Dave Clarke: "The DJ scene is linked by money not ethics" - Features - Mixmag

Dave Clarke: "The DJ scene is linked by money not ethics"

Jean-Hugues Kabuiku gets candid with The Baron about dance music culture in 2020

  • Jean-Hugues Kabuiku
  • 15 October 2020

The COVID-19 crisis and Minneapolis uprising have accelerated conversations around race in the music industry.

As a Black producer and DJ, I find myself at the intersection of those conversations and as we go further into the pandemic and the UK and continental Europe is implementing new safety measures, the more fragile sections of society are expected to be even more resilient. At this point we risk seeing a swathe of cultural workers – including those working in the nightlife industry – wiped off the map.

This is why I was interested to exchange with Dave Clarke and to gain his insight so we can think about a sustainable solution for the existential crisis hitting nightlife and the music industry. Clarke's 30-year career, coupled with his personal politics and his critical view of the scene, makes him a really interesting artist to interview, especially in the context of the current crisis.

We were able to address a broad range of subjects like how European government austerity impacts our scene, the rise of the plague rave and the overall inequality in the dance music industry.

How have things been for you during this pandemic?

Well, what can I say, it is different, as it is for everyone. In the beginning I took the lucky coincidence of good weather and no gigs as a sabbatical and realised that like many other long-term professionals I had spoken to that a break wasn’t a bad thing at all. But we now head into a confused winter and I think the next 6 months will be a telling time for many.

So you back in the studio lately?

Yes I am in fact working on a prestigious project for France 2 [French tv station] right now, it is stressful as travel restrictions come and go, so we [Clarke and Mathilde Marsal] are taking every day as it comes. I mean I was supposed to play in Belgium and then there were travel restrictions imposed the day before, but everyone is in the same boat.

Are you still based in the Netherlands?

Yes I am, I have been here for over a decade now.

Read this next: Dave Clarke calls out DJs for playing parties during the pandemic

I remember listening to an interview conducted 10 years ago, where you said that politicians in the UK would refrain from making horrendously racist commentary like their counterparts in the Netherlands and also something about the relative tolerance of Brits toward foreigners and immigrants. We can say that a lot of things have changed since then – how do you feel about the rise of the far right that the west took during those last years and the evolution of UK politics?

Geert Wilders [Dutch politician] used to really upset me. He claimed to understand about punk but was just another heavily coiffured politician that was putting out racism as a false reason for things (recently using Zwarte Piet once more for political fire). Then the UK started along the same process, it surprised me in the beginning, although I did call Brexit on social media in advance as I could sadly see how everyone was being played. I honestly despair at the state of the world right now, I mean coronavirus is bad enough, but nations insulting nations, minorities being openly targeted, Trump about to win another election. When I grew up, and I was reminded about this after watching the recent film White Riot, I was even as a youngster advocating the Anti Nazi League (ANL) and being against nuclear power, my colonial history lessons at school were being supplemented by punk lyrics from The Ruts, social lyrics by The Specials and later on hip hop teaching me about the racism in the US. I have once again been digging into my past musical influences and admiring lyrics from Heaven 17 to Consolidated, history it seems if you live long enough needs to repeat itself with a remix of the same mistakes.

It reminds me of This is England by Shane Meadows, have you seen it?

Yes of course, I saw all of the series and the film, it was incredible to watch, I think the first series was the best one, I actually watched it quite a few times. I believe one of The Black Dog was in the classroom of one episode.

If you think about it it’s pretty wild that you had to advocate for the ANL, after what Britain went through during WWII and the knowledge we had about the Shoah at the time. It’s like it was yesterday, but I guess humanity loves to forget. As an afro-descendant growing up in France, racism is a reality that was always present but to see full-on Nazism and fascism unleashed in this way really reminds me of the movies/documentaries about the rise of far right militia in the west. It’s like why did we bother educating everyone for the last 75 years about it if the next time it appears so many of us look it squarely in the face to do nothing.

Well the sad thing was in the UK we were miseducated, we were not told that apparently Churchill defended concentration camps or was up for using poison gas. Yes he was the right prime minister in WWII, but to understand history, even as a child, it should be taught with all the details, including colonialism, not that it was great that the British Empire was so big, but details on exploitation and that only recently slave reparations for “loss of income” have only just finished and how unjust that all was. So yes we were “educated” with facts they wanted us to know, but other facts were not taught, so the education we had did leave the population more open to fascism.

You were vocal about the plague raves on your social media, and I want to take a minute to talk about it, if you will. What is taking me off guard is how some of those new DJs , who've been playing for three years maximum, are cosplaying the 90s rave aesthetic for clout while ignoring the anti-capitalist ethos that was behind it in order to go play at plague raves.

Well let’s give some of those DJs a little break, a lot are run solely by management and, I think, having their enthusiasm taking advantage of, many DJs first point of call is what you call “cosplaying”. I grew up as a youngster with disco that I inherited from my mother, so me playing Lonnie Liston Smith or Roy Ayers 12” records that were once hers in a club some 10 years later gave immense joy, so I honestly think that a large proportion of these young DJs you refer to are being thrown out there to earn money. Many people at the beginning of their musical career make big mistakes in this regard, some of the percentage splits they are on are quite unfair for example. They are also being run by PR, which means that the virtue signalling is not from the heart but scripted and techno for these artists is much more now about money, asking for £20k plus for a charity gig for example, than unity. Ibiza exposed many that played at raves as being truly the children of Thatcher, being solely and only into capitalism and enjoying all the power games that brought along.

Can we even call this ecosystem in electronic music a “community” or a “scene”, people love using those words but do they even apply?

No we cannot, not anymore. The scene of this commercial enterprise is mainly linked together by money and certainly not ethics. How can a DJ that is based offshore for financial purposes ask a government for a bail out – they should receive the same ridicule as Richard Branson surely?

Read this next: The road to tomorrow with Dave Clarke

A defence has been "the government said''. It's like make your mind up, are you cosplaying Spiral Tribe or not?

In some territories it was obvious that despite loose government permission being given the rules for social distancing would not be observed at all, and international DJs that played those events gave authenticity to those events so that governments could later put the boot in, and in the Netherlands the government did use Italy as a reason why clubs would not open, it was an obvious own goal.

You cancelled your shows in Belgium and Netherlands at your own initiative, both countries are COVID hotspots – do you sometimes feel like you’re going crazy because everybody seems to be so relaxed about it, especially in the techno scene?

I can only talk for myself in this regard: I followed government guidelines with my decision as travel was not allowed, I am skeptical at the moment about “hotspots” because there are many, many more tests available than during the first wave, so we have no comparative numbers, but the virus exists and this winter will tell us a lot about the next steps needed. Some countries have tried, through track and trace, to do events and see what happens, I’m not sure if the Leipzig data has been published yet, others like the UK have just been in a mess.

You can see how governments are back tracking now. We had the information in our hands, we knew it couldn’t last but some people were delusional about it and had a blind faith that throwing open air with thousands of people with an airborne virus will be viable because the government said so.

There are many “coping mechanisms” for people in a crisis. Bury your head in the sand and pretend all is good, willingly believe the negative algorithms that are sent your way by social media, not everyone is equipped to be rational in a crisis. And if financially you are screwed either as someone in the events industry, or a pilot, or an owner of a family business that needs tourism it is easy to see that people would rather forget about this situation, it is a side of human nature.

The governments also have a really huge responsibility in the way they didn't compensate the people involved in nightlife, who are, even if they don't like it, part of the cultural sector. But also you can see how the scene shot itself in the foot by making the craft of DJs a rat race to the top. So now that we need to participate in mutual aid and other radical action people have no clue to proceed right?

Capitalism is not culture is it? And a large proportion of nightlife in the last eight years has sold-out underground culture and presented consumerism as its main objective creating multi-millionaires, DJs that do what corporations do and offshore their tax, and they should not get bail outs – this is unfortunate because the good people and organisations pay the price, so Razzmatazz in Spain issued an urgent warning and they are definitely a cultural institution, same in Paris, same in Belfast, Dublin, but I do not have an answer on how to rebalance consumerism vs counter culture as things stand because magazines themselves have chosen to stand clear of politics and went with the consumerism as their business model of printing went away. The internet truly did poison much of the world and made most art across the board lose it’s inherent emotional value, and also allowed political apathy to rule. There aren’t enough pieces about racial imbalance for example; DJ Mag did a great piece on Windrush and without the WIndrush generation the British musical scene would not have been so wonderful.

Read this next: Dave Clarke's guide to Amsterdam

I loved your remix of ‘Way Of Life’ by Octave One, how was working with them?

Those guys are the hardest working, most honest people I know in this business. They feel the music and the music is from the heart

What’s your relationship with Detroit?

Detroit was vitally important for me in my growing up, but Chicago came first chronologically and that city seems to be forgotten about in the development of techno, because producers like Mike Dunn etc shaped it earlier. But people like Juan defined electro, Kevin defined drum grooves, Carl Craig’s early productions are deservedly legendary but to tap into Detroit is a long conversation, a paragraph will not hang it fairly.

Any new artists you want to mention?

From the beginning of this, any live stream I do will include mostly unreleased music, the reason for this is to give hope that people’s music still means something even if it doesn’t make it to a crowded dancefloor. The main ethos behind my White Noise radio show (which is nearing 800 episodes) was again to give a voice to upcoming producers, and I do not profit from this by releasing their music on a label, I do this out of love and duty, so please check my shows for up and coming artist names.

Jean-Hugues Kabuiku is a journalist and musician, follow him on Twitter

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