Disorderly conduct

The drum'n'bass DJ Goldie has always found classical music elitist - yet it needn't be so. And then

This could be one of the oddest sights of my life. Sitting in a cavernous church near Waterloo Station, I'm watching the drum'n'bass DJ Goldie conduct the Sinfonia Tamesa orchestra in a stirring run-through of Brahms's Academic Festival Overture. That in itself should raise an eyebrow - but what's really strange is the way Goldie is conducting: the man is sweating like an ox, arms flailing in a demented butterfly stroke, torso jerking up and down to mark time. I have never seen anything quite like it - and neither has the orchestra. "He's very unconventional," says the flautist Becca Laurence after the rehearsal, "but effective. Conducting is all about communicating and he's got an amazing presence."

We are at a rehearsal for Maestro, the BBC's new reality TV show, in which eight celebrities learn how to conduct a classical orchestra and compete, Fame Academy-style, for a chance to show off their skills at this year's Proms. On paper, it looks like a terrible idea. And were it not for Goldie, it probably would be: scanning the list of competitors - Alex James, the clownish one from Blur; Bradley Walsh, an actor from Coronation Street; the ubiquitous Sue Perkins - you could easily take the programme for a half-hearted response to the accusation in March by Margaret Hodge, the culture minister, that the Proms are failing to reach out to a wide enough audience.

Goldie, however, is more than your average rent-a-celeb. His distinctive appearance - bald head and a mouthful of gold teeth - along with acting cameos as a Bond villain and as a gangster in EastEnders have made him a household name. His 1995 album Timeless brought drum'n'bass to a mass audience, and he has broad musical taste. "I think they've been a bit surprised at the way I've dealt with it," he says, when we meet a week later at his home near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. "Just because someone makes electronic music doesn't mean that he has no idea about how the different sections of an orchestra work."

Despite this, he has always felt excluded from the classical Establishment. "Classical music is hundreds of years old. When you come from that background, it's like you have a key and only you have access to it. I wish I could have got into that side of music earlier but I was always too scared to go to music school."

The conductor Ivor Setterfield, who is teaching Goldie how to read music and handle an orchestra, says that the DJ's passion makes up for his lack of formal musical education. "He's probably one of the most inspiring people I've ever met. The idea of him introducing more people to music for what it is, rather than what it's become under the custodial direction of an elite, means it has the chance to become alive once again."

If anyone is looking to broaden the appeal of classical music, Goldie would make a worthy ambassador. Born Clifford Price in Walsall to a Scottish pub singer and a Jamaican foundry worker who separated shortly after he was born, Goldie spent most of his childhood in care homes. During the Eighties, he narrowly avoided a life of crime (his brother has spent much of his life in and out of prison) by immersing himself in hip-hop culture: first as a break-dancer and graffiti artist and later as a DJ. He was introduced to classical music by the singer Björk, with whom he had a relationship during the mid-Nineties. Through her, he developed a particular affinity for the work of the Polish avant-garde composer Henryk Górecki.

This conjures up a bizarre image of domestic life: Björk blissing out in the living room to the droning, ethereal minimalism of Górecki's Third Symphony, much to the bemusement of rave-music-loving Goldie. Was it really so? "Yeah, it was just, 'What the hell is this?' But the attraction was instant. There are certain records that come on and you think, 'This really soothes me.' [Górecki] made me feel like someone had just took the kettle off the boil."

From his own upbringing, Goldie knows full well the role that music can play in bringing hope to a young life, and he enthuses about El Sistema, the pioneering initiative in Venezuela that gives children access to free music lessons. "It's fascinating. With that, maybe I could have made cutting-edge new music. Look at Gustavo Dudamel [the young conductor who is a graduate of the programme and who will perform at this year's Proms] and what he's done. It's about time."

Goldie believes that our government should be "ploughing money" into a similar music programme. Asked about Margaret Hodge's call for the Proms to broaden their appeal, he criticises new Labour for abandoning its roots. "Growing up, my background was Labour. But I don't think anyone in this country has cared about the poor for the last ten years. Where's all the money going? Somewhere along the line someone's creaming it off and fat cats are getting paid."

There is a personal reason for this anger. Last year, his 19-year-old son, who lives on the estate in Wolverhampton where Goldie grew up, was shot. He survived (that's as much as Goldie will tell me), but the DJ is worried about what he sees as a more aggressive and self-defeating culture among teenagers of his son's generation. "I've asked him to come and live with me, but he's got used to life on the estate."

Goldie is grateful that during his own teenage years, there was a way to avoid gangs. "Youth clubs are what saved me. I had a place to go to be able to break-dance, to get into music. We've lost that, and the youth have become so used to not having any help, they've turned their backs."

He pours scorn on the suggestion that the Tories, with their new-found concern for social welfare, could provide a solution: "If David Cameron puts his hand out to youth, he's going to get it bitten off," he says. "Guaranteed. I think he's bullshitting."

At the age of 42, the DJ describes Maestro as "too little, too late" to have much effect on his own musical career. Sitting at home surrounded by boxes of Goldie-branded trainers and a couple of associates who run his Metalheadz record label (I half-expect someone's mum to burst in and tell us all to tidy up), the DJ is keener to talk about his own work. Since completing a "painful and costly" divorce last year, from the model Sonjia Ashby, he has thrown himself back into making drum'n'bass. Given enough training, "anyone" can conduct, he says. "It's someone else's piece of music."

The bravado doesn't quite ring true. At the rehearsal, it's clear that Goldie has immersed himself in the Brahms overture: the effort of concentration is bunching his facial features into a point. As the piece reaches its crescendo, his already bulky frame seems to grow. His body stretches up, he flings his arms wide and the players respond with a swell of sound. In fact, the sight of Goldie directing all these bobbing heads resembles nothing more than that of a DJ at the peak of his set, simultaneously feeding off and shaping the mood of a dance floor.

The piece tumbles to a halt and Setterfield, who has been watching from the wings, bounds forward. "That's great!" he shouts. "That's proper music coming out."

"Maestro" is on BBC2 from 12 August

Goldie: The CV

  • 1965 Clifford Joseph Price is born in Walsall to Scottish and Jamaican parents. His father leaves soon after he is born and Price passes through a succession of foster homes.
  • 1986 Becomes involved in break-dancing and graffitiing. He is nicknamed "Goldie" because of his blond dreadlocks. Moves to Miami and sets up a market stall where he engraves gold teeth.
  • 1987 Appears in the documentary Bombin'.
  • 1988 Returns to the UK and learns how to DJ. In 1992 he produces a single, "Terminator", under the pseudonym Metalheadz. It is a hit on the fledgling drum'n'bass scene.
  • 1995His debut album, Timeless, is released to critical acclaim and goes on to sell 250,000 copies. A follow-up album, Saturnz Return (1998), is a commercial and critical flop, despite featuring contributions from Björk, Noel Gallagher and David Bowie.
  • 1999 Launches his acting career, as a Bond villain in The World Is Not Enough. He goes on to appear in Guy Ritchie's Snatch (2000) and as the gangster Angel Hudson in EastEnders (2001-2002).
  • 2002 An autobiography, Nine Lives, is published. Goldie marries Sonjia Ashby, a model, but the pair subsequently divorce.
  • Jonathan Theodore

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class