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Digging Deeper: An interview with Sam Don (Just A Touch)

For this next instalment of Digging Deeper we are delighted to be sitting down with London-based DJ, radio host, compiler and music consultant, Sam Don. No stranger to a discerning dancefloor, Sam’s breadth of knowledge, extensive record collection and clear talent in being able to join the dots seamlessly between genres, has seen music permeate every aspect of his life. Whether it’s DJing across the world, holding down radio residencies for Soho and Skylab Radio, or working as a music consultant for Playlister.

That deep seated knowledge also led to him compiling two of our favourite compilations at MR Bongo HQ over the past few years. Putting together two collections of sought-after Lovers Rock covers for Athens of the North, under the title For The Love Of You.

Fast forward to 2023 and after the critical acclaim of For The Love Of You Volumes 1 and 2, Sam has just released a new compilation on AOTN, this time shining a light into the depths of UK underground soul. A world of DIY production, white labels and pirate radio plays, Sam has cherry-picked and officially licensed 12 of the finest underground cuts entitled Just A Touch. Ranging from street soul sweetness through to lights down low, boogie-tinged brilliance, it’s a compilation that truly captures the scope of sounds bubbling below the surface in the UK soul scenes in the mid ‘80s and ‘90s. Sam kindly took the time out to talk all things ‘Just A Touch’ with us below.

What was the inspiration / spark that made you want to put this compilation together?

After putting together For The Love of You 1 and 2, I wanted to give myself a bit of a break from even thinking about another compilation, but then one evening the initial idea for Just A Touch just came into my head. I spent the rest of the night pulling out all of this music that I love and sketched out how I wanted the compilation to sound, and then got up the next day to begin to try to make it all a reality. It took a while! For me there is a clear direct lineage between my previous comps and this one and so the process just felt really natural.

What time period does the compilation cover, and is there anything significant about that period?

That’s a bit of a test of my memory, made more difficult by the fact that some of the songs were only released on white labels and some of the artists weren’t sure themselves when I asked, but I think we are talking for the most part between 1987 and 1995.

There are certainly a few factors that make this period interesting, such as the advancement in musical technology and therefore people could equip themselves with drum machines and synths and just have a go at musical projects more readily, but I also think socially there were big changes that were influential in creating these new sounds. Pirate radio went from strength to strength during this time and was very much the sound of the street and in the late 80s came the second summer of love. I think that this was a catalyst for sort of creating this ‘machine soul.’

The compilation doesn’t define itself with the genre tag ‘street soul’, but do you think the selection broadly fits into that category, or is it wider than that?

I definitely think there are a number of tracks on the compilation that people might define as street soul, but ultimately for me, I just hear these as lesser known, or underrepresented soul tracks. The first two sides feature a lot of the hallmark sounds and instrumentation of street soul, but later on I hear boogie, two step and more lo-fi sounds, such as the long lost Dennis Planter track, ‘I Still Dream Of You’. That record has a special quality to it and stands apart from everything I know that has come from the UK.

How does the UK Soul sound of this period tend to differ from that of its US counterpart?

Whilst I own a lot of music that was made in America during a similar era to Just A Touch, with the US being such a huge country, I don’t know enough about the individual scenes and sub-genres that no doubt popped-up in different states and cities at the time. UK popular music, particularly soul, has a strong influence from the Caribbean, whereas I am not sure if this connection runs quite as deep in America.

If we are talking specifically about street-soul, America did produce a similar sound that went by the name of new jack swing, or swingbeat, but to me, this genre is generally more polished sound than the UK equivalent.

How did you discover the tracks featured in the compilation? 

I can’t say there was one particular way I heard all of these tracks, or one source that led to me discovering them. I feel that like most of my digging and research, I am constantly keeping my ears open to music that I like. When exploring similar UK sounds over the years to those featured in the comp, I felt that I was in a rich vein of a particular style, which over time I have gradually got to know more about. If you spend a lot of time with certain music, you start to notice patterns and how everything is interconnected and for me this was no different.

There are certain DJs and collectors that I gave shout-outs to in the liner notes of my compilation because they have shared with me records and have inspired me along the way, so once again out to Alex (Bristol Atlas), Ben and Pat (Heels & Souls), Customs, Delasy, Hampus, Lorem Ipsum and Maybe Tonight. I must send further praise in the first instance to someone I just mentioned here, Delasy, a collector who put together regular livestreams that I would sometimes watch containing all types of UK soul jams. He sold me a few ‘packs’ of tunes that I first heard on said shows and carefully selected, such as Lamor’s classic 'Need Somebody'.

Any personal favourites from this collection you want to highlight?

To me, every track on the comp is a tune, so it is hard to pick a favourite but maybe I can highlight a couple.

Kicking off the album with Bo’vel felt like a massive coup as it is such a huge track for me and I think is a perfect representation of what is about to come across the compilation. While people understandably go mad for ‘Check 4 U’ (it’s a street soul grail and has been reissued), to my ears ‘Coming Back’ is just a better song.

The ‘Don’t Touch’ track is also a special one as it’s a record I have been playing late in the night at parties, when the dance floor has thinned out a bit and only the committed dancers remain! I love the menacing bass line and combined with the lyric of ‘don’t touch my girlfriend’, Cavilier doesn’t seem like the sort of person you would want to make angry.

Did you get to meet / converse with any of the artists behind the tracks?

Quite a number of the artists involved in the project are still UK based, but some are spread out, living as far afield as Thailand and Antigua.

Anthony Brightley, who nowadays lives in Antigua, but spent many years based in East London, linked up with me when he was back in his old home city in 2021. He is a lovely man and you could honestly write a book on his life and his influence in music, particularly reggae, and has been involved in so many facets of the industry over the years. He is also very persuasive as in that short lunch meeting he managed to convince me to visit him in Antigua. Three months later we were there eating ital food in the bush together.

I had other great conversations with Tony Graham and Rex Brough (with Rex living 100 meters away from my old flat when he produced Taffy) but they are both south London based. We still need to find a time to meet up.

Are there any artists featured in the compilation that went on to have a notable commercial recording career?

There are a couple. Kofi, most people would know from her work in reggae and lovers rock, but she crossed over to put her voice to a number of drum-machine tracks including 'Step By Step'.

Taffy had a notable career in Italy recording a range of pop / hi-NRG tracks with Claudio Cecchetto. Her hit ‘I Love My Radio’ was re-released in England and reached number 6 in the charts which lead to public appearances such as on Top of The Pops.

Take a track like Bo’vel ‘Coming Back’, seen as a classic within the scene, but did it see broader commercial success at the time of its original release?

My understanding is that it didn’t see large commercial success. When I spoke to Bernadette, she mentioned 1000 copies were pressed, which when you think that vinyl was the main format at the time, and artists could sell millions of copies of a hit single or album, that is a tiny figure.

I think this is example of an underground classic, that was known by people who were into the sound at the time. It’s become more known probably due to it being uploaded and played via YouTube, and now hopefully because of this compilation.

How do you think the artists feel about the rediscovery of their music?

From my conversations, it seemed to range, but everyone ultimately seemed to be happy to be contacted about the project. Some were definitely taken aback that their work from 25+ years was in any way in-demand, whereas with a couple of the artists, I got the impression that they had always known that they should have been given more praise, and were almost waiting for someone’s call.

Is there enough material in the locker for a part two?

I could definitely do a part two and go deeper into the sound, perhaps going further into the boogie and jazz funk side of things, but I am also very happy with Just A Touch. Never say never of course, but I think that this sound has been properly represented in one compilation.

Any other forthcoming projects you are able to share with us?

There are a couple of things that I’m working on that will hopefully come to fruition in the new year, but for now I am just concentrating on touring which has just been an absolute joy! My final gig of this run is in London at Sweeties, the really vibey club at The Standard Hotel with the amazing sound that looks 10 floors over the city. That’s taking place on Saturday 9th December and I am going to be joined by a, for now, special secret guest who has released Rush Hour. Mark that in your diary and keep your eyes peeled on my instagram for the artist announcement because it’s going to be a big one!

After that I am going into a bit of winter hibernation to focus on said projects before heading back on the road in early spring.

Thanks to Sam for taking the time to speak to us for this feature. The incredible Just A Touch compilation is out now, get your copy HERE.

Make sure you check Sam's Instagram profile and Soundcloud for the latest updates on what he's got in the works. 


Picture Credits:

1. Fran Hales / 2. Yan-Kevin Yango Bapala  / 3. Jai Toor / 4. Brent Burns