Bill Brewster: “Dance music has always been driven by the desire to find future”
Last September Bill Brewster, a DJ culture researcher, writer and, of course, a brilliant DJ on his own, paid a visit to Vilnius Music Week. His lecture was about the essence of a DJ – I can’t recall any quotes from that, obviously because it was more than a year ago. But here’s a transcript of our chat later the same night before Bill’s gig in Studio9.
I’m not proud the interview collected dust in my harddrive for so long, but thoughts – and facts – like this don’t get old. It was a great pleasure to meet one of my idols – that’s why so many questions are about the books Bill Brewster co-wrote with Frank Broughton, starting with their cult classic Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. Before we said our goodbyes he mentioned there’s a new one coming – still waiting…
How did you and Frank come up with the idea for the first book, Last Night A Dj Saved My Life?
It was from living in New York. When I met Frank, within a couple of weeks we decided it would be great to write a book about New York. I had had the idea since around 1994, but we wanted to do something together. It was inspired by some of the older clubbers that we met in New York. They told us the stories about the disco era, going to the Loft or the Paradise Garage and other clubs of the 70s and 80s. We wanted to capture the oral histories that people had in their heads.
When we moved back to the UK, we did a book for the Ministry of Sound. It was an experiment to see if we could write something together. That went really well and the guy who published the book offered us to do something of our own. We said we’d love to do that! We came up with 4 or 5 proposals, all of them to do with New York. None of them had a strong theme, however. The editor then offered us to write the history of a DJ. We thought that was really obvious! So it was really our editors idea, not ours. He gave us a narrative and a theme to put all the different things together. UK, USA, Jamaica, Europe. And we came up with the title straight away!
It was a lot of hard work doing it. It was relatively simple to put together. We wrote a chapter plan and put down the list of people we needed to interview for each chapter. We started out by doing a 3 months research at the British Library and then started doing interviews. We spent 2 weeks in New York going out every day. We did 2 or 3 interviews every day! Frank would go to the Bronx and interview 3 hip-hop legends, and I’d go downtown to talk to the disco people. We’d come back at night and, over diner, would swap notes. We then came back, transcribed the interviews and put it up.
Transcribing must have been one of the hardest parts...
Yes, it’s painful, but the good thing about doing it yourself – because we couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do it – is that words get embedded in your head, even years later. There are interviews in the book that I did in 1998 and I can still remember whole chunks from them. So, even though its so, so boring, it’s actually really helpful. In the end, when you’re transcribing the words of some legend that made history and changed the way DJing is and music works, it seems a bit less of a job and a bit more of a pleasure.
What happened after you did all the work?
We were very confident that we had written a very good book. We were really pleased with ourselves. But the reception it got... it was just unbelievable. It completely surpassed everything we had ever imagined.
I remember we discussed it’d be great to sell 50,000 copies of the book. That seemed like a fantasy. We’ve sold a lot more… 130,000, maybe?
Did the success inspire you to write more books?
Yeah! When we wrote this book, we got a literary agent. He negotiated a deal for us. After it came out, we decided to do something else. Our agent offered us to come up with five ideas for books based on DJing, because, continuing to write on the subject, we’d own it. We’d be the faces of the topic; the people TV and radio would talk to when they wanted to cover a DJ-related subject. We did that and one of them became How To DJ (Properly). Our agent was right. We’ve talked about the topic to numerous outlets.
There are many more books about the topic. Do you think you encouraged other authors to write about DJing?
To be honest, the most important book about DJing was not ours. It was Altered State by Matthew Collin. That was the first serious book about modern dance music, released in 1998. When Matthew was trying to get a deal for it, a lot of people offered him to write about, for example, grunge instead. The climate changed after that. So I’m not sure we encouraged anyone, we maybe just showed the publishers there’s a market for that.
How does the creative process look when there are two authors instead of one? Do you edit each other’s pieces?
What we do is we split up the chapters. After we finish our chapters, we come and work together. We use Frank’s computer as the base. The good thing about working with another person is that you don’t need the additional editing process after you finish the book. There’s two of us discussing all the time – is this right, does that make sense, is this correct? Our books hav never been edited by someone else.
Have you received any complaints about the facts mentioned in your books? Or maybe about not being in the books?
We’ve had a few people mentioning casually that they were disappointed they weren’t in it – I’m not giving out any names!
The only person that was pissed off, and I’m not even sure why, was Nicky Siano. I personally thought he gave us a great interview and he was pictured really well. We respected what he said off the record, so I don’t know why he wasn’t satisfied.
Were you disappointed by any of the legends you met during the interviewing process?
Not everybody gave a good interview. Some people are really good in articulating their story, some aren’t. Some people have forgotten what happened! We discussed about whether we should feature someone more because they gave good stories, even though they were not so important. You have to try and keep to the story and slip in the juicy stories from some other people into someone’s words.
Some people are just better storytellers, that’s all. When we interviewed Fabio, he gave us paragraph after paragraph of amazing stories! It was fantastic. He’s such a good raconteur.
How did you choose the DJs for The Record Players? The portraits in the book are all so different!
That was sort of easy. If you are going to feature guys from Detroit, the first people you want to have are Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins. When you think about hip-hop, there are Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Kerc and Grandmaster Flash. So there were quite a few very obvious interviews – at least half of the book chose itself. And then it was just the matter of selecting the rest o fit. We didn’t spend too much time arguing on the content.
There’s also the amazing webpage DJHistory.com. I’ve read that you started it to promote your book.
Yes, we did. It launched in 2000, just after the first book came out. We added a forum a couple of years later and that’s what changed it. There was some very static stuff, and the forum made it live.
How is the page doing today?
Well, it’s a bit of a victim of the success of Facebook and Twitter. Everybody I know that has a website has told me the same thing. People just don’t hang out o forums so much; it’s just the nature of the Internet. According to my wife, though, who works in new media, a lot of people will leave Facebook and go back to specialist pages. We’ll see! We do keep the forum open, people still use it.
OK, let’s leave the books for a second. I know that you studied to be a chef…
I not only studied it, was a chef for 12 years…
Oh! How did the writing come on board?
I used to read a football fanzine called When Saturday Comes. One of their earlier issues had an advertisement for a slave so I called them up and offered myself. I started going there and carrying the magazines to the post office. Later I began writing pieces for them, and then gradually I got more and more involved and ended up as one of the editors.
I had written bits and pieces for other magazines, so I was writing a little bit. I used to be in bands as well and I used to write the lyrics. So it must have been in my subconsciousness all along. In college, I actually wanted to be an interpreter. That was my plan. But then writing took over my life and after two years I dropped out of college and I never finished it.
Are you a better writer or a better DJ?
A better DJ. Frank’s a better writer!
I thought you’re gonna say you’re good at both…
In my life I’ve been good at three things, and that’s DJing, table tennis and cooking.
So are you just the face of the books while Frank does all the writing?!
Haha, no, I put in the work, too! But it’s not something that necessarily always comes naturally to me. I have to really work.
Do you experience writer’s block?
Everyone gets writer’s block! I get up in the morning, take the kids to school, come home and have 6 hours of work in an empty house. I sit down and I spend at least 30 minutes doing everything but writing. I spend ages avoiding actually doing any writing! Emails, Facebook, Twitter, a cuppa tea… Every writer I know spends ages doing exactly the same thing. It’s such a weird thing… But when I get into it, I don’t want to do anything else. It’s just the start that it is so hard.
For me it just happens with the transcribing phase…
For me, transcribing is OK because it’s mindless. If I really want to avoid doing some work, I’ll transcribe something. I don’t mind!
Have you tried other media, like radio or TV?
I’ve done quite a lot of radio and a little bit of TV. I’ve done that, yeah, but I feel I’m quite lucky to be doing what I’m doing in the first place. It’s not like I have big ambitions to do everything. I love radio, much more than TV, to be honest. I grew up listening to John Peel and I still listen to a lot of radio today.
Books about music are doing quite well, at least there’s a lot coming out these days. Why do you think magazines are not doing so well?
Magazines can’t keep up with the pace that things happen on the internet. A website states everything that happened last weekend on a Monday, and a magazine comes out three weeks later. It feels out of date as soon as it comes out.
A magazine is trying to document what’s happening now and it can’t any more. Live reviews… How can you write a live review in a magazine if thousands of words have been written about it as soon as the concert finished?
Books, on the other hand, are more timeless and they bring perspective, so you forgive them the fact that they’re out of date.
Would you agree that the pace of the internet ruins the quality of the content?
Yes, it’s really terrible. But it does not stop people from reading… Loads of people I know that are really talented writers are finding it really hard to make a living, I’m talking about freelancers. It’s quite bad! If I didn’t DJ and do other things, I couldn’t make a living either.
Is it because people don’t want to pay for music in general?
I’m afraid that is the sad fact of life. They don’t want to pay people to write about it, they don’t want to pay for the photographs and they don’t want to buy tickets.
We’ve been in a very tough recession here in the UK in the last five years and there’s no sign of it ending. It’s hard for a lot of people!
At least we still have good music coming out.
Yes, but there are so many releases coming out. You have to dig much harder to find quality this day. It takes me so much longer; I spend at least one whole day a week listening to new releases. Sometimes you have to stop and play yourself a really good record to remind yourself what good music sounds like, to re-set the benchmark.
Maybe you could just stick to old releases?
I’d just stop DJing if I lost interest in new music. I love discovering old records as well, and I love playing then, but I want to be excited about the new things coming out. That’s what keeps the blood circulating in the heart of dance music.
What was better in the past?
There was much more of a feeling 25 years ago. 25 years ago you felt you’re in a secret society. Now everyone knows about it. It has become so massive. However, there are lots of really good parties that don’t really advertise themselves. You need a little bit of that to keep the things special. I love the idea of finding out about things. I believe people don’t respect things that are just given to them on a plate. You need to make them to fight and work to get the special things.
What hurt the industry more – the media that exposed the secret to everyone or the promoters that wanted more money?
Promoters. They are responsible for a lot of things that are wrong with dance music. You can’t really blame the media for it because it was inevitable they would write about it, because it became so huge it couldn’t be avoided.
Promoters have done lots of shit. Really short DJ sets, loads of DJs on the bill, that kind of stuff. Booking DJs just because they made a record, not because they are good DJs – that’s the other thing I hate. It’s really common. There are so many mediocre DJs that are good record producers. The two skills are not the same. I find that quite depressing.
You can’t be a DJ now if you don’t make records! Very few peple I know earn a good living from DJing but don’t make records.
What is the future of DJ culture?
I don’t know. Dance music has always been driven by the desire to find future, and that’s a very good thing. That’s what interested me in the first place. It felt like I was listening to what the future sounded like. In the last few years we have been stuck a little bit – I don’t see many new paths. That’s slightly concerning.
I think what’s much more likely to happen is some weird little scene in Latvia, Finland or Indonesia, where’s not much media, will develop and spread. The problem in England is that we have too much media examining things too quickly. Things don’t have a chance to develop. It’s much easier to do it away from the press coverage.
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D.D. 2004 - 2016
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