It's 1970, and a man runs a respected barbershop in inner-city Philadelphia. One day his five-year-old son asks him for a timeslot to DJ for the patrons. (He also wants to borrow some records). Most might've laughed at the request, but not this father. He and his wife value art, education, and hard work, so he agrees to the plan. Philadelphia is about to get one of its youngest DJs, and the music world is about to get King Britt. The young man's adventures continued, often bordering on the fantastic. From Philly, to clubs in Europe, to the big screens of Asia, King Britt is nothing if not the patron saint of talent, faith, and persistence. Even from the time we started this interview until its submission, he has had four new releases, inked a scoring deal, and began a professorship. Tape Op caught up with him in his Philadelphia laboratory, not far from the barbershop where it all started.
You were born and raised in Philly, and spent a lot of time in the barber shop. Tell me about that.
When I was five years old one of my first jobs was to play records for everyone who came in. The whole neighborhood comes into a barbershop – mostly men. Not only to get their hair cut, but it's an entire experience. Watching the game, listening to the newest records, and talking about lady troubles... general men talk. My father would take me to the record stores every Friday to get all the new releases. I learned there were times to play certain songs. Maybe you needed to make people relax, or get people talking. Some guy comes in stressed out from life, I would put on [Martha and the Vandellas'] "Heat Wave" or some Jackson 5 song, and it got people in a joyful and celebratory state instead of being negative or getting angrier. That was my first experience observing how music can affect people's emotions. I also learned about various styles of music. My dad was all funk and soul music. However, at home, my mother was all jazz and jazz vocalists. And she was friends with Sun Ra.
Didn't he say he was a spaceman?
Yes, he was a pioneer. He lived all over: Alabama, New York, and Chicago. He moved to Philly in the late-'60s. His group, the Arkestra, moved into Germantown here on Morton Street. When you're five, six, or seven, Sun Ra is too much, from a musical standpoint. However, visually, it was mind-blowing. To see black people running around in costumes, looking like superheroes, and making this otherworldly music; it blew my mind. That was the first time I ever saw a [Moog] Polymoog [synthesizer]. Owen Brown used to play with them.
You were young, but had an eye on a Moog?
It wasn't until the '80s that I noticed Owen Brown and the Moog. My mom didn't believe in baby sitters. If there was a show, I was going with her. When I went to high school, it was: school, work, shows. Homework was easy. I was a good student and got that done. In sixth grade, I had a teacher, Mr. Fell. Every Friday we would do music appreciation. This was in southwest Philly, which is still pretty rough today. I had a great childhood. I had everything; toys, an Atari, you name it. But the neighborhood was on the fringe of madness sometimes. In the early 1980s, gang wars were an issue in Philly. There was the mafia in south Philly, and everywhere else were these little gangs. I mention this because my mother was adamant that I did not go to school in the neighborhood; she made sure I went to school downtown. You apply, and you get bussed. Luckily for me, James "J.T." Taylor's (the lead singer of Kool & The Gang) grandma lived in Philly. She would drive myself and her niece, Yvette, to school. For three years, I went to Albert M. Greenfield Elementary. Mr. Fell's class changed my life. This was the first time I got to focus on other music that was not funk, soul, or jazz. The kids downtown were predominantly Jewish. They were bringing in Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, and Billy Squier – music I hadn't heard. Zeppelin and The Police blew my mind because of the drums. [John] Bonham and [Stewart] Copeland were beyond anything thing I assumed drummers could do. Keep in mind, this is before what we know now. Hip-hop had started in New York, and some people were passing around tapes, but I was too young for that circle. Meanwhile, I was bringing in Michael Jackson and Heatwave.
You mean Rod Temperton's band, Heatwave?
Yes, the band. I was bringing in Parliament [-Funkadelic], and those kids were like, "Whoa!" I also gravitated to Yes, Rush, and King Crimson. I know people call that "math-rock," but it was jazz to me; just different instrumentation. In high school, I met like-minded individuals. We would go to shows on our own. At 13, I was allowed to go to shows. I loved the math-rock, but... PUNK! A friend of mine, Doug Bennett, goes under the name Dr. Israel. He lives in Brooklyn, and he's big in the reggae dub scene, but back then he was a punk rocker. He was in my homeroom in ninth grade. That's how I got introduced to the Dead Kennedys, Trained Attack Dogs, Black Flag, Fishbone, and Bad Brains. I couldn't believe what Fishbone were doing. Bad Brains were incredible. HR [vocalist Paul "Human Rights" Hudson] later moved to Philly. At that time, seeing black punks was unique. It was well before Afro-punk. It was rhythmically insane. Tenth grade was the turning point; I was into punk and rock. Still into jazz, but keeping that more at home. I was rebelling when I was out. My best friend's sister was in the Army, and she brought home a 45 from this band, Kraftwerk.
There was no Amazon, no internet. No way to obtain that easily.
She was stationed in Frankfurt, and she brought the single for their track, "Autobahn." I was like, "What is this?" Simultaneously, hip-hop started to explode. In Philly this meant block parties popping up. People were out in the streets, getting together and jamming to tunes. I'm very close to Jeff Townes [DJ Jazzy Jeff] now, but back then I didn't know him and I was always at parties he, or Jerome "DJ Cash Money" Hewlett, would run. That was the first time I saw a DJ manipulating vinyl in front of an audience.
Your whole life, you're collecting and respecting records, and these guys are grinding the stylus into them!
Not just scratching; they were manipulating two records while keeping the breaks entirely in time. The breaks Jeff was using? Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" and Rush's "Tom Sawyer." I was screaming, "These are rock records I love!" They're incorporating them differently, and out of necessity. That's how hip-hop happened. Philly has some of the best DJs in the world.
Do you think that's a result of the block party phenomenon?
These were battles, and the bar was high! With Jazzy Jeff and Cash Money? Right away, those guys were the standard, and if you wanted to DJ you had to compare to them. Even if you were going into techno or house music, your technical skills had to be on point. Obviously, we didn't have the tools, software, or other things that we take for granted now.But not having access to everything, and needing to be unique, sparks innovation beyond measure.In New York all they had were turntables, a microphone, speakers, and manipulating vinyl – that birthed hip-hop. Now 100 miles southwest, we had Grand Wizard Rasheen [David Roberts] and many talents battling neighborhood by neighborhood. And it was free!
What did they do during the Pennsylvania winters?
They started doing gymnasiums and the YMCA. Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff would play my high school. Getting back to new records, the Kraftwerk single made me wonder what else was out there that I needed to hear. I would go to Third Street Jazz [record store] every Saturday, and sometimes we would skip school because two or three test pressings might be coming in. Today, kids use the internet to get anything – we had to stand in line. If Depeche Mode had a 12-inch coming in, I cut school for that! I know this is going to sound bad, but no one could get these records, so I began to tape them and sell the tapes at school. We were kids. We didn't have money, and people couldn't even get a copy of the music, so that's what we did. Cassettes got me thinking. As I was making those tapes, I started to experiment with loops. We would take a breakbeat. Say it was Harvey Mason from Carole King's record, Fantasy. We didn't have drum machines, or access to samplers, but we had some of these world-class drummers, and we made "pause tapes."
Could you explain for those who haven't dealt with that?
We called them pause tapes. Play the beat on one tape, record that on the other deck, pause it, and rewind the source beat. Play it again while lifting pause, and now you have a beat that is twice as long as the original. I had friends who would come over and rap over the breaks and music beds we would make. I was making breaks that nobody else had, because I had all these jazz and rock records. I was familiar with so many styles of music that I could draw from. I had been listening to everything. I didn't have the money for a Fairlight [CMI sampler], but I did have two cassette decks and a turntable.
Where did it go from there?
The Yes album 90125 came out; a rock album that used samples. I wanted to know who this producer, Trevor Horn [Tape Op #89], was. He changed my outlook. What I was doing may have been perceived as a side thing, or a club thing, but the Yes album showed there was a bigger horizon. For people who don't know, the minds behind this – Gary Langan, Trevor Horn, Paul Morley, Anne Dudley, and J. J. Jeczalik – were in the studio fooling around with all the sounds and the Fairlight CMI sampler. They came up with what would become [the group project] The Art of Noise. They took a scrapped drum riff and sampled it into the Fairlight. This might have been the first time an entire drum pattern had been sampled into a machine. "Moments in Love" became a Philly anthem! It was released on ZTT [Records], and people noticed. Then beatboxing blew up because of break dancing. It was the right time for all of this to hit.
Did it make you crazy that you couldn't get your hands on the tech they had?
We were getting close. The E-mu Drumulator came out. It was E-mu trying to take on that Roger Linn LM-1 [Drum Computer]. We would go to a record store, a place called FunkO-Mart, and they actually sold Drumulators. I needed to get a Drumulator, but they were about $200 or so then. [That'd be $600 today. -ed] It wasn't crazy money. I had a summer job, but for a city kid, that's still some money. However, the big thing that came out was the Casio SK-1. It was $99. Christmas came; my dad paid half, I paid the rest, and I had my first sampler.
Your parents are amazing!
Tell me about it. That Casio SK-1 still works. I had it modified; now it can do glitches. I sampled kicks, drums, this and that. I sampled water running, anything. I was trying to make it work and see what happened. I was a junior in high school, and I was heavy into Depeche Mode and Scritti Politti; these Brits. It's jazz, but alternative dance, with guitar. I'm thinking, "Anything from the UK is cool." There was a show, "Rock Over London," that was simulcasted here on Sunday nights on WXPN. I would stay up listening on my Walkman. I had my head under the covers – I was supposed to be asleep; it was a school night. Or I would be recording it. They mentioned this thing called "sequencing." I wanted to learn what this was. Jamaaladeen Tacuma, now a famous bass player, is a mentor to me. We both worked at the mall. He was playing with Ornette Coleman at the time. At lunch, we would talk. He and my friend, Earl [Johnson], said, "You need to get the Yamaha QX21 sequencer."
How did Earl know this?
He's a producer. He discovered Pink, who is from Doylestown, PA, 30 miles north of Philly. He was all over the latest technology. Earl told me it had this thing called MIDI, and that I would need a keyboard that also had MIDI to control it. My other buddy, James Poyser, was also working at the mall. He sold me his [Yamaha] DX100; the small version of the [Yamaha] DX7. James went on to work with Adele, Erykah Badu, Mariah Carey, John Legend, Lauryn Hill, and you can also see him on NBC's [The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy] Fallon as a member of The Roots.
What was in the water in Pennsylvania?
I know! Then they said I needed to get a PortaStudio.
Tascam PortaStudios; the real gateway drug.
I know, right? [laughing] I would record the drums, sequence other parts, and build demos on the 4-track. By today's standards it was basic, but back then it was not something many people could do without going to a big studio. Right out of high school I got a job at Tower Records; the job had benefits, and I got to work in music. The Tower store was big, with floors for each genre, and they had a separate store across the street to hold classical music. My boss said they wanted to start selling more 12-inch dance mixes, and they needed me to choose the stock. I became the 12-inch dance buyer. Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig were starting out; no one outside of this small circle knew their names. Now they're world-renowned. They were sending test presses and promos...
Promos you can't sell, so you have no choice but to take them home.
Don't tell! My collection is insane. I saved and bought a [Moog] Minimoog. I saw Herbie Hancock after I got his Sunlight album. I wanted to buy every keyboard on the back of that record; he's my hero.
Record credits would sometimes list the synth the person played as their instrument, rather than "keyboards."
That's how we learned. You wouldn't know what was out there without those credits. The first time I heard a Fender Rhodes, I was like, "What in the world is that? How is that sound made?" The Minimoog I bought in '88 is still here. Since Tower had turntables, they would sell their old ones when they replaced or upgraded them. I got these two Technics SL-]1200 [turntables] for a very affordable price. At this point I was obsessed with Tears for Fears – The Hurting, Songs from the Big Chair, and The Seeds of Love – to this day. Going through the credits, I asked, "Who is this Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #129, #84] guy?" I wondered how a mixing engineer could have such an impact on the result. I moved to a new place, and it was so small that I had to use the neighbor's bathroom. I didn't have room for a bed; I had gear everywhere. I couldn't stop working. I sampled the intro from Tears for Fears' "Mad World," some African Head Charge, put a drum loop on it, added a bass line, and that became E-Culture's "Tribal Confusion." I sent it to Strictly Rhythm [Records], who only had two releases at that time. And [label head] Gladys Pizarro said, "This will do great in Europe." So she signed it. At the same time, Josh Wink [Joshua Winkelman] and I had just met. He had a drum machine and a keyboard; he wanted to collaborate with me and learn production.
When I was a kid, we would form a band based upon who owned what gear!
Totally. This is before I owned a [Roland TR-]808. I said to Josh, "Let's do this together. We can call it E-Culture." We didn't do drugs, but we were talking about the acid house scene and kids doing "E." But we meant the culture of "Everyone." It blew up when we were in our senior year of college. We started to get offers, and Josh went to Europe and did well. He came back and said, "King, you've got to get over here." I had to talk to my parents about dropping out of Temple [University].
How difficult was that conversation?
Well, I had the record and showed them the contract, and my parents said, "Go for it." Me and my friend, Dozia [Blakey] went over. I got to Tower Records in London in Piccadilly – I went in and asked to transfer to their store. However, it wasn't meant to be. I was 18, and I had no idea about work Visas or any of the rules. I came back, and we were doing house records. I met Butterfly [Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler, Tape Op #109] well before Digable Planets. He came into Tower looking for something, but didn't quite know what it was. I told him he wouldn't find that at our store, "But come to my party and I'll hook you up." I was spinning at a place called Silk City – my first DJ solo job. It was hard, at first. The neighborhood was industrial and not yet built up.
It sounds like you were about to break it big.
One day, a friend of mine was opening the new Betsey Johnson store in Philly, and Betsey was down from New York to check on the progress. They brought Betsey to my show, and that was the tipping point: word got around that Betsey and her friends had a good time. To this day, it is one of the best clubs in Philly. I told Butterfly to come, and he was like, "I don't have a tape deck." He needed to make a copy of his demo tape. I invited him over to my house. He came over, and the tape is Digable Planets' demo. And I'm like, "Dude! What is this?" It was jazz, [Jimi] Hendrix samples, and more. The demo was different than how the album [Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)] came out, but it was mind-blowing. He went to New York and eventually secured a deal. He called and said, "King, you have to be in the band." I didn't want to, because I was doing house and new wave. I'd never thought about being in a hip-hop group. He was cool about it. One day he said, "We have to perform in front of Ruben Rodriguez." He needed a DJ. Rodriguez was the head of Pendulum Records, through Elektra [Records]. At this point, I had blonde locks with reddish rust double color. Ruben signed the group on the spot. They were insistent that I join the group – at least for the tour. There is a documentary called Unsung: Digable Planets, which covers a lot of this. I didn't do the production; I was just in the band as a DJ. It exploded, and we didn't come back from the tour for two years. By 1994, we had finished playing with Sade, and my wife became pregnant with our daughter, Summer. I had to leave the band to be home. They got Jazzy Joyce to DJ; they were in good hands. On the techno side, Josh blew up. We teamed up to start Ovum Recordings. In 1996 I did Sylk 130 [When The Funk Hits The Fan]. It was an homage to my parents, who were on the record talking. My high school friends are on it. [I included] as many musicians as I could. The second album [Re-Members Only] was in 2001. I did it at Larry Gold's ["The Studio"], which is MilkBoy now, and had Alison Moyet [Yaz], Martin Fry [ABC], Kathy Sledge [Sister Sledge], Grover Washington Jr., and De La Soul – all my '80s heroes!
How did you approach all of those artists?
Take Alison: A good friend of mine, AndreaParker, her manager, Claire, was also Alison's manager. I contacted them in the UK, saying I had a track that was perfect for Alison. Claire explained that Alison never did guest spots but told me to send the demo and she would at least present it. I got back to Philly and a week later, I got a phone call, "Hello, love. This is Alison." And I knew it was her; that voice is so distinctive! I covered the phone and I screamed. Alison has only done three or four guest spots ever – but she loved the song. Sony Records flew her to Philly. In the studio, she was sitting down with the mic like this, to get that deep sound. [King sits on a stool and crouches into a ball, almost eating the microphone.] Jon Smeltz was the engineer. He was looking at me like, "What's going on? Is this how she wants to do this?" And she crushed it. One take.
And the others?
Martin Fry from ABC: My friend, Mark Bell, was living in Blackpool, England. He was friends with Doc Martin; the DJ, not the shoes. Mark grew up with Martin, and he made a call. I was concerned because the track was funky as all get out. Martin flew to New York and took a train to Philadelphia. It was like a music video; he appears on the escalator in this gold suit. He went in, and he killed it.
What about recording gear and instruments?
The equipment I've collected up to that point, which was '96 to '97, is pretty much what I still use today. Moog Source, Minimoog, [Roland] PG200, and a ARP Solina String Ensemble. I had a Mac Classic running Master Tracks Pro from Passport [Designs]. I had a Casio FZ-1 sampler. I saw Towa Tei from Deee-Lite had it. I thought, "If he's got it, I have to get that." The FZ-1 had this gritty sound I liked. Later I got the Casio FZ-20 rack mount. The whole Sylk 130 album was all that, plus a live band.
This is for When The Funk Hits The Fan?
Yes. Also, I worked with a producer named John Wicks. I learned everything I know about production from John Wicks. When it comes to working with live musicians, mic placement, and all of the tech; John changed my life with that knowledge. He had a place called Third Story Recording; it's one of the oldest studios in Philly. That's where we did the first Sylk 130 tracks.
What about remixing?
The first remix was for the British artist Donna Lewis. The song "I Love You Always Forever." The remix went on the album, and it went triple platinum. Johnny D at Atlantic [Records] liked Sylk 130, and he hired me to do a the "Sylk 130 remix."
Can you talk about your source material for a remix in the 1990s?
We only had an a cappella and instrumental [mix]. It was not like today, with stems and editors. I had to program everything in the [Akai] MPC – it took hours. Now I can do it in Ableton Live in a few minutes. I'm using Sugar Bytes' Egoist [software] for a remix for harpist Mary Lattimore. I was able to cut the harp parts up into hundreds of elements in about 20 minutes. However,without the years of doing it the long way, I wouldn't have the knowledge or perspective. I cut up a song different than a younger engineer who has never done it the long way.
The new generation has a robot do it.
Yeah, but we remember how we used to do it. [laughs] Back then I was sending this all to DAT. Now, for remixes, we have the multitrack if we need it. For Donna Lewis, I had the a cappella DAT [digital audio tape] and the music separate, so we'd manipulate it from there. I'd put the beat in with the MPC, John would cut the vocal to fit the beat in the [Roland] W-30 [sampler], and everything was MIDI. We would have been using [Emagic] Logic. I'd come up with a bass line, and I would bring in a player, depending on the groove. On keys I had Mark Boyce, who plays with G. Love now, and Jafar Barron on trumpet. We sent it to Donna; she's such a nice lady. When she won at the Grammy Awards, they played our mix when she took the stage. What we made is so "Philly." Paula Cole's people heard it, so they called and asked for a remix for "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" That lead to "Father Lucifer" by Tori Amos. I did the best work I could with what gear and interface I had.
Did you even care about that? Like the way people obsess now?
Here's the thing. Coming up the way we came up, you start with a Tascam PortaStudio because you can't afford to go into a giant SSL room. Recording into the computer now? It sounds too good. I'm trying to degrade sounds, trying to get grit and hiss. There was a character to the imperfections of the chain. People played in the room, or they worked on composition. That's what made the records. I have so many remix stories, and there is so much, in terms of what changed. I did a remix for The Revolution. After their tour, Wendy & Lisa traveled here; it was like therapy for them. Prince had just passed, and they needed to do something creative.
What about this modular synthesizer you have behind you?
Well, I've been scared to get in to modular. I mean, it's great, but where do you stop? The new generation who grew up on computers, they are learning that you need to grab a knob and get instant results. I will always love analog. However, I also love digital because of the speed of editing or mobility. I was traveling, and it allowed me to work. On a plane, I have an iPad and an iPhone and I'm working. I use headphones by AIAIAI.
Do you use headphones for production?
All the time. I use the AIAIAI when I'm traveling, which is a lot. When I'm in the studio, Beyerdynamic DT 990 are my go-to. The Fhloston Paradigm record [After] was all mixed while relying on them.
We can't admit that.
We can!If you want it bad enough, you'll find a way to make it work.It's why I like those Mackie speakers. Many people have them; I know where the bass is on those, and I know when to stop. But being able to work on the plane is essential. International flights are long. Tendai Maraire, who is in Shabazz Palaces, he and I went to Zimbabwe to do an album based on his dad's work. His dad is Mbira master Dumisani Maraire; he brought the mbira to the US. When Dumisani died, he left his masters to Tendai. We worked on a remix album. That's when I met SassyBlack [Tape Op #128]. She saw me using [Ableton] Push, and I guess I pushed Push on her.
I think people need to hear how a musical career can take so many directions.
Hopefully all good ones!
Certainly. How did director/producer Michael Mann hear about you?
I was in Miami for a conference, and I got a call from Michael Mann's secretary. I thought it was a joke. They were working on [the film remake of] Miami Vice. The original Miami Vice sounds were revolutionary, in how it used music to provide impact to a visual medium. RZA [Wu-Tang Clan] was supposed to do the soundtrack, but schedules didn't line up. She asked if I would score a few scenes for Miami Vice – some short underscores. I agreed and sent them over. My manager and I flew to L.A. to meet with Michael Mann. He said he'd heard the Sister Gertrude Morgan album [King Britt presents Sister Gertrude Morgan]. His wife collects Morgan's art, and there was an NPR piece talking about Hurricane Katrina with our music underneath. Michael had heard this driving in his car. Next thing you know, we're in his office. Then he played scenes where they'd taken my music and set it against the video – he'd already temped it in.
How did you react?
I just stood there. What could I do? He showed me three scenes. "Could you bring the same vibe to these?" I called Tim Motzer to play guitar and co-produce. We did those three scenes and submitted them. They called back, asking for four more scenes. We ended up doing ten scenes. Michael called again about a Rolex commercial in Hong Kong. Then Ridley Scott's people called. Now I am doing music for Guinness and NBC's The Blacklist. It just goes to show, the more unique you are in your sound, the harder it is for them to copy you – sound-a-likes won't cut it.If you rely on plug-ins and presets, anyone could do what you do. Be unique.
After our interview, King released four more projects. He also accepted a post as an assistant teaching professor at the University of California, San Diego. His courses focus on Electronic Music Production and Audio Recording Techniques. King splits his time between California and Pennsylvania and continues to create, no matter where he is at any given moment.