mong dance music fans, Todd Edwards is spoken of with impassioned reverence. His style is instantly recognizable: strangely hooky stroboscopic sample-flurries and trapper-snap hi-hats syncopating a straight-four kick-pulse. It had a deep effect in the late ’90s and early ’00s, when U.K./two-step garage was still loved-up and hadn’t yet morphed into grime. While that movement has moved away from the spotlight, Edwards continues to ply his trade to an adoring audience, most recently with the 2006 album Odyssey (i!).
Outside the DJ realm, Edwards is almost unknown. This is hardly a new development in the often insular-on-purpose DJ world, and Edwards’s often kaleidoscopically confusing tracks don’t exactly make him a lost candidate for massive global crossover. What’s surprising about it is that the Edwards fan’s depth of adoration would seem like a natural fit for finding too much information about the man. Instead, the Internet is sparse with interviews; much of the press he’s done has been in England, during two-step’s club reign, and little of that has made it to the Web. There’s relatively little real information beyond that detailing his copious discography. It doesn't help that the most famous recording he's been involved with isn't one of his many glittering (and in some cases, classic) remixes, but his collaboration with Daft Punk, on "Face to Face," from 2001's Discovery.
There are loads of good reasons for this: Dance music, even during its least innovative periods, moves forward as a stealthy rate, and while plenty of producers who were heroes a decade ago still are, more aren't. Although it, like the artist himself, is based in New Jersey, i! Records, Edwards's label, has long had spotty American distribution; the last time I looked, the only place to find its output was in the import racks. For a long time, i! also maintained a website that can be charitably described as "obtuse." (It has improved in the past couple years.) Despite house music's gospel roots, Edwards's unabashed faith in Jesus isn't especially cool among clubland cognoscenti, the immense power of tracks like "Savior Tonight" and "God Will Be There" notwithstanding.
That’s why Stylus decided it was imperative to talk to him. In conversation, Edwards is as disarming as his music. He’s gregarious, generous, and the way he describes his working methods is as simultaneously analytical and instinctive as the music itself. If you’re a newbie, the two-volume Full On collections are crucial; more broadly enjoyable is the Edwards-mixed The Best of i! Records: 10 Years of UK Garage, which features several non-Edwards cuts. Odyssey is a largely satisfying album, featuring shorter track lengths (three or four minutes instead of five or six) and more vocals than usual.
Stylus spoke with Edwards over the phone on the evening of Wednesday, April 3.
Are you a lifelong New Jersey resident?
Todd Edwards: Yeah, I’m a suburbanite. I grew up in Bloomfield. It’s about 20 minutes from New York City. I live in Bloomfield now. I lived in Persephone for a short time. [My parents] grew up in Newark, which is a major city, but they left there in their 20s.
My father is a carpet salesman—I’m proud to say one of the best out there. He’s almost the mill man—the mill makes the carpets, and he sells them to the stores. He’s 68 and looks young and acts young. My mother is a receptionist for Lincoln Technical Institute, a trade school for different mechanical trades. She’s been doing it for 15 to 20 years.
Were you middle class?
Definitely. I guess it was a typical East Coast Italian family—loud, dramatic. I have one sister who is nine years older than I am. I’m 34. I have a 16-year-old nephew who’s like a son to me.
Lots of uncles and aunts?
Definitely. There’s definitely a cliché to it—a lot of third- and fourth-generation Italians gradually become more Americanized. But growing up, there were gatherings at my grandmother’s house. She was a matriarch. I have a lot of cousins. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away a few years ago. When people needed a place to stay, everyone would stay at my grandmother’s house; one of my cousins needed a place to stay when he had his house built, and for two years, he stayed there. We went to her house every Sunday; she had a lot of brothers and sisters. And then their children and their children’s children would go there. It was typical Italian [food]: she would make macaroni, there was a lot of gravy.
The house—it was like something out of time. It was like something stuck in the ’50s. People usually update their houses, but there were things from years upon years there. [My grandparents] grew up in the Great Depression and they saved everything, from junk to utensils. It wasn’t exactly Norman Rockwell, but it was really a simpler time. Everybody was working. For a kid, it was a place of treasures. My grandmother’s brother worked for Lionel Trains. They had old train sets. It would go around the Christmas tree every year. Lionel Trains were great; you put the little pill in the flute and the smoke would come out. My grandfather would take a lot of home movies, eight-millimeter films with no sound to it. My cousin put ’em together on DVD and gave copies to the family. I bust them out from time to time.
Were your folks musical?
My father’s father played guitar. He taught guitar lessons. He had a good voice, from what I’ve been told. Both my mother’s father and my father’s father passed away, one year after each other. It’s unfortunate; both of them were mechanics, and [while] I couldn’t open up a car, I’ve always been fascinated by electronics. They’re [people] I would have had a lot in common with. My aunt Liz, my mother’s sister, played accordion; she passed away of cancer. And my mother’s brother was a drummer when he was younger, too.
I’m guessing the church was important growing up. What role did it play in your childhood?
Funny you should ask. The honest truth of it [is], the church was the cause of a lot of controversy in my life. My mother was a devout Catholic. The ’80s [were] a time when the term “born again” became almost like a denomination. It’s a term that’s almost caused a split in the Catholic Church, which is too bad.
My church had a small denomination, 100 people, 200 people max, a lot of old people. As a kid, you had to go to Sunday school, and I learned a lot. That was good, because I learned the New Testament of the Bible. But my church was extremely legalistic. My father—I love him dearly, we have a really good relationship—but a lot of our bonding came—I’m sort of jesting [when I say] that we spent a lot of time having religious debates and religious arguments. You’ve got to understand that I grew up in a normal school environment. Obviously, there was a lot of Catholic Christians, but it wasn’t so outwardly shared. You don’t go to a club and talk about religion, and you didn’t go to school and talk about it. I was battling against my father’s view of Christianity and a secular view from school. There are a lot of disciplines in Christianity that are good for you, but you should practice them because they’re good for you, not just because it’s a rule.
At the time, I didn’t wanna deal with it. Again, kids watched certain movies, did certain things. He was being very overprotective of me. It was frustrating; as a kid I rebelled against that. There was a lot that I was grasping by reading the New Testament, but there was another side I was seeing. Going back, in this church, you were dealing with a very old generation of people. It’s not like they had priests—they had elders. There were 12 elders that ran the church, and they told us to accept Jesus every week.
It was hard to fathom people in church who didn’t already believe in Jesus. It was almost like there was a bit of acting; something never felt right with the church, like when you see an evangelist on TV. It didn’t feel heartfelt. I basically had problems with that. By junior year I’d decided not to go to church, and had it out with my father. I didn’t want to deal with God at all. Correction—I dealt with him more on my terms, not in a you’re-the-boss way, but in an I’m-keeping-you-at-arms-length way.
In high school I wrote songs. That’s how I dealt with stress in school, be them bad relationships—not that I had a lot, but you know, it was a way to get the stress out. By the end of high school, my friend, who goes under the Original Filthy Rich, was into club music and introduced me to the club music he was into. At the time was Todd Terry and Masters at Work, 1989-90, I got an education in that, and I decided to get into that. Up to that time I was writing pop stuff or whatever. It seemed like dance music was easy enough to make, do that and break into the music industry. But I underestimated that. Just getting a style and making a name for yourself takes time.
The plan to incorporate talking about God in my work came later. In my 20s, I kind of bottomed out. I hit a rocky period; I kind of threw my hands up. After that, the negative relationship I had with God was healed. I started putting positive messages in; it wasn’t meant to be preachy, but I wanted to share something that helped me and maybe give that inspiration for other people. Even in remixes I would cut up vocals to say spiritual phrases, and if you listen closely you can hear them.
Your style is instantly recognizable, with dozens of tiny samples in the tracks. It’s what you’re known for; it’s very distinctive. How did you arrive at it?
I’ve talked a lot about this; I think because [two-step garage] was so UK dominant, the articles [I spoke for] were mostly from a decade go. Basically, what happened is that when I started making music, I was getting into sampled drums; I was always inspired by Kenny Dope from Masters at Work. The early stages were to emulate what was out there: Roger S, MK, Masters at Work, Todd Terry. MK did the Nightcrawlers’ [“Push the Feeling On” remix, 1992]. The first time I heard that, it was something that wasn’t making sense but resembled a melody line. That appealed to me, and I tried to do that.
For three or four years, I was listening to nothing but house music. That’s good; you have to do your research. But I got sick of listening to it after awhile; I needed to expand my horizons. I was really interested in orchestral music, and at the same time I was really into Enya. There’s a lot of ahs and oohs, and the singing was almost more of an instrument; it was so embedded in the track that it didn’t stand out. I thought, “Hmmm—you could sample vocals and use them as the musical instrument, instead of pianos and strings.” Then it started to develop. When you go to a club, you’re inspired by the music and come home and get a burst of energy. The bar Louie Vega played at in the early ’90s—I'm not sure which bar was—he'd play the [MAW] remixes on Bjork and Lisa Stansfield, CeCe Peniston, a slew of remixes they did at that time. It was inspiring to go out during that era. I’d come home, and boom! I did “Saved My Life” and the stuff I did with Nervous Records [under the name the Sample Orchestra].
Was it a matter of trial-and-error?
I wouldn’t say trial-and-error, but I’d say it developed over a couple years. At times it becomes formulaic, other times you think outside the box. What I started to do was, I got sick of sampling from disco and R&B.; I would basically go to flea markets and get my records; I didn’t care what condition they were in; crates upon crates of 50 cents and a dollar. I went, “Hmmm—let me try the ‘60s.” I started sampling from folk music. If there was time to sit down and show you—I find it interesting to be able to reveal, like when I listened to Todd Terry, where did he get it? You hear these producers taking stuff, and the thing about the ’60s was that the music was a lot more vocal based. You had folksingers, like people I never knew about, like Joan Baez, Janis Ian, the Carpenters. You might hear it in an elevator, but there’s a lot of elements there, great harmonies. The 5th Dimension—they’re wonderful. I got samples from there that showed up in some of the bigger stuff I’d done at the time. Little snippets would turn up from the Carpenters, buried. Once the ’80s kicked in, you get electronic sounds, and they’re very harsh and that’s not good for sampling.
I definitely go through phases. Right now I’m exploring non-sampling. There’s such a shift in the way music is going. The French sound, the electro sounds; right now I really felt the next stage of me, and that’s the thing with Odyssey. I want to focus more on songwriting. As a composer and producer you try to achieve certain things, and then you move on to the next thing. I’ve been wanting to branch out for a long. But I felt like God wanted me where I was for a long time, and I try to take my signs where they take me. When the sound changes and things slow down, and things shift in that paradigm of music, you definitely find it’s time to grow. I want to connect more in songs than in just production, and hopefully become a strong songwriter as well as a producer.
Have you ever had any DJ residencies?
No. DJing isn’t what I got into it for. A lot of people would have killed for that position. I wasn’t mentally ready to start doing that in my 20s; I had a lot of ups and downs. I started to really branch out and DJ in my late 20s; I’d go to the UK to DJ. From around 2001 up to 2003, I was going at least twice to four times a year for certain bigger events. The strategy was to do bigger events, because DJing isn’t the first love; production and composing is. The point is to get out and show your face and meet your fans. If I had my choice, I’d prefer to compose the music. I wouldn’t mind performing myself but I’d like a steady performer to work with, and have them be the voice for my music.
Do you think if you lived somewhere other than New Jersey that your music might be different?
Yeah. There’s a lot of different things that contribute to music. When I worked with Daft Punk, I went to Paris twice. It is an inspiring city. Going to Europe, period—and I’m sure it’s a commonplace for people who DJ a lot more—going there had a really big impact. The architecture alone had a big impact. I’m sure if I was living out in the Midwest you definitely get a different sound. I think it’s proven, whether it’s Chicago or California or whatever, you get different sounds in different areas, in dance or in rap or anything else. But I do think what was meant to be was meant to be. My background is part of who I am and I look at it as God’s plan.
When you’re doing a remix, do you tend to use only the elements of the existing track, or do you bring in things of your own?
The way I go about handling remixes has changed, for better or worse. When I started doing remixes, the focus was very me-me-me. I was confident, and I wanted to show what I could do. I would say that 90% of what you hear in a remix is sounds I’m bringing in, unless it’s the vocals being cut up and used as part of the pattern. When I started working on production itself, I built a sample bank and put a sample on each key of the keyboard. Back in the day I was using an Ensoniq EPS; I think it had 60 seconds or two minutes of sampling time. If something was going at 33 BPM I had to sample it at 45. I think that became part of the edge, a kind of raw, somewhat sloppy sound. As I could afford more equipment, I could build sample libraries, and have like eight banks at my disposal. It’s almost like having your paints ready to paint on the canvas, instead of mixing them as you’re painting.
Probably the remix that got you the most serious attention was from 1995: St. Germain’s “Alabama Blues,” which you provided with vocal and dub remixes. How did that come about?
“Alabama Blues” and “As I Am,” by Sounds of One , are the two most recognizable [early] ones. St. Germain called my manager. The really weird thing was at the time, some college radio played some underground house music, and my manager told me, “There’s a song out there that mentions you.” I didn’t have any idea. It was St. Germain; there was a song that talked about different producers that influenced him. That week, I got the call to do the remix.
Maybe my favorite remix of yours, and the first I remember hearing, was of Mantra’s “Away” (1997).
With Mantra—and I forgot to mention this before—I was still blending the styles of MK and Enya, trying to stay fresh. I did a bunch of tracks like that and moved on to more disco-style remixes. But at the time, the vocal cut-up style started to really take on a really strong life in the UK, so it was almost I had to go back to [the earlier, cut-up] style. I had to relearn it.
Have you ever thought of putting together a collection of your remix work?
It would be great. But at the same time, you get paid for the remix and that’s it; you don’t get a piece of the action or the publishing. I don’t know that it would be very lucrative. But I’m very proud of the work I’ve done, remix-wise; I give 110 percent. I don’t treat any remix as better than any other—major label or independent, more or less money. I’m proud of the remixes I’ve done over the past decade. I just did a remix for the Klaxons’ “Gravity’s Rainbow.” My manager said it was groundbreaking for me.
The difference between me now and me 10 years ago is that the remixes were about me-me-me, and as I grew more mature I’d see the artist needed to be the center. Like “Alabama Blues,” the dub—there’s no vocals on it. I improvised the song; if I think something needed a bridge, I’d make one.
The “Away” remix is a lot like that; the bridge on that is really ecstatic. I haven’t heard the original Mantra track; did you create that bridge yourself?
Oh yeah. If you listen to the original, the original’s kind of hot, very simple, driven by the drums. I didn’t even know the original, I just took it—the whole thing, the verse, bridge and chorus were all my doing. It was almost like make the music and fit the vocals in.
With the Klaxons especially, I had to think outside the box. When I heard it, I thought, “This is going to be a challenge.” It’s rough, punk-sounding. I wanted to be complementary to the vocals. I’m really pleased. Hopefully people will take notice of it as well.
I’m guessing you have a home studio. What sort of equipment do you use?
Studios are downgrading because it’s not necessary; people can do things right on their computers with sequencing programs. I still have a lot of outboard gear, a lot of modules. As far as sampling goes, I still use the Akai S6000; it’s not in production anymore. I was really well known for the bass line, the square wave sound of the Roland Juno 106. Then I bought the JP8000, the other Roland; it’s the newer version of that, but not as analogue. I think it kind of misses something. I have a mixing board. But even the mixing board has almost become an amplifier for the music. This is nothing new. There are probably producers out there who work a lot more state of the art than I do.
When you’re making your own tracks, what tends to be the balance between sampling, programming, and live playing?
As far as live playing, it’s really just—if you’re looking, I’m working left to right. You play a pattern of music. For me, I say, “I’m going to make a two-bar pattern, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four.” There’s space to fill; we have to fill that space. There’s the first sound, the last sound, and everything in between. It’s about finding a place for each musical sample. In a sense, it’s meant to be that way. You can take samples and put them in. It starts to develop. It’s almost becomes like this rhythmical thing, placing samples in a two-bar or four-bar pattern; it starts to sound like a melody line, per se. Again, as far as playing, when you play a chord it’s 3 notes or 4 notes, and it’s a minor chord or a major chord. If a group sings three notes I can obviously tell if it’s a minor or major chord. If I’m looking for a minor chord, I’ll pick one. I like syllables too. I’ll hit five notes and use it at one point.
Your stuff is very sophisticated harmonically. How much training do you have?
Not much, really. I only took a year and a half of piano.
Would you say your style is more instinctive than schooled?
Yeah. Call it what you want; I’d call it divine intervention. With each year I understood more. Like, I started to grasp chords better. I don’t know where it came from. When you sample music you’re picking stuff up with your ear, and you’re starting to understand the science behind it. To tell the truth, there was a level of concentration, where I thought there was something with me. It moved me to tears; I didn’t know I was capable of those things. You feel this joy inside.
It sounds like you set things up very carefully and then leave the results largely to chance, almost like you’re improvising with samples.
It is improv in the sense that you’re feeling it out as you’re going along. There are only a few times where I’ve heard things in my head beforehand. I wrote a song called “Tomorrow” for Kim English. I was going for this Jocelyn Brown-style sound, like [Ecstasy, Passion and Pain’s] “Touch and Go,” this great old disco song. I wanted to make it sound like a disco band, and I was able to find samples that fit the vision I had in my head. The sampling process itself is probably the most important part, even before you’re even touching the keys. Going through a record and finding something that moves me; it can be a word, it can be a certain . . . it can be a girl saying the word “certain.” I like R’s. I like the words “forever” and “ever.” It becomes very distinctive within the track when you use it. You find these brilliant samples and then the placing of them is not secondary. I know what I like to hear. I love chord movements. And again, we’re going about it two ways. A remix is one thing. With a track you can start from scratch and do your thing.
There have been people who’ve said my stuff sound the same. I understand you can definitely, distinctly tell that it’s me, because it has a certain sound to it. But I’ve always tried to bring in different chord movements. I’ve found it very dull that people seem to use the same chord progressions in dance music. Not now, but when I was starting. They’d use the same four or five chords. There’s a lot of chord progressions out there. You listen to an orchestral piece. I’ve sampled from soundtracks. I’ve used chord progressions I’ve heard from movies or abstract pieces of music. It’s like I’m sharing what moves me with my potential audience. It was maybe not arrogance, but saying, “Look what you can use. What you can put in there.”
You tend to use a lot of processors on your own voice. Is there a reason for this?
Aside from that I can’t stand hearing my own voice? [laughs] When I was younger, I loved to sing. As I got older, singing is something that I do more out of necessity than out of want. A good vocalist is hard to come by. Someone reliable is hard to come by. And sometimes when I write a song I can impersonate voices for it. But like I said, it is very difficult to judge your own voice. I’m very critical of myself, and if someone comes in, I can work on pitch, to edit the pitch of the person’s voice. But if you hear your own voice, hear yourself on tape, it makes you cringe. I believe when the time is right the right person will come across my path.
A notable exception to that is “Face to Face,” the track you did with Daft Punk, where your singing is left untouched.
That is Thomas and Guy’s wisdom. They really knew what they were doing. I really sang the song twice, and they were confident with that. The way they used it, I became really good with it; I was really pleased with how it sounded, but if I were on my own I’d be listening to all the flaws. That’s the good thing about collaboration. It becomes a marriage of trust.
One of the most noteworthy things about Daft Punk is their use of disguise, both as a gesture toward the white-label anonymity of early rave and as a kind of joke on pop stardom. Your own relative lack of notoriety is interesting in that regard—you don’t seem like someone who’s necessarily shunning the spotlight, on purpose anyway. Is fame something you think about? Is it something you’ve ever wanted?
No. I think that my lack of notoriety in America comes from being established in England and maybe not even making that effort—you have to look at different markets. The U.S. market is now a focus. As far as fame is concerned, [the UK audience] has always been kind to me. There’s [the slogan] “Todd Is God,” which isn’t me at all. You’re not going to tell them to stop doing it, but it isn’t where I’m at.
That goes back to the faith thing. [Fame] is not something I want to focus on. The need to be in the spotlight is about being alive and letting people know you’re alive. I want the music to shine. I’d like to continue to earn a living making good music, and I want the music to reach people. The intrigue worked for me in England, and [it works with] Daft Punk.
I wanted to ask you about two-step garage, or U.K. garage, which in a lot of ways you helped model. You’re obviously connected with people from that scene—the i! garage compilation is evidence of that—and it seemed to stray from the public eye fairly quickly. Is it something you felt very invested in?
I was one of the major players who had a major influence on the scene, and that allowed me to do what I wanted to do. Because no one was really able to replicate what I do, it gave me creative freedom. There is a balance between being innovative and having an audience who really wants to hear it. You try to copy too much of what’s out there you can really get lost. You’re not selling out, but you’re not investing enough of yourself into it. As far as coming and going in the public eye, I never expected it to catch on the way it did in the UK. When you dropped an MK or Todd Terry or Masters at Work or Roger Sanchez record, you knew who it was. Making a great record is a great thing; there can be a good payoff. But there are a lot of people who are not so aware of name, who just have regular jobs and hear a great track on the radio but might not know who created it. They can put them into the category of other great tracks: “that’s techno, that’s house.”
The flipside of that is that there is a movement out there. Music today obviously has changed from a few years ago. I think that was the thing about having a spot in the UK scene, I didn’t have to keep up. People were trying to emulate my sound, so I could do what I do creatively. But that’s not usually how it works. You have to be respectful of the sound. As a maturing producer, you see that. I’m working on an album now that’s probably going to sound very different than the last album.
Is this the R&B; album that you’ve been rumored to be working on?
No. It’s still electronic. I dabble a little with R&B;—not a lot. You hear some really good beats, like the Timbaland stuff. But I really like stuff like Imogen Heap. I felt a real sense inside with Odyssey coming out; there was a conviction to say, “You’ve proven what you can do, and you can continue to keep going in that direction and stay on top with producing tracks.” But I feel compelled to refine my songwriting.
How do you feel about the way that sort of garage splintered into things like grime and dubstep? Do you pay attention those styles?
Not a lot. The bottom line is obviously I have respect for grime producers. But I don’t like negative messages. I don’t like things that are glorifying violence or objectifying women. You’ve seen the trends over here with rap and you see it in grime over in the UK. The music itself being dark is great; expressing emotion is great if you’re being honest with it. But glorifying evil for the sake of evil, I just can’t get into it, man. But the driving force is always music. That’s what keeps people coming back.
By: Michaelangelo Matos
Published on: 2007-04-23
|Recent Features By This Author|