For many of the attendees of Southport Weekender, without Kevin Hedge and Josh Milan aka Blaze, the world would be a much different, much duller place, so immeasurable has their influence been.
Since the mid eighties they have been at the forefront of the New York garage scene, the embryonic movement responsible for creating soulful, vocal house and continuing the traditions laid down by the godfathers of American soulful dance music like Tony Humphries, West End Records, Frankie Knuckles, Salsoul and Larry Levan. Crafting some of the most beautiful dance records ever created, coupling the pieces with inspirational lyrical messages, Blaze have set themselves apart from the trivialities and fads of the industry at large, instead staying true to their highly musical, globally aware and always soulful vision. They boast the largest single published catalogue of songs ever to have been recoded in the field of house music. Amongst it are far too many classic moments to mention here, but a quick summary should include “If You Should Need a Friend”, remixes for Lisa Stansfield and Jamiroquai, “Moonwalk”, “Lovely Day”, Alexander Hope “Wonderland”, Mondo Grosso “Star Suite”, “Fantasy”, “My Beat”, “Shine”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, “Elevation”, “Seasons Of Love”, “Do You Remember House?”, “Breathe” and “I Think Of You” many of which have reached no less than anthem status at this very event.
Having left behind their long association with NYC’s Shelter organisation, 2003 (the first publication date of this interview) sees Blaze installed at the head of the recently reborn West End records and continuing on their wondrous songwriting odyssey. Kevin Hedge spoke to us prior to their first appearance at Southport Weekender and offered us a tiny insight into the world of two remarkable figures who have touched us so many times over the last decade and a half.
What were the inspirations behind your earliest releases, the stuff that was coming out on labels like Quark?
Stuff like ‘What You Gonna Do’, ‘Can’t Win For Loosin’ and ‘If You Should Need A Friend’ was influenced by the music of Visual and the New York Citi Peech Boys. Our broader musical influences were always the three legends that have continued to inspire us, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire and Marvin Gaye.
I wanted to ask about your debut LP, ’25 Years Later’. Did you find it an overwhelming experience having to produce your debut album for such a revered label?
We actually started the project before Motown picked it up. We had a lot of the songs written, almost fully produced. It was originally scheduled to be released on MCA records. Then when MCA did a joint venture with a venture capitalist company to buy Mowtown, so it was more like we wound up there. It was overwhelming, having to be involved with the label that put out our idols like Stevie Wonder and having the opportunity to go to Motown functions and actually meet Stevie. That was even more amazing than everything else. The excitement regarding us being signed to Motown was great, but at the same time we knew it wasn’t the Motown that it had been. But to have our names closely associated with a part of world pop culture, at that time was definitely a real blessing.
It was a very soulful, very musical debut for a ‘dance’ act. Do you think that album was ahead of its time?
I think with that album we really didn’t know what we were doing. We were coming from house music where the music that we produced was popular and we went into it and approached our Motown album trying to be full-on artists. We really didn¹t understand the marketing strategy behind big business and the music business. Do I think the album musically was ahead of its time? I really can’t be a judge of that. Actually, it was after it’s time if you want to be honest. The music that we were recording was from the mid to late 70s. The music that we were trying to write, the music that most influenced us on that record were productions from that era, so we were actually probably 20 years behind our time, as opposed to being 20 years ahead of our time. (laughs)
Quite a lot of visitors to Southport Weekender will not have had opportunity to see you previously, some may even think that this is your first gig in the U.K. but Southport Weekender’s Alex Lowes recalls seeing you supporting Bobby Brown on his world tour, promoting your ’25 Years Later’ LP.
Yeah. I think with going into the major labels, being an independent artist recording in a niche market deep house or soulful house and us not understanding how the music business machine worked in terms of how they market and promote acts, and us, Blaze, not really having a plan for how to market and roll out ourselves to the general public, we got put into the formula of the way they market mainstream r n’ b acts. We were fortunate that Motown believed in the project enough to put us on a tour with a major star at that time like Bobby Brown. But really it was the wrong marketing tool to break an act like Blaze, it was 13 year old girls in the audience. Our music was probably a little beyond their years.
Originally Blaze was yourself, Josh Milan and Chris Herbert. Can you tell me why Chis left and what he’s currently up to?
Chris wanted to pursue a more mainstream r&b sound. In house music there is not a lot of financial income. With being a 3 member group, finances were very little, and there wasn’t a lot to go around. This is why I usually try to put forward the idea that really, this mission of house music, of soulful house, of soul is really, for me, just about doing it for the love of it. It’s what my soul commands me to do. And we do it strictly, 99.8% of it, for the love. 02% is for the income. Chris is still a very good friend of ours. We were very best friends for probably 30 years and we remain so. About 5/6 years ago we did an original Blaze record called ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’ and it was the first time all of us had been in the studio together for ten years. There are no current plans for us to record again together. But who knows?
As you became more au fait with the business side of the industry, how important was the role of publishing to you and how important has it been to the longterm success of the group?
That’s pretty much why I’m still sitting here. We had the opportunity to write songs for De’Lacy, Amira and Sybil and a few other peopole. And they did really well on compilations, in the uk market, and ultimately did really well for us financially, as publishers. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve published what I like to think of as the largest or the deepest catalogue for any producers in the history of house music. I don’t know of any other songwriter/producer who’s recorded and produced more original music that myself and Josh over the years. 150 songs written and produced and published, although not all of them are great (laughs). We like to think that they’re an insight into what the creator was talking to us about at that time.
You now act as president of the justly reverred West End Records. How did that come about?
Right now I’m proud to say that I¹m president and co-owner of West End records with Josh Milan and the original owner Mel Cheren. During my tenure with Shelter, I had managed to meet and befriend Mel Cheren and we developed a great relationship. When I chose to leave Shelter I wanted to be involved with developing new products and finding new artists and when Mel was discussing bringing West End back and making it like the new wave, I thought it was a great idea. West End has always made soulful dance music. ‘Danceable r&b’ is what Mel likes to call it. And we think that we’re trying to continue that tradition. Also we’re going to add some new ideas. We want to be a company that’s going to be artist orientated. We have some plans for the new year to release albums from soulful house artists like Kenny Bobien, perhaps Byron Stingley, Arnold Jarvis and we’ll be revisiting some of the back catalogue. We’re also running a music search contest. I’m looking for producers from around the world to submit music to the contest and if they win, they win a guaranteed record deal with West End, and a free trip to the Miami WMC. Anyone interested can hit out website: www.westendrecords.com it has all the details of the competition.
People liken latter day Blaze material to Earth Wind and Fire. What do you think of that comparison?
I don’t think I could measure up in my total musical career to even one song that they have done. Earth Wind and Fire is probably my biggest influence. The ‘All In All’ album that gave me a career in the music business. That one album encompasses my whole career in terms of what I learned about music production and my love for music. I don’t mind the comparison, it’s very flattering, but at the same time, I don’t think we could ever live up to it.
You’ve recently collaborated with Masters At Work, do you have any other collaborations in the pipeline?
I would love to collaborate with some other people that are around, but it seems that timing and opportunity don’t allow it. At one time I was tying to do something with Ron Trent, and possibly Joe Claussell and Kerri Chandler. You know who I’d really like to collaborate with? People like Sasha, Paul Oakenfold, Jon Digweed, Timo Maas, Seal. Annie Lennox too. I’d really like to write a song for her, or for one of the Spice Girls.
I think a lot of people at Southport would love to hear a Blaze live show, but this time you’re DJing with some live elements. Can you tell us a bit about that and whether you’d consider coming back to do a live show and what has prompted these current DJ based dates?
This is our first year going around the world doing dj and performing dates. What we do is I dj, and Josh plays keyboards live while I’m djing, then at some point we stop and he does a song, either to a track or accompanying himself on the piano. That’s really all we’ve had the opportunity to do. The goal after we release Blaze jazz LP, if we can get it out for next spring, would be to start a tour with a live band that could take us to different territories, and bring us right to the fans. The economic factor is what holds us back, in terms of moving that many people, and scheduling but, for sure I would love to do that. We turned down Southport so many times. This time it was really under the prodding of Louie Vega, who actually got us interested in it. I find through my conversations with other djs i.e. Kerri Chandler or Dennis Ferrer that’s how they market their music and obviously it’s worked well for MAW. And you know, it’s been really good because we’ve actually got to see some of the people who’ve been buying our music over the years and been able to say thank you to them.
Do you find that running West End digs into the studio time you might have used for original productions or remixes?
For sure. I’ve been trying to get a handle on my entrepreneurial spirits for the last 2 years. It started with bringing Shelter back. Being a part of purchasing a nightclub, being that involved, took me away from the studio pretty much all of last year. Leaving Shelter and coming to West End, I thought I would get more opportunity to be in the studio. And while I have more opportunity than I did last year, it still does take away from going in and recording as much as I would like to. But the best thing is, I’m actually more excited about the artists that we’re signing and developing here than I am about doing my own music. I get more excited when I hear somebody play the new Soulstation record, then I do when I hear them playing ‘We Are One’. As far as the remix thing goes, the way that the business is at the moment, there are not that many remixing opportunities anymore (laughs). I don’t think we have to worry about that. Right now we’re very fortunate we just finished a remix for Aretha Franklin (‘The only thing that’s missing’) and we just finished a remix for a new Mood II Swing record called ‘Can’t Stay Away’. In terms of where the overall global recession for music is between 30 and 35% downturn, deep house is probably 50%. The thing for us is, we have to start marketing ourselves better, taking the opportunities.
Do you think a lot of deep house acts have a problem because they can’t seem to write with enough mass appeal to break radio play and because many are just not album artists, they’re 12″ single artists?
I think that with the limited finance, limited resource, that we have in house music, they will not allow us to compete on a real level with major labels and major label artists. We cannot go in and hire the pluggers that major labels can hire to plug our music at radio. We don’t have the resource. And even if we do have the resources, can they just be channelled to that one thing. I mean, you have a great group out that’s over in the U.K. now on a small label called Papa records called Reel People , love that album. But they don’t have the resources to really market it. I was going to licence it for here in the U.S. but again I don’t know if West End has the resources to make the album lucrative as an investment. You want to support the music for the love of, but at the same time the business aspect of it is tough. There are just not enough sales at the grass root level to support what it’s going to take to make many records go to the next level.
Which of your songs are you most proud of?
All of ‘em are like my babies. I think probably my most favourite record that we have recorded has been ‘Elevation’. That¹s like a growing up record, a transition record for myself and Josh. Production-wise it’s not as over-produced as some of our music. But the emotion of that track, it’s my favourite record. I could probably play that record forever.
Some questions from other djs..
From Louie Vega:
Do you think that vinyl is dying, And what do you think of online downloads?
I’ve been talking to him about this since January. Do I think vinyl is dying? I think somewhere out there there will always be a market for vinyl, for vinyl enthusiasts. Do I think it’s dying as far as being something that’s going to be useful for the mainstream or people buying music? I think, yes, we’re nearing the end of vinyl being king in house music. The new digital downloads way of distributing music is much more cost-effective for the labels as well as for the consumers. And it allows the consumers to do configurations of music that they normally couldn’t do, without spending hundreds of pounds. So it allows us to get the music to the public faster, we cut out a lot of the middle men. It’s incredible. I’ve been dealing with this thing ever since Napster. I never really recognised there was a way to develop it into a business until I was listening to the head of Apple computers and once he made us recognise that this could be a way we could distribute music, I immediately jumped on the idea of building on a download manager and since then, to date, we’ve done maybe 2600 downloads, just from the West End website catalogue. This right here should change the way music is bought. Once the (PRS/PPL) get on board and recognise that ISPs have to crack down on the file sharers, it’s going to be one of the major ways that we give music to the world. That aspect, with Denon and Pioneer doing what they’re doing with the cd turntable and their mp3 version coming out, and Technics bringing out the new digital turntable (DZ1200) which I think is mp3 compatible, and Final Scratch, we may be nearer the end of vinyl. But I can only play turntables right now!
Next question comes from Brian Tappert of Soulfuric recordings.
I’ve noticed many of your songs cover spiritual matters. How important is your own personal spiritual life to your approach of making music and sitting down and writing the songs?
That’s my man! Me and him doing remixes together! Some of the best songs were written when I had enough time to be in the practice of yoga. ‘Spiritually Speaking’, ‘Elevation’ and a lot of others, all of those sounds really started to take on new life, when I started to relate those ideas back to myself. So the spiritual essence for us has always been a big part of our lives. I don’t consider myself necessarily a Christian. Josh is definitely a devout Christian. But lyrically most of the songs that we write are from a non-denominational point of view. There is no reference to Allah, or Jesus. For Blaze, as recording artists, I think it’s necessary not to exclude anyone.
Next question was posed by Mr Scruff (and Crazy Beat’s Girth Devon also submitted exactly the same question)
Given that many of your influences are from 70s soul music, and that here in the uk Blaze records are embraced equally by the soul crowds and the soul djs as on the house scene and with the house djs, how are you perceived by the American soul-buying market. Is it the same where you are?
No I don’t think so. I think that the soul crowd, in the US its different. The music strategy is different. You have the soul craft, which is like, they would consider like Omar that’s a UK artist. He would be like soul. In the US you have some soul artists like Erykah Badu or other guys that break through, but they have that hip hop edge, and being that Blaze’s music don¹t really have any hip hop edge I don’t think we’ve really been discovered by the US soul crowd.
Next question comes from Peter Harris, head of Slip N’ Slide (Blaze’s U.K. label)
How important is it for you to have a personal relationship with the people you do business with?
Oh man. Most of everybody who I’ve ever done business with has been my friend first. Most of the relationships, whether it was back in 84 when Chris and I decided to do this music together he was my best friend from childhood Josh is like a brother to me. Literally like brothers, we’ve lived together throughout more of our professional lives. Whether it was working with Timmy or Freddy at Shelter, they were like brothers to me at that time. And Mel Cheren is like an uncle I call him uncle Mel.
Next question is from Richard Searling
What was the inspiration behind your track ‘I Think Of You?’
We had that particular song for 9 years, and we finally felt we had the right artist, and it was the right time, the right album, the right feel, and we decided to add it as another part of the project. We always love working with Amira. The best way to try and bring an artist out is to do what Blaze has been known for – soulful dance music. That’s why we started to go that way. But our goal – and unfortunately we didn’t reach that goal – was always to try to get to recording an album with Amira that would cover a lot more bases than house. And then you would have heard more of her in that manner, being soulful.
This is the last question, submitted by Joey Negro (what a card)
What Star Wars character do you most identify with? And why?
You know, I’m not a big fan of Sci-Fi movies. I’ve seen Stars Wars like once in 1976, took me and Chris to the movies to see SW but if I had to choose one, everybody wants to be like Han Solo right, so, err, probably Obi Wan. The old guy that’s dead, right? The one who kept coming back? Yeah.
This interview was conducted in 2003 by Marc Rowlands