The cute, self-drawn squiggles that adorn the covers of Mr. Scruff's albums are somewhat at odds with the progressive dub/disco/funk stylings contained within. Though the artwork for his latest ("Trouser Jazz") looks like a "Sesame Street" soundtrack, the music itself reveals a broken-beat bazaar of offbeat samples coupled with serious basslines. This balancing act between goofy and funky has helped define Mr. Scruff (aka Andy Carthy) as a unique personality among the purveyors of soulful sound.
Like many of the folks involved in the "nu jazz" scene, Scruff explores the tenuous links between jazz (of all types), disco, funk, hip-hop and movie soundtracks. And though he records for the Ninja Tune label -- which has largely spearheaded the movement -- and admits "a similar background in a variety of soulful music," Scruff feels his music can't be so easily categorized.
"I also link in with a number of other scenes," he says. "I am never happy with making straight-up functional club music." The result of this frustration is music that easily provides dance-floor swagger while keeping headphone listeners happy at home.
Although genre-bending is de rigueur among DJs, few intermingle their influences so much that they cease to be recognizable. Scruff easily rattles off inspiration as disparate as Lee Perry, Sam Dees, Pharaoh Sanders, T-Bone Walker and Moondog. It's not to hard to see how difficult it would be to coalesce the teachings of a legendary dub producer, a prolific soul singer, an enigmatic, spiritual jazz blower, a straight-ahead blues man and a blind street musician (who himself was influenced by Native American drumming and European medieval music). But Scruff finds the connection: It's their soul. And his respect for the spiritual congress that went into the music results in, as he says, "serious music, but without the politics of the specialist scenes that the music is from.
"Once you label yourself, you set limits," he says. "I just put music that I like together in a way that sounds good. I think that musicians should be themselves rather than adhere to a preformed style. Obviously there's a huge number of talented people making Ã?straight up' music of one form or another, but there are a lot of people following rules for no reason."
Furthering his case for rule-breaking is the inspiration for Scruff's initial forays into music-making. Coming up in Stockport (near Manchester), Carthy was treated to that uniquely English youth of industrial gloom combined with cloudy weather and Radio One. Needless to say, he spent a lot of time indoors and, since the early '80s, most of that time was spent making mix tapes for himself and friends. "I got my style `of mixing` from listening to radio in the '80s, both for the mix spots that were popular then, and the diversity of music. Then I got busy."
Although schooled at Sheffield University in art and music, it was his years of making bedroom tapes that led him into DJ gigs in the early '90s, and eventually hooked him up with Ninja Tune and other labels. Borrowing from a variety of DJ styles, he developed his "own odd style" by dipping into a wildly mixed bag. Using the road-trip convergences of uptempo beats found in disco and club music, the percussive shifts of reggae and a little turntablist showmanship, Mr. Scruff makes his way around all sorts of soulful music. And, though certainly unique, his music has found wide respect around the world, among both club heads and listeners in search of more progressive sounds.
"I have had a relatively smooth upward progression as far as my music and DJ-ing are concerned. It's taken a long time but that's cool," he says. This patience is reflected in his music too: "I do tend to have a kind of optimistic melancholy going on. I'm not sure how it happens but I'm always pleased when it does."