CHOPPING FIREWOOD to TOP OF THE POPS : 30 Year Music Career

In this episode, Aniff Akinola talks about his 30-plus-year music production career that got started from ‘sweating like mad’ on the dancefloors of various Manchester nightclubs in 1979.

He shares stories about:

– growing up chopping firewood in the backyard

– getting into the music industry through connections he made on the club scene

– his work on one of the most iconic acid house anthems of all time

– as well as performing on Top of The Pops – twice! Aniff has been there and done that so there are a few A-list names being dropped in this episode.

I certainly enjoyed this conversation. I hope you do too.


-LISTEN TO THE FULL CONVERSATION HERE-


Aniff: When’s the last time you’ve been here? 

Tan: Last time I was in Manchester was at least five years ago. 

Aniff: Yeah well the changes are ridiculous honestly, you won’t believe. It’s just a metropolis honestly. It’s ridiculous you know, I live in Old Trafford.

Come out of Old Trafford, there’s now new apartments right on the edge of what used to be wasteland. You go over to near Salford – new apartments. You always had Salford Keys but that’s expanded, immensely now, you know and skyscrapers!

Well that’s exciting isn’t it for Manchester?

Yeah, yeah well, you know you got some funny dudes who are kind of – they don’t like change but I say that kind of change is excitement for new generations, otherwise we’d still have caves and chewed out houses and stuff like that, you know what I mean? 

Have you always embraced change?

I’ve always liked science you know what I mean? I’ve always thought, ‘Why am I going to go up and chop firewood? Why can’t we have a central heating?’

You did not chop no firewood!

I did!

I used to chop firewood on a block in my backyard, you know what I mean? You don’t remember, I’m 60 next year. So we had to make fire, you had to put the logs on, put the fire lighter on, put bits of paper on and then light it, then put paper over it to cause a backdraft and yeah I remember chopping my finger with the ax as a kid! Yeah, so you know health and safety was a lot different there but it was out of necessity, you know.

Coal! You know what I mean? I remember coal being dumped down the coal hole. So I’d have to go and shovel a coal into a pan there and bring it upstairs to put on the fire.. 

So your memory goes far. 

My memory is really quite good, you know, from childhood. It’s vivid, you know. I remember the first song I ever sang which was ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles. I remember exactly where I was, walking in the hall and I was banging on the side of the staircase like a drum. 

[sings] She loves yeah.. yeah… yeah.. She loves you.. Yeah.. yeah!

So, can you tell me your first job in music? How did you get started? 

You know, I used to go clubs. How I ended up in the music business really quickly was, I used to go clubs, I loved dancing. Still love dancing. 

So what year are we talking approximately?

Right, I originally started going to clubs in 1979. Best disco in town – that’s just normal going out. But I would dance! Honestly, I would sweat like mad, I’d be the guy in the middle of the floor, girls didn’t want to touch me because I was wringing wet, big thick glasses, in my clothes, but you know, I mean I was having it. I didn’t care, I just loved dancing, you know what I mean? 

Do you remember any of the club names? 

There was ..um.. New Century or.. CIS – that was the first club I went to. The CIS insurance used to be the tallest building in Manchester, near Victoria Station. On the fourth floor there was a massive dance floor, I think it’s still there now. You go up to the escalator, it was a big ballroom and it actually bounced. You know a bit like the Ritz floor but it bounced! They had boxing events in there.

Piccadilly Radio – which is Key 103, you might remember that – they used to have a disco thing in there so that was the first club I went to.

That was around ‘79 and I then went to another club called Smarties not knowing that epic club called Rafters was on at the same time and only finding out by word of mouth because there’s no internet, no mobile phones. You know, if you’ve got information it’s because you bumped into somebody or you read a magazine which were only monthly, you know.

In this black music magazine I find that there’s this club couple Rafters where I then met a DJ called Colin Curtis. We then later had this club called Berlin’s. And at Berlin’s I used to go on the floor to Colin and I used to say, ‘Why have you played that record? You cleared the floor!’ And Colin would give me a lift home at night because I lived in Hulme. I don’t know, he saw something in me, you know. He introduced me to another guy called Colin in the toilet and said, ‘Meet Colin!’ You know, me and Colin [Thorpe] are still best friends to this day. 

Colin used to go, ‘Right, come around to my house. I’ve got equipment,’ and he’s a accomplished keyboard player and guitarist and we would start doing songs. I’d go ‘Whoa whoa whoa! That was great that. Them first four chords what you did!’ He went, ‘What about this?’ I said, ‘Sack them!’ Colin didn’t have an ego and that’s another thing that he allowed. He didn’t question it, he didn’t say, ‘Who’s this guy?’ He just kind of related to the passion. He had no calling that I was any good or anything, he just trusted me. 



So can I go through a couple of the songs and then can you share one or two stories? So I want to start with Voodoo Ray, A Guy Called Gerald. That was definitely my favorite of all the things you’ve worked on.

That song officially came out in ‘88 but I never discovered it until ‘94 when I was first year in university and back then that could happen. A song that’s 6-7 years old would suddenly come up. So anyway what can you tell me about how that came about? 

Well that song wasn’t on the radio. I heard a cassette of this kid called House Master G – he wasn’t even call A Guy Called Gerald then – being played by Stu Allan. We knew Stu Allan on Key 103 on the radio. Me and Euan used to go up there and taunt him, ‘Have you bought this? Have you bought that?’

Anyway, I was listening to his show, heard him play this cassette, and went, ‘Oh my days!’ I went up there, grabbed this cassette and it had a phone number on. I followed the phone number, went up to meet Gerald, met him in his house. He was working with this girl called Nicki. 

Anyway we booked him in the studio. We were in the session and we had the song going around but there was no melody on it. You know the… [sings] ‘Ooh …oooh ahhh… aahh …yeah.’ I came up with that bit. I went to the toilet and we didn’t have that melody on and I went, ‘Oh if Boy George was here he’d go..Ooh ooh ahh.. ah yeah’ I came back in the room, I said, ‘Colin, what do you think about this?’ and Gerald went, ‘Ooh yeah!’ I sang it along with the track.

And Nicola – the singer who sung it – wasn’t into house music that much, she wanted to do R&B because Gerald kind of did slow tracks as well. Anyway I went in, she was there and I said, ‘Nicola! We want to try this. Will you sing it?’ and she sang it and I swear —

Nicola’s tuning isn’t brilliant. It’s a lot better now but then wasn’t brilliant and that’s through learning to become a singer. But her voice — I’ve heard other singers of all sorts who still cannot sing that melody as enchanting as she did it, you know what I mean? So it was, again, fortuitous. 

Are you saying what she recorded then is what ended up on the final record? 

Yeah! We didn’t record anything again, you know I mean? When you hear that final record —

You know Gerald had never used a sampler. The ‘Ay.. ah.. woo..’ kind of indian, arabic chanting, it’s the same sample just reversed backwards. So we had one going forward, one going backward and that’s Gerald just pressing a button on the thing when we put it down to tape.

So it happened just like that and everyone went, ‘That melody’s great!’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah yeah!’ you know. Little did I know I should have put my — I didn’t claim my writing on it at the time but we’ll talk about that in another podcast later. 

➤ Would you say it was one of the first British house tunes to hit in America? 

Yeah. Absolutely. It was probably the most authentic acid house tune that’s consistently been in the top five globally. It’s an epic record and as you say, you heard it in ‘94 and it blew your mind. We didn’t cash in on it as well as we could have done. Again, I and Colin, we don’t come from that ‘exploit a situation’ culture.

We took Gerald out live, which was a first, because taking an electronic artist out. We weren’t going to The Apollos, we were going into an actual nightclub and plugging our system into the DJ’s mixer. These were places whereby they didn’t have a live act. They’d have a P.A possibly. You might come in and plug a mic in but we were plugging two 808’s, 303, 909, Ensoniq keyboard, a little mixer and all sorts, you know what I mean? And then you’d just see dust fly out of these speakers! Because if you put a real 808 through uncontrolled and honestly it will terrorise any speakers. 

So we actually took Gerald out live with all the gear. There were many firsts that we pride ourselves on doing at that time. 

All right, let’s move on. Do you have any stories to share from working with Kirsty MacColl? 

Well, I’d then done this rap called Black Whip on a record that got played on Radio One when they would play something political – John Peel loved Voodoo Ray and lots of stuff from Manchester and RAM Records and the North. So that was Black Whip was on RAM and a lot of artists got to hear that and liked it, I think, and we got signed to Virgin as a result of that record.

So we was on Virgin, Kirsty was on Virgin. She reached out and I looked at some of the stuff she did. Her dad was Ewan MacColl from Salford, he wrote the song, ‘[sings] …The closer I saw your face…’ so they had strong ties to the North West and you know she wasn’t an industry darling, she would rail against it.

And I got asked to do a couple of things, you know. I got asked to work with Bananarama who were huge. And I went, ‘Nope!’ 

You said no to Bananarama? 

Yeah! You know, it wasn’t my bag, you know what I mean? The other one I worked with was Steve Hillage. He was fantastic you know, and oh that record [‘Freedom Fighters’] should have been huge.

But Kirsty MacColl – I got to stay at her house and stay with her family. Her husband was Steve Lillywhite, he produced the U2 albums – Joshua Tree, you know! We went to the club and I met Tears For Fears and all that lot.

You know, it was good but sometimes I’m a bit fearful of – not being out my comfort zone but – you’re going up, you know and your feet aren’t on the ground. I like my own shower, I like my own toilet and stuff like that.

And so there was a bit where they wanted me to go on tour but I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go on tour.’ Because there’s another lifestyle which I’m scared of with the industry which is the madness you know. Not that I object to it but it’s not me you know. I know what I like doing is making music and sitting down and doing it this way, you know with Colin. 

Did you rewrite the rap for Walking Down Madison or was it new?

I wrote the rap completely. She let me write that, you know. Johnny Marr was on guitar from The Smiths, he wrote the music with Kirsty and then I wrote the whole rap.

She took me on Top of the Pops. Took me to New York. That was the best thing – she took me to New York and then she paid for my partner to come. I got to see my mum. I hadn’t seen my mum in 12 and a half years – my mum lived in New York. So that was momentous for me. I mean mum still didn’t even know what I did. She kept saying, ‘Why don’t you get a proper job?’ and I’m kind of like, ‘Mum I’ve just shut down Brooklyn Bridge to shoot a video. They closed the bridge because of a song I’m doing!’ She didn’t relate, you know. But bless her, you know what I mean? So that kind of grounding and humility probably comes from her. 

Tell me about Top of the Pops. 

You know being on Top of the Pops – I’m on Top of the Pops because of Kirsty MacColl. I do my rap and then this black guy with an afro comes up to me and says, ‘Man, you looked cool!’ I look round, it’s Lenny Kravitz! He’s saying, ‘You’re cool.’ I’m going like, ‘Damn I’m cool!’ 

Awesome!

How many times did you do it? 

Well I’ve done Top of the Pops twice. The first time, we turned up early, it was at the old studios. We had this guy called Rowland Rivron with us. He’s a comedian and he was just funny but another guy, I cannot remember his name, he was a top guitarist. He had produced the Doobie Brothers. So we were surrounded by these people who had brilliant stories – mine’s nothing. And I’m just like, ‘What?’ ‘You were with–’ and ‘You did that record with such and such–’

And anyway, Rowland Rivron is playing the bongos but he’s playing them in his underpants but you can’t see it! So you kind of had this madness going on in the background. And Kirsty had bought me this top for the video. She went, ‘Aniff, I really like these colours on you. The colours are black, green and white – Nigeria’s colours. I end up later on taking a Nigerian name but you know, the top was brilliant. I absolutely love the top. Even my partner Akilah says, ‘That top’s gorgeous.’ I’ve still got the top, it still fits!

Nice! Who else did you meet? Who else was on the bill that night?

I blacked out after meeting Lenny Kravitz man I ain’t gonna lie. I just blacked out, you know what I mean?

They filmed it over the week so they’d have two or three groups in and then that was it, you know? The second time we did Top of the Pops was when my song Baddest Ruffest with Backyard Dog came through. It was a song on Ali G and all that lot. That was a whole different experience because we were the featured artists on that, you know what I mean? That was mad, we were in super slick suits and I didn’t realise they’d do a rerun, so we’d gone hell for leather to do this performance. 

Then they’d say, ‘Yeah. Take one! Can we go again please?’ We’re like, ‘What?’ [Laughs]. You people in TV are cruel, you know. 

I want to hear the story so how did ‘Baddest Ruffest’ come about? 

Well Baddest Ruffest was a record that — having lived in Old Trafford, working here, I discovered this kid called Lloyd Hanley. He was kind of a rapper, MC. He didn’t think he had a great singing voice. I said, ‘Look, you can sing, mate,’ and basically it was about encouraging him to realise that he had a voice.

And anyway we did this song. It was six years old before it came out. This is why with some of my stuff, I think it’s almost like scientific. I think, ‘Am I ahead of the curve?’ A lot of my stuff takes time. I’m one of these who kind of bend genres and stuff so sometimes they can sit around a lot longer, and have a longer gestation period for me. Because they’re not ripe yet. Whereas some things have to come now – I don’t really do stuff like that.

Anyway, that song came out. I’d then been signed by a woman called Caroline Elleray. She had a little office in Ducie house. She signed me in 1998 to a publishing deal, she just liked the stuff I did. Caroline, after me, signed a little band from Birmingham called Coldplay. Who else..? I can’t remember the name – she signed another band from Hastings who did really well.

But, yeah she stuck with me. I was one of her first signings, she just liked what I did and said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.’ I met Ian Ramage and I told them about me wanting to have my own label and you know, I wanted to have my own CD making thing you know, so I could print my own CDs! Because truthfully that whole thing – the record labels to me were these massive big money machines whereby they’d spend a hundred thousand on this and I’d think, ‘Why did you spend that?’ 

Really, the only reason we needed them back in the day was to print the damn CDs. If you could make your own cds – if we had the technology, we wouldn’t need them! 

Well no, truthfully in order to get to a level, they own the access, the backstage passage to the TV shows and all the things that really turned things into mega hits. 

That’s because they had access to the public. We didn’t but now the everybody has access. 

Well exactly. We now see that once the people get to hear things, they decide themselves whether it’s a hit, you know what I mean?

But with Backyard Dog, it was very traditional. We went to some labels with it, they weren’t hearing it, we then pressed up the record, gave it to some Radio One people, they loved it. Then East West said, ‘We want to sign it,’ and they said ‘How much?’ and we did the deal and then you know it ended up on the World Cup as the Coca-Cola theme music, [and also in the films] Ali G Indahouse, Bend It Like Beckham.

And then we ended up on Top of the Pops, I and Lloydy you know. I wasn’t really supposed to [perform it]. I produced it, funded all of it and everything and then Lloyd wanted me to come out with him. So I said, ‘Okay. I’ll come out with you.’ And you know we had a really good time. And that record is still doing the businesses. Never been remixed or anything like that – we’ve got to go and do at some point.

(Conversation continues…)


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