Goldie: ‘Everything I’ve ever made has come from trauma’

·10-min read
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Every couple of weeks, the electronic music pioneer Clifford Price, aka Goldie, wakes up at sunrise and heads to a mountain near his home in Phuket, Thailand. He has to leave with the first call to prayer as it’s a nine-kilometre hike through dense rainforest up to the summit and it gets too hot otherwise. On the way, he watches out for cobras, scorpions and tarantulas. “You really do see life and death right in front of you up there,” he tells me. “Something falls, it’s a dead animal, and it rots away and things are nourished by it.”

The irony that Goldie, pioneer of jungle music, should find himself, at 56, quite literally hanging out in the jungle is not lost on him. “The power of f***ing manifestation, my brother!” he laughs. But it’s not really about the jungle, he says, it’s about the lake at the top of the mountain, which was formed by rain gathering in an abandoned tin mine. Here, he straps on a buoyancy aid and sets himself adrift, maybe listening to Mahler’sFifth Symphony, maybe some of the tunes he put out on his Metalheadz label in the mid-1990s, the “Old Testament” of drum’n’bass, as he calls it. “I’ll look at the clouds and because I’m the same temperature as the water, it’s like free-falling back through the sky,” he says. “It’s an insane feeling. I scream and wail and cry and... you know?” Sometimes, he thinks it’s what heaven might be like. But then, he reflects, heaven wouldn’t be so still. He would need to keep moving or he’d get a “sore arse”.

I will admit, when I dialled into this Zoom call at 9am London time, I was expecting 1990s nostalgia, I was expecting anecdotes about Goldie’s spells on Celebrity Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing, EastEnders and the rest — but I wasn’t expecting a graceful ascent to the spiritual plane. Then again, if you’ve ever found yourself in a drum’n’bass club at 5am as Terminator drops, you’ll be familiar with the sensation.

Goldie, in the event, looks exactly as he always has: Stussy cap, white T-shirt, gold teeth, surrounded by discs, flyers, DAT tapes and wires in his home studio. He seems genuinely touched when I tell him how much I loved his debut album, Timeless, as a teenager in 1995 (I discovered it via Björk, whom Goldie was dating). At a time when Britpop was looking backwards, here was music that sounded like the future. And in fact, still does. “I can play electronic drum’n’bass music tonight in a club and I still get 18-year- olds go what the f*** is this song?” he says. “Because that’s how far ahead it was. As a genre, it’s one of the most sophisticated we’ve ever had since jazz.”

I’m not even sure he’s wrong about that; British urban electronic music as a whole has spawned so many different genres and subgenres that are still working their way through the culture. And just now, it seems as if the world is catching up. Goldie has a new album out under the name Subjective, a collaboration with engineering protégé James Davidson, which also features the likes of Tom Misch and Greentea Peng who testify to Goldie’s Obi-Wan Kenobi-like influence. After 2017’s mammothThe Journey Man album, it’s an attempt at something direct and accessible so that “finally, people might just get it”. Meanwhile, he is having a fashion moment, walk- ing the Louis Vuitton runway, taking centre stage in Ozwald Boateng’s London Fashion Week homecoming, teenage children coveting his vintage varsity jackets. “I’m kind of glad that people couldn’t understand this music, because it had time to grow over 30 years. It’s become such a part of the English establishment, probably in the same way that hip-hop is such a part of New York and LA culture.”

One person who did get it was Virgil Abloh, the late artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear, who cast Goldie in one of his last projects for the label. “He was fascinated — genuinely fascinated! — with 1990s British culture,” Goldie tells me. “Kemistry and Storm mixtapes from The Blue Note... I mean how would he even know about that?” Kemistry and Storm were the female drum’n’bass DJs who co-founded the Metalheadz label with Goldie in 1994; in fact it was Kemistry who first introduced Goldie to jungle music when he was primarily known as a graffiti artist. Abloh impressed upon him that what he was trying to do with his own designs was very much inspired by these British trailblazers. “He always said, you can’t f*** with Kemistry and Storm! All we’ve ever wanted to do as people from an urban culture is roll into the establishment in a Trojan horse. If you can get your Trojan horse behind enemy lines, whether it’s through hype or whatever, then you can create something.”

Which is a pretty good description of how Goldie has operated since he first came to prominence. His childhood in the West Midlands was marked by rejection and abuse. He lived in a succession of foster and care homes, before gangs and graffiti provided an escape route: he was one of the main artists featured in the influential 1987 street art documentary, Bombin’. But once Goldie was out in the world, he had an autodidact’s thirst for knowledge and experience. He pioneered numerous production techniques, including time-stretching, a core part of the D’n’B armoury; he collaborated with David Bowie on his Earthling album; he scored a Sir David Attenborough evolution special at the Royal Albert Hall; and for his second album, Saturnz Return, he recorded an hour- long drum’n’bass symphony, Mother, which baffled critics at the time. “I have pushed this music relentlessly to the point of oblivion, you know? If I had a different upbringing or whatever, surely Mother would’ve been worthy of Carnegie Hall as a black opera?” It was inspired, he tells me, not by any of his electronic peers but by Henryk Górecki’s melancholy Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which blew his mind when Björk first played it to him. A signed score by the late Polish composer has pride of place in his home.

And there is a deep sorrowfulness in Goldie’s music if you listen closely. The challenge of drum’n’bass, as he sees it, is to take something so fast, intricate and alien and invest it with human emotion. “Everything I’ve ever made has always come from trauma,” he says. “Always has been, hand on heart.”

But perhaps inevitably, that trauma has expressed itself in other ways too, not least in the prodigious amount of drugs he consumed. “We were like, you know, Ozzy Osbourne times 10!” he says. He will admit, too, that he did one too many reality TV shows while trying to put his (six) children through school and college. And yet even his celebrity career has been unusually traumatic. He suffered a horrific fracture in a water-skiing accident on Channel 4 show The Gamesin 2006 that nearly resulted in the amputation of his leg. And yet, it was while recuperating in Shanghai that he met his second wife, Mika Wassenaar, so he is philosophical about it. “I would never have met her if I’d never done that. I’m a great believer in spirituality. I’m a great believer in fate.”

He tried the “whole rehab thing” after his worst excesses, including Eric Clapton’s Crossroads addiction recovery centre in Antigua. “I’m like: ‘Give me my £18,000 back, Eric, it never worked!’” What did work for him was meeting his wife and moving to Thailand, plus swimming, yoga, transcendental meditation, music, painting and running his gallery in Bangkok. “I just spent so much time eating myself with drugs and rock’n’roll in England. It just became this insatiable desire to kill oneself and I just don’t want that, you know? When you come from trauma, you’ve got to constantly work on yourself.”

I am struck, as we talk, just how much death there is circling around our conversation. We have already mentioned Abloh, Bowie, Górecki and Kemistry, who died in a car accident in 1999. He also pays tribute to Skibadee (Alphonso Bondzie), the outlandishly gifted MC who died in February, aged 47. “All of these grime artists today, I don’t think any of them would be there if it wasn’t for people like Skibadee laying it down. That’s how powerful D’n’B and jungle were. So many tentacles. Skepta, Giggs, none of them could mess with his patterns, man.”

There is another death that preys on him, too. In 2010, his son Jamie Price, then 23, was convicted of murdering a rival gang member in Wolverhampton. Goldie is still in regular contact with Price, who has six years left on his life sentence, and visited him on his last trip to the UK in February. “He’s doing a lot better. A lot of time’s passed, he’s in a better place, you know what I mean? But it’s sad. It’s just like... such a loss of life you know?” “I think one of the biggest killers for young men is shame,” he says. “The amount of shame that I witnessed and went through. It’s the biggest killer for young men because it makes them angry. Two mothers were destroyed, two families were destroyed, and have never been right since.”

Goldie has been frank in the past about his own failure to do more to prevent his son taking the path he did, but he also expresses anger towards the local authorities for shutting down the school and various community projects on the estate where his son grew up. “Government cutbacks, you know? There was no sense of support in the community. I felt that we had support in the late 1980s. But it fell apart for those kids. It’s kind of why I left the UK.”

For all of this, he says he is blessed. He woke up to see a rainbow from his daughter’s window this morning and has been singing Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads all day, the lines about the beautiful house and the beautiful wife, and how did I get here? “My daughter is 10 and she can walk around this house, around all of these wonderful ornaments and paintings and books. Me and my wife, we never had any of that. I just had dormitories and abuse and kids bullying me. So you catapult yourself into being someone that no one can f*** with. But you’re still a kid inside. And you lament all this stuff that you can’t have and then you become a drug addict, become a parody.”

But self-parody is just one of the prices of being a trailblazer within the culture, he says. “I’ve been through the difficult second album. I’ve been out of favour, it doesn’t bother me. You just gotta keep at it man and sooner or later, you know, I’ve seen all of my clothes from different eras become back into fashion.” A flash of gold teeth. “I think we definitely beat the system in that respect.”

‘The Start of No Regret’, by Subjective (Three Six Zero Recordings/Sony Music) is released on 20 May

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