Ahead of a stint at the Brixton Disco Festival, Marko Kutlesa spoke with one the man behind one of the most legendary record collections in dance music.
Date published: 15th Mar 2018
Nick The Record may not be a household name even among the raving community, but to many of the DJs who are within it he has been an integral catalyst for over a quarter of a century.
He got his name as a collector and dealer in rare records. It's no overestimation that in the worlds of rare disco and leftfield dancefloor tracks that he is the best in the UK and one of the most famous internationally. His list of clients reads like the line up to the best festival that never was and when the UK's disco revival began in the early 90s, Nick serviced many of the aficionados wanting to feed their addiction. He has done ever since.
He began his DJ career playing at parties after Tonka in Brighton, where DJ Harvey played. But it is his 25 year love affair with the Japanese audience for which he is perhaps best known.
He began playing Lifeforce parties there in the mid 90s and was a resident for almost 20 years, without doubt the most popular DJ at the often alfresco raves. This year is his 13th year as a resident of Japan's Taicoclub Festival, where he plays the 'Afterhours set' from 9am - 2pm on Sunday morning, closing the festival. His contributions to the Japanese scene have helped shaped it in the duration he's been visiting.
Over the last half a decade European territories have begun to catch up, with Nick playing more regularly at events such as Garden Festival, Love International and Dekmantel events. His DJing and selections have been championed within the industry by many of his famous, indebted clientele.
Prior to a Spring and Summer of DJ dates which will be his busiest yet, including a stop at Brixton Disco Festival from Saturday 28th April, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Nick to talk rare records, Japanese raves and his growth in popularity on home shores.
Tell me about your history as a B Boy on the mean streets of St Albans, how did you get Paul 'Mudd' Murphy to join your crew and what exactly is the famed move 'the basketball'?
Ahahahaha. OK. I actually grew up in Bricket Wood, which is sort of halfway between St Albans and Watford. Paul actually titled one of his records on Claremont about the woods in Bricket Wood. It's a strange place, three separate nudist camps all within this one village. The streets were even less mean than they were in St Albans.
Our little crew were the only ones going round causing any trouble, tagging, making a mess of the place. We weren't great, let me put it that way, ha! We were more fans. We were very enthusiastic. We did win a competition in London once because we came up with a good routine. We almost caused a riot and had to leave because we shouldn't have won it. I think the judges didn't know that much about breakdancing.
When I was 15/16 I used to go to Spats, Tim Westwood's under 18's club on a Saturday afternoon. London's best breakers would be there. Great music. We just sat around the edge, never got involved. We were way out of our league. We would breakdance all the time back at home and sometimes in public in St Albans too, but London? No.
Paul, like the others, just got involved because he was into the music. I've never been that well built so I could never master the windmill. I was much more into the standing up moves, body popping. The basketball was as it sounds, a standing up move, weaving an imaginary basketball in and out of your legs. Ha! Sounds amazing, right?
Because of your DJ name, do people usually expect you to play vinyl at your gigs?
Yeah. Mostly I do. In the last couple of years, I've been playing more and more stuff from CD or USB stick, unreleased things or my own edits. I've done one gig where I only used a USB stick, but that was only because it was on a boat out in Croatia last year.
I'm trying to get more used to it. It's the whole deciding what to play that I find tricky. With a bag of vinyl, you've got a visual aid. I'm so used to that. It's kinda hard just to think of a tune and then go and search for it on the CDJ. With records, you're thinking two or three records ahead and you can just pull them out and place them in order.
You've been visiting Japan as a DJ for two and a half decades. Can you tell us a little about how different the venues and the audiences out there were compared to the UK?
Yeah, they really love their music. When I first went there, there were some amazing clubs and some great bars with amazing soundsystems, some of which might take up a third of the space in there. They're really fans, it's often not all about the money, maximises the space. It's about having a great spot.
A lot of the clubs were built very much based on the New York club style. The scene was quite fashion orientated back then, a little bit 'bad boy' vibe, Yakuza-ish maybe. Whenever you see some old footage, like that Tee Scott footage that surfaced recently, there was never that many people there.
I remember going and hearing Harvey one time in Yellow, which is an amazing club, but there was only a few hundred there. It was more of a fan thing. Japanese people who loved the music and who went out to New York then wanted to replicate it at home and so they'd bring over New York DJs. They were really good parties but they were never full. It was quite niche.
I've been told that when we came along with the Lifeforce parties we added a little bit of that UK rave element to it. Someone described it to me by saying that before they had clubs, but after us they started to have parties.
Yutaka Asada and Ono Shiro, two sound engineers you worked with at the Lifeforce parties, became friends and in the early 90s visited San Francisco to go hear Grateful Dead. You describe some of the early audiences at the Lifeforce party as containing Deadheads. While you were turning them on to dance music, did they manage to turn you on to Grateful Dead?
Ahahahaha. I did try listening to some Grateful Dead. But no. I remember hanging out in this guy's little shack and he had a really nice jazz collection and that was where I first heard Codona, the band Don Cherry was in. So, there was a reciprocal exchange of music. But not Grateful Dead.
You're missing out.
Am I? I'll have to take your word for that.
You described in a previous piece walking around the forest in a hallucinogenic state after the first Lifeforce event. Are there plants in Japan that contain psychedelic elements?
Ooh, I don't know. This was back in the 90s, I don't do stuff like that anymore. I think I had some mushrooms out there once and I'm pretty sure they were locally sourced.
You chose to leave the Lifeforce parties after playing for them for almost 20 years. Have you ever been back to any of their parties as just a dancer?
I haven't, no. They've gone in a different direction musically. That wasn't the reason I left. But it was smart of them to go in a different direction. If they'd have just tried to replace me with a similar sound, they would never have done it. So, they've gone with younger DJs, they've gone a bit more ravey and that was a good decision.
Your record selling business is called DJ Friendly. That was also an alias used to do a re-edit 'Sun Sun' on Honeydipped Records in the 90s. That's a brilliant re-edit. Why did you decide to do that and why did you do it in the way you did? Do you have any memorable moments of playing that record?
I did that record before I really came up with a business name. I was already selling records. As you know, Jakki is a great record throughout, but that middle section is a serious groove. That's why I decided to edit it.
I think we were still doing a few Brighton beach parties when it came out, so I'm pretty sure I played it there. We used to do parties there after Tonka. I've played it out in Japan at open-air parties with the sun coming up.
After dealing in rare records for so long, is it quite nice to have made a record which is quite rare and sought after yourself?
I didn't know it was but, yeah, I guess so. One of my records that was really in-demand was Soul Ascendants 'Tribute' on Nuphonic. It was an anthem at Body & Soul and at The Shelter in New York. But they didn't start playing it until about 9 months after it had been released, so by the time they did it was actually quite hard to get.
When I was visiting New York the guy in (record store) Dance Tracks was like “You've got to repress this record man! It's the biggest record in New York right now!” I remember speaking to Nuphonic and then saying “No, we haven't had any requests for a repress” So, it didn't happen but it did end up getting bootlegged on one of those classic New York boots.
I was a little bit annoyed about it but also a little bit chuffed, because it was a real compliment. They only put absolute classics on those boots. But that record could have been managed a bit better.
I put edits out now and the guy who helps me asked “You want to make these limited, yeah?”, because that's what everybody does. I'm, like, no, let's press as many as people want. I don't want to make a rare record for the sake of it, not least because I know of so many occasions where people have put their heart and soul into making a record and had to wait 20 or 30 years to get any recognition for it because nobody at the time cared.
What was the biggest markup you ever made on a record, perhaps unintentionally?
It's perhaps not the one with the greatest markup but I can tell you about one that I remember well for being unintentional. I went to Paris to buy a collection on the way to the Utrecht Record Fair one time. It was a really good disco collection. But he also had a load of jazz, so I went and cherry-picked some of that.
This was before you had the internet in your pocket, so I was just going off the price I'd estimated in my head. I pulled aside a pile and then called a friend back in London to ask if they were worth buying. He said this one album was worth about £150, so I paid the guy £75 for it.
When I got to Utrecht I happened to show it to these Japanese guys and they just started freaking out, looking at it again and again. It turned out to be worth about £1000.
Are there any records you sold that you now wish you had kept for yourself?
Not really. I'm pretty greedy. I keep most things that I want. Back when I first started doing record fairs I used to sell some of my own records and I did regret that at some point, but there was nothing there that I haven't been able to get back. I'm more pissed off about selling them for what they were worth then, whereas ten years later many of them are worth four times as much.
You made some music with Tim Hutton on 20:20Vision and on Nuphonic as Soul Ascendants, before he recorded his second album as a solo artist and singer. He has such a great voice. Last I heard he was writing and doing vocal parts for people like The Prodigy and Hybrid plus playing instruments on All Saints albums. Do you still see him and did you ever talk about making music together again?
We keep in touch on Facebook. We both got booked to play a little weekend party in East Sussex last summer. I was DJing, he was playing with Dub Pistols. We got to hang out a little bit.
We never really talked seriously about doing any more music. We spent a long time making that Soul Ascendants album for Nuphonic. It did OK, but for the amount of effort we'd put in we'd kinda hoped it would do better. Tim did his second solo album soon after that. I got busy selling records and DJing.
Your profile as a DJ has been raised quite a lot in Europe over more recent years. Can you remember a specific time or incident that started that turnaround?
Not really. It's been a slow, gradual process. I kind of stopped wanting to travel to Japan at least four times every year any more. About five years ago, when I left Lifeforce, I started going twice a year instead. That maybe made me concentrate on playing in the UK and Europe more.
But generally it's all been little steps. Doing the RA mix last year brought me to a new level of awareness, doing Boiler Room soon after that did so again, doing Dekmantel Selectors with Motor City Drum Ensemble. The day after that loads of people were coming up saying “I've never heard of you before, my bad, but that was great”. All gradual little steps in the right direction.
How does it feel to now be experiencing this more widespread interest in your DJing in Europe?
I'm really enjoying it at the moment. I'm at a level that I'm quite comfortable with. If someone wants to go to the effort of booking me, they're probably in it for the right reasons. The parties I get invited to do are not that big, so it's more like a fan is asking you to do them. I'm sure there's other DJs with whom they have an easier time filling the place, but they're choosing me. That feels good.
Record Mission 4 is due in a couple of months. Two of the things on there are tracks that I've been asked for Ids the most of the past year or so. I also just did a remix of Ebo Taylor for Mr Bongos, but I'm not sure when that will be coming out. Other than that, I have 27 gigs in my calendar from now until September, which is unprecedented. I'm doing six festivals. So, I'm really looking forward to those.