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Q&A: DJ and producer Roni Size

"I’ve released hundreds of records in my career – but I feel I’ve still got one great one left..."

Last month, Bristol-native Roni Size joined Glyn Johns, Damon Albarn and Sylvia Massy as a recipient of the prestigious MPG Inspiration Award. The prize was bestowed upon Size at the Music Producers Guild’s annual gongfest in London, where he was also set to provide the star turn for the evening in the form of a solo, laptop-driven ‘AV’ set. This is a novel way of performing for Size more often seen on stage with Reprazent, a collective of DJs, musicians and singers/rappers.

Size describes himself as the “annoying kid” who would hang around Bristol’s Wild Bunch, a DJ crew that would spawn Massive Attack, Tricky and producer Nellee Hooper. He annoyed the teachers too: he was expelled from school as a teen. Yet, this softly-spoken pioneering powerhouse went on to win the Mercury Prize with his seminal New Forms double album of drum’n’bass tracks – including the irresistible Brown Paper Bag – in 1997.

How is the preparation for your solo show going?

This is the first time I’ve done anything like this by myself. People are going to have to get used to not seeing seven people on stage. This is a total different experience. There will be me, and there will be some vibes…. The technical side of things is that when we hit the buttons, everything has to work.

I’ve not been given this award for no reason at all – this is innovative, this is what I do. I get in an airplane, I jump out with the parachute and hope that it opens!

You are picking up the Inspiration Award before the jump… what first inspired you?

I was brought up in a family full of music. Having two older brothers really helped me to have a relationship with different types of music – because I was too young to go out. Sure, I went to the St Paul’s Carnival – I used to hide in the speakerboxes, before the sessions started, then I would sneak out into the crowd! I was lucky to be surrounded by inspiring people in Bristol. I could never afford to buy a drum machine but I can remember going and playing with an (Yamaha) RX17 and (Roland) 707 drum machine in the music shops. I couldn’t wait till I could buy one!

Let’s go back to your Mercury Prize win in 1997…

It was a really good experience. It was one of those journeys you can’t describe unless you’ve been in that bubble. I don’t do this to receive awards: I got no qualifications in school. And I’ve got a Mercury Music Prize! The boy didn’t do too bad, did he? [Laughs] I did this interview [afterwards] where I said my school never dealt with me correctly. This one morning I got a knock on my door, it was my old school teacher, the one who got me expelled, he came to apologise! That was quite gratifying. I felt justified in my own way. That’s an experience you don’t get often!

What influence were you pulling together on New Forms?

I thought drum’n’bass wasn’t being taken seriously by the press. A couple of mags were not having it: they just thought it was kids in a field raving. So when we put the band up on stage, they saw the drummer and the bass player and the vocalists and they saw what we do with our technology… it was a palette of all the different drum’n’bass styles, not ‘liquid’ or ‘jump up’ or ‘hardstep’, it was all of them. I just wanted to show there was room for scope here. We had the support of DJs like Gilles Peterson and other people who knew their shit. Good music stands the test of time, 20 years later we’re still playing tracks off that album.

Last time we wrote about you in 2014 Roni, you’d hosted a masterclass for the Guardian at Metropolis Studios. How did you get involved with that?

Metropolis hold a lot of events and they try to encourage students come in and use the studio. You can go to Metropolis and you’ll be sitting having a cup of coffee next to Richard Ashcroft or Mick Jagger…

Jagger’s never been there when I am…

I’ve seen him there! Richard and Mick, and Liam! But, Metropolis try to encourage people with ideas to put it into some kind of action. But the Guardian masterclass was a long two days…

Do you think doing classes like that are important?

I’m doing the Pro7ect [Songwriter’s Retreat]in Brighton later in the year, we’re in a hotel and we make music for five days, you meet different people and share experiences. So, of course it’s important! Thing about music is, you need to deal with other people. The more people you put into a room, the greater chance there is of something special happening.

What inspires you the most at the moment?

I think I still have a lot to prove to myself. I still have one great record in me, and I’m inspired to do that. But I’m taking my time, I’m not putting out lots and lots of music. I’ve released hundreds of records in my career – but I feel I’ve still got one great one left. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when it happens!

Who has been a particular inspiration to you?

I keep that stuff close to home – the people that have helped me like D Product – ‘Studio Dave’, he’s been very close to me, and Dynamite has been a great MC. Without that fans as well, you can’t do a show without people. So a little bit of everything I would say, but the people who are close to home.

Who do YOU think should get an Inspiration award?

Chuck D. Public Enemy, they created their own genre. And when you speak to Chuck him, you’re in the presence of someone who could have been as relevant as Malcolm X or any of the great preachers of their time.

+Roni Size revisits New Forms at the Oval Space, London, on 28 April