Artist of the Month: Roland Clark
Artist of the Month: Roland ClarkFebruary 7, 2022
DJ, producer and vocalist Roland Clark is known as the voice behind some of house music’s most iconic tracks. But as Niamh O’Connor learns, Clark’s journey to the top was built on more than words alone.
Roland Clark has Covid, but he’s right on time to our call and full of buoyant energy that’s palpable even over Zoom. It’s Thursday morning in Brazil, where he’s been isolating since playing with DJ Marky at Surreal Park in Santa Catarina, southern Brazil over the weekend.
Despite the occasional cough during our call, you wouldn’t know he had The Thing. Clark speaks with animated hand gestures and peppers our chat with amusing anecdotes that go back to the ‘80s, including when he was a mail boy at Dick Scott Entertainment during Scott’s management of boy band sensation New Kids On The Block. That, and Clark’s year-long stint as Chris Brown’s tour manager in 2005, are the only two jobs he has ever had outside of producing music.
Considering how many records Clark drops per month — four on average — that fluidly move between genres, his drive and free-thinking approach comes as no surprise. Clark has worked with Armand Van Helden, Armin van Buuren, David Guetta, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Duke Dumont, Fatboy Slim, Vintage Culture and hundreds more. On Beatport alone, he garners 1799 tracks in the form of solo productions, remixes, re-releases and features on compilations. He has sung under several aliases, including Jesus Jackson, whose soulful “Running on Sunshine” cropped up more than once in the noughties T.V. show Grey’s Anatomy.
If you’re into deep house, you’ll have heard Clark’s velvety vocals on the seminal tune “I Get Deep,” released on Shelter Records in 2000. If you haven’t listened to the original, you may have heard his words sampled on Fatboy Slim’s “Star 69 (What The F**k)” or Katy Perry’s 2016 pop tune “Swish Swish.” But Clark’s voice is only one element of his far-reaching talents. Sound engineering, producing, DJing, singing, spoken word, and songwriting make up Clark’s smorgasbord of sonic endeavours over the last three decades, and his curiosity hasn’t wavered.
“I always ask questions; that’s my thing,” he says. “I may sound dumb asking it, but I always ask questions. That’s how you learn.”
Today, Clark lives in Washington state. Having grown up in New Jersey, he considers New York his musical home; it’s where he was introduced to R&B and house music. As a youth, Clark soaked up the sounds of Louie Vega and DJ Camacho and frequented clubs like Save The Robots, The Shelter and The Sound Factory Bar. “We didn’t go out on the weekends,” Clark recalls. “We called those people ‘tunnel people.’ People who worked 9-5 and wanted to relax. We were too cool for them. So we went out Monday through Friday. Those were the cool people days, you know. On the weekends, you guys [tunnel people] could have it.”
After school, Clark didn’t study sound engineering, but nonetheless landed a job in engineering at Calliope Studios in New York. There, he hung out with multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Calvin Gaines, who’s worked with Whitney Houston, Destiny’s Child and Lady Gaga, and who Clark remains friends with today. Back then, the artists who worked in the studio intrigued Clark. “I would see people come in who were producers and they had the nice clothes. I was like, hmmm, I wanna be in that world.”
In 1987, Clark reached out to Atlantic Records’ A&R Director and mixing producer Merlin Bobb-Willis. Bobb-Willis signed Clark’s first release, a garage house record called “Why!” with snippets of Clark singing. It resulted in Clark’s first five-figure paycheque. “And you know, when you’re 19 years old, you’re like ‘this is it, this is what I’m gonna be doin’!”
With producing and sound engineering as his primary source of income, Clark didn’t think about singing professionally until he met experimental deep house producer and singer, Rheji Burrell. “I asked Rheji one day, ‘How do you do that thing with your voice?’ He said, ‘It’s like anything, you just gotta use it so much so that you get more control of your muscle.'” Burrell instructed Clark to practice to get the desired result. “So for a whole year, I sang every day,” he says. “I had this lil tape recorder that I sang into, and then a year later, he was right. I was doing a lot better.”
At first, Clark was reluctant to release songs under his real name, so he used aliases like South Street Player and Urban Soul. “I was like ahh, I don’t want anyone to know it’s me. I’m too cool!” As he released more lyrical songs, Clark grew confident and decided to include his real name in the title, but he can’t remember which record marked the turning point. “But whatever it was, I felt more comfortable,” he says. “I said, ‘I’ma let people know it’s me now.’ And it was not a bad idea.”
It certainly wasn’t. Clark went on to sing on Armand Van Helden’s ‘90s hit “Flowerz,” released a few months after Van Helden broke through with “You Don’t Know Me.” Van Helden was centre-stage at the time, and “Flowerz” gave Clark plenty of hype, kicking his career under his given name into high gear. He’d later sing and produce releases like “Glad You Came” on Kenny Dope’s label, Ill Friction, “I Know You” on own Clark’s imprint, Delete Records, and most recently, “Dance Without A Reason” on Strictly Rhythm, amongst a myriad of others.
In a way, singing and spoken word opened the doors to Clark’s DJing. While living in New York in 2000, Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook, was DJing at Virgin Megastore in Manhattan. Cook had sampled Clark on “Star 69 (What The F**k)” and the record was doing well — it was number 10 in the UK Singles Chart — so Clark decided to visit the store to meet Cook. Back then, Clark’s world was house and R&B, so he wasn’t aware of Cook’s heavyweight status. “There had to be 1000 people in the store. It was a worldwide simulcast for all the Virgin Megastores, and I was like, this guy is a pretty big deal.”
After the gig, Cook asked Clark if he could DJ, to which Clark answered no. Upon Cook’s crestfallen reaction, Clark regretted his answer, so he went to his pal DJ Camacho‘s house the next day. “I was like, ‘Teach me how to DJ’ and he goes, ‘You already know how to DJ’ and I was like ‘no I don’t’ and he was like ‘Yes, you do! Match the kicks, you know the music,'” he says. “‘I went ‘ok.’ And that was it.”
Clark learned on vinyl and played his first paid gig in London with Sting International. The year and the club’s name are hazy, but Clark remembers his nerves. “That day, I went to Defected and bought a crate of records. I didn’t even listen to them. I just put records in the crate and said ‘Alright Simon [Dunmore], bye!’ and then I left,” he says. “So I went off to DJ, and I would just put a record down and play it.” The crowd’s reaction? “They went crazy!” Before the gig, Clark asked Sting to stay by his side in case things went awry. “And I looked to my right, and Sting was gone,” he laughs. “I went, ‘What the hell!’ I got a little nervous, but every time I played a record, more people came on the floor, and after like 30 minutes, I was like ‘pewssh I got this.'”
Clark would tour the U.S., South East Asia, The Middle East and Europe over the next two decades, between producing and penning spoken word and lyrics. As his profile grew internationally, Clark wasn’t interested in creating only deep house and recording countless acapellas. “It’s very important to me to not stick to one genre. Unfortunately, the way this industry is — and it doesn’t have to be this way — once you do one thing, that’s all you can do.”
Clark is the antithesis of this structure. He feels that, for him to move forward and evolve, diving headfirst into other soundscapes like EDM is non-negotiable. He can’t understand why certain deep house producers want their sound to stay underground. “Don’t they want people to hear their music?” he exclaims. Maybe they want to protect the culture of what they consider ‘underground?,’ I offer. “So they wanna pick and choose their success basically,” he says. “That part I never understood. That’s the whole argument I had with someone about EDM,” Clark continues. “They said, ‘Oh they [EDM producers] are ruining the house music industry,’ and I said, ‘So you consider it house music?’ And they said ‘no.’ So I said, ‘How are they ruining the house music industry? If you don’t consider it even house music, what’s your beef?'”
Clark explains how, when house started out in New York and Chicago, people — himself included — wanted others to hear it and for the sound to reach Europe. When it did, “Europe loved it,” he says. “And then it transformed and changed over the years. Next, you’ve got techno to what it is now and tech house to what it is now, and the people who are still kinda underground, it’s like, well what are you bitchin’ about?” he says as if speaking directly to them. “You still have your underground, so stay back there. Let us move forward. We’re going to keep going. If you only want 10 people to hear your record, go for it.”
True to his word, a slew of collaborations with artists from other genres, in particular EDM, bear a significant presence in Clark’s back catalogue. He was introduced to the realm by Stretch, the MC of TomorrowWorld — an Atlanta-based offshoot of Tomorrowland — when Clark was living in Georgia, and Stretch invited Clark to check out the festival.
“I saw the stage, I saw the fire comin’ out the man made mountain, and I saw the performers,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is dope!’ I wasn’t even listening to the music at all; that was the furthest thing from my mind. It was the aesthetics of it all.” Backstage, Stretch introduced Clark to Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, who asked Clark if they could do a record together. “I was like ‘I guess?’ I didn’t know who they were, I had no idea who they were. They were a whole other world.” Stretch then showed Clark the pair’s position on the Beatport chart at the time. “And I was like ‘Oh!'” he laughs. “These guys are number one! So I paid attention. We did the record, and the record came out, and it did pretty well.”
The record was “Cafe Del Mar 2016 (feat. Roland Clark)” by Dimitri Vegas, Like Mike and Klaas, who collectively mutated Energy 52’s “Cafe Del Mar” into a big room stomper. That set off several more collaborations for Clark spanning Duke Dumont, Vintage Culture, David Guetta and MORTEN, each of whom featured his inimitable spoken word woven into confetti-cannon-ready bangers.
Fast forward to 2022, and Clark is more eager than ever to work with multi-dynamic artists. “Last year, I had the idea to hit up everyone on Twitter who I wanted to work with. Like, just say ‘Hi!’ What could hurt?” One of those artists was Armin van Buuren. “I said, ‘Hey man, love your stuff.’ Done.” The Dutch producer replied, and as a result, Clark and Van Buuren’s single “We Can Dance” will drop on 18th February via Armada Music. “I think it’s about putting it out into the universe,” Clark says of his simple but direct attitude not only in music, but in all aspects of his life.
Looking to the year ahead, Clark has another release due out with Duke Dumont on Virgin EMI and another with Vintage Culture on Get Physical. “It’s called ‘We’re All Legends,'” he says. “It’s a very big record. So I’m definitely just working — I put my head down and work.”
It’s the mindset of an artist who’s not only ambitious but embraces change and, most of all, hasn’t gained a colossal ego along the way. “You have to remember that this is for the people,” he says. “People are so focused on being successful, they lose focus on the people actually dancing on the dance floor.”
Niamh O’Connor is a writer, talent booker, event manager and DJ living in Lisbon, Portugal. Find her on Instagram.