As a sommelier at London’s Michelin-starred Clove Club, Dominic Smith gets to perform nightly on one of the most renowned gastronomic stages in the world. I wonder, though, how many guests realise that the man pouring their Domaine Tissot Vin Jaune is also the award-winning Dynamite MC, a rapper who’s been whipping up crowds in drum and bass clubs from Berlin to LA, and Elephant & Castle to Hong Kong, for over 20 years.
Smith/Dynamite rose to fame as a rapper on Roni Size’s Mercury Prize-winning album New Forms (1997) – whose fusion of live vocals, skittery beats and slinky strings brought drum and bass out of the clubs and into the mainstream. (If you need a refresh, dial up “Railing” or the full vocal remix of “Brown Paper Bag”.) But when we meet at The Drunken Butler in Clerkenwell – a favourite of his – there’s none of the swagger I associate with the MC. Dressed in a baker-boy cap and freshly pressed shirt, he greets me with an almost dancerly namaste. Then apologises for his five o’clock shadow.
Now 46, Smith is a veteran of the club-music scene. But his entry into wine was relatively recent. “I grew up in Germany, where my dad was stationed in the army, so wine was always around. My real epiphany was with a bottle of 2011 Crocus Malbec de Cahors I ordered to celebrate winning MC of the Year at the Drum&BassArena Awards in 2015. I tasted it and it just hit me: wow, this is incredible, melting, velvet. I Googled it to find out more, and I saw a link to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and I thought, why not go educate myself?”
In less than a year, Smith had completed WSET levels 1, 2 and 3 – enough to equip him for a job in the trade (“Basically, I blitzed it”) – but it wasn’t until he met The Clove Club co-founder Daniel Willis, a Michelin-starred restaurateur who is an avid drum and bass fan, that he seriously entertained the idea of becoming a sommelier.
“I’d gone to this wine and R’n’B event in Brixton called Genuwine, where Dan was DJing. And when he saw me, he was like, ‘You’re Dynamite! What are you doing here?’ I said I’d just done my WSET 3 and he said, ‘I run a restaurant, you should come check it out. I’ll introduce you to the somms’.”
The experience was “completely eye-opening. I’d eaten in fine-dining restaurants all over the world on tour, but there’s a huge difference between being a guest and working in a restaurant, being part of this beautiful ballet that’s going on all the time unnoticed that is practised and rehearsed. The preparation and detail that go into making a restaurant function so seamlessly is incredible. I had to earn my stripes.”
“Presenting wine and dishes is almost like public speaking or performing, and Dominic took to it like a duck to water,” says Willis. “He’s a natural performer and he’s fantastic at reading people. And he has a fantastic palate. I offered him the chance to work with us straight away.”
Tunes to take you from aperitivo hour to taxi home, by Dynamite MC
1. “Make Yourself Comfortable”, Sarah Vaughan
Step inside, take your coat off, it’s time to relax and prepare for the night ahead.
2. “A Night to Remember”, Shalamar
I’ve just opened the magnum, allow me to fill up your glass.
3. “Volare”, Dean Martin
Sit down, enjoy the bubbles. Dean’s timeless charisma will handle the rest.
4. “Soldier”, Erykah Badu
Enticing aromas are filling the air, Erykah will top up your glass with soul.
5. “Lucky Man”, Courtney John
The appetisers are going down a treat. Feel happy, feel lucky.
6. “Stuck in the Middle with You”, Stealers Wheel
This one will even have the chef dancing – but not for too long, the mains are calling.
7. “Lotus 72 D”, Zé Roberto
There may be peppery notes in the Syrah, but there’s now spicy notes coming from the speaker.
8. “Needle in a Haystack”, The Velvelettes
We’re full, but we’re light enough on our feet to twist to this gem from the past.
9. “Lost in U”, Logistics feat McLean
I’m having a conversation with someone who says they don’t like drum and bass, I play them this and they immediately apologise and convert.
10. “What You Won’t Do for Love”, Bobby Caldwell
What a night! Thanks, everyone! As you sit back in your taxi, this comes on the radio. Relax and smile.
Smith’s big loves are champagne and Pinot Noir. “I love Pinot Noir because it’s so diverse depending on where it’s grown – in Burgundy, central Otago, Sonoma, it can have a totally different expression.” He pours me a glass of 2009 Three Sisters Vineyard Pinot Noir from Marcassin in Sonoma, California ($200, from wine.com). “This was one of the first wines I had at The Clove and it made a huge impression on me. It’s juicy, super-ripe, with hints of chocolate – and a long wave goodbye.”
But his favourite part of the job is taking guests off the beaten track. He opens a wax-topped bottle of Chardonnay/Pinot Blanc from alterno English winery Tillingham – it has the zestiness of grapefruit peel, and a lipsmacking saline finish (£32, from tillingham.com). “I love the fact that Ben [Walgate] isn’t being held back. He’s ageing in clay pots – or qvevri – in the ground like in Georgia, and making skin-contact wines and pét-nat rosés. He’s having fun. And his labels are simple but so elegant.”
Smith also thinks the wines of Portugal are “very under-appreciated”. He tips Filipa Pato, a low-intervention winery championing lesser-known, indigenous grape varieties. “Their philosophy is ‘wine without make-up’, which I really like.”
I’m a little sad to learn that Smith has never rapped the wine list at The Clove Club – “when I’m on duty I’m very much in Dominic mode”. But at times his two lives have come hairily close. “I once finished a Clove shift at midnight, changed out of my suit, then went and did a set with Sigma at Ministry of Sound until 3.30am. That was pretty crazy.”
Under normal circumstances, Smith would be out on the road this month promoting his new album Playing in the Dark. Co-written and performed with DRS, it features a roll-call of guest producers, including Roni Size, who bring a kaleidoscope of sonic textures to the 16 tracks. For the time being though, Covid-19 has put paid to any touring.
Instead, he and Daniel Willis have cooked up a wine and music side project they’re calling Grand Kru Soundsystem. Details are still sketchy, but with those two on board, one thing’s sure: they’re going to have one hell of a rider.
Playing in the Dark is out now on Hospital Records, hospitalrecords.com
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