- Carly S
Way Back Then …
When DJ and producer Jason Phats heard a sample from The Glow of Love by Change looping around as he worked in his Walthamstow studio back in the late 90´s, he thought it could be the beginning of a great new house track. He and then collaborative partner Russell Small got in touch with their vocalist friend Ben Ofoedu and they worked to turn that sample into what was to become one of the defining dance tracks of the era. ‘Turn Around’ hit the shelves on New Year’s day 1999 and was an instant and massive success. 1999 was the year I turned 18 and this was playing everywhere I went – clubs, bars, radio stations, MTV – I even heard a few guys trying to sing it on karaoke.
The up-tempo beats and Ben’s infectious lyric made it catchy, uplifting and filled the floors of clubs and discos everywhere. It was the anthem of the club/commercial crossover of the late 90’s and early 2000’s and the soundtrack to my youth. I was therefore incredibly excited to hear that Phats and Small were making a comeback, to see their name in the line up for Jacaranda Lounge’s Celebrity Sundays and even more so when I learned that I was going to meet and interview these icons. I was instantly struck by how friendly and warm they are. It was like chatting with old friends, as we discussed their success, the party lifestyles they enjoyed here at the peak of their success, what they learnt from it, how they’ve changed, what they’ve been up to and what’s next from here.
`Turn Around’ was far more than just the anthem to my, and many others, coming of age. It was a global phenomenon, a multi platinum selling, multi award winning, Brit nominated juggernaut of a track that catapulted Jason and Ben to stardom and saw them globetrotting, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, partying, touring and attending awards ceremonies. Did they expect this level of success? Well, in a word, no.
‘It was crazy,’ says Ben ‘One minute I’m in the dole queue and the next I’m taking, what was it J twenty seven? (Jason agrees) Yeah, twenty seven flights in one week.(…) We made a record which became it’s own entity and bigger than either of us.’
Jason nods along and continues, still obviously incredulous at the craziness of the time, ‘We were the first dance act to play in Georgia or Jakarta, and were even given the keys to the city in Jakarta. We were on Top of the Pops, nominated for a Brit for best newcomers – that was just amazing – won an Erikson award…’
Ben joins in, ‘MOBO’s, multi platinum sales, playing all over the world, MTV, Radio One…’
Jason continues ‘Zoe Ball had us as her tune of the week and we were in Radio One’s playlist for over 12 weeks, which is pretty much unheard of.’
This easy back and forth and adding of memories and thoughts to each others speech, which only comes from years as close friends, continues as they reminisce – part laughing, part cringing – about the lifestyle of non stop partying, drinking, drugs, and hedonism they suddenly found themselves living. They were a big part of a thriving house scene at home and here in Ibiza, where they indulged in the trappings of fame whilst they regularly played clubs, villa parties and televised events such as MTV shows.
‘I can’t watch that MTV footage anymore’, says Jason. When I ask why, he says ‘I just can’t get over how wasted I look on it!’
Ah, so a bit cringey? I offer
‘Oh yeah, I remember that MTV thing,’ says Ben ‘Weren’t we licking stuff off Cat Deeley’s back or something?’ he chuckles.
Jason shakes his head and smiles ‘It was a mad time. If you look at all the DJ’s who got divorced or split from partners in that era – it wasn’t a good time for relationships. You can’t keep up that lifestyle. Something’s got to give. I came to the realisation that that lifestyle was all just an illusion. Nothing was really real or meant anything, you know? You think you need the booze or drugs or whatever to have fun, but you don’t. That’s part of the illusion. I haven’t touched anything for seven years now and this visit to Ibiza has been the best so far. I’ve still been out dancing all night a few times with my twenty year old daughter and it’s been brilliant.’
I’m curious to know how else things have changed and am surprised to learn that they rarely used to perform together on the same stage.
‘Back in the day, I’d go off and do live PA’s while you (looks at Jason) did DJ sets,’ explains Ben ‘Yeah, ‘ Jason continues ‘we only ever really performed together for Top of the Pops or MTV. Then in 2011 I think, (Ben nods) I got asked to do an after party. I asked Ben if he wanted to join me and do vocals live and he did. It was unplanned and unrehearsed but we loved it and so did the crowd. It’s how we’ve worked since.’
Ben continues ‘The way I see it is we’re just conduits for the music. Whether we’re doing our own stuff or covers we just transmit a vibe and want people to have a good time. We played a festival recently (Beats for Love in Ostrava, Czech Republic) and had over twenty thousand people singing Turn Around back at us. It was amazing. When that many people sing at you, you can feel the warmth of their breath blast you. I was telling my mum the other day, it was just unreal, to have thousands of happy people dancing and singing your song back at you. That is not just a feeling. It’s something tangible.’
‘It was incredible,’ says Jason ‘There were just seas of people as far as I could see. We had no idea how many would turn up to watch us but it seemed like the entire festival did. And they were all ages too, young teens and people who’d never seen or heard us before mixed with people who remembered us the first time around. All singing and smiling. It blew us away.’ So we’re privileged to be getting a gig from them in such an intimate setting, I say. ‘Haha, I suppose you are’ says Jason. ‘Yeah, it’ll be a good night,’ adds Ben, scanning The Jacaranda Lounge ‘we do what we do. Whether we’re playing to thousands of people or a smaller place like this, we perform the same way. We play what we love, how we like to play it and, well, it works. People always respond really well.’
It’s clear that Phats and Small love what they do. They thrive on the buzz their music creates and have developed a wonderful relationship which is evident as we talk. I comment on how lovely it is to see how close they are after all these years. ‘He’s a good man,’ says Jason, his hand on Ben’s shoulder, ‘a genuine, honest bloke. He’ll be my best man at my wedding. He’s always got my back, no matter what. I’ve got a lot of love and respect for this man…I’m getting emotional!’ ‘Aww,’ laughs Ben, ‘I feel the same. He’s a good bloke and a true friend. We’ve been through a lot together.’
Time has ticked away quickly as we’ve been talking and I see a photographer waiting to talk to them too so reluctantly wrap up the discussion (I honestly could have carried on nattering all night with these two, who appear to love a chat as much as they love their music and each other!) and ask them how their musical resurgence came about and what’s in store for the future. They tell me that last year a soundcloud mix sampled one of their old tracks and created quite a buzz. The results of this were that a bidding war to sign Phats and Small ensued, eventually won by Amsterdam label Armada Music who released a newly recorded version of Turn Around this May. The boys went on a UK tour and have recently recorded idents for the BBC and performed live on Big Brother’s Bit On The Side as well as several festivals, including the ‘mindblowing’ Beats for Love mentioned earlier. They’ve also set up social media pages and a website, ‘We had none of that,’ Jason tells me, ‘so we’ve had to start up from scratch, and we’re running them all ourselves.’ ‘We didn’t want to go down the route of buying likes,’ Ben adds ‘we want it to be real and grow on its own. It doesn’t matter that you’ve got 50000 likes on Facebook or Twitter if only a handful of people are coming to your gigs or buying your music. The music is what it’s all about.’
To listen to their music, keep track on what they’re doing and see where they’re performing next, you can follow them at
Now & Future
As well as managing their internet presence, they’re managing themselves musically and booking their own gigs at the moment (with the occasional help of friends, Dane Bowers got them the Jacaranda gig – ‘He’s brilliant to have on your side, he knows everyone’ says Jason) but are on the look out for management who know the business and ins and outs of it as well as they do. ‘We made some mistakes the first time around,’ Jason says ‘ And this time we want to make sure we do things properly. We want a team behind us who can help us do that.’
On top of all this, they’re spending up to six days a week in the studio working on a new album and say their process for this is ‘organic and improvisational’ and that they spend hours just talking before laying ideas down. They also still surprise each other when inspiration hits. Just before he flew out to join Jason in Ibiza, Ben surprised him by sending him the vocal to a track they first began working on eight years ago ( a teaser can be found at the end of Calvo’s remix of Turn Around on YouTube, they tell me) and which is now, finally, almost finished.
‘What we try to do,’ explains Ben ‘is create a vibe. We get really excited with a rough cut, but it can be hard to re-create that when you hear and edit something hundreds of times. What we want is to capture that initial feeling in just a few minutes of music. And give that feeling to listeners or a live crowd.’
On Sunday 24th of July, they certainly did that. The atmosphere at Jacaranda was the most electric I have experienced to date. Every single person was on their feet, dancing, stomping and singing along as Jason dropped creative and nostalgic house mixes and Ben provided an energetic, soulful vocal and plenty of old school MCing as he strutted poolside encouraging us to clap, dance and sing. Their passion and energy were infectious and palpable and the energy and vibe they created was euphoric. They achieved their objective of giving everyone a great time and proved that their music is universal as toddlers, teens, and twenty to sixty-somethings happily sang, danced and clapped along… There’s no school like the old school and these guys are the headmasters. They’ll be back at the Jacaranda on August 11th, so get down there and experience them for yourselves, before they skyrocket once more into superstardom.