On Doncaster, school reports, skating, art, breaks, Techno Disco Tool and taking Warehouse Music global.
“I remember getting one of my school reports back and my teacher said, ‘if Ryan was any more laid back he’d be horizontal.” It’s Sunday morning and I’m speaking to DJ, producer and label head Mella Dee from Bethnal Green, where he’s just moved after almost seven years living in West London. We’re both tired. “Probably better to just do this over audio” he says on text before I call, “because I’m still on 4G. We should have WIFI fitted this week.”
Mella Dee’s story isn’t a conventional one. Born in Doncaster, he grew up on a diet of happy hardcore, skating and hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s. He did ‘okay’ at school, he enjoyed photography, he even trained as an electrician — so just how did he become one of the UK’s biggest breakout DJs of the last five years? As we start to chat, it soon becomes clear that there is no singular answer.
“I knew as soon as this thing hit that things were gonna get a bit peak”, Mella says nonchalantly as we reflect on life during the pandemic, “but I knew that I needed to keep doing what I needed to. At the start of it, I actually started painting and drawing for the first time in a long time and I still had keys to my studio, which wasn’t far from where I was living. I spent a lot of time there just writing because if I’m sat there, I’m not really thinking about anything else. At first, I’ve gotta be honest, it was really strange because it just felt like we couldn’t do anything, but it’s been nice to just be at home and spend weekends with my wife.”
For a touring DJ like Mella Dee who can regularly rack up four to five DJ bookings a week, the last six months has proved a sharp contrast. For some in a similar position the adjustment has weighed heavy, but Mella has taken it in his stride, shaped by experience and an unshakeable can-do attitude. For all its faults, its a mantra shaped by Doncaster and his life growing up in South Yorkshire; “it was nothing like London in terms of opportunities, but there were a few good things about it”, Mella acknowledges.
“I was actually born in a little village called Woodlands”, he continues, “which is an old mining village in Doncaster and it was quite a mad place to grow up. I always remember music as well … nobody in my family played an instrument or anything but it was always there, I listened to music all the time. We moved house when I was 10, maybe 11 because my dad got a better job. We moved to a place called to Scawsby, which wasn’t posh or anything, but it were nicer than where we had been living. I got into skateboarding there, as well as my music, but being into that in Donny … it was strange. Although it’s well connected to other places because so much runs through it, I’ve always felt strange being into creative stuff in Donny because there’s just nothing there.”
“Although it’s well connected to other places because so much runs through it, I’ve always felt strange being into creative stuff in Donny because there’s just nothing there.”
At school, there wasn’t much to report — “I was alright at school … I couldn’t stand being there but I could do the work I needed to in order to get through it” — although he did show a natural flair for art, which he ended up studying at A-Level. “I remember my art teacher used to teach us about specific things, like still life or whatever, but she’d just let me do graffiti because I was good at it and enjoyed it”, he recalls. It’s a passion he’s revisited during lockdown, painting and drawing in his studio whenever inspiration struck. “If I was interested in stuff, I’d put a bit of effort in but otherwise I just wasn’t interested you know”, he says.
At sixth form, he went onto study art, alongside media and photography, but decided to leave shortly after enrolling, instead heading to college to focus all his energy solely on photography. “It were kinda sick, developing films and stuff”, he explains, “but I basically had free license to do whatever I wanted back then. There was a pass you could get as a student that could get you all over South Yorkshire for £30 a month and you could go anywhere on buses and trains. It meant I could just jump over to Sheffield in about 20 minutes, so I’d go there, go skating, hang out at the skate shops there, take photos and shit like that. There weren’t many skaters in Donny at all, so I was able to meet a group over in Sheffield which definitely made it easier. It was a different crowd, I enjoyed it.”
“There was a pass you could get as a student that could get you all over South Yorkshire for £30 a month and you could go anywhere on buses and trains. It meant I could just jump over to Sheffield in about 20 minutes, so I’d go there, go skating, hang out at the skate shops there, take photos and shit like that.”
Mella’s love for music was always bubbling under the surface, too. “There were always bits and bobs going off in Doncaster”, he reflects, “There was a bit of a house scene that I was part of when I was young, alongside little groups of people building drum & bass scenes… but that never really held strong. If you wanted to listen to hardcore in Donny, you also had The Warehouse, which was a pretty specific place for it. It wasn’t always packed but it was a place to go in Donny for sure. I remember there was a bit of a nu rave scene as well but I wasn’t really on that. It just didn’t catch me at that time.” Had he always gravitated towards electronic music, I wondered. “I mean I’ve been into happy hardcore since I was seven years old”, he says, “but I listen to all sorts. I just take it in, do you know what I mean? Watching skate videos used to open me up to other types of music as well … hip-hop was a big one. But yeah, I just listen to everything and always have done.”
After leaving college, Mella needed to find work. He started to head out on jobs with his dad, fitting roller shutters, industrial doors and even blast doors at chemical plants; “it was all sort of madness to be honest”, he says. Despite the physical demands, it was a job that also afforded Mella time to train as an electrician in 2004; at this point, music was nothing more than a hobby. “I had some mates who’d been to uni and they came back with decks”, Mella recalls, “so I just thought I’d have a go really. I mean I’d played like Dance eJay and shit like that but I didn’t really understand anything about making tunes and I certainly didn’t know a bunch of DJs or a bunch of producers.” How did he take to the decks, I ask. “I was just clanging my arse out”, he says, laughing. “I just had random records that I’d buy with no idea how to mix … hip-hop, quite a bit of drum & bass, garage-y stuff … I’d just experiment. It frustrated me to fuck at first but I knew I had to persevere. I started recording a few mixes and then I’d listen to them in the car and now and again I’d think, ‘oooh, that might have been a half decent mix that’, do you know what I mean?”
“After that, once I was happy with being able to mix, I just started blagging it”, he continues. “I started playing at bassline raves in Donny and actually did that for quite a while. We had this night called Amp, which is funny because my wife Sarah now works for AMP (Annie Mac Presents). I was a resident there and we’d have people like T2, DJ Q and people like that come down to this club in Donny. Me and one of the other residents actually used to chill together and started playing our own little nights in town. We’d play vinyl-only stuff in this little wine bar on Sundays … basically the only place that’d let us do it. I remember hiring a rig from a place in York and bringing it to this bar. I wanted to play heavy stuff and this bar such a shit system, so I was like ‘right, I’m gonna get a rig and people are gonna come out and have a right dance’. I forget about all that shit sometimes. We were just local DJs trying to put summat on.”
“We’d play vinyl-only stuff in this little wine bar on Sundays … basically the only place that’d let us do it. I remember hiring a rig from a place in York and bringing it to this bar. I wanted to play heavy stuff and this bar such a shit system, so I was like ‘right, I’m gonna get a rig and people are gonna come out and have a right dance’.”
Branching out from Doncaster, it’d be a show on Leeds-based pirate, Frequency FM, that’d light the touch paper for Mella Dee’s music to first take off. The station, run by Jason ’Shock’ Taylor, was the heartbeat of young Leeds and an important outpost for electronic music in the city — it was a discovery tool, an access point. “I saw an advert online one day that said Frequency were looking for new shows”, Mella recalls, “so I just sent a demo over and I got an email back and that were it … I was gonna do a show in Leeds.”
Around this time, Mella had also started producing as one-half of Mista Men alongside friend and fellow producer, Woozee. Together, their music — always hard-edged and rugged — referenced the different cornerstones of their own formative clubbing experiences in South Yorkshire; garage, bassline, house. They would go onto release records on Greenmoney, Cheap Thrills and even Unknown To The Unknown, but it was through Mella’s solo shows on Frequency FM that most of his early connections were made. “I was meeting people, doing radio meetings and stuff like that”, he explains. “It was just a good place to be.”
Liquid Steel Sessions, a club night born in Sheffield and transported to Leeds by founder Reuben G after moving to the city for university, was also an important marker in Mella’s fledgling DJ career. He was booked to play at Hifi, one of the city’s best kept secrets — an amazing small venue with a booming Funktion One system — and soon got a taste for playing to raucous, bustling crowds. “Liquid Steel was sick, just being able to play to students and busy, rowdy crowds, it was different”, Mella recalls. “I could play what I wanted and it’d just go off.”
And then came Tropical — a monthly club night Mella founded alongside fellow DJs Jera and Jangle, both of whom he met at Frequency. Jera was from Leeds and Jangle was new to the city for university, but all three of them clicked instantly; “We all loved the UK funky stuff that was popping off in that 2007, 2008 sort of time”, says Mella. Held each month at Wire, another of Leeds’ best, low-ceilinged small clubs, it was actually Tropical that first brought myself and Mella Dee together. As a student in Leeds at the same time, I found myself a regular at dubstep nights, but was also intrigued by other events booking DJs I’d only ever heard snippets of on Rinse FM. “I remember we had like Ramadanman (now Pearson Sound), Heny G and people like that on the line-ups early on”, says Mella. “Oneman, I think that was probably the first time Oney ever came up to play in Leeds … Girl Unit, Mickey Pearce, there was loads man.” I headed to four or five Tropical nights over a six month period between 2009 and 2010, making myself familiar to Mella, Jera and Jangle and other influential residents of the time, like Liquid Steel Sessions’ Reuben G and Frenzy D. It was a club night that opened my eyes to how far dance music could reach but for Mella, it felt like another piece of the puzzle; “that whole period were really good”, he says warmly.
After Tropical slowly faded out, Mella concentrated on Mista Men — “we were DJing quite a bit, we played Amsterdam, Glasgow … it was really good for us to get booked elsewhere back then” — with a quartet of records backing up lots of press interest, including 2012’s ‘Uttu’ EP for Unknown To The Unknown. On the side though, Mella was also experimenting with his own music, all the while holding down work with his dad. “Thankfully, he saw the benefit of me doing my music stuff”, says Mella, “but I spent a lot of time doing those shifts with him, DJing and trying to learn to produce properly … it were hard, man. There were loads of times when I’d just played somewhere and I’d be driving home, knowing that I had to be up at 5 in the morning to go to work with my dad. I just had to get on with it, get up fucking knackered and get through the day, moving fucking steel around.”
“There were loads of times when I’d just played somewhere and I’d be driving home, knowing that I had to be up at 5 in the morning to go to work with my dad.”
By this point, I’d returned home to London after graduating in 2010 and was writing a blog. Mella was one of a handful of producers sending me new music, much of it with nowhere to go. In early 2012, he sent over a ruff-and-ready, wot-do-you-call-it beat that caught me off guard; it was called ‘CTRL’. Fast-forward three months and after listening to the track incessantly, compounded by regular conversations with Mella, I felt inspired to put it out. Coyote Records was born and ‘CTRL’ was released on 12” in July 2012, with remixes from Baobinga (now Sam Binga), Mr. Mitch, MA1 and Grievous Angel. “I think that is the first record you’ll ever see with Mella Dee written on it”, he says. It’d prove a pivotal moment for both of us but for Mella Dee, it also helped zero in on exactly what sort of music he wanted to make and the type of music he wanted to build a career from.
After moving to London later shortly after the release of ‘CTRL’, Mella also remixed Coyote’s second release, ‘Grade A’ by TS7, in November 2012 — “that were mad considering I’d spent so long buying TS7’s records back in Donny” — before a slew of records followed for other breakout labels like Slit Jockey, Shabby Doll and Omena. He was busy and consistent during his early years in London, if still caught up in making whatever he liked; from sabre-toothed grime beats (‘Don’t Be Nesh’) to crunchy, peak-time house (‘Things Don’t Change’). It was a versatility that proved a blessing and a curse, until he produced ‘GT Turbo’ in 2014. Heavy on breaks — “I definitely hit them hard for a few years” — it pricked the ears of Shy FX after he heard Melé play it at Tuesday Club in Sheffield. “He heard him play it and just said, ‘I want that tune’ apparently”, Mella recalls. “It was sick really, to have someone like Shy FX say that, especially at the time and where I was with music.”
Released on Shy’s Digital Soundboy label, ‘GT Turbo’ laid the foundations for ‘Rhythm Nation Vol.1’ — a defining eight-track beat tape rooted in hardcore, breaks and jungle — and ‘Here / Trellick’, another weighty, breaks-inspired two-track 12” released by Redlight’s Lobster Boy imprint in 2015. “I’d known Hugh (Redlight) for a while, I’d actually first met him through Sarah at BLOC, alongside people like Roska and Toddla T, and we’d talked about doing something together for a while. I sent him tunes for ages and we worked towards an EP. It were really nice to get it done … you know, releasing on your friend’s record labels, it’s a cool feeling.”
It was a 12-month period that had, almost by chance, given Mella direction for the first time. “It was great, I mean it got me some bookings, I got to go out and play with the Digital Soundboy crew … it basically meant I could get a bit more money together to live off DJing.” At the same time, he’d also found himself working a number of different industry jobs to help plug the gaps, including working across PPL and PRS, where he would identify and chase up revenue claims for artists. “I was doing PPL stuff for rappers like Fredo, basically trying to help them through the process”, he says. “It was mad really. I’d be finding out if they could claim and if they had money available to them and stuff like that, it was such a random job. I just took it as whatever I needed to do to help get me by.”
After the release of ’Trellick’ — a record named after the iconic residential tower block he’d often walk past in Kensal Town — Mella decided to start building something of his own. Inspired by the connections he’d made in London and the potential his releases were starting to show, it was time for a label. His own label. “Warehouse Music would have been a good starting point, wouldn’t it?”, Mella asks, laughing. “You know my own label where I can just put out my own music and see what people think of it. No, it’s been great. Originally I didn’t really want to start a label, I was just like, ‘can’t I just put out white labels or summat and stamp Mella Dee on them?’, but after a while I knew I should probably start something. I’d been using Warehouse Music as a way of describing how certain music sounded for ages so it just popped into my head one day. It ties in with Donny Warehouse as well, it was an easy choice.”
“Originally I didn’t really want to start a label, I was just like, ‘can’t I just put out white labels or summat and stamp Mella Dee on them?’, but after a while I knew I should probably start something.”
Since its inception in 2017, Warehouse Music has presided over 15 records — nine of which are by Mella himself — all released on bright, bold coloured wax with matching sleeves. It’s an aesthetic that immediately catches the eye and at first, might feel at odds with the rough, industrial connotations of music made for warehouses. “It’s just a big old term, Warehouse Music … and you know the variety of my stuff, it all sounds different”, he explains. “But it could be a warehouse in New York with Frankie Knuckles playing disco or it could be a big, derelict warehouse that’s horrible and nasty … it all fits. And the colours I mean, I just like bright colours.”
While the first five years of Mella Dee records felt like they were honing in on something, the last three have felt like mission accomplished. Emboldened by the success of Warehouse Music, it was the label’s second release — the anthemic ‘Techno Disco Tool’ — that catapulted Mella Dee into the upper echelons of electronic music in the UK. Hammered by Annie Mac on BBC R1, remixed by Todd Edwards and revered for it’s sample of Sister Sledge’s ‘Pretty Baby’, it became one of the defining dance records of 2017, racking up over 17 million streams on Spotify alone; “I still hear football crowds belting it out even now”, says Mella.
The records that followed have also felt like natural extensions of Mella Dee’s personality too, the way he speaks even. EPs like ‘Donny’s Groove’, ‘Exactly Mate’ and ’Techno Belters’ feed right back into his no-nonsense approach to his life and his music, endearing him to a new army of fans who find both dizzy euphoria and comforting solace in his tracks. It’s a simple formula, but mightily effective. Alongside Mella’s own material, Warehouse Music has also welcomed EPs from Spencer Parker, Leo Pol and L-Vis 1990’s Dance System moniker of late, as well as ‘The Muses Come Out At Night’ by Haider — best man at Mella Dee’s wedding. “I always thought that if I was gonna do the label thing, I’d have to do it proper”, Mella says passionately. “I haven’t got the money to fuck about, so I wanted to make sure it was out there and done right.”
Such has been its impact, the label also won DJ Mag’s Best Of British Award for Best Breakthrough Label in 2017 with Mella receiving the award in front of a packed audience at Egg in Kings Cross. “I was chuffed we got nominated but I didn’t think we’d win”, he says. His acceptance speech? “I got up and just said, ‘big up, thanks!’. I didn’t know what the fuck to say.” Luckily for Mella, much of his talking was done with the airing of his debut BBC R1 Essential Mix the following year in November 2018 — an honour bestowed on him by legendary dance broadcaster, Pete Tong, and a holy grail for DJs the world over. “I’d wanted to do one for a long time”, Mella concedes, “and I kept pushing for one and eventually I got my chance. It was sick, I really enjoyed it. To say that I’ve done one is still mad really.”
In and amongst the industry success, Mella’s bookings also went through the roof. Prior to the pandemic, he’d spent much of the last two years on the road with rarely a spare weekend, playing as far away as Thailand, as well as all over Europe — a far cry from the wine bars of Doncaster. “Because I’d been about so long playing anyway, I kinda jumped into it with both feet, do you know what I mean?”, he explains. “It definitely gets intense if I’m playing in like, five different places in four days or summat, but I mean I love travelling, especially if Sarah can come with me. The flying is knackering but I guess I’ve learned to get better at sleeping on planes, in cars … just sleeping generally. I drink loads of water when I’m at shows now and definitely don’t party all the time. If I’m lucky, I get to go and play somewhere I really enjoy … sometimes I won’t always enjoy it but the main thing is getting to play my music to people. If the sound system’s good, then generally that’s all that matters.”
From playing in a huge, purpose-built field in the middle of a jungle in Thailand to thousands for Circoloco at the turn of 2020 to small, sweaty clubs all over the UK, the novelty has never of being paid to DJ has never worn thin on Mella either. “Anywhere I’ve been, I feel like I’m lucky to have been there”, he says gratefully. “I don’t think playing music to people and then getting paid for it will ever get old for me. I mean there’s a lot of grafting involved and a lot of work goes into it, but it’s sick, I still love it as much as I always did.” The most memorable nights? “Ah, gimme a small room with a rig, a couple of hundred people and pure darkest, that’s it for me. That’s the best.”
“I don’t think playing music to people and then getting paid for it will ever get old for me. I mean there’s a lot of grafting involved and a lot of work goes into it, but it’s sick, I still love it as much as I always did.”
While the future of dance music may look especially bleak, Mella Dee seems more than equipped to deal with whatever life can throw at him. “I’m just looking at the future as a continuation of what I’ve been doing and built already”, he explains. “I’ll work on other things, branch out and probably attempt bigger projects and whatever, but I’ve got a lot left to achieve as Mella Dee. The heavy travelling and shows definitely did grind me down a bit but I could be out with my dad, shifting steel you know? If it comes down to that again, then that’s what I’ll have to do, but for now I’ve learned to appreciate everything I’ve been able to do as a DJ.” In short, whatever happens — for Mella Dee, there’s a warehouse for every kind of music.
You can buy Mella Dee / Warehouse Music records direct via Bandcamp: