With cheap gear and working in total isolation, Todd Edwards became a founding father of a scene he just barely knew existed.
“I’M ACTUALLY A LITTLE BIT IGNORANT ABOUT UK GARAGE.”
That’s a surprising statement, considering its source.
The comment is coming from one of the genre’s founding fathers, Todd Edwards, who helped forge the sound in the early ’90s via his flair for skipping, syncopated beats and cut-up, pitch-shifted vocals. Starting with 1993’s “Guide My Soul” (credited to an early alias, The Messenger) and continuing with classics like ’95’s “Saved My Life” and that same year’s remix of St. Germain’s “Alabama Blues,” Edwards showed the nascent UK Garage scene just what could be done with a sampler and a little creativity. But it was an almost accidental invention: “I was in my own little bubble at the time,” the ever-humble artist says, “and was just trying to make music that stood out.”
Edwards’ influence on UK Garage was trans-Atlantic – at the time, he was based about 3000 miles from London, in his hometown of Bloomfield, New Jersey. After hitting it big (and winning a Grammy) through his work on Daft Punk’s 2013 LP Random Access Memories, he made the move to LA, where he still lives. Edwards has been lying a bit low since that life-changing release – but as he tells us over the phone, he’s newly re-energized and ready for more.
How did you first hit upon your style? It’s seemingly from out of nowhere, from almost the very start of your career.
Basically, I didn’t have a lot of equipment. I had purchased a used sampler, an Ensoniq EPS, with the $1400 that my parents had saved for me for college. (I don’t know what college I would have been going to with that amount of money, but hey!) I also had a Juno-106, a drum machine and a sequencer. A computer was too expensive at that point.
So the gear dictated your sound?
It forced me to come up with my own sound, whether I wanted to or not. But I had influences, of course, and one of the heaviest was Masters at Work. I loved Kenny Dope’s drums, and I would try to imitate him. That shuffle came from him -that kind of raw, sloppy-sounding rhythm – but it did kind of become my own. And I loved MK’s work back then, when he was cutting up vocals. The first stage of art is imitation, and in the beginning, I was doing my best to sound like other people.
But still, your tracks seemed a bit apart from most everything else that was out back then.
I think that was because I had been listening to a lot of the House that was around at the time, but I actually got kind of sick of it! So I took a break from House, and one of the artists I started listening to was Enya. I was fascinated how her vocals were amid the instruments; her vocals were one of the instruments, sometimes the main one. So I started thinking, What if I used vocal cut-ups as the lead instrument? Then I expanded that to sampling chords as well, layering the vocals over organs or horns or whatever.
Your sound was beginning to gel.
Yeah, it started to take shape pretty early on. Between the cut-ups, the drums and the Juno-106 I was using for a really deep, square-wave bass sound, which was pretty much it. That, and my lack of recording equipment.
That would account for the music’s raw edge?
Yeah. I was actually mostly recording my early stuff on a DJ mixer.
Did you have any inkling that you were helping to create a new style?
I wouldn’t say that, but what I did want is for people to hear my music and say, “Oh, that’s a Todd Edwards track.” I never expected it to have the impact it did, though – I never expected it to help shape a sound in another country.
How did you become aware that the U.K. was picking up on your sound?
I was in contact with Karl “Tuff Enuff” Brown and Matt Lamont from Tuff Jam, so I knew they had a lot of interest in my music. DJ EZ was a prominent supporter, too. But even earlier than that, I had done something for DJ Disciple, which led to my work on Nervous Records, which kind of put me out there as well.
That was your EP under the Messenger name?
Yes – that one, and the Sample Choir EP, too. This would have been around ’93 or ’94. After that, my friend DJ Camacho, who’s passed away – he was such a good guy – kept telling me “You’re blowing up!” I had no idea! This predated the Internet, so I wasn’t really aware.
You weren’t really a clubber at all, right?
No! I mean, I would go to New York to hear Louie [Vega] spin at the Sound Factory Bar. But I wasn’t aware of the global scene at all. I can remember John [Ciafone] of Mood II Swing telling me once, “You know, there’s more than just New York.” I wasn’t even thinking like that – I just wanted Louie to play my stuff! That was plenty for me at that point. I didn’t know that there was a whole world out there that I could cater to.
Soon, though, British producers were hailing you as the godfather of this new style called UK Garage. Did that take you by surprise?
Yes, but I actually needed that at the time – I was a really insecure young producer, and hearing stuff like that really helped to build up my confidence and push forward a bit. But the thing was, my ex-manager didn’t really encourage the hype, and I think he was trying to keep me under control by not letting me be absorbed into it. And as a Christian, I try to be humble anyway, so I was trying to not let it affect me. But I was certainly aware of it – later, it was like, “Well, I did accomplish that, at least.” That acclaim kept me from having my first midlife crisis. [laughs]
The first stage of art is imitation, and in the beginning, I was doing my best to sound like other people.
But even with that acclaim, you didn’t really go over there to spin all that often back then, did you?
Over the last few years, I’ve toured a lot more than I did when I was younger. I was a late bloomer. I had a lot of stage fright, and I had to get over that. I actually didn’t start deejaying until 2003, and it hasn’t been until the past five years that I’ve really developed myself to be a DJ, and developed a sound as a DJ. It took me a little while to find a sound that would move the crowd, but still stay true to what I like. I used to play a lot of my own stuff – now I’ll look for music that has some swing to it, and has fat funky basslines. It definitely has a resemblance to my own tracks.
When the Brits started making music that was similar to what you had been doing, what was your reaction to it?
Well, because of that ex-manager, I wasn’t really paying all that much attention to what was going on, to be honest. He was basically acting as a filter, so even though I knew it was catching on a bit, I didn’t know the full degree. I was concentrating on my own music, anyway.
The funny thing is that I was doing all this cut-up stuff, but then I started hearing Masters at Work doing all these live basslines, almost making their music more disco-y. And then a friend introduced my to Basement Jaxx, with that Latin, vibrant feel that they had back then. So at one point, I started trying to make music more like that; I have a slew of remixes from back then that are very disco-based. I had kind of moved on, but eventually it got to the point where I had to revisit my old sound.
Was that easy for you to revert to that classic Todd Edwards style?
Fortunately, I hadn’t lost my touch, though it was almost like relearning it. The thing that made it a bit tougher was that by then, I had more technology – more memory to sample with – and it made my tracks more complex. Which made sense musically, but it also might have caused the music to lose a little bit of its feel. Listening back to my stuff from six or seven years ago, I can hear that, and at some point I realized I needed to simplify again.
I’m guessing that this was around the time you make that “I Want to Be in Fabric” track, right? That tune got a second win during Fabric’s recent shutdown.
Yeah, that was around then. I had taken a hiatus around 2007 and 2008, and when I started deejaying again, I would try to do a thematic track that represented the party I was playing at. It was a way to show my appreciation to the people who were bringing me out to play. I did one for Turrbotax in New York, Icee Hot in San Francisco, the No Place Like London party with DJ EZ, and also Fabric. That would have been around 2009. I only gave that out to a couple of people at the time, but when Fabric was closed, I was thinking that I should put it up in support of the club.
Throughout your career, you’ve never been shy about your faith, and many of your song titles – “Guide My Soul,” “Saved My Life,” “Sweet Jesus,” etc. – cement that relationship. Have there ever been times when there were issues in reconciling that faith with the sometimes hedonistic world of the club?
I don’t think so. My faith never got in the way of anything I was producing – I never made songs that were raunchy, and nobody ever approached me to do anything that went against what I believe in. House Music is usually about love anyway, so it was easy to intertwine what I felt with House Music’s message. And I never tried to shove messages down people’s throats, anyway. I always tried to present it as a positive thing.
But you know, I’ve been evolving since I moved to LA. My faith has been changing. I certainly haven’t lost my faith, but I haven’t been clinging to it as much. I’ve taken a little bit of a step back from it. That hasn’t changed how I approach music – but I’ll occasionally have people come up to me and say, “I’m so happy you’re a believer and your music speaks about God and you’ve really helped me.” And I’m like, “Yeah, uh…I’m not quite as into that now.” [laughs] I feel bad, like I have to confess to that because I always like to be honest.
What are you up to nowadays?
I’ve been back in the studio writing again, which is a really good feeling. I’m hoping to start a new label in the next couple of months, and release remastered versions of my back catalog. I actually spent a lot of time remastering my album Odyssey – which no one really knows about, anyway. [laughs] So that could almost be a new album for most people. There’s a project I’m working on where it’s myself singing, and I have a couple of female-vocal projects as well. The writing is coming really easily now. I’m in a good place.
You’ve always been kind of a Jersey boy, and you still have that accent. Now that you’ve been in Los Angeles for a while, have you left New Jersey behind?
New Jersey is my roots. The roots will always be family and friends, and I’ll always be that Italian mama’s boy who loves his family. I always go back there to visit. And I don’t think I’m passive-aggressive; if I’m going to be aggressive, it’ll be real aggressive.
That sounds pretty New Jersey.
Yeah! You can keep the New Jersey weather, though.