March 8, 1998
Croydon, London, UK
Interviewed by James Stewart
Scott Blackwell is regarded by many as the father of what has become known as 'sanctified dance,' the Christian side of the many genres that have followed in the wake of the house revolution. In the early 1990s he released a string of critically acclaimed albums, and helped produce many more. Now most prominent in his role as a DJ and as founder of N-Soul records, he has recently spoken of how his trip to the U.K. in March 1998 has changed his life. He was so affected by his experiences that he feels it is time to rededicate his work with a renewed emphasis. I got the chance to meet up with Scott just before the last date of his tour.
Tollbooth: Let's start at the beginning. How did you first become a Christian?
Scott Blackwell: I got saved in seventh grade. An evangelist came and spoke at my Junior High School on a Thursday or Friday night. For about a year and a half after that, I was involved in solid fellowship. When I got into high school, though, something happened and I fell away. Nothing definite, there wasn't a death in the family or anything. For about twelve years I was prodigal, and then in about 1988 my wife and I were separated; she moved to California and got saved and started praying for me. I got real convicted about what I was doing and gave my life back to the Lord.
Tollbooth: And how about your interest in music, especially dance music?
Blackwell: I didn't really get into music till I was seventeen. Growing up I might have bought a handful of 45's, but mostly listened to the radio. I can never remember my dad listening to music; there wasn't much music in the house. I got interested in dance music when the movie Saturday Night Fever came out. A friend of mine was a DJ in a local club; I lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and I thought it was really cool what he did. I basically lied my way into my first job, told them I had all this experience when I didn't. I just picked it up real quick.
Tollbooth: I remember you did some solo records. Do you have plans for any more?
Blackwell: I did five. Three of them were Scott Blackwell records, and two were a Myxd Trip To A Gospel House. We talked about it and went into preliminary planning for something to be released this year, but I decided to put it back. I'd rather finish the entire record before we even present it to our sales guys.
Tollbooth: And what do you listen to now?
Blackwell: Talk radio. For me to listen to music is clinical. I can't listen to music for enjoyment anymore. I love it, but it's not like I always have headphones on, cranking the dance music up.
Tollbooth: When you DJ, what genres do you mix?
Blackwell: It varies. I have no problem adapting to different crowds. On this trip, every night has been different. I've played from really heavy breakbeat, techno stuff all the way to ragga, R'n'B. I like playing house. I think that's where I excel. I also love mixing hiphop and jungle. I haven't had a chance to do that enough. It'd be neat to have a two-hour-a-week residency somewhere and cut hip-hop up with jungle.
Tollbooth: How about equipment? CDs or vinyl?
Blackwell: If it's an event like tonight which is geared towards a church crowd, I'll play mostly CDs and play off either a pair of Pioneer CJ500s or 700s or a Denon 700. If its a secular thing, then I'll play off vinyl.
Tollbooth: There's been a lot of discussion about the lack of Christian tracks on vinyl. What's N-Soul doing in that department?
Blackwell: I've been fielding e-mail every week for five years about it, and it just hasn't been the right time. It's the right time now, though. I know this is one of the broken promises I've made in the past. I've put vinyl in merchandise catologues with every intention to do it a couple of months down the road, but the financial commitment meant we were never able to. It's a different situation now with the level of involvement I have and contacts in the general market. This is the time for us.
Actually, we've created four imprint labels: Groove Fellowship for the gospel garage stuff; Hyper House for the aqua-boogie, underground construction, hard-house stuff; Axiom for progressive trance and breakbeat stuff (the first release will be a three-song release from Prophecy Of Panic); and Serum which will be anything outside or on the fringes of the mainstream-maybe bigbeat, stuff like that.
Tollbooth: I guess for some it's an old story, but for those of our readers who haven't followed the label, how did N-Soul first come about?
Blackwell: I'd always wanted
to have my own label. At the time N-Soul started, I was doing production
work for other Christian labels and a new distribution company formed in
the States. The heads of this company knew my work through previous records
I had done, and they approached me about having strictly a dance label,
saying they saw the need for it. At the same time I'd had conversations
Tollbooth: I gather that there have been a number of changes at the label in the past year or so. How do things stand now? How much direct involvement do you have?
Blackwell: N-Soul is now a corporation. Originally I owned the whole company. Now it's been incorporated and we have a new CEO, Phil Kim, who runs the day-to-day operations of the company. Phil's doing a great job turning the administrative side of the company around. I'm there every day, working, but Phil's the CEO.
Tollbooth: Are your products exclusively to Christian retailers?
Blackwell: For the most part right now. We realise that the future of the company is in the general market and secular distribution. Its not that there aren't enough outlets; it's just that the kids we want to reach and the kids who want to buy our sort of music don't know it exists. They've never set foot in a Christian bookstore, even though a lot of them are believers. It's a lot to ask a kid to go into a bookstore and sift through all of the Christian subculture.
Tollbooth: What is your vision
for the development of N-Soul?
Blackwell: My goal is for the imprints to become leaders in their genre. I would love for, two years from now, other labels to be ringing our phone off the hook because our imprints had achieved such market penetration.
Tollbooth: How has Christian radio taken up dance music?
Blackwell: The radio's responded pretty well. We took the [World Wide Message] Tribe to number 1 on CHR. We've had Gina and Nitro Praise, A. J. Mora. It seemed like radio was really open in '95 and '96 but started backing off. There're only about seventeen reporting stations that play CHR. We're not inspirational, we're not contemporary, we're the most aggressive format they have.
Tollbooth: We hear a lot about the fast turn-around in genres and sub-genres in dance music. Has that been a problem for you?
Blackwell: Well, if we were doing singles, I'd say yeah. We're in a really unique situation in that we do albums. If we were doing singles we could ask, 'What's the flavour of the month for this mix gonna be' and then we could facilitate the changing tide in the subgenres. I think if you step back and look at it, there's not as much to that as people suggest. People are always looking for new things to talk about, always looking for new techniques, but at the end of the day the key elements in the music are the same.
Tollbooth: What genres are big over there at the moment?
Blackwell: Drum'n'bass is big in the underground scene in the L.A. The dance scene in L.A. is 90% Hispanic. They love their pounders, the deep and hard house. A.J. and I are trying to start a weekly garage venue, and we're pretty close to getting something going. On a widespread level they can't be bothered with vocals in L.A.
Tollbooth: And how are Christian artists doing with live work?
Blackwell: They're excelling in secular venues. Jeremy Dawson is a real popular DJ in the progressive trance scene, and he's playing live in mainstream venues. Prophecy Of Panic with Ryan Scroggins is very, very popular now and getting rave reviews from the underground scene in L.A. He goes out and plays all live whereas Jeremy has most of his show on DAT and plays on top of it. Ryan has a load of old vintage analog stuff set up on a table into a 16-channel mixer. He puts his headphones on and for two hours its like this seamless trance and breakbeat sound.
Tollbooth: You've played quite a few events over here, and quite a variety of crowds. There has been debate about whether it is right for a Christian DJ to mix in tracks that aren't made by Christians. How do you approach that?
Blackwell: In the right environment, absolutely. If you can go in there and produce an evening of music that proclaims the truth, whether the conviction is in the heart of the person who made the record or not, I think that's a great thing. And there again, let me make this clear, it's two completely different missions. At the church events I think there's a much bigger responsibility on what you're playing because you're feeding the sheep. You're either feeding or fishing when you're DJing. If you're feeding then you need to give them something substantial. That's not to say that I think secular singles are godless, when we know nothing about the artist. If the song talks about hope or joy or love in a non-sexual sense, then I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But I think there's more responsibility to feed things that go a little bit deeper that only people who are saved can understand. I think that's a different mission.
I think that evangelism that goes on in those sorts of events is the friendship thing; friends from school may not go to church, but they'll come to a dance. In a secular club, you have to win the crowd over with how creatively you can program the music. Pray about it. Last night I had something I wanted to put on, but God said, "Don't play that," and I said "Okay, it would have been a great mix but I won't play it." That doesn't happen often.
Tollbooth: How do you think the church should use or approach dance music?
Blackwell: I think that dance music is a great way to reach kids. It's just another genre of music. There's a responsibility that comes in facilitating them actually dancing, and just like any shepherd leads his flock, anyone putting on these events needs to be a good steward to the kids. My biggest concern lies in the U.S. There's a lot of stigma there, like alcohol in bars. In the States, it's almost unheard of for Christians to even think about promoting a night at a secular club where they sell liquor because it's such a taboo, whereas over here it's not such a cultural thing and that taboo's lifted. Like the event we played in Leeds on Thursday, Lifted. It's a secular club and Russell [Smith] goes in there every week and plays his gospel garage and people make comments to him about how well behaved the crowd is and how happy everyone is in the club.
Tollbooth: Do you think that Christian artists have a responsibility to "preach the gospel"?
Blackwell: As a Christian,
the Great Commission is to go forth and preach the word. Now what does
"preach the word" mean? I don't think it means hitting people round the
head with a Bible. It means becoming all things to all men so that some
might be saved. To be wise, Christian culture is not Christian sometimes.
There're all kinds of ways to minister to people, and the responsibility
Tollbooth: You seem to have enjoyed and gained from your trip to the U.K. How've you found the U.K. generally?
Blackwell: It's been really inspiring to me. My view coming over here is that there seems to be more integrity in what people are doing. I want to feed from them because it seems so hard in the States. It's difficult to keep integrity in stewarding the company.
Tollbooth: That reminds me of some documents that were published last year. Steve Camp published his theses on the need for reform in the Christian music industry, and John Austin published a set of questions regarding the music. Do you see a need for reform in the industry?
Blackwell: I've not seen either of those documents, but I'm living proof of someone who's made mistakes and broken promises and seen how that's damaged things. Yeah, there's a real need for reform. I hope that the humility I'm going through now can be shared by others.