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THE BLACK MADONNA
Booker at Chicago’s Smart Bar, a regular at Europe’s most venerated underground clubs and a DJ who favours high-energy, multi-genre selections that really make you sweat.
The records I love have a little revelation in them. Something changes and everyone gasps. I’m always trying to find that moment when I’m making a track.
I have a few records that I really, really treasure, like my repress of ‘Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing’. Certain records that friends have given me have meaning. Some records I have are marked by the former owners – classic Chicago clubs and DJs – and there’s a sentimental connection to them, but I largely see records as transient things that I will probably eventually lose or destroy. I’m pretty hard on my possessions. It’s a wonder that I have any records that play right at this point. I wish I had been smarter about care and preservation.
I shift pretty wildly in what I’m focused on. Of course, house and disco are eternal but the specifics can vary a lot. At the moment, Im really interested in the kind of core machines of house music – the Roland series. At other times, all I’ve thought of was hi-NRG. I tend to go down rabbit holes for a period in time and then move to something else, eventually circling back. The aforementioned ‘Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing’ has only been played once. It was my last record for my birthday at Panorama Bar. About a dozen American friends flew in for the show and the whole room sang happy birthday. It was a very special night, so I finally broke out the nuclear shit.
I’m hoping in each club that I can diplomatically bring the room around to my way of thinking. If not, sometimes brute force is called for. There’s an edits set called Eros that slams. I leave it in there because it’s just so useful. I would say that utility is the main concern when packing a bag, as I’m contending with things like weight limits and space concerns. I’m really bad about returning to favourites. I had to take ‘Spacer Woman’ out of my bag – it was just too tempting. I knew it was over when someone requested it.
I think one of the biggest aesthetic problems we face in dance music is staying safe, keeping an even keel. It’s better to fuck up and do something interesting than do a great job of being boring.
Most of my records I find hard to find a time to play. I have a lot of high ambitions for where I’d like to go in a set. Sometimes the club wants to go with you and sometimes they don’t. I’d say my bag is half full of big ideas that didn’t work. I’m trying though. When producing, I’m always thinking about the central moment in a track. The records I love have a little revelation in them. Something changes and everyone gasps. I’m always trying to find that moment when I’m making a track.
I make a lot of mistakes and try to take risks. When the risk pays off it’s great, and when it fails you can feel the air come out of the room. Maybe I put on Talking Heads and I think it’s the greatest shit ever, but the room is not with me. Maybe I think that I’m going to go from techno into super-fast Patrick Cowley shit and the room explodes. It’s hard to say which is going to happen. Usually I’m pretty good at using those contrasts, but when they fail, they really fail spectacularly for a time. I try to move quickly and go another direction. I’m not interested in safety, but when there’s a hole in the boat, I patch it quickly. I think one of the biggest aesthetic problems we face in dance music is staying safe, keeping an even keel. It’s better to fuck up and do something interesting than do a great job of being boring.
The dance boffin who likes to go slow and reach for plenty of curveballs has been doing so for decades all over the world, both in the club as well as in mix CD format.
I do value some records more than others, but almost entirely because of a sentimental attachment to certain albums or singles, rather than any monetary value. I never ever think about how much I paid for something, unless it was a bargain, and I may allow myself a quiet smirk as I pull it out of the sleeve. Music is incredibly powerful for conjuring up memories and emotions. I often get transported back to some other time, just because a radio DJ has put something on that has a lot of memory attached to it. It’s part of the beauty of music.
There are a few mainstay songs that I think will always be somewhere in my top 20 all-time favourites – ‘Sit Down & Cry’ by Ella Washington, James Carr’s ‘Dark End Of The Street’, David Essex’s ‘Rock On’, for instance, but there are obviously ones that are current favourites, either because you’ve recently discovered them or you pull them out to play after a long break (then you get to fall in love with them all over again).
I’d never not play a record because I thought people wouldn’t get it; it seems to me to be a bit of an arrogant assumption on the part of a DJ, really, thinking like that
There are certain records that only work for special occasions. For example, I often pull out ‘Werewolves Of London’ by Warren Zevon to play during the Halloween season, but it wouldn’t work any other time. (Well, it would, but not as well.) I’d never not play a record because I thought people wouldn’t get it; it seems to me to be a bit of an arrogant assumption on the part of a DJ, really, thinking like that. There are certainly records I might not play because I know they’d go down like a lead balloon or it’s the wrong time of the night to play it, but I think that’s a different thing entirely.
There are a few deep house records I used to play in Room 1 at Fabric that never ever seemed to work as well anywhere else, because they were quite minimal and subtle. I remember playing one of them – ‘Tweakin’’ by Sneak and Blakkat – in a club called Stalker in Haarlem one time and it bombed. It’s really one of those tunes you’ve got to pick the right moment to play for it to work, because in the wrong environment it sounds meandering and dull.
I suppose there are some records that you never tire of, for me that would probably be Ray Mang’s ‘Not So Fantastic’, Mount Rushmore’s ‘You Better’, the Martin Solveig mix of Salif Keita’s ‘Madan’. Actually there are quite a lot. I don’t want to name any more in case my cover gets blown. Then there are others that I played so much I drove myself half-mad playing them (Hubbabubbaklubb’s ‘Mopedbart’, for example).
You learn far more from mistakes than playing a perfect set with no hiccups.
Almost everything I’ve ever made has been with Low Life in mind, to be honest. That’s what I always visualise when I’m making it. The best example was the remix myself and Alex Tepper did of Twin Sister’s ‘All Around And Away We Go’, which ended up being a big record at Low Life mainly because other DJs like Matthew & Jolyon played it, which was incredibly satisfying. You sort of learn to love your own stuff more when you hear someone you respect play it, weirdly.
I used to try and mix out as quickly as possible [if something bombed], but now I’m confident enough to let it roll and bring it back with the next tune. Let’s be honest, if you’re playing in an unfamiliar club or setting, those things frequently happen in the first 30 minutes of a set and it’s through those mistakes that you get a handle on what the vibe in the club is. You learn far more from mistakes than playing a perfect set with no hiccups.
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