A quick history lesson:
In 1935 American Walter Winchell coined the term disc jockey. Nearly ten years after in 1943 the one-man jumpsuit Jimmy Saville spun at the world’s first DJ dance event playing jazz records. 4 years later he was also the first to utilise two turntables together for continuous play. In the same year ‘Whiskey a Go-Go opened in Paris and was known to be the world’s first disco. Leading up to 1950, sound systems were beginning to be utilised in Jamaica as a new form of public entertainment. Nearly twenty years later DJ Francis Grasso popularized beat matching in New York. And finally in 1975 DJ Grand Wizard Theodore invented the scratching technique.
A quick reality lesson:
Some or possibly all of these facts may or may not be true. In fact, I believe that all of them rely on claims by either the aforementioned people or some hipster at the time who ‘believed’ these respective actions to be the first of their kind. A bold claim I know but its difficult to really know who started what and when as music culture was throughout the whole of the twentieth century on the outskirts of what was considered culturally relevant. Most of the people who documented dance culture in particular can not be sure if their information is correct. This is probably due to the vast range of music utilising turntables in a unique way (or to a way that is relevant to their style of music). You could argue for days whether it was Grand Wizard or Grand Master who ‘invented’ scratching, but you would be missing the bigger picture. A better way to think of it is that one of them certainly did more for the culture and the other for the art. The reason why I started like this is that it is important to remember this whilst reading about my next post, a kind of extension and background check to my last post on brit-funk. Of course, I am going to get differing opinions by the end of it but I hope to really do what I always do, tell a story and hopefully get you to listen to some great music.
You should already know from my previous article about the predominately black bands that broke through to the UK mainstream in the early 80s. Although influenced by the American scene at the time these bands were really actually the tip of an iceberg. Dig deeper and a little earlier and you start to find that the real underground club scene of the time was not really all with the over-seas sound at all. The UK DJs that played in discos in the 70s were busy finding their own sound with their own twist of Britishness, very much similar to the funk bands of the time. Whether it was Northern Soul or the latest jazz and funk imports, the UK DJs seemed to play a brand of music often maltreated and forgotten in the US, whom were now beginning to become very ‘discofied’. Before of course no-one could knock the fact that disco had single-handily pushed black music back into the charts after the slow-death of Motown. The introduction of the twelve inch in 1976 was a landmark for club DJs and particularly in New York, mixing was beginning to become more and more utilised. Of course the personality DJ was still highly sought after. This had two sides to it though. Mixing DJs being few and far between allowed them to pick the finest records and gain massive status due to their rareness, but due to their lesser numbers the equipment available in clubs was at a low. Being technically gifted did not help when the clubs you would play in did not have the right equipment. Furthermore, the close-mindedness of a lot of the club owners at the time did not help the DJs. Many owners would not tolerate a DJ simply just playing records as they still deemed talking on the mic an integral part of a DJs job.
This sparked an argument between the two sides, which came to a head in the late 70s. One side argued against claiming that a personality is the main ingredient to be successful whilst the other for, claiming that it utilised the music and interpreted it in a different way. There were however, not a lot of people who found common ground between the two and both techniques could not be utilised successfully at the time.
However, whilst this battle was occurring on the surface, mixing was beginning to create a buzz due to limited albums released on mailing lists for Djs. CBS Disco Pool’s ‘Instant Replays’ was simply nine cuts that segued and mixed together to create a two sided album of non-stop music. The men in charge used tape editing which basically abled them to start and stop tracks dead on a specific beat or note. Although sounding haphazardly put together by today’s standard, the idea of putting together a mixed album was considered a revelation at the time and it opened up DJs across the UK to become inspired to put together their own mixes. However, whilst they had the theory down, the amount of tracks at the time that still utilized live drummers (no bad thing) was very high. In terms of mixing to the BPM, this made it very difficult as not all drummers are machines! This still remains true to this day when trying to mix records from this period. James Hamilton, a writer and reviewer of the time, took a step in the right direction in 1979 when he started to list all the BPMs of the tracks he reviewed (he counted the beats using his stopwatch!). Record companies followed suit later on and even radio DJs started creating running mixes on air after all the conflict between the two not long before! This was considered a major leap forward for DJs.
Out of the war-zone, into the studio:
The scene was now set. There were now records that had BPMs listed, there were more DJs then ever wanting to mix and the scene had cooled enough to allow more clubs to open that were catered to the scene at the time (although the equipment was not totally up to date still). There was still one big problem for DJs, that being the records that they were trying to mix. To avoid embarrassing mixes during nights, DJs often turned to specialist mixes on the flips of twelve inches at the time. A lot of original disco mixes were essentially edited versions of the track the producers were given to work with. Pioneers like Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons and Tom Moulton all worked in the studio on original masters and often extended the tracks, ran off different sections and put them all back together at the end. This was the birth of the edit. Whilst electro-funk was beginning to seep into UK DJs consciousness in the early 80s (see brit-funk) and labels like Streetwise and West End Records were putting out quality records that substituted live drummers for drum machines, DJs were still wanting more control over their live sets.
In steps Greg Wilson. Apart from his astounding credentials as not only a DJ but an overseer to the evolvement of the late 70s and early 80s UK dance scene, its important to really take note of Greg’s involvement of pushing edits to the forefront of DJs priorities. Not only do edits play a hugely important role to this day (more later) but they allowed Greg to make his name as a DJ and come back to share the records he played back in the day to a modern audience. Initially Greg was a top DJ at various northern venues in the early 80s. Because of this he was asked to create specialist black music mixes for Piccadilly Radio in 1982. The initial mixes were recorded live onto reel-to-reel and then put through the station editing booths. Soon after this Greg decided to have a go at editing himself. He bought a Revox B77 which he has become well known for along with a mixer and two turntables and started getting to work privately on his own edits. Aswell as becoming the first DJ to demonstrate mixing on TV in 1983 (see brit-funk) Greg became a successful co-writer and producer of a lot of UK records at the time. His edit of ‘Heaven Sent’ by Paul Haig was one of the very first re-edits by a British DJ and his 1984 project ‘Street Sounds – UK Electro’ was the first UK re-edit collection of tracks. Greg’s approach to editing was very individual in how he made a track sound personalised and hugely complicated! Here he talks about how he manages it;
‘Apart from editing tracks together, the Revox was also used as a sampler of sorts, from which I’d spin sounds I’d recorded onto tape into the tracks I was working on. I compiled numerous reels of ‘spins’ for this purpose, all with gaps between each snippet (much like a sample CD). Even when the Akai revolutionised the whole sampling thing I’d only use it in conjunction with live spins from the Revox. Sometimes a sampler couldn’t quite give you the vibe you got from spinning a sound in…. I remember that when people would watch me working at the Revox they were amazed to see all the pieces of white splicing tape running past the heads. Sometimes a series of edits were grouped so closely together that all that could be seen was a long stream of white tape whizzing past. I would literally take a ruler and measure a beat, before cutting it up into smaller and smaller fractions. I’d have bits of tape everywhere, bars and beats and bits of beats all marked on the back with a chinagraph pencil so I knew what they were. Having nobody else to refer to, I’d evolved my own madcap system, which made perfect sense to me, but must have seemed completely chaotic to anyone else!’
Presently, Greg has found a new audience aswell as his old one to play too as a revival of the sound is currently occurring. Still using the reel-to-reel in his sets, Greg uses it for echo and dub effects and also for playing samples over the records he is spinning. In his live sets his edits still provide him with the ease of playing something out that he really wants to, but would still fit in with the other records he is playing without initially doing so. Whether it is Greg’s influence or simply the music, the current state of artists and DJs utilising editing into their mixing and overall act is more than ever before. The current underground ‘Nu-Disco’ movement has gained a huge amount of steam in the past few years, coming from partly house drop-outs and also from funk and disco enthusiasts. The one thing tying them together is the art of the edit. It enables them to put a new spin on older tracks which allows a newer audience to enjoy the sounds from that time. Rather than simply becoming a revival of sounds, the cross-section of tunes picked for editing and chosen for a mix live are wide and vast and all this makes an exciting and progressive scene.
Artists such as the well-known Todd Terje and the lesser known but bubbling Psychemagik and the Glitterball crew are producing some of the most effective and affecting edits at the moment. Staying true to the sounds paved by Greg and a host of other 80s DJs, these edits, even though made on a different format, keep the vibe and effects (such as delay and echo) popularized by funk and disco heads of the time. Looking back to where the sounds originally came from has always been number one on my priorities list, but these guys prove that not only have you gotta go there to come back, you also have got to cater to a modern audience.
Greg himself is currently about to release an XX remix proving that he can definitely move with the times, but I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself which sums up most of what I’ve been trying to say all this time;
‘In the future I see DJs being more experimental in the way they present music. There’s so many different approaches you can take now, which I see as a really positive thing. Some people will always regard vinyl as the true DJ format, but I think that the technology available now opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities. However, ultimately the main thing is the same now as it was when I started out, over 30 years ago, which is to strive to give the audience you’re working with as good a night as you can, by playing the best possible music for the environment you’re working in. That’s the essence of being a DJ…. I think that nowadays they provide a strong example of how older music can still be evolving, years after it was first released, as a new generation of listeners connect with these tracks from their own perspective. Great music is great music, no matter when it was made, and if a new edit can make a track more relevant to people now, I’d say that’s good thing.’
Further Listening: This post was inspired by my recent trip to Bestival. This was kind of the moment where I decided I needed to write to everyone about this subject. Quite when the moment was I’m not sure but it was probably when Fleetwood Mac came on. Here’ his set in full: