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The More You Know About Ross Allen, the Better

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

Ross Allen is an English DJ who presents a weekly radio show on NTS, an online radio station based in Hackney, London. He worked as A&R for the record labels Filter (Dorado), Blue (Island), and Domino, and founded his own labels Casual Records in 2003, and Foundation Music in 2020. During his time at Island, Ross worked with DJ Shadow and was A&R for his fourth album The Less You Know, The Better (2011).


Ross behind the desk at NTS circa 2017
 

Jon

Good morning Ross, thank you for taking the time to talk about DJ Shadow.


Ross

He's a great guy, Shadow! He's a very lovely guy, and a very hard worker, and he just loves music. His knowledge is incredible!


Jon

Can you tell me about how you started working as A&R and got into hip hop?


Ross

I was a DJ in London, and I used to DJ with James Lavelle and Gilles Peterson, and I had my radio show on BBC London.


Jon

So you were doing the That's How It Is shows?


Ross

Yeah, I used to play at That's How It Is quite a lot, and then I played the Blue Note where they would do the Headz nights with James Lavelle and Shadow. I would play there on different nights, and I was doing a radio show on BBC London three nights a week, and covering Gilles Peterson's show on Radio One when he wasn't around.


I suppose my A&R career started, probably in 1995-96. I was working at a label called Dorado, which was sort of an equivalent, although not as good as Mo Wax. I mean, it was an interesting label. I was 24 so it was a foot in the door for me as a young London DJ.


I got into hip hop and electro probably in about 1983-84. I bought a 7" of The Message [Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five / Sugar Hill Records, 1982] that was just a bit of an anomaly, you know. But it was really when the electro albums sort of arrived on Street Sounds which was a wave that took over the UK, it was a lot of people's introduction. We were listening on pirate radio and just finding out about that sort of scene and listening to Tim Westwood on LWR.


Jon

Was that very popular and easy to access, or you would say it was quite underground?


Ross

It was definitely underground. I mean, it was pirate radio stations. It was a very, very small scene. People would hang out in Covent Garden, like Chrome Angelz, graffiti writers like Mode 2, and people were learning to breakdance. It was sort of the early stages of hip hop culture being admitted out of New York City around the rest of the world.


For me, it was like, we sort of grew up with hip hop, and buying the import records and listening to pirate radio, and then my DJing started to build and build as I was getting to know more people, and in 1990 I started to write in Straight No Chaser.


Straight No Chaser issues #26,#33 & #37

Jon

I wanted to talk about that because I guess that's where you met with James Lavelle?


Ross

Totally. I got my brother a job at Straight No Chaser, helping out doing graphic design with Swifty. So, my brother Paul was the one who was really in with all that lot and I went up there, got to know them all, and then started to write for them. James was in there just starting off, so I sort of knew of James, but we've traveled different paths. He was quite West London, and I was very South London.


For us DJs in London at the time, there was kind of a disconnect between a lot of the hip hop records that were coming in, and sort of slightly more jiggy kind of sensibility for one of a better words. Hip hop had been this sort of left of centre underground movement, and by the early 90s, it started kind of getting in the charts and gaining real attraction.


Jon

Was it too mainstream?


Ross

Yeah, I think a moment which lots of people of my generation go on about far too much, is Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest and so on. It was a fantastic period, obviously. It is being echoed again now with people like Kendrick Lamar, whether people are aware of that or not. To me, hip hop is the continuum of really good beats, and as a DJ in a club, all you want is the beats. Like instrumentals that were just beats were great because they were tools that you could use, like, extending the instrumental section to my DJ sets. They were pushing the edge, and obviously Shadow is probably one of the best examples of it.


I was obsessed with Double Dee and Steinski. I never heard anything like it and still to this day they're insane records, and obviously, Shadow did “Lesson 4" [Hollywood BASIC, 1991] and those records are part of Josh's DNA.


Jon

Do you remember when you heard Josh's music for the first time?


Ross

It would have been whatever the first 12" was on Mo Wax.


Jon

In/Flux in 93 [MW014]


Ross

Yeah, I think I heard Gilles Peterson playing it on one of his radio shows, because James didn't have a radio show at the time. It just stops you in your tracks. It had that sort of orchestration, that deepness, and the fact that it just had the balance. For me, great records have got a really good balance and Shadow had that. He had that sort of sonic wave that was ahead of you. He was different and you were like, "Oh my God, what is this?!" and then everyone went a bit sort of crazy for it.


At the time, I had a record shop in South London called Inner Rhythm. I can remember there was Shadow and the Groove Robbers 12" that came out [Solesides, 1993]. Everyone sort of thought that the Shadow stuff was just on Mo Wax, but then we got this 12" and it's quite interesting actually, because there was a distribution company down in Brighton called In A Silent Way, and Max Lousada who is now the head of Warner Music for the world, he had imported these on Solesides.


I remember James Lavelle was really pissed off because these 12" turned up. It was quite funny, because he was sort of weird about that, like "Where did you get that 12" from? You are not meant to have those", like it was an illicit product. It always makes me laugh.


Jammes Lavelle with Ross Allen circa 2018

Jon

You are telling me that the first person who distributed Solesides in the UK, was your friend who is now the head of Warner Music?


Ross

I mean, I wouldn't say he was necessarily the distributor, but the first time I saw a Solesides release was from In A Silent Way with Max Lousada. In/Flux was already out by then, so we'd heard that and that's how we knew about this 12". I spoke to James about it and he's like, "They're not meant to be coming in.You shouldn't have that", and I was like "People want DJ Shadow records and we're going to sell them, it's great!"


Jon

And then you started your own label?


Ross

From working in the record shop, then I worked for Dorado, then I did my own label Filter, and I got approached by London Records, and then in the end, I went to Island, because they were like, "Well, we'll give you your own label and you can A&R The Stereo MC's."


I signed Talvin Singh pretty quickly and that won Mercury Music Prize [1999], and then we did Spacek, and signed Global Communications and another band called Custom Blue, and did this project The Underwolves.


Island was amazing. I was like the golden boy, my radio show was flying, we won the Mercury Music Prize, it was all good. Then Island merged with Universal and within that, they sold A&M Records, which was where Mo Wax was.


After that there wasn't a lot of fun. But basically, they came to me and said, "You know, we've got access to all of the Mo Wax roster. We want you to pick up the ones that you want." So I picked Peshay, I picked Kirk Di Giorgio, then I remember them flying me out to San Francisco to go and meet with Shadow.


He was very loyal. He just wanted to work with James and he didn't want to do anything. I just went out there and we met in a record shop in Mill Valley and I was just, "Look, I'm not here to put it on you, you know. I know it's problematic, and you don't know me that well, but you do know me from the London club scene and from DJing and the radio."


Then we didn't start working together straight away because then the people that came into Island to run it were just clueless. I mean the amount of things that I could have, and would have signed if it wasn't for them, like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Arcade Fire, M.I.A, Switch, you know, a whole load of things that were just fresh and new and interesting that I was on super early.


I think it was the same for Shadow. They didn't have a clue what Shadow was doing, they were just totally clueless. Obviously, all they wanted was Endtroducing Part 2, so when he came with The Outsider [2006] I don't think they had any idea of what they were dealing with or what they were doing.


That was a great record. It was a break with the past, a break with Endtroducing [Mo Wax, 1996]. Major record labels, all they're interested in are hit records, and Shadow has made hit records, but that isn't Shadow's M.O. He needs to just do his thing.


Reconstructed | The Definitive DJ Shadow (2012). Design: Trevor Jackson

Jon

Did you advise Shadow to work with Trevor Jackson for the Greatest Hits compilation [Reconstructed | The Best Of DJ Shadow / Island, 2012]?


Ross

Yeah, I got Trevor to do the Greatest Hits. They all hated me for a while because I love Trevor but he's difficult, he's just not going to take any record company’s bullshit. So, he sticks out for himself, he is quite militant, and you know it's fair enough. I think everyone thought it was quite interesting [he laughs].


But there was a logic, it was just like, "You remember that guy that used to do all the stuff for Mo Wax?”, and he was like "Yes, that's a brilliant idea, let's do that!"


We had lots of conversations about the Greatest Hits and whatnot, and what we could include and those kinds of things. You know that Josh did a whole album with Zack de la Rocha? I heard a few tracks of it, but they did a whole record together.


Jon

I've only heard a few tracks because he put some of them on his Handmade series in 2009 [Reconstruction Productions].


Ross

Yeah, because one of the things that we wanted to do with the Greatest Hits was get a load of unreleased stuff on there, but we only got a few bits.


Jon

I understand why he never released the songs where Zack is singing, but why not releasing the beats at least? Because the album with Zack might never see the light...


Ross

I mean, I think that's the thing. God knows what stuff is lurking in the vaults of DJ Shadow, you know. He just keeps things to himself.


Jon

How was he working with James Lavelle? Because he is a talented A&R and has a vision, but you must have watched the Mo' Wax documentary [The Man From Mo'Wax, Dir: Matthew Jones, 2016]...


Ross

He was just like that film portrays, he just had this addiction and he came in and burned out that scene. That jazz scene of Patrick Forge and Gilles Peterson which came out of the jazz / dance thing which was dabbling with hip hop. You know, I've seen nights down at Bar Rumba where James Lavelle just came in and absolutely destroyed Gilles Peterson as a DJ! I mean, he wouldn't do it now, but at the time it was because he was just looking for these fresh sounds all the time.


He was the one that played Lennie De Ice "We Are I.E" [i.e. Records, 1991] and sort of these kind of proto jungle records, sort of dub sound and breakbeats, all that kind of stuff. But, you know, a lot of the time we were sort of turned off by that music because it was happy hardcore.


But by the time we got to sort of 94-95, the quest for sounds and new beats was what Josh was doing on a downtempo tip. Then the next phase of that was this kind of doubled up drum'n bass. I mean, I ended working with Peshay who was on Mo Wax and did some great remixes of Shadow [Mo Wax, 1997] and that was where James made his name, because he's brought all of that together. He was ahead of the curve, he was ahead of me. And other times, I'd be presenting things that he didn't know. We were just DJs looking for new music, and just wanting to sort of line up dance floors with the freshest sounds, it was that hip hop aesthetic, you know what I mean, applied in the UK sensibility.


Jon

You told me about the time when you went to California to talk to Shadow and to encourage him to work with Island. But do you remember the first time you met him?


Ross

I mean, I probably said hello to him in a nightclub, maybe at the Blue Note or maybe James introduced me to him, because when I met him through the record label, he knew who I was. But to be fair, the first time I really spoke to him, it was that time in California when we were out there, because I wasn't hanging out with the Mo Wax crew all the time, I was doing my own thing.

That's How It Is! with DJ Shadow in 1993. Design: Swifty

Jon

So before you went to California you just called him and said, "Oh, I'd like to come and see you”?


Ross

Somebody said to me, "Can you go and talk to Josh?" Because he didn't want anything. He didn't want to record and or do any music. He just wanted to be on Mo Wax.


But we had quite a nice meeting. Even when we were making The Less You Know, the Better we had a good time. But we had loads of really good chats and were driving around in the wine county of San Francisco, and we'd just be listening to music and digging for records and chatting about the process of the record.


Jon

I've never read an interview from someone who was actually around DJ Shadow, talking about the way that he's working. Usually, it comes from his perspective, not his friends or his A&R perspective.


Ross

So to be fair, I have A&R'd loads of records and sometimes you're sitting over someone's shoulder in the studio and going "Oh, you can do this, or you can do that," or you know, you become closer to being a producer. But with Josh, my A&R role was really kind of getting remixes and just talking to him about the balance of the record.


On The Less You Know, The Better [Shadow's 4th LP / Island, 2011], we were driving around California, going record shopping, and he would show me the process to get beats and then utilize that to tunes or buying records.


Of the actual process, he readily explained it to you, but he didn't need any input from anybody [he laughs]. He just goes off and does it, that's the way he is. I selected a few guest vocalists to go on the tracks and helped him get people, but in terms of the construction of the music, it was all Shadow.


But at the time, when we were in California, I kept going back and seeing him and I remember one time going over to the house. Him and Dante Carfagna - who clears a lot of his samples - had just bought 400,000 records from this place in Chicago. They just bought the whole stock, the whole shop!


Jon

Wow, so many! But tell me, how do you work from such a big quantity of records?


Ross

I think they sampled them all, and they were going through them and selling all the country records online.


Those people are so deep. Like the Numero label, I think that Shadow is mates with all that lot, and Dante does a lot of stuff with them. Just their knowledge is incredible, and just the lengths they go for records. Not just funk music, but then the funk music leads into the side rock stuff...


Someone told me Dante had just completed getting every single record that James Brown had ever worked on. All the People catalogue, all The King's stuff, and all of them were ironed and were alI immaculate. It's just kind of admirable in a lot of ways.


Jon

Hardcore collectors.


Ross

You know, I’ve got things to do other than that. It's just too much. But I'm glad those people exist. I've got so many good memories of Josh, I love music and am inundated with music all the time. But then when you meet someone like Josh a whole load of other paths open up, and you learn a load more, just the way some of the stuff came together.


Jon

Do you know how he works on a specific song? Did he ever tell you what's in the process?


Ross

Well, I think it was very sampladelic. I don't know if you know the story about The Less You Know, the Better, but there are test pressings of that album with the track on it which he couldn't clear the sample for. It was the one with an MC called Afrikan Boy, it was never released. It never came out. There was literally 5 or 10 test pressings because we were all set. He made a video for it as well.


Shelved I'm Excited EP / Island, 2011. Artwork: Tony Papesh

Jon

"I'm Excited" is the track.


Ross

Yeah, that's the one. It was one of those things where we made the track, we decided it was coming out as the first single, we got all the remixes done, and we went to radio with it. I think Annie Mac or someone was playing it, and everyone was really excited because we got off to this flying start, and Shadow was getting played on [BBC] Radio 1 and it was just amazing.


Then he couldn't clear the sample. So within a week or three weeks of it getting played on the radio, we have to pull it. We already had the test pressings for the album made and I was like "Josh, it's just a guitar part, we'll just replay it", and he was just like, "No! It HAS to be sampled, I need to clear the sample, that is the way I work!"


That sort of sampladelic process was kind of his M.O. and the fact that he couldn't clear the sample and he couldn't replace it, then the track had to come off the album, you know. If you just took that guitar part and got someone to play the guitar we'd be laughing, and it was really unfortunate because we had to pull it. We were off to a flying start and now it's just a nightmare and then he just lost all the impetus that was going along.


Jon

I have one last question, what is your best memory with Josh?


Ross

The best memory with Shadow? I loved the trip to Sonoma, we just spent 10 days digging for records, just me and him hanging out. I was getting paid as an A&R person to basically hang out with DJ Shadow, who I always completely respected, to go buy records. He was like "Look Ross, you know, I really want you to see the process. I don't know if you are going to be up for this, but what I do every day is I just drive around California buying records."


I don't have a problem with that in the slightest. Obviously, Shadow has got everything and we'd be in the record shops, and he would just comb through this particular section of a shop, and I would go through the whole place. So in the end, it was him standing there waiting for me going, "Are we gonna go? Are we gonna go?"


But I've got nothing but respect for Josh, I think he's amazing, and I love the journey that he's taken me on as a music fan that I've been fortunate and lucky enough to go on with him. As an A&R person and a friend I love him, I think he is brilliant.


Jon

Thank you very much Ross for all your time and your great insights. It was nice to talk to you.


Ross

Glad to help. Take care.

 

Listen to Ross Allen's weekly show at NTS or follow him on Instagram.


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Conducted by Jon (eikimono) on July 3rd, 2020

Transcription Mariella Petralia, editing by James Gaunt

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