Andre “Shy FX” Williams has quietly been one of the most influential British producers of the last 25 years. From his groundbreaking jungle anthem Original Nuttah (a tune that has as much impact now as it did when it first smashed into the charts in the early 90s), to his timely switch into dubstep, house and roots reggae in the 00s, to his behind-the-scenes production work for multi-million selling pop RnB acts, Shy’s ability to fuse soundsystem culture with electronic futurism and classic songwriting has defined the music of successive generations. Now he’s prepared to drop a new album that deftly steps between tempo and styles, encompassing lyrical hip hop, sweet soul, and bass heavy breakbeat, drawing together the many influences that have kept him at the forefront of dance music for over quarter of a century.
Born into a musical family, Shy spent his formative years immersed in the bass heavy reggae played by his Grandfather, legendary soundsystem owner Ephraim Barrett, aka Count Shelly. When he wasn’t conquering rival sounds, Shelly ran the Tottenham based record shop and label Third World, one of the cornerstones of the British reggae scene, and the first shop to wholesale import Jamaican vinyl to the country. As a result, Shy received a musical education that was so constant it was as natural as eating or sleeping-
“I don’t have a first memory of music,” he muses “I was either in the record shop or round blues parties. I’d be sleeping and there’d be a shebeen downstairs. You’d just hear the bassline from the other room, nothing else would make it through, so that’s what I’d fall asleep to, and that’s what I fell in love with; the basslines.”
Aged just 14, Shy joined a dancehall soundsystem in Tottenham as the DJ. Desperate to make his own tracks to play, he begged his mum for his first computer. She scraped together the cash to get him a BBC Micro, and he recorded his first tunes; minimal percussive dancehall bombs, where the beats were stripped to raw drums and bass. Then, everything changed. A whole new sound swept through London.
“One of the guys from the soundsystem bought in a jungle tune and I was like, what the fuck! It had reggae vocals I could connect with, and basslines I loved, but it had this fast beat. I was like, I need to be involved with this! A lot of people hated it and didn’t get it, they’d call it devil music, but I was like, no this is sick, I don’t know what it is, but it’s sick.”
Instantly smitten he proceeded to sample the high speed breakbeats of jungle and create his own releases. At this stage he was at engineering college, and after a small detour as a tape op for UK dub pioneer Mad Professor’s Ariwa Studio (“he wanted me to take the mixing desk apart, I couldn’t even locate the problem, so I got fired from that.”) he fell in with Sound of the Underground Recordings, a rising rave record label. After his first release for them Gangsta Kid proved to be an underground smash, someone suggested re-recording it with a full vocal. Local MC UK Apache was invited into the studio, laid his bars in two takes, and history was made.
“I knew we had something special. Tunes that come together effortlessly, easily, where there’s just a vibe, they’re usually the ones that end up magical.” Everywhere Nuttah was played, chaos ensued. It started racing into the UK pop charts, introducing the world to a sound bursting from London’s estates. Shy saw first-hand how the track was dominating Notting Hill Carnival, and he paints a vivid picture of the wildness of the era-
“Carnival was crazy for me – it was the first time I’d gone, and I went with a lot of people who had issues with other people there. At one time I remember hearing it being played, and wanting to hear it, but we were running away from a situation, it was madness. But it added to the whole vibe of what was going on at the time.”
Nuttah and a string of subsequent releases had cemented Shy’s reputation as the top producer in jungle. However after three years of leading the scene, he found himself bored of being trapped in a single genre. Always headstrong, he announced his willingness to take on other styles in the most public manner he could.
“The whole idea of making one genre of music over and over, that sounds like torture to me. So at a Telepathy rave, I made a dubplate of [his track] The Message that slowed down into a garage tune halfway through. It absolutely annihilated the rave, people went crazy, but it caused a HUGE division. People hated it – the DJs hated it. In 2019 language, Shy FX was cancelled…” he cracks up at this memory. “No DJ wanted to fuck with me…”
Happy to duck out of the drum n bass scene that was turninginto an increasingly tech-y boys club, he took an abrupt left turn, and started the least known aspect of his career – using pseudonyms to produce for the major label pop RnB acts that were dominating the charts in the late 90s.
“I loved producers like Timbaland, Darkchild, pretty much everything that was popping in the RnB clubs. I was always going out and I was fascinated by what made people move. I wanted to learn how to write that music!”
In this period he wrote tracks for other artists, learning the craft of song-writing, and increasingly considering the possibilities of applying the techniques he’d learnt to jungle. To this end, Shy convinced one of the artists he’d been writing for to sing over an RnB beat he’d produced. Unbeknownst to her he then replaced the original drums with tearing breakbeats. The result, Shake Your Body was the biggest drum n bass hit the scene had ever produced, hitting #7 in the charts in 2001, and revitalising the scene in the process.
For Shy it was a watershed moment, vindication of his idea that sticking to one sound or formula was a dead end. Inspired, he set up the Digital Soundboy label with long time studio partner T-Power, determined to remove all stylistic barriers and get back to the chaotic creativity that had energised him in the early days of jungle.
“A lot of us that got involved in jungle came from different backgrounds, we had all this music and we could put into this melting pot, RnB, soul, hip hop, ragga, whatever. Digital Soundboy was us trying to get that melting pot again, so you wouldn’t know what to expect. The music we put out had different vibes, but everything had some common thread – if you heard a DSB tune, you’d know it was DSB, no matter what the tempo. It was fun..!”
In his new role as label boss, Shy spemnt the 00s ushering bass music into the mainstream. He released the likes of DJ Fresh, Skream, Redlight, Chase & Status, Benga and Breakage, and the dubstep, house, drum n bass and electro sounds the label supported had an immediate global impact, directly influenced the EDM scene that soon followed. New industry recognition came, and Shy was pulled in to add his magic touch to a who’s who of UK pop, producing and remixing for Emelie Sande, London Grammar, Jorja Smith, Proteje, Rag N Bone Man, Dizzee Rascal, Plan B, Liam Bailey, Ms Dynamite and many, many more.
This newfound mass appeal was emphatically proven in 2014 when Shy linked up with David Rodigan and Chase & Status to form the Rebel Sound soundsystem for Red Bull’s Culture Clash. In front of an Earls Court rammed with a new generation of ravers Rebel Sound used the eclectic DSB sound to comprehensively bury A$AP Mob, Skepta’s Boy Better Know and iconic Jamaican sound Stone Love. Shy hadn’t watered down his raw, bass heavy and melodic sound to win – instead, twenty odd years after he started, the rest of the world had caught up.