Dego and Mark are 4 Hero. And Jason’s Optical Stairway. And Tom & Jerry. And the brains behind Reinforced Records. They gave Goldie a break and for those that know they are the dons of drum n’ bass and much more besides. Welcome to their dreams. Words: Bethan Cole
“WE’RE TRYING to make the unimaginable real.” Dego MacFarlane, 4 Hero. Beyond the tangible three dimensional world, beyond linear time and the constrictive rationalism of human thought, lies the strange, beautiful and ever-expansive universe of 4 Hero. A sci-fi utopia, tucked away in a tardis like attic studio in Willesden, North London. A hyperspace wonderland, conceived by two reserved electronic heads who, for the past five years, have sat in their room and imagined the future like no one else in British dance music. Dego MacFarlane and Mark Mac have not only catapulted the science of breakbeat into previously uncharted territories but surfed every wave in dance music, making house, hip hop and techno with the same assurance as jungle and freestyling their way out of any stylistic restraint you’d care to place on them. This year, they’re scheduled to release albums as Jacob’s Optical Stairway, 4 Hero, Tom & Jerry and Tek 9. And that’s not to mention collaborations with Juan Atkins, Josh Wink, King Britt and Nicolette.
Right now, they’re the only jungle producers to have deals with more than one major label and simultaneously command the respect and the admiration of Detroit’s most underground pioneers. So whilst they may be still hidden away in a cupboard-like studio in North West London, 4 Hero are finally launching into public orbit. And, after five years residing in the shadows, it’s happening not a moment too soon.
IT’S SOMETIME in late January. North West London. Outside, an opaque grey mist is descending and the suburban sprawl of Willesden is drifting from day into night. Inside, sandwiched between floor to ceiling shelves of keyboards, a mixing desk and small electric heater, Dego MacFarlane (extremely sarcastic and extremely good looking) and Mark Mac (shy, thoughtful, witty and sensitive) are trying to untangle their personal histories for my benefit with liberal amounts of their extremely dry sense of humour.
Where to start? How about the music. In 1994, as 4 Hero, Dego and Mark released an incredible record. One that should, by rights, be recognised as one of the all time great experimental albums. And a landmark moment for jungle. Parallel Universe was totally different from anything else around at the time, with breaks which scissored in and out of earshot, collapsed in on themselves, spun out of control and melted into thick Detroit-esque strings. Even earlier, 1992’s Journey From The Light EP inserted jazz-fusion samples into Lynn Collins breaks and cut it all up with wildstyle scratching.
“When we were doing stuff with Goldie,” remembers Mark, “he always used to talk about wanting to make a sound that crept all the way round you at the back and tapped you on the shoulder at the other end. And that’s all we’ve ever wanted to do too. So we sit down in the studio and try to do it.”
4 Hero not only seem intent on disrupting our aural perceptions, they want to wreck our notion of chronological time too — both in their intricately programmed breaks and in the way they’ve been consistently and continually ahead of the pack. Journey From The Light didn’t just bring Dingwalls-style fusion into the hardcore lexicon (on the astounding ‘In The Shadow’), it was the first record to make use of the technological advances of time stretching — playing a normal speed vocal over sped up breaks replacing the squeaky compressed vocals which had hitherto dominated ‘ardcore.
“Reinforced [the label Mark and Dego run with friends Gus and Ian] has always been about moving forward and finding new ground,” explains Dego, matter of fact. “We’ve always been the label that has done shit first. Some new sound. Some new way of programming. It was done for the first time here and that’s an undisputed fact. We’re still experimenting, we’re still going forward. That’s why we sound separate from everyone else.”
And whilst 4 Hero and the Reinforced crew’s innovations are well respected on the jungle scene, they’re still very much out on their own.
It’s rare you’ll ever hear 4 Hero material played out in a set — although their Tom & Jerry stuff gets caned by the likes of Grooverider, Ray Keith, Randall and Hype. Dego puts it down to the fact that although they live in London, they don’t often go out and do the necessary schmoozing and networking with DJs.
Perhaps more importantly they’re unfussed by dub plate mania. All DJs get their tracks at the same time, on vinyl rather than five top jocks getting them months in advance on exclusive pressings. But their distance from the scene owes most to their genre-bending tendencies. The jungle purists don’t like the fact that Mark and Dego make hip hop, house and techno as well. Simple as that.
“The depressing thing about the whole jungle industry is that when you talk to a lot of DJs and artists and ask what else they listen to they might say, ‘Yeah, that Pharcyde album is wicked,’ or ‘I love that Tribe Called Quest thing’,” Mark queries. “And I always think, ‘Why don’t you incorporate that when you’re making music than rather sticking to the usual format of jungle?'”
Which is why Dego and Mark have made their mark on many diverse scenes. Chances are most hip hop enthusiasts will know Dego’s work with DJ Bizness as PDA. And many a house and garage fan can wax lyrical about those 1991 Partners Inc. EPs, also made by Dego and Mark. There’s their techno tracks as Nu Era too, tearing dancefloor jungle as Tom & Jerry, downbeat business as Tek 9 (Dego on his own), happy tunes as Manix (Mark on his own) and techno-breakbeat as Jacob’s Optical Stairway.
4 HERO’S Dego and Mark have known each other since childhood. You can tell. Sometimes there are long silences between them, the sort of silences that only the oldest and closest of friends have, comfortable, intuitive and considerate. Now 26 and 28, they recall their respective childhoods as pretty uneventful. “When I think of my childhood, I just think of the word ‘average’,” sighs Mark. “I remember the C’s on my report. No one had anything to say about me so it was C, C, C, C, sometimes C+.”
Dego eyes me with suspicion. “I ain’t gonna tell you about my childhood… no way. It’s like I’d never go and see a psychiatrist. I think I know myself well enough.”
As kids, Dego and Mark would listen to London pirates like JFM and Horizon to hear the latest soul, funk jazz and hip hop cuts — from Mazelle Brothers and Patrice Rushen to Afrika Bambaataa, Paul Weller’s cult Respond imprint and early Tommy Boy. “They were proper pirates back then,” opines Dego looking disgruntled.
Mark left college with a diploma in Electronic Engineering, which he maintains is “of no use whatever!” Dego, meanwhile, came out with a diploma in Building Construction, following it with a series of McJobs in the city and, later, working for Tandy which he found tied in nicely with his sound system hobby. He laughs.
“I used to provide cable for the sound system, anything Mark wanted he could come down and get, it wasn’t a knock off trade — it was a free giveaway!”
Mark became a mobile engineer, driving round London fixing machines every day. And up until four months ago he was working full time as an engineer at a London film studio.
“This is what I looked forward to, every single day, the time when I could get off and come down the studio. That’s why I believe, in this industry you have to be humble to a certain extent. I’ve been through that nine to five torture. We’ve got to be grateful we’re doing what we’re doing. The attitude in the music business isn’t really necessary, because half the people in it, if they had to get up and do a nine to five, they wouldn’t survive.”
DEGO AND Mark are in no confusion about their own attitude. Neither of them touches drugs, alcohol or cigarettes and never has. And they’re fed up of people telling them they do drugs to “appreciate the music”! “All this cocaine and acid and shit, I’m having none of it,” spits Dego, “I’m not part of that scene. It might sound corny and all that but just say no, dude. I think I’m a strong enough personality where I don’t have to join in and have an E or start smoking shit or putting a needle in my arm every five seconds.”
“I don’t think I’ve missed out on a buzz or anything,” says Mark. “That myth that you have to be taking E to make the sort of music we do is shit. It was really funny when ‘Mr Kirk’s Nightmare’ [an early 4 Hero rave anthem recently re-released by US imprint Sm:)le with a distinctive “Mr Kirk, your son is dead” vocal sample] came out because a lot of people thought it was a big drugs record. It was supposed to be an anti-drugs record and we kept hearing stories about people getting bad trips off it.”
“Good! We’ll lure people to the real dark-side!” cackles Dego.
IN 1991 4 Hero’s output caught the attention of Kevin Saunderson who, unlike Derrick May, was interested in the British hardcore breakbeat sound developing. The upshot was a live date for Mark and Dego in Detroit where they hooked up with Mad Mike, Claude Young, Dan Curtin and a host of other techno big players. “We were like aliens landing on a different planet,” muses Dego. “We landed in Detroit and there were other beings there doing the same kind of things as us.”
“It was that same crew thing we’d experienced in hip hop, going to Detroit we felt like crew as well,” says Mark. By 1994 Dego had compiled the ultimate 5am Detroit techno collection The Deepest Shade of Techno, licensing pivotal tracks like Underground Resistance’s ‘Jupiter Jazz’ and exclusives such as Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowlkes ‘Check One Boy’.
“They were personal favourites,” says Mark.
“It wasn’t meant to be an album of this,” Dego adds, “It was like mmm… the warm sounds of Detroit — like a nice cup of tea.”
Ironically, whilst 4 Hero were getting respect from the Detroit headz, the British techno fraternity — in their dogged veneration of all things Detroit and four to the floor, were ignoring similarly important innovations in their own back garden, courtesy of 4 Hero and their Nu Era project. But Dego and Mark were hardly bothered by the British techno snobs. In fact they couldn’t have cared less.
MEANWHILE, THE Reinforced crew was growing.
“This annoying guy used to phone up and ask me to send records to Kemistry!” explains Dego of his first encounters with Goldie. One day Goldie turned up at the studio with a load of demos he’d done specifically for Reinforced.
“No way were they demos though,” exclaims Mark, “They were ready, and way ahead of what everyone else was doing at the time. For us it was brilliant to be able to put his stuff out on Reinforced. He really became part of the company — he even designed the R logo on the record sleeves.”
Three to four years on and 4 Hero are finally taking up their rightful place in the techno hierarchy. They’ve released their Jacob’s Optical Stairway album on classic Belgian techno imprint R&S. Naturally it’s brilliant and in many ways, like Parallel Universe (which had track titles like ‘Sunspots’, ‘Universal Love’ and ‘Wrinkles In Time’), it’s pretty conceptual. “I think it’s important to build the tracks around the names,” says Mark. “Jacob was obviously the guy in the Bible who saw the ladder coming out of the cloud. We wanted to put it in the future tense, where this cloud has a ladder coming out of it and it’s actually the stairs of a UFO.”
He explains about the various tracks — how ‘The Naphosisous Wars’ is like a histograph of an imagined past era and its battles, while ‘Quatrain 72’ refers to a major war predicted in the verses of Medieval prophet Nostradamus.
Outside, it’s night time. Inside, we’re eating crisps and cake and drinking Ribena and talking about the future, strange phenomena and science fiction. Right now, Mark is fascinated by the idea the ancient Egyptians may have used gyroscopes to move the pyramid stones and has long conversations on the Net about it.
And Dego is reading a book about dreams, a feminist version. “She keeps going on about how men can never understand women’s dreams,” sighs Dego. His next project — possibly an ambient album — will be based on dreams. “The problem is I have dreams but I never remember them, though.” Luckily, a few anonymous friends (myself included) are faxing Dego our dreams to provide him with plenty of source material.
Later, we’re walking out of the studio into the dark, me and Mark and Dego and there’s this one star hanging in the sky and I’m reminded of the logical, android-like voice on the Jacob’s Optical Stairway track ’20 Degrees of Taurus’.
“Sometimes I look at the stars at night. The stars seem to tell you if things are OK or not OK.”
And somehow, suddenly, I kinda know we are.
© Bethan Cole, Mixmag, March 1996