The Philosophies of Mr. Scruff: Beat-maker, cartoonist and tea extraodinaire

There are a number of things about the gregarious Mr. Scruff (real name Andrew Carthy) that has intrigued us over his two decade career.

For one thing, Carthy’s love for tea is absolutely charming. He’s the owner of Teacup Kitchen, a brick and mortar establishment in Manchester, alongside an online tea company called Make Us A Brew, and he’s been known to also sell tea and tea-related items (mugs, teapots, etc) at club nights and music festivals. His talent as a cartoonist is also pretty winsome. Noted for doing all the artwork on his album sleeves, music videos, merchandise and online collaterals, Carthy’s signature whimsical illustrations have left as deep an impression on us as his music.

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And then there’s his ever-present admiration for sea life! His artwork, songs and even his imprint (Ninja Tuna), all contain marine references, which is a curious quirk, but also incredibly endearing.

But of course, beyond all that, it's his music that’s inspired us the most. Coming from the cult of Coldcut, Mr. Scruff’s oddball instrumental hip-hop is not only responsible for getting many 90s’ kids into Ninja Tune’s brand of beats and breaks, his ingenious use of sampling also played a large role in getting most of us interested in its source material — opening doors to everything from jazz to soul to funk.

Through unforgettable albums such as Keep It Unreal and Trouser Jazz and mix compilations like Keep It Solid Steel Volume 1, Mr. Scruff has always shown an uncanny ability to weave his disparate sonic sources into a sum greater than its parts.

We got the chance to have a lengthy conversation with Mr. Scruff recently, and we couldn’t resist geeking out with him about the schools of thought behind his music and art.

Hi Andy! You’ve been in the game for over 20 years, but I believe Neon Lights will be your first gig in Singapore. Are you as excited as we are?

Yeah it will be my first time there! I’ve been to the airport but that doesn’t really count. (Laughs) It’s strange because a lot of my friends have played there, especially in Zouk. I’m really looking forward to it.

We’ve been fans since Hocus Pocus and we’re continually impressed by your ability to keep progressing from release to release. Talk a bit about your latest album Friendly Bacteria. It sounded like you dabbled with a lot in sampling from live instrumentation this time around. What inspired that approach?

I think a lot of it boils down to me having a lot of musician friends. There were so many people I’ve always wanted to collaborate with, but I’ve never had the time to work with before. So I just thought for this album I would finally lock them all down. It ended up being a really collaborative thing and it worked out really well.

Yeah the guest artists here popped up on several songs...

Yes! It was really nice actually. That was the big difference between these collaborations and previous collaborations. With previous collaborations I only got to work with them on one or two tracks. But I feel that with an album you need a bit more tonal consistency, so with this one I tried to work with others on not just one track, but on four or five. That was really enjoyable because you get explore that working relationship a bit more, there’s a lot more depth and involvement to it.

Often times, when you have a guest artist, both of you are just pouring all your ideas and creative energies into that one track, because that’s the only time you get to work with them. But this time, we got to flesh it out. We can get together for a week and work on four or five tracks, so there’s a more cohesive feel about it just because you’re recording in the same place and at the same time, working together properly.

Lots of producers tend to work with collaborators over email these days. Did that in-person dynamic help the creative process?

Absolutely. I didn’t want to do any collaborations where we weren’t in the same room. I wanted us to be really vibing with each and bouncing ideas off each other. It's a simple thing that bands always do, but if you’re more of a producer, with today’s technology, it’s almost easier to work with people at a distance. But I feel that you can lose something important when you work remotely like that, despite the convenience.

ninja tune, electronic, mr scruff, sampling, hip-hop, instrumental, fish, cartoon

"I really like creating something from a variety of different sound sources, where in the end, they all feeling like they belong together, coming together to create an entirely new thing."

— Andrew Carthy, a.k.a. Mr. Scruff

The name that seems to pop up the most in the credits was Denis Jones. What was your relationship with him like?

Brilliant! It was very different musically because we come from different places. I saw him live about 10 years ago and I thought he was incredible. Later on, I found out he lived very close to me, so we just started jamming and stuff like that. It was the first time I had worked someone where I didn’t feel like I knew their background with a lot of detail. When I work with a rapper or a soul singer or a jazz musician, I have an understanding of their roots because I’m so entrenched in those worlds and I listen to so much of that music in my life. With him, whenever he does something, I’m like “I’m not quite sure where you’re coming from… but I really enjoyed that!” I wasn’t trying to steer the music I made to a particular style to fit him because I didn’t know what that style was, so it was extremely freeing.

We were both relaxed and up for trying different things, and although he was mysterious in terms of musical inspiration, the fact that we were working so closely made us very open to each other’s ideas. Every time we worked together, something interesting happens and we stumble upon something that I get really excited about. When you find a creative partnership like that, it's important to refine and nurture it, because it will push you in unexpected creative directions. I got a lot from working with Denis.

Being an instrumental hip-hop producer, sampling is obviously a big part of your work. Would you say that the search for samples is one of the most fun aspects of production?

Yes it’s definitely one of the most fulfilling aspects because it's a bit like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. I really like creating something from a variety of different sound sources, where in the end, they all feeling like they belong together, coming together to create an entirely new thing. I enjoy putting together different samples from seven or eight different records, playing with their different textures and tones. They’re all recorded on different drum kits, in different studios, with different engineers and stuff like that, and I’m just trying to make a collage out of all of it.

Most of sampling is the search to find a specific sound, and most times there’s a lot of chance involved because I’m pulling out records from a shelf at random. When I am working by myself, the sampling process leads to a lot of happy accidents and chance combinations. If you’re using a record you’ve never heard before, a lot of surprises can happen in the studio, and the best feeling is when you incorporate those surprises into your music.

It gives the music its own life, its own kind of… unique feeling. The act sampling can be very playful because you can get amazing sounds from very unlikely sources. Let’s say you get some middle of the road easy listening classic, something your grandparents might listen to, that has a little drum roll at the start - you can take that bit and build some really thick, ominous, terrifying drums from that.

ninja tune, electronic, mr scruff, sampling, hip-hop, instrumental, fish, cartoon

"You spend years and years and years learning about different styles of music before you finally understand that all genres have more in common than we think, and that’s when we start making those little connections."

That idea of recontextualizing sounds and rearranging songs to make them part of different whole isn’t just a producer thing, it carries over into your mentality as a DJ too I suppose...

Precisely. The thing that I’ve always loved about music from clubs, or on the radio, or in a mix - you’re hearing an amazing piece of music not knowing who its by, what it is, where it's from, or when it was recorded. It’s just the music by itself, blowing you away and taking you somewhere else. You feel the need to find out what it is, to find out where it comes from, and we’ve all experienced it, hundreds of times probably. You get an incredible feeling when you hear something special for the first time, and you get an irresistible urge to capture it so you can reproduce it or repeat that experience. DJ sets are all about that, you’re meant to educate with unfamiliar tunes or by playing familiar tunes in a different context.

Yes, DJing can be extremely technical and there’s a whole art to it, but one of the biggest things about DJing isn’t necessarily about the DJ, you’re supposed to get people excited about these tunes that you’re using, passing on the excitement you have for them to a mass of people. You’re capturing enthusiasm and directing it in different ways. DJs are always playing with context because something that can sound ordinary and dull in one context can sound really strange or exciting or inspiring in another context. It’s the DJ’s job to figure what that context is and to make the connection between records. You pay attention to the structure, the content, the lyrics - stuff like that helps inform you about what should go next. The composition of a record should tell you how to move into something else but that something else might not be in the same genre, style or era.

You spend years and years and years learning about different styles of music before you finally understand that all genres have more in common than we think, and that’s when we start making those little connections. It’s very playful and the playfulness helps to give energy.

ninja tune, electronic, mr scruff, sampling, hip-hop, instrumental, fish, cartoon

10th Anniversary Edition of Keep It Unreal.

You’re well-known for doing all the artwork on your album, music videos and merch — and your style of art is very playful too. How did you develop your cartooning style?

I’ve always loved drawing. That and music have been my two greatest passions in life. I was already doing that style of cartoons for magazines and stuff 30 years ago, way before I was releasing records. When I did the Hocus Pocus EP, it just made sense for me to do it myself. The style was already present, and people mentioned that it matched the music, which makes sense considering it came from the same part of my mind. It was the best way to package my work in a way that reflects me in the truest way.

How big a role does artwork play in the audience’s perception of the music?

Personally, I like that my art gives the music a friendly face. A lot of underground music can be almost… deliberately unfriendly in the way it's presented. Take for instance Underground Resistance, I love them! Those guys are really cool and they’re all really great, but the presentation can be intimidating for newcomers. There’s a lot of guys in balaclavas and ghetto imagery — it's quite hardcore in the way it's presented.

And then you meet them and they’re the friendliest, funniest, most open people you’ll ever meet. I was quite nervous before I met them actually. I’ve been listening to them for 20 years and they have all this ominous imagery which was pretty cool, very Detroit. I expected them to be cold, but they were just warmest bunch, which was a surprise to me.

So I think having a more humorous or approachable face helps appeal to people who might otherwise not be interested. The thing about a record sleeve or a gig poster, the image is the first impression, so I think it's important for you to present an image that will engage people and make them want to know more. If they enjoy it, you’ve just opened a new door and made a new fan. Of course different artists want their work presented in different ways, and there’s no wrong way to do it. Edgier imagery naturally works with edgier music. But this is just the way I prefer to do it.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Ninja Tune, a label you’ve been with nearly the entirety of your career. Could you talk a little bit about how the label has impacted your life and work?

Oh it's made a tremendous impact! Even before the label existed, the guys behind it, like Coldcut, have been instrumental to my development since I was 15 years-old. Coldcut was the UK equivalent of Double Dee and Steinski, they were putting out sample-based hip-hop, funk breaks, jazz breaks, break beats, putting cartoon samples on the top — a very nerdy style of DJing and mixing and production that obviously had a lot influence on me. I was following in Coldcut’s footsteps, so when I was eventually signed to his label about 10 years later, it was amazing!

At that point Ninja Tune was mostly comprised of British kids who liked to put a different spin on hip-hop, so I suppose I belong to that generation with guys like Funki Porcini, The Herbaliser and Vadim — we represented that sound. And I think out of everyone at Ninja Tune today, I might be the only that still has that sound about them. Obviously, they’ve signed a lot of modern acts that I enjoy, and while I think they do outstanding electronic music, I personally still lean towards the grit and the dirt that you only get with sample-based music. When you’re taking all these sounds and trying to make them fit, you can never quite make it too clean or perfect and I like that, there’s a charm to it. Even when I’m sampling live music, I like to keep the mistakes in, there’s a looseness and a human element to it that I love.

Being around for 25 years is an amazing achievement for an independent label and I’m profoundly honoured to be a part of it. I love that Ninja Tune is always moving forward and pushing boundaries, but at the same time, I’d like to keep the original Ninja Tune sound alive with my own work.

Mr. Scruff will be performing for Neon Lights! Click here for more details.