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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

Body & Soul was NYC

Body & Soul was NYC

Bill BrewsterThe Face, March 1999

SIX O’CLOCK on a freezing Sunday evening on Hubert Street, down by the Holland Tunnel on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. The street is deserted save for a truck backing up to a loading bay. You have to look hard to find the open doorway up past the sloping pavement and, even then, there’s nothing out of the ordinary — no lights, no crush barriers, no wide-shouldered bouncers in nylon jackets. Nothing to suggest that this is the entrance to Vinyl, home of New York’s club-of-the-moment, Body & Soul. There isn’t even a queue.

Once inside, however, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Passing through the warren of corridors, past the unobtrusive security, the first thing you notice is the chill-out area, with its collection of welcoming and obviously well-worn sofas. Beyond that, a couple of makeshift stalls sell Body & Soul T-shirts, hippy sweaters and hats. Even the main part of the club — a large plain square bathed in simple spotlights — seems surprisingly intimate for a venue which can hold up to 1,200 people. There’s just the dancefloor, a raised stage and, up to the side of DJ booth, a compact bar area serving energy drinks, sodas and mineral water. There is no alcohol on sale.

Body & Soul is a club which exists purely for the appreciation of music. It’s not a place for copping off with drunken strangers or getting ripped on E and pogoing all night on a podium. Aside from a few joints being passed around, there’s scant evidence of the heavy drug use — Ketamine in particular — which blights many New York clubs. Besides, the resident DJs at Body & Soul have seen it all before. Between them, François Kevorkian, Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit have been instrumental in providing a nocturnal soundtrack for New York City for the past 25 years.

Not that Body & Soul is just some trainspotter’s heaven. People don’t come here for a Sunday afternoon chill-out session — they come to dance. New arrivals pause at the edge of the dancefloor, stripping off coats and sweatshirts, stowing their outer layers in holdalls and bags which they then stack neatly behind the huge speaker stacks — a process we only fully appreciate after spending 50 minutes in the queue for the cloakroom. Out on the floor, it’s easy to see what makes the club special. The crowd is a unique composite of the New York club scene: colourful young ravers; groups of black and Puerto Rican club veterans; bare-chested gay musclemen. At the bar a clutch of DJs and musicians swap tips and records. As veteran DJ Kenny Carpenter puts it, relaxing at the bar: ‘You never see a crowd this mixed in the city.‘

As if in sympathy with the cross cultural mix, the music constantly shifts, from New York disco classics like First Choice’s ‘Double Cross’ to current dance hits and underground house mantras. There are some tracks, though, which everybody knows. Tracks which are the essence of New York club culture. When the guitar lick from Frontline Orchestra’s 1981 perennial ‘Don’t Turn Your Back’ bursts from the speakers, there is a chorus of knowing cheers. And, despite the early hour, steam starts to rise up in wispy plumes from the dancefloor, mingling with the knots of balloons and coloured paper butterflies suspended over the dancefloor.

IT’S NOW three years since an English ex-pat called John Davis approached François Kevorkian with an idea for a club. Davis wanted to hold a weekly Sunday afternoon party with Kevorkian as one of the featured DJs. Amazingly, Kevorkian — one of the longest-serving DJs on the New York club scene — agreed.

‘I was going to do something on a Sunday with [late New York pioneer and resident at Paradise Garage] Larry Levan,‘ says Kevorkian. ‘But we were playing together in Japan and when we came back he died, so it kind of took the wind out of me for quite a few years. I’d forgotten about it by the time John Davis came on the scene.‘

The idea that Davis and Kevorkian had was simple: they would host an evening that, despite being staged in a club, would feel like a house party. Sofas would be strewn around for people to chat on. There would be balloons suspended from the ceiling, along with cheap, gaudy trinkets that enhanced the DIY aesthetic. As for the music, there’d be none of the hard house and techno that powered the city’s big clubs like Twilo, Limelight and the Roxy. The music would create a mood rather than pound the dancers into submission. In fact, the whole atmosphere would be dictated by the music. Even alcohol would be off limits, with only soft drinks available at the bar. Another unique feature was the trio of DJs who, rather than play distinct sets, would play on-and-off throughout the afternoon and evening.

The idea was nothing new; Davis and Kevorkian would be the first to tell you that. In many ways it was a return to the past, when people went to clubs like Shelter and the Sound Factory specifically to hear one particular DJ. With dance music in general still an underground phenomenon in America, many promoters have turned to the UK dance press for ideas and inspiration. Over the past five years many clubs have started hosting ‘theme’ nights featuring, say, house one night and techno the next. Some even went as far as booking British DJs like Sasha and John Digweed as residents.

So when Body & Soul opened its doors in July 1996, it was as much a cultural statement as a nightclub. From the decor to the DJs, it offered a new experience to seen-it-all New York clubbers. As musical director, Kevorkian took responsibility for hiring the DJs. But rather than just hiring the newest, most fashionable spinners in town, he, ‘decided to call the two people I felt were the most talented I could think of’. Their names were Danny Krivit and Joe Claussell.

Krivit, now in his early forties, has been DJing in New York since the seventies. His stepfather Bobby used to run Ninth Circle, a gay hangout in the West Village, and managed Chet Baker for a time. His mother was a jazz singer on the New Jersey circuit. Danny also has probably the most revered collection of dance music in the city. Joe Claussell, meanwhile, ran an early New York house label, Jungle Sounds, and is now part-owner of the Dance Tracks record shop and a label, Spiritual Life.

As for Kevorkian himself, you could almost trace the entire history of New York nightlife through the experiences of this famously eccentric, French-born DJ, remixer, producer, studio proprietor and label owner. ‘He is, basically, a genius,‘ says Charlie Grappone of West Village record store Vinylmania. ‘He really knows dance music. He’s been in it since its inception. He’s mixed records that still have strength today. When he said he was going to start a label I just knew it was going to be successful. There was no way it could fail.’

Yet when I ask François himself about Body & Soul, he remains silent for a time, as if unwilling to draw too much attention to himself.

‘As far as the party goes,’ he says, finally, ‘John Davis is my partner and equally responsible for the party. I find it unfair to be the only representative of Body & Soul; I can only tell you what it’s like to be part of it. I very much value that team, whether it’s the staff at the door, the host or the coat-check people. It’s a whole bunch of people who love doing it. And I think it shows.’

NEW YORK has long been regarded as having the best clubs in the world. Not only are the clubs themselves legendary — Paradise Garage, Shelter, Sound Factory — but so are the DJs: Larry Levan, Timmy Regisford, Junior Vasquez. In this sense, Body & Soul is merely the continuation of a great tradition. One which many in the city feared had died with the closure of Timmy Regisford’s black gay mecca, Shelter, in the early ’90s (the club has since reopened).

Of course, this past can be restrictive. More than anywhere else, New York’s club history looms ominously over every promoter who discovers an old disco, every DJ who cues up a record, every keyed-up punter in search of a new place to dance. But at Body & Soul, the past is actively celebrated rather than treated with reverence. The days of the ‘Fun City’ which existed under Mayor John Lindsay in the early ’70s may be long gone — the current mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, is the most reactionary New York has seen for decades. The club population may have been decimated by Aids — many people will tell you that once Aids took hold, they couldn’t face going out to clubs because all they could see were the ghosts of friends who were no longer there. But Body & Soul is the living proof that New Yorkers — black and white, gay and straight — still know how to party like it’s 1979. As the veteran DJ Kenny Carpenter puts it: ‘You know what I feel like? Since I come from that era of DJs, I feel like I’m still running with the torch.’

Even so, there is far more to Body & Soul than ’70s classics: the evening’s soundtrack shifts effortlessly from Donna Summer to Armand Van Helden to Basic Channel’s minimal techno masterpiece, ‘Phylyps Track’. Context is everything. As far as Kevorkian, Krivit and Claussell are concerned, you can’t chart the future without a map of the past.

ON A DRIZZLY Saturday afternoon we meet François K at Axis, the recording studio he operates 16 floors above the site of Studio 54 on West 54th St, Manhattan. Typically for a man whose CV encompasses almost every genre in popular music, sessions here have involved such disparate talents as fellow DJ Danny Tenaglia and Mariah Carey. More recently, though, this has been the room where he fashions the strange, compelling fusions of dub, house, techno — or whatever else takes his fancy — that are the hallmark of his label, Wave Music.

François became a DJ by accident. After arriving in New York from his native France in 1975, he wanted to pursue a career as a drummer. The idea was to find like-minded musical buddies and form a group. However, he landed a job playing drums along to the DJ at gay discotheque Galaxy 21 on 23rd Street. It was there that François unexpectedly found himself at the centre of an explosion of club culture.

Coincidentally for Kevorkian, one of the foremost revolutionaries was the resident at Galaxy 21, Walter Gibbons. Gibbons’ trademark was drums. Indeed, he was cutting up breaks and drum tracks well before Grandmaster Flash. He was also one of the first to remix records purely for the effect they would have on the dancefloor. ‘He had an amazing instinct for drum breaks,’ says Kevorkian, ’creating drama with little bits of records.’ Kevorkian’s first forays into production were re-edits of drum mixes Gibbons played live, like Rare Earth’s ‘Happy Song’ or ‘Erucu’, a Jermaine Jackson production that first surfaced on the Mahogany soundtrack. As a result of these early edits, François was offered the post of A&R at fledgling disco label Prelude. In his first week in the job, he remixed Musique’s ‘In The Bush’. It ended up going gold.

‘It was really my first experience in a studio,’ François says, his French accent now submerged in a New York drawl. ’And the record just blew out. Everywhere you would go in the summer of ’78, they were playing that fucking record.’

At the time, not only was François a regular fixture at all the major rooms — The Loft, Better Days, Paradise Garage — he would often be found playing at downtown after-hours gatherings like AM-PM. ‘John Belushi would be there all the time,’ he says. ‘Billy Idol would be lying on the floor half-drunk.’

Yet, by the early ’80s, Kevorkian had more or less stopped DJing altogether and he wouldn’t start playing again on a regular basis until 1990. Instead, he began to concentrate on remixing and production, developing a unique, dub-influenced style inspired in part by reggae producers like King Tubby and partly by an early UK dance track incorporating dub elements: Funk Masters’ ‘Love Money’. It was a style which proved equally effective whether applied to disco — the reprise of D Train’s ‘You’re The One For Me’ on their eponymous album; rock — Dinosaur L’s ‘Go Bang!’ and The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’; or early electronica. ’I pride myself on being the only person that has worked with most of the major electronic music figures,’ he says, ‘whether you’re talking about Depeche Mode, Erasure, Kraftwerk, Eurythmics or Jean-Michel Jarre.’

Great dance music is constructed as much from silence as it is from sound; what gets left out is as important as what goes in. And part of what makes François Kevorkian such a great producer is his unerring sense of what to leave out. Two decades on from those classic early mixes he continues to conjure new rhythmic textures — from the strange, echo-laden depth of recent Wave productions like ‘Time & Space’, ‘Mindspeak’ and ‘Hypnodelic’ to the sparse, dub-orientated tone poems he has wrought from Talvin Singh’s ‘Vikram The Vampire’.

In fact, over the past year, Kevorkian’s profile has risen steadily thanks to the quality of the Wave releases and the label’s burgeoning old-school offshoot, Wave Classics. Yet the release most likely to transcend his specialist-shop status here in the UK is the mix CD released as part of the Essential Mix series on ffrr.

‘It’s just a take on our scene here,’ he says, simply. ‘I think it’s incredible when someone just says, ”Pick what you think’s really great and let’s put it out.” What else can you ask for?’

BY 7PM THE dancefloor at Body & Soul is packed, the crowd growing more excitable with each record. Yet at times the response to the music — as when the O’Jays’ classic ‘Love Train’ comes in — is strangely devotional. An alternative form of Sunday worship. As one of Kevorkian’s contemporaries Steve D’Acquisto told the New York Post 25 years ago: ‘Nobody goes to church anymore, and if you listen to those songs, you’re getting religious and political instruction.’

Just after 10pm, the lights go up. To round off the evening, Danny Krivit throws on Lyn Collins’ rare groove anthem, ‘Think’. The crowd go into a wild hip-shaking frenzy. I look up and see François himself excitedly jumping up and down in the DJ booth. Then, as the track plays out, a Puerto Rican girl called Rosie accosts me. ‘It’s the bomb! I been meaning to go here forever,’ she shouts. ‘I cancelled a flight out of town so I could come here tonight. I had to. And it’s great, everybody getting off on the music, not the drugs. It’s the vibe, man.’ Bill Brewster

© 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

Men in sheds started things off

Men in sheds started things off

In the aftermath of the Second World War, hobbyists and tinkerers set to work stitching together the equipment for mobile DJing. One of these ‘men in sheds’ was Boston’s Ron Diggins, creator and controller of the wonderful Diggola.

In the wilds of Lincolnshire a 2008 auction of ’40s and ’50s DJing equipment sheds light on the career of a pioneering post-war disc jockey, one of the very first mobile DJs. Monster wooden consoles, ancient Bakelite gear and big clunking wind-up double decks, strictly for 78s. The equipment belongs to Boston hero Ron Diggins, who died in 2007, having started DJing in 1947 and enjoying a career spanning 50 years.

It was the notorious Jimmy Savile who revolutionised British nightlife by spearheading the Mecca organisation’s move from dance bands to DJs at the end of the ’50s. But in the austere post-war years leading up to this, Savile was certainly not alone in realising the mass entertainment potential of recorded music.

“We couldn‘t get plywood in those days, so soon after the war. So I had to make it out of coffin boards.”

Ron Diggins was a professional radio engineer with a business providing public address systems. ‘I‘d been playing background music and doing voiceovers 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.’

Ron’s waltz and quick-step 78s proved wildly popular, no doubt because his record selections gave audiences slightly grander music than they were used to. ‘When I started out, the ordinary village halls danced to live piano and drums – that’s all. If it was something extra special, they’d have a violin as well.’

In 1949 he built his famous ‘Diggola’ a wonderful art deco mobile DJ booth modelled on the bandstands of the jazz era. The first of six, it came complete with double decks for 78s, a home-made mixer, lights, microphone, amplifier and ten speakers. ‘It took me about six weeks to build the first Diggola. We couldn’t get plywood in those days, so soon after the war. So I had to make it out of coffin boards.’

Diggins was not alone in his pioneering efforts. In his Radio 4 documentary ‘The Other Mobiles’ Chris Eldon Lee tracked down a series of DJs operating in the 1940s and ’50s, including Bertrand Thorpe, who as far back as 1941 was rocking the crowds with his 30-watt amplifier. Bert recalls how he’d stand with his back to the audience flicking three 40-watt light bulbs on and off in time to the music.

In the ’50s Ron Diggins’ fame had spread so widely around south Lincolnshire that he had to hire two other DJs to keep up with his bookings. His success angered the Musicians’ Union, who used their clout to prevent him playing larger venues. So sadly, though he’d set his heart on it, Ron never played Boston’s Gliderdrome. He retired in 1995 after playing around 20,000 parties. The most he ever charged was £50.

‘I’ve invented nothing,’ he insisted on his 90th birthday. ‘I put the same things to a different use, that’s all.’ Frank Broughton

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Thanks to The Boston Standard, Chris Eldon-Lee and Eleys Auctions

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

Dom Phillips knew all the secrets

Dom Phillips knew all the secrets

Interviewed by Bill in London, 25.5.99

Murdered for his devoted reporting from the Amazon, Dom Phillips was a truth-seeker who wrote with both his head and his heart. Before he fell in love with Brazil, Birkenhead-born Dom had been editor of Mixmag through the rollercoaster years when dance music exploded in the UK and house music became big business. He originally went to Sao Paulo to finish writing his book, Superstar DJs Here We Go, which skewered the whole idea of superstar DJs and traced the rise and fall of several. At Mixmag he nurtured a generation of writers and photographers, and created a magazine that challenged as well as celebrated its subject. In 1999 Dom was one of the last people we interviewed for the original edition of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and his deep industry insight and behind-the-scenes perspective gave us plenty of glue to bring things together. His passion for the dancefloor, his sharp intelligence and his wry turn of phrase made him an important voice throughout. An amazing guy, we miss him.

When you started writing about dance music did you ever think it would become a global pop thing?
No. When I first heard it I was living abroad and I came home because… it was on MTV and in little gay clubs. I heard it in a gay club in Australia, and I heard it on MTV in Denmark and I came home to find out more. This was in about ‘88. I moved to Bristol, and it was in blues clubs and there was one club called the Moon Club, which was in the dodgy part of town, St Paul‘s and you’d get a mixture of hip hop and house. I knew it was going to get bigger because I would play friends things like Soul II Soul and they’d hate it at first, then they’d finally get it. But I think there was a big gulf between growing up on rock and melody to these grooves. I didn’t grow up on soul. I grew up on indie. It took a long time to get it. I thought it’d be like punk; where you’d get a big band like the Clash…

A fad?
Not a fad. Maybe as big as reggae.

Do you think it was inevitable?
I think it was inevitable after the critical mass of the summers of love and the rave years. And the massive free advertising campaign on behalf of The Sun, which was very generous of them. Once the tabloids had written that 5,000 kids were dancing all night on drugs and having sex, 500,000 kids were asking, ‘Where’s the party?’ [laughter]. It was just so obvious. And after that it suddenly went BANG! I remember hearing ‘The Theme’ by Sabres of Paradise on the Chart Show. I think it was Bruno Brooks had to play the full length version and it was eight minutes; twice as long as everything else in the Radio One top forty. I thought that was pivotal moment. I thought, ‘Fucking hell’.

Is the DJ an outlaw?
I think the thing with the DJ is that the DJ is a cultural outlaw, not necessarily a political outlaw. People get confused with dance music and how to categorise it; and where it fits. And the reason is that it doesn’t fit anywhere, because it never existed before. It’s a totally new thing since DJs came out in the ’60s with reggae. So the DJ is not an artist, but he is an artist. He’s not a promoter, but he is a promoter. He’s not a record company man, but he is. And he’s also part of the crowd. He’s an instigator who brings all these things together. Politically, I think they tend to be very very safe. They’re quite content to stay in with the record companies. They’re quite content to stay in the with the clubs, because it’s their business. It’s an interesting point that throughout dance music’s history it has always been ruthlessly opportunistic, entrepreneurial and capitalist. It’s always been about making money. In a way that was quite rebellious compared to the Red Wedge, PC thing you had before. In terms of the power a good DJ can bring. Turning a crowd into a throng. It is quite a powerful, weird role to play. So I guess they can be an outlaw in that sense. But more cultural, because they’re bringing all these things together into a new kind of creative expression. The idea of creating hotch-potches and putting them together. That’s what DJs do. And that’s quite radical. So, in that sense, yes!

Why do you think the DJ became such a superstar?
Pressure. The incident that everyone refers to at Mixmag was when David Davies, who was editor at the time, put Sasha on the cover with the phrase: First DJ Pin Up. We were accused at the time of creating the idea of a DJ superstar. Firstly the idea that a magazine can create something is wrong anyway, because it can’t. It can push things that are already going. But the reason that was happening was because were were getting reports from Sasha at Shelley’s where people were queuing up to shake his hand and guys were getting him to kiss their girlfriends and things like this. Because emotionally he was connecting with people in a way on ecstasy. The way he was putting record together. The Whitney Houston acappella. He really was making people quite emotional. It was at that point that we had a star develop. And again it’s about the money. People saw how much Sasha could get paid, and how much a personality could help, I think some DJs went to push a personality and develop a distinctive thing of their own. Some DJs had a bit of personality that the magazines and media would push. I think in the case of Wall of Sound or Jon Carter I think they fairly blatantly played up the ‘We are the mad bastards’ Loaded mad fuckers to gain attention. I think a magazine like Mixmag was happy to play along at that point because needed stars. In the case of Sasha I don’t think he really wanted it and that was what was quite intriguing about it. But at the same time, once it was offered, he was quite intrigued and flattered and excited by the prospect. And ever since he’s constantly sat on that knife-edge. He loves it .He hates it. He’s a tortured artist. But there’s people cheering. Whatever.

The impression I got at the time was that he wasn’t happy about it.
Oh, he always said he wasn’t happy about it. I think the reason he wasn’t comfortable about it was that all his mates used to phone him up and take the piss out of him. He’s quite a lad. When we did the Son Of God? cover, he really hated that. We actually had a wrestling match about it outside the Ministry of Sound.

Halo boys!

A wrestling match?
Yeah, me and Sasha wrestled. We had this protracted argument for about an hour that people were trying to break up. It didn’t become a fight, but it became this magical wrestling match. ‘You shouldn’t have said that!’ ‘You should have co-operated with the photos!’ [laughter]

Was that the one with the halo?
Yeah, the reason was he’d been a nightmare all day and wouldn’t do anything. I had to go down. At the end of the day, the photographer, exasperated, just said, ‘Go like that’ [clasps hands]. The pictures came in and Pembo [Andrew Pemberton] said, ‘Son of God’. So we did. It was more a case of necessity than we set out to do it.

How much did DJs becoming big have to do with record companies looking for new stars?
It didn’t have very much to do with record companies. There aren’t very many of them that have made it successfully as artists are there? Some of them have gone and formed bands, but they tend to be the less successful ones. Mike Pickering with M People. He wasn’t really A-list. The big DJs – Carl Cox, Jeremy Healy, John Digweed, Sasha, Pete Tong – how many of them have made great records?

Well some of them have made commercially successful records. Jeremy Healy’s had a couple of top twenty hits.
Yeah. Sells 6,000 in the first week [laughter]. Their big hits are compilation albums, which are all done on Pro-Tools anyway. They don’t even go near them.

That’s a terrible thing to say Dom!
It’s absolutely true.

I know it is.
And I hope you put it in your book! Sorry, to try and answer your question. I think one of the reasons DJs became stars was confusion in the audience. And one of the ways to give a night a badge of credibility was to put a name on it. I was involved in the first ever Mixmag night in Bristol. It was the first time Andrew Weatherall had come to town. Nobody had any idea who Andrew Weatherall was. Or what he played. Or what he stood for. But they did know that he was a DJ and he’d never been to town before so the whole city went out. It was rammed. It’s like a badge isn’t it? But then there are some DJs who are capable of magic, aren’t there? When it all connects, I don’t think there’s anywhere where you can have more fun on a Saturday night. If you’ve had one of those experiences with a great DJ, that’s been brilliant. You’ve seen Carl Cox, and you’re off your head, you’ve made loads of friends, you’re always gonna remember it. And you’re always gonna remember it was Carl Cox.

It might not even have been Carl Cox. He might have come at half ten and left! I’ve come out of a club convinced I’ve seen a great set by so-and-so and discovered years later it was by someone else. Frank Tope is a classic. I remember seeing Frank out one night at Debbie Does Dallas. Suitably refreshed. He was dancing wildly to a bootleg of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ that John Kelly was playing. An hour later, Jeremy Healy played the same record. And the same Frank walked off the floor in disgust. It’s so subjective. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m taking the piss out of DJs… I don’t mean to.

(L-R) Photographer and Time Out Clubs Editor Dave Swindells, Time Out Clubs reporter Sam Pow, Dom Phillips, unknown

What were the most dramatic changes you saw in dance culture when you were at Mixmag?
The first one was the rave scene blowing up and burning out in 1991. There was a big rave called Vision. It had 40,000 people. It was massive. And it was an utter disaster. It was deep in mud. It was when the complaints came in and the violence got really out of hand. Then you had all the cartoon records which seemed to be musically and creatively bankrupt. We were wrong. What was happening was the beginnings of jungle were being sown, and perhaps the tension of what was happening at those events contributed to that. I think around 1991 people started going to clubs to avoid ravers. Venus and those kind of places. Dress codes. Leather trousers. The music was slower, the whole thing was cooler.

I noticed when I came back in ’96, that it had really exploded and permeated the whole of our culture
I think the biggest change – and people always say ’88 – was 1994 and ’95. A club called Vague had been described as handbag. You had that mixed-gay glamour thing. I remember when Renaissance opened that was quite pivotal moment. We went to the opening of Renaissance in Mansfield. In the middle of nowhere. Like the secrecy of trying to find a rave. Finding the club, and it was full of pillars, and girls dressed in satin. Chris Howe had done the decor. I remember going to Venus and the opening of Renaissance in the same night and thinking things are really changing. But that whole thing, handbag, glam, just went BANG! I guess you wanna trace it back to the Criminal Justice Act. Was that ’94? Suddenly you’d got Cream, Renaissance, Ministry, loads of others start popping up. The little Balearic network becomes this massive thing. At that point it was so accessible. It was easier than raving. It got to the point where everybody got greedy. Talk to any promoter about 1995 and they’ll tell you, ‘We made so much money’.

Damon Rochefort of Nomad, Dom and Frank Tope, backstage at the DMC mixing competition

I was looking through Mixmag last night, and in them, the promoters were whinging about how much money DJs were earning.
It’s a supply and demand, free-market economy. You’ve got the Americans starting charging four or five grand and first class flights. So they priced themselves out of the market. They disappeared. It was the first time, I think, where DJs thought they could really make serious amounts of money. Some of them were going from making £500 a night, Sasha might have been getting share deals on the door that were taking him up to £1,800. And in 1994, for one gig that was a lot of money. And it just started to go from there. I think people, if you were top, were getting around £1,000 to £1,500 a gig. If you’re doing six gigs a week… And there were so many clubs coming up that you could do that.

I remember Dave Seaman telling me he was getting offered £1,500 to play a Tuesday and that was in ’95.
I think we really started kicking off in ’96 with the backlash. I think in ’95 we were more enthusiastic. But, as with everything we did at Mixmag, we were really responding to the letters we were getting. A lot of feature ideas came from readers’ letters. It was like the ’80s before Black Friday. It was ridiculous. I’ve got very vague memories of that year to be honest. Its a bit if blur.

Did house finish off punk’s DIY aesthetic?
I suppose, politically, it was because anyone could make a record and have a huge hit. The early bleep stuff, LFO and the like all crashing into the charts. No big deals, just pirate radio and stuff. And a lot of the jungle stuff now. So it is possible to make a living and you almost live completely outside the music business. I don’t think musically it had anything to do with punk because it’s always been quite musical and funky and that’s one thing punk wasn’t. There’s also a lot of hippie dreams in house music. A lot of people in the early days of acid house were hippies. I think it’s easier putting that on it.

But I don’t think it was conscious.
The imagery they use; the smiley faces; the flowers, the day-glo colours. And also disco. Disco fantasies. That’s another set of dreams. It seems to me the disco fantasy, the gay utopia, the ghetto we live and everyone will be free before tonight. Dance music has a lot of different ideals and dreams compressed into it. I also think it’s a music that everyone puts their own agenda on. Everyone’s got their own agenda.

Is that DIY aspect still intact today?
I think in the good clubs, the individual is as important as anyone else contributing to the club. If you go to a club, you are a star, as much as the DJ is. If you want to be. But there’s still so many records that seem to come out nowhere. This ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’. It’s gonna be a hit. I sent Stan over to get a copy, and he had to go to this fucking tower block in Old Street. What a great record. Record companies can’t keep up with it.

Do you think this is why they’ve forced groups like Prodigy into their rock template?
Yeah, it’s for students isn’t it? Students would listen to Steel Pulse, but they wouldn’t listen to Jamaican reggae. The Bee Gees but not proper disco.

This is when the NME got involved wasn’t it?
No I think Midi Circus, when they started doing this live thing. The Megadog.

But they were never cover artist…
They put Orbital on the cover in ’94. Allan Lewis, who was then the publisher, told me at In The City, that they would put someone like Orbital on the cover and take a hit in sales, because it was good for credibility. We used to have similar philosophy in Mixmag.

You mean like putting Method Man on the cover?

But they love Fatboy Slim!
Fatboy Slim is a pop star. And there’s Zoe Ball. I do like his records, but I do agree that it’s student music.

But it’s like the Prodigy. It’s an illusion. They’re not really playing live.
‘But it’s not a cabaret, okay?’ (He’s paraphrasing Liam.) Because they get out there, and they just express themselves.

Are they the new rock and roll? Are they the Big Audio Dynamite of the ‘90s, mixing guitars and samplers?
I always hated Big Audio Dynamite! I think bands like Prodigy, the Chemicals, Underworld very cleverly, have large elements of rock and roll in a way that rock audiences can understand them. Lots of clever stuff on top. The Prodigy have all this theatre stuff going on. It’s more akin to a heavy metal band. It’s almost like Kiss. It is a cabaret. They change costumes. They blow fire. You watch them and it’s a total performance where they act out certain roles. I don’t know whether they’re the new rock and roll or something else. What they do is more interesting. As far as I can work out rock and roll hasn’t changed for thirty years. It’s been exactly the same.

Except with bigger amplifiers.
Yeah, with bigger amplifiers. There’s still good records though. I think a lot of rock people were really alienated by the glamour of it all. I remember Pembo really had a thing about it in 1994 and ’95. We are anti-rock! Rock kids are saddoes. Rock journalists are saddoes. They don’t know how to enjoy themselves.

Is this the same Pembo who is now editor of Q?
Yeah, absolutely [lots of laughter]. Let me put it this way. There was a feeling at Mixmag that we were out to convert the world. Pitting ourselves against people from the rock magazines who we despised. We were flasher. We had a better time. We travelled five star. That kind of thing.

How much is club culture an essential defining part of young people’s identity?
I don’t think so much now. If you’re 18 now, you might go see Daft Punk, you might go see the Chemicals, you might go see the New Radicals. It doesn’t really matter. That’s my perception. Up until a couple of years ago, though, I’d say it was a key defining point.

Has a decade of E culture left us more open, sharing like the evangelists said it would?
Has it left us more sharing and more open? I think it has actually.

Do you think what it did was to show possibilities, because Terry Farley told us about his friends going from being plasterers to designers and A&R men and DJs and producers…
I totally agree with that. I think for a lot of men, particularly from places like the north, where I’m from. There was a great article Damon Rochefort wrote on Donna Summer once. And he described this scene where he used to go to his local club in Cardiff. And there was an edge of carpet and only the girls were on the floor and the boys would gather around the edge. What dance music did was take those boys from the edge and integrate them on the dancefloor. They learned to enjoy themselves. And be a bit more like women. Feminise them a bit. I think what you said about Terry Farley’s friends changing jobs is very true as well. I don’t think I could have become a journalist if it wasn’t for dance music. I don’t have a degree. I think a lot of people were like that. A lot of people who make records, might have been in prison or whatever. Yet they’re able to produce incredible sounds from inside their heads. I don’t think Sasha would’ve been a pop star. Sasha would’ve worked in a clothes shop or something.

How much is dance music controlled by consumerism?
No I think people are far too clever for that. I think people know what brands are and consume dance music the same as if they walk to Selfridges and buy Hugo Boss or Maharishi. They may choose to have a Cream logo etched into their hair, but it’s not because they’re brainwashed by Cream it’s because they’ve made a choice. And they’re happy to associate with that. I think it’s quite playful the way that’s done.

Have we reached the House Sucks stage?
I think we were there just before Stardust. Stardust and ‘Needin‘ U‘ were quite important, because they were two classic house records. And had they only ever been released on independent labels by unknowns, would still be massive trainspotter records. That’s the point when it all got quite classy again. You know that Lucid trance stuff? Now that really sucks. I think last year was a bit of a pivotal year, because it brought us back from the brink of Cheese Hell.

Is it really a victory for dance music that dance acts can now play in American stadiums?
It’s a really difficult question. It’s certainly a financial victory. It‘s probably a victory in terms of artists coming through, because it would help them. It‘s a shame it‘s had to fit into that template. It‘s not a perfect scenario, but again, I‘d rather it was the Chemical Brothers than Aerosmith.

Do you think it’s become so fragmented now that we will never get anything like punk or house again?
I think the only thing you can be sure of is more surprises. Other than that I really don’t know.

What is the most lasting legacy of club culture?
I think the thing we were talking about earlier, where boys can get on the dancefloor. Express themselves in a different way. The very uptight, guys, aren’t they? You‘re my best friend, but I can‘t tell you! It’s been really helpful in allowing men, in particular, to relax and relate to each other and women in many different ways. And also learning to appreciate women in non-sexual ways. I think it challenged rock’s dominance. It allowed a lot of people to listen to jazz, disco. It helped give people a better perspective on gay people. Racism, perhaps. I think it may even have made us better dressed.

How ridiculous did the DJs fees get?
Utterly, utterly, utterly ridiculous. God knows where these people got the idea that they were worth anywhere near that much money. At least some of them had the grace to admit the whole thing was a fucking scam. Unfortunately, some of them took themselves seriously. The only way it was justified was in terms of them bringing in more money. A DJ would get paid four grand because the promoter was going to get 12 grand. But it was just greed. DJs get paid ludicrous amounts of money. I don’t think any of them are worth it [laughter].

Why not? Personally I think the guest DJ culture we have here has taken us two steps back in terms of DJing as an artform.
I’d agree. I’d totally totally agree. A DJ should want to play four hours. How much better are the really big DJs than a bedroom DJ like Stan? How much better are they, really? Some of them are. Carl Cox is. He radiates enjoyment. He’s got presence. He can pump people up. He’s probably worth his money. And then there are one or two other ones, particularly the younger ones, who turn up, play a load of bog-standard hard-house records and bugger off again, having hoovered up half of Bolivia and groped the promoter’s girlfriend. These same people have the nerve to kick off, if anyone dared criticise them because they’re losing touch with all reality because they’d taken so much cocaine. I mean, that’s more than doctors get. If you’re getting more than quarter of a million pounds a year, you’re getting more than a surgeon.

It’s the skinny models argument, Dom.
The really funny thing is how many of them never paid the taxman and got caught. How could they be so stupid? Switch it off for a second [he then tells a story of a massive ’90s DJ going on the front cover of Mixmag and asking Dom’s advice about whether to pay his tax bill].

The thing with Healy is he really did live that life. Definitely. Rock and roll, models, glamour. He hung out with Galliano. We did a feature in Mixmag about him playing at a fashion show in Paris and all the girls hanging round. Some people move in that fashiony world. They know stars. He certainly did.

How do you feel about someone taking someone else’s records, and yet still being considered an artist?
I totally accept it.

There’s a Q this month in Muzik from Steven Wells saying DJs are wankers and they do nothing. Do you think there’s still a lot of misconceptions about what DJs actually do?
I do. Give Steven Wells a big bag of tunes in the main room of Cream and say there you go mate. Show us how easy it is. It’s not easy. Of course it’s not. It’s difficult to understand what the art of DJing is because some of it is quite mystical. It’s about picking up on what the mood might be, and might possibly become. And trying to get it there, in the context of where you are and what you’re doing. There’s a great amount of sensitivity involved. And a really great DJ is totally capable of doing that. They’re totally capable of making a bad record sound okay, a good record sound great, and a great record sound fantastic. They can improve records by the context they put them in. And what they put around them. How they steer them. They can do all kinds of tricks. They can make people spontaneously cheer just for a little squelchy noise. Which is quite insane really. A little noise like wha-wha-wha and people go, ‘Yeeeaaah!’ You can have people clapping along to a cymbal, just by the way they’re bringing it in. When it’s done well it’s fantastic. If it’s done really well it can be quite transcendental. It’s very difficult to explain what the difference between a bad one and a good one is. When the DJ gets it right, it’s definitely artistry, I think. You obviously do. You’re writing a book! You’re a DJ aren’t you? What’s the difference between you and Louie Vega?

Er, dunno. He’s shorter.
I think good DJs are not just chucking them on. They’re very thoughtful about it. What Frankie Knuckles tries to do is get inside the hearts and the minds of the people at the centre of the dancefloor. Try to hear things as if for the first time. How would I feel if I was hearing this for the first time? I think if you talk to the great DJs, they’re probably all quite thoughtful.

Is the DJ a filter?
I think one of the bit mistakes of dance music was that album artists were going to be the saviour of it. And then what happened was you got the excellent mix series coming out: Mixmag Live, Global Underground, Journeys By DJ, United DJs of America. The records are going to sound better in their mix than on your turntable. There’s absolutely no point in buying those records. You‘re much better off buying a snapshot of their sound at a certain time.

Do you think that’s better than buying a Masters At Work original album, because it reflects who they are better?
With the albums they’ve released so far, definitely! No, I do. Some of my favourite pieces of music are mixes and I play them again and again.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

What is Balearic?

What is Balearic?

Up until the ’80s the word Balearic meant nothing more than a collection of islands huddled near the Mediterranean coast of northern Spain. It was the sort of place you might go to if you booked your breaks from the pages of a Thomson’s Holidays brochure. But then something strange happened. British DJs, holidaying on the island of Ibiza, discovered a DJ called Alfredo Fiorito and before we knew it, the Balearics – the location – also became a musical genre: the Balearic beat. So what is Balearic? Is it simply a genre, or more of a feeling? Did it ever exist outside of the confines of DJ Alfredo’s record box? A fuzzy and scattered set of records that may or may not include Wang Chung, Phil Collins and Simply Red? Or is it simply, as dance writer Frank Tope once jokingly defined it, ‘pop records that sound good on pills’?

A Short History Of Ibiza

Ibiza has always retained a mythical hold in people’s imagination. Its location in the Mediterranean meant it was perfectly positioned to offer sanctuary for transients travelling to or escaping from somewhere else. It was a favourite haunt of the Carthaginians’ whose goddess of sexuality, Tanit, populates trinket stalls on the island to this day. Its first settlers were the Phoenicians, who gave it its name (it derives from their god of safety, dance and protection, Bes); and thereafter by the Romans and the Vandals, the Arabs and the Catalans, the Jews (fleeing persecution) and Americans (draft dodgers, most of them), fugitives from justice and injustice, pirates looking for place to hide or trade; finally, it was the hippies and the jet set.

Ibiza is a tolerant place. You’d have to be to welcome/endure so many visitors over two thousand years. Despite the despotic Franco’s brutal reign on mainland Spain, it became known as an island that was particularly sympathetic to gay men and women, well before most of mainland Europe; Santa Eulalia was a popular gay tourist destination from the 1950s onwards and Ibiza has remained one of the top three gay holiday spots worldwide ever since. The island’s first gay disco, Anfora (snuck away in a cave in Dalt Vila) opened as long ago as the early 1960s. Pacha’s Piti Urgell recalls the contrast in attitudes between Ibiza and the mainland. ‘Once the police came to our club in Sitges and they said that that it wasn’t up to standard because it was too dark to read. My brother told them, “Well, that’s not a problem because nobody comes here to read!”’

”Ibiza was pretty much left on its own”

Willie Crichton, Bar M

An American Jack Hand (aka Bad Hand Jack) helped launch Ibiza’s musical scene when he began booking jazz musicians to come and perform on the island, including Billy Eckstine and Jon Hendricks (sadly, Jack lived up to his nickname and was later convicted of murder in Barcelona).

Thanks to its reputation among the gay community and among a strata of super-wealthy individuals, movie stars, actors and playboys found its secluded bays perfect for either relaxing or getting up to no good, away from the prying eyes of a hungry celebrity press.

Errol Flynn spent time there, along with Ursula Andress, Denholm Elliott (who made it his home), Nikki Lauda, Goldie Hawn and Roman Polanski. ‘Ibiza was pretty much left on its own,’ claims Bar M’s Willie Crichton. ‘This is why, in a way, we were able to have what we had. It was a well-kept secret. This was a bastion of liberty in the country. It was like an independent republic.’

Movie star Errol Flynn having it large in Ibiza in the ’30s

Seminal hippie movie More, which employed a Pink Floyd score, was shot on Ibiza and nearby Formentera, and provided further temptation for the long-hairs of Europe to head for the Mediterranean. The Ibiza of 35 years ago was somewhat different to today’s commercialised island. Hippies would hang out in the open, often literally since many of them never bothered to wear clothes. ‘The show was not in the clubs it was in the streets,’ recalls Argentinian Nino, aka Captain Birdseye. ‘I mean the street was a club. You walked to the harbour and there was a crazy world there with the hippies and the hippie market, people naked on the street, drag queens, Germans on their motorcycles. But in San Antonio there were package tours and one of the attractions for the tours was to come and see the crazy people so they brought the tourists down to look. The people did not feel comfortable being looked at, so they took refuge in the clubs.’

The first modern-style club to be opened on Ibiza was Pacha. Even then it was already a burgeoning empire, with clubs on the mainland (their first place opened in Sitges in 1967). Pacha was opened by the Urgell brothers, Ricardo and Piti, the latter also being the founding DJ. Piti played a mixture of British rock (Island Records was a favourite label with bands like Spooky Tooth and Traffic particular favourites) and pop and soul. The early ’70s was somewhat different to now. ‘There were two floors and two worlds,’ explains Piti. ‘The touristy side was on one floor and the hippie world was on the other floor. The same music but totally different scenes on the different sides. Lots of hippies would come, but the tourists would come and they would also pay. The hippies would just bring their dogs.’

Pacha parties grew legendary. One such night involved a flamenco performer dancing with a horse on the main dancefloor. Another involved transporting the whole club on a boat to Formentera. And then there were the White Parties. ‘I’ll always remember the first White Party we threw in ’76, three years after it opened,’ chuckles Piti. ‘Everybody had to wear white. They were saying, ”What shall we do to make this party special?” So we put two UV lights so you could really see the white. Everybody made a really big effort. So when they put the lights on so the clothes glowed, everyone took them off and danced in the nude. The atmosphere was incredible. The challenge was to make a better party than that one because that one was just so amazing. But we never managed it.’

Jean-Claude Maury

Jean-Claude Maury is a mysterious character who steps into the frame just as the camera lens blinks. His story collides accidentally with that of Ibiza and Balearic music despite the fact he is rarely, if ever, mentioned. He is the Zelig of the Balearic scene, a Frenchman, originally from Marseilles, who lived in Brussels. His background was originally as part of the punk rock explosion, but he first came to prominence as a DJ at the Mirano, a swanky Belgian club that is often described as the Studio 54 of the Lowlands. He was a primary influence on the Belgian new beat scene and championed the dark leftfield pop that became such a fixture in sets in Antwerp and beyond. It was Jean-Claude who broke Max Berlin’s ‘Elle Et Moi‘ and also did a very passable cover version under the name Joy. In Ibiza he was originally the DJ at Glory’s (which had French ownership) before moving on to Ku, where he was resident when Alfredo was making his name at Amnesia. 

Jean-Claude Maury (black shirt) and Gerardo Queiruga at Ku Ibiza in 1983

When asked about the DJ who influenced him most, Alfredo cites Jean-Claude Maury. ‘He was a very simple guy, without a massive ego. And, although he wasn’t young, he had a love for the music, particularly, and he had great taste. Other details are sketchy. Was the Jean-Claude who played at the opening night of Pacha Sitges in the late ’60s, the same person? And how much did he bring his new beat influences to bear on Ibiza?

Certain tunes offer a clue. Mag & The Suspects’ ‘Erection‘, for example, was massive with Belgian DJs like Fat Ronny and also a big Balearic tune. Connections like these show that Jean-Claude Maury almost certainly had an influence on the sound that eventually became defined as Balearic. And when you consider them side by side it’s not hard to see the links between the music played in Belgium during the years leading up the new beat explosion with that of Ibiza and Alfredo. The difference is probably just a healthy dose of sun to wash away the doom and acid rain. 

DJ Alfredo

In the very same year that Pacha threw their infamous White Party, a young Argentinian journalist arrived on the island by way of Madrid and Paris. Alfredo Fiorito was visiting a friend. He never left. His first job on Ibiza was selling candles on a market stall. A few years later he was running a friend’s bar. The bar also had some decks, a mixer and a small collection of records, so Alfredo doubled up as barman and DJ. He had but one ambition and that was to become resident at Amnesia, then an ailing open-air club that no one seemed able to make into a success. As to why he wanted this job, he says simply: ‘It was the most alternative place in Ibiza.’

Amnesia had originally been a finca that had belonged to the Planells family for several generations. They sold it to the aristocratic Maria Fuencisla Martinez de Campos y Munoz in 1970, who turned it into a hippie enclave replete with art exhibitions, live performances by stoner bands with a side order of mung beans. It became a discotheque in May 1976 when a Madrileño called Antonio Escohotado began leasing the finca from its owner. He chose the name Amnesia (having discarded the markedly less snappy the Workshop of Forgetfulness). 

Amnesia was not a success for several years. Trevor Fung recalls going over to play there in 1984 after two Belgians bought the club. ‘There was no one in there. No one. Dead.  I played there for about two weeks. It had just been bought and they’d just got it going. Didn’t happen. Lost my job.‘ During that same summer, Alfredo finally got his chance. ‘By the end of August, we had not had one person in the club,‘ he laughs, knowingly. 

By the end of that season, it was the hottest club on the island. What changed their fortune was switching from regular club hours to after-hours – and a little Alfredo magic. It all happened by accident. ‘One night we’d been waiting to get paid and some of the people in the club, my work colleagues, asked me to play for them while we waited for the money,’ explains Alfredo. ‘Some people came down from Ku, heard the music and stayed there. Fifty to sixty people. The next day there was 300; the day after 500 and four days later there was a thousand in the club. Just like that.’ From then on, Amnesia opened at three and closed at midday. 

The music that Alfredo compadre Leo Mas and a cadre of island DJs began to discover and promote over the next few years formed the original Balearic playlist (many of which were later codified on the FFRR compilation Balearic Beat Vol. 1). Although many of these records were mainly European and often English, they’d remained a mystery to many of the travelling British contingent – mainly because they were all soulboys for whom the idea of listening to music made by white people, especially white English people, was anathema. 

Trevor Fung was an early devotee of Alfredo’s and soon got to know him. ‘At the time what I used to do was bring him stuff from the UK and he used to buy it from me,‘ he says, ‘I used to look through his records going, ”Where did you get this from?” I thought where the fuck did he get all this stuff?  And then I looked at the labels and it was all English stuff. It was from Leeds and places like that. I thought what the fuck’s going on here?’

What was interesting about Alfredo’s selections was that even though they were, indeed, from unlikely locations like Leeds, they still somehow had a Mediterranean feel to them. The Cure’s ‘Pictures Of You‘ was a perfect example sounding like a strange hybrid of dour Estuary vocals and Latin heat; perfect for Amnesia, in fact. 

What turned Alfredo’s music from a popular local curiosity to worldwide infamy was the intervention of four young enthusiastic British DJs out on a holiday at the behest of Fung, who was running the Project Bar during the summer of 1987: Johnny Walker, Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway and Danny Rampling. It was Fung who had told Oakenfold about the burgeoning scene there (he’d actually been once earlier in the season, not liked it, and returned home). It was also Fung who introduced them to ecstasy. 

‘I’d give them all one at the bar. I didn’t want to say too much, I just said, ”Try this, it don’t do too much to you!” Then we went to Amnesia. Fucking hell! We was all off on one here. Danny Rampling skipping round the room and jumping speakers. Johnny was sitting in a speaker. Paul was like, ”I can’t fucking believe this, it’s changed since I last been here!” Chaos.‘

Johnny Walker recalls that night: ‘I remember walking into this open-air, white-walled fabulous club with palm trees and mirrored pyramid and dazzling light show going on and all these crazy, flamboyant people dancing. You had all the jet-set around the edges drinking their champagne and all the gay crowd going mad on the dancefloor. It was a real carnival atmosphere, full of life and energy.’

‘And then hearing Alfredo play was completely mindblowing to what we were used to in London,’ he adds. ‘We were like, ”Wow! What the fuck is this?” Something completely different. Alfredo was mixing up house records with indie guitar records, pop stuff like Madonna and George Michael, and then some of the things that are now Balearic classics, that I suppose he was finding in Ibizan record shops. I think we did go there every night; we just couldn’t get enough of it. We were like: ”We’ve got take this back to London.”‘

What happened next has passed into legend in the UK. Often cited as the start of the dance scene in Britain (as though nobody had ever danced until ‘Acid Tracks‘ landed in London). Paul Oakenfold started The Future (aided by pal Trevor Fung), Danny Rampling ran Shoom in the Fitness Centre, while Nicky Holloway had the Trip at the Astoria. Within months they had help transform a holiday epiphany into a nationwide phenomenon. 

‘Shoom DJ Colin Faver has never seen anything like it,’ wrote John Godfrey in i-D magazine. ’”At the end half of them come up and shake my hand. It just doesn’t happen anywhere else.” It’s the most obvious display yet of a realignment in club attitudes, a move away from the fashion victim voyeurism that has dominated London clubland in the past and more than just a return to ‘fun’. ”We want to change people’s attitude towards each other when they get out, get rid of that aggressive atmosphere that most clubs have,” says [Shoom’s] Jenny. ”As soon as you step inside The Shoom or The Future, you can literally feel and certainly see the difference. Nobody glares at you, everybody smiles at you and someone might even give you a present.”‘

Nights swiftly sprung up all over the country (although, in fact, many early house nights in Nottingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Sheffield had long been thriving anyway). The style magazines began gingerly stepping around the scene, while the tabloids’ interest – often denouncing and praising the scene, almost simultaneously – ensured that ‘raving’ became a national pastime for any youth with a sense of fun and access to some half-decent drugs. 

‘Now while it’s true that the Balearic beat was born in Ibizan clubs, such as Amnesia and Pacha, its breeding took place in a small, sweaty, strobey, smoky south London club called… The Shoom,‘ wrote Terry Farley, in the sleevenotes for Balearic Beats Vol. 1, a compilation that was entirely based on the playlists of DJ Alfredo. ‘The hardcore original Shoomers, along with another London club The Future, had discovered the joys of Balearic beats, during several previous ‘summers of love’ (sic), and had brought the music and the attitude back to London with them. The kinetic style of dancing now associated with Balearic’s ugly brother, acid house, is pure Ibizan in origin. The loudest screams at Spectrum are always reserved for Nitzer Ebb and the Residents while hearing Enzo Avitabile booming through the smoke at Joy is an ecstatic experience one step away (some say forward) from sex.’

The arrival of the Balearic beat, reinforced by the unstoppable force of acid house, altered the direction of British clubbing and, indeed, British youth culture, for the next 15 years. But, while it was Balearic that was the launching pad, the idea of playing eclectic sets in the same manner as Alfredo soon waned as the new house hegemony began. 

The New Balearic

These days Balearic is a constant. It’s almost as ubiquitous as minimal house. So what does it mean now? Is it a genre of music and does it have anything to do with Alfredo?

In the 1980s, before the arrival of house music, almost all club DJs played an eclectic range of music that might incorporate disco, funk, soul, rare groove, go-go, electro, hip hop and even the occasional comedy record (and some would argue that comedy records are the epitome of Balearic). Nobody billed these DJs as Balearic; a) because the term did not yet exist and; b) because everybody played in this style. 

In New York, it was the same story, too. Larry Levan, with his wide ranging tastes that encompassed the classic disco and soul of his youth to bands like the Clash or Cat Stevens or even Nu Shooz, it could be argued (and is, frequently, by some) that Larry Levan was Balearic. The same could be said for Ron Hardy. And Frankie Knuckles. Oh and Tony Humphries, Shep Pettibone, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano and about a hundred others. 

What house created was both a template – a hegemony – but also because of its all-consuming power, it created a small but vocal opposition. The reason many DJs used it as a shorthand term to describe their style was a simple way of differentiating them from everyone else. It was a way of saying, ‘We don’t only play house’. 

The idea behind Balearic is that any record could be made to work on a dancefloor provided it had the right feel (that fantastically nebulous word that means one man’s Funkadelic is another man’s Dana International). But it’s also because the idea of a bearded misery guts from Wigan who had never been further south than Macclesfield calling himself a Balearic DJ was intrinsically funny (it still is). 

So the new Balearic – or The New Balearic, should I say – is both a myth and a reality. It’s a myth in as much as there is no specific genre of Balearic as there is for, say, house or happy hardcore or even hardbag. But it’s also a reality, an alternative reality, admittedly, in which records from any genre can be Balearic if someone has the chutzpah – or the stupidity – to claim so. Balearic is like the giant rabbit in the James Stewart movie, Harvey, a preposterous notion to some, but to Elwood P. Dowd, a very real six-foot fluffy animal. You either get it or you don’t. Thus Wang Chung can be Balearic, as can Simply Red or Jamiroquai. The list is endless, as is the debate. 

For some DJs – like the Idjut Boys or DJ Harvey – it’s simply about taking some foggy notion of what it is and interpreting it their own distinctive way. The most important thing about becoming a Balearic DJ is to have a sense of the absurdity of your chosen role. You should take great pleasure watching faces drop on a packed dancefloor as they realise they have been dancing to Cliff Richard or Lieutenant Pigeon for the past three minutes. 

For the original Ibiza DJs, that time and place has long passed and for most of them the style they championed was not necessarily an ethos or lifestyle, but simple expediency. An Ibizan DJ would be playing almost every night for up to eight hours a day; they had to fill 40 hours or more programming a week. ‘I think it was because we were brought up like that, but also there was not much choice,’ thought José Padilla. ‘Now you can specialise in Detroit techno or deep house or whatever, then you had to play with what you had. We had to play so many hours that we have to play different tracks to make the session happen. It’s not because in Ibiza we like to play like that. We have to play Talk Talk, we have to play Belgian beat, we have to play rock, we have to play reggae, because we have to fill the space of so many hours.’

Terry Farley, not only wrote the sleevenotes for the 1988 Balearic Beats Vol. 1 compilation, but also championed much of the music. He has been known in his distant past to have played records by Phil Collins, though thanks to counselling – and primal scream therapy – has not re-offended for many years.  ‘My personal view on Balearic is that it was a moment in time namely a few Ibizan clubs from 1986-88 and Alfredo’s personal taste. In 1988 all the records spun at Future and Shoom were direct steals from his sets. It was when the UK DJs tried playing their own pop records on drugs that it went wrong (I stand at the front of the guilty queue myself) although it was fun at the time.’

I canvassed opinion on some message boards as to what Balearic really means: ‘Harvey playing Easy Lover in the a.m. at New Hard Left,’ said one; ‘Hearing Donna Summer’s ‘State Of Independence‘ on a pill for the first time,” countered another; ‘Love of music for its own sake, free of puritanical bias and entrenched prejudice, free of marketing pigeonholes…’ But this put it more succinctly and more ludicrously than anyone else: ‘It’s a state of mind,’ wrote Barry Devan. ’It’s a group of islands. It’s sand in your foreskin but not caring. It’s Clark’s comfy shoes. It’s corduroy. It’s a lazy place. It’s warm. It’s Wellington boots. It’s knowledge. It’s Moonboots. It’s carpet not laminate. It’s Van Halen not Europe. It’s council not Hilton. It’s Jason Boardman. It’s the M10. It’s borrowing not buying. It’s me, it’s you, it’s everybody. It’s bollocks. It’s great.’ Absurd, but true. Bill Brewster

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton