‘The thing I most remember about these funfair visits was being truly terrified, intimidated by, and yet in awe of the leather clad, greasy-quiffed Rocker kids that worked on the rides. Like car mechanics, their hands, faces and clothes were engrained with black swarf, oil and graphite from the rides. But to me they looked just like James Dean, Billy Fury and Gene Vincent, in their black leather biker jackets, and navy donkey jackets, always styled with the collar turned up. They also wore T-shirts, brand new to this country, and drainpipe jeans, battered winkle-pickers shoes, cowboy boots or steel toecap work boots.’
You couldn’t find a better spirit guide to the delightful and delinquent subcultures of our septic isle (and our sister septics across the pond) than Roger K Burton. Not only has he witnessed teds, mods, rockers, hippies, dandies, punks et al in their natural habitats, but he also has an unmatched understanding of the youth movements that preceded them – the spivs, wide boys, swing cats, hep cats and Bobby soxers – and an unerring eye for the divisions and details that marked their boundaries. He knows the full stories of how each of these styles came about – the inspiring films, the maverick tailors, and the various peacocks and ace faces who wore them and changed the world.
This book is a life’s work. Burton was the stylist and costume designer on films like Absolute Beginners, Quadrophenia and Young Soul Rebels. He’s dressed Bowie and Jagger, he supplied Westwood and McLaren with much of the vintage schmutter for their punk-era Let It Rock and Seditionaries stores, even helped them design the World’s End incarnation. He ran his own boutique for years, the Blitz-era PX in Covent Garden, epicentre of New Romantic. Roger has 20,000 items and counting in his collection, which started with a clutch of his grandad’s hand-printed silk ties. It’s now a commercial library for fashion and film, Contemporary Wardrobe Collection
And the book is perfection. The clothes themselves are unbelievable – styled, accessorised and lit immaculately, in ghostly groups that are almost alive. Despite being on headless mannequins, you feel like you’re in the room with these bad boys and girls, adrift in the ’40s, ‘50s, ’60s, ’70s. These are clothes that had the power to make their mark – even occasionally to terrify – and even in less shockable times they possess a certain magic. You find yourself scanning the cut and the detailing, imagining a world inhabited by these bold characters. You’re looking backwards, inevitably, but the realness of the clothes makes it less like nostalgia and more like time travel, as you mentally slip into the outfits you’d steal for yourself.
Throughout the whole book, Burton’s mod aesthetic is to the fore, making sure it’s right in every detail. The amazing clobber is surrounded by brilliant text and contemporary street and movie photos from all the right sources, brimming with those cultural nuggets that bring the story to life – the news stories that created an antihero, the films that brought a particular style into view, the tailor who brought back a new cut from Italy. Every effort has been taken to make sure you’re getting the best references and the full story, and it’s full of little extras that get you closer to the characters who wore it all, like a pair of mod cufflinks with a secret compartment for stashing your Dexys. Frank Broughton
A uniquely revealing meeting of hip hop giants. Towards the end of the first wave of hip hop, Run DMC grabbed the mic and changed the face of rap. Their unique blend of tough lyrical artillery and fat-laced B-boy stylings put the street firmly into a genre that had previously modelled itself on the cosmic outfits of ’80s funk bands. They ripped the rhymes, rocked the set, and consigned everyone that came before them to a museum case marked ‘Old School’. Their 1986 album Raising Hell was a compulsory purchase for UK music-lovers.
But hip hop always kept it fresh and fly, and by the ’90s Run DMC’s trailblazing style had been superceded by a whole new generation. Guru, the lyricist half of Gang Starr, was one of this new school, with his unmistakable downbeat vocals making him one of the coolest. His beatmaster DJ Premier quickly claimed legend status as one of the era’s greatest producers. Guru was no slouch in the studio chair either, as his Jazzmatazz series brought jazz musicans together with beats, rappers and vocalists.
In 1993, Run DMC – Joseph ‘Run’ Simmonds, Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels and Jason ‘Jam Master Jay’ Mizell – returned after a hiatus, during which the group’s musical and personal fortunes had fallen so low many had written them off completely, including themselves. On the release of their comeback album, the god-friendly ‘Down With The King’, British mag Hip-Hop Connection asked Guru to interview them, with Frank holding the tape recorder. Fresh out of the studio himself after completing his first Jazzmatazz album, Guru confessed how much of an inspiration the group had been for him, and asked them about the old days rapping in the parks and wearing glasses with no lenses in.
A much shorter version of this interview appeared in Hip-Hop Connection, 1993
Guru: When I first heard your shit, that was one of the things that inspired me to take rapping seriously. I was a freshman in college and you were going ‘After 12th grade I went straight to college…’ I was like ‘Oh shit.’
DMC: We went to college for two semesters, and that’s when ‘Sucker MCs’ came out. We got a gig in North Carolina, we flew down there, and when we came back home we got more gigs, like Florida, and we had to take a leave of absence. So we’ve been absent ever since.
Guru: You’re never too old to go back and finish.
DMC: You’re never too old to go back. That’s what’s good. This career, it’s fun, you get to see a lot, you get to learn a lot, and then when you find that you do need to go back to school for something there’s less schooling to do, and then you’re complete.
Frank: Can you see yourself sitting at the back of a lecture hall?
DMC: I can. Sometimes you know I get the urge to go back now. I just went to college because I passed the entrance exam for St Johns, business management, so I went to St Johns ’cos it was right in Queens. Back in high school I didn’t even know that I was gonna be a rapper or nothin’. Jay, he had his little crew from two-fifth street, and they called themselves ‘Two-Fifth Down’, and they was the ones from the neighborhood that would bring the turntables to the park, bring out the crates of records and they would just DJ.
I was reluctant, I wouldn’t get on the mic at first. Run used to go into the park and kick his rhyme, cos they knew him – DJ Run – and I would DJ for him. But then I started going to Rice High School up in Harlem, 124th and Lenox, and I used to see the Cold Crush out there, giving out flyers, and they had tapes going around, for like eight and 12 dollars. I would buy the tapes, bring them back home, ‘Yo, check this out, listen to this!’ and boom-bam. Then I just started writing rhymes in English class, and I had a book of rhymes, and you know…
Russell [Simmons, Def Jam label founder and Run’s brother] told Run, ‘Yo, I’ll let you make records but you got to get out of high school first.’ Run was like the professional in the neighborhood. He used to rap with Kurtis Blow, go into the park and kick his rhyme, ’cos they knew him – DJ Run. Everybody else was just nervous and learning, so Run would come and bust his rhyme. It took a long time before I would get on the mic with him. I would DJ for him, or sit in the park holding my beer sayin’, ‘No you go over I’ll see you later.’ I didn’t really start rapping with him until he came and said ‘Yo D, we got a record.’ When we graduated he came, ‘Yo D, the name of the record is “It’s Like That”, the second record be “Sucker MCs”. Go home and write rhymes about, you know, the world.’ So I went home and we went and put it together. And boom!
Guru: That was it.
DMC: It hit. I remember when I first heard ‘It’s Like That’ on Kiss. I was sitting home, ‘They’re gonna play your record today’. I’m like ‘Yeah right’. It was about eight, eight thirty, ‘Its Like That’ came on — yeah!!!
Guru: That’s dope. I remember when I heard that too.
DMC: Then ‘Sucker MCs’ dropped’…
Guru: ‘I’m driving a Caddy, you’re fixing a Ford’. That one too, ‘Rock Box’ was dope. All of ‘em.
DMC: ‘Rock Box’ got us on MTV. I remember we made two versions, Russell and them had put guitar on it later, so when me and Run heard it we was mad, ’cos we just wanted the beat and the rhyme, with a little echo, with the Tramp beat, boom, and me and Run. When they said they’re gonna put a rock guitar on it, we was little kids, we were like ‘Oh man!’ But then it dropped. What sold me on it was my man Yogi that lived up the block from me. He’s giving me all these praises about ‘Rock Box’, and I’m looking at him like, ‘You like it?’ So then it started to grow and I said yeah. its not corny. It’s new and shit but it was still in there.
Guru: It was something different that nobody ever did.
DMC: That helped us. We did a rock tune on this new album, with Rage Against the Machine. But it ain’t like were gonna try and make ‘Rock Box’ over and over, you know.
Guru: So who did you all work with on the new album?
DMC: Pete Rock did two, EPMD did one, Q-Tip did one, Specialist, who does Mad Cobra and Shabba, he did one, Jermaine Dupri did one, Diamond D did one, and the guy that Jay did Onyx with, he did two.
Guru: Ah yeah, he got some fly beats. I know Onyx. We were trying to get to that video, but we had a show that weekend, we got back like one o’clock in the morning, you guys were all done.
DMC: We got finished at two o’clock, A lot of phone calls. A lot of people came down.
DMC: And Hank shocklee did one.
Guru: You got all the fat producers on your album. I cant wait to hear it all man. I just did a jazz album with these three old cats from records that we be samplin’: Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston-Smith; and three of the new cats: Branford Marsalis, this saxophonist from London, Courtney Pine, and this guy Ronnie Jordan from London, who plays guitar. I did all the production, all the beats. It’s a fusion of hip hop and jazz. I didn’t sample nothing they did, but all my beats are like regular hip hop beats. They played and I just rhymed. Its called Jazzmatazz. I did it because we were one of the first groups to use jazz in rap. Plus, my pops, my uncle and all of them, they love jazz. so that was a tribute to them. But it ain’t like I’m a ‘jazz rapper’. People want to label you.
DMC: Like they labelled us ‘rock rappers’.
Guru: It’s a blessing to be able to do music for a living. That’s a lesson right there in itself.
Frank: What were you doing before?
Guru: Working as a case worker for foster kids. Hustling and running around. Frustrated!
DMC: It’s cool. It’s cool when you get to do something that you like, too.
Guru: Some of these chumps be taking it for granted though.
Guru: We just been talking a little bit, but we was waiting for you. D was talking about when you used to be rocking a mic in the park, and he used to be DJing for you.
Run: Who, D? At Doug’s block? You was good!
Guru: How do you feel about the rappers that come out now? They’re successful and all that, but they don’t know much about the old school, or about the history, the artform.
DMC: What I think they should try to do, I think a lot of rappers should really try to learn their history.
Guru: Does it get to you if these new jacks come up and you can tell they don’t know nothing about the old days and the history of rap. Does it irk you at all?
DMC It doesn’t really irk me, but a lot of the new jacks’ll come out and make hit records and they’ll think that everything before them was wack, weak and abolished. They won’t give the respect that is due to the whole artform.
Guru: I think that’s how you have longevity when you…
Run: …know what it’s about
Jam Master Jay arrives
Guru: We was hanging with Jay at a club in Brooklyn, Rendezvous, the night they had a crazy shoot-out. They had to show up in there. We did something at SOBs I think you were at, too. Branford played with us. He just played with us as a guest.
I wanna talk more about the old school, and stuff like the influences and what it was like. Like when did you all start wearing the sneakers with no laces?
Run: Back in the end of high school. All through high school, way before. We’d wear one red and one green, or one Puma and one Adidas. You brought the girls out comin’ out with no shoestrings. Jay was the man in high school. Old Jay with a big velour, and then sneakers with no shoestrings, and then glasses with no shades in them. That was the move, right there. That was fly.
Jay: Hip hop has a lot to do with fashion. Before Run DMC started we we would go look at Cold Crush, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, I mean we really looked up to these kids, you know what I’m saying, and when we go see them on stage, they dressed a whole ’nother way. They was dealin’ with a whole ’nother lifestyle. They was on some rock’n’roll trip…
Jay: Just out like George Clinton or something…
DMC …Rick James!
Jay: They was dressing and beatin’ and buggin’.
DMC: That was like Fearless Four, and Flash, even Cold Crush got into it after a while, wearing all that stuff.
Run: What happened was they got confused because they started going on tour with Rick James, and they saw how much the crowd would respond to them dressed in all like that.
Jay: I was so much of a true B-boy there’s no way in the world I could do that. So when we got our chance, we just dressed the way we dressed in Hollis. To get fly to us was just to be to put on a fresh pair of adidas. Funky fresh out the box. No dirt on them. I never understand how D kept his sneakers so clean. A pair of Lees, and a fresh Al Paco you know what I’m sayin – to match the Adidas. And a velour or a Panama, with the ribbon that’s matching your sneakers.
Run: That’s that pimp shit.
Jay: It’s that pimp shit, but the pimps ain’t rockin’ the Lees, the pimps ain’t rockin’ the jeans. We put that feeling to the public. We let people know that hip hop is not just about the music, its about the style, the culture and the lifestyle. Like I used to be amazed to look at artists the way they drew on the trains. Some kids was crazy dope, a train’d go by, there’d be a gun, and somebody getting’ shot, with their name tagged up.
Guru: Sneaking into a train yard to do that. Just so somebody could notice it, that’s fly.
Jay: Its hectic.
Guru: When you get your tracks together, how do you get your concepts for your album, and your tracks? Do you get your titles first? How do you go about it?
Run: We know what we’re gonna do before we get there. Like we know that it’s gonna fly up, and then it’s gonna drop. It’s hard to say how we made our tracks. We made ’em and we made the vocals at the same time. It was a mixture.
Jay: D would go boom-bap, and then we just had to make you do that again D: boom-bap, ka-boom-boom-bap.
DMC: Or sometimes we would write a rhyme, and just by the way the rhyme go, Jay would say, ‘Yo D, start at the pillar right there, go bang, gonna drop that, like that.
Run: Like when we made ‘Hit It Run’, we wasn’t sampling back then, so we would make verdrrrrrum kish, vrun-de-dun-kish kuf-kuf-kit kuf-ke-kuf-kit.
DMC: Just sit down and play it. Just play it with the drum machine.
Guru: That’s coming back a little, ’cos people are tired of loopin’ breakbeats, so they take samples, chop ’em up, and make your own beat that’s a little similar but new.
Jay: Q-Tip did that.
Guru: All this stuff with sampling, what do you think about that? You got people’s albums coming out late because they gotta clear all the samples.
Run: Truthfully, I love the way this samplin’ stuff sounds, but I wish that the whole thing flips back in a way. I kinda wish it would go away a little bit, ’cos it’s buggin’ me out with getting samples cleared. They want to flip! How much? I’m charging you this, I’m charging you that. I’m tired of having to pay these people.
DMC: I think it is going away.
Run: It needs to go away because it’s buggin’. It’s wack now. It sounds good the way Pete Rock does it, it sounds so def. He’ll muffle the bass a bit and it sounds different. It definitely was a feeling, a whole spirit. But it can go the way where regular tracks sound just as def, like Dr Dre.
Guru: Dr Dre uses a lot of them
Run: He knows what he wants to sample, but he says, maybe I can make this bassline sound like something else. Dr Dre did it so def that you know it can be done.
Jay: Usually, when you sample, you sample just a bassline, then you go somewhere else and get somebody else’s.
Guru: You weave different records and stuff.
Jay: Just like Teddy Riley do. He used different records but he’ll play ’em and he’ll change ’em a little bit.
Guru: The people who are against sampling, they don’t understand that rap music started with turntables. Now it’s a billion dollar industry, but it started with catching a beat, and then the machines came out so you could do more.
Jay: I think rapping evolved from us not wanting to hear disco.
Run: One thing I like is that rap is straight from the ghetto. And God loves to work way down in the dirt. He doesn’t deal in no high industry. That’s why Dr Dre’s video is so cool [Nuthin’ But A G Thang] . His mother screams ‘Snoopy!’ and you know his name was Snoopy when he was a kid. It’s that whole thing what rap stands for. She’s yelling ‘You know if you break something and you can’t pay for it!’
Guru: There ain’t no people dancing or nothing in it. They ain’t trying to play hard, they just…
Run: I like the fact that they already know that Dr Dre is a large producer. ‘I heard your album’s a bomb.’ They ain’t even tryin’ to front for Dr Dre, but he’s large and he’s saying he’s putting my brother Snoop Dog on. That’s what I love so much about the way Dr Dre produced that video. It just shows you what rap is about, and what’s really dope, and you’re still a mystery to a lot of people. Once they get to know you too good, you kind of lose your appeal, but when you start and you’re coming from the street, people be like, ‘Damn, I wonder where that Run is at?’
Jay: Right, they wonder what we’ve been up to.
Run: So now we’re a mystery again. I don’t mean a mystery as in not known, I mean they just want to know more about us again. That’s what makes Snoop Dog so large, and even Dr Dre, as big as he is, he’s still a mystery, ’cos damn, you went and found a nigga named Snoop Dog in Longbeach, and he’s your man now.
Jay: He put Longbeach on the map because the only thing they knew Longbeach for was that riot that they had.
Run: What makes rap really dope is the ghetto aspect – that it’s from the street, and people love to want to know about that, man. They want to know where you from, like what is Guru about, man?’ They saw your video, and just to get a rep the kid bust the bottle and the sneakers, and you’re like, woah, Gang Starr!
Guru: Let me ask you this. How do you feel if somebody say to you, ‘Ah, you’re making a comeback’? As far as I’m concerned you’ve always been here.
Run: My personal opinion about the word ‘comeback’ is that it don’t bother me man. For some people over in Nebraska somewhere funny, they ain’t seen me in a while. You leave somewhere and you’re not hitting that market. You come back! I’m back and I’m hitting again, so the word ‘comeback’ doesn’t bother me.
DMC: I met Madonna the other day and she wants to know what’s up with Run DMC, and I said we trying to come back in the ’90s, come one more time, she’s like, ‘Uh-huh you guys gotta come ten more times.’ I like the people that go ‘You’re still down, youre still together. Run DMC coming again?’
Guru: You were talking about God earlier, how important is religion in y’all lives? I know obviously it is but…
Run: It’s the most important thing. Its the number one thing. In our whole life. God made the world, He made everything. He made us who we are. He made us be larger than everybody. We’re praying all the time. It’s bringing us back into this thing stronger. People used to say Run DMC is dead and stinking. We stand up on faith cos people didn’t think Run DMC had a chance to come back, but we knew, it was up to God, so now we’re hitting again.
Guru: ‘Only G.O.D. could be a king to me, if the god be in me then a king I be.’
Run: Exactly correct. The thing with God is this is our whole life. We get something by the way we hold that God’s doing something. Another person would just think it’s by chance, but things don’t happen by chance. You get a blessing. And we just got blessed. That’s how we take everything. Everything to us is God. And I think I’m speaking for the whole group.
DMC: Since day one. Our whole thing was watch your day.
Run: When we started we was, ‘We gotta watch our day,’ ‘Watch your day, Jay,’ and we just go out of our way to help a brother, or just know that God’s looking at us.
Jay: Just checking your day. You wake up in the morning, you do something positive, go out of your way to do something positive, you will receive a blessing. It comes back to you. If you wake up in the morning and you’re thinking negative, you think, ‘Man, I’m gonna go get with the niggas and shoot these mothers, or I’ma rob up motherfuckers, word – you gonna wind up getting shot, and killed.
Run: That comes back to you.
Jay: In that same life, you wake up in the morning and say regardless: I’m gonna do something positive. I’ma do something good today. I’ma make a difference. That’s faith.
Run: We stand up on faith cos people didn’t think Run DMC had a chance to come back. But we knew that it was up to God, so now we hitting again.
Guru: Tell me about the album and the time in between, like recently. What made this all come together?
Run: We went through seven, eight years of straight success, and then we had to gather it back together. We was making rhymes, I was writing rhymes, Jay was busy producing other acts, we were opening record companies. It wasn’t nothing much. I called D and we met up. I got this thing, let’s write this D – how should we kick a ill style? You know trying to grab time, hang out with each other. That’s all. It was a building process.
Jay: I think when we were on top, even though we used to rock everybody at the shows, we was holding back. We would hold back as a group. There was a lotta ideas I wanted to do, a lotta ideas Run and D wanted to do, that we would never do…
Run: …because we had so many hit records,
Jay: We had so many hit records. It was working.
Guru: How was it working with the different producers?
Run: Diamond’s real old school. So working with him was a lot of fun, EPMD, Hank Shocklee was a pusher, a hard worker,
Guru: He seems real intense.
Run: Jermaine Dupri is a little genius. He knows what he knows. He was good too, and working with the Specialist, he knew what he wanted.
Run: I was kind of dazed, but you now it was cool, going from person to person. I was nervous trying to gather this together. I just wanted to go into the studio and come out with things that I knew were dynamic. I put my input in, and I let them put in their new stuff, ‘cos I didn’t want to be stagnant. I didn’t want to be like, Prince or something. Like ’cos he feel he gotta do it all his self.
Guru: You have a whole album here where you’re working with new producers. Is that the way forward or are you going to go back to working as a self-sufficient unit? What about Run DMC as just you three guys?
Jay: I want a hit record for my group, we’re a professional group. Go in the studio, whoever got the fat tracks, I don’t care if it’s Joe Schmo from the basement. He comes up with the fat track we’ll do it. No, I don’t care who makes our hit. Michael wasn’t like ‘Well I ain’t letting Quincy Jones do that, I’m Michael Jackson…’
Run: A producer don’t mean nothing. Oh, ‘They went platinum this time because Pete Rock helped them,’ so what? Pete Rock didn’t write me my rhyme. Larry Smith made ‘Sucker MCs’, Rick Rubin helped with ‘Raising Hell’, and Russell. These people are producers… Pete Rock didn’t write my rhymes. Pete Rock gave me some music… I did that. I rapped over it. Thank you very much for producing me, see ya. He can’t come and do it on stage for me.
Jay: Let Pete rock go platinum, my whole thing is it’s still Run DMC. We’ve been down for 10, 11 years and we’re not going nowhere. As far as what we’re doing on stage. This is going to be us.
Run: We ain’t got no ego like that. People are going to say what they’re going to say, but the point is, we coming out with these records and they’re hit records. Their beef is, this is just producers. So what? We’re rappers, we’re not producers.
Jay: I want songs, right. I want songs. We didn’t write ‘Walk This Way’. I want songs. I want hits, I want longevity. We have love so we give love. We’re not greedy. The only reason not to take tracks from other people would be money. But if Pete Rock has a fat track, I’m not going to tell him I don’t want it, I just want mine, mine, mine.
Run: You’d go stale like that…
Guru: That’d be fucked up!
Run: The only person I know that do that is Prince and he bugs me out when he comes out with an album that don’t hit. But he does that – he don’t want nobody to do nothing for him.
Guru: Like Premier did five tracks for KRS for BDP’s new album; I didn’t say ‘Yo man you can’t do that because them shits is dope. I knew Premier always wanted to work with somebody like that, I’m not going to say, oh ’cos you’re my DJ, you can’t.’ It’s not about that.
Jay: I’m mad that Premier didn’t do nothing on our tracks…
Run: You were telling us all the time.
Jay: I always wanted Premier to do something on this album. This is a crazy fat album. I know Premier would have helped a lot.
Guru: Future’s bright!
Guru: What about all these so-called new styles that came out? I heard about five demos trying to sound like Onyx. I like certain groups who are doing it – Das EFX, Treach, and Fu Schnickens – but it seems like after that a whole bunch of groups started coming out with the rolling the tongue and that. And those are styles that have been done before. Biz Markie used to do it, when he was just telling stories, and Slick Rick. Even you: you was like ‘riggy rhyme’ and all of that.
Run: Cold Crush was doin’ it too, ‘a lama lama lama.’
Guru: Little 14-year-old kids come up to me, battling me in the street, ‘Yo, you can’t do the triple-tongue-twister, Guru, I’ll burn you! And I’m like, ‘Yo, money, here’s the address, put your stuff on tape, and send us a tape. If it sounds good on tape then that’s how you know. But how do you feel about that whole thing?
Run: About tongue twisting? Its def, sometimes. It’s corny too, man, when all I hear is ‘rhymin’ a riggedy rock the shop and…’ Don’t give me that, know what I’m sayin’. Come to me and give me something that’s real dope.
Guru: Certain groups perfected it though.
Run: Das EFX was incredible. And then Fu Schnickens does his thing. My personal thing is, I don’t really want to hear this new guy, that I never heard, comin’ with a whole lot of that jiggedy rock da dack da jiggedy ’cos you heard Das EFX and now that’s what you want to do.
Run: You dont wanna do that now ’cos they did it already. That’s fake, man.
Guru: Just like after you came out other groups came out using rock. They tried to rhyme the way y’all rhyme, the whole thing. Like when Chuck D came out a lot of groups came out trying to rhyme like Chuck…
Run: …and be Afrocentric and all that.
Jay: But that’s positive I think what they was talking about was cool.
Run: Its good for that awareness, but if you do it and its wack its just wack anyway, it ain’t going to hit, just sayin’ ‘I’m black’.
Jay: But somebody gonna see it. Just getting that message across to one other person, I still think that’s positive.
DMC: The whole thing is positive.
Run: It’s definitely positive.
Jay: I mean we was talking about styles, but when you start talking about what they talking about, that’s positive, because when we was comin’ up, there was nobody talking about ‘black’ nothing. In the late ‘70s there was no young black folk on TV.
DMC: It was all disco and John Travolta.
Guru: How is it like, playing live, playing big shows again? Like at Radio City everyone came to see Naughty By Nature, but you killed the show.
Run: People didn’t know what to expect, but Naughty knew we was gonna be dope.
Jay: Naughty looks out man. When nobody cared about Run DMC, Treach was going around doing his interviews, saying. ‘Yo, my favourite people are Run DMC.’ I mean we were dead and stinking to everybody, but he always gave us mad respect and he didn’t lose no face. West coast was going mad, blowin’ up, Treach was like, ‘Yo, I’m down with Run DMC, Run’s my idol, I rap like Run. When we first met him, he was like I love you. I give y’all mad props.
Run: Our record wasn’t even out yet.
Jay: He was ‘Oh, y’all about to do your record? Yo, we coming out about the same time, let’s go on tour together.’ Promoters didn’t want to go with us but he was like if Run DMC ain’t going, we not going.
Run: He was looking out for us. He knew we wanted that and we needed that.
Guru: That’s loyalty…
Run: That’s loyalty and he’s hot as a fire cracker.
Guru: But he’s real, he ain’t like souped or nothing. He’s real.
Jay: On the strength of that I always give them props. We go on stage, we battle we leave the stage. After Radio City, we hung out all night: me and my man. For all the people out there that’s trying to diss, I don’t want to say no names, but y’all niggas need to chill.
Guru: It’s like we went on the EPMD tour for the Hit Squad, we opened up for all of them, we didn’t care. And after that we all had fun together and that was just how it was, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. But what the media does, sometimes – and people in the industry – they make you feel like there ain’t enough room for everybody to get some. They ask you, ‘What do you think of this artist, what do you think of that artist?’ Just because I did a record with jazz in it, what do I think of Digable Planets. They alright. I got nothing against them. I met them and they was cool people. They doing their thing, I’m doing my thing. It’s not the same thing but it’s all involved in rap and hip hop. Each group is different, has their own style and originality, but why always do we have to get compared from one to the other?
Frank: Well, that’s marketing, that’s how the business does it…
Guru: It’s not cool. When I get asked questions that could be worded like I dissed a group, I’ll be like, ‘Man, listen, I ain’t saying nothing.’
Run: Ain’t no reason to diss. There’s room for everybody to get busy.
Guru: If you concentrate all your energies on dissing you get nowhere at all.
Run: Jesus, you get nowhere at all.
Guru: One thing I always noticed with y’all. Stage is like y’alls home, man.
Jay: Out of all this shit, the interviews, the making the records, the sampling, all that, the stage is the real shit. The stage is like being in the park. Everything else is like, you know, working, bugging. These two years we’ve toured a lotta clubs, we did a lotta club gigs and what-not, and we just got crazy mad tight as a band.
Run: That’s the love. That’s the flavour.
Guru: Y’all have always had that. That’s one thing they can never take away.
Run: I don’t wanna boost us up, but we know we’re a band live. All we got to really do is perform in front of these people that have heard that Run DMC’s fallen off. They’ll see we’re the def, the real fly band. When Jay comes out and scratches live, we will hurt up a group so bad, hurt up a rap magazine so bad.
Jay: Even when we fell off. Even when the whole world was saying we were wack, we were going to a club…
Run: …and hurting!
Jay: Behind anybody, in front of anybody, whatever, Shabba Ranks, whoever was hype at that moment. We would go into a spot and give them a run for their money. Like you know – hits are hits.
The votes have been counted, the adjudicators have adjudicated and the king has abdicated (subject to confirmation). The number one slot on this year’s Furtive 50 goes to the Mancunian scourge of worldwide discos, Ruf Dug, aided by the delightful Private Joy, with their wistful paean to streetsoul, ‘Don’t Give Up’. We caught up with the Dugster, tending to his ferrets on the allotment, and asked him a few questions. Answers (and the full rundown of the Furtive 50) below.
So tell me about the genesis of Don’t Give In? How did you meet Private Joy and how did the tune come about? I genuinely can’t remember making the beat. To me the Rhodes sounds like ‘Summer Madness’ and the piano solo is a cross between ‘Promenade Sentimentale’ from the Diva soundtrack and Moby. I sent an instrumental demo to Gerd Janson with a bunch of other tracks and this was the one he was really crazy for, but I couldn’t quite see it myself. It was his mega A&R skills that led to the vocal, he texted me one day saying, “Do you know anyone who can sing on it?” Private Joy is Pops from Lovescene who I’d previously collaborated with on ‘Make This Right’. This track seemed tailor made for her genius.
How do you make music, is there a set process? Do you fiddle about with machines until something emerges or is it a bit more focussed than that? Yeah it’s just constant fiddling and hoping that what I’m doing manages to keep my attention held long enough to finish the fucker. If I can get to 80% done without being totally bored of the tune I can usually finish it then. I’m definitely not one of these producers who has their workflow nailed and bangs out an album a week.
When you’re making tracks/songs in the studio what are you visualising; how other people will hear them playing in a club, playing on the radio? Or what? I don’t know if I visualise much when I’m actually making the tracks… Defo more moods and feelings rather than images and even then I think the feelings are kind of abstract: dark/light, up/down…
How did you get into dance music in the first place? Xmas 1984, got my first ever Walkman and a Now That’s What I Call Music tape, put it on and heard Giorgio Moroder & Phil Oakey’s ‘Together In Electric Dreams’ and that synth line at the start totally reprogrammed my brain and things have never been the same since.
Did you always want to be a DJ/producer or was it a happy accident? About a similar time we were on holiday in Ibiza, I would have been about 10, and saw a mobile DJ in a bar somewhere, playing all the hits. It was the first time I’d ever seen two decks, slip-cueing, headphone monitoring etc and I was hooked.
What’s your most memorable gig and why was it so good? My first ever gig was at an outdoor squat party in Sydney down the end of the runways of Sydney airport. The sun was rising, I was playing with a broken hand and a bunch of ravers were mooning planes as they were coming into land.
Which is more fun: DJing or producing? And why? DJing. I’m a pretty decent producer but I’m a fucking amazing DJ and I love it.
If you had to pick one record you’ve produced that best represents your sound, which one would it be? I’m very fond of ‘Don’t Give In’ and you’re only as good as your last tune right? This is the one for me.
Have you ever seen a DJ playing who changed the way you approached the job? Derrick May, Theo Parrish, Simon Caldwell, DJ Gemma… all DJs I saw in Sydney when I was first starting out that informed me on a million different levels.
What are your plans for 2023? Working on my audiophile system more and doing more parties, more broadcasting and more tunes. Many thanks to all who enjoyed ‘Don’t Give In’ enough to vote for it! DjHistory has been one of my biggest teachers over the years so to receive this honour is genuinely meaningful to me. I’m buzzing a LOT!
FURTIVE 50, 2022
RUF DUG X PRIVATE JOY – Don’t Give In
ALEX KASSIAN – Strings Of Eden
PINKY PERZELLE – No Games (VS&THOG Mix)
RHEINZAND – Facciamo L’Amore
LADY BLACKBIRD – Lost & Looking (Cosmodelica Remix)
ETERNAL LOVE – Altar EP
CONFIDENCE MAN – Holiday (Erol Alkan Rework)
A MOUNTAIN OF ONE – Star
STR4TA – When You Call Me
LANOWA – My Fantasy EP
SAY SHE SHE – Forget Me Not
EDDIE CHACON – Holy Hell
MAGREHBAN FT. OMAR – Waiting
NAT HOME – Witching Hour
COYOTE – Kate’s Bush
GENIUS OF TIME – Sunswell EP
CRUISIC – Pacific 707
CHRONIXX – Never Give Up
LEA LISA – Love To The End
DANNY TENAGLIA – The Brooklyn Gypsy
CHERRIE BEA – Jafar’s 21st
BOLIS PUPUL – Neon Buddha/Rendez-Voodoo
EMMA-JANE THACKRAY – Venus (BSO Remix)
TORNADO WALLACE – Dream Corner EP
TIGERBALM – Kete (Mang Dynasty Remix)
THE ZENMENN & JOHN MOODS – Out Of My Mind
JUSTIN DEIGHTON, PETE HERBERT, LEO ZERO – Sentiments Of Soho Theatre
ATHLETES OF GOD FT. LADY BLACKBIRD – Don’t Wanna Be Normal
JAMES ALEXANDER BRIGHT – Wheels Keep Turning
DJ LEINAD – Souvenirs (Deep Dean Remix)
CANTOMA FT. QUIN LAMONT LUKE – Alive (Conrad’s Vacant Lot Remix)
HIDDEN SPHERES – You Are Not Your Body
DAVID HOLMES FT. RAVEN VIOLET – It’s Over If We run Out Of Love
OMAR S – Can’t Explain
ALEX BOMAN FT. BELLA BOO – Nowhere Good
CAPINERA – Suonno
MAU P – Drugs From Amsterdam
BSS – De Regenboog
GUINU – Palago (Jose Marquez Remix)
HAAI & JON HOPKINS – Baby, We’re Ascending
JAMES RIGHTON FT. BENNY ANDERSSON – Empty Rooms
JACK J – Only You Know Why
GRAMRCY & JOHN LOVELESS – High Dive
OVEOUS X DON KAMARES – Legacy
PIG&DAN – Make You Go Higher (David Morales Stereo Mix)
CARLOS NIÑO & FRIENDS – Actually
RCHARD SEN – My Definition Of Funk
MAXINE SCOTT – Erykah U Bad (North Street West Vocal)
Mudd Club, Danceteria, Ritz, Area… Despite having spun at many of the greatest spots in New York clubland through its transformative ’80s, Justin Strauss is not one to dwell on his past. He’s more interested in his next remix than the nearly 300 he’s clocked up; thinking forward to playing Panorama Bar rather than looking back to those dancefloors of downtown legend. Nevertheless, ask him about those sparkling years, when rents were cheap and Manhattan was a crucible of creativity, and the stories start rolling. And it all begins with an amazing tale of little Justin signed to Island as a teenage glam sensation. His recent production projects include Extra Credit with Marcus Marr and Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard; and Each Other, which is Justin and Max Pask. For the perfect reading soundtrack, scroll down for his great 1987 mix live from the last night of Area.
What’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to you in music? Wow. You’re starting with the tough questions. When I was 17 years old, my band Milk ’n’ Cookies got signed to Island Records in the UK, which was unheard of back in 1974. We were a New York band, just making demo tapes in the basement. We loved Sparks, and we sent our tape to their manager, and they got back to us saying, ‘We’ve played your tape for Island Records, and they love you, [songwriter and A&R legend] Muff Winwood’s coming to see you play in your basement’. That changed my life. I’ve been doing music ever since,
What was it like performing for Muff Winwood in your basement? It was quite fun, actually. We had all our friends down there and Muff was a fun guy, and he just signed us on the spot. He told my parents, ‘Well, we’re taking your son to England and he’s going to record an album with his band for Island Records.’
Amazing! It was an incredible experience because England was always my musical inspiration, and it was my first trip to Europe. They put us up in a townhouse in South Kensington and we recorded our album in Basing Street Studios with Muff and Rhett Davis, who went on to produce B-52’s and all the Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry stuff. It was magic – just being here at that time, and with the people at Island at that time, like Sparks, Roxy Music, Eno. The Wailers were in there recording one of their early albums before anyone knew who they were. Someone took me into the studio where they were recording and I couldn’t see a thing. There was so much smoke.
It was just like a dream come true, but then everything went sour and the dream became sort of a semi-nightmare. The first single came out and it didn’t do what was expected. Then they got cold feet. We were this glam, pre-punk kind of thing. We recorded pre-punk and it was supposed to come out in ’75. Then the punk thing exploded in 1976 and they were like, ‘Wait, we have this Milk ‘n’ Cookies album, let’s put it out’. We imploded so I moved to LA with one of the other band members and re-formed the band out there.
How did the band start in the first place? I went to high school in Long Island, which is like the suburbs. This is mid-’70s. My classmates were into the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead if they were into music at all. And sports. And I wasn’t that guy. I was into music 24/7. Every week I’d run and get Melody Maker, NME, every magazine I could … Cream, Rolling Stone, whatever it was. I was obsessed.
I saw this girl one day in the hall and she looked amazing, and different than anyone else. I had to meet this girl. I was kind of shy, but a friend of mine was in a class with her. She introduced me. We started going out and she somehow knew the other guys. So, we just got together. They said, ‘We want to get a singer. You look like a singer.’ I wasn’t a singer, but I gave it a try. My dad had a TEAC four-track tape machine, so I started recording them in my basement. I joined the band, and then we just started making demos and rehearsing. That’s how that happened. I mean, music has been my whole life, and basically still is.
When you were a kid, who was the first artist or band that really captured your imagination? The Beatles. I was seven years old, and the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan. And that was the moment, this blew my mind. My dad was into music and I remember going with my dad to the record store. I bought my first Beatles single, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. to sing the beat. And from that moment on, all I cared about was music.
And every Beatles album was an event when you were a kid. You didn’t know what it was going to be… From Rubber Soul to Revolver, to obviously Sgt. Pepper. I mean, it was just insane how they developed. But I was also into James Brown and funk and Motown and soul records as well.
You said you were really into British bands. Yeah. Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who. Then all that followed. I super got into David Bowie. He was a major, major influence for me. Into glam, into Sweet, into T. Rex, David Bowie, Sparks. Then the New York Dolls happened, and I started going to all these New York Dolls shows, and that’s what kind of made it seem that something we could do.
They were pretty crap as well, weren’t they? No, they were amazing. They were amongst the best things I’ve ever seen in my life.
In terms of the show, or…? The Beatles and all that stuff seemed far away and didn’t seem like we could ever do that. But here’s this New York band who… They were what they were, but it was exciting. And they got a record deal. We started this little band and I was like, ‘Maybe we can do that.’ It made it seem possible for a New York band like ours to happen.
So how did you start DJing? I was in LA after the band broke up and when I got a call from an ex-girlfriend. I said, ‘I want to come home.’ She said, ‘Yeah, come home. There’s this club that just opened, the Mudd Club. You should DJ there.’ I said, ‘I don’t DJ. I’ve never DJed.’ I didn’t even really understand. And she said, ’It doesn’t matter. You have tons of records and I’m friends with the DJ, so I’m sure you can try it out.’ Lo and behold, I came back and the DJ said, ‘Why don’t you come one night and bring some records?’ I played, and the owner of the Mudd Club said, ‘Hey, I like what you’re doing. Do you want to work here on Thursday nights?’ That’s how I started DJing.
What kind of music were you playing at the Mudd Club? It was really just stuff from my record collection, which was a lot of soul, funk, early punk, all the new wave stuff, to the leftfield disco stuff and reggae. It was a real mix, and I was just playing new and old records together. I didn’t really know the concept of mixing records. The Mudd Club didn’t have 1200s or a real mixer. [The booth] was literally perched at the end of the bar, but it was an amazing scene. Studio 54 had been the focus up to then. Then that scene became very commercialised and people were bored. Mudd Club was the first place where a lot of the artists gathered, a lot of the cool people who didn’t want to go to Studio 54, because they thought it was too chi-chi and the music was boring.
What did the club actually look like? Whereabouts was it? 77 White Street in Tribeca, a few blocks below Canal Street, right by Chinatown, in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing happening back there. The guy who started it, Steve Mass, just got this building. The first floor was a long bar and at the end of it was the DJ ‘booth’. There was a small dancefloor, and then the bathrooms in the back, which were semi-notorious for tomfoolery. And upstairs was a space where they had some gallery shows, performance art. You had a lot of amazing people in New York at that time: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf would all do things there. And there was also Club 57 going on in New York. So there’s this real new thing happening. Nothing planned, nothing organised, but it just felt right.
I mean, you could afford to move to New York back then in 1980. You could get a place for $200 a month, because no one wanted to live there because it was ‘dangerous’. The city was in shambles at that point. Real estate was more affordable. So, you had people who could come and do their art and go out at night, and it was a really special time.
What was the Mudd Club crowd like? It was just a lot of kids dressed up. A lot of downtown artists and people. It was kind of your friends. It felt like walking into your living room or something, because you knew everyone. Everyone knew each other. It was a small scene. The New York scene back then was maybe a couple of hundred people.. It was like, on any given night, anything can happen.
And then the uptown crowd. Andy Warhol was kind of a connection between the uptown and downtown, because he could mingle with both. And so he became friends with Keith [Haring]. He became friends with Jean-Michel [Basquiat], and then people like Mick Jagger, David Bowie would come and hang out at the Mudd Club. And so you had a really great mix of people, which always makes the best club.
The doorman from the Mudd Club just put out a book, detailing his experiences. It’s pretty interesting; he had a little chain and he would let downtown people in before he would let the cool or uptown socialites. They’d be made to wait outside while some kid would just get in. It was well-curated, so to speak. It was a really fun experience.
When did you start to realise the possibilities for DJing? I’d always been interested in dance music. I always collected a lot of records from funk to soul, I bought the first 12-inches that came out. Me and my girlfriend, we were 16. We would get let into Studio 54, and we went to 12 West. We went to Infinity, but it didn’t really hit me till I went to see François K. I had met him at the Mudd Club and he invited me down to see him play at this after hours club called AM/PM in New York. And he was the first one that I really saw mixing records together, and it just blew my mind. He showed me the basics. I didn’t have two turntables in my house, and I still don’t. I’ve never practiced DJing.
How long did you play at Mudd Club? Maybe a year or a little less. And then I got the job at The Ritz, which was a much bigger club. It’s where Webster Hall ended up. It was massive. Mudd Club was maybe 100, 200 people in there tops. And The Ritz was like maybe a thousand. And they had three turntables there. By that point they had the early Technics. I forget what model it is before the 1200. And they had a Bozak mixer, so I started just doing it, trying to mix all these records together from different genres. The Ritz was primarily a new wave rock club, as they were called back then. But I was really influenced by what François was doing.
Then he took me to The Garage one night. And that of course just opened my mind to what a DJ meant, by listening to Larry Levan. What a DJ could do and what it meant to be a DJ and play that music for people, and connect with them. Emotionally and physically. And I tried to bring that to what I was doing, because it really had a powerful effect on me. And I developed my own style of all these genres and making it work together. You know, Arthur Russell records mixed in with Yazoo, or whatever was going on at the time. That was exciting.
Everyone played at the Ritz. Band-wise it was the dream. Everyone from Kraftwerk to Prince to Kid Creole and the Coconuts to Tina Turner, Depeche Mode, Human League, Gang of Four. Anyone you’d ever want to see, and I’d play before, in between, and after the bands.
Did it end at midnight? No I’d stay till four. And they were also the first club to have videos, before MTV. They had a huge screen that came down, one of the first massive video projectors. It was huge and cost like $250,000. An amazing experience to be part of that and be part of something new.
You also played at Danceteria. Tell me about that. Danceteria was an amazing place. It moved a few times, but it was multilevel, so you had different DJs on different floors. My friend Mark Kamins was playing there. He would also go to the Garage so he was doing some amazing stuff. But he brought his own thing to it where he’d take these acapellas, these Arabic things, Israeli records, play them over crazy stuff, mixing a lot of Euro disco with new wave and creating his own sound.
There was so much going on creatively in New York at that time, like it was just an explosion. It was a time where we had hip hop coming. It was a new art form. You had disco and left-field disco. You had punk and new wave, all new records, all new music just kind of happening at once. What was so special about that time and those clubs was that everyone was playing everything, because it was all new music and it didn’t matter. No one cared, and people just danced. It was a very free and open vibe.
There was this thing in New York called Rockpool, which was a record pool for more left-field DJs.Bambaataa was in it, which was crazy. You got some disco records, but you also got all the new wave stuff, you got early industrial records, you got… They somehow hooked up deals with labels from England, so we were getting all kinds of imports. Like I remember getting a white label of Bostich from Rockpool and I still have it.
Was Mark Kamins an important inspiration for you? Danceteria was a legendary club in New York. Madonna would go there. She met Mark and he produced her first record. Mark was fearless. He reminded me a lot of Larry. He had a whistle around his neck. Mark was a party in motion, you know? He was quite an amazing force in the New York scene, and everyone looked up to him. He had this connection with Manchester, and became good friends with Mike Pickering and Graeme Park. So he was doing mixes for Quando Quango, and there was this great cross-pollination between Manchester and New York where New Order would come and play. I remember I was DJing at The Ritz when Section 25 and Quando Quango played their first gigs And Mark had done remixes for ‘Love Tempo’, which is an anthem, and a few others: ‘Atom Rock’. Groups like New Order were being totally influenced by the New York sound. You had 99 Records. You had Liquid Liquid. You had ESG, Konk, Bush Tetras. It was an amazing time musically.
How did your remixing career start? Being a DJ, I started hearing all these records, and obviously I knew François and Larry, so remixing was something I was always interested in. And one day someone brought me a record from RCA. It was this group called Wax. I said, ‘Hey, well, I hear something in this song, but I don’t think it’s really right for the clubs yet. I’d love a shot at remixing it.’ And it just takes that one person that’s going to give you that shot, and hopefully you don’t mess it up too bad. Because you don’t know what you’re doing.
But at that time, you know, you worked with engineers, you worked in real studios. And so it came out pretty good. I formed a partnership, Pop Stand Productions, with another DJ I knew called Murray Elias. And I just learned how to do it. I bought an SP-12 drum machine and I found a keyboard player that nobody else was using. My girlfriend said, ‘Oh, I know this kid. His name’s Eric Kupper.’ And so she introduced me to him and he’d never played on a record before, so I sat him down and I played him a bunch of stuff, and he became my keyboard player and played on all my remixes.
How old was he then? Must have been pretty young. Yeah, he was… We were all young, you know. This was all in the early ’80s. I worked with amazing engineers, amazing producers and editors, which is a lost art. I worked with Chep Nuñez, he edited most of my records, Tuta Aquino, a couple of the Latin Rascals. So it was really a team effort.
Who were the engineers? I worked with Hugo Dwyer, who had done a lot of dance records. I worked with Jay Mark, who had come from Sigma Sound. I worked with a French guy who I’d met on a Duran Duran remix we did. His name was Daniel Abraham, we worked together on a lot of records. Frank Heller, who worked on 808 State with me.
Frank worked with Bruce Forest a lot, didn’t he? Yeah. He also worked with Marley Marl. He did a lot of hip hop, worked with Def Jam. He was just an amazing engineer. I feel really lucky to have come of age when that was still happening, to work with engineers and editors and musicians who really knew what they were doing and knew their way around the studio. I learned so much from just being around them.
Which studios did you work in? Right Track, Soundworks, Soundtrack. Those were the main ones. Soundworks was in the basement of the building where Studio 54 was. Teddy Riley worked there. Shep Pettibone did most of his stuff down there at that point. François bought a studio called Axis and put it up on the penthouse of the same building.
And back then record companies budgeted serious money for remixes Yeah, it was crazy… I mean, you had budgets for remixes because they could actually sell them and make money, unlike today.
What would a typical major label remix budget have been? Twenty to 25,000 dollars, which when you think about today, it’s insane.
I know! People don’t get album budgets for that much. But again, like I said, you were paying for studios. You were paying for engineers, paying for keyboard players, paying for editors, paying for your tape. I mean, you’re paying for a lot of things. You’re paying your manager’s fee. I mean, you could still obviously make money at the end of the day. It was an industry, really. The studios were making money. Engineers were making money.
I worked at Electric Ladyland too a lot, which was an exciting thing because obviously it was Jimi Hendrix’s studio and they still had the murals on the wall, the psychedelic stuff. It was quite something.
Didn’t you come to the UK to remix some stuff? I did a lot of records for the UK, but always did them in New York because my team was there. And a lot of my remixes did really well here in the UK. The UK dance culture embraced a lot of what I was doing, It was very exciting. I came over when Ministry Of Sound opened, and played there. I spent a lot of time in the UK. I became good friends with CJ Mackintosh. There’s this thing at that time: DJs didn’t travel. But Ministry brought Larry, Tony. And Mark came and actually was again probably one of the first people. He travelled to Manchester early on. He went to Japan before anybody did.
If you had to name one, which is your favourite remix and why? I’ve done a lot of remixes. I’m super fortunate because I wasn’t pigeonholed, like, ‘Oh, he does disco,’ or, ‘He does alternative.’ I’ve been lucky enough to do everything from Luther Vandross to Skinny Puppy to Depeche Mode to Tina Turner. I mean, I’ve done probably close to 300 records. I really don’t have a favourite. They all have something special to me at a time and place. And one thing I’m really grateful about is a lot of people still play them. And I still play them, and they still sound okay. A lot of that sound is still referenced today, and it’s kind of in vogue, so to speak, or timeless maybe.
Who did you admire most as a remixer? Shep Pettibone was my number one influence as a remixer. When I started hearing his records, and then when he started working with New Order and Depeche Mode… and Pet Shop Boys especially. When I heard his remix of ‘West End Girls’, I fell in love. His manager Jane Brinton approached us and said, ‘We want to manage you.’ Shep was super supportive, and that time, he was getting offered every record under the sun because he’d had so much success. And if he didn’t have time or want to do it, he would recommend me for mixes, which was really great and very nice.
What was he like as a person? Because he’s become very reclusive He has, and really. I guess after the Madonna thing… [their professional partnership ended abruptly]
Yeah, I heard through the grapevine it really hurt him the way it ended. Yeah. I mean, I don’t know the dirt. He was great though. At that time, he couldn’t have been nicer to me. He had this boyish charm about him, you know? He was a very handsome, very out, very friendly to me anyway, and super cool. And still an inspiration to so many people. He never was really a club DJ. He was this kind of radio DJ, and then became a producer. I would see him in studios or see him at a party. He had parties, his birthday party. He was very friendly, very warm, and then he just kind of disappeared. It was this kind of enigma, like…
He moved to Jersey. Yeah, he opened this resort and this club, and he actually still spins there. I know people have approached him. Even New Order approached him again to remix a record or get in the studio, but he just doesn’t want to. And it’s pretty amazing because he is the top of everyone’s list. And I guess he wants to keep it that way.
The legend. For me, Shep and Larry and François, who’s still going strong, they were my heroes for remixing and DJing. Larry’s life ended on a very sad note, and he was a god to me. And Shep’s still there, he’s preserved in this special place. And it’s okay. He doesn’t have anything to prove.
What do you think made Larry so special from your point of view? There was a fearlessness and a confidence in himself as a DJ to do anything. If he wanted to play five minutes of silence, he could just have minutes of silence, or play the same record 10 times in a row. When he was working on Gwen Guthrie, The Peech Boys, he’d bring those tapes in. And those things really didn’t sound like any other records at the time. Like, you didn’t know what… ‘Heartbeat’ even, which was a slow 98 bpm … Who knows? He would just throw that on in the middle of the night and people didn’t know what to make of it at first. They would just stand there with their arms crossed. That’s the only time anyone ever looked at the DJ booth, when they were kind of upset with Larry or just didn’t get what he was doing, and they would stand there and look at him, and he didn’t care. He would just shut the lights, put it on again until it became the biggest record at the club.
He knew what a great record was, and he knew that you would fall in love with it too, and he knew how to make that happen. And that takes some kind of guts and some sort of confidence in yourself. This is not a jukebox! This is my creative output, and I’m going to share that with you. And obviously he turned me on to so much music I didn’t even know. Walking into The Garage for the first time, I walked up that ramp and I heard Martin Circus, which I’d never heard before in my life. And I said, ‘What is this?’ To François. And of course François mixed it.
He took me up to the booth and I met Larry and we became fast friends. I would hang out in the booth and learn records I didn’t know. And he would come hang out at Area. He would come to a lot of shows at The Ritz. So it was, yeah, a really great cross-pollination. But it was his fearlessness and his taste really that made him so special to me. And people say, ‘Oh, he wasn’t such a great mixer, and I don’t agree with that. I heard him mix his ass off if he wanted to. Or not. It didn’t really matter.
But he controlled that whole environment. I mean, even though they had an amazing light guy, he had his own light thing above the DJ booth where he could override. And he would just make the club pitch black. I mean, even turn off the exit signs, which is unimaginable today. It was beautiful. He just knew how to make that environment so special. I would go in there with him some days during the week, and he would just tweak the sound, getting it right for the weekend. He was obsessed, and I think that’s a very special thing.
Yeah, definitely. So yeah, he was my number one. Saturday nights after Area, I would go four or five in the morning to The Garage and hang out till the wee hours. You would go check out François, what he was doing, check out Larry. People would go to New Jersey to check out Tony Humphries. Bruce Forest was an amazing DJ. But for me, Larry was the one.
So, tell me about Area. When did Area open? 1983. There were four guys. Eric Goode, Chris Goode, Darius, and Shawn Hausman. They had done some projects at the Mudd Club. They were doing these parties and then they found this space on Hudson Street. They showed me the space, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ And they told me their idea: that they were going to change the theme of the club every six weeks. It was incredible, really, what they did. They’d transform this club every six weeks into something totally different. It was an art project with a Richard Long sound system. It was only up three years. It wasn’t even supposed to be open that long. Other than the Paradise Garage, where I never DJed, it was the most amazing club experience in New York.
And the opening of a new theme every six weeks was a major event.The whole street was clogged with people trying to get into this party. I mean, you could walk into that space and not recognize things. Jean-Michel Basquiat would DJ in the smaller room at the bar. I was DJing in the main room.
Johnny played as well. Johnny Dynell, who is amazing. He’s still going strong too, ruling on the dancefloor. And it was still a great dance club. Despite all the crazy art stuff… I mean, Andy Warhol could be in a display case, just standing there for six hours. It was unheard of. They did a book recently about the club, and looking at that book, it seems unimaginable. Even having even been there, I was like, ‘How did this even happen?’
I mean, just the expense of it, the space they had to do that with, the team they had. They literally had a workshop upstairs where it was like Geppetto’s. The invites, everything about it, the graphics, it was quite something. I would recommend anyone who’s interested in New York club life to pick up the Area book. The first invite was a pill: a little capsule that you dissolved in a cup of water, and the paper came up rising to the top with the details.
There was something going on in New York every night of the week. Area, Tunnel, Limelight, Palladium, which was a massive club, packed. There was an insane scene going on in New York.
You’d go out to the Mudd Club, you’d see everyone you knew, because this is where everyone went. It was just kind of the destination, or Area or Danceteria. Those were all clubs that people focused on. And we’d move around from club to club. You’d say, ‘Okay, where are we going first? We’ll end up at Area, and then we’ll start at Danceteria.’
Area was 10 or 11 till four, I don’t really remember, but normal clubbing hours. And then you had the New York after hours scene, places like The Continental, The Jefferson, Arthur Weinstein and The World. And you have The Pyramid, which is still going somehow. I mean, it’s very different, but there was a whole scene born out of that club.
You also played at Limelight. In the ’90s it was notorious for the Club Kids and techno; what was it like to play at in the early ’80s? Limelight really was a weird place. I was there before the Club Kids took it over. It was opened by this guy, Peter Gatien and although I worked for the guy for years, I never really met him. It’s in a church. I never loved it. The DJ booth was really high up, so far from the dancefloor. There was an underground New York filmmaker who I was working with there who did the lights and videos, Beth B, so there was kind of an arty thing going on. But musically, it never really had an identity. It was never my favourite club. There were some fun nights. It later became this thing when the Club Kid thing happened and it got very ravey and candy coloured and very exciting at that point.
Yeah, yeah, with Keoki. Keoki and Michael Alig, for better or worse. And I guess it was around when ecstasy was really taking hold in the clubs in New York. It was that place at that moment in time, for those kids of that age. When the Club Kids started happening, it was a major force in New York, but I wasn’t spinning there any more.
What advice would you give to someone who’s starting out in music? God. Don’t do it. No. You know, it’s a different world. I meet kids, and I just say, ‘You really have to find your way to do something that stands out.‘ It’s hard. It’s finding a way to put your own spin on whatever’s going on. And be adventurous!
When I started this job, nobody wanted to be a DJ. I didn’t even want to be one. I just fell into it. I loved music, and I was able to find avenues to express it, whether it was being in a band, being a DJ, or being a producer. It’s harder now because everyone wants to do that,
I’m totally still excited by new music. As much history as I have, it’s the new music that’s exciting. I go out all the time, and I think that’s the best place for me to get turned on still to new music. It’s just keeping your ears open and keeping your eyes open too. I don’t feel any different than I did when I first walked into a DJ booth. You know, I never did any drugs and I don’t drink. It’s only music for me that’s still exciting.
Were you never tempted? To me, it was like, I was at the Paradise Garage on a Saturday night. It isn’t getting any better than this, really. For me, that was enough. That’s probably why I am still here doing this today and still excited about what I do. I’m not burnt out. I’m not jaded. I’m still excited by music and it’s still my number one thing – from that time I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan to DJing at Panorama Bar.
Harold Heath’s self-deprecating book Long Relationships tapped into the innate slapstick that has always been present in club culture. Pitched somewhere between knockabout comedy and quiet tragedy, Heath manages to surf perfectly between the two and, as he points out in the interview, shows just how close these two emotions actually are. We asked him just how he got from semi-successful DJ to semi-successful writer.
interviewed by Bill in London, 16.11.22
What I loved about your book obviously was the humour, but also underneath that, there are all kinds of little lessons for DJs. I think anyone starting out would get an awful lot out of it about what could go wrong and what to avoid. There’s something very real about your experiences. Honestly, there was no plan to make it like that, but looking back at it, a few people have said it’s kind of like a guidebook. I was so obsessive about DJing and parties that I just had this big store of things I thought were worthy of sharing. I had this huge sheet made out of A4 paper taped together, full of different ideas and I’d draw lines between them. It was like a crazy man’s map of what the book was going to be. All the things that go wrong, man, they’re a huge part of the story. They’re the making of every DJ. Things going wrong is funny.
Given that 95% of people’s professional musical experiences end in failure, there are very few books about it. I know that you’re a real fan of another book which is about failure, James Young’s Nico, Songs They Never Play On The Radio. Such a wonderful book.
That’s the epitome of failure, that book. It’s hilarious, it’s really sad, and it’s brilliant. Why do you think there are so few books about failure in music? There really ought to be more. Yeah who cares that you were successful? It’s great reading about the crazy adventures in hotel rooms for a while. But I think tragedy and hilarity are really close. For me, as an autistic person, sometimes I get quite confused between those two extremes of emotion, the tragic and the hilarious Sometimes they blend together into this whole weird thing. And those two extremes of emotion, the way they exist in dance music at the same time, the sublime and the ridiculous, right? The fact that it’s a really important thing for us all, it can be really transformative, but also quite ridiculous. I love the contrasts, the conflicts.
When did you first have the idea for a book, and did you have an idea before you started that the book that you finished was the book you were going to write? The answer to the second bit is no, I didn’t at all. I started writing the book around 2016 or 2017. All that happened was I used to fart around on Facebook quite a lot and I used to really like getting lots of likes for my funny little statuses, and I realised I kind of had this knack to write little funny DJ things that resonated with other DJs. Then I wrote a piece for Vice about this awful DJing job I had – in Los Locos in Covent Garden – and that went down really well. So I thought, there’s something here and I really enjoy talking about this stuff, it comes really easy to me. So I just started writing recollections of funny DJing stories and the book just came together organically. There wasn’t a general plan for it to end up how it did. It was essentially just a collection of funny stories, really. Then I realised I needed to link that together with stuff, so I put in everything I’d ever thought about DJing, which I then had to edit it down until just the good bits were left.
Can you tell me a bit about the period between your DJ career slowing down and you starting to write? There was a chunk when I got quite ill, and I was a bit confused. I wanted to work in and around music, so I thought I would train as a music technology teacher. I did two years part-time at a college with 16 to 18-year-olds who hadn’t had a good experience of education. I started the two years thinking, ‘I can make them all stars’; they’re all going to be famous. By the end of the two years, my goals had been lowered just to seeing if I could get them to come in the room without starting a fucking punch-up. If I got that done, I’d won the day. hat whole process really wore me down. I got one teaching job after that. I got made redundant a few months later and I never went back to teaching. I never thought of it ever again.
But you had to do loads of written work when you trained to be a teacher, and it really ignited my love for writing. And my poor tutors, man. I used to turn in these fucking essays, they were like four times as long as they needed to be and I’d done this amazing research and they were beautifully crafted. I was top of my class all the time. I was a proper nerd. I won an award for my fucking work. It was ridiculous. So it really ignited my love of writing while reinforcing the sad truth that I was not a good teacher. I was quite ill for a while. I had chronic fatigue syndrome, which is probably now I would say related to an autistic burnout and ADHD issues. Then I just started writing freelance. Russ at iDJ, I think he’d seen some of my funny Facebook posts and said, ‘Why don’t you do a column for me?’ He was the first person who gave me a job writing online. I did columns for him for years, and from there it just kind of grew. It takes a long time to get taken seriously as a writer, I found. I was lucky that I had a family that were happy to support me during those tough times. I still feel I have quite a lot to do, a lot of goals to reach in terms of writing. It still feels like it’s early days.
How important is humour in writing, particularly in dance music where a lot of people take themselves quite seriously? Our thing is sublime and ridiculous at the same time. So you’ve got to embrace both of those things. So for me, it’s phenomenally important. I think it’s fine to take it seriously. It’s really important. It’s been the centre of mine and your life for our entire lives. It’s a really important thing, and I do take it really seriously. But I also think it’s really silly and it’s fun, and I think we should be having fun because we’ll all be dead soon. We should just have some fucking fun, right? I think people who find the funny in dance music and performing are providing a really important public service in our little scene. Keeping everyone grounded. Having fun is a really important thing.
Did you learn anything about the craft of DJ while you were writing the book? I re-evaluated the whole thing a bit, and by the end of it, possibly because I’d got a couple of years older, I was a little bit more at ease with the fun approach to DJing and a little bit less obsessed with being a serious DJ. So getting all that stuff out about the pride and the passion, but also the silliness of DJing and club culture. It didn’t specifically change anything. Maybe it just made things a little bit more balanced in my head. I’ve always been a person of extremes, but maybe by the end, I had a more balanced idea of what DJing was.
DJing is an instant high. When you’re playing you know whether you’re fucking it up or not. But when you’re writing, you’re doing it in a vacuum, and I’m wondering how you cope with the difference in that? It is very much a vacuum, and you never know when it’s gone wrong, but you do know when it’s gone right. I think those moments when you write something and it’s like, “Oh, that’s really fucking nice. Where did that come from?” You get that straight away. That’s the writing equivalent of the crowd going crazy, I dropped the right tune. But it’s horrifically lonely, and you’re plagued by self-doubt the whole time. I had terrible self-doubt about my writing, but also I have a secret confidence in how brilliant it is as well. I go between the two. You have to overcome that whole imposter thing and just have a bit of self-belief, while still completely doubting that any word you’re writing has any fucking brilliancy at all.
Where does that self-doubt come from? Other writers. I read other writers. I read a lot of books. I like books. And I often read other writers’ books and I’m like, ‘Oh, you cunt’. There’s something I read the other day. I’m not going to tell you, because I don’t want to big them up, but someone else had written something beautiful that I read and I just thought, ‘I wish I’d done that’. I think those kind of things, comparing yourself to other people, that can derail you.
Good writing is really about reading, and it’s certainly where my inspiration came from. What was your journey from reader to writer like? All these books definitely I would say have created the writer that I am. There are some writers who I’ve literally looked at their structure and been so knocked out by it, I stole some of it. I might’ve mentioned this to you before. David Simon wrote that book, Homicide. He’s the guy from The Wire and there’s a passage that is just so brilliantly punchy, the way he just drives the narrative on, it’s astonishingly good prose. I nicked it. I just nicked his style. I nicked the size and the shape and the feel of it. Wholesale. Much like a sample, and just interpolated it in my own words. I used to do that with my productions as well. Now I do it with books. It drives you to have self-doubt, but also for you to be better because it’s inspiring, isn’t it? Have you read Night Moves by Jessica Hopper?
No. Tiny little book, and it’s just about a woman who rides around on her bike and goes to gigs and DJs. It’s just a collection of these vignettes. But it’s fucking perfect and even just reading that, it’s kind of inspiring and you think if you can just get a bit of that. But also, it broadens what you think is a suitable subject. I’ve had loads of lovely times riding around on my bike, going to parties, listening to tunes. Never really thought that would be a subject that you could make a whole little book out of. Books like that help you rediscover the magic of writing. It’s finding something to write about that you didn’t think had value and then something comes from doing it.
The thing with writing is you have to sit there and write in order for the good things to come out. You start the day having no idea what you’re going to say or what you’re going to write, but it’s only by following the act of writing that suddenly things come out of you that you didn’t know were in there. It’s funny you say that, because in all the interviews I’ve done since I did my book and people ask me, ‘What is your tip for writing?’, and that’s my tip. Never ever wait for the idea. You’ll spend your whole life waiting for it. It’s pointless. Soon as you sit down, there’s something about that process, right? Little things just happen and it’s inexplicable, and they never happen unless you’re just doing the job. I get commissions and think, ‘I don’t know what to write about this’. And I procrastinate, waiting for that opinion to crystallise. Don’t need to do that, ever. Just start the thing and there it is. It’s the strangest thing. It’s like writing unlocks something that you didn’t quite know was there.
If you could go back in time, is there anything that you’d change about your DJ career? I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’d change everything about it and sometimes I think it was perfect as it was. I spent a lot of time in the book having a bit of therapy with myself and coming to terms with the idea of success and failure and what it meant, and how much I actually got out of it. But I say in the book, if I’d been a slightly more sociable, approachable person, I might have been a bit more successful, because that networking side of things is quite important. It became more important to a DJ’s success, I think, as time went on, and it’s something that hasn’t always come naturally to me. Were I to do that, though, it would involve changing my personality.
I would’ve liked to have taken more chances. When you’re in your mid-twenties, you feel like there’ll always be more opportunities, so you’re quite blasé about things that come and go. I think when I was researching the book, I went right back to the very start of when I was using email and I was looking at the very first records that I was getting signed to other labels and stuff. And my mate, Fannah, who’s in the book, was acting as a manager for me kind of thing. And there was all sorts of really interesting ideas coming through at that time about people I might remix or where I might go and DJ. And we were just like, ‘Yeah, whatever, we’ll come back to that.’ And I think now as I approach a much older age, I feel like I would grab stuff more.
Which do you prefer, DJing or writing? Which do you prefer? DJing, you can get really fucking pissed, can’t you?
They’re such contrasting activities. The effect of writing doesn’t happen until much later. Sometimes it’s years and years later. Whereas DJing, you can’t deny that that instantaneous thing is such a buzz that it’s very difficult to replicate that with anything else. I guess I don’t get anxious before I start writing. I don’t really need a pee before I start writing. You don’t have a crowd of people going fucking mad when you write a good sentence, either. I guess DJing is more instantly fun, isn’t it? It’s like comparing do you like sleep or do you like donuts? I like them both.
What’s really weird about DJing is that it must be one of the most precarious jobs that exist, because if you work for a company, you go in on a Monday and you work till Friday. DJing, you’re playing on a Friday and a Saturday, and in a couple of months you can go from being really busy to being redundant, irrespective of how good you are, how old you are, how venerated you are. Why would anyone do it? I don’t even know if I answered that question in the book, and that was what I started out to address. It was like, why the hell do we try and do this? Why do we go through so much? Why are we in our thirties and forties with rooms full of records with one gig every two months, still calling ourselves DJs? Why are we doing this? Stop the pain. We just keep walking into the pain all the time. I don’t know. There’s no answer to it, is there?
Do you think it’s purely about musical passion? I think the thing that drives my interest in it all is, on a Saturday, you’ve got all these new tunes that you’ve discovered and you want people to know about them. It was the same when I was a teenager. I would buy a record and then I would invite people round and play them the record. They could look at the cover and I’d be like, ‘What do you think of that? It’s good, isn’t it?’ And if they liked it, I could play them another one. And whatever urge that is, that just grew to exactly what you say. It’s just some essential excitement, a joy from showing, ‘Look at this fucking brilliant thing. This is great. You’re going to fucking love this.’ That’s an unbeatable feeling, right? There’s an inherent joy in the sharing of a beautiful thing. That’s always been the reason why I did it, and I love it. Who doesn’t love it when you’re going out to a gig and you’ve got that new stash and you know it’s going to just be killer? It’s the best feeling in the world.
When I was a teenager, before I even knew what DJs did, I was making little pause button compilation tapes and giving them to mates and girlfriends and forcing my opinions on them with my musical taste. Really, all we’re doing now with DJing is that, but in an even more megalomaniacal way. That’s a brilliant way of putting it. I’ve never thought of it like that, but yeah, that’s exactly it. I would also buy them records for their birthdays, like records that they didn’t fucking ask for: ‘I know you’ll like this.’ And then I gave them mixtapes: ‘You have to listen to that.’ And then you finally get to do it in public and get paid for it and you’re like, HA HA HA, finally you will listen to me.
Even though a lot of the fun of your book is about the things that go wrong, I think in a lot of ways, anyone that manages to live their life without a proper job is triumphing in some important way. You’ve managed to get to this age without really doing anything that could constitute being called a job. Is that a source of pride? I can’t agree enough that being a bohemian is winning in this fucking society. I actually did do a full-time job for maybe three years at the end of the ’90s. I worked in an office. It was horrific, and I abused drugs every day to get through it. So I don’t know if that really counts or not, because I wasn’t really doing the job properly. But yeah, aside from that, I have definitely lived that particular lifestyle.
Are you pleased with the reception of the book? So, so pleased. I’ve read maybe one weird negative review on Amazon, and I think everything else has just been perfect. I couldn’t be happier, really. I didn’t even know it was going to be received like it was. So the affection that people have held it in is nice. It’s weird, isn’t it? When your book’s released, it kind of gets away from you. People put their own slant on it and it becomes their book. I never imagined that happening, but that whole process has been really fucking lovely. I really liked it.
There’s a lot going on in Harold Heath’s brilliantly readable DJ memoir. In the first place it’s an endearing story of a DJ’s struggle towards success – the slow career climb of a professional in dance music. There are details any working DJ will recognise – like a drunk promoter kicking him off the decks so he can have a go himself, or a wildly mis-booked gig that has Harold desperately searching through his box for something that won’t utterly bomb. It’s full of smart descriptions of the craft and the sheer pleasure to be had making people dance.
The bittersweet opening scene is pure Spinal Tap, as he plays rave classics at a gig he assumes must be the end of his career. ‘In the marquee this afternoon, the bleeps and sub-bass of LFO’s UK house classic ‘LFO’ take on a surreal air, as toddlers and children are encouraged to dance by eager parents, whilst some of the other Mums and Dads look on with a mixture of emotions ranging from bemusement to teary-eyed nostalgia.’
However, after the unspoken shame of playing for under-fives, a few pages later he gives you the 180-degree counterpoint, describing a perfect overseas booking where everything comes together beautifully: the crowd, the setting, the vibe. ‘We are at an open-air bar in Varna Bulgaria, on a hill overlooking the Black Sea, on a magical summer evening.’ Amid this beautiful scenery he captures a peak moment as he recalls ‘playing one of my own productions, on a beautiful high-end hand-carved artisan sound system which was forged in the embers of a dying sun.’ This mix of highs and lows is what makes the book such fun, with Harold happy to share the details of both extremes. The journey he takes us on is unflinchingly honest and often hilarious.
The other side to the book, which elevates it to another level, is a brutal study of the scorched-earth decimation of the ‘dance industry’, as we used to know it, at the hands of the digital revolution. As a tech-house DJ scraping an okay living from playing and production, Harold is perfectly placed to detail the incremental changes that destroyed his livelihood. We follow each twist of the business as the money drains away from middling DJ-producers like him, and into the hands of the big music platforms and oxygen-depleting superstars. Around the mid-noughties his career is ticking along nicely. He’s scaled the heights of ‘tier five, maybe briefly tier four’ in the DJ pyramid, playing bigger gigs and travelling regularly to eastern Europe. After this, though, the ground is pulled inexorably from under him.
‘Once music could be converted into digital zeros and ones and be instantly swapped between hard drives around the world without cost, then everything changed and the equilibrium that had existed before simply disappeared.’ He sees deals get worse, advances fall, vinyl distributers go bust, remix fees fall to hobbyist rates, and earnings from releases nosedive. As streaming takes over and social media begins its climb, he dutifully takes to MySpace, and then Facebook, and watches an army of amateurs muscle in on all the previously skilled areas of the business. He describes all this with a perspective gained by hindsight, but also with the eyes of a frontline soldier.
‘As the structures of the traditional music industry crumbled around me, I continued to spend my time DJing underground house parties and producing underground house music, the profits of which couldn’t possibly sustain me financially in the long term… Looking back, I’m still not really sure why though. It seems trite to say, but at the heart of it, I just really loved it.’
In a culture so often defined by its winners, Long Relationships is brilliantly observed reporting from the coalface of dance music. It illuminates the slog of everyday promotion and the occasional glittering moments behind the decks that provide the strength to keep going. It’s a love letter to a culture, and also an important document of the unstoppable economic forces that did their best to vapourise it.
‘The music industry no longer made sense: the kids paid a monthly fee to huge corporations so they could steal music from their favourite artists. DJs had become awful faux-rock stars, thousands of people stood in rows looking at them instead of dancing together to their music. In the face of reality where the old certainties had fallen away, producers and DJs like me retreated online. We created a simplified, cartoon sketch of ourselves and… retreated to the warm glow of the internet even as it started to reduce us.’ Frank Broughton
Can we review our own book? Let’s see. Those paying attention will have noticed Last Night a DJ Saved My Life is back in the shops, provoking many questions. Why bother? What’s new and different? Are Swedish House Mafia in it? What about Nervo? But most of all, is it worth shelling out for a new copy? Well, yes it is. It’s the best it’s ever been. And the heaviest. With absolutely the best cover – thanks to that amazing photo by Adam Friedman, captured at the last night of Talking Loud in 1990. We’ve done a lot of interviews about the book lately, radio takeovers, international book tours and such, so here are some of the bon mots those skilled interviewers teased out of us.
Last Night a DJ Saved My Life – The History of the Disc Jockey was first published in 1999. Twenty-three years later so much had changed, and we didn’t want it to end up as a museum piece. We wanted someone who’s 25 to be able to pick it up and read it and make sense of it. Problem was, we were trapped in a contract. Our original publisher was all about stocking-fillers and footballers’ autobiographies – real of-the-moment titles, and not much interested in a book that stayed in print for more than 20 years. So it wasn’t available because they were only printing enough copies to hang on to the rights.
Then Lord Weatherall aligned the stars for us. Lee Brackstone, the wild man of British publishing, was giving a eulogy at Andrew’s memorial service – he’d been working with him on a possible memoir. Afterwards, Lee got talking to Bill and mentioned he’d love to publish Last Night on his new imprint, White Rabbit Books. But still Headline refused to give us the rights back, so for months it looked like this would stay a frustrating dream. We’d updated it once for the UK paperback and again for the US edition, but it looked like we’d have to leave it frozen in time around 2006. And then… we realised that Headline and White Rabbit were both owned by the same parent company. After a boardroom handshake and a pound changing hands it was on.
Lee was a great editor because he made us actually edit it. There are over a quarter of a million words in there and we’d never really sat down and found where we could streamline things. But Lee said we could only add new bits once we’d made space for them. In the end we painstakingly cut out 20,000 words and added 23,000. Which makes it a real rollercoaster read. There’s no excess, so it barrels along.
One of the things we wanted to address was the fact it’s such a male story. We wanted to hear more women’s voices in the book. Some of it is inescapable. DJing was a very male profession for so long, a lot of the action was centred on gay clubs in New York and Chicago, and it was almost a masonic process where men passed on the sacred baton to other men, with very few women interrupting their cosy flow. Until quite recently a woman behind the decks was seen as noteworthy. So even though we can’t change the story, what we could do is bring in more women as commentators – clubbers and contemporaries. And go deeper into the lives of the women DJs we’d written about in the first edition. Originally they had been in the ‘Outlaw’ chapter because women DJs were freedom fighters battling for recognition. For the new edition we expanded their story into a whole chapter.
From ch 20 WOMAN: Fight The Power, p672
It’s 6am under the vast dome of The Saint, the most spectacular audiovisual play-palace in the world. Thousands of half-naked men have been dancing through the night under the electric stars, safe in the warmth of each other’s bodies and the sense of refuge from the destruction outside. It’s 1981 and the city’s gay population is pummeled by fear and grief as people begin to grow sick and die. They don’t know it yet, but by the time the emergency fades, these people will have lost half of all their friends. The music is fast, escapist disco and the turbulent male ocean of the dancefloor expects this tempo to last another six hours.
But it drops to silence.
Then slowly, but insistent, as lights ripple over people’s faces, a ballad begins. It’s a song from childhood, from a musical, and they all know it by heart. But through their adult lives it’s earned a deeper meaning – This is the anthem that symbolises their hope, their protest, their yearning for equality, more than any other. The death of its singer sparked their uprising; its lyrics even inspired their flag. It is unashamedly camp, and its campness is at the core of their rebellion.
But… as the song soars through the speakers, it’s not the version they know. This is bolder, defiant, vastly more soulful, with the barely suppressed anger of a spiritual. And it flies higher… and higher…
When Sharon White halted everything at peak time to play an acetate, fresh from the singer herself, of Patti Labelle’s ‘Over The Rainbow’ to six thousand gay men in the frightening months at the start of the Aids crisis, the intensity of the collective emotion in that enormous room was possibly unequalled in human history.
‘It was unheard of to stop the floor for a ballad at six in the morning.’ she told Claes at disco-disco.com. ‘I took a big chance playing it then, but the entire room stopped and people held each other, people were in tears… It absolutely soared on that sound system. When it ended, the applause wouldn’t stop.’
Sharon found herself swept away, lost in tears and hugging her best friend, lighting director Mark Ackerman, as time stopped and the room held on in flames. ‘It was such an overwhelmingly emotional moment that everyone shared,’ she remembers ‘It was the one moment I craved my entire career… To have so many people on the same emotional plane…It was magic.’
Sharon White was the first woman to play The Saint. She was a regular at The Garage – playing when Larry was a no-show – and thus the only DJ who ever played both clubs. She also graced Studio 54, Limelight, Roxy and The Sound Factory Bar. She was the first DJ reporting her charts to Billboard who wasn’t male. As the first female DJ in a major New York nightclub, she opened a small door into the future. ‘Since I was the only woman playing those venues, I was considered a trailblazer. I’m glad I made a difference. I tried to make people aware that gender has nothing to do with your ability to present music.’
Celeste Alexander had grown up with creative parents in the bohemian multiracial neighbourhood of Hyde Park and was the kind of girl who didn’t take no for an answer. At junior college with future producer Steve Hurley, she was taken by the idea of DJing and asked him to teach her.
‘I had a real crush on him. We became friends and mixing, or ‘hot mixing’ as we called it back then, was all he really talked about.’ When Celeste asked Hurley why other girls weren’t DJing, he told her it was because they didn’t think they could. ‘The guys thought it was a specific thing for them to have that hand-to-eye coordination in order to mix and blend. That got my attention immediately.’
As well as establishing herself solo, in answer to the city’s famous Hot Mix 5, Celeste was briefly part of an all-girl alternative. The Fantastic Four hot mix crew was Celeste, Chrissie Hutchison, Kenya Lenoir and Berlando Drake, or sometimes Steve Hurley’s sister Angie, who had to play first to be home by 8pm for her strict parents.
Celeste went on to impress Ron Hardy, one of the twin gods of Chicago house, to the point that he invited her to play at the Music Box. The first time she warmed up for Hardy he’d been listening incognito from the other side of the room, and when he came to congratulate her and start his set she was so nervous she barfed on his shoes.
Another find was the woman who had been Sharon White’s mentor, a radio DJ called Alison Steele who became a revered late night ‘freeform’ DJ on New York radio.
From ch 20 WOMAN: Fight The Power, p 678
Radio had provided Sharon White’s route in, first at college, then at WNEW in New York. Her mentor at the station was a talented radio DJ with her own pioneering story: Alison Steele, who rose to fame on-air as ‘The Nightbird’. In 1966 the station had launched its FM offering with an attention-grabbing all-female format. Eight hundred women applied for ‘Air Personality’ roles and Steele was one of the founding four, drawn from TV and theatre. The press release noted she’d previously been the star of her own TV show, the ominously titled, ‘You And Your Figure.’ Eighteen months later, when the station failed to hit audience targets, it shifted from its schmaltzy MOR (Middle of the Road) format to Progressive Rock and jettisoned most of the women presenters. Thanks to her love and knowledge of the music, Steele was the only one they kept, and found herself introducing the west coast FM ‘freeform’ format to New York. She was given complete creative freedom, and wove poetry, Indian music and Andean flutes into the blossoming rock music of 1967 onwards. ‘She was an incredible DJ as well as the first woman on that scene,’ lauded White. In later years Steele became a CNN producer, opened a cat boutique and was the in-flight DJ for Trans World Airlines.
We also found new stories from the very early years. In the 1940s, in wartime, there were literally men in sheds tinkering with electronic equipment, and they became the first mobile DJs. Read more about them here.
From ch 3 BEGINNINGS, CLUBS: Night Train, p 54
Ron Diggins was a professional radio engineer in Boston, Lincolnshire, with a business providing public address systems. ‘I’d been playing background music and doing voice-overs out the back of my van at school sports days and the like,’ he told the Boston Standard. ‘It was nothing to do with dancing – that was the last thing on my mind.’ But in September 1947, the farm girls from the Swineshead Land Army decided Ron’s gear could be put to better use: ‘They were passing the office, saw the van and came in to ask if it could be used for dancing. They were having a harvest supper with some of the Italian POWs. Well, I’d never thought of it before, but I didn’t want to lose the booking – so I said I’d give it a go.’
It was men like these who took the available technology from fairgrounds and cinemas and gave it new life as travelling disco rigs. In 1949 Diggins built his ‘Diggola’ a wonderful art deco mobile DJ booth modelled on the bandstands of the jazz era. It came complete with double decks for 78s, a home-made mixer, lights, microphone, amplifier and ten speakers. ‘We couldn’t get plywood in those days, so soon after the war. So I had to make it out of coffin boards.’
Savile is still in there. Our legal advice for the first edition was to avoid calling him ‘odd’ as he was so litigious, but we dropped the ‘odd’ bomb regardless. Following the epically grim revelations, the new edition gave us a chance to confront him head on. We weren’t going to rewrite history by deleting him, he was a hugely significant figure in shifting the UK from dance bands to DJs, but we’ve pointed out that the way he exploited his DJ status is a theme running through history and not just a bizarre aberration.
The spring clean led us to shuffle a few sections around for clarity. One result of this was we gave jazz-funk a chapter of its own. It was previously in the Acid House chapter as one of the scenes that laid the groundwork for the Summer of Love, but it made more sense to give it room to breathe its own air.
From ch 14 JAZZ-FUNK: Expansions, p 500
In the mid seventies Britain was not a pleasant place to be. An oil crisis had reduced the country to a three-day week, with power cuts as an added bonus. With constant confrontation between government and unions, and IRA bombs almost monthly, paranoid right-wingers even talked of staging a military coup. The country was brown, as if colour had been rationed. In fact everything seemed to be in short supply: petrol, sugar, jobs, fun.
In stark contrast, jazz-funk’s early aficionados were colourful, brash and stylish. Many of them were Bowie kids and early punk rockers; sharp and street-wise. Mohair sweaters, peg trousers, wedge haircuts, cap-sleeved T-shirts – these were all sure signifiers that the wearer knew how to dance and probably owned some Kool & the Gang and BT Express albums.
The scene’s landmark venues read less like citadels of glamour than a particularly ribald pub crawl: Lacy Lady, the Orsett Cock, Frenchies, the Rio, Flicks, the Belvedere. If suburban jazz-funk was born anywhere, it was in Canvey Island, an ugly lump on the Essex coastline with an oil refinery for a view. Canvey’s best-known musical export, pub rockers Dr Feelgood, dubbed it (only half joking) the Thames Delta. Here, in a club called the Goldmine, a former worker at Dagenham’s Ford car plant named Chris Hill combined an encyclopaedic knowledge of black dance music with some over-the-top showmanship.
At its height in the later seventies the Goldmine attracted travelling fans from all over the country. Coaches would come down from Scotland and the dancers would sleep in the car park overnight. It was a magnet for fashion-oriented youth, with future stars like Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode and Culture Club present, as well as punk vanguard the Bromley Contingent (including Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol). Punk’s future wardrobe was clearly in evidence.
One of the best reasons to buy the new edition is James Murphy’s foreword. It’s been heartwarming over the years to connect with so many people who’ve enjoyed the book, and to realise it’s been inspiring to people, not just as a piece of history, but as their doorway into a deeper appreciation of music. But it’s pretty mindblowing when Questlove picks it out as one of his favourite reads, or when LCD’s James Murphy emails to say thanks because, as he put it, ‘it literally changed the course of my life’.
And of course Lee knows James, because Lee knows everyone, and he asked if he’d write a foreword for the book. And James said yes. But he was really busy. And then he got covid. Finally, he handed it in, literally the last day before they had to send it to print. He wrote this beautiful story about how he was playing in a band, uninspired and not very successful, how he hated dance music and expected the whole DJ world to be ‘idiotic’. And then suddenly, he became friends with a DJ and started seeing how, when you go to a DJ event, it’s a bit more fun.
From FOREWORD by James Murphy
And then I read this book. It’s hard to explain the effect it had on me. I went, quickly, from thinking we were renegade geniuses, to understanding that we were, instead, lucky to accidentally find ourselves part of a long and beautiful tradition of evangelists, hosts, caretakers, maniacs, etc., whose job was more about making a place for the people who were willing to come listen and dance than it was about, well . . . us. So, this here book quickly and firmly disabused me of any egotistical DJ notions I might have been harbouring, and changed my life for the better.
It was a miraculous and humbling gift to read about Francis Grasso, playing records for fourteen hours straight at the Haven, just steps from my first apartment in The Village. Or about David Mancuso, the Herc/Bambaataa battles, Ron Hardy, Deep Space Soundworks . . . To read about Larry Levan’s uncompromising vision and work with the Paradise Garage sound system . . . I had been a sound engineer for years. It was my living. I was obsessed with making things hit you just right – so loud you had that fear response, but never hurting your ears. Just deep. It was so strange to find this kinship and inspiration in a world to which I had never given much thought.
This book also taught me something new about the universality of feeling – the body feeling that I was always chasing. It taught me that there were tribes upon tribes, as in awe of music as I ever was, throwing themselves into it with love and weird, blind fury.
This journey – from thinking of dance music as flippant and throwaway, to recognising that it’s a vital part of musical history – is something that’s happened on a wider scale. The biggest change for our book in the last 23 years is the context it falls into. When we first wrote it it was provocative to pay so much attention to the DJ. Dance music was a global culture by 1999, but it was a bit much to suggest it deserved any kind of historical scrutiny. Back then you’d go to a music bookshop (when such things existed), and there’d 36 books about the Beatles and what they had for dinner, and nothing about DJs or dance music beyond David Toop’s Rap Attack and Matthew Colin’s Altered State. Or you’d read in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music that disco was ‘a dance fad of the ’70s, with profound and unfortunate influence on popular music.’ So when we first wrote Last Night we were on a mission. We were really conscious we had to fight for the DJ’s place in history and earn dance music some respect. Now, of course, there are lots of books taking our subject seriously and the battle is largely won. So one of the subtle changes in the book is that we’ve come off our soapbox. There were several endearingly tub-thumping passages that we quickly removed. As we wrote in the new preface, ‘Thankfully, we can now relax. The idea of dance music having a history is no longer preposterous.’
For Shovell, drumming is life, communication, ‘a way of transmitting power, positivity and gratitude’. His hand percussion has summoned the gods on everything from the deepest tribal house tracks to Primal Scream, Jamiroquai and Nightmares on Wax. His story is testimony to the power of music to transform lives, an acid house odyssey that goes from Lewisham plumber to international drum warrior, taking in pop-stardom in M People, a Pacha residency and sidelines in cranio-sacral therapy, Nichiren Buddhism, and the Last Night a DJ Saved My Life Foundation. And that’s without even mentioning the stunning secret his family kept from him.
So, tell me about the music you heard growing up in south-east London. I used to hang out by this place that had been a morgue in Deptford. We’d hang out on the corner of Watson Street and New Cross Road, because there was a fish and chip shop there, and one evening we could hear this music, live music, coming out of the morgue. So we knocked on the door. ‘What’s going on?’
The council had moved out the dead people and replaced them with musicians and instruments, predominantly to get kids like me off the corners of streets getting into bits of bother. They would literally go, ‘This is called a saxophone. This is what it does. This is a drum. This is what does. Singing: this is what it is.’ And they were all really acclaimed musicians in their own right.
I never, ever paid anything. It was an open musical house for youngsters. I went in there when I was 14, and started mucking about, just having a laugh, but before I knew what was happening, I was part of a reggae band and went to support my mate’s older brother at a gig in a place called Chats Palace in Homerton.
I didn’t realise the eclectic mix of music that I was getting. I was born in Greenwich Hospital, and brought up in New Cross and I was there till ’71. It was a very mixed bag of people, so there was Africans and Irish and Greeks and Turks, Indians, West Indians, Caribbeans and Pakistanis. I thought the whole world was like New Cross and Deptford.
I used to muck about on my mate’s mum and dad’s bongos. After this gig, this guy says, ‘You’re pretty good. Get yourself some drums and you can join a band.’ I failed everything at school and I’d probably be labeled ADHD if there was such a thing back then. I was just a pain in the arse. I was always tapping and banging on chairs and people’s backs and my legs and pencils, everything. And that’s why the drums came in, gave me a way to use up my energy.
Were you aware of other drummers and percussionists in bands at that age? I knew Charley Charles, so Ian Dury and the Blockheads was a massive influence on me, as was Bob Marley. But I couldn’t tell you, ‘I want to be like him,’ or any specifics, I was just having a great time. I wasn’t causing any mischief. I wasn’t able to stay in one place longer than about 90 seconds. I couldn’t even sit down and play the drum kit, because I used to get electricity in my arse. I couldn’t sit.
But then I became a plumber, because I never ever thought that I’d do music as a living. I was a plumber for nine years on Lewisham Council. The bricklayer played a bit of keyboards, the electrician sat in a bit, the labourer played a bit of bass guitar. We used to rehearse on the Catford one-way system. I went from reggae and had another band, more of a sort of pop/rockish group called Profile. We played in empty pubs on the Old Kent Road. Thought we were going to make it, but didn’t. There was another band of fellas upstairs, who were the hippies. Me and the guitarist and the drummer left Profile, and we started talking to these hippies, and said, ‘Do you want to jam?’ There was another plumber in there, a painter and decorator, guy who ran a playground centre, and a car valet.
It was the late ’80s, house music had just started, it was at the back of the Downham Tavern pub in south-east London, they had a massive hall. And I got asked to play some drums, I thought with the DJ, but actually they stopped the DJ, and it was just me playing drums on the stage to about, I don’t know, one or two thousand people. I mentioned I was in this band Natural Life and they went, ‘Do you want to do a thing?’ We started playing there, and we did a cover of ’Another Brick in the Wall’, four-to-the-floor version. There was a guy filming there. He knew Adamski’s manager, and he said, ‘That track’s really good,’ One thing led to another and we got a record deal.
You went to Shoom, right? Yes I did. So I was in a club in Croydon called Easy Streets, with my jacket and gold chains on, trousers and shoes. My mate Martin Davey, his dad owned the fitness centre and we’d go there for a little late drink. One night, Martin went, ‘Oh, there’s this new thing down at me dad’s gym. We should go down there.’ In them days, clubs finished about 1 am, didn’t they? All piled in a cab, went down the gym, all with our jackets on. Turned up, went to the bar and ordered four pints, then this dungaree-wearing guy comes up to us with a kaleidoscope thing. Steve Hill, his name was. I walked down the little hallway to the dancefloor, and it was like I’d landed on another planet. The music, the smoke, the people had T-shirts on. No one had a jacket or formal trousers. It was all dungarees and shit, sweating like nutters and doing this dancing I’ve never seen before.
I said, ‘What’s going on here?’ And he went, ‘Here, have half of that.’ You can imagine, half hour later, jacket’s off, I’m out there. Monday morning, straight down the sports shop, T-shirts, jogging bottoms, and I resigned as a plumber six months after that. It changed my life. I was going there every weekend, thinking about it every moment of the week, waiting for the weekend.
Didn’t you also play at Monkey Drum? Yeah, I was playing Monkey Drum on Gray’s Inn Road on the Monday night. I met Alfredo. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to Ibiza? I can sort it out’. So I went to Ibiza in ’90 for the summer with Alfredo. Meant to stay there a week, stayed five. Ended up looking like I’d served three missions in Vietnam, couldn’t get home, all my money had gone. It was the greatest worst time of my life there. Billy Nasty’s mum used to work in a travel agents so I phoned him: ‘Can your mum …’ Got me a flight home.Anyway, Natural Life ended up getting signed to Hollywood Records, which was Walt Disney’s record label, for £100 grand.
Were Yothu Yindi on the same label? They were signed to them as well, yeah.
I remember seeing a Yothu Yindi showcase, at the Marquee on Charing Cross Road, and I’m pretty sure you guys supported them. We did. It was ’91. Because the label folded in ’92. We got 100 grand in the January of 1991, and we were minus 30 grand by October. And we hadn’t bought a car, a house or anything. We had a live-in studio, ‘Let’s write it all in the studio.’ And everyone around us went, ’Yeah, do that. Brilliant.’ So you can imagine, invited everyone up, and set up these parties, massive amounts of weed….
I resigned as a plumber in the April of ’90. InJune, I was on Top Of The Pops with Kenny Thomas doing a cover of ’Outstanding’, who I’d met through Glen Gunner, who was at Monkey Drum (Simon Dunmore signed it to Cooltempo). So I’d gone from a plumber in April, to Ibiza, Top of the Pops, and I was like, this game’s easy. What’s everyone going on about?!
We were touring as Natural Life, but because we weren’t signed anymore (Hollywood went out business by this time), and no one was giving us money, my mum and dad paid for our last tour. You know when a relationship’s not working, but you’re still there? It was like that. The keyboard player walked offstage in the middle of a gig. It was all falling part. One of our last gigs was at Brixton Academy, 1992. Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, Natural Life and M People. Apart from Jamiroquai, I didn’t know really any of the others. As we were finishing sound-checking, Mike Pickering and Paul Heard [from M People] said to me, ‘Look we’ve got a percussionist. He’s broke down on the motorway. Can you stand in on the sound-check?’ And I was like, ‘Give us 50 quid and I’ll do the gig later for ya.’ Did the sound-check, didn’t think anything of it. They took my number. The fella turned up, played, and then they phoned me about a month later, and said, ‘Got a gig in Middlesbrough. Do you want to do it?’
Heather was live, I was live, the rest was on DAT. Had a great gig. And then there was another few club gigs. I was never the most shy and retiring sort of person, so they liked me and I kept the firm jolly. Heather didn’t know what to make of me at first, but she soon got to know me, and yeah, they wanted me around. Then the club gigs became college gigs. Then the album was released and ’Moving On Up’ come out and we were on Top Of The Pops. Then there were arena gigs, and then I was bloody flying all around the world.
When I was a plumber for nine years, I would literally have my hand down a toilet pan or down the drain, or lying on me back putting on bath taps on council estates in Lewisham. And I dreamed: all I want to do is be in a band. I just want to make one record and do a few gigs. That’s all I want. So this felt unbelievable. I remember flying first class to Australia, and I think we did three nights at the Hordern Pavilion. It was like 12,000 capacity. Mick Jagger turned up. Mick Jagger was a big fan of M People. It was ridiculous. Everyone knows your name and all that.
But all through this, I was carrying a lot of trauma. I’m adopted. I’ve been fostered; so that was bubbling. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had ADHD, anger issues, concentration issues, getting into trouble issues. I was an extreme character, I’m a drummer, I am Keith Moon, I am Animal out the Muppets, I am John Bonham. That is me. That’s what we do. So I dived into that character. That’s who I thought I was. I had a massive hole and I was trying to fill it externally with as much partying and sex, drugs and rock and roll. Yeah, bring it on. Here I am! Massive flag-waving. I can stay out longer than anyone. I’ll do more than anyone. That’s what it was like for years and years. But after ten years it sort of tailed off. Then Heather said she wanted to do a solo album. That was at the very end of December ’99, that was when things started crumbling inside. Hit a wall. and it coincided with finding out who my real mum was. And it was a massive shock, because it was an incredibly close family member.
So I was adopted. My mum’s white, my dad’s white, my older brother is white and I’m not. Even as a kid, it didn’t even really register what that meant. And when I did, I just bottled it somewhere, put it away. So it was revealed to me that my mum, who’d adopted me, was actually my birth mother. So I’ve gone 33 years of living in a house with my mum, who I didn’t know was my mum, because she’d said I was adopted.
What a head fuck. She’d had an affair with a Jamaican guy, and I was the result of the affair. And then they came out of hospital, and told everyone that they’d had a still birth, and I was fostered, and months later, they adopted me. And no one knew. My mum and dad, and that was it. So on that night, my mum didn’t even say a word. My dad said to me, ‘Look, we was going to take this to our grave but you’ve asked, so I’m going to tell you.’
It spun me out, man. That year, I drunk more than I’d ever drunk before. I did more gear than I’d ever done before. I was angrier than I’d ever been before. Then in January 1999, 13 months later, I was in a studio in Manchester talking about a drum pattern. I remember I was looking at a screen, going, ‘Well, if we put the…’ And I started convulsing, then I started crying and sweating in the middle of the sentence. Got in the car and drove straight back to London, had this ridiculous cathartic, I’m going to name it spiritual, an incredible few hours of seeing my decades of trauma coming out of my body. The girl I was with was getting bath towels to soak this off, just lying there just sweating and wailing. Beyond crying. And then, and this is my truth, this is my truth, there was black smoke coming out of my stomach. Looking down, I could see black smoke coming out.
Drove to my mum and dad’s the next day, spoke to my mum and just needed to be held. She was so ashamed of what had happened, she didn’t do anything on that night. Very Freudian, I suppose. I needed to be held, told me that she loved me, and it helped me a bit, but it knocked me out, because it’s PTSD. And so it led to one of the lowest moments in my life. I was just like, ‘I’m out of here, man. I’ve had this pain now for so long.’ It felt unstoppable. And I don’t really want to go into details about it, but it didn’t happen, obviously, because I’m sitting here right in front of you. Needless to say, I was in a really incredibly dark place.
So I had to work out who I was. I started doing yoga. I was doing yoga, I was a vegan. I was the healthiest I’ve ever been. I started running, I was up the Kronk boxing gym in Kentish Town. End up doing a white collar fight. So I was doing boxing training, boxing, yoga three times a week and running. Because I wasn’t drumming. But I was doing it for the first time positively, because I felt like I was so worn and fragile, that I couldn’t do any gear. By 2004, I was in a pretty good way. I started doing a bit of TV.
Didn’t you present the football? Yeah, I did a football show called 90 Minutes, Shovell’s Travels, which was flying round the world interviewing footballers. I was a presenter on the Guinness Book of Records, Record Breakers that Roy Castle, Linford Christie did… I was on that with Fearne Cotton. But unless it was about things I wanted to interview people about I’m not interested. I’m not interested in what insulation you’ve got. I don’t care. What are you doing, really? I’m a presenter, but only if it’s football, music… Passions.
Then music raised its head again. The drums took on a whole different meaning and texture and sound, even. They were very healing. I felt like, in a lot of clubs it was me and the drums, and I didn’t have to run around meeting everyone and shouting, and I know this may sound a bit bonkers, but they’re my family: the congas, the bongos, the timpanis, It’s my island, it’s my world, and I can go there without using substances. It’s beautiful. I haven’t had a drink or anything else since February the 4th 2010. Ten years in February.
Wow. Met my wife in the April of 2010. Well, I didn’t know she was going to be my wife. Moved to Ibiza in July playing all the clubs: Pacha, beach parties, private. My rider was a pot of green tea and some bananas, and I’d go all through to six, seven or eight in the morning on that, drumming all night. Started studying shamanism there in 2011, met a shaman.
That was life-changing. When you’re blindfolded in someone’s house. I was blindfolded, she’s playing shamanic drums and rattling, and you’re in a trance dance to go and find your power animal. If all my Arsenal lot was looking through the window now, ‘What are you doing, you mug?’ And I was there. I’m loving it, and I’m thinking, you know what? I don’t care. This is amazing. Such freedom. I did five years with that woman.
How did all this feed into the music and what you played and how you played? There I am for years thinking I’ve invented this character called the Drum Warrior, and I wear all this face paint and tribal clothing. And I bless the drums with sage, and I have a staff. And I invented that. My ancestors are African, man. Slave drumming, rhythm. African. Black. It’s not a theory. Everyone else is walking out in all their gear, and I’ve got a bright pink smock on with face paint. I’m Arsenal, do you know what I mean? I’m from south-east London. It wasn’t easy, Bill. The sage and the smoke…
It’s the 21st century, and everyone thinks we’re so intelligent and we know what’s what, and we can hit two buttons and get every single artist, and we can play computer tennis with a guy in Tokyo but fundamentally, what we’re doing is dancing to a beat of a drum. This is tribal, and we’ve been blessed and given it by the ancestors. It’s a gift of the universal rhythm that the ancestors sent us.
And when there’s a full moon, and you start playing drums out on a full moon, and you’re a bit conscious of that, and I’m on green tea and bananas, honestly I’ve never felt so energised. So the drums and the music took on a massively deep, spiritual gifting, healing, ancestral, momentous, infinite, eternal meaning. The gift that I’m blessed with, oh my goodness gracious.
Was it Simon Dunmore that brought you back into playing clubs? So we was on Defected when ‘Drums Of Ghodrat’ came out. Simon had Copyright, and was in the same studio and I knew Simon from the Kenny Thomas days. I was doing separate things in Ibiza, and it was like, ‘Well, why don’t you start doing something with Defected?’ Then it just got bigger and bigger and it’s like a family. I felt at home. There I am going, ‘Sime, what do you reckon? Is this all right?’ Like the face paint and headdresses and he was like, ‘Yeah, all right. Go on.’ It was a beautiful platform. It was a wonderful environment to play with some great DJs, to play in some great places around the world, with this new way of being. I was doing a lot with Nightmares on Wax and George [Evelyn] encouraged it: ‘Get some more sage. More sage! More face paint, Shovell! Be it! Be it!’
Do you see that now as much as almost like a kind of a master of ceremonies, as well as playing the drums? It feels much more than just being a percussionist in a band. Yeah, 100%. No one else needs to know what I’m doing. If they ask, I’ll tell them. But if they just see a nutter with a massive bit of sage and blessing the crowd and blessing the sky and blessing my drum, they think, what’s he doing, this fella? Ive ended up blessing people that come to the front, and it’s not me blessing them, it’s the universe that’s coming through and blessing them. I’m a deeply rhythmical, spiritual, ancient heart of a very modern, technologically-based environment.
Reflecting back now, what could you say about the impact that acid house had on you, and just that revelation of going to Shoom for the first time? Oh, every time I see Rampling, he sort of walks the other way, because he knows what’s coming. ‘Dan! Dan, do you remember? I walked in a plumber and walked out a musician.’ [laughs] By taking that half a pill, and I’m going to be honest, that’s the first time ever in my life I had felt love. The first time I ever heard Martin Luther King’s speech over the top of a house track, on half an half a pill, does it get better than this? It meant masses to me, and it still does.
Then on Monday morning, I’d go into my council yard at Lewisham to start getting me time sheets to go and unblock toilet pans and I’m looking round the yard at people in their 60s still there, been there 40 years, andthought: I ain’t doing this. I felt musical love. I felt the rhythm. I felt the rhythm of the gods, man. I never felt love like that, never. Am I going to give that up just to get my pension?
Then very quickly, as I’ve said, Monkey Drum, Ibiza, Alfredo, Kenny Thomas, Simon Dunmore… Get out of my way! live it. I might have a massive international plumbing business by now, Shovellino’s: the bath’s on us. But that was not my passion. Music is/was my passion, and so that allowed someone like me from south-east London, who was talking to DJs who spoke like me, and couldn’t read music, and didn’t go to university, but who was holding a crowd magnificently. So my circumference went from two mile radius, from my front door in south-east London, to an international circumference, to a global, to…
Cosmic. Cosmic. Exactly that word. Cosmic. Infinite, eternal. And through music, so when I’m playing the drums now. That’s such an important word. When I’m playing the drums now, as well as listening to the DJ of course, that is what’s coming through, the cosmic, infinite, eternal power of the one love.
I’m a Buddhist, I am. When my dad died in December 2014, I’m at his bedside, holding his hand, and he’s on the way, last breath scenario. They’d been married 63 years, all that stuff. Her affair. He’d forgiven her. My dad did nothing but love me, this mixed race kid who was a constant reminder of his wife’s betrayal. And all my dad ever did was love me to bits.
That’s an amazing thing for anyone to do. I’d been in a relationship of unconditional love. My dad did it. My dad forgave. He’d been in the war, got shot in the leg. He was 91 when he died. He’d forgiven his wife, and loved her and loved me. Took me everywhere, helped me with the drums, with the gigs. When I was in the reggae bands, playing in south-east London, black Rastas and weed, my mum and dad would be sitting there supporting me. At NYNEX Manchester, 18,000 people, my mum is waving at me. She loved it.
In my opinion, we spend far too much time not talking about death. We should talk about death every day. We should make it a reality in our lives, that we’re all going to die, so that we live, we live as happy and as free and as lovingly as we can. We think we’re eternal, so we live accordingly. So that sharpened me up to life, its fragility and its preciousness, and even underlined the importance of music as a gift in that, as something that blends through all of this sorrow and aches and pains, and can hold all these memories and emotions.
My wife got pregnant but my mum was in a nursing home in Crystal Palace, so I grabbed my shamanic drum and drove down there. I didn’t plan. You can’t plan these things. I put the drum down, I lit a candle, started playing drums and singing these Ecuadorean chants, just giving gratitude to the end of life. I picked up the drum again and I’m playing it above her as she’s dying. Talk about the importance of music, its benefits and its healing power. And I’m thinking, thank you, a blessing, and mum on your next journey. We got the call at half five that she’d died Monday morning. The ebb and flow of life is drums, it’s the rhythm of life.
I have been blessed with a gift to connect life’s rhythm through these drums for us all. Whether it’s a little drum or whether it’s what I just did in the studio, or it’s a massive 15,000 people Defected festival, or if it’s Ibiza… Wherever it is, my bit of that is to connect all of this with the energy that is life, which is birth, living, illness and death. And I’ll celebrate the whole bloody lot.
Hearing The World’s Famous Supreme Team between the tracks on Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock album was mind-blowing. I wanted to be where radio was this exciting. This great book goes behind the scenes at the birth of hip hop radio to document the characters driving it and the forces pushing it in certain directions. The established black station owners knew rap was a ratings-grabber but saw it as too streetwise for their buppy aspirations. Frankie Crocker hated it but couldn’t fight the dollar signs. Mr Magic built his own show with his bare hands by buying airtime and promoting the hi-fi store he worked in. Hip hop history is mostly made of records and clubs, John Klaess shows decisively that radio deserves more of a look-in, arguing that these on-air communities were key to the development of the culture. There are great little insights, for example it was having a fully equipped radio studio at his disposal that let Marley Marl lay down the aesthetics of sample-built recordings. It’s an academic book, but written with stories and style and love for its subject. I talked to author John Klaess about the early hustles that took rap onto the airwaves, and where to find the best of the amazing recordings that exist online.
Frank Broughton: Why was radio so important in the early days of hip hop? John Klaess: It helps to remember that when we’re talking about hip hop in the late 1970s and very early 1980s, we’re not necessarily talking about hip hop as we know it today. The concept of the “rap record” didn’t exist yet. The foundations of hip hop, like rapping, looping breaks, and creatively cutting records together were in place, but hip hop was mostly a live practice in the black and brown neighbourhoods of New York. There wasn’t an obvious or agreed upon way to take a three-hour park jam and convert it into a record. And it wasn’t clear that there would be a big enough audience to support those records that were made, not to mention that early on major labels weren’t interested in signing an unproven minority youth music. Radio wound up being a perfect medium to pull all of these threads together, accelerating the creative, commercial, social trajectory of the music.
For one, DJs treated the studio like a laboratory. Each week they’d bring new mixes, tracks and experiments to share on the air. If you listen to mixes of the Rap Attack over time, you can hear Marley Marl getting increasingly sophisticated and adventurous with his mixing techniques in a way that presages beat-making techniques and sampling later in the decade. The Awesome 2 talk about how radio, in particular, was a great medium for experimentation because listeners were tuning in from contexts that weren’t the club. You can try out different combinations of records and sounds when you aren’t trying to drive a dancefloor. The aggregate of all of this weekly experimentation is a slow but distinct evolution of the genre over time.
Maybe more obviously, radio has historically been one of the most important distribution mediums for record labels, and this was also true for rap. As indie and major labels started to sign hip hop acts, they looked to hip hop DJs with access to radio to get the word out about their product. Early hip hop radio DJs would get mountains of records delivered to them, and they were essential tastemakers.
Finally, it’s hard to overestimate radio’s role in building an audience for rap music. If we go by shout-outs, early hip hop radio shows were mostly for, by, and listened to by people in the know in New York. That changed when two of the most listened to stations in the world programmed rap radio shows. In addition to the reach and validation these shows gave rap music and hip hop culture, listeners taped episodes and mailed the tapes around the world.
Radio was uniquely suited to taking a nascent urban culture and facilitating hip hop’s ascendence into one of the most important creative and commercial forces of the twentieth century.
Your book is a powerful argument for giving radio more space in the history. What do we miss when we only think about the records and the clubs? I think we miss, first and foremost, that the music industry is a dynamic web of work and relations that includes but isn’t limited to radio, records, and the club. It’s really hard to think of any one of these institutions without paying attention to how it’s interrelated with the others. I don’t use the metaphor in the book, but it’s more productive to think about musical ecosystems where a host of individuals and institutions work together in both symbiotic and competitive relationships that determine what we hear and what’s produced at any given time.
I think we also miss an entire shadow history of artists and sounds and styles and communities that get cut out when we focus too heavily on discography. So many important artists never cut record deals, and so much important musical activity happens outside the purview of record labels. When you write from the point of view of records, you’re necessarily going to highlight artists with significant record catalogs, and you risk overemphasising records that loom large in historical memory, not what was played most at the time. If you listen to broadcasts of shows from the 1980s, there are plenty of commercial records, sure. But you also hear this wildly social, communal, musical event that’s not governed by what labels thought was important or worth hearing. I wanted to give an account where amateur, homemade mixes are just as important as Def Jam records, and where listeners who tuned in to deliver a shout out or hear what’s going on in their neighbourhood are just as important to the history as people who buy records.
It’s heartwarming to read how much effort those pioneers put in. Mr Magic and The Awesome 2 were not only piecing their shows together, they were also hustling to find the sponsors and advertisers to keep them on the air. How would hip hop history be different if it showed us all the trials and efforts instead of just the successes? I’m really happy you asked this question.There’s a narrative tendency in history to focus on triumphal achievements and big successes – especially in hip hop history. Paying attention to all of the small labours that go into funding a show forces us to look at what it takes to make and maintain a scene over time. When what matters to the history isn’t the magnitude of a success but the hustle itself, you have to tell the story from a different perspective. With the Awesome 2 in particular, paying attention to the work they put in helps us understand what it took to commercialise hip hop. It’s not like a label just signs an act and, voilà, hip hop is a global music. The Awesome 2 were drumming up sponsors for their show, building a record pool, hosting hip hop nights at the Latin Quarter, and doing management and production work for artists. Taken together, this is the work it takes to make a music and run a scene. This is definitely a thread I hope more authors pick up down the line, because I’m sure there are more stories to tell here.
Another great thing about the book is the way it creates a bigger context for the history, showing the connections to the disco scene for example. Clubs like the Paradise Garage and industry figures like Frankie Crocker. What were some of the unexpected connections you found when researching it? One of these connections that’s gotten a lot of attention recently is the intermixing between the uptown hip hop scene and downtown club scene in the early 1980s. DJ Afrika Islam could be the poster child for this. As a protege of Afrika Bambaataa, DJ and dancer with the Zulu Nation, and regular at the Paradise Garage. Islam’s radio show, the Zulu Beat, he fits neatly between these worlds. One of the most unexpected connections was that Ruza Blue AKA Kool Lady Blue, a staple in the downtown scene, funded some of the early episodes of the Zulu Beat. If you listen to some of the tapes, you can hear Islam announce that “This show is a KLB Fun production, a Kool Lady Blue production.” I lost it a little when I heard that for the first time because it was evidence of just how interwoven these two scenes were.
My intro to this world was hearing the World Famous Supreme Team in between the tracks on Malcolm McLaren’s album Duck Rock. What was their story and what happened to them? Why don’t they figure more in your book? I think the Supreme Team were a lot of folks’ first foray into hip hop, and their show was one of the earliest to feature hip hop music. I also think you’re totally right in that they don’t figure as heavily in the books as their influence suggests they should.
Part of the answer is that they never responded to my requests for interviews, which is fair – as a historian you can’t force yourself into peoples’ lives. So from there I was left with what I could get from other sources. There wasn’t a huge record of contemporary Supreme Team interviews or other material beyond the tapes, and with the sources I had I didn’t feel like I could tell that story in a new way without risking misrepresenting something. I opened the book with a vignette from the World Famous Supreme Team show because I wanted to quite literally put them front and centre as a way of gesturing to their importance, and as a way of making up for the fact that their radio show is regrettably underrepresented in the body of the book.
I’ll maintain that distance here, but for folks who are familiar with the World Famous Supreme Team from their connection to Malcolm McLaren, I would highly recommend checking out broadcasts of their radio show. The broadcasts I’ve found are everything that’s interesting about early hip hop radio. You have long stretches of shout-outs, great banter and routines in between cuts, rap/disco tracks of five-percenter texts, and more. They’re just excellent listening.
Internet radio and podcasts have ushered in a new era of radio creativity. Who do you think is keeping up the tradition of the great hip hop radio pioneers? There are so many it’s hard to count! By far my favorite online radio resource is nts.live. Some of the rap shows I like best are Screwboss Radio, Scary Things with DJ Bempah and JK (mostly UK Drill and Grime), PU$$YRAP with Jody Simms, when it was on the YGG show for grime, ONY for a mix of hip, soundtrack, and chopped and screwed, and Hit a Lick Radio for newer hip hop and trap. I find myself listening to a lot more dance music recently, and NTS is so strong there. Some shows and DJs I consistently listen to are Moxie, Kaizen with Madam X, Martha, Spinee, Ben Sims, and DJ Taye.
Can you give us links to your favourite archived radio shows from history. I can give a good example of each show I write about in the book. I also encourage folks to spend time looking for recordings. A lot of the hosting platforms I used when I was doing most of my collecting seven years ago aren’t up anymore.
Interviewed by Bill in Marple Bridge, October 2022
He’s one of the most inspiring collectors you could meet, digging deep in the vinyl mines for accidental masterpieces. His reissue label Finders Keepers is a parallel musical universe, and has had Nas, Madlib, even Jay-Z queuing up to source beats from it. But Andy Votel didn’t much like music to start with – not until he heard it hacked into breaks and samples. For the latest release on his hip hop label Hypocritical Breakdown, he’s returned to his lifelong craft of rapping for an album of his own beats and rhymes, under the name Violators of the English Language (VOTEL in case you hadn’t twigged), which is a crew name that dates right back to his “kamikaze rapping“ childhood.
Violators of the English Language is essentially you being an artist, and that’s something you hadn’t been for a while. It took something as crazy as lockdown to actually think, well, we’ve been saving this potential project for a rainy day. Like, a very rainy day. A rainy day where you’re not even allowed to leave the house. I essentially rung six or seven mates that I used to rap with as battle rappers in a long gone previous life. I said, “How do you fancy being 17 years old again?” Much to my surprise, nobody said no. Somebody should have said no, but nobody said no. And we hadn’t rapped together for 27 years. But yeah, it was like a fish to water, really. It’s been an elephant in the room in my house. I don’t know how Jane [Weaver, Andy’s wife] feels about it. I go out walking every Thursday with a solid group of mates, as many as 20 walkers, and nobody talks about Andy’s rap record.
What effect did hip hop have on you as a kid? Oh, man, it saved my life. When I started secondary school, I went to this vibrant landscape of goths, metallers, mods, psycho rockabillies, skins. It was brilliant. I seemed to be the only hip hop kid. Maybe one other. Five years later when you leave school, everyone was the same, everyone was into house music or Madchester.
A lot of my core group of friends, in later years following school, they really sort of fell apart. I’m from a nice area. It’s a middle-class, rural leafy area. It’s not The Bronx. But hard drug abuse really did heavily affect two of my core group of friends. And I didn’t even see it happen. But rap well kept me away from that. Totally kept me occupied. I was majorly addicted to buying records and making music. I used to work at the butcher’s, used to work at this factory, and I’d go out and buy the hip hop record. The next week, I’d be finding the original sample, and that’s all I did. I was just obsessed with doing that. It was everything.
And that’s how I learned to DJ, really. Because I didn’t have a disposable income, I was like, how can you afford to buy two copies of the same record? It’s so boring. So instead of buying two copies of the same record for doubling up, I’d buy the hip hop record and buy the original sample. So that was my USP, playing the original sample next to the hip hop record. And that was what got me gigs at Dry Bar and Haçienda, and noticed by what became the Fat City people. And then I was just playing, god knows, whether it be psych or Hungarian jazz or African records or whatever.
So it all started very young for you. My dad was really encouraging. He taught me to make tape loops inside compact cassettes when I first got into LL Cool J. He also taught me how to control varispeed turntables using a Hornby power regulator off a model train track. So that’s how I’d learnt about the mechanics of music.
I was that one-off kid that used to go and play snooker on a Sunday night with my dad, and it clashed on with Leaky Fresh’s Out to Distress Rap Show in Manchester. I was in the car and I hadn’t seen my dad for a week. And I wasn’t that chatty, a bit agitated, and he was like, “What’s wrong?” I said, “Gang Starr are going to be on the radio tonight and I really, really want to listen to them being interviewed.”
My dad just said, “Well, why listen to the radio? Why don’t we just go down to the radio station and meet them?” And I was like, “That’s outrageous! We can’t do that!” And he goes, “Of course we can.” So he drove to Sunset Radio. He knocks on the door and Leaky Fresh said, “Yeah, no problem, just come upstairs.” So, I guess I was 16, maybe 15, I met DJ Premier, and I rapped my lyrics to Guru and Premier like that. Like, kamikaze style, you know, no self-awareness whatsoever. I just did it.
And I wasn’t even a confident kid. I was just so driven and confident in that medium. I wouldn’t have been able to ask out a girl to go to the pictures or something. I didn’t like standing up and reading in class. But the kamikaze mentality – it was just there. I’d never drunk beer at that point in my life. I’d never had sex. This was my outlet.
Anyway, Guru said to me, “Are you coming to the gig tomorrow night?” I said, “I’m not old enough.” And he said, “Well, don’t worry, I’ll put you on the guest list.” And the night after, at the International 2, Guru met me outside the gig. He gave me a T-shirt and he took me in the gig. I was Guru’s guest. How crazy is that? At that given minute, I said, you know what? I’m never going to get a real job. This is me from now on.
Amazing. But what was beautiful as well that night, I got a job answering the phone for the radio station. And the second week I went, this local hip hop crew from Northwich had won a hip hop competition in Manchester, and they were called Violators of the English Language. This is Mark Rathbone: Boney Fresh. I met Boney and and he became my hip hop pen pal. I had a little studio at home that I’d made out of bits of old record players and whatnot. And he said, “Oh, we’ll come over and make some music.” So he brought his entire record collection to my house. There was like four seats in the car full of records and boxes. Got it, took us two hours to load it in, had a chat for an hour, and then he had to get back again.
And he tells me, ”At home, I’ve got a record shelf.” I’m like, “A what? How many records have you got where you need a shelf to put them on? You’ve got your own shelf?” Who knew years later he’d have filled two houses and he had to keep lockups away from his wife because he had secret stashes of too much vinyl, with like 20 copies of Remember My Song by Labi Siffre propping up the door.
So, we were basically our own switchboard for finding the original samples, and we just carried on digging and digging and digging and then making music together. And that became Violators of the English Language.
Who were your role models as far as British rap goes? When I was leaving school, I’d turned my back on American hip hop and I was strictly into Britcore. And that was super niche. I mean, you couldn’t really buy much Britcore hip hop at places like Eastern Bloc or Spin Inn. You had to go to Piccadilly Records. And the Britcore: your Gunshot and Black Radical Mk II and Son Of Noise, that was filed with the punk. I think the common thread may be something like Tackhead or something which linked it all together. So even in Manchester, Britcore was hard to swallow for a lot of hip hop fans. And then things like that Low Life scene from Nottingham, and the next generation of Bristol hip hop.
Ruthless Rap Assassins must have been an inspiration? I kind of separated Ruthless Rap Assassins from hip hop. They were their own thing. And in answer, yes, they were hugely inspirational. The sleeve to the Killer Album is one of my favourite sleeves of all time. It was a huge influence on the Badly Drawn Boy – Hour Of Bewilderbeast sleeve that I did. And the way the record was put together, with massive big samples of Beatles records next to radio stuff. I don’t even know if Ruthless Rap Assassins considered it a straight-up hip hop record. It was just a brilliant, brilliant mix tape.
They never influenced me as rappers. Whereas Krispy 3 from Chorley, they certainly influenced me as a rapper. There was a certain time in my life where Mikey D.O.N. from Krispy 3 was my Rakim. Even though it was hard to tell which one was him and his brother when they were on the record, because you know, a Chorley accent is a strong accent, right? Well, the fact that they never deviated from their accents was hugely important. And I will never, ever know how that was perceived outside of Manchester. Even outside of Preston.
Do you remember the first hip hop record you heard? Well, I’d heard hip hop and tried to figure out what it was, and I remember being hugely confused. I think ‘Just Buggin’’ by Whistle and ‘Amityville (The House On The Hill)’ and all those sort of records. They weren’t just reappropriating James Brown, they were also reappropriating the Inspector Gadget theme. And as a kid, that meant something.
Up until that point I would go as far as saying I didn’t like music. I wasn’t a music fan. You remember when you’re watching The Muppet Show as a kid and then this music thing would come on, I’d be like, get it off, let’s get the puppets back on. I don’t want to see these weird American celebrities singing.
It was only when people started, to my eyes, breaking the rules of music and kind of destroying music that I became really interested. When sampling and scratching came out, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was like, this is brilliant. They’re totally ruining everything. You know, it’s great.
What was it about that, though? I don’t know. I’ve definitely always been more interested in the mechanics of music, and I always hark back to when I was a kid, the fact you weren’t able to touch a record player. Mums and dads really treasured their records and kids weren’t allowed to touch the needle. You most certainly weren’t allowed to touch the surface of the record, right? You’re just going to ruin it or get electrocuted.
So when compact cassettes became omnipresent, slowly and surely, vinyl started to just be in the back of the cupboard. And in the early or mid-’80s nobody cared anymore, so I’d get all these records out. No one was telling me off any more. So I’m like, right, okay, I wonder what’d happen if you did scratch the record or if you played it backwards. And then the idea of putting Sellotape and Tipp-Ex on the groove and watching it jump back to the same point, to make loops. I was doing that without liking music whatsoever. I was just doing silly stuff. Sitting Star Wars figures on the records and watching them go around, and then wait until they crash into the needle and turning the speakers up really loud. Then to see someone like the Fat Boys or Run DMC do that on TV was incredible. I mean, that’s how I started.
And then as I got older and emotional, I started to love music. So, there’s always been that yin and yang, you know? The destruction and the emotion. As you get older and older, it’s really few and far between where you hear that piece of music which sets your heart on fire, because you’ve listened to so much stuff in your life. It’s still always there, that massive burst of energy in my heart. But on the most part I’ve always been looking for records that kind of sound wrong. If I could count my favourite records of all time, a high percentage of them would’ve started with a cringe.
That moment where you first heard Turkish psych and you’re like, That’s not right! Or when you first heard the German language on a Krautrock record. It’s just that little bit where things get wrong. Them crossovers from kosmische into disco or those crossovers from sort of ye-ye into symphonic rock or from country into folk and funk. You’re crossing a line that you shouldn’t cross. And personally it’s that first cringe moment that makes it become my favourite thing ever. There’s no other word for it rather than wrongness. I love wrongness in music.
So you started digging very young? I was buying ’60s and ’70s records as a kid, and the code was pretty much look for anyone with an afro, and it’s probably going to have something funky on it. And then when you grow up and mature, you realise that, well, maybe the best hip hop records you bought this year sampled Frank Zappa or Jefferson Airplane or a cover of a Neil Young tune or a George Benson version of a Jefferson Airplane tune, and all those amazing records that came out of Chicago on Cadet-Concept, and all those sort of bands that they called mixed race at the time.
It’s almost like you got on a secret mission then, and there’s actually, what’s the phrase? – a You-can’t-judge-your-book-by-its-cover mentality. You don’t know, but on this record with the dude with a cowboy hat on the front is the biggest breakbeat you’re ever going to hear. And that’s really exciting. In your early 20s when you start to make those connections, it’s like, wow. This hobby could last my entire lifetime.
And at the same time you’re rapping and battling I was that awkward kid at school who was kamikaze-ing off at girls’ 15th birthday parties getting the mic off the DJ to start rapping. My self-awareness hadn’t kicked in yet. We were Violators of the English Language, and we could do this. We could rap. We were good battle rappers. It’s accents, vocal tonality, upbringing, success notwithstanding. It’s a total previous life. People who have known me for 25 years remember me as a rapper.
And then it just ended quite quickly. Hip hop went into its purple period and stopped for a bit, and then came back 20 times harder, at which point I guess we’d all grown up and got proper jobs, or something that resembled that. I went to art school and that’s where I did meet people who were into rap. I met Rick Myers who’s a brilliant artist and graphic designer who in later years did all the artwork for Doves and Lamb. And a brilliant scratch DJ. And I met a guy called Derek Edwards who raps under the name Figure of Speech. So we actually had a crew by that point who would make records, make tracks every week, and we would make demos and send them to Cold Sweat and Music Of Life and all these independent hip hop labels.
So at that point, Violators of the English Language became a group, and we started to take it seriously to some degree. And we had enough original samples and stuff that people had never done before. Always made on two turntables, the old fashioned way. We were a graffiti crew as well, which was another big thing. When we left college, unfortunately one of us passed away and we started going our separate ways.
I was like a bar fly at Fat City Records which had just started up, and people kind of knew me at a lot of record shops in town: Out Of the Past, Rod and Caroline’s shop, Dean from Expansions, all the rare groove shops, they’d save records for me. I knew my way around town, got some DJ gigs with like I say [Manc arts impresario] Barney, Michael Barnes-Wynters who was hugely supportive. And then he got us a remix for Mr. Scruff. So, we remixed ‘Sea Mammal’ and we sampled an Ella Fitzgerald record, an Arthur Lee record, and Led Zeppelin and the Wicker Man soundtrack taped off the telly. It’s not bad for your first ever commitment to vinyl, is it?
So at that point, people were really interested in what we were doing, but they wanted nothing to do with the vocals. For some bizarre reason, they didn’t like the nasally Stopfordian accents that we were committing to these anthemic rap tunes.
Two or three months after that I became the designer at Fat City and Grand Central. So I had a job. And we’d go to places like Dublin, which was amazing, or Liverpool where I’d never been, and Marseille, and Düsseldorf. And that’s where I discovered Turkish records. I didn’t know what they were. For ages I was telling people to check out these Israeli sitar records because I was that stupid and young. In the same way that when I first found Welsh records, I thought they were Hungarian.
When you started digging for foreign language records, was that just coincidental or were you consciously trying to find more obscure stuff? It became very obvious I was going to have to start hunting for strange noises and samples in odd records outside of my comfort zone. So I didn’t buy any English language or American language records at all, hardly. That was my rule. I’m not going to buy anything on a major label, and I’m not going to buy anything English language, because I had enough friends around me who did that anyway. Staying away from predetermined genres as well. I’m not trying to be stubborn, but music which is custom made for the dancefloor has never appealed to me. Trying to find the gaps in between genres is much more interesting. And then if you do find a country record or a Polish jazz record which just so happens to sound like a hip hop record or just so happens to sound like a house record or a disco record by mistake, that’s really exciting.
You start to learn stuff which you had no interest in your entire life in learning, like geography, politics, history. But when you discover Czech records and Polish records and East German records, which all came out on the same compilations, it’s just like, wow, I now have got some weird interest in communism. It’s amazing: in the same way that hip hop kept me away from my best friend’s drug habits, records in general have taught me about stuff that I never had any intention of learning
And it became not only a label, but a way of life. The amount of times I’ve spent with people’s families in Poland through Finders Keepers, or going to stay at someone’s house for a weekend in the South of France and meeting someone’s widow or someone’s children. The record release almost becomes secondary, because as cheesy as it always sounds coming from a label owner’s tongue, there is a genuine family here.
There is a core group of people all over the world that help us, make connections for us. In the first records we did at Finders Keepers with Jean-Claude Vannier, he introduced us to loads of people in French studios. Just by hanging out with him and spending time with him, and not just chasing the signature on a contract and becoming a friend. This whole worldwide community that we’ve built through it has been a nice thing.
How did you go from finding records that hip hop producers had sampled to putting together your folk-funk collection Folk Is Not A Four Letter Word? What’s the trajectory? That idiom, that lazy tag of folk funk, even at the time I found it hackish and a bit crappy. But it existed, and it’s exactly what it was. Because these were records which featured any number of attractive blonde girls on full frame record sleeves, but with Phil Upchurch playing bass or Bernard Purdey hanging out somewhere.
I’m never going to be able to tell stories where I was surrounded by music as a child. I just wasn’t at all. My dad had some fantastic records by John Renbourn and John Fahey and people like that, but he didn’t really like them. You know? Just his mates had told him to get them. But country and folk was a little bit around when I was a kid, so I could identify with that. And I’ve always been alright at reading the back of records and making connections. And that’s the Tetris mentality again. It all seemed fairly obvious to me that the folk funk thing was going to fill some weekend, you know? And it was really well received in Manchester.
You’ve also helped shine light on people that had been forgotten. To see people suddenly start maybe writing new music or gigging or whatever must be heartwarming. And you’ve done it quite a few times. When a film like Searching For Sugar Man comes out and everyone says what an amazing story it is, well, it is truly an amazing story for something like that to happen. But there are many reissue labels where that happens every day. If you think of every band that didn’t make it, every band that got caught up in some political conflict or were excommunicated or didn’t meet the record label’s expectations. That difficult second album, or the demos that never made the cut, this could go on forever and ever and ever. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. Private press records made for people that have gone to the army. It’s just endless.
There’s obviously mathematically much more interest in music that hasn’t been released than has. If the music industry only releases 1% of all the music made in the world, there’s far more interesting music out there. It’s amazing to think what is between the cracks. And it’s only obvious that this stuff needs sharing, because there’s now an ability to share it.
The person who’s going to drop a heavy psych record in the middle of a full dancefloor where people have been listening to R&B, that person’s got balls. But you know what? In three or four years’ time, someone’s going to sample that record and you’ll all be listening to it in a totally different regurgitated way. It’s a fantastic thing, really. So, it just seems obvious for me.
I should mention the fact we’re headed to the football, which is why I’m here interviewing you, basically we’re actually both going to the same game today, which is Grimsby vs Stockport County. Something I could never imagine myself committing to a microphone is the fact that I’ve recently got into football, having never been to a game previously in my life. Major League football, your Man Citys and Man Uniteds have got no interest to me. They’ve put me off football my entire life. But I didn’t realise there were private press football teams. I didn’t realise there were small football teams with a DIY punk aesthetic. I said to my son recently, “I’m never going to a football ground which is any less than 95% asbestos.” This is what I look for in music. You know, it’s the same thing. And I’m sure you agree with that mentality.
Yeah. I mean, it’s always puzzled me why someone could hate the Tories and buy really underground music but support Liverpool. Makes no sense.
Whereas supporting Grimsby makes total sense to me. It is like I’m supporting a private press football team. Absolutely, yeah. Exactly, yeah.
How do the compilations gestate? Like, say the Massiera compilation. Do you just end up amassing a certain amount of tracks and then you’re like, “We’ve got enough to do an album”? Or do you approach people and build it slowly? What’s the process? Massiera is really interesting and a hugely influential person at the label, because he was a genuine enfant terrible. His history in sampling and stealing other people’s music early doors was truly brilliant. One of the first things I ever asked him was, how could you afford to get these early synthesisers? You know, pretty much at exactly the same time that pioneers like Pierre Henry and Jean-Jacques Perrey were using the same methods and the same very expensive tools. And he said, “Oh, I didn’t have any synthesisers. I just stole the noises off their records.”
And when you discover Joe Meek, they’re like two peas in the pod. They were destroying music early doors, which was in a very positive, anarchic and forward thinking way.
Massiera lived it. There’s so many sides to Massiera. After surf, he went into psych then he went into novelty records, then he went into disco. I didn’t even know, when he was still alive, how much hip hop stuff he produced, and I’m talking rapsploitation, I’m talking hip hop for the holiday makers in Nice that summer, but great stuff, and R&B and soul, and it still keeps on going. The question, where do you start with someone like Massiera? It seems achievable. You know. Massiera and Jean-Claude Vannier, there’s a finite number of tracks, you’d think. That’s exciting because you’ve made some sort of rules. You think you can do a pretty concise compilation of Massiera music. It is kind of achievable. And within that structure, exciting things can happen. When you do find one shard that you’d missed or something pops out the woodwork.
What I will say about Massiera, there’s probably things that he tried to sell to me then which I wasn’t interested in which I’m really interested in now. So he’s like, “Did you hear these breakdance records that I made?” And I was like, “No thanks.” And he’s like, “I did this thing in 1991 with these Native Americans.” And I was like, “No thanks.” And now I’m just like, ah, I really wish I’d listened more.
So you like to impose some kind of finite limit on your collecting? I’ve got a hell of a lot of Bollywood records. 90% of them are horror soundtracks, right? When I decided to start buying Bollywood, I had to find a niche which was controllable. Or Italian library records, I only buy female composers. Because there has to be some rule, otherwise it just goes haywire. So there’s an achievable part. There’s an achievable way to do it, otherwise you’ll go mad.
I don’t want a record collection which is bigger than the house. I don’t want a record collection which only an accountant could have thought to buy. There has to be some sort of reality there.
It’s happened to you a million times, Bill, where someone said to you, “Will you have time in this lifetime to listen to all these records?” Well, no, of course you won’t. But you might have time to listen to all the female Italian composers. I only buy female punk now. I’ve got a hell of a lot of punk records, but now, if there’s not a girl involved, I’m not doing it – because I need to retain some sanity.
Any other rules? Like particular dates or periods? I remember when I was buying funk at school, you’d read the date and if you saw 1982, you’d just throw it away. And then you realised later that a lot of the best records from Sri Lanka were all made in the ’90s, or a lot of great African stuff was made in these different eras you wouldn’t have expected. “What? That was made in the days of TV-am and The Clothes Show? It sounds like it was made in 1972.” Turkish music especially. It’s almost like 10 years out of date from what your ear’s accustomed to. It was foolish to dismiss things from the wrong dates early doors.
I’m really, really interested in private pressed post-rock now, because there’s some absolutely amazing stuff there. There’s so many bands that tried to imitate Stereolab when they came out, which just disappeared into nowhere. Just imagine.
Really? I had absolutely no idea that even existed. I’m kind of regretting telling you.
I can delete it from the tape for a fee!When someone like Nas or Jay-Z comes to you for a sample, how does that benefit the label? Do you have publishing? We don’t own publishing, but we have master rights. We have sync rights for stuff. There’s some stuff that we own. There’s some stuff we do own publishing for, yeah. We own bits of catalogue. So yeah. You just hope that …
I mean, are those sort of transactions things that help keep a label like yours afloat? Yeah. What’s the phrase? Windfalls, I guess. We definitely don’t expect this to happen. We’ve never sat there and said, “Oh, don’t worry, mate. It won’t be long before Nas comes and samples us again.”
There was a time when only mods bought our stuff. Then people would be like, “Finders Keepers, oh, that Turkish record label.” So when it does repeatedly get embraced by hip hop, it’s great. There’s a big difference between some independent hip hop crew from Texas or mid-America or France or Hungary than there is to Jay-Z. When Jay-Z samples your record and denies it, and then you have to get a musicologist to prove the absolute obvious, well, yeah, that pays the bills. The artist on the label might get to wipe out the mortgage on his daughter’s house. Finders Keepers gets to pay a huge tax bill that we’d had hanging over ourselves for years.
Is it still fairly wild west out there? I think doing things correctly, clearing samples, even meeting the original artists and having a full awareness of where this music comes from is part of the sport now. People want to do it right. The bootlegging thing and the mix tape culture and even the Ultimate Breaks and Beats thing that founded this whole culture couldn’t exist by today’s standards, because they’re missing out that component of the sport. Anyone can bootleg a record. You meet someone, “Oh, we’ve just done this compilation of brilliant Turkish psychedelic music,” or whatever. And it’s like, “Alright, did you get the rights to that?” “No, we’ve put it aside just in case they ever get in touch.” Well, you don’t qualify anymore. It’s not just about having your credit card, going on Discogs, getting a piece of music and sticking it on a compilation. There’s much more to it. The real record diggers are the guys that go that extra mile. The days of doing things wrong and illegally is bullshit.
And I think a lot of the best hip hop producers live by them rules, which is refreshing and good. The aesthetic of hanging someone out of a 40-storey window and watching the change come out the pockets is over. You know what I mean?
I love it when rappers get in touch with the original artists and the label. Czarface did it recently. And I’ve loved MF Doom and I loved 7L & Esoteric. I love that whole scene. That’s been with me most of my life. So for him to ring us and say, “Oh, we really want to sample this and we love what you do,” and they recognize it as a Finders Keepers record.
I’d got to the stage where so many people were coming to the label, whether it be Madlib or Action Bronson, or eventually people like Nas and Jay-Z, and then Kanye West coming for samples, which vindicated the subliminal reason why I set up the label in the first place. Because I’ll never stop listening to music with that tempo, without that sort of scavenger hunt sample mentality in my head.
Speaking of that, what’s the most you’ve ever spent on a record? I’ve always said my interest in vinyl was more akin with scrap metal. Whoever came up with the phrase vinyl vulture, that encompassed everything really. When you start buying money, trophy hunting, you’re losing. You’re failing. It’s not why you ever did this in the first place, and you should be ashamed of yourself.
As a collector there’s a danger you end up forgetting that what you love is music and not the format. I think we’re talking about trophy records here. Anything that’s on the wall and costs anything that resembles a month’s mortgage or an electricity bill is just totally inappropriate, especially in this day and age. This culture of people now going on the internet pairing very expensive bottles of wine with very expensive records is thoroughly inappropriate. You, like me, will go on social media and see a record which sounds good. You’ll click through and try and buy it and it’s 500 quid. That’s just game over. Inappropriate, boring. The fun’s been taken out. I’m very happy to say I’ve been out-priced from that game now. And there’s so many nuances in it, especially with jazz records, you know, music that was made to galvanise black communities in America in the early ’70s and now can only be afforded by white highfalutin accountants.
But trolling the pound bins will always be my game. It’s hard to go somewhere like Utrecht Record Fair and not be snow-blinded and get competitive and get into this knowledge battle about very rare records, because I can still do that, but the real trick is going and to not be distracted by that, and getting your hands dirty looking for stuff no one’s ever heard before and nobody even wants. And it’s still doable. I feel like we’re doing it a little bit now with the Occitan music. I’ve been doing it with Breton music for a while. These things are really exciting to me at the moment.
Final question. You’ve done a lot of things, worked with a lot of interesting people. What’s the proudest moment of your career? The more I hear myself talking about the community and the family, I start to think I sound like Berry Gordy or somebody, but it’s really important, the family in Finders Keepers. We’ve got the pillars that are Jean-Claude Vannier and Suzanne Ciani. They are the king and queen of this label. And it’s a really beautiful thing that we can genuinely say they’re truly friends, confidants, and they’ve taught me lots about music.
There’s always bits of trouble around the corner, and there’s always gripes. But I have to say out of 200 artists, there’s probably only four people who’ve been awkward and a real pain in the ass, and three of them are from Manchester. So, other than that…
I guess I’m proud that we’ve stuck with it for so long. But it all does come back to the community and the alternative, almost imaginary musical landscape we’ve created. Jean-Claude Vannier is our Elvis and Suzanne Ciani is our let’s say Dolly Parton. Well, that’s it – we’ve created a whole alternative spectrum. There’s a whole alternative universe here which, when I’m feeling my lowest, I can look back on and go, “Wow, we’ve kind of rewritten something here.” Which is nice, right?