Thursday, 16 May 2013

So Many Genres

Once upon a time there was just Pop music. This largely consisted of syrupy ballads and love songs. Then along came Rock 'n Roll with it hard edged sexuality. But within a few years this too had been largely reduced to syrupy ballads and love songs. Then came the came the Blues revival of the early 60's which gave birth to Rock. In parallel to this was the Soul scene much favoured by the Mods and their all night amphetamine fuelled dance nights - most notabley in the UK at the Wigan Casino which used to draw people from all over the UK for their all nighters. Meanwhile Rock music eventually split and gave birth to Hard Rock, Metal, Thrash and many other sub genres. 

In the late 80's to early 90's Dance music was born. At first this was Acid (it psychedelic variant) and it then settled into the genre known as House. Lots of people said that Dance Music wouldn't last and that it was yet another phase that we would all grow out of. Instead of which it has has grown and transmogrified into hundreds of sub genres. Out of House grew Hard House, Jungle and Drum and Bass and out of Drum and Bass came one of my particular favourites Intelligent Drum & Bass with its flag waver LTJ Bukem. Since then it has split into Techno, Tech House, Progressive, Minimal Techno, Trance and many many more classification. 

Intelligent Drum & Bass, Links by Chameleon from LTJ Bukem's album Logical Progression

Actually I think Trance and in particular is variant of Goa Trance probably predates all these genres by a decade or so. Back in the early 70's there was a wave of hippy trippers who took the high road to India and in particular the lush environs of Goa. They hadn't been there long before the party scene took off on beaches. As with most incarnations of the dance scene it was fuelled by drugs or at least supported by drugs and in this case the most appropriate drugs where copies quantities of hash brought down by the truck load from the north of India and a seemingly endless supply of LSD. 

MOC (Master of Ceremonies) Paoli was one of the founding fathers of this musical scene. (Paoli is now long time resident of Ibiza who should, to my mind, be accorded national treasure status for his ability to grasp the atmosphere of an event and, with his kaleidoscopic knowledge of
music, play to just about any group of people). Paoli (with me on the left in the picture) once explained to me that playing music for the Goa parties they realised when playing to a party of 700 or so on a beach, many of whom where off their heads on LSD, tracks with words in tended to mess with people's minds. They therefore evolved an idea whereby they lined up two tape decks and recorded the intro of a song, paused the recording machine, rewound the other and recorded the intro again. This might be repeated again several times before winding the tape on to the instrumental break which would also be looped several times. Bearing in mind that this was many years before the first sampling machines were commercially available, the principles of looped samples were then established early on with Goa Trance. 

Thinking about the appropriateness of drugs to a particular music scene the British Soul scene was particularly interesting. At this time, in the early 60's, Slimming Pills or to give them their true name, Amphetamines, were being widely prescribed by doctors. Hence every aspiring villain came to realise that Pharmacies across the country were stocked high with these new wonder drugs. I once heard an interview with one of the drug dealers who help stoke the Northern Soul scene with pharmaceuticals and he described how he and a couple of mates would leave London on a Saturday afternoon headed for Wigan, Manchester or Stoke. 

Sometime out of London they would turn off the motorway into a small town, find a pharmacy in a back street, break in and retrieve enough Amphetamine to keep any club they visited dancing all night. This, I understand, was the primary source of Amphetamines at the time. It wasn't Meth labs or similar but rather knock off from Pharmacies. Of course in most cases they would have been insured and within a week or so I have no doubt that the Pharmaceutical reps would have been knocking on their door offering to restock them, paid for by the insurance money. I have often wondered how much these companies must have benefitted from this cycle of burglaries and restocking. Not something they are likely to shout about but it must have been a nice little earner for them.

However, I digress. Since the advent of the dance music scene the genres have multiplied and transmuted into a bewildering range of sub-genres to the point where the industry has now spawned countless cottage industries. Whereas at one time the only way into the music industry was with the all important contract with one of the big distributors, now there are many producers working from home studios producing work to satisfy the niche markets of a given genre. For example a friend of mine is a highly respected record company boss producing Jazz House variants. His limited edition singles are always well received but it is a niche market so unless one of these crosses into the mainstream the income is still quite limited, so he is also a plumber. Many new genres have emerged over the past few years which have absorbed other genres most notably Indie Dance and Nu Disco. New Disco is essentially a reworking of old disco tunes. Often this involves slowing them down, chopping and looping them and adding a much heavier kick so they are transformed from happy go luck catchy dance tunes into hypnotic downbeat tracks, which are more tribal that John Travolta. One of my favourite innovators of this genre are Scots producers Craig Smith & Graeme Clark who work under the name 6th Borough Project.

Just a Memory by 6th Borough Project

Amusingly in a search for sub genres which can be used to identify variants within a genre Nu Disco has given birth to my favourite concept with the sub genre: Disco Not Disco. To my understanding this is a genre of music in which the producers have taken some of the motifs of disco e.g. the hand claps, orchestral stabs and Wah-wah guitar to produce a music which in no way resembles disco other than by the presence of these motifs. What creative thinking.

The complexity of genres can provide additional problems for the DJ. Traditional Vinyl DJ  would arrive at a gig with around 100 tracks for the evening. However, with the advent of CD's and digital DJing this can be multiplied to the point where each DJ will be carrying several thousand tracks with them. If like me you enjoy crossing genres in a set the classification of these tracks becomes something of a librarians nightmare. Yes I can classify tracks as Chilled, House, Latin House, Jazz House, Deep House, Tech House etc but the chances are that each one of these classification will include several hundred tracks themselves. I have therefore found that I have had to identify my own sub genres for no other reason than to help me identify a trend which I am focused on at the moment. So far my private sub genres have included Detective (a cross genres definition which I have applied to tunes which have a certain Film Noir, Blaxploitation or Suspensful feel):

Detective 1. J-Walkin' by Blame

Detective 2 The Assassin Act1 by Street Live Originals 

Clockwork (a style of electro and minimal Techno which seemed to me to have an almost childlike quality reminiscent of clockwork toys:

Clockwork 1. Carousel by Ramon Tapia

Clockwork 2. Pina Colada by Rodrigues Jr.

and Chuggers (down beat largely instrumentals tracks which gradually build to create an epic anthemic feel). 

Chugger 1. Shulme by Smith & Mudd

Chugger 2. Violet Morning Moon by Bubble Club

Within each of these sub genres I will add epithets like Haunting, Upbeat, Spectacular and host of other adjectives so that I can quickly access any element of the comprehensive emotions which dance music now populates. And they said it would never last. 

Sunday, 12 May 2013

What do DJ's do?

I think it was the legendary DJ Larry Levan, famed for his decade long residency at the New York club Paradise Garage in the 80's, who said, "I don't play tunes I create atmospheres." To my mind that sums up a DJ's job whether it is creating a convivial ambience in a bar or filling the dance floor in a club. Sometimes the atmosphere makes you want to dance, some time just tap your feet and nod your head. 

The way most DJ's do this is a simply matter of matching the beats per minute (bpm) of one track to the next so that the mix from one to another is fairly seamless. Sometimes they get it wrong and the rhythms collide with each other creating a 'train crash'. Sometimes DJ's mix whole tracks together. Sometimes this is called a Mashup other times it is more a matter of adding for example some latin percussion from one track to an electro arpeggio for another to create an interesting juxaposition.

More and more DJ's nowadays are producers in their own right and will break down their own or other peoples tracks into small components which they can digitally sync with a time signature and drop in an out. A good friend of mine does with this with what I have described as mashed up ghetto funk. He takes components of 70' Funk and whether it is an orchestral stab or a percussion riff and loop while adding other often familiar samples on top. This is driven by two incredible percussionists into a danceable frenzy. Fabulous, but you probably have to be there to appreciate the wonder of what he does.

Sometimes the mix bit is a simple transition, aided with a bit of EQing ie taking out the bass on one track as it is brought in. A lot of mystic has built up around the mix and some DJ's are rightly exalted for their ability to create interesting mixes. Sometimes the mystique of the mix hides the fact that they DJ doesn't really have very good taste in music but has rather selected a bunch of tracks which are all of roughly the same bpm and can be easily mixed with each other.

Very simply I tend to divide DJ's into Mixers, Knob Twiddlers and Selectors. The best DJ's combine all three skills. Although nowadays more and more DJ's work digitally rather than with vinyl the principles of mixing are pretty much the same and some DJ are amazing Mixers, demonstrate incredible acrobatic skills in balancing several tracks and components together. Sometimes I am awe-struck by their abilities but sometimes too I find myself thinking, "Mme very clever but it's a bit of a cacophony."

DJ Mixing Skill

Some DJ's are very good at Knob Twiddling, messing around with
the EQ on each track so they whoosh and splinter in spectres of the melody before coming crashing back in on a bass kick. Sometimes I have observed DJ's so engrossed in their knob twiddling that they seem oblivious to the people they are playing for and I think that if they got more interesting music to begin with they wouldn't have to do so much twiddling to make the track sound more interesting.

I suppose I would place myself in the Selector camp in that to me the most important element is interesting tracks. Yes I can mix and I do a bit of knob twiddling from time to time is if I feel that a track would benefit from it but my main concern is the quality and originality of the tracks. I estimate that I might spend around 20 hours a week hunting for new tracks which is another reason why it can be a bit frustrating when people come and ask for requests of some tired old track that has been played to death.

I once heard a story about a Japanese food critic who went to visit a restaurant which claimed to serve the best sea food in the whole of Japan. To test them out he decided to order a basic dish of king prawns. The chef came and stood in front of him, lit a small flame and then slowly turned the King Prawns on a skewer over the flame. He then presented these on a plate to the critic who in a voice of outrage said, "You claim to serve the best sea food in the whole of Japan yet all you did was toast three King Prawns over a flame." "Yes sir, thats right", said the chef, "First we find the best sea food in the whole of Japan and then we cook it." I like to apply this same principle to DJing. Find the best tracks and then play them (in some sort of progressive order)

Because of my style and the venues I play in I am not tied to the tyranny of 128 bpm, or whatever the standard club speed of the time is, and so, while I am overjoyed when I find two tracks which can segue in an interesting fashion with one melody growing out of the other I do not like to confine my mixes to same  bpm. I love it, for example, when I find one track that ends by breaking down into a solo piano and mix this with another track that begins with a solo piano. If this works properly you can take people from a downbeat tempo of around 100bmp up to 128 with no one being aware of how it happened.

Because I like to play eclectic sets I like the idea of framing genres. That is to say there might be people who while they enjoy jubilant gospel house with vibrant singing would say that they don't particularly like the form of stripped back electro known as Minimal Techno (or simply Minimal to the congnicenti). However, if done properly I think that it is possible to take people across genres without them being aware of it with the Minimal providing a clean and refreshing respite from the full on bounce of gospel house. For me the best DJ's not only create a great atmosphere but also take you on something of a musical journey.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Do You Do Requests?

This is one of the strangest phenomena that all DJ's experience, regardless of their reputation. In most cases I think that people who come up to me in the booth to ask for a requests just want to connect. They are saying in effect that we appreciate your music and share a similar good taste. However, not all visitors are so gracious. Most DJ's I know will report that at some time they have had heard one of the following comments:

1. "Can you play something we can dance to?" - I have heard this at times when the dance floor has been packed and bouncing. If this request comes from a man then the subtext is probably that he has his eyes on a girl who he wants to get off with. She isn't dancing because for example, she has told him that she only likes dancing to Abba so he is trying to negotiate Abba so that he can get her on the dance floor. Generally speaking it seems that girls prefer to dance to stuff with words or something anthemic. I was once advised not to follow request from the guys because often they are showing off their nerdy comprehension of dance music and will lead you into all sorts of obscure stuff that is guaranteed to clear the floor. Get the girls dancing and boys will follow.

2. "When are you going to play some good stuff" - bearing in mind that most DJ's spend many hours each week hunting down, sifting and classifying new music this is a bit of an insult and the subtext is that they want to hear something they already know. Generally speaking I have found that there is a division between people at gigs between those who don't get out very often and only want to hear what is familiar to them and those who go to a gig because they want to hear some of the new stuff that the DJ has uncovered.

3. Have you got any (fill in a name, any name). I have had people request Bob Dylan when the place has been full on dancing. I think part of this request stems from the fact that we are increasingly living in a demand led society. People can go to You Tube or iTunes and hear exactly what they want. For me, DJing from a computer and in some cases people assume that I am connected to the internet and can therefore play anything that is demanded. If someone asks for an artist that I don't have I have even had situations where people have tried to push me to one side so that they can browse my screen. At which point I have had to say, "Oh of course now I see the problem. You think I am a juke box." Frequently when I receive a specific request for an artist I like to say, "What flavour do you want?" i.e. "Do you like funky, deep, progressive, dub, hip hop, minimal?" Since I tend to play pretty long and eclectic sets there is a good chance that I will be able to fulfil their flavour request whatever it is.

4. "When are you going to play something we can dance to?" As I often play in cocktail and lounge bars dancing is not always a prerequisite. Clubs usually carry with them a sort of tyranny of the 130 beats per minute which is an ideal speed to keep people dancing. From my perspective I prefer playing in bars, terraces, beaches and private parties  because you can have more fun by altering the tempo. In fact sometimes when I've played several house beat tracks I have noticed that people start to adopt the same dancing moves and to my mind (as a regular dancer) this can get a bit boring. The problem is that it's very difficult to transit from, for example, funky house to reggae. Inevitably this means that there is a period when people find that the dance moves there were using don't work with the new beats but usually after a few seconds they adjust and adopt new moves which keeps it interesting. When playing bars my object is not usually to get people dancing but rather to entertain and enervate the conversation. I am a great fan of Nu Disco which often means that the tracks are based on familiar disco themes but often slowed down, often to around 100 bpm, stretched out and with a hypnotic big beat added. I can easily dance to this but but for some people it simply awakens the desire to dance and they assume because they are now enjoying the music that the next step must be that the music must be taken up a notch to full house dance mode. Sometimes I oblige and sometimes not as I'm paid to make that judgment call.

5. Something intelligible shouted at loud volume. Drugs have definitely impacted on dance floors through the decades. Personally I would much rather play for a group that are loved up on ecstasy that wired up on coke (which is sadly more and more common these days) which can make people rather insensitive and loud.

It's quite common for DJ's to develop hearing problems. I've had tinnitus now for around 30 years. I remember the moment well. I was at a reggae gig at the old Dingwalls dance hall in Camden. The place was rammed and I decided that I would join the slow moving crocodile of people moving towards the toilets. Unfortunately at one point the queue stopped moving at a point where I was standing by one of the speakers. I didn't notice at first but then felt a sharp pain in my left ear. I left the gig later that night with ringing in this ear and then noticed that three days later it hadn't stopped. It never did. Fortunately for me I have been able to phase it out so, generally speaking the only time I notice that I have a ringing in my ear is when I hear the word tinnitus - I can hear it now ;-) I have been very fortunate because I know that some people have it so bad that it drives them mad and certainly would prohibit a career surrounded by loud music. For me the sound changes from time to time. For many years until recently I lived in a place which backed onto some beautiful verdant gardens. Sometimes when I went to bed in the early hours of the morning I would lay in bed listening to the exotic sounds of the dawn chorus. Then, around six months ago my partner and I were staying with friends. As we lay in bed I remarked on how beautiful the birds sounded to which she replied, "There are no birds!" At this point I discovered that sometimes my tinnitus changes to the points where it resembles the most beautiful sound exotic birds randomly chirping and calling each other. What an amazing affliction to be blessed with.

Having said this I do try to protect my hearing wherever I can but the for me the most dangerous and often unexpected one is the screaming customer. Frequently cocaine is the cause. This wired up individual will walk right up to me and scream a high volume request in my ear. I now try to spot them first and put my hand up to protect myself or maybe slip my head phones on with the volume turned down.

So generally speaking I'm more than happy to chat to people while I am playing but please understand that I am working and there will be times when I have to break off and line up the next track or search for it. Forgive me if I am not that responsive to requests. I wouldn't dream of visiting someone in an office and suggesting to them how they should do their work. In fact I have never asked for a request from a DJ. What I will frequently do is complement them on their selection (everyone like a bit of encouragement) or ask the name of a track. If I don't like the music they are playing there is no way that my request is going to solve the situation and I prefer to let them get on with it or leave if it really is that unpleasant.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Gravers

Jack and Jill were both passionate about music. In fact it was through music that they first met. Both had started to visit The Club, though at the time both of them were seeing different people. Gradually they became part of an extended group of friends who liked to think that The Club was Their Club. This same group would, on occasions, travel to see superstar DJ's or make arrangements to visit festivals. Sharing mix tapes or CD's was common place and there were certain anthemic tracks that used to fill the whole group with a thrill each time the opening bars were heard.

Jack and Jill first got together soon after Jill split up with her two timing boyfriend. She was going to have stayed at home but her friends urged her to come out as usual to The Club. Jack had split with his girlfriend a few weeks before. In his case not through any dramatic encounter but largely because the relationship had run its course and besides she was moving away to do a course at Uni. Jack noticed Jill at one point sitting rather forlorn in the foyer. He dance up in front of her and said something trite like, "Cheer up it might never happen," before realising that she was on the verge of tears. Fortunately a couple of her friends were on hand and one put her arm around Jill and hugged her while the other castigated Jack for being so insensitive, after all, "Didn't he know that her boyfriend had two timed her." Jack retreated hastily as he felt no desire to get involved with such an high emotion. However, Jill noted through her tears that Jack was the only one of the guys in their group who had even noticed her sadness. A few weeks later they began to casually chat and the joy quickly returned to Jills face as the two fell in love with each other.

It's hard to work out now why they stopped going to The Club and how their affiliation with music declined. Maybe it was when they were saving up for a deposit that they started missing weekend nights out in favour of a DVD and a takeaway.

Jack still enthusiastically pursued music and continued adding to his collection any missing anthems from this golden age. Within a couple of years they were married and had their first child which seemed to put paid to all their regular social life. Jack music collection was put into boxes to provide extra space for the child but that was ok as he had a couple of Greatest Anthem CD's in the car, though increasingly he was getting a little bored with these and was more likely to listen to the car radio.

Then one day they received an invitation from a dear friend who was celebrating a significant birthday. They were proposing that the whole gang meet up again for a night at The Club. It would be great. They had hired a VIP room and would be providing free drinks and it was guaranteed to be a wicked night. Sadly things didn't work out quite as planned. The regulars who now inhabited The Club seemed much younger and brasher than they were in their day.

There were a couple of uncomfortable encounters when jealousy seemed to erupt amongst their friends. Girls accused boyfriends of ogling girls in micro dresses or boys faced up against younger boys who they perceived to have been flirting with their partners. The music also seemed to have moved on. Yes some of the anthems were still played but more often as samples which was frustrating to those who knew the originals. After that their association with music virtually fizzled out and they consigned it to their history as something that they used to indulge in.

It was several years after this that they were persuaded by close friends to join them for a  holiday on The Island. They had hired a villa large enough to incorporate both couples and their children and perhaps more importantly, were proposing to arrange a nanny service so they would be free to venture out in the evenings confidant that the kids would be in safe hands.
Dancing one night in a bar Jill looked around and was surprised to see a much wider age range than she had ever experienced at home. No one appeared to feel self conscious and in fact some of the more outrageous and humorous dancers were the older ones who were often the more eccentrically or unselfconsciously dressed. It was at this point that she first hear the term Gravers - Grey Ravers.

When they returned to the UK it was back to normal but now they both longed once more for their newly rediscovered social life. They had no desire to return to The Club where they would have to encounter long queues of over enthusiastic teenagers before running the gauntlet of humourless bouncers. Part way through the evening the toilet were an embarrassment and in most cases the music was played at such high volume ordinary conversation was all but impossible. It seemed that by their mid to late twenties society had deemed them too old to participate in contemporary culture. Frankly they had both reached an age where they wanted to be treated with greater respect. They wanted a social environment that would enable to enjoy contemporary music in a comfortable context. Jack began to do some research. Surely there must be some bars that catered for their age range where they could hear some quality tunes. Well yes there were but in the main the music was played as muffled background drone.

But Jack was not going to be defeated. He believed that there were many people out there or their age an above who longed to feel connected once more to the life blood of music which had once brought them so much joy. It seemed strange to think that at such a young age they were consigned to dull domesticity and while he was loath to admit it the first grey hairs were beginning to appear on his head and so he realised that he had a mission to provide something in his home town for The Gravers. Within a couple of weeks he had dusted off his old music collection, started hunting download sites for interesting remixes of classic tracks and was even discovering some productions from the new generation. A few weeks later he approached his local bar. 
Did they know that he had been an experienced DJ back in the day? (an outrageous exaggeration but what the hell) Would they be interested in doing a once a week chilled set in their upstairs bar - nothing too banging but a place where Greyvers could gather. Within a couple of months word was spreading and more an more people were joining them for their weekly nights with Jill acting as hostess, welcoming new people and introducing them to each other. After a year or so some younger folk were also starting to come along, attracted by the calm fun of the evenings and bringing with them invitation to other events helping to reconnect this broader range of friends and enthusiasts to the vibrant music culture that was the dance scene.


A friend of mine, 'Reasonably Famous DJ' invited me along to a large club at which he was playing the warm up for 'Very Famous DJ' When we arrived in the DJ booth we were looking down on an empty expanse of dance floor as the evenings clubers gradually trickled in. My friend began his set, regardless of the number of people present and as the dance floor filled up he gradually wiped them up into something of a frenzy. At one point I noted that groups of mainly Italian ravers, sporting football shirts, began to engage in some chants. My friend responded to this by cutting the music with the faders in rhythm with the chants coming from below on the dance floor. In response a cheer went up from these enthusiastic football fan ravers.

After a couple of hours the dance floor was heaving and eventually 'Very Famous DJ' appeared. He baredly acknowledged my friend or the fact that his warm up set had created a lively atmosphere on the dance floor, on which he would be able to build his set. With no comment of thanks he simply pushed my friends CD's to one side, unplugged his headphones tossing them aside and proceeded to line up one of his own tracks to take over. I was appalled by such obvious lack of gratitude. How is it possible for people to arrive at such a apparently elevated state that they have no appreciation for those who surround and support them.

Some years ago I attended a lecture on Buddhism. Much of it had seemed rather theoretical until the speaker came to what was his main point. He then stated very firmly that, "If we experience gratitude it will open up a realm of your life that previously you didn't know existed."
I was intrigued and excited. A new realm of my life and one that I was previously were unaware of? The phrase was immediately etched on my mind. At first I began to test this principle with simple daily activities and discovered that gratitude can transform a simple meal of cheap wine and cheese with friends into a banquet fit for a king. By contrast I realised that even the finest champaign and caviare will loose their taste if gratitude is not brought into play. Some time later I was reading about the debauchery that typified elements of the Roman empire.

Apparently at some of the enormous banquets bowls, known as vomitariums were positioned round the dining area so that when people could eat no more they could make themselves sick so that the consumption could be continued. This seemed to typify for me the dangers of a society in which quantity was valued over quality or in which appreciation was discarded to be replaced by simple gluttony. Over subsequent years I tried to apply this principle of gratitude to my own life and amazing to say I found it to be absolutely true. Gradually my sense of gratitude became second nature to the point that I genuinely felt that I wanted to express appreciation and offer respect to many of the people around me who we frequently take for granted. We might for example complain periodically about the lateness of our postal delivery but how often do we express appreciation that on most days our post is delivered often before we get out of bed. From the postman's point of view I suspect that they frequently receive complaints of one sort or another but how often does anyone thank them for their consistent efforts on our behalf. Obviously not very often judging by the way in which my postman seemed to be genuinely delighted when I thanked him one day for all his efforts.

Little by little it felt as though elements of my life have been illuminated through gratitude so that it truly felt as though I new realm of my life was being revealed. Some years later I found myself playing a DJ residency in a bar. Each day as I played my favourite tunes for the punters I noticed how hard many of the waiters and waitresses toiled and it occurred to me that their already difficult job could be made even more so if they didn't enjoy the music I was playing. Chatting to one of the waitresses one day I remarked that I was trying very hard each day to try and find new tracks or to rediscover ones I rarely played so that it would make it more interesting for her and her colleagues and so that they wouldn't become bored with my sets. Her response shocked me. She said, "None of the other DJ's even care what we think!" How could that be? How could DJ's reach such a state of ingratitude that they should think the serving staff in a bar or disco were not worthy of their consideration?

Which brings me back to the ingratitude that 'Very Famous DJ" expressed towards my friend, 'Reasonably Famous DJ'. Once my friend had been summarily dismissed we went to sit in a VIP area which overlooked the DJ booth and the dance floor. At one point my friend burst into laughter and I asked his what he was laughing at. He explained that he had played for this group of revellers before and witnessed that they freuquently began chanting football slogans which was why he had decided to play with them cutting the music to the rhythm of their chants. "Very Famous DJ' on the other hand had not recognised this and, on hearing the chanting mistakenly thought they were chanting praise to him and was waving his hands in a benevolent god like manner in appreciation of their praise. As my friend noted, "They really don't give a shit about 'Very Famous DJ' they are just having fun shouting stuff at their football rivals on the dance floor.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Creation of New Sounds

It was 7am on a Monday morning, one day in 1989. I was shaving before leaving for work. My old Roberts radio was perched on the glass shelf over the sink, tuned into Radio 4, and ready to give out the morning news. Or at least I thought it was. But the tuning knob must have been slightly nudged  putting out something so full on.

switched on what came out was not the reassuring tones of a BBC newsreader but some banging party music. Sometimes, if the mood took me, I would listen to music first thing. But not this kind of high-energy music. This wasn’t my idea of breakfast music. But still, I liked it, and was intrigued. And I had never before heard breakfast time radio

Marshal McLuhan said: ‘Of course people don’t actually read newspapers in the morning, they just step into them like a warm bath.’ And that’s how breakfast radio music usually is. Warm and comforting to gently stir the brain cells into life.

After a few minutes the banging beats were ripped into by a jubilant, hoarse-voiced DJ: ‘And this shout goes out to the Camden posse and all those at Sunrise over the weekend.’ And then the high-energy music surged back in. I’d accidentally tuned into a pirate radio station. What didn’t occur to me immediately was that this show was not a backdrop to people’s waking moments, it was aimed at those who had been up all Sunday night and didn’t want the party to end.

A few weeks later a friend of ours invited us along to his 40th birthday party at a Greek restaurant in Soho, adding that he was taking us all to a club afterwards. Over the meal he explained to me that he’d been attending some of the illegal warehouse raves and others held in fields in the Home Counties that seemed to be outraging the press at the time. I asked him how he’d found out about them and he reminded me that he had a 17-year-old son from his previous marriage. 
"I heard him talking to his mates about them and told him I’d give him a fiver if he took me along with him." He then led us off to the club. "Here, take this, you’ll love it." That evening my ears and soul were opened. I left in the early hours of the morning feeling that I’d been welcomed into the warm and knowing fraternity of ‘Ravers’.

Musically I already felt privileged that my youth had been enriched by an era of dynamic creativity. In my early teens I went into a record shop and came across the strangest looking album I’d ever seen, Uncle Meat by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I read on the notes that it featured a track described as ‘electronic water music’. I was immediately intrigued and took the cover to the counter to ask if I could listen to some of it.

Wisely deciding that this was probably not something that many of the other customers in the shop would want to hear, I was directed to a small listening booth about the size of a toilet cubicle. I sat there transfixed, staring at the white board sound-proofing on the walls, immersed in the strange but audaciously original music. My pocket money didn’t cover the cost of this double album, but my ears were permanently opened.

During the Seventies punk came and went while I was a drama student but we young actors were way too concerned about our appearance to pay too much attention to this scruffy music and fashion.

During the Eighties I heard little music that excited me and spent most of my music-buying time plugging holes in my collection with classics from the Sixties & Seventies.

To keep it simple, there were three main ingredients in the birth of the Dance music genre — well, four actually, but I’ll come to that one separately. In the previous decade the disco scene in the States had moved away from the Saturday Night Fever posturing into a more counter-culture genre of the gay clubs. 

The term ‘house music’, which was originally the bedrock of the Dance genre, describes a style of music which is often soulful but with an unmissable 4/4 drum and bass rhythm. A prime example is the much revered house classic Promised Land By Joe Smooth.

One theory is that the name emanates from an early Eighties club called The Warehouse in Chicago, where one of the resident DJ’s was producer Frankie Knuckles. A few years ago Frankie Knuckles’ contribution to popular culture was acknowledged by the City of Chicago naming August 26th ‘Frankie Knuckles Day’. Another theory is that the term house music comes from the fact that the clubs featured ‘house’ tracks associated with particular DJ’s in the same way that a restaurant might offer ‘house wine’.

Whatever the truth, DJ/producers gradually began to either press their own extended mixes or extend them live by mixing in additional sequences from another record. Around the same time these new techniques of mixing spread to both New York and Detroit. For some reason the music of electronic bands like the German group Kraftwerk seeped into Detroit and the city’s clubs pioneered a more electronic sound which came to be known as ‘techno’. Classic Detroit Techno Mix

Precursors of the Dance movement can also be found in the work of another German, electronics wizard and producer Giorgio Moroder, whose massively extended remix of the Donna Summers disco hit I Feel Love was a hit in the late 70s. 

A few years later Blondie released her single Rapture which used a rap sequence and welcomed rapping into the mainstream. These various musical ingredients were now converging to create the Dance genre.

The second ingredient was technological. Musical instrument makers Roland produced a new range of samplers and drum machines which brought complex studio techniques of sampling and looping within the reach of those with only a rudimentary grasp of sound engineering.

So now we have an emerging musical style but up till this point the separate strands that would create the whole were largely isolated in separate clubs. House and Techno was to be found in gay disco’s while Rap & Hip Hop was the currency of the ghetto clubs and parties. The music may well have remained fragmented but for the intervention of some young British DJ’s who not so much added a new ingredient but rather mixed them together.

Okenfold, Danny Rampling and a few other British pals discovered the joyous possibilities of house music when presented amidst the eclectic, inclusive spirit of the Ibizan clubs. They subsequently brought the music and style back to the UK and a movement was born which took most young people with it.

Just as in the early Sixties British musicians picked up the largely neglected genre of blues music, redeveloped it and re-exported it back to America, so Dance music that started in the US was given an added twist by British DJ’s causing it to exploded around the world.

Oh and yes, the fourth ingredient: MDMA or Ecstasy. For some reason Ecstasy was the perfect catalyst for the development of this music, just as a strong cup of coffee can kick-start your working day. It seemed to allow people to tune into the subtlety that lay behind repetitive beats, enabling them to perceive and enjoy what I would call the vertical element of a tune.

Traditionally, music is driven by a horizontally moving melody. Dance music, while featuring many memorable melodies, also seemed to pay a lot of attention to the vertical modulation of a melody. So, while many dance tracks didn’t have much progression in terms of horizontal melody, this was more than made up for with the inventive vertical modulation as sounds undulate, expand and contract.

There can be no doubt that drugs have been a major ingredient of previous musical and cultural movements. During the mod era amphetamines were the drug of choice and in much of the Tamla and Stax music of the time the soulful melodies were often underscored by a reliably repetitive tambourine beat which provided a useful metronome for Speed spaced minds. The influence of LSD and marijuana underscored much of the music of the Sixties, opening ears to new techniques of phasing and feedback.

I remember as a teenager listening to a new Captain Beefheart record when my mother walked in and demanded: ‘Why are you listening to that druggy music!’ I was shocked. ‘How did she know?’

During the punk era the use of drugs was more nihilistic and brought together a random combination of booze, speed, glue and poppers.

Shaving in that bathroom in 1989 I had no idea where this high-energy music of banging beats had come from, but I knew I was smitten. Shortly afterwards I heard a track which particularly grabbed my attention. It was called ‘Tears’ by Frankie Knuckles and featured the soaring, soulful voice of Robert Owens.
It wasn’t his voice that attracted my attention but the piano riff. Previously, most music production had centred on adding effects to existing instruments: fuzz and sustain to a guitar or double-tracking to a voice. But now it seemed that producers where casting aside any pretence that an instrument was real and were focusing on the quality of sounds they could produce from scratch. To me the riff in the Frankie Knuckles track sounded like a piano, but that was the thing. The riff resonated like a piano, but the percussive sound of each chord seemed more like a spanner clanking on a radiator. It struck me then that due to the technological progression of samplers and synthesisers it could in fact have been just that! (I don't think the following version is the one that I heard at that time but I have included it out of interest).

It was now possible to combine sounds to create completely original tones. A drumbeat could be made that would fragment into an arpeggios and each newly formed tone could then be reproduced across several octaves of a keyboard.I also became fascinated by the way in which samples were being used and for this I would like to use a sweet analogy. People reading this article in the Britain will be familiar with the sweet or candy known as ‘rock’ sold in seaside towns across the UK.
Rock is a brightly coloured stick of candy about a foot long, usually red, with a white centre. The clever thing about rock is that it comes with the name of the seaside town, where you bought it, built into the stick so no matter where you break the stick you will still see the word ‘Blackpool Rock’, for example.

So this is how the analogy applies: Say, for example, someone had written a song with the passionately sung line, ‘My darling I love you so much I would crawl across the world with no shoes on just to be with you’. (Well, you can see I’d never make a songwriter!) Now, in house music a producer might sample a segment of this song just taking the words ‘No shoes’ or even the word ‘I’. It seemed to me that because the whole stanza was imbued with an emotion (like a name running through a stick of rock) this chopped phrase could bring with it the same emotional power without all the details of lyrics. To use another analogy, it’s a bit like the principles of homeopathy whereby a minute extract of a substance is diluted to create a medicine which still embodies the essence of that substance.

As these ideas swam around my head I approached many of my contemporaries with a missionary zeal as I tried to introduce them to this revolutionary music. A number of them, branded with the prejudice of the music of their teens, simply dismissed ‘Dance music’ as ‘computer-generated music’. I wasn’t going to be stopped though. ‘Don’t you realise this music is based on the creation of new sounds?’

Moog synthesisers had been around for some time, but it seemed to me that their use had largely been gimmicky. Walter Carlos (later to become Wendy Carlos) had produced some interesting pieces such as the synthesised classical works used in the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange. Clockwork Orange Intro Music

Otherwise though the Moog had been confined to producing silly psychedelic arpeggios, or as a grandiose backdrop for prog rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer where Keith Emerson had used the Moog primarily for its acrobatic abilities. Since then synthesisers had moved on and were becoming widely available to a host of new young producers out there willing and eager to push its limits.

Drum machines had also enjoyed a decent gestation period and had progressed from the biscuit tin robotic tones that provided the beat for many of the late Seventies disco tunes. Now producers had the technology to bring a much wider range of drum rhythms and tones to their productions and the beats got seriously complex. Bass guitars, which often ploddingly followed the melody, were invited to take centre stage and were freed up to create rhythms of their own so you weren’t sure if the beat was coming from a bass or a drum. True, some of these more subtle synthesiser effects had been starting to appear outside of House music, primarily in the arrogantly self-proclaimed New Age music. Leading this movement was record label Windham Hill. I really wanted to enjoy New Age music which was characterised by high quality musical production, but it wasn’t until I first heard Dance and House music that I realised why I generally found it so mind-numbingly boring: New Age music, in its search for blissful tranquillity, had largely eliminated the disturbing effects of rhythm. It was music without a heartbeat.

I know there are many who think music’s primary function is relaxation and therefore tranquillity might be an appropriate mood to aim for, but personally I had always sought out music that excited, inspired, challenged, amused and in fact reflected the complete range of human emotions. Yes, like everyone I do enjoy moments of tranquillity, but too much of it turns your brain to mush. If New Age music lacked a heartbeat, Dance music had a vital pulse. It made me want to dance!

Soon after the arrival of Dance music in the mainstream, New Age music was reborn under the guise of ‘ambient’ or ‘chillout’ music. The latter stemmed from the concept of music that was listened to as aural recuperation after a long night’s banging beats. This was New Age music with a gentle heartbeat. 

Ibizan sunset bar Café Del Mar began producing a series of releases that have provided lush accompaniment for countless aspirational TV commercials and holiday shows. It wasn’t until I arrived in Ibiza that I realised that this music, although seen by many as harmless background music, had a tremendous subtle power. When played at volume across a baking beach its complexity and power can take your head off!

La Ritournelle by Sebastien Tellier

Since the early Nineties the advance of looped beats has spread around the world. At the Womad festival (World Music and Dance Festival) a couple of years ago I was struck by how dance rhythms have now pervaded music from all continents and found a place in, for example, the unmistakable African rhythms of Mori Kanti and the haunting Japanese dub music of Kazufumi Kodamo. Some might say this spells the homogenising of international music, but I prefer to see it as a process of connection whereby different cultures are being united with a sense of the heartbeat of dance.

Since my discovery of dance music over 20 years ago I’ve enthusiastically followed its progression as it split into many rich and varied sub-genres — jungle, drum & bass, breakbeat, hard house, progressive, deep and minimal techno, to name just a handful. Then about 10 years ago came another technological development – digital DJing. I’d never had the pleasure of mixed vinyl and was at a stage in my life where I would have found it difficult to justify spending around £1,500 on a set of decks simply to pursue a possible new hobby. However, I already had a decent Macintosh computer and now could add on a mixing console for a couple of hundred pounds.
Once again I was immediately smitten. And so, in my late 40’s, I took the first steps to launch a new career as a DJ with a regular Friday night gig in a local bar where I began to hone my skills.

Since then I’ve held a number of residencies in London and Ibiza where my sets have developed into Eclectika Sessions — usually a set of several hours in which I indulge my eclectic taste for dance music in all its glory. I’ve largely turned my back on the club scene because they tend to be dominated by the tyranny of 130 beats per minute or thereabouts, depending on the genre being played. Personally I prefer light and shade and find concentrating on a single time signature exclusively almost as dull as the beatless New Age music.

I’m also fascinated by the idea of ‘framing music’. By this I mean the way that one style of music can offset another. If someone listening to one of my sets enjoys a gospel house track I’m playing, they might find that the beats will lead them and their musical appreciation on to a minimal techno track which follows it.
My preference now is for private parties or cocktail bars where the goal isn’t necessarily to fill the dance floor — though I frequently do — but rather to create an ambience and changing heartbeat, to initially reassure and then to stimulate the crowd. In other words, from canapés and conversation to full-on dancing and then on into the mellow mornings.

Many of my contemporaries who initially rejected ‘dance music’ have now either come round to it or are starting to murmur that they like some of it but don’t know where to begin looking for the stuff they like. If you are one of those many such people out there then I hope that over a number of articles I might be able to point you towards discovering some of this rich and exciting vein of contemporary music and also offer a few personal insights gained as a DJ.