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Classic album: J-Walk on A Night on The Rocks

martin fisher
(Image credit: Martin Fisher)

When record shop manager and DJ, Martin Fisher, started looping up tough hip-hop beats with cinematic ’60s grooves, the resulting sampledelia turned heads – namely that of ex-manager of Joy Division and New Order, Rob Gretton.

He would release a string of singles on Gretton’s Rob’s Records and Pleasure labels, hitting on a funky formula, changing his name from Strangebrew to J-Walk, and working more with in-house studio whiz, Martin Desai.

The Martins polished the dusty beats and genre-spanning chucks of sampled vinyl (made on New Order’s old Akai S900 sampler), till they had the breakthrough track, Soul Vibration

The timeless tough breaks and orchestral instrumental would become a word-of-mouth sensation, with top taste-makers spinning white label copies, and a who’s who of labels desperate to sign the white hot J-Walk to their roster. 

martin fisher

(Image credit: Martin Fisher)

“Rob sadly passed away, and then there was a huge buzz about us,” says Fisher. “We had every record company in the world coming up – EMI, Virgin, Mo’ Wax, PIAS. But, in the end, we chose EastWest, as my partner and manager wanted to go with them, as they were offering the most money.”

Signed to a major, some changes were implemented. EastWest paired the group with songwriting brothers, Michael and Shaun Ward, who suggested vocalists to add to the mix.

“We already had six tracks on three singles on Rob’s labels, before we started the album. They were mainly instrumental. The brothers hooked us up with Sarah Hill, who did the vocal for Heavens Above, and Pete Simpson, who did Tearaway and Another Lover. We knew Veba already from Rae & Christian, and then Elbow’s Guy Garvey came in on the album, as well.”

This approach of re-examining earlier singles, and then adding in  vocalists, would prove fruitful, fleshing out the album, and adding extra layers of depth and personality to what were already pretty luscious beatscapes. 

“Even though we had a lot done, it took about two years to get the final 12 tracks into shape,” says Fisher. “I would spend weeks just moving notes around and minutely quantising things. But, I really wanted this to be my little statement. They were my little pocket symphonies.”

Tearaway

“This originally came out on the Pleasure label as a single. We remade it when we started doing the album. 

“The first version had a sample from the old Roots TV show soundtrack. It was just this guy going [sings], ‘Sky flying’. And when we signed to EastWest, we thought ‘we’re gonna get hammered for that’, so we got Pete Simpson to redo the vocal. 

“The track is based on a loop from a compilation album called Beat Of The Traps, too. It’s a compilation of private press recordings. A guy had found a load of them and put them on this record. I just looped a bit off that, then got some orchestral bits in, and added a Northern Soul beat to it and it was done.”

Scarlet Menace

“This is very sample-based. The drums are from one of these American breaks records that we’d get in the Fat City record shop in Manchester that I was managing at the time. They’d have ten great breakbeats a side on each album – minute-long drum loops. Great for chopping. Then there’s some punchy horn samples, and we used the Roland SH-101 for the synthy bits. 

“Veba did the vocals. She was a friend of mine, and worked with Mark Rae, and was part of the Rae & Christian setup. She and her girlfriend, Tracy Elizabeth, wrote the lyrics. They came into the studio one day and just smashed it out.

“She’s brilliant. Just her own little whirlwind that comes and goes, and you can’t pin her down.”

Soul Vibration

“I remember nicking this record from me mum. I used to play it when I was a kid because it had this horn loop at the beginning that I loved [hums it]. Then, years later I sampled it, looped it, and it was fucking magic! 

“Then I took a breakbeat from this Brazilian album. And I thought, oh my god this is alchemy! I just listened to it going round for hours. 

“Then I wrote some piano and stuff, and literally I had Soul Vibration, or the body of it, in one night. And I did that with a lot of the tracks on the album. 

“The bass is the horn loop, with the filter way down, so you just get the bottom end.”

Cariad

“That’s a Welsh word. It means darling. Or sweetheart. Or just, chuck, you know? 

“Anyway, this track has [Elbow singer] Guy Garvey on. We knew him. So thought, well, we’ve got this nice, mellow instrumental. Let’s see if Guy wants to do it. He literally came in the studio and had some lyrics – he brought out his lyric book, and tried something, and it just seemed to fit. And that was it. 

“It can just go like that, you know? It can be dead hard, getting vocals. But, I think with all the vocals on this album, they all just came in, and it went great. It was just, if it’s good, let’s go with it. And he’s a great guy, Guy, too.”

Following the Noughties

“Virtually all of it was done on the Akai S900. Because I only had 11 seconds memory, I would spin album tracks in at 45rpm on the turntable, and then slow it down to get more sample time.

“I took the beat from the Mary Jane Girls’ All Night Long. Then a loop from an Alphonse Mouzon record, which we ended up replaying for the album. 

“There’s one clavinet note from an old KPM [library record] album. Just one note – a long one. I sampled that and replayed it. So, there’s a fuzzy riff, which is that. And then there’s sort of deeper, modulating notes – that’s the same note with filters from the S900. The filter on that machine was incredible.

“This was also on a Grand Central compilation [Central Heating 2].”

Petrified Blues

“Yeah, that was a nice little mellow thing. I think it was Martin Desai, the other half of J-Walk, who came up with that. An earlier version of it appeared on the B-side of the Soul Vibration 45.

“It has nice orchestra sounds on it. That would have been from the Roland JV-1080. We also took organs from that. There was a really realistic organ sound on the 1080.

“Then we had a jazz loop, which we chopped up. It was like a brush loop, so you had that kind of [mimes a soft brush drum beat]. It gave it that nice, kind of, wash in the background. It made for a nice mellow track for the album.”

Tears Like a Wave

“The electronic drum machine sound is from the Casio MT-40. That was primarily the beat. The bassline was from the Korg MS-20. And then the organ was the JV-1080, again. 

“And then there were lots of little pops and clicks. If I remember, I got that kind of stuff off of various hip-hop 12” vinyl singles. 

“As you know, on those imported hip-hop records you’ve got little acapellas. And then you’d get a Dirty Version and a Clean Version of a track. And then the Instrumental and an acapella. And this one had all these little percussiony bits around the vocal. I thought, fuck it, I’ll have them! Just little snippets. But great to add to a track for extra flavour.”

Caught on the Hop

“Very similar to Tears Like A Wave, this one. We used a sample from a Funk Inc. record [Smokin’ At Tiffany’s] and we got fucking hammered for that. 

“Yeah, the American guys, man. If you sample summat from America they want weighing in, pure dollar. And all we had off it was a filtered bassline, you know? 

“So, we declared it. And we probably gave up 80% of the tune, just for a filtered bassline. And we’d wrote all the other instruments on top! Anyway…

“I wanted this track to have that bouncy organ feel – a bit like a track I did called Sand Steppin’. It was a kind of Part Two to that. We like a bit of jaunty silliness, sometimes.”

Heavens Above!

“Sarah Hill sings on this. She was an interesting character. She had a tough life when she was a kid, and then found salvation in the church.

“We’d already had this track as an instrumental; it was a B-side to one of the singles we’d put out on Pleasure. That was based on a boogie disco record by Chemise called She Can’t Love You, which I love. I had the 12 of that, so sampled the groove.

“Then, for the album, Sarah wrote something quite spiritual on top. The lyrics and the vocal delivery are incredible. You can hear a lot of her life in that song, really. 

“There are loads of bits I took from an album I’ve got with 250 radio jingles on. Things like, ‘Hits of the week!’ I took one that said, ‘Music!’.

“Yeah, great record. I really like it. And the fastest [BPM] one on the album [laughs].”

Another Lover

“That’s got a nice filtered build. Again, most of it is the S900. With a whooshy soundtrack sort of sample, which I took from a sample library of wind noises.

“Then I was listening to a track called The Devil Is Loose by Asha Puthli, and wondered what it’d sound like sped up. And I liked it, and I chopped it up to create this weird vocal, that you can’t quite tell what she’s singing, but I liked it. We got hammered for that by the Americans as well, when we had to clear it. 

“But, yeah. Mainly S900. Then I added a bit more on when we took it into the studio. Then we added Pete Simpson, for vocals.”

French Letter

“With this, it was like, shit… What do we do after Soul Vibration? We needed a great record. So, I found this loop, which I took from my mom’s collection, again – Love Is Blue by Claudine Longet. 

“My mom’s French. I’d always liked this song. I added a tough beat from one of those beat loop albums from the shop. Then some vibraphone from the JV-1080, and it’s just arranged it up into this kind of heavy library beat, mash-up thing.

“The main sample was quite mono, to start with. But we widened it right up. That was Martin, he was a really good engineer.”

The Wasp

“Why end on this? It’s weird… I don’t know how we sequenced the album, really, but we kind of listened to everything and tried to get a flow. And that seemed a good one to end on.

“Again, very sample heavy. We took stuff from a track from the soundtrack for Forbidden Planet – this, like, avant garde, ’60s, French animation. Yeah, then a lot of the SH-101 was on there for the spooky synth FX noises, to round it out.

“With this album I wanted to use that downbeat, boom bap hip-hop sound that we were selling in the Fat City record shop, at the time. I liked it, but with more orchestral stuff, and a bit of a ’60s aesthetic. That’s where I was coming from.” 

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