If you’re even remotely interested in DJing and dance music culture, sooner or later you will stumble across Bill Brewster. One of the most respected dance music commentators around, he has contributed to almost every major music rag, co-written the dance music bible Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, runs the brilliant website DJHistory.com, writes biographies and liner notes for anyone who is anyone in dance music, DJs globally (of course) and has confessed to amassing between ten and twelve thousand records along the way. He’s basically a walking Shazam, but with a central nervous system and opinions. MEOKO grilled the living library about his years in the industry, how he feels about its progress, the beginnings of his seminal book and his undying support for Grimsby FC.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for us. We’re big fans of your work… You have been in the industry for over 25 years. Does it feel that long?
Actually, it’s longer. I formed my first band in 1981 and released my first single in 1982, so it’s over 30 years now. Obviously it is a long time, but I don’t generally sit down and think, “Wow, that’s a long time.” I’m more interested in 2014 than 1981.
You must have quite a collection of vinyl… Do you have an estimate size?
God knows. More than 10,000 less than 12,000 roughly speaking. I’ve been trying to slim it down, but the plan doesn’t always work. I got three records through the post this morning….
What about your own musical background? Were you ever taught to play instruments whilst growing up, or did your passion emerge just from listening and playing other peoples music?
I played E flat clarinet in the North Lincolnshire Concert Ensemble as a schoolboy, although that was completely separate from my personal interest in pop music as a teenager.
How did your musical background help you in your career as DJ and producer?
I don’t think it did at all. My interest and knowledge of music really comes from collecting records, more than playing it.
You’ve studied many musical eras throughout the 20th century. Which period do you think has been the most influential and inspiring for you?
There two that had the biggest impact were undoubtedly punk and acid house. I moved down to London in 1977 because of punk rock, so it had a massive bearing on the direction my life took from there. Acid house was important, because it shook up my musical interests, and set me off in all sorts of different directions.
The energy and warmth with which you speak about DJing certainly helped to inspire us. How does it feel to have worked on something so positive, and helped educate so many people?
Obviously it’s a nice feeling to know that the work that Frank and I have put in over the years has had some impact, however modest it is. Ultimately, that’s why we wrote those books, because we felt that money, daft DJs and ignorant journalists were submerging the culture and art of DJing.
Can you describe the process with which you and your partner Frank came up and pitched for ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’? Did it start out as one thing, and turn into something else…were their any surprises along the way?
We wanted to write about our experiences and the things that inspired us both while we were living in New York, so initially the book we had in mind was mainly about New York. Our editor Doug Young suggested writing a history of the DJ, and it seemed so idiotically simple, we couldn’t believe we hadn’t though of it ourselves. The biggest surprise was probably the role that Jimmy Savile played in the 1940s and ’50s, though you do have to wonder what his motivations were now….
Social media hype and branding has become a powerful tool for today’s DJ’s and often seems more important than some of the music that gets played. Without wanting to generalise too much, do you feel branding has become more important than the music they play?
A good party is a good party and no amount of social media trickery is going to alter that. Social media is a very useful tool to get the word out about parties, but ultimately the alchemy of a good party is created by the people behind it, the music they play and people they attract. If you use social media indiscriminately, you can expect to get a less discriminating crowd. There is a lot of branding going on these days, but it’s not something I get involved in or particularly care about.
It’s easy to read and feel quite nostalgic, that things were better back then. How do you feel about the electronic music scene today?
Everyone always thinks it was better in the past. It’s human nature. If you’re 40 now, you will obviously think everything was better when you were 21. From your perspective, it probably was. There are always interesting things happening, even now, and there are loads of fantastic parties being thrown. Ten years ago, how many people had even been to Croatia? Now it’s major clubbing destination and a brilliant one, too.
You extensively discuss the history of technology and its role within the industry. As a DJ and producer, but also a highly respected writer, journalist and ex-editor of Mixmag USA we’d love to hear your opinion on the influence of technology and more notably the internet and social media and how you feel this has helped or hindered aspects of the scene…
Firstly, there’s the debate over vinyl and digital, which I find a little preposterous. I’d doubt there’s a single woman who comes to dance who gives a shit about any of it. They just want to hear great music and be entertained. I don’t have a problem with social media, it certainly makes promotion simpler, but the one thing that pisses me off is there are too many people taking pictures when they should just be enjoying the night. I know there are some clubs who don’t allow photography and I sort of think that’s a good idea.
We’ve heard so many crazy stories about other DJ’s from your work. You must have some good stories to tell yourself from your residency at Low Life? Have there been any notable highlights?
There have been many. Pop stars turning up and copping off with each other. Beating the smoking ban in illegal shebeens in Limehouse. Having half of New York’s dance music royalty turn up at the very first party we did in Harlem. But the thing that stands out is the happiness and enthusiasm on the dancefloor. It’s consistently brilliant and such a pleasure to play for.
You’ve been a music journalist and turntable savant for many years. Are there other aspects of the industry you’d still like to get more involved in?
I’d like to do more music production, but there’s a limit to how many things you can do, especially if you want to do them well.
If you had to choose between music and Grimsby Town FC, which would it be? I can imagine one has brought you more joy, and the other more heartache 😉
Well obviously if I wanted to eliminate a lot of the misery from my life I’d choose music, but Grimsby Town is in my blood. I love it. As much as I love music, there’s no better feeling than an away win. But that’s counterbalanced by the many, very many, abject performances I’ve watched over the years…. Losing 7-1 away at Sheffield Wednesday springs to mind, though we did score the best goal. But the absolute worst was losing 5-0 away at Braintree two years ago. I wanted to kill someone after that. Probably myself. But not before turning the gun on the first team.
Finally, who would be on your ultimate DJ line-up? Which Jock would you feel most privileged to play alongside?
I’ve been lucky enough to play with many of my heroes, and I also get to select the line-ups for the Low Life parties so I already indulge my fantasies enough through that.
Words: Paul Fluks & Nick Maleedy
Bill Brewster will play at the Double Denim Disco night amongst James Priestly and DDD residents on the 1st of February in the Former Bells of Shoreditch. For more info and tickets about the event: CLICK HERE