Despite being a child of original UK reggae, a student of soundsystem culture, and a warrior of innovation on the frontline of jungle – one of the most important and inclusive eras of Britain’s modern cultural history – not a lot of people know much about Andre Williams, aka Shy FX. Even in the video for his notorious 1994 classic, “Original Nuttah”, he is a bit part character, hovering towards the decks at the back of the stage, rarely making contact with the camera, letting the raw energy of the MC and the chaos of the crowd do all the visual talking required. Even the name Shy FX comes from years of being called socially awkward by his peers.
Over the years he’s dropped a plethora of diverse top 40 club bangers, set up his own Digital Soundboy record label, won Red Bull Culture Clash, made tracks with Dizzee Rascal, Miss Dynamite, and Kano, and yet much about his life or his artistic motivations have remained hidden… But that doesn’t mean he has nothing to say. “I’m just not someone who does the whole politics thing and wants to preach,” explains Shy. “I am all about actions. I come from a culture that is very inclusive. I’m old enough to remember the National Front chasing man down the street, but once jungle kicked in, everyone was united: black, white, whatever. It was a melting pot of different cultures. How things are right now: that’s not my world. With my new music, I’m trying to bring that vibe back… Unity.”
Now signed to Sony and on the verge of releasing new material, this concept of unity beats through the heart of his latest music. Sometimes he’d hire out a space, invite down Craig David, Lily Allen, CasisDead, Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, Breakage, some sound designers and fellow producers, and just jam for days. Someone would sing a melody, someone else would get on the keyboard, and ideas would bond and multiply in the air. Other times, it’d just be Shy from start to finish, alone in his North London music den, rigorously and patiently finessing traditional dubplate techniques to give the music an old school richness. The first single, “We Just Don’t Care”, is at a thumping house tempo but it’s no house track: it’s all tribal beats, detuned marimba, and blazing vocals from the Noisettes’ Shingai Shoniwa. The trademark rumbling bass line alone feels like being hit by a ghost train.
Shy was born in North London, and his origin story is like a poetic patchwork of British multiculturalism. His grandfather was Count Shelley, a soundsystem legend and one of the first people to import reggae music to the UK. In the words of David Rodigan, he was a “cornerstone”. Shy remembers laying in bed at night as a kid, listening to the thump of the reggae parties downstairs. He began getting into junior soundsystem culture and began working as a selector and box boy (carrying the equipment) for Serena Sound in his spare time. His first proper rave experience came in the queue outside London’s Roller Express after being told he wasn’t allowed in for being too young. “I could hear the music inside and see the lasers firing out. I’d never seen anything like it: fast music, pumping bass, MCs spitting in British accents. I made it my mission in life to be part of that.”
To say Shy FX lived the 90s is to say the Burger King makes burgers. He owned the 90s, he was the 90s. His breakthrough track “Original Nuttah” was one of the first ever jungle tracks to enter the UK top 40, at a time when the UK charts were more a place for Wet Wet Wet, PJ & Duncan and Status Quo. He helped fashion a scene that probably couldn’t exist post-internet; one that thrived on technical innovation, taking risks, and bringing together British kids of all colours and class. “Looking back,” he smiles, “you’re like, fucking hell, I lived through that.” In the years that followed, he remained a pioneer: making jump-up tracks like “This Style”, soulful drum & bass like “Shake Your Body”, and then playing his own part in the roots reggae revival with “Soon Come”.
But it’s never just music for the sake of music. It has always been about making music with intention and purpose. In his younger days, he ended up hanging out with the wrong types and later in life would see too many bad things happen. “One day, I heard a tune by KRS-One and it was about not letting yourself give into peer pressure. I saw it as a message talking directly to me, so I removed myself from all that immediately. So many people I was with back then got arrested and did serious time. So, whenever I’ve make music, there is always a message in there. The kids could be raving to this in the club, but one guy will hear it the right way and it will speak to them. And if they do, then my job’s done.”
Each year, towards the end of a summer of relentless DJ touring, Shy pays respect to his soundsystem origins by inviting pretty much every artist he knows down to his Party on the Moon stage and just vibing out. What keeps him excited about carnival is what still keeps him excited about creating a new album and set of EPs for 2017: that sense of culture, impulsiveness, that someone could hear something they’ve never heard before and feel something. That sense of unity. “It’s the same thing that makes me want to make music,” explains Shy. “Knowing you have a blank canvas and you can do whatever you want. Whatever you make wasn’t in the universe before that. I will never get over that buzz.”