A Dance Music Schooling with Bill Brewster
For many who count dance music as an obsession, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton is considered essential reading. First published in 1999, the book charts ‘The History Of The Disc Jockey’ from the early days of radio to the ‘superstar’ boom of the late ‘90s. Perhaps what it did best, though, was give voice to some of the true innovators whose (often wild) stories had largely been bypassed by writers. Since Last Night…, Brewster and Broughton have written a couple more tomes together: How To DJ (Properly) and The Record Players – DJ Revolutionaries.
This weekend, Brewster arrives in Australia to show off his other talent: DJing. With an encyclopaedic record collection spanning house, dub, disco, funk and many shades in between, he’s certainly well-equipped for the job. Following his long haul down here, we took the opportunity to pick the expansive brain of dance music’s history buff.
When you came to write Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, in what ways did you find the writing that was about there about dance music lacking?
Well, for myself and Frank, we just felt that dance music lacked a context. Most of the writing about dance music that existed in the 1990s – especially in the UK – implied that no one had danced to records before 1988. There seemed to be a complete lack of understanding about the history of dance music, which meant it had no context, as if house music had emerged from nothing and taken over the UK, ploughing down everything in its path. There was no acknowledgement of what had come before.
Also at the time, me and Frank were living in New York and meeting these incredible characters who would tell stories about the ‘70s and disco. They had all of this stuff stored up in their memory banks and none of it had ever been documented. It seemed like a stupidly obvious thing to do.
And something you write about is that these formative figures were mostly still alive and willing to talk.
Yeah, they were. I think we did it at a pretty good time, really. Several of the people that we interviewed have subsequently died. So, you have to get that history before the people go. I’d say it’s the same for a historian talking to people who were active in the Second World War – that oral history counts for something and the basis of our book was listening to people’s great stories.
And you wanted to take intellectualising – or ‘abstract nonsense’ as you say in the preface – out of the writing?
We didn’t want to take the intellectualisation out, that’s just our approach. We wanted to document the history. There are writers whose writing I really love like Simon Reynolds whose take on dance music is from a different angle to what we do. It’s not that we’re in opposition to people like Simon, and there’s plenty of space in dance music writing for both angles.
You wrote in Last Night… that the book was about guys with big egos telling tall tales. Who stands out amongst the storytellers that you encountered?
My favourite is Fabio, the drum & bass DJ. He’s such a naturally great storyteller. Everything he tells you comes in such a neat paragraph; a little capsule. You can tell he’s reliving the moments he’s telling you about. He’s captivating.