Late last year it was announced that British music journalists Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster, who have collaborated on several books about dance music culture (the most popular of which is the totemic Last Night a DJ Saved My Life), would close the long-running DJhistory.com. Launched at the turn of the millennium, the website thrived as a destination for discussing underground dance culture and reading in-depth interviews with DJs, musicians and other, often under-appreciated, music industry figures.
Over the years, conducting these interviews became a loving hobby that moved faster than even we could keep up with, and so hundreds of their interviews have remained unpublished – until now. With the closure of DJ History, we feel that these stories can’t and shouldn’t be forgotten, so Red Bull Music Academy has teamed up with Broughton and Brewster to publish these interviews on RBMA Daily so that their slavish archival work on the history of dance music culture remains appreciated.
To launch the partnership, Lauren Martin sat down with Broughton and Brewster to discuss their inspirations, writing processes and how dance music journalism has evolved.
We used to hear stories and say to each other, “We should write a book about all this...”
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you meet each other?
I was writing for Update USA, and Bill came over to New York and became my editor. We were both going to the Sound Factory, where the Paradise Garage family had ended up (well, the druggier end of it, at least), and it was fascinating to be around people who had been to these huge disco clubs. We used to hear stories and say to each other, “We should write a book about all this...”
I then helped to launch Time Out New York and, to be honest, that finished me off. New York was expanding really quickly and so there was a lot to cover, but it was also the Giuliani years: before he closed these [clubs] down, but when the “no dancing” signs had started to come in. I’d been there for six years, my visa ran out and I’d romanticised going back home. It felt like a natural pause. That was around ‘96.
When you were both in New York, what was the culture of writing about dance music like?
It was shit. There weren’t that many places covering it and you didn’t have the Internet yet, so it was just down to the three or four magazines covering it in the UK, the one or two in the US – and the coverage was quite poor and ill-informed. One of the main things that made us want to do Last Night a DJ Saved My Life was that there were just so many errors in British dance music writing about its history. It was like no one had ever danced to a record before 1988.
I think that i-D and The Face were good in the ’90s, but you’re right. There wasn’t that bedrock of context and if we hadn’t written Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, someone from the UK who didn’t have that New York clubbing experience would have written it as if acid house was year zero. In New York, you had mixing almost a decade before anyone bothered to do it in the UK. Larry Levan epitomised the power of a DJ and that hadn’t really happened in the UK before him. Maybe with northern soul, to some extent, but...
Writing Last Night was about finding connections that no one else knew, and that was what was exciting about it.
But not on the same scale, or with the same grandeur.
Exactly. That was fascinating because we were writing this at the end of the rise of the “superstar DJ” in the late ’90s, but we were conscious that the superstar DJ had started a lot earlier than anyone else realised. Writing that book was about finding connections that no one else knew, and that was what was exciting about it. When we were on the ground, doing interviews, there was a really intense period of about two weeks where we did non-stop interviews: Bill with the old disco people, myself with the old hip hop people.
How did you decide what people you absolutely needed to have interviewed for the book in order to make your histories feel “complete”?
It was detective work. It’s a story of genres and although we knew how some of the genres interacted, we didn’t necessarily know who the key people were. You can certainly say that northern soul was the first time that people travelled across the country to go to big clubs, but we didn’t necessarily know who the big DJs were or who was going to tell us the best stories. We just had to find out.
The weirdest example of northern soul was that, when we asked everyone the question “Who influenced you?” – in order to get to the very root of the culture – nearly every one said, “You’ve got to go talk to Jimmy Savile, because he was the pioneer.” I mean, it’s a sad fact now, but obviously his contribution to DJing is contentious to talk about now.
It’s not an easy one to navigate.
In terms of the move from “dance bands” to DJs, Savile was the person who did that in the UK. You can’t take that away from him. That was just really weird because it was vaguely sinister and preposterous at the time. You didn’t think of him as some kind of serious person who’d done anything of historical note.
The clubs were a backdrop before, but it was the club that created these changes in music.
When you talk about your frustration about how dance music was covered in the 90s, and how Last Night A DJ Saved My Life was influenced by that frustration, were you motivated to start DJ History for the same reasons?
DJ History initially grew out of the book. We wrote the book from about September ‘98 to about the end of May ‘99, and it was published in October ‘99. We set up DJ History in early 2000 and, for the first few years, we just posted edited transcripts of the interviews that we’d done.
Having a personal website then was an unusual thing. There was no, “I need to pay someone to design the new website.” It was the Y2K of having a blog. And there was no online sale of the book, either: “Please go to your local Waterstones,” and so on.
We redesigned it to include a forum in May 2003 and that’s really when it started to grow. I told all of my mates that I’d started up this forum because I was always nerdily hanging out on other forums (Deep House Pages, Vinyl Vulture) and once people started to come onto our forum, our site developed because we came really high in Google searches because people were talking about obscure records.
It was also before the widespread use of the MP3. As that culture started evolving, people started burning mixtapes to MP3 and posting them on DJ History. If you think about the whole idea of “re-discovering” non-British dance music that most British collectors had scorned before, like cosmic disco, a lot of that gestated on DJ History.
After you started posting the full transcripts of the edited interviews that were in the book, how did you feel about your work?
When you’re writing a book from the perspective of the development of dance music and DJing overall, you’re looking for very different things. When you suddenly focus on that one person, you realise that you’ve essentially got that moment that they did something truly important, in detail and on record.
We also made a conscious effort to get detailed descriptions. I’ve talked to people who’ve read the book and told me, “I love your book – it must have been amazing to go to all of those places yourself!” We got everyone to describe what it was like being in certain clubs and their personal relationship with them, and I don’t think any writers had really done that before. It was like the clubs were a backdrop before, but it was the club that created these changes in music.
The high concept idea is that you’ve got this love affair between the DJ and the dance floor. When the dance floor gets a bit bored, the DJ has to try some new tricks to win back its affections. That’s really the evolution of dance music: to bring everything to life, again and again.
A lot of artists were just astonished that anyone was interested in what they had done 20 years previous.
Were you conducting these interviews out of your own personal interest, or were you doing it to (and I use this phrase lovingly) educate people about dance music history?
It was like, “Well, we’ve done this for the book, but there are so many other people we need and want to talk to.” It became an addiction. You interview someone and at the end they say, “So-and-so is in town,” and you think, “Fucking hell, I’d love to speak to him. I’ll get in touch.” I’ve basically continued doing that for years, and even when there was no reason whatsoever to do so other than my obsession for finding out more for my own knowledge.
Many of the interviews that I’ve done in the last three or four years have no “purpose” beyond me being nosy about people’s lives and what they did to influence music culture. I interviewed Gary Numan, and I’m not even a huge Gary Numan fan, but he was revolutionary and I wanted to talk to him about it. I know that lot of people were just astonished that anyone was interested in what they had done 20 years previous. People like Kool Herc had been almost left for dead.
The book became a reference tool so that people could confidently write about a scene that they didn’t have a personal knowledge of. They could see that they were writing historically, whereas before there was just no such thing as “dance music history.”
Matthew Collin’s book Altered States was also very important. It was the first really detailed book about British dance music. It had lots of great context and was beautifully written, too. I think it would be fair to say that Altered States and Last Night a DJ Saved My Life changed a lot. You had one book, then another, and then publishers began actively looking for more and then suddenly there were half a dozen books on disco, you know?
Another thing that Last Night a DJ Saved My Life did was rehabilitate disco. We reminded people that disco was a period in which the role of the DJ, the invention of the 12-inch single and recording techniques were revolutionised. The DJ basically got the keys to the recording studio back then. I remember when the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music called disco a “lamentable genre.”
That was unfortunate.
It was unfortunate, but that was in print until the early ‘90s! We were like, “Actually, disco was really fucking important.” At the same time, there was a massive academic interest in hip hop, and when those two things came together, and it transformed how people wrote about dance music. It became okay to think of and understand disco and hip hop as where it all came from: the technology, the professions, the recording techniques; it was all nailed in the early ’80s by those genres.
The Face and i-D were the first UK magazines to do a good job of writing about club culture, and we referred to a lot of their articles for source material, but the progression from there was questionable at best. i-D became more about the fashion and when you look at Mixmag in the ’80s – laughable.
They printed wet t-shirt contests. I can remember some fairly appalling things. DJs dressed as Santa for December issues.
Mixmag evolved as more and more people started buying dance music who weren’t necessarily professional DJs, and so they cornered the market in that, but then others came along that were a bit more DJ and collector focused, and magazines like Jockey Slut were the comedy end of the market.
Jockey Slut is a great example of a magazine that didn’t just write about dance music and its history, but helped to mould an aesthetic and a momentum: “This is a cultural phenomenon, and you should care about it because it’s brilliant.”
I’d argue that Jockey Slut took its cues from The End.
DJ History was the Internet equivalent of a shantytown, basically: all bolted together behind the scenes.
The football fanzine from Liverpool. You were originally a football writer, correct?
I was, yes. I would say that The End started it, because The End inspired Boy’s Own and then Boy’s Own inspired things like Jockey Slut and Herb Garden. Also, like what happened with punk rock in the ’70s, a lot of the good young writers came from fanzines to bigger magazines. It became a route up in dance music culture.
Mixmag turned it into a mainstream lifestyle in the mid to late ‘90s. It started a fashion section and had sponsored tours with Pepsi and Ministry of Sound.
We wrote the book in the middle of all of that superclub nonsense. One of the things that did motivate us was writing not exactly an antidote, but trying to get people’s feet on the ground as to what we felt the art of DJing was really about.
If you had your own website, why are so many of your interviews gone unpublished?
When we were getting these incredible organic search results and massive traffic, we decided to make it a business. We spent a couple of years trying to monetise it and it proved stubborn. The success story was the forum and once you start putting in adverts, you breed negativity from the users. We published five books under DJ History, did compilations and t-shirts, but we had such a developed website that it was always such a nightmare of integration and technology to get it to the next stage.
It was the Internet equivalent of a shantytown, basically: all bolted together behind the scenes. If we’d published the books digitally we wouldn’t have lost any money on them, but because they were in print we lost a fortune. You suddenly realise that it’s not quite as desirable to the wider world, and then you’re paying money to store them all in a warehouse.
What do you think the appetite is for specialist books about dance music now?
The idea of packaging something up in a single place: that’s the thing that we’re going to transcend soon. If you want detailed information about dance music now, you just go on a hyperlink chase and you see where YouTube takes you. History is discovered in a fragmented way. The practice of someone editing his or her own work into a larger body of work is something that we’re losing sight of. I think it’s going to be difficult for people writing books in that way in the future.
Having said that, there is also a feeling of duty. We were conscious that if we didn’t do this, someone else would do it and maybe do it badly, and once we embarked on it we got a feeling of megalomania: “We’re doing to do this so comprehensively that no one else can follow it.” That’s something that’s being eroded from our culture – that editorial mastery of something.