Trevor Jackson: machine music of the highest, sexiest and weirdest order

Posted on by Kate Hutchinson

I wrote this article originally for RBMA's book For The Record but unfortunately it got cut. Anyway, if you're a fan of Trevor's work, as I am, you might enjoy the below. Or you might throw eggs at it. Either way, here is some stuff about him, with interviews from John Burgess, Four Tet and James Lavelle.


Trevor Jackson
By Kate Hutchinson 

“He strives to be individual, and he stands for what he believes in” – James Lavelle, UNKLE

 In the epic, smoke-saturated, disco ball-dappled biopic of dance music’s life, Trevor Jackson is one of its antiheroes. He supports “difficult music”. His career underlines what it is to be punk. He has nurtured countless music scenes, but is never the shiny star at the centre. He’ll clear a dancefloor so that he can build it again up the way he wants. He’s never wanted to be famous.

Even so, the London-based art director, designer, video artist, DJ and producer has casually helped invent dance music’s future. During his twenty-years at the clubbing coalface, he’s shaped the sound of UK hip-hop, brought NYC’s burgeoning dance-punk bands to London and defined numerous seminal albums with his distinct approach to design. You probably own something that’s encountered Trevor’s Midas touch without realising it. DJ Shadow’s 2012 greatest hits box set, featuring a glowing Tron-style model of his face? That was Trevor. The striking monochrome optical illusions for Soulwax’s 2004 album, Any Minute Now? That’s Trevor, too. Or how about the flickering psychedelic video trip for Matias Aguayo’s 2009 single Rollerskate? You’ve got one guess. 

Trevor Jackson started his first design company, Bite It!, in 1987 and began producing covers for some of the house, techno and hip-hop anthems of the time, by Todd Terry, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Queen Latifah and De La Soul. A regular fixture on London’s vibrant nightlife scene, Jackson approached Mark Moore at The Wag Club, which is how he came to design the artwork for Moore’s club smash, Theme From S-Express. Like this sleeve, Trevor’s designs were deliberately lo-fi – “a finger-up at all the big companies that could do amazing 3D graphics” when he couldn’t afford to buy a computer.

Eventually – and typical of his plucky attitude – Jackson turned his hand to hip-hop production under an alter ego, The Underdog. He particularly liked hip-hop’s DIY aesthetic, but rather than using hooks from James Brown and Parliament records, as America was at the time, he looked to European dance music for samples. His analogue mix of ambient, krautrock, psychedelia and dub gave the genre a fresh angle, as heard on his remixes for Massive Attack, U2 and UNKLE and on his production for The Brotherhood, a collective who became hugely influential in UK hip-hop.

By 1996, Trevor had put down The Underdog and expanded his vision into a record label, which he ran for a decade. Output Recordings was a home for “the weird, odd records that no one else wanted” at a time “when the dance press was all about superclubs and DJs in Jacuzzis.” But those “weird” records just happened to be by artists who thrashed out the new sound of the dancefloor. Output’s 1997 release, Gramme’s debut 7-inch, Mine, thrusted the disco-fied dance-punk revolution’s first placard into the air, followed by anthems like LCD Soundsystem’s Losing My Edge and The Rapture’s House Of Jealous Lovers. Equally of note, Trevor released the first single by Kieran Hebden and then by Hebden’s band, Fridge. “Trevor played me more mind blowing music in the first few years I knew him than anyone else,” says Hebden. “He introduced me to records that would become the blueprint for a lot of what I do.” 

Around this time, Jackson started another trailblazing musical venture: Playgroup. He wanted to do “something colourful and sexy”, inspired by 80s disco-pop like Grace Jones and The Human League. He put himself – wraparound shades an’ all – on the cover of his records, which was, by his own admission, an uncool thing to do. Yet Trevor enjoyed the rebellion of being an unlikely popstar, like Giorgio Moroder. Instead of Donna Summer, he worked with strong female vocalists like riot grrrl linchpin Kathleen Hanna and electro provocateur Peaches. The project turned into one of the foremost acts of the early-2000s electroclash movement, alongside producers like Hell and Tiga and Soulwax and Tiefschwarz.

Output’s bold line of dance music, paired with its design focus, drew comparisons with New Order’s Factory Records. It was certainly just as passionately DIY. For one signing, a band called Icarus, Trevor made 1000 hand-customized, hand-torn sleeves. John Burgess, who started legendary club night Bugged Out and Jockey Slut magazine, also recalls “one Four Tet cover, where Trevor spent all day wrapping each individual sleeve with tape. It’s that attention to detail that sets Trevor apart.” But, like Factory Records, it too came to an end. After 10 years and 100 releases, Jackson commemorated Output’s legacy with a compilation and DVD, I HATE MUSIC, featuring many of the notable tracks from its pioneering decade. Which is just as well, seeing as he hardly kept any copies of the releases himself.

Jackson was still leading the way in design and visual art, too. His campaign for Any Minute Now won several international design awards, including the Tokyo TDC Non Members Prize, a D&AD Silver Pencil Nomination and Creative Review’s Best In Book. Since then, his work has been exhibited at New York’s Guggenheim, London’s KK Gallery, ICA and Barbican and at Newcastle’s Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art. His more recent foray into sound and light performances combine both his mediums to mind-bending effect. For visual music festival Optronica at London’s BFI IMAX cinema in 2007, Jackson created a live A/V show, RGBPM, using a custom-built visual synthesizer that took six months to make. Then there’s the time he stopped traffic on Hollywood Boulevard with his intense installation for Lexus, in which two cars glowed bright pink in response to Jackson’s shuddering subbass frequencies.

In 2013, Trevor Jackson is more current than ever. His iconic, inescapable fonts, grainy, smoked-out portraits and photography so glistening-fresh that the sweat almost drips off it can be seen on this year’s Beady Eye album, BE. He’s still an in-demand remixer – most recently for Tiga and Gossip – and he has just released the second volume of his ear-skewering Metal Dance compilation series, detailing the danceable side of 80s industrial, post-punk and EBM, for Strut Records.

For an even deeper introduction to the true Trevor, however, you need to hear one of his wide-ranging DJ sets. Whether he’s playing at Fabric or a fashion party, he expertly joins the dots between primitive hip-hop breaks and Belgian new beat, sparse industrial and early techno, and raw house and New York disco. It is machine music of the highest, sexiest and, yes, weirdest order, plugging directly into your primal urge to dance. “He was the first person that ever took me to a club, when he played at the Blue Note,” says Hebden. “I base most of my DJ style on what I’ve learned from watching him. To this day, he is one of my favourite DJs in the world.” Go and see him in a club, or spend a while rifling through the traces of his legacy left online, and he might just become one of yours, too.