With their legendary 'Sharp Tools' series recently released digitally for the first time, iDJ meets a 90s duo who are back with a bang
Eagle-eyed tech-house buyers might have noticed a string of EPs sitting in the various dance download stores of late. Originally released between 1995 and 2012, all seven volumes in The Sharp Boys' legendary Sharp Tools series – EPs that came packed to the gills with some seriously jackin', tracky shit aimed at energetic Saturday night floors – have just been issued digitally for the first time, with one volume hitting stores every Friday throughout June and July.
That's just the start, though. George Mitchell and Steven Doherty are on something of a comeback mission in 2021, with the reissued Sharp Tools EPs (which come on their own recently relaunched Sharp Recordings label) to be followed by a whole host of further reissues: of the Boys' own material, of the Sharp Recordings back catalogue, and of many of the countless remixes the duo did for everyone from Tall Paul, Candy Girls and Josh Wink to pop acts like George Michael, Madonna and Britney Spears during their late 90s and 00s heyday.
Starting out at Garage at Heaven in 1995, George and Steven soon became iconic figures on the UK's LGBTQ+ club scene, holding down notorious residencies at DTPM and Trade Lite, and hosting a regular weekly show on Kiss FM that ran for six full years. Things then went a bit quiet from them about 10 years ago – but with Eats Everything recently declaring himself a massive fan of the Sharp Tools series in particular, and with much of the 2021 variety of big room tech-house sounding not a million miles from the kind of tuff, strutty UK house and hardbag they helped pioneer in the mid-90s, the time could well be right for a return to the fray.
Steven and George clearly think it is, anyway. And here's what they had to say about it…
What made you decide to relaunch the label and reissue the Sharp Tools series now?
"For many years we have been getting asked if our early tracks like Sharp Tools were available digitally, as they had only ever been released on vinyl, so it seemed like the obvious and logical direction to head in. Some of these tracks are up to 25 years old, so we are blessed to have such fantastic support for and requests for them after all these years.
“During lockdown we had time to concentrate on it, and recently we were approached by the boys at Tidy Trax with an offer of a label deal. We've always had a good mutual respect relationship with all the guys at Tidy Trax, and so it was a fantastic opportunity to get the tracks out there again."
I've often been struck by the similarities between the tech-house sound that's been so popular on bigger floors in recent years, and the tuff UK house, 'hardbag' and nu-NRG of the mid-late 90s. Was that a factor?
"When we started Sharp, we certainly didn't set out to be tagged in any genre of dance music, if anything we avoided it, but knew exactly the sound we wanted to create, which was more US-influenced house with a tougher UK edge, and over time our sound just developed and took a natural progression.”
It also makes me laugh when people talk about "tech-house bros" and point at ripped, tattooed young guys with their shirts off... to me they just look they're off to Trade! That irony can't have been lost on you either, surely?
"Yes, Muscle Mary Alley at Trade was certainly ahead of its time! The tech sound was already going on to a degree back then as well, with some of the DJs like Malcolm Duffy taking tribal dub mixes from American labels and making them sound like nothing you ever heard before!
“Funnily enough we once DJ’ed with the legendary Tony Humphries at a private party at David Geffen's beach house on Fire Island: the decks were on the balcony overlooking a swimming pool with the biggest mirrorball we have ever seen, and we literally were the only two guys there with our Stussy shirts on! A brilliant party – Mr Humphries is a genius.”
I know the remixes are just Phase 1 of the Sharp 2021 masterplan, though, so talk us through what else is coming up?
"The remastered Sharp Tools tracks are the first part, followed by as many Sharp Boys remix releases from our back catalogue (subject to licensing) as we can and original productions by us over the years which appeared on other labels. We also plan to release some of our most requested and favourite remixes that have never been available digitally – plus of course new tracks forthcoming from us as well."
I think the first time I heard the name Sharp was on your remix of Wanna Drop A House by Urban Discharge. Looking at your catalogue on Discogs, that must've been one of the first remixes you did, mustn't it?
"Yes, it most certainly was the first! We had just recorded Sharp Tools Vol 1 and cut an acetate which we played before Tony de Vit guested at Garage at Heaven one Friday night; that weekend Tony played it at Trade. Just by chance Matt Waterhouse (who worked at MCA at the time) was there, and by the Monday morning he was on the phone giving us our first ever remix, which was indeed Urban Discharge. Then it all went a bit crazy for us. Thank you, Matt!"
Could you even put a figure on how many remixes you've actually done over the years, and out of all of them, which are you most proud of?
"Artist-wise it's touching 300, but if you include all the dubs, edits, etc that are involved in a remix package, as you can imagine that figure is much more as often we would do a slightly different style on vocal mixes or dubs.
“It's always difficult to single out just one, although working on remixes for George Michael or Christine Aguilera stand out, and for our own Sharp label, Sara Parker and East Anglia and of course anything by the fantastic Kenny C were special for us
“Then of course you've got Britney and Baby One More Time. We recorded it originally for the US release on Jive. The record exploded so much for her in Americas that the UK release was delayed by over six months, so by the time she landed in London to do her first UK TV appearence on the National Lottery show we had been playing it in our sets for about eight months! She was an unknown act at the age of just 15, and was totally made for the Trade Lite floor at the time. It's crazy to think the release went on to sell over 10 million copies worldwide – wish we\d signed a 'one point' deal on that one!”
Looking back, do you ever regret spending so much time on doing remixes and not concentrating more on your own productions? Fans being, generally, more loyal than mix-commissioning A&R men...
"Of course there was always room for more original productions, but at the time our remixes were reflecting what we would be releasing as tracks anyway and it gave us a chance to work with some fabulous vocals from some major artists – many of them heroes of ours."
A lot of your DJing back in the day was on the LGBT+ scene. For me, one of the most important things about house/rave culture it that it was a key factor in breaking down barriers re: sexuality and race... thoughts?
"Absolutely! Music has played a massive part! We have always been very loyal to our LGBT+ floors but looking back to that early Summer of Love '87 period you mention, and those early house/rave culture times – there were definitely roots planted back then that united the dance world together as one big family that continue to this day.
“The music and culture that came with it became almost our religion, boundaries were broken, and the friendships made on the dance floor certainly had no place for prejudices or ignorance. And thankfully a lot of the barriers that used to exist have now gone or are now a distant memory."
What was going on for you in the years between the last Sharp Tools release in 2012 and now? Did either/both of you ever pack in music completely or were you always quietly beavering away in the background?
"We certainly never abandoned or brought Sharp to a close, but times change, life moves on, and a lot went on in our personal lives during that period, so for various reasons Sharp had to be put on the backburner. But now that is all behind us, the passion is thriving to be cracking on with things again."
You had a very popular show on Kiss FM for many years – do you have any radio plans at the moment?
"Our six years on Kiss were a great weekly commitment to have that brought amazing connections and a lot of fun. We look back on those Kiss Saturday nights with much fondness, completely grateful that we did it. We had some of our greatest heroes of music pop in for an interview like Boy George, David Morales, Pet Shop Boys and the Chemical Brothers. One highlight was when Nile Rodgers phoned in from his hotel, on the weekend he was playing Wembley: he was so awe-inspiring, with some legendary stories about producing David Bowie, Madonna and Duran Duran plus a few unforgettable Studio 54 anecdotes.
“We don't have a regular show planned at the moment but there are certainly plenty of internet radio commitments to fulfil.”
You've both been in the game a good 30 years now. Did you even dream, when you started out, that you'd still be doing this 30 years later?
"That's a very good question. Where have the years gone? There were certainly no plans not to be doing it, nor ever to retire from one of the loves of your life and everything seems just as exciting now as when we started Sharp. The word 'blessed' comes to mind."
Finally, anything else DJ readers need to know before we sign off?
"Can we just say.... we've had so much fantastic support from so many people over the years, we'd like to thank everyone who's been a part of that journey. The social media comments since the digital label launch have really touched us – It’s all been very much appreciated!"
Words: Russell Deeks
Sharp Tools Vols 1-7 are out now on Sharp Digital Recordings. Sharp's most recent releaase is East Anglia's Unmanageable, which is also out now.