50 Years of DJ Culture: In Conversation with Bill Brewster

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On Thursday, we attended the first day session hosted by Convergence. Featuring discussions, visual art installations and live performances, it was a day filled with enlightening insider knowledge on the industry which united every person in attendance – labels, artists, managers, brand representatives, and music lovers alike. The last billed conference was entitled ’50 Years of DJ Culture: Past, Present & Future’, with a panel made up of New Slang Media, Resident Advisor, Hessle Audio (represented by Ben UFO) and Native Instruments, as well as author Bill Brewster.

For those of you with a penchant for dance music which goes further than the dancefloor, you’ve probably heard of Bill Brewster. As a DJ, music author and founder of DJHistory.com, Bill is working to bridge the gap in history where dance music seems to have fallen through the cracks. His books, some of which are co-written with Frank Broughton, document the transitory steps which explain the journey from New York disco, to Chicago house, to the UK and beyond.

During the Convergence talk, Bill shed light on many elements of DJing culture, such as house music marking the point in history where Brits could finally rival America in terms of creating good dance music, following on from African-American-led trends of disco and hip hop. We were grateful to grab a few moments of Bill’s time before the conference, to speak more about his affiliation with the scene, and what it’s really been like to watch it grow and fragment into the web of micro-genres we now know. We have also added in Bill’s second episode of the Late Night Tales: After Dark series, for your accompanying listening pleasure.

How’ve you been? How have you been filling your time recently?

Very well thanks! At the moment, I’m doing a series of compilations for Harmless Records called The Anthology. Each one focuses on a record label from the 1970s, 1980s or early 1990s. They’re compilations which mainly cover disco, electro, early house, soul and funk.

Are you compiling it by yourself or is it more of a collaborative work?

No I’m doing them on my own. I’m doing seven in total, I’ve done three so far and I’m working on two more at the moment. It’s quite a lot of work as they’re each three CDs with a 5,000-word write up, so I’ve been hammering out the words over the past six weeks.

God, that’s a big task.

It’s a lot, yeah. And then in between, I’ve got DJing at the weekends, little bits of freelance work, and looking after two little kids as well!

So, a lot on your plate then! Following on from your talk at Convergence [Mixcloud Curates: 50 Years of DJ Culture: Past, Present & Future], we wanted to ask you: as you have experienced many changes within the shifting paradigm of DJing culture, would you say there has been a golden age?

Now that’s a really hard question to answer because it’s so subjective. In terms of what has happened since the 1960s – which is sort of when it really began with the creation of the first proper soundsystems – I’d have to say that the 1970s were the greatest period in terms of change. Almost everything that happened in the 1970s has stayed pretty much the same between then and now, an example being the soundsystems used then and their similarities with the ones still being used now. Hip hop came about, and disco continued to grow in the 1970s. Almost everything connected to electronic music now has sprung from disco. You could even put it down to one decade in one city: New York between 1970 and 1979. You’ve pretty much got the whole history of dance music in a ten-year period.

What would you say catalysed the dance music culture we now experience today? Do you think there’s a thread that illustrates why it’s so appealing to people all over the world?

I think the greatest thread is actually language. [Dance music] marked the first style of music in which it didn’t matter if you could speak English or not. You could still fully appreciate it and also participate in it. You can be from Finland, from Kazakhstan, from Indonesia, and you can still consume dance music pretty much in the same way that a Brit or an American can. It’s not so lyrically based, so it’s become a sort of lingua franca of music. With Bob Dylan, you really have to speak English well to understand and appreciate the lyrics. Not only that, you can buy all of the studio equipment that any smart kid from Chicago or London can, and make equally as good music that would be appreciated by native English speakers and non-English speakers alike.

It’s always pissed me off that dance music is often seen as the poor cousin of rock.

When documenting DJ culture in a more research-specific way, did you find that there was a grey area between the academic side and what was actually going on within the scene? Studies being more speculative due to a lack of first-hand experience, for example.

We [Bill and Frank Broughton, co-author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life] didn’t really have much involvement in the world of academia as such. In terms of writing on modern dance culture, there was pretty much nothing apart from the first Matthew Collin book, Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House [1997]. When we were writing ours, we based a lot of it on sitting in the British Library and the New York Performing Arts Library. We were doing research, looking through magazines and newspapers, but also interviewing. In the first edition, we did around 210 interviews. Then, when we added some more material for the second edition, I think we maybe added another hundred. A large part of the book is really based on first-hand accounts.

That’s the best, and only thorough way to do it really. Who did you guys interview?

Anyone we could find who was still alive. There were certain core people: Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, Grand Wizzard Theodore, some of the early disco DJs like Francis Grasso and Steve D’Aquisto. You don’t always get all of the people that you want though. I was looking through my research material a few weeks ago, and I noticed there were several names we’d written down that we never found to interview. Either they refused, we couldn’t find them or they didn’t reply to any messages. You have to remember that when we were writing that book, the Internet was in its infancy, so we literally had to get the New York telephone directory and just look people’s names up to see if they were still there. It was a much more primitive method of research.

What motivated you and Frank Broughton to start writing on DJ culture?

When Frank and I met, we were both living in New York at the time. We kept hearing all these amazing stories from the people that had really lived through disco and hip hop. You’d mention a record and they’d be like “Nicky Siano broke that record,” or “David Mancuso found that in a record store in Brooklyn.” There was just this incredible oral history in New York, and we really wanted to document it properly, so a book on DJing history seemed the perfect, comprehensive way to put together what had happened in the States as well as the UK. It’s always pissed me off that dance music is often seen as the poor cousin of rock. There are more books about The Beatles than there are about the whole history of dance music, and it’s always annoyed me. We’ve just dedicated ourselves to readdressing the balance a little bit.

What else did you and Frank work on?

Frank and I have written four books together: The Manual for the Ministry of Sound [1998], Last Night a DJ Saved My Life [1998], How to DJ (Properly) [1998], and The Record Players [2010] which is a collection of all the interviews we have done.

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Dance music has acted as the soundtrack to a lot of cultural and social changes, especially in mid-twentieth century America and late-twentieth century Britain. What was your stance on 1990s dance music in the UK, between the IDM phase of Warp Records and the more rave-centric styles?

Until about 1991, everyone was dancing to pretty much the same music. The big schism started with hardcore and all its spin-off developments, moving into the drum and bass age. At the same time, there was a separate techno scene that was very distinct from house music. Things split up but I never really felt like that there was any rivalry. It was music which had all come from the same initial DNA. When I talk to people like Fabio [and Grooverider], we’ve got totally similar outlooks on music and the artists we were brought up on as kids are of the same ilk too. I never saw it as any competition. People just chose different paths.

That’s probably where we can pinpoint the real fragmentation of genres and trying to classify every musical style. There were so many spin-offs, offshoots and hybrids, all from the same musical root(s). Were there any sub-genres you particularly enjoyed, or felt you were more a part of?

As a DJ, the stuff I played was usually either of a Balearic feel or more towards deep house, but I would still buy and listen to trip-hop, early Mo Wax releases and Kruder & Dorfmeister. I listened to a lot of downtempo stuff in the 1990s. Equally, I used to buy early drum and bass – LTJ Bukem and Spring Heel Jack, for example. I wouldn’t necessarily play their stuff when I was DJing, but I’d listen to at home.

What are your thoughts – if any whatsoever – on EDM culture and the superstar DJ?

I don’t think EDM has got much to do with DJ culture. It’s much more connected with celebrity culture. To be honest, it’s kind of anti-club music in its principles and ideals, isn’t it? Club music is about community. For me and Frank, the dancefloor is the star rather than the DJ. At the parties that we play at ourselves, we always disregard that DJ adulation in favour of praising the crowd. A DJ is nothing without a great team of dancers. However, I do think that the way EDM has exploded in America will be a good thing in the long run in terms of creating awareness for other electronic genres. Hopefully it’ll inspire producers to create more interesting music for a new audience that is more savvy and aware.

Hardcore, drum and bass, techno. It was music which had all come from the same initial DNA.

You’ve already said that a DJ always needs to be thinking as part of a crowd, but what else would you say defines the true essence of a true DJ?

Yeah, reading the crowd is certainly a massive part of it. That sensitivity and awareness is crucial. I guess another ultimate factor in being a great DJ is taste. A taste that corresponds with other people’s tastes. Equally, when you’re DJing, having a lot of experience in reading crowds is very important, as well as programming. It’s not so much about mixing. It’s about placing one track after another in a way that makes sense when you’re creating an atmosphere. A DJ’s relationship with the dancefloor should be symbiotic. A good DJ will work with the dancefloor and mirror the crowd’s desires in what they play.

Having met a plethora of DJs throughout your career, is there a textbook example that springs to mind?

In the 1990s, I used to really love watching Danny Tenaglia play. [DJ] Harvey is a great example of someone still around now who’s very experienced and knows how to work a crowd both surprising them, as well as entertaining them. DJing is ultimately about entertainment. You can go on about “taking people on a journey” but the first duty of a DJ is really to entertain people, rather than boring them silly with a musical lecture.

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