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.
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.’
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.
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.