The duo known as Freemasons – Russell Small and James Wiltshire – produced one of the biggest dance tracks of 2005, “Love On My Mind.”
They were also the guiding force behind the ultra successful dance remix of Faith Evans’ “Mesmerized” and are currently red-hot within the global dance music scene, topping record labels’ wish list of remixers, re-working tracks from the likes of Jamiroquai, Heather Headley, and Angie Stone.
They continue to produce original work and look to have another huge hit on their hands with “Watchin’,” a driving disco house track using part of the lyrics from Deborah Cox’s “It’s Over Now.”
In between their time in-studio and amidst a busy travel schedule, Wiltshire and Small – who has already garnered a worldwide reputations as one-half of the dance chart-topping production team of Phats & Small - graciously took some time out to answers a few questions.
DP : I know you two are English. Are you originally from London?
Russell Small (RS) : I was born in Brighton, which is an hour south of London - by the sea. It’s known as the San Tropez of England and is a great place to live or visit. Very cosmopolitan.
James Wiltshire (JW) : I was born in Andover, a small country town 60 miles west of London. It’s not quite so cosmopolitan.
DP : How did you each come to be in the dance music industry?
RS : I started DJing when I was 13, playing Disco and sometimes a bit of Rock & Roll at weddings and birthday parties. I was also quite good at playing slow songs for the ‘Erection Section’ at the end of a party. I began spinning at nightclubs when I was 19, starting out with a residency at the Escape club in Brighton and then moving on to the legendary Monday Helter Skelter nights at the Zap Club that ran from 1992 -1997.
JW : I came into the industry via the production side. I made my first record in a studio when I was 16 years old for a local Hip Hop band.
It wasn’t very good but as soon as I’d spent 5 minutes in the studio control room, I knew I was gonna be hooked. After University, I did some remixing under the name of Jimmy Gomez; I think my most appreciated mix in the U.S. was Sunscreem’s “Looking at You” in 1996. I’ve worked for just about every major studio in London over the years and not only gained a lot of experience and knowledge, but also quite the caffeine habit.
DP : Which category of dance music was the biggest influence on your early development and style as DJs/remixers?
RS : Disco and Motown have always been my first love.
JW : Same for me historically, Disco and sweet Soul music always got to me at my very core.
Also I discovered all forms of electronic music whilst becoming studio-bound. If Rock & Roll is the sound clash of Blues, Country and Skiffle music, I think House music is the sound clash of Disco, Soul and the electronic music that had come out of Europe during the 1980s. The first House record I heard blew me away.
DP : When and how did your partnership begin?
RS : After building a good reputation on the club scene as a DJ, I joined up with fellow Brighton DJ Jason Hayward to form Phats and Small. During our time producing together Jason introduced me to James and we brought him in to help with our Phats and Small albums. When Jason went off to work with more live-orientated music about three years ago James and I started producing our own music. We spent over a year developing a sound, which is just starting to come through in our recent mixes for the likes of the wonderful Faith Evans and Heather Headly.
DP : Is there any general division of labor on your projects (i.e. rhythms and beats vs. melodies vs. lyrics) or do you both work on any and all aspects of a project together?
RS : James is the computer wiz and I am his bitch. This title includes ideas, tea, but mostly coffee.
JW : Sometimes it’s impossible to work out who’s come up with which idea when a track is finished and that to me is the key to a perfect working relationship. I do drive the computer, but under the watchful eye of Mr. Small who is also normally right about 99.8% of the production decisions.
DP : In general, how would you contrast the Freemasons sound and style with that of Phats & Small?
RS : Freemasons has a lot of the same ingredients as Phats and Small : disco, funky, vocals.
It also has two people having fun in what they are doing, but the Freemasons sound is a bit quirkier, the production is on another level and it’s a lot less sample-based.
DP : How did “Love On My Mind” come about?
Was the classic disco track “This Time Baby” by Jackie Moore the primary impetus of your song.
JW : Like all good records it was initially inspired by someone else’s track, and actually not Jackie Moore’s. The first version was very similar to a record that had been huge in Miami and after a couple of revisions we realized that we needed more vocals than the two lines we had from Miss Moore. We then came across an acapella on a collection of 2,500 we’d bought from Ebay for about £20; it was the Tina Turner song “When The Heartache Is Over.” So the lyrics for “Love On My Mind” is a combination of the Tina Turner chorus, which we turned into a verse, and the first two lines of Jackie Moore’s verse, which is part of the chorus. A few more revisions later and it had a life of it’s own.
DP : Did you have a sense right away that you had a big hit on your hands with “Love On My Mind?”
RS : No never. It sat around in the studio for a couple of months before Tim Jeffery at Skint Records heard it. Tim’s wife loved it - which is always a great sign - and we also got good feedback from James’ harem (we love a bit of feedback from girls – they are often a better judge of melody). Tim said he wanted to put it out, which was great, and so we just let him get on with it. We started to think we had something good when Pete Tong played it about 6 times in a row on his Radio 1 Essential Mix show.
DP : As a follow-up to “Love On My Mind” you’re back at it with “Watchin’,” a track that my dance floors – most of whom are HUGE Deborah Cox fans - are all abuzz about. You used Amanda Wilson as the vocalist on this one as well as on “Love On My Mind.” She has a fantastic sounding voice. Where did you find her?
RS : Amanda does have an amazing voice; she reached the high note in “Watchin’” in one take. We were put in touch with her through our record company and have recorded her on three other tracks we have on the go at the moment.
DP : You guys are now so well known for your remixing and production successes, but do you still get in the DJ booth to rock a dance floor every now and then?
RS : Yes we go out together as a deejay duo with our sets consisting of 90% of our own music at the moment. We’re on a bit of a roll.
JW : My third professional gig was at El Divinos’ nightclub on Ibiza – not bad really. Lot of gigs in the U.K., but also lots of traveling : we played Croatia on New Years Eve and that was a very heartwarming place to be on such a night. Great people who have been through a lot. We’re even off to Russia soon.
Nothing in the U.S. so far, but we’re looking forward to it.
DP : Have you ever DJed in Chicago?
RS : Never been to America. Would love to though
JW : No, never been to Chicago, but it’s always been a city that’s fascinated me. Even the name sounds exciting. You’re very lucky in America to have so many cities steeped in such amazing musical history.
DP : During your live DJ sets, do you find yourself going more new school using lots of the current technology with CD players, mixers, samplers, and laptops to “spice things up?”
RS : Our sets are a mixture of the old and the new. I use turntables and CDs while James uses the Ableton Live software program on a laptop, a great tool for being creative while you play.
JW : Ableton allows you to bend what’s normally possible on turntables or even CDs – plenty of realtime manipulation and trickery, but not enough to go over-board and worry the dance floor.
DP : Which tracks are with you the majority, or all, of the time when you go to a gig?
RS : The Phats & Small edit of “Billie Jean,” the Skylark vocal mix of Praise Cats “Shined on Me” and our Freemasons vocal mix of “Mesmerized” by Faith Evans.
DP : What has been the highlight DJing moment of your career?
RS : The Manumission Carry On party at the Space nightclub on Ibiza. Completely nuts : people throwing each other into the air at 9 in the morning to “Where’s Your Head At” by Basement Jaxx.
JW : Realizing in six months I’d played gigs that most DJs spend years building up to and I sneaked straight in there – basically I jumped the queue.
DP : From a remixer/producer point of view, what has been the career highlight moment?
RS : Just recently we ended up with one of our own productions in the top end of the U.K.’s national radio station’s playlist and then one of our remixes was also added. That’s never happened before and showed a real acceptance of our sound by radio in the U.K.
JW : Also, just hearing those Faith Evans/Heather Headly/Angie Stone acapellas in isolation when you come into work, you just get lifted up. You know that you have the best job in the world – those girls can REALLY sing!
DP : Any particular artist on your wish list to do production work or a remix project for and why do you want to work with them?
JW : There’s plenty out there we’d like to remix, such as vocalists that amaze and inspire us. Musicians I’d really like to work with are the Funk Brothers. They’re the band that played on the old Detroit era Motown records. A few have passed on, but a lot still remain. What an honour that would be and how many stories they must have!?!
DP : Do you have any new work that is being released in the near future?
RS : Our schedule is so busy at the moment. We are recording tracks for a long player of sorts, which will be out at the end of the summer.
JW : It’s a new idea – halfway between an artist album and a compilation.
You will hear new Freemasons material and some of our best remix work together.
DP : Has the advent and growing popularity of internet sites such as Traxsource and Beatport (as well as iTunes and Real Music’s Rhapsody) been monetarily beneficial to you guys and other dance music artists and producers or is there still a significant problem being caused by file-sharing sites?
JW : Put it this way - if you allow digital copies out in the public domain, either legally through the sites or on \CDs that then get copied, they go all over the file sharing sites. You will then loose 50% of your vinyl sales in the UK so yes, it is a huge problem. iTunes need to make their deal fairer to the record companies, and other sites need to organize their catalogues better. It is the future though and we just need to find a way for everyone to make the right amount of money out of it.