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Old DJ sets resurfacing on the web reveal the true outlines of dance music history

Raiders of the lost art

  • Words: Michaelangelo Matos | Illustration: Calum Heath
  • 4 October 2018
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Also exciting is a trio of sets from 1984 that are so far ahead of their time, individually and collectively, that it’s breath-taking. The role of scratching tends to be minimised when talking about early house music, but on the evidence of Farley’s surprisingly scratch-heavy April 1984 set, maybe we should think again. And while the equipment a DJ had to work with – even one as ingenious as Farley – seems so limited compared to what’s around now, nothing stopped him from making every part of the sound do his bidding. You can hear it in the October 1984 Farley set that descends, midway through, into a breakdown of First Choice’s ‘Doctor Love’, followed by the early rap single ‘T.S.O.B.’ being filtered to pieces.

But it’s Frankie Knuckles’ November set that feels like church. This one does feature a handful of early Chicago house tracks, like those by important early producers J.M. Silk and Sterling Void, but it’s Frankie’s own edits of Billy Paul and Teddy Pendergrass that blow the hinges off. There are many exciting Frankie sets about, but this is in the first rank. If you want to know why house music was named for Frankie’s 1977–82 club, The Warehouse, this explains it perfectly.

By the early 90s, raves dotted the UK countryside, and the music was speeding up – particularly on the pirates. In May, The Pirate Archive, a storehouse of minutiae and press clippings as well an overwhelming amount of audio, organised by location, added some 20 sets from the pirate station Rave FM, recorded between 1991 and 1992, to the East Midlands section; I had a lot of fun boiling it down to six, by DJs Senator, Sy, Mayhem, and Rich. As writer Simon Reynolds pointed out, their flavour is less breakbeat-centric and more techno than their London brethren; hearing them in that light has helped show the era in a new light.

A set doesn’t have to be perfectly formed in order to teach us things about dance music history. Take The Beta Band’s set for Radio 1’s Breezeblock from August 1998, recently re-upped to another Mixcloud account, Old School Tapes, in two parts (“can’t combine them as we’re at work and they’d notice,” our uploader notes). It’s kind of a shambling mess, kind of amazing – not unlike The Beta Band themselves – and a snapshot of the moment when indie kids who’d previously turned their noses up at DJ culture started to mess with it in earnest. That means a specifically late-90s brand of wilful eclecticism: absurdist segues from Sergio Mendes into the KLF into Beastie Boys into Ivor Cutler, as an early sequence goes: proof that these guys were more record-collecting lunatics than DJs per se, but ones who clearly relished playing with a DJ set’s formal possibilities. Plus, you haven’t lived ’til you hear the bit when a crossover call with some Dundonian radio lunatics gets a bit much even for The Beta Band: “I’m just gonna have tae tell you to shut up there. I don’t even know what you’re saying, and I’m Scottish.”

Mixcloud.com/uniquesoundsofamerica; Thepiratearchive.net; Mixcloud.com/oldschooltapes

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