Mark Rae is the man behind Grand Central Records and one of the originators of the Fat City shop in Manchester.
Mark is also one half of production duo Rae & Christian whose Mercury Award nominated debut album ‘Northern Sulphuric Soul‘ featured vocals from guests including Jeru the Damaja, YZ and the Jungle Brothers. In subsequent years Mark has produced and remixed artists including Jay Z, The Pharcyde, Dawn Penn, Bobby Womack and Amy Winehouse.
Mark recently released an incredible book titled ‘Northern Sulphuric Soulboy‘. Here, Mark delves deep to detail stories surrounding Mark’s earliest years of musical interaction. This leads onto exploring the late 80’s Manchester club scene, Fat City, Grand Central, Rae & Christian and Yesking. The book also features Mark’s time in LA and the recording of the Mercury Rising album.
Gavin Brown spends some time with Mark to find out more about the book, the music, the memoirs and more…..
- What made you decide to revisit your career for your new book Northern Sulphuric Soulboy?
Just literally because I’m just about to make a massive pivot in my life towards being a writer and that was the first step really and although I’m going to continue to make music, I felt that before my grey matter expires, I should write as much of it down while I can still remember it!
- What was it like revisiting your past for the book?
It was fun because obviously they were quite special times, I’m aware that’s an impossible task to cover everything but I try to condense it so the only things I could really remember were the jokes and the violence which is why the book has things on those subjects.
- What was Manchester nightlife like in those days when you first started out and beyond?
It was interesting, there was a very strong underground black music scene which part of the reason for me writing the book was to shine some light on those things because unfortunately this is how life tends to work,a lot of the major influences on the Manchester clubbing scene and their effect on me, had very short shrifts and in essence get whited out by the indie scene and the obsessions with all this stuff and I was like, this isn’t the Manchester that I knew or remembered or anybody who had gone clubbing would have seen so it kicked back against the sort of Hacienda-centric white music scenes which seemed to go along with the press and get loads of coverage. The Gallery and Soul Control and Parkers and then the Street Soul scene and all theses great black music scenes of Manchester get short shrifts.
- What kind of music was being played at this point when you were attending the clubs, you mentioned Street Soul but was there a big mixture of sounds?
There was a lot of two step Soul, the r&b of the time, some 80s classics, a lot of U.K. Electronic Soul which I suppose was fitted into the Street Soul scene as well at the time. Reggae and ragga mixed in with hip hop was going on about the rave/breakbeat time which was also part of that scene as well.
- What was your favourite club to play in Manchester and what made it so special?
Well hands down it would be Precinct 13, which is in the book, we had a Street Soul night there which was crazy, like a ghetto blues basically. It was just rammed and the music we played was Street Soul pretty much all night and the vibe was incredible you know. People standing on tables, smacking bottles against the ceiling. It’s hard to describe how much vibe was in there but that’s the blues for you haha!
- You mentioned about the violence in the clubs in those days. Did you witness much or was it just a part of what was going on in the clubs?
Not in the traditional sense of how you would get random wanton violence in the high street like people hitting each other because they looked at someone’s girlfriend. My DJ career definitely coincided with some rather bad pro lens with gun violence in Manchester and because we chose the path out of passion to DJ the Street Soul scene and the hip hop scene in Manchester, it was distilled into those environments. I saw gun violence, I’ve seen people shot, I’ve seen guns being used in clubs. Lots of crazy stuff and I hope it’s not like that anymore because it wasn’t very cool, it was a bit scary yeah.
- What has the reaction to the book been like so far?
It’s been excellent and I’ve very much enjoyed doing it as a shedding off as it were so I think becoming middle aged and also reviewing your life and also what happened with the music industry and how people strive to make sense of why they do it all anymore. It’s been a difficult journey for all of us you know and I think for me to do that allowed my own personal journey to sort of chart some of that experience because not only did I enjoy being a DJ at some very good times but also a shop and then a a label and then to lose the label, then have the struggles of the digital era taking over. It makes for a broad sweep of what’s happened in the last twenty five years. I don’t think you get many people who’ve done all the things that I’ve done.
- You made an album to accompany the book as well, how hard was it choosing which tracks to put on it?
Well, it’s a funny one because it bleeds into my next project but I was experimenting a lot with Sean Lee in recording some samples and stuff with him which was a comedy character album with him and then I realized I was going to do an autobiography so it then became something where I needed to control the music and have some reflection of the Journey of the book. It couldn’t have just come from leftfield and be all electronic and instrumental or whatever, it had to have some hip hop, some soul, some go go, some songwriting from the Grand Central era and all of those things. In the end , it ended up being quite difficult to even just get the eight tracks together which form the full package, six of which are on the vinyl. Without repeating myself, there would have been other ways to do it but I wanted it to be all new music and to have a little taste of the journey as it were.
- Do you still have good memories of your time as part of Rae & Christian?
Yeah,I mean I’ll be honest with you, a lot of my experience has been difficult because I never had the opportunity to just be in an act and to be, as it were, the successful artist who goes around the world being a wild man. I was always trying to run the record label and do a lot if management at the same time so I say in the book that I bit off more than I could chew and I certainly did but I managed to balance it for a while. There’s mixed emotions there for sure but yeah, it was an amazing experience to do all the remixes we did, that much studio time to work with the vocals we remixed, a landmark album and to develop all the artists on the label was great as well. It’s just, it was very hard work and the end was quite a laborious beating down of my personality I’m afraid!
- Are you still in contact with the artists from the label?
Yeah most of them. I mean some of them, our lives have just parted but yeah most of them, mostly through social media and Steve, obviously we did another album and that becomes the end point of the process of us getting back together and making Mercury Rising which was four years ago now.
- What were some of the highlights of running the Grand Central label?
For me personally, things like being able to speak to Bobby Womack over the phone, although I didn’t meet him. Bobby Womack and Marvin Gaye were my two favourite male vocalists and to actually communicate with him as an adult, knowing that when I was sixteen or seventeen, I was falling asleep to his albums was a very spiritual and huge experience for me. I think being able to take the energy from having run a shop and selling hot records to then make them, knowing they would have the same effect across shop counters throughout the world was a massive buzz because I could really see the whole industry having had the experience I had when we were reading good records and making good records, it was always very exciting waiting for the feedback on them you know.
- You also worked with hip hop legends like Masta Ace, Jeru The Damaja and the Jungle Brothers, how was it working with those rap icons?
Well, they were all very cool really. You’ve got to remember that a lot of them came from really tough backgrounds and some from middle class backgrounds but in the end, the most important lesson I had taken was that people look from the outside and I used to think that problems with race in the world were getting better but now unfortunately I can’t call that in my own head as it seems like it’s getting worse but obviously music allows people to make something together which is a collaboration between all different types of races and I think it’s probably one of the few things where you can have those environments and everybody feels good about it you know,
- In terms of remixes, you’ve remixed a lot of artists in your time. What was the most memorable one for yourself?
It’s funny, it would be some of the earlier ones. One of the ones that happened, the Nightmares On Wax one was the most influential and I pretty much made that remix, I think in one night at home and then booked the studio and Steve and I finished it in one day. I think we got £300 and it cost £300 for the studio! So it was something for nothing and that was a big lesson if you want to get on. It seems everyone in the world is doing everything for free nowadays, at the time we wanted to get on so we made business decisions like that to just do it for the costs and then, the Texas one which was given to us because of that Nightmares On Wax remix, Say What You Want.I have great memories of that because of the story behind that. For one, I remixed it in the wrong key first and then they liked the beat that I’d done the remix in the wrong key, they then wrote another song on it, which went on White On Blonde which then got me off housing benefits and made me have a career in music. The crazy thing about that is, Steve timestretched her vocals down and then the vocals up so the musicianship from Steve is he took everything from the music down but the vocals were timestretched up and that was pure science so both things were timestretched to make the music work and that was an exciting memory for me really. Nowadays people can do all of those things on the applications on their laptops and even on phones but back then you had set at the desk for hours on end!
- With the advent of technology on music production, do you think it is better and easier now or do you still prefer a more traditional approach when it comes to making music?
The way that I would place it is that I think it is a question that has no answer because every young generation will feel music the same as the generation before because they’re going through the changes in their life and the technology changes, and every time there has been a technological change, you getting people saying it’s terrible, like when Bob Dylan went electric and people said it’s rubbish now and you had people saying that drum machines are rubbish because it’s not a real drummer. In the end, we’re still the human race, we still make great music and we still write great songs and I think with technology, what’s it’s done is made it easier, the access is easier so therefore more people can know about music and what it’s done is melted the idea of an underground club which always felt better because then you felt different and part of something that defines you but then to me that’s part of human nature which leads to things like all the negative things that are happening in the world without having to use words and terms. That’s part of what my next books about, that’s why I’m able to talk about it easily. I think that technology has made everything easier and more reachable and because of that, everything fells like it’s got less value, almost valueless which you just have to suck up and accept.
- When is your next book going to be out?
I’m about 25,000 words into it and it will probably take at least another year to finish. I’ve actually made the music for it, which this time I’m going to do as 12″ EPs and separate it from the book because that was a one off. I could have in finished in a years time and then basically review it and in two years maximum it will be out. It’s much more fun writing a fiction book. It’s really exciting me to be honest, I get up and am excited to be able to write and I do every day so hopefully when I get it done it’ll be under 100,000 words.
- How do you feel about the current boom in vinyl sales and vinyl culture that seems to have come round back again in terms of the mainstream?
I think it’s great, I mean it’s funny watching it happen from the sidelines, having been part of it and also being part of it with the first wave of CDs when big albums would be released, American r&b and hip hop ones that would only come out on CDs and you’d get people bootlegging the good tracks off the album! People like to go on about change, things change technology wise but nothing’s happens in the pattern of behaviour. Soundcloud is now like the record shops and the amount of edits and bootlegs that are on there that are really brilliant, it’s really hot and exciting. It’s just having the time to go through it all. The actual vinyl scene and record shops, I just think it’s just a quality form that has a fan base and it’s cool points for people now isn’t it.
- From back in the day, what was your favourite record shop, in Manchester and all over the world?
I’ll probably start namechecking a lot of them! Spin In and Eastern Bloc were like the first ones that I got into because they had Ultimate Breaks N Beats and they had import 12″ hip hop in them. As a soul fan, I liked going to Expansions. I mean, Manchester was incredible for record shops and then there was a jazz shop and I’m trying to remember the name of it, the guy was Mike Chadwick who ran it and I liked going into his shop because you could buy Records to sample in there but if I’m being really honest with you, my policy all the way through was going to get to shops where there were records that nobody else would look at and that’s where I always felt I could have gold and one of best places for that was Princeton Music Exchange in New Jersey and that’s where I used to go with Tony D, the producer from Poor Righteous Teachers, he took me there and you could get a dollar a record and I’d buy a hundred of them and Fed-Ex them home. Those were the days!
To mark the anniversary of this groundbreaking release, Mark’s autobiography/ vinyl book is currently half price as well as the last Rae & Christian CD “Mercury Rising”! The 10″ vinyl that fits in the books cover has 6 new tracks featuring Tony D, Pete Simpson and Kate Rogers. Two additional tracks and all of the instrumentals are included with the digital download.