Hal Ritson (Dizzee Rascal)

By Jamie Franklin

Hal Ritson playinig the Roland AX-Synth for Dizzee Rascal

Hey Hal. You played with Dizzee Rascal at the BBC Electric Proms a few days ago. How did this come about?

I worked for Dizzee on his most recent album, Tongue N Cheek, recording and performing the live music elements that were integrated into the electronic production by Dizzee’s long-term producer Cage. I have a background that spans ‘traditional’ live music such as orchestras, jazz bands, rock etc, and also the underground electronic scene, so I am often hired to help out projects that require knowledge of ‘both sides of the fence’. When Dizzee was invited to perform at the Electric Proms it seemed the natural next step for me to continue the collaboration, taking the music into a live environment, building on what we had done on the album, and also building on the experience of performing electronic music as a live show that myself and my team had gained from working on our own ‘pet project’ The Young Punx.

You played the new Roland AX Synth during the show. Can you explain in some detail how you use it to get the sounds you were after?

In a live context I tend to alternate between playing bass guitar and playing keyboards. It can be very frustrating in that when you are playing bass or guitar you can interact very physically with your instrument, move about the stage to interact with the band and the audience etc. Then as soon as you start playing the keys, you are rooted to one spot and become much more physically isolated from your performance.

In the light of this I always try and perform on a hand-held keytar keyboard whenever I get the chance. In makes the band dynamic and much more consistent between when I am playing the bass and the keyboard. For the past couple of years, I’ve been playing the Roland AX-7 Keyboard which I had to track down with some difficulty on eBay as it was discontinued by Roland in 2007. I was therefore pretty excited when I heard this year that Roland was returning to making AX keyboards with the AX-Synth.

I started using the AX-Synth as soon as it was available. The most obvious difference between the AX-Synth and its predecessor is that it has on-board sounds. However I haven’t been using these sounds as yet as I tend to be triggering very specific unique sounds created by myself (or Dizzee’s producer) from a sampler. But the AX-Synth is still a great development over the AX-7 due to a number of really basic practical upgrades: the keyboard can be connected to my laptop by USB alone, thus eradicating a MIDI port from my set-up; the keyboard goes to sleep when it isn’t being played to save battery life and it has a ‘transmit on/off’ switch you can flip when you put the keyboard into a stand, to make sure the stand doesn’t start pressing a key and playing unwanted sounds while the keyboard is stored etc. Just sensible things that make a big difference live.

What was your role in the band? You seemed to act as MD?

Yes, I was Musical Director for Dizzee at the Electric Proms (and for a few other recent live shows such as his Jools Holland performance). I have to hire the musicians (a core made from my own band The Young Punx, augmented by strings from The Heritage Orchestra, Vula from Bassment Jaxx, choristers from Kings College Cambridge, and so on), arrange all the tracks to work in a live setting, rehearse the band, and lead the music when on stage. Overall I have to have the vision of how it should sound, and then make that vision come true, while making sure that Dizzee feels it reflects his own perspective as an artist.

What were the biggest challenges turning a hip hop/grime/dance act into a more acoustic show?

It was a very enjoyable process actually, largely because Dizzee is very musically open and gave us a very free reign to do whatever we wanted. He has very broad musical interests and responded very positively to even our craziest ideas, like turning grime tracks into Japanese classical music, or having him rap over ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

We agreed from the outset that there was no real point trying to exactly copy the studio versions, as that would offer no benefit over Dizzee’s usual live shows where DJ Semtex plays the studio backings off CDJs.
For each track we tried to find the essence of what made a track great, and then bring out that greatness in a way that live musicians could do differently with excitement and passion.

For a track like Bonkers we needed to deal with the fact the pitch of the track is sliding around all over the place due to portamento on the synth bass, so we re-interpreted this as country blues using slide guitar and double bass – instruments that could mimic the sliding pitch of the original, but with a new twist.

Some of the earlier tracks, though labeled “grime” have very articulate deep lyrics and we found quite sensitive string arrangements and ‘arty’ approaches that actually brought out the depth that was always there in Dizzee’s work.

Every track had its own challenge and its own unique solution.

You play with The Young Punx. What is the band up to?

The Young Punx finished recording our second album ‘Mashop and Punkstep’ this summer. We then seconded ourselves to Dizzee for a couple of months, and are now back to Punx work leading up to the release of the album in early 2010. In the summer we were resident DJs at Pacha in Ibiza and played some great festivals like the 15,000-strong audience at Yokohama Arena for Nano Mugen Festival with Hard Fi and Manic Street Preachers.

We’re just putting together re-mixes for the first single from the new album, ‘Ready for the fight’, a collaboration with US rapper Count Bass D.

More curiously, tomorrow we leave for Japan where we are presenting ‘Dance Idol’ on Japanese TV – kind of doing the Ant and Dec role on the show!

The SPD-S Sampling Pad played a big part in the show. Can you explain how you used this?

We thought it was really important to do the gig with no sequencer, click track or backing tracks, to keep a really raw live feel where anything could happen. However, even though we were radically changing the sound of most songs, they all contain certain key noises and samples that are at the heart of the tracks character. We spent a day in Dizzee’s studio pulling up the multitracks for seven years of his music, and isolating these critical sounds, which we then loaded onto the SPD-S to trigger live during the show.

There are some great sounds and the SPD-S has drawn a lot of attention from viewers, including Radio One’s Jo Whiley, who demanded she should have a go on it live on air after she saw us triggering the ‘BONKERS!’ sample from it!

Other favourite uses including triggering the seminal sax samples from ‘Dirtee Cash’ from it and triggering the legendary ‘woo’ and ‘yeah’ from the Lyn Collins ‘Woo yeah’ break for the track ‘Old Skool’.

It really enabled us to get these important ‘character’ sounds into the set, without falling back on backing tracks etc.

What instrument do you prefer playing and why?

I really don’t think you can beat playing an old Rhodes. You have the amazing dynamic range to go from playing a sound like twinkling bells to a sound like Deep Purple guitars just by how you hit the keys. It is so organic and alive and being electro-mechanical seems to have the best elements of both electronic and acoustic instruments, much the same way as an electric guitar does for strong players.

What have been your experiences of Roland products going back to a kid?

I totally idolised Roland equipment as a child. No posters of Ferraris on MY bedroom wall. I was doodling D-50s in the margin of my exercise books, learning patch lists off by heart, and would spend every Saturday afternoon in the music shop (Rock City in Newcastle) trying out synths, hoping that one day I could afford one.

If you could make a dream Roland Instrument made up of any new or old parts of products, what would this beast be?

I would love it if Roland made a synth that really captured the analog essence of their Juno and Jupiter synths, but with modern features, the way that the Moog Voyager and Prophet 08 do. Of course those classic Roland sounds live on in the patches of modern Roland synths, but there is a deep love for the hands on, immediate organic feel of those early synths which seems to have been embraced by a couple of other manufacturers, but only hinted at by Roland so far.

Any questions for Roland?

Can you give me a D-50? I never could afford one as a child!