— Wonder —

On Bethnal Green, Rinse FM, UKG, Sidewinder, Dump Valve, sampling, writing ‘What’, touring with Dizzee Rascal, fatherhood, events, nostalgia and the comeback trail.

(All photos submitted by DJ Wonder)

Wonder has been quiet for a while — almost five years to be exact. But his legacy isn’t going anywhere. A modest OG grime DJ and producer of the early ‘00s, his story feels like a time capsule; a trip back to an era when of-the-time UK sounds were exploding all over the country — from garage to grime to bassline — with clubs and pirate radio their only vectors. Now a father of two and approaching his forties, he seems almost exasperated when we start to reflect on the early days of his career, late on a Tuesday night. “Wow, man”, he says, scratching his head with a wry smile. “We’re going way back here, almost 15 years … 15 years, that’s crazy.”

Like many DJs, the UK lockdown caught Wonder in his tracks early in 2020. He started his own bespoke events company — Wonderland Events — in 2017 and bookings had really been starting to gather pace before the first announcement came last March. “Before lockdown, I was out every weekend and then all of a sudden coming to a stop it was like, ‘rah, what do I do now?”, he says, shrugging his shoulders. Was it a big adjustment, I ask? “I kinda took it in my stride really but I did miss deejaying, so I started doing some live streams via my Instagram which kept me going if I’m honest. I love to DJ, it’s therapeutic for me to just be able to mix so yeah, that was a big help.”

Although now based in Hertfordshire, Wonder was born in raised in Bethnal Green in the heart of East London in the early 80’s. He grew up on a council estate — “it wasn’t huge but it was quite a big one” — and recalls spending the majority of his childhood playing out; “I was always out, all the time”, he says, smiling. “On the estate, I had all my friends there so it’d be playing football … we had a big grass area around the back … or it’d be rounders, playing Knock Down Ginger and getting chased. I don’t know why but we used to enjoy getting chased by random people. I wasn’t as outgoing as some of my friends, I was always quite reserved, but I enjoyed being a kid, definitely.” 

What was school like, I ask? “In primary school I was alright”, he says, before quickly breaking out into laughter. “But then I went to three different secondary schools. Basically, I got kicked out of two schools … hang on, nah I didn’t get kicked out but I used to do my work really quickly and then get bored waiting for everybody else … and end up doing dumb stuff. I’d always had good grades so schools always told me that if they kicked me out, it’d affect my record and make it harder for me to go elsewhere, so in the end I was just told I could leave. I went to Morpeth School first and then onto The Blessed John Roche and then Bow Boys. I loved IT and Science at school and then I took Business Studies at college. I always loved computers so it made sense, but music … I started quite late with music.”

“I must have been about 18, maybe 19”, Wonder continues, “and one of my college lessons got cancelled. One of my good friends was a DJ and he was in the same lesson. I asked him what he was gonna do now we had the hour off and he said he was gonna go home and have a mix and I thought ‘rah, I’ll just come along and chill’. He started mixing once he got back and asked if I wanted to have a try myself. I went through his records and started pulling stuff out and I was noticing names that I’d heard before … they were tracks I knew. Back then it was a lot of old school garage, so he had loads of Sunship records and that. I actually used to go to a rave called Leisure Lounge in Holborn quite a lot around that time, and I remember listening to a lot of Heartless Crew back then as well. Anyway, I started pulling out these tunes and playing them and I got kinda accustomed to it. I ended up on his decks for about nine hours, literally. I couldn’t mix but I loved it. My mate eventually just tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘bruv, it’s time to go home now’.”

From that point on, Wonder knew he wanted to DJ. He quit college the following week but with very little money and no real direction, he turned to his older brother for help. “I knew I had to get decks but I was broke, I had nothing”, he says. “I phoned up my brother and asked if he’d be able to lend me some money and luckily for me, he did. I knew it was what I wanted to do but back in what … it must have been 2001 … I didn’t really know what I was gonna do with my life. Anyway, I got my first set of Soundlab decks and from there, I turned my bedroom into a DJ studio and just filled it with records. That was my life.”

He’d grown up listening to a heady mix of basement, garage and jungle on cassettes and old tapes. His dad was heavily into his music, too, and had a big Lovers Rock collection — “I remember Louisa Mark’s ‘Six Sixth Street’ and a lot of Bob Marley as well” — and recalls regularly flicking through his records, trying to dig for new music he might like. “It was mad because all the vinyl covers, especially the ones from Jamaica, were all full of hand-drawn cartoons and often had pictures of the raves and the beach and stuff with them. I used to listen to the records, looking at those sleeves and just feel like I was there … headphones on, just bopping.”

“It was mad because all the vinyl covers, especially the ones from Jamaica, were all full of hand-drawn cartoons and often had pictures of the raves and the beach and stuff with them. I used to listen to the records, looking at those sleeves and just feel like I was there … headphones on, just bopping.”

With his own collection now starting to build out, Wonder started playing at house parties and gatherings with friends. “We’d just take all our speakers and amps and we’d go to house parties and play for like, six, seven hours”, he recalls. “A couple of my other friends were rappers, they weren’t into garage music or the stuff I was playing necessarily, but they started producing and told me about a course at a place in Wapping. You could go down there, enrol on this production course and they’d give you money for lunch and basically you’d get to use all their equipment. I thought I’d give it a try, so I went down one day and that was where I met Danny Weed. We became friends quite quickly and he was a DJ as well, so I’d always go round his to have a mix and whatever. He was also my gateway to Rinse FM because he was already on the station, so I’d go up there with him to get a vibe of the place and just hang around really … it was Rinse, do you know what I mean?”

“Before I met Danny, I actually used to drive around with Major Ace to a load of his bookings at weekends as well, which is where I started to meet people”, Wonder continues. “I’d pick him up and we’d drive all over the UK and it was honestly crazy seeing him going on stage back then. He’d do two or three bookings a night sometimes. Seeing him perform actually pushed me to make me want to be a successful DJ if I’m honest with you … RIP Major Ace. When you’re looking out from a DJ booth and you’re watching someone control that crowd … yeah, I mean yeah. That’s what I wanted to do.”

“When you’re looking out from a DJ booth and you’re watching someone control that crowd … yeah, I mean yeah. That’s what I wanted to do.”

While his production course was proving fertile ground to meet like-minded people, Wonder was struggling to take to production as he had to deejaying. He was learning on Cubase and by his own admission, “made a few bits I quite liked”, but the process hadn’t galvanised him in the way he’d hoped. “After I finished that course, I messed around on Fruity Loops a little but being a DJ was still my focus”, he explains. But all that would change a few months later.

“I was really good friends with Geeneus back then too, and I’d often go to the studio with him and stuff”, Wonder explains. “Anyway, one day he decided he was gonna sell his Mac … it was a G3, this big, beige G3. I was still a broke DJ so once again, I lent on my brother for the money, he hooked me up and I got it back to mine. I remember A Plus came to my house shortly afterwards and gave me some plugins and that was it. From there, I literally lived on that G3. The first ever tune I made on there was the Gods Gift dubplate, which is also on my album. ‘8th Wonder’ as well. They were the first two tunes I made. Then, once I found out I knew I could sample stuff, I went through every single CD in my house and started taking samples from all over the place. They were exciting times, man.”

“..once I found out I knew I could sample stuff, I went through every single CD in my house and started taking samples from all over the place. They were exciting times, man.”

Many of Wonder’s early productions would later find their way onto his debut album, ‘Welcome To Wonderland’, in 2006 but even with Geeneus’ backing and encouragement, he was still unsure of how his beats would be received. “I never thought that”, he says firmly when I ask if there was a point when he realised he was onto something. “I just used to make tunes, I never really thought about how they’d sound to other people. I’d always show them to Geeneus when I’d first made them, but that was it really. Ah and Slimzee, he used to play a lot of them. I remember the first time he asked to cut one of my tunes and I couldn’t believe it. I think it was ‘8th Wonder’, which he actually released as part of an EP on Dump Valve in 2003. That was one of the first tunes I ever had released I think but even then, I still saw it as something I just enjoyed rather than something I needed to take seriously.”

Dump Valve Recordings, one of grime’s foundational vinyl labels, was jointly run by Geeneus and Slimzee and has been responsible for some of the genre’s legacy-defining records from the likes of Danny Weed, DJ Target and Scratchy, as well as Wonder and Geeneus himself, often under his Wizzbit alias. “Slimzee used to love his fast cars”, Wonder elaborates, “and he had a Fiat Punto with a dump valve fitted, which apparently made it faster. And that’s literally what they named the label after.”

“Slimzee used to love his fast cars and he had a Fiat Punto with a dump valve fitted, which apparently made it faster. And that’s literally what they named the label after.”

It was at Dump Valve that Wonder would really carve out a name for himself. ‘What’ — the iconic grime instrumental later chosen by Dizzee Rascal on 2005’s ‘Respect Me’ and still Wonder’s calling card all these years later — was originally pressed on their watch back in 2003, as was his debut album in 2006. Soon, he noticed there was a buzz around his name. “I remember one time I went into Uptown Records, just going record shopping for myself, and someone asked me to sign their copy of ‘What Have You Done’ with Kano and it was like, ‘rah I’m doing alright!’ kinda thing”, he says sheepishly. “I didn’t expect it at all and it was a nice feeling to get things like that, because it shows people are enjoying your music. The first time it really hit home though was walking up to a Sidewinder event with Slimzee. I turned a corner onto the street where the venue was and I could hear ‘What’ playing inside. I just thought, ‘rah this tune is actually playing in this big massive Sidewinder arena on a huge system’, it was crazy. I think it was Martin ‘Liberty’ Larner that was playing it. I’d heard my tunes play in small little raves before but it’s totally different when you walk into a massive arena and see people going mad to it. It was humbling.”

‘What’ was written in the studio at the back of Geeneus’ house early in 2003, a spot he’d often head to when inspiration struck. It was originally constructed similarly to ‘Asia’ — the eventual B-side of the ‘What’ 12” first released on Dump Valve — but this time around, he wanted to experiment. “I thought I’d just see if I could go half-time with it”, Wonder says nonchalantly. “I just wanted to mess around with the drum kits and see how it’d come out. As I was making it, Geeneus walked in and looked at me like, ‘you alright?’ and I knew that meant something. Once I’d finished it, Slimzee was the first person to champion it … he’s always had that head for forward music, he understood it from way back when. He played it on his Rinse show from 1-3pm on a Sunday afternoon and that set it off. If you got your tune played on radio by him back then, it was almost a guarantee that somebody listening would go and buy it from a record shop the next day.”

“That whole era for me, just felt like I was rolling around with famous people”, Wonder continues earnestly. “Being around people like Geeneus and Slimzee, being able to get tunes early and get to raves, it was crazy. I was cutting tunes to dubplate straight from the studio sometimes, which nowadays just doesn’t happen. I loved it, man. The atmosphere at the raves as well, all over the country, was amazing. People were doing two or three shows a night back then, so you’d get DJs and MCs playing London then driving to like, Bedford or somewhere, and then up to Leeds after that. When people think about grime now people might think about it just being a case of MCs huddled around a mic, but it was never like that at all. I don’t know if you’ve seen footage of some of the big raves at Ally Pally, but they were all like that. Thousands of people vibing, men, women … everyone just enjoying themselves, everyone smiling. It was a totally unique vibe.” 

“When people think about grime now people might think about it just being a case of MCs huddled around a mic, but it was never like that at all. I don’t know if you’ve seen footage of some of the big raves at Ally Pally, but they were all like that. Thousands of people vibing, men, women … everyone just enjoying themselves, everyone smiling.”

What did he think that was down to, I ask? “I think back then, what we know as grime now came in loads of different forms. You had the dark stuff and Dizzee’s stuff but you’d also have the dance-y, clubbier bits by people like DJ Narrows and Agent X, so it was always moving. It was never a whole night of one particular vibe, it was really mixed. The MCs too, were different. You’d have the host-style MCs, the garage MCs, the grime MCs … they all brought different energies that kept everything ticking over.”

Next would come Dizzee Rascal. Already a member of Roll Deep and a go-to producer for the crew through his friendship with Danny Weed and Major Ace — who’d also introduced him to Pay As U Go a year or so earlier — Wonder first came into contact with Dizzee at Rinse FM. “I think I’d asked for a show”, Wonder recalls, scanning the room with his eyes. “Yeah, that was it, I’d asked about having my own show and the only slot they had was from 1-3am on a Wednesday morning with an MC called Dizzee Rascal. I just wanted to get on radio so I took it, we did the first show … and I’ve no idea if anyone was listening (laughs) … but I could tell straight away like, ‘this guy’s good’. He had a completely different flow to what I was used to and he was just so mature on mic. We became friends after that and shared the Roll Deep era for a bit and then when I left to focus on my own stuff in 2004, we stayed in touch and he ended up asking me to go on tour with him.”

“I’d asked about having my own show (on Rinse FM) and the only slot they had was from 1-3am on a Wednesday morning with an MC called Dizzee Rascal. I just wanted to get on radio so I took it, we did the first show … and I’ve no idea if anyone was listening (laughs) … but I could tell straight away like, ‘this guy’s good’.”

Heading out on numerous tours across the US and all over Europe between 2004 and 2006, Wonder became Dizzee’s official DJ, the pair working seamlessly on both ‘Boy In Da Corner’ and ‘Showtime’ — Dizzee’s second studio album, from which ‘Respect Me’ was lifted. “It was a whole different experience with him”, Wonder reflects. “A lot of what I’d experienced of grime was purely in the UK, so to go to different countries and see people enjoying the music and knowing the tunes, that kinda blew my mind. Back then, the Internet wasn’t really a thing either so it felt even more special. I remember being on tour and we were in Amsterdam and these two boys came up to me outside after I’d played for Dizzee and they started talking to me about beats I’d made but hadn’t been released yet. They were like, ‘Ah, when’s this tune coming out, we love it’ kinda thing and I was thinking, ‘…but how do you know about it?’. That opened my mind up a lot.”

“I remember being on tour and we were in Amsterdam and these two boys came up to me outside after I’d played for Dizzee and they started talking to me about beats I’d made but hadn’t been released yet. They were like, ‘Ah, when’s this tune coming out, we love it’ kinda thing and I was thinking, ‘…but how do you know about it?’.”

Did he ever get nervous before stepping on stage, I ask? “Ah yeah definitely”, he says, nodding his head. “I mean, if you mess up you’ve got Dizzee looking at you, the stage manager looking at you, the crowd looking at you. Luckily I never messed up once, but there was one this one time. Basically, when I first started touring with him, I was using 1210s and then slowly moved over to CDJs but it took me a while to get used to them. I remember on one of those early CDJ shows, I pressed the stop button on one of the tracks by mistake but I always had everything lined up in order just in case anything went wrong. While he was spitting, and this was live on stage don’t forget, I kinda pretended I’d deliberately let him go a cappella, quickly caught the track up and then dropped it back in again. That was a bit of a close one.”

Off the back of touring with Dizzee Rascal, Wonder felt the time was right to collate his own material, some of which he’d been sitting on since 2003. ‘Welcome To Wonderland’, his debut and only studio album to this point, was a 14-track opus of sorts that traced his early beginnings — from his ‘Gods Gift 2002 Intro Dubplate’ right the way through to working with established musicians like Mr Hudson, Sway, Virus Syndicate and an emergent Kano. “The Gods Gift thing”, he says with a smile, “…I mean back then you couldn’t catch him anywhere, they were the days when MCs were just long. I’d called him so many times and he’d always say he was gonna come over to record something and it never happened. Anyway one time, I remember hearing him on Rinse and thought, ‘right that’s it, I’m just gonna go and wait for him’. I drove up to the Rinse studio, sat outside and waited until he finished. When he came out, I picked him out and took him back to my house there and then. I didn’t have a proper studio, I just had a speaker with a mic stuck into it … with a sock over it.”

I remember hearing him (Gods Gift) on Rinse and thought, ‘right that’s it, I’m just gonna go and wait for him’. I drove up to the Rinse studio, sat outside and waited until he finished. When he came out, I picked him out and took him back to my house there and then. I didn’t have a proper studio, I just had a speaker with a mic stuck into it … with a sock over it.”

“By contrast, working with Mr Hudson was a completely different experience”, Wonder continues. “I remixed one of his tracks (‘Bread & Roses’) for my album and before that, I’d never worked with a studio with someone. Usually, I’d work on tracks on my own and then send MCs or vocalists the track, they’d vocal it and send it back. Mr Hudson actually came to my studio and we kinda built the track together and it was a proper eye-opener. He’s a really talented musician so to see the things he was doing and suggestions he was making … yeah, it was quite an experience.”

After the release of the album, Wonder put a pause on his own material and reverted back to focusing on his DJ career. Grime had started to bleed into dubstep and the original sound he’d help push was mutating — so much so that Wonder himself started to produce dubstep beats for his club shows. He started his own Wonderland label in 2007, too, releasing six records from a host of different artists across a four year period, before slowing down to focus on a life away from music. “I’d actually started teaching music production at Urban Development in Stratford around the same time”, he notes. “I’d started off doing a few taster sessions and then I decided to go full time. Obviously making music is great but life kinda takes over as you get older and money wise, it wasn’t a monthly income in the way I needed it to be. I found myself enjoying working with young people as well, so I divided my time between teaching during the day and playing out as much as I could at the weekends.”

Wonder’s stint at Urban Development later lead him to be a key figure in the establishment of the Rinse FM Academy, where he taught music production until 2013. “After that, I decided to move into care and work within supported living, where I helped young people and people with learning difficulties”, he explained. “I’d had my daughter in 2011 and so my priorities changed, life became much more about making sure we were eating, you know. I still managed to juggle work and music for a while but life just shifted in a sense. I enjoyed working with young people as well and I actually ended up quickly becoming a manager … I was overseeing like six or seven homes at one point … so that was really time consuming, especially with a family. I’ve always made sure I had a home setup though, just in case I do get any time. That’ll probably never change.”

Now a proud dad of two, Wonder has scaled things back entirely to focus on building up his Wonderland Events brand over the last four years, striking a balance between family time and expanding his business. “I’ve probably played out more over the last two or three years than I have in the last 10”, he says with a chuckle. “But in all seriousness, being able to DJ has really kept me going. That and my family, definitely.”

Looking forward, is the bit back between his teeth, I ask? “Yeah definitely, especially now I’m more settled in a routine”, he says firmly. “The plan is to one hundred percent get back into production. I’m always listening to new music and I want that feeling again, I want people to hear and experience music that I’ve made. Now and again, I might get sent a video of an MC over one of my beats or someone will play an old track of mine on the radio. I remember a little while back Diplo posted ‘What Have You Done’ with Kano and I remember reading a load of comments like ‘Diplo sent me here and I’m glad’ and all of this stuff. Things like that push me to wanna jump back into it. Hopefully once I get back into the swing of things, it takes off.”

You can keep up with Wonder via Instagram.

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