Category Archives: Reviews

Rebel Threads – Clothing of the Bad, Beautiful & Misunderstood

Rebel Threads – Clothing of the Bad, Beautiful & Misunderstood

‘The thing I most remember about these funfair visits was being truly terrified, intimidated by, and yet in awe of the leather clad, greasy-quiffed Rocker kids that worked on the rides. Like car mechanics, their hands, faces and clothes were engrained with black swarf, oil and graphite from the rides. But to me they looked just like James Dean, Billy Fury and Gene Vincent, in their black leather biker jackets, and navy donkey jackets, always styled with the collar turned up. They also wore T-shirts, brand new to this country, and drainpipe jeans, battered winkle-pickers shoes, cowboy boots or steel toecap work boots.’

You couldn’t find a better spirit guide to the delightful and delinquent subcultures of our septic isle (and our sister septics across the pond) than Roger K Burton. Not only has he witnessed teds, mods, rockers, hippies, dandies, punks et al in their natural habitats, but he also has an unmatched understanding of the youth movements that preceded them – the spivs, wide boys, swing cats, hep cats and Bobby soxers – and an unerring eye for the divisions and details that marked their boundaries. He knows the full stories of how each of these styles came about – the inspiring films, the maverick tailors, and the various peacocks and ace faces who wore them and changed the world.

This book is a life’s work. Burton was the stylist and costume designer on films like Absolute Beginners, Quadrophenia and Young Soul Rebels. He’s dressed Bowie and Jagger, he supplied Westwood and McLaren with much of the vintage schmutter for their punk-era Let It Rock and Seditionaries stores, even helped them design the World’s End incarnation. He ran his own boutique for years, the Blitz-era PX in Covent Garden, epicentre of New Romantic. Roger has 20,000 items and counting in his collection, which started with a clutch of his grandad’s hand-printed silk ties. It’s now a commercial library for fashion and film, Contemporary Wardrobe Collection

And the book is perfection. The clothes themselves are unbelievable – styled, accessorised and lit immaculately, in ghostly groups that are almost alive. Despite being on headless mannequins, you feel like you’re in the room with these bad boys and girls, adrift in the ’40s, ‘50s, ’60s, ’70s. These are clothes that had the power to make their mark – even occasionally to terrify – and even in less shockable times they possess a certain magic. You find yourself scanning the cut and the detailing, imagining a world inhabited by these bold characters. You’re looking backwards, inevitably, but the realness of the clothes makes it less like nostalgia and more like time travel, as you mentally slip into the outfits you’d steal for yourself.

Throughout the whole book, Burton’s mod aesthetic is to the fore, making sure it’s right in every detail. The amazing clobber is surrounded by brilliant text and contemporary street and movie photos from all the right sources, brimming with those cultural nuggets that bring the story to life – the news stories that created an antihero, the films that brought a particular style into view, the tailor who brought back a new cut from Italy. Every effort has been taken to make sure you’re getting the best references and the full story, and it’s full of little extras that get you closer to the characters who wore it all, like a pair of mod cufflinks with a secret compartment for stashing your Dexys. Frank Broughton

Buy the book here

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Long Relationships – My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Small-Time DJ

Long Relationships – My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Small-Time DJ

There’s a lot going on in Harold Heath’s brilliantly readable DJ memoir. In the first place it’s an endearing story of a DJ’s struggle towards success – the slow career climb of a professional in dance music. There are details any working DJ will recognise – like a drunk promoter kicking him off the decks so he can have a go himself, or a wildly mis-booked gig that has Harold desperately searching through his box for something that won’t utterly bomb. It’s full of smart descriptions of the craft and the sheer pleasure to be had making people dance.

The bittersweet opening scene is pure Spinal Tap, as he plays rave classics at a gig he assumes must be the end of his career. ‘In the marquee this afternoon, the bleeps and sub-bass of LFO’s UK house classic ‘LFO’ take on a surreal air, as toddlers and children are encouraged to dance by eager parents, whilst some of the other Mums and Dads look on with a mixture of emotions ranging from bemusement to teary-eyed nostalgia.’

However, after the unspoken shame of playing for under-fives, a few pages later he gives you the 180-degree counterpoint, describing a perfect overseas booking where everything comes together beautifully: the crowd, the setting, the vibe. ‘We are at an open-air bar in Varna Bulgaria, on a hill overlooking the Black Sea, on a magical summer evening.’ Amid this beautiful scenery he captures a peak moment as he recalls ‘playing one of my own productions, on a beautiful high-end hand-carved artisan sound system which was forged in the embers of a dying sun.’ This mix of highs and lows is what makes the book such fun, with Harold happy to share the details of both extremes. The journey he takes us on is unflinchingly honest and often hilarious.

The other side to the book, which elevates it to another level, is a brutal study of the scorched-earth decimation of the ‘dance industry’, as we used to know it, at the hands of the digital revolution. As a tech-house DJ scraping an okay living from playing and production, Harold is perfectly placed to detail the incremental changes that destroyed his livelihood. We follow each twist of the business as the money drains away from middling DJ-producers like him, and into the hands of the big music platforms and oxygen-depleting superstars. Around the mid-noughties his career is ticking along nicely. He’s scaled the heights of ‘tier five, maybe briefly tier four’ in the DJ pyramid, playing bigger gigs and travelling regularly to eastern Europe. After this, though, the ground is pulled inexorably from under him.

‘Once music could be converted into digital zeros and ones and be instantly swapped between hard drives around the world without cost, then everything changed and the equilibrium that had existed before simply disappeared.’ He sees deals get worse, advances fall, vinyl distributers go bust, remix fees fall to hobbyist rates, and earnings from releases nosedive. As streaming takes over and social media begins its climb, he dutifully takes to MySpace, and then Facebook, and watches an army of amateurs muscle in on all the previously skilled areas of the business. He describes all this with a perspective gained by hindsight, but also with the eyes of a frontline soldier.

‘As the structures of the traditional music industry crumbled around me, I continued to spend my time DJing underground house parties and producing underground house music, the profits of which couldn’t possibly sustain me financially in the long term… Looking back, I’m still not really sure why though. It seems trite to say, but at the heart of it, I just really loved it.’

In a culture so often defined by its winners, Long Relationships is brilliantly observed reporting from the coalface of dance music. It illuminates the slog of everyday promotion and the occasional glittering moments behind the decks that provide the strength to keep going. It’s a love letter to a culture, and also an important document of the unstoppable economic forces that did their best to vapourise it.

‘The music industry no longer made sense: the kids paid a monthly fee to huge corporations so they could steal music from their favourite artists. DJs had become awful faux-rock stars, thousands of people stood in rows looking at them instead of dancing together to their music. In the face of reality where the old certainties had fallen away, producers and DJs like me retreated online. We created a simplified, cartoon sketch of ourselves and… retreated to the warm glow of the internet even as it started to reduce us.’ Frank Broughton

© Frank Broughton & Bill Brewster

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life – The History of the Disc Jockey

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life – The History of the Disc Jockey

Can we review our own book? Let’s see. Those paying attention will have noticed Last Night a DJ Saved My Life is back in the shops, provoking many questions. Why bother? What’s new and different? Are Swedish House Mafia in it? What about Nervo? But most of all, is it worth shelling out for a new copy? Well, yes it is. It’s the best it’s ever been. And the heaviest. With absolutely the best cover – thanks to that amazing photo by Adam Friedman, captured at the last night of Talking Loud in 1990. We’ve done a lot of interviews about the book lately, radio takeovers, international book tours and such, so here are some of the bon mots those skilled interviewers teased out of us.

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life – The History of the Disc Jockey was first published in 1999. Twenty-three years later so much had changed, and we didn’t want it to end up as a museum piece. We wanted someone who’s 25 to be able to pick it up and read it and make sense of it. Problem was, we were trapped in a contract. Our original publisher was all about stocking-fillers and footballers’ autobiographies – real of-the-moment titles, and not much interested in a book that stayed in print for more than 20 years. So it wasn’t available because they were only printing enough copies to hang on to the rights.

Then Lord Weatherall aligned the stars for us. Lee Brackstone, the wild man of British publishing, was giving a eulogy at Andrew’s memorial service – he’d been working with him on a possible memoir. Afterwards, Lee got talking to Bill and mentioned he’d love to publish Last Night on his new imprint, White Rabbit Books. But still Headline refused to give us the rights back, so for months it looked like this would stay a frustrating dream. We’d updated it once for the UK paperback and again for the US edition, but it looked like we’d have to leave it frozen in time around 2006. And then… we realised that Headline and White Rabbit were both owned by the same parent company. After a boardroom handshake and a pound changing hands it was on.

Lee was a great editor because he made us actually edit it. There are over a quarter of a million words in there and we’d never really sat down and found where we could streamline things. But Lee said we could only add new bits once we’d made space for them. In the end we painstakingly cut out 20,000 words and added 23,000. Which makes it a real rollercoaster read. There’s no excess, so it barrels along.

One of the things we wanted to address was the fact it’s such a male story. We wanted to hear more women’s voices in the book. Some of it is inescapable. DJing was a very male profession for so long, a lot of the action was centred on gay clubs in New York and Chicago, and it was almost a masonic process where men passed on the sacred baton to other men, with very few women interrupting their cosy flow. Until quite recently a woman behind the decks was seen as noteworthy. So even though we can’t change the story, what we could do is bring in more women as commentators – clubbers and contemporaries. And go deeper into the lives of the women DJs we’d written about in the first edition. Originally they had been in the ‘Outlaw’ chapter because women DJs were freedom fighters battling for recognition. For the new edition we expanded their story into a whole chapter.

From ch 20 WOMAN: Fight The Power, p672

It’s 6am under the vast dome of The Saint, the most spectacular audiovisual play-palace in the world. Thousands of half-naked men have been dancing through the night under the electric stars, safe in the warmth of each other’s bodies and the sense of refuge from the destruction outside. It’s 1981 and the city’s gay population is pummeled by fear and grief as people begin to grow sick and die. They don’t know it yet, but by the time the emergency fades, these people will have lost half of all their friends. The music is fast, escapist disco and the turbulent male ocean of the dancefloor expects this tempo to last another six hours.

But it drops to silence.

Then darkness.

Then light.

Then slowly, but insistent, as lights ripple over people’s faces, a ballad begins. It’s a song from childhood, from a musical, and they all know it by heart. But through their adult lives it’s earned a deeper meaning – This is the anthem that symbolises their hope, their protest, their yearning for equality, more than any other. The death of its singer sparked their uprising; its lyrics even inspired their flag. It is unashamedly camp, and its campness is at the core of their rebellion.

But… as the song soars through the speakers, it’s not the version they know. This is bolder, defiant, vastly more soulful, with the barely suppressed anger of a spiritual. And it flies higher… and higher…

When Sharon White halted everything at peak time to play an acetate, fresh from the singer herself, of Patti Labelle’s ‘Over The Rainbow’ to six thousand gay men in the frightening months at the start of the Aids crisis, the intensity of the collective emotion in that enormous room was possibly unequalled in human history.

‘It was unheard of to stop the floor for a ballad at six in the morning.’ she told Claes at ‘I took a big chance playing it then, but the entire room stopped and people held each other, people were in tears… It absolutely soared on that sound system. When it ended, the applause wouldn’t stop.’

Sharon found herself swept away, lost in tears and hugging her best friend, lighting director Mark Ackerman, as time stopped and the room held on in flames. ‘It was such an overwhelmingly emotional moment that everyone shared,’ she remembers ‘It was the one moment I craved my entire career… To have so many people on the same emotional plane…It was magic.’

Sharon White was the first woman to play The Saint. She was a regular at The Garage ­­– playing when Larry was a no-show ­– and thus the only DJ who ever played both clubs. She also graced Studio 54, Limelight, Roxy and The Sound Factory Bar. She was the first DJ reporting her charts to Billboard who wasn’t male. As the first female DJ in a major New York nightclub, she opened a small door into the future. ‘Since I was the only woman playing those venues, I was considered a trailblazer. I’m glad I made a difference. I tried to make people aware that gender has nothing to do with your ability to present music.’

It was great to also find a few new names we weren’t aware of. Like Celeste Alexander, who was one of the rare female DJs to play on the Chicago scene when house music was evolving. You can read her full interview on the site here.

From ch 20 WOMAN: Fight The Power, p 687

Celeste Alexander had grown up with creative parents in the bohemian multiracial neighbourhood of Hyde Park and was the kind of girl who didn’t take no for an answer. At junior college with future producer Steve Hurley, she was taken by the idea of DJing and asked him to teach her.

‘I had a real crush on him. We became friends and mixing, or ‘hot mixing’ as we called it back then, was all he really talked about.’ When Celeste asked Hurley why other girls weren’t DJing, he told her it was because they didn’t think they could. ‘The guys thought it was a specific thing for them to have that hand-to-eye coordination in order to mix and blend. That got my attention immediately.’

As well as establishing herself solo, in answer to the city’s famous Hot Mix 5, Celeste was briefly part of an all-girl alternative. The Fantastic Four hot mix crew was Celeste, Chrissie Hutchison, Kenya Lenoir and Berlando Drake, or sometimes Steve Hurley’s sister Angie, who had to play first to be home by 8pm for her strict parents.

Celeste went on to impress Ron Hardy, one of the twin gods of Chicago house, to the point that he invited her to play at the Music Box. The first time she warmed up for Hardy he’d been listening incognito from the other side of the room, and when he came to congratulate her and start his set she was so nervous she barfed on his shoes.

Another find was the woman who had been Sharon White’s mentor, a radio DJ called Alison Steele who became a revered late night ‘freeform’ DJ on New York radio.

From ch 20 WOMAN: Fight The Power, p 678

Radio had provided Sharon White’s route in, first at college, then at WNEW in New York. Her mentor at the station was a talented radio DJ with her own pioneering story: Alison Steele, who rose to fame on-air as ‘The Nightbird’. In 1966 the station had launched its FM offering with an attention-grabbing all-female format. Eight hundred women applied for ‘Air Personality’ roles and Steele was one of the founding four, drawn from TV and theatre. The press release noted she’d previously been the star of her own TV show, the ominously titled, ‘You And Your Figure.’ Eighteen months later, when the station failed to hit audience targets, it shifted from its schmaltzy MOR (Middle of the Road) format to Progressive Rock and jettisoned most of the women presenters. Thanks to her love and knowledge of the music, Steele was the only one they kept, and found herself introducing the west coast FM ‘freeform’ format to New York. She was given complete creative freedom, and wove poetry, Indian music and Andean flutes into the blossoming rock music of 1967 onwards. ‘She was an incredible DJ as well as the first woman on that scene,’ lauded White. In later years Steele became a CNN producer, opened a cat boutique and was the in-flight DJ for Trans World Airlines.

We also found new stories from the very early years. In the 1940s, in wartime, there were literally men in sheds tinkering with electronic equipment, and they became the first mobile DJs. Read more about them here.

From ch 3 BEGINNINGS, CLUBS: Night Train, p 54

Ron Diggins was a professional radio engineer in Boston, Lincolnshire, with a business providing public address systems. ‘I’d been playing background music and doing voice-overs out the back of my van at school sports days and the like,’ he told the Boston Standard. ‘It was nothing to do with dancing – that was the last thing on my mind.’ But in September 1947, the farm girls from the Swineshead Land Army decided Ron’s gear could be put to better use: ‘They were passing the office, saw the van and came in to ask if it could be used for dancing. They were having a harvest supper with some of the Italian POWs. Well, I’d never thought of it before, but I didn’t want to lose the booking – so I said I’d give it a go.’

It was men like these who took the available technology from fairgrounds and cinemas and gave it new life as travelling disco rigs. In 1949 Diggins built his ‘Diggola’ a wonderful art deco mobile DJ booth modelled on the bandstands of the jazz era. It came complete with double decks for 78s, a home-made mixer, lights, microphone, amplifier and ten speakers. ‘We couldn’t get plywood in those days, so soon after the war. So I had to make it out of coffin boards.’

Savile is still in there. Our legal advice for the first edition was to avoid calling him ‘odd’ as he was so litigious, but we dropped the ‘odd’ bomb regardless. Following the epically grim revelations, the new edition gave us a chance to confront him head on. We weren’t going to rewrite history by deleting him, he was a hugely significant figure in shifting the UK from dance bands to DJs, but we’ve pointed out that the way he exploited his DJ status is a theme running through history and not just a bizarre aberration.

The spring clean led us to shuffle a few sections around for clarity. One result of this was we gave jazz-funk a chapter of its own. It was previously in the Acid House chapter as one of the scenes that laid the groundwork for the Summer of Love, but it made more sense to give it room to breathe its own air.

From ch 14 JAZZ-FUNK: Expansions, p 500

In the mid seventies Britain was not a pleasant place to be. An oil crisis had reduced the country to a three-day week, with power cuts as an added bonus. With constant confrontation between government and unions, and IRA bombs almost monthly, paranoid right-wingers even talked of staging a military coup. The country was brown, as if colour had been rationed. In fact everything seemed to be in short supply: petrol, sugar, jobs, fun.

In stark contrast, jazz-funk’s early aficionados were colourful, brash and stylish. Many of them were Bowie kids and early punk rockers; sharp and street-wise. Mohair sweaters, peg trousers, wedge haircuts, cap-sleeved T-shirts – these were all sure signifiers that the wearer knew how to dance and probably owned some Kool & the Gang and BT Express albums.

The scene’s landmark venues read less like citadels of glamour than a particularly ribald pub crawl: Lacy Lady, the Orsett Cock, Frenchies, the Rio, Flicks, the Belvedere. If suburban jazz-funk was born anywhere, it was in Canvey Island, an ugly lump on the Essex coastline with an oil refinery for a view. Canvey’s best-known musical export, pub rockers Dr Feelgood, dubbed it (only half joking) the Thames Delta. Here, in a club called the Goldmine, a former worker at Dagenham’s Ford car plant named Chris Hill combined an encyclopaedic knowledge of black dance music with some over-the-top showmanship.

At its height in the later seventies the Goldmine attracted travelling fans from all over the country. Coaches would come down from Scotland and the dancers would sleep in the car park overnight. It was a magnet for fashion-oriented youth, with future stars like Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode and Culture Club present, as well as punk vanguard the Bromley Contingent (including Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol). Punk’s future wardrobe was clearly in evidence.

One of the best reasons to buy the new edition is James Murphy’s foreword. It’s been heartwarming over the years to connect with so many people who’ve enjoyed the book, and to realise it’s been inspiring to people, not just as a piece of history, but as their doorway into a deeper appreciation of music. But it’s pretty mindblowing when Questlove picks it out as one of his favourite reads, or when LCD’s James Murphy emails to say thanks because, as he put it, ‘it literally changed the course of my life’.

And of course Lee knows James, because Lee knows everyone, and he asked if he’d write a foreword for the book. And James said yes. But he was really busy. And then he got covid. Finally, he handed it in, literally the last day before they had to send it to print. He wrote this beautiful story about how he was playing in a band, uninspired and not very successful, how he hated dance music and expected the whole DJ world to be ‘idiotic’. And then suddenly, he became friends with a DJ and started seeing how, when you go to a DJ event, it’s a bit more fun.

From FOREWORD by James Murphy

And then I read this book. It’s hard to explain the effect it had on me. I went, quickly, from thinking we were renegade geniuses, to understanding that we were, instead, lucky to accidentally find ourselves part of a long and beautiful tradition of evangelists, hosts, caretakers, maniacs, etc., whose job was more about making a place for the people who were willing to come listen and dance than it was about, well . . . us. So, this here book quickly and firmly disabused me of any egotistical DJ notions I might have been harbouring, and changed my life for the better.

It was a miraculous and humbling gift to read about Francis Grasso, playing records for fourteen hours straight at the Haven, just steps from my first apartment in The Village. Or about David Mancuso, the Herc/Bambaataa battles, Ron Hardy, Deep Space Soundworks . . . To read about Larry Levan’s uncompromising vision and work with the Paradise Garage sound system . . . I had been a sound engineer for years. It was my living. I was obsessed with making things hit you just right – so loud you had that fear response, but never hurting your ears. Just deep. It was so strange to find this kinship and inspiration in a world to which I had never given much thought.

This book also taught me something new about the universality of feeling – the body feeling that I was always chasing. It taught me that there were tribes upon tribes, as in awe of music as I ever was, throwing themselves into it with love and weird, blind fury.

This journey – from thinking of dance music as flippant and throwaway, to recognising that it’s a vital part of musical history – is something that’s happened on a wider scale. The biggest change for our book in the last 23 years is the context it falls into. When we first wrote it it was provocative to pay so much attention to the DJ. Dance music was a global culture by 1999, but it was a bit much to suggest it deserved any kind of historical scrutiny. Back then you’d go to a music bookshop (when such things existed), and there’d 36 books about the Beatles and what they had for dinner, and nothing about DJs or dance music beyond David Toop’s Rap Attack and Matthew Colin’s Altered State. Or you’d read in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music that disco was ‘a dance fad of the ’70s, with profound and unfortunate influence on popular music.’ So when we first wrote Last Night we were on a mission. We were really conscious we had to fight for the DJ’s place in history and earn dance music some respect. Now, of course, there are lots of books taking our subject seriously and the battle is largely won. So one of the subtle changes in the book is that we’ve come off our soapbox. There were several endearingly tub-thumping passages that we quickly removed. As we wrote in the new preface, ‘Thankfully, we can now relax. The idea of dance music having a history is no longer preposterous.’

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Breaks in the Air – The Birth of Rap Radio in New York City

Breaks in the Air – The Birth of Rap Radio in New York City

Hearing The World’s Famous Supreme Team between the tracks on Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock album was mind-blowing. I wanted to be where radio was this exciting. This great book goes behind the scenes at the birth of hip hop radio to document the characters driving it and the forces pushing it in certain directions. The established black station owners knew rap was a ratings-grabber but saw it as too streetwise for their buppy aspirations. Frankie Crocker hated it but couldn’t fight the dollar signs. Mr Magic built his own show with his bare hands by buying airtime and promoting the hi-fi store he worked in. Hip hop history is mostly made of records and clubs, John Klaess shows decisively that radio deserves more of a look-in, arguing that these on-air communities were key to the development of the culture. There are great little insights, for example it was having a fully equipped radio studio at his disposal that let Marley Marl lay down the aesthetics of sample-built recordings. It’s an academic book, but written with stories and style and love for its subject. I talked to author John Klaess about the early hustles that took rap onto the airwaves, and where to find the best of the amazing recordings that exist online.

Frank Broughton: Why was radio so important in the early days of hip hop?
John Klaess: It helps to remember that when we’re talking about hip hop in the late 1970s and very early 1980s, we’re not necessarily talking about hip hop as we know it today. The concept of the “rap record” didn’t exist yet. The foundations of hip hop, like rapping, looping breaks, and creatively cutting records together were in place, but hip hop was mostly a live practice in the black and brown neighbourhoods of New York. There wasn’t an obvious or agreed upon way to take a three-hour park jam and convert it into a record. And it wasn’t clear that there would be a big enough audience to support those records that were made, not to mention that early on major labels weren’t interested in signing an unproven minority youth music. Radio wound up being a perfect medium to pull all of these threads together, accelerating the creative, commercial, social trajectory of the music. 

For one, DJs treated the studio like a laboratory. Each week they’d bring new mixes, tracks and experiments to share on the air. If you listen to mixes of the Rap Attack over time, you can hear Marley Marl getting increasingly sophisticated and adventurous with his mixing techniques in a way that presages beat-making techniques and sampling later in the decade. The Awesome 2 talk about how radio, in particular, was a great medium for experimentation because listeners were tuning in from contexts that weren’t the club. You can try out different combinations of records and sounds when you aren’t trying to drive a dancefloor. The aggregate of all of this weekly experimentation is a slow but distinct evolution of the genre over time. 

Maybe more obviously, radio has historically been one of the most important distribution mediums for record labels, and this was also true for rap. As indie and major labels started to sign hip hop acts, they looked to hip hop DJs with access to radio to get the word out about their product. Early hip hop radio DJs would get mountains of records delivered to them, and they were essential tastemakers. 

Finally, it’s hard to overestimate radio’s role in building an audience for rap music. If we go by shout-outs, early hip hop radio shows were mostly for, by, and listened to by people in the know in New York. That changed when two of the most listened to stations in the world programmed rap radio shows. In addition to the reach and validation these shows gave rap music and hip hop culture, listeners taped episodes and mailed the tapes around the world.

Radio was uniquely suited to taking a nascent urban culture and facilitating hip hop’s ascendence into one of the most important creative and commercial forces of the twentieth century. 

Your book is a powerful argument for giving radio more space in the history. What do we miss when we only think about the records and the clubs?
I think we miss, first and foremost, that the music industry is a dynamic web of work and relations that includes but isn’t limited to radio, records, and the club. It’s really hard to think of any one of these institutions without paying attention to how it’s interrelated with the others. I don’t use the metaphor in the book, but it’s more productive to think about musical ecosystems where a host of individuals and institutions work together in both symbiotic and competitive relationships that determine what we hear and what’s produced at any given time. 

I think we also miss an entire shadow history of artists and sounds and styles and communities that get cut out when we focus too heavily on discography. So many important artists never cut record deals, and so much important musical activity happens outside the purview of record labels. When you write from the point of view of records, you’re necessarily going to highlight artists with significant record catalogs, and you risk overemphasising records that loom large in historical memory, not what was played most at the time. If you listen to broadcasts of shows from the 1980s, there are plenty of commercial records, sure. But you also hear this wildly social, communal, musical event that’s not governed by what labels thought was important or worth hearing. I wanted to give an account where amateur, homemade mixes are just as important as Def Jam records, and where listeners who tuned in to deliver a shout out or hear what’s going on in their neighbourhood are just as important to the history as people who buy records. 

It’s heartwarming to read how much effort those pioneers put in. Mr Magic and The Awesome 2 were not only piecing their shows together, they were also hustling to find the sponsors and advertisers to keep them on the air. How would hip hop history be different if it showed us all the trials and efforts instead of just the successes?
I’m really happy you asked this question. There’s a narrative tendency in history to focus on triumphal achievements and big successes – especially in hip hop history. Paying attention to all of the small labours that go into funding a show forces us to look at what it takes to make and maintain a scene over time. When what matters to the history isn’t the magnitude of a success but the hustle itself, you have to tell the story from a different perspective. With the Awesome 2 in particular, paying attention to the work they put in helps us understand what it took to commercialise hip hop. It’s not like a label just signs an act and, voilà, hip hop is a global music. The Awesome 2 were drumming up sponsors for their show, building a record pool, hosting hip hop nights at the Latin Quarter, and doing management and production work for artists. Taken together, this is the work it takes to make a music and run a scene. This is definitely a thread I hope more authors pick up down the line, because I’m sure there are more stories to tell here. 

Another great thing about the book is the way it creates a bigger context for the history, showing the connections to the disco scene for example. Clubs like the Paradise Garage and industry figures like Frankie Crocker. What were some of the unexpected connections you found when researching it?
One of these connections that’s gotten a lot of attention recently is the intermixing between the uptown hip hop scene and downtown club scene in the early 1980s. DJ Afrika Islam could be the poster child for this. As a protege of Afrika Bambaataa, DJ and dancer with the Zulu Nation, and regular at the Paradise Garage. Islam’s radio show, the Zulu Beat, he fits neatly between these worlds. One of the most unexpected connections was that Ruza Blue AKA Kool Lady Blue, a staple in the downtown scene, funded some of the early episodes of the Zulu Beat. If you listen to some of the tapes, you can hear Islam announce that “This show is a KLB Fun production, a Kool Lady Blue production.” I lost it a little when I heard that for the first time because it was evidence of just how interwoven these two scenes were.

My intro to this world was hearing the World Famous Supreme Team in between the tracks on Malcolm McLaren’s album Duck Rock. What was their story and what happened to them? Why don’t they figure more in your book?
I think the Supreme Team were a lot of folks’ first foray into hip hop, and their show was one of the earliest to feature hip hop music. I also think you’re totally right in that they don’t figure as heavily in the books as their influence suggests they should. 

Part of the answer is that they never responded to my requests for interviews, which is fair – as a historian you can’t force yourself into peoples’ lives. So from there I was left with what I could get from other sources. There wasn’t a huge record of contemporary Supreme Team interviews or other material beyond the tapes, and with the sources I had I didn’t feel like I could tell that story in a new way without risking misrepresenting something. I opened the book with a vignette from the World Famous Supreme Team show because I wanted to quite literally put them front and centre as a way of gesturing to their importance, and as a way of making up for the fact that their radio show is regrettably underrepresented in the body of the book. 

I’ll maintain that distance here, but for folks who are familiar with the World Famous Supreme Team from their connection to Malcolm McLaren, I would highly recommend checking out broadcasts of their radio show. The broadcasts I’ve found are everything that’s interesting about early hip hop radio. You have long stretches of shout-outs, great banter and routines in between cuts, rap/disco tracks of five-percenter texts, and more. They’re just excellent listening. 

Internet radio and podcasts have ushered in a new era of radio creativity. Who do you think is keeping up the tradition of the great hip hop radio pioneers?
There are so many it’s hard to count! By far my favorite online radio resource is Some of the rap shows I like best are Screwboss Radio, Scary Things with DJ Bempah and JK (mostly UK Drill and Grime), PU$$YRAP with Jody Simms, when it was on the YGG show for grime, ONY for a mix of hip, soundtrack, and chopped and screwed, and Hit a Lick Radio for newer hip hop and trap. I find myself listening to a lot more dance music recently, and NTS is so strong there. Some shows and DJs I consistently listen to are Moxie, Kaizen with Madam X, Martha, Spinee, Ben Sims, and DJ Taye.  

Can you give us links to your favourite archived radio shows from history.
I can give a good example of each show I write about in the book. I also encourage folks to spend time looking for recordings. A lot of the hosting platforms I used when I was doing most of my collecting seven years ago aren’t up anymore.  

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton