Judy Weinstein made dance music count

Perhaps New York’s greatest industry figure, Judy Weinstein built the structures behind much of the modern dance business, not least with her famous Def Mix productions. Read More




François K hasn’t stopped

François K hasn’t stopped

There’s no-one quite like François. He’s driven, a genius, encyclopaedic, undimmable. Since lockdown Mr Kevorkian has been tearing it up on YouTube with his ‘Stems’ project, using cutting-edge AI to shred classic songs into their component parts, then weaving them back together on a roomful of CDJs to creating astonishing 15-minute live remixes. With the robots firmly under his control he reshapes familiar classics like Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, into warped-out improvised dub masterpieces. He plays regularly in New York and round the world, has a monthly show on Worldwide FM and a big presence online. Yet incredibly, this 21st Century tech maverick is the same guy who ruled the dance charts back in 1982 as the dominant remixer of the disco era. As a DJ he learnt his trade in the first great wave of New York club jocks, alongside his great friend Larry Levan, absorbing the Loft ethos and the Garage energy. He played at The Loft, the Garage, Better Days, even Studio 54. The edits he made in the ’70s and ’80s are still played today, with many lodged in our culture as the definitive version. He was the first remixer to see an album of his mixes marketed with his name in the title, above the artists’. Through the ’80s he graduated to big-name production duties for the likes of U2, Diana Ross, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode and many more. He created Axis Studios, one of New York dance music’s most important, and launched Wave Recordings, a label known for its experimental take on ’90s house. Then returned gloriously to DJing with his Body & Soul club and DJ collective, creating a loving melodic home for the Garage and Shelter heads, an important thread linking past and present. As an interviewee, he’s unmistakable: complete recall and stories told in paragraphs. This remarkable 1998 interview was conducted for the first edition of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, when he provided a lot of historical help (and phone numbers), with some extra quotes folded in from a later interview about Body & Soul. It all started with François as a keen jazz drummer newly arrived from Paris, learning from Miles Davis’s sticksman while working nights bashing a kit in the middle of the dancefloor, trying to keep up with Walter Gibbons.

interviewed by Bill and Frank in New York, 6.10.98, and by Bill, 9.01.99.

How did a French jazz drummer end up as a New York disco DJ?
I was born in 1954 in Rodez in the South of France, very beautiful. I grew up in the suburbs of Paris. Then, instead of becoming a good college student, I decided to do music and join bands. Just get myself involved in situations. I was a drummer. I was into jazz funk; Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, all the electric period of jazz. They were all being made here in New York, so I thought why wait for the records. I listened to Coltrane, Pharaoh Saunders, Santana, Jeff Beck. There’s not a chance in hell that if you stay in France you’re gonna get something like that going on. So in 1975 I came to New York, to play music. I decided I wanted to play in bands here and get more instruction.

How did that work out?
I became a student of Tony Williams. He was Miles Davis’ drummer, but at the time he had his own thing, Tony Williams’ Lifetime. I started playing with whatever little band I could get a gig with. Really, really rough. In the process of doing that I came across this club. For whatever reason I spoke to the owner. I wondered if he might need an assistant. He was not really interested in that, but he asked me what I was doing and he said, ‘Well, I could probably use a drummer.’ And he asked me to come and play in this club, where a DJ was playing. The DJ was Walter Gibbons. It was a big club, Galaxy 21, and my job was to sit on a little dancefloor with my drums playing along with the music the whole night.

There was a lot of learning. There were a lot of songs I knew, but a lot I didn’t. Through that I became involved in the whole early disco scene which was very underground at the time, very downtown, very black, Latino, and quite a bit gay, too. Those worlds weren’t ones I was very familiar with but it was a very friendly and very sweet scene overall. And I got to meet a lot of people, go to clubs, parties.

Describe Galaxy 21
It was on 23rd St, an old five-storey, big brownstone building between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, next to the Chelsea Hotel on the same block. Because it was an old brownstone, it had a long narrow vibe. When you came in, you had the bar, long and drawn out. In the middle there was a separation, and a sitting room, all the way out there was a dancefloor the length of the building, with the booth all the way in the back. It fitted about 400 or 500, with steps along the dancefloor, minimal lights. The light man was Kenny Carpenter. And the sound system was good for its time. Upstairs, there was more of a restaurant, a lounge, a big chill-out area above the dancefloor, with big pillows and no music where people would mellow out. Then offices, then right on the top, on the third floor it was divided into two sections, a bar area, and sitting area. In the front, a movie theatre, showing X-rated movies. On the outside of the offices was a cabaret where Juanita Fleming would perform. She had a full jazz band and sang standards. They could have over a thousand people in there.

How did that you go from drumming to DJing?
It seemed pretty obvious to me that however much skill and practice, how many hours per day I had to do to be a drummer, the DJ’s job was very basic in comparison. Quite simple and straightforward. I liked the music they were playing in those clubs, so I figured, well, instead of struggling so hard to make money as a drummer, why don’t I do what these guys do and get some DJ gigs. So I started listening to the radio non-stop, 24-hours a day until I knew every possible song on WBLS. And going to other clubs and checking out what people were playing. By that time Galaxy 21 had closed and I was working as busboy at another club called Experiment 4, doing all kinds of things, running errands. But I was already starting to make audition tapes to give to club managers.

François K DJing at Studio 54
With Larry Levan

So you started buying records by then, too?
Yeah, I only had 30 or 40 but I had enough to make a really good tape. I didn’t have access to a mixer, but I could make tapes on a reel-to-reel, in mono on each track and mix them perfectly from track to track. Eventually, the main DJ that was playing where I was working, his name was Jellybean, he called in sick one day and I was the only person they knew who could possibly do the music. So of course I did it and everybody was happy and from then on, I got more gigs.

Like this place in 45th St. It was called the JJ Knickerbocker, a drag-queen place where they had DJ contests the first Thursday of every month. You’d play for an hour, then they’d judge who was the best DJ. A lot of people would go there. I won a few times and one time there were these promoters from the downtown scene who saw me and had me play for them.

During this time I was taking care of someone’s house and they had a reel-to-reel tape deck. I started teaching myself how to edit, using scissors and Scotch tape. No fancy editing. I started making acetates, dub plates of my own edits. The first one I made was called ‘Happy Song’, a drum thing. It was just a copy of what Walter Gibbons used to DJ live. I made all these little dubplates which were concentrated energy at the time.

You’re making them as tools for DJing?
Yes. It was difficult for a DJ to do all these fancy moves all night. My dubplates were really a kind of greatest hits formula. I would come to the audition for the DJ contest, and I would put them on. It was a shot of adrenaline. And when these guys from Chase Gallery saw this, they were like, ‘Oh we have to have this guy’.

They had a couple of parties at the Buttermilk Bottom, which were very successful. Eventually, in the summer of 1977, the year New York had the big blackout, they rented out the Flamingo. Because when Fire Island starts on Memorial Day the whole white gay population migrates, and the Flamingo used to close for the summer. These guys rented it from [owner] Michael Fesco, and so we had this incredible club, one of the premier gay clubs in the city, along with 12 West, which was an all-black crowd, and I was the DJ there. Downstairs from us was Nicky Siano’s Gallery.

In the same building?
Almost. Round the corner, 20 feet away. I think you could actually hear the bass from our party in the Gallery. Nicky would sometimes get upset because we were getting big crowds. So that was my introduction into that scene, I had never been to the Loft, I had never been to Reade Street, and when I started playing there I was immediately propelled into this whole thing.

At the end of the summer when the people came back, the party had become quite something, and they had big crowds, so they tried to move somewhere else – to a ballroom in midtown Manhattan on West 43rd St. They got involved with some shady types, because they needed a lot of money to make this huge ballroom into a club. I played three parties there and it just didn’t happen. Forget it. I returned the favour to Jellybean and got him a job back, because he wanted to play a Saturday gig and I didn’t want to play there any more. Times were quite hard actually, and I’d had to get what you’d call a ‘straight’ job, so I decided to audition for a big disco just opening called New York New York. And I got the job doing the main Saturday night party.

That was one of the Studio 54 rivals, wasn’t it?
It was made by the same people that did [Studio 54 precursor] Le Jardin: John Addison. It was not really per se a rival when they built it, but it became so because they were obviously vying for the same crowd. Studio 54 was nice, but it was really for the uptown, glitzy crowd. You’d go there once in a while. You cannot say anything but that Studio had the biggest venue, the best lights, the best sound. It was quite superior in some respects to New York New York, just because it was so vast, and so spectacular and theatrical. Then from Saturday nights, I ended up doing sometimes five or six nights a week. The problem was that it was more in the straight, Saturday Night Fever circuit. But I was happy just being able to play records and make money at it. Then while all this was happening, we all discovered the Garage. In 1977 they had the construction parties.

This was before they’d opened it properly.
Yeah. That was in the back, in the coat check. They had set up the sound system, they were still building the dancefloor. The guy that hired me at New York New York was called Joseph Bonfiglio; he’s really a very important figure in that whole Francis Grasso, early period. He was the DJ who quit one night at the Continental Baths in the middle of the night and the light man got to play records. The light man was Larry Levan.

Joseph had been working for John Addison since Le Jardin. He was very up on the whole scene, and he was very good friends with Larry, and he introduced me. I started going out to the Garage quite a lot, and this is also when the record pool was started: For The Record. When you were a member you were automatically given free admission to the Garage. There were all these other little clubs going down. A whole scene that was buzzing like mad. I was so new to all of this. I was literally propelled onto the scene overnight.

In the meantime, Walter Gibbons had moved to Seattle to do a club called Sanctuary, by the same owners as Galaxy 21, a guy called George Freeman. Anyway, Walter returned a year later and was converted to Christianity. However it happened, I don’t know, but Walter was just playing little parties on the side, and there were 20 people coming and it was really sad. From the Walter Gibbons I had known, who was the most flamboyant DJ I had ever seen. Walter was so fierce, nobody even understood how fierce he was. Nobody saw what he was physically doing with records. He was just outrageous.

Walter Gibbons

What set him apart?
He had an amazing instinct for drum breaks, creating drama with little bits of records, just like a hip hop DJ. He was incredibly fast at cutting up records. So smooth and seamless that you couldn’t even tell that he was mixing. You thought the version he played was actually on the record, but in fact he was taking little ten-second pieces on the vinyl, two turntables. You know the whole thing: his selection, his mixing technique, his pace, sense of drama, sense of excitement. And he was featuring all these big drum breaks that nobody else was really using. He was really into drums.

Once Walter turned into the whole religion thing, he stopped playing a whole section of music and only concentrated on songs with a message. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it really limited the audience. He was really into this whole clean lifestyle thing. Unfortunately, it mainly fell on deaf ears. In fact, it didn’t fall on very many ears at all, because there weren’t many people going to his parties. You can’t say anything bad about Walter, because he followed his vision. It’s just his vision was more difficult. People didn’t have the interest to understand it. At the same time the Garage started to become an incredible force.

I was really not into the 12 West thing, that whole bare-chest and torso white male, tambourine poppers culture. It’s just not for me. It’s not funky. It’s a different scene. I’m not into cruising guys, so I’d go just for the music and the atmosphere and, you know, the atmosphere’s very nice, but the kind of music they were playing – all this la la la and these strings. I could only tolerate it for a little while. I was always at the Garage or the Loft. I had discovered David Mancuso.

When was the first time you were at the Loft?
Either late ’77 or early ’78. The first time I went it was on Prince Street. I never went to the Broadway one. I didn’t know any of the crowd that hung there, like Steve D’Acquisto, Michael Cappello, those early DJs. I had never met Nicky [Siano], I never went to Gallery, because when Gallery was open I was playing upstairs. I really don’t consider myself one of those early guys in that sense. I really only started going to a club in February ’76. I had seen a couple of DJs beat-mixing in ’75. I came after the big bang had already occurred in New York. But there were still not many people who were into it. There were only 200 or 300 people who were seriously into being DJs. There were not many stores; there was just Downstairs Records.

What about Colony?
Ronald Coles was working at Colony. He had been a promotion man for Atlantic. There was a vast selection of 7-inches, you could find a lot of catalogue stuff, but it was not a very good store. Except at the back when Ronald was working. It didn’t have the atmosphere of Downstairs Records, where you’d walk in and there would be all the imports. Everything laid out. Then in the back you’d have 25,000 45s to choose from. Downstairs was really the best. Walter had a job at Downstairs; Yvonne Turner, David Rodriguez. That’s how I met David. I got to meet David Rodriguez after he was a DJ, I never really saw him play, though we became quite good friends.

What was your impression of the Loft the first time you went?
It was so magical, so incredible. The Garage was impressive because of its size and the system and because Larry was so fierce. At the Garage you felt that the sound system was so powerful that it smothered people, except when they had huge peaks, which were much bigger peaks than at any other clubs. But the Loft had a more delicate quality about it. The Loft was not the kind of place where you’d go to find a date or something – you would feel so awkward. If you went to the Loft you felt, I better not bother this person because he’s having a good time, or he’s busy dancing. You’d just be there to feel part of the group, to be there with people. Everybody was so into the music and they’d be calling the names of the records; screaming. At the Loft you could hear people’s voices at any time because the music was much lower. And there was more of an interaction between the people and the music. It was not at the level where it was a tidal wave just sweeping the dancefloor. It was something more deep and spiritual, touching you in other ways. Not just through the body, but the mind, too. And he was playing stuff that nobody else played.

Such as?
David always had records that he was the only one playing. A bit later down the line he was always championing Eddy Grant. David was playing Eddy Grant for years before other people caught on, including Larry. ‘Living On The Frontline’, ‘Walking On Sunshine’, ‘Nobody’s Got Time’, those were David records that you only heard at the Loft. Until a year or two later, when we were like, ‘This stuff is incredible’. ‘Nobody’s Got Time’ and ‘Timewarp’ became huge Garage records, but I don’t think ‘Living On The Frontline’ ever did. ‘Macho City’ you had to hear at the Loft to understand. That was later.

There was a real evolution to the way David played. In the earlier part I remember David playing things were a lot more mainstream, or experimental, or rock. When I first went I remember hearing songs that were fairly current and well-known, like the Bee Gees, for example, as well as things that were entirely his own. In the later part I think he defined the style as being the more spacey, trippy, movie kind of records. A Russian guy, Boris Midney, would give him tapes before anyone else. He made that USA European Connection. So David had these things very early on.

I remember hearing the Bee Gees’ ‘More Than A Woman’ where it had a special meaning. It was not the same record that was being played on dancefloors uptown. You played ‘More Than A Woman’ at the Loft, it was being heard along with Barrabas’ ‘Woman’. All these things were about songs having a message. The lyrics speaking to the audience. Establishing a storyline with the songs or the titles. And he would play all the big records, like ‘Love Is The Message’, but he played it in his own way, which was from beginning to end. Not mix. I saw him when he was still mixing. It was really funny, he had little speakers – he didn’t use the headphones – and from the turntables, you could heard him cueing up, ktcheh, ktcheh. He would never really mix on beat; he had no interest in it whatsoever.

The Loft was a place unto itself, you really had the sense immediately, that this was a place so special. If you weren’t a friend of somebody, there was no way they were going to let you in. There was a living room, you had furniture there, people all over the place just being real mellow and relaxed. In some ways the Garage was more a really gay club. They had these policies about Friday membership [mixed] and Saturday membership [gay]. It was a big operation. At the Loft you never knew who was going to be at the door, who was the cashier. It did encourage a different interaction between people. People who used the backroom, sort of David’s office, DJs would hang out while he was playing. We’d just be sprawling out, 11 o’clock in the morning, playing crazy song after crazy song. The Loft had this scene that was real peaceful, real beautiful. The Garage was more heavy duty.

More business oriented?
No, just more… When Larry was playing a record you just had to pay attention, because it was just so strong. It was intense. You’d just be hypnotised by that dancefloor, the way it was moving. At the Loft, we were letting it all down, being more mellow. Really digging into a trippy vibe. When you did get to see Larry, especially in the early days, his music was so mad. So intense. He obviously studied from David and Nicky, so he had his pile of Nicky records, he had his pile of David records. He took from them all these good ideas, and I think really the Garage was just an over-sized version of the Loft. He basically copied the Loft’s sound system and made it much bigger, much more powerful. He understood everything about what these places did, but very quickly took it beyond all that into his own domain. I think what Larry did was nothing short of absolutely astounding.

How did he compare to Walter Gibbons?
You could say that Walter was just an outstanding a talent as Larry was, but at the end of the day if somebody has an audience of thousands and somebody has an audience of twenty, there’s a difference. Larry started to influence people. The Garage became so strong that it became a focal point, and everything started revolving around it. It created gravity, became a planet and it had other planets gravitating around.

There’s nothing else that will remotely compare to what the Garage was. Being that it was a downtown, black, Latin gay club, a lot of people never even knew it existed. After Saturday Night Fever and the disco backlash: ‘Well let’s forget about disco, now it’s punk; let’s go to our little nyahh nyahh nyahh guitars and suburban white dreams’. But the Garage was forging ahead with a cultural evolution that was so ahead of its time that those people didn’t get it. Most people that went there sort of got it, but I remember some people hating the Garage and thinking it was really a bad club.

Why do you think they thought that?
Because it was too much. It was an assault on their senses. It was a kind of tribalistic ritual, that I don’t think they could relate to. They’d never been prepared. If they’d been watching Bob Newhart or Johnny Carson or whatever else they’d been spoon-fed, as Americans, it did not prepare them for that experience. For you to enjoy these clubs, you have let yourself go a basic level where you can be free. And not cling on to any preconceived notions. You just have to accept it and see how beautiful the dance is. A lot of people are not ready to do that. They go to a club to be seen, show off their clothes, find a date, get drunk. I can remember some people saying that they thought the Garage really sucked. I think there was a very famous review in New York magazine that said how bad that club was. It was so far ahead of its time.

Anyway, these parties defined a whole sound. I’m not saying they were the only parties. Better Days was also important. Six days a week, Tee Scott playing. The crowd there was incredibly intense. It was very black, very gay. Sometimes I think Better Days was almost better than the Garage because it was closer and small and more intimate. The energy level when people were dancing was just so amazing. A lot of the Better Days people would go to the Garage, of course. I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest DJ at the Garage, the Loft and Better Days fairly often. Tee Scott would be in the studio a lot and would call me at the last minute. Sometimes I’d be playing at Better Days once or twice a week because Tee couldn’t do it. I didn’t play at the Garage all that many times, maybe ten, and the Loft about the same. To me it was really incredible, because there were not that many people that did that. Ever. I think at the Loft you had Freddy Taylor, Steve D’Acquisto once in a while, that’s it. At the Garage, Larry Paterson played a couple of times, Tee Scott played a couple of times. I’m talking early days ’81, ’82. After that, I quit DJing so I was not so interested.

What was Tee Scott’s style?
He was less experimental than Larry, because Larry would have that David thing where he would try things that were awkward, spacey or out there. Tee was more focused on real soulful grooves that would work the dancefloor to an absolute frenzy. I remember one day, I think I was playing at Better Days and Tee Scott and Larry Paterson came and at the end of the party, it always ended at 3 o’clock on the dot. I was playing Olatunji ‘Jingo-Bah’ and I went directly into [Kraftwerk] ‘Numbers’ after that. I think to them, that was unheard of. They had never seen that kind of juxtaposition. Tee was not into those experimental downtown things as much as Larry or David. Tee was more into playing a very solid, steady no-nonsense. And very beautiful. But Larry would always try and play all these European records. God knows where they came from, these Italian records.

Tee was a little more conservative in that scene, but he was more into squeezing the last drop out of a record and make it into a hit, whereas other people might have thought it was just an ordinary record. It might not a very strong record to begin with but just the way he would work it, cut it, and make his crowd like it, it would become a hit. We all shared the common baggage at the time, but there were specific nuances that everyone had. When Tee Scott played at the Garage everyone would get their fill of that powerful Tee Scott groove. When Larry Paterson was playing he tended more towards gospel with an eclectic selection. A very message oriented set.

And Mancuso discovered the most records?
No offence to David, but there was a whole crew of people like Steve D’Acquisto and others, who were really record pickers for David. I could see when I went to the Loft that they were showing him, you know, ‘Play this. Here’s a new record. This is good.’ And after David trusted you, if you brought him a record he would not even listen to it, he would just put it on. So if you were gonna bring a record to David, you got so scared. Because if you brought a bad record to the Loft, he would play it. And you would be so embarrassed because everybody knew that it was your record. So nobody would ever dream of bringing a bad record to the Loft.

In all fairness, I have to say David DePino told Larry a lot of times, or Judy Weinstein, told Larry what to play. Because they were sometimes more up on records than he was. Certainly Judy Weinstein having the pool was uniquely placed to get access to music before anybody else got it, including Larry. She would hear about things before they were even made.

Tell me how you got into production with Musique?
I didn’t have access to two turntables and a mixer. I had access to one turntable and a tape machine. Because of my musical background, I was always into experimenting, doing a lot of my drum recording with microphones, tapes delays and special effects, flanging, phasers etc.

This is at home?
Yeah. Using people’s gear when I could. I would bring my crazy Scotch taped edits reel to this mastering place called Sunshine Sound, which was in the same building as Strictly [Rhythm] was in years later. Sunshine was where all the DJs would go to get their acetates cut. Bring a tape in mono, and Frank Tremarco, the owner, would make an acetate for $10. This was in 1976.

And were these acetates of people’s own edits?
Yeah. But he would sell the best ones. Like there there was one called Hollywood Medley that was very famous at the time; it was like a cut-up of that year’s greatest hits. Like Stars On 45. So he would have those, for example, or he’d have some edits that DJs had done, and he would sell them to other DJs. The point is DJs wanted them. Sometimes he would have things under the table, maybe unreleased versions etc. But I was never privy to that.

For whatever reason, he caught on to me. From the first time I brought in that ‘Happy Song’ he was like, ‘Wow! This is cool’. I started doing more and he approached me and asked me whether we could make a deal. ‘I want to have your stuff; I want to make it available to other DJs, but I’ll pay you, every time I sell an acetate’. Of course this was not very legal, but it was on such small scale, it was more to disseminate and propagate the music. So there were certain edits I did which became very popular.

Such as?
‘Happy Song’, which is now a bootleg. I did some of ‘What You Wanna Do’ by T Connection; I did some of ‘Erucu’ which is an early Walter track, an instrumental. It was on the Mahogany soundtrack, but there’s this longer version on an album of Motown instrumentals. It’s credited to Jermaine Jackson. It’s a real incredible track. After that, Frank started getting more friendly and he asked me, ‘You know, there’s this record that’s really good that a lot of DJs are asking me about. Why don’t you take the record and make an edit of it.’ That was ‘Bra’ [by Cymande]. So I did a very early edit of ‘Bra’ which was very basic. Repeated the break three times. That was it. I did an edit of ‘Magic Bird Of Fire’ [Salsoul Orchestra]. All these little things were helping me to understand the component parts of the music. I started doing quite elaborate medleys where I would overlay things on top of each other. Almost like pre-sampling.

I was DJing at New York New York non-stop at that stage, and I got to meet these people from Prelude because we were doing the rounds of record labels. I was with another DJ Rene Hewitt, and Prelude had just moved into this office and Marv Schlachter and Stan Hoffman wanted to play us a couple of tapes. They played us a couple of songs and asked Rene for his comments; then they asked me for my comments. ‘Thank you very much. Okay, Rene, you can leave, but could you stay?’ And on the spot, they offered me a position doing A&R. I sat there not even knowing what A&R was. I said I’d better think about it.

I started the following week and they put me in the studio to do this record they needed remixing. It was busting out in the New York marketplace: Push Push ‘In The Bush’ [by Musique]. It was my first experience in a proper recording studio, so I would do a listening session and take a tape home of the individual tracks on the multi-track. I would listen to each track and make a song map, so by the time I came back to the studio I would know exactly what was on each track. I’d make note of which vocal parts were really good, which drum breaks I could use, guitar parts and so on. When I went back in the studio I was with this engineer, Bob Blank, who was quite a talent. Immediately, I was into editing.

Didn’t he work with Arthur Russell?
Yes but that was on the side. Bob Blank did half of the Salsoul records made in New York. Many were made in Philadelphia, but he was involved in many of the New York ones. He worked on the Patrick Adams records, he was a major major engineer. We did a whole pass with different sections and cut it together to make it work. And the record just blew out. I mean, it exploded. Anywhere you would go in the summer of ’78, they were playing that fucking record. I brought it to the Garage and Larry loved it. He would not stop playing it. It went gold. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and still sells today. The original version was out, people were like, ‘Oh, that’s nice’. But when the remix came out it was so DJ-friendly.

So my first record becomes a huge hit and they put me in the studio night and day. It would not end. I got to pick whatever I wanted. I ended up doing a lot of records for Prelude. Two or three records a week on average. It became like an assembly line. We’d sometimes meet the producers and I would have to start traveling to them to tell them how to make it right, or what Prelude wanted. Whether it was Moses Dillard or Jessie Boyce [Saturday Night Band and Gloria Johnson producers] or Rodney Brown and his partner Mainline productions [Sharon Redd, Bobby Thurston]. I got to meet all these different people. I worked in all these different studios. I went to France and started signing records of my own.

Things I have to take credit for would be like ‘Disco Circus’ by Martin Circus. It was only a license but for some reason people seem to remember it on Prelude. And I signed this other thing that Tee Scott and Larry used to play forever, called ‘Body Music’ by the Strikers. You could not get that record. There were only 100 copies made, on the blue label: Cesaree Records up in Harlem somewhere. So for six months that record was getting played at Better Days and the Garage and nobody knew nothing. You could not get a copy. I finally made a connection and I brought it to Marvin. By that time I was really close to Larry so I asked him to come in the studio with and we did the mix together.

I found this other import at Downstairs on Elite Records, ‘Double Journey’ by Powerline, It actually didn’t do too well, only sold about 5-10,000 copies. It was a record that a lot of people at the Garage or the Loft would play consistently. The day I bought Powerline, I remember it so clearly, because it was the first time I was playing at the Garage and I was at Downstairs picking new records. There was only one copy of Powerline and Tee Scott and me were at the counter (and Funk Masters ‘Love Money’ had just come out that day). So I said to Tee, ‘Listen Tee, lemme have this record. I think I can work with it.’ And Tee said said, ‘No problem, have it’. Powerline became a classic in its own right.

Any other notable ones?
I found this other record that Larry was playing on a French 45 called ‘Shake It Up (Do The Boogaloo)’ by Rod. It was a nice earthy, African pop-French thing. I subsequently remixed it and went to France to do a whole album with them. Mostly, when it came those big artist like Sharon Redd, D Train, they found them. Sharon I had nothing to do with. France Jolie was packaged in Canada by Tony Green. I did a couple of the mixes later down the line.

Not only did I work at Blank Tapes, but I also worked at Sigma a lot. Sigma New York. Sometimes Sigma Philly. And I met all these different people; and because I was so interested I learned very quickly. A couple of years down the line, Bob Blank would set me up in the studio with the tapes so he could go get some rest on the couch. He would leave me on my own to do the mix, which I hated. I ended up engineering entire records by myself.

How did you come to do things like Sharon Redd’s ‘Can You Handle It?’, because that was pretty different for the time?
There was no point in redoing the original, I wanted to go somewhere else. It was a beautiful, moody song with these strings that were fabulous. We went back in and recorded some extra vocals. Then I wanted to double the guitar solo, the George Benson thing. Then she did all this talking and extra ad libs. I felt it was appropriate to do a remix like that since the vocal version was great as it was. But, honestly, there wasn’t much thought put into it. It was never like, well here I am standing at the crossroads of history. No! Just go in the studio and do it.

At that time I also got to play in this club AM-PM which was a very very crappy dirty illegal after-hours which went from three in the morning until ten or eleven. John Belushi would be there all the time, Billy Idol would be lying on the floor half-drunk. He was just a barfly. He had ‘Dancing With Myself’ out, but it was only an underground hit. At AM-PM I had to play ska, punk, reggae, disco, electro, whatever. I had to play everything. They wanted to hear the Go-Gos mixed with Bob Marley and James Brown. It opened me up to a whole bunch of other records that had a different attitude. ‘Turn To Red’? by Killing Joke. ‘Shack Up’ by A Certain Ratio. British bands that had a certain punky sound, but were really just recycled disco.

The British were obviously much more aware of that dub reggae thing, because there were all these reggae engineers working there. Some of them would do a B-side version with the heavy effects. I became aware of Jah Wobble, Public Image. Suddenly, I had all these points of reference that gave me ideas to go into the studio and do things that were a lot more experimental.

You’ve said Funk Masters’ Love Money was a very influential record for you.
I think I was the first person to play Funk Masters at the Garage. Because, as I was saying, I picked that up the week I was playing – and I’m talking about the original, not the remix. It had so much more bass than any other record around. When the remix came out after we’d been playing the original for a while, it was really was mind-blowing. It opened me up to this whole reggae, dub thing. That was the first record I heard that was dubby but not a reggae record. When I heard a dance music thing with all those big reverbs, those stops, those crazy effects where a piano comes in, cut off and decay. To me that was a revelation. Oh, you can do that? I immediately started searching out those sounds, records that had that in it. Then going in the studio and playing with tape delays and all kinds of crazy regeneration effects. You can hear the result of that – and some heavy-duty editing – on D Train ‘You’re The One For Me (Reprise), the short one that was only on the album. It’s an instrumental with dubbed-out vocals. To me that version was the real shit. Because people already knew the original version, when I played the dub it was insane. People would go mad at the energy of it. It created something on the dancefloor that you couldn’t just get with a beautiful Quincy Jones-style production. It was about breaking it up and making it go wild. There was that element of wildness that I think I really think I picked up from Larry. Cautiously | wanted to put that into the records.

A lot of the mixes being done were just regarded as disco mixes, like Tee Scott or Larry or Jim Burgess. I started going outside of the mainstream. I’d rather work on an Arthur Russell track than some commercial thing. By that time – ’82 – I’d started taking a lot of freelance things, although sometimes I couldn’t get credit for it, because Prelude were starting to get increasingly unhappy with the fact that I was doing these outside records. I did Yazoo’s ‘Situation’, which was a mega-hit here. Went gold. I did ‘I Wanna Go Bang’ [by Dinosaur Jr] that became a sort of Loft anthem for that year. So some of them I had to do anonymously. I helped Larry do the edit on ‘Is It All Over My Face?’ [by Loose Joints], but I had to do it without a credit.

Any others?
I forget if I got credit on ‘Play At Your Own Risk’ [by Planet Patrol] on Tommy Boy, but I was part of that. There’s a couple I did for Polygram. By that time, I think I’d become a consummate remixer, where I could actually go in the studio and do things by myself.

Did the outside remixes come as a result of your name credits on Prelude releases?
You’ve gotta understand: that year when I did Yazoo and ‘I Wanna Go Bang’ I had the most number ones on the dance chart. Between D Train, Dinosaur L, Strikers, Sharon Redd, Yazoo, whatever it was. I had so many more number ones than anyone else on the Billboard Dance Chart. Everybody in the world was trying to get me. I would get calls from London. Prelude got kind of pissed off when one day CBS, our UK licensee, came up with an album that says ‘François K’s Best Mixes’.

That’s an important moment: as a remixer you were credited above the artists. The label had noticed that it was your mixes that were the attractive element.
Honestly, I don’t think it would’ve made any difference to how big a hit D Train would’ve had. Maybe I helped some. Maybe in the clubs, some of the versions I did. But overall, I would say I was instrumental in defining… or clarifying a lot of things. Like, say, that special dub I did of D-Train ‘Keep On’. That was very much a defining thing where a lot of people copied that stripped-down style.

Less is more!
It’s like, however much Gilles Peterson is into the original Dinosaur L album today I think that album’s a fucking mess. No offence to Arthur [Russell], but Arthur is a mess. Arthur’s music is that rich, luxurious unbelievably complex and ever-evolving and changing mess and chaos that is music and music that is life. My view of what I had to do with those tapes is organise it and focus it. Give it an appeal where at least people would listen to it and get into the marvellous and incredible things he had in there. He really did have some amazing things, but I don’t think he knew how to present it. People can call him a visionary all they want, and I will not deny that Arthur was an absolute visionary, but I don’t think he really knew how to sort out what he had created. It was too much. Certainly as a mixer, I feel that when I did ‘I Wanna Go Bang’ I really focused that record. I stripped it down. I spent hours and hours going over each track until I found the elements that were really strong. And the less things that were around them, the better they sounded. When you hear those [original] album versions It’s like being in swamp you can’t get out of.

Anyway, the point is that I’m not really sure how much I can say was my creation. And how much I was just lucky to be there. Maybe if I wasn’t there somebody else would have done it.

The dub reggae influence had an obvious impact on you. Was it the same with Larry?
I mean, some, but I don’t think he was listening to all that much. I don’t ever remember Larry playing heavy dub tracks in those early days. He would play the Delfonics, he would play Isaac Hayes, downtempo, moody, really experimental R&B ballads. Psychedelic records, but I don’t remember Larry getting so heavy into dub until later. When I was playing at the Garage I would bring heavy Jamaican records; experimental reggae things. We all shared. It permeated. We started mixing tastes a lot of times. He was into that powerful thing; I was into the dub thing.

What about the Sly and Robbie stuff?
That was later. Once Larry got to do all these records for Chris Blackwell at Island and got to work with those Compass Point people, with Sly & Robbi, and working with Steven Stanley, who became his favourite engineer, of course he was into it. That dub phase really started happening when he worked on the Peech Boys. Before that, though, he was more into heavy beats. He was into creating his own sound, which was quite chunky. Larry didn’t do so much effects, he was more into the hard rhythm tracks that were so powerful they would overwhelm you. Hearing Instant Funk ‘I Got My Mind Up’ – schtlackkkk! – It was like getting hit by a tornado. There’s just no other way to describe it.

Do you think Boris Midney’s productions had an effect because they were really dubby?
Yeah, they did, but it was more about arrangement and sonic precision. His studio was like having a giant headphone on top of your head. You felt that you were right in the middle of the bass drum. His music was kind of like that. He had these beautiful classic arrangements, but very trippy melodies.

How did he get that kick drum sound, because it was so huge?
He would just record it himself. He was a master engineer, he had his own techniques just like Giorgio Moroder had his. It was live. I know the kit he had in there was a metal drum kit, small drum booth. His sound was all dead drums, no ambience, nothing.

How do you think house changed things?
Machines. That was the end of live playing. The most significant thing to me about house: you didn’t have live musicians any more. You had people programming boxes. So it had a sound of its own. When it came out it was so special, so raw. Primitive, yet very compelling. It was the start of that refining process where, instead of music having all these flourishes, you just had raw, to-the-bone, simplistic, dancefloor-only oriented music.

The people that made house music weren’t interested in anything other than having the maximum amount of impact on the dancefloor. So when those first tracks came out there was an enormous explosion. Of course, there are a number of tracks that do stand out today as being exceptional music. But no matter how much of it has aged very gracefully – Mr. Fingers, Jungle Wonz, Virgo – some other things sound disgracefully bad. Because they were just a product of their time. They were over-utilising those gated reverb snare drums and those mechanical kicks, without really having any inspiration to it. Just gimmicks.

I think house also marked the dusk of those great, fabulous, legendary studio musicians, like MFSB in Philadelphia, that were playing day in, day out in the studio and had years of playing together, and refined their groove to the point where they became so absolutely incredible. You don’t have that any more. You don’t have those teams of musicians that are used to playing together on sessions for months and months. And they do produce masterpieces which I think will far outlast that mechanical thing. Some mechanical things are good, there’s no question in my mind, the positive thing about house was that you could music on a budget. It enabled a lot of people who were not fortunate enough to have access to a studio to go in and make music.

But why did Nuyorican Soul hire Vince Montana to do the vibes solo when they did a remake of ‘Runaway’? It’s because they cannot duplicate what Vince Montana does. You have to hire Vince Montana. If you want someone to play like George Benson, well maybe you need to hire George Benson. What was really important when Nu Yorican Soul came out was that it did indicate there’s a respect for those kinds of mega talents. for people whose energy and talents have defined a whole movement. For me, if I could, I’d love to get Herbie Hancock to play on one of my songs.

How did house alter your approach to studio work?
It didn’t really, because I quit DJing in 1983. When house arrived I was producing rock bands like Midnight Oil or working with Mick Jagger. Doing things that had a lot more to do with pop and R&B than hardcore dance music. What did I do’86, ’87? I mixed ‘Solid’ which was Ashford and Simpson’s biggest hit ever. I was working on Kraftwerk’s new album. I had graduated from being a dance remixer to being an at-large kind of guy. I was very aware of [Steve Silk Hurley’s] ‘Jack Your Body’ and [Marshall Jefferson’s] ‘House Music Anthem’. I was still going out a lot. I went skating every week in Central Park, where they had the sound systems. I was going to the Garage still. But as far as being in the studio, I can’t say that I really wanted to copy Chicago house. I was excited to work on a Mick Jagger record because Herbie Hancock and Jeff Beck and Sly & Robbie were playing on it. That, to me, was a lot more meaningful. Working with Kraftwerk for a year was very satisfying. That’s where my head was at. Quite honestly, as much as I thought it was like a real mind-blowing thing when I first heard [Mr Fingers] ‘Mystery of Love’, it didn’t have an immediate impact on what my productions were like.

Retrospectively, I think the more significant thing than house was Detroit. Because what was really interesting about Detroit was that they really vibed on all these Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, early electronic records. And they made it into a sound that was more abstract. Maybe I shouldn’t say it’s more important. Historically, you might say it has more far reaching implications.

Was that because they isolated and less driven by the dancefloor?
Yeah, it’s possible. I’m not denying that I play less Detroit records than I play early house. There’s always a couple of old house records in my crates. I don’t have that many Detroit. But I think that over the course of time, I think it perhaps had a more profound influence on some of the European things. It might be that house is much more successful, because it’s spawned all these genres. Also in Europe it’s done incredibly well on a pop level.

When you eventually started doing house, it was still different, but very you.
What happened was I started DJing again in early ’90. I decided become a DJ again, so I would call people and say, ‘Hey, can I come and DJ at your party?’ I started trying to get DJ gigs because I just missed it so much. From there it became a lot more apparent that because I was spending so much time in the clubs it was changing the sound I had when I was in the studio. Quite honestly though, in the early ’90s, I didn’t get much work at all, mixing or anything. I was working with Loleatta Holloway a lot, trying to get an album’s worth of material. We had a studio, and I was investing a fair amount of my time doing music. I was not very successful in placing many of my songs with people. We did a song with Select Records, ‘Strong Enough’.

How did your label Wave come about?
After I left Prelude people were always telling me, ‘Why don’t you do your own label?’ But I had the studio which at its peak was a major facility with 20 employees. An operation like that just doesn’t take care of itself. Once it became apparent that having a studio was not my goal as an end result, I was refocusing into the DJ thing again, and going back into that underground vibe. So I started making music again that fitted more in that groove. What I was really into in the early ’90s was the more experimental end of things: Deee-Lite, LFO, A Guy Called Gerald.

But the truth is most of what I was doing was not getting signed. A&R departments are literally handcuffed by the risk-taking factors of their jobs. People are looking for the short-term solutions. They need to sign the Salt Girls or Pepper Girls or Pizza Girls: something that can cash in a little flavour of the underground, the house sound of the moment, but really it’s about moving a lot units of a disposable thing.

I never felt like that about music. I always felt that music was really deep inside me. It was a very magical thing; it was a very mystical thing. And it’s not something you fuck with. Since nobody wanted to release what I liked, I figured I might as well just put it out myself. So I thought it was the right time to start a label. We really haven’t had a lot of releases, but we seem to have had a good reaction so far. The first EP I did, most of the tracks are rejects of remixes I did for other people. I called Warp Records because I wanted to do a mix for LFO, so they sent me the pieces and I did a mix which I thought was a take on ‘Baby Wants To Ride’. They hated it. I was really mortified. And the fucking single sold nothing. But then I re-did it, put it out on my EP as ‘Mindspeak’ and guess what? People loved it. Now it’s blossomed into a full blown label. My primary commitment. We’re signing a lot more acts as we speak.

With the fragmentation of dance music in the ‘90s, where do you think that has left DJing as an artform? Is it too easy now?
Well, it’s a different vibe. There’s an analogy that I don’t mind using because it’s very accurate. It used to be that we had landscapes, with little hills and gentle valleys, and they’ve just taken a bulldozer and made everything flat. I don’t want to take anything away from people building great hypnotic tracks that are based on repetition, and I’m not denying that mixing tools are great: records that can only be listened to in clubs. But music used to be something you could listen to at home, something you could listen to in more than one situation.

I pride myself on being the only person that has worked with most of the major electronic music figures: Depeche Mode, Erasure, Kraftwerk, Eurythmics, Jean-Michel Jarre. I feel that most people have completely misunderstood these people’s music and they’re taking the easy path to making records. They’re not really trying to get in touch with the magical aspect of making music. Because of the machines, and the ability to produce music at home that sounds very professional, they’ve removed the composer, the arranger, the bands, all of that. Sometimes you have geniuses who are able to do it in their bedroom, but most of the time, I think, most times we are left with a culture of mediocrity. One that does not value the story, or the trip that music used to take you through. Perhaps it has to do with drugs, but being that I’m completely not into the drug thing. I’m very very much a proponent of electronic music.

Are these thoughts some of the reasons you started your club night Body & Soul (in 1996)?
Body & Soul is not about playing relentless house music all night long. The reason I got into this Body & Soul thing is because I wanted to expose people to a variety of music, some of which you would call house, some of which not. And make them peacefully co-exist, and bring a crowd that appreciate that variety. On the music part, my idea for it was that I really didn’t want to be just playing by myself. I wanted to maybe explore the possibility of exploring more of a team effort. A true joint effort, where you could be drawing on the talents of various DJs to present an afternoon’s worth of music that was really special and different. I just decided to call the two people I felt were the most talented people I could think of for doing that in a team context.

That’s Danny Krivit and Joe Claussell?
Yeah. It’s not about, this guy plays for an hour, that guy plays for an hour. We are actually playing together as a team, at the same time. So we can very easily be in each other’s way, but so far it hasn’t been like that. My basic idea about this was that I wanted to give people a sort of continuation of a certain feeling that I’ve always enjoyed as a party-goer: a no attitude, kind of living room vibe. Put couches around the dancefloor, where you could lounge and talk with your friend, or dance. It’s really not anything that we’ve invented. That was really the concept behind the Loft and a few other downtown places.

And it’s working.
These parties we’re having right now are amongst the very few parties that I go to where the crowd goes nuts. They’re screaming and hollering, singing and stomping, they don’t wanna leave the club. Every week now it’s become this habit where we put the lights on and everybody keeps dancing. We turn the music off and they sing their own songs! And we have to put more music on.

Where does it sit in the New York club tradition?
The Garage was a copy of the Loft, but much more amplified. Larry decided to take the concept of the Loft and blow it up many times: in the size of the room, in the size of the sound system. There was a little bit of the Gallery and a little bit of the Loft in the Garage. The same thing for Body & Soul, whether consciously or not, there’s still a little bit of the Loft in there certainly, because there’s phases to the party where it’s very moody and spaced out for a number of hours. It doesn’t get frantic till much later on. Then, when we get to the bit in Body & Soul which is more intense you can’t really think that there isn’t some link to the Garage, but I don’t think it’s something we’ve done voluntarily. You look at Joe Clausell, Danny Krivit and François K, those are the kind of musical backgrounds we have.

I’m not trying to say we are the only ones keeping that alive, but I do think it’s important to keep that music alive and vibrant and heard and exposed today because, to me, it was the roots and foundations of everything else that’s going on today. It’s not about doing a memorabilia trip. We’re not the New Orleans Jazz Preservation Society. It’s a continuation of New York history

Which other DJs do you think uphold this eclectic attitude?
Recently I saw Jeff Mills play in Europe. I was completely blown away. I think he’s a fantastic DJ. The way he’s using all these different records and layering on top of each other. And Andy Weatherall, who puts his heart and soul into it. You could really see that guy is feeling his music. And that’s something that projects to the crowd. It’s not abstract. I am absolutely awestruck by Gilles Peterson. Whenever I see Gilles play it’s just like back to the drawing board, reduced to taking notes. This is what it’s all about. There’s a whole element that’s lost out there of how grand a party can be. What drama and what can really happen when somebody plays music that is not just a succession of beats, or a collection of this week’s new releases, but is actually an inspired reading. It’s a message, it’s a telling.

The greatest DJs have an emotional approach, don’t they. They create drama.
You can create drama on the dancefloor by just stopping the music. Using these sound effects on the vocals to feel like you’re really touching people on a direct level. That to me, is the most significant thing about the old days: that there was a message in the music. The music was touching people on an individual level. People were there, thinking that the DJ was playing that record just for them. Sometimes the DJ would be using the song – and Larry was so incredible at that – you’d feel that that song was directed at you. Like he was telling you something with the lyrics. If you asked me cold what the main difference is between today and the golden era of disco. The main difference? You wanna know? They had peaks. There were moments of excitement on the dancefloor where the entire room would be going out of their heads screaming, hollering, jumping up and down, because the record was bringing them to such a peak. But the peak was only possible because there were mellow parts to the song.

I specifically remember an incident at the Garage when Larry decided to play a movie at the end of the night He played ‘Altered States’. What’re you gonnna do? There’s 2,500 people there and you suddenly play ‘Altered States’. That’s the kind of freedom that I think people need to know exists. People can say what they want about Junior Vasquez, but I think Junior Vasquez has a terrific sense of drama. When you go and hear Junior play, he will entertain you. He will challenge you. You might not like it. But he’ll create those dark atmospheres. He will stop the music and make something really grand happen.

We had Nicky Siano play at Body & Soul and he wanted a milk crate so he could stand up and start acting the records out. He was on a stage! He was feeling every word of the songs, and the crowd would respond to it.

It’s interesting that, some of these places like the Loft and the Garage, or some of the people, Like David Mancuso and Walter Gibbons, are becoming icons. And people who never even knew them or saw them, are suddenly admiring them. Obviously there is a significance to all this. It’s taken a very long time for some of this to surface, but you can see how strong, dense and rich it was because it’s finally getting understood.

There’s a whole generation of producers who grew up going to the Garage. So many people acknowledge that the Garage was the thing that turned them on. Where is that Garage today? At least in New York? Where is it in London? I am not the kind of person who will accept hearing one thing all night long. It just does not agree with me. I feel an important part of what those early DJs were doing is mixing a lot of things that were not made to be together. That was the magic of what they were doing. They were able to pick all these quirky little pop records. All these funny B-side instrumentals. All those early electronic experiments. And all those rock records that really didn’t even know they were funky. The DJs put these things together and made it into something that was like creating a new world.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Welcome To The Club – The Life and Lessons of a Black Female DJ

Welcome To The Club – The Life and Lessons of a Black Female DJ

This rollicking memoir takes you through unmarked doors vibrating with bass to celebrate a life lived to the full in dance music. For Paulette The Club is many things. It’s her escape from a too-young marriage. It’s Manchester’s Number One where she’s an extrovert dancer freaking out to Prince. It’s the Haçienda, where she’s resident DJ in a cast iron bikini at the stereotype-busting Flesh. It’s youth TV where she’s a shaven-headed face to reckon with. Later it’s the music biz club where she’s doing label press and A&R with Gilles P and Talking Loud, Black Market, Azuli, Defected. The Club is The Zap, Queer Nation, Venus, Vague, as she clocks up motorway miles guesting at the best queer nights in the land. And when she becomes Ministry of Sound’s special envoy, a globetrotting DJ with just one name, for Paulette The Club is the whole wide world.

But the title is also about The Club that keeps a tough guard on its velvet rope. This is a book about insiders and outsiders in an industry as riddled with inequalities as any other, but that until recently believed its own hype. For most of its history dance music thought of itself – if it thought much at all – as a diverse and inclusive rainbow nation. ‘Hand in hand… we’ll make it to the promised land.’ Paulette’s book questions this, loving the moments when she finds that it’s true, and calling it out with footnotes and statistics when it most patently isn’t. Who gets into the club, how long they stay there, how much they get paid and how well they are remembered – it’s not always fair and it’s often not even clear. Sex, race and gender are the filters she applies, and while her arguments hit home she avoids drowning you in academic abstractions.

With nine lives lived in Manchester, Ibiza, Paris and London, Paulette has plenty of tales to tell. She regales taking ‘lines of cocaine off the highly mirrored wedge heel of a now collectible Prada shoe that was passed under a toilet door.’ Or playing overtime because the DJ following her at the Terrace in Space is too spannered to see. Or grabbing her identical twin Paula to stand in for her because her head’s in bits from an ill-timed pill – then enduring the DJ frustration at hearing the crowd ebb away as her sister plays the same record three times in a row.

And she’s great on the grinding prep work of a committed DJ. The endless processing of music and the hours of listening to duff tunes in search of gold. She details the bad diet, grim rooms, cancelled flights and poorly arranged itineraries of the pro, with great images like ‘a travel iron with half the carpet melted onto it.’ The recent paralysis of lockdown is especially vivid. It was so destructive to freelancers in general, but especially to DJs, who saw their livelihoods cease overnight. Beset by covid-sponsored anxiety, Paulette suffers her own literal paralysis, then pulls out of it with strength of will and the support of a new community online.

Most of all, this is a survival manual – mentorship on the page. Paulette is a role model laid bare, offering an honest recounting of her career, full of wisdom, guidance and occasional rage, with tips and watch-outs for DJs of any sex or gender. She gives encouragement to be proudly difficult: in a great note of defiance she declares that she no longer tries to fit in, ‘with people or in places where I no longer fit.’

Her formative experiences chime with other foundational female voices in DJing’s history, most of whom say they weren’t aware of barriers to entry because they made their own way in a role that hadn’t yet gathered many rules. ‘In the beginning, “DJ” wasn’t a career ambition or goal for anyone (men included) so we women never saw our gender, race or sexuality as compromising it any further.’

Instead, she says she was largely self-propelled: ‘We did it for love. We did it for the party,’ she says. ‘We founded a new culture, a new way of life, then shared our love, vision, desire and the obsession that drives us generously with the world. With no one like us who we could model ourselves on, we became the influencers and influences of the future.’

In the back end of the book she rejoices in the latest incarnation of this club she’s helped build. Which like all the best spots is filling up with new faces, voices and energy. Paulette celebrates her new sisters with big-ups and shout-outs, paying it forward to the inheritors of the decks. ‘I love it. We all love it. I totally buzz off what I do. I am grateful every day that I can do what I do as a full-time job. There is nothing that matches that feeling of connection between myself and a crowd that’s as passionate, obsessive and excited about music as I am.’

Full disclosure here: Bill and I figure in the book somewhat – as ‘gatekeepers’ of the history, though, as we told her, we could never think of ourselves that way. If anything, we felt like chancers who’d struck lucky, surprised no-one more qualified had beaten us to it. We felt honoured to tell the story, detectives pressing record and putting the protagonists’ voices directly on the page. But of course, gatekeepers we were. Paulette’s book reminds us that with all the best intentions we made conscious and unconscious choices about who got our airtime.

We owe her a big hug of thanks for this; she was one of the people we turned to in 2021 to understand our own book better. In 23 years its place in the world had evolved. And if the meaning of a text changes with its reader, Paulette was one of the readers for whom it was now different. She helped us go deeper into the struggles women DJs have faced, detailing the wage inequality and barriers to recognition they still encounter. She was a big part of us refitting Last Night a DJ Saved My Life with the self-knowledge it needed to sit comfortably on the shelves again. 

Her own volume enlarges on those same themes brilliantly. In graceful readable style it’s an account of the sexism, racism and ageism in thirty years of dance music, as well as the career moves, milestones and missteps of a black woman DJ not afraid to make her point. As history gets more granular it gets more true. And an eyewitness report from the global DJ booth like this is peak personal truth. It sits well with recent memoirs from Harold Heath and Emma Warren – soul-baring accounts of this living culture we’ve all been part of. Thankfully, with dance music narratives less of a rarity, the players no longer need gatekeepers to tell their stories.

Even fuller disclosure: let me also fess up that I may have helped set this book back as much as a decade by giving Paulette writerly ‘advice’ back when I was younger and way more stupid. Thankfully, my unhelpful help – about upping the drama and layering on the sensational – is now redundant. The intervening years have let her write a much better book than I think either of us imagined back then.

For one, she’s come to it stronger and more focused, fierce grey beehive to the fore. The last decade has been one of growth, setback and rebirth for her, as she’ll tell you elegantly on the page. And the terrible clarifying events of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo awakening have created a context into which it falls perfectly. This book is angrier, clearer, more timely. It has more of a mission, and it’s also more loving, more grateful, more evocative and personal. 2023 is different too. The narrative is richer, the machinery of culture more widely understood, the battles for visibility and recognition no longer so far behind the scenes.

‘My hope is that this book embarrasses the DJ boys’ club into throwing its doors wide open to admit, acknowledge, appreciate embrace… the significant contribution made by women, people of colour and other marginalised communities who created this scene and continue to make it so varied and rich… We have more than earned our membership but we won’t beg for the space at the table.’

Though she’s a softie at heart, our Paulette doesn’t let anyone off the hook. In Welcome to the Club she cuts to the quick with her incisive Manc sarcasm, then, as you’re licking your wounds, there’s inclusive Manc love, wrapping you up in a cotton shawl with a mug of cocoa. With this heartfelt book, she’s joined another Club – that of the published author. And along the way she’s helped some of its earlier members better understand the privileges that offers. Thanks for both Miss P.

Frank Broughton

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

F**k me I’m Fabus

F**k me I’m Fabus

While entering his sixth decade as a professional, Steve Fabus is still working as hard now as he did when he started as a young man in 1973. Starting in his hometown of Chicago, and later in San Francisco, he forged a reputation as one of the most skilful and soulful DJs of the disco era, playing in The I-Beam, Trocadero Transfer and EndUp. After a sojourn in New York, he returned to San Fran in the late 1980s and these days is co-host of the long-running Go! BANG party, alongside Sergio Fedasz. Steve draws on a rich history of the art of DJing, from Ron Hardy and Lou DiVito in Chicago to Bobby Viteritti and Vincent Carleo in San Francisco.

interviewed by Bill, 21.10.2021

I remember you telling me about going to Den One in Chicago. Can you tell me a bit about that? 
I did go yeah. This is really early. This is in ’74. I actually worked in a porn theatre next to the club, the Bijou Theater. I was a film student. I wanted to be a movie director at that time, and I went to Columbia College in Chicago, an arts school that had a great film department. And one of the reasons I worked at the Bijou Theater besides the fact that, well, I enjoyed some of the porn, but more importantly, really, actually at that time, the film students would come in after the theatre was closed and we would screen our own movies there, after we closed the theatre. I was a projectionist at the theatre. But anyway, another night, we would just go next door to the club. It was called Our Den at first and then Den One and I remember Ron being very young. I don’t think he was even of age. It was I think 21 in those days. They lowered it in Chicago to 18 legal age to get in a bar for a while, but at that particular time, it was 21. But he was in there anyway, I think, at 19 or 20 years old. Yeah, he was playing the music of the time and there was another DJ there, Artie Feldman. He was very good also. It was a at that time very mixed club, black and white, and it was fun. I just went in there as after hours, after we closed the theatre down to just go in there and hang out for a while and dance.

Ron Hardy at Music Box playlist

Do you remember the kinds of records they would have been playing at the time?
Well, yeah. I mean, okay, ‘Soul Makossa’ (of course), War’s ‘City Country City’, Creative Source’s ‘Who Is He And What Is He To You’, ‘Love Train’ ‘I Like What I Like’ by Everyday People.

That was a Canadian record, wasn’t it?
Yeah, the one that starts with all the percussion and builds up. Just an incredible song. Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes’ ‘The Love I Lost’, ‘Stoned Out Of My Mind’ by The Chi-Lites, ‘Love’s Theme’, ‘Girl You Need A Change of Mind’ by Eddie Kendricks.

What year did you first start coming to San Francisco?
The first time I came to San Francisco was in ’71. I just wanted to go to California and see what was going on over there, for all kinds of reasons. Part of it at that time was I was just there for a visit, and I would go back to Chicago to keep going to school. Basically I was living in Chicago and just coming to California and discovering a lot of things about it. Actually, I first went to LA. We got friends together and got what they used to call a drive-away car. It was a service where we could get somebody’s car. There would be companies that would provide this service so people could get their cars delivered to them across country.

At the time just anybody that wanted to, so long as they had a clean driving record, could drive the car across the country for free. They’d even pay for the gas. So, we got into one of those cars the first time and drove it across the country, and first to L.A. I was with friends. Actually, I was with a boyfriend at the time, going to California for the first time. We stopped in LA, and that was fabulous. I loved LA. We went to the beaches and Sunset Strip and all of that, the gay area in West Hollywood, also another gay district called called Silver Lake.. But the real destination was San Francisco, basically. We hitchhiked up the coast and my boyfriend had been in San Francisco before, and he just told me that, ‘Well, wait till you get to San Francisco. Your mind’s going to be blown’.

And what did you think when you got there?
Well, yeah, my mind was blown by it. It wasn’t like any other American city. It just seemed very different architecturally, and a city on hills, and all this incredible old Victorian architecture. At the time, a lot of it was painted bright colours because of the hippie thing. And of course, Haight-Ashbury was going on. It’s still going on, even though there were some problems by that point with crime and all that. There was a very well-established gay neighbourhood around the Polk Street area, and it was at that time the very beginnings of what would become the Castro. Of course there was North Beach that was the neighbourhood that the beatniks were always congregated in. So, it was very interesting to be in the city. It was a feeling like, well, this is a city of nonconformists. I mean, after being in bohemian districts in Chicago, which is like Old Town, but also in New York, the Greenwich Village and all that, San Francisco seemed to be a city where almost a huge part of the city was all bohemian. I saw people that basically, they were dressed in all different fashions. More like just kind of countercultural. It felt very like this is the capital of the counterculture in America.

Anyway, I loved it. My boyfriend was right. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is quite a magical place’. But at that particular time, I wasn’t ready to move there yet. I had things going on in Chicago. I mean, Chicago was a pretty incredible place as well. I had a lot of fun in Chicago. There was a great community there. But there was eventually a calling out to San Francisco where no matter where people lived, they could be in New York, you know? An incredible city like New York, but yet there was this calling for a great number of people to leave and go to San Francisco. It was just physically so attractive and unique, and there was this whole spirit of openness. It was a very sexually free city. I mean, you could find that in New York and Chicago too, and LA, but in San Francisco it was turned up even more. We used to laugh, if you couldn’t get laid in San Francisco, then you might as well give up. It was a very free place. It was the capital of the porn industry and there were all kinds of bars and sex clubs that catered to more of a kinky sexual taste, shall I say. I guess kind of like Berlin is or whatever, but San Francisco was that way back then. It had a draw, and a lot of people were called to it.

But it must’ve been a particularly draw if you were gay?
Yeah. There was a feeling, that was in the back of our minds that we could build our own world there and build a community, starting with this village in Castro, and before that, the Polk area. We could build this whole magical place where we also had political power, with power in numbers. So, not only was it probably the number one party city for gay people at that time, and not just gay people, but everybody with the hippies and everything else. It was a place with numbers of people coming in and with numbers of people living there. Percentage-wise, we could obtain some political power. And that’s what did happen.

When did you actually make the permanent move to San Francisco?
Late ’74, early ’75, yeah. 

And in ’75, what in terms of bars and clubs were happening in San Francisco? Because that disco scene must have been emerging by that stage, right?
Yeah. There was the place called the Mind Shaft. Not mineshaft, but Mind Shaft. That was actually a very cool club. It was more in the Castro District. There was The Stud, of course. The Stud started as a biker bar way back, like in late ’60s, and then it turned into a place where most of the Haight-Ashbury people would go. This is South of Market District, which is more downtown, and in the industrial area just south of Market Street. This became like this legendary place. Janice Joplin went there. The Cockettes would hang out there. Etta James performed there. When I went into The Stud, I realised this symbolised San Francisco in many ways, because they used to call them head bars, which were bars that were for the counterculture, for the hippies. There was nothing quite like that anywhere else. I mean, there were some bars in New York like that. There were a couple bars in Chicago that were like that, but they were kind of smaller. This was a bigger and just more quintessential, symbolic part of what the counterculture was in San Francisco. So this felt like, well, God, there’s nothing like The Stud.

And when you say head bar, was it somewhere where people were kind of smoking weed and stuff like that?
Yeah, they smoked weed. They’d even smoke weed in the bar sometimes, but definitely outside the bar. And they were on other drugs as well. I mean, a lot of people were on acid or mushrooms or whatever. And also, it was like a lot of long-hairs. Basically hippies, and then as time went on, just more countercultural type people. You know, punks started going there. But also, interestingly enough to that whole period, they played a lot of rock music in the club. But they did have nights where they played disco as well.

Presumably it was gay-friendly as well.
I mean, basically it was a gay bar. It was gay hippie, and yeah, that’s one of the reasons that I found San Francisco interesting. Being that this was the capital of hippiedom, I found a lot of the people, the movers and some of the luminaries of the whole scene were gay. This bar was a gay bar with gay hippies, the ultimate gay hippie bar. And of course, with it being San Francisco, outside of the Stud, the City Disco opened which was in North Beach. At first, it was called Cabaret After Dark, which then became the City Disco. That opened a little later. You’re talking about ’75. There was The Shed, which was an after hours club in the Castro as well. That was fun. David Bowie went to that club when he was in town. There was The EndUp, of course. How could I forget that? I’m forgetting one of the more obvious ones. But yeah, The EndUp actually started in ’73, and that was a major place to go.

Who would’ve been the resident DJs there when it opened?
Peter Struve was one of the first DJs there, and Tom Junell, but Peter Struve was the main early DJ at The EndUp in ’75 and ’76.

When you moved there, did you move with the intention of becoming a DJ, or did you just end up being one? What was your ambition when you moved there?
Well, I was inspired by going to the Chicago clubs. I mean, I really got into it. Well, there was Den One, but of course there was Dugan’s Bistro, which was the big club downtown. I really liked going there, and I got very inspired by what they were doing there. And there was another club, PQ’s, which was kind of almost like The Stud of Chicago. That was funkier. Also kind of reminded me of The Anvil in New York, so just a smaller club which is a little more like a hole in the wall spot, which was really hot. And The Bistro was big, a big room. So at those two clubs, actually, I was the most inspired by what was going on.

Were they racially mixed, similar to Den One, or was it more white or black?
PQ’s was more mixed. The Bistro was mostly white, but it was definitely some … There were, I don’t know, I guess like 10% black, another 15%, 20% Latin. So I would say about 70% white, basically.

Do you remember who the DJs were at Dugan’s Bistro and PQ’s?
Ron Beltman was the first DJ and then Lou DiVito came in after that. So, this is going back to ’73. Chicago had a big room disco in ’73. So it was right up with New York having that kind of place. So, I got to hear all that music that people would hear at The Loft or The Sanctuary or The Gallery, whatever, over at these clubs in Chicago.

Did you know about The Loft and The Gallery when you were in Chicago? 
I actually didn’t know right away, no. What I did know is I was hearing this great music in Chicago, and then later on I would find out from people that went to New York, ‘Oh yeah, well, this is going on at David Mancuso’s party,’ or, ‘This is going on at The Gallery’. Chicago has to be right up with New York. I mean, it’s like Second City or whatever, so I was able to hear all that music there. I did go to New York with friends and again, we’d get a one of those drive-away cars or rental cars and just drove to New York from Chicago. It was like a 12-hour drive, so it’s not that bad to drive there. So, I went to some of the first clubs in the Village, the original Limelight which was actually in the Village as a smaller bar. 

We stayed in the Broadway Central Hotel, which was a cheap hotel, but drag queens and musicians and artists would stay there. So that was fun. But yeah, I was just happy that we had our own clubs in Chicago that I could basically hear all this music. And that’s where I was first inspired to even be a DJ. I just thought, ‘Well, God, this is really an incredible new thing that’s going on, and I’m enjoying it so much, I want to be on the dancefloor for hours.’ Chicago has a late night drinking license for clubs, like New York, so it was open till five in the morning and people could drink till five in the morning, so I could hear what that was all about, hearing a DJ play for long hours into the morning. So I did some house parties in Chicago. I still have an invitation for one of the first parties I did in my flat in Chicago, and anyway, it’s pretty hilarious. It was an acid punch party, which a lot of people were doing at that time. So, I would mix some rock, but with some of the new music that was coming out with Eddie Kendricks and ‘Soul Makossa’, and all that kind of stuff, mixing that up with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and one turntable. I would also do some after hour parties for this theatre troupe. It was an underground theatre troupe in Chicago that had their shows at Kingston Mines Theater, and then I would come in and I would play. I would DJ for them after hours. But I carried that over when I moved to San Francisco, because I continued to do house parties in San Francisco after I moved there.

How did you move from that to becoming a ‘professional’?
I met a lot of people very quickly. I was trying the whole thing out where I wanted to give a good party, just have fun. But I would invite some very important people to the party like Harvey Milk. I lived a block away from his camera store in the Castro, so I invited him. I invited Sylvester. I invited The Cockettes. They were my friends anyway. I first met Sylvester through The Cockettes, because he was a Cockette. And at first, he had a rock band, Sylvester & The Hot Band, and that’s what he was doing then. He was just hanging out, and Harvey Milk came over to the party, The Cockettes, and a bunch of people in the neighbourhood, my friends. It was just great. I was hanging out with Harvey and we shared a joint. It was that kind of thing.

Then I met Rod Roderick. I think I might have mentioned this before somewhere, I think to you, but he was kind of like a cross between a gay Hugh Hefner and David Mancuso, because he was giving his own loft parties in San Francisco. He was obviously tied in to the whole scene. He also happened to be from Chicago, but he went to New York all the time, so he had that connection. He did it in his own house, which was a whole Victorian building on McAllister Street, and it was like three floors. He owned the building so we could do whatever we wanted to. We called it The Mansion, and he gave some legendary parties there, and continued to do that for years. And he also did some parties in warehouses South of Market District, SoMa District. And sometimes, he would team up with some other people and they’d do parties together. But this is like the underground of the time. This is before the big room clubs opened in San Francisco. He did the parties before that, so he kind of guided the city along with how to do a party.

Was he key to your progression?
Well, he reached out to me. Most of the bathhouses had DJs in San Francisco, and for a while, they served as after hours parties, because this is before the Trocadero opened. People would go there just to hang out and party and of course, the option was you could do other things as well. I learned a lot playing at the bathhouses, because it didn’t have a dance floor. So, I could work on my craft and experiment a lot more, so I kind of found my sound that way, which was already inside of me. A lot of it came from inspiration from what I heard in Chicago and New York, but also, kind of this mix of what I was hearing in San Francisco.

Anyway, it gave me time to really work on being a DJ. And so, I had a lot of fun with that. One of the guys that owned I-Beam, or was going to open The I-Beam, came up to me also in the baths. This came later, but said that he liked my sound. He was from New York and his name was Bob Wharton. The other owner was Sanford Kellman who was from Detroit. But they liked my sound because it had that combination of East Coast and Chicago with the West Coast. So, they wanted that at The I-Beam, so that’s eventually how I got to play at The I-Beam.

Did you play at The I-Beam from when it opened?
Not right from when it opened. They did bring a DJ in from LA, Paul Dougan, for a while. But then after about six months or so, they decided on bringing me in with Tim Rivers and Michael Garrett. So, we were the three resident DJs at The I-Beam. And we played disco, of course and at that time was seven nights a week. So, between the three of us, we all played different nights. But we had our regular nights to play. I played Sunday after Michael Garrett played, and I would play some Thursdays. Timmy Rivers played Saturday at the time and Thursday. I played Friday sometimes with Michael Garrett. The I-Beam opened before the Trocadero opened. It was a great club and at that time, it was mostly ’70s music, more on the soulful side. 

What was the club capacity at The I-Beam?
It seemed like capacity was probably about 600- 700 people. The Trocadero was a little larger. So, I think there could be up to … I mean, throughout the whole night at The Trocadero, probably at times when it was really packed, 1,000 people could go through it throughout the night. 

How did that compare with City Disco?
City Disco was a little smaller than The Trocadero. City Disco had another level, though. It was like a cabaret downstairs, so you would have people like … I mean, Sylvester performed there, but you’d also have these female impersonators like Charles Pierce and cabaret acts going on downstairs. Piano bar kind of stuff. But that usually, unless it was Sylvester, didn’t have much to do with what was going on upstairs. City Disco, Cabaret After Dark actually was the first name of that venue. It was in the North Beach area of the city, which also had a history of being a gay district, but at the time, there was still another couple gay bars in that area. But Cabaret After Dark was this huge, big disco which started out all gay. With the City Disco, though, it was more of a mixed club, and that was great. They liked to think of themselves as the Studio 54 of San Francisco. So, a very mixed crowd. Lots of gay people, but lots of everything.

Was there quite a fierce rivalry between The I-Beam, The EndUp, the City Disco, The Troc? How did that all work?
There was a little bit of rivalry. In a sense, the fact that The I-Beam could never get its after hours permit. The I-Beam was ironically on Haight Street, which was the crazy Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, but at the time … I mean, there were people that lived in the neighbourhood that never liked the fact that their neighbourhood was invaded by hippies and it just went basically in their minds berserk, like things getting out of control. The few conservative people that lived in the neighbourhood. But they had a certain amount of power when they would complain about sound. They’d make a lot of sound complaints. So, when The I-Beam tried to get its after hours permit, it was always shot down because these people would come to the meetings in City Hall where we were debating pros and cons of granting after hours license. 

What were the after hours options? Were there illegal after hours happening?
Well, the Trocadero opened about five or six months after The I-Beam opened. At first, I mean, Trocadero opened without alcohol and it didn’t really plan to have alcohol. Of course, a lot of the clubs in New York didn’t have alcohol, and that was one of the reasons that they became so successful and more free and more of a party space, because they didn’t have to deal with agencies that control … you know, Alcoholic Beverage Commission in New York, and in San Francisco the same thing. But at the very beginning, Trocadero couldn’t get its after hours license either. Trocadero was South of Market, which is more of a industrial neighbourhood, near a freeway, so it was like a noisy, industrial area, not really residential. So, they granted the after hours license to Trocadero pretty quickly. So then in that sense, it wasn’t really competitive with The I-Beam. A lot of people would go to The I-Beam earlier and then they would to The Trocadero afterwards.

From a DJ point of view, when you finished work at The I-Beam, would you go and hang out? Were you friends with other DJs? Would you go to another club and hang out with your friends?
Yeah. I went to The Trocadero, it was a pretty tight community. Of course there were rivalries, and there were some people dissing the different musical styles of some DJs because…

That’s what DJs do. DJs love bitching.
I guess so, but I never did. At The Trocadero, the DJs had all that time, all night, so they could go into different kinds of music. The I-Beam, I guess it was closer to what would be like Paradise Garage. But we wouldn’t play more of the nuanced Euro, they called it Eurobeat at the time or that kind of prettier music, like Alec Costandinos and stuff like that. That would be more like The Trocadero sound. And then they would get to hear morning music also. Bobby  [Viteritti] played till oftentimes eight or nine in the morning.

But I kind of worked around that, too, when Bobby brought me in to be basically his warmup DJ, and that was fine with me, because I was already playing The I-Beam. I didn’t feel like, oh well, I’m just his warmup DJ. I just felt like, oh, this is good. I can play at Trocadero with Bobby, and they brought me in because I did play a different sound than he played. They didn’t want somebody going in there that was going to be trying to copy him. He liked the fact that I played more of a Garage sound, and he wanted me to do that. Then he played his thing, and he really became The Trocadero. I mean, Bobby Viteritti is The Trocadero.

But that’s when also in 1980, The EndUp wanted me to come in to do their morning party. It hadn’t been going on that long, like, I don’t know, a year or so. They wanted me to come in because I was playing I-Beam and now Trocadero, so I could come in and do the morning party. So I went to The EndUp at six in the morning to do that, and played every Sunday morning from six am till one in the afternoon. The place would be packed. People would come in from The Trocadero and other places, their houses or wherever they were. They would come in to dance. They’d fill the place up. By seven in the morning, it was filled up, and I could take them from sleaze all the way up to some of the, at the time, the early ’80s records like D-Train and stuff like that. I’d play more of a funky, soulful Garage-y kind of sound, and then I would also play some Hi-NRG. I’d mix it up with all those hours as time went on, and even more people are coming in, so it worked out really well.

What would you class as your sort of classic sleaze records from that period?
I still played stuff from the disco era, but I’d play Steve Arrington, D-Train, ‘Be Mine Tonight’ by the Jammers. I also brought in the classic deep disco stuff, like ‘Can’t Fake the Feeling’, ‘Down To Love Town’, ‘Put Your Body In It’, ‘Feed The Flame’, ‘If My Friends Could See Me’, all that time. Gino Soccio’s big records like ‘Try It Out’, which was a perfect EndUp record in the morning for me. You know, ‘P.A.R.T.Y.’ by Denise LaSalle. I did a remix of that later on with Paul Goodyear, but that was huge. P-A-R-T-Y, party.

Who do you think were the most influential DJs of the era? Was it Bobby?
There were people that idolised Bobby, and there were people that were into really what I was doing, and also a DJ like Vincent Carleo, who was a New York transplant, and one of my mentors. Vincent played at Flamingo and came out to San Francisco to stay. He worked a lot of the underground loft parties that Rod Roderick gave. He was also the first DJ to open The Trocadero. He played on opening night. And Timmy Rivers, he was one of my mentors, and he was a beloved DJ. He was kind of like that Larry Levan or Frankie Knuckles at the time of San Francisco.

When you were playing at all of these things, did it feel like you were kind of part of a secret society? 
Yeah, we did. We did feel that it was very special, we had a very special thing going on in San Francisco. And I know people in New York felt the same way, and Chicago to a certain extent. But yeah, in San Francisco, it was kind of a unique feeling with our scene. But beyond that, just the fact that we were building a very special place for ourselves.

Also, I suppose you were kind of building an idealised version of a gay society as well.
We were, yeah. And many times, we would laugh and say, ‘This is too good to be true. I mean, is this really happening?’ We actually have this incredible place with this culture and not only the culture, but where we have power here, political power in numbers. 

Speaking of that, what did the city feel like when Harvey Milk was assassinated?
Oh, it was just horrible. I mean, right away, it was like for people that remembered when JFK was assassinated, it felt like that. It was just so sorrowful. Everything closed. What would happen is if something extreme happened in the news. People would just call each other up and what would always happen is people would just go into the street. And so, people went into the street after Harvey was killed, and they just went to the Castro and blocked traffic, and they went into the street just to hug and to, as a catharsis, try to comfort each other, but also kind of strategise what our response would be. They’d just sit in the street, block traffic on the main street. Eventually we just marched with candles. But yeah, it was devastating. It was devastating. The mayor was killed as well, of course.

When was the first time you heard about people getting sick? I know that Patrick Cowley was one of the earliest people to die.
Yeah, he was. I first met Patrick Cowley in a very kind of different way. I had a boyfriend at that time, and he and my boyfriend had gone off and had a little thing. So at first, I was like, okay, who is this guy? I mean, this is really early period, but we were all kind of hippie, so it didn’t matter. It was like, okay, whatever. Share and share alike. But then I started getting to know him, and it turned out we had a really good relationship, and I ended up doing parties for him at The EndUp. 

I mean, at first it was like we heard about this gay cancer, and it just seemed like, ‘Oh, well, it happened to some people in New York, and some people in LA,’ Actually, there was some cases in San Francisco, but we wanted to think, ‘This is not going to be a big deal’. We were always used to just getting penicillin shots for our STDs. Sometimes the VD clinic would be quite busy sometimes, you know, take a number in San Francisco, if you can imagine. But we always thought there would be a way to deal with whatever kind of sexually transmitted disease we would get, because that’s how we always dealt with it. There were no worries.

So, we were holding onto that for a while. But then I forget exactly when, but it was not too long after that, they put up photographs of people that had KS lesions on their body. And they put the photos up on this drug store, which was called Star Pharmacy. They put them up on the windows, so people walking down Castro would see it, and people would huddle around these pictures. I think by them doing that, and I’m glad they did do that, it changed people’s feelings about it. Visually, it just looked so horrible, and I think that was a big part of it, but also it was like, this is a cancer. And if people got these lesions inside their body, like in their lungs or something, they would die. It just was horrible.

People started being fearful at that point. I mean, some people still went out to the bars, and even to the dance clubs, but by ’83, people were really getting scared. I mean, I was at The EndUp in the morning, and it didn’t affect numbers of people there too much at about that point. Maybe slightly, but that’s when I moved to New York as well. I felt it was good for my own wellbeing to move there, plus I’d always wanted to live in New York. And so I just felt … I went through a little struggle with it for a while, because I didn’t want to feel like I’m abandoning San Francisco. Also, it was true that in New York, there’s so much more going on that I could probably be a little more distracted from having to deal with having this going on all around me all the time. Interestingly enough, in New York, the clubs were still pretty packed for the most part going through the ’80s. There was the whole downtown scene, which wasn’t just in gay clubs. So, it was good for me to be there for many reasons.

Do you remember a guy called David Diebold?
Yeah, I remember. I mean, I actually was like a consultant with him on some records, it was ’White Rabbit’, I think I remember him doing. I sat in with him while he was in the studio doing that. He would come into the record store where I worked at CD & Record Rack in the Castro. It was 18th and Sanchez. It was one of the major DJ record stores.

Is that the one that Jerry Bonham owned?
Jerry Bonham worked there and Neil Lewis, and I was there as well. I came in there in ’98 when I moved back to San Francisco.

Was David primarily a DJ, or what was he?
He wasn’t a DJ. He just produced records. You know, he helped other people with some other songs that I can’t really remember exactly which ones they were now, but yeah. He was basically producing his own music. I don’t think any of them got to be really big hits, but they were out there.

Have you ever seen his book Tribal Rites?
I have a copy of it right here.

I found it when I was living in New York about 28 years ago. It’s a really hard book to find now, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is.

Did that make much noise when it came out?
Yeah, it did. It did. I mean, it was I think the first major book to chronicle the San Francisco scene. It’s kind of interesting, because it looks like it’s put together in an amateurish way, but it doesn’t matter because there was a lot of information in it, and he got to spotlight most of the main people involved in the scene and talk about the clubs. It has that now-famous picture of all the DJs at the Fantasy Record party that was celebrating the release of ‘Earth Can Be Just Like Heaven’ by Two Tons O’ Fun. So, almost all the DJs in San Francisco at that time are in that picture. Not all the DJs were in the BADDA record pool, the Bay Area Disco DJ Association, but a lot of them are. I’m in the picture right in the middle, wearing a leather jacket, next to Martha Wash. And then Bobby’s way on the side, and the Howard Merritt’s up there, and Sylvester’s in the picture, and Jeanie Tracy, John Hedges, Michael Garrett.

When did you return to San Francisco?
I loved playing in New York, but I did return to San Francisco in 1988, when they were reopening Dreamland as a Sunday party, a tea dance. They asked me if I wanted to come back to San Francisco to reopen the club, and they were going to call the party Reclamation. It had a lot of symbolism. At that particular time, people were still dying a lot. I mean, that was one of the peaks of the whole epidemic. But at that particular time, there was kind of a shift in people’s attitudes, and it was like, ‘Well, if we’re all going to die, we might as well die having fun’. People wanted to go be with each other on the dancefloor again. So, yeah, we reopened that club and it was a big success.

That was also the place where Sylvester came in, was wheeled into the club unexpectedly, actually. I was playing, and there was a second tier above the dancefloor. The DJ booth was in the corner of the room, and Sylvester was wheeled into the second tier overlooking the DJ booth, overlooking the dancefloor. It was a surprise. I was warned by one of the promoters, came into the DJ booth and said, ‘This is going to happen’. So, he came in and they shone a light on him, and he was waving to the crowd, and I stopped the music, and they were just applauding and stamping on the floor. I decided, okay, I’m going to play all Sylvester now, of course. I played almost all the full length of his songs for about an hour. And then, before my last record, my promoter friend came in and said, ‘Well, Sylvester, it’s time. He wants to leave now and just say goodbye’. So, I just ended the record cold, and there was this thunderous stomping on the floor and applause. People were sobbing. I was sobbing. I’m almost sobbing again telling you the story. And he had the light on him, and he just said goodbye and waved, and they wheeled him away.

So that club would open at six pm and go till four am in the morning. Sylvester came in around 10 at night, and by 11, after he left, they just kept stamping on the floor and applauding, and I just let that go on. I made the decision right then, I can’t play anymore. I can’t play anything else. Out of respect to Sylvester. I mean, we just can’t continue with a party after that for this night, and everybody kind of understood that. And people slowly walked off the floor and filed home, out the door, and that was it. That was that night. So, I’ll always remember that night. 

Wow, that’s incredible. OK, so final question. I want to ask you about Go BANG!. Tell me how that started, and how you built that up.
Sergio Fedasz had already started Go BANG!, and he did a one-off at this hole in the wall, underground kind of place called 222 Hyde, but moved it right away to the Deco Lounge, which was a gay club in the downtown Tenderloin district. Ken Vulsion, one of the co-founders of Honey Soundsystem, was a friend of Sergio’s, and he recommended to Sergio that I become his partner doing the club. So, Sergio came to one of the Honey parties I was playing – this is back in 2008 – it was basically warming up to me, and came into the booth there and asked me if I wanted to do a guest appearance, and I said, ‘Sure’.

So I did that, and yeah, I had a lot of fun with it. A lot of people showed up, and Sergio at that time just said, ‘Will you be my partner doing the club?’ I got a really good vibe from Sergio right away, and I just felt like I liked what he had started with the club, and I just thought, with me there, we could make this fly, and he felt the same thing. So, it started that way and we became partners, and the club got bigger and bigger and bigger right away.

It’s pretty incredible for someone like you that’s been around so long to still be doing a club that successful, that’s underground.
Well, you know, I don’t know what else I want to do. I mean, this is what I really love doing, so if I can keep doing it, I’m just going to keep doing it. That’s just been my whole attitude. To me it’s like, alright, if I’m going to be doing it, I’ve got to do it like I’ve always done it. You know? I love the fact that I can play mostly disco at Go BANG!, but outside of Go BANG!, I play new music. I play house, because I’ve always … I never really stopped playing from the disco era. I just went into the house era, and all the way to present time. I have a real love of house as well, and to me, it’s just a transition from disco. So, it’s all music to me. Other clubs and events, I actually play mostly house. Yeah. But I’m so happy that I can continue to play disco at Go BANG!, and we have crowds for both. Because Sergio and I, one of the parties that we do where we play house, he plays house as well, is at DAD BANG!. DAD BANG! is funny. I mean, it’s kind of a funny title, but people love it. It’s a collaboration between one of the new parties of this crew that calls themselves Dads & Disco, so they call themselves DAD. It brings in a whole other crowd. At that party, it’s not just disco. They say Dudes and Disco, but it’s multi-format. They just play whatever they want.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Johnny brought the disco

Johnny brought the disco

John Hedges, who was known colloquially as Johnny Disco, was one of the pioneers on the gay scene in San Francisco. He started out playing at the Mind Shaft during the pre-12-inch days, spinning 45s on a rudimentary setup (before discovering mixing at NYC’s 12 West). He went on to play at City Disco and Oil Can Harry’s, at the same time as working as disco consultant for local label, Fantasy Records. Sadly, John died in June 2022.

Tell me how you came to move from Cleveland to San Francisco?
Cleveland was very backwards then and being gay was not a good place to be. We’d heard that San Francisco was the place to be. So we packed up the car and drove all the way across the country to San Francisco. And from the day we got to San Francisco, we stayed for 25 years. I’m in Palm Springs, California now. 

When did you move to California? 
I believe 1971. 

Did you have an occupation when you moved there?

How did you come to work into the music business?
We were all looking for jobs and the local nightclub down the street from where I lived had jobs going. I went in there and I don’t know how it started but i met the manager and said I can play music because I had a bunch of records and so he hired me. It was called the Mind Shaft and it was on Market Street. I worked there for many years. That started me into the music business as a DJ. Then I moved on to some super clubs, which connected me up to meet some people from Fantasy Records, Sylvester’s managers. 

Can you tell me a little more about the Mind Shaft, like what it looked like, what music you played etc? 
It was a medium-sized club, but in the main dancing area the middle of the club was a raised gazebo and that was the dancefloor and I had all the lighting and all that stuff.  The music I played back then was pretty much Motown stuff or anything danceable. We were hungry for that. Near the end of my time at the Mind Shaft that’s when the record companies started noticing that the clubs were selling records so they started making 12-inch records. I remember getting, I think the first one was ‘Fly Robin Fly’ by Silver Convention.

If you were getting 12-inch singles there, you must’ve been there until 1975 or 76?
I would say that, yeah. 

Were you mixing at the Mind Shaft? 
Not beat mixing because it was mostly 45s, you know, but they’d have Part 1 and Part 2 of course and we’d mix those. But that came a little later.

When was the first time you saw someone mixing?
At a big nightclub called 12 West. 

Jim Burgess played there, right?
Yes, he was the first DJ that really turned my head around. I was playing at Oil Can Harry’s at the time. The really neat thing was he played one song that went to the other beat-matched. I didn’t know what the hell was going on! But the crowd was going nuts and the energy level kept going up and up. I brought that back to San Francisco, turned it onto a lot of people and got vari-speed turntables installed and it took off from there. 

Hi-NRG sounds from the ’80s

Do you remember what year that would’ve been?
Oil Can Harry’s was 77 I think. 

And that’s when you took the trip to New York?
Yes around that time. 

How did you come to move to City Disco?
I went from the Mind Shaft to the City Disco, which used to be called Cabaret (After Dark). Think that was in 1976. I worked there for many years. That was a super, huge disco. Two floors and the dance area upstairs, huge lights and sound. The DJ booth was built to look like a big jukebox and we were inside the jukebox, the top part of it. It was such a big disco it got a lot of newspaper press, which is how Fantasy found me. 

Is it true that City Disco was almost like an entertainment complex with restaurant?
It didn’t have a restaurant but it had a downstairs with a cabaret showroom and they had all kinds of acts there. Smaller shows, probably 100 seater. 

Who were your peers in the City?
Jon Randazzo, Tim Rivers, Michael Garrett. 

Bobby Viteritti?
He was very influential, but he worked at Trocadero Transfer. 

What was the difference between City Disco and the Troc?
The Troc was a huge big disco with a floating dancefloor and as the crowd grew the dancefloor expanded. It would go all night until 6am in the morning. People wouldn’t get there until 11pm and party till the sun came up. City Disco closed at 2 o’clock when the liquor stopped. 

Did t feel like a political time in San Francisco for the gay community?
It felt extremely political, yes. It was the days of Harvey Milk running for supervisor and he won and things started changing. He’d always come to the discos and hustle for votes. We were very political to get our rights. We sure did. 

How did that express itself?
There were some demonstrations with anything negative like Anita Bryant [singer and anti-gay activist]. Literally people would start marching in the streets and scream, ‘Out of the bars, into to the street!’ I remember that distinctly. People would come out of the bars and start marching down Market Street, the main street in town to City Hall, trying to get some action going – which they usually did. I had to do this on the mic many times especially when I worked in the Castro. And we did get out of the bar and into the street. It was amazing the pool of talent that came out of San Francisco in these wild, crazy, liberating days of gay pride. I think that because of disco we gained power because we would group together and talk about politics. I think disco was a major, major part of gay liberation; getting it out to the media and showing our power.

You were one of the Billboard DJs of the year right?
I won Billboard Best DJ for 1976. 

How did one win Disco DJ of the Year?
Billboard magazine would have reporters in major cities and I was one of them for San Francisco which put me on the national map. I’m not sure how they did the voting, I don’t know how. That’s a good question I don’t know how that happened. They just said you’ve been voted best DJ you have to come to New York, which I did. And I won, so that was nice. It really got me credibilityy.

Did it change your career?
Yeah and it just helped get me into the studio at Fantasy Records. 

How did you first come across Fantasy?
I was working at the City, and the local paper had recently done a story on disco and I was featured in the article with an interview, Harvey Fuqua and Nancy Pitts from Honey Records, distributed by Fantasy, they came into the City Disco and they invited me down to Fantasy to see if I could be a consultant on mixing. I did and I got to work on many more projects. 

How did that work? 
I worked right alongside Harvey in the studio. Harvey was really laidback, a nice guy. I think he was from Motown days. He knew how to get performers to do what he wanted to do and he came out with some good records including a big hit with ‘Mighty Real’ by Sylvester which went pop and he was happy for that. 

Did you meet Sylvester and get to know him?
Yes I did. As a matter of fact, we were neighbours. Working with him he was genuinely a nice guy and I initially met him before I worked with him. I was working for Fantasy on other artists, not producing yet, but mixing. It was my job to make anything they’d produced into something more danceable. 

Sylvester was someone who’d hang out at the studio?
No. I just knew him socially. 

Did he come to discos and dance?
All the time in San Fran, yeah. 

Presumably he was a pretty notable in the city?
Very famous in the city. He was funny, a very unique character, flamboyant. And he loved shopping, that’s why he was happy. He was being successful in the music business. He would spend money like crazy. He collected diamonds. He brought in a bag of diamonds into the studio, can you believe it?! He died penniless. He spent all his money on clothes, costumes and diamonds. 

Assuming you knew Patrick Cowley because he worked at the City Disco right?
Ooh yeah, he was the sound and lighting man at the cabaret downstairs. He was a really nice, gentle man. We would hang out and talk about music.

Who inspired you back then?
I was inspired by a lot of people in this business but one especially was Harvey Fuqua. He was Sylvester’s original producer. He’s the one who taught me how to work the controls in the studio, along with the engineers. The other person was Patrick Cowley. Unbelievable. He’d come into the studio with his little boxes, tape boxes, echo chambers, and made all these fabulous sound FX that made him so famous, even today.

Did you work with him in the studio?
The favourite things I produced were always by Sylvester because he would come in to the studio, help us on the controls, explain what he was doing and he was a pretty big star by then, so we were overwhelmed, but we learned a lot. His original producer Harvey Fuqua, who was the person who got me into the studio with Fantasy also told me how to do this and that’s where I learned that I could do it too. On the All I Need album by Sylvester he’d come into do tracks. In fact, I think he was on every record I was involved in until he died. He’s very famous now, though, I can always tell when it’s his birthday or the anniversary of his death because I always get calls from journalists. We weren’t hanging out buddies, but we loved music and he loved that electronic sound which was the San Francisco sound. 

When you were moving away, is it true that Honey Sound System discovered some unreleased Patrick Cowley music on your quarter inch tapes. Is that true?
Yes it’s true. When I took over Megatone Records I moved it… I had a huge three storey house and the lower level we converted it into Megatone Records. I was getting ready to move to Palm Springs in 2008 I put out the word to local DJs that if they wanted to get anything they could get whatever they wanted but they’d have to haul it down because it was three storeys down. So they came and took just about everything and when they were going through everything in the boxes, they found Patrick Cowley tapes. They were never released. And they said they might be able to put some sounds to it to finish it in their little studios and put it out which they did. 

That’s amazing!
Yeah the lost tapes! Lost in my basement! 

Did you have any idea?
No I had no idea. I sold Megatone before I moved and if I’d known I would’ve done the same thing , taken them back in the studio and released them on Megatone. 

Do you remember working with Fever?
Fever was the first production I ever did with Marty Blecman and Fantasy on our own where Fantasy actually signed us to a contract to produce this group out of Cleveland, Ohio. It was a non-stop vinyl album, three songs on each side, all segued together. It became a Billboard number one hit. Fever got us into a place where everybody was coming after us to produce for them. It was the first album we ever did at Fantasy. We did a 12-inch, Fever ‘Beat Of The Night’, and the flip side was ‘Pump It Up’. That’s where we learned how to work in the studio. Fantasy had the latest stuff you know and we learned how to operate it all and the computer stuff. That’s really where I learned how to produce. It was a great learning experience.

How important was disco in the story of gay liberation?
Discos were the hangouts for gays, almost like a church thing. It rallied all the gays and anything that was happening in politics, you could get the news from the discos. Everybody would hang out and share the news. It pulled us together. 

And how did Aids affect disco and the dance scene in San Francisco?
Tragically of course. It came on so fast that just about every day there was someone you knew who was dying. People walked down the street looking very sick. It was a very very sad, awful time but people rallied to help. It’s interesting that in the gay bars it was usually men and not very many lesbians but as it turned out when the Aids thing hit us, the lesbians came out and really helped the gay men when they were sick.

Did that bring the two communities together?
Yes big time. They helped nurse men or helped them when they were going broke. They’d feed them and house them, help with medical stuff and the lawyers. San Francisco was right on top of everything to help everybody. 

Judy Weinstein made dance music count

Judy Weinstein made dance music count

Judy Weinstein more or less invented the workings of dance music as we know them. She’s a powerhouse of the New York dance industry, a fixture behind the scenes since the days of disco. With her party girl persona hiding a fearless approach to business, and an ease for making canny connections, she created a role for herself as the mother superior of the developing scene. She helped David Mancuso run his Loft and start his groundbreaking record pool. She followed that by starting her own pool, For The Record, which became her unassailable powerbase as it forged links between labels, clubs and DJs. She was effectively the artist liaison for Paradise Garage, and more or less manager for the largely unmanageable Larry Levan, a role she formalised later for Frankie Knuckles, David Morales and Satoshi Tomiie within her famous production and management company Def Mix. Through it all, her aim has been to fight for respect (and proper remuneration) for the DJ, gaining recognition for dance music within the wider industry. Today’s monster superjocks are reaping the rewards of things Judy Weinstein fought for.

Interviewed by Bill, 15.1.07

What has given you the greatest satisfaction?
The boys [Frankie Knuckles and David Morales] winning their Grammys. It was sort of the highlight of their careers, and of my efforts. Helping to get them there. That was such a great moment with Frankie and David winning the first two.

When did you start Def Mix?

And was it set up specifically to manage DJs?
No, David was working for me at the time and he had been taking off a lot of time to do some editing and learning his skills and I had to fire him because he was missing so much work, and then I managed him. It turned out the productions he was doing – or the editing or the mixing – were like re-producing from scratch. So we talked about starting a production company and I would be the business person and he would be the DJ. He came up with the name Def Mix; it was something he was using on his mixes. That was the beginning. Then Frankie, who was an old friend of mine for many years, was in town playing at a club called the World and I introduced him to David and then he joined us. He brought us Satoshi and then life goes on. You know, we all stuck together.

Judy with Larry Levan, Thelma Houston, and promotion guy Bobby Shaw and friends.

How has that changed over the years?
They’re more individuals now, they pretty much all work on their own. Satoshi made the biggest change, because he was the keyboard player. As the keyboardist, he was pretty much the sound of Def Mix for so long, but he felt stifled by it, I think, and so broke out of the mould first. He wanted to do his own music. At first I was resistant, because they were losing their keyboard player, but it worked out to everyone’s advantage, because it changed everything about Satoshi’s career, And Frankie went on to work with other keyboard players.

How has travelling affected the way the music has developed?
I think it gives them a better view of what’s happening around the world and that influences what they’re playing and making. But it’s all one world, which is interesting.

Judy with McFadden and Whitehead, Frankie Crocker and various Philadelphia International employees

Do you think the world has got smaller?
Very. The internet has a lot to do with that. Myspace is a big influence on all them. David was travelling through Europe and he was on Myspace and noticed that Junior Jack of Kid Crème was online. And so he said hello and suddenly they invited him to dinner at their house in Belgium.

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
David Mancuso, I guess, moulded me a lot. He was so special as far as influencing my taste in music and opening my mind to something new. Some of the guys out there are blinded sometimes and think there’s only one format of music but I’ve been blessed enough to have the owner of Ministry of Sound turn me onto opera on a dare. I listen to everything. Music is music.

Why do you think David had such a profound influence on so many people?
The man, the place, the drugs… everything. It was the early ’70s, you had Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, the Vietnam war, a lot of things going on in America. It was a runaway home, in a sense, and you were a captive. Just the whole experience of going to the Loft, it was all about the music, the speakers, the people you were with and you ran out the next day and bought the records you heard. It was fun. It was a fun time in the business. It wasn’t a business yet. The only clubs that were open were Régine’s, just fancy schmancy bars and DJs playing top 40 music.

Judy, Sylvester, DJ Howard Merrit and friend

Do you think that’s why it has retained its purity in people’s memories?
Absolutely. But it’s also remembering certain times in your life.

You’ve kept a lot of friends from that period, haven’t you?
Well the ones that are alive yes. During the ’80s, I lost 30 DJs to HIV which was a horrible time. So those that have survived, yes. They’ve grown up, and had children…

What does Ibiza mean to you?
Back in 1978, Richard Long, who installed the sound system in Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage, installed the system in a new Studio 54 in Barcelona and he needed someone to programme the music and the DJs and he hired me to do that. It was my first trip to Europe so I looked through the pamphlets and figured I’d better go somewhere else as well. And I ended up picking out Ibiza. So my first trip to Europe I ended up in Ibiza, not knowing anything about the island except that it was some of party society place. I lasted about 48 hours, I walked into the old town, it was raining, it was full of Germans, nobody would talk to me… so I went back to Barcelona. Then I came back to New York. Thirty years later suddenly [leading promoter] Danny Whittle is giving us some wonderful opportunities to be resident on Saturday nights in Ibiza. So returning there was actually a great moment to me. Here I am now, and we’ve got the Saturday nights, which, to me are the best nights to have. So it’s a special and magical place and I’ll always be appreciative of Danny’s attentions.

How’s that going for you?
It’s been great and every year it gets even better. I don’t know how long it will last, but to have a home every Saturday night from June until Sept to have an apartment in the old town, overlooking the sea, how lucky can I be?

Do you go there for the whole summer?
I did in the beginning, but I never got any work done. Nobody gets any work done in Ibiza; it’s a lie if they tell you they do. You get there, you set up a computer, I have a desk, I have all my papers and I’m ready… then all of a sudden it’s siesta time. Then the next day the morning doesn’t even matter any more; it’s siesta Day. You just can’t work there. So now I go for the opening and the middle of the season and then the closing.

What’s going on in New York at the moment?
Well, New York’s going through a very interesting transition at the moment. All the huge superclubs are almost all gone. There are too many problems with the drugs, and the police. We have this huge influx of small clubs that are very trendy. I think the ropes are bigger than the clubs themselves! But it’s a very interesting scene. The thing is though none of the music is very interesting or relevant in these clubs. A lot of them play classic oldies for people like Paris Hilton.

Do you think that will change for the better?

I don’t know. Sooner or later everything changes and cones back around. I’m waiting for vocals to show up again.

What gives you the biggest thrill now?
Fitting into something I wore ten years ago! I don’t know…. I still get a thrill seeing a song that the guys produced working on the dancefloor and five thousand people on the dancefloor putting their hands in the air.

After over 30 years of going to clubs does it still excite you when you go into clubs now?No, not as much as it did. It excites me more when it is one of my guys. When you go to clubs in Italy or Belgrade, especially the new areas where music is happening and the scene is happening, it’s thrilling when I watch it on Youtube and see Satoshi. That’s thrilling! I don’t have to walk into a club anymore!

How has the internet change things?
Oh it’s changed things for everybody. Sometimes you don’t even think before you send which could be a problem. You buy your music online, you watch a party online, you can do so many things online. It’s very gratifying, but it’s also very dangerous I think.

What do you think makes a good DJ?
Passion for what they do. I think anybody can put two records together. I can but I’m not good at it. But if you can make one long song out of a night, you’re the man. Or woman. That’s what my guys do, they make a journey, which a lot of DJs don’t…

Do you think that music matters as much to young people now?
No. Well, you know half and half because I have a nephew who’s 19 and whenever I go to his Myspace or website he’s always using quotes from songs and stuff so I can’t say that it doesn’t still matter. But when you get older you expect young people to feel the way you do and they have their own feelings.

Music is now everywhere, in shops and bars etc, and yet it has been diminished somehow.
Well, I think music itself has been diminished. When I hear progressive house, it just seems to be hundreds of bars of nothing. But you know kids really like it, so maybe they’re hearing something that I’m not.

Do you still feel comfortable going into clubs?
If it’s the right one yes. We were at Frankie’s birthday the other day and there were 16 year-olds and 60 year-olds and I wanted to dance. But then if it’s Pacha and there’s an 80-year-old guy with a 16-year-old model, no, I don’t wanna dance. I like having a dance in my own room when I’m getting ready. I’ve been listening to hip hop lately. I’m into the crunk music, is that what it’s called? The boys are hearing it, shaking their heads and walking away.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Bruce Forest brought Better Days

Bruce Forest brought Better Days

Bruce Forest’s long residency at midtown Black gay club Better Days is one of clubland’s more unlikely stories. Forest was the white middle class kid who won over the hearts and feet of a tough New York crowd who didn’t take kindly to an impertinent upstart replacing their beloved Tee Scott. He eventually won them over and stayed until it shut down in 1988. Thanks to his fascination for new technology (he eventually left music to work in web security), he was among the most innovative DJs, using synthesisers, drum machines and samplers live. Later, he added another secret weapon to his canon: a teenage David Cole, whose live keyboard work with Bruce eventually led to the formation of C&C Music Factory. Forest was also an in-demand remixer, both in New York and in the UK, where he relocated in the late 1980s, working extensively with artists such as Boy George. 

interviewed by Bill, 17.11.10

Tell me where you grew up and how you got into music?
I was born a medical student. My father was a surgeon and my mom was a psychologist and counsellor. It was always planned that I would follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a physician. I learned at a very early age I had little interest in this but you do what your parents want. 

Where was home?
Forest Hill, Queens. I was never a very good student. My teachers would always say well he’s very intelligent but his work is shit. I floundered my way through school and then I was sent to one of the most elite boarding schools in the country called Choate. Kennedy went there blah blah blah. I left there a year and a half before I got thrown out with cigarettes which you couldn’t have back then. This was about 1971. I came back to New York and went to another boarding school called Millbrook, a little less famous but still an elite boarding school and I lasted there a year and a half before I got thrown out because they found pot seeds in one of my drawers. So I finished my schooling at one of the first schools in the country to have metal detectors: Hillcrest high School in Queens, near Hollis. It was a significant demographic change from the life I had lived.

In the background of all this I was already a music junky, all the great jam bands of the early ’70s like Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. Finally I graduated high school and went to the University of Miami for two years then decided that was not the place for me. I had a girlfriend of the time who was going to Binghamton, a state university of New York. One day I just walked out of the house got on a bus went up there and stayed in her dorm for a few days. I got a job as an operating room technician at Binghamton General Hospital, while I was still supposedly going to college. Finally something snapped I thought I hate looking at dead bodies, I hate looking at live bodies, I hate looking at people’s guts I need a different job. I looked on the notice board and there was an ad looking for someone to do light electrical work at the Power & Light Company, which was a disco. It was 1976 or ’77. My job was to change bulbs, go into the rafters and change the gels, stuff like that. I was still into rock music and these guys were playing Arpeggio, Foxy and Stephanie Mills. Stuff that I thought, ultimately, was pure crap. 

There were two DJs there and I’m still friends with them: Brian Hanley and Fred Coffey. One day I was in the rafters changing some gels and Fred was practising in the DJ booth and I thought, ‘Jesus this music is terrible, but I really liked the way he went from one record to the other.’ He just blended them into each other and it was kinda cool. I went to the booth and said, ‘Can I watch?’ and he said, ‘Sure’. I had the keys to the club so one day when no one was there I walked in and tried it. I found it was very hard but after a few hours of messing around – hey – this is fun. I’d go down there late at night when no one was there and I’d practise and I got so it wasn’t horse galloping across the room. Brian was always into sound. We had a Levan horn there, we had a Bozak mixer, we had 1200s. Brian ran the club with his parents and he was into the best equipment. I slowly got better and better and finally I said, ‘Why don’t you let me play tonight?’ So they let me play some night that was like nothing, a Thursday or something and there were ten people in the whole club. I always skewed towards the blacker stuff, the early Prelude and West End stuff rather than the uptempo stuff. I was into what I guess we would now called proto-house and what would eventually be Garage and Better Days music. 

I started playing the Thursday and over a period of about 6 months the place became mobbed, mainly with kids from New York studying in Binghamton and they were mostly black. The owners – not Brian, he was cool – were not the most pleasant of people and they didn’t like their club being filled with black people. They were doing all sorts of things at the door – you need to have an ID – and eventually they said we gotta move you off Thursdays. So I started to do weekends. Brian was number one DJ and Fred was number two but very quickly they discovered I had a talent for it. At that point I was getting tapes from New York on WKTU which was the disco station. I was listening to Studio 92 which was classic DJs like Roy Thode, Jim Burgess and Kevin Burke. It was really cool what some of these guys were doing so I started to get more adventurous. I got a reel to reel and started to do some editing. I taught myself everything, so I didn’t know which side of the tape, the tape went on. I thought it went on the inside. 

We took a trip to New York to get some lighting and there was this club called the Underground on Union Square; it was my first experience in a real big New York disco. The DJ that night was playing a lot of rock stuff: Killing Joke and stuff like that and it was Mark Kamins. I managed to get myself into the booth. I was looking around thinking wow this is really cool and I said something stupid to him like do you edit your own tapes and he looks at me as though I’m some sort of idiot and carried on with what he was doing. But he really impressed me with what he was doing because he was doing something that my teachers hadn’t done and that was working the crowd. Not making the crowd respond to me but rather Mark was responding to the crowd. At that point my name was getting around that there was this guy who was ok in Binghamton and this female DJ was playing at a place called Club 37 in Syracuse which was maybe 50 or 60 miles further north. 

She shows up with her entourage one night to hear me. She’s got blonde spiky hair and wearing pink and green torn clothes. She looked like a real hip DJ. She listens for a while and she’s out on the dancefloor comes up into the booth and introduces herself. Hi my name’s Lesley Doyle. Oh fine, how you doing? She says you’re really good. Do you wanna come and hear me play at Club 37 one day? Went to see her and she was doing the same thing Kamins was doing: she was reacting to the crowd. Club 37 was this big cavernous space run by the guy who would eventually run 1018 [‘80s New York club]. She was up there in the sky but she was still playing and reacting to the crowd. So we became friends and after a time we started to go out and live together. One day Club 37 was going to change and the club I was working at I was having arguments with the owners so she said let’s get the hell out of here and go to New York. Now I was pretty much the learning DJ and she was the star.

Where were you finding your records?
I’d make a trip to New York maybe once a month and Brian had always gone to Downstairs Records and this was when it was actually downstairs in the subway, when Yvonne [Turner] and Junior [Vasquez] were both working there. I didn’t know Junior but I got friendly with Yvonne. I’d go in there every couple of weeks say what’s hot ands sit down there for the next two hours and listen. I always bought two copies of everything, the days of really cool remixing hadn’t come out yet and – Tom Moulton, Walter Gibbons and François aside – there was a lot of great records that needed work to be extended. I’d also talk to other DJs around Binghamton, I was still listening to KTU and at that point KISS FM was just starting, BLS was playing great music. What’s interesting is al that music went to the Power & Light Company because I was using their money so when I left Binghamton I had two records. One was Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs and the other was a 12-inch of One Nation Under A Groove. I had nothing. 

So how did you get the Better Days gig? Did you start hanging out there first or what?
It’s a great story. I had gone to couple of clubs in New York and found them ordinary. I went to Bonds and Kenny wasn’t playing and I wasn’t impressed. I went to Magique and François wasn’t playing and I left unimpressed. It was fluffy white disco and I didn’t like that type of stuff. I like it with a bass and a beat. Stuff like ‘Time’ by Stone. That’s what I liked. Lesley and I were in Downstairs one day and I said to Yvonne all these clubs we go to are crap can you please send me somewhere where there’s decent music. She said go to Better Days. What’s that? The DJ there is Tee Scott he’s absolutely fabulous, you’ll love him. So we did. I’d go with or without Lesley. Here’s a skinny white guy wearing a St. John’s sweatshirt hanging out by the booth in Better Days, the only white person and the only straight person in the room. I’d just hang out by the booth and listen to Tee. Tee was amazing. He was more than playing to the crowd. He and the crowd were on the same thought processes. He knew exactly what to do, exactly what to play. He played on Thorens turntables so he wasn’t a turntable wizard. But he was good. He was better than Larry, I thought. He just did things with the crowd that amazed me. 

Bruce Forest, live at Better Days, Feb, 1984.

What was so good about him?
He would take two copies of something and extend the intro and he would bring in something else (he had three turntables). He would hold back the peak of a record until the place was just screaming and then he would let it go. He would play with the crowd, which I had never seen done before. I’d always seen people respond to the crowd. Tee was the first guy I’d ever seen who never played slow songs. He never used the microphone. He was first real DJ. I can’t say that about Mark (Kamins) because I didn’t hear him for long enough. I heard Tee every night for months. He was first DJ I saw who really controlled his crowd. You could tell that he could do exactly what he wanted because they wanted it. Which was really cool because it was a true symbiosis and I’d never seen that before. It blew my doors off! He’d take two copies of ‘Burning Up’ by Imagination and make it 30 minutes long and it never got boring and the crowd never walked off the floor.  

Better Days was 85% dancefloor. If you took a room and cut a 100 foot circle and you put in a bar off to the side that’s what Better Days was. It was a dance club. It wasn’t the sort of club you came to pick up in, though. I’m sure they did. It was three bucks to get in. Maybe you bought a drink and maybe you didn’t. You went on the dancefloor and you stayed there till they shut the music off at 4am on the weekdays and 6am on the weekends. Even the Garage wasn’t like that. It was a bar, a little tiny bar and this mammoth dancefloor. That’s what the club was about. It was about music. You walked in through the door and the bass is pounding your ears out. 

Anyway, I remember one night, Tee wasn’t playing and a guy named Derrick Davidson, who was also very good, was playing (he ended up being a good friend of mine). He was very good in a different way. He wasn’t Tee. I’m sitting on one of the banquettes just listening and the owner of the club walks by. Do you remember an old cartoon called Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse? Imagine the quintessential Jimmy Cagney criminal: about 5’ 4”, 200lbs and he spoke like this [talks in Hollywood-style gangster voice].

So walking right through the middle of the club is this podgy little balding white guy with a can full of money in one hand and a .38 revolver in the other. So I went up to him. ‘Can I talk to you?’
‘Yeah, whaddya want?’
I said, ‘Who’s this playing. It isn’t Tee.’
‘How the hell do you know are you a DJ?’ 
‘Well actually I am.’ 
‘What you think he’s no good?’
 I said, ‘Who Tee? No, Tee’s brilliant.’ 
‘No! This guy. Derrick? Derrick’s good. Do you think you’re better than him?’
I thought to myself NO and said: ‘I’m OK’.
‘Do you wanna audition? Come in tomorrow and play for me.’ 
I go home and tell Lesley and she doesn’t believe me: ‘Get the hell outta here, you’re not going to audition at Better Days?!’ She, meanwhile, is still looking for work as the number one DJ between the two of us. The next day I showed up with two copies of ‘Burning Up’ by Imagination and five other records. This was on Tee’s Thoren turntables which I couldn’t use. So he turns on the system says go ahead and I start playing around with ‘Burning Up’, he goes to the office and gets on the phone. So I play for about an hour, I come out and turn the music out. He comes out of his office and says, ‘You’re done?’ 
I said yeah, ‘How was it?’ 
He said, ‘You wanna job? I’m firing that fat fuck Tee. You got the job.’ 
I said, ‘Scuse me?’ 
‘Yeah I’m done with him. He shows up late. He brings in too many people. I don’t like him. He’s done.’ 
‘OK so what night do you want me to do?’ 
‘All of ’em! All five of ’em. Show up Wednesday and be ready to play.’ 
Had I known then what I know now about Better Days history I would’ve probably shat myself because it was like going to Microsoft in the mid 90s and saying yeah I’m getting rid of that Bill Gates. You take over. I had no idea what I was getting into. There was a white DJ from Queens named Jeff Breukmann who I was friendly with and I called him and told him and obviously thought well this guy’s not gonna know what he’s doing, I’ll hang out with him and then step in and save the day. So I went over to his house, I practised a little bit, I went out and bought some records I maybe had 50. So I show up the next night. 

Tee’s packed up his stuff and gone. Larry Paterson’s packed up his stuff and gone. The booth is empty and there I am. I couldn’t play on the Thorens so I brought two decks which were kinda the pre Technics 1200s. I put them in and started to play. Club opened at 10 and people started to come in and look at me by about 11.30 I had about 400 people standing in a semi-circle around the booth with their arms folded like this, shaking their heads. I’m like ok this isn’t going very well. I’m working as hard as I can and no one would get on the dancefloor. One guy walks over with a beer and pours it on the mixer. I was not going to be immediately accepted. So I came back the next night, more records, cutting between copies, working my buns off. I guess I was okay because a couple of people went on the dancefloor but most of them just stood and looked at me and shook their heads. Here’s a white guy coming in for Tee Scott?! Oh My God. Jeff Breukmann was behind me. He was waiting to take over. 

Anyway it goes on like this for a few nights. And then two people took pity on me, who I still call my friends, Cynthia Cherry and David Steel. They were regulars at this club. They waited until the music was done. They came up and said, ‘Listen we’re regulars here, we’ve been coming for years. You’re actually pretty good. The problem is you’re playing the wrong records. You don’t play ‘Work That Sucker’ at Better Days. You don’t play ‘Is It In’ by Jimmy Bo Horne you play ‘Spank’. 

They coached me on about 20 different records that I played that were wrong and the ones that I did play that were right. I went back at it and anther week goes by and the crowd is getting smaller and smaller. Finally the owner, whose name is Al Roth, calls me into the office and says, ‘Look we gotta problem. I’m getting lots complaints about you; I’m getting people who won’t come in the club. I gotta hire a black guy. 
I said, ‘Is it a problem? Is it a black, white thing?’ 
‘I don’t know.’ 
I said, ‘Look I got an idea. I got a friend named Timmy Regisford. He’s really good and he’s black. Let him do the three big nights and let me keep Wednesdays and Sundays.’ 
‘OK fine.’ 
They put a sign up that Timmy’s playing and everybody’s happy. They love him, they start coming back. About three weeks in he couldn’t do a Friday night because he to play at Fhynixx. He said would you do it so I said sure. At that point we’re having the club painted and there’s tarps hanging all over the place. So I move a tarp in front of the booth so you really can’t see who’s in the booth unless you go round to the side knock on the door and go in. So I played through this tarp. I could see the crowd through this little hole in it but they couldn’t see me. They’re going nuts. Jumping up and down and chanting, Timmy Tiimmy! This is more dramatic than anything I would do now. It gets to 4 in the morning, the music goes off, they’re all applauding I pull on a rope the tarp drops and the room just goes silent. Oh shit, the white boy can play! I never had a problem after that. 

Wednesdays started to get big. Timmy started to have more gigs elsewhere he had to do. And after about two or three weeks, the owner comes up to me and says Timmy’s gone you got it again for the five nights. They got to understand me, they understood I was a white straight guy but I just got along with them. They started to come up in the booth, I became friends with them. And they taught me. I didn’t teach them anything. They taught me what to play. They taught me how to play. By 1981 and ’82 I was as good as I was ever going to get. I don’t have any early tapes left but I listen to my tapes from 86 and I’m like ok I was pretty good. I started bringing in synthesisers, keyboards and samplers, so by 1982 I was doing different stuff from what most DJs were. I could play Depeche Mode ‘Get The Balance Right’ at the wrong speed pitched all the way up and they would dance to it, because they trusted me. That was the big difference, and I stayed there till they closed in 88. 

Did you play many records at the wrong speed?
No I didn’t. In fact, Shep used to say I was completely anal about having to have that green light on the turntable. However I got into the record, I wanted it playing at its real speed. Unless it was a weird record like ‘Get The Balance Right’ which I knew they would get along at if it was 110bpm not so much at 140. I never played anything at that speed anyway; I think the fastest I played was maybe 128-130. Other than that I used to play the ‘Shout’ break at the wrong speed. I’ve never been into playing stuff at the wrong speed, really, unless you’re doing something unbelievably creative that no one’s heard before. 

When did you start bringing synthesisers into the club?
Probably 1982. I had a Casio CZ-101, it was cheap with a great bass sound. I put that up above and toodle along with songs or play percussion parts. Around then another club downtown, Alice In Wonderland, closed and they had a Richard Long sound system. I went into the club and listen I wanna buy a lot of the equipment. I want the subwoofers, I want the horns and I want their crossover. We went and bought it and Shep and I Installed that stuff and that’s when Better Days’ sound system really started to kick. We had subwoofers before, but now we had 8 18s. Any good DJ will say a good sound system makes your job half done and it did. Tee’s was good but mine was 1000% better. But had some of Tee’s elements in it, but it was now all Richard Long. Everything in that club I felt responsible for.

When it first came out I bought something called an Instant Replay, which was basically a little drum pad that would sample sounds and you could then play it back by hitting the drum pad. Then Korg came out with an SDD-1000, I bought two of those and eventually bought a 2000 which you could set up loops with. Then I needed a separate mixer to put all the outboard stuff through so the booth was getting crowded but it was very unique. I had a Roland 808, a 505 and a 303 in there. I was starting to create stuff in the club which led to my first mix. 

I meant to ask you earlier, what was your relationship like with Tee after you took over?
We didn’t see each other too much, but we got along and there was no animosity between Tee and me. I loved Tee and to me he was the first really great DJ I ever heard. To this day he’s one of the greatest DJ I ever heard. When he went to Zanzibar he would have me as his guest whenever I wanted. When I was in the booth at Zanzibar I got along with Tee, I got along with Tony Humphries, but everyone else looked at me like I was somewhere I was not supposed to be. He never blamed me for taking over because if it wasn’t me it would have been someone else. 

You played from the tail end of disco right through the peak arrival of house. How did that change you and the club?
I will claim to be if not the first then one of the very first DJs in New York to play house and that’s because of Lesley. She had followed a parallel path. She played at a black gay club except for women but then she went off into white disco land. She was really good at it. She was playing at places like Sticks and Moonshadow playing to gay white boys playing different music to what I was playing. Rarely would we play the same music. I remember having a fight over Rockers Revenge’s ‘Walking On Sunshine’ because I got a test pressing and she didn’t but other than that we were in completely different worlds. 

She was always very social and in late 1983 she brought a guy to my club named Steve Hurley. I’d never met him and didn’t know anything about him. All she said was he was a DJ on WBMX in Chicago. He gave me a cassette of an edit he had done of Isaac Hayes’ ‘I Can’t turn Around’. Ron Hardy had done an edit as well but I didn’t know Ron Hardy. He says play this I know it will work. Listened to it in my headphones thinking it sounds cool, mixed it in and immediately they got it. Then in the beginning of 1984 I got a package from Steve and in it was an acetate of ‘Music Is The Key’. I played it the first night and they went nuts. From that day on there was nothing I couldn’t play in house music. I started to get very friendly with Steve and with Farley [Jackmaster Funk]. Farley came to visit me and he’s a very scary presence when you don’t know who he is, but he hung out in my booth; then Rocky Jones came, Chip E showed up and eventually it became that all these house guys started to hang out at my club. There were a lot of underground celebrity types that hung out there anyway; you’d see Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, and Chris Blackwell. Ralph Rosario showed up, Julian Perez and they would always bring me stuff. House music took over Better Days immediately because everything I was playing was proto-house anyway. I mean it isn’t a big jump from Martin Circus to ‘Jack Your Body’. We’re talking about bass-heavy four on the floor disco music. Almost immediately ‘Music Is The Key’ was a big hit and then they said would you come to Chicago and mix a record for us. 

JM Silk – Shadows Of Your Love (Fierce Mix)

I forgot my watch which doesn’t sound a big deal but we’d finish in the studio and go back to the hotel and I wouldn’t know what time it was. We were doing ‘Standing In The Shadows’. Farley was there, Steve and me. Anyway got up the next morning, no idea what time it is, it was 9am so no one was there, I had the key so I let myself in put the tape back on, started doing stuff and started to do some mess about edits. By the time they showed up about noon I had done this mix. That’s what became the Fierce Mix of ‘Shadows Of Your Love’ which is the one everyone played. That was the time Steve Hurley took me to Music Box when Ron was still playing. You have to remember Music Box was a black crowd. It was under a highway so it was real hole in the wall type thing. Steve Hurley, who everybody there knew, walked me in and no one knew because they didn’t know New York clubs, went into the booth and met Ron who was off his face and I don’t think he knew who I was. Then there was some comment like Hey Steve why don’t you leave the white boy at home next time and Steve kinda chuckled because he knew that at that point I was a fairly important DJ in New York. 

I got no love at Music Box at all. I sat in a corner for about four hours listening to Ron thinking this guy’s amazing. He didn’t know where he was, but he could still play records. And he was playing stuff I’d never heard anybody play before. He was playing a lot of Eurodisco, he was playing ‘Cannonball’ by Supertramp (the instrumental), he was playing Stuff like ‘Los Ninos Del Parque’, Italo stuff, weird underground music. I was playing Italo stuff, too like Baricentro but not like this guy was, I’d never heard anybody play like that and obviously he was playing a lot of house music and a lot of stuff I’d never heard before. I only went once to Music Box but after that visit I really focused more on playing house music than what had previously been Better Days music, alongside the Prelude, Salsoul and West End classics.  I stopped looking for music coming from New York and started looking for music coming from Chicago and coming from London. More unusual stuff. I joined Rock Pool and was playing weird rock music that they would get there. B-52’s ‘Mesopotamia’, I could get away with that. I would stop the music and play the video to ‘Love Is A Battlefield’. I was experimenting, but because I kept the core of it true to either house or proto-disco everyone loved it. We had lines out the door. 

I’d say the peak at Better Days for me was early 83 till 88 when it was closed. If it was a Sunday night in the holidays, we would do 1500 people through the door. It was mobbed. The air conditioning couldn’t handle it, the neighbours were complaining. It was great! Those five or six years I couldn’t get enough. I’d always been a bit of a weed smoker and I’d always have a joint in my mouth, people would offer me all sorts of other things and I wouldn’t do anything things else. Fridays and Saturdays I’d finish at six or seven and either go to the Loft or Garage. Larry at Garage was playing the same stuff I was playing he just had Zuki his sound system and he had his crowd, but what was cool was I’d walk through the Garage crowd and people would recognise me which had never happened before. But back to your question I’d say by late 86 or 87 there was a point when half my nights were reel to reel, I was getting sent so much stuff from Chicago. Early things like the Unreleased Mix of Carl Bean which wasn’t out yet, five or six things from Steve and Farley, I was getting stuff from Timmy Regisford, people were just handing me tapes, and half my night was that and the other half was David Cole playing over whatever happened to be playing. 

How did you first come across David?
David was a regular at Better Days. He was young. He must’ve been 16 or 17. I always saw him in the crowd, he was very identifiable, a red haired kid. I’d started tootling around on keyboards so this must’ve been 84. One day, he comes up, he’s very shy, and knocks on the booth door. He says, ‘Hi, I’m David.’ 
‘Pleased to meet, you come on up.’ 
He said, ‘I’m a keyboard player.’ 
‘Cool, where do you play?’ 
‘I mainly play at church.’ 
I said, ‘Do you wanna fool around? So he puts his hands on the keyboard and he starts playing and I realised straight away this guy’s is not ordinary. Now I’d experimented a lot, I’d had drummers in playing over me but this guy sounded really really cool so we started to do things. I’d take this long breakbeat type thing (Adonis was the most famous) and he would just play stuff over. One night I was playing Adonis and he was playing over it and he starts playing the keyboard line to ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’. I’m playing with the samplers and I get a copy of the Marvin Gaye record, sample a bit of that he’s playing a line over it and I look up and I realised no one’s dancing: they’re all watching us! Ok this is something special. 

David would come every night and as soon as he got in he would come up and he and I would play together for hours. Maybe I’d get the bassline from ‘Beat This’, or use a part of ‘Moody’ or part of ‘Love Is The Message’ and he would just play over it and soon as they heard him playing they’d start applauding and screaming. We did that for long long time. During that time I was starting to remix more and I said to him you’re definitely good enough to come and do overdubs for me. Every time I worked with him, I’d just let the tape run in one 7 or 8 minute long take while he played and that would invariably become the dub mix I could go through 500 records where I’d do a quick mix out underneath it and he would just make the record. The two that really stick out for me and you’ll see what I mean, one is Street Groove Mix of Thrashing Doves’ ‘Jesus On The Payroll’ he came up with that whole de-da-de-da-da impromptu. That Street Groove is one take from David. The other is ‘Tina Cherry’ by Giorgio and he had 20 samples set up through the keyboard and he was playing the samples live to tape. If you listen to it you’ll hear all sorts of samples that sound like David. 

Thursday nights I had to eventually give up because I was in the studio so much so I started to give out guest spots: Rob Clivilles, Shep Pettibone, David Morales played there, it was like a who’s who. Funny thing about Shep is they didn’t like him too much there, but he owned KISS FM through his Mastermixes. But the problem with Shep is that he’s very very tall whereas I’m 5’ 9”, so when he played his head stuck up above the booth and he’s as white as I am so they couldn’t help but be reminded hey there’s that tall white guy. Who’s he? But he’s a great DJ, so it’s nuts. Morales did real well. Bert Bevans and Steve Thompson, too. Eventually David Morales became my regular Thursday night DJ and Rob Clivilles did it too and he really hit it off with David Cole. David and I did a song together you ‘Take My Breath Away’. After that he said I really want to get into producing and I said you should you’re amazing. And he hooked up with Robert, Chep Nunez, David Morales got together and they did the Adonis with piano playing over it and called it ‘Do It Properly’. You know and even when he was at the peak of his fame with C&C, he’d still pop in and mess around on the keyboards with me because we had so much fun. It was a blast. I was very upset when I found out we’d lost him.

Did you go to the music wake when he died?
Sounds a bit weird for a club DJ, I don’t like big crowd scene type things. I miss David on my own. I miss the David who used to come and jam in the booth with me. The David who used to come up with crazy synth lines while we ate Chinese food together. I miss my David not everyone else’s David. When I think of him, I think of him as more my friend than one of the greatest producers of the past 20 years or so. 

How did you meet Frank Heller?
In my early days I worked with whatever engineer was around, but eventually once I started to do stuff that wasn’t just going to be club. That was major label stuff that they were gonna use for a 7-inch, so I needed a better engineer. I was doing some stuff at Shakedown [Arthur Baker’s former studio], probably about ten or fifteen records in total. I don’t remember the first mix we did together, but I do remember he was a quantum leap up from what I had been doing. He’s also a pretty funny guy. At that point I hadn’t really established a real pattern. It was still, well I want you to remix this track and I’ve got some time at Electric Lady. From then on it was mainly out of Power Play [Long Island studio]. Spider D worked there, Patrick Adams worked there. They did a lot of hip hop. I guess I met Frank at shakedown. He could run overdubs, he had his own MPC60 his own AKAIs, and he had a lot of outboard gear I had to rent in. I was looking for a room to rent that I could call my own and I learnt that Electric Lady C, which was the top floor, and no one was using it.

Frank and I did a lot of records together. And he’s a very artistic person, he can draw things. If we mixed a record and the faders with the white strip, he wouldn’t use tape. He’d draw each instrument with a little fat guy playing it. He’d photocopy them. He’d sit there for hours drawing them. He was a strange duck, and I worked with until I left for England in 1989. I got asked to go over there and wound up staying there. He actually got really mad at me; he said I’d gone over there on our reputation (though actually I think I went over there on my reputation). We haven’t spoken since. He’s a very very good engineer. The 808 on ‘Planet Rock’ was his. Every time we used it, he’d mention this three days a week for years. He didn’t really get house music. But he’d get these amazing sounds, so he’d get the vocal sounding how he liked them and everything else and then he’d leave and I’d take over. So I’d build on what he did. One example is Patti Day’s ‘Right Before My Eyes’. He got that amazing bass sound and then I’d put other stuff on top. 

How did you come to move over in the first place?
I was asked to come over and watch a band called Tityo to see if I wanted to produce them. They had me listen to this one song. But I said, listen this is really good and I can’t make it any better. They said, you think it’s really good? Yeah, I do. I was staying at a hotel in Notting Hill and I get call. Hi it’s Martin from ABC. I was called to see if you wanna do a mix for us, it’s called The Real Thing. Yeah ok. So I went over to Sarm the next day. Paul Wright was the engineer and we did a mix, it came out ok. Then I got another call. Can’t even remember what the hell it was. Would you like to do a mix on this? I stayed another week and the guys at Sarm said listen you’re doing a lot of work here, do you wanna stay in our flat? I said, ok. Before I know it, I’m back doing three records a week. They’re sending all sorts of stuff to me. Bros? I’ve never heard of them. This is Gordon Charlton and he says would you like to do one of their records? It’s kinda teenybop but ok. Can you make it house? 

I got more and more work. So I closed my apartment in New York, gave my cats away and moved to London. Then I met the woman who would become my wife in 1990. I stayed there for six years. Got married in May 1991. I met Mick Clark at Virgin, who introduced me to Andy Woodford and he said I’ve got this rap record called Dr Mouthquake and I asked whether I could do anything I want to it and he said yeah. It came out really good. Got a phone call from Boy George. He said I’ve got this record called ‘Generations Of Love’. Ended up doing nothing but George stuff for about a year. I was just starting to work with the Love To Infinity guys, went up to Manchester and they said teach us everything you know. 

When you moved to the UK, did you make a conscious decision to not DJ or weren’t you getting gig offers?
Well, I tolerate producing, I kinda like remixing, and I love DJing. Better Days was my home and I could do anything I wanted there. When I came to England, I did a gig at the Astoria and I played what I normally play and nobody knew what the hell I was playing. I was used to playing ‘Love Is The Message’ and everyone’s arms going up in the air. But they didn’t know what the hell the record was. It must have been 1992 or 1993 and Jeremy Healy said do you wanna play for an hour. I’ll give you £500. £500 for an hour?! Are you sure? OK, that’s stupid. I wasn’t used to the crowd not being involved. This wasn’t DJing to me, it was record playing. It wasn’t fun. Since then no, I haven’t considered it. Since I started the Better Days page, I’ve gotten ten offers a week. When I quit Better Days I gave all my records away. People were quite shocked. Finally my light man, I said take them, I’m not playing them any more, get them out of my face. He got everything. Must’ve been 15,000 records. Now I have 70,000 in MP3. First time I tried Traktor, I thought this is isn’t mixing, it’s too easy! It’s gotten back to selecting. I could probably play a night and be pretty good. 

What is the record you’re most proud of making?
Probably Carl Bean, because it became such an anthem. It was the only thing I ever did with Shep, who was my best friend at the time. We had an enormous amount of fun doing it, it was very spontaneous. Nothing I ever did got a reaction like that. Close behind that is ‘Bow Down Mister’ by George, only because the original demo, which I wish I’d kept, was a country and western record. He played it for me off a cassette and I thought it was a joke. This is terrible. No it’s great. OK, I’ll do it if you let me have a gospel choir. Fine. I listen to it today and think this sounds really good and it was all completely spontaneous. 

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

A few years ago, Bruce and his wife Mitzi, were involved in a terrible car accident, when the road gave way underneath their vehicle in Costa Rica. The car fell 100 ft. and, miraculously, they survived the fall. Unfortunately, both of them have been left with life-changing injuries. They set up a Go Fund Me to try and raise funds to help towards their costly hospital bills. Read here for more details or to contribute.

Junior Vasquez ruled the Factory floor

Junior Vasquez ruled the Factory floor

Like his idol Larry Levan, Junior Vasquez’s rise to fame was inseparable from the power of his club. Thanks to the simplicity of the space, the power and purity of its sound, and the devotion of its congregation, the Sound Factory was the ultimate environment to experience the era’s music, and Junior’s weekly twelve hour sets were an essential part of the city’s clubbing life. Through the ’90s and ’00s, he was the most famous DJ in America, the first to be known by mainstream music writers and outside the small world of dance music. Born Donald Mattern in rural Pennsylvania, Junior had come to New York to study fashion, but devoted himself to music after falling in love with the Paradise Garage. As he developed his DJing skills he also learnt his way around the studio, working on edits and remixes with Shep Pettibone. The studio side of his career led to a series of huge remixes for the likes of Madonna, Pet Shop Boys and Diana Ross, and thunderous ballroom tracks like ‘Get Your Hands Off My Man’, based on the sound and vibe of the Factory floor. But Sound Factory was the last great secret, the last time a New York club of that scale could survive economically with no alcohol and open just one night a week. And when it closed it felt like Junior had lost his crown. This interview was conducted not long afterwards, a little way into his residency at Peter Gatien’s revamped Tunnel, where he was battling sound issues as he built a new crowd. It had recently been announced that his old club would re-open as Twilo, and plans were afoot to open a new Sound Factory with a relatively unknown DJ Jonathan Peters at the helm. The Sound Factory had held such a unique place in the city’s nightlife for so long, and now instead of having that legendary room to himself, he was cast among the rest of New York’s DJs, looking for a home.

Interviewed in New York by Frank, 2.1.95

Does The Tunnel feel like home yet?
I’m happy here. I think it’s gonna be alright. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but whatever I need to make it right he’s [club-owner Peter Gatien] giving me.

It must have been strange year
It’s weird for me. It’s nightmarish. For four months I started not being able to sleep again. I had to decide to do something because of my talent or my ability. This was the obvious venue, because of what I was offered. He’s got something major in the works. I personally think I’m on the winning team. That Twilo up the street, I was offered it, but I just don’t want to go back there again. It was really my space when it was Sound Factory, and it wasn’t going to be that any more. It wasn’t going to be just me on Saturday nights.

How did it feel when it closed?
Probably it closing was the best thing that could happen. It got spectatorish. But I don’t think this will be the same way. Until someone starts that certain little something. I have my following and I guess they’ll put up with things because there’s not a lot they can do about it. My nightmare about it is going from something that’s very personal and personalised, to something that’s already in existence. But after the whole dust settles this will be the place to go.

Where are you taking it musically
I’m not grasping, but I’m sort of experimenting a little bit. I’m trying to see what my crowd may like, but there’s such a lot of things going on musically I won’t be able to really focus on what I’m doing until the place up the road [Twilo] sorts itself out.

What about playing in Europe?
Doesn’t interest me.

Any longer-term plans?
I would like to within the next year, venture out and start from scratch. You have to get planted in a situation where they’re taking me for granted and having a party. If I start fucking with that, I think it doesn’t work. I just go on my course I think. I had a choice to either do something again or absolutely retire. I had to think well either this is going to be my demise, or this is gonna be the reinvention.

It’s hard work to start something new.
Factory was never a chore. This is a chore, but only because it’s a beginning. It’s like fighting everything. Its about worrying about pleasing everyone – the lights, the sound, the room.

My vibe of you is that you really feed off the dancefloor.
I do, but I didn’t Saturday. I haven’t in a long time. I haven’t at any of the Roseland parties: they were torture. I come from such a Jurassic base that I think it’s really hard to know what’s really happening.

What do you mean?
My Jurassic roots is the Garage. That’s where I come from. Everything else thats happening around me I don’t know about. All those green-eyed monsters out there. I know I’ve been oversaturated with and its all about articles, and Junior this, and Junior that, and… Just keep their comments for themselves. It’s not important. Just let me do my thing here, leave me alone.

You’ve never seemed interested in other DJs
I think it’s because… It’s in no way because I’m snobbish about what makes my thing work. I could have easily been right back there at Sound Factory with a new system, but the fact that I had to socialise, or be in a market place with Frankie (Knuckles), David (Morales), Lord G, I always stood apart from that, always rowed my own boat. There are those who lead and those who follow. I don’t particularly want to go and pick up anything from anybody. I figure things out on my own. Like sampling and delays and stuff in the booth. There was one person who I liked to go hear, that I thought was different enough, and that was Danny Tenaglia. I used to like listening to him because he was different. But everybody else that I had a chance to hear, played the same goddamn way. I’d rather have heard myself. I never listen to other DJs, why should I?

Danny Tenaglia and Junior Vasquez
Junior with Bassline and Sound Factory co-founder Christine Visca

What about the wider industry?
It has nothing to do with the industry, it’s a party. I don’t care who likes me. I never really wanted to be part of the industry. I just wanted to play records and have a party. Unfortunately, it did get to that point. And that’s a big reason why I didn’t go back there [the Sound Factory space, now reopened as Twilo], because that’s all Twilo’s gonna be. Judy Weinstein, the sound system. That place will be Ministry of Sound. It’s gonna be trendy and they’ll have a great booth, but as far as the hardcore underground party, that’s where I want to be.

Its hard to be underground now.
But I can reinvent myself. And I will. Obviously there has to be press now, but when that’s over I don’t want the hype. I just want to play on Saturday nights. When the Garage closed I was going to stay underground and do that Garagey thing, not go above ground and play my records. But it happens.

What are you most proud of?
Creating that thing after the Garage closed. I idolised Larry, I still do to this day, he was the greatest. And I do live a bit in the past when it comes to that, and I keep striving, wanting to create that feeling that lounge, that booth. These new young kids, they can only replicate raves, they don’t know anything else. Everyone has their moment, and you can never replicate it. You can come close. And that’s a big part of my nightmare now. I created Sound Factory and in essence and by rights, I should have retired. I should have probably not played ever again. I made my mark.

It was very much my home too. I lived for that place. But in the last year or so it really changed. There were a lot of outsiders coming in to take a look, rather than a devoted dancefloor. It used to be so special, so completely together.
You feel like a lot of people: that that was your home, and that was your sanctuary, and they created that aura, same as I created it in there. And people were trespassing. And I understand that. But that’s how I feel about that place now [he points towards Sound Factory]. That’s why I didn’t want to go back. I figure, well I’ll play records and if it lasts another six months or a year and then I’m done. I have to find somewhere to go. Where’s my future? Either I keep playing and make people up. I’ll know when people are saying ‘Oh fuck her, she can’t play any more,’ and I’ll get out. But as long as I’m still doing it, I have to have a place to do it.

That place should have never opened again. It should have been Pier One imports. I’m not going to create that thing again. I’ve done it. I just want to play records now. I don’t want to lose to them up the street, it’s gonna be just like Ministry. But I will cherish or encourage that next person who comes and does that next thing from scratch. Struggle and give birth. I give props to the next person to come along and do it, and I hope somebody does. I just think I’m too far into the other direction to do it.

You must have felt devastated.
It was really bad. Privately it was really bad. Nobody really knows that. But I was forced into doing those Rosleand parties, keeping it alive. I can understand how Larry felt when he lost the garage. I would never go to drugs like he did, but I can understand how he felt: he’d lost his house.

You’d really never go back? Not even if they offered you that room again?
I left the door open up there [Twilo]. Maybe in six months he may struggle up there and come to me and say: Junior it’s yours. That’s what I could be hoping for. But he didn’t come to me and say Junior I got it back, and its your place exclusively on Saturdays. I’m not sharing my DJ booth. I didn’t have to do it for six years. I’m not going to start now.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

The life and death of the Sound Factory

The life and death of the Sound Factory

It’s nine in the morning, sometime in 1991, and Junior’s been pumping the dancefloor since midnight. Glistening bodies are moving in shadow, a sea of dancers working with the steady power of a machine. Everyone is loose with angles and movement and focused on this single never-ending moment. The groove is repetitive, relentless. Time is suspended, hanging by a silver string. Everyone’s locked into the music: stepping, dancing, ready to keep this precious thing going as long as the bass keeps rolling. Then with a flash the half-light becomes darkness, the huge mirror ball drops its needles and goes black. The Goddess of Light has plunged the club into mystery. And the music stops. Dead.

Brought to this sudden stop, everyone is surprised, looking upwards to the booth, desperate for what comes next. It’s silent. Reverential. Something amazing’s about to happen. Slowly a feedback growl emerges in the dark centre. It’s so distorted it hurts. As it gets louder, it moves around, whipping from speaker to speaker in some wild phasing effect. Above the thunder comes another noise: a rough ridge of saxophone throttling overhead. It’s a tiny chunk of Ultra Naté’s ‘Rejoicing’. The looped sample flits around for a lifetime, licking our faces for a minute or longer. Random flashes of white light pick out corners of the huge bare room, making everyone desperate for a beat, straining for the release.

When it can’t last any longer a Hell’s Angel strides across the dancefloor with a stick, edging people out of his way. The sax throttle is even louder now, and it’s joined by another sound: an identical monster noise that doesn’t come from the speakers. Suddenly – with its engine growl bursting the heads of a thousand dancers – out of the crowd and up onto the stage roars a Harley Davidson carrying a dance gang of go-go boys.

This kind of theatre was rare, but the moment was pure Sound Factory. A devoted crowd in the hands of a single DJ, focused with absolute pin-drop dedication on the music and the experience.

The other unforgettable moment was the night Larry Levan died. Deep into morning Junior played an age of silence, followed by church organs. The lights became stained glass turning to white crystal, and people cried. Before their cheeks were dry, he flew into the most uplifting set you could imagine, a Sunday noontime release of life-affirming disco. We celebrated, we danced, we worshipped, we became family. Every week a thousand people absolutely together.

In the ’90s the place was written into legend. UK clubland adopted New York house and garage as its central inspiration, and this grand club took on the status of myth, joining the ranks of dance music’s most important places. Producers made records specifically for the Factory, records were broken there that would later (much later) become worldwide hits; people travelled to New York just to spend a Saturday night and Sunday morning there; and its DJ Junior Vasquez became a household name despite the fact that he refused to play anywhere outside his beloved club. In a Mixmag feature listing 100 things to do in your clubbing life, at number one the pinnacle was ‘Dance at the Sound Factory, New York.’

These were the glory years for New York house music, and this was the most magnificent place to hear it. Nowhere in the Factory could you not hear the dancefloor. Junior would keep a driving relentless bass groove going for hours, while changing rhythms, tempos, styles: playing around but never once losing your mesmerised attention. He could work a record for astonishing periods: teasing you with the tiniest sample deep underneath everything else, hinting at it until you’re desperate to hear the body of the track, then once he’d brought it in, working beats and dubs and vocals until he’d rinsed out every great moment of a song. He would loop sections up on a sampler to do this, child’s play now but a radical thing back then, first to keep you in suspense, then to turn a climax into the most intense, double-tracked crescendo.

This was the time of tribal house, of DJ Pierre’s hypnotic Wild Pitch style, of Murk, of Strictly Rhythm, Tribal, Maxi, Nervous, King Street, Eightball, as well as UK and European imports that fitted the bill, like Junior Boys Own and Guerrilla. Many of the monster global tracks of the time had been made to measure for the Sound Factory. Danny Tenaglia, Armand van Helden, Cajmere, Marc Kinchen, Masters At Work, Peter Rauhoffer, Farley and Heller, Mood II Swing, all made records with its power in mind. A track like ‘Plastic Dreams’ had the perfect otherworldly dislocation; those clanging notes would drop from its ceiling and devastate the place. X-Press 2’s ‘London Xpress’, with its frantic typewriter climax, would have the room in tatters. Later in the morning there were spacey US garage dubs leading into a sprinkling of ‘classics’ – soulful house and disco vocals. New records would leave everyone in a frenzy of enquiry: What was that amazing track he’d just worked for the last forty minutes? The label folk gathered under the booth to do their spotting. As the city’s crowned king, Junior had tracks months, sometime years, before they were released.

Some of his power came because he was an industry focal point, very much like his hero, Larry Levan. And the Factory was a conscious copy of the Garage. ‘I idolised Larry,’ Vasquez admitted. ‘I still do to this day, he was the greatest. And I do live a bit in the past when it comes to that, and I keep striving, wanting to create that feeling that lounge, that booth.’ In this way, Sound Factory represented the latest chapter in the family tree that had branched unbroken since disco, travelled through clubs like Paradise Garage, the Saint, Red Zone, Better Days, and Vasquez’s own Bassline, right through to Shelter and Sound Factory. There was a sharp divide between the Shelter, which was more churchy, less druggy, more organic and melodic in its tastes, and the Factory: more hypnotic, more tribal and unreal.

Sound Factory was created by Vasquez and Christine Visca, who had opened Bassline together in 1988, together with Phil Smith, one of the co-owners of the Garage, and Richard Grant. It closed its doors on January 12th 1995, the result of behind-the-scenes shenanigans over the club’s future. The world-beating sound system was put in storage, Junior declared that he would never play anywhere unless it bore the name ‘Sound Factory’; and Grant announced within days that he already had a new venue waiting to bear the prestigious name once again.

After a few months hiatus, Junior resurfaced at a series of one-off nights at the massive Roseland Ballroom, and then signed a deal with Peter Gatien, eye-patched owner of Limelight, Palladium and Club USA, to play at the revamped Tunnel, a club in an underground railway siding that was famous as a yuppie playground through the opulent ’80s but had been closed for years. Richard Grant opened his new place on 46th Street using the Sound Factory name, with Jonathan Peters in the booth and a much straighter crowd on the floor. Phil Smith, who had already created a smaller spin-off, Sound Factory Bar on 21st St, which Louie Vega and Frankie Knuckles made home, revamped the original Factory building and re-opened it with a Phazon sound system as Twilo. Danny Tenaglia was its original star, enjoying a belated residency in his home town, and from 1997 Twilo was home to Sasha and Digweed, marking the point at which a more European sensibility, the progressive house and trance roots of what would become EDM, staked its claim on the future.

In truth, the Sound Factory died long before it closed its doors. The victim of its own success, as it grew older it witnessed dramatic changes in New York’s nightlife demographics. The mid-’90s were the years when house and techno broke into younger, whiter bodies, and the family of dancers who’d arrived each week for worship since 1989 saw their hallowed ground fill with spectators and tourists, not to mention younger clubbers with huge trousers and downbeat drug tastes. By the end the gayness, the blackness, the slinkiness was gone. The edges were choked with Israeli smokers and tentative rave kids visiting a famous club. Ketamine took control of the whiter, gym-queen quarter of the floor, and Junior’s music lost much of its bounce as he aimed harder and harder beats at this swaying mass of hugging Chelsea Boys. The Club Kids increasingly changed the vibe too, bringing their gender-fuck freak power to a place that had previously had a purer focus on music and dancing. Much of its original black and Latin constituency had left, and by 1994 it had largely ceased to be a gay club. The boys still held the majority, but not by much, and the atmosphere of unspoken complicity was long gone.

The person who suffered most from these changes was Junior Vasquez himself. In its final year, Sound Factory – ‘The House That Junior Built’ – was filled, not with dancers who loved his music, but with people who worshipped him as the world’s most celebrated DJ. He said the main reason he refused to come to Europe was because people would just stare at him in awe rather than share in the dance. However, this is exactly what happened in the Sound Factory itself. It became cool to be there. People came down because they thought they might see Madonna.

His music was always intimately bound into the time and space of the Factory – few DJs have had such a personal identification with a single club – and after its closure it was difficult for him to find somewhere that felt like home. ‘That’s a big part of my nightmare now: I created that club, and in essence and by rights, I should have retired. I should have probably not played ever again. I made my mark.’ After the Factory’s passing, he admitted that as a DJ he depends heavily on feedback from his audience, and went on to say he hadn’t felt it in a long time.

In its heyday there would be a mere handful of people away from the dancefloor, while the rest writhed and jumped till cramps and exhaustion set in. The $18 entrance fee (later $20) was for a seven or eight hour workout. You only left the floor to visit the juice bar, the drinking fountain or the toilets. After it became Twilo it started serving alcohol, they had to install twice as many urinals, and the floor became sticky with drinks to the point it was hard to dance.

The other big change was the arrival of Giuliani, who became mayor in 1994. There had been a strange night or two in Factory’s final weeks when the place was raided by the fire department – no doubt at Giuliani’s behest. This was the start of him making his presence felt in clubland with his ‘Quality of Life’ campaign, by enforcing cabaret licenses and forcing smaller venues to put up ‘no dancing’ signs; by investigating the drug trade in the city’s larger venues, and by harassing clubs like Sound Factory with impromptu ‘inspections’.

They called Sound Factory the last big secret. As club-lord Peter Gatien explained after its closure, the economics of a one-night-a-week club with no alcohol just didn’t stack up any more. Twilo went on to be an incredible and important club, not least for Sasha and Digweed’s long residency, but it was a new thing: a stop on the international club circuit, rather than a genuinely underground venue, and never recaptured the atmosphere of that mythic room: the intimate communal experience of a single club built round a single DJ and a devoted, unchanging crowd, open on a single night each week. Those days were gone.

Sound Factory’s other resident, for six months or more in 1990/91 was Frankie Knuckles. I narrowly missed his time there and by all accounts it was a highlight of his career. Through my Factory years, he was ruling the Roxy, a former roller rink, where his melodies and symphonies ignited an incredible crowd, feathers and sequins to the fore. But by chance, Frankie was at the Factory for what would be its final night. ‘It’s really amazing because I hardly ever go to the Sound Factory unless it’s Junior’s birthday or something,’ he told me. ‘But the night that they closed, I was there. That was the last great room: there’s not going to be anywhere like that again, a room that size and a sound system that enormous.’

Sound Factory was at 530 West 27th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, a dirty warehouse block patrolled by hookers and lowlife. You would file in around 4 or 5am just as dawn was breaking, perhaps after a night’s sleep, or maybe after a long distracted trek up from hearing Frankie at the Roxy, and you’d leave the reality of New York’s cold concrete to be enveloped in its bass cocoon, completely removed from the rest of the world. It was a huge simple space made small and intimate by the power of the music it contained. You were treated like an honoured guest: fruit, cookies, cold water and coffee were yours for free, there were hundreds of dollars worth of flowers gracing the entrance, and fresh decorations every week. At the exit there was always a huge bowl of condoms, and a pile of pencils and notepads to exchange phone numbers.

A dark bare room, a huge single mirror ball, four giant speaker stacks. No booze, no bystanders, not much chat, not much cruise. Just the music. Sweaty black bodies, shorts, towels, eyes and smiles. Wild Pitch epics climbed and built for hours, hypnotised dancers followed the music every step. You would see incredible things there. Professional dancers would arrive from performing somewhere, and proceed to tear up a chunk of the dancefloor. Dealers served in Spike Lee caps – the X for ecstasy – as Banji boys ran around like street urchins. Junior had always encouraged the ballroom families and The House of Xtravaganza would make a runway in the corner, perfecting their millimetre-precise voguing along the side of the stage. Junior would grab a flashlight and pick out the more fabulous dancers, throwing down some bitch house track to exaggerate the competition.

The first time I went was after a swirly night at the Roxy. We walked the nine blocks north, past morning garbage trucks, and stepped off the planet. Forget the wonderful camp of the Roxy, here was intensity, devotion, a womb. As we made it a weekly devotion, the club’s family adopted us, two English journalists scraping a living. I was pulled into endless nights of tribal stomping; my girlfriend June gave them a swish and vogued convincingly off the bat, declaring herself ‘Queen of the House of Nubia’ and battling all comers with a pout and a smirk. I’d get butterflies lining up against that wall, feeling the heartbeat of that monster system. I can remember the rough warehouse bricks against my back, the take-off zone.

It was my clubbing beginning. I’d missed the raves, skipped out from London as hip hop and rare groove were still ruling my soundtrack, without really getting my feet properly wet with house. So for me the Sound Factory was clubbing year zero. Being in love with the fierce English girl in the neon pink bikini, pounding the Factory floor amid a sea of our friends, as Junior mixed ‘Acid Crash’ with some Wild Pitch workout for what seemed like forever, then took us down into an intense mind-fuck of jazzy organ, taking off again with an acapella of the screaming diva of the hour.

I’ve never been anywhere else where the dancing was so important. Not flashy, just really elegant and really physical. It was all about putting your body into this big powerful machine – about moving gracefully, creating the rhythm, generating energy. You danced your heart out to become part of something secret and sexy and alive. Definitely the closest I’ll get to church. After the Sound Factory, even the most amazing night is a little more clumsy, a little less devoted, a little more ordinary.

Frank Broughton

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in i-D.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Normski shot the stars

Normski shot the stars

Everybody knows Normski. If you live in London, you may even be friends with him. If you’ve ever stepped foot in a club you’ve either heard him DJ or chatted with him at the bar. Effervescent, gregarious and definitely boombastic, a lot of people seem to have forgotten how he first made his name: as a brilliant photographer. But with the publication of his first book of photographs, the fantastic Normski: The Man With The Golden Shutter, a collection that is full of larger-than-life street photography and the cream of 1980s and ’90s hip hop grandees. We chatted with him about growing up around Camden Town, drumming, hip hop’s early years in London, his stint presenting Dance Energy and his still passionate thirst for great photography

What was your first encounter with a camera?
That’s a great question. The first encounter with a camera for me, actually physically holding one, was when my mum took me to an auction when I was about 11, because I wasn’t too well. Thinking back, it’s very possible that I’d been hammering her about getting a bicycle, because that was all the rage about 1976. We went to this auction somewhere near Westminster, the Horticultural Halls. But  was not very much left by the time we got there and there were no bikes. There was an offer of a Kodak 126 Instamatic, which was the box set, so you could get a camera, a little flash gun, and one roll of film. I said, ‘No, I don’t want a camera. I want a bike.’
‘Well, there’s no bike, son. I think you maybe get the camera.’ 
‘Oh, go on, then’, really reluctant. 
When I got on the bus going home and I opened it and I picked it up and I looked through that viewfinder out of the bus window, and that was the moment when I just had my little secret world again. So that was me outside in the world with this viewfinder, looking through a letterbox at the world. And I found that really interesting.

What were the first kind of photographs that you were taking?
I didn’t take very many pictures because I was really scared to put the film into the camera, because I thought, ‘It’s only got 24 shots’. What comes with that is if you want another one of those films, you’re going to have to buy it yourself. That was a really good lesson, because I became a bob-a-job kind of kid in the summer holidays, washing cars, clearing people’s gardens for 50p. 

What I did do was point the camera at the local and the most local person was my brother, because I found that roll of film at my mother and father’s house in one of those old photo albums. Awful, really out of focus, shaky. But it was my little brother, the flats that we lived in. Those are the first things I photographed.

Once I’d gotten past that camera, which was really not good enough, I worked really hard at bob-a-job and I begged and screamed for money, and I probably collected a fiver from an uncle at Christmas and I went to Fox Talbot on Tottenham Court Road. It was a very traditional, old-fashioned camera suppliers. I used to look in the window quite a lot and dream of, ‘I’m going to get one of those one day’. So I bought one for £14. Think it was Polish. It used to rip my film to pieces because it was mechanically a bit faulty. The first things I really took photographs of were inanimate objects like the street. I lived in Primrose Hill at the time, so I’d take pictures in the park. I used to be obsessed with things like puddles and quite minimal shapes and textures. 

I tell people I was a shy kid, but no one believes me. So I wasn’t ready to take photographs of people just yet. By the time I was about 12, I had a dark room in the cupboard that my stepdad helped me build. Then I then started to take pictures of family members and friends. We were all into music. My mates were making music. We were in bands. So there was a very creative, artistic sort of environment that I was coming out of in Camden; a ridiculously creative hub of people. The general vibration around me was very visual. Do you remember the Dulux adverts, the first time you saw the sheepdog running along the streets, this lovely sort of terrace of these pastoral painted houses. That was round the corner from where I lived. So I used to see a lot of film crews and big cameras and people standing around and then every now and again, you’d see someone who’d been on telly. There were two things I really honed in on, photography and drumming, which was even harder because I didn’t have a full drum kit. 

Drumming is really like a DJ apprenticeship, isn’t it? The reason I became a DJ was because I couldn’t drum, coordinating your hands and your feet is so difficult.
I was challenging myself of being able to coordinate. I know now I was a naturally gifted drummer. I used to love it. But funny you should say that, because as of now, I DJ. That’s how I get my drumming frustration out of me. But now I don’t have to worry about the guitarist, the bass player, even though I miss that magical thing that you have when you’re in a band where you’re playing off of each other, which is kind of like a DJ playing off of the audience. I’m mixing like I’m playing beats. When I think about what I’m going to bring in, I do it like I’m in the group. I think about the horns, I think about guitar, bass, rhythm guitar. There’s a rhythm to everything I do. There’s the different sounds from each drum, so there’s different people I look at and photograph or the different environments I might be in.

Does that feed into photography?
Absolutely. The way that rhythm and that coordination works with photography is the understanding of light, the understanding of speed, i.e. as in to capture movement, and to allow the movement and the balancing of light and movement to get the exposure, to get the image onto the film plane. These are all things that have to be coordinated, otherwise it’s just too bright, it’s under exposed, it’s too dark, or it’s all blurred. I think the same with doing paradiddles and drum rolls. There’s a similar kind of science behind it. You see that? [he’s unconsciously clapping hands] That’s me clapping my hands to a rhythm. So if you converted that sound into movement, that’s me speeding up and slowing down the exposure.

When you left school, did you ever have a regular job or did you do more photography training? 
I went to college for a year. Did sixth form at college on a course which I was very fortunate to get on, which was a certificate of photographic laboratory skills. It was a brilliant course because it was a way into the photography industry. So I learned how to get a proper job, if you like, and I could have worked at Snappy Snap type places as a processor, because I learned how to use those big machines, but I couldn’t find anything more boring. What I fell in love with when I went to college was the actual photography, the black and white theory of photography, colour processing, art and design, film study, numeracy, which was to get the academic things up that you hadn’t completed in sixth form, related science. Now, the numeracy, the way I was taught mathematics, was through photographic mathematics; fractions, balance, degrees. I had a few part-time jobs, one on Dingwalls market selling, then working in a music outlet which was called the London Rock Shop, on Chalk Farm Road. I was the tea boy to start off. All I really did was sweep up, clean up, make tea, and go and get the goods when someone made a sale from downstairs. Eventually, I started to demo stuff. I did Saturday and Sundays at Rock Shop when I was full-time at college, then when I finished, they gave me some full-time work. It was quite apparent, according to the boss then, that my head was somewhere else. I was always going on about taking pictures and I often had my camera with me. So they would allow me to take photographs of some of the rack-mounted equipment that they would put in the classified ads.I got a couple of work experience modes where I went out and I freelanced at Holborn Studios as a studio assistant, which is wholly photographic. Do you know Anton Corbijn?

Wow, yeah.
I didn’t get to work with him. We got the lights from stock, set them up, and then got told it was all wrong because he’s really finicky and really expert. But there were other big name photographers. Then I moved on to work at Camden Studios for a little while as a studio assistant. But one day, I decided to be a photographer and there was a grant you could apply for.

The Enterprise Allowance Scheme?
Enterprise allowance. Boom. There you go. So I did enterprise allowance and tried to become a professional photographer off my own back. What I did was I followed my interest in music and passion and started to go to gigs as a hobbyist. Not for the sake of making money, but more for taking photographs. The very first times I went to gigs, I’d just go and have my camera with me and hope that I could take pictures from the back with a 50mm. lens. That was when I found out that you needed a really big lens or you need to be much closer. So the photographs I took at the Roundhouse of Freddie Hubbard Band, all I can see is heads and the spotlight. I can’t see anything on the stage. And there were a lot of things I did where I still was learning how to work in the dark without flash, working with natural lighting, be it concert lighting that keeps going on and off, spotlights, chasing spotlights around. There’s a lot of technique I learned through going to gigs.

A few of those gigs, I’d meet people and they said, ‘You know you could do well with that, don’t you?’ Me, a young black guy with a camera. Very unusual to see that. So I had a lot of people, like the DJ Fat Freddie M, I remember him introducing me to a guy called Ray Edwards who was part of the Marshall Arts promotions team. So I’m now going to gigs that are major R&B acts like Atlantic Starr or Motown acts.

When you went to those, were all the other photographers white?
As far as I remember I was the only black photographer. There were photographers like David Corio. I’d never look at David Corio and think of him as any colour. I just thought of him as a guy that shot predominantly black music. Like, he shot every reggae artist.

Yeah, he was working for the NME maybe even before Anton Corbijn, actually, wasn’t he?
I used to aspire to these people’s work, not know who they were, but I would look at these magazines and the papers, Melody Maker, NME, and Record Mirror as well before I started working for them. And I’d look at that and I would wish.

Were there any of these guys or women that particularly inspired you as a photographer?
There probably were, but I was already inspired by the likes of Don McCullin, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Man Ray. I was already inspired before I started looking at music photo. One of the reasons why I think I really aspired to emulate people like David Corio was because he shot people that I got: reggae artists and early hip hop stuff.

They almost always worked in black and white as well.
It was a very expensive thing to be doing colour. Also the art of it stemmed from black and white photography, something I absolutely love to this day. It’s timeless. I always feel has got a period to it when you look at colour photos. Whereas you look at black and white and you think, ‘Oh my God, that’s the most incredible image.’ And then the second thing you think about it is, ‘When was that taken?’ You look at some of my photographs, they look like they were taken last week. 

I forgot to mention my friend Zak Ové, he started at my school in the 4th year. And when I’d go to Zak’s house, there were black and white and colour photographs everywhere, because his dad, Horace Ové, was a major photographer and filmmaker and activist of late ’50s, early ’60s, and there were some very powerful, iconic images that he’d photographed that I would see. So that was highly inspiring.

So what was your first music commission that you actually got paid for?
Wow. That’s a really hard question to answer. Closing my eyes now, I’m not sure. Because I went out and took photographs at events in the mid-80s, via things like the Hip Hop Alliance in Brixton which was a kind of youth club run by Ricky Reynolds,. It was just at the time when hip hop and street culture was going to become something; so obviously when it became a thing in with breakdancing, DJing  etc I was just drawn towards that. I would make the pictures and then I might sell one to The Voice. II shot Schoolly D and Cookie Crew was one of the early groups. I used to do stuff for The Voice and I did stuff for Black Echoes a couple of times, and that was all between ’85 and ’86.


When did Hip Hop Connection start? Because you did stuff for that, didn’t you?
Hip Hop Connection started early ’87. I was at Hip Hop Connection when it was [edited by] Chris Hunt and it was based in Ely in Cambridge. And I used to take a train down from London to Ely because I was already taking photographs for Music of Life Records, who had signed MC Duke, Derek B, Demon Boyz, Thrashpack etc. I used to call up music papers and music magazines because of my training. But I took that style and I penetrated the music industry with that same tenacity and I would hang out at backstage doors. I pushed myself there and people saw me. In 1987, I started working with Stuart Bailie. He was a top writer for all the music press from Belfast, but he lived in London. He was doing all sort of punk, indie stuff, rock, all kinds of stuff.

I know Stuart. He moved back to Belfast, right?
Yeah, that’s right. He had recognised this young kid, Norman Anderson at that time still, hadn’t quite got the hip hop nickname down yet. Stewart introduced me to Debbie Kirby, who at the time was the editor at Record Mirror and I would say Record Mirror was probably the first proper magazine that paid for my music pictures. When Stuart Bailie said, ‘You’ve got to meet Debbie because I’m moving back to Belfast. You should be working more and working for this magazine. Your work’s brilliant.’ So one day we met up and that was the first time I went through the front door on Hampstead Road in that great building down there where it was based, and we went into the open plan. It was a massive open plan. I was mesmerised by the amount of people in there, just typing away. And that was the first time I walked into a magazine environment. We walked over, ‘Oh, hi, Stuart. Hello, who’s this?’
He goes, ‘Oh, this is the photographer I wanted to introduce you to. This is Norman, Normski.’
And she goes, ‘Oh!’ She literally was shocked when she looked up because she’d seen my work, because it’d been in the mag, but she’d never met me.

She had no idea.
That I was black. No idea. She looked at the photographs I’d taken, of which there were a lot of black people, because up until then it was lots of community shots and a couple of hip hop things. She looked at it and she was very impressed at my A4 portfolio: ‘Wow, your work is really, really good.’ She looked at me and asked me straight up, ‘Would you be interested in photographing non-black subjects?’ 
I said, ‘Absolutely’, because all I wanted to do was take photographs. I didn’t even realise that I was taking photographs of mostly black subjects. I just thought I was taking photographs of what I could get access to, what I liked. She was highly impressed because it was unusual to have someone like me at that time that good in entering into the industry. She knew she had a little bit of a coup having someone like me, because what was happening was also a lot of black artists were coming up. When it came to certain gigs or acts, she could point me in that direction and know that I’d cover it well. But then also when I shot with Stuart Bailie, I shot bands like Lightning Strike, which was like a kind of rockabilly, punk, post-Clash just crazy brilliant band that was Soho-based. Boy London, motorcycle gear, leather, bullet belts, real attitude. The photographs were quite dynamic. That was me mimicking what I’d seen in the Melody Maker. Also, the stuff that I’d seen on all the covers that I was excited by, like things like The Stranglers and a lot of other albums at that time. Because in those days, in the ’80s, to sell your record you had to have a wicked, incredibly powerful single cover shot. I always knew that, probably because I couldn’t afford it, but I wasn’t really keen on that colour backdrop. The colour backdrop, the studio shot, which was very Number One, Smash Hits and Record Mirror. I was always going to be a location photographer.

That’s one thing that kind of marks out a lot of the stuff that you were doing, and especially with hip hop. It’s really made for being outside on location, because it’s such street music. Did you find it was helpful being a black kid the same age as a lot of those acts when you were doing photo shoots with them?
Totally. I mean, you kind of answered it with the question there, because that was purely my power at the time with regards to being accepted by a culture and people that were not being accepted by society. It took a long time for people of colour to get individual recognition in the press pages. There were acts that had a black person in them, you know? But to be an individual, you had to start making some noise. What I had was I was a photographer, but I was also a homeboy. I was the one who had the camera that looked like a lot of these guys so they didn’t feel like I was an outsider. That was a massive bonus to me. Also I would ask the artists what they wanted to do. I didn’t put my premeditated ideas into everyone; a lot of photographers wanted to control the subject. You don’t really want to try and do that with hip hop artists, you know? And actually, you really don’t because they’re so creative. Got so many ideas. Like Hijack, they were on Music of Life Records.

Were they the ones from Broadwater Farm?
No, that was the Demon Boyz, that’s an interesting one as well. I went Hijack, but I could’ve gone Demon Boyz because they’re both on the same label. So I have to thank Music of Life as well for introducing me to a lot of these acts that were able to get their music out, because not a lot of record companies were going for it, were biting the British UK underground music at the time. Simon Harris was A&R-ing in for them. And also, to be honest, Derek B, another initiator in the British hip hop scene, he probably brought in quite a lot of those acts, like MC Duke.

And Demon Boyz, the second shoot was Broadwater Farm. The first shoot they had no idea what they really wanted. They liked the look of me because I looked like someone they might know. I’m a black guy, they’re black guys, I’m from north-west London, they’re from north London. Everything about us was very similar. I loved their music, I understood it and I had some fly gear on because I was a couple of years older than everyone, so I had my Triple F.A.T. Goose from New York. When it came to the first shoot with Demon Boyz, I suggested to them, ‘Let’s meet up. I’ve got a really good location.’ So I took them out of their comfort zone and they came to Camden, and I had a brilliant location which was just up near to Chalk Farm. It was an old disused railway track. I shot them down there, and I don’t think they’d quite seen anything quite like that. Just used tracks, iron, all kinds of stuff. Old Victorian brick archways. Perfect location, locked it. So that was the first shoot.

Then when it came to the Broadwater Farm shoot, that was for their album cover, Recognition. So that was when we switched it around and I said, ‘Okay, it’s your album cover. Where do you want to do the shoot? How do you want to represent yourselves?’ And they was like, ‘Well, we’ve got a really good location in Tottenham.’ I don’t know whether the record company gave them money and they went out and bought the clothes they were wearing or whether they already had them, but they wanted a Ford Cosworth. That was the car of the day. The Cossie!

That was a souped-up cop car, wasn’t it? The cops used those.
Yeah. So I imagine that you’re like, ‘We’ve got to be able to outrun the cops,’ or something. I don’t know. 

Who was the group that had the really serious balaclava type thing?
That’s Hijack. So my first shoot of Hijack, similar thing. I went to their environment. I went up to Stockwell and Brixton, basically. They took me to where they wanted to have their photographs done. We were going to do a shot in that back alleyway of the Brixton Academy where the stage door is. Then they took me to some other places, maybe Windrush as well, where there was graffiti on the wall. And I got all creative with them on the skateboard ramp; got them standing on it. They look like they’re standing on the top of a mountain; managed to block out everything, twist the camera a little bit and made them lean. So it looks like they’re really kind of on this really steep thing. Photographic skills and perspective. 

And then when it came to them doing their album, which didn’t go out in the end on Music of Life. In the end, that all fell apart, that deal, and they were heading somewhere else anyway. We then did another shoot where they’d upped their game from being first generation hardcore, looking like the kind of homeboys they did. And they just had an image that they wanted to portray, which was scary as F, basically. All in black. Ulysses was always there. The yin and yang Master, sort of samurai and the full kung-fu, which he actually did. He was actually into martial arts and stuff and swordsmanship.

And they just came up with this … When I turned up, even I was like, ‘Whoa.’ But on that shoot, we didn’t do anything without that outfit on. Everything had to be balaclavas. The white guy who used to be not in the band, but was one of their crew, he had a stocking on. Like, proper foot stocking, like a bank job. His nose was squashed. It’s really quite something. In those days, the holster belts, which you basically put your mobile phone in, but they kind of looked like they got guns and stuff, all dressed in black. And of course, that shoot was kind of banned at the time, which it became a… It was definitely a press shot used for a single that they were doing. It might have been ‘Badman Is Robbin’. I’m not sure which one it was. But the shot was taken down by the record company because they’d been hit by the law; it was deemed in bad taste, because it did alert people to the balaclava looking thing. And at that time, unfortunately, IRA had had a bit of activity around in the London area, so that wasn’t a good look.

How quick did those shoots happen? Because they always look very guerrilla to me. 
My style is completely guerilla. I really don’t like to have to ask people permission who do not understand what we’re trying to do because they immediately go, ‘No. No, no.’ There is urgency in a lot of the images, and also the fun can run out quite quickly, so I would always try and do things swiftly. We didn’t get permission to be where we were taking pictures. That shot of Hijack, when the police just came up over the wall to look at, ‘What’s going on in there?’ I don’t know what that could have looked like to them. Honestly, what the hell is this? I mean, there’s one guy, me, cameras, tripod and then you’ve got the group who all looked like terrorists. They’re the Hijack terrorist group. I turned around and fobbed it off with, ‘We’re just doing a college project’. 
And they went, ‘Yeah? Well, you’re not meant to be here. Whatever you’re doing, but if you’re not gone in five minutes, this is going to be a bad thing.’

Silver Bullet Posse, Lloyd’s building, again, about 12 to 14 youth, all piled up in front of this wonderful, polished aluminium Lloyds building. Really modern, futuristic. We’ve done loads of shots, and then along comes mister security guard: ‘Oh, you know you’re not supposed to be shooting here. Get off, get off.’

But I know the law now, which is that if there is a sign saying no photographs, then they’ve got every right to talk to you. If you don’t have a tripod, which can be deemed as a public obstruction, they can’t talk to you. So I tried to do all my photo shoots without having loads of cumbersome equipment, so I looked like a tourist. Obviously if you climb over people’s walls and fences, you’re breaking the law, so you could expect to be told off. But the levels of excitement of when you have to jump over a wall to go and do something. And I’m like, ‘Stop looking about. Let’s do this, man, because this looks wicked.’ Click, click, click, click, click. Right, that’s it, job done, bam. Out.

Top of the Empire State Building with Queen Latifah. And the hardest thing about doing that photo shoot was number one, the wind blowing her hair all over the place. I didn’t even think of that. And number two was the hundreds of tourists in the background, all trying to get a view of New York City. So trying to capture a shot and block people out … As you might see in a lot of my photographs, especially in the book, I don’t like having distractions. If I’m shooting people, I don’t want to see anyone who’s not part of the group or the artist. I don’t want to see any more human beings in the shot at all. So sometimes there’s a lot of waiting or there’s a lot of rushing. ‘Quick, now, now, now! Get in the middle of the road now!’ Click, click! Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to get killed.’ Sometimes I’m lying in the road and cars are coming down and the person I’m taking pictures of is panicking and I’m going, ‘Don’t worry, they’re not going to run me over. Just stay still.’

Can we talk about Dance Energy and your part in it?
Well, I went to meet this production company, but I went as a photographer, and they were expecting a photographer. So they was trying to find a way of how they could access the information of what was happening on the streets, actually getting the people who are the scene to tell you about what they’re up to. And I went along there with my portfolios and sat down in a room two two ladies, and they were from Activate Productions. Activate made the show that was commissioned by the BBC. We sat there around the table at their offices and I was talking my way through all these photographs, and they were probably sitting back and asking me questions. Don’t remember exactly how it all went. So I was telling them stories about this person and about this and that. They sat there quietly for a bit, I remember. I looked up and go, ‘What? Are you okay?’ 
They’re like, ‘Oh yeah. Your stuff is amazing. You’re amazing.’ 
I was like, ‘Whoa, okay’. 
They were looking at each other and obviously thinking about something. And I think Mary [Calderwood] said, ‘Have you ever actually thought of being on the other side of the camera?’ 
‘Well, no. Why? What do you mean?’ It really took me aback. 
She goes, ‘Well, you’re incredible. You seem to know everything and you speak really well, and you look great. So you should maybe contemplate that.’ 
I was like, ‘I’m quite happy taking pictures.’ But I was also game for trying anything. So all the time I was saying, ‘Okay, that sounds alright, but I really want to try and get my camera involved.’ 
‘Maybe we can incorporate your photography into our show idea.’
They’d given me a date. ‘We’re having these auditions. We’d love you to come along.’
But they were really honest. ‘We’re trying to find people that aren’t just obviously television type people. We want to get real people, and you strike us as one of these.


So I went there as we all are in the kind of hip hop world, multi-talented dudes and girls, and they gave me that opportunity to come along and maybe see if I did enjoy being on the front end of the camera. By that point, I would’ve been really good in front of the camera because I’d had so many people in front of my camera and I was able to direct them. I don’t know, NBP, isn’t it? Natural Born Player. The day when I went into that audition, they had dozens of people auditioning, like even a couple of Top Of The Pops presenters that eventually got the Top of the Pops jobs were actually trying to get on that Dance Energy show. They had a mock-up of all the things they were going to talk about, a little bit like QVC or something. Totally lame to me, bro. Sorry, I’m like raw, make it up, spontaneous, BAM!

When they first had the idea for that programme, there was going to be two presenters in the studio. There was going to be a guy and a girl. And the girl at the time, I think, was a singer that was working with Prince, but her agent was one that was looking for like thousands and thousands of pounds, which a very low budget TV show couldn’t do. So they pulled her at the last minute and then they just decided, ‘Well, maybe we’ll just have one presenter.’

When it came to doing the audition, I was already an artist but didn’t even realise it. And don’t forget, I’m photographing all these artists, so I just emulated them. We all emulate other people. We can’t help it. I was able to just kind of, I don’t know, chameleon my way through life sometimes and try and reflect what I liked and what I wanted to be like. And those guys also mentor me in a way, and a lot of other young rappers and artists that they helped produce. So when it came to the audition, I basically got there and there was this massive line and I had to wait and wait and wait.

Eventually the director was like, ‘Do you want to go outside and do this? Because it’s just too hectic in there.’ Walks out the building and there’s a road and a van was coming and the cameraman went across the street on this little VHS camera. So he’s seeing what I look like on camera and the way you move. Well, I’m standing there talking to this director and he’s saying, ‘What we’re going to do is a couple of links, so just pretend to introduce the show, however you feel.’ I’d kind of premeditated a couple of things. We went to step out and this van came from nowhere, drove up and he winds the window down and says, ‘Oi, mate, you look well cool! You must be famous!’ as he went past. The director looked at me  and I was like, ‘Alright,’ like it was nothing. Gave him a thumbs-up. Looked at myself again and I thought, well, I’ve got the red suede Fila high-tops. I’ve got the red T-shirt and the hoodie in red, and I’ve got the cream tracksuit, baggy tracksuit bums on. So yeah, thanks for that, mate. Yeah, you know, hip hop: you know how we be.

That was the moment when I think they thought we’ve got a star here already and he hasn’t done anything yet. Went into the park and I was like, ‘Bonjour. Konnichiwa,’ I was trying to be kind of foreign. I went, ‘Hello. What’s up? My name’s Normski. We’ve got a brand new show. Tonight, we’ve got De La Soul,’ and I came up with three hip hop acts that I knew in the studio. I made up some silly link. But I was physical, animated, speaking, moving. Hands down, I beat everyone up. Got the job straight away. Said, ‘This guy’s the most original TV presenter we could possibly have.’

Did the success of that slightly derail your photography career?
Not derail it. When we weren’t shooting any of the TV shows, which was quite often. It didn’t really derail my photography, but it definitely affected the amount of work I wasn’t going to be able to do, because that whole television timetable is all-encompassing. It takes over your whole life. But what happened really was once the show took off, everyone was like, ‘You don’t need to work. You’ve made it.’
And I’m like, ‘Actually, no.’ So I didn’t stop doing photography and maybe at some point, I got more work because I was even more music industry now. Also it was visual, so it was kind of similar. It wasn’t like I just suddenly turned into a rapper and was on tour all day long. It was much more like, ‘Oh, he’s still in this audio visual world,’ which is a follow-on from being a photographer. 

So I wouldn’t say it was fair to say it derailed it. I think I just evolved what I was doing. And when we weren’t shooting studio and when the series wasn’t on, because it wasn’t on every day all year long, I was still shooting and I did a few album covers and bits and pieces whilst I did TV. What that was is that I think it just added more kudos to my name, and people thought it was very cool to have a guy that was a great photographer who was also really well-known for presenting the music that he was photographing. Full package.

But you know, I think that what I would’ve said was that I maybe had messed up my photography career because I thought I could have followed through and gone on in television, but it didn’t seem to want to happen for some reason. Don’t ask me why. British television’s a very difficult place and it isn’t as long-lasting unless you are from a set that all go grey and have white hair and have never not been on television. I’m not going to start naming them all, but they’re the presenters that present everything, and they’re never at anything. They’re not really into anything, but they’re very good at telling you about what’s happening, because that’s their job to do it.

When you get the real people that have real interests, they become a specialist thing only and they’re on after midnight and all this sort of madness. So I quite liked getting into the real world and presenting live events and presenting and DJing and being back in the industry, just because that’s really where I started and that’s what I really loved. And it was really true and honest rather than pretending and then doing it in the cut and fixing it in the mix. It didn’t go with the way I was, which is spontaneous, mixing it as you go along, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of post-production, but you’ve got to leave some flexibility to let things not feel like they’re stifled.

I guess spontaneity, isn’t it, which is crucial in DJing … It’s crucial in any…
In art.

… creative activity, isn’t it?

You sound like someone that’s still super passionate about photography now.

Are you still working a lot and taking a lot of pictures? We’re living in an age of Instagram and everyone’s a bloody photographer.
Yeah. I would be lying if I didn’t say I’d continued to capture photography throughout the last 30 odd years. Ever since this advent of being able to take pictures with your phones and have all of these electronic portfolios, social networks that you could paste your stuff all over, it is much cheaper and much easier to get your work seen. But having come from a traditional background and being a professional photographer, there really isn’t really anything special about having your image on the internet. What’s special is when you’re having your image in a magazine that’s a printed magazine. What’s even more special is when you have your image on a wall or on a poster for an act that’s on tour or something. The book is ridiculous, because before I did my own book, the most I’d done was a zine with Museum of Youth Culture, which is 40 pages of some of the photographs, which is that early one of my brother and his friend Vernon jumping in the flats when he’s seven years old. I’m seven years older than my brother, so that means I was 14 when I took that picture. That’s in a zine that’s then in the middle of it, there’s Barry White and Goldie. So that’s a really nice little journey of my photographic life. That’s special.

Obviously not everyone can get to see it in real person, and so the internet is really good to sit on your ass all day and night and think you have access to everything in the world, but it’s not until you’re actually in the concert and you can feel the ambiance of the guitar humming before Prince or whoever’s going to kick into a solo or whatever artist you love to go and see live. I find it reasonably obnoxious that I can’t see the stage because of the amount of phones that are being held up to film. What do people do with all that film? Oh, of course, because they’ve now made stories and reels. So now you’re able to be like a TV producer and cameraman all in one. 

I went to the Jazz Cafe a couple of weeks ago to see Roc Marciano playing, and I actually found the crowd more fascinating because of the amount of people filming. So I spent most of the night just taking photographs of people filming it because it looked more interesting to me than what he was doing on stage.
Well, that’s like the antichrist or something where the energy in the room is taken away from the very act that everyone’s seeing, and it’s been soaked up by the dementors of electromagnetism, the great lithium magnet of life and soul that sucks your attention to the point of where you’re looking to see, ‘What kind of phone is that? Why is that such a great shot? How come the detail is so good? And look at this power zoom!’ As he switches with his quick swipe to being long, wide, super wide shot to in the nostrils. Whoa! And then you look round and you forget, oh yeah, there’s an act who’s wondering whether anyone can see him because he can’t see anyone’s faces, because we’re all watching everyone’s flipping screen. It’s a mad world we live in. This is what it is like in this day and age. I don’t mind. I get it, but it’s not as much fun as going to the gig, jumping around like a lunatic with your mates, making new friends.

I’ve been there. I went to a Glastonbury-hosted Silver Hayes Stage on one night, DJed at Block9 at silly o’clock in the morning, ran around all the place having fun. But when the Rolling Stones was playing there, first ever gig at Glastonbury … Now, I’m not a Rolling Stones fan. I know of them, I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never been to a Rolling Stones gig. I’ve never even wanted to go and see Rolling Stones. But my jaw was stuck open. Every time I heard a tune, it was like a period of my life. I had no idea some of the tunes that they had done were their tunes until they did that gig. And I’m looking at just under 400 years of age on the stage and there’s more energy on that stage than I’ve ever seen at any Glastonbury, really, for a band on the stage. These are experienced rockers, you know? And I’m looking at people and we were all looking at each other going, like, ‘Oh my God!’ I don’t even remember taking any pictures. I had a camera on me and a phone. We were gobsmacked. We were just in awe of this powerful, superstar show. You got to admire that. And it’s wonderful when you see it, when you see artists go out regardless of the conditions and draw the magnetism and gravitational pull of the whole festival. Very special.

And that’s what I’m about; the real respect and acknowledgement of what it is you’re at and what you’ve gone to do and what you’ve gone to see. When I do photo shoots, I’m like, ‘Just put your phones away. No phones. Okay, let’s go. I’m doing real photographs here.’ And they go, ‘I’ll take a couple with my phone.’ 
I go, ‘Nah, because we’re going to get a great shot of you and I’m going to wish I had it on film. So I’m going to get the shot first.’ Then give me a phone, click, alright, there you go. But don’t expect me to carry a phone around and just double all the shots up with the phone. ‘What’s the point in that, bro? That’s not professional for me. You wait till I do my shots. You’ll get your prints.’ 
They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re right, you’re right.’

I’ve got a friend, Dan Formers, who had a great quote. His friend said, ‘I bet he’s got the best kit.’
And Dan said, ‘Listen, you give Normski a cigarette packet, he’ll make a good shot from it. You’d be surprised. He can use anything and take a good photograph, whether it’s a phone or a snap camera.’ Like the Goldie shot in Metalheadz. He’s compared that photograph to many sessions he’s had with big names like Rankin and Bailey. He says, ‘I’ve done all that, all those big shoots and stuff. But this shot captures my soul. It’s like a rolling shot.’ What he means is I was at his nightclub, Metalheadz. I was in the crowd and he was at the height of going somewhere and he just turned around. I went, ‘Gold!’ And I touched him and snapped him at the same time. You can just see at the bottom of the picture is my hand. I gave him like a fisticuff and I went, BAM!

The other night, I was at V&A for his big talk and I gave him a book. At the end of it, I came downstairs and it was a full auditorium in the lecture rooms. Incredible night. Gave him the book and he just freaked out. He loves the picture and he turned around to a lot of people. ‘This is the best picture I’ve ever seen.’ I’m like, ‘Bro, you don’t have to say that.’ But he keeps saying it and it’s because I was at Metalheadz. I was in the club. It means a lot to people. Taking them out of their comfort zone and putting them into your little studio where they’re just posing for you, but what people really want is to reflect everything they’re about. And that’s what I try to do with my photography; try and reflect what the people are.

Nab Normski’s book here –>

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Norman Jay has his groove rare

Norman Jay has his groove rare

You could almost tell a history of London clubs through the lens of Norman Jay’s life. The blues parties, the ska and soul on his dad’s stereogram, early clubbing forays in London (and Wigan and Blackpool), his and brother Joey’s sound system, Good Times, the birth of Kiss, the Original Rare Groove Show, seminal garage-house night Shake & Fingerpop and the numerous radio shows he’s held down over a hefty, storied career as one of London’s greatest exports. In 2002, he received mainstream recognition for that with an MBE awarded for services to music.

We have combined two interviews conducted with an 18 month gap, one for Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, the latter for the first Good Times compilation.

Interviewed by Bill on 13.02.1999 in Ladbroke Grove, and Frank, travelling about the West End on 13.07.2000

Can you tell me a bit about your childhood?
I was born in Ladbroke Grove in 1957. Moved out to Acton when I was a kid. [My brother] Joey’s a year younger than me. From a very young age, my dad was an avid collector of all sorts of forties and fifties music. Jazz, and also secular American music because my grandmother was living in America, in New York since the late Fifties. And once a year or twice, she’d come over and I can really remember that she always brought over the top five or top ten rhythm & blues singles of the moment to give to my dad. We were the first people in our area to own a radiogram. I think it was a Bush. He’d spend hours on that thing, playing records over and over again, so even at two or three years old, you’re already familiar with those records. so by the age of five or six we were tampering around with that radiogram. I’d collect all the singles and pile them up like a jukebox and watch them drop on the automated changer. I was fascinated with the automation. My dad’s still got it. 

It’s funny how little things like that define you. I always used to put the records on and play them. And my brother always used to rip the workings apart to see how it worked and then put it back together. That’s how he got into building his own sound systems; and I became a DJ. I started buying records when I was five or six and I had a huge collection of ska records by the time I was ten. I remember buying things like Fontella Bass ‘Rescue Me’, which was a pop record really. To get my fix of reggae I used to get the bus from Acton to a record shop that’s still there today: Webster’s in Shepherd’s Bush market, by the tube. He was a magnet for reggae buyers. I’d spend all day in there and only buy one single, because it’s all I could afford. A single cost 5s. 11d.

What did you do when you first left school? By the time you left, had you already been to any clubs?
Oh yeah. Around my first year in school, 1969, I was gradually being converted to soul, although I didn’t really make a distinction between reggae and soul then. It was just black music by black artists. But I converted loads of my white mates to reggae. They’d come round and listen to the radiogram. I made a point of having older friends then, and there were these two kids down my road, Tubs and Barry, brothers. They were five or six years older than me because they were just old enough to own scooters. Mods, they were. They absolutely loved black music, especially reggae. But I didn’t know too much of the soul stuff they were into. 

What was the racial composition of your school?
There were quite a few of us. But I never experienced that much of a problem with racism. It’s an in-built thing. You sort of knew certain areas not to go to. You didn’t need to be told. You just knew. Something inside you warned you of this. I was always conscious of this, and as a consequence of that, I think I never really suffered as badly as some of my friends did. Given the fact that my mum and dad, as black immigrant parents go, were very liberal. Unbelievably liberal. When I think of how harsh some of my black friends’ parents were. I was always encouraged to bring home friends, black and white. They never saw the difference. It didn’t exist to them. My mum was a childminder, so we used to have Asian babies, African babies, white babies in the house. We had white lodgers. Great environment. That’s what shaped my thinking. 

Around this time I’d just discovered football. Big Tottenham fan. Even then I used to travel all over. Football was my all-consuming passion and I was quite a good player as a kid. Wanted to be a professional, but at the back of my mind was the music thing. I left school really early with no qualifications. I was getting £4 a week at the Evening Standard, which I thought was a lot of money. I heard from a mate of mine that there was a shop in the West End that sold soul and black music. It turned out to be the old HMV in Bond Street. This would have been 1971 or ’72. One afternoon I went down there and he had the rhythm & blues top forty in there and I didn’t know any of the records, but he’d write up little reviews about which ones he thought were good. The British ones were 45p and US ones were 60p; you had to order them and it took a week. So I ordered some and a week later I came back and he’d got them for me. So I asked him if he could get any other stuff and he said he could only get the bigger label stuff, but there was a shop just down the way, in 14 Hanway Street [it was called Contempo], that specialised in that. Went upstairs to the first floor and it was unbelievable. Records everywhere. There were two black guys working in the shop and one of them I knew. That’s when I discovered Blues & Soul and Black Music behind the counter. And it was packed. I discovered a whole new world just waiting in the shop. And religiously every Friday I’d go there and buy stuff.

Major turning point for me was when Shaft came out. It revolutionised music and totally changed my perceptions. Because you’re black you think you know about all of these things before anybody else. But there was this kid in my class, the most unlikely white kid, who had an older brother called Dermot and he was Irish. He was into people like Simon & Garfunkel and a lot of singer songwriters before anyone else had heard of them. And one day he came in the playground: ‘Norman, have you heard about this film called Shaft?’
He’d already seen it. I’d never heard of it: ‘Yeah, course I have.’
I went round his house one weekend and he played Shaft. It was the most unbelievable piece of music I’d ever heard. And I was buying stuff like Chairman of the Board, loads of Motown, late sixties Stax. It was pure musical drama; musical theatre. Wicked. So I went straight from Ealing Broadway to Tottenham Court Road, round to Contempo to get it. I played that record to death. So I knew that feeling you got when you heard a record that drove you mad. That rush. That feeling. It’s like sex. Oh my  God. It was one of the few non-reggae records I brought back that my dad loved. Straight away. That’s how I got into that Blaxploitation thing, because up until that point I hadn’t bought an album yet. I couldn’t afford them. Around that time I also discovered James Brown. I’d never really listened to records (lyrically). I was never that deep. If the overall sounds excite you, then if you want to go a bit deeper and hear what they’re saying, you can do. Which is why I like dance records, because it’s escapism, fantasy. Dance records are for the moment. You want to dance to them. I always liked funky upbeat records.

Can you tell me a bit about your American family. 
I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Brownswood, the roughest part of Brooklyn, and in Crown Heights. My aunt and uncle, when they used to come over, they used to tell us about the racism, because we had no concept, but you were aware of the whole racial thing going on. You knew that. It scared us shitless. When Martin Luther King got shot, I didn’t really know what had happened, but I knew it was something really terrible. Like a relative had died. I subsequently learned that a lot of those black political records were banned. They were stopping certain records coming in on the pretext that they were protecting the domestic singles market. Which I subsequently learned was crap. I’d be reading about these records and wanting to know more I’d go to the store and they couldn’t get them. Why not? Listening back to those records you realise how powerful they were. They were street records. The voice of the street. That’s when I started to listen intently to records, especially James Brown records. ‘Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud’, that gave me courage to stand up and be who I am. Because British blacks, we didn’t have an identity, really. The first time I went over to America and met a proper African-American for the first time. Even though it was brother to brother, I realised that we were culturally different. When I first went there, it was just at the change over between the old New York stereotype gangster pimp. When I went over there that was what I was expecting to see. And the whole disco thing was just blowing up over there and the black guys were cutting their hair short and that’s when I saw the first rumblings of the whole hip hop thing. Ghetto kids weren’t going to the disco thing, because they couldn’t get in the clubs. Blacks weren’t admitted. 

But black gay clubs were the start of it all really.
I can’t really say because I didn’t discover black gay clubs till later. When I first went there, the street scene as I knew it, in the boroughs, because you had to be 21 to get in to the clubs anyway…I can only give an English kids’ perspective, but it was a fantastic time to be there. It was going through change.

In England, the all-black environment was a different thing [like blues parties]. It was always a highly charged emotional thing. Very heavy sexual overtones. Dark room. Sweaty bodies in a cramped room 21 storeys up. There was always sex music and, inevitably, the drugs. There was always a highly charged emotional thing. Almost like a church congregation, only with secular music. When I went to white things, they did things differently. 

What are your memories of the community round Ladbroke Grove?
Very different. It was almost 95% black, urban, street. In those early days it was quite lawless. At times almost bordering on anarchy. You have to remember it was the post-76 carnival riot, I was a child of that. Watched all of that. but that was very important socially. Up until then, as a black youth, walking the streets of London, being constantly harassed, and not necessarily physically intimidated. But I knew a lot of my friends were, by the police, the Special Patrol Group, which as a result of the whole social political climate of that time, they abolished.

And also the sus law….
The sus law, yeah. Stop and search. It was like being in South Africa. Just as random. The police were arbitrarily overstepping the mark. So carnival August 1976 was when the angry young youth of London just said enough is enough. And I was of that age. I was of that whole time, that was me they were attacking. And again that was in my neighbourhood.

What actually happened that day in 1976?

That summer, there was a huge event going on in Margate. So a couple of my mates owned cars, so we’re gonna get out of town, go up to Margate. There was a club there called Atlantis and I can remember loads of soul boys. This was the summer when the whole punk thing blew up massively in the media, and there was a kind of an allegiance between the punks and the soul boys, and they were being harassed and persecuted and just distressed. Anybody who dressed a certain way was considered fair game. The soul boys were a bit cleverer, cos it was a fashion thing for us as well. 

We go to Atlantis, a big fight breaks out on the beach. With all the scooter boys against the soul boys, and the punks. But there weren’t enough of us. And basically all the soul boys were black, so that gave them even more ammunition, because you knew it was pretty right wing. We got run out of town, chased back to the station. We were back in London by about three o’clock in the afternoon. So we were like, ‘Where shall we go?’ Reluctantly, well there’s nowhere else. Let’s just go down to carnival.

So we’re on the train, train doesn’t stop at Notting Hill, police on the platform, trains are just going through. What’s happening there? Train doesn’t stop at Holland Park. What’s happening there? Get off at Shepherd’s Bush. Curiosity’s risen now and we’ve all walked back, ten of us. We come over the hill at Ladbroke Grove and see loads of people running. And all the side streets were clear. It was like a ghost town. Couldn’t hear anything Get down by Cambridge Gardens and suddenly a mob of black and white kids came running round the corner, being chased, everyone panicked, stampeding to get out of the way. We stopped across the road and watched. There were all these police in plain shirts with truncheons, running everybody. I knew right away, it was a riot, it was going off. I remember there was a camera crew, got half beaten to death. The camera smashed up, black guys were on the rampage. Part of me was quite fearful of that, because I don’t like to see that kind of anarchy and lawlessness. But at the same time, all the years of frustration, the amount people I knew that had been physically beaten by the old bill, this was payback. Got stuck in there for two days. Couldn’t get out. And the rioting went on solid three days, nights. It was really terrible, really scary


Where would you go to hear sound systems back then?
There wasn’t sound systems as such. Black communities obviously had to be self-sufficient, so they’d organise paid parties, blues. That was completely unheard of in the UK at the time. It was an Afro Caribbean tradition brought here. To help raise money to rent properties and eventually buy properties. You couldn’t go to the local pub. You weren’t made to feel welcome in any place of entertainment. Whether you were being paranoid or not, the fact is the racism was there. It was hard for an immigrant to come here. Whether you were Black, Asian, Irish, anybody, that was the climate. But I can honestly say that I never personally suffered that kind of persecution. Partly because of my upbringing, and the liberal attitudes of my parents.

They were driven by a different kind of passion. At that time, England was quite reserved. When the drug culture came about they really learned how to get loose. They loved it, no more than you do, no less, but it was a controlled passion. As a person who trod on both sides of this, I was richer for those experiences. 

What kinds of nightclubs were about then?
In London we had loads of small clubs. There used to be a chain of clubs called the Bird’s Nest, about four or five of them. One in Twickenham, one in West Kensington, one in Waterloo and another one in West Hampstead. This would have been 1973 or ’74. The West Kensington one used to have a soul night on a Sunday night which I went to. That was a complete revelation to me, because I’d never heard all the music that I’d been buying played loud in a club environment. It blew my mind. It was half empty, not many people there. But I found what I was looking for. 

When I went to my first northern soul gig I was intimidated. When I first went to Wigan Casino, there were three black guys and two of my white friends. Five of us went up in my Mini. Bouncers out there gave us real grief, until they realised we were Londoners. ‘We came from London for this’. And the crowd backed us up. It completely took me aback. They were the friendliest people I’d ever met. All my perceptions were shattered in one night. It was such a fantastic feeling. I didn’t know any of the music they were playing in there. People dancing all night long. A completely alien culture. But I loved going to places were I wasn’t comfortable and I liked going to places which were completely new to me and challenged the usual conventions.

What did you think of the music at the Casino?
I didn’t know any of it because it was too obscure. It wasn’t my perception of what northern soul was. One or two of the records because I’d read about them, and the DJs used to announce it. I always remember Russ Winstanley always announcing. I only knew the last three records of the night. 

The Three Before Eight?
Yeah. I couldn’t really get with the drug thing in there as well. By that time I was just flirting with weed and I couldn’t deal with the pills. It wasn’t massively overt, but you knew it was there. And when I was in there you know, again, people put you into their stereotypes, you’re the black guy you must be the drug dealer. So all night long we had guys coming up to us. That was disappointing. My lot hated it. They couldn’t chat up the birds because all they wanted to do was dance all night long. The blokes were just so into their music. Our lot were cockney wide-boys. They were fashion. That’s the thing with London. Music’s part of a whole bunch of things. I was up there wearing straight leg Levi’s, and it was just when the punk thing was coming in; I had a mohair jumper. They looked at me like I was a complete freak. I was called a queer and a faggot. But I loved the fact that they called me that; it was rubbing them up the wrong way and challenging their perceptions. 

Were there any other black kids there?
There was one, he was well known there as a dancer. And his nickname, inevitably, was Chalkie. Chalkie White. He was famous for his dancing. He came up and spoke. He was really friendly, but my lot were taking the piss out of him because they’d never met a black guy with a northern accent. We must have sounded equally weird. We were there at the first night of everything. When Crackers opened, we were there first night. Ten people in the place. But there was also Sunday nights at the West Hampstead Bird’s Nest. The difference between us and those northern kids is that we were into new things. New music, new sounds, new clothes. We didn’t want to look back. Looking back was rock’n’roll and dinosaurs. We wanted the latest, the hippest, which is why London appeared to be quite faddish. 

Did you go to Blackpool Mecca, because they played new music there.
I didn’t go in its heyday I went just before it closed, 1977 we went. But those splits were well documented in Blues & Soul, so I was reading avidly about these things. We watched their petty debates about what was and what wasn’t allowed and we were laughing at them!

I wasn’t working, but I was making money. We used to hitch all over the country. Londoners never hitch anywhere! Travelling to northern things. I needed the adventure. You’d go up there for a football match during the day, kick it up at the football and yet at night those same people you’d been rowing with at the football, you’d find you had a common bond: music. That was really weird. I was into club culture before it was club culture. I didn’t drink so pubs held no appeal for me. I used to go up to these matches in the north and take a holdall with me and go to clubs afterwards. My lot thought I was a mug. But that’s how I discovered Reds in Manchester, because I knew of John Grant, Colin Curtis and Ian Levine. I went to Blackpool Mecca, again after a Spurs game, when we were in the Second Division. Trouble all day on the seafront with hooligans. I was there with a couple of mates to stay, and by then I’d perfected the blag, because cockneys are quite good at blagging into places for free. About six of us got in to the Highland Room for nothing and had the time of our lives. I noticed then the division. It was not necessarily new, but it was more modern. The kids in there, I remember, were wearing exactly the same soul boy clothes as we were wearing. They were into different aspects of the same sort of music. It was modernist, which is what we were. And there was also the fashion element, which we had in London but wasn’t part of it in the north. I remember hearing Ian Levine, and I liked some of what he played, but he played all the records that I’d left behind in the shop. 

Like what?
I had progressed into the Philadelphia thing in a big way by then. I bought everything that came out of Sigma Studio, religiously. 

Even the Ritchie Family?
Oh yeah! ‘Brazil’; I got that record. We didn’t have those hang-ups. You’ll remember the big debate that went on between Tony Cummings at Black Music and Dave Godin at Blues & Soul. What a lot of tosh! I used to read that with amusement. Old v. New. While they are arguing the toss over that, we were queuing to buy Brass Construction’s debut album. 

Around the time I left school which would have been about 1974, the 100 Club started an American R&B night and they got this guy that no-one had ever heard of to do it. At that time Capital Radio had just started. And it was the first time we’d seen a black DJ. It was always a white guy. Always. We went in there and there’s a black guy playing the music, and talking with an American accent and playing black music. It was called Bluesville’s House Of Funk.

Who was the DJ?
Greg Edwards. It was black. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was full of the hippest black guys, who I later discovered were gay. Didn’t know at the time. There were a lot of gays in there. There were transvestites and cool white people. There was no tension. It was properly integrated and it was the first time I’d seen that. No violence; no-one getting their head kicked in. It wasn’t your Mecca disco. It was an uptown London after-hours thing. It cost 50p to get in and the queue went right round the block. I remember hearing so many funky things that night. It was million miles from their squabbles in Blues and Soul and Black Music. A million miles away from Wigan Casino. It was closer to what was going on in downtown Brooklyn. It was very influential. The imports would come in on a Thursday afternoon and Greg would be playing them for the first time that night. The next day you’d buy them, 100% new stuff. They weren’t playing funk at Blackpool Mecca, they were playing disco.

But they played stuff like Brass Construction’s ‘Movin’’, right?
They had to because it so popular. I remember when they first played ‘Movin’’ because it was the first time they’d played a funk record of note. I never heard any James Brown records there. They never did. They never played anything that blacks would call funky, which is why blacks never went to the clubs, because it wasn’t funky enough. The white kids liked it for the energy and the soulfulness. There was never any sexual charge, it was always about emotion: a man leaving his girl; I got no job; I’m living in the gutter; they liked those sort of songs. We liked double entendre sexual overtones. Well, I can only speak for London blacks because I was born and bred here, but 90%, maybe more, were into reggae. If you were black you were into reggae. But there was a group of us that had broken away from that and were looking for something else, which the whole soul boy fraternity offered. We were into clothes, we were into fashion; we were into music. 

What’s your take on the jazz funk thing?
In the beginning the origins of that were black West End. Very small, very underground. Never read about them in Blues & Soul. There was a nucleus of clubs and the really astute people like Chris Hill realised there could be a huge demand for these things. They did it for the right reasons: they wanted to bring this music to a wide audience. But subconsciously, they excluded us . They wanted the blackness, without the black. It was great for white kids to like black music, but they didn’t want black kids in there for some reason. I can remember the earliest things at the Goldmine in Canvey Island. Chris Hill did the first Sunday night and it was almost exclusively black. If you look at photos of Canvey Island circa ’74 it’s black. Within a few years the clientele had changed. Not many people know that, but I went. 

Noman live at Mixmag’s The Lab, 2017

When did you first DJ?
Well, back then there were no black DJs, so you didn’t aspire to be a DJ. There were no role models. I wasn’t aware of other black DJs. 

You must’ve been aware of the sound system culture from Jamaica?
Oh yeah, but I chose not to be part of it. It was my brother. He was into building sound systems. All the kids round my way were. Being part of a sound was the done thing. It was almost like a gang. You played in a  church hall or in someone’s house. And I’d already tasted West End life, so I didn’t wanna go and stand in a bloody church and get kicked out at 10.30! We were soul boys, black soul boys. Even our community used to patronise us: you know, soul boy, gay boy. That’s the association they made. Chris Hill was doing these things all over the country: Lacey Lady in Ilford, just like the northern network, we had a southern one: Royalty at Southgate, there was a club for every night of the week. Monday night would be Scamp’s in Hemel Hempstead, Tuesday was Sutton Scamps, Bumbles on Wednesday, a club every night. But this circuit had no black DJs, meanwhile in the inner city, people like me were starting to make ripples. Hadn’t graduated to clubs yet. As it turned out the biggest DJ at Crackers was a Greek, who had a black following: George Power. He was totally on the button, understood what black kids were about. He became a legend. In our eyes, inner city urban kids, George Power was more important than any Chris Hill or Robbie Vincent. They didn’t mean anything to us. They weren’t as cutting-edge, or as up to the minute as George. But you needed the Chris Hills because they were taking it to the masses. I went to those events because they were like the gathering of the clans. I went to the first three or four Caister Weekends, the first Funky All-Dayer at Reading. Smarties in Manchester. Cleethorpes. Central in Leeds, Angel’s in Burnley. 

By 1976 I’d started to make pilgrimages to New York, because by that time my dad was living there; my family was living there. And Freddie Laker! God bless him, because without him I’d probably have taken another ten years to get our there. But with £99 return you could go every couple of months if you saved up. I always used to go in the middle of the summer when it was stifling hot. Even in my aunt’s street, they used to have block parties, where the streets would be blocked off. My uncle had a sound system. My uncle used to – up until about 1990 – used to run one of the biggest calypso clubs in Brooklyn called the Flamingo. It was an illegal, after-hours thing, but everyone used to go there. My cousin used to play there. I played there a few times. In summer they had a huge sound system. It was really funny that it ran in the family. My uncle had a huge sound system that they’d built that he used in the club, then take it out. Got over there and one afternoon they’re setting up in the street. It was a July day. Boiling hot. You know what it’s like. The streets were sealed off, everyone brought sandwiches, hot dogs, barbecues. My uncle set up four decks, right on the pavement outside my aunt’s house. This would have been 1979, because ‘Good Times’ was the record. My cousin Terry and one of the other guys from the street on these big bollocks turntables ‘Good times!’ – it was wicked! I’d never seen anything like that. Here, you were used to going into clubs that were essentially pubs with record players, not even sound systems. Crap tannoy systems: that’s how you heard your music. That’s what really struck me, because coming from a black background the first thing you did before you got your records, was you got your sound system right? That’s a prerequisite. In the American clubs, they understood that. It’s innate. You can play the worst record in the world, but if your playing it on the best set, then it’ll sound a $1m. 

You ask any black guy. You got your heartbeat bassline which means the bass is so heavy it’s like a heartbeat. It’s sexual. It’s rhythmic. It’s tribal. It goes back to some tribal thing. That’s why we are innately funky. And white kids aren’t. You watch white kids dance and they do it to a different beat. 

They dance to the beat, rather than the off-beat. 
Yeah. Well that’s what funk is: it’s the off-beat. They like to dance on the beat, white kids, that’s why they like northern soul. 

Because records were so cheap over there, everyone bought two copies of a record. Over here it was so expensive, you could barely afford to buy one. But my uncle, he had two of everything and because he was in the record pool, he got promos too. I went there, and I came back with, ohh, I was getting $2.68 to the pound, and walking around there like a dollar millionaire and my uncle had just moved, because it was just after that big power cut in 1976 when the lights went out. Basically, everyone went out and helped themselves. And my uncle and his family were no exception. My uncle got enough furniture to re-furnish their place, basically, so they had to get rid of all their records. I was like a kid in a sweet-shop. I took as much as I could physically carry. That’s what motivated me to play records. I thought, ’Yeah, these’ll be good for the sound system’ because all sound systems have a record library. I remember telling my brother Joey about all the gear I’d seen out there: the decks, the mixers. Because we’d always traditionally had, you know, Garrard decks, an MC, my selector, and doin’ all that. You couldn’t play ‘Good Times’ like that. You couldn’t play Brass Construction like that. I bought a pair of second-hand Consort decks and my brother by that stage was pretty proficient in reconditioning things. I did a party at my mum’s and about 200 people turned up, mainly West End kids. It was like having a West End club in your mum’s house! In essence that was the very first soul blues, because traditionally blues were always reggae. I’d quite openly claim it was the first soul blues. All the local guys turned up and they were like, ’What’s all this? Where’s the reggae?’ ’There ain’t no reggae here tonight. I’m playing the records, and there ain’t no reggae.’ I used to get a lot of grief in the early days. 

Faith-compiled tribute to Good Times

Can we talk a bit about your sound system at Carnival?
I was playing (at Carnival) the kind of tracks that I’d always loved; funky stuff, that I’d never heard in clubs because I’d always thought that they wouldn’t play. But I subsequently learned that they never knew. That’s how the whole rare groove thing blew up. I took it for granted that people knew these records. It turned out they didn’t. We had a sound system had all the equipment to deliver the sonics of a record that you couldn’t hear in clubs, because they were crap. My brother used to test the whole sound system in my mother’s house. Once the vibrations brought the whole ceiling crashing down. My dad went absolutely mad. We were soundchecking, as we always did, speakers everywhere, bits of turntable, speaker columns, soldering iron, in the house. Did I mention my parents were very liberal?! We did all the first gigs as Great Tribulation. The clubs were very restricted then: no dancing after 2am; no dancing on Sundays. Fuck that! You came here on a Saturday in the seventies, there was music blaring from everywhere. It ain’t like it is now; there were no yuppies there. 

It was around this time that I became quite politicised. I knew what was going on with the whole white scene, I became quite angry and disillusioned and I was determined to challenge it. So I organised a black DJ union. No-one had ever undertaken to do anything like that before. My and my brother organised a meeting at my mum’s house of all the big black sound systems. I’d heard about Funkadelic in East London, Good Groove company in East London doing stuff. We didn’t know who they were. So we got in contact with them with the idea of forming our own black pirate station. This would’ve been about 1982 or ’83 and even on pirates then there were no black presenters. Again. But a lot of the guys I was dealing with then, weren’t that politically aware. We had a big meeting, about 20 people came: Paul ’Trouble’ Anderson, Jazzie B, Max and Dave (Hard Rock SS), Mastermind, Derek Bolland. East meets west for the first time. What motivated me to do it was this night going on in Canning Town: Bentley’s at the Bridge House. Froggy played there. It was almost exclusively black. Froggy was the idol around there. But there was some young black guy who was the warm-up DJ who was really very good.

Greg James may have taught Froggy to mix, but where Froggy had the edge was he had a sound system which most black kids could relate to. Which is why, out of all the Mafia DJs he had the biggest black following. He played the music that the black guys in the East End loved. He was a modernist, which is why he lasted longer than the others. I got there, desperate to go somewhere good (Bentley’s). The crowd’s 90% black; great energy. I was really impressed by the warm up DJ. Fuck! This kid is playing all the records I’d bought over the years and never  heard out. And he was only the warm-up. The crowd would be firing and then Froggy would come on and play the same old soul boy classics. Maze. Yawn yawn. At the end of the night I went up to him, which I never did normally. I said: ‘Wicked!’. 

He said, ’You’re the first person that’s ever said anything like that to me. It’s really great.’ I knew he was called Derek Bolland because I saw his name on the flyer. 
He said ’Who are you?’ 
I said, ’Don’t worry’ because he played a couple of Leroy Burgess tracks in there which no white DJ had ever played. It was so black and underground: ‘Let’s Do It’ by Leroy Burgess [under the name Convertion]. 
’That Leroy Burgess track: brilliant.’ He said, ’I love that stuff but I don’t know where to get it.’ This is music to my ears. 
I said, ’Well, I’ve got everything he’s ever done.’ 
’Who are you?’ 
’Don’t matter.’ 

This went on for the next few weeks and he kept getting thrown off early by Froggy. I said, ’Why does he throw you off?’ I didn’t understand about the politics and all that bollocks. I said, ’Listen, I’ll give you a sound system to play on.’ Derek’s reputation was just beginning and on one Friday Froggy couldn’t do it and Derek did it all night and it fucking rocked. A black DJ playing black music to a black crowd. It was a fucking revelation. Paul Anderson was there that night, too. Anyway, I brought him another Leroy Burgess track and he couldn’t get it out of my hands quick enough. Straight on the deck. The crowd go potty. I tell him: ’Listen, there’s lots more where this came from. I’ve got a house full of this stuff.’ At last, I thought, I’ve got an outlet for this music. Anyway, Froggy got wind of what happened that night and they sacked Derek. So we boycotted the club. The numbers went down. Froggy, you ain’t doing it no more, and they were going to close it. 

We offered to install the Good Times sound system in the club (Froggy was taking his out). We said: ’Listen, we’ll bring a sound system for you, the likes of which you’ve never heard.’ Froggy’s roadies were laughing at us with our Tesco trolleys full of gear and cables held together with sellotape and our home-made system. But when we turned this system on: no limiter, full frequency. BANG. Five thousand watts of pure power. You don’t have to have ten or twenty thousand; it’s how you use the watts you’ve got. My brother was a fucking genius at that. Blew Froggy’s away. I got invited to his house and he had an unbelievable collection of 12-inches, whereas I was more of a 7-inch collector. About a week later he came round my house. He stayed the night. He wouldn’t go home. He says: ’I’m moving in.’ He stayed in my music room all night. 

Anyway, back to that black union meeting… It lasted all day. It realised my worst fears. You couldn’t put a group of black guys together with different aspirations. It would never work. We couldn’t agree on anything amongst ourselves. There was one guy sitting in that room called Tosca. He was a bit of a player in the eighties. He whispered to me: ’I’m hooked up with someone you know who’s going to start a station. I’ll come back and tell you about another plot.’ 

Anyway, as good as his word, he rang me a couple of days later and said, ’It’s one of mates, Gordon Mac’ ’Oh, I know Gordon Mac.’ 

‘Gordon and someone else you know is starting a pirate station.’ But he wouldn’t tell me who the other party was. So he asked me if I’d be interested in getting involved. At this time LWR (London Weekend Radio) was going on which was the first black pirate station and I’d be invited to meeting with Zack who was running LWR at the time. I went for a meeting with LWR and it realised my worst fears about it. They were just basically the black version of the Mafia, of what had gone before. Gordon called me about a week later and said he’d heard about the meeting and that Froggy and the soul Mafia were really pissed off. I think they were scared of what we were doing. He said, ’We’re going to do a black music policy, over the weekends, with American-style mixes. Have you got any samples of this?’ At this time I was getting KISS tapes. 

Shep Pettibone’s Mastermixes?
Yeah, so I said this is what we’ve got to be about. He asked me if I wanted to do a show. I said no, but I did really. I just wanted to make sure other DJs got on. By this time I knew Coldcut, Colin Faver, loads of them. I wanted black, white, female, male, gay straight, a bit utopian, but what I didn’t want was the same white suburban guys playing the same tired jazz funk records for people in Orpington. I explained this to Gordon, but I think it got lost on him. Gordon was basically just a pub DJ playing in south London, playing in that black club in Streatham.

Yeah, but before it was called Ziggy’s. He didn’t want reggae on it, so I was no I don’t want to be involved. Tosca called me a day later and said, ‘You can’t be like that. We’re going on air in two days’ time.’ I didn’t know they were that far advanced. 
’Do you wanna do a show?’ 
’Right, okay, you’re on at 7.30 till 9.30 on Wednesday.’ Bang, he put the phone down. My brother told me to do it, he said you’ve got to change it from within. We went down to Charlton in south east London and did the show. Nicky Holloway was on it at that time, Paul Trouble was there. Very nervous, hardly spoke. We had a little line where people could phone up (in a shop in Green Lanes) and people kept calling him and he’d call me saying people love your show, man! They love it. At that time most black DJs were playing the hits of the day: Jam & Lewis, Cherrelle, Alexander O’Neal. I came on playing Leroy Burgess, D-Train album tracks and a lot of small label stuff. I was intimidated by the mic so people kept ringing up and asking what the tracks were. 

Shortly after, we had a meeting. Because they kept getting their mast nicked, they were running out of money. It was then they let me into who the third partner was: George Power. So George and Gordon were bankrolling it. No-one was playing James Brown at this point, so I remember going on and playing ‘Papa Don’t Take No Mess’, the full length version. Twenty minutes long. I called the show from the off the Original Rare Groove Show, not consciously or anything, that was just the name I gave it. After about six months George wanted out for one reason or another (I think he wanted to start a couple of radio stations in Italy). Gordon wanted to buy him out. £500 or something. So Joey and I put £500 in. Gordon repaid most of the money. I took it upon myself to recruit most of the DJs. We wanted to call it Kiss but he was scared about copyright. Let them sue us, we’re a pirate! We nicked the name. 

What about the warehouse parties?
They were just starting around this time. Punks in the docklands were doing these all-weekend long parties. They were wicked. No security, and no violence. But the music was hideous! It was a mad mix of punk, reggae, rock, rockabilly, everything thrown in. I wanted to do the same only with good music. But I realised I couldn’t do it under the Good Times name, because of the expectations we would’ve had. So I came up with Shake & Fingerpop. It would be a party; not a music thing. No DJs’ names. Definitely no music policy stated, because if you put what you’re going to play on there, it immediately narrows your audience. The first one I did was in a carpet warehouse in Acton on New Year’s Eve 1985. 1,200 people turned up with little advertising. I did half a dozen all round here. 

I did a huge one in a big empty school on Hampstead Heath, called Amityville. That party was legendary, because it was the first time the Hoorays, Sloanies and middle class white people turned up. These lovely looking girls with posh accents, Jeeps, everything. They drank more. Got more pissed. We had three white public schoolboys – Ed, Bill and Nick – who became Manasseh. Derek B played on the top floor, doing new stuff, Manasseh on the middle floor playing dub reggae and us downstairs playing the hippest black music you ever heard. Over 2,000 people turned up. The next day it was in the Sunday Times, all night sex and drugs party. The legend was born then. There were a lot of influential people there: fashion editors, journalists. So then I started getting these calls from the Face, Arena, and Simon Gough, who was then a stringer for NME, wanted to interview me. By this time I’d been doing the Rare Groove Show for about a year on a Saturday afternoon, and it was doing so well. It was so hip it made you sick. I’d give coded messages about where the next party was. We did them at Dickie Dirts in Camberwell and Bear Wharf in Southwark.

My mate Femi [from Young Disciples] used to go to college with Jules, because they were both at LSE. Femi thought he wasn’t a very good DJ, but he had got a good crowd. And the main thing was, he was white. His crowd would dilute the crowd, to make it more socially acceptable. Anyway, I went down to check him out one Friday and as sure as Femi’s word was, he played abysmally. He was crap. But the vibe was really good. He played a mish-mash of black records, which I owned and liked, but in a very amateurish sort of way. And his heart was in the right place. I approached him about doing parties and he said he was doing something with Soul II Soul the following week in Kings Cross. Jazzie was astute: get in with some white dudes, and your party won’t get busted. It was basically Jazzie’s party, with Jules fronting it. 

When Kiss got huge and commercial, do you think it was inevitable that it went that way?
Yeah, of course it was. I remember saying in confidence to a few people – Gordon included – that after September 1st, 1990 it was over [the day Kiss launched as a legal radio station]. The honeymoon was over. The culture of this country and I know it’s a cliché but it’s true is we don’t know how to deal with success. We love a good loser. The thing was we’d done what we set out to achieve. We’d made the station legal. 

Do you think the fact that Radio 1 has appropriated much of what Kiss did is a sign of its success?
It was a sign of the times. It’s a new generation asserting itself. As soon as they got rid of the old faces at Radio 1, you know, Kiss is a training ground, except they don’t have to spend any money training them. 

I unwittingly opened the floodgates for all of that guest DJ thing when I brought Tony Humphries over in 1988. And I would’ve brought Shep Pettibone over, too, if a) I could’ve found him and;; b) I could’ve afforded him. These were my heroes. They were my icons. But I don’t think people were ready to hear them then anyway. 

We’ve learned a lot from America in 30 or 40 years. Acid jazz could only have come from England. Rare groove could only have come from England. Jungle, drum and bass… We are now making music that the Americans used to take for granted years ago with jazz, R&B, hip hop, house. We’re creating our own and challenging them. 

You’ve had a lot of experience of going to America, you know how segregated it is. Do you think the relatively well integrated society we have here has helped that?
But the fundamental difference here is we have a written music media. The written music media is the bedrock of everything that goes on. In America, they disseminate their information through radio. There is no, and never has been, a club culture in America. Purely because the racial and cultural differences never allowed it. We have had the club culture here for years, from the forties, and the mods after that. Which is why we never created the music. We were too busy being fans and appreciating it. That’s the fundamental difference: we had a club culture; America had a music culture. The only reason it’s happening in the US now is that they’ve taken the UK model and they’re beginning to have a club culture. It’s still in its infancy and it’s small. The Paradise Garage or Studio 54 does not a scene make. We had a soul scene that must have been spread over 50 to 100 clubs. 

Doesn’t the geography of America work against it in this instance?
Yes. But they’ve always been able to have access to it; all they had to do was turn the radio. They didn’t have to travel 3,000 miles for that. Whereas we were denied that. We never had it on the radio. America does not have a fanzine culture like we have here. It was a way of uniting all the factions. Now we’ve got the internet, it’s beginning to happen. I think that’s the one defining thing that separates us from them and has made us the new powerhouse in the world. Muzik, DJ, they’re read all over the world. Even in America. That’s why British DJs are the biggest exports in the world. Even American DJs don’t go as far and wide as we do. You show me an American acid jazz DJ, or jungle DJ? They’ve got hip hop, house, R&B and you don’t get R&B DJs playing all over the world. It’s music led.

© Frank Broughton & Bill Brewster