun, a fast car, a gold chain. And actually, those records didn’t exist, so I needed to go and try to make those records. Run Dem Crew is a reaction against… I really fell in love with running as a beneficial thing for myself, but actually, there wasn’t a space for people like myself, who look like me, to go and run. We weren’t made to feel welcome, so we had to create our own culture. So, yeah, definitely, I’ve always felt like I’ve been a bit of an outsider looking in, trying to create my own space to exist.
H: No, I completely understand. I guess there’s always that point where you stop and separate your experience from other people’s experiences. The perception is you’re doing well…
C: Yeah, people have no idea. It’s funny – every year, Glastonbury rolls around, and then people are like, oh, you’re supposed to be at Glastonbury. I’ve been through the experience and played on both levels: your DJ-ing at Glastonbury could be the main stage or it could be the very peripheral stage with 50 people. To the mass market, you’re still DJ-ing at Glastonbury. You are a stylist. You style people who are famous, people who are not famous, people have this perception of what you do; that you just walk around with loads of nice things, nice clothes.
H: You get lots of money to do what you want, da-da-da-da.
C: It’s lonely being a leader, because there’s not many other people at the table with you. And I’m constantly having to prove why I should be there, and why they should be having a conversation with me. That’s constant, no matter what level you’re at. You know?
H: I do know.
C: You know, you can press, you know you are influential. The stuff I’ve seen you wear over the years...
H: But, I still need to prove. Collaboration, is that key to what you do?
C: Yes, definitely. I’m all about the open source. You do well, I do well. I want to learn from you just as much as you want to learn from me. I’ll help you grow what you do, if you help me grow what I do. Collaboration is very important to me, although I feel that collaboration has become a very twisted word.
H: No, no, it’s a money thing now.
H: In its true spirit, I’ll collaborate because I’ll learn from you, or vice versa. That doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s kind of...
C: For me, the best part was going very early to predominantly, like, black clubs to going to London warehouse parties in the ‘80s. There’s rude boys, drug dealers, ragamuffins, posh kids, bankers, punks, hip hop kids, all together in one room. All going off and united by the common cause of doing something rebellious to music that they love. That’s the best sort of party. And that’s where I learnt about collaboration. From following people like Family Function, seeing Soul to Soul team up, even watching people like Westwoods... seeing how some people collaborate to elevate themselves, and some people collaborate for the better cause.
H: Did that movement change the way that you make your music?
C: Most definitely. It’s actually a process that I’m going through at the moment. I’m really looking at Miles Davis and his electric period. I think to myself, right, this guy consistently every couple of years, changes bands, changes style of music, and starts exploring these different avenues. I’m really interested in what Miles was doing in his 40’s. The way that I make music has changed, because I like to physically make music, i.e., I don’t really like moving notes around on a screen. Yeah, so I’ve just actually switched up my music mixing process from computers back to, kind of, hardware.
C: Yeah, back to analogue hardware. That’s a real thing for me. I’m trying to explore the possibilities, because I’m tired of the static thing of sitting down at my computer moving notes around, and using the same sound packs that everyone else is using, Music has become very much alike; everyone uses the same stuff. It’s been a really interesting process, getting old hardware out that you haven’t used for, like 15 years.
H: But that’s what you were known for. That’s what your album covers had on them, and that’s kind of what...that’s how you produced the sound that we love.
C: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
H: That’s why people like me used to run round wherever to come to your raves.
C: Exactly. So, that’s what we’re trying to get back into doing. Again, I think the idea of using the studio as an instrument…Basically, I’m old enough to have seen music, and the way that music has been made change through each different era –I think my first computer had, like, 80 meg. It cost me two and a half grand or something stupid like that, and that was radical on stage. So, I think it’s exciting. My philosophy about making music now is very much about trying not to approach it as a 45 year old man who has a budget. I look at it as if I was 18 or 15, and you’re in your mum’s bedroom like you were in the old days with no money…What would you be doing? How would you be doing it? And how would you be getting it out to people using the technology that’s around now? The older you get... It’s like, you see it with bands – first album, got no money, super stylish. Second album, they’ve got money, now they’re going into Gucci and just give me that, that, that and that. They’ve got all the right stuff but it doesn’t look good, because they don’t actually know how to style it anymore.
H: Second album’s always much harder than the first one.
H: What got you into music in the first place?
C: My mum. My mum studied to be a dietician in New York in the ‘60s, she’s originally from Ghana, so while she was in New York, she started buying music. She lived opposite the Apollo Theatre, so she was going to see James Brown and Michael Jackson, and all these people. When she arrived in London, she had this really massive record collection that she brought with her. When I was at school, I was really desperate to find my voice, and people just assumed, he’s young, he’s black, he’s got an afro – he must know about music. And, because I’d just say anything to kind of be accepted, I was, like, yeah, the man’s got tunes; I’ve got tunes, I’ve got tunes. I can DJ, I could do it. You want me to DJ at your 18th birthday party? I could do that. I became one of the school DJs, and just raided my mum’s record collection. The Rare Groove period was starting to come in around about ’86 and ’87, and I was going to these warehouse parties hearing all this music that I suddenly realized my mum has got. Standard. I got into hip hop around the winter of ’82, when we went to New York and stayed in Harlem with a friend of my mum’s. Rapper's Delight or the Sugarhill Gang had just come out and you’re in the hood at Christmas, and they’re just banging Sugarhill records. I was just really fascinated by DJ culture Bloc parties, seeing all that stuff, that didn’t really have a name – it was just a record that you just heard on the radio.That’s one of the things that got me into it.
H: Hip hop?
C: Yeah. Hip hop was my portal. I mean, obviously my mum, when we were kids, doing chores, for African kids is really important, so on Sundays my mum would say, “Right, we’re playing this James Brown record. It’s an hour long and by the time it finishes, I want you to have cleaned your bedroom.” So, you got used to listening to these really long records.
H: One question about Run Dem – did you used to go to church? For me one of the most important things is the beginning. More than the running.
C: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I did used to go to church a lot. My mum was hyper religious when I was young, and in and out of church all the time. I had aunts who were those epic ones who’re going six hours in the church, and...
H: And it’s just lunchtime!
C: Yeah. So, my thing about the housekeeping part of Run Dem, and Run Dem as a whole, is it’s supposed to be like a dining table, for people who live in houses that are too small to have dining tables. I think a lot of people actually never, ever get a chance to eat with family and friends. So, Run Dem is my way of almost bringing people together, settling people’s minds before we go out and do this thing.
H: Excellent. That was always the inspirational part for me. Like a cross between going to church and going to an AA meeting – that’s how I always saw it.
C: Yeah, yeah. It’s a bit like a cult. People say it’s like a cult, and I’m really happy with that, because the running’s the least important part of what I do. Bringing people together is the most important part. Running is just a common thread that runs through. Even if you don’t run, and you’re cool, let’s hang out. Maybe being in a room full of a few other people who are about to go running might inspire you to take a step toward running. When I was coming up, you kind of gathered around clubs, around music, but now, because of the internet, I don’t actually have to go to the club to be part of the spirit. I can be into the same music as you, and have never been in the same room as you. Whereas here was a time in London, if you were into hip hop, we would’ve definitely been in the same room together, at some point.
H: At some point, if not multiple points.
C: Exactly. So, my thing is trying to replicate that period of time when people were forced to come together and mix with each other, because you can learn a lot from people who are not like you.
H: Yeah, all good. The first issue of the magazine’s going to be called Play. What does the word play mean to you?
C: Wow. Play, to me... To me, it means expression, physical expression without boundaries, which is something that I think a lot of people have forgotten how to do.
H: So, almost in that Ido Portal kind of way, you know the guy, the one who trains Conor McGregor…
C: Yes. Yes.
H: As kids, we’d run, jump and climb over stuff; the sofa doesn’t mean you must sit on it!
C: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, exactly. I probably was one of those kids that had ADHD without really realising it. I like to be up and moving. I remember seeing Osunlade play at Plastic People, years, years and years ago and there were, maybe 20 people in the club, but he played like it were 400 people. He was killing it!
H: He didn’t care.
C: He was in it, dancing, doing the EQ, and I was just sitting there thinking, man, what is going on?! I realised that the energy that he was giving off was affecting the 20 people that were there, and that was, you know...
C: That was enough, and so it really changed the way I looked at making music again. When you are in the club playing, you’re moving around, you’re dancing… and then when you actually make the music you sit in a chair and move things around on a screen. What I want to do is much more about standing up, being more physical, and moving around.
H: So you’ve redesigned your studio, or the way you work in your studio.
C: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, so it’s a lot more standing up kind of vibe.
H: Do you have any fears, actually?
C: Oh, yeah, definitely. All the time. Most definitely. Every time I go into a meeting. I’m operating at a level now where I go into meetings and it’s me by myself, and do I really know what I’m talking about…? I have fears about the future, and sustaining a career– it’s very difficult, the older you get. This is why I’m really trying to put plans in for projects that can have life and longevity. It’s so important. Do I want to be up in the club at 50 playing bangers to 18 year olds? No, I don’t. I want to go and see my son playing bangers to the 18 year olds. It’s a physical field I’m in, so I have to be healthy.
H: Presumably, the training means that you don’t then always have to be doing the same thing.
C: Yeah, but I need a crew of people. I’m 45 and the other kids are 20 – they’re racing me to Big Ben. At some point, there’s going to have to be a reality check. I’ll wait for you... I’ll drive to Big Ben and I’ll meet you there. I feel very blessed at the moment. It’s been a hard 18 months. Obviously coming out of working for Nike, and the end of that deal – it is really hard to be associated with one brand for so long, and now you have to forge new relationships with different brands, and think in a different way.
H: And is that exciting, though?
C: Oh, yeah, yeah, I mean, it’s exciting definitely, because it’s new. There are different types of conversations, but also a different type of support, because you’re dealing with a different type of brand. Run Dem was myself and my four friends just running around at night- which has now developed into probably the biggest thing that I’ve done, with the biggest cultural impact, and the biggest reach. You suddenly wake up one day and that shoebox idea is now a business. I’m a creative; I’m not a businessman. So now I’ve got to learn how to be a businessman, and that’s a whole different way of thinking.
H: When you look at someone like Jay Z on the Black Album it’s understanding that you are the businessman, the dollar sign, or you are the pound sign… and maybe you don’t know about certain spreadsheets, but you do understand your value.
C: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. It’s nerve-wracking, because when you do know your value, you have to turn down some offers where you just have this hunch that it’s not right. So unfortunately, I’m going to have to turn that life changing amount of money down, and seek it somewhere else. That’s really hard. You’ve got to ask yourself, is that really the right thing to do? Do I really want to do that? When I was 20 and I was making Attica Blues records, I was only feeding myself. I was living in a warehouse that was costing me £200 a month, it was like nothing. Yeah, so now, it’s mortgages, it’s cars, it’s school. It’s life. Real life responsibilities – it’s a whole different thing now. But, I just take each day as it comes, and try and stay positive, and just try and embrace life, and enjoy both the position I’ve made for myself – because I think a lot of times, we forget to enjoy...
H: And we don’t celebrate the moments.
C: No, we don’t, and we actually forget. I can remember being a kid and going to school, and seeing the first kid in London with a pair of Nike shoes, and walking around bowling about, and we were, like, man, what are those, man? All I know is Adidas – I’ve never seen those before. Wow! So, to actually work with them for nine years. It’s a big thing. One of my things now is just trying to just….just be. So, Tuesday I’m with my long term friend, we’re in this jiggy hotel, we’ve got money in our pocket to pay for all our food and we need to enjoy that, you know...