Category Archives: Interviews

Guru & Run DMC spilled the beans

Guru & Run DMC spilled the beans

A uniquely revealing meeting of hip hop giants. Towards the end of the first wave of hip hop, Run DMC grabbed the mic and changed the face of rap. Their unique blend of tough lyrical artillery and fat-laced B-boy stylings put the street firmly into a genre that had previously modelled itself on the cosmic outfits of ’80s funk bands. They ripped the rhymes, rocked the set, and consigned everyone that came before them to a museum case marked ‘Old School’. Their 1986 album Raising Hell was a compulsory purchase for UK music-lovers.

DMC (Darryl McaDaniels), Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), Run (Joseph Simmons)

But hip hop always kept it fresh and fly, and by the ’90s Run DMC’s trailblazing style had been superceded by a whole new generation. Guru, the lyricist half of Gang Starr, was one of this new school, with his unmistakable downbeat vocals making him one of the coolest. His beatmaster DJ Premier quickly claimed legend status as one of the era’s greatest producers. Guru was no slouch in the studio chair either, as his Jazzmatazz series brought jazz musicans together with beats, rappers and vocalists.

Guru, mid-90s, outside Harlem’s Lenox Lounge. Photo Thierry LeGoues

In 1993, Run DMC – Joseph ‘Run’ Simmonds, Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels and Jason ‘Jam Master Jay’ Mizell – returned after a hiatus, during which the group’s musical and personal fortunes had fallen so low many had written them off completely, including themselves. On the release of their comeback album, the god-friendly ‘Down With The King’, British mag Hip-Hop Connection asked Guru to interview them, with Frank holding the tape recorder. Fresh out of the studio himself after completing his first Jazzmatazz album, Guru confessed how much of an inspiration the group had been for him, and asked them about the old days rapping in the parks and wearing glasses with no lenses in.

A much shorter version of this interview appeared in Hip-Hop Connection, 1993

Guru: When I first heard your shit, that was one of the things that inspired me to take rapping seriously. I was a freshman in college and you were going ‘After 12th grade I went straight to college…’ I was like ‘Oh shit.’

DMC: We went to college for two semesters, and that’s when ‘Sucker MCs’ came out. We got a gig in North Carolina, we flew down there, and when we came back home we got more gigs, like Florida, and we had to take a leave of absence. So we’ve been absent ever since.

Guru: You’re never too old to go back and finish.

DMC: You’re never too old to go back. That’s what’s good. This career, it’s fun, you get to see a lot, you get to learn a lot, and then when you find that you do need to go back to school for something there’s less schooling to do, and then you’re complete.

Frank: Can you see yourself sitting at the back of a lecture hall?

DMC: I can. Sometimes you know I get the urge to go back now. I just went to college because I passed the entrance exam for St Johns, business management, so I went to St Johns ’cos it was right in Queens. Back in high school I didn’t even know that I was gonna be a rapper or nothin’. Jay, he had his little crew from two-fifth street, and they called themselves ‘Two-Fifth Down’, and they was the ones from the neighborhood that would bring the turntables to the park, bring out the crates of records and they would just DJ.

I was reluctant, I wouldn’t get on the mic at first. Run used to go into the park and kick his rhyme, cos they knew him – DJ Run – and I would DJ for him. But then I started going to Rice High School up in Harlem, 124th and Lenox, and I used to see the Cold Crush out there, giving out flyers, and they had tapes going around, for like eight and 12 dollars. I would buy the tapes, bring them back home, ‘Yo, check this out, listen to this!’ and boom-bam. Then I just started writing rhymes in English class, and I had a book of rhymes, and you know…

Russell [Simmons, Def Jam label founder and Run’s brother] told Run, ‘Yo, I’ll let you make records but you got to get out of high school first.’ Run was like the professional in the neighborhood. He used to rap with Kurtis Blow, go into the park and kick his rhyme, ’cos they knew him – DJ Run. Everybody else was just nervous and learning, so Run would come and bust his rhyme. It took a long time before I would get on the mic with him. I would DJ for him, or sit in the park holding my beer sayin’, ‘No you go over I’ll see you later.’ I didn’t really start rapping with him until he came and said ‘Yo D, we got a record.’ When we graduated he came, ‘Yo D, the name of the record is “It’s Like That”, the second record be “Sucker MCs”. Go home and write rhymes about, you know, the world.’ So I went home and we went and put it together. And boom!

Guru: That was it.

DMC: It hit. I remember when I first heard ‘It’s Like That’ on Kiss. I was sitting home, ‘They’re gonna play your record today’. I’m like ‘Yeah right’. It was about eight, eight thirty, ‘Its Like That’ came on — yeah!!!

Guru: That’s dope. I remember when I heard that too.

DMC: Then ‘Sucker MCs’ dropped’…

Guru: ‘I’m driving a Caddy, you’re fixing a Ford’. That one too, ‘Rock Box’ was dope. All of ‘em.

DMC: ‘Rock Box’ got us on MTV. I remember we made two versions, Russell and them had put guitar on it later, so when me and Run heard it we was mad, ’cos we just wanted the beat and the rhyme, with a little echo, with the Tramp beat, boom, and me and Run. When they said they’re gonna put a rock guitar on it, we was little kids, we were like ‘Oh man!’ But then it dropped. What sold me on it was my man Yogi that lived up the block from me. He’s giving me all these praises about ‘Rock Box’, and I’m looking at him like, ‘You like it?’ So then it started to grow and I said yeah. its not corny. It’s new and shit but it was still in there.

Guru: It was something different that nobody ever did.

DMC: That helped us. We did a rock tune on this new album, with Rage Against the Machine. But it ain’t like were gonna try and make ‘Rock Box’ over and over, you know.

Guru: So who did you all work with on the new album?

DMC: Pete Rock did two, EPMD did one, Q-Tip did one, Specialist, who does Mad Cobra and Shabba, he did one, Jermaine Dupri did one, Diamond D did one, and the guy that Jay did Onyx with, he did two.

Guru: Ah yeah, he got some fly beats. I know Onyx. We were trying to get to that video, but we had a show that weekend, we got back like one o’clock in the morning, you guys were all done.

DMC: We got finished at two o’clock, A lot of phone calls. A lot of people came down.

DMC: And Hank shocklee did one.

Guru: You got all the fat producers on your album. I cant wait to hear it all man. I just did a jazz album with these three old cats from records that we be samplin’: Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston-Smith; and three of the new cats: Branford Marsalis, this saxophonist from London, Courtney Pine, and this guy Ronnie Jordan from London, who plays guitar. I did all the production, all the beats. It’s a fusion of hip hop and jazz. I didn’t sample nothing they did, but all my beats are like regular hip hop beats. They played and I just rhymed. Its called Jazzmatazz. I did it because we were one of the first groups to use jazz in rap. Plus, my pops, my uncle and all of them, they love jazz. so that was a tribute to them. But it ain’t like I’m a ‘jazz rapper’. People want to label you.

DMC: Like they labelled us ‘rock rappers’.

Guru: It’s a blessing to be able to do music for a living. That’s a lesson right there in itself.

Frank: What were you doing before?

Guru: Working as a case worker for foster kids. Hustling and running around. Frustrated!

DMC: It’s cool. It’s cool when you get to do something that you like, too.

Guru: Some of these chumps be taking it for granted though.

Run arrives

Guru: We just been talking a little bit, but we was waiting for you. D was talking about when you used to be rocking a mic in the park, and he used to be DJing for you.

Run: Who, D? At Doug’s block? You was good!

Guru: How do you feel about the rappers that come out now? They’re successful and all that, but they don’t know much about the old school, or about the history, the artform.

DMC: What I think they should try to do, I think a lot of rappers should really try to learn their history.

Guru: Does it get to you if these new jacks come up and you can tell they don’t know nothing about the old days and the history of rap. Does it irk you at all?

DMC It doesn’t really irk me, but a lot of the new jacks’ll come out and make hit records and they’ll think that everything before them was wack, weak and abolished. They won’t give the respect that is due to the whole artform.

Guru: I think that’s how you have longevity when you…

Run: …know what it’s about

Jam Master Jay arrives

Guru: We was hanging with Jay at a club in Brooklyn, Rendezvous, the night they had a crazy shoot-out. They had to show up in there. We did something at SOBs I think you were at, too. Branford played with us. He just played with us as a guest.

I wanna talk more about the old school, and stuff like the influences and what it was like. Like when did you all start wearing the sneakers with no laces?

Run: Back in the end of high school. All through high school, way before. We’d wear one red and one green, or one Puma and one Adidas. You brought the girls out comin’ out with no shoestrings. Jay was the man in high school. Old Jay with a big velour, and then sneakers with no shoestrings, and then glasses with no shades in them. That was the move, right there. That was fly.

Jay: Hip hop has a lot to do with fashion. Before Run DMC started we we would go look at Cold Crush, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, I mean we really looked up to these kids, you know what I’m saying, and when we go see them on stage, they dressed a whole ’nother way. They was dealin’ with a whole ’nother lifestyle. They was on some rock’n’roll trip…


Jay: Just out like George Clinton or something…

DMC …Rick James!

Jay: They was dressing and beatin’ and buggin’.

DMC: That was like Fearless Four, and Flash, even Cold Crush got into it after a while, wearing all that stuff.

Run: What happened was they got confused because they started going on tour with Rick James, and they saw how much the crowd would respond to them dressed in all like that.

Jay: I was so much of a true B-boy there’s no way in the world I could do that. So when we got our chance, we just dressed the way we dressed in Hollis. To get fly to us was just to be to put on a fresh pair of adidas. Funky fresh out the box. No dirt on them. I never understand how D kept his sneakers so clean. A pair of Lees, and a fresh Al Paco you know what I’m sayin – to match the Adidas. And a velour or a Panama, with the ribbon that’s matching your sneakers.

Run: That’s that pimp shit.

Jay: It’s that pimp shit, but the pimps ain’t rockin’ the Lees, the pimps ain’t rockin’ the jeans. We put that feeling to the public. We let people know that hip hop is not just about the music, its about the style, the culture and the lifestyle. Like I used to be amazed to look at artists the way they drew on the trains. Some kids was crazy dope, a train’d go by, there’d be a gun, and somebody getting’ shot, with their name tagged up.

Guru: Sneaking into a train yard to do that. Just so somebody could notice it, that’s fly.

Jay: Its hectic.

Guru: When you get your tracks together, how do you get your concepts for your album, and your tracks? Do you get your titles first? How do you go about it?

Run: We know what we’re gonna do before we get there. Like we know that it’s gonna fly up, and then it’s gonna drop. It’s hard to say how we made our tracks. We made ’em and we made the vocals at the same time. It was a mixture.

Jay: D would go boom-bap, and then we just had to make you do that again D: boom-bap, ka-boom-boom-bap.

DMC: Or sometimes we would write a rhyme, and just by the way the rhyme go, Jay would say, ‘Yo D, start at the pillar right there, go bang, gonna drop that, like that.

Run: Like when we made ‘Hit It Run’, we wasn’t sampling back then, so we would make verdrrrrrum kish, vrun-de-dun-kish kuf-kuf-kit kuf-ke-kuf-kit.

Jay: Beats!

DMC: Just sit down and play it.  Just play it with the drum machine.

Guru: That’s coming back a little, ’cos people are tired of loopin’ breakbeats, so they take samples, chop ’em up, and make your own beat that’s a little similar but new.

Jay: Q-Tip did that.

Guru: All this stuff with sampling, what do you think about that? You got people’s albums coming out late because they gotta clear all the samples.

Run: Truthfully, I love the way this samplin’ stuff sounds, but I wish that the whole thing flips back in a way. I kinda wish it would go away a little bit, ’cos it’s buggin’ me out with getting samples cleared. They want to flip! How much? I’m charging you this, I’m charging you that. I’m tired of having to pay these people.

DMC: I think it is going away.

Run: It needs to go away because it’s buggin’. It’s wack now. It sounds good the way Pete Rock does it, it sounds so def. He’ll muffle the bass a bit and it sounds different. It definitely was a feeling, a whole spirit. But it can go the way where regular tracks sound just as def, like Dr Dre.

Guru: Dr Dre uses a lot of them

Run: He knows what he wants to sample, but he says, maybe I can make this bassline sound like something else. Dr Dre did it so def that you know it can be done.

Jay: Usually, when you sample, you sample just a bassline, then you go somewhere else and get somebody else’s.

Guru: You weave different records and stuff.

Jay: Just like Teddy Riley do. He used different records but he’ll play ’em and he’ll change ’em a little bit.

Guru: The people who are against sampling, they don’t understand that rap music started with turntables. Now it’s a billion dollar industry, but it started with catching a beat, and then the machines came out so you could do more.

Jay: I think rapping evolved from us not wanting to hear disco.

Run: One thing I like is that rap is straight from the ghetto. And God loves to work way down in the dirt. He doesn’t deal in no high industry. That’s why Dr Dre’s video is so cool [Nuthin’ But A G Thang] . His mother screams ‘Snoopy!’ and you know his name was Snoopy when he was a kid. It’s that whole thing what rap stands for. She’s yelling ‘You know if you break something and you can’t pay for it!’

Guru: There ain’t no people dancing or nothing in it. They ain’t trying to play hard, they just…

Run: I like the fact that they already know that Dr Dre is a large producer. ‘I heard your album’s a bomb.’ They ain’t even tryin’ to front for Dr Dre, but he’s large and he’s saying he’s putting my brother Snoop Dog on. That’s what I love so much about the way Dr Dre produced that video. It just shows you what rap is about, and what’s really dope, and you’re still a mystery to a lot of people. Once they get to know you too good, you kind of lose your appeal, but when you start and you’re coming from the street, people be like, ‘Damn, I wonder where that Run is at?’

Jay: Right, they wonder what we’ve been up to.

Run: So now we’re a mystery again. I don’t mean a mystery as in not known, I mean they just want to know more about us again. That’s what makes Snoop Dog so large, and even Dr Dre, as big as he is, he’s still a mystery, ’cos damn, you went and found a nigga named Snoop Dog in Longbeach, and he’s your man now.

Jay: He put Longbeach on the map because the only thing they knew Longbeach for was that riot that they had.

Run: What makes rap really dope is the ghetto aspect – that it’s from the street, and people love to want to know about that, man. They want to know where you from, like what is Guru about, man?’ They saw your video, and just to get a rep the kid bust the bottle and the sneakers, and you’re like, woah, Gang  Starr!

Guru: Let me ask you this. How do you feel if somebody say to you, ‘Ah, you’re making a comeback’? As far as I’m concerned you’ve always been here.

Run: My personal opinion about the word ‘comeback’ is that it don’t bother me man. For some people over in Nebraska somewhere funny, they ain’t seen me in a while. You leave somewhere and you’re not hitting that market. You come back! I’m back and I’m hitting again, so the word ‘comeback’ doesn’t bother me.

DMC: I met Madonna the other day and she wants to know what’s up with Run DMC, and I said we trying to come back in the ’90s, come one more time, she’s like, ‘Uh-huh you guys gotta come ten more times.’ I like the people that go ‘You’re still down, youre still together. Run DMC coming again?’

Guru: You were talking about God earlier, how important is religion in y’all lives? I know obviously it is but…

Run: It’s the most important thing. Its the number one thing. In our whole life. God made the world, He made everything. He made us who we are. He made us be larger than everybody. We’re praying all the time. It’s bringing us back into this thing stronger. People used to say Run DMC is dead and stinking. We stand up on faith cos people didn’t think Run DMC had a chance to come back, but we knew, it was up to God, so now we’re hitting again.

Guru: ‘Only G.O.D. could be a king to me, if the god be in me then a king I be.’

Run: Exactly correct. The thing with God is this is our whole life. We get something by the way we hold that God’s doing something. Another person would just think it’s by chance, but things don’t happen by chance. You get a blessing. And we just got blessed. That’s how we take everything. Everything to us is God. And I think I’m speaking for the whole group.

DMC: Since day one. Our whole thing was watch your day.

Run: When we started we was, ‘We gotta watch our day,’ ‘Watch your day, Jay,’ and we just go out of our way to help a brother, or just know that God’s looking at us.

Jay: Just checking your day. You wake up in the morning, you do something positive, go out of your way to do something positive, you will receive a blessing. It comes back to you. If you wake up in the morning and you’re thinking negative, you think, ‘Man, I’m gonna go get with the niggas and shoot these mothers, or I’ma rob up motherfuckers, word – you gonna wind up getting shot, and killed.

Run: That comes back to you.

Jay: In that same life, you wake up in the morning and say regardless: I’m gonna do something positive. I’ma do something good today. I’ma make a difference. That’s faith.

Run: We stand up on faith cos people didn’t think Run DMC had a chance to come back. But we knew that it was up to God, so now we hitting again.

Guru: Tell me about the album and the time in between, like recently. What made this all come together?

Run: We went through seven, eight years of straight success, and then we had to gather it back together. We was making rhymes, I was writing rhymes, Jay was busy producing other acts, we were opening record companies. It wasn’t nothing much. I called D and we met up. I got this thing, let’s write this D – how should we kick a ill style? You know trying to grab time, hang out with each other. That’s all. It was a building process.

Jay: I think when we were on top, even though we used to rock everybody at the shows, we was holding back. We would hold back as a group. There was a lotta ideas I wanted to do, a lotta ideas Run and D wanted to do, that we would never do…

Run: …because we had so many hit records,

Jay: We had so many hit records. It was working.

Guru: How was it working with the different producers?

Run: Diamond’s real old school. So working with him was a lot of fun, EPMD, Hank Shocklee was a pusher, a hard worker,

Guru: He seems real intense.

Run: Jermaine Dupri is a little genius. He knows what he knows. He was good too, and working with the Specialist, he knew what he wanted.

Run: I was kind of dazed, but you now it was cool, going from person to person. I was nervous trying to gather this together. I just wanted to go into the studio and come out with things that I knew were dynamic. I put my input in, and I let them put in their new stuff, ‘cos I didn’t want to be stagnant. I didn’t want to be like, Prince or something. Like ’cos he feel he gotta do it all his self.

Guru: You have a whole album here where you’re working with new producers. Is that the way forward or are you going to go back to working as a self-sufficient unit? What about Run DMC as just you three guys?

Jay: I want a hit record for my group, we’re a professional group. Go in the studio, whoever got the fat tracks, I don’t care if it’s Joe Schmo from the basement. He comes up with the fat track we’ll do it. No, I don’t care who makes our hit. Michael wasn’t like ‘Well I ain’t letting Quincy Jones do that, I’m Michael Jackson…’

Run: A producer don’t mean nothing. Oh, ‘They went platinum this time because Pete Rock helped them,’ so what? Pete Rock didn’t write me my rhyme. Larry Smith made ‘Sucker MCs’, Rick Rubin helped with ‘Raising Hell’, and Russell. These people are producers… Pete Rock didn’t write my rhymes. Pete Rock gave me some music… I did that. I rapped over it. Thank you very much for producing me, see ya. He can’t come and do it on stage for me.

Jay: Let Pete rock go platinum, my whole thing is it’s still Run DMC. We’ve been down for 10, 11 years and we’re not going nowhere. As far as what we’re doing on stage. This is going to be us.

Run: We ain’t got no ego like that. People are going to say what they’re going to say, but the point is, we coming out with these records and they’re hit records. Their beef is, this is just producers. So what? We’re rappers, we’re not producers.

Jay: I want songs, right. I want songs. We didn’t write ‘Walk This Way’. I want songs. I want hits, I want longevity. We have love so we give love. We’re not greedy. The only reason not to take tracks from other people would be money. But if Pete Rock has a fat track, I’m not going to tell him I don’t want it, I just want mine, mine, mine.

Everyone laughs

Run: You’d go stale like that…

Guru: That’d be fucked up!

Run: The only person I know that do that is Prince and he bugs me out when he comes out with an album that don’t hit. But he does that – he don’t want nobody to do nothing for him.

Guru: Like Premier did five tracks for KRS for BDP’s new album; I didn’t say ‘Yo man you can’t do that because them shits is dope. I knew Premier always wanted to work with somebody like that, I’m not going to say, oh ’cos you’re my DJ, you can’t.’ It’s not about that.

Jay: I’m mad that Premier didn’t do nothing on our tracks…

Run: You were telling us all the time.

Jay: I always wanted Premier to do something on this album. This is a crazy fat album. I know Premier would have helped a lot.

Guru: Future’s bright!

Guru: What about all these so-called new styles that came out? I heard about five demos trying to sound like Onyx. I like certain groups who are doing it – Das EFX, Treach, and Fu Schnickens – but it seems like after that a whole bunch of groups started coming out with the rolling the tongue and that. And those are styles that have been done before. Biz Markie used to do it, when he was just telling stories, and Slick Rick. Even you: you was like ‘riggy rhyme’ and all of that.

Run: Cold Crush was doin’ it too, ‘a lama lama lama.’

Guru: Little 14-year-old kids come up to me, battling me in the street, ‘Yo, you can’t do the triple-tongue-twister, Guru, I’ll burn you! And I’m like, ‘Yo, money, here’s the address, put your stuff on tape, and send us a tape. If it sounds good on tape then that’s how you know. But how do you feel about that whole thing?

Run: About tongue twisting? Its def, sometimes. It’s corny too, man, when all I hear is ‘rhymin’ a riggedy rock the shop and…’ Don’t give me that, know what I’m sayin’. Come to me and give me something that’s real dope.

DMC: Substance.

Guru: Certain groups perfected it though.

Run: Das EFX was incredible. And then Fu Schnickens does his thing. My personal thing is, I don’t really want to hear this new guy, that I never heard, comin’ with a whole lot of that jiggedy rock da dack da jiggedy ’cos you heard Das EFX and now that’s what you want to do.

DMC: Exactly.

Run: You dont wanna do that now ’cos they did it already. That’s fake, man.

Guru: Just like after you came out other groups came out using rock. They tried to rhyme the way y’all rhyme, the whole thing. Like when Chuck D came out a lot of groups came out trying to rhyme like Chuck…

Run: …and be Afrocentric and all that.

Jay: But that’s positive I think what they was talking about was cool.

Run: Its good for that awareness, but if you do it and its wack its just wack anyway, it ain’t going to hit, just sayin’ ‘I’m black’.

Jay: But somebody gonna see it. Just getting that message across to one other person, I still think that’s positive.

DMC: The whole thing is positive.

Run: It’s definitely positive.

Jay: I mean we was talking about styles, but when you start talking about what they talking about, that’s positive, because when we was comin’ up, there was nobody talking about ‘black’ nothing. In the late ‘70s there was no young black folk on TV.

DMC: It was all disco and John Travolta.

Guru: How is it like, playing live, playing big shows again? Like at Radio City everyone came to see Naughty By Nature, but you killed the show.

Run: People didn’t know what to expect, but Naughty knew we was gonna be dope.

Jay: Naughty looks out man. When nobody cared about Run DMC, Treach was going around doing his interviews, saying. ‘Yo, my favourite people are Run DMC.’ I mean we were dead and stinking to everybody, but he always gave us mad respect and he didn’t lose no face. West coast was going mad, blowin’ up, Treach was like, ‘Yo, I’m down with Run DMC, Run’s my idol, I rap like Run. When we first met him, he was like I love you. I give y’all mad props.

Run: Our record wasn’t even out yet.

Jay: He was ‘Oh, y’all about to do your record? Yo, we coming out about the same time, let’s go on tour together.’ Promoters didn’t want to go with us but he was like if Run DMC ain’t going, we not going.

Run: He was looking out for us. He knew we wanted that and we needed that.

Guru: That’s loyalty…

Run: That’s loyalty and he’s hot as a fire cracker.

Guru: But he’s real, he ain’t like souped or nothing. He’s real.

Jay: On the strength of that I always give them props. We go on stage, we battle we leave the stage. After Radio City, we hung out all night: me and my man. For all the people out there that’s trying to diss, I don’t want to say no names, but y’all niggas need to chill.

Guru: It’s like we went on the EPMD tour for the Hit Squad, we opened up for all of them, we didn’t care. And after that we all had fun together and that was just how it was, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. But what the media does, sometimes – and people in the industry – they make you feel like there ain’t enough room for everybody to get some. They ask you, ‘What do you think of this artist, what do you think of that artist?’ Just because I did a record with jazz in it, what do I think of Digable Planets. They alright. I got nothing against them. I met them and they was cool people. They doing their thing, I’m doing my thing. It’s not the same thing but it’s all involved in rap and hip hop. Each group is different, has their own style and originality, but why always do we have to get compared from one to the other?

Frank: Well, that’s marketing, that’s how the business does it…

Guru: It’s not cool. When I get asked questions that could be worded like I dissed a group, I’ll be like, ‘Man, listen, I ain’t saying nothing.’

Run: Ain’t no reason to diss. There’s room for everybody to get busy.

Guru: If you concentrate all your energies on dissing you get nowhere at all.

Run: Jesus, you get nowhere at all.

Guru: One thing I always noticed with y’all. Stage is like y’alls home, man.

Jay: Out of all this shit, the interviews, the making the records, the sampling, all that, the stage is the real shit. The stage is like being in the park. Everything else is like, you know, working, bugging. These two years we’ve toured a lotta clubs, we did a lotta club gigs and what-not, and we just got crazy mad tight as a band.

Run: That’s the love. That’s the flavour.

Guru: Y’all have always had that. That’s one thing they can never take away.

Run: I don’t wanna boost us up, but we know we’re a band live. All we got to really do is perform in front of these people that have heard that Run DMC’s fallen off. They’ll see we’re the def, the real fly band. When Jay comes out and scratches live, we will hurt up a group so bad, hurt up a rap magazine so bad.

Jay: Even when we fell off. Even when the whole world was saying we were wack, we were going to a club…

Run: …and hurting!

Jay: Behind anybody, in front of anybody, whatever, Shabba Ranks, whoever was hype at that moment. We would go into a spot and give them a run for their money. Like you know – hits are hits.

Justin Strauss was in the Area

Justin Strauss was in the Area

interviewed by Bill in London, 17.5.18

Mudd Club, Danceteria, Ritz, Area… Despite having spun at many of the greatest spots in New York clubland through its transformative ’80s, Justin Strauss is not one to dwell on his past. He’s more interested in his next remix than the nearly 300 he’s clocked up; thinking forward to playing Panorama Bar rather than looking back to those dancefloors of downtown legend. Nevertheless, ask him about those sparkling years, when rents were cheap and Manhattan was a crucible of creativity, and the stories start rolling. And it all begins with an amazing tale of little Justin signed to Island as a teenage glam sensation. His recent production projects include Extra Credit with Marcus Marr and Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard; and Each Other, which is Justin and Max Pask. For the perfect reading soundtrack, scroll down for his great 1987 mix live from the last night of Area.

What’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to you in music?
Wow. You’re starting with the tough questions. When I was 17 years old, my band Milk ’n’ Cookies got signed to Island Records in the UK, which was unheard of back in 1974. We were a New York band, just making demo tapes in the basement. We loved Sparks, and we sent our tape to their manager, and they got back to us saying, ‘We’ve played your tape for Island Records, and they love you, [songwriter and A&R legend] Muff Winwood’s coming to see you play in your basement’. That changed my life. I’ve been doing music ever since,

What was it like performing for Muff Winwood in your basement?
It was quite fun, actually. We had all our friends down there and Muff was a fun guy, and he just signed us on the spot. He told my parents, ‘Well, we’re taking your son to England and he’s going to record an album with his band for Island Records.’

It was an incredible experience because England was always my musical inspiration, and it was my first trip to Europe. They put us up in a townhouse in South Kensington and we recorded our album in Basing Street Studios with Muff and Rhett Davis, who went on to produce B-52’s and all the Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry stuff. It was magic – just being here at that time, and with the people at Island at that time, like Sparks, Roxy Music, Eno. The Wailers were in there recording one of their early albums before anyone knew who they were. Someone took me into the studio where they were recording and I couldn’t see a thing. There was so much smoke.

It was just like a dream come true, but then everything went sour and the dream became sort of a semi-nightmare. The first single came out and it didn’t do what was expected. Then they got cold feet. We were this glam, pre-punk kind of thing. We recorded pre-punk and it was supposed to come out in ’75. Then the punk thing exploded in 1976 and they were like, ‘Wait, we have this Milk ‘n’ Cookies album, let’s put it out’. We imploded so I moved to LA with one of the other band members and re-formed the band out there.

Milk ‘n’ Cookies. Justin Strauss, Ian North, Sal Maida and Mike Ruiz 

How did the band start in the first place?
I went to high school in Long Island, which is like the suburbs. This is mid-’70s. My classmates were into the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead if they were into music at all. And sports. And I wasn’t that guy. I was into music 24/7. Every week I’d run and get Melody Maker, NME, every magazine I could … Cream, Rolling Stone, whatever it was. I was obsessed.

I saw this girl one day in the hall and she looked amazing, and different than anyone else. I had to meet this girl. I was kind of shy, but a friend of mine was in a class with her. She introduced me. We started going out and she somehow knew the other guys. So, we just got together. They said, ‘We want to get a singer. You look like a singer.’ I wasn’t a singer, but I gave it a try. My dad had a TEAC four-track tape machine, so I started recording them in my basement. I joined the band, and then we just started making demos and rehearsing. That’s how that happened. I mean, music has been my whole life, and basically still is.

When you were a kid, who was the first artist or band that really captured your imagination?
The Beatles. I was seven years old, and the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan. And that was the moment, this blew my mind. My dad was into music and I remember going with my dad to the record store. I bought my first Beatles single, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. to sing the beat. And from that moment on, all I cared about was music.

And every Beatles album was an event when you were a kid. You didn’t know what it was going to be… From Rubber Soul to Revolver, to obviously Sgt. Pepper. I mean, it was just insane how they developed. But I was also into James Brown and funk and Motown and soul records as well.

You said you were really into British bands.
Yeah. Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who. Then all that followed. I super got into David Bowie. He was a major, major influence for me. Into glam, into Sweet, into T. Rex, David Bowie, Sparks. Then the New York Dolls happened, and I started going to all these New York Dolls shows, and that’s what kind of made it seem that something we could do.

They were pretty crap as well, weren’t they?
No, they were amazing. They were amongst the best things I’ve ever seen in my life.

In terms of the show, or…?
The Beatles and all that stuff seemed far away and didn’t seem like we could ever do that. But here’s this New York band who… They were what they were, but it was exciting. And they got a record deal. We started this little band and I was like, ‘Maybe we can do that.’ It made it seem possible for a New York band like ours to happen.

So how did you start DJing?
I was in LA after the band broke up and when I got a call from an ex-girlfriend. I said, ‘I want to come home.’ She said, ‘Yeah, come home. There’s this club that just opened, the Mudd Club. You should DJ there.’ I said, ‘I don’t DJ. I’ve never DJed.’ I didn’t even really understand. And she said, ’It doesn’t matter. You have tons of records and I’m friends with the DJ, so I’m sure you can try it out.’ Lo and behold, I came back and the DJ said, ‘Why don’t you come one night and bring some records?’ I played, and the owner of the Mudd Club said, ‘Hey, I like what you’re doing. Do you want to work here on Thursday nights?’ That’s how I started DJing.

What kind of music were you playing at the Mudd Club?
It was really just stuff from my record collection, which was a lot of soul, funk, early punk, all the new wave stuff, to the leftfield disco stuff and reggae. It was a real mix, and I was just playing new and old records together. I didn’t really know the concept of mixing records. The Mudd Club didn’t have 1200s or a real mixer. [The booth] was literally perched at the end of the bar, but it was an amazing scene. Studio 54 had been the focus up to then. Then that scene became very commercialised and people were bored. Mudd Club was the first place where a lot of the artists gathered, a lot of the cool people who didn’t want to go to Studio 54, because they thought it was too chi-chi and the music was boring.

What did the club actually look like? Whereabouts was it?
77 White Street in Tribeca, a few blocks below Canal Street, right by Chinatown, in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing happening back there. The guy who started it, Steve Mass, just got this building. The first floor was a long bar and at the end of it was the DJ ‘booth’. There was a small dancefloor, and then the bathrooms in the back, which were semi-notorious for tomfoolery. And upstairs was a space where they had some gallery shows, performance art. You had a lot of amazing people in New York at that time: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf would all do things there. And there was also Club 57 going on in New York. So there’s this real new thing happening. Nothing planned, nothing organised, but it just felt right.

I mean, you could afford to move to New York back then in 1980. You could get a place for $200 a month, because no one wanted to live there because it was ‘dangerous’. The city was in shambles at that point. Real estate was more affordable. So, you had people who could come and do their art and go out at night, and it was a really special time.

What was the Mudd Club crowd like?
It was just a lot of kids dressed up. A lot of downtown artists and people. It was kind of your friends. It felt like walking into your living room or something, because you knew everyone. Everyone knew each other. It was a small scene. The New York scene back then was maybe a couple of hundred people.. It was like, on any given night, anything can happen.

And then the uptown crowd. Andy Warhol was kind of a connection between the uptown and downtown, because he could mingle with both. And so he became friends with Keith [Haring]. He became friends with Jean-Michel [Basquiat], and then people like Mick Jagger, David Bowie would come and hang out at the Mudd Club. And so you had a really great mix of people, which always makes the best club.

The doorman from the Mudd Club just put out a book, detailing his experiences. It’s pretty interesting; he had a little chain and he would let downtown people in before he would let the cool or uptown socialites. They’d be made to wait outside while some kid would just get in. It was well-curated, so to speak. It was a really fun experience.

When did you start to realise the possibilities for DJing?
I’d always been interested in dance music. I always collected a lot of records from funk to soul, I bought the first 12-inches that came out. Me and my girlfriend, we were 16. We would get let into Studio 54, and we went to 12 West. We went to Infinity, but it didn’t really hit me till I went to see François K. I had met him at the Mudd Club and he invited me down to see him play at this after hours club called AM/PM in New York. And he was the first one that I really saw mixing records together, and it just blew my mind. He showed me the basics. I didn’t have two turntables in my house, and I still don’t. I’ve never practiced DJing.

How long did you play at Mudd Club?
Maybe a year or a little less. And then I got the job at The Ritz, which was a much bigger club. It’s where Webster Hall ended up. It was massive. Mudd Club was maybe 100, 200 people in there tops. And The Ritz was like maybe a thousand. And they had three turntables there. By that point they had the early Technics. I forget what model it is before the 1200. And they had a Bozak mixer, so I started just doing it, trying to mix all these records together from different genres. The Ritz was primarily a new wave rock club, as they were called back then. But I was really influenced by what François was doing.

Then he took me to The Garage one night. And that of course just opened my mind to what a DJ meant, by listening to Larry Levan. What a DJ could do and what it meant to be a DJ and play that music for people, and connect with them. Emotionally and physically. And I tried to bring that to what I was doing, because it really had a powerful effect on me. And I developed my own style of all these genres and making it work together. You know, Arthur Russell records mixed in with Yazoo, or whatever was going on at the time. That was exciting.

Everyone played at the Ritz. Band-wise it was the dream. Everyone from Kraftwerk to Prince to Kid Creole and the Coconuts to Tina Turner, Depeche Mode, Human League, Gang of Four. Anyone you’d ever want to see, and I’d play before, in between, and after the bands.

Justin in the booth at the Ritz

Did it end at midnight?
No I’d stay till four. And they were also the first club to have videos, before MTV. They had a huge screen that came down, one of the first massive video projectors. It was huge and cost like $250,000. An amazing experience to be part of that and be part of something new.

You also played at Danceteria. Tell me about that.
Danceteria was an amazing place. It moved a few times, but it was multilevel, so you had different DJs on different floors. My friend Mark Kamins was playing there. He would also go to the Garage so he was doing some amazing stuff. But he brought his own thing to it where he’d take these acapellas, these Arabic things, Israeli records, play them over crazy stuff, mixing a lot of Euro disco with new wave and creating his own sound.

There was so much going on creatively in New York at that time, like it was just an explosion. It was a time where we had hip hop coming. It was a new art form. You had disco and left-field disco. You had punk and new wave, all new records, all new music just kind of happening at once. What was so special about that time and those clubs was that everyone was playing everything, because it was all new music and it didn’t matter. No one cared, and people just danced. It was a very free and open vibe.

There was this thing in New York called Rockpool, which was a record pool for more left-field DJs.Bambaataa was in it, which was crazy. You got some disco records, but you also got all the new wave stuff, you got early industrial records, you got… They somehow hooked up deals with labels from England, so we were getting all kinds of imports. Like I remember getting a white label of Bostich from Rockpool and I still have it.

Was Mark Kamins an important inspiration for you?
Danceteria was a legendary club in New York. Madonna would go there. She met Mark and he produced her first record. Mark was fearless. He reminded me a lot of Larry. He had a whistle around his neck. Mark was a party in motion, you know? He was quite an amazing force in the New York scene, and everyone looked up to him. He had this connection with Manchester, and became good friends with Mike Pickering and Graeme Park. So he was doing mixes for Quando Quango, and there was this great cross-pollination between Manchester and New York where New Order would come and play. I remember I was DJing at The Ritz when Section 25 and Quando Quango played their first gigs And Mark had done remixes for ‘Love Tempo’, which is an anthem, and a few others: ‘Atom Rock’. Groups like New Order were being totally influenced by the New York sound. You had 99 Records. You had Liquid Liquid. You had ESG, Konk, Bush Tetras. It was an amazing time musically.

How did your remixing career start?
Being a DJ, I started hearing all these records, and obviously I knew François and Larry, so remixing was something I was always interested in. And one day someone brought me a record from RCA. It was this group called Wax. I said, ‘Hey, well, I hear something in this song, but I don’t think it’s really right for the clubs yet. I’d love a shot at remixing it.’ And it just takes that one person that’s going to give you that shot, and hopefully you don’t mess it up too bad. Because you don’t know what you’re doing.

But at that time, you know, you worked with engineers, you worked in real studios. And so it came out pretty good. I formed a partnership, Pop Stand Productions, with another DJ I knew called Murray Elias. And I just learned how to do it. I bought an SP-12 drum machine and I found a keyboard player that nobody else was using. My girlfriend said, ‘Oh, I know this kid. His name’s Eric Kupper.’ And so she introduced me to him and he’d never played on a record before, so I sat him down and I played him a bunch of stuff, and he became my keyboard player and played on all my remixes.

How old was he then? Must have been pretty young.
Yeah, he was… We were all young, you know. This was all in the early ’80s. I worked with amazing engineers, amazing producers and editors, which is a lost art. I worked with Chep Nuñez, he edited most of my records, Tuta Aquino, a couple of the Latin Rascals. So it was really a team effort.

Who were the engineers?
I worked with Hugo Dwyer, who had done a lot of dance records. I worked with Jay Mark, who had come from Sigma Sound. I worked with a French guy who I’d met on a Duran Duran remix we did. His name was Daniel Abraham, we worked together on a lot of records. Frank Heller, who worked on 808 State with me.

Frank worked with Bruce Forest a lot, didn’t he?
Yeah. He also worked with Marley Marl. He did a lot of hip hop, worked with Def Jam. He was just an amazing engineer. I feel really lucky to have come of age when that was still happening, to work with engineers and editors and musicians who really knew what they were doing and knew their way around the studio. I learned so much from just being around them.

Which studios did you work in?
Right Track, Soundworks, Soundtrack. Those were the main ones. Soundworks was in the basement of the building where Studio 54 was. Teddy Riley worked there. Shep Pettibone did most of his stuff down there at that point. François bought a studio called Axis and put it up on the penthouse of the same building.

Working on a track with Eric Kupper

And back then record companies budgeted serious money for remixes
Yeah, it was crazy… I mean, you had budgets for remixes because they could actually sell them and make money, unlike today.

What would a typical major label remix budget have been?
Twenty to 25,000 dollars, which when you think about today, it’s insane.

I know!
People don’t get album budgets for that much. But again, like I said, you were paying for studios. You were paying for engineers, paying for keyboard players, paying for editors, paying for your tape. I mean, you’re paying for a lot of things. You’re paying your manager’s fee. I mean, you could still obviously make money at the end of the day. It was an industry, really. The studios were making money. Engineers were making money.

I worked at Electric Ladyland too a lot, which was an exciting thing because obviously it was Jimi Hendrix’s studio and they still had the murals on the wall, the psychedelic stuff. It was quite something.

Didn’t you come to the UK to remix some stuff?
I did a lot of records for the UK, but always did them in New York because my team was there. And a lot of my remixes did really well here in the UK. The UK dance culture embraced a lot of what I was doing, It was very exciting. I came over when Ministry Of Sound opened, and played there. I spent a lot of time in the UK. I became good friends with CJ Mackintosh. There’s this thing at that time: DJs didn’t travel. But Ministry brought Larry, Tony. And Mark came and actually was again probably one of the first people. He travelled to Manchester early on. He went to Japan before anybody did.

If you had to name one, which is your favourite remix and why?
I’ve done a lot of remixes. I’m super fortunate because I wasn’t pigeonholed, like, ‘Oh, he does disco,’ or, ‘He does alternative.’ I’ve been lucky enough to do everything from Luther Vandross to Skinny Puppy to Depeche Mode to Tina Turner. I mean, I’ve done probably close to 300 records. I really don’t have a favourite. They all have something special to me at a time and place. And one thing I’m really grateful about is a lot of people still play them. And I still play them, and they still sound okay. A lot of that sound is still referenced today, and it’s kind of in vogue, so to speak, or timeless maybe.

Who did you admire most as a remixer?
Shep Pettibone was my number one influence as a remixer. When I started hearing his records, and then when he started working with New Order and Depeche Mode… and Pet Shop Boys especially. When I heard his remix of ‘West End Girls’, I fell in love. His manager Jane Brinton approached us and said, ‘We want to manage you.’ Shep was super supportive, and that time, he was getting offered every record under the sun because he’d had so much success. And if he didn’t have time or want to do it, he would recommend me for mixes, which was really great and very nice.

What was he like as a person? Because he’s become very reclusive
He has, and really. I guess after the Madonna thing… [their professional partnership ended abruptly]

Yeah, I heard through the grapevine it really hurt him the way it ended.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know the dirt. He was great though. At that time, he couldn’t have been nicer to me. He had this boyish charm about him, you know? He was a very handsome, very out, very friendly to me anyway, and super cool. And still an inspiration to so many people. He never was really a club DJ. He was this kind of radio DJ, and then became a producer. I would see him in studios or see him at a party. He had parties, his birthday party. He was very friendly, very warm, and then he just kind of disappeared. It was this kind of enigma, like…

He moved to Jersey.
Yeah, he opened this resort and this club, and he actually still spins there. I know people have approached him. Even New Order approached him again to remix a record or get in the studio, but he just doesn’t want to. And it’s pretty amazing because he is the top of everyone’s list. And I guess he wants to keep it that way.

The legend.
For me, Shep and Larry and François, who’s still going strong, they were my heroes for remixing and DJing. Larry’s life ended on a very sad note, and he was a god to me. And Shep’s still there, he’s preserved in this special place. And it’s okay. He doesn’t have anything to prove.

What do you think made Larry so special from your point of view?
There was a fearlessness and a confidence in himself as a DJ to do anything. If he wanted to play five minutes of silence, he could just have minutes of silence, or play the same record 10 times in a row. When he was working on Gwen Guthrie, The Peech Boys, he’d bring those tapes in. And those things really didn’t sound like any other records at the time. Like, you didn’t know what… ‘Heartbeat’ even, which was a slow 98 bpm … Who knows? He would just throw that on in the middle of the night and people didn’t know what to make of it at first. They would just stand there with their arms crossed. That’s the only time anyone ever looked at the DJ booth, when they were kind of upset with Larry or just didn’t get what he was doing, and they would stand there and look at him, and he didn’t care. He would just shut the lights, put it on again until it became the biggest record at the club.

He knew what a great record was, and he knew that you would fall in love with it too, and he knew how to make that happen. And that takes some kind of guts and some sort of confidence in yourself. This is not a jukebox! This is my creative output, and I’m going to share that with you. And obviously he turned me on to so much music I didn’t even know. Walking into The Garage for the first time, I walked up that ramp and I heard Martin Circus, which I’d never heard before in my life. And I said, ‘What is this?’ To François. And of course François mixed it.

He took me up to the booth and I met Larry and we became fast friends. I would hang out in the booth and learn records I didn’t know. And he would come hang out at Area. He would come to a lot of shows at The Ritz. So it was, yeah, a really great cross-pollination. But it was his fearlessness and his taste really that made him so special to me. And people say, ‘Oh, he wasn’t such a great mixer, and I don’t agree with that. I heard him mix his ass off if he wanted to. Or not. It didn’t really matter.

But he controlled that whole environment. I mean, even though they had an amazing light guy, he had his own light thing above the DJ booth where he could override. And he would just make the club pitch black. I mean, even turn off the exit signs, which is unimaginable today. It was beautiful. He just knew how to make that environment so special. I would go in there with him some days during the week, and he would just tweak the sound, getting it right for the weekend. He was obsessed, and I think that’s a very special thing.

Yeah, definitely.
So yeah, he was my number one. Saturday nights after Area, I would go four or five in the morning to The Garage and hang out till the wee hours. You would go check out François, what he was doing, check out Larry. People would go to New Jersey to check out Tony Humphries. Bruce Forest was an amazing DJ. But for me, Larry was the one.

So, tell me about Area. When did Area open?
1983. There were four guys. Eric Goode, Chris Goode, Darius, and Shawn Hausman. They had done some projects at the Mudd Club. They were doing these parties and then they found this space on Hudson Street. They showed me the space, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ And they told me their idea: that they were going to change the theme of the club every six weeks. It was incredible, really, what they did. They’d transform this club every six weeks into something totally different. It was an art project with a Richard Long sound system. It was only up three years. It wasn’t even supposed to be open that long. Other than the Paradise Garage, where I never DJed, it was the most amazing club experience in New York.

And the opening of a new theme every six weeks was a major event.  The whole street was clogged with people trying to get into this party. I mean, you could walk into that space and not recognize things. Jean-Michel Basquiat would DJ in the smaller room at the bar. I was DJing in the main room.

Johnny played as well.
Johnny Dynell, who is amazing. He’s still going strong too, ruling on the dancefloor. And it was still a great dance club. Despite all the crazy art stuff… I mean, Andy Warhol could be in a display case, just standing there for six hours. It was unheard of. They did a book recently about the club, and looking at that book, it seems unimaginable. Even having even been there, I was like, ‘How did this even happen?’

I mean, just the expense of it, the space they had to do that with, the team they had. They literally had a workshop upstairs where it was like Geppetto’s. The invites, everything about it, the graphics, it was quite something. I would recommend anyone who’s interested in New York club life to pick up the Area book. The first invite was a pill: a little capsule that you dissolved in a cup of water, and the paper came up rising to the top with the details.

There was something going on in New York every night of the week. Area, Tunnel, Limelight, Palladium, which was a massive club, packed. There was an insane scene going on in New York.

You’d go out to the Mudd Club, you’d see everyone you knew, because this is where everyone went. It was just kind of the destination, or Area or Danceteria. Those were all clubs that people focused on. And we’d move around from club to club. You’d say, ‘Okay, where are we going first? We’ll end up at Area, and then we’ll start at Danceteria.’

Area was 10 or 11 till four, I don’t really remember, but normal clubbing hours. And then you had the New York after hours scene, places like The Continental, The Jefferson, Arthur Weinstein and The World. And you have The Pyramid, which is still going somehow. I mean, it’s very different, but there was a whole scene born out of that club.

You also played at Limelight. In the ’90s it was notorious for the Club Kids and techno; what was it like to play at in the early ’80s?
Limelight really was a weird place. I was there before the Club Kids took it over. It was opened by this guy, Peter Gatien and although I worked for the guy for years, I never really met him. It’s in a church. I never loved it. The DJ booth was really high up, so far from the dancefloor. There was an underground New York filmmaker who I was working with there who did the lights and videos, Beth B, so there was kind of an arty thing going on. But musically, it never really had an identity. It was never my favourite club. There were some fun nights. It later became this thing when the Club Kid thing happened and it got very ravey and candy coloured and very exciting at that point.

Yeah, yeah, with Keoki.
Keoki and Michael Alig, for better or worse. And I guess it was around when ecstasy was really taking hold in the clubs in New York. It was that place at that moment in time, for those kids of that age. When the Club Kids started happening, it was a major force in New York, but I wasn’t spinning there any more.

What advice would you give to someone who’s starting out in music?
God. Don’t do it. No. You know, it’s a different world. I meet kids, and I just say, ‘You really have to find your way to do something that stands out.‘ It’s hard. It’s finding a way to put your own spin on whatever’s going on. And be adventurous!

When I started this job, nobody wanted to be a DJ. I didn’t even want to be one. I just fell into it. I loved music, and I was able to find avenues to express it, whether it was being in a band, being a DJ, or being a producer. It’s harder now because everyone wants to do that,

I’m totally still excited by new music. As much history as I have, it’s the new music that’s exciting. I go out all the time, and I think that’s the best place for me to get turned on still to new music. It’s just keeping your ears open and keeping your eyes open too. I don’t feel any different than I did when I first walked into a DJ booth. You know, I never did any drugs and I don’t drink. It’s only music for me that’s still exciting.

Were you never tempted?
To me, it was like, I was at the Paradise Garage on a Saturday night. It isn’t getting any better than this, really. For me, that was enough. That’s probably why I am still here doing this today and still excited about what I do. I’m not burnt out. I’m not jaded. I’m still excited by music and it’s still my number one thing – from that time I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan to DJing at Panorama Bar.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Harold Heath plays the long game

Harold Heath plays the long game

Harold Heath’s self-deprecating book Long Relationships tapped into the innate slapstick that has always been present in club culture. Pitched somewhere between knockabout comedy and quiet tragedy, Heath manages to surf perfectly between the two and, as he points out in the interview, shows just how close these two emotions actually are. We asked him just how he got from semi-successful DJ to semi-successful writer.

interviewed by Bill in London, 16.11.22

What I loved about your book obviously was the humour, but also underneath that, there are all kinds of little lessons for DJs. I think anyone starting out would get an awful lot out of it about what could go wrong and what to avoid. There’s something very real about your experiences.
Honestly, there was no plan to make it like that, but looking back at it, a few people have said it’s kind of like a guidebook. I was so obsessive about DJing and parties that I just had this big store of things I thought were worthy of sharing. I had this huge sheet made out of A4 paper taped together, full of different ideas and I’d draw lines between them. It was like a crazy man’s map of what the book was going to be. All the things that go wrong, man, they’re a huge part of the story. They’re the making of every DJ. Things going wrong is funny.

Given that 95% of people’s professional musical experiences end in failure, there are very few books about it. I know that you’re a real fan of another book which is about failure, James Young’s Nico, Songs They Never Play On The Radio.
Such a wonderful book.

That’s the epitome of failure, that book. It’s hilarious, it’s really sad, and it’s brilliant. Why do you think there are so few books about failure in music? There really ought to be more.
Yeah who cares that you were successful? It’s great reading about the crazy adventures in hotel rooms for a while. But I think tragedy and hilarity are really close. For me, as an autistic person, sometimes I get quite confused between those two extremes of emotion, the tragic and the hilarious Sometimes they blend together into this whole weird thing. And those two extremes of emotion, the way they exist in dance music at the same time, the sublime and the ridiculous, right? The fact that it’s a really important thing for us all, it can be really transformative, but also quite ridiculous. I love the contrasts, the conflicts.

When did you first have the idea for a book, and did you have an idea before you started that the book that you finished was the book you were going to write?
The answer to the second bit is no, I didn’t at all. I started writing the book around 2016 or 2017. All that happened was I used to fart around on Facebook quite a lot and I used to really like getting lots of likes for my funny little statuses, and I realised I kind of had this knack to write little funny DJ things that resonated with other DJs. Then I wrote a piece for Vice about this awful DJing job I had – in Los Locos in Covent Garden – and that went down really well. So I thought, there’s something here and I really enjoy talking about this stuff, it comes really easy to me. So I just started writing recollections of funny DJing stories and the book just came together organically. There wasn’t a general plan for it to end up how it did. It was essentially just a collection of funny stories, really. Then I realised I needed to link that together with stuff, so I put in everything I’d ever thought about DJing, which I then had to edit it down until just the good bits were left.

Can you tell me a bit about the period between your DJ career slowing down and you starting to write?
There was a chunk when I got quite ill, and I was a bit confused. I wanted to work in and around music, so I thought I would train as a music technology teacher. I did two years part-time at a college with 16 to 18-year-olds who hadn’t had a good experience of education. I started the two years thinking, ‘I can make them all stars’; they’re all going to be famous. By the end of the two years, my goals had been lowered just to seeing if I could get them to come in the room without starting a fucking punch-up. If I got that done, I’d won the day. hat whole process really wore me down. I got one teaching job after that. I got made redundant a few months later and I never went back to teaching. I never thought of it ever again.

But you had to do loads of written work when you trained to be a teacher, and it really ignited my love for writing. And my poor tutors, man. I used to turn in these fucking essays, they were like four times as long as they needed to be and I’d done this amazing research and they were beautifully crafted. I was top of my class all the time. I was a proper nerd. I won an award for my fucking work. It was ridiculous. So it really ignited my love of writing while reinforcing the sad truth that I was not a good teacher.
I was quite ill for a while. I had chronic fatigue syndrome, which is probably now I would say related to an autistic burnout and ADHD issues. Then I just started writing freelance. Russ at iDJ, I think he’d seen some of my funny Facebook posts and said, ‘Why don’t you do a column for me?’ He was the first person who gave me a job writing online. I did columns for him for years, and from there it just kind of grew. It takes a long time to get taken seriously as a writer, I found. I was lucky that I had a family that were happy to support me during those tough times. I still feel I have quite a lot to do, a lot of goals to reach in terms of writing. It still feels like it’s early days.

How important is humour in writing, particularly in dance music where a lot of people take themselves quite seriously?
Our thing is sublime and ridiculous at the same time. So you’ve got to embrace both of those things. So for me, it’s phenomenally important. I think it’s fine to take it seriously. It’s really important. It’s been the centre of mine and your life for our entire lives. It’s a really important thing, and I do take it really seriously. But I also think it’s really silly and it’s fun, and I think we should be having fun because we’ll all be dead soon. We should just have some fucking fun, right? I think people who find the funny in dance music and performing are providing a really important public service in our little scene. Keeping everyone grounded. Having fun is a really important thing.

Did you learn anything about the craft of DJ while you were writing the book?
I re-evaluated the whole thing a bit, and by the end of it, possibly because I’d got a couple of years older, I was a little bit more at ease with the fun approach to DJing and a little bit less obsessed with being a serious DJ. So getting all that stuff out about the pride and the passion, but also the silliness of DJing and club culture. It didn’t specifically change anything. Maybe it just made things a little bit more balanced in my head. I’ve always been a person of extremes, but maybe by the end, I had a more balanced idea of what DJing was.

DJing is an instant high. When you’re playing you know whether you’re fucking it up or not. But when you’re writing, you’re doing it in a vacuum, and I’m wondering how you cope with the difference in that?
It is very much a vacuum, and you never know when it’s gone wrong, but you do know when it’s gone right. I think those moments when you write something and it’s like, “Oh, that’s really fucking nice. Where did that come from?” You get that straight away. That’s the writing equivalent of the crowd going crazy, I dropped the right tune. But it’s horrifically lonely, and you’re plagued by self-doubt the whole time. I had terrible self-doubt about my writing, but also I have a secret confidence in how brilliant it is as well. I go between the two. You have to overcome that whole imposter thing and just have a bit of self-belief, while still completely doubting that any word you’re writing has any fucking brilliancy at all.

Where does that self-doubt come from?
Other writers. I read other writers. I read a lot of books. I like books. And I often read other writers’ books and I’m like, ‘Oh, you cunt’. There’s something I read the other day. I’m not going to tell you, because I don’t want to big them up, but someone else had written something beautiful that I read and I just thought, ‘I wish I’d done that’. I think those kind of things, comparing yourself to other people, that can derail you.

Good writing is really about reading, and it’s certainly where my inspiration came from. What was your journey from reader to writer like?
All these books definitely I would say have created the writer that I am. There are some writers who I’ve literally looked at their structure and been so knocked out by it, I stole some of it. I might’ve mentioned this to you before. David Simon wrote that book, Homicide. He’s the guy from The Wire and there’s a passage that is just so brilliantly punchy, the way he just drives the narrative on, it’s astonishingly good prose. I nicked it. I just nicked his style. I nicked the size and the shape and the feel of it. Wholesale. Much like a sample, and just interpolated it in my own words. I used to do that with my productions as well. Now I do it with books. It drives you to have self-doubt, but also for you to be better because it’s inspiring, isn’t it? Have you read Night Moves by Jessica Hopper?

Tiny little book, and it’s just about a woman who rides around on her bike and goes to gigs and DJs. It’s just a collection of these vignettes. But it’s fucking perfect and even just reading that, it’s kind of inspiring and you think if you can just get a bit of that. But also, it broadens what you think is a suitable subject. I’ve had loads of lovely times riding around on my bike, going to parties, listening to tunes. Never really thought that would be a subject that you could make a whole little book out of. Books like that help you rediscover the magic of writing. It’s finding something to write about that you didn’t think had value and then something comes from doing it.

The thing with writing is you have to sit there and write in order for the good things to come out. You start the day having no idea what you’re going to say or what you’re going to write, but it’s only by following the act of writing that suddenly things come out of you that you didn’t know were in there.
It’s funny you say that, because in all the interviews I’ve done since I did my book and people ask me, ‘What is your tip for writing?’, and that’s my tip. Never ever wait for the idea. You’ll spend your whole life waiting for it. It’s pointless. Soon as you sit down, there’s something about that process, right? Little things just happen and it’s inexplicable, and they never happen unless you’re just doing the job. I get commissions and think, ‘I don’t know what to write about this’. And I procrastinate, waiting for that opinion to crystallise. Don’t need to do that, ever. Just start the thing and there it is. It’s the strangest thing. It’s like writing unlocks something that you didn’t quite know was there.

Senior Airman Heath pilots the 45s.

If you could go back in time, is there anything that you’d change about your DJ career?
I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’d change everything about it and sometimes I think it was perfect as it was. I spent a lot of time in the book having a bit of therapy with myself and coming to terms with the idea of success and failure and what it meant, and how much I actually got out of it. But I say in the book, if I’d been a slightly more sociable, approachable person, I might have been a bit more successful, because that networking side of things is quite important. It became more important to a DJ’s success, I think, as time went on, and it’s something that hasn’t always come naturally to me. Were I to do that, though, it would involve changing my personality.

I would’ve liked to have taken more chances. When you’re in your mid-twenties, you feel like there’ll always be more opportunities, so you’re quite blasé about things that come and go. I think when I was researching the book, I went right back to the very start of when I was using email and I was looking at the very first records that I was getting signed to other labels and stuff. And my mate, Fannah, who’s in the book, was acting as a manager for me kind of thing. And there was all sorts of really interesting ideas coming through at that time about people I might remix or where I might go and DJ. And we were just like, ‘Yeah, whatever, we’ll come back to that.’ And I think now as I approach a much older age, I feel like I would grab stuff more.

Which do you prefer, DJing or writing?
Which do you prefer? DJing, you can get really fucking pissed, can’t you?

They’re such contrasting activities. The effect of writing doesn’t happen until much later. Sometimes it’s years and years later. Whereas DJing, you can’t deny that that instantaneous thing is such a buzz that it’s very difficult to replicate that with anything else.
I guess I don’t get anxious before I start writing. I don’t really need a pee before I start writing. You don’t have a crowd of people going fucking mad when you write a good sentence, either. I guess DJing is more instantly fun, isn’t it? It’s like comparing do you like sleep or do you like donuts? I like them both.

What’s really weird about DJing is that it must be one of the most precarious jobs that exist, because if you work for a company, you go in on a Monday and you work till Friday. DJing, you’re playing on a Friday and a Saturday, and in a couple of months you can go from being really busy to being redundant, irrespective of how good you are, how old you are, how venerated you are. Why would anyone do it?
I don’t even know if I answered that question in the book, and that was what I started out to address. It was like, why the hell do we try and do this? Why do we go through so much? Why are we in our thirties and forties with rooms full of records with one gig every two months, still calling ourselves DJs? Why are we doing this? Stop the pain. We just keep walking into the pain all the time. I don’t know. There’s no answer to it, is there?

Do you think it’s purely about musical passion? I think the thing that drives my interest in it all is, on a Saturday, you’ve got all these new tunes that you’ve discovered and you want people to know about them.
It was the same when I was a teenager. I would buy a record and then I would invite people round and play them the record. They could look at the cover and I’d be like, ‘What do you think of that? It’s good, isn’t it?’ And if they liked it, I could play them another one. And whatever urge that is, that just grew to exactly what you say. It’s just some essential excitement, a joy from showing, ‘Look at this fucking brilliant thing. This is great. You’re going to fucking love this.’ That’s an unbeatable feeling, right? There’s an inherent joy in the sharing of a beautiful thing. That’s always been the reason why I did it, and I love it. Who doesn’t love it when you’re going out to a gig and you’ve got that new stash and you know it’s going to just be killer? It’s the best feeling in the world.

When I was a teenager, before I even knew what DJs did, I was making little pause button compilation tapes and giving them to mates and girlfriends and forcing my opinions on them with my musical taste. Really, all we’re doing now with DJing is that, but in an even more megalomaniacal way.
That’s a brilliant way of putting it. I’ve never thought of it like that, but yeah, that’s exactly it. I would also buy them records for their birthdays, like records that they didn’t fucking ask for: ‘I know you’ll like this.’ And then I gave them mixtapes: ‘You have to listen to that.’ And then you finally get to do it in public and get paid for it and you’re like, HA HA HA, finally you will listen to me.

Even though a lot of the fun of your book is about the things that go wrong, I think in a lot of ways, anyone that manages to live their life without a proper job is triumphing in some important way. You’ve managed to get to this age without really doing anything that could constitute being called a job. Is that a source of pride?
I can’t agree enough that being a bohemian is winning in this fucking society. I actually did do a full-time job for maybe three years at the end of the ’90s. I worked in an office. It was horrific, and I abused drugs every day to get through it. So I don’t know if that really counts or not, because I wasn’t really doing the job properly. But yeah, aside from that, I have definitely lived that particular lifestyle.

Are you pleased with the reception of the book?
So, so pleased. I’ve read maybe one weird negative review on Amazon, and I think everything else has just been perfect. I couldn’t be happier, really. I didn’t even know it was going to be received like it was. So the affection that people have held it in is nice. It’s weird, isn’t it? When your book’s released, it kind of gets away from you. People put their own slant on it and it becomes their book. I never imagined that happening, but that whole process has been really fucking lovely. I really liked it.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

You can buy Long Relationships here

Shovell summons the gods

Shovell summons the gods

interviewed by Bill via Zoom, 07.11.19

For Shovell, drumming is life, communication, ‘a way of transmitting power, positivity and gratitude’. His hand percussion has summoned the gods on everything from the deepest tribal house tracks to Primal Scream, Jamiroquai and Nightmares on Wax. His story is testimony to the power of music to transform lives, an acid house odyssey that goes from Lewisham plumber to international drum warrior, taking in pop-stardom in M People, a Pacha residency and sidelines in cranio-sacral therapy, Nichiren Buddhism, and the Last Night a DJ Saved My Life Foundation. And that’s without even mentioning the stunning secret his family kept from him.

So, tell me about the music you heard growing up in south-east London.
I used to hang out by this place that had been a morgue in Deptford. We’d hang out on the corner of Watson Street and New Cross Road, because there was a fish and chip shop there, and one evening we could hear this music, live music, coming out of the morgue. So we knocked on the door. ‘What’s going on?’

The council had moved out the dead people and replaced them with musicians and instruments, predominantly to get kids like me off the corners of streets getting into bits of bother. They would literally go, ‘This is called a saxophone. This is what it does. This is a drum. This is what does. Singing: this is what it is.’ And they were all really acclaimed musicians in their own right.

I never, ever paid anything. It was an open musical house for youngsters. I went in there when I was 14, and started mucking about, just having a laugh, but before I knew what was happening, I was part of a reggae band and went to support my mate’s older brother at a gig in a place called Chats Palace in Homerton.

I didn’t realise the eclectic mix of music that I was getting. I was born in Greenwich Hospital, and brought up in New Cross and I was there till ’71. It was a very mixed bag of people, so there was Africans and Irish and Greeks and Turks, Indians, West Indians, Caribbeans and Pakistanis. I thought the whole world was like New Cross and Deptford.

I used to muck about on my mate’s mum and dad’s bongos. After this gig, this guy says, ‘You’re pretty good. Get yourself some drums and you can join a band.’ I failed everything at school and I’d probably be labeled ADHD if there was such a thing back then. I was just a pain in the arse. I was always tapping and banging on chairs and people’s backs and my legs and pencils, everything. And that’s why the drums came in, gave me a way to use up my energy.

Were you aware of other drummers and percussionists in bands at that age?
I knew Charley Charles, so Ian Dury and the Blockheads was a massive influence on me, as was Bob Marley. But I couldn’t tell you, ‘I want to be like him,’ or any specifics, I was just having a great time. I wasn’t causing any mischief. I wasn’t able to stay in one place longer than about 90 seconds. I couldn’t even sit down and play the drum kit, because I used to get electricity in my arse. I couldn’t sit.

But then I became a plumber, because I never ever thought that I’d do music as a living. I was a plumber for nine years on Lewisham Council. The bricklayer played a bit of keyboards, the electrician sat in a bit, the labourer played a bit of bass guitar. We used to rehearse on the Catford one-way system. I went from reggae and had another band, more of a sort of pop/rockish group called Profile. We played in empty pubs on the Old Kent Road. Thought we were going to make it, but didn’t. There was another band of fellas upstairs, who were the hippies. Me and the guitarist and the drummer left Profile, and we started talking to these hippies, and said, ‘Do you want to jam?’ There was another plumber in there, a painter and decorator, guy who ran a playground centre, and a car valet.

It was the late ’80s, house music had just started, it was at the back of the Downham Tavern pub in south-east London, they had a massive hall. And I got asked to play some drums, I thought with the DJ, but actually they stopped the DJ, and it was just me playing drums on the stage to about, I don’t know, one or two thousand people. I mentioned I was in this band Natural Life and they went, ‘Do you want to do a thing?’ We started playing there, and we did a cover of ’Another Brick in the Wall’, four-to-the-floor version. There was a guy filming there. He knew Adamski’s manager, and he said, ‘That track’s really good,’ One thing led to another and we got a record deal.

You went to Shoom, right?
Yes I did. So I was in a club in Croydon called Easy Streets, with my jacket and gold chains on, trousers and shoes. My mate Martin Davey, his dad owned the fitness centre and we’d go there for a little late drink. One night, Martin went, ‘Oh, there’s this new thing down at me dad’s gym. We should go down there.’ In them days, clubs finished about 1 am, didn’t they? All piled in a cab, went down the gym, all with our jackets on. Turned up, went to the bar and ordered four pints, then this dungaree-wearing guy comes up to us with a kaleidoscope thing. Steve Hill, his name was. I walked down the little hallway to the dancefloor, and it was like I’d landed on another planet. The music, the smoke, the people had T-shirts on. No one had a jacket or formal trousers. It was all dungarees and shit, sweating like nutters and doing this dancing I’ve never seen before.

I said, ‘What’s going on here?’ And he went, ‘Here, have half of that.’ You can imagine, half hour later, jacket’s off, I’m out there. Monday morning, straight down the sports shop, T-shirts, jogging bottoms, and I resigned as a plumber six months after that. It changed my life. I was going there every weekend, thinking about it every moment of the week, waiting for the weekend.

Didn’t you also play at Monkey Drum?
Yeah, I was playing Monkey Drum on Gray’s Inn Road on the Monday night. I met Alfredo. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to Ibiza? I can sort it out’. So I went to Ibiza in ’90 for the summer with Alfredo. Meant to stay there a week, stayed five. Ended up looking like I’d served three missions in Vietnam, couldn’t get home, all my money had gone. It was the greatest worst time of my life there. Billy Nasty’s mum used to work in a travel agents so I phoned him: ‘Can your mum …’ Got me a flight home.  Anyway, Natural Life ended up getting signed to Hollywood Records, which was Walt Disney’s record label, for £100 grand.

Were Yothu Yindi on the same label?
They were signed to them as well, yeah.

I remember seeing a Yothu Yindi showcase, at the Marquee on Charing Cross Road, and I’m pretty sure you guys supported them.
We did. It was ’91. Because the label folded in ’92. We got 100 grand in the January of 1991, and we were minus 30 grand by October. And we hadn’t bought a car, a house or anything. We had a live-in studio, ‘Let’s write it all in the studio.’ And everyone around us went, ’Yeah, do that. Brilliant.’ So you can imagine, invited everyone up, and set up these parties, massive amounts of weed….

I resigned as a plumber in the April of ’90. In  June, I was on Top Of The Pops with Kenny Thomas doing a cover of ’Outstanding’, who I’d met through Glen Gunner, who was at Monkey Drum (Simon Dunmore signed it to Cooltempo). So I’d gone from a plumber in April, to Ibiza, Top of the Pops, and I was like, this game’s easy. What’s everyone going on about?!

We were touring as Natural Life, but because we weren’t signed anymore (Hollywood went out business by this time), and no one was giving us money, my mum and dad paid for our last tour. You know when a relationship’s not working, but you’re still there? It was like that. The keyboard player walked offstage in the middle of a gig. It was all falling part. One of our last gigs was at Brixton Academy, 1992. Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, Natural Life and M People. Apart from Jamiroquai, I didn’t know really any of the others. As we were finishing sound-checking, Mike Pickering and Paul Heard [from M People] said to me, ‘Look we’ve got a percussionist. He’s broke down on the motorway. Can you stand in on the sound-check?’ And I was like, ‘Give us 50 quid and I’ll do the gig later for ya.’ Did the sound-check, didn’t think anything of it. They took my number. The fella turned up, played, and then they phoned me about a month later, and said, ‘Got a gig in Middlesbrough. Do you want to do it?’

Heather was live, I was live, the rest was on DAT. Had a great gig. And then there was another few club gigs. I was never the most shy and retiring sort of person, so they liked me and I kept the firm jolly. Heather didn’t know what to make of me at first, but she soon got to know me, and yeah, they wanted me around. Then the club gigs became college gigs. Then the album was released and ’Moving On Up’ come out and we were on Top Of The Pops. Then there were arena gigs, and then I was bloody flying all around the world.

When I was a plumber for nine years, I would literally have my hand down a toilet pan or down the drain, or lying on me back putting on bath taps on council estates in Lewisham. And I dreamed: all I want to do is be in a band. I just want to make one record and do a few gigs. That’s all I want. So this felt unbelievable. I remember flying first class to Australia, and I think we did three nights at the Hordern Pavilion. It was like 12,000 capacity. Mick Jagger turned up. Mick Jagger was a big fan of M People. It was ridiculous. Everyone knows your name and all that.

But all through this, I was carrying a lot of trauma. I’m adopted. I’ve been fostered; so that was bubbling. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had ADHD, anger issues, concentration issues, getting into trouble issues. I was an extreme character, I’m a drummer, I am Keith Moon, I am Animal out the Muppets, I am John Bonham. That is me. That’s what we do. So I dived into that character. That’s who I thought I was. I had a massive hole and I was trying to fill it externally with as much partying and sex, drugs and rock and roll. Yeah, bring it on. Here I am! Massive flag-waving. I can stay out longer than anyone. I’ll do more than anyone. That’s what it was like for years and years. But after ten years it sort of tailed off. Then Heather said she wanted to do a solo album. That was at the very end of December ’99, that was when things started crumbling inside. Hit a wall. and it coincided with finding out who my real mum was. And it was a massive shock, because it was an incredibly close family member.

So I was adopted. My mum’s white, my dad’s white, my older brother is white and I’m not. Even as a kid, it didn’t even really register what that meant. And when I did, I just bottled it somewhere, put it away. So it was revealed to me that my mum, who’d adopted me, was actually my birth mother. So I’ve gone 33 years of living in a house with my mum, who I didn’t know was my mum, because she’d said I was adopted.

What a head fuck.
She’d had an affair with a Jamaican guy, and I was the result of the affair. And then they came out of hospital, and told everyone that they’d had a still birth, and I was fostered, and months later, they adopted me. And no one knew. My mum and dad, and that was it. So on that night, my mum didn’t even say a word. My dad said to me, ‘Look, we was going to take this to our grave but you’ve asked, so I’m going to tell you.’

It spun me out, man. That year, I drunk more than I’d ever drunk before. I did more gear than I’d ever done before. I was angrier than I’d ever been before. Then in January 1999, 13 months later, I was in a studio in Manchester talking about a drum pattern. I remember I was looking at a screen, going, ‘Well, if we put the…’ And I started convulsing, then I started crying and sweating in the middle of the sentence. Got in the car and drove straight back to London, had this ridiculous cathartic, I’m going to name it spiritual, an incredible few hours of seeing my decades of trauma coming out of my body. The girl I was with was getting bath towels to soak this off, just lying there just sweating and wailing. Beyond crying. And then, and this is my truth, this is my truth, there was black smoke coming out of my stomach. Looking down, I could see black smoke coming out.

Drove to my mum and dad’s the next day, spoke to my mum and just needed to be held. She was so ashamed of what had happened, she didn’t do anything on that night. Very Freudian, I suppose. I needed to be held, told me that she loved me, and it helped me a bit, but it knocked me out, because it’s PTSD. And so it led to one of the lowest moments in my life. I was just like, ‘I’m out of here, man. I’ve had this pain now for so long.’ It felt unstoppable. And I don’t really want to go into details about it, but it didn’t happen, obviously, because I’m sitting here right in front of you. Needless to say, I was in a really incredibly dark place.

So I had to work out who I was. I started doing yoga. I was doing yoga, I was a vegan. I was the healthiest I’ve ever been. I started running, I was up the Kronk boxing gym in Kentish Town. End up doing a white collar fight. So I was doing boxing training, boxing, yoga three times a week and running. Because I wasn’t drumming. But I was doing it for the first time positively, because I felt like I was so worn and fragile, that I couldn’t do any gear. By 2004, I was in a pretty good way. I started doing a bit of TV.

Didn’t you present the football?
Yeah, I did a football show called 90 Minutes, Shovell’s Travels, which was flying round the world interviewing footballers. I was a presenter on the Guinness Book of Records, Record Breakers that Roy Castle, Linford Christie did… I was on that with Fearne Cotton. But unless it was about things I wanted to interview people about I’m not interested. I’m not interested in what insulation you’ve got. I don’t care. What are you doing, really? I’m a presenter, but only if it’s football, music… Passions.

Then music raised its head again. The drums took on a whole different meaning and texture and sound, even. They were very healing. I felt like, in a lot of clubs it was me and the drums, and I didn’t have to run around meeting everyone and shouting, and I know this may sound a bit bonkers, but they’re my family: the congas, the bongos, the timpanis, It’s my island, it’s my world, and I can go there without using substances. It’s beautiful. I haven’t had a drink or anything else since February the 4th 2010. Ten years in February.

Met my wife in the April of 2010. Well, I didn’t know she was going to be my wife. Moved to Ibiza in July playing all the clubs: Pacha, beach parties, private. My rider was a pot of green tea and some bananas, and I’d go all through to six, seven or eight in the morning on that, drumming all night. Started studying shamanism there in 2011, met a shaman.

That was life-changing. When you’re blindfolded in someone’s house. I was blindfolded, she’s playing shamanic drums and rattling, and you’re in a trance dance to go and find your power animal. If all my Arsenal lot was looking through the window now, ‘What are you doing, you mug?’ And I was there. I’m loving it, and I’m thinking, you know what? I don’t care. This is amazing. Such freedom. I did five years with that woman.

How did all this feed into the music and what you played and how you played?
There I am for years thinking I’ve invented this character called the Drum Warrior, and I wear all this face paint and tribal clothing. And I bless the drums with sage, and I have a staff. And I invented that. My ancestors are African, man. Slave drumming, rhythm. African. Black. It’s not a theory. Everyone else is walking out in all their gear, and I’ve got a bright pink smock on with face paint. I’m Arsenal, do you know what I mean? I’m from south-east London. It wasn’t easy, Bill. The sage and the smoke…

It’s the 21st century, and everyone thinks we’re so intelligent and we know what’s what, and we can hit two buttons and get every single artist, and we can play computer tennis with a guy in Tokyo but fundamentally, what we’re doing is dancing to a beat of a drum. This is tribal, and we’ve been blessed and given it by the ancestors. It’s a gift of the universal rhythm that the ancestors sent us.

And when there’s a full moon, and you start playing drums out on a full moon, and you’re a bit conscious of that, and I’m on green tea and bananas, honestly I’ve never felt so energised. So the drums and the music took on a massively deep, spiritual gifting, healing, ancestral, momentous, infinite, eternal meaning. The gift that I’m blessed with, oh my goodness gracious.

Was it Simon Dunmore that brought you back into playing clubs?
So we was on Defected when ‘Drums Of Ghodrat’ came out. Simon had Copyright, and was in the same studio and I knew Simon from the Kenny Thomas days. I was doing separate things in Ibiza, and it was like, ‘Well, why don’t you start doing something with Defected?’ Then it just got bigger and bigger and it’s like a family. I felt at home. There I am going, ‘Sime, what do you reckon? Is this all right?’ Like the face paint and headdresses and he was like, ‘Yeah, all right. Go on.’ It was a beautiful platform. It was a wonderful environment to play with some great DJs, to play in some great places around the world, with this new way of being. I was doing a lot with Nightmares on Wax and George [Evelyn] encouraged it: ‘Get some more sage. More sage! More face paint, Shovell! Be it! Be it!’

Do you see that now as much as almost like a kind of a master of ceremonies, as well as playing the drums? It feels much more than just being a percussionist in a band.
Yeah, 100%. No one else needs to know what I’m doing. If they ask, I’ll tell them. But if they just see a nutter with a massive bit of sage and blessing the crowd and blessing the sky and blessing my drum, they think, what’s he doing, this fella? Ive ended up blessing people that come to the front, and it’s not me blessing them, it’s the universe that’s coming through and blessing them. I’m a deeply rhythmical, spiritual, ancient heart of a very modern, technologically-based environment.

Reflecting back now, what could you say about the impact that acid house had on you, and just that revelation of going to Shoom for the first time?
Oh, every time I see Rampling, he sort of walks the other way, because he knows what’s coming. ‘Dan! Dan, do you remember? I walked in a plumber and walked out a musician.’ [laughs] By taking that half a pill, and I’m going to be honest, that’s the first time ever in my life I had felt love. The first time I ever heard Martin Luther King’s speech over the top of a house track, on half an half a pill, does it get better than this? It meant masses to me, and it still does.

Then on Monday morning, I’d go into my council yard at Lewisham to start getting me time sheets to go and unblock toilet pans and I’m looking round the yard at people in their 60s still there, been there 40 years, and  thought: I ain’t doing this. I felt musical love. I felt the rhythm. I felt the rhythm of the gods, man. I never felt love like that, never. Am I going to give that up just to get my pension?

Then very quickly, as I’ve said, Monkey Drum, Ibiza, Alfredo, Kenny Thomas, Simon Dunmore… Get out of my way! live it. I might have a massive international plumbing business by now, Shovellino’s: the bath’s on us. But that was not my passion. Music is/was my passion, and so that allowed someone like me from south-east London, who was talking to DJs who spoke like me, and couldn’t read music, and didn’t go to university, but who was holding a crowd magnificently. So my circumference went from two mile radius, from my front door in south-east London, to an international circumference, to a global, to…

Cosmic. Exactly that word. Cosmic. Infinite, eternal. And through music, so when I’m playing the drums now. That’s such an important word. When I’m playing the drums now, as well as listening to the DJ of course, that is what’s coming through, the cosmic, infinite, eternal power of the one love.

I’m a Buddhist, I am. When my dad died in December 2014, I’m at his bedside, holding his hand, and he’s on the way, last breath scenario. They’d been married 63 years, all that stuff. Her affair. He’d forgiven her. My dad did nothing but love me, this mixed race kid who was a constant reminder of his wife’s betrayal. And all my dad ever did was love me to bits.

That’s an amazing thing for anyone to do.
I’d been in a relationship of unconditional love. My dad did it. My dad forgave. He’d been in the war, got shot in the leg. He was 91 when he died. He’d forgiven his wife, and loved her and loved me. Took me everywhere, helped me with the drums, with the gigs. When I was in the reggae bands, playing in south-east London, black Rastas and weed, my mum and dad would be sitting there supporting me. At NYNEX Manchester, 18,000 people, my mum is waving at me. She loved it.

In my opinion, we spend far too much time not talking about death. We should talk about death every day. We should make it a reality in our lives, that we’re all going to die, so that we live, we live as happy and as free and as lovingly as we can. We think we’re eternal, so we live accordingly. So that sharpened me up to life, its fragility and its preciousness, and even underlined the importance of music as a gift in that, as something that blends through all of this sorrow and aches and pains, and can hold all these memories and emotions.

My wife got pregnant but my mum was in a nursing home in Crystal Palace, so I grabbed my shamanic drum and drove down there. I didn’t plan. You can’t plan these things. I put the drum down, I lit a candle, started playing drums and singing these Ecuadorean chants, just giving gratitude to the end of life. I picked up the drum again and I’m playing it above her as she’s dying. Talk about the importance of music, its benefits and its healing power. And I’m thinking, thank you, a blessing, and mum on your next journey. We got the call at half five that she’d died Monday morning. The ebb and flow of life is drums, it’s the rhythm of life.

I have been blessed with a gift to connect life’s rhythm through these drums for us all. Whether it’s a little drum or whether it’s what I just did in the studio, or it’s a massive 15,000 people Defected festival, or if it’s Ibiza… Wherever it is, my bit of that is to connect all of this with the energy that is life, which is birth, living, illness and death. And I’ll celebrate the whole bloody lot.

© Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

Andy Votel digs for wrongness

Andy Votel digs for wrongness

Interviewed by Bill in Marple Bridge, October 2022

He’s one of the most inspiring collectors you could meet, digging deep in the vinyl mines for accidental masterpieces. His reissue label Finders Keepers is a parallel musical universe, and has had Nas, Madlib, even Jay-Z queuing up to source beats from it. But Andy Votel didn’t much like music to start with – not until he heard it hacked into breaks and samples. For the latest release on his hip hop label Hypocritical Breakdown, he’s returned to his lifelong craft of rapping for an album of his own beats and rhymes, under the name Violators of the English Language (VOTEL in case you hadn’t twigged), which is a crew name that dates right back to his “kamikaze rapping“ childhood.

Violators of the English Language is essentially you being an artist, and that’s something you hadn’t been for a while.
It took something as crazy as lockdown to actually think, well, we’ve been saving this potential project for a rainy day. Like, a very rainy day. A rainy day where you’re not even allowed to leave the house. I essentially rung six or seven mates that I used to rap with as battle rappers in a long gone previous life. I said, “How do you fancy being 17 years old again?” Much to my surprise, nobody said no. Somebody should have said no, but nobody said no. And we hadn’t rapped together for 27 years. But yeah, it was like a fish to water, really. It’s been an elephant in the room in my house. I don’t know how Jane [Weaver, Andy’s wife] feels about it. I go out walking every Thursday with a solid group of mates, as many as 20 walkers, and nobody talks about Andy’s rap record.

What effect did hip hop have on you as a kid?
Oh, man, it saved my life. When I started secondary school, I went to this vibrant landscape of goths, metallers, mods, psycho rockabillies, skins. It was brilliant. I seemed to be the only hip hop kid. Maybe one other. Five years later when you leave school, everyone was the same, everyone was into house music or Madchester.

A lot of my core group of friends, in later years following school, they really sort of fell apart. I’m from a nice area. It’s a middle-class, rural leafy area. It’s not The Bronx. But hard drug abuse really did heavily affect two of my core group of friends. And I didn’t even see it happen. But rap well kept me away from that. Totally kept me occupied. I was majorly addicted to buying records and making music. I used to work at the butcher’s, used to work at this factory, and I’d go out and buy the hip hop record. The next week, I’d be finding the original sample, and that’s all I did. I was just obsessed with doing that. It was everything.

And that’s how I learned to DJ, really. Because I didn’t have a disposable income, I was like, how can you afford to buy two copies of the same record? It’s so boring. So instead of buying two copies of the same record for doubling up, I’d buy the hip hop record and buy the original sample. So that was my USP, playing the original sample next to the hip hop record. And that was what got me gigs at Dry Bar and Haçienda, and noticed by what became the Fat City people. And then I was just playing, god knows, whether it be psych or Hungarian jazz or African records or whatever.

“Guru met me outside [the International 2]. He gave me a T-shirt and took me in the gig. I was Guru’s guest. How crazy is that? At that given minute, I said, ‘You know what? I’m never going to get a real job. This is me from now on.’”

So it all started very young for you.
My dad was really encouraging. He taught me to make tape loops inside compact cassettes when I first got into LL Cool J. He also taught me how to control varispeed turntables using a Hornby power regulator off a model train track. So that’s how I’d learnt about the mechanics of music.

I was that one-off kid that used to go and play snooker on a Sunday night with my dad, and it clashed on with Leaky Fresh’s Out to Distress Rap Show in Manchester. I was in the car and I hadn’t seen my dad for a week. And I wasn’t that chatty, a bit agitated, and he was like, “What’s wrong?” I said, “Gang Starr are going to be on the radio tonight and I really, really want to listen to them being interviewed.”

My dad just said, “Well, why listen to the radio? Why don’t we just go down to the radio station and meet them?” And I was like, “That’s outrageous! We can’t do that!” And he goes, “Of course we can.” So he drove to Sunset Radio. He knocks on the door and Leaky Fresh said, “Yeah, no problem, just come upstairs.” So, I guess I was 16, maybe 15, I met DJ Premier, and I rapped my lyrics to Guru and Premier like that. Like, kamikaze style, you know, no self-awareness whatsoever. I just did it.

And I wasn’t even a confident kid. I was just so driven and confident in that medium. I wouldn’t have been able to ask out a girl to go to the pictures or something. I didn’t like standing up and reading in class. But the kamikaze mentality – it was just there. I’d never drunk beer at that point in my life. I’d never had sex. This was my outlet.

Anyway, Guru said to me, “Are you coming to the gig tomorrow night?” I said, “I’m not old enough.” And he said, “Well, don’t worry, I’ll put you on the guest list.” And the night after, at the International 2, Guru met me outside the gig. He gave me a T-shirt and he took me in the gig. I was Guru’s guest. How crazy is that? At that given minute, I said, you know what? I’m never going to get a real job. This is me from now on.

But what was beautiful as well that night, I got a job answering the phone for the radio station. And the second week I went, this local hip hop crew from Northwich had won a hip hop competition in Manchester, and they were called Violators of the English Language. This is Mark Rathbone: Boney Fresh. I met Boney and and he became my hip hop pen pal. I had a little studio at home that I’d made out of bits of old record players and whatnot. And he said, “Oh, we’ll come over and make some music.” So he brought his entire record collection to my house. There was like four seats in the car full of records and boxes. Got it, took us two hours to load it in, had a chat for an hour, and then he had to get back again.

And he tells me, ”At home, I’ve got a record shelf.” I’m like, “A what? How many records have you got where you need a shelf to put them on? You’ve got your own shelf?” Who knew years later he’d have filled two houses and he had to keep lockups away from his wife because he had secret stashes of too much vinyl, with like 20 copies of Remember My Song by Labi Siffre propping up the door.

So, we were basically our own switchboard for finding the original samples, and we just carried on digging and digging and digging and then making music together. And that became Violators of the English Language.

Who were your role models as far as British rap goes?
When I was leaving school, I’d turned my back on American hip hop and I was strictly into Britcore. And that was super niche. I mean, you couldn’t really buy much Britcore hip hop at places like Eastern Bloc or Spin Inn. You had to go to Piccadilly Records. And the Britcore: your Gunshot and Black Radical Mk II and Son Of Noise, that was filed with the punk. I think the common thread may be something like Tackhead or something which linked it all together. So even in Manchester, Britcore was hard to swallow for a lot of hip hop fans. And then things like that Low Life scene from Nottingham, and the next generation of Bristol hip hop.

Ruthless Rap Assassins must have been an inspiration?
I kind of separated Ruthless Rap Assassins from hip hop. They were their own thing. And in answer, yes, they were hugely inspirational. The sleeve to the Killer Album is one of my favourite sleeves of all time. It was a huge influence on the Badly Drawn Boy – Hour Of Bewilderbeast sleeve that I did. And the way the record was put together, with massive big samples of Beatles records next to radio stuff. I don’t even know if Ruthless Rap Assassins considered it a straight-up hip hop record. It was just a brilliant, brilliant mix tape.

They never influenced me as rappers. Whereas Krispy 3 from Chorley, they certainly influenced me as a rapper. There was a certain time in my life where Mikey D.O.N. from Krispy 3 was my Rakim. Even though it was hard to tell which one was him and his brother when they were on the record, because you know, a Chorley accent is a strong accent, right? Well, the fact that they never deviated from their accents was hugely important. And I will never, ever know how that was perceived outside of Manchester. Even outside of Preston.

“I didn’t like music. It was only when people started breaking the rules of music and destroying music that I became really interested. When sampling and scratching came out, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This is brilliant. They’re totally ruining everything.“

Do you remember the first hip hop record you heard?
Well, I’d heard hip hop and tried to figure out what it was, and I remember being hugely confused. I think ‘Just Buggin’’ by Whistle and ‘Amityville (The House On The Hill)’ and all those sort of records. They weren’t just reappropriating James Brown, they were also reappropriating the Inspector Gadget theme. And as a kid, that meant something.

Up until that point I would go as far as saying I didn’t like music. I wasn’t a music fan. You remember when you’re watching The Muppet Show as a kid and then this music thing would come on, I’d be like, get it off, let’s get the puppets back on. I don’t want to see these weird American celebrities singing.

It was only when people started, to my eyes, breaking the rules of music and kind of destroying music that I became really interested. When sampling and scratching came out, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was like, this is brilliant. They’re totally ruining everything. You know, it’s great.

What was it about that, though?
I don’t know. I’ve definitely always been more interested in the mechanics of music, and I always hark back to when I was a kid, the fact you weren’t able to touch a record player. Mums and dads really treasured their records and kids weren’t allowed to touch the needle. You most certainly weren’t allowed to touch the surface of the record, right? You’re just going to ruin it or get electrocuted.

So when compact cassettes became omnipresent, slowly and surely, vinyl started to just be in the back of the cupboard. And in the early or mid-’80s nobody cared anymore, so I’d get all these records out. No one was telling me off any more. So I’m like, right, okay, I wonder what’d happen if you did scratch the record or if you played it backwards. And then the idea of putting Sellotape and Tipp-Ex on the groove and watching it jump back to the same point, to make loops. I was doing that without liking music whatsoever. I was just doing silly stuff. Sitting Star Wars figures on the records and watching them go around, and then wait until they crash into the needle and turning the speakers up really loud. Then to see someone like the Fat Boys or Run DMC do that on TV was incredible. I mean, that’s how I started.

And then as I got older and emotional, I started to love music. So, there’s always been that yin and yang, you know? The destruction and the emotion. As you get older and older, it’s really few and far between where you hear that piece of music which sets your heart on fire, because you’ve listened to so much stuff in your life. It’s still always there, that massive burst of energy in my heart. But on the most part I’ve always been looking for records that kind of sound wrong. If I could count my favourite records of all time, a high percentage of them would’ve started with a cringe.

That moment where you first heard Turkish psych and you’re like, That’s not right! Or when you first heard the German language on a Krautrock record. It’s just that little bit where things get wrong. Them crossovers from kosmische into disco or those crossovers from sort of ye-ye into symphonic rock or from country into folk and funk. You’re crossing a line that you shouldn’t cross. And personally it’s that first cringe moment that makes it become my favourite thing ever. There’s no other word for it rather than wrongness. I love wrongness in music.

So you started digging very young?
I was buying ’60s and ’70s records as a kid, and the code was pretty much look for anyone with an afro, and it’s probably going to have something funky on it. And then when you grow up and mature, you realise that, well, maybe the best hip hop records you bought this year sampled Frank Zappa or Jefferson Airplane or a cover of a Neil Young tune or a George Benson version of a Jefferson Airplane tune, and all those amazing records that came out of Chicago on Cadet-Concept, and all those sort of bands that they called mixed race at the time.

It’s almost like you got on a secret mission then, and there’s actually, what’s the phrase? – a You-can’t-judge-your-book-by-its-cover mentality. You don’t know, but on this record with the dude with a cowboy hat on the front is the biggest breakbeat you’re ever going to hear. And that’s really exciting. In your early 20s when you start to make those connections, it’s like, wow. This hobby could last my entire lifetime.

Andy Votel in the Finders Keepers’ storeroom

And at the same time you’re rapping and battling
I was that awkward kid at school who was kamikaze-ing off at girls’ 15th birthday parties getting the mic off the DJ to start rapping. My self-awareness hadn’t kicked in yet. We were Violators of the English Language, and we could do this. We could rap. We were good battle rappers. It’s accents, vocal tonality, upbringing, success notwithstanding. It’s a total previous life. People who have known me for 25 years remember me as a rapper.

And then it just ended quite quickly. Hip hop went into its purple period and stopped for a bit, and then came back 20 times harder, at which point I guess we’d all grown up and got proper jobs, or something that resembled that. I went to art school and that’s where I did meet people who were into rap. I met Rick Myers who’s a brilliant artist and graphic designer who in later years did all the artwork for Doves and Lamb. And a brilliant scratch DJ. And I met a guy called Derek Edwards who raps under the name Figure of Speech. So we actually had a crew by that point who would make records, make tracks every week, and we would make demos and send them to Cold Sweat and Music Of Life and all these independent hip hop labels.

So at that point, Violators of the English Language became a group, and we started to take it seriously to some degree. And we had enough original samples and stuff that people had never done before. Always made on two turntables, the old fashioned way. We were a graffiti crew as well, which was another big thing. When we left college, unfortunately one of us passed away and we started going our separate ways.

I was like a bar fly at Fat City Records which had just started up, and people kind of knew me at a lot of record shops in town: Out Of the Past, Rod and Caroline’s shop, Dean from Expansions, all the rare groove shops, they’d save records for me. I knew my way around town, got some DJ gigs with like I say [Manc arts impresario] Barney, Michael Barnes-Wynters who was hugely supportive. And then he got us a remix for Mr. Scruff. So, we remixed ‘Sea Mammal’ and we sampled an Ella Fitzgerald record, an Arthur Lee record, and Led Zeppelin and the Wicker Man soundtrack taped off the telly. It’s not bad for your first ever commitment to vinyl, is it?

So at that point, people were really interested in what we were doing, but they wanted nothing to do with the vocals. For some bizarre reason, they didn’t like the nasally Stopfordian accents that we were committing to these anthemic rap tunes.

Two or three months after that I became the designer at Fat City and Grand Central. So I had a job. And we’d go to places like Dublin, which was amazing, or Liverpool where I’d never been, and Marseille, and Düsseldorf. And that’s where I discovered Turkish records. I didn’t know what they were. For ages I was telling people to check out these Israeli sitar records because I was that stupid and young. In the same way that when I first found Welsh records, I thought they were Hungarian.

When you started digging for foreign language records, was that just coincidental or were you consciously trying to find more obscure stuff?
It became very obvious I was going to have to start hunting for strange noises and samples in odd records outside of my comfort zone. So I didn’t buy any English language or American language records at all, hardly. That was my rule. I’m not going to buy anything on a major label, and I’m not going to buy anything English language, because I had enough friends around me who did that anyway. Staying away from predetermined genres as well. I’m not trying to be stubborn, but music which is custom made for the dancefloor has never appealed to me. Trying to find the gaps in between genres is much more interesting. And then if you do find a country record or a Polish jazz record which just so happens to sound like a hip hop record or just so happens to sound like a house record or a disco record by mistake, that’s really exciting.

You start to learn stuff which you had no interest in your entire life in learning, like geography, politics, history. But when you discover Czech records and Polish records and East German records, which all came out on the same compilations, it’s just like, wow, I now have got some weird interest in communism. It’s amazing: in the same way that hip hop kept me away from my best friend’s drug habits, records in general have taught me about stuff that I never had any intention of learning

And it became not only a label, but a way of life.
The amount of times I’ve spent with people’s families in Poland through Finders Keepers,  or going to stay at someone’s house for a weekend in the South of France and meeting someone’s widow or someone’s children. The record release almost becomes secondary, because as cheesy as it always sounds coming from a label owner’s tongue, there is a genuine family here.

There is a core group of people all over the world that help us, make connections for us. In the first records we did at Finders Keepers with Jean-Claude Vannier, he introduced us to loads of people in French studios. Just by hanging out with him and spending time with him, and not just chasing the signature on a contract and becoming a friend. This whole worldwide community that we’ve built through it has been a nice thing.

How did you go from finding records that hip hop producers had sampled to putting together your folk-funk collection Folk Is Not A Four Letter Word? What’s the trajectory?
That idiom, that lazy tag of folk funk, even at the time I found it hackish and a bit crappy. But it existed, and it’s exactly what it was. Because these were records which featured any number of attractive blonde girls on full frame record sleeves, but with Phil Upchurch playing bass or Bernard Purdey hanging out somewhere.

I’m never going to be able to tell stories where I was surrounded by music as a child. I just wasn’t at all. My dad had some fantastic records by John Renbourn and John Fahey and people like that, but he didn’t really like them. You know? Just his mates had told him to get them. But country and folk was a little bit around when I was a kid, so I could identify with that. And I’ve always been alright at reading the back of records and making connections. And that’s the Tetris mentality again. It all seemed fairly obvious to me that the folk funk thing was going to fill some weekend, you know? And it was really well received in Manchester.

You’ve also helped shine light on people that had been forgotten. To see people suddenly start maybe writing new music or gigging or whatever must be heartwarming. And you’ve done it quite a few times.
When a film like Searching For Sugar Man comes out and everyone says what an amazing story it is, well, it is truly an amazing story for something like that to happen. But there are many reissue labels where that happens every day. If you think of every band that didn’t make it, every band that got caught up in some political conflict or were excommunicated or didn’t meet the record label’s expectations. That difficult second album, or the demos that never made the cut, this could go on forever and ever and ever. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. Private press records made for people that have gone to the army. It’s just endless.

There’s obviously mathematically much more interest in music that hasn’t been released than has. If the music industry only releases 1% of all the music made in the world, there’s far more interesting music out there. It’s amazing to think what is between the cracks. And it’s only obvious that this stuff needs sharing, because there’s now an ability to share it.

The person who’s going to drop a heavy psych record in the middle of a full dancefloor where people have been listening to R&B, that person’s got balls. But you know what? In three or four years’ time, someone’s going to sample that record and you’ll all be listening to it in a totally different regurgitated way. It’s a fantastic thing, really. So, it just seems obvious for me.

I should mention the fact we’re headed to the football, which is why I’m here interviewing you, basically we’re actually both going to the same game today, which is Grimsby vs Stockport County.
Something I could never imagine myself committing to a microphone is the fact that I’ve recently got into football, having never been to a game previously in my life. Major League football, your Man Citys and Man Uniteds have got no interest to me. They’ve put me off football my entire life. But I didn’t realise there were private press football teams. I didn’t realise there were small football teams with a DIY punk aesthetic. I said to my son recently, “I’m never going to a football ground which is any less than 95% asbestos.” This is what I look for in music. You know, it’s the same thing. And I’m sure you agree with that mentality.

Yeah. I mean, it’s always puzzled me why someone could hate the Tories and buy really underground music but support Liverpool.
Makes no sense.

Whereas supporting Grimsby makes total sense to me. It is like I’m supporting a private press football team.
Absolutely, yeah. Exactly, yeah.

How do the compilations gestate? Like, say the Massiera compilation. Do you just end up amassing a certain amount of tracks and then you’re like, “We’ve got enough to do an album”? Or do you approach people and build it slowly? What’s the process?
Massiera is really interesting and a hugely influential person at the label, because he was a genuine enfant terrible. His history in sampling and stealing other people’s music early doors was truly brilliant. One of the first things I ever asked him was, how could you afford to get these early synthesisers? You know, pretty much at exactly the same time that pioneers like Pierre Henry and Jean-Jacques Perrey were using the same methods and the same very expensive tools. And he said, “Oh, I didn’t have any synthesisers. I just stole the noises off their records.”

And when you discover Joe Meek, they’re like two peas in the pod. They were destroying music early doors, which was in a very positive, anarchic and forward thinking way.

Massiera lived it. There’s so many sides to Massiera. After surf, he went into psych then he went into novelty records, then he went into disco. I didn’t even know, when he was still alive, how much hip hop stuff he produced, and I’m talking rapsploitation, I’m talking hip hop for the holiday makers in Nice that summer, but great stuff, and R&B and soul, and it still keeps on going. The question, where do you start with someone like Massiera? It seems achievable. You know. Massiera and Jean-Claude Vannier, there’s a finite number of tracks, you’d think. That’s exciting because you’ve made some sort of rules. You think you can do a pretty concise compilation of Massiera music. It is kind of achievable. And within that structure, exciting things can happen. When you do find one shard that you’d missed or something pops out the woodwork.

What I will say about Massiera, there’s probably things that he tried to sell to me then which I wasn’t interested in which I’m really interested in now. So he’s like, “Did you hear these breakdance records that I made?” And I was like, “No thanks.” And he’s like, “I did this thing in 1991 with these Native Americans.” And I was like, “No thanks.” And now I’m just like, ah, I really wish I’d listened more.

So you like to impose some kind of finite limit on your collecting?
I’ve got a hell of a lot of Bollywood records. 90% of them are horror soundtracks, right? When I decided to start buying Bollywood, I had to find a niche which was controllable. Or Italian library records, I only buy female composers. Because there has to be some rule, otherwise it just goes haywire. So there’s an achievable part. There’s an achievable way to do it, otherwise you’ll go mad.

I don’t want a record collection which is bigger than the house. I don’t want a record collection which only an accountant could have thought to buy. There has to be some sort of reality there.

It’s happened to you a million times, Bill, where someone said to you, “Will you have time in this lifetime to listen to all these records?” Well, no, of course you won’t. But you might have time to listen to all the female Italian composers. I only buy female punk now. I’ve got a hell of a lot of punk records, but now, if there’s not a girl involved, I’m not doing it – because I need to retain some sanity.

Any other rules? Like particular dates or periods?
I remember when I was buying funk at school, you’d read the date and if you saw 1982, you’d just throw it away. And then you realised later that a lot of the best records from Sri Lanka were all made in the ’90s, or a lot of great African stuff was made in these different eras you wouldn’t have expected. “What? That was made in the days of TV-am and The Clothes Show? It sounds like it was made in 1972.” Turkish music especially. It’s almost like 10 years out of date from what your ear’s accustomed to. It was foolish to dismiss things from the wrong dates early doors.

I’m really, really interested in private pressed post-rock now, because there’s some absolutely amazing stuff there. There’s so many bands that tried to imitate Stereolab when they came out, which just disappeared into nowhere. Just imagine.

Really? I had absolutely no idea that even existed.
I’m kind of regretting telling you.

I can delete it from the tape for a fee! When someone like Nas or Jay-Z comes to you for a sample, how does that benefit the label? Do you have publishing?
We don’t own publishing, but we have master rights. We have sync rights for stuff. There’s some stuff that we own. There’s some stuff we do own publishing for, yeah. We own bits of catalogue. So yeah. You just hope that …

I mean, are those sort of transactions things that help keep a label like yours afloat?
Yeah. What’s the phrase? Windfalls, I guess. We definitely don’t expect this to happen. We’ve never sat there and said, “Oh, don’t worry, mate. It won’t be long before Nas comes and samples us again.”

There was a time when only mods bought our stuff. Then people would be like, “Finders Keepers, oh, that Turkish record label.” So when it does repeatedly get embraced by hip hop, it’s great. There’s a big difference between some independent hip hop crew from Texas or mid-America or France or Hungary than there is to Jay-Z. When Jay-Z samples your record and denies it, and then you have to get a musicologist to prove the absolute obvious, well, yeah, that pays the bills. The artist on the label might get to wipe out the mortgage on his daughter’s house. Finders Keepers gets to pay a huge tax bill that we’d had hanging over ourselves for years.

Is it still fairly wild west out there?
I think doing things correctly, clearing samples, even meeting the original artists and having a full awareness of where this music comes from is part of the sport now. People want to do it right. The bootlegging thing and the mix tape culture and even the Ultimate Breaks and Beats thing that founded this whole culture couldn’t exist by today’s standards, because they’re missing out that component of the sport. Anyone can bootleg a record. You meet someone, “Oh, we’ve just done this compilation of brilliant Turkish psychedelic music,” or whatever. And it’s like, “Alright, did you get the rights to that?” “No, we’ve put it aside just in case they ever get in touch.” Well, you don’t qualify anymore. It’s not just about having your credit card, going on Discogs, getting a piece of music and sticking it on a compilation. There’s much more to it. The real record diggers are the guys that go that extra mile. The days of doing things wrong and illegally is bullshit.

And I think a lot of the best hip hop producers live by them rules, which is refreshing and good. The aesthetic of hanging someone out of a 40-storey window and watching the change come out the pockets is over. You know what I mean?

I love it when rappers get in touch with the original artists and the label. Czarface did it recently. And I’ve loved MF Doom and I loved 7L & Esoteric. I love that whole scene. That’s been with me most of my life. So for him to ring us and say, “Oh, we really want to sample this and we love what you do,” and they recognize it as a Finders Keepers record.

I’d got to the stage  where so many people were coming to the label, whether it be Madlib or Action Bronson, or eventually people like Nas and Jay-Z, and then Kanye West coming for samples, which vindicated the subliminal reason why I set up the label in the first place. Because I’ll never stop listening to music with that tempo, without that sort of scavenger hunt sample mentality in my head.

Speaking of that, what’s the most you’ve ever spent on a record?
I’ve always said my interest in vinyl was more akin with scrap metal. Whoever came up with the phrase vinyl vulture, that encompassed everything really. When you start buying money, trophy hunting, you’re losing. You’re failing. It’s not why you ever did this in the first place, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

As a collector there’s a danger you end up forgetting that what you love is music and not the format.
I think we’re talking about trophy records here. Anything that’s on the wall and costs anything that resembles a month’s mortgage or an electricity bill is just totally inappropriate, especially in this day and age. This culture of people now going on the internet pairing very expensive bottles of wine with very expensive records is thoroughly inappropriate. You, like me, will go on social media and see a record which sounds good. You’ll click through and try and buy it and it’s 500 quid. That’s just game over. Inappropriate, boring. The fun’s been taken out. I’m very happy to say I’ve been out-priced from that game now. And there’s so many nuances in it, especially with jazz records, you know, music that was made to galvanise black communities in America in the early ’70s and now can only be afforded by white highfalutin accountants.

But trolling the pound bins will always be my game. It’s hard to go somewhere like Utrecht Record Fair and not be snow-blinded and get competitive and get into this knowledge battle about very rare records, because I can still do that, but the real trick is going and to not be distracted by that, and getting your hands dirty looking for stuff no one’s ever heard before and nobody even wants. And it’s still doable. I feel like we’re doing it a little bit now with the Occitan music. I’ve been doing it with Breton music for a while. These things are really exciting to me at the moment.

Final question. You’ve done a lot of things, worked with a lot of interesting people. What’s the proudest moment of your career?
The more I hear myself talking about the community and the family, I start to think I sound like Berry Gordy or somebody, but it’s really important, the family in Finders Keepers. We’ve got the pillars that are Jean-Claude Vannier and Suzanne Ciani. They are the king and queen of this label. And it’s a really beautiful thing that we can genuinely say they’re truly friends, confidants, and they’ve taught me lots about music.

There’s always bits of trouble around the corner, and there’s always gripes. But I have to say out of 200 artists, there’s probably only four people who’ve been awkward and a real pain in the ass, and three of them are from Manchester. So, other than that…

I guess I’m proud that we’ve stuck with it for so long. But it all does come back to the community and the alternative, almost imaginary musical landscape we’ve created. Jean-Claude Vannier is our Elvis and Suzanne Ciani is our let’s say Dolly Parton. Well, that’s it – we’ve created a whole alternative spectrum. There’s a whole alternative universe here which, when I’m feeling my lowest, I can look back on and go, “Wow, we’ve kind of rewritten something here.” Which is nice, right?

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Henri Belolo Frenched up the disco

Henri Belolo Frenched up the disco

Interviewed by Frank in Paris, 23.10.04

With his production partner Jacques Morali, Henri Belolo was the architect of the Eurodisco sound, giving us disco confections The Ritchie Family and Village People. For the video for the Village People’s ‘In The Navy’ he managed to blag a free warship, planes and 200 sailors. Just one of the ways he smuggled the iconography of gay America into the charts. He was also one of the first French DJs, playing from the start of the ’60s

I have been a DJ myself, when I was a little younger, in Morocco.

Really, tell me
Born in Casablanca, I was exposed to American music. My father was a sailor before, and he settled, married my mother, who was a model, and he was working in the harbour at Casablanca. And working there he had a lot of ships coming from around the world. A lot of American ships with American sailors in. I was born in 1936, so when the war started there I was six, seven years old. The American troops came to Morocco around 1943, because of the Germans invading North Africa. They opened American army bases with radio. So I was a youngster going there and listening through the loudspeakers to Glenn Miller and ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and jazz and blues. That’s how I started really young being exposed to the American music.

And on top of that I was exposed to the rhythm because in Morocco we had a tribe of black people, Muslims, called Gnawa. They came from Ghana. They play heavy percussion, and when I was young I’d hear that in the street, and the combination of the American jazz, blues, gospel, and this I assume grew inside of me, and made my ears and my mind open for melody and percussion.

“In France we have this tradition of beautiful lyrical melody: the chanson. Then when you add these melodies to the hard dance rhythms, more of Africa, that is why French disco is so strong.”

When did you come to Paris?
I studied in Casablanca – business. Out from university, I was 22. I had to decide what I want to do in life. So I decided to come see Paris, spend six months going to see my favourite jazz clubs. You know jazz life was very, very, very bright in those days. That’s where I bumped into a man called Eddie Barclay who runs a very famous record company called Barclay. The first man in Europe to represent American companies. For example he started to work with Quincy Jones when Quincy was really a youngster. Anyway I bumped into Eddie Barclay because I was playing music in jukebox in cafe, I was choosing anything from Otis Redding to Louis Armstrong, to Dizzy Gillespie, and to the premises of rock and roll, and my choice was so good, so sophisticated, that that man came to me and told me, hey your music is good. He said from where are you? I’m from Casablanca. What do you intend to do? I don’t know I might go back. He said why you not open my record company there?

And here I am, at 23 now, flying back to Morocco, and opening my first record company, independent. I was just an agent for him, importing records, selling them to the stores, and promoting them. And promotion was through the radio, at that time. And the clubs, it was very new, but we had very good clubs in Morocco, in Casablanca. So I started to promote my records, and to do so I was going every Saturday night in the famous club and seeing the DJs and playing my own records. I was only 23, and I’m talking about the year 1959, OK. So I started being a DJ 50 years ago.

Did you have any musical training?
Not at all. The music came naturally in my ears, and naturally from my ears to my heart and my brain. And from my brain to the people. I was used to seeing the percussion, I used to sing, to play percussion, bang on things, my mother was going crazy, because I was trying to imitate the Gnawa in the streets. I bought a double tumba, and my left hand did the kick, the bass drum, and the other hand was doing [he taps out an African rhythm].

What were the clubs like?
Clubs in Morocco and especially in Casablanca were very international and trendy for that time. They were really in advance because we had that unique combination of American troops living in Morocco, French people living in Morocco, and that mixture was giving an incredible result that the people in the clubs were a mixed population and the taste of each one was slightly different. And we had to find a link, to put all those people together on the dancefloor. So as a DJ I was perhaps playing Charles Aznavour, in the ballad, but also I was playing Bill Haley, or bluesman, or rock and roll. It was a unique combination. At that time in Paris in clubs they were playing mainly French pop, American rock and roll and jazz, but the combination was not so ethic, ethnical. Morocco, it was Africa, we always had rhythm feeling.

Did you play African records?
Oh yeah. I used to import records from Ghana and Senegal, and I was trying to mix them but we didn’t have the technology at that time.

What did you have in the booth?
Oh boy, I had a small turntable, just one, and one day I decided to try to mix African drums from Ghana with a rock and roll. OK, I said, I can’t do it, I just have one turntable, so I asked the owner of the club if he may be kind enough to let me buy another one. He didn’t understand why but I said let me try. So I bought the second turntable…

What year was this?
It was ’61, ’62. And I tried to link them to one amplifier, but it was very hard because it only had one entry for one turntable, not two. So I ask a man that was a specialist, so we did a bizarre link between the two, we had a lot of noise but it was working, but I had no fader.

So it was all or nothing.
Yeah. My cut was plain. This is why I was playing something like [sings a rock melody] and suddenly I cut into the drums [sings tough African beat], and back to the other one, but I was not able to cross fade.

So it was a cut. That’s still mixing.
It was really working a lot at that time.

What was the name of the club
L’Abreuvoir, because that was where the horses went to eat and drink. Another one called the Zoom Zoom.

When did you move to France?
I was five years running my music business. Morocco is a small country. I wanted to move to Paris to start working for the industry. So I was lucky to be hired by Polydor records. At that time was a label on its own, not a major, and Polydor had an extensive catalogue of pop, rock, jazz and classical and so on. During a few years I worked at Polydor I have to say humbly I raised very fast from go-for-the-coffee to one of the youngest general managers of a label. By doing so I learned how a record company works, I learnt how a production system works, because I was going to the studio I was producing myself big French stars and selling millions of records. But here I am in the year 1960 becoming a very important man in the recording industry, but my salary was not so extraordinary, so when I produced two or three albums that sold each one of them more than two million copies I did not sleep.

Which were those?
A Frenchman called George Moustaki and another movie star called Serge Renée, who died not long ago and a French movie star called Jeanne Moreau. We were mainly in French pop, French rock/pop.

So local signings?
Local signings for Polydor, but I was taking care of the Bee Gees through the international licensing, I brought James Brown to Paris at the Olympia, bringing jazz musicians, and so on. I was really immersed in that life.

But you wanted to break out on your own
In the middle of the year ’60 I decided to be independent, which was very new for that time. We had no independents in France, so I resigned from Polydor and I formed my own record company. Scorpio Music, which it still is today. That’s when I started to produce my own records and to be attracted by dance. For example I was the one that signed for France such early beginners in dance like ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ by Carl Douglas, through my friend Henry Stone at TK Records in Miami, George McRae ‘Rock Your Baby’, Gwen McCrae, KC and the Sunshine Band. Here I was, with all my background, suddenly rediscovering dance.

Where did you find out about these acts?
I was going out, every night to the clubs, friends with the DJs, they showed me what was buzzing.

When did you go to the states?
Immediately after France, what is the next goal? America. I moved to America in 1973. I dared opening my own record company, called Can’t Stop Productions, which is still there. Can’t Stop the Music. I always was attracted by the sound of Philadelphia. OK. So I opened my office in New York, and I opened a small talent scout office in Philadelphia.

What attracted you to Philly?
Gamble and Huff sound. Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls, all this combination of lush strings, drumming by people that were from the gods, like Earl young, the first drummer, or Charles Collins, the arranger. Vince Montana was playing vibes for me in the arrangement of my first recordings. All of them were there. I became friends with them. I said to myself if I ever have any idea to do something I would come back to Sigma Sound.

How did you meet Jacques Morali?
I wanted to be a producer in America but I was looking for an idea. And in January ’75 I bumped into a young guy called Jacques Morali. He came to my office because on top of being a producer in France I was also a publisher. Very good writers in my roster. Jacques was a salesman at the record shop at Orly at the airport, then he was hired at 24 as an A&R at Polydor for French artists. So he came to see me looking for a good French song. I gave him the song, that song became a nice success. It was not dance it was pop, but we became friend.

He told me I am always dreaming of going to do a recording in England, because I want to have a record that may work in the dancefloor in St Tropez. In France when you want to start promotion with a record you start with St Tropez in the summer, and after it crosses in the fall into the main cities like Paris.

One month later he came back and said ‘OK, Henri, do you remember the musicals of the ’40s in America?’ I said of course, Busby Berkeley, things like this, he said, ‘Yes, I watched a movie on TV yesterday of Brazil with Carmen Miranda, why we don’t do this for the dancefloor for this summer in England?’ So I looked at him and said we’re not gonna go to London, we’re going to go to Philadelphia. And then here we are in March at Sigma Sound doing a casting, hiring the three Ritchie Family girls, going to the studio with an arranger called Richard Rome, that’s why we called the girls Ritchie Family. Vince Montana, the vibes, Earl Young the drums, the best. I cut the record, I go back to New York, try it in the clubs, enormous success, and here we are on the road of success.

Which clubs did you break it in in New York?
Well, mainly at the beginning in the gay discotheques, like the Ramrod, the Saint. We were played in all the underground clubs in San Francisco, In Los Angeles, in Philadelphia, but the record crossed to the radio station, thanks specially to a radio station in New York called WBLS, with…

…Frankie Crocker
Frankie Crocker, that became a friend, Frankie felt in love with that record and here we were en route for stardom. Crosses to pop, first success, 1975, ‘Brazil‘ Ritchie Family. This record become success worldwide.

He was the link to radio success.
He was the link, exactly. He liked the record and to bring in the ears of the radio listeners that new sound, and it was adopted by the people that when we started to do the crossover from club charts, dance, disco charts, to the mainstream through the local radios that were brave enough to play it. And when they saw the success of this on WBLS in New York, the big radio networks in America started to play disco music. That’s where it exploded and became what they call mainstream.

What was the process of putting the Ritchie Family music together?
We write together, Jacques was writing the music, I was writing the lyrics. My English was OK but not to the point where I would understand all the meanings of everything. This is why I was always writing lyrics hand in hand with local American adapters, lyricists. So if you look at the labels you will see Morali, Belolo, Victor Willis; or Morali, Belolo, Peter Whitehead.

And the arrangements, where did all that come from?
In France we have this tradition of beautiful lyrical melody: the chanson. Then when you add these melodies to the hard dance rhythms, more of Africa, that is why French disco is so strong. We were French but we were so much into dance and club and we were exposed to the African rhythm and also I was in love with salsa and Latin music and percussion. In order to put the French music of Morali in a way that it would sound American or English, we were using American musicians and American rhythm section, but the melody was very strong.

What reference points were you thinking of?
I started to go to discotheques in Morocco when I was 16. What I was missing on the dancefloor was the beat that will give me that 1,2, 1,2, 1,2, and all the records at that time were mixed, not for the dancefloor, they were mixed for radio, and I was always frustrated that they were really scared to put the rhythm too much in front in the mix. That’s why we recorded in Philadelphia, and at the mixing we are pushing the bass foot and the snare, and the guitars and the strings went in the holes, and the combination between the drums, the tambourines, the guitar with their picking and the way we were mixing it, you had to jump from your seat and go on the dancefloor. And we punctuated our mixing with gimmicks like ‘hooooo’ that were typically gay at that time, and we started to write lyrics about the joy of dancing.

This was radical, because working in the industry you knew that the way to make money was through radio. Especially in America.

What made you realise you could do it through the clubs?
I was going very early to America, starting in ‘72, ‘73, I wanted to go out in the clubs, and I heard no music done for the clubs. I was listening to the hits of the month on the dancefloor but it was not really something pushing the people to dance to the point where they were screaming.

I’m trying to find more about the early nightclubs in Paris.
You had three big club owners in Paris that really were among the first. You have Régine. Régine’s was called Jimmy’z. Around the same time, we’re talking about the end of the ‘50s, a very important man called François Patrice, and you had a third man called Jean Castell, that had a club, still has a club, called Castell.

When did clubs start to play records instead of having bands?
This goes with the emergence of the recording industry. Really the vinyl started to take off at the end of the war in France. One of the first men to bring vinyls to France was Eddie Barclay and his wife. He already had a small record company and was used to going to America very often. He discovered the vinyl there, brought it to France, and because he was importing vinyls they were in stores and people were looking for the vinyl and the first vinyl factory started to open up in France and Europe. In clubs they were not able to play the first 78s, they were no good. At the end of war, between ’45 and ’50, we had more records available. The turntable factories resumed and with the invention of vinyl they had to invent a turntable that was able to turn at 45, not 78.

But with the vinyl you were able to import the music, it’s as if you were importing the bands, 150 different bands. So the band started to disappear and they started to play records. At the beginning it was a mixture: band playing an hour and we are playing the records half an hour. And the more new records we had, the more the bands left the dance scene, and really the DJ was born. Because to spin the record, the owner was doing it at the beginning, but very soon he realised that he needed someone. So that someone was not a pro DJ, it was a young guy in love with music, that learned his business in vivo – on the dancefloor. So he was pushing the records, that’s what I used to do in Casablanca in the ’50s.

So you would DJ in between bands?
Oh yes, there were bands as well, and I was going, doing my set. The band were a little jealous because I was playing a record with a 50-piece band, who were mixed, and they were live. And the clubs were not really equipped to play a band live. You need amps for everyone, so the sound of the band was not so good.

The records sounded better
It sounded better.

Which records did the bands particularly not like?
Rock and roll. Oh yeah, yeah. When we started with Bill Haley and the Comets and things like this. The band were not able to play rock and roll. I mean… they knew how to play jazz, but not rock and roll. The drummer, the bass player, they had to learn. And in the meantime the record was so magic, you don’t need the band any more. That’s where the first DJs started to come into the scene.

Which were the first clubs then that really emphasised records instead of bands?
The clubs I mentioned never had a band.

All three of them had only records?
Never had a band. They started at the beginning of the ‘50s, directly with the records.

They were quite small places
Small places, private, so already you had to fight at the door to get in.

Did you go to any of these?
Oh yes, when I was a youngster coming to Paris. Going to jazz club, I was going to Jimmy’z, and Castell, and François Patrice.

Can you describe them for me? Describe Jimmy’z
Well, what I may call a caricature of a dance club. You already had the round, the what you call it… with a spot on it, the boule…

Oh the glitterball.
The glitterball yes. Banquettes, a small DJ booth, not too big. A big counter where people are drinking, very amazingly everyone was seated, at tables and at the bar, everyone was seated. No-one was standing except the people in the bar.

And the dancefloor.
On the dancefloor people were dancing. And when the DJ started the record people had to go from one table to another table to invite the girl.

OK. Very formal.
Very formal. And everyone was standing in line the same dance, when it was called the twist, la bustel or the madison. You had a kind of communality between the people because it was very what you call convivial.

These were private members clubs.
Private, but of course you can get in. Depends how you dress and if you know already another very important man or woman, the doorman. The, what you call, the ‘physiognmist’. And also the music was not too loud, except on the dancefloor,

And the DJ set-up was two turntables?
Two turntables, on really a table, a pile of vinyls, and that’s it.

And what mixer set up?
He was not mixing one record into another. Fade out, fade in with the new, or stop playing

They would never fade one over the other or segue them?
No the technology of blending records was not available yet. That technology came I believe at the end of the sixties.

That was Jimmy’z. Were the others the same?
They were all very much the same. The interior design was different,

[Suddenly remembering] There was a fourth club. I should not forget this one because it is very important. Called Keur Samba. That club was very particular. Why? because that club was owned by a black man from Senegal. He was very tall, very good looking, and in that club you had a very trendy population of people, black and white mixed together, very good looking girls. And we were going there because the blacks were dancing very well, and in that club they were playing trendy records but also Latin and salsa music. Already.

What sort of year is this?
’63? ’62, ’63. It was in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. All the girls were falling in love with Keur Samba, and the ambience was really different from Castell, Regine and St Hilaire. It was less formal. Much more like this but very trendy. because salsa music and Latin dance was quite new for us too, the way you were dancing cha-cha. And the combination of the salsa music and the trendy records was unique.

Especially with the African as well.
Exactly, and really the dancers were incredible, and you can see some of the guys in the first black and white movies that France did at that time with Brigitte Bardot. A movie called Et Dieu… Crea La Femme – And God Created Woman.

It was filmed in that club?
No it was filmed in a club in St Tropez, but Keur Samba was acting in that movie as one of the dancers who does incredible salsa music very lasciviously and erotic with Brigitte Bardot, and Brigitte Bardot‘s fiancée is really jealous. Roger Vadim who did the movie used to go to Keur Samba and took from his memory what he put in that movie.

Did you know Régine?
I knew a lot of them because I was in the music industry. At first I was bringing my records to the DJs, second I was a trendy guy: young, good-looking, with a good income, and cruising. And of course, something we should never forget: we were, and we still are, going to clubs to cruise. To dance, but to cruise, to meet people to socialise, but to cruise. We always go back to the same thing and if people are honest they will tell you, seduction, what a unique way to meet people, and what a unique way to share with a girl, or a man that you invited depending if you like girls or men, something that you do in common, dance.

When did you first hear the word discothèque? When did they start using that?
When we had that shift from the place where you had a band. They were called ‘dancing’ because you were dancing with bands. Strangely enough, even in french it was an English word. I go to le dancing. And in France it was bands playing mostly accordion, because the dance at that time was musette, the waltz, tango. People were dancing, they were always dancing.

When we started to play records we needed something with a sound more appropriate, and more cosy. That’s how the first places that will be called discothèques started to be built and designed. End of the ’50s. So you had to give a name to those places. ‘Dancing’ was not representing what it was – it was those big place where bands were playing. So they called them discotheque, because discothèque means like a bibliothèque means shelves with books, discothèque is also a French word, being a Latin word, it means a place where you store your records. If I tell you come see my discothèque, you gonna see two things. You’re gonna see a physical place where I store my records, but it means also the amount of records I have are my discothèque. My library.

[so it means the collection as well as the place]

So it was obvious to be called discothèques. That’s where you played disques.

When did it get shortened to disco?
To be quite frank with you, we already would use this, us French, as a contraction of discothèques. Very often in slang when we are talking amongst us, instead of saying the long word we just say we’re going to the disco. It was a place.

The story is that the first discothèques were in Marseille. Do you know about that?
I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned the trendy place, the starting place, was Paris, but it is true that on La Côte D’Azur and perhaps even more St Tropez or Cannes or Nice, the people going in the summer after the war were dancing in outside place, not inside, in outside place, with bands. OK and they were very trendy because that’s where you were going during the summer. I’m sure you hear about it. Of the ’40s, early beginning of the ’50s, so Marseille was known as a cosmopolitan place and it is possible because when the Americans and the English came to liberate France they started with the south. So Marseille was a big city, so perhaps the mixture of the American music brought by the GIs triggered something there. It’s very possible. But I’m not quite certain. I really think that the entrepreneur that believed in it were based in Paris. And were emigrating every summer, as they still do, to the Côte D’Azur. At one point Régines had a winter place in Paris, but she had a summer place in Monaco.

Which of the club owners is still alive?
Régine. Eddie Barclay, François Patrice, Jean Castell died a few years ago, but his club is still open.

How about the guy from Senegal?
Keur Samba? Quite frankly I don’t know.

Tell me about Eddie Barclay.
Eddie Barclay was a tall good-looking man. He knew how to play piano. He was a jazz fan, and he was one of the first amongst the music and the people in the industry in France who dare to go to America. His English was barely good. Still today I ask him how did you make yourself understand? he say well I have a translator with me. Anyway, he was a good-looking man, very attractive, and his wife was also very attractive. His wife at that time, because he had eight wife.

Yes, he got married eight times.

And he started the modern record industry in France
A lot of record companies, who were not already the majors, gave him their representation for France. So in France he was really the trendy man, and he stayed like this for 50 years. He gave the biggest parties and all the stars were in his house. Mick Jagger, Otis Redding, James Brown, you name it. He sold his company I think 15 years ago to Polygram, and that became Universal, and Barclay is still a label, a part of Universal. Barclay is still alive, he’s old now, he’s over 80, and he still loves music. He’s still a party-goer.

Oh yeah. he goes to clubs, he sits there, he watches people dancing. And really he is someone I admire a lot.

Did he teach you a lot?
He taught me by the way he was, and the way unconsciously I wanted to be. He told me one day, wow god, you did something I was never able to do. You are successful in America. And I told him, I am successful in America because some of my challenge was to do better than you. He said you’re right, you did it son. And we were back in business, many years after I was his employee, when I produced Patrick Juvet with Jacques. ‘I Love America’. Big hit.

So you gave him his hit in America.
Exactly. And Barclay loved America always.

How did he get into it?
Well, he had a bar. He had a bistro, we call it, so his family was coming from a region of France called Auvergne. He was an Auvergnier, a lot of bistro here are run by Auvergniers. So he always used to go by night and play pianos in piano bar. He loved to play piano. So that’s how he started to get acquainted with musicians, and he started to hire some of them to have his first record company. And he told me that the records he was selling to the few stores himself with a bicycle and some trolley behind it. He started like this to become one of the most successful men in the recording industry, even in America, if you speak to Ertegun anybody, they will tell you that Eddie, he’s the guy with big cigar. He had the best chef in his house, his parties were splendid, Hugh Hefner’s parties were nothing compared to the ones Eddie used to throw. So he was really the man in the recording industry. And he was used to go dancing. Every night he was at Regine’s or Castell.

What about Régine? What was she like? She was the hostess?
No, she was less than the hostess at the beginning. She was at the door. She was doing the door, and hanging the coat-check. And she had that reputation to be a bitch at the door. It was very difficult to enter.

This is which club?

Jimmy’z Monte Carlo, with nightlife pioneer Régine (L)

This is Jimmy’z. She became successful because she’s a very talented woman in public relations. She was good looking, she was cruising a lot, and she started to be very trendy, and in the jet set cycle, very soon. The Duke of Windsor and the Duchess of Windsor used to come and learn the twist on her dancefloor. So when she formed her own name, Régine’s club and ended up ultimately with Régine’s in New York, and in Florida with Régine’s she was not only a club owner, she was also a PR inside, she was dancing with everyone, going around making sure… She was I think one of the first who invented the notion of having a restaurant inside the club. That was very new. We were going to clubs to dance, and suddenly we have a club where we can eat near the dancefloor, or you can stay seated at your table and go dance and come back, or from your dining table go into the VIP area near the dancefloor. She was among the first to create a club with a dining room and a dancefloor, and it was Régine’s.

That was the place for the Nouvelle vague.
Yes, of course. If you wanted to be trendy you had to go to Régines.

Can you remember going there?
I was trying to dress well, because contrary to François Patrice at St Hilaire you had to dress well, so you needed a tie, at the beginning. You needed to be well-mannered. She did not like someone behaving strangely. But the most beautiful good-looking girls of Paris were there. The most trendy people. When I had a record company, it was important for me to go there because I was meeting all the newspaperman, the people from the radio, the TV. Everyone was there. So it was a very strange place, where you were the actors of a night scene and everyone was watching the other and cruising the other and making his business with the other. We were going out from the club only when it was five, six o’clock in the morning.

And the dancing was wild?
Yes. Very wild. Always. A lot of ambience on the dancefloor. Everyone dancing. Of course you are taking out your tie and your jacket and you go out dancing. And you are dancing near Jean Moreau, Brigitte Bardot. For us, we were not known at tat time, we were so proud, we mixed with those… Like when we are going to Studio 54, and there you were there with Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, Steve Rubell doing his thing, everything.

So tell me more about working with Jacques Morali. The story of the Village People.
Morali was gay, I was straight. We were getting along very well. I was lucky because through Morali I understood the gay attitude and the underground scene.

So he would take you clubbing.
Yeah. Very hard clubs sometimes, on the West Side, oh god, leather and… But the music was very good.

Can you remember any in particular?
One was the Ramrod, it was a leather hardcore club but the music was incredible. The DJs were very good. Only men dancing between themselves. I was dancing with everyone. I didn’t care at all. But through that I understood the gay scene, the gay mentality, and how interesting it was, because those people were very alive, enjoying life, enjoying the nightlife.

What other places?
He took me to Fire Island, in the tea dance party, incredible. The best DJs in town, the sunny terrace. We were dancing four, five thousand people dancing on the terrace and looking at the sea. It’s Ibiza of today, we were watching the sun set, and the DJ as the sun set went from uptempo to midtempo. The Ice Palace, because we put the name on one of our first songs, called Fire Island. It was a thank you. Jacques told me about the bushes on the beach where people go there to do their thing.

The ‘meat rack’.
That’s where I wrote, ‘Don’t go to the butchers, don’t go, someone might grab you, someone might stab you’. It was a double entendre.

And where did you get the idea for the Village People?
Jacques, because he was gay always wanted to do something for the gay community. One day I will do something. We didn’t know it would be a group with male characters. Around ’78 the big one. We were walking down the street in the Village. I think it was Christopher Street. Jacques and I we heard bells, and this man dressed like an Indian he passed by and we saw him with his foot bells going into a bar. Jacques look at him, very interested and told me, ‘Oh god, he is good looking, I’m thirsty!’ So we entered into the bar, and the Indian is Felipe, young and skinny and he was a bartender there, and every 15, 20 mins he was going on top of the bar and doing disco stuff in his Indian attire. There was a DJ in the bar and they were mixing the music between disco and some Indian tribe music.

So we’re looking at the Indian, and on my left I saw a cowboy, like the Marlboro cowboy. Stetson on his head, a moustache, good looking, looking at the Indian dancing. And Morali turned to me and said, ‘Oh god, are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ I said yes, but two guys only, it will be vaudeville, so we started to think about what are the male characters that mean something to the gay community, with that double entendre. So we took a piece of paper.

You actually wrote it down.
Yes. We even thought about putting in what Jacques was calling the man-next-door or the boy-next-door. Very good looking, preppy. the plain straight guy with his attache case, the businessman going from Wall St. But finally we end up in building the six characters of the Village People on the piece of paper. Jacques was very outspoken and told him, hey you, Indian, you want to be in a group? that’s how Felipe the first one to join us.

Then we did a casting. We put an advertisement in the Village Voice and two nights later we were in a big warehouse. It was madness. We had around 60 people all dressed up because we said what characters we wanted…

So you had a bunch of policemen, a bunch of construction workers…
Exactly. I remember a guy came up to me, said Sir, this is not Halloween. I said no, we want to form a group. Finally we had five characters, we needed to find the sixth one, the lead singer, that would become the cop. So the night after we were invited to a play on Broadway called The Wiz. And that black guy on stage had an incredible voice, Victor Willis.

He was the Wiz?
Yes. We went backstage, I went to the guy, He was straight, not knowing anything about the gays except that he was not really liking them. And we told him what we wanted to do, and at first he said go to hell. Until he heard some of the music.

The first Village People album we launched it through the clubs. It was very new at that time to have the groups going to the clubs and playing for free. We shot the video clip outside of New York in the Catskills. We sold 100,000 albums like this, just through the clubs. And for the American record industry it was a revelation because we were showing them that we were able to sell 100,000 albums with no play on the radio.

What about Casablanca Records?
With the Ritchie Family, and Patrick Juvet, and Dennis Parker, and a lot of our acts we went to Casablanca. It was a very trendy label. Neil Bogart was known as an entrepreneur who had guts to take risks and he was a very good promoter, he had a very good relationship with the radio pluggers and things like this. So I called him one day. He said I’m glad you called, do you have something for me? I said we just finished an album I cannot explain on the phone what it is. I’m coming to visit you with Morali.

So we fly to Los Angeles, we go to the Beverley Hills Hotel, in the grand manner, and the night before going to that meeting, we tried the music for the first time in a club. At three o’clock in the morning I see 3,000 people on the dancefloor, the DJ link the Village People ‘San Francisco’ to another record and we watch it from the DJ booth, and we are scared like hell. Half of the people leave the dancefloor. Thirty seconds later, when the hook comes, we hear a big scream and the people got back to the dancefloor, and that DJ played that record twice, one after the other, and the people were screaming. So he looked at us and he said, ‘You got something guys.’

So you can imagine what state of mind I was in the day after when I was in Neil Bogart’s office. So I look at Neil Bogart and I say, ”OK, why did you call your record company Casablanca?” He said, ”Well, because of the movie Casablanca. My real name is Bogatz, OK, but because of Humphrey Bogart I called my record company Casablanca.” I tell him, well you know I’m born in Casablanca. So I took out my wallet to show him my ID: born in Casablanca. He pushes the intercom and tells the 45 employees, you gotta come here. I’ve got a surprise for you. So here we are 45 people looking at us because I’m born in Casablanca. But I was very lucky because I had all the staff in the same room, so Neil played the Village People. He played the whole album. And everyone was raving and shouting at the end of the play. Kissing. And that’s how we started with Casablanca. We were lucky because he really knew how to promote the records. And he was hot with Kiss, with Donna Summer, I mean he was really on top of it at that time.

There was a lot of craziness at the label.
Oh yes, definitely.

Sex and drugs and rock and roll?
Surely true. At regular hours a car would go in the parking lot and some delivery of pizza or something, and some plate with sugar on it. I was not into it. And I said, ”Oh I understand why so many people are rolling the one dollar bills.” That’s how Casablanca was. But on top of it it was a very serious record company. We were very lucky to be with them.

Did you feel you were being subversive, because of the Village People characters?
Not only subversive, also provocative.

Did you think about the political side of it? gay liberation and things like that?
Not at the beginning, not really. We were keen of doing something for that, because Jacques was gay, and I was feeling that an injustice was done to the gay community. And I did not like that American mentality of bigotry and hypocrisy. And I didn’t see why thee people would be treated like this. Like black people as well, I did not like the way they were treated. So I was not doing this really as a businessman trying to make a fortune, and it happens any way after. But I always say what comes from the heart goes to the heart. I really did it as a provocative, subversive way of telling you this is the way it is.

But I have to say in the group in all honesty, not all of them were gay. I’m not asking someone his sexual preference. They were very natural about it. I’m gay, I’m gay, and that’s the way it is. When we had the success with YMCA and Casablanca Records asked us to do a real live show and the movie, Hollywood started to be interested and wanted to do a movie about disco music, Jacques and I we really went deeper into the double meaning.

“They told me we love your song, we think it can be a perfect spot for Navy recruitment.”

And the US Navy actually used ‘In The Navy’ for its recruitment ads?
Video clip was something very new, you know. So I was in my New York office and I had a call from an advertising company that was in charge of budget of the American Navy. The recruiting was going down and they wanted to do some advertisement for young people to engage in the navy. They told me we love your song we think it can be a perfect spot for Navy recruitment.

And so I am having the nerve to say, ‘I have nothing against it but I want the Navy to help me. I don’t want any money, I want them to give me a loan, I want a warship and 200 navy men. And five planes’. He said ‘OK, I’m going to call you back’.

And here I am later, at the Pentagon, meeting this admiral, and his aides and going through the campaign and what is needed. They showed me pictures of big warships that were in the naval base of San Diego, California, and they said OK which one do you want, so I picked out one, and I wanted 200 navy men and you want planes? I said yes, because in the clip I want the planes to do like a star.

So we do the video clip, the navy starts their advertisement campaign, I’m back to NY and same week: catastrophe! the New York Times, the Washington Post make the headlines ‘the American Navy is using the tax money of the people to finance a video clip of a group with unknown sexual, dot, dot, dot. So the navy cancelled their advertisement and they said that it was for budgetary reasons.

He shows me a framed certificate from the US Navy:

“To Henri Belolo of Village People, in recognition of the outstanding contribution of your new release In The Navy to the morale of USS Reasoner, to the cause of Navy retention and the support of Navy recruiting, the commanding officer USS Reasoner takes great pleasure in  designating you an honorary Reasoner sailor with all rights and privileges, none of the duties and responsibilities that go with it.”

For a long time America really didn’t see through the stereotypes.
Oh yes. That’s how we took fantasy to the dancefloor, and up to today people are dancing YMCA and Macho Man, and strangely enough, all those gay stereotypes ended up in Friends, In Terminator with Schwarzenegger, with Eddie Murphy in Dr Doolittle dancing to ‘Macho Man’. The miracle was in Morali’s melodies. They were so popular. The melodies are so strong, they have a so strong virus and hook in them, that when you hear them from in a Village People song with the rhythm, what stays in the mind of the radio listener is the melody and the hook. It became pop history. And it’s part of culture, of American heritage. And people are often surprised to discover that two French guys were behind it, amazingly enough.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

DJ Paulette fleshes it out

DJ Paulette fleshes it out

Interviewed by Bill, 5.10.21

Music-obsessive Paulette went to her first club aged 14 and never looked back. From 1992 she was resident at Flesh, the mixed/gay spectacular at The Haçienda, and as British clubbing discovered glamour, she was welcomed into a flamboyant nationwide family, where her fiercely expressive approach to DJing (and DJ attire) earnt her residencies at many of the best nights across the UK. After a sojourn in Paris she’s now back in Manchester, writing a book and creating unapologetically fabulous shapes out of dancefloors worldwide.

Can you remember the first time you ever went to a club?
I started clubbing in Manchester when I was 15, but the first club I went to, I was 14, it was 1980, and I went to Cagneys in Liverpool to hear Steve Proctor play. At the time, I was buying Melody Maker, NME, The Face and New Sounds New Styles. They were my magazines. I was into post-punk, Sheffield electronic sounds. So, Cabaret Voltaire, early Human League: Travelogue, Reproduction. And Gary Numan, John Foxx, all sorts of electronic. And then post-punk: Dead Kennedys, Killing Joke, that kind of thing. I was really into that.

It was the Blitz Kids in London, Princess Julia and Rusty Egan who were playing all this. And I couldn’t get that far, but Liverpool seemed doable. And in all the magazines, they talked about this DJ in the north of England who was playing that kind of music. My sister’s friend Karen was best friends with Steve Proctor. So she was like, ‘Oh, just come to Liverpool and I’ll put you on the guest list.’ Never mind the fact that I was 14, but these were simpler times in the ’80s, when you could just take somebody else’s paper birth certificate to the club as proof of age and look a bit grown-up.

Photo: Lee Baxter

And I went wearing a really beautiful big print, it was like plants and leaves, big Monstera leaves on this jumpsuit which was green and olive and gold. It was beautiful. You know, one of those jumpsuits with the diagonal zip. And yeah, I went to Cagneys in Liverpool. The first record he was playing when I walked in was Gary Numan, ‘Cars’, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is fantastic,’ I got on the dance floor, and that was it. I think I was going once every two weeks or once a month or something. And then I started studying for my marks and it got a bit of a drag going all the way to Liverpool after school on a Friday.

Then my sister Elizabeth started working at a club called Pips behind the bar, and she said, ‘Why don’t you come to Pips? They’re playing your music.’ Because I was the only one in my family that was into that. Everyone else was into soul. They were following Greg Wilson, Colin Curtis, Mike Shaft, Ewan Clarke. They’re like family friends. And I was just like, ‘I love that music, but this is what I want to follow.’ So Liz is just like, ‘Come. I’m on the bar, so I can keep my eye on you. I can get you in, but you know, you can get a membership.’ And that’s what I did, and I was there probably three nights a week until it closed. I was a steady 18 for three years, because I just used to use different sisters’ birth certificates to get membership.

And Pips became your home from home
It was absolutely fantastic. First of all, Pips has everything to do with how I built my record collection, because it was a bit of everything. It had four rooms; a ’60s room, a soul room, a Bowie room, and a Roxy room. You had all the punk stuff in the Roxy room, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Dead Kennedys, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, all that kind of shit. And the Bowie room was where they were playing all their new romantic stuff: Bowie, Roxy, Simple Minds, which was more self-expressive, Visage, that kind of thing. The dress-up, the performance thing.

And Pips had everything to do with why I DJ the way I do, because it’s all to do with expressing yourself to the music at the same time as it’s playing. So, dancing along, singing along, miming along. Every time they played a Bowie record, everyone moved off the dance floor, and the Bowie-heads moved on, and it was a dance floor full of Marcel Marceaus miming along to it. I used to be really good at it.

Was it quite big?
Yeah. It was massive. It was a massive basement club, four rooms. You could definitely fit I would say 150, 200 in each room. Probably about 800 in total, maybe 1,000 at a squeeze.

Did you ever go to The Haçienda before acid house kicked in?
Of course I did, yeah. Because we used to go and listen to Hewan Clarke and Mike Pickering at Nude and go to gigs there and everything. It was just a place to go and listen to music and dance, you know? Sometimes really empty and sometimes really good. It was a really good place to dance, a really good dance floor. It was like a playground to me. The Ritz, The Gallery, Pips, Haçienda, Boardwalk, DeVille’s, Berlin, Legend, I’ve done them all. I was there on the dance floor. That’s how I grew up. I was clubbing probably three nights a week from 14.

Out of all of them, you would say Pips was the most formative.
Yeah, there’s never been another club like it, and I don’t think they could ever make it again, just because of the mixing of tribes. Even at festivals, you don’t really get that mixing the way you did there. Because at Pips, you’ve got the ’60s room, you’ve got the soul room, you’ve got the Bowie and the Roxy room, but people didn’t just stay in those rooms. Everybody moved around. So you’d get the soul boys in the Bowie room in their waffle cardigans and their cords and their loafers watching all the dressed up new romantics dancing to Grace Jones or David Bowie. And then you’d get these six-foot-four punks with full mohicans, chains, makeup, the lot, standing in the soul room, dancing to flippin’ Donny Hathaway. You know? It was just like a real mind meld.

Though culturally, 1980, 1981, and 1982, if you looked even remotely different, you were a fag, you were a queer, you were a puff. And if you actually were, then it was even worse, you know? You got it in the street, but you didn’t get it in the club. People seemed to leave that outside the door, and once in the club, everyone was alright with everyone being there.

All of the different tribes would mingle in one space, because you knew you wouldn’t get beaten up and you knew you could hang out there.
I suppose Pips and then DeVille’s and Berlin were my soft introduction into the full gay scene of Manchester. That was kind of how I drifted into finding that side of myself.

“The reason it happened in gay clubs is because they didn’t see having women behind the decks as a bad thing or a weakness. They saw it as a strength.”

When did you start hearing house music?
I think I was more aware of house music coming through my sisters, because Paula and Elizabeth were raving and I wasn’t, and they were bringing the music back, and I was hearing it on the radio.

But not in clubs?
I was married really early. And my ex-husband didn’t like clubs at all. And for the years I was with him, we kind of went to clubs, but it was all very polite. So it was only really like the wine bar-y ’80s, and Simply Red-y sort of stuff. We split up after seven years. So probably the first time I heard house music in a club was after I went, ‘Fuck this, I’m out of here,’ and started dancing at The Number One, in 1991.

Tell me about The Number One. I used to go there as well.
The Number One was funny. I always seem to be attracted to these dark, seedy basements where all sorts of shit happens. You lose control and you find yourself. I was working for Piccadilly Radio, and me and my friend went to The Number One one day after work, and it was chrome and mirrors and carpet, and they were showing Divine on the videos: Female Trouble, and I remember that very clearly.

Then fast forward to 1991, I went back. The carpet was sticky and dark. The chrome was there but it had all been painted over black, and it was a proper rave spot. I was there one night dancing, and I remember dancing to Prince’s ‘Gett Off’, and I lost the plot. Absolutely lost the plot. I don’t know whether it was because I was free from my husband for the night. I remembered Tim Lennox played this Junior Vasquez mix and I went into this routine which just was a complete release, and when the manager saw me dancing, he just came over at the end and he went, ‘Oh my God, that was fantastic. Do you want to work for us?’ So I was like, ‘Doing what?’ And he said, ‘I’d like you to dance on a podium every Friday and Saturday night. If you can do that from nine till two, I’ll pay you 50 quid.’ And I was studying, so it was quite a lot of money. I said yes, much against my husband. He wasn’t happy about it at all. It was nearly all of the mortgage though. So he’s like, ‘Okay, then.’

But I wasn’t allowed to leave the house in the clothes I was wearing, so I had to change at the club. It was all a bit mental. But this club was, wow, because Tim Lennox was playing. And that was where I heard DSK, Inner City, Kevin Saunderson, Mr. Fingers, Larry Heard, and then all the vocal stuff that was coming through.

Who were the DJs who influenced you most?
There was Hewan, there was Tim Lennox, there was Mike Pickering, and Barney – Michael Barnes-Wynters from Bristol. He used to run a party called Hoochie Coochie in Manchester. He’s just a incredible, switched on, very politically black, very right on, black power, civil rights kind of person. He’s an artist now. And musically, because he was from Bristol, he had an edge that Manchester music didn’t necessarily have. They were the four pillars of my understanding of what it takes to build a set, play a set. What kind of music can you play all night, which is basically fucking everything. And the quality, really, and also vocals. They all played vocals.

Any women?
I didn’t have any female influences. There were never any women behind the decks when I started DJing. Even on the posters, on the flyers, there were no women’s names on them ever. Ever, ever, ever. I wasn’t moving in the lesbian circles either, so I wasn’t aware of that side of things. From my tunnel vision I was always following male DJs.

When you first started DJing, all of the women seemed to come through the gay scene, even if they weren’t actually gay. Princess Julia, Vicki Edwards, Rachel Auburn, people like that. It was like female DJs hardly existed on the straight scene.
Well, they didn’t exist on the straight scene because it was big boys club, and they were never going to give any woman a job. There’s a reason why there weren’t any women on the flyers or the posters, because there weren’t any there. It changed a lot in the ’90s, but in the ’80s the only women you really saw in clubs were behind the scenes. They could manage the bar. They could manage the kitchens, the offices, the record labels, everything, but they weren’t the high profile figureheads. Ang Matthews was managing The Haçienda, but you never saw her giving any comments on the news. It was Tony Wilson, Peter Hook, Rob Gretton. You wouldn’t have been aware that women were running anything to do with The Haçienda, or the Factory, but they were.

There was a woman who designed The Haçienda who never gets mentioned: Sandra Douglas. It’s always Ben Kelly.
I mean, it’s in everything. It’s not just in clubbing. It’s the same in the arts. It’s the same in science, politics.It’s not unusual to clubbing, per se. We live in patriarchal society. That’s how it is. Things are systemically embedded in society. That’s when it becomes political, because it’s not just an isolated case of you not knowing there were women there, or they’re not promoted, or they’re not pushed, or they’re not accepted. That’s just the way it was. And there weren’t really very many women.

I think the reason why it happened in gay clubs is because they were alright with having women around. They didn’t see having women behind the decks as a bad thing or a weakness. They saw it as a strength. They saw it as something else that would attract another crew of people.

And also, they knew that if you had a lot of women there, it changes the environment completely. You know yourself, if you play a record that brings all the boys to the dance floor and makes all the girls disappear, your dancefloor will go really quickly, because you really do need to keep that balance of men and women. With the gay clubs, they were working more on the holistic atmosphere of the event, rather than it just being a club playing records.

How did you get the gig at Flesh?
I started DJing in 1992. It was by accident because I never planned to be a DJ. I didn’t set out thinking, ‘I want to DJ at The Haçienda.’ I was offered a spot at a party that a friend of a friend of mine was running, and she’d run out of money because she paid for the hire of the club, she paid for the posters and everything, and then couldn’t afford to pay for a DJ. So she asked her friend Tommy, did he know anyone? And he knew I had loads of records because I’d been secretly building this record collection, even though my husband had said no, I couldn’t. I spoke to Adele. She said, ‘I want you to play at The Number One from nine till two. I’ll give you 30 quid,’ which seemed like a really good deal to me. So I said yes, spent my entire grant for that term on records, which was 150 quid. I played that party, and it went really super, super well. I did it on my own. I’d never played in a club before, and I played the entire night. I didn’t lose anyone. You know, nobody walked out. Nobody said it was shit.

And from that, it had really good feedback from the gay community, because it was a gay party. And news filtered back to Paul Cons and Lucy Scher, who were moving Flesh from The Academy to The Haçienda. And then Adele said to me ‘I think we should ask them if we can play their second room.’ So we did. Lucy Scher, there’s another woman, god rest her soul, she died three years ago. If it hadn’t have been for Lucy, neither myself nor Kath McDermott would have played at The Haçienda.

Before this, Lucy did a party there, I think it was called The Summer of Lesbian Love, and it was one of the biggest parties they’d had – absolutely packed and made loads of money. So that persuaded the people at The Haçienda that maybe it was a good thing to start a new gay night, so they started Flesh. I was downstairs in the Gay Traitor. They renamed it the Pussy Parlour, and I played there every month from ’92 till ’96, bar two when I took my finals.

When all of the problems were happening at The Haçienda, with gangs taking over the door, was Flesh unaffected by that because it was a gay club?
It was for a while. At some point, some of the gangs used to come into Flesh, and it was just a place where they could hang out and be left alone, and nobody would bother them, and they could enjoy the music. They did occasionally come in. Certain of them, not all of them, but in large, it was a safe space for gay people and their mates.

And you juggled DJing with a career in promotions
I moved to London in ’94. and I’m working at Mercury Records. And by 1996, I’m full on into Talkin’ Loud, Manifesto, Ibiza, you name it. It was just too much. Flesh was a Wednesday monthly. I couldn’t keep taking a Wednesday every month off work, so I had to stop. Also, they didn’t want to pay more, and they didn’t want to pay my travel. I was at Mercury Records from ’94, and then I was at Azuli and Defected in ’98, and then by ’99, I was just working solely on Azuli as the promotions and art director. And then 2000 I was really struggling to keep the timing of working a full-time job as a promotions director for a record label and my weekend DJing which had really picked up. They wanted me to do an American tour, so I made the leap in 2000 to go full-time.

And you lived in Paris for a while
I started touring internationally for the Ministry of Sound, and various other things happened. I had a load of problems with my flat and then I sold it. I met someone, and it was just like … I’d always wanted to live in France anyway, so I just decided that it would be a good idea in 2004 to make that leap. So December 2004, I moved to Paris.

One of Paulette’s low-key outfits for Flesh. “If you’re gonna make yourself visible make yourself really visible” Photo: Daniel Newman

Did the novelty factor of being a woman help or hinder you in the early part of your DJ career?
Both. Both. I mean, in terms of bookings, I would say absolutely helped on the gay scene. It didn’t help me on the straight scene at all. I had to kind of divorce myself from playing those nights in order to start playing on the straight circuit, to start working at your Ministry of Sounds, your Cross, your Bagleys. You didn’t get gay DJs playing on this straight scene and you didn’t really get straight DJs playing on the gay scene. They just didn’t meet. I was with Concord Artists, and when they were suggesting me for booking, people wouldn’t book me because I was ‘that gay DJ’. So I had to lose that tag, which is really upsetting. Looking back on it, that’s fucking discrimination. You really wouldn’t be able to do that now. And if people found out about it, they could rightly kick off.

But in gay terms it was fantastic because the persona that I had built meant I was picked up by Wayne Kurz at The Zap for a weekly residency. And the same with playing for James Horrocks and Thomas Foley at Garage at Heaven with Princess Julia and Rachel Auburn and Stephen Sharp. James Bailey had seen me, so I went to play at Venus in Nottingham, and Trannies With Attitude booked me for Vague. They had all seen me and heard me play out Flesh. Patrick Lilley was always, always at Flesh. And when I moved to London, I became a good friend and consequently played for a lot of his nights: Queer Nation, One Nation Under A Groove, you name it. All of those big mythic gay nights and gay locations. Everything those people did, I was able to play because I was part of the family. It enabled me to meet all these really powerful, important people and play at some of the best parties in the world

And in what ways did it hinder you?
I was thinking about it the other day. When I started DJing I didn’t know, how do I get these cool records? It was about ’93, so I’d split up from my husband and was seeing Simon Bushell, who was in charge of a distribution company that supplied all the record shops in Manchester. One Saturday afternoon, he took me to Eastern Bloc, and he says, ‘You should put a bag of records aside for Paulette. She’s a really good DJ. She’s up and coming,’ and somebody said ‘Why should we give her any records? She only gets the gigs because she stands there playing records in a fluffy bra and bikini knickers.’

It was just like, god, the straight guys don’t think I’m remotely relevant in terms of music. All they can see is a woman behind the decks. And not just a woman, because I think if you’re going to make yourself visible, make yourself really visible, so I’m not standing there in twin set and pearls; I’ve got fuck-all on. It was just clear that they didn’t think I deserved the term of DJ, because all I was to them was window dressing. For people who know me and know what was in my head musically, they would know my life is music. But for the people that couldn’t be assed, all they saw was a fluffy Wonderbra.

“David Guetta’s around 20 million a year. There’s not a female that’s earning even close to that. “

Have you noticed things change over the past 25, 30 years?
I think a lot more in the last four years. We can talk about this stuff now, and we can actually say, ‘Hey, this is right. This is wrong. This needs changing. This doesn’t. We’ve got a whole new generation of females that are running things. They’re running their own labels. They’ve got radio shows on Radio 1, 1Xtra, Reprezent Radio, Rinse, you name it. They’ve all got their brands. They’ve got their labels. You’ve got people like Anz, and Jamz Supernova, and Jaguar, and Afrodeutsche. There’s a whole new generation of really powerful, vocal, political black women coming up. And that’s where I would see the change as well because I’m seeing a lot more black women too in there. When I was doing it, I was a bit of a needle in a haystack.

Is it really that recent that it’s changed?
Yes. Absolutely that recent.

Are there places even now where you still get treated differently as a female DJ?
Yeah. I mean, of course there are, because there isn’t a single place that pays women the same money as they pay men. That gender pay gap is absolutely horrific. For one of the projects I’m working on I was looking at the statistics for wages for female DJs. The highest paid male DJ, I think it’s between Calvin Harris and Marshmello. I think Calvin Harris earned 80 million last year. And Marshmello earned 38.5. The highest earning female DJ, I bet you can’t even guess who that is.

Nina Kraviz?
Not even close.

One of the Eastern European techno DJs?
Not even close.

I’ve got no idea, then.
The highest earning female DJ, and this is such a con even putting her on the list because she is an heiress anyway…

Oh, God.
…is Paris Hilton.

There isn’t any female DJ that is earning even remotely near the amounts the guys are earning. I think David Guetta’s around 20 million a year. There’s not a female that’s earning even close to that. There isn’t a female equivalent to Carl Cox. There isn’t a female equivalent to David Guetta. The closest you can get is Nervo, and I’m telling you, they are not earning anywhere near the same.

Annie Mac is just an absolute mega-god in terms of what can be done and what can be achieved. But if Annie Mac doesn’t come up in the 20 highest earning DJs, then seriously, we’ve got a problem. When she left Radio 1, the last post she did said, ‘There’ve been so many changes and it’s great to see so many women at Radio 1, but we still have so far to go.’ And it’s just really frustrating. I’ve been DJing for 30 years and I think it’s changed a lot in many ways. But really, when you put the stats together, it’s not changed at all.

Is dancing political?
For me, yeah. Everything. Everything’s political for me, everything from my head down to my toes. Everything is political, much to the annoyance of my family. But I really do see that if we have this platform, it has to have some use. It can’t just be, oh, I’m playing this nice record and then that nice record. If you’re going to influence people, make it count. If you’re going to entertain people, entertain them in such a way that they can take some kind of message away. A positive message, a positive political message.

Music is universal. I will never stop loving music, and I’m not going to stop playing music unless the ears fall off the side of my head or I go deaf. And I think even if I go deaf, I’ll still have a go. Everything about dance is political, down to the colour I am, the gender I am, the age I am, everything. Absolutely everything is political. And I hope that just by my even standing there, I am saying to people it is okay. And that’s why I keep going. It’s okay. Just whatever you want to do, if you have that dream, if you have something you want to do, just do it. It’s okay to be who you are. Just be who you are when you wake up in the morning. It’s fine. Go party.

And yes, dance is political. We have a platform that we can use to transmit messages. So, I do occasional bits of fundraising. I will use my music and my platform to transmit that message and to raise money or to raise awareness. And I think we can really make a difference in that way. So yes, dance music is political and it always should be. We’re fucked if it’s not. We really are.

Why is music such a force for rebellion?
It isn’t for everybody. There are some people who manage to use dance music as just a money-making tool to line their own pockets and to buy huge mansions. But music has always been a tool for rebellion, right back to Negro spirituals and gospel music. It wasn’t just a nice song. They were giving directions to people to get out of the fields. The songs they were singing, they were maps. Music has always been really political. I think if you can get a song that sticks in people’s heads, it’s a lot more powerful than a pamphlet or a politician.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Froggy got Britain mixing

Froggy got Britain mixing

Interviewed by Bill in London, 7.9.04

After an eye-opening trip to New York in 1979, Steven Howlett, aka Froggy, showed the UK how powerful a tool mixing could be. His inspirational visits to the Paradise Garage and Studio 54 led him to own the first pair of Technics 1200s in the UK. He also built himself a monster mobile sound rig, inspired by the roadshows of radio giants like Emperor Rosko and the rigs of East London reggae don Jah Tubby. Armed with giant sound and killer mixing skills Froggy became one of the most influential spinners in the so-called Soul Mafia.

Where did you grow up?
I’m a proper cockney. Born in Whitechapel, by the Bow bells. Born in The Wright Hospital, November 8th. Age don’t talk about. I’m a veteran [he was 53.]

Did you grow up in Whitechapel?
I grew up in Whitechapel, then moved to Rainham, between 7 and 12, then moved back to Ilford. Dad worked at Plessey’s at the time, which was a big concern. I couldn’t stand school anymore and my dad had influence there and it was hard to get an apprenticeship. I wanted to do an electronics apprenticeship and in those days you could leave when you were 15, so I left just after my 15th birthday. Did that till I was 21. Went and got my City & Guilds. Covered all aspects of engineering. My thoughts were always towards the radio, studio equipment and sound systems. Started developing this skill for sound systems and radiograms.

When did you start collecting records?
When I was five. In those days, all you had was wind up record players. Clockwork, with a handle on the side. In those days, it was 78s and you had to change the needles after three or four plays. So my pocket money was a box of needles every week, and a record. So they’d lock me in my room and I’d play my records.

“There was nothing like mixing in those days.”

What sort of records?
I had a great interest in general melody stuff, things like Guy Mitchell ‘Singin’ The Blues’, ‘Rock Around The Clock’, I was a big Lonnie Donegan fan. Then Plessey’s went all electronic and they did a motor, my dad came home with it one night when I was about seven, which did away with the handle. So I could play records without using the handle. Six months after that, when I was about 8, my dad kindly turned up with a radiogram which I completely commandeered for the next ten years. It had two eight-inch speakers, real deck. Just at that time, 7-inch singles came out, so every week I had a single, and because I didn’t have to change the needles anymore… I got sweets instead of needles. Then I started building things – sound – and people started giving me speakers. My mum died at an early age, so I was pretty well going through some bad times when I was younger, so the music was a comfort… This radiogram, they made the mistake of giving me a drill, and when they came back home I’d drilled all the radiogram out, speakers everywhere. I had eight speakers in there. It blew up. But they gave me that [radiogram] box and I had it for ten years. That’s when I started collecting records. When I started my apprenticeship, you didn’t get a lot of money, about a fiver a week, I quickly became the Apprenticeship Association man, which gave me the clout to put a few do’s on. Plessey’s, at that time, had a social hall. I became chairman of the Ap. Assoc. With all my knowledge, I scrounged speakers, amplifier, and I had a couple of old Garrard decks and started doing little do’s for apprentices.

Where you using two decks, then?
There was nothing like mixing in those days. All you had was a big hi-fi amp, a Leek 70 or quad amplifier, which was the crème de la crème, and both of those had two decks plugs, so you could switch from one to the other. I had a couple of Garrard turntables and an amp and a couple of speakers. And I already had quite a collection and those records were quite appropriate for these do’s. Towards the end of my apprenticeship, I’d saved quite a bit of money, and I went and got two sheets of eight by five and at that time the only 12-inch speaker you could get, associated with Plessey was a Wharfedale, so I phoned the company up to get the specs and built two cabinets with tweeters in, in my house. That was my first two disco speakers. Continued with my apprenticeship. I’d heard there was a little place starting up at the Bird’s Nest in Chapel Heath. They were Whatney’s pubs with a little room in each pub and they were interviewing for DJs. So I went along and got it straight away. I asked for my own night and started with nothing and built it up till it was packed. And it was on a Monday night. So soon as I’d finished my apprenticeship, the day I finished, I jacked it in the next day. I wanted to go professional. To my horror it wasn’t as easy as I thought. I bought a little Thames van for £100, put some gear in it. Proudly walked in the next week and told them proudly I was a professional disc jockey. They laughed me all the way out of the door, because you really could not get insured for any kind of entertainment then whether you were a golfer or DJ. I had to go round posing as an electrician. Anyway, got the Bird’s Nest going, packed out every Monday night, different promoters started coming in, liked what I did, liked what I played. I was a good entertainer, and good on the mic. So other owners from other places got my number and started booking me. So six months after I’d gone professional I’d managed to sustain a wage from doing it.

Which other places were you doing?
Bird’s Nest was my main one. The Robin Hood in Dagenham on Thursdays. Then one day a guy came to see me at the Bird’s Nest, within the first year, and he said I’ve got a guy who deals with all the bands, manages them, and at the time he was managing Joe Brown who, at the time, was doing quite well. He used to have a venue, and he’d had it for 18 years then. By this time I had a little mobile kit. Couple of speakers, Numan Audio, couple of decks. Anyway, I rang this guy up, George Cooper, and he put on every year in Scunthorpe – and you can imagine what it’s like up north, they didn’t have any entertainment.

Was this Scunthorpe Baths, by any chance?

I’ve played there as well!
Yeah, if you visited it in the winter you couldn’t imagine it being a swimming pool.

Well it isn’t now they’ve filled it.
So for 30 weeks of the year, George Cooper used to put bands in as a package. He came round to see me, little short man, arrogant bugger, for £50 off I went. Two weeks later, I found myself on my way to Scunthorpe, which is probably the hardest ride imaginable. Set off at 8 in the morning to get there at 5 at night to get there in time for the bands. At that time the bands that were big were The Sweet, T Rex, Slade and I had some great fun working with those bands. Only problem was the loneliness going there and back cos I only had a Thames van it was a bloody long drive. There were no motorways then and I used to come home and it did knock the balls out of me.

I did that for four years. First year it was all bands. I realised I didn’t have enough equipment to do such a big room, and they were talking to me one day, the manager and George and they said do you know much about any of the radio jocks. So I said I was a big fan of Emperor Roskoe. So they said get him down here. First one they booked was Johnny Walker, then came Rosko, who was my hero and he had this big lorry load of equipment, it was the bollocks and he actually came and sat and spoke to me. He actually let me plug my deck into his system and – boom – I was gone then. Soon as I got back I started buying every speaker, borrowed money wherever I could, filled the van up with speakers, built up these amplifiers and, next, they booked Dave Lee Travis. The good thing about this night was he commented on how sharp I was. When he looked I always had that awareness so I had a record already cued up, so he’d tell a few gags and entertain. To my amazement at the end of the night he said, ‘could I have a word with you?’ We went back to the dressing room. He said, ‘Been wanting to do it for a long time but just haven’t found the right person. I really enjoyed working with you tonight. There’s something about your timing and the music you played. Are you interested in doing some gigs with me?’ I said I’d love to.

He said I want to get together a roadshow. Within three weeks, I went round to his place, had a talk. He said he wanted to tour and it can be quite hectic. He wanted two dancers, me before and after. So we got two good dancers, I brushed up the sound equipment and off we went and did our first couple of shows. We didn’t have anywhere open after 2 in those days so we’d do ten till one thirty. So we had the DLT Roadshow with my name in subtitles. It was so successful we toured the country four or five times. We toured for five years. Dave bought a Winnebago. We had a couple of road crew. Dave was at the peak of his career then so it opened a lot of doors for me, as you can imagine, and they’d often book me back on my own to do a set on a club night and that’s how I built up my name all over the country. The Froggy name came from the Bird’s Nest because we all had to have nicknames. There was a Scottish DJ called Jock The Jock, and because I was quite wiry and so it became Frog and then Froggy. I then got asked to do one of the biggest clubs in the country – I’d played there twice as the DLT Roadshow – which was the Southgate Royalty. Just at that time Jeff Young was playing and the manager said ‘would you come down and do one with your sound system’ because by that time I’d built it up into quite a nice system. So I went back and did it on my own, played a lot less commercial stuff, more what Jeff was playing. They said it was great and they offered me a residency. And by that time I’d been touring all the time and I was tired out. I wanted to have a base, so I took it on. Bit of a bumpy ride for 6 months, because I had to find someone to cover for me with Dave, but eventually I left because I really wanted to stick with the Royalty.

“I was one of the few people that Richard Long let up to see what was in the Paradise Garage.”

What year did you start doing it?
Years are a bit difficult to quote you. Within the first year I was there, it really built up. I was playing a lot more imports. But I was breaking imports while I was on the road, too. Because I worked at the Royalty, they’d have a bag of tune for me literally everything that came in. I’d pick ‘em up and pay for them sale or return. In that first year, they did the New Music Seminar in New York. Well, New York was about the biggest place to go, so just inside that year I went over there with a few DJs

Yeah. I went over with the Mafia team. Chris Hill, Chris Brown, Sean French, Robbie Vincent, me. I’ve never experienced anything like it in all my life. It changed my life completely. I’d heard all about it, and I’d heard all about mixing techniques. I was always good at mixing, but not in the way they did it. I always had a good idea of beats and how you could weave music in and out. The first day meeting everyone which I found great. Then we got invited to the Paradise Garage. I never knew nothin’ about it. But Chris Hill said to me, when you see it, you’ll understand what I’ve been going on about, because he’d been going on about it for ages. So we left at midnight, we’d all had loads of champagne and everything else. And I’d never seen anything like it. Sound system was the most incredible I’d ever heard. The room was the most electrifyin’ I’d ever been in. The DJ was just… incredible. The tunes he played were quite fantastic. The two stations then were WBLS and WKTU and BLS was linked with Paradise Garage and was much more streety and WKTU was linked to Studio 54. I experienced this whole night, from twelve till seven listening to this jock and the lighting and the sound was just so incredible, I couldn’t believe it. The following evening we went to Studio 54 and experienced the big queue outside and being picked – we had special passes – and also the Richard Long sound system which was the same as the Garage one. The music was much more lighter, but just as entertaining and brilliant. Came back and decided, with all the information I’d got, I spoke to Richard Long quite a lot, who was fascinated by my interest in sound systems, made lots of drawings and notes and came back and got myself in a load of facking debt. I went out and borrowed every penny I could, bought a lorry and built a big system up. Went to see a mate of mine in Southend and he built these big bins for me and I took two guys on full time. We fitted it into the Royalty every week and people used to come for miles. By this time, I’d had my mixer modified and redesigned.

What sort of records was he playing and how did that influence the Royalty?
The Garage wasn’t about one particular type of music, you’d hear ‘Can You Handle It‘, two copies running, I’d buy two copies of records and do phasing and overlaps. He’d put ‘Another One Bites The Dust‘ in the middle of it! Wow! I remember going to some downtown record shop just to get the Queen acetate. I came back to the Royalty and whacked it on and blew its stack off. The whole idea of the Garage was any good record could be a dance track, which was great: ‘Love Injection‘, ‘We Got The Funk‘, ‘Another One Bites The Dust‘, so I started doing all these little inserts. Pete Tong was so impressed, he was like that’s a fucking brilliant idea and that started to influence him a lot. ‘Every Way Which Loose‘, ‘Love Injection, D-Train ‘You’re The One For Me‘, ‘Can You Handle It‘, all the Prelude stuff. One of the biggest labels at that time was West End. They really did have loads of leftfield tracks, there’s one that’s still getting used now, Loose Joints‘ ‘Is It All Over My Face‘. It took me a year to break that track, no one could get into that. Peech Boys ‘Don’t Make Me Wait‘. Then on the jazz funk side you had all the British bands coming up. You had Level 42, I Level… So in your set you’d include Lonnie Liston Smith ‘Expansions‘, ‘Always There‘ Willie Bobo, then you’d have the jazz stuff to go in there. So jazz funk included Willie Bobo, you never heard jazz funk stuff at the Garage, it was all club music. But in this country, you mixed them together. So ‘Expansions‘ and you’d play Sharon Redd after it. 

When Froggy met Larry

In terms of the sound, what were you using exactly?
When I was over there, I was one of the few people that Richard Long let up to see what was in the Paradise Garage. He used Thorens decks at the time and they were mounted up from a gimbal in the ceiling. When I had a look at one, they were just too slow for the work I was used to. I needed a quicker start. All the DJs who were doing blend mixing were using the Technics 1200 Mk I which to my horror, I brought two back from New York and I just couldn’t work with them. I practised on them for two months, then I went to play up north at the Warehouse

In Leeds?
Yeah, he had guys like Greg Wilson playing up there. When I went up there to play, I fluffed it, couldn’t use them; they were too slow, so I flogged them. Anyway, I went over to New York and I’d heard about a new version of the 1200 that they had out, the Mk2, when I went over and played on them, I did a little guest spot, the deck was quick it had a hi torque motor in it. That changed the whole industry. I bought two back with me.

Was the mark 1 the one with the little LED screen on it?
No that was the 1500 Mk2. I had the first 1200s in the country. I modified my whole deck to fit them in, feedback problems everything, but once I’d got into them – I’ve still got them now – off I went. And the mixing, I studied Larry Levan, Tee Scott, Shep Pettibone, went to KISS FM and watched them. And then adopted it at the Royalty on the Saturday night. Within eight weeks, Chris Hill came up to me and said I was definitely on par with the Americans. So it went on from there.

Were you aware of guys like Greg James at the Embassy?
Yeah, I’ve got a lot of respect for him. They used these lazy decks which weren’t right for what I was doing, but I used to go and watch Greg, he was great. But when the 1200s came out it opened a lot of doors. Also, I’d always had a reel-to-reel, so I started editing. Dave Atkin, from Radio 1, Dave Lee Travis’s producer, good friend of mine, taught me. I used to and watch him produce shows, watched him edit singles down for radio. He said, when you get it right, you can have a little mix each week on Peter Powell’s show. What I was doing was making the mixes up, but I couldn’t edit properly. He taught me to edit properly and I practised and practised. So I’d take him a mix in, have a chat about what was in Blues & Soul, Record Mirror, so then I started doing a lot of mixes [edits] for radio, 7-inch mixes. Capital heard me and gave me a late night show.

What kind of stuff were you playing when you did the Peter Powell?
Well, if you had most of the papers like RM for instance, the biggest was Record Mirror, for the industry there was a two page supplement written by James Hamilton every week. So you’d read the column and then you’d feature the tracks. We’d ring him up and give him information as to what the big tracks were. It was a bible for the industry. Blues & Soul had a two page segment that Bob Kilbourn wrote. Within a short space of time, the Mafia, what we played was so upfront; they would look up to us what to buy. At the Royalty, they’d book Greg Edwards every month, Robbie Vincent and gradually a team formed to do Caister. I was already doing Caister before the soul ones started. I was doing the 18-30s, great laugh, general music, I did about eight of those. Shagged myself into a coma. Then Robbie Vincent did one of the 18-30s with me and took it back to Showstoppers at the Royalty and said look why don’t we do a soul one? In that two and half years at the Royalty, it opened a lot of doors, I was doing radio, it started to get on top a wee bit. The sound system became expensive to keep running and I took a break at one stage. I put the sound in at Caister and because I’d designed it I was always getting phone calls about it, which just made me too tired. I wasn’t concentrating on my work. Then I left it alone for a year and then Brian Rix took it over.

What, the sound system?
No Caister. I came back after a year, had a word with Brian and said ask the boys if it was okay and I came back. I asked him about the sound system, the guy doing it was a friend of mine, and what he put in, I thought I couldn’t compete so I left him to it, but at the next Caister, they made me stay in the dressing room until they announced it and I got a bit of a standing ovation for that year I’d taken off.

Do you remember what year that was?
They’re a bit of a blur. When you get to 65… [he’s making that up to throw me off] Anyway, it was a good year and a half I missed. I must admit that, although Brian Rix can be a difficult person to deal with, he runs that event very well and keeps it going, so I do that twice a year.

Didn’t you hire out your system to some of the rare groove guys during the late 80s? I’m sure Norman Jay said he was blown away by Derek B when he saw him in Canning Town and he was using your system.
The problem was there became a lot of jealousy. There are only certain boys that can run a sound system. Where I got a lot of my knowledge from were people like Jah Tubby, Jah Whoosh and those guys. They were telling me about increased costs. You can’t just have idiots lugging the gear around, you gotta have a few technicians with you, too. So I started to hire it out and I found I was using it so much to hire it out that I wasn’t using it myself. So the last couple of years it has been in storage, so I don’t know what to do with it.

But Derek B was using it wasn’t it?
Derek B was a protégé of mine. He was like a black version of me. The problem was he too greedy too quick. I was working with Simon Harris, at the time, doing production work. And Derek B started putting gigs on everywhere saying it was his sound system, so we had a massive row, punch up and everything. Derek B then got a deal with a record deal, Simon Harris got a deal and bad young brother was Derek B, so we went our own ways. I did Derek B’s first big edit for his album, which he rejected, he then got Simon Harris to do it and he rejected that and the company blew him out. So he got his own in the end. He was out to shit on everyone and he’s not been heard of since. And I have.

How was the racial composition in these clubs?
The biggest problem you had was the mixed race thing. Very very difficult to keep it predominantly white, as such, because you were playing black music. To my horror in the first few years I got knocked a lot outside of that for playing black music. The biggest problem was no club owners wanted a heavy – over 50% black – so keeping a happy medium was very hard. I did find myself not playing the more leftfield stuff to keep that down a bit. It was heavy. The Royalty was 60/40 when it started. But that was just the way it went.

So were you getting pressure from the owners?
You would get pressure from most of them. Lots of clubs were the doormen kept it under control. Only problem was there was lots of nicking – not the older ones, but the younger kids – they’d go in for this handbag snatching so black music got branded as the cause of thieving and stuff going on. But I’d gone so far into it, I couldn’t go back and do ordinary gigs anymore. That was what I was known to play. The thing is with the black crowd, the white people had a lot more money. So what it was… the black fraternity would come and watch someone play the music because they couldn’t afford to buy it. So it did get a bit out of hand and embarrassing at times.

What about the electro scene that came up after…
I remember talking to Tim Westwood, and he saw the hip hop scene growing, because he saw in the jazz funk scene that there needed to be music that people without a lot of money could be associated with and had their own identity. Tim was the first person to kick that off and it took a lot of the weight away from us soul jocks. Suddenly, Morgan Khan clocked on to that and started doing Electro and Hip Hop and it became very big. Tim stayed with it all the way through. For instance, they would never put an electro night on at the Royalty. Too heavy. Even today if you get a Westwood gig, it’s mad. It has separated the scene totally.

So did you play any of the electro stuff?
No. I grew to like it quite a lot. At that time, Morgan was doing the jazz funk and he was on his 2nd album and he wanted a mixed one and there wasn’t many jocks around that could mix on reel-to-reel. So I did an electro album for him, me and Simon Harris. So when I did Capital, one of the jocks who did electro before me left, so I would do the electro hour before doing my stuff. Didn’t touch the hip hop stuff. Planet Force and that label it was on…?

Tommy Boy.
Yeah, that was a big concern, did a lot of work for them.

Where you playing any of that stuff in clubs?
No, I never played it out. But on the radio I did editing work and mixing for them. I used to do it incognito, never used to put my name on it much. I didn’t want to be associated with it too much. I grew to like it, because I like music in general, but hip hop is not for me, Don’t like it at all. Far too heavy. Unfortunately, it’s become very big.

Were there any people who influenced you when you were younger?
Well when I was growing into my teens there was only one radio station. The only one you could get was Radio Luxembourg, Tony Prince was a big name on there, so I used to tune into Tony Prince and Paul Burnett. They were great, big influence radiowise. They broke away and did Radio Caroline, which was the forerunner to R1, as you know. As far as live work it was Emperor Rosko, he was always playing live, Johnny Walker for contemporary stuff and clubwise, I didn’t really see any DJ in this country who did anything that I couldn’t do better than myself. It wasn’t until I went to America that I saw something completely different. The jocks in NY, although technically brilliant, never said a word, though. Combine the two and it gave me something special. Technically I studied three good jocks in America: Larry Levan, Shep Pettibone and Tee Scott. Those three were the ones that did something for me. So then I could mix the tunes and rap over the top which became a very good entertainment package.

What was it about Rosko you liked?
I was always a Wolfman Jack fan. He had such a unique style. He used to play to a lot of the campus students. Emperor Rosko was like a British version of him. Basically we became quite close friends, I watched him work live and I was his protégé, no doubt. He had to move back to America because his dad, the famous film director Michael Pasternak died. When he left, my sound system that I built was virtually identical to the one he had, so when he came back to the UK he’d play on my system.

I got myself into a lot of debt when he left actually, I borrowed about 6 grand. I went to Orange [equipment suppliers], a guy from up north lovely guy, Matt Fry, he built all Emperor Rosko’s gear and he built mine. Proper valve amps and everything. I started to admire certain jocks around me, for instance I couldn’t help but be fascinated by Chris Hill’s entertainment value. He wasn’t particularly brilliant technically, but he had this fantastic ear for picking tracks off of albums. For instance, that is where he will be credited on my new single the Pacific Eardrum track that is now called Universal Love was Chris Hill’s discovery [I think he means the artist is called PE, but the track from the album isn’t called Universal Love, this is what he’s called his sampled version of that track…] The most influential DJ I’ve ever met. Chris Brown was good, Jeff Young, all the Mafia team.

Did you go to the Lacy Lady and the Goldmine?
I didn’t hang out there, because I was very busy. I didn’t like the Goldmine much. I didn’t like Canvey Island much, but it did have a lot of weight. I preferred the Kings near my hometown. I’d go there as much as I could.

What was the difference in crowd composition between Goldmine and Royalty?
No difference at all. Stan eventually sold the Goldmine and they went to another place. They went to some place in the country, but that didn’t work that well so they came back to the Seven Kings. So the Lacy Lady carried the name wherever it was held. I did a disco at Ilford town Hall for juniors for ten years I did that. And a lot of them would then go on to clubs round there. I preferred the Kings out of all of them.

Why was the Kings good?
It was a lovely room, great acoustics, it had a great atmosphere the way it was laid out.

Were you doing gigs in the north playing more underground music?
Yeah, well what it was travelling around Dave Lee Travis, I was still well into my imports. I remember breaking ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy‘, no-one had ever heard it before and I dropped it at Young Farmer’s do in the west country and everyone went crazy. Out of the maybe 15 singles and one or two albums, I’d select five that would work everywhere. Play them in my set and then play them later in Dave’s set because he grew to like them, stuff like ‘Love Injection‘, he featured them on his show when they came out on British labels, and I was able to spread the word around all round the country. One year, Disco International, to my surprise, rang me up and said I’d won DJ of the Year award. James Hamilton was always interested in what I was playing and what was breaking because I played all over the country. Crown Heights Affair ‘Sexy Lady‘, I played that everywhere. Because you had capacity crowds everywhere you could really work the track. D Train and ‘Can You Handle It‘, instantaneously, they worked. But I didn’t overdo it, I’d pick five at a time and work them. All the other Radio 1 jocks who went out and did their roadshows didn’t have a fuckin’ clue, but Rosko was on the ball and we were. We were the only ones with two and half self-contained show, us two were the only ones to book.

When Radio 1 did their summer roadshows, was it your sound system they used?
Yes. The Outside Broadcasting Unit was very basic in its early days. Smiley Miley who worked for Radio 1 doing all the promotions for them – bit of a sod – came up with a design with sponsorship for a whacking great big bloody caravan where the stage would fold down and the DJ console inside.

It looked like a big chip van, didn’t it?
Exactly. Speakerwise, you could only really have four of those and well away from the caravans because of the OB. We had four Bose. Otherwise you’d get feedback. What we’d do in the evening was put on shows for charity. I’d do the warm-ups for them and they’d do their sets.

© Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

Cedric Neal enjoyed the ’Big Speaker‘

Cedric Neal enjoyed the ’Big Speaker‘

Interviewed by Frank in Chicago, February 1995

In the early-to-mid-eighties Cedric Neal was one of the Chicago clubbers drawn to the Music Box, and to Ron Hardy’s maniacal energy. In this vivid interview he tells us about the fashions, the sex, the drugs and above all, the music, that made it such a unique and influential place.

Tell me about the old days. When did you first go clubbing?
The first time I ran across dance parties was late ’82, and that was when I stumbled across the Music Box. We were just driving along and we were wondering why all these people were standing outside. One o’clock in the morning, and they kept talking about this guy Ron Hardy, and then we decided to stand in line with everybody else, and that was the point which more or less – quote unquote – changed my life. Because that was the first time I saw him spin. And it was… it was amazing.

I’d never been to a party where the DJ had a control over the people where they would dance and scream, and at some points cry, and depending on how high you were, they were passing out from pure excitement. It was, the energy that was there. I haven’t been to a party in probably five years that had the energy that Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles had over people.

Frankie Knuckles was more refined in his spinning. He was more orderly. Ron Hardy was more raw. he just had an energy over the people that made them the moment: people were living for the moment. that’s all that mattered, in that time and space, was the moment.

“The sex that you would have – in the club! It was what we called the big speaker.”

The house music scene here in the early ’80s was basically black. There was another club Medusa’s, on an upper North side, and blacks were kind of like… they let you in but the music wasn’t really for you. So after a while the black gays and the younger blacks had to have a music. And this was right around when rap started coming, but we had to have a soul culture.

The Music Box was basically the black gays, and the black kids that liked Medusa’s but wanted a place to call their own. And there’s a debate about that, but I know ’cos I was there. It was basically a 60/40 mix gays and straight, and if you couldn’t stand to be around gays you didn’t party in the city of Chicago back then. You either accepted this and this is how people were… You would get high with a person, you would get drunk with a person and you just didn’t care about that. The most important thing at that point in time was the music. And following the DJ of the time. For me it was Ron hardy, I was a loyal follower.

See they had nights. Frankie had Wednesdays and Fridays, and Ron Hardy had Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. They divided the days, or when they had marathons, the lockouts, where the party would start Friday night and end Sunday morning, or Monday morning. And they were, I’ve seen Ron spin consistently probably ten hours.

What was the atmosphere?

And what were the styles of dress?
Basically what I’m wearing now. the jean cuts and the stuff. It hasn’t changed. There was cardigan sweaters, and turtlenecks: that was the preppie look. All the stuff that’s commercialised now, the Doc Martens and the Timberlands, and the combat boots. They’re big time fashions now but that was just what you wore. When Guess first came out it was the thing to get.

And what about the drugs driving the scene?
The drugs were the best part. There was a lot of PCP, a lot of acid, but it was very clean. When you came down you didn’t have a bad trip like kids are having today. With the crack you just have a negative vibe. Back in the day, if I had a happy stick  – a joint dipped in PCP – everybody that was in reaching distance of me got high. I would smoke it and they would smoke it. It was everybody shared. Ecstasy, I really found out about ecstasy around ’84. It was really big among the gays. A lot of the straights stayed away from it. I had a bad trip and blamed it on the ecstasy. It didn’t really hit the straight clique that was part of the club. They had the happy sticks, they had the mint leaf, another PCP based drug, and it was just the ecstasy didn’t click with the straights. And the people who used to do acid.

And then with the onset of the different venereal diseases that’s when the party took on a different turn. Back in my day the worst thing we knew about was herpes. When AIDS first came out it was called GRIDS [gay related immune deficiency syndrome]. Back then it was still a gay disease. Straights didn’t worry about it. We worried about herpes. I still remember a guy, with his death the party started to take a turn. The health department kept coming down and we kept having raids. this would be around ’84, ’85.

Ron Hardy spinned a lot of Philly, a lot of disco, but back then that was new music. So that’s what we had. But that’s the beats, the drive to get to the party. The music itself was the drug. It was in ’85, ’86 that the beat tracks started coming in. Chip E and Jesse Saunders, they started coming onto the scene. The tracks were being accepted but people wanted the songs that had substance. ‘The Love I Lost’, or ‘There But For The Grace Of God Go I’ by Machine. Because these songs portrayed the feelings that people had back then. The way Ron Hardy spinned you could tell how he was feeling. The way he played records, the sequence he played them, how long he played them. You could tell if he was depressed, because him and his loverman had had a fight. You could know if he was up and happy or you could know if he was just high, out of his mind because of the drugs.

So you would get there, me and my best friend Cortez and another buddy called Mike. We would get there early ’cos we wanted to sit outside and get high and drink. And it was one night we got there and it was early before the party started, and the front opened up at a quarter to one. And Ron always start with ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’. This was ’84, it just came out, And he would play that for 20 minutes. And you just sit around and wait till the crowd just build. And it was a momentum. Just gradually, first you had the little snowball. And then come five o’clock in the morning you gain the momentum, and come six you’d pick up speed. People would come in there and just dance all night. I know young ladies that would dance probably two hours non-stop. There was a juice bar because it was illegal to serve liquor in underground clubs.

And the sex that you would have. In the club. It was what we called the big speaker. The big speaker was located all the way in the back of the club, so if you just could think of an 8,000 square foot space and the main speaker was probably ten feet tall, and you could crawl under the stage behind the main speaker. And we had girls back there. You could get a blow job, get you a quickie. It was amazing behind the big speaker. If you talk to anyone else about the Music Box ask them about the big speaker and they’ll know what you’re talking about. In the girls’ bathroom they had pillows, you know so, you go past there’d be guys in there, getting high, having sex. Maybe you’d see two lesbians in there. It was honestly the end of the sexual revolution.

It slowed down late ’86 early ’87, by that time rap had came on the scene, so a lot of people were torn between the two music types, those who were still loyal to dance music, this is our lives. House music which New York I have to give them credit for, they taken house music, that attitude and the lifestyle that we started. Because it was the way you did everything, it was the way you interacted with people. The way you interacted with your girlfriend, the way you interacted with your family. It was just your whole being.

The Music Box closed in ’88. There was about four years of hardcore partying. Then the crowd got younger, and you didn’t have the people dedicated to true dance. Like we had back in ’82, ’83 when I started. When Farley was at the Playground. The attitude just changed, ’cos you had all these hip hoppers coming down. And they would come down and start trouble. They would get into it with the gays. We never had that problem, early on, when Frankie, I guess he just got tired and couldn’t deal with it no more, after they passed the ruling that underground dance clubs were illegal in Chicago, he finally packed up and went to New York.

But Ron Hardy, he was like an idol. The first time I saw him spin it was his birthday, and just to see people literally crying because this man had them so hyper, seeing people pass out. I was like, ‘Hey! this is my type of party’. Towards the end he got worse with the drugs. He was pretty mellow, he got high like everyone else, but he started shooting up, I’m not sure the drug of choice that he was doing, and not to defame his name, because he was one of the best DJs in the world. But he got caught in that turmoil, and by the time he got down to the Powerhouse he hated spinning. I talked to him a couple of times and he was like, ‘I got to feed myself, I got to pay my bills’. And when he was at the party in the early ’80s when I used to talk to him, his attitude was this is what I live for: to spin.

The Warehouse was the first one from ’77-’82, the original Warehouse catered to the underground crowd for the gay blacks that had nowhere to go. The original Music Box opened late ’82, ’83. Frankie started spinning at CODs when the Powerplant wasn’t open. Ron did CODs a few times, but when the Music Box closed he went to the Powerhouse. That was when he really started to lose his appreciation. He started looking real bad. He started selling records, I mean real out-of-print stuff for two dollars just to get a fix or to eat. I seen him a couple of times and I wasn’t sure if I should speak to him or not.

And then Frankie, his parties were so clean, and his crowd, you could almost compare them to the voguers how precise they were, clean cut. That was the division. Ron Hardy was more raw, into his music. He didn’t care about blends, as long as he had the crowd rocking. Frankie Knuckles it was more or less of a science. He had it real clean. I was just that type of person: rough around the edges. I gravitated towards Ron’s music. People who went to the Powerplant had on their Guess and they’d be pressed with the creases, and you know maybe they have a Ralph Lauren shirt. That was the thing for them it was more of a fashion statement.

The best night over at the Music Box was 1985, Memorial day marathon. It was a Friday to Tuesday morning. Who didn’t spin? Everybody! Frankie came through, Ron Hardy came through, André Hatchett spun, Mike Wilson, but he had quite a few people helped him out. People brought changes of clothes, some people stayed down there for the whole duration. I went down there Saturdy night at midnight, I went to Great America Sunday, After I left Great America I went straight back to the party, partied most of Monday and then when they shut it down…

I mean, it’s really to see four guys dancing with one girl, and then she chooses one. I even had instances where girls asked me, you have a car? Lets go to your car. I’d have sex with them in my car and then we’d go back into the party and they’d disappear. This was before all of these things started happening. Like I say the drugs were cleaner. When you would get high with a person you didn’t have to worry about going on a bad trip. People weren’t there to hurt each other. We were there to help and that was the main goal.

‘Are you a child or are you a step-child?’ or ‘Do you belong to the family?” If you belonged to the family you were gay. If you were a step-child you were straight but we accept you. If you were a child you were just straight. But there was one time when it was fashionable to be bisexual. They went through a period where people would experiment with bisexuality to be in. Some of the gays tried to portray to the straight people they wanted to get into the sack that that was how you should be. I know people who did it, and they were ‘Well it wasn’t that bad.’ Just that period, the city and house music went through so many turns. With AIDS, with the drug scene, with peoples sexuality. I know a couple of people who looked like Rob, with a goatee and everything, and now they’re women. That attitude changed their lives so much, and now they went full tilt.

As for the parties themselves. That quality, that unity that we had it would be a long time before we see that again, ’cos we skipped a whole generation of dance music – because of the onset of rap and the onset of AIDS – it put a stigmatism on house music, ’cos the ignorant world, that didn’t know about the dance music scene, or what came of it automatically….

With those two main forces it was like a driving nail in the coffin. People associated being gay and AIDS with house music, so the generation that should have taken over from us said naw I don’t want to be stereotyped like them, so they started gravitating towards hip hop. It’s a generation that should have picked it up from us.

© Frank Broughton & Bill Brewster 1995

Celeste Alexander rocked the Music Box

Celeste Alexander rocked the Music Box

Interviewed by Bill Brewster in London, 22.3.20

A rare female DJ on the early Chicago house scene, Celeste Alexander DJed at parties across the city and at The Music Box where she regularly warmed up for Ron Hardy. She learnt to DJ after asking Steve Hurley why there weren’t more women trying ‘hot mixing’. When he told her the general feeling was that women didn’t have the necessary co-ordination, she was off! As well as establishing herself solo, in answer to the city’s famous Hot Mix 5, Celeste was briefly part of an all-girl alternative. The Fantastic Four hot mix crew was Celeste, Chrissie Hutchison, Kenya Lenoir and Berlando Drake, or sometimes Steve Hurley’s sister Angie, who had to play first to be home by 8pm for her strict parents.

Which neighbourhood did you grow up in?
I grew up in Hyde Park, South Side Chicago. Born and raised on the South Side, Chicago. In the lovely campus town for the University of Chicago called Hyde Park. 

Was there a lot of music in your household when you were growing up?
Oh definitely. My dad was a renaissance man, athlete, musician, all the way around. They’d do parties. I grew up where my dad and his friends threw what were called Charlie Parker sets, and John Coltrane sets. So there was always music around me, mainly jazz, I grew up with the children of Oscar Brown Jr. his daughter Maggie Brown, and his late son Oscar Brown Jr. III, (we called him Bobo), if you’ve heard of the pianist Willie Pickens, his daughter and I, Bethany Pickens, was a jazz musician and she was a wonderful musician in her own right. We all grew up from kindergarten all the way through together. Jimmy Ellis, the trumpeter, his son so there was a lot of music around me. Hyde Park was a hotbed of different music, but mainly jazz. 

What year were you born? 

Chicago also had a tradition for electric blues, was that something you came across?
I remember there being blues in Hyde Park, of course, but my dad and my mom were more geared towards jazz, soul, R&B, Motown sounds. I grew up with the Motown sound and the Philadelphia sound, so it was more R&B but the blues was definitely goin’ on. 

What was your first encounter with dance music?
I’d have to say 7th or 8th grade with disco crossover, so Johnny Taylor Disco Lady, Donna Summer, Natalie Cole, Nat King Cole’s daughter. I remember meeting him on a couple of occasions because some of the musicians were around my father I was blessed enough to meet people like that. I’m a distant cousin of Curtis Mayfield. There was a lot of freedom music goin’ on too, with the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and things like that. 

So were you attending concerts quite early too if your parents were involved in music?
I used to go to festivals with my parents as a young child. They used to have a big jazz fest in Detroit and there were always jazz fests goin’ on in various neighbourhoods around Hyde Park, like the Brownsville area. But by the time I was 13 or 14 and going my own way I fell in love with George Clinton so I was real big Parliament, Funkadelic fan. Then as a child I was crazy about the Jackson 5 so i did a lot of J5 concerts when I could. Think I went to one when I was 9 and one at 11. 

“I asked him what hot mixing was and you how did you do it, and asked did girls do it?”

Celeste Alexander

Were you listening to the radio a lot?
Radio was all we had and we all had different tastes for different types of radio. My father was with jazz, there was a station WBEZ which was an all jazz platform. I geared towards a station called WVON and that’s where Herb Kent came from and that crowd of disc jockeys. When I was about 13 my mom had a friend who had a radio show on the campus radio station WHPK he did what they would called a Dusty Steppers. We have a dance form in Chicago called stepping, which is a slower R&B type of music that I was really into. Our parents called it bopping. We called it stepping. I started working at the station, volunteering on Sundays.

Was that the college station for Uni of Chicago? 
Yes.  It was only four blocks from my house. It was a guy who did a Sunday afternoon R&B show. Think his name was TJ The DJ. I became his record girl. I’d go there on a Sunday and I would pull the records from the library, do the logging, and load up his PSA announcements. I was maybe 12 or 13 years old. My third class FCC license because you had to have some sort of FCC license in order to work in the station. I was too young to get it but they managed to waive that and got one when I was 14 years old. 

What kind of music were they playing?
‘70s soul. Stevie Wonder, The Dells, Diana Ross, The Impressions, Loggins & Messina, James Brown, The JB’s. 

When did you start going out to parties?
In high school. I went to Kenwood; I graduated class of 1980. At the time my preference would’ve been for the slower R&B stepper music. I didn’t like a whole lot of disco but I went to school at Kenwood which was a party school and I was in the same graduating class as Jesse Saunders who, as you know, was from the Chosen Few. I went to the school sock hops, the school dances. Kenwood was a real moving forward, trend-setting party school. Hyde Park was a trend-setting type of neighbourhood to grow up in. It was very liberal, very advanced and non-segregated so HP was a very cultural melting pot to grow up in, so exposure to everything was readily available.

So what was the racial composition of the neighbourhood?
There was a whole lot of black, white and Jewish really in Hyde Park. It was an acceptable neighbourhood for mixed marriages. We were a lakefront district too so we had a promontory point which we just called the point. So there were a lot of hippies, free love, flower power, and my dad was a photographer as well, he was a medical photographer for North Western University which was unprecedented for a black man in the ‘60s. It gave him opportunity to move in different circles so I’ve got loads and loads of old B&W pictures from some of the events they used to have in Hyde Park back in the day. They used to have a Love In at the point. It was definite the opposite of what was going on in segregated areas of Chicago. 

Where was the first time you saw a DJ playing and it inspired or hit you that you wanted to do this? 
I think I got when I was 12 or 13 watching TJ and working in the Uni of Chicago. I don’t think it came full circle so I started learning the art of mixing or playing club music or dance music. That was much later on when I was in junior college. 

Celeste and Steve Hurley, about 1982
Celeste and Steve Hurley, about 1982

What age is junior college? 19?
Yeah about 19. I went to college with Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley. I had a real crush on him. We became friends and mixing, or hot mixing as we called it back then, was all he really talked about. I asked him what it was and how did you do it and he explained it to me and I asked did girls do it? He had a younger sister named Angela, but she was much younger. I asked why other girls weren’t doing it and he said it was because they believed they can’t. The guys believed that it was a specific thing for them to have that hand, to eye, coordination in order to mix and blend. That got my attention immediately. 

I guess the problem is if you don’t have role models it’s hard for you to project yourself as being in that role. 
It was pretty hard. There was only one other female that I knew of at the time was Lori Branch. She was with a group called Vertigo. We had groups back then. 

“Andre took me to the Warehouse, introduced me to Frankie Knuckles. Once I met Frankie, I connected a lot easier with the underground scene than the more commercial scene.”

celeste alexander

Like Gucci Production?
Exactly. She was with Craig Loftis, that group, that was really younger queer kids and they did loft parties. I didn’t meet Lori until around six or seven months later when we got booked to play together or battle with each other. I started asking the guys in the neighbourhood, can you teach me how to do that and collectively they did. Then I was introduced to a guy named Andre Hatchett who was  one of the Chosen Few as well. Andre and I struck a friendship that’s been more like brother and sister ever since, and he was my original mentor. He taught me everything from A through Z. And it took off in the high school, straight crowd, because the music at that time was starting to catch fire. There were hot mix groups forming like the Hot Mix 5, but I was more in the underground scene because Andre took me to the Warehouse, introduced me to Frankie Knuckles. Once I met Frankie I connected a lot easier with the underground scene than the more commercial scene. Radio restricted what you could play and sometimes the stuff that you played was a little raunchy and there are all types of federal regulations about what you can and cannot say and play on the radio. It was hard. When I did the parties as a DJ I dressed in big baggy clothes and a baseball cap so they really didn’t know it was a girl playing. 

Was that a deliberate ploy by you to earn their trust? 
It was deliberate to let you see that it wasn’t gender specific. I started off in a baseball cap, but didn’t end up in one. Once you drawn them in, you can do whatever you want, and that’s when the hat came off. When I first started DJing I was also modelling and a lot of the brands I modelled for were gay kids from the underground and they would throw fashion shows during the parties, so I was known a little bit more for the modelling thing but i was still anatomically boy-ish and skinny, flat-chested. I crossed over into DJing at that time. I was 22 years old and doing both and I was getting ready to go to Europe to do fashion week and you used to have take a physical to get a passport and my physical came back that I was pregnant so I never made the crossover with the modelling because I decided to keep on DJing. 

Celeste with Liddell Townsell and his crew
Celeste with Lidell Townsell and his crew

You said you went to the Warehouse and I know you’re the only female DJ to play the Music Box. How did that come about? 
I was only able to experience the Warehouse maybe three or four times before it closed so I was there at the very end. I’d already met Frankie. I believe I had met Ronnie by then and I was making a lot of noise as a DJ then and Ronnie and Andre were pretty close and I went to the Music Box all the time so after the Warehouse. Robert Williams, who was the owner, opened up the Music Box at US Studios, the first one. Not the one underground at 326 Michigan. It was just before the Power Plant opened and I was at the MB every night. I dated Robert Williams’ younger brother. His name was Rodney, we dated for about three years. I was pretty close to all the MB staff. It was not far before Halloween and Ronnie came up to me and Andre and I thought he was talkin’ to Andre and he says, ‘Look I got another party and we’ve got a big Halloween party, can you open up the Halloween party?’ So I’m looking at Andre waiting for him to answer and Andre’s lookin’ at me saying, ’He’s not talkin’ to me he’s talkin’ to you!’ So I said, ’Who are you talkin’ to?’ He says, ‘I’m talkin’ to you!’ I didn’t even realise that Ronnie had even heard me play before but apparently he had done some backroom visitations. It was pretty cool. He’d have Andre play for him occasionally and I had the opportunity to play for him three times before they moved to the underground site on Michigan. Ronnie and I were pretty good friends. 

What was he like?
He was pretty much a hoot. Ronnie was a rebel. He was very open to try out things that nobody ever did and that’s probably where the inclination to ask me to play came from. I do remember him trying to to get Lori to play. I don’t remember her coming to the MB like I did. I was a staunch MB fan on Wednesday and Saturday. To the point where I became semi part of the staff and did other stuff around when I was needed. Ronnie was kind of a wildchild but he was really different when he was playing music to when he wasn’t. To sit around and chitchat and talk shit and laugh and joke Ronnie was one person. He was a little introverted and even a little by shy. But when he got behind the decks and was playing music and had that crowd in front of him and half control of the party he was very animalistic. It seemed like he liked stuff in a frenzy. He was the polar opposite of Frankie as a DJ. 

A lot of people have said this, he played frenetically; pitching up records. 
He definitely was a lot of energy, definitely played music very fast, he liked it in a frenzy. I’m gonna leave it at that, I know there are other parts of Ronnie but I don’t know if it’s okay for me to talk about those parts. The club scene back in the 80s, was full of free love, free will and a whole lot of drugs, substances, were going around and some people gravitated towards those substances and a lot of the party atmosphere was dictated by the substance you were on. 

Sauers flyer

Tell me about Gucci Promotions. 
There were two. There was a Gucci Incorporated which was David Risque, Then there was Gucci Promotions which was out of South Shore which was run by a guy named John Hunt. John now works with and for Terry Hunter. I DJed for Gucci Inc; they threw these really nice high school parties at a place called Sauers’. It was a huge huge room, almost like a barn type of room. I had a stage and a cobblestone floor. I was there every weekend for the parties. Dave had his exclusive DJs and I was one of them with Steve Hurley, Andre Hatchett and Keith Fobs, who was also from Hyde Park. Keith had equipment when nobody else did. I spent a lot of time with Keith and Andre learning the craft. 

What era was this?
‘82 – ‘85 possibly 86? It may have even been late 81. I remember going to those parties before I was actually DJing. Andre would not let me play out before I was ready to do so. 

What about Park Avenue?
Hmm. Park Avenue put together the female hot mix group that I was in. Park Avenue was Keith Edwards and Rick Lenoir and Stephen Doehrer. They put together the Fantastic Four, we were supposed to be the female answer to the Hot Mix 5, there were actually five of us, with Steve Hurley’s sister Angie they had very strict parents so she didn’t come out with us very often. That was myself, Chrissie Hutchison, She was in high school still, Kenya Lenoir, Kenya had a best friend Berlando Drake, We Called her Bryd. If Angie played with us she had to play first because she had to be home for 8pm. We got to play all over the city but our main club was La Mirage, which was owned by a guy named Calvin Hollands. Later someone set off fireworks in the club and a lot of people died, that was La Mirage under a different name. It was an old car dealership showroom building. 

What were the influential parties for you as house started to happen?
There were different levels of party and they were segregated with sexual orientation and gender and age. The underground parties, Warehouse, C.O.D., Music Box, Power Plant, those were the underground parties and more liberation. Then you’d have above ground sector, which was the next level a bit more commercial and those were parties at Sauers’, Mendel, the high school parties, it merged with a girls school and became co-ed. They brought Frankie to those parties eventually and it generated money to enable to keep the school open. They were very influential on the above ground scene. 

When I interviewed Jamie [3:26] he talked about the basement scene. 
House parties. There were a lot of house parties. I can’t remember the name of this guy for the life of me. I can think of at least two or three people who had houses on the South Side and they would have these basement parties. I’m talking about two or three hundred kids in these basement parties. It was another version of an underground party but it was a party for heterosexual kids. They were kids who were in high school, maybe in their senior year, or were just coming out of high school. We could drink. There were quite a few of them. In neighbourhoods in South Shore and Pill Hill, out south and in Englewood. They would be off the chain, 100 or 200 kids easily rockin’ house music like there wasn’t nobody’s business and partyin’ until three or four o’clock. It was very instrumental to that second generation or wave of kids. I’m older than Jamie. 

Who are the second generation? 
Kids that are turning 50 now. I snuck a lot of these people into parties. The Pharris Thomas’s and Steve Hurley you know. Steve and I were good friends, the same age but because Steve’s upbringing and his background with his parents he had a curfew at 15 years old. We used to sneak him in. So those basement parties were a bridge. OK we’re gonna create our own way of making parties and that second wave of kids, and Jamie would’ve fallen into that, and that would’ve been the late ‘80s thru to mid ‘90s. But I stopped playing in 1995 till 2006. Second generation kids like Jamie, Hugo Hutchison (married to Chrissie), Gene Hunt should been one of them but he was hanging out in places he shouldn’t have been when he was still very young. I didn’t know he was 14 or 15 years old! 

Another name that always seems to crop up in these conversations is Lil Louis’ parties in Medusa’s and the Bismarck. 
Hotel parties were pretty big. Well Lil’ Louis was a promoter and DJ. He was also from the West Side, he was the one that rose quicker than anyone from that sector of Chicago and they didn’t believe they had any places to party, so he would rent out the room at the Bismarck or the Hotel Intercontinental. There was also another guy Tony Bitoy and Tony was linked in with the radio station so the HM5 parties radio had bigger promotional power than the underground parties. Louis started this cult thing because he was doing this stuff all by hisself.  He had his West Side crew, and you could ask my husband cos he’s from the West Side and dated one of Louis’ sisters back in the day, but Louis’ mother owned a speakeasy on the West Side, she started playing in the speakeasies but he was able to earn and put money and his mom had absolutely no problem giving him the money or help him get the money to throw those parties and promotion was all by hand in those days so you print posters and you’re up at three in the morning in the cold put these posters up saturating the city. But you get to Saturday night and there were a thousand kids in the Bismarck, mainly high school kids and they were off the chain. There was another place too called The Playground (after that it was The Candy Store). That was another place that was also a building that was very close to where La Mirage was. The South Loop area had a bunch of failed car dealerships around there and Craig Thompson took one of these warehouses and started the Playground. This was a club specifically for high school kids to go and party at. 

Was this the place Jesse Saunders’ played? 
Jesse was one of the residents, as well as Farley. Jesse was also resident at a place called the Penthouse. In high school I was a little thugged out because I wanted to step and listen to the JB’s ‘Monorails’ but Jesse was the DJ at Kenwood so he’d play all this disco music and then we’d get tired of it and go up and say, ’Hey can you play some steppers’ music?’ I would sneak out to go these steppers parties on the South Side of Chicago and we got stuck in one one day because we came out and there was a snow storm and I had no way of getting home. The guy that was setting up the music for the Steppers’ set was Kirk Townsend, he was also responsible for the Mendel parties; he and I struck up some sort of friendship I guess you could call it a relationship, but he told me he could take me home because it was a Sunday night and I wasn’t even supposed to be out.  But I had to help him get his equipment packed up. So I started learning how to pack up equipment, wrapping up cords, then I started travelling round with Kirk helping him to set up those parties. I remember going to the Penthouse and it was already set up and we came back and Jesse was playin’ and immediately started yellin’ get outta here we’re not playin’ that damn steppers’ music in here, he went all off! 

Tell me about steppers music 
It was a slower R&B paced sound because it’s a couples dance. It’s a whole different culture in Chicago. There’s a culture in Detroit that’s very similar that they call walkers. But the music is your downtempo R&B, silky smooth dance music. 

Could you compile a top 20 Steppers tracks just so I can get my head around it?
Sure! Loggins & Messina ‘Pathway To Glory’. ‘Haunted House‘ by Lee Oskar. Different type of dancing, different mentality. Let’s say urban rather than ghetto. 

Andre Hatchett, Celeste Alexander, Frankie Knuckles
Andre Hatchett, Celeste Alexander, Frankie Knuckles

The basement parties sound to me like they were just an extension of what was already going on in the Music Box or Warehouse or Power Plant and spread its tentacles around the city. Is that a fair thing to say?
It was. They were held in someone’s house, a lot of these kids were younger and their parents didn’t want them going to the South Loop area of downtown Chicago. I can remember there being announcements in the middle of those parties: So and so you’re mum’s outside waiting for you! If you had a house party in your neighbourhood and say it’s in Jamie’s neighbourhood and Jamie’s mom is letting him throw a party in the basement and word gets around and you tell your mom you’re going to a party at Jamie’s house and he lives right down the street, three blocks around the corner. Your mom might say ok in that case you can come in at one rather than giving them a curfew and having to drive into downtown to get them. It was a bit easier and you could be more relaxed by letting your kids go to the neighbourhood parties. 

When did the steppers thing take off in Chicago.
It supersedes disco and and club music. It probably precedes our parents’ parents. They used to call it the bop. So I can remember my mom being a bopper when I was little and she was born in 1937. So this was a dance that probably started in the ‘50s or even ’40s, but progressively handed down the generations. It was what I gravitated to because it was what my mom did and her friends. Club music, dance music, disco music, that was 100% mine and ours. I evolved out of steppers into club music in my late teens and early 20s. In my younger days it was disco sucks and that was my mantra! I had no idea of the political implications of it, the gender and sexual fluidity that it represented in those days, or what the Disco Demolition represented. You know Chicago is one of the biggest cities that is still segregated and separated. 

“I think there are three things that are totally universal: Love, Hate and Music. Music has always had the ability to put the hate and pull in the love.”

celeste alexander

Do you think the music helped break down some of these barriers?
I think music has always been a way to break down barriers. That was the beauty of club music and dance music. I think there are three things in life that are totally universal, Love, Hate and Music would be the third. Music has always had the ability to pull out the hate and pull in the love. Music takes you some place different. It calms the savage beast. No matter what the genre is it can be a peacemaker. 

Do you have any particular special memories of playing in basement parties. 
There was a guy who used to be on college radio, KKC, they touched a lot of people and it was very influential. His name was Pinkhouse. Pinkhouse had a lot of basement parties and I played at many of them. They used to be innnn-sane [she laughs at the memory] Now I’m a parent and adult I think wow we could’ve easily been shut down by the fire marshalls or the police. This shouldn’t be happening! How is it that you got 250 kids packed in the basement of 3-bed bungalow?! Dancing, the music is pumping so hard that you can literally see the electricity in the house throb in the lights from the power being used. We were getting the party on and Pinkhouse used to have those parties. Those used to be fun, like really really fun.

I can remember for quite a minute when I first started DJing I went to a lot of parties that Andre used to do. Andre and his brother Tony, two of the Chosen Few. they would get booked to do a lot of house parties. A lot of these house parties were kids whose parents allowed them to have parties in they own houses. In the more affluent neighbourhoods such as Hyde Park, the ones that had those houses in Pill Hill, those kids that went to Kenwood, Hyde Park, Whitney Young, their parents had very nice houses. They were home owners, they were lawyers and doctors. They were allowed to throw those parties, for their birthday, for their graduation, sweet sixteen, and you’d easily have 150 kids inn these parties. Some houses got torn up. Some kids got very severely punished. Some parties they’d even have in the house while their parents were on vacation. I remember having in a party in my apartment. I literally paid my mother to get on airplane and see her sister in California and we had a party in there that had 300 kids in there.

Chicago has also always been segregated by gang affiliation. Venturing out to the Wild Hundreds as we called them, the houses in the 100s, as opposed to coming from 53rd Street, where there was one faction of gangs in the area I grew up in but going to a party one 109th and Michigan that could be a dangerous trek and sometimes things did happen. So there was a whole lot of things we had to contend with. A lot of DJs came up out of that scene, second wave DJs, came out of that scene, and because they were house parties and they weren’t regulated they could play the stuff that was being played in those underground club parties that you couldn’t play on the air or at The Playground. 

The Playground, Sauers’, The Gallery were more commercial. The Loft, The Penthouse, The Edge of the Looking Glass, were a little more undergroundish. Mendel could be considered a little of both. It was a high school gym, that picked up more underground flavor once Knuckles started playing there. The younger straight crowd were more commercial….we had a few names for them… ‘Woogies’ was one. Or ’Goodies!’ But pronounced Goo-DEEz.

When I interviewed Jesse Saunders, he named a bunch of clubs: The Loft, Burning Spear, Blue Gargoyle, Tree of Life, The Mansion in Hyde Park. Were these all South Side spaces?
Yes. All south side. The Burning spear was a showcase type of space, so they did everything there. From jazz, blues, steppers and disco. BB King did some big sets there. But he did have his own place on the South Side as well, On 43rd street, then it moved to Hyde Park.

OK. So I found an old interview with Wayne Williams, where he was talking about bringing the sound of the Music Box to the straight scene in South Side Chicago. He says he started DJing at Mendel High, after Kirk Townsend had been the DJ there. Is that true? And if so, what was Kirk playing at that time, more commercial stuff like Earth, Wind & Fire etc?
Yes Kirk was the house DJ at Mendel before the house/disco thing erupted in Chicago. Kirk played it all, I met him on the steppers scene, he was a sound man. It’s fair to say that Kirkland Townsend is the Godfather of Mendel. Pretty much responsible for its curation and growth. He saved that school from shutting down for many years with the money generated from those parties

Finally, Steve Poindexter mentioned a mobile sound system called Foxxplayers he used to play for in Mendel High and Burning Spear, for Kirk Townsend. Was Kirk the guy that ran Foxxplayers or was he just one of the DJs that took the rig out to play?
I think that’s what they use to call it…you may be better asking Kirk though….he is a wealth of information.

You know, Jamie said I ought to tell you the story of the time I played at the Music Box for Ronnie and how the night ended, which was not so well. So, I have always had a nervous stomach when it comes to playing in front of my mentors, like Frankie and Ronnie, they both knew it too. I guess Ronnie was in the club the last hour of my set, but never came to the booth, he just hung out in the crowd and listened. He came to the booth to relieve me, and gave me a hug, told me he was ready and said I played a very nice set. I was overjoyed! ‘But how did you know?’ ‘Oh I’ve been here over an hour in the back listening,’  he said… My stomach kicked in, and I… …threw up all over his shoes. He kicked me out the DJ booth for a month. I had to buy him a new pair of Converse All-Stars. Oddly enough I think Ronnie and I bonded after that. He teased me and called me Velma Vomit. I hated that name. He found it extremely funny, and called me that EVERY TIME he wanted to pick at me. He said, “Bitch you just bought a pair of shoes”!

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton