Return of the resident - Features - Mixmag

Return of the resident

What's the role of the resident DJ?

  • Tim Sheridan
  • 2 March 2015
Return of the resident

Tim Sheridan has been a resident DJ for Cream, Home, We Love Sundays at Space, Manumission, Ministry of Sound and Matter over a 20-year period.

With XOYO, Seth Troxler and others putting a new emphasis on residency in 2014, he gathered his mates Ralph Lawson (Back To Basics, 22 years), Jon Da Silva (Haçienda, 9 years) and Erol Alkan (Trash, 10 years) to discuss the role of the resident DJ.

Published: March issue of Mixmag

Every major club in the world is modelled on one from 70s and 80s New York: dancefloor, soundsystem and DJ. And in the cocksure, gay and heady NYC days, all DJs were residents and the resident ruled the party. You could only see David Mancuso exclusively in his Loft, Levan and Knuckles at the Continental Baths or Siano at the Gallery. They were the captains of their ships, navigating dusk 'til dawn and then going ashore for even more cock and dancing. The personality of the resident DJ defined the entire club. Residents were so influential that, but for a quirk of etymology, house music itself might just as easily have been called 'Knuckle music' seeing as Frankie pretty much coined it at the Warehouse.

The nascent UK scene was similar. "At the time there were no guests," remembers Jon Da Silva of the early days at the Haçienda. "We weren't warming up for anyone". This continued here and there through the 90s and early noughties: the genesis of Sasha's legend is inseparable from his regular spot at Shelley's in Stoke, in NYC Junior Vasquez was Sound Factory and Body And Soul needed no other input other than the holy trinity of Kevorkian, Krivit and Claussell. Paul Oakenfold became so synonymous with Cream at Nation in Liverpool that when he left to 'go global' and was replaced by Seb Fontaine it was the biggest news to hit clubland since listening to music standing up was invented. It's only today that legions of bad clubs run by rich, straight, white men have relegated the resident to being the human equivalent of having a CD on. Witness the shitness as people file in, check their coats, get legless and kill time until the overpriced guest arrives.

So why did the guest come to dominate, with the resident be consigned to the shadows like a murky cur? Perhaps it's just a question of glamour – the fact that all that weekly toil while under another's shadow is just not as fun. Maybe it's that the recent downturn in venues has led to fewer promoter-residents being born onto the scene, because now it's all about appearing loud and proud as a 'producer'. The dumbing-down of crowds into thinking only new big names in lights have any worth may be a factor. Perhaps it's just all about filthy lucre as usual. As a DJ, you can make more money as a travelling attraction, and there's far less responsibility involved in simply turning up five minutes before your set, playing two hours then hitting the hotel for a spot of lonely masturbation before yet another flight. Ultimately, perhaps leading with your residents is a luxury that died in the 90s, along with all the other extravagances. Most likely it's all the above
and more. It's a proper shame, though.

Thankfully, now the buzz is about a return the real residency, with London's XOYO announcing that they have Eats Everything lined up as the first of four DJs holding down regular, 12-week Saturday night slots. Seth Troxler is cutting down touring to a quartet of in-house gigs in London, Ibiza, New York and Amsterdam, and the hottest global tickets are to see the likes of great past residents like DJ Harvey or Danny Tenaglia play all night. Meanwhile, iconic mixes of the greatest historic resident DJs are sweeping the net. People are saying it must be the year of the resident. And about time too.

Ralph Lawson agrees. "Resident DJs are the most important foundation of a good club. We learnt our trade by working around the guests.
A resident has to be able to play any set of the night – warm up, middle or close. Residents often do the hard work of setting up the club right or cleaning up after an untidy house-guest."

The clue is in the name. Resident: your disco-insurance that there is a base level of quality for two thirds of the night that resides in the place without fail. But the attitude of the club and its promoter is the setting for the jewel in the crown. It's not enough just to be good at playing records, it's a team effort. To understand that the common denominator between every single (no exception) great club is that they honour and understand their residents is to understand all you need to know about what this club thing is all about. Many venues and promoters are rainmakers who claim to be the architects of the special bond that happens, but many are custodians at best, caretakers of the 'thing' between ressie and regular. And the resident cares. Far more than the promoter, they are the ones with their bits on the chopping block if things look or sound bad ("From the shinyness of the mirror ball to the frequency range of the bass bins", as Da Silva remembers) and it is as near as never the venue who cares as much as the weekly DJ.

"The End actually brought the prices down when we asked," says Erol Alkan. "The venue gave us the space to breathe. The venue was key with us. We just couldn't have done it without The End's full support. One of the reasons we could never do it again is because the venue is gone – and even more importantly, the crowd from that time, that made it what it was, is gone."

And here we approach the crux of the matter: the crowd. Ultimately, they – you – make it happen. The essence of a proper club and perhaps its core definition is a double act, a waltz to the music of mutual rapport between its regulars and the resident. It's usually done organically over a period of years, usually far away from the artificial photosynthesis of hype and attention. It even boils down to knowing who occupies which space in the club, as Jon Da Silva recollects: "I knew a lot of fresh stuff that I liked would often get a reaction first from the left of the stage at the Haçienda where a lot of the Stoke crowd used to hang out… it was always great to get a good reaction from them! You became aware of a kind of regional geography in the club. The best thing about being a resident is having that rapport with the crowd – something that is built up over years. A great crowd trusts the resident and will go with them. That goes the other way, too, and one becomes intensely aware of the mood of the crowd." How can a nomadic DJ superstar, fresh from the airport with a fist-full of USB sticks and one foot out the door hope to build that kind of rapport?

The love of that crowd for the resident becomes their love of the club as a whole. Over time great things can happen: "I'm on at least my third or fourth generation of crowd now," explains Ralph. "At the Basics eighteenth birthday [they're 22 this year] I joked that we could be playing legally to a child of an original Basics-head… and then during the night a guy came up and introduced his 18-year-old son to me, telling me he had met his wife at Basics and now his son was into house music! I don't feel like I'm doing much different now to then, just holding the beats down."

Our people were very creative and many went on to great things," says Erol. "The fact they were so artistic and amazing was very complementary. We tried hard to be a safe space. We encouraged girls and boys to dress up and made sure they never felt threatened. It was important that our crowd could express themselves."

Let's be clear: all this is not consigned to some 'golden era'. Today, all over the world, the absolute and unquestionable common denominator in every proper club is that they understand the importance of the resident above all else. Giants such as DC10 and Fabric are built on it. There is a gossamer thread connecting the past to the present, a torch that that many residents still see themselves as keeping aflame. Ralph Lawson, for one, was influenced by one of New York's finest.

"I saw Junior Vasquez at his peak and he was a big influence on me," says Lawson. "I had just started my residency at Back To Basics in Leeds and came back from New York inspired by how he worked a record and the crowd over very long sets. I started playing long sets from 1994 as Leeds became one of the first cities in the UK to have late licensing. I learnt how to 'break' a record over several weeks by introducing it early on at first, then repeating it towards the end of a set,
as well as spinning dub versions and teasing in vocals until people were familiar with it."

Not every great resident doffs their imaginary baseball cap to the NYC days, though. It can happen organically as well: "I was totally in my indie bubble," remembers Erol Alkan of his epic run at Trash. "I'd never heard of any of them. It all happened naturally for me, it was just an outlet to play the records I loved. Being resident there every week, it all seemed perfectly natural."

I absolutely believe in the resident DJ. Even without a residency I think like one. If I'm a guest I usually ask to play back-to-back with a resident. I believe it's the making of a good guest DJ to be, or have been, a ressie. Some of the biggest names started as, and still are, residents – and by big I mean legendary-over-the-course-of-decades big, not EDM big. It doesn't take a genius to work out that being a resident had everything to do with the making of our outstanding best.

The well-loved resident also removes all shadow of doubt: you know the night is going to be good, even if the guest DJ is a giant twerking robo-megabollock. Clubs with revered ressies are always buzzing. They are a cut above, frankly. Good residents, without question, challenge the guest to step up. I've seen it so often it's almost funny: guests you wouldn't just write off by reputation but you might have seen several times go through the motions for the money one night find themselves sandwiched between two legendary residents and a hyper crowd, and suddenly they remember how they got to where they are and what that took – and they reach deep inside themselves and find it. You deliver or die when the stakes are high.

"You're repaying an investment the people make in coming," says Erol. "It sounds funny, but you have to be 'the same but different'. You know your people love David Bowie, so each week you have to come up with something new from his catalogue. It's about education, surprise and duty. There is a duty to the people who come regularly."

Duty. What a great way to put it. You see, house is a feeling – and if all you get are big names jetting in there is no connection, and consequently no feeling. Emotion is entirely about contact with something. The connection of the crowd and resident is totally about that, and when it's right the guest simply has to fit into it just to keep up – and the good ones do. Before you know it you are one of the handful of world-beating clubs that bases what it does pretty much completely on its residents. Yeah, it really is that simple.

Not simple enough? The world's best clubs are all about the residents – to the point where the guest barely makes a dent. Ibiza is almost entirely residencies by the biggest and sometimes best. This is not a coincidence.

So let us salute the resident. Let's roll-call the honoured and the fallen of the UK: Huggy and James Holroyd at Basics, Pauls Bleasedale and Oakenfold at Cream, Harri and Dom at Sub Club, and Luke and Justin at Electric Chair. Park, Pickering and Haslam at The Haçienda, Danny Rampling at Shoom. Kid Bachelor, Mr C and Eddie Richards at Clink Street, and Paul 'Trouble' Anderson at The Loft. The Vauxhall quintet of Luke, James, Jim and Severino at Horse Meat Disco. Toni De Vit at Trade and Kenny Hawkes at Fridays R Firin'. Colin Faver at Camden Palace, and Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge at Dingwalls. Golden with Kelvin Andrews, and Phil Perry at Full Circle. Terry Francis and Craig Richards at Fabric. JD Twitch and Johnny Wilkes for Optimo. Dean Thatcher at Flying, Ewan Pearson for Come Shake the Whole and Luke Solomon at Classic. Ben Watt and Jay Hannan for Lazy Dog, Bryan G for Movement and Fabio for Swerve...

Add your favourite. And doff your hat to all residents, everywhere. For upon them this house was built.

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