The Full Story
David Russell Lee (born 18 June 1964) is an English DJ and house music producer, formerly known by the stage name Joey Negro (pronounced /nɛɡroʊ/), which he retired in July 2020 following the George Floyd protests. He has released music under a variety of pseudonyms, including Jakatta, Doug Willis, Raven Maize, Sessomatto as well as being part of The Sunburst Band. Lee has scored a number of top 40 hits, among them "American Dream", "So Lonely" and "My Vision", all under the name Jakatta.
Dave Lee's interest in dance music began with collecting disco, soul and funk records in the late 1970s. In 1986, he got his first job in the industry, working at the short-lived store Smithers & Leigh. He moved over to Rough Trade, who were then setting up a dance division, Demix, and were looking for someone to run it. Within a short period of time, Demix was handling hits for Bomb the Bass, MARRS and Beatmasters. Less than a year later, Lee, in partnership with Rough Trade, set up his own label, Republic Records, which became known both for the series of compilation albums, The Garage Sound of Deepest New York, as well Lee's own early forays into studio production.
By the end of 1987, Lee began working in a Clacton-on-Sea studio with former schoolfriend Mike Cheal (real name Emmanuel Cheal) and another Smithers & Leigh employee, DJ Mark Ryder. The trio were responsible for the first release on Republic, under the name M-D-Emm: "Get Busy (It's Partytime!)". Two further M-D-Emm singles were released on Republic. Mike and Dave recorded the acid house songs "1666" and "Get Acidic" together without Mark, and continued the same partnership using other aliases, notably Masters of the Universe, Mystique, Kikkit and The Shy Boys. In 1989, Dave Lee, Mike Cheal and Mark Ryder broke through the underground with a club hit under the assumed name Raven Maize, which made judicious use of disco samples, something Lee has returned to repeatedly over the course of his career. "Together Forever", which was based on the Exodus song of the same name, was released on New York label Quark, with a press release that claimed Maize was an ex-convict in a Disneyland steel pan band.
In 1990, Lee's most enduring pseudonym made its debut, when he released Joey Negro's first single via New York indie house music label Nu Groove, with his new name a homage to Pal Joey and J. Walter Negro. After the single's success, Lee went totally solo allowing him the total freedom to explore his own musical direction. When the single "Do It, Believe It" was released in the UK, it was also the debut release on his own self-financed label Z Records, which remains his primary outlet. Around the same time, Lee met keyboard player Andrew 'Doc' Livingstone when he sent in a demo to Republic Records. Shortly after, the pair decamped to Unit 3 Studios in Chalk Farm.
In 1991, Rough Trade Records went into liquidation and with it, Lee's job. The slack was taken up by increasingly large amounts of studio commissions as his work as a remixer grew. The most important early remix, and the first done at new studio Unit 3, was Simphonia's "Can't Get Over Your Love", which originally appeared on the Republic compilation Rewind in 1990. Over the next two or three years, Lee was responsible for some of the best UK dance remixes of the era, among them "Direct Me" by The Reese Project, Brand New Heavies' "Dream Come True" and Adeva's "Don't Let It Show on Your Face". The second Joey Negro single, the Above & Beyond EP, helped Lee secure a major label deal when he signed to Virgin Records' dance offshoot, Ten. One of the songs from the EP, "Take Me Higher", eventually became a top 40 hit when it was re-worked and re-sung by Debbie French under the title "Do What You Feel".
In 1993, Lee was approached by boy band Take That's label with a view to working together. Although the Dan Hartman song "Relight My Fire" had never been a hit in the UK, it had become a popular club track in the house music scene, so at Lee's suggestion they covered it, with Lulu taking the cameo role that Loleatta Holloway had performed on the original. It became the boy band's second number one in the UK. The same year saw the release of the Joey Negro album Universe of Love, featuring an all-star cast that included Gwen Guthrie and the Trammps. Its title track, with live instrumentation, prefigured much of the work he went on to do with the Sunburst Band. During some downtime at the studio, Lee and partner Andrew 'Doc' Livingstone wrote a song, "Girls & Boys", which was so different from their previous output that they decided to create a new, anonymous label to release it. Hed Boys' "Girls & Boys" swiftly became the hottest 12-inch in the country, with major labels falling over themselves to sign this mysterious track. They had several meetings disguised in wigs and sunglasses before anyone realized that it was Lee and Livingstone. Signed to DeConstruction, the single eventually found its way into the top 40, peaking at number 21.
Lee's stock as a remixer continued to rise throughout the '90s, as he remixed some of pop's leading lights, including Diana Ross, M People and Pet Shop Boys, as well as racking up further aliases (Z Factor, Doug Willis, Akabu, Sessomatto and Agora). In 1997, Lee met Taka Boom, Chaka Khan's sister, when she relocated to the UK, and the pair collaborated on "Surrender" and "Can't Get High Without U", which was licensed to Erick Morillo's Subliminal Records. The same year, the Sunburst Band released their debut EP, Sunburn, which included "Garden of Love", one of the band's most successful songs. Eschewing programmed beats, Lee opted to gather many of the session musicians he worked with over the years – among them Michele Chiavarini, Viv Hope-Scott, Jessica Lauren and Tony Remy – who recorded the first album, Here Comes the Sunburst Band. It was a conscious departure from electronic music and, as Lee admitted in an interview, it was his commercial successes elsewhere that provided the finances to make such a move.
The follow-up, 2005's Until the End of Time, introduced two new vocal collaborators, disco stylist Linda Clifford and former Chic frontwoman Norma Jean Wright, as well as Taka Boom, and received critical plaudits: a remix of "Every Day", "Everydub", was included on Heston Blumenthal's Desert Island Discs. On the third album, Moving with the Shakers, Lee brought Leroy Burgess and Diane Charlemagne (vocalist on Goldie's hit "Inner City Life") into his ever-evolving band. The most recent album, The Secret Life of Us, was released in 2012. All four albums were released on Lee's own Z Records imprint, which has been the outlet for the majority of his work since the collapse of Republic Records.
By the end of the 1990s, Z had released around 40 singles, the overwhelming majority coming from Lee's own studio; but over the past decade, the label has featured more outside producers and remixers, including Dennis Ferrer, Henrik Schwarz, Ame and Motor City Drum Ensemble, as well as providing an outlet for Lee's esoteric compilation series. Z Records has now passed 200 releases. Lee's deep house project Akabu, which has been remixed by Deetron, Spiritcatcher and Lovebirds, also won plaudits from industry veterans such as Carl Craig when the album was released in 2010.
Lee's first brush with the higher echelons of the top 40 came in 1999 when TV series Ibiza Uncovered used a portion of Z Factor's "Gotta Keep Pushin'" as its theme. Lee reworked the song, with Taka Boom on vocals, and re-released it as "Must Be the Music" (as Joey Negro). The song eventually peaked at number 8. (The duo had one further hit in 2006 with "Make a Move on Me"; UK #11.)
The following year in 2000, Lee scored an unlikely hit with an underground smash called "American Booty", sampling two Thomas Newman pieces ("Dead Already" and "American Beauty/Paper Bag") from the soundtrack for the film American Beauty. It was eventually reworked with added vocals from Swati Nektar using the Jakatta alias, and released as "American Dream", delivering the biggest hit of Lee's career (UK #3). It was swiftly followed by two further top ten hits for Jakatta with "So Lonely" (featuring Monsoon) (UK #8) and the Seal collaboration "My Vision" (UK #6). The resulting Jakatta album also climbed to number 12 in the charts.
In 2002, Lee resurrected his Raven Maize alias for one of the Ibiza hits of the summer. Inspired by the Corporation of One original, Lee used both "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Simple Minds' "Theme from Great Cities", and the record reached number 12 (UK).
Lee's other project is as a music compiler. Beginning with the Republic compilations The Garage Sound of Deepest New York, he has since compiled over 20 albums, usually featuring rare disco, and club music. During the 1990s, he was behind the Jumpin' series of compilations released by Harmless Records, which collected together influential and sampled disco tracks, while Disco Spectrum, which ran to three volumes on Barely Breaking Even, assembled disco songs that had never been reissued before. Lee, with longtime associate Sean P, was also responsible for the Disco Not Disco series on Strut Records that gathered together a collection of songs by artists such as Yoko Ono, Can and jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. Subsequent to these, he has continued to run various series on his own label Z Records, including Soul of Disco, Back Street Brit Funk, Italo House and Go Go Get Down, all focusing on forgotten areas of dance music history.
Lee continues to release house and other disco-influenced styles on his own label Z Records, as well as DJing regularly in the UK and around the world.
Lee dropped the name Joey Negro on 21 July 2020 in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. The move came a day after The Black Madonna stopped using her own moniker. Lee admitted he had "not felt comfortable with the name Joey Negro for a while, especially as I've got older".
Dave Lee was ranked #3 at the Top House Artists Of 2020 by Traxsource.