Froggy got Britain mixing

Interviewed by Bill in London, 7.9.04

After an eye-opening trip to New York in 1979, Steven Howlett, aka Froggy, showed the UK how powerful a tool mixing could be. His inspirational visits to the Paradise Garage and Studio 54 led him to own the first pair of Technics 1200s in the UK. He also built himself a monster mobile sound rig, inspired by the roadshows of radio giants like Emperor Rosko and the rigs of East London reggae don Jah Tubby. Armed with giant sound and killer mixing skills Froggy became one of the most influential spinners in the so-called Soul Mafia.

Where did you grow up?
I’m a proper cockney. Born in Whitechapel, by the Bow bells. Born in The Wright Hospital, November 8th. Age don’t talk about. I’m a veteran [he was 53.]

Did you grow up in Whitechapel?
I grew up in Whitechapel, then moved to Rainham, between 7 and 12, then moved back to Ilford. Dad worked at Plessey’s at the time, which was a big concern. I couldn’t stand school anymore and my dad had influence there and it was hard to get an apprenticeship. I wanted to do an electronics apprenticeship and in those days you could leave when you were 15, so I left just after my 15th birthday. Did that till I was 21. Went and got my City & Guilds. Covered all aspects of engineering. My thoughts were always towards the radio, studio equipment and sound systems. Started developing this skill for sound systems and radiograms.

When did you start collecting records?
When I was five. In those days, all you had was wind up record players. Clockwork, with a handle on the side. In those days, it was 78s and you had to change the needles after three or four plays. So my pocket money was a box of needles every week, and a record. So they’d lock me in my room and I’d play my records.

“There was nothing like mixing in those days.”

What sort of records?
I had a great interest in general melody stuff, things like Guy Mitchell ‘Singin’ The Blues’, ‘Rock Around The Clock’, I was a big Lonnie Donegan fan. Then Plessey’s went all electronic and they did a motor, my dad came home with it one night when I was about seven, which did away with the handle. So I could play records without using the handle. Six months after that, when I was about 8, my dad kindly turned up with a radiogram which I completely commandeered for the next ten years. It had two eight-inch speakers, real deck. Just at that time, 7-inch singles came out, so every week I had a single, and because I didn’t have to change the needles anymore… I got sweets instead of needles. Then I started building things – sound – and people started giving me speakers. My mum died at an early age, so I was pretty well going through some bad times when I was younger, so the music was a comfort… This radiogram, they made the mistake of giving me a drill, and when they came back home I’d drilled all the radiogram out, speakers everywhere. I had eight speakers in there. It blew up. But they gave me that [radiogram] box and I had it for ten years. That’s when I started collecting records. When I started my apprenticeship, you didn’t get a lot of money, about a fiver a week, I quickly became the Apprenticeship Association man, which gave me the clout to put a few do’s on. Plessey’s, at that time, had a social hall. I became chairman of the Ap. Assoc. With all my knowledge, I scrounged speakers, amplifier, and I had a couple of old Garrard decks and started doing little do’s for apprentices.

Where you using two decks, then?
There was nothing like mixing in those days. All you had was a big hi-fi amp, a Leek 70 or quad amplifier, which was the crème de la crème, and both of those had two decks plugs, so you could switch from one to the other. I had a couple of Garrard turntables and an amp and a couple of speakers. And I already had quite a collection and those records were quite appropriate for these do’s. Towards the end of my apprenticeship, I’d saved quite a bit of money, and I went and got two sheets of eight by five and at that time the only 12-inch speaker you could get, associated with Plessey was a Wharfedale, so I phoned the company up to get the specs and built two cabinets with tweeters in, in my house. That was my first two disco speakers. Continued with my apprenticeship. I’d heard there was a little place starting up at the Bird’s Nest in Chapel Heath. They were Whatney’s pubs with a little room in each pub and they were interviewing for DJs. So I went along and got it straight away. I asked for my own night and started with nothing and built it up till it was packed. And it was on a Monday night. So soon as I’d finished my apprenticeship, the day I finished, I jacked it in the next day. I wanted to go professional. To my horror it wasn’t as easy as I thought. I bought a little Thames van for £100, put some gear in it. Proudly walked in the next week and told them proudly I was a professional disc jockey. They laughed me all the way out of the door, because you really could not get insured for any kind of entertainment then whether you were a golfer or DJ. I had to go round posing as an electrician. Anyway, got the Bird’s Nest going, packed out every Monday night, different promoters started coming in, liked what I did, liked what I played. I was a good entertainer, and good on the mic. So other owners from other places got my number and started booking me. So six months after I’d gone professional I’d managed to sustain a wage from doing it.

Which other places were you doing?
Bird’s Nest was my main one. The Robin Hood in Dagenham on Thursdays. Then one day a guy came to see me at the Bird’s Nest, within the first year, and he said I’ve got a guy who deals with all the bands, manages them, and at the time he was managing Joe Brown who, at the time, was doing quite well. He used to have a venue, and he’d had it for 18 years then. By this time I had a little mobile kit. Couple of speakers, Numan Audio, couple of decks. Anyway, I rang this guy up, George Cooper, and he put on every year in Scunthorpe – and you can imagine what it’s like up north, they didn’t have any entertainment.

Was this Scunthorpe Baths, by any chance?

I’ve played there as well!
Yeah, if you visited it in the winter you couldn’t imagine it being a swimming pool.

Well it isn’t now they’ve filled it.
So for 30 weeks of the year, George Cooper used to put bands in as a package. He came round to see me, little short man, arrogant bugger, for £50 off I went. Two weeks later, I found myself on my way to Scunthorpe, which is probably the hardest ride imaginable. Set off at 8 in the morning to get there at 5 at night to get there in time for the bands. At that time the bands that were big were The Sweet, T Rex, Slade and I had some great fun working with those bands. Only problem was the loneliness going there and back cos I only had a Thames van it was a bloody long drive. There were no motorways then and I used to come home and it did knock the balls out of me.

I did that for four years. First year it was all bands. I realised I didn’t have enough equipment to do such a big room, and they were talking to me one day, the manager and George and they said do you know much about any of the radio jocks. So I said I was a big fan of Emperor Roskoe. So they said get him down here. First one they booked was Johnny Walker, then came Rosko, who was my hero and he had this big lorry load of equipment, it was the bollocks and he actually came and sat and spoke to me. He actually let me plug my deck into his system and – boom – I was gone then. Soon as I got back I started buying every speaker, borrowed money wherever I could, filled the van up with speakers, built up these amplifiers and, next, they booked Dave Lee Travis. The good thing about this night was he commented on how sharp I was. When he looked I always had that awareness so I had a record already cued up, so he’d tell a few gags and entertain. To my amazement at the end of the night he said, ‘could I have a word with you?’ We went back to the dressing room. He said, ‘Been wanting to do it for a long time but just haven’t found the right person. I really enjoyed working with you tonight. There’s something about your timing and the music you played. Are you interested in doing some gigs with me?’ I said I’d love to.

He said I want to get together a roadshow. Within three weeks, I went round to his place, had a talk. He said he wanted to tour and it can be quite hectic. He wanted two dancers, me before and after. So we got two good dancers, I brushed up the sound equipment and off we went and did our first couple of shows. We didn’t have anywhere open after 2 in those days so we’d do ten till one thirty. So we had the DLT Roadshow with my name in subtitles. It was so successful we toured the country four or five times. We toured for five years. Dave bought a Winnebago. We had a couple of road crew. Dave was at the peak of his career then so it opened a lot of doors for me, as you can imagine, and they’d often book me back on my own to do a set on a club night and that’s how I built up my name all over the country. The Froggy name came from the Bird’s Nest because we all had to have nicknames. There was a Scottish DJ called Jock The Jock, and because I was quite wiry and so it became Frog and then Froggy. I then got asked to do one of the biggest clubs in the country – I’d played there twice as the DLT Roadshow – which was the Southgate Royalty. Just at that time Jeff Young was playing and the manager said ‘would you come down and do one with your sound system’ because by that time I’d built it up into quite a nice system. So I went back and did it on my own, played a lot less commercial stuff, more what Jeff was playing. They said it was great and they offered me a residency. And by that time I’d been touring all the time and I was tired out. I wanted to have a base, so I took it on. Bit of a bumpy ride for 6 months, because I had to find someone to cover for me with Dave, but eventually I left because I really wanted to stick with the Royalty.

“I was one of the few people that Richard Long let up to see what was in the Paradise Garage.”

What year did you start doing it?
Years are a bit difficult to quote you. Within the first year I was there, it really built up. I was playing a lot more imports. But I was breaking imports while I was on the road, too. Because I worked at the Royalty, they’d have a bag of tune for me literally everything that came in. I’d pick ‘em up and pay for them sale or return. In that first year, they did the New Music Seminar in New York. Well, New York was about the biggest place to go, so just inside that year I went over there with a few DJs

Yeah. I went over with the Mafia team. Chris Hill, Chris Brown, Sean French, Robbie Vincent, me. I’ve never experienced anything like it in all my life. It changed my life completely. I’d heard all about it, and I’d heard all about mixing techniques. I was always good at mixing, but not in the way they did it. I always had a good idea of beats and how you could weave music in and out. The first day meeting everyone which I found great. Then we got invited to the Paradise Garage. I never knew nothin’ about it. But Chris Hill said to me, when you see it, you’ll understand what I’ve been going on about, because he’d been going on about it for ages. So we left at midnight, we’d all had loads of champagne and everything else. And I’d never seen anything like it. Sound system was the most incredible I’d ever heard. The room was the most electrifyin’ I’d ever been in. The DJ was just… incredible. The tunes he played were quite fantastic. The two stations then were WBLS and WKTU and BLS was linked with Paradise Garage and was much more streety and WKTU was linked to Studio 54. I experienced this whole night, from twelve till seven listening to this jock and the lighting and the sound was just so incredible, I couldn’t believe it. The following evening we went to Studio 54 and experienced the big queue outside and being picked – we had special passes – and also the Richard Long sound system which was the same as the Garage one. The music was much more lighter, but just as entertaining and brilliant. Came back and decided, with all the information I’d got, I spoke to Richard Long quite a lot, who was fascinated by my interest in sound systems, made lots of drawings and notes and came back and got myself in a load of facking debt. I went out and borrowed every penny I could, bought a lorry and built a big system up. Went to see a mate of mine in Southend and he built these big bins for me and I took two guys on full time. We fitted it into the Royalty every week and people used to come for miles. By this time, I’d had my mixer modified and redesigned.

What sort of records was he playing and how did that influence the Royalty?
The Garage wasn’t about one particular type of music, you’d hear ‘Can You Handle It‘, two copies running, I’d buy two copies of records and do phasing and overlaps. He’d put ‘Another One Bites The Dust‘ in the middle of it! Wow! I remember going to some downtown record shop just to get the Queen acetate. I came back to the Royalty and whacked it on and blew its stack off. The whole idea of the Garage was any good record could be a dance track, which was great: ‘Love Injection‘, ‘We Got The Funk‘, ‘Another One Bites The Dust‘, so I started doing all these little inserts. Pete Tong was so impressed, he was like that’s a fucking brilliant idea and that started to influence him a lot. ‘Every Way Which Loose‘, ‘Love Injection, D-Train ‘You’re The One For Me‘, ‘Can You Handle It‘, all the Prelude stuff. One of the biggest labels at that time was West End. They really did have loads of leftfield tracks, there’s one that’s still getting used now, Loose Joints‘ ‘Is It All Over My Face‘. It took me a year to break that track, no one could get into that. Peech Boys ‘Don’t Make Me Wait‘. Then on the jazz funk side you had all the British bands coming up. You had Level 42, I Level… So in your set you’d include Lonnie Liston Smith ‘Expansions‘, ‘Always There‘ Willie Bobo, then you’d have the jazz stuff to go in there. So jazz funk included Willie Bobo, you never heard jazz funk stuff at the Garage, it was all club music. But in this country, you mixed them together. So ‘Expansions‘ and you’d play Sharon Redd after it. 

When Froggy met Larry

In terms of the sound, what were you using exactly?
When I was over there, I was one of the few people that Richard Long let up to see what was in the Paradise Garage. He used Thorens decks at the time and they were mounted up from a gimbal in the ceiling. When I had a look at one, they were just too slow for the work I was used to. I needed a quicker start. All the DJs who were doing blend mixing were using the Technics 1200 Mk I which to my horror, I brought two back from New York and I just couldn’t work with them. I practised on them for two months, then I went to play up north at the Warehouse

In Leeds?
Yeah, he had guys like Greg Wilson playing up there. When I went up there to play, I fluffed it, couldn’t use them; they were too slow, so I flogged them. Anyway, I went over to New York and I’d heard about a new version of the 1200 that they had out, the Mk2, when I went over and played on them, I did a little guest spot, the deck was quick it had a hi torque motor in it. That changed the whole industry. I bought two back with me.

Was the mark 1 the one with the little LED screen on it?
No that was the 1500 Mk2. I had the first 1200s in the country. I modified my whole deck to fit them in, feedback problems everything, but once I’d got into them – I’ve still got them now – off I went. And the mixing, I studied Larry Levan, Tee Scott, Shep Pettibone, went to KISS FM and watched them. And then adopted it at the Royalty on the Saturday night. Within eight weeks, Chris Hill came up to me and said I was definitely on par with the Americans. So it went on from there.

Were you aware of guys like Greg James at the Embassy?
Yeah, I’ve got a lot of respect for him. They used these lazy decks which weren’t right for what I was doing, but I used to go and watch Greg, he was great. But when the 1200s came out it opened a lot of doors. Also, I’d always had a reel-to-reel, so I started editing. Dave Atkin, from Radio 1, Dave Lee Travis’s producer, good friend of mine, taught me. I used to and watch him produce shows, watched him edit singles down for radio. He said, when you get it right, you can have a little mix each week on Peter Powell’s show. What I was doing was making the mixes up, but I couldn’t edit properly. He taught me to edit properly and I practised and practised. So I’d take him a mix in, have a chat about what was in Blues & Soul, Record Mirror, so then I started doing a lot of mixes [edits] for radio, 7-inch mixes. Capital heard me and gave me a late night show.

What kind of stuff were you playing when you did the Peter Powell?
Well, if you had most of the papers like RM for instance, the biggest was Record Mirror, for the industry there was a two page supplement written by James Hamilton every week. So you’d read the column and then you’d feature the tracks. We’d ring him up and give him information as to what the big tracks were. It was a bible for the industry. Blues & Soul had a two page segment that Bob Kilbourn wrote. Within a short space of time, the Mafia, what we played was so upfront; they would look up to us what to buy. At the Royalty, they’d book Greg Edwards every month, Robbie Vincent and gradually a team formed to do Caister. I was already doing Caister before the soul ones started. I was doing the 18-30s, great laugh, general music, I did about eight of those. Shagged myself into a coma. Then Robbie Vincent did one of the 18-30s with me and took it back to Showstoppers at the Royalty and said look why don’t we do a soul one? In that two and half years at the Royalty, it opened a lot of doors, I was doing radio, it started to get on top a wee bit. The sound system became expensive to keep running and I took a break at one stage. I put the sound in at Caister and because I’d designed it I was always getting phone calls about it, which just made me too tired. I wasn’t concentrating on my work. Then I left it alone for a year and then Brian Rix took it over.

What, the sound system?
No Caister. I came back after a year, had a word with Brian and said ask the boys if it was okay and I came back. I asked him about the sound system, the guy doing it was a friend of mine, and what he put in, I thought I couldn’t compete so I left him to it, but at the next Caister, they made me stay in the dressing room until they announced it and I got a bit of a standing ovation for that year I’d taken off.

Do you remember what year that was?
They’re a bit of a blur. When you get to 65… [he’s making that up to throw me off] Anyway, it was a good year and a half I missed. I must admit that, although Brian Rix can be a difficult person to deal with, he runs that event very well and keeps it going, so I do that twice a year.

Didn’t you hire out your system to some of the rare groove guys during the late 80s? I’m sure Norman Jay said he was blown away by Derek B when he saw him in Canning Town and he was using your system.
The problem was there became a lot of jealousy. There are only certain boys that can run a sound system. Where I got a lot of my knowledge from were people like Jah Tubby, Jah Whoosh and those guys. They were telling me about increased costs. You can’t just have idiots lugging the gear around, you gotta have a few technicians with you, too. So I started to hire it out and I found I was using it so much to hire it out that I wasn’t using it myself. So the last couple of years it has been in storage, so I don’t know what to do with it.

But Derek B was using it wasn’t it?
Derek B was a protégé of mine. He was like a black version of me. The problem was he too greedy too quick. I was working with Simon Harris, at the time, doing production work. And Derek B started putting gigs on everywhere saying it was his sound system, so we had a massive row, punch up and everything. Derek B then got a deal with a record deal, Simon Harris got a deal and bad young brother was Derek B, so we went our own ways. I did Derek B’s first big edit for his album, which he rejected, he then got Simon Harris to do it and he rejected that and the company blew him out. So he got his own in the end. He was out to shit on everyone and he’s not been heard of since. And I have.

How was the racial composition in these clubs?
The biggest problem you had was the mixed race thing. Very very difficult to keep it predominantly white, as such, because you were playing black music. To my horror in the first few years I got knocked a lot outside of that for playing black music. The biggest problem was no club owners wanted a heavy – over 50% black – so keeping a happy medium was very hard. I did find myself not playing the more leftfield stuff to keep that down a bit. It was heavy. The Royalty was 60/40 when it started. But that was just the way it went.

So were you getting pressure from the owners?
You would get pressure from most of them. Lots of clubs were the doormen kept it under control. Only problem was there was lots of nicking – not the older ones, but the younger kids – they’d go in for this handbag snatching so black music got branded as the cause of thieving and stuff going on. But I’d gone so far into it, I couldn’t go back and do ordinary gigs anymore. That was what I was known to play. The thing is with the black crowd, the white people had a lot more money. So what it was… the black fraternity would come and watch someone play the music because they couldn’t afford to buy it. So it did get a bit out of hand and embarrassing at times.

What about the electro scene that came up after…
I remember talking to Tim Westwood, and he saw the hip hop scene growing, because he saw in the jazz funk scene that there needed to be music that people without a lot of money could be associated with and had their own identity. Tim was the first person to kick that off and it took a lot of the weight away from us soul jocks. Suddenly, Morgan Khan clocked on to that and started doing Electro and Hip Hop and it became very big. Tim stayed with it all the way through. For instance, they would never put an electro night on at the Royalty. Too heavy. Even today if you get a Westwood gig, it’s mad. It has separated the scene totally.

So did you play any of the electro stuff?
No. I grew to like it quite a lot. At that time, Morgan was doing the jazz funk and he was on his 2nd album and he wanted a mixed one and there wasn’t many jocks around that could mix on reel-to-reel. So I did an electro album for him, me and Simon Harris. So when I did Capital, one of the jocks who did electro before me left, so I would do the electro hour before doing my stuff. Didn’t touch the hip hop stuff. Planet Force and that label it was on…?

Tommy Boy.
Yeah, that was a big concern, did a lot of work for them.

Where you playing any of that stuff in clubs?
No, I never played it out. But on the radio I did editing work and mixing for them. I used to do it incognito, never used to put my name on it much. I didn’t want to be associated with it too much. I grew to like it, because I like music in general, but hip hop is not for me, Don’t like it at all. Far too heavy. Unfortunately, it’s become very big.

Were there any people who influenced you when you were younger?
Well when I was growing into my teens there was only one radio station. The only one you could get was Radio Luxembourg, Tony Prince was a big name on there, so I used to tune into Tony Prince and Paul Burnett. They were great, big influence radiowise. They broke away and did Radio Caroline, which was the forerunner to R1, as you know. As far as live work it was Emperor Rosko, he was always playing live, Johnny Walker for contemporary stuff and clubwise, I didn’t really see any DJ in this country who did anything that I couldn’t do better than myself. It wasn’t until I went to America that I saw something completely different. The jocks in NY, although technically brilliant, never said a word, though. Combine the two and it gave me something special. Technically I studied three good jocks in America: Larry Levan, Shep Pettibone and Tee Scott. Those three were the ones that did something for me. So then I could mix the tunes and rap over the top which became a very good entertainment package.

What was it about Rosko you liked?
I was always a Wolfman Jack fan. He had such a unique style. He used to play to a lot of the campus students. Emperor Rosko was like a British version of him. Basically we became quite close friends, I watched him work live and I was his protégé, no doubt. He had to move back to America because his dad, the famous film director Michael Pasternak died. When he left, my sound system that I built was virtually identical to the one he had, so when he came back to the UK he’d play on my system.

I got myself into a lot of debt when he left actually, I borrowed about 6 grand. I went to Orange [equipment suppliers], a guy from up north lovely guy, Matt Fry, he built all Emperor Rosko’s gear and he built mine. Proper valve amps and everything. I started to admire certain jocks around me, for instance I couldn’t help but be fascinated by Chris Hill’s entertainment value. He wasn’t particularly brilliant technically, but he had this fantastic ear for picking tracks off of albums. For instance, that is where he will be credited on my new single the Pacific Eardrum track that is now called Universal Love was Chris Hill’s discovery [I think he means the artist is called PE, but the track from the album isn’t called Universal Love, this is what he’s called his sampled version of that track…] The most influential DJ I’ve ever met. Chris Brown was good, Jeff Young, all the Mafia team.

Did you go to the Lacy Lady and the Goldmine?
I didn’t hang out there, because I was very busy. I didn’t like the Goldmine much. I didn’t like Canvey Island much, but it did have a lot of weight. I preferred the Kings near my hometown. I’d go there as much as I could.

What was the difference in crowd composition between Goldmine and Royalty?
No difference at all. Stan eventually sold the Goldmine and they went to another place. They went to some place in the country, but that didn’t work that well so they came back to the Seven Kings. So the Lacy Lady carried the name wherever it was held. I did a disco at Ilford town Hall for juniors for ten years I did that. And a lot of them would then go on to clubs round there. I preferred the Kings out of all of them.

Why was the Kings good?
It was a lovely room, great acoustics, it had a great atmosphere the way it was laid out.

Were you doing gigs in the north playing more underground music?
Yeah, well what it was travelling around Dave Lee Travis, I was still well into my imports. I remember breaking ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy‘, no-one had ever heard it before and I dropped it at Young Farmer’s do in the west country and everyone went crazy. Out of the maybe 15 singles and one or two albums, I’d select five that would work everywhere. Play them in my set and then play them later in Dave’s set because he grew to like them, stuff like ‘Love Injection‘, he featured them on his show when they came out on British labels, and I was able to spread the word around all round the country. One year, Disco International, to my surprise, rang me up and said I’d won DJ of the Year award. James Hamilton was always interested in what I was playing and what was breaking because I played all over the country. Crown Heights Affair ‘Sexy Lady‘, I played that everywhere. Because you had capacity crowds everywhere you could really work the track. D Train and ‘Can You Handle It‘, instantaneously, they worked. But I didn’t overdo it, I’d pick five at a time and work them. All the other Radio 1 jocks who went out and did their roadshows didn’t have a fuckin’ clue, but Rosko was on the ball and we were. We were the only ones with two and half self-contained show, us two were the only ones to book.

When Radio 1 did their summer roadshows, was it your sound system they used?
Yes. The Outside Broadcasting Unit was very basic in its early days. Smiley Miley who worked for Radio 1 doing all the promotions for them – bit of a sod – came up with a design with sponsorship for a whacking great big bloody caravan where the stage would fold down and the DJ console inside.

It looked like a big chip van, didn’t it?
Exactly. Speakerwise, you could only really have four of those and well away from the caravans because of the OB. We had four Bose. Otherwise you’d get feedback. What we’d do in the evening was put on shows for charity. I’d do the warm-ups for them and they’d do their sets.

© Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton