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The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries

DJ History takes up the publishing mantle for dance music

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The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries

By Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

Black Cat

Music has, by necessity, become less and less the dominion of major labels—and so, too, have books gone. Writing of all kinds has fallen prey to a downsized media environment, and that’s especially true of musical historiography about all but the most blatantly obvious stuff (Beatles, Dylan, Hendrix, etc.).

Yet as rock fans know well, self-reliance often breeds good things. The most obvious example of this in the music-writing realm is DJ History, an independent house in London run by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, whose 2000 book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life remains the most authoritative history of the disc jockey ever written. Now, they’ve expanded that book’s scope to focus on documenting specific eras and styles—specialized sequels to Last Night, in a sense.

The big one is The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries, which has just been picked up in America by Grove/Atlantic’s Black Cat. In some sense it’s simply 46 Q&As that Brewster and Broughton conducted for the original Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and its expanded 2006 edition, plus a handful more. But aside from a few stiffs (Tiësto isn’t the world’s biggest DJ because he’s the most interesting), the interviews read like conversations, with Northern soul veterans such as Ian Levine, Kev Roberts, and Ian Dewhirst providing breathless play-by-play of the evolution of their scene (Northern English all-night dance parties featuring obscure R&B of the ’60s/Motown variety), and the early Chicago house (Chip E, DJ Pierre, Marshall Jefferson) and Detroit techno jocks (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Jeff Mills) doing the same.

But The Record Players is the tip. DJ History has, in just a couple of years, put together a remarkably varied, professional, and eye-catching list. Especially as dance music’s influence seeps into rock, the DJ History catalog fills in details on everything from classic disco (veteran critic Vince Aletti’s The Disco Files, 1973-78, which compiles the New Yorker’s weekly columns on new dance tracks from the trade publication Record World) to early British rave—the era of both Neville and Gavin Watson’s Raving ’89, a stark black-and-white photo book that utterly captures the period, and Boy’s Own: The Complete Fanzines, 1986-92, featuring the early writing of DJs such as Andrew Weatherall—best known for co-producing Primal Scream’s Screamadelica—and Paul Oakenfold.

Somewhere in between is Catch the Beat: The Best of Soul Underground 1987-91, which mines the early issues of yet another crucial London dance zine. Soul Underground featured profiles, scene overviews, and think pieces on everything from house (Trax Records, Deee-Lite) to golden-age hip-hop (A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy) to reggae dancehall and beyond. It’s a vibrant look back at a very creative time, one whose music charted the terrain of young Americans and Britons with a fierce commitment, with writing that was up to the music’s unique challenges.

Brewster and Broughton both became journalists in the early ’90s. They didn’t meet until 1994, when both were in New York. (“We’re actually both from the same county in England,” Broughton points out via e-mail.) Broughton freelanced full-time, while Brewster worked for DMC, which holds a yearly DJing competition and published some of the magazines for which Broughton wrote.

“We’d both DJ’ed since college but at that time neither of us were very serious about it,” Broughton says. But they were serious about dance music, and decided soon to collaborate on a history of New York disco. Soon that became a more overall history of DJing itself. At that point, Broughton says, “Most other British dance music journalists would have started in Ibiza in ’87”—where rave basically began in the United Kingdom and continental Europe. “We knew the story went far earlier than that.”

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life has never gone out of print—remarkable for any book, much less one about a subject that has a reputation in book circles as being a nonstarter, sales-wise. They followed up with How to DJ Right in 2003, but Last Night’s truest successor is djhistory.com, which Brewster and Broughton started to host forums for DJs, dance-music collectors, and fans. When the duo decided to expand operations four years ago, they figured publishing books of their massive archives was “one of the obvious things to do,” Broughton says.

“These days it’s so easy to publish a book yourself,” he continues. “You just need to know your way around a couple of programs on your laptop and how to get an ISBN number. And now with digital publishing, the sky’s the limit as far as distribution goes.”

Take the Vince Aletti collection. Aletti is a noted photography writer as well as a music one, and when he curated the show Male at New York’s White Columns gallery, 50 photocopied books of his Record World pieces were made. Brewster received one in the mail; immediately, he and Broughton knew they had their first publishing project. “It was an epic amount of work to turn it from photocopies into proper type, but it was worth it,” Broughton says. “We knew we had a hit on our hands.”

Coinciding with a boom in disco revivalism in dance music as well as the house-ification of mainstream pop, rap, and R&B, The Disco Files won’t be bothering Tom Clancy’s sales, but it received a lot of attention and has sold steadily both online and in the independent stores to which DJ History distributes.

That’s when others started calling. “Gavin Watson literally walked in with a suitcase full of photos,” Broughton says of Raving ’89. “We quickly realized that these were really unique pictures. Just look at the eye contact you get in those photos: he’s a participant as much as an observer. And even though technically they’re a mess—smoky raves and scratched negatives—some of the composition is unbelievable.”

Photo books are big on DJ History’s agenda, which makes sense—nightlife is intensely visual. This year Brewster and Broughton plan to bring out art books by Graham Smith (London’s early ’80s New Romantics, from which Culture Club and Duran Duran sprang) and Bill Bernstein (late ’70s New York disco). Clearly, the duo is open to many angles—and they put their stamp on the book as much as the authors.

“We would never want someone to just deliver a book and leave it at that,” Broughton says. “We can take something which might otherwise be TOO specialist and make it as appealing as possible.” Which raises the question, given DJ History’s niche, of that vexing old wives’ tales that dance-music fans don’t read.

Broughton’s answer is simple: “Dance fans do read. There’s a generation, in the UK certainly, who have carried on going out but now find they have less time and energy to go clubbing, and more sofa-time and more pocket money to buy a book about their glory years. Fingers crossed we can keep making books to get them excited.”

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