OVER&OVER PRESENTS 021: RICHARD SEN
February 11, 2021
Graffiti and Hip Hop culture are inextricably linked. Since their inception in the South Bronx in the early 70s, graffiti, breakdancing, and hip hop have worked symbiotically as artistic expressions of the inner city experience. Perhaps less obvious is the connection between underground dance music and graffiti.
With closer examination, however, the connection becomes clearer. Both artforms are borne out of subcultures associated with striking back against the artistic and musical establishment and the cultural norms that created them.
As one of London’s first graffiti artists, Richard Sen holds an important place in the history of London’s street scene. Richard’s early experiences in New York City inspired his work as an iconic illegal artist in the early wave of London graffiti writers in the mid 80’s. His notorious “Coma” tags on the capitol’s subway cars earned him notoriety among his contemporaries. It also made him a target of the authorities who set out to make a point about the criminality of graffiti resulting in him being the first Englishman jailed for it.
It was a natural creative transformation for Richard to become a DJ after his stint in jail. After his first residency at the legendary Crazy Club at the Astoria, Richard gained respect as a DJ for his complex aesthetic and storyline; over the years, he would go on to DJ all over Europe, the United States and Japan.
Richard has gone through many iterations as a producer in his 30 years in dance music. Whether operating under the moniker Bronx Dogs, Padded Cell, or his real name, Richard’s output as a producer has been prolific and unique - representing a lifetime of experiences and a wide range of stylistic influences.
Currently, Richard holds down a monthly show on Balamii Radio and continues to push out unique productions (some on his own label, Darkness Is Your Candle), edits and remixes for major players like Rheinzand (a digital version of his remix for Rheinzand was released yesterday on Music for Dreams - go snatch in on bancamp!). He remains a fixture of the international touring circuit. One can expect a range of sounds in his DJ sets from obscure eastern edits to Chicago acid to classic disco cuts.
Last week, Klasse Wrecks released a mixtape from Richard as part of their revered Graffiti tapes sub label, integrating his art with his productions under the Coma moniker, one of the many honors Richard’s received for his singular contributions to dance music.
Over the years, the validation of graffiti and dance music as “legitimate” art forms has been illuminated by museums and radios adopting them for mainstream consumption especially in the form of street art and commercialized festivals. Richard, however, carries on the tradition of transgression through his art, leaving him firmly planted as a seminal figure in the underground. We have great respect for Richard and are excited to share his 2.5 hour mix with you. Prepare to be taken on a journey by one of the finest DJ’s out there who continues to have a story to tell.
BL INTERVIEW w/RICHARD SEN
Richard, thank you for being a part of our series. We love your mix - it’s aesthetic and dynamism - we’re keen to put it out...
Thanks for asking me to be part of your series. I’m in good company alongside some of my favourite artists like Dennis Kane, In Flagranti, The Beat Broker and Eddie C.
It seems like you’ve been quite busy over the years with production work and your show on Balamii. How has this extended period away from clubs been for you? Have you welcomed any of the changes?
Yes, I have loved it, creatively but not financially. I know many people are going through a tough time but I have made use of the lockdowns to get some music done and try and develop as a producer whilst still wanting to sound fresh and push the boundaries a bit. When you’ve been doing this for a long time, as I have, it’s easy to get jaded or stuck in a rut creatively or become too polished, critical or over produced as you become more experienced. The best tracks I’ve done recently are the ones that have come together quickly, underproduced and I’ve had the most fun doing. I’ve found during this period that it’s best to throw the rule book away, try not to be restricted by what a particular genre is supposed to sound like and really have fun in the creative process. Because I live on my own, music has saved me from going mad during the past year of lockdowns.
You are steeped in the history of London street style as a former graffiti artist. I’ve noticed that your dj sets are quite expansive and complex from a style/ aesthetic perspective.
How does your background influence your work today, especially those years in the 1980s when you were active as a graffiti artist? How do you see this conveyed in your art and dj’ing in the past 30 years?
Illegal graffiti writing on trains is one of the purest artforms that exists today. You have the possibility of being electrocuted or hit by a train and also imprisoned if caught. You risk your life and freedom for your ‘art’ with absolutely no financial reward. It also gives you an independence and an attitude where you disregard any restraints, laws or rules and have a determination to get your message painted on a train, by any means necessary. This is all done with ‘style’. When you go through these experiences in your formative adult years they tend to stick with you forever. These characteristics, like a ‘fuck off’ rebellious attitude, fierce independence, and the importance of having the best style have stayed with me in my music.
I see records as tools, just like spray cans, to create something bigger in a DJ set or music production. I can confidently say that I have a better knowledge and better records than most dance DJs! (Not collectors). I also don’t see boundaries when it comes to genres but at the same time there should be a sound that runs through every track I play that can be identified as being my style. Therefore, from my vast collection, I can choose records, samples and sounds from many genres and present them in a DJ set or as a piece of music in a unique, stylish, flowing manner (just like a piece of graffiti) where it all makes sense. Too many DJs these days don’t even understand the basics of programming records together to flow and create a certain dynamic.
You’ve contributed to dance music under many aliases (along with a few collaborators) including Bronx Dogs and Padded Cell and now your given name. Do each of these aliases represent a particular period or iteration of your identity as an artist? How has your sound and style evolved over the years?
I began DJing in 1989 and played house, techno, funky European stuff and a bit of disco but didn’t start production until 1997. Bronx Dogs (1997 - 2004) was myself and DJ Regal who came from a Hip-Hop background. I guess it was a fusion of my dance background with Regal’s Hip-hop background which manifested in B Boy disco breaks, electro and a bit of house. It reflected what was going on in London at the time as there was a huge ‘beats’ and disco scene with labels like Nuphonic, Heavenly. Mo Wax, Wall of Sound etc. Our last album and later work explored post-punk and darker disco which must have had an influence on the next production outfit.
(Above is a much watch video interview with Richard and other UK artists about the records chosen for his compilation on Strut Records called "This Ain't Chicago")
Padded Cell (2005 - 2012) was myself and Neil Beatnik, who had been producing on Wall of Sound and whose studio was called the Padded Cell. We continued to examine the darker side of disco and post punk combined with the influence of Giallo horror soundtracks. DC Recordings were instrumental in shaping our sound as producers. Again, we were influenced by musical trends happening in London and wanted to provide a ‘freaky,’ psychedelic alternative to the Nu Disco scene at the time.
Both production duos are part of my musical DNA. Disco, Eastern influences, post-punk, electro and old school house and rave all play a part in my sound as a producer. I think there is a dark edge running through my work but I really want to try and do something light and uplifting as an antidote to the dark times we are living in.
Is it hard to represent the DIY / punk / street lifestyle and spirit in the current dance climate? Is that something you aim to achieve?
I think the current dance climate is more about a mainstream industry and careers rather than a subculture or alternative lifestyle. Music used to be an escape route for talented outsiders but now the type of people you wanted to escape from have become DJs! These days you have to be skilled at marketing and administration as much as having creative talent. Being a DJ is probably one of the least cool or edgiest things to do now because everyone’s doing it. The amount of average and undistinguished radio shows that have popped up over lockdown is depressing. With so much content out there, it becomes more difficult to find the real talent. I’m embarrassed to tell people I’m a DJ (I prefer ‘selector’). Careerist, ambitious people bore me but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim to push the boundaries creatively and make a living from it. If someone becomes rich and famous for being genuinely talented then I applaud that. But the invention of social media has magnified the celebration of mediocrity. I aim to create and produce quality work consistently, on my own terms, but that’s not enough. Hardly anyone knows my output because I’m not good at ‘whoring’ myself.
A similar thing is happening with graffiti now, too. What we did, (and what some are still doing) was part of an illegal youth subculture which is both art and vandalism. A secret, alternative, subversive lifestyle with its own values, traditions and hierarchies. It involved huge amounts of damage to property and was hated by everyone - the media, public and law etc. Now we have a safe, sanitised version called ‘street art’ which is usually legal and can increase property value as a symbol of gentrification and loved by the media and public. As with DJing, there are kids out there who want to become street artists in order to get loads of ‘likes’ or make loads of money without any risk and no awareness of the history or subculture. It’s a sign of the times.
Can you tell us about your recent Graffiti tapes release under the Coma alias?
Lucas (DJ Luca Lozano), who is also a former graffiti writer, had been asking me for years to contribute to his Graffiti Tapes series. Over the lockdown I finally had the time to go through a bunch of old ideas and get 6 tracks together for him. They were things I had started working on 8 or 9 years ago so may sound a bit dated now. Post punk basslines, disco breaks and old school trance tracks I did for fun. Lucas is a graphic designer too and I gave him some of my old outlines from the late 80s and early 90s with photos and press cuttings and he designed an incredible sleeve. It’s available as a tape, 12” vinyl and digitally.
How about his mix? How was it recorded? As you told me over email, it is a real “excursion” through time, style and space. Is this representative of your approach in clubs or something different?
I recorded the mix using 2 x 1210s and 2 x CDJs in one take. I like to play long sets if possible because then you can really experiment with different genres and dynamics. I guess this would be the ideal DJ set for me to play in a small space. I can play faster and harder and also slower and mellower depending on the situation. The mix joins the dots between old and new, dark and light, cosmic rock, leftfield and funky disco, exclusive edits, Middle Eastern dance, trippy breakbeat, electro and old school house. My influences are black American dance music and European electronic music, from the 70s, 80s and 90s. I think it’s important to have both origins which are the foundations of dance music. I really respect DJs like Ron Hardy, Andrew Weatherall, Trevor Jackson, Harvey and Theo Parrish who combine both those influences in their sets.
It seems like dance music has grown beyond its roots in black / gay /working peoples’ music… Do you think the parties you’ve been associated with in recent years still represent this spirit? Or has it all changed? Do you have hopes about how the dance scene will continue to evolve, especially after Covid?
I think, even in the 1970s, dance music was an escape from real world problems for people of all backgrounds and classes. Things seem to be more segregated now. There are clubs that will have a mix of black and white punters but usually the music is Hip Hop, UK Garage, Dubstep, Reggae or Drum N Bass. But this is usually only in the UK. Maybe it’s the type of music I’m playing but the parties where I play are dominated by the white middle-classes, straight and gay. There are many places in Europe, especially Eastern Europe where they have no knowledge of bIack music and very few black citizens so it is understandable that their influences on dance music are rock and indie aimed at a white audience. I saw a great interview with Marshall Jefferson in Mixmag and he described the situation well. What started out as black music from Chicago, Detroit and New York has now been adopted by the white middle classes who have bleached it and sold it back to the (predominantly white) masses. He looked at it from an economic point of view. The majority of the consumers and clubbers in house / dance music are white; therefore, it is natural that music and DJs etc. who appeal to the white mainstream will sell better. We’ve seen this before, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Beatles, Chemical Brothers etc. all did the same thing, and that’s fine.
I think with the whole BLM trend this year, many media outlets and labels are trying to redress the racial imbalance. I find this really contrived and fake because they had no interest 2 years ago. Black lives are not a trend! It’s inverse racism or sexism to deliberately choose, give opportunities or work to someone based on their race or gender. There are DJ agencies in Berlin who say ‘We must have a certain amount of female DJs’. So… even if they are shit? Competence, talent, experience and personality should be the deciding factors in employing someone. This is happening, not just in music, but in academia and other industries too. Political correctness and identity politics is so out of control now that people care more about not being seen to be racist, sexist or homophobic than moving forward and improving the quality of a certain field or the world in general.
Drop the mic... Real opinions from a man who's been keeping it real as long as he's been at it. Richard, we admire your work and contributions to the world of underground dance music. We appreciate you sharing your talents and thoughts with us! We're looking forward to releasing this mix to the public. Stay tuned for more from Richard everyone!