For a man in his 50s, who’s just written his autobiography, Mark Rae is surprisingly unwilling to dwell in the past.
He’s certainly entitled to hark back to past glories: as a DJ, half of the production duo Rae & Christian, and a major force between the Fat City record store and Grand Central label, he made huge waves through UK and international music through the 1990s and into the 2000s. In his new book Northern Sulphuric Soulboy – a short volume released independently through Bandcamp with an accompanying 6-track 10” vinyl record—he looks back to his youth and his professional achievements, sharing hair-raising tales and harsh lessons learned about the realities of the music business.
But unlike many such memoirs, it doesn’t feel like a rounding-off of a career, a settling of scores or a wistful yearning for better times. Rather, its swift tumble through decades of vivid anecdotes, combined with the crisp and funky soundtrack, feels like someone flexing their creative muscles, enjoying the act of expression as much as the trip down memory lane. And when we meet him in a North London cafe, the impression is the same: this is a man with unfinished business, who is as interested in what’s next as he’s ever been. Rae is smartly dressed—ever the soulboy—and possessed of the brisk wit of his native north of England (he was raised in Newcastle and came of musical age in Manchester): altogether, he comes off as focused and on the case. And regardless of how much we ask about the past, his train of thought returns constantly to the present day.
It’s easy, for example, to get him waxing lyrical about the electro and breakdance explosion of his teens in the early-mid 1980s. “Electro records still sound more futuristic to me than anything made before or since, because that was the mindset: kids getting their hands on something and going, ’We have the technology and we’re going to make sounds that have never been heard before.’” But then very quickly this becomes a jump-off point for him to consider the challenges this sets for the young producers of today, how re-edit culture encourages digging into history just as sampling did in his youth, and how exciting it is for those youngsters to come up against the “otherness” of the past. “They might be able to download a ton of sound and video,” he says; “but they still can’t be in that world, so it’s alien to them in the same way the blues was to the Rolling Stones. They can’t help taking it somewhere else in their own music.”
Though Rae and his musically-virtuosic studio partner Steve Christian were entrenched in American music schools of the past, like jazz, doo-wop, and R&B—their productions too were, beyond all else, about the present. As Rae’s DJ career began, around 1988, Manchester was becoming known further abroad as “Madchester,” the drug-crazed home of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, and acid house haven The Haçienda. But to him, that wasn’t the city he knew and loved. “Manchester was about black music,” he says; “from the mid ‘80s we all listened to Stu Allan on Picadilly 103 FM on a Sunday, three hours of hip-hop, soul and new house stuff. Going into the ‘90s, the rave thing took off, but at the same time hip-hop was in this golden age of Main Source, Pete Rock, and Diamond D. There were an obscene number of record shops selling that stuff: even the Corn Exchange alone—before the IRA bombed it [in 1996]—had about 10 stalls selling soul and hip-hop. Yet you’d never hear it on mainstream radio. So my mission statement became to represent that.”
“That feeling,” continues Rae, “when you watched people from inner city Manchester go wild to a real soul record, it gets imprinted on you. From then on, when I was in the studio, I’d be looking back to moments like that, thinking, ‘How can I get that feeling?’” The adherence to this underground authenticity gave Rae & Christian an edge over all the trip-hop and chillout balladeers of the mid ‘90s. Though they never hit big in their own right, despite a major buzz around their debut album Northern Sulphuric Soul, they, “became known within the industry, and people came to us from round the world for remixes and to tap into our knowledge and understanding. We got paid well to do that, we’d be paid tens of thousands of pounds to remix artists who hadn’t even been released yet, just so they could get some of our heat. They would go on to collaborate with legends from Jeru The Damaja to Bobby Womack, but in many ways remained a “best kept secret.”
The rise, fall, and aftermath of Rae & Christian and Grand Central is all there in the Northern Sulphuric Soulboy book. It’s a unique piece of work, each episode or vignette presented with extraordinary simplicity—and an ultra-dry joke or two—then left swiftly behind for the next scene. Glories are glorious, defeats are miserable, but nostalgia doesn’t seem to factor into it often. Indeed, when quizzed on the format and method of release, Rae confirms that he was as interested in the method and results as in the history that he was relating. “I’m discovering I have a constantly creative mind,” he says, “but music is just one aspect of that. In fact, maybe my real skill lies in storytelling.” The Northern Sulphuric Soulboy record ends with Rae’s vocal debut, “Fishing” which he says was inspired by listening to old Prefab Sprout and marvelling at the lyrics. “It’s taken this long,” he says, “to get to the point where I feel brave enough to sing. My ambition is to make music that’s soulful, that has that soundsystem bass, but tells stories as well as Paddy Macaloon [Prefab Sprout] or Green Gartside [Scritti Politti] could do. Whether I’m writing or making music I’ll always want to tell stories.”
The physical artifact of the book itself reflects his need to tell these stories in new ways, too. Its condensed nature, its format—including the record—and the do-it-yourself approach to publishing, all came out of his reactions to new technology and social media. “The value of having something or knowing something,” he says, “is getting wiped out in a lot of ways, because you can just get everything all the time. I wanted to make something, an actual object, that was worth buying, but that would leave people wanting more.” His next release will, in a sense be a sequel—another book with another record—though this time it’s fictional. “It’s about sampling, World War I and Chernobyl, and it’s about how sampling and archeology are the same things. It’s basically two olds guys going round in a van, talking about their musical history. I’m not writing it in first person, or as fact, because it’s revealing too much stuff that I couldn’t put in my autobiography.” And he laughs wryly. Once again, digging into the past is an excuse for Mark Rae to try new things out in the here and now.