Interview: DJ History on the record player revolutionaries
You can get the abridged version of this interview in Time Out this week, but to read it in full, check it after the jump.
DJ History on the record player revolutionaries
Some DJs are more than just nerdy looking blokes flipping records on and off some decks. Or, these days, should we say: more than just over-gelled sunnies-clad types with fluorescent teeth who look like they’ve been duct-taped to the Playa d’en Bossa sands. Anyone may be able to DJ, but few are real musical revolutionaries of their time. Few are those responsible for the type of spaces we call nightclubs, the reason we groan when one BPM doesn’t flow seamlessly into the next during a set and why it’s perfectly acceptable to her hip hop jumbled up with electronic music. And fewer are worth interviewing about it.
According to this new book ‘The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries’ from DJ History, some, like Danny Rampling, are even responsible for the way that we dance to dance music. It’s the latest compendium from dance music historians Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster, authors of ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’. You can download a sampler here.
They’ve picked through some 250 interviews from the past decade to present the world’s most important selectors, among them John Peel, Fabio, Francis Grasso and, well, Jimmy Savile. It’s the kind of book that you imagine will sit on coffee tables in record label lobbies, but you hope will inspire mp3-hopping new jocks, as well as make similarly serious record collectors and dance nerds dribble.
Ahead its release into bookshops nationwide, we find out exactly who is on that list, from the technological innovators to the forgotten radicals.
How did you whittle down the list of influential DJs for the book? Frank: "It was really hard! Our rule of thumb was that it’s not just a great interview or a great DJ, it has to be someone who’s played a part in the history or represents something so that it’s not just a collection of interviews."
What’s your favourite anecdote from the book? Frank: "[New York DJ innovator] Francis Grasso’s, about him DJing in a club when Jimi Hendrix he walks in, walks into the men’s room and is completely dazed. And he’s forgot to put his dick back in his trousers. [Francis is] just standing there and he doesn’t really know what to do. I’m not sure that he tucked it back in for him, but I think he maybe said, you know, 'Aren’t you forgetting something there Jim?'"
Bill: "Francis Grasso had loads of great stories about getting blown in the DJ booth while he was playing. He dated Liza Minnelli, he lived with Jimi Hendrix – he was the original superstar DJ in New York a long time before we’d ever heard of superstar DJs and a very important person in terms of being the first person to mix records in a way that we recognise today."
Who is the most unexpected entry? Frank: "People are always surprised when we write about Jimmy Savile, as most people know him as a TV personality. But he is there because, more than anyone, he took the world from bands to DJs."
Bill: "When we were interviewing the early mod and ’50s DJs, a lot of them kept saying to us: “You’ve really got to talk to Jimmy Saville. He’s the person that started all of this.” And we were like, “Really? Are you sure?” but so many people said it that we had to take it seriously. He was certainly the first guy in the UK to do all of this. What he was doing with DJing was so popular that he used to pay bands not to play so that he could DJ because the musicians ruled in those days and there had to be a live band at a Mecca ballroom He introduced the idea of playing recorded music to an audience as, not an inferior alternative to hearing a live band, but [as] its own entity."
Why are there no women on the list? Frank: "It’s really just a matter of history. If only the DJs that have made a significant contribution to the craft of DJing or to club culture are going to make the cut, I don’t think there are any women. When dance music and club culture was being formed, a lot of it was in gay clubs in New York or in the Northern Soul clubs in Britain, which were very, very male[-dominated]."
Will the list surprise a lot of people? Bill: "I hope so. We’ve got everyone from Tiesto to Jimmy Saville – that’s a pretty broad range of people by anyone’s estimations."
Does the book reflect how clubbing has changed as well as DJing? Bill: "A little bit. I think the story of clubbing over the past 20 years has been more about marketing than it has about innovation. There have been a lot of technological innovations over the last 20 years but there are no fundamental differences between how people danced to records in 1971 in a New York disco to how they do now."
Why is the art of DJing still so important? Frank: "We’ll always need DJs because we’ll always need someone who knows more about music than us. The amount of work that people put in, in terms of sifting through crap records to find the good ones: that’s the real work of a DJ. It’s listening to a load of shit so everyone else doesn’t have to."
Bill: "It’s more important now in a lot of ways than it was 20 or 30 years ago, because these days, everybody has got access to so much music. When I was a kid, you had one crappy little record shop that you went to and they sold the Top 40 in Boots and that was it. Now, we’re saturated by media, so the role of the DJ is to really filter out all of that crap and present you with the five per cent of really good records."
What makes a truly legendary DJ? Bill: ‘Someone who has a unique and distinct path of their own. A really great example of that these days is Andrew Weatherall. He’ll play boshing techno to a load of Germans one day and then a load of rockabilly to some people in a pub in the East End the next night. He’s just a real polymath when it comes to music, like Larry Levan, Ron Hardy, Grandmaster Flash, who, not only was a great DJ, but changed music fundamentally with what he did with creating breaks and stitching them together. A really great DJ is someone who changes things, whether it’s Tom Moulton creating the 7-inch single and pioneering the remix or Frankie Knuckles, who was instrumental in creating house music."
Do DJs still have the power to change popular music? Bill: ‘They do, but when DJing and dance music was in the popular press a lot and [when it became] very big and very fashionable to be into it, a lot of people got it completely wrong and spent a lot of time going on about superclubs and superstar DJs. And that really wasn’t what it was about. That’s kind of like saying that Robbie Williams and N-Dubz are changing music. I think the people who change music aren’t necessarily massively in the public eye – a lot of them are forgotten figures and get left behind. Francis Grasso and Kool Herc, who started the idea of just playing breaks, are really good examples of that. Most people wouldn’t have a clue who they were."
'The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries’ by DJ History is £16.95 via www.djhistory.com and all good bookshops nationwide from Monday August 30. Catch their night Secret Weapons at Horse & Groom on Aug 20.
DJ History's Top Five Revolutionaries
Francis Grasso: The groundbreaker ‘He was the first modern DJ, the first guy to realise that it was his [about] performance, his set, his sequencing, and not just the records. He dated Liza Minelli, spent more than his rent on drugs and went on three-day benders with Jimi Hendrix.’
David Mancus: Party messiah ‘Mancuso did more than anyone to create the kind of club environment we take for granted: where the music is central, where the dancefloor is the focus, where the soundsystem is loud and clear. Before him, nightclubbing was mostly society chit-chat.’
Grandmaster Flash: Scientist of the mix
‘Hip hop could not have existed without him. Before samplers, he worked out a way to be a
Danny Rampling: Acid house evangelist ‘Acid house was the most revolutionary thing to happen to British culture since the war. When house and ecstasy combined, the way we partied changed overnight forever. Danny understood it right away and led from the front. Even the way you dance comes from Danny.’
Jimmy Savile: Dance hall disrupter ‘He’s never owned a record, he didn’t really care about the music he played, he just knew that a disc jockey could deliver better music than a band for less money.’