There are certain moments in house history where a certified club bullet has crossed into the mainstream and become a commercial hit.
One that instantly springs to mind for me is Technotronic’s “Pump Up The Jam“. Although now probably regarded as a pop record, it started life as an underground monster that was guaranteed to smash the dance every time it was dropped.
The subject of today’s House Classic also fits the bill perfectly.
Xpansions’ “Elevation” was a proper ravers track. If there was anything that was gonna send those tingles up and down your spine, it was this!
I have vivid memories of being at a rave in Astoria when this was played, and from the moment that synth line dropped I felt like I had floated up to the ceiling and was looking down at everything below me (including myself), with butterflies in my stomach, and thinking that life probably couldn’t get much better than this! Yeah okay, I was off my tits, but even under the influence, the records that really did it for me stood head and shoulders above the rest.
The movement of that synth line, which swept across the dance floor like a breath of fresh air, bundled with the rising synth sweeps, piercing held strings and relentless vocal from Lizzie D met to cause the perfect storm of sound for me.
So here we are, 24 years later, and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to catch up with Mr. Xpansions himself, Richie Malone, and get the low down on how a track that had such a massive effect on me came into being.
1) You’ve been a DJ for years, can you tell us about why & how you got into production?
I’ve always played instruments from a young age as my family were very musical. I took up the Drums properly at about 12 years old, got into bands and did my first studio session in about 1984 when I was 15. Seeing the desk and the outboard, I was hooked, did a few more sessions as a drummer in bands and then the rave thing happened.
In about 1988 i started hiring gear for the weekend to get my head around it all, I used to hire an Alesis sequencer & drum machine & I think I managed to get an Emulator for the weekend as I was so desperate to try sampling. I had also bought a Yamaha DX27 keyboard as a treat to myself so I didn’t have to keep hiring keyboards in.
I knew I could do tracks and pretty much gave up on the drums and being in a band. I bought decks in late 1988 and got into the studio on my own to mess about with ideas. Back then the whole bedroom studio thing was just starting but it was still very expensive for equipment so you really had to go to a half decent studio to get a decent quality mix, and that’s how I managed to get experience on all levels of making and producing music.
2) Elevation was your first ever recording as Xpansions, originally released on Optimism Records, and then signed by Arista/BMG, followed by several re-releases later on down the road. Can you tell us a bit about how this all happend?
We finished the track and signed it to Optimism in about April 1990, they promoed it to the usual suspects and stuck it into the shops. There was a couple of months where not a lot happened, I remember saying to the guys at Optimism this isn’t gonna work. Andy Bailey, who was one half of Optimism, was adamant it was a huge record.
Then I started to see it in DJ’s charts in places like Mixmag and it kinda grew literally overnight to a Monday morning in July/Aug with about 4 labels coming in for it. Back then it was still kinda the beginning of cross over rave/dance records so labels were not offering huge sums, the track was actually signed by Arista for £3k which sounds fuck all now but Arista had some massive current acts on the label at that time, I was just happy to have a major deal and that everyone was saying it was gonna be a hit.
3) Can you remember where you were when you heard another DJ drop it for the first time?
This is a tough one, I can’t unfortunately, but this story will make up for it hopefully.
I got a last minute slot to play at a big Raindance gig in Cambridge in May/June 1990, it was the period when the record was kinda not happening, or so I thought. Anyway, I went on at about 3am, it was packed about 5000 ravers, I played the track thinking it wouldn’t work and well, fuck me, it tore the roof off, as soon as the riff came in BANG! No one knew it was my record, and at that point I did think ‘hhhmm maybe we’ve got something’.
Backstage at Eclipse in Coventry (Nov 1990) – Left to right : Funki B (Jungle Mania, Moondance), Richie Malone, Marcel (dancer), Calvin (dancer).
4) What studio equipment did you use to produce Elevation?
I used the Akai S950 a lot for all of the drums & vocals which were sampled off of 1/4″ tape after we had recorded them. We also used the Akai for the main synth sound on the main riff, it was a sample of an Oberheim keyboard to get that huge sound.
The string sound was a sample off the Akai, and we used a Moog keyboard for the rise sound before the main riff came in and recorded it live onto tape, no sequencing.
I can’t remember what sequencer we used but it wasn’t an Atari like what most used back then with say Cubase. I left all programming to the engineer as back then all I could really do was play piano and sequence parts on stand alone sequencers like the Alesis.
I cant remember much else kit wise, not even the desk we used, being only my 3rd session without being in a band I was still learning loads.
5) How long did it take from the first ever studio session to printing the final track?
It was probably a month I reckon. We did 2 initial days and then played the demo to Optimism, they wanted to make some changes to the arrangement and do a new mixdown. The funny thing about the final mixdown was there was about 4 of us over the mixing desk kind of mixing the final version live, we were hitting mute buttons and all sorts as we had no automation. It was a bit crazy to say the least but we got it done in maybe 3 or 4 takes.
6) Part of the producers curse is never really knowing how well something is going to do. You can spend weeks on a track that you think is brilliant that goes out and does okay, and then something you’ve thrown together in a few hours can be the one that hits. Did you know how massive Elevation was going to be when you finished it?
Absolutely not. I remember it like it was yesterday when I played the demo to Andy from Optimism (who at the time part owned Street Level records in Tottenham and that’s where he first heard Xpansions). He said ‘wow is this you?, this could be huge’, and I was like ‘are you having a laugh?’.
I was happy with it, don’t get me wrong, but I just thought it was decent club track that would hold a floor and that’s it. It is defo a curse to think when you leave a studio with a track that’s its gonna be a smash, you just never know how punters are gonna react.
7) The single went from being a club/rave anthem to smashing the Top 40 national chart, reaching #7 on it’s initial Arista release. Some of the younger readers won’t remember Top Of The Pops, but it was an institution for over 40 years here in the UK, the most watched music programme on television. What can you remember about your appearance on there and did anything change after you’d been seen by millions of people on the box?
Loved every minute of TOTP, a proper dream come true. I remember doing loads of rehearsals on the day in the BBC studio , like maybe 5 or 6 run throughs of the performance. I didn’t realise they did so much preparation for a show that lasted 30 mins but there was no room for fuck ups. They actually recorded the show live as in, it didn’t go out live on TV at the same time, but the producer told us if anybody made a fuck up he wouldn’t stop the recording and re do it. The show was shot in one take for all the acts.
Yes, I did get recognised on the street after being on the show, and that’s something I didn’t really enjoy.
(Check out Xpansions on TOTP below)
8) Can you tell us about any current projects that you are working on?
Right now I’m not hugely active in making music. I’ve done some rap stuff recently as I’m huge rap n hip hop fan. I found a great rapper in the US so we are working on some stuff. I do yearn to do house music and have loads of ideas but I won’t deny that I’m put off by the volume of music out there. I want my music heard and that’s so tough in this era. Who knows?
I have an utterly amazing vocal sitting on a DAT from a gospel group called 10th Street Assembly from New York that was recorded back in 1993. I don’t think anyone has heard it apart from a few industry heads, so maybe soon I will get something cooking with that. It’s very Sounds Of Blackness in style and they were, and still are, one of my all time favourite acts. Watch this space!
Lastly, just wanna say thanks to you Grant, for reaching out and showing so much interest in my project and requesting my story.
So there you have it! I hope you’ve enjoyed the first of these re-vamped, extended House Classics blogs, and I’d like to say a massive thank you to Richie for helping me bust my Q&A cherry ;)
Check out the official video to “Elevation” below.
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