Bill Brewster Interview: Documenting The Scene

Mark Dale caught up with Bill Brewster to discuss his exhaustive book, previous and present dance music scenes plus his project plans moving forward.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 8th Mar 2016

Images: Heather Shuker

Grimsby born Bill Brewster's first vocation was as a chef, but thankfully for us, the world of music and writing beckoned and he forwent a stressful life filled with cuts and burns to the hands.

He started DJing in the 1980s and despite being a fan of Grimsby Town he managed to acquire enough knowledge of the game of football to become co-editor of much rated football fanzine When Saturday Comes.

While continuing his record collecting and DJing sidelines he progressed through a writing career that took him to New York in the early 1990s, where he ran DMC office as editor of USA Mixmag. He returned to the UK, full of inspiration from the New York house scene, to run the Twisted UK label.

In 1999 the book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, co written by Bill and Frank Broughton, was published and it was the first serious attempt to chronicle the history of the DJ. They followed that book with DJ manual How To DJ Properly.

All of his investigations and pursuits, coupled with a brain which he describes himself as a bit nerdy, have bestowed an encyclopedic knowledge of dance music upon Bill Brewster. These have been put to good use in journalistic forays for major music magazines and broadsheet newspapers. He has also been called upon to write sleevenotes and produce compilations covering a variety of musics for several record labels, including a companion piece to Last Night A DJ Saved My Life for Nuphonic.

His latest compilations have been an impressively annotated and thorough series of ten multiple CD Sources packs for Harmless Records, covering the catalogues of the likes of Trax, Sam, Sleeping Bag, P&P Records and DJ International. These amazing collections are sadly the final releases from Harmless, which has been one of the UK's premier reissue labels of the last two decades, but Brewster's compiling continues. Up next is a two CD set of Larry Levan productions and remixes for Universal.

Bill Brewster also co-ran the influential DJ History website and forum and, for 20 years, co-ran and DJ'd at an underground club night called Lowlife. Both of these projects he killed off in 2015. We recently caught up with Bill Brewster to ask him about his long history in dance music and what's next on the cards.

Thinking back to Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, what do you think your main achievements were with the book?

It felt like we were giving dance music a culture, in a way. Even though it was already a culture it existed only as an oral history prior to writing that book. Obviously loads of articles had been written over the last 30/40 years, but it was pretty amazing that none of it had been documented in a book.

It felt like an amazing opportunity to set a marker for what dance music culture was and the history of it. I think that's what we're most proud of, we were the first people to document it as a whole, a holistic view. You look at all the books that have been written about Dylan and The Beatles and there'd never been a single, proper book about DJs. If you think about all the cultural impact they've had over the years it just seems bonkers. 

I've always been, not anti that rock canon, but very suspicious of it, that idea that these are the great records and these are the great artists. It's almost always white artists and that really used to niggle me a lot. The greats always used to be couched in white rock critic language. That's not something I ever agreed with. 

And, for me, one of the joys of DJing is having an album that's crap apart from one track. But you love that track and you play it, it could be by Queen or Supertramp, and that really doesn't fit into that NME taking a line on a band, that kind of stuff. I found it liberating, when I discovered DJs and DJing, that you could find one track by an artist that you'd always hated, that was brilliant. And that's ok. That's kind of what being a DJ is all about. That really goes against the grain of how rock criticism is written. 

What were the main additions to the updated version and why weren't they in the first edition?

Well, there were things like the Balearic scene, for want of a better description. We put a load of stuff in about Belgian nu beat and popcorn, the Cosmic and Afro scene in Italy, the Balearic stuff that had been happening in Ibiza and we kinda lumped all that in, in a chapter, which was sort of about Europe.

We didn't exactly miss that out in the original version, although we did miss out Cosmic, but it didn't really fit anywhere, so we created a chapter so we could go a little deeper into it. Same with hi energy. We shoehorned hi energy into the disco chapter, but in the second edition we gave it its own space and gave it a bit more of the respect it deserved. 

It's actually ten years since we did that and I actually can't remember what else we did, but I do know we wrote about 50,000 extra words, so we must have done something.

Of the great amount of information revealed to younger folks, like myself, in the book, you were the first who ever documented the advances made by Jimmy Savile in club DJing.

For a time that leant him a new air of respect amongst younger DJs although it's now hard to read that he was so important to the story, knowing what we do about him. Did you come across any rumour about him during your research?

We had a lot of people who said, "ooh, I could tell you a lot of stories about Jimmy." None of them ever did but I always assumed that they were bad. When the shit hit the fan there was nothing I heard that was a shock. Those stories had been discussed as informal rumours in the entertainment industry for decades. The scale of it was shocking, but not the acts themselves.

I suspect that he's just one of several who were at it in the seventies. The seventies has been really tainted now, hasn't it, with Operation Yewtree, Jimmy Savile, Jonathan King, Rolf Harris? It just seems now that any time someone dies from the 1970s we're only weeks away from an expose of what they did with children or teenage girls. It's just neverending, so I suspect there may be very many more.

It's a strange, strange thing to come across now, because that's when I was growing up, that's when I was a teenager and it's almost like having your teenage years snatched away from you, in a way. So many of these people were a core part of my teenage years, not necessarily because I was a huge fan of Jimmy Savile, I always found him very creepy, as I'm sure most people did. But the fact all that was happening is really disturbing.

For younger people today I think it's probably very difficult to imagine just how different Britain was in the 1970s, the NF, skinheads on the street, the casual racism, the acceptance of misogyny. Society has changed a lot since then.

Yeah. That was the tenor of a lot of things in the seventies, the casual sexism, the casual racism. And also, if you dyed your hair and wore slightly strange clothes, which I did in the 1970s, you were never too far away from being chased down the street and having your head kicked in.

Now you can dress as outlandishly as you want. People might stare at you, but I don't think most people would do anything. In the 70s and early 80s you were literally taking your life into your hands by dressing weird.

I thought How To DJ Properly was a great manual. DJing has changed a heck of a lot since it was written. Was the book aimed at beginners? Would you agree that you approached the book's guidelines in a very old school fashion? If you were to revisit that would, what changes would you make?

I wouldn't say the book was aimed at beginners. The core people who bought it were mums, dads, aunts and uncles of beginners. I know from a lot of people who are now DJs that these people bought it for them. But we never really aimed it at them.

We knew it had to be inclusive, so we made sure that if you were a beginner you got a lot out of it, but I like to think that it was really for music enthusiasts. The things we really wanted to hammer home were that it's entertainment and it's about being into music and wanting to share that music with people. We bang on a lot about that in the book. Forget the helicopters and the dancing girls, if you're not passionate about music you really shouldn't be doing it.

Yeah, we did approach the guidelines in an old school fashion. At that time CDJs were pretty new and not many people were using them, whereas now, technologically speaking, it's a whole different ballgame. But I don't think the fundamentals of what makes a good DJ has changed. The tools that you use have.

Really we should do an updated, digital version with Traktor, Record Box and Serato and all the newer technologies included. From that point of view it is really out of date. But in terms of what a DJ does I don't think anything's changed. You still need the same skills, you just might do it in a different way. It's about building bridges, relationships with crowds through music.

Yes, although building bridges and relationships with crowds these days also incorporates the daily update of a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. Would you cover that if you were to update it?

We would definitely cover that, yeah. Having said that there are plenty of people I can think of who have no digital profile, like Andy Weatherall, Villalobos, and that just adds to their mystique. People queue up for them, so you can go both ways, you can be enigmatic with it and it might not affect you, you can still build a career without engaging in that way.

I personally enjoy it, meeting people who've seen you play and, being a writer, which is quite a solitary occupation, it's not so often you get to meet people who read what you do. DJing is great for me because people bring their books to be signed and it's really nice meeting them.

https://soundcloud.com/kutula-army/kutula-sounds-09-bill-brewsterI did this psychedelic soul mix for Kutula. I spent...

Posted by Bill Brewster on Thursday, February 18, 2016

It's interesting the two examples you've given, it's true the mystique doesn't damage them. If I think about approaching someone from Europe, in Paris or Berlin, I can go on to their social media, see exactly what they've been up to and more or less guarantee that I can get them on Skype within a couple of days.

But if I want to interview someone like Juan Atkins or someone else in Detroit, Chicago or New York, quite often I'll have to fill in a questionnaire request form to which I might not get a reply and if I do, Skype won't be an option, I'd have to call their mobile, dig for information about what they've been doing and these are the kinds of people who, love them though I do, might complain that these originators are being left out of DJ polling charts.

The examples you gave are white Europeans who are surrounded by a largely white, largely European media who are currently fixated on a largely white European scene, so how much of that is down to such American contributors just not playing the game and how much is down to racism?

Well partly I think it's a generational thing. Certain members of my generation do not engage with things like social media because it's completely alien to them. Even the average Joe in the street doesn't have a Twitter profile, I don't think. So, there's that and then there's the racism, no doubt.

You may well be right that it doesn't affect Villalobos and Weatherall yet it does affect those others. But, you know, Villalobos and Weatherall are still making music that feels very modern and current.

As much as I also love some of those old techno guys, with many of them I'm struggling to think of a record that they've done lately... I got a Juan Atkins record a couple of years ago, but that was literally the only thing I'd heard from him in 10 years. So I suppose you could argue that the music a lot of them are making is just not keeping up with today's trends.

What do you miss most from your time in New York?

I don't miss it because I go back there and it isn't the same city any more. But I miss that period of me living in it because I lived in the East Village within walking distance of my office, Northcott Productions, King Street, Power Music, Nervous, Tribal America, Sub Urban, For The Record.

There were literally 30 record labels within 400 yards of the office and maybe 20 within 150 metres, so on a Friday I would just walk round and come home with maybe 30 test pressings from all these labels. You really felt like you were in the middle of something really special. And you were.

You look back to those days now and that's where many of the great house records of the period were coming out. Mood II Swing were fantastic at that time, Danny Tenaglia was hungry and trying to get a residency, Morales and Knuckles were still doing interesting things, there was a lot happening.

I was in the middle of it and I was friends with a lot of them. I don't look back wistfully and wished I still lived there but it was a really special time and I felt very privileged to be a part of it, even in such a small way. 

As you say, you were there during some of the seminal years of New York's contribution to house music. Chicago and Detroit get perpetual props, would you agree that New York's contribution is somewhat undervalued?

Yeah, it probably is, to be honest. It's hard to say. Prior to house music New York was indisputably the musical city of the world. No question. From avant garde jazz, punk rock, hip hop, Latin music, disco, there's just so much amazing music coming out of New York from so many different angles.

It was amazing in the 1970s and early 1980s. I wouldn't necessarily say it got overtaken by Chicago, because I think Chicago house was almost like a temporary blip in the city whereas New York moved seamlessly into the house era.

It kinda went from those mid eighties records that Paul Simpson, Tony Humphries were making to people like Victor Simonelli releasing stuff shortly after on Nu Groove, so it just felt like house music was a continuation of what was happening in ew York and New Jersey anyway. It wasn't the revolution it was in the UK, there were different circumstances in the UK that made it more dramatic. 

But I don't think you can ever overestimate just how amazing New York was from the late sixties right through to the late nineties. It hasn't been the same place for the last 15 years, for a lot of different reasons, but there are still interesting things happening there. 

But you have a lot of European artists now trying to make acid records that sound exactly like the ones that were made in Chicago in the late eighties. I don't hear anyone really trying to sound like Masters At Work, Mood II Swing or Todd Terry. That whole Danny Tenaglia, Junior Vasquez or Victor Calderone sound also hasn't aged so well, for me.

Some of it has not aged very well. There was that Victor Calderone record that came out on Yoshitoshi, that hasn't aged very well at all although that record was huge towards the end of the Sound Factory.

But Mood II Swing, I still play a lot of their stuff now. I think it's the benchmark for quality house music, it's a real combination of soulfulness and a real tough, sort of demonic sound underneath it. I love that mixture of the soul influence of Lem Springsteen and the tougher ideas of John Ciafone. I think their stuff has really stood the test of time. Some others, maybe less so.

Other stuff like Murk who, although they were from Miami, were absolutely huge in New York. Everyone played them and, when they stopped releasing on their own labels, they released on New York labels. To me that stuff really sounds good. It might just be cyclical, we might not have moved far enough away from it for people to start aping it.

I have noticed in sets by people like Motor City Drum Ensemble that the mid-nineties sound is now something that they're digging for and they're looking for the ones that are harder to find than the ones that are more obvious. Defected have put out that Mood II Swing compilation quite recently so some of it is being remembered. 

You ended your long running club night Lowlife last year. Why?

Well, we had a 20 year anniversary this time last year and the more I thought about it, that was a really nice way of ending it. We'd done 20 years, at some point it was going to start going wrong, but it was still really good, we were still selling out, people loved it.

I'd rather finish it when it was really good, even though you think 'Fuck, that's such a great crowd to play for'. I do miss that, but equally I know it was the right decision. 20 years is an achievement of some sorts. 

Also, you stopped running your website DJ History last year. Are you interested in keeping these brand names alive in any way and, if so, how?

Well, I'm in the middle of building my own website at the moment, so some of the content will move over there. We sold all of our interviews to Red Bull Music Academy and gradually they're going to put them all online, which we never got chance to do. We did over 250 interviews, lots of which were never published anywhere.

We've had offers from people who would want to host the forum, just to keep it alive, so people can use it as a resource. So, hopefully it will all continue to exist in some form or other. But it just became a bit like commuting to London on the back of a cow. Laborious. Massive. Unwieldy.

We spent so much time doing it and not earning any money out of it, we just thought, let's put it all to sleep and it just feels liberating. We never took money out of Lowlife, even though it was very profitable. We always invested it in cockamamie schemes like publishing books, keeping DJ history running. Over the years we probably spent hundreds of thousands of pounds running DJ History for no other reason than that we're fucking mental. 

What is it with you building these things up only to eventually lop their heads off? Is that a bit of the ethos from your days as a punk coming through?

I don't know. Maybe there's a bit of Mao Tse-tung in me. I honestly can't say why. I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. Even though we've become known as these people who document the past, once we've done something I don't sit there daydreaming about how amazing it was.

I tend to concentrate on the future, what I want to do next. So, I don't find it painful stopping doing these things, as much as I've enjoyed them. 

You're a writer. In many ways coverage of dance music has grown incredibly since you first started doing it and a lot more coverage is now in the video format, thinking about DJ sets that you can watch or lecture style interviews that are filmed.

It's now possible to get immediate access to some of these histories. How do you feel about that? Would you agree that although it's a lot more accessible for the consumer, some of the journalistic skill is often lost in these new formats?

Well the standard of writing is now really bad. But I think that's a product of the standard of pay for writers being so bad. Writers who are really good generally can't make a living and go and do something else.

I couldn't make a living as a writer if I wasn't also DJing and doing compilations, stuff like that. All of those things make up a living, but one on their own I couldn't survive on and I'm pretty well established and get quite a lot of offers. 

The other stuff I think is really good. I don't see things like video lectures replacing what is written in a book or a magazine piece. They're all adjunct to each other. So you can view a video interview by Moodymann then go and read a book on Detroit techno like Dan Sicko's. They're different sides of the same coin.

I often watch lectures like that and I think they're an incredible resource. Interviews with people who have a lot to say over an hour or an hour and a half? What's not to like. 

You've recently compiled 10 Sources compilations for Harmless Records. And you've written the sleevenotes too. And notes on each track! That's a hell of an undertaking.

Yeah [laughs]. I reckon I could've gotten away with writing a quick 1,000 words on each compilation, but things like that, to me, present themselves as a real opportunity to go a little bit deeper into a particular subject, so I did fresh interviews and research.

I think each compilation averaged over 5,000 words, so over ten compilations that maybe 60,000 words. So, yeah, maybe I'm a bit mental for doing it, but maybe I just a bit of a nerd. I find it interesting, exciting. It satisfies the noseyness and nerdiness inside me. I always think, well, I want to know that, so why wouldn't anyone else want to know that?

Which is your favourite of all the labels covered?

Oh, God. That is really hard. Maybe Sleeping Bag, just for the variety of music that they released. Early on, loads of stuff by Arthur Russell, hip hop, electro, house music. But it's such a hard call. There are a lot of really good labels there.

It's the final releases for Harmless. That's quite sad. It's been such a pivotal reissue label since the mid 1990s. Is it just a sign of the times?

Yeah, it is. It is sad. But there are other labels that have stepped up and are doing interesting compilations. Harmless is basically owned by the BBC and it's about economies of scale for a company like that.

The way they did it was they would buy the rights to particular catalogues then rinse them before the terms of the license expired and I guess it was no longer financially viable for them to do that. I think the only way to do compilations now is on a much smaller scale and they're not really set up for that. But it is really sad.

As well as the Sources compilations I did the Make Music compilations for them, one called Spiritland and I've worked with lots of different people there, Gavin Fraser, who works at Universal, Quinton Scott, who runs Strut, Ian Dewhirst, who I actually met through writing Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. They've done some amazing compilations.

You've now had free head space to think what to do next. So, what next?

I've had a couple of really interesting offers actually. Two of them are really exciting, but they're in the early stages of planning so I can't really talk about them. I think I'll have to choose between them as they're both pretty demanding.

At the moment I'm just doing bits of journalism and DJing at weekends. I've just done a Larry Levan compilation for Universal that's out at the end of March. Well, I say I've just done it, I actually did it two years ago, it's just taken two years to come out. It's Larry Levan productions and remixes, things like Peech Boys and Man Friday, over two CDs. 

You can catch Bill Brewster at this year's Electric Elephant festival in Croatia.

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