Bruce Forest was an unlikely candidate to become one of New York’s most influential DJs of the 1980s. He was all set to become a doctor when he decided to quit a medicine degree and take up a job as a lighting technician at an upstate New York club. He was inspired to try his hand at DJing after hearing the club’s resident beatmatch, and by 1980 he’d replaced Tee Scott in the DJ booth at Better Days, one of the most iconic and influential NYC clubs of the era.
Until Better Days closed its doors in 1988, Forest was its undisputed star attraction. In the DJ booth, he combined unsurpassable mixing skills with an innate ability to “play with the crowd,” somehow both responding to their desires while setting the agenda. From the start, he was known for playing sets using multiple additional sound sources, including keyboards, samplers, drum machines and effects units. He also invited musicians into the booth to perform alongside him, most notably keyboardist David Cole (later to find fame alongside another Better Days regular, Robert Clivillés, as C&C Music Factory).
Forest was also known for creating remixes on the fly using multiple copies of records. This led to a successful career as an in-demand remixer and producer throughout the latter half of the decade. Many of his mixes not only included dazzling, improvised keyboard solos from Cole, but also elements inspired by the fast-rising house sound of Chicago. He was one of the first New York DJs to make connections with his counterparts in the Windy City, providing remixes on a number of early DJ International releases.
Following the closure of Better Days, Forest moved to the UK, where he played a number of guest spots at leading London venues of the acid house era while continuing his production work. He quit the music industry in 1994, selling his 15,000 strong record collection and moving into computer technology.
In November 2010, he sat down with Bill Brewster to tell his remarkable story, talking at length about his early years, Better Days, a memorable trip to the Music Box in Chicago and his working relationship with the sadly departed David Cole.
Tell me where you grew up and how you got into music?
I was born a medical student. My father was a surgeon and my mom was a psychologist and counsellor. It was always planned that I would follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a physician. I learned at a very early age I had little interest in this, but you do what your parents want.
Where did you growing up?
Forest Hill, Queens. I was never a very good student. My teachers would always say, “Well, he’s very intelligent but his work is shit.” I floundered my way through school and then I was sent to one of the most elite boarding schools in the country, Choate Rosemary Hall – JFK had gone there. I left there after a year and a half, before I got thrown out with cigarettes, which you couldn’t have back then. This was about 1971.
I came back to New York and went to another boarding school called Millbrook. It’s a little less famous but still an elite boarding school. I lasted there a year and a half before I got thrown out because they found pot seeds in one of my drawers. So I finished my schooling at one of the first schools in the country to have metal detectors: Hillcrest High School in Queens, New York, near Hollis. It was a significant demographic change from the life I had lived.
In the background of all this I was already a music junkie. I was into all the great jam bands of the early ’70s like Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. Finally I graduated from high school and went to the University of Miami for two years before I decided that it was not the place for me. I had a girlfriend at the time who was going to Binghamton, a state university of New York. One day I just walked out of the house, got on a bus, went up there and stayed in her dorm for a few days. I got a job as an operating room technician at Binghamton General Hospital while I was still supposedly going to college. Finally something snapped. I thought, “I hate looking at dead bodies, I hate looking at live bodies, I hate looking at people’s guts – I need a different job!”
I looked on the notice board and there was an ad looking for someone to do light electrical work at the Power & Light Company, which was a disco, and this was 1976 or ’77. My job was to change bulbs, go into the rafters and change the gels, stuff like that. I was still into rock music and these guys were playing Arpeggio, Foxy and Stephanie Mills – stuff that I thought, ultimately, was pure crap.
There were two DJs there and I’m still friends with them. One was Brian Hanley and one is called Fred Coffey. One day I was in the rafters changing some gels and Fred was practising in the DJ booth and I thought, “Jesus, this music is terrible,” but I really liked the way he went from one record to the other. He just blended them into each other and it was kinda cool.
I went to the booth and said, “Can I watch?” He said, “Sure.” I had the keys to the club so one day when no one was there I walked in and tried it. I found it was very hard, but after a few hours of messing around I thought, “This is fun.” I’d go down there late at night when no one was there and I’d practice. I got so it wasn’t horses galloping across the room.
Brian was always into sound. We had a Levan horn there, we had a Bozak mixer, we had 1200s and this is for that stuff. Brian ran the club with his parents and he was into the best equipment. I slowly got better and better and finally I said, “Why don’t you let me play tonight?” So they let me play some night that was like nothing, a Thursday or something, and there were ten people in the whole club. I always skewed towards the blacker stuff, the early Prelude and West End records rather than the uptempo stuff. I was into what I guess we would now called proto-house and what would eventually be Paradise Garage and Better Days music.
I started playing on Thursdays and over a period of about six months the place became mobbed, mainly with kids from New York studying in Binghamton. They were mostly black. The owners – not Brian, he was cool – were not the most pleasant of people and they didn’t like their club being filled with black people. They were doing all sorts of things at the door and eventually they said, “We gotta move you off Thursdays.” So I started to do weekends. Brian was the number one DJ and Fred was number two, but very quickly they discovered I had a talent for it.
Mark Kamins really impressed me because he was was working the crowd. Not making the crowd respond to him, but rather responding to the crowd.
At that point I was getting tapes from WKTU New York, which was the disco station. I was listening to Studio 92, which was classic DJs like Roy Thode, Jim Burgess, Kevin Burke. It was really cool what some of these guys were doing so I started to get more adventurous. I got a reel-to-reel and started to do some editing. I taught myself everything, so I didn’t know which side of the tape, the tape went on. I thought it went on the inside!
We took a trip to New York to get some lighting and there was this club called the Underground on Union Square and they said we were gonna go and hang out, which I was fine with. It was my first experience in a real big New York disco. I wanna say this is around 1979. There was a DJ playing that night and he was playing a lot of rock stuff. It was Mark Kamins.
I managed to get myself into the booth. I was looking around thinking, “Wow, this is really cool!” I said something stupid to him like, “Do you edit your own tapes?” He looked at me as though I was some sort of idiot and carried on with what he was doing. But he really impressed me with what he was doing because he was doing something that my teachers hadn’t done, and that was working the crowd. Not making the crowd respond to him, but rather responding to the crowd.
At that point it was getting around that there was this guy who was good in Binghamton. One night this female DJ, who was playing at a place called Club 37 in Syracuse, showed up with her entourage to hear me play. She had blonde spiky hair and was wearing pink and green torn clothes. She looked like a real hip DJ. She listened for a while out on the dancefloor then came up into the booth and introduced herself. “Hi, my name’s Lesley Doyle. You’re really good. Do you wanna come and hear me play at Club 37 one day?”
I went to see her and she was doing the same thing Kamins was doing: she was reacting to the crowd. Club 37 was this big cavernous space run by the guy who would eventually run 1018. She was up there in the sky playing but she was still reacting to the crowd. So we became friends and after a time we started to go out and live together. One day Club 37 was going to change and I was having arguments with the owners at the place I was playing, so she said, “Let’s get the hell out of here and go to New York.” Now I was pretty much the learning DJ and she was the star. I stayed at my parents’ house for a few weeks but that didn’t go too well. “What, you quit the medical business to play a few records?” We were both hanging around New York and trying to go to clubs.
Where is Binghamton?
About 150 miles north of New York. It’s a grimy, blue-collar shitty town. Before Better Days this was the only place I’d ever played at.
So where were you finding your records?
I’d troop to New York maybe once a month and Brian had always gone to Downstairs Records. This was when it was actually downstairs in the subway, when Yvonne [Turner] and Junior [Vasquez] were both working there. I didn’t know Junior but I got friendly with Yvonne. I’d go in there every couple of weeks and say, “What’s hot?” I’d then sit down there for the next two hours and listen. I always bought two copies of everything as the days of really cool remixing hadn’t come yet – Tom Moulton, Walter Gibbons and François Kevorkian aside – and there was a lot of great records that needed work to be extended. What’s interesting is all that music went to the Power & Light Company because I was using their money, so when I left Binghamton I had two records. One was Silk Degrees by Boz Scaggs and the other was “One Nation Under A Groove.” I had nothing.
So how did you get the Better Days gig? Did you start hanging out there first or what?
It’s a great story. I had gone to couple of clubs in New York and found them ordinary. I went to Bonds and Kenny [Carpenter] wasn’t playing and I wasn’t impressed. I went to Magique and François wasn’t playing and I left unimpressed. It was fluffy white disco and I didn’t like that type of stuff. I like it with a bass and a beat stuff like “Time” by Stone. That’s what I liked.
Lesley and I were in Downstairs one day and I said to Yvonne, “All these clubs we go to are crap, so please send me somewhere where there’s decent music.” She said, “Go to Better Days. The DJ there is Tee Scott and he’s absolutely fabulous. You’ll love him.” So we did. I’d go with or without Lesley. Here’s a skinny white guy wearing a St. John’s sweatshirt hanging out by the booth in Better Days, the only white person and the only straight person in the room.
I’d just hang out by the booth and listen to Tee. He was amazing. He was more than playing to the crowd. He and the crowd were on the same thought processes. He knew exactly what to do, exactly what to play. He played on Thorens turntables, so he wasn’t a turntables wizard. But he was good. He was better than Larry [Levan] I thought. He just did things with the crowd that amazed me.
What was so good about him?
He would take two copies of something, extend the intro and bring in something else [using a third turntable]. He would hold back the peak of a record until the place was just screaming and then he would let it go. He would play with the crowd in a way which I had never seen done before. I’d always seen people respond to the crowd. Tee was the first guy I’d ever seen who never played slow songs. He never used the microphone. He was the first real DJ. I can’t say that about Mark [Kamins] because I didn’t hear him for long enough. I heard Tee every night for months. He was first DJ I saw who really controlled his crowd. You could tell that he could do exactly what he wanted because they wanted it, which was really cool because it was a true symbiosis and I’d never seen that before. It blew my doors off! He’s take two copies of “Burnin’ Up” by Imagination and make it 30 minutes long. It never got boring and the crowd never walked off the floor.
Better Days was 85% dancefloor. If you took a room and put a 100 foot circle with a bar off to the side, that’s what Better Days was. It was a dance club. It wasn’t the sort of club you came to pick up in, though I’m sure they did. It was three bucks to get in. Maybe you bought a drink and maybe you didn’t. You went on the dancefloor and you stayed there till they shut the music off at 4 AM on the weekdays and 6 AM on the weekends. Even the Garage wasn’t like that. It was a bar, a little tiny bar and this mammoth dancefloor. That’s what the club was about. It was about music. You walked in through the door and the bass was pounding your ears out.
Taking over from Tee Scott at Better Days was like going to Microsoft in the mid-’90s and saying, “I’m getting rid of that Bill Gates.”
Anyway, I remember one night, Tee wasn’t playing and a guy named Derrick Davidson, who was also very good, was playing. He was very good in a different way. He wasn’t Tee. I’m sitting on one of the banquettes just listening and the owner of the club walks by. Do you remember an old cartoon called Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse? Imagine the quintessential Jimmy Cagney criminal: about 5'4", 200 pounds and he spoke like a gangster from a Hollywood movie.
So walking right through the middle of the club is this pudgy little balding white guy with a can full of money in one hand and a revolver in the other. So I went up to him and said, “Can I talk to you?” He said, “Yeah, whaddya want?” I said, “Who’s this playing, as it isn’t Tee?” He was like, “How the hell do you know? Are you a DJ?” “Well, actually I am.” “What, you think he’s no good?” I said, “No, Tee’s brilliant. This guy.” He said, “Derrick? Derrick’s good. Do you think you’re better than him?” I thought to myself, “no,” and said, “I’m okay.” He then said, “Do you wanna audition? Come in tomorrow and play for me.”
I go home and tell Lesley and she doesn’t believe me. “Get the hell outta here! You’re not going to audition at Better Days!” She, meanwhile, is still looking for work as the number one DJ between the two of us. The next day I showed up with two copies of “Burnin’ Up” by Imagination and five other records. This was on Tee’s Thoren turntables, which I couldn’t use. So he turns on the system, says, “Go ahead,” and I start playing around with “Burnin’ Up.” He goes to the office and gets on the phone.
I played for about an hour and then turn the music off.
He comes out of his office and says, “You’re done?” I said, “Yeah, how was it?” He said, “You wanna job? I’m firing that fat fuck Tee. You got the job!” I said, “’Scuse me?” He was like, “I’m done with him. He shows up late. He brings in too many people. I don’t like him. He’s done. Do all five nights. Show up Wednesday and be ready to play.” Had I known then what I know now about Better Days’ history I would have probably shat myself, because it was like going to Microsoft in the mid-’90s and saying, “I’m getting rid of that Bill Gates.” I had no idea what I was getting into.
No one would get on the dancefloor. One guy walked over with a beer and poured it on the mixer.
There was a white DJ from Queens named Jeff Breukmann who I was friendly with. I called him and told him. Obviously he thought, “This guy’s not gonna know what he’s doing, I’ll hang out with him and then step in and save the day.” So I went over to his house, I practiced a little bit and I went out and bought some records. I maybe had 50. So I show up the next night. Tee’s packed up his stuff and gone. Larry Paterson’s packed up his stuff and gone. The booth is empty and there I am.
I couldn’t play on the Thorens so I brought two other decks which were kinda the pre-1200s. I put them in and started to play. The club opened at ten and people started to come in and look at me. By about 11:30 I had about 400 people standing in a semi-circle around the booth with their arms folded, shaking their heads. I’m like, “Oh, this isn’t going very well.” I was working as hard as I could and no one would get on the dancefloor. One guy walks over with a beer and pours it on the mixer. I was not going to be immediately accepted.
I came back the next night with more records, cutting between copies, working my buns off. I guess I was doing an alright job because a couple of people went on the dancefloor, but most of them just stood and looked at me and shook their heads. “Here’s a white guy coming in for Tee Scott! Oh My God!” Jeff Breukmann was behind me. He was waiting to take over. Anyway, it goes on like this for a few nights and then two people took pity on me. One was Cynthia Cherry and one was David Steel. They were regulars at this club. They waited until the music was done. They came up and said, “Listen, we’re regulars here, we’ve been coming for years. You’re actually pretty good. The problem is you’re playing the wrong records. You don’t play ‘Work That Sucker To Death’ at Better Days. You don’t play ‘Is It In’ by Jimmy Bo Horne, you play ‘Spank’ instead.” They coached on about 20 different records that I played that were wrong and the ones that I did play that were right.
I went back at it, another week went by and the crowd was getting smaller and smaller. Finally the owner Al Roth called me into the office and said, “Look, we gotta problem. I’m getting lots complaints about you; I’m getting people who won’t come in the club. I gotta hire a black guy.” I said, “Look, I got an idea. I’ve got a friend named Timmy Regisford. He’s really good and he’s black. Let him do the three big nights and let me keep Wednesdays and Sundays.”
Anyway, they put a sign up saying that Timmy was playing and everybody was happy. They loved him and the crowds started coming back. About three weeks in he couldn’t do a Friday night because he had to play at this other place. He asked me to cover for him. At that point we were having the club painted and there’s tarps hanging all over the place. So I moved a tarp in front of the booth so you really couldn’t see who’s in the booth unless you went round to the side to knock on the door and go in.
So I played through this tarp. I could see the crowd through this little hole in it but they couldn’t see me. They’re going nuts, jumping up and down and chanting, “Timmy! Timmy!” This is more dramatic than anything I would do now, but it gets to four in the morning, the music goes off and they’re all applauding. I pull on a rope, the tarp drops and the room just goes silent. “Oh shit, the white boy can play!” I never had a problem after that.
Wednesdays started to get big. Timmy started to have more gigs elsewhere he had to do. After about two or three weeks, the owner came up to me and said, “Timmy’s gone so you got it again for the five nights.” The crowd got to understand me. They understood I was a white straight guy, but I just got along with them. They started to come up in the booth, I became friends with them. And they taught me. I didn’t teach them anything. They taught me what to play. They taught me how to play. From 1980 when I started… by 1981-’82 I was as good as I was ever going to get. I don’t have any early tapes left, but I listen to my tapes from ’86 and I was pretty good. I started bringing in synthesizers, keyboards and samplers, so by 1982 I was doing different stuff from what most DJs were. I could play Depeche Mode “Get The Balance Right” at the wrong speed, pitched all the way up and they would dance to it, because they trusted me. That was the big difference. I stayed there till they closed in ’88.
Did you play many records at the wrong speed?
No, I didn’t. In fact, Shep [Pettibone] used to say I was completely anal about having to have that green light on the turntable. However I got into the record, I wanted it playing at its real speed. Unless it was a weird record like “Get The Balance Right,” which I knew they would get along at if it was 110 BPM, but not so much if it was played at 140 BPM. I never played anything at that speed anyway; I think the fastest I played was maybe 128-130. Other than that I used to play the “Shout” break at the wrong speed. I’ve never been into playing stuff at the wrong speed, really, unless you’re doing something unbelievably creative that no one’s heard before.
When did you start bringing synthesizers into the club?
Probably ’82. I had a Casio CZ-101 and that was the first I ever had. Cheap bastard with a great bass sound. I put that up above and toodle along with songs or play percussion parts. It was around then that another club downtown called Alice In Wonderland closed. They had a Richard Long soundsystem. I went into the club and said, “Listen, I wanna buy a lot of the equipment. I want the subwoofers, I want the horns and I want the crossover.”
We bought it and Shep and I Installed that stuff. That’s when Better Days’ soundsystem really started to kick. We had subwoofers before, but now we had 8 18s. Any good DJ will say a good soundsystem makes your job half done, and it did. Tee’s was good but mine was 1,000% better. It did have some of Tee’s elements in it, so it was not all Richard Long stuff. Interestingly the guy who fitted the original soundsystem was a guy named Alex Rosner. Have you heard of him?
I was always having fights with Alex. I’d say, “Where’s the bass, Alex?” He’d dig his heels in and say, “It should be clear” Fuck clear! I wanted to make people go to the bathroom with the bass! So when I brought in these Levan horns he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m making it sound like a club!” We worked together but by the time it closed there was more Richard Long stuff than Alex Rosner stuff.
Everything in that club I felt responsible for. I would come in days and completely re-do all the decorative lighting. I got rid of all the bulbs and brought in pin beams. I would change the cells twice a month, so they would come in one day and they’d all be pink and red, then they’d come in a week later it’d be dark blue and magenta.
Were you inspired to do that by what Larry Levan was doing at the Garage?
No, I was trying to make the club look a lot hipper than it was. I was making it as good as I could before I started doing more studio work in ’83. I did my first remix [of UDM’s “To Please You”] in 1982.
When it first came out I bought something called an Instant Replay, which was basically a little drum pad that would sample sounds. You could then play it back by playing the drum pad. Then Korg came out with the STD 1000. I bought two of those and eventually bought a 2000 which you could set up loops with. Then I needed a separate mixer to put all the outboard stuff through. The booth was getting crowded with stuff like that but it was very unique. I had a TR-808, a TR-505 and a TB-303 in there. I was starting to create stuff in the club, which led to my first remix.
I meant to ask you earlier, what was your relationship like with Tee after you took over?
We didn’t see each other too much, but we got along and there was no animosity between Tee and me. I loved Tee and to me he was the first really great DJ I ever heard. To this day he’s one of the greatest DJs I’ve ever heard. When he went to Zanzibar he would have me as his guest whenever I wanted. When I was in the booth at Zanzibar I got along with Tee, I got along with Tony Humphries, but everyone else looked at me like I was somewhere I was not supposed to be. He never blamed me for taking over because if it wasn’t me it would have been someone else.
You played from the tail end of disco right through the peak arrival of house. How did that change you and club?
I will claim to be if not the first, then one of the very first DJs in New York to play it [house music] and that’s because of Lesley. She had followed a parallel path. She played at a black gay club but then she went off into white disco land. She was really good at it. She was playing at places like Sticks and Moonshadow, playing to gay white boys and playing different music to what I was playing. Rarely would we play the same music. I remember having a fight over Rockers Revenge’s “Walking On Sunshine” because I got a test pressing and she didn’t, but other than that we were in completely different worlds.
She was always very social though, and in late 1983 or ’84 she brought a guy to my club named Steve Hurley. I’d never met him and didn’t know anything about him. All she said was he was a DJ on WBMX in Chicago. He gave me a cassette of an edit he had done of Isaac Hayes’ “I Can’t turn Around.” Ron Hardy had done an edit as well, but I didn’t know Ron Hardy. He says, “Play this – I know it will work.” I listened to it in my headphones thinking it sounds cool, mixed it in and immediately they got it. This was late ’83. Then in the beginning of ’84 I got a package from Steve and in it was an acetate of “Music Is The Key.” I played it the first night and they went nuts.
From that day on there was nothing I couldn’t play in house music. I started to get very friendly with Steve and with Farley [Jackmaster Funk]. Farley came to visit me and he’s a very scary presence when you don’t know who he is, but he hung out in my booth; then Rocky Jones came, Chip E showed up and eventually it all these house guys started to hang out at my club. There were a lot of underground celebrity types that hung out there anyway; you’d see Grace Jones, Mick Jagger and Chris Blackwell. Ralph Rosario and Julian Perez would always bring me stuff.
House music took over Better Days immediately because everything I was playing was proto-house anyway. I mean, it isn’t a big jump from Martin Circus to “Jack Your Body.” We’re talking about bass-heavy, four-on-the-floor disco music. Almost immediately “Music Is The Key” was a big hit and then they said, “Would you come to Chicago and mix a record for us?” I forgot my watch, which doesn’t sound a big deal, but we’d finish in the studio and go back to the hotel and I wouldn’t know what time it was.
We were doing “Shadows Of Your Love.” Farley was there, Steve, me. Anyway, I got up the next morning, no idea what time it is. It was 9 AM so no one was there. I had the key so I let myself in, put the tape back on, started doing stuff and started to do some mess about edits. By the time they showed up about noon I had done this mix. That’s what became the “Fierce Mix” of “Shadows Of Your Love,” which is the one everyone played.
That was the time Steve Hurley took me to the Music Box when Ron Hardy was still playing. You have to remember that Music Box was a black crowd. It was under a highway so it was real hole in the wall type thing. Steve Hurley, who everybody there knew, walked me in and no one knew me because they didn’t know New York clubs. I went into the booth and met Ron, who was off his face and I don’t think he knew who I was. Then there was some comment like, “Hey Steve, why don’t you leave the white boy at home next time,” and Steve kinda chuckled because he knew that at that point I was a fairly important DJ in New York.
I got no love at Music Box at all. I sat in a corner for about four hours listening to Ron thinking, “This guy’s amazing!” He didn’t know where he was, but he could still play records. And he was playing stuff I’d never heard anybody play before. He was playing a lot of Euro-disco, he was playing the extended instrumental of “Cannonball” by Supertramp, he was playing Stuff like “Los Ninos Del Parque” [by Liaisons Dangereuses], Italo stuff, weird underground music.
I was playing Italo stuff, too, but not like this guy was. I’d never heard anybody play like that and obviously he was playing a lot of house music and a lot of stuff I’d never heard before. I only went once to the Music Box but after that visit I really focused more on playing house music than what had previously been “Better Days music,” alongside the Prelude, Salsoul and West End classics.
I was experimenting but because I kept the core of it true to house or proto-house everyone loved it. We had lines out of the door.
I stopped looking for music coming from New York and started looking for music coming from Chicago and London. More unusual stuff. I joined a rock [record] pool and was playing weird rock music that they would get there. B-52’s “Mesopotamia,” I could get away with that. I would stop the music and play the video to “Love Is A Battlefield.” I was experimenting but because I kept the core of it true to either house or proto-house everyone loved it. We had lines out the door.
I’d say the peak at Better Days for me was early ’83 until ’88 when it was closed. If it was a Sunday night in the holidays, we would do 1,500 people through the door. It was mobbed. The air conditioning couldn’t handle it and the neighbors were complaining. It was great! Those five or six years I couldn’t get enough. Every night I’d come to work and think, “This is great.” I’d always been a bit of a weed smoker and I’d always have a joint in my mouth. People would offer me all sorts of other things and I wouldn’t do anything else.
Fridays and Saturdays I’d finish at six or seven and either go to the Loft or Garage. Larry at the Garage was playing the same stuff I was playing, he just had his soundsystem and his crowd. What was cool was I’d walk through the Garage crowd and people would recognize me which had never happened before.
Going back to your question, I’d say by late ’86 or ’87 there was a point when half my nights were reel to reel tapes, as I was getting sent so much stuff from Chicago, particularly Steve and Farley. I was getting stuff from Timmy Regisford, too. People were just handing me tapes. Half my night was that and the other half was David Cole playing over whatever happened to be playing.
How did you first come across David?
David was a regular at Better Days. He was young. He must’ve been 16 or 17. I always saw him in the crowd. He was very identifiable – a red-haired kid. I’d started tootling around on keyboards so this must’ve been ’84. One day he comes up to the booth and knocks on the door. He was very shy. He said, “Hi, I’m David. I’m a keyboard player.” I said, “Cool, where do you play?” He told me he mainly played at church. So I said, “Do you wanna fool around on this keyboard?”
So he put his hands on the keyboard and started playing. I realized straight away that this guy was not ordinary. Now, I’d experimented a lot, I’d had drummers in playing over me, but this guy sounded really, really cool, so we started to do things. I’d take this long breakbeat type thing – Adonis was the most famous – and he would just play stuff over. One night I was playing Adonis and he started playing the keyboard line to “Heard It Through The Grapevine.” I’m playing with the samplers and I get a copy of the Marvin Gaye record, sample a bit of that and he plays a line over it. I look up and I realize no one’s dancing: they’re all watching us!
David would come to the club every night and as soon as he got in, he would come up to the booth and he and I would play together for hours. Maybe I’d get the bassline from “Beat Dis,” or use a part of “Love Is The Message,” and he would just play over it. As soon as they heard him playing they’d start applauding and screaming. We did that for a long, long time. During that time I was starting to remix more and I said to him, “You’re definitely good enough to come and do overdubs for me.”
Every time I worked with him, I’d just let the tape run in one seven or eight minute long take while he played. That would invariably become the dub mix. I could go through 500 records where I’d do a quick mix out underneath it and he would just make the record. One that really sticks out for me is the “Street Groove Mix” of Thrashing Doves’ “Je$u$ on the Payroll.” He came up with that now famous piano riff and solo on the spot. That “Street Groove” is one take from David.
Thursday Cole nights I had to eventually give up because I was in the studio so much, so I started to give out guest spots: Rob Clivilles, Shep Pettibone and David Morales all played there, it was like a who’s who. Funny thing about Shep is they didn’t like him too much there, but he owned KISS FM through his Mastermixes. Morales did real well. Bert Bevans did real well. Steve Thompson. Eventually David Morales became my regular Thursday night DJ and Rob Clivillés did it too. He really hit it off with David Cole.
David and I did a song together on Epic, “You Take My Breath Away.” After that he said he really wanted get into producing, which I encouraged because he was amazing. He, Robert, Chep Nunez and David Morales got together and they did the Adonis with piano playing over it and called it “Do It Properly.” You know, and even when he was at the peak of his fame with C&C Music Factory, he’d still pop in and mess around on the keyboards with me because we had so much fun. It was a blast. He was one of the few people from the music business I invited to my wedding.
Did you go to the musical wake when he died?
It sounds a bit weird for a club DJ, but I don’t like big crowd scene type things. I miss David on my own. I miss the David who used to come and jam in the booth with me. The David who used to come up with crazy synth lines while we ate Chinese food together. I miss my David, not everyone else’s David. When I think of him, I think of him as more my friend than one of the greatest producers of the past 20 years or so.
What is the record you’re most proud of making?
Probably the remix of Carl Bean’s “I Was Born This Way,” because it became such an anthem. It was the only thing I ever did with Shep, who was my best friend at the time. We had an enormous amount of fun doing it, it was very spontaneous. Nothing I ever did got a reaction like that. Close behind that is “Bow Down Mister” by [Boy] George [as Jesus Loves You], only because the original demo, which I wish I’d kept, was a country and western track. He played it for me off a cassette and I thought it was a joke. I said, “This is terrible!” He said, “No, it’s great!” I thought about it and said, “I’ll do it if you let me have a gospel choir.” I listen to it today and think this sounds really good and it was all completely spontaneous.
This interview took place in November 2010. © DJ History