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Digging Deeper: An Interview With Sam Don

For this next instalment of Digging Deeper we invited DJ, radio host and music consultant Sam Don to give us a peak into his musical world. With a wealth of deep knowledge and a record collection to envy Sam has become a much in-demand DJ. He holds highly-respected residencies and is booked across the globe in the venues where music really matters. With an ability to traverse genres, tempos and moods, it’s impossible to pigeonhole his sound but you can be assured that soul, feeling and quality will be the consistent hallmarks of his sets. He's been on Mr Bongo's radar for some time as a DJ and, in 2020, he curated one of our favourite compilations of the year, ‘For The Love of You’, released on Athens Of The North Records. 

To accompany this feature, and to give you a taste of why we rate him so highly, Sam kindly put together an exclusive mix for our 'Record Club' series. This one landed just in time for NYE and was perfectly programmed to toast the arrival of 2021. Kick back, dive in, enjoy!

Mr Bongo · Mr Bongo Record Club Guest Mix - Sam Don

Hello Sam, please tell us about your musical background?

Unlike a lot of interviews I read, I didn’t grow up in the most musical of households. I remember my mum having some soul and motown tapes that I played over and over and also, as she grew up in Canada, Joni Mitchell being a permanent fixture. It was during summer trips to Toronto that I started discovering more and from about 10, I realised that music was really for me. Having older and cooler friends meant that I was exposed to an alternative culture (thanks Much Music!), bands and hip-hop. Ever since I have happily meandered through and between any musical genre I’ve been interested in!

How would you describe your musical taste?

Ever evolving I suppose. That sounds slightly pretentious, but I think it stands. I still listen to some stuff that I did when I was 13 but what I find so exciting about music is that it is never ending. I know so little compared to what is out there! I guess what connects me to any discovery is feeling a sincerity in the production. I’m typically drawn to soulful sounds, but you can even find soul within techno, gritty and colder sounds too. It’s a taste informed by a gut feeling.

When you DJ, do you find yourself playing a wide-range of genres?

How I play completely depends on the situation; the venue, the time, the crowd, the space. My mix for Mr Bongo was quite eclectic but it just turned out that way! The DJs that have impressed me the most have always been the ones that have stayed away from being too linear in their sets. You can even be playing one genre, and there still be so many different musical textures to explore! I often play more electronic than in this particular mix, but I always have in mind to keep it interesting for my dancers.

Which DJ’s have influenced you the most?

I definitely have found DJs inspiring in how they play, and have had several life changing experiences on a dancefloor, but I can’t say any one person holds a significant influence. I’ll always remember being in the sweet spot at the West Indian Centre with Mark Iration at the controls, Theo at Plastic People or Ricardo in weird territory at 8am but I’ll never be any of those people. In recent years, I’ve been most inspired by DJs I’ve played alongside at my Free Association night. From John Gomez at the first, to the most recent, pre-pandemic, with Freddie from Discs of Fun and Love, they have always been mind-opening evenings, but most importantly, a party first and foremost.

Where are you favourite places to DJ?

I probably haven’t been there yet haha, as I had quite a few nice things lined up in 2020. Espacio KB in Bogota is a great spot, part art space and bar with a small garden terrace club. I played there the night before the city went into lockdown and got a glimpse of just how good it is. London, like many cities struggles with smaller venues but The Pickle Factory is somewhere that really gets it right, so shouts to the team there! Sneaky Pete’s is another contender. Due to licensing laws, it’s a short session but as soon as people arrive they do not hold back. I can’t wait to return when things open up again.

How do you shop for your records and what are your favourite record shops (can be local / global / online)?

I think if you’re serious about music, you are always looking for records. With shops, it’s the people that work in them as much as the stock that makes you want to return. Not just in knowing your taste, but making you feel welcome; Alex at Sounds of the Universe for instance creates this vibe. Online digging cannot be underestimated but will never feel as good as walking into a physical shop. Occasionally when you are travelling you walk into somewhere and you are struck by how well they are doing it. I remember being in Music Mania in Ghent and thinking that they had curated each section so amazingly.

Do you have many "holy-grail" records you are always on the lookout for?

I think we’re all searching for certain records that are important to us but I try not to fetishize records too much. Is an expensive record better than a cheaper one just because of the price tag? Only a very small minority care what you are playing at a party, most people just come to cut loose! But back to your question, there are of course records I hope I can one day have to play out but my lips are sealed on these. I believe if you keep your eye out, then the majority of things you want can come your way, it just takes time.

What was the inspiration behind your wonderful Lovers Rock compilation ‘For The Love Of You' on Athens Of The North Records?

It all started with finding a couple of really nice cover versions in local shops for affordable prices, things like Dee Sharp’s version of Rising To the Top. Versions have always been the DJs best friend and are rife in reggae, but it was these groovier productions that appealed more to my tastes. After finding several I loved, I just wanted to keep searching for them.

How did you come to work with Euan and the AOTN team?

I have been picking up AOTN records from the very first release and Euan and I made contact a few years back when he was in London. You might think that the label has a sound, but Euan is really into everything. I had started to amass a decent collection of spares of these lovers records and he was keen to acquire some. Around this time, I released I had a fair bit of knowledge in a niche area and perhaps I should share it some how. It felt very natural to have Athens as the messenger.

What drew you to the Lover Rock genre. What are your top 3 selections?

I am in no way an aficionado but three that immediately come to mind are:

Trevor Walters – Love Me Tonight

The track that started it all for me and also the one I return to the most. You see this in so many record shops for a few pounds. Buy it without any hesitation.

Vincent Taylor ‎– Changing For You

Like Trevor, you could pick many of Vince’s tracks but this is a favourite. A cover of the Chi-Lites on the A, flip it and play the dub for late night / early morning vibes.

Valerie Harrison – You’re No Good

People often associate lovers rock as being full of happy melodies and sweetness but it’s not always about the good times. This sombre but beautiful song hears Valerie speaking of a ‘no good’ lover; another woman in the picture being the reason for her sadness.

If someone is interested in digging into the genre who are the key artists and labels they should be checking?

Wow, there are so many to mention. Lovers rock did break into the mainstream at the time and there were most definitely successful artists (like Janet Kay’s Silly Games, which has been re-popularised by the recent Small Axe series), but I feel many of the records I really like were by singers that perhaps only released a few tracks on local labels. It is like any genre, where you can find a lot of good stuff at the surface, but by finding what you like, you find your own path in the sound. That said, labels like Virgo Stomach, Sanity and of course Lovers Rock are a good place to start.

Are you planning more compilations for the future?

I wasn’t really sure how 'For The Love of You' would be received and perhaps would be seen as a novelty record. Released a week into lockdown, the record didn’t reach shops and I think because of this, it became a word of mouth release. I’ve had people reach out to me to say how much they enjoyed the LP calling it their lockdown soundtrack. These words certainly helped me during my own challenges last year and they inspired me to license a follow up to the first compilation. I’m just happy to get another chance to allow artists, producers and labels to receive more recognition.

Where was your Mr Bongo mix recorded?

Recorded between a flat move, I had a morning to do it so thankfully I was happy with it!

Any tracks in the mix that are particular favourites of yours

I had a lot of records in a pile accumulated or rediscovered during lockdown that I was excited to share. Only about 15 ended up in the mix so I think I have a lot of favourites at the moment! Maybe it’s the yearning for a dancefloor. If I have to choose a couple, I included the Running Hot edit of Guilherme Arantes which I have played in so many different situations since it was passed to me. Mark (Running Hot) is an incredible digger and humble to the point of self-deprecation at times, so I would like to place some shine on him here. The other is a 7 inch record from the UK I love called Electric.

Big thanks to Sam for the mix and for taking the time to speak to us for this feature. Make sure you check his Instagram profile, Facebook Page, YouTube and keep an ear out for his forthcoming shows and musical works.