One of London’s longest running, and most influential underground club nights, Low Life, bowed out with a bang on Halloween. The party originally started in New York back in the early ’90s (before transferring to London in 1997), its driving force being Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, who were later to publish the book ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ (1999), charting the history of the DJ, as well as subsequently setting up the DJ History website. A Ransom Note interview with Bill outlines the reasons behind the decision to call it a day, not only with Low Life, but also with djhistory.com:
Low Life played an important role in my return, being one of the first nights at which I appeared (in Feb 04), having made my comeback but a couple of months earlier. It was my 2nd London date, following on from a threadbare Thursday night at The Key in Kings Cross, mainly attended by beardy stroking blokes, most of whom, it turned out, were DJs themselves. The following day, on the DJ History forum, I found myself getting serious props for my musical selections, ‘The Voice Of Q’ by Q causing particular excitement I recall. It was more about the right people being there rather than how many were there, and my London debut had certainly met with approval, setting things up nicely for Low Life a few weeks on.
Low Life was something else – a full-on party where the beardy men stopped stroking their beards and instead set about the serious business of getting down, losing themselves in a Disco / Balearic realm both strange and familiar, where the classics happily existed alongside the curio, and the audience included beardless dancing girls a-plenty to level out the trainspotter testosterone – it was the perfect balance, appealing to both a party crowd and the heads. Both the venues I played at were full of character, with nooks and crannies and great room options. My first Low Life appearance was at Fortress Studio in Shoreditch, and a couple of years later I’d be their New Years Eve guest, the party having moved to Corsica Studios in Elephant & Castle, it’s home until the end.
Shortly before I started DJing again I attended an earlier Low Life (its one of the few club nights I’d choose to go to, where possible, when I wasn’t playing myself) in November 2003. Along with a trip to Manchester’s legendary Electric Chair, it helped illuminate the way forward for me, basing my approach around the re-edits culture that was already an underground staple via this type of event.
I remember Kelvin Andrews was guesting that night, and I particularly recall him putting on an edit of George McCrae’s ‘I Get Lifted’, courtesy of Mischief Brew. It was extremely refreshing to hear such a great downtempo groove being played at peak time in a club environment. Kelvin also played ‘Stomp’ by The Brothers Johnson, a record I’d first bought on import back in 1980 – the hottest track of the time – which went on to become a massive mainstream hit. By featuring ‘Stomp’ in the way he did, Kelvin had managed to place it back in its original context, liberating it from the cheesy Disco connotation it had been unfairly lumbered with – the victim of its own commercial success.
In addition to Bill & Frank, Matthew Burgess & Jolyon Green, a Balearic pairing whose sound became synonymous with Low Life, were a key ingredient of the parties, along with, later, Michael Cook. It was a night that, although it featured guests, wasn’t reliant on them – the party itself, with its fancy dress themes, was the main attraction.
Throughout the past 12 years Low Life and the website DJ History went hand in hand. Following the success of ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’, Bill & Frank felt they needed an online platform to compliment the book, and the website’s most vital feature was its forum, which became a thriving hub for DJs outside of the mainstream who were playing mainly music of a Disco / Balearic sensibility, with re-edited or reworked tracks from the ’70s and ’80s discussed and often distributed in a pre-SoundCloud setting. This was the place, if you were on our side of the scene, where you met likeminded souls and shared opinion and information.
There were other important forums including Deep House Page, Discomusic.com, Faithfanzine, Brownswood, Southport Weekender and Electriks, but DJ History was the watering hole of choice for a generation of post-millenium DJs to whom there was more to life than uptempo 4/4 beats, with all manner of musical topics discussed. Contributors included US luminaries David Mancuso and François Kevorkian, along with up and coming DJ / producer’s like Todd Terje and Tensnake, all more than happy to exchange information with other enthusiasts – the breadth of knowledge on the site was hugely impressive, and its greatest attraction.
Bit by bit these DJ forums have eroded away, with only the US sites like Discomusic.com and Deep House Page still attracting healthy traffic. Last year it was a shock when Faithfanzine, a well populated forum, seemingly shut its doors – however, it returned in January this year, although at nowhere near the capacity it was at previously, with just a small number of new topics appearing per day – like a club that once held 5000 now attracting just 500.
The reason for this decline, I believe, has a simple one-word answer – Facebook. Nowadays the analogy would be that people are going to each other’s houses rather than meeting at the pub. Whereas once the neutral ground was the DJ forum, now individual DJs and promoters stay at home, or pop round to their mates’ houses. This, I feel, has been a negative step that has stifled proper debate of the wider issues, with cliques of people shooting down anyone whose opinion doesn’t fit the status quo of whatever FB page is hosting the discussion – stands to reason really.
In this type of environment people will react in ways they wouldn’t dream of on an open forum, where the role of moderators is to keep everything civil. Instead things have become more tribal, and someone engaging in a debate / argument with the person whose FB account it is may quickly find themself having to try to fend off half a dozen of their disputants friends, who are all over them in no time like a pack of jackals – this type of debate, more often than not, descending into a barrage of abuse and insult, which does nothing to serve the music / scene.
Facebook also dilutes everything. I’ve been able to observe this most clearly launching a record label, as I have recently, and seeing some great comments on Facebook feeds linking to one of the tracks, comments that you really wish had been shared at source, in this case on SoundCloud or on YouTube, because you know they’re going to be hidden away way down these individual FB feeds in a day or so, and completely lost within the information ether before you know it.
Not that the forums didn’t hasten their own decline – cliques formed and some of the first wave of contributors, forgetting that they were once a bit wet behind the ears themselves, started to treat ‘newbies’ with contempt, and rather than being helpful by answering their questions, as others had once done with them, instead perhaps told them to search the forum, as this is a question someone else had asked 7 years ago or something, making them feel stupid for asking in the first place. I remember thinking that forums were beginning to isolate the very people they needed for their own survival – most young DJs were already awed by the amount of knowledge on these forums, so to speak up, only to find themselves being firmly put in their place, wasn’t going to encourage them to post regularly, which was exactly what was needed if the baton was to be passed to the next wave of potential contributors.
Apart from the forum, other DJ History highlights included a plethora of interviews conducted by Bill & Frank down the years, alongside various features and reviews, as well as the popular ‘Mystery Mix’ series, which I contributed to myself back in 2005. The series was all about the rare and exotic, and I took the opportunity to focus on the Jazz-Funk & Fusion I was playing in Wigan Pier during the early ’80s, just prior to the arrival of Electro-Funk, which is the back in the day music I’m most associated with: https://www.mixcloud.com/gregwilson/dj-history-jazz-funk-fusion-mix/
Thankfully the site won’t just disappear, as other former DJ havens sadly have, but remain an online archive, with full access to forum discussions throughout the past decade or so. Furthermore, the Red Bull Music Academy will move the interviews to their site, giving them a whole new lease of life and providing a lasting testament to the herculean efforts of Bill & Frank in bringing all this history together.
Bill explained the decision to wind things down;
‘ We just felt we’d gone as far as we could with both DJH and Low Life and it was time for a change. We’ve been doing Low Life for over 20 years and DJH for over 15. We just needed a break from both, because they consume quite a lot of time and we’ve never taken a wage or payment from either, we’ve always just reinvested whatever spare capital we had into developing the website. I’m not sure exactly what we will do after this, really. There’s no grand plan. We plan to continue the small festival we’ve been doing over the past three summers and maybe the odd festival party, but beyond that we’ve haven’t really talked about it. Frank and I have been working together for well over 20 years now, so I’m sure something will come up that inspires us (or appalls) into action. Right now, I’m looking forward to not having any of those responsibilities for a while and just DJing at the weekends, doing a bit of studio work and hanging out with my wife and kids.’
The festival Bill mentions is ‘Wild Life – Low Life In A Field’, which has fixed on a site in Wiltshire, following a couple of years evolving in Dorset, and features the full Low Life crew, along with a solid guest line-up .
DJ History and, by association, the Low Life parties, helped enable a gathering place for DJs and enthusiasts disillusioned with the normal run of things. It was a crucial part of ‘the scene without a name’, as I once referred to it in a now classic thread on the site – a movement that was fervently discussed, in all its various aspects, for many year’s day in day out, morning, noon and night at DJH, and by people at computer screens all over the world. It now becomes a time capsule, packed full of wisdom, passion and great tunes, and, as Bill expressed, the hope is that it’ll provide valuable research material for those who wish to explore this Balearic Disco treasure trove, where hidden classics were unearthed and the yesteryears re-edited in order to shape tomorrow.
DJ History Forum: