The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries – Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton (2010)
THE RECORD PLAYERS
Introduction: Listen to this!
It’s your record. You discovered it. You didn’t make it, but you found it and brought it back from the dead. No-one else knows about it – it’s yours. You love it for the feelings it conjures. You just know what it’ll do to them.
You saved it for tonight. This is the perfect crowd to play it to. It’ll have them in bits. The atmosphere in here is starting to crackle. You’ve brought them up slowly over the last hour, now you’re finally mixing it in. It’s 30 years old but for everyone in this room it’s a brand new tune. As it starts you notice a few people look up, they can tell it’s something special. And it sounds so great on this system. The percussion kicks off, that brilliant chakk-chakk noise. It’s like an invitation. That little lick of guitar and horns. And then the bassline. Devastating! THuuuuNNNNGling! – into your chest. And the melody. It’s started. It’s here. People going crazy now – jumping, whistling. You look around. Everyone’s smiling at their friends, smiling at you.
It’s so great seeing them get it the same way you got it. As exciting as hearing it for the first time. It’s that same thrill bounced round the room and back at you times 300. Sharing a song, there’s nothing like it. Listen to this!
The rhythm steps up a gear. The guitar pushes its way to the front. The room gets crazier. The strings make a couple of people close their eyes. It couldn’t be better: everyone’s loving it, everyone’s right here. The whole dancefloor is wrapped up together, lost and found in your beautiful song.
And then, just when it couldn’t be any more perfect, those wild stinging vocals scream in. And you know it’s coming, so you’re watching for their reaction – here it comes... NOW! And the piano, too. Everyone loses it. The whole room takes a breath... and roars. You knew that would be the moment. You’re grinning so much you’re almost crying.
A couple of lads ask you what it is; you show them the sleeve – and you’re all smiling that mind-blown ‘Ouch!?’ expression, because they think it’s unbelievable too. ‘It’s not hard to find,’ you say, happy that they asked, sharing that great tribal feeling with them. Now, what are you going to play next?
Thirty years ago some now-forgotten musicians cut that record. Without them this brilliant song wouldn’t exist. But without you – a DJ – that record would still be in a bent cardboard box in a basement, and tonight’s incredible musical moment would never have happened. This is the thrill, and the compulsion, of DJing. This need to share music, and to constantly fi nd new music to excite people with, this is the primal force of DJing.
It’s not just DJs who have this urge. Music exists to be shared, nature invented it to bring us together, at least that’s what the evolutionary psychologists think. They see music as glue for humanity. The neurologists too, they’ve found bits of our brains which only exist to interact with music. We’re designed to love music and to want to hear it with others. This explains the skirmishes over the stereo at house parties, and why the kids on the bus prefer tinny mobiles to headphones. It feels great to spread your music just like it feels great to spread your genes. You have a music urge just like you have a sex drive.
The DJs whose lives we’ve collected in this book were all chasing this feeling. They made finding and spreading music the centre of their lives. And in their quest to share great records with their dancers and listeners they changed the course of popular music. Disco, hip hop and reggae, house, techno and drum and bass, were all created by DJs, by the ones who were brave enough to try something weird and extreme and different.
Some DJs championed a silly amount of amazing new songs. For others it’s been about digging for forgotten treasure, rediscovering the thousands of terrific records eclipsed in their time by the few hits everyone knows. Some DJs devised wild new playing techniques to make the party more exciting. Or perverted technology to make a devastating new noise. Some collided styles on their turntables that previously had no business together, like crashing jump jive from the city into down-home hillbilly to give us rock’n’roll. Others waded into the vast gene pool of music and homed in on a particular sound so precisely that pretty soon they’d selectively bred an entirely new species. Ever since music could be recorded, it’s travelled way faster than the musicians who make it. That makes the DJ central to music’s evolution.
And once technology caught up with his aspirations, the DJ was a musician as well, sampling and sequencing, programming and thieving, chopping, mixing, even occasionally learning an instrument. Who knows better what makes people dance than someone who’s spent a lifetime staring at a dancefloor?
If you’re a DJ yourself (or have tendencies), this book should inspire you. Here are DJs who’ve risked injury to find a great tune, DJs who’ve given up years of their lives to develop new skills on the decks. Others whose music has been so compelling it’s changed the way a generation sees the world. Even the ones who’ve avoided drama have still put in unholy amounts of effort: amassing music and knowledge in the service of a better party.
There are great stories here. Plenty of drugs, a little sex, a smattering of extreme wealth, and a good deal of rock’n’roll. We had a lot of fun meeting all these people and some of them have become good friends (sadly too few of the ones with the extreme wealth). There are no women here. That’s not our fault, that’s how history’s dealt it so far. And it’s certainly not an exhaustive list. There are plenty of significant and amazing DJs waiting for volume II. In particular there’s no reggae. Here we hold our hands up, but we’ll have a great book next year which will correct this (and in our defence we did once walk the entire length of Brooklyn’s Fulton Street to try and doorstep the elusive Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd).
Anyway, enough of our yakking, there are musical obsessives waiting to tell you all about DJing – the behind-the-scenes slog and the behind-the-decks thrills, not least the weird and incomparable excitement of sharing music. As Mr Weatherall puts it, ‘I’ve had the joy of hearing this for the first time, now it’s your turn!’
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton