dave lee artist

Dave Lee’s First 7 Records: The Foundation of Z Records

“People say I first heard Larry Levan play it. I first heard it in Boots, Colchester”

A true originator and statesman of the United Kingdom’s house and disco scene for over three decades, Dave Lee celebrates 30 years of his label, Z Records, in 2020. All this time, he has been producing seminal singles, remixing, and curating important compilations while continuing to pioneer the sound.

Dave Lee kindly took the time to chat with Discogs about his first seven records — the first records bought, the first he remixed, the first he released — exploring his past, present, and future in the music industry while covering some standout records on Discogs. For anecdotes from recording sessions, tales from record stores, and a narrative illustrating his rise from record store worker to genre kingpin, check out the interview below.

Dave Lee’s Firsts

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Photo by Russ Ryan

First LP purchased: Various ‎– Saturday Night Fever (1977)

I bought the Saturday Night Fever album, probably on the basis of the Bee Gees (I really liked Night Fever and You Should Be Dancing). Yvonne Elliman, Tavares — and it also had a lot of songs that I didn’t know like Kool And The Gang “Open Sesame” and The Trammps “Disco Inferno.” So lots of songs, which I enjoyed once I got the album, and of course, MFSB “K-Jee” which is still a song I still play in my sets and probably my most-listened-to piece of music. Obviously, it was commercial, it was a massive soundtrack, but it still contains real deal disco music.

First 12-inch purchased: Earth Wind & Fire with The Emotions ‎– Boogie Wonderland (1979)

The first 12-inch I bought isn’t a particularly good 12-inch (though it’s got a nice sleeve image) and it’s not my favourite Earth Wind & Fire song. I’d heard “September” a lot on the radio, which I never bought, and this was the next release, “Boogie Wonderland” … I bought this in Boots, Colchester. You could get some pretty good deals in those places because things would get discounted rather than returned, but the actual 12-inch is not one with extra breakdowns, it’s just like the 7-inch but a lot longer! “Boogie Wonderland” was actually made for another act Maurice White was producing. … it turned out so well, and the act wasn’t so crazy about it, so they made it an Earth Wind & Fire record.

First import purchased: BT Express – 1980 (1980)

I remember going into a local record store, Parrot Records in Colchester, and saying, “Have you got BT Express’ Give Up The Funk?” And they said, “That’s an import.” I said, “I don’t know what that is but it sounds appealing.” To which they replied, “We can get it but you’ll have to order it, we don’t stock imports.” So I went back a week later to collect it and it was shrinkwrapped, which is the first time I’d seen shrinkwrap. It had an import sticker and the cover was a spaceship — so a big box-ticker for me.

One thing I appreciated about the 1980 album is that it is mainly uptempo! Six dance tracks I could listen to on repeat, whereas I’ve bought many albums over the years that only have one or two fast songs and the rest is slow. As I didn’t have that many records it was great to get albums I could listen to from start to finish. I was never really a ballad guy, still not really, so an album full of ballads would be disappointing! So that was a strong LP [that] started my love affair with shrinkwrap!

First used record purchased: People’s Choice ‎– We Got the Rhythm (1976)

I was in a shop called Andy’s Records in Ipswich. They had a decent sized soul/disco section upstairs, and on the other side of that room was a big rack which had second-hand records. I thought, “Second-hand records … is this something I really want to soil my hands with?” ;-)

But I had a look through and found a record by People’s Choice, who I knew about as someone had bought me the Guinness Book of Hit Singles in 1978 as a Christmas present, which I’d memorized, and knew People’s Choice had a hit called “Jam Jam Jam.” Dexter Wansel plays on the album, which has a few really nice moody Philly-style instrumentals. It’s a pretty good album and the one which opened my eyes to used vinyl.

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First license (and remix): Phase II – Reachin’ (1991)

I went to [New York City] for the first time after working for Rough Trade Distribution for 18 months. I’d convinced them to start up an in house label as I was giving away a lot of other ideas to labels we distributed, recommending signings and remixers, and said I could be doing that for you, which they bought into. I went to the New Music Seminar in June 1988. Whilst I was there, I heard Phase II Reachin’ playing in a record shop and thought, this could be a good record to license for Republic (the label I was starting for Rough Trade).

Luckily, nobody else was really interested in the record at this point; it’s a soulful garage song, it’s not got obvious commercial mainstream appeal, and that was born out by the fact it never crossed over but it was, and still is, a classic record. I still play it all time at my gigs alongside K-Jee as the most played records in my DJs sets and my life.

It was on import for a month or two before we released it, but that acted as promo and we sold a lot of it! When you hear it now, it’s got something very optimistic about it, a childlike quality to the voice talking about a better day that feels sincere … when I do play it out, it’s usually one of the biggest songs of the night, 32 years later.

First compilation: Various –  The Garage Sound of the Deepest New York (1988)

Well, this ties in with being in New York; around that period, the UK was in an acid house explosion, the stuff from Chicago like Jack Frost and Phuture, various Todd Terry bits, Can You Party by Royal House, Swan Lake’s In the Name Of Love — there was a bidding war over the latter! I thought, “I can’t afford that stuff, everyone wants it, the majors are licensing it, and although I love acid house, there were lots of compilations already.”

I really liked some of the stuff coming out of New York, the sounds of Blaze, Jomanda, Touch, Arnold Jarvis’s Take Some Time Out — none of which had a UK release and no one had really zoned in on it yet.

It felt like there was a good compilation to be done … having met with Quark, Movin Records, etc. I licensed nine songs with the fourth side a mega-mix from Vinyl Mania’s Manny Lehman. We released it just before Christmas it did really well, one of the most successful compilations I’ve ever put together and the first on Republic.

First solo production: Joey Negro – Do It, Believe It (1990)

I was going down to Clacton on Sea on weekends whilst working at Rough Trade, working in old-school-friend Mike Cheal’s studio. Mike was more of a rock guy but I played him some early house and we thought, let’s have a go at making this. The first M.D.Emm record “Get Busy” was me, Mike, and Mark Ryder, and was the first thing we managed to finish. Mark and I continued for a bit, hiring F2 Studios in Farringdon, before I went out on my own. I sent my first solo attempt to Nu Groove in New York, who had a gap in their schedule and liked it enough to put it out! I had a pile of records next to my desk and wrote down some names off the various records; one of the records was Pal Joey’s Reach Up To Mars and another was J Walter Negro’s Shoot the Pump, and that’s how I came up with the name, which I recently decided to stop using.

Dave Lee’s Standout Releases on Discogs

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Most-collected and most-sold release: Jakatta ‎– American Dream (2001)

With that one, I went to see American Beauty and remember saying to my friend in the cinema at some point near the start of the movie, “That bit would make a good loop for a house record!” I loved the film and bought the soundtrack as I wanted a piece of that film at home. Thomas Newman did the score, which has been emulated on many other soundtracks. It was a game-changer; the piano and strings are so emotive throughout.

Eventually, I took it into the studio, and [it] was probably one of the quickest records I’ve ever made. I added some quite basic drums, the sample already had a tabla percussion; there’s not much you can add to it apart from the beat. There was a spoken-word acapella which I’d used for an early The Sunburst Band release and there was another piano section called “Dead Already” that I thought would work well in the drop … [it] was done in five or six hours. A few months later,  I re-did it with a vocal from Swati Natekar and spent a bit longer on the song. Generally, that was the hit version.

Tracks like that have far more crossover appeal than something with my more typical disco sound, which I love, but I know it’s got a limited market, whereas the Jakatta stuff has such a broad market. But after I finished making the album, I’d had enough. I enjoyed doing it and it was good to step out of my comfort zone but that sound doesn’t particularly come naturally to me. I felt I’d exhausted myself when it came to making that kind of music. After I finished, I made a Sunburst album instead of a second Jakatta one, which would have sold a fraction of what Jakatta did but as it was what I wanted to do.

Most-wanted release: Joey Negro ‎– Remixed With Love (Part A) (2013)

So around the late 2000s, multi-tracks started leaking out a little bit more, which has since become a problem with them ending up in too many places! You’d think, where did this multi-track originally come from? Sometimes it’s a live show, could be a computer game, or simply someone’s had it to remix and shared it —  which is a problem as things can get around quite quickly nowadays!

I’d been commissioned to a remix of [Diana Ross’] “Love Hangover” in the ’90s and really enjoyed keeping the essence of the original, but making it more playable for DJs and being able to use isolated elements that weren’t so audible on the original. But I wasn’t getting offered that sort of work very often. A friend at Warner Brothers was interested in a track I’d made and we had a meeting. He was also was giving out remix parts to selected producers of some releases from their catalog to sample, but with the agreement that Warner would get first refusal on any new production using them. Now, the songs they were suggesting were the big obvious hits. I gave him a list of some less-known songs I’d like the parts for and his reply was they had never been digitized so it wasn’t possible. I said, “If I paid for them to be digitized, can I get the parts?” He was OK with this, so I paid for a dozen or so songs to be transferred.

When I got the parts, though, and had a play around with them, I decided they were too good to sample. What can you cut out of Patrice Rushen’s “Haven’t You Heard!” So I thought, “Why don’t I do some exclusive remixes for myself to play in my sets?” After I’d done them, I thought, “Well, maybe I could release these.” I approached Warner Brothers, who were really helpful, but it was down to the American office to clear the remixes as it was all U.S. repertoire. It took a lot of chasing but after around nine months, we had clearance. That was the main body of Remixed With Love.

Once again, a huge thank you to Dave Lee for his time. Full details on upcoming Z Records releases can be found via the website.

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