iDJ meets a UK house veteran who's showing no signs of slowing down just yet
Hear the name Angie Brown, and doubtless you'll immediately think of Bizarre Inc's huge 1992 hit I'm Gonna Get You. But this most redoubtable of UK house vocalists has done a lot more than that in her time!
In fact, she'd arguably worked on bigger projects even before teaming up with Bizarre Inc, having previously sung with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood in Rolling Stones side-project The Dirty Strangers. There was a stint, too, in Thrashing Doves.
But it was undoubtedly I'm Gonna Get You that propelled her well and truly into the limelight. Since then she's gone on to provide vocals for the likes of Richard Earnshaw, Copyright, Soul Survivors, Spiritchaser, Soul Providers and Mark Knight, as well as literally hundreds of tracks by lesser-known house producers. Moving more towards the pop realm, she also sang on Motiv-8's cheese-tastic 90s Eurodance hit Rockin' For Myself.
House music is just one string to the Brixton-born singer's bow, though. She's also worked as a backing vocalist for a truly stellar list of artists including Happy Mondays, Fatboy Slim, Grace Jones, Culture Club, Chaka Khan, Kate Bush, Heaven 17, Neneh Cherry, Lisa Stansfield and Stereophonics. Not to mention Mark Morrison's ubiquitous Return Of The Mack which, as she admits below, has been “a financial lifesaver”.
Most recently, she teamed up with happy hardcore survivor DJ Dougal and producer Ollie Jacobs (The Prodigy, Leftfield, Madonna) on the slab of sheer rave nostalgia that is Beyond Therapy X EchoFly & Angie Brown's Higher, which has been well received right across the dance/electronic music community.
All this and she runs her own booking agency, too! Angie Brown may be 57 these days but she clearly has no lack of energy – as was evident when we phoned her up for a chat. The transcript of which – minus all the singing bits! – you can read below…
Let's start with the current single… it's quite an unusual line-up! One house diva, one happy hardcore legend and one behind-the-scenes super-producer. So how did the three of you come to be in a studio together?
“Good question! For me it came about through Ollie's father Phil Jacobs, who owns Rollover Studios, where I've been to record a few times as a session singer. That's how I first met Phil. Then when the 90s came along and I made a bit of a name for myself, I was still doing freelance session work so I'd still pass through Rollover from time to time.
“So then about a year and a half ago – after a good 15 years had gone by! – I got a call from Phil and he said, 'Angie, we'd like you to come sing on this track with my son'. So when I got there, Oli played me the backing track and for Higher and I was like, this sounds heavy!
“A lot of the other stuff I've had out… and if you type 'Angie Brown' into iTunes, hundreds of tracks come up… we all know that a lot of them are white elephants. If you're a talented DJ/producer you'll break through eventually, but there are thousands and thousands of bedroom producers out there who can get my vocals online, from a sample library… or they can just nick them!
“But when I heard THIS track, I knew it was gonna be big. The people who like rave, R&B, techno, they can all go for it. So I knew I had to give it my best shot… and when I played it to my brother, who's always my harshest critic, he said 'Now THAT is a tune'.
“It's been 25 years since I had a single in the charts, but I've got high hopes for this one. The feedback from DJs has been great.”
Moving on to your career more generally… you've done a load of stuff I didn't know you did, until I started researching for this interview! I didn't know you sang on Return Of The Mack, for instance…
“I did, and that record has been a financial lifesaver! When the royalties came in for that single, that was amazing… and Snoop Dogg covered it and his version's had 100 million streams as well. It's just one of those hooks…
“I didn't write it – again, I just got a call to go in the studio and sing. You can't even really hear me on the record, because I'm buried in the mix, but they got me to do a little talking part at the end as well. That's not me doing it in the video – they got in someone younger and prettier than me for that! But I don't care, because it's me on the record and thank God it was all registered properly, because I still get a nice little royalty cheque every six months and yeah, it's been a lifesaver to be honest.”
Another one I didn't realise was you was Motiv-8 Rockin' For Myself. There was a deep house record recently that made very effective use of the vocal – it sounded great in a different context, but then I guess it would because it's you! How do you feel about getting sampled like that, though?
“Yeah, I heard that record. I don't mind too much, because in a way it helps keep my name out there, even if I'm not getting paid for it. And it's also kind of an accolade – you know, how would I feel if people didn't want to sample my voice?! So in a way it's quite nice that people want a piece of that pie.
“Plus sometimes if the track does well, they'll end up approaching you about clearing the sample so you end up getting paid anyway! Richard Earnshaw is my publisher so he looks out for that sort of thing. But if it's, like, some underground bedroom producer… well, it's part of how house music works, isn't it?”
I was also looking at the list on Wikipedia of people you've sung backing vocals for…
“Oh God… I can't even remember half of those, so you'll have to tell me.”
Well, Wiki lists Happy Mondays, Heaven 17, Grace Jones, Stereophonics, Fatboy Slim…
“Yep, all those! Culture Club as well. See, I just love my job, and I don't have an agenda: I go in there with no attitude and do my job, because I want to work again! “
I'm reminded of the film 20 Feet From Stardom, with all these amazing backing singers that have sung on all kinds of records and no-one has a clue who they are. Some of them are a bit disgruntled about that, and then some of them are like, 'No, I like it like that'. Which are you?
“The latter. My boys always say they're glad we can just go to Boots or wherever without getting mobbed. I do get the odd person who'll recognise me and ask for a selfie or whatever – and I'll be like, no, I look bruk up today, thank you very much! [laughs] But it's not constant, and I'm glad about that. It means I can just walk around looking like a Mum, not like a pop star.
“I mean, I can do that… you know, you get your hair and make up done and you put on a wig and you're rocking it, because that's what you have to do. Sex sells in this industry, unfortunately. Why aren't Crystal Waters and Ultra Nate still having hits, for instance? Sadly, sex appeal outsells talent a lot of the time.”
“The house sound has changed, as well – you can get away with having pop voices on house tracks a lot more these days. And that's fine, because house music is for everybody – all colours, all genders, all sexualities, everyone. But if you look at the charts right now, it's all pop vocals on house tracks.
“I don't know… maybe it's because these singers are young, and you can't pull the wool over an older person's eyes so easily! We've been through the mill a bit and we know what's what – with the younger singers it's easier to rip them off. Whereas we know what to charge, and we'd want a cut of the writing! So I think that's a factor. Cos you've got people like Crystal, and Ultra, and Rozalla, and we're all out here working still, but where are the crossover tracks?”
A lot of it's retro circuit work these days, isn't it?
“Yeah, and actually the agency I'm with is putting a bunch of us out there with classical instrumentation. So that's a couple of tours' worth of work. And it's good for us, because a lot of the time back in the day the artist, and particularly the singer, weren't really promoted. Like you said, people know our records but they don't know what we look like!”
You sing on house records, you do backing vocals for famous rock and pop stars, you've been on The Voice… what would you do for preference?
“Well, my roots are in house but to be honest, it's just music to me. I just love singing, and it doesn't matter to me if it's underground or it's commercial… as long as it's well produced, and as long as I've been paid or I'm getting points on it, then it's another track that's out there in the world that's got my voice on it.
“I don't have a record deal, I'm not major record company fodder, so when you work you just have to decide, am I going to do this track with this producer or not? With Higher coming in, maybe I can be choosier, but when you've got to pay your bills and someone's offering you a grand a half to go do a PA somewhere, you're going to do it! It's about keeping my name out there, getting my bills paid and looking after my two sons.”
But let's say you had a choice – you can either be hugely successful (but unrecognised) backing singer for pop acts, or a moderately succcessful (but well loved) house diva. Which would you go for?
“Oh, definitely B. I do like the respect I get from the house and club fraternity… there's not many people you meet that haven't got an element of respect, and that's quite humbling, when someone comes up and calls you 'queen' or 'legend' and you're thinking 'Blimey, I was just doing the ironing an hour ago!', that's humbling
“I think people in the house industry are… it's the only genre of music where you get 50-somethings raving with their 20-something children. It's a fraternity and it's a love. There's hardly any trouble or fighting, people don't die by the knife in our clubs. People that have house music in their hearts come with the love… we're like the hippies in the sixties, it's all about the love!”
And you've got house in your heart, yeah?
“I'd say it's in my DNA, actually – that's how I talk about it. It's funny because didn't really get house, at first… in the 80s, when I was doing the soulful stuff and listening to Jocelyn singing Somebody Else's Guy, the house movement was already happening in Chicago but I didn't realise that.
“But what I found with house was, it's all about the music, we don't care what age you are or what you look like or what size you are… sing from your heart at 124bpm and we'll love it. And that's in my blood now. Even more so since I started DJing as well.
“I'm so glad that I'm in house as well, because if I was an R&B singer or a pop singer… the R&B and pop music of the late 80s/early 90s has really dated, now – the house music hasn't. House will always sound good.”
You mentioned Jocelyn… I interviewed her once and she was NOT a happy teddy about I'm Gonna Get You, because of course it's based on her track Love's Gonna Get You from 1987. But it's not actually a sample on the record, is it?
“No, I resang it. What happened was, I used to go to open mic nights in London, I was working as a waitress and a cleaner at the time but I used to go to open mic nights and sing Respect. And from doing that I got noticed by an agency and they said, 'Can you sing like Jocelyn?' so I lied and said that I could!
“The thing is, I went to drama school, so acting for me is a part of the process. And if you look at someone who's got a voice like that, their voice is in their feet. It's not in their throat, it's in their feet! So I thought right, I just need to put on the headphones and pretend to be her… so that's what I did.
“I was nervous, because I'd never really sung like that before, but they were happy with it. In fact the whole thing was done and dusted in minutes… but it was challenge because I'd never tried to sing like that. But yeah, I just visualised the sounds coming all the way up from my feet because that's the way Americans sing… it's how Americans talk!”
“Of course once I mastered it, I like to think I gave the Yanks a run for their money. Chaka Khan said to me once, 'Angie Brown, you are the shit!'. And being a typical Brit I just said, 'Does that mean I'm good?' (laughs).”
“The thing is, I've always had a singing teacher, ever since I was a little girl. I went off and did my voice exercises every week without fail… that's where I got that clarity from. And it's why my voice is better than ever now, because I still go see her! It's funny, she was in her 30s when I was teenager, now I'm in my 50s and she's in her 80s and I still go see her. I love her to bits.
“She taught me that you need to keep your voice oiled and look after the machine, because it can't look after itself! I would have got nodes years ago if I hadn't had the advice of a professional who taught me how to look after it – you've got to eat well, you've got to get enough sleep, you've got to do your humming exercise, otherwise you lose that clarity.”
So there's quite a lot of work goes into being a diva, then…
“Well, you know, a runner goes out and trains and looks after their body, and a good singer does the same. You keep yourself in shape so you're singing like an opera singer – from your abdomen. Or from your feet!”
“And then when you're singing, you're channelling. It's like that bit in When Harry Met Sally… like, I'll have some of what she's having!”
You sound like you're enjoying life at 57?
“Yeah. I mean it's been tough sometimes… I lost my Mum a year and a half ago, that was very hard. But I reckon she's up there now having a go at God, y'know… 'What about my daughter? She's a good singer! Give her a lickle break!'. I reckon Higher's doing well just because God wanted to shut her up!”
And if Higher takes off… would now be a good time to do an Angie Brown album? Because you've never done one…
“No, I never have. [Pause] I don't know, I've never really thought about it, because most of the time if you want to make an album you usually need to sign to a major label, and I don't want to because you really do end up feeling owned. Owned and exploited, and I don't want that. So I think if people want to listen to Angie Brown stuff they're just gonna have to go on Spotify, because I can't see a major label taking me on."
What if you had an offer from one of the bigger house labels rather than a major, though – a Defected or a Hot Creations, for instance?
“Oh yeah, I'd feel a lot better about that. If it was in my genre that I know. And because I DJ now as well… I started doing that because I play all these big tops, there'll be a name before me, a name after me, and I'm the little vocalist in the middle. I'm up there on stage talking and the crowd aren't really responding the way I'd like them to.
“So I started DJing and that's been working. It's getting me love.”
So what are you playing DJ-wise?
“Commercial house and handbag, mostly, but then I'll also play some Toolroom and Trax type stuff… it's not all cheese, some of it's quite credible, but I do play for the girls, I will play, like, the Wideboys mix of Little Mix or something.
"I don't know… I just play a record because I like it, basically. I went to the London Sound Academy to learn how to DJ and now I find it really liberating, I always want to be getting on the decks now!”
Before we sign off, is there anything else going on for you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
“Yeah, I also run an agency called Exact. It's all about getting the original artists over, people like Robin S or Crystal, we get them over here for corporate parties, Dubai Festival and stuff like that. We've got Robin, Crystal, Kathy Brown, Ce Ce, Sybil… and they want to work with us because we offer the best money. Because I'm an artist myself, so if you're not offering the best money, you don't get my girls!”
Are these things you've advise a young singer starting out now to do – to DJ as well, or to have business interests in music as well?
“Absolutely, because you need something to fall back on. You can't rely just on singing, because you don't know if it's gonna work or not. So you want something else that's bringing in some kind of income. And for me, I'm in a win-win situation, because I'll go out to work on my own agency, so I'm paying myself 20 per cent instead of someone else!
“I've been on other people's agencies before. But my partner in the agency used to work at PWL, and I knew she knew all the American girls. So when she said, do you want to set up an agency? Then of course I said yes, because she's got a good reputation, she's respected in the industry, and I knew there were British girls she didn't know that I could bring to the table. So yeah, we set up the agency and now we're going to take over the world!” [laughs]
Words: Russell Deeks
Beyond Therapy X EchoFly & Angie Brown's Higher is out now on Champion Records – buy it here.