40 years ago, you could go into a club and have no idea where the DJ was, let alone who they were. Often set out of the way in some dark corner, the DJ booth was generally crude and cramped, whilst the sound system reflected this lack of attention to what most people nowadays agree is the most important aspect of all when it comes to a club space – how the music sounds, and the way in which it’s presented.
As the saying, oft quoted by club managers, went back then; ‘DJs come ten a penny’. After all, it was ‘only playing records’, something, as I was personally told myself on a couple of occasions ‘a trained monkey could do’. So, as you can imagine, there was no such thing as the ‘superstar DJ’ in this environment. If you were to make a serious career out of this, radio was the goal, so most club DJs back then were sustained by a daytime job, the club (or mobile disco) money a bonus. Only a small percentage could call themselves professional DJs – people who made their living purely that way. To do so you’d need to put the hours in, working most nights of the week, and sometimes every night. The kudos came with the respect of other DJs, plus those in the audience who were regarded as ‘music heads’ – your job was to keep the floor full at a time when the wrong record choice could result in mass exodus. So rocking the house wasn’t something special, as such, but a basic requirement – it was your job, and if you didn’t get it right there was a line of monkeys waiting to take your place.
Before becoming club residents, a lot of DJ’s started out with mobile discos, lugging around an amp, speakers and rudimentary DJ console, consisting of 2 record players and a basic mixer. Records, largely 7” singles, were started by turning on a switch to make the deck revolve. These were introduced by the DJ, to whom the microphone was all important. The personality of whoever played the records was what set them apart in the mobile disco world, where the music was more functional, catering mainly for weddings and 21st birthday parties, where a wider age group of people needed to be considered, so the tunes were hardly going to be cutting-edge. Many DJs served their apprenticeship in this way back then, learning how to work with a more varied audience. If they became good at the job, getting the balance right, these were invaluable lessons to take into a nightclub setting. Here, if they were lucky, they might be able to pick up a decent wage by landing a 5 or 6 night per week residency, where they may earn themselves £25 – £50 per week – the average fee back then being between £5 – £10 a night.
It was into this environment that Derek Kaye, my oldest friend, embarked on a DJ career that’s now lasted an unbroken 40 years, a remarkable achievement that will be celebrated with a special event in Liverpool tonight, where we DJ together for the first time in eons, whilst playing back-to-back for a final hour.
Derek, having built his prototype mobile disco when he was just 12 (the sketch is above), was, of course, an inspiration for me. At the age 13 he’d begin trading as a mobile disco, having built a really impressive new console with the help of his Dad, Ian, whilst putting together an inventive lightshow on a minimal budget – this wasn’t some kids set up, but held its own in comparison to other local mobiles. This might have started as a hobby, but Derek meant business, and he soon began to pick up regular bookings. It’s crazy to think that people actually trusted an adolescent with the entertainment at a wedding, one of the most important occasions in the lives of two families (even more so back then, with divorce less likely), but Derek was confident and flamboyant on the microphone, and did a professional job playing the right records at the right times, pleasing young and old alike. I’d go along with him sometimes, and was pretty impressed – and when I say that, it’s not as someone who’d never seen a DJ before, as I’d seen pretty much all the local mobiles at one point or another, having lived above a pub where the middle floor housed 2 functions rooms. A constant stream of DJs and their disco’s came and went more or less every weekend during the time I lived there (between the ages of 7 and 14), but even in his mid-teens, Derek stood out.
We first met when we were both 10 years old, at middle school, and we were thick as thieves by the time we moved to the big school 3 years later. We hadn’t seen eye to eye initially, but our shared love / appreciation of records overrode our wariness of each other. In 1975, when Derek upgraded his DJ console, I bought his old one with another school friend, marking the start of my own DJ career.
Derek had begun to pick up some local club gigs when he was 15, at the Chelsea Reach and the Penny Farthing, 2 local nightspots, and, no sooner had I started out as a mobile DJ, I also found myself working, on different nights, in these same clubs. So there’s no doubt that he was the trailblazer up to this point – I don’t think I would have believed it was possible for me to be paid to play records in a nightclub whilst I was still at school without his example. He opened up the possibilities.
Our careers would eventually, with the onset of the ’80s, take different trajectories, but whilst I ‘retired’ at the end of ’83, not starting up again until 20 years later, Derek continued on through new eras, stacking up 40 unbroken years as a DJ. This only fully hits home when you look at all the great dance music he’s seen come and go and come back again, playing it all along the way – Soul, Funk, Disco, Jazz-Funk, New Romantic / Futurist, Electro, Hip Hop, Street Soul, House and Techno in the first 20 years alone.
Although he had some great residencies, gaining local hero status, especially during his tenures at Romeos & Juliet’s in Oldham, the Coconut Grove in Liverpool, and Rupert’s in Birkenhead during the ’80s, his peak period, in terms of wider recognition, was during the mid-late ’90s, when he was resident at The Buzz in Liverpool, whilst hosting the big Thursday night at Mr Smiths in Warrington and making regular appearance as part of the bill at Bowlers in Manchester, which was packing in up to 5000 ravers at its peak. Further to this, he’d built his own home studio, and was beginning to pick up remix commissions in conjunction with then partner, Sheffield DJ Ricky Stone, with whom, under the name Kayestone, one of their recordings, ‘Atmosphere’, reached #55 on the UK chart.
We also collaborated on an experimental club night, with gigs on Merseyside and in London during 1996/97, called The Monastery. More here:
Derek was certainly playing to impressive numbers at that point in his career, and was known to this next generation of clubbers for his mixing skills more than his microphone style. However, whilst lesser DJs were able to step into the big time on the back of such exposure, it never quite happened for Derek, and when he lost his nights at The Buzz and Mr Smiths, in devastatingly quick succession, he wasn’t able to find replacement venues of a similar profile. With this sudden and substantial loss of income, and without sufficient remix work to sustain him, he sadly came to the realisation that he’d finally have to take a ‘proper job’ in order to make ends meet, his DJ work from herein but a supplement.
He’s continued to keep his hand in despite everything, with a ceaseless run of weekly nights in both Merseyside and Manchester during more recent times, but, with his day job now taking priority, the studio was pretty much put in mothballs.
With this in mind, it’s been great, during the past 12 months, to get Derek to dust the cobwebs from the studio and finally start to get involved in working with music again. Whilst this has helped Derek to re-connect with his passion, it also benefits me, for Derek gets a great sound out of that room.
The studio, now dust free, has enabled us to collaborate on no less than 7 remixes since we first joined forces to work on Bryan Ferry’s ‘Don’t Stop The Dance’ late in 2012. We’ve since completed mixes for Blancmange, Daniel Baldelli, Grandbrothers, Situation, plus 2 for Steve Mason (former Beta Band). Derek has also announced his presence on the re-edits scene with some great reworks of Mass Production, Players Association, Rufus / Chaka Khan, Earth Wind & Fire and Funkadelic. Check out his SoundCloud here:
Back in the late 90’s, when I was struggling along trying to find direction, I was able to get back on track by learning from Derek how to edit digitally on the SADiE system he’d bought (at some significant expense back then) for the radio production business he’d set up around that time, Mouthpiece Audio. However, Derek’s greatest gift to me was when he identified ACID Pro, a loops-based multi-track editing program, as a perfect fit for my way of working, for this freed me up to start experimenting, getting my creative juices flowing again, and is still my program of choice to this day when it comes to putting remixes together. ACID would spawn my Teenage DJ project, which was one of the stepping stones on the way to my DJ return a few years later. More about the period here:
I could write so much more about Derek, but the most important part of this blog post isn’t what I’ve typed out here, but Derek’s own writing, in his own hand, which I’ve linked below. It was for a school project back in 1975, where he describes his musical journey up to that point, whilst illustrating the evolution of his mobile disco, and how this had led him to working in local nightclubs at such a young age. It’s a real artifact, and an absolute must if you want to understand what it was like for a DJ starting out 4 decades ago. Each of the 22 pages of the exercise book, which are related his DJ development, have been copied:
The project ends at pretty much the moment my own DJ journey began with the purchase of the console Derek talks about. His impressive new replacement, complete with lighting canopy, is the wonderful lead image of this piece (also below in colour).
So, on your 40th I salute you Derek Kaye aka Dee Kay aka DK aka Disco Des, my mate Derek Kelsey.
Good to see you back in the groove 🙂
Mobile Disc Jockey Wikipedia: