Co-creators of the Lite Lounge at the UK’s best know all nighter Trade, The Sharp Boys were instrumental in shaping the landscape of London’s 90’s LGBTQ club scene, Steven Doherty and George Mitchell, aka “The Sharp Boys” dominated the underground dance music scene. They have by popular demand released their entire catalog digitally, and I got to talk to them about the history of it all. Having Remixed for everyone from Brittany Spears to George Michael, they have truly covered it all.
This is an excerpt from the interview.
Jeremy Hinks: Hello guys, thanks for taking the time. Where are you cats today?
George Mitchell: We are in the “Sharp” house in London, cloudy, but we are still normal for south London Weather.
JH: Like we were talking before, that New Order poster behind you on the wall, since I was about 14, and I saw New Order, and I didn’t know how those sounds were made, so when I saw them in concert, I saw this guy there in just jeans and a t-shirt, and just making these sounds on his bass guitar. He wasn’t on a keyboard.
Steven Doherty: HOOKY, yeah, (Peter Hook) he has a bit of Lemmy in him too doesn’t he.
JH: YES, he does have some Lemmy there, too. But since that moment, I was sold on New Order, and how they made their sound. That was when they were just shit live, and couldn’t play in tune or in time with each other, which made it all so damn charming.
GM: Yeah, when we knew were doing this show, we thought “Where in the house could we do the interview”, (Laughing) it’s from the tour in 89. We know the artist who did the poster.
JH: Yeah that tour in 89 was the first time I ever met them. Hooky was very gracious to me, just trying to get an annoying kid to shut up…. HE is just a great guy.
SD: We shared the same manager as Hooky did for his time in Monaco.
JH: So, I went back through the collection, you are re-releasing everything in phases. And it’s on days like today that I think I should have bout that used record press when I saw it on E-bay ten years ago. Right now all the collectors are going crazy for this revival of vinyl. So now you are putting “The Sharp Tools” out there. Why did you decide to do it all now digitally?
GM: It came down to the number of requests we have had for the last couple of decades, especially the early stuff. We started this whole “Sharp” recording label in 1995, and it’s never been available digitally, so we are getting all of the tracks remastered. We have had a good fan base over the years, 25 is a long time. So, especially for “East Anglia”.
JH: So can you explain to the listeners (readers) the difference between tools and tracks?
SD: So, the “Sharp Tools” catalog was what we did in the early days, we went into the studios and laid a track down a day. Very basic techno and we were influenced by guys like DJ Sneak, and Van Helden, American house music was a big part of our set. We didn’t title them back in 1995, we would put out a print with 3 tracks on it, and just “Sharp Recordings vol 1” and that was our introduction of it into the underground, and it REALLY took off. So, the catalog is now being remastered, and we are mixing in tracks that we licensed in for the label back in the day.
JH: So, this is cause everyone has been beating on your door for digital? How have the sets been going, I got them all in advance.
GM: Well, it’s been going well, the hard part was actually pulling them off the DAT (Digital Audio Tapes) tapes. That project in itself started last year, and amazing that they still work after 25 years. We had to remaster them for Spotify etc. But we got them all, it’s all coming along nicely, so we are putting all of these remastered pieces out there now.
SD: They have been selling very well, which it’s great to see there is still an appetite with the fans.
JH: So, no problem of losing quality on the age of the DAT tapes?
SD: George is the great archivist in this, it is quite a lot of work to manage 30 years of recordings. No hiccups so far. Goes to prove that the DAT stood the test of time.
JH: So, going through the tools, I liked the evolution over the years, you would find the beat that worked, then work on it, you had a similar thread but there was plenty of variety.
GM: Well, we had to do a lot of the mixes together, sometimes we would have to do the R&B track, and would be asked to do the House Club Mix, or working with a disco diva. I grew up in the 70s and have a love for disco and “High Energy”, and equally working with disco divas is fantastic, but we might be doing Chris Brown, or Mary J Blidge, or Christina Aguilera, when it was a slow BPM track. Initially, we didn’t take too much from the original track, we did our groove, and then depending on what it was, we would add our little bits into it, but ALWAYS, the backbone was our definitive Sharp sound with the driving baseline and the tough percussion, though we didn’t go in with an agenda, in the beginning, to come out with that sound, that is just what developed through us doing track after track.
JH: See, in the late 80s, and early 90s, I was collecting all that high-energy stuff, ZYX records, and Razormaid. I was getting it in record pools, I got like, 6 of them for a dollar, then the DJs would get them, spin for 6 months, then when they were done, I bought it from them. I was the only high school kid in Utah collecting this stuff.
GM: There was the “HOT TRAX” label also doing bootleg remixes for DJs. They were very hard to get in Scotland where I was living, they were the ultimate remix, mega-mix records to get from America.
JH: I still have a handful of those, I had an ABBA one that was pretty damn sexy. So, what I found going through that, I have heard your work in a LOT of other people’s music, I listen to yours, and I remember “Oh yeah, I remember hearing that one in this piece, or OVER HERE”. I remember there was this stretch of time between the C&C music factory to the Urban Cookie Collective. I hear it everywhere, do you guys even know where half your music went?
SD: It’s flattering to hear you say that, we started our career in 1995 and C&C Music Factory was just a little bit before that. We were big fans of theirs, and they were an influence on us, that early 90s sound, the production standard, we wanted to do our British take on that.
JH: So, I found that in UCC was where I was hearing that very strongly in 1996, and moving forward. I mean, when I lived in Germany, I never looked at the label, just buying it on the black market, from 1993-1996, I was on my LDS mission there, and we weren’t allowed to be listening to music, and I would see piles of stuff at the flea market, with these labels, I would just buy it. So, some of that was definitely yours.
SD: WOW great Techno years, R&S Records.
JH: So, on the tools, that one on Vol 4, “I can’t tell you”, that felt like exactly that moment where they were trying to revive the Hacienda (Madchester) it was that late 90s, Manchester / NEW ORDER sound, you take me right back to that moment.
SD: There we were busy doing remixes for other people, we had a gap of a couple of years between volume 4 and volume 5, but I know where you are coming from on that sound.
JH: Was it YOU, or the Manchester guys ripping you off?
SD: Oh, no, we were all friends, they gave us support, we were all fans of American House Music, as well, it was probably the other way around, they inspired us.
JH: I can close my eyes and feel those moments, it’s so familiar and fun, that was current in the paradigm (Go watch the film “24 Hour Party People”), so, summer of 97 I was in Rotterdam, then I went to Paris for a year.
GM: Did you make it over to England?
JH: Oh yeah, several times, I would go over for a few weeks at a time. Just listening to all of this brings back some memories. Reminds me of “A Nightmare in Rotterdam”, I went one year, and I still listen to the shows, and some of the “Wind-down” has a lot of your work. It’s the HARDCORE, and in the wind-down, I will hear your work in those.
SD: Well, we thank them.
JH: Well, went to “The Electric Highway” tour in 97, with Fluke, and the Crystal Method, and literally, weeks later I was there in “The Nightmare In Rotterdam” and that time was great, the techno/house world was just expanding. And to hear all of it, lemme ask you this, in the middle of this explosion, how did you get roped into doing remixes with Kylie Minogue, then everyone else. I mean, your list of remixes for people is incredible.
GM: We were doing our own stuff, and a chap from MCA saw the reaction to a track on the floor and asked “Who did this track?” and I said “Well, we did”, and that Monday he called us up to give us a remix, and really after that the phone never stopped ringing. Small projects, then a couple of key ones, then the artists we progressed on to do, we were really quite surprised.
SD: WE are also unashamedly big POP fans, we were DJ-ing in the clubs all through Europe, and we would get commissioned by the labels, and this guy Mars Leonard from Virgin, he knew me for 10 years before with a band I was managing. We walked into Virgin, and he handed me the record and said “This is Kylie’s new record, we want you to remix it”, so it’s amazing who you meet on the way up. We did some stuff for Brittany, George Michael, and we were being commissioned to do the club mixes for those pop records, as well as for Brittany, “Hit me baby one more time”.
JH: What was the weirdest one you ever got to do?
SD: There was so much, it had to mean something to us to do it. We toured Japan quite a few times, and we got commissioned by a label over there to remix in Japanese. So we had to get a translator to help us in the studio. We did a record for a musical over here called “Jerry Springer The Opera”, one of the tracks was called “I just want to dance”. It was an orchestral piece, and they commissioned us to do a George Michael song. We turned it into a dance floor anthem. It still gets requested when we are doing a set all these years later.
JH: So what was the one that was just, unreal. The one that said, “We made it?”
GM: Turning around slow R&B tracks, and making them accessible as a house record has always been a challenge. Mary J Blidge’s family affair was a great track to do. You don’t want to make them sound like Mini-mouse when you are stretching the vocal. You have to remember we are doing remixes for the club underground, if you use too much vocal you are going to lose the point of the track, so we always had to say that the dub is going to sound better than the vocal mix.
SD: I think Brittany was “The One” that became such a big record, then we did Backstreet Boys.
GM: We did Backstreet Boys, and they asked us to do this one with a teenage girl, we did it. We did the mixes and were playing it in the clubs in the UK, and they delayed the release cause she was doing so well in the US, it was 6 months, so by the time she came over here, it was absolutely huge. It was a certified “Diamond” disk, meaning it was ten million sales of it. We feel blessed to be part of that story.
JH: SO, this is the story right? A couple of gay kids, hanging out in the club scene, and you decided to make music. I remember back then, in Europe, there were a lot of drugs, AIDS, and the risk of violence from the skinheads. What was it like to be in those clubs?
SD: Well, at the time the HIV thing was something to be cautious of, but in the club, we were talking about these records, and George showed me how to mix, then we just decided to DJ. Started working at a company called “React” I had my eyes open, heart open, learning how you get a campaign together, the record printed, get the sleeves together. I asked George do you think we can do this?
GM: Yeah, it was decided in minutes, setting up the label, it was after a long weekend, we had been DJ-ing. We had 6k in the kittie, and it was either a new kitchen, or start a label, and it was 6k to start a label properly. It took quite a few months to get it all together. So, with Stevens’s knowledge working with the record companies. I think it’s a natural progression with two successful DJs, and it makes sense to start up your own label.
SD: We had seen so many of our heroes and peer groups start doing their own remixes. So when we saw they were doing it, we thought we would start our own, and we would all support each other. Also, we were really lucky that we were going to the best clubs in London. The DJs there were doing remixes for each other. Those clubs were so inspirational for us to do the “Sharp” label in the first place.
JH: So you guys were a shift in the paradigm. It was an awakening “This is the music coming out of the gay clubs in London”. Did you think you were doing something new? And how did it feel when you heard someone playing your music?
GM: We wanted to make music for our DJ sets, we did it just to have tracks to play in our DJ sets. The fact that other people wanted them…..
SD: That was very humbling, to hear a DJ you respect playing your music. It’s goosebumps time on the dance floor.
JH: Did you guys think you were in a bubble? You were dominating the gay club scene in London? Did you see it expanding or you didn’t notice it till they came knocking on your door?
SD: Well, when you do a remix for someone like George Michael, that opens the door really wide for you, so suddenly you are being booked to do a gig in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, the states. It was a whirlwind.
GM: We kept our feet on the ground and always grateful for being to be able to keep doing what we are doing, but not let it get to our heads.
JH: I know you did the Luxor here in Vegas, your residency, you have a good thumbprint in the states.
SD: We got booked to play a gig at David Geffen’s house on a Fire Island. It just doesn’t get better than that. We went to a music DJ conference in Miami, and we were lucky to get into these places. We used to treat ourselves every January to go to New York and go clubbing for a week and go around to all the stores and buy all this vinyl.
CM: We used to scour the stores in New York. We had to buy more luggage just for all the new records.
JH: Yeah, I’ve done that. Have you guys played Pride at all?
SD: Oh yeah, in the UK, London, Manchester, Brighton, all over here.
JH: So, I see you remixing Marc Almond the gay icon in the UK, but then I see Michael Sambello from Flashdance, I mean, how did that one come into play?
SD: I reached out to them, and I wanted to do it, we were big fans of the original record.
GM: He redid everything from scratch, he did a brand new version of “Maniac” for us. So we got it, free from copyright.
JH: One final question, What would you say to the young gay kid in the closet and afraid.
SD: I think you need to realize that there is a community out there waiting for you to join, never feel that you are the only one. It might feel like a struggle beyond comprehension when you realize that you are gay. I know the homophobia can overwhelm you, the good thing about the community is that there is a helpline out there for everyone when things get too tough to speak to someone.
GM: The boundaries that were years ago, there is always going to be homophobia, people will still be suffering, society is so much more accepting now.
SD: I think that if there was anything good that has come out of COVID is that people have been more open to talking about mental health. Hopefully, more people feel that they can reach out and talk, and it’s amazing how things can seem better once you have discussed it with someone.
JH: Thank you guys so much, keep churning them out.
The full audio can be heard here: Sticky Jazz Interview – The Sharp Boys
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