Dare To Be Different! Part 1
‘Ian D’ Smith believes that if DJs want to effect change in their industry they need to speak up more for themselves and dare to be different. In the first of this four-part series Ian explains how adopting that approach got him started as a DJ. In future articles he’ll show how ‘daring to be different’, instead of conforming to the common consensus of the time, got him a three year residency on the main floor at Saturday’s “biggest and most famous gay nightclub” (Heaven in London), and how it got him production and remix opportunities that yielded several Top 40 records both here and abroad.
MOST of the opportunities that arose in my professional DJ/producer musical career in the 90s arose because I wasn’t prepared to just “tow the party line”, “follow the usual route” or “keep quiet even if you think something’s wrong”, despite frequent advice from others that I do so! Pretty much ALL of them arose because I did things differently from everybody else around at the time. Talk to most ‘household name’ DJs and this ‘daring to be different’ is a pretty common theme in their stories. I know what you’re thinking. “Ah yes, but you’re talking club DJ. Mobile DJs are different.” Well, yes, in some ways they are. But no, in this fundamental sense, they’re not!
Hopefully my own story, as it expands over the next few issues, will give some pointers as to how ‘being different’ ensured success that would have otherwise eluded me. Admittedly, in this series I’m mostly going to be writing about and telling stories that are from my club DJ and production career two decades ago, and you might be wondering “What has that got to do with my mobile DJ business today?”. Bear with me, we’ll get to that!
“Oh dear! Is this just going to be a vanity piece from some has-been or never-was from the 90s?” Oy! I heard that! Well, it could well turn out to be that – I’m not really the best one to judge am I? However, I think that the lessons I learnt all those years ago can be applied to the mobile DJ industry of today. Hopefully you’ll bear with me and let me know if you agree by the end of this series.
So, let’s start at the beginning. But let’s start right at the beginning. Before Heaven. Before even Bromptons or The Paradise Club. Before I even started DJing.
As someone working full-time in the computer industry, downtime at weekends was precious, and I spent most of my Friday evenings with friends in Bromptons – a gay bar in the Earl’s Court area that is still there today. It has a dance-floor now, which it didn’t have back then. But today it doesn’t have what drew me there in the first place – a record store that was open from 10pm – 2am every Friday and Saturday night!
Bromptons was a ‘clone’ bar – ‘clone’ being a cheeky, self-deprecating put-down of the ‘me too’ look of gay men at the time. This was very much about fighting the ‘camp hairdresser’ stereotype portrayed in the mainstream media, and pushing a new ‘macho’ stereotype that was equally offensive because it pretty much implied that all gay men had short hair and a moustache!
The bar featured mix DJs playing high-energy music seven days a week from about 10pm to 2am. I went from thinking “Why don’t they play something I know?” to “Thank God they don’t play the same music I hear on the radio” in about two weeks straight. (Well, not straight, but you know what I mean…) And you could buy that same music - mostly imported 12” dance records - from that record store inside the bar! Genius!!
MARTYN NORRIS AND ALMIGHTY RECORDS
The record store was ‘owned’ (rented) by Martyn Norris who effectively obtained free rent by organising the DJ roster for the venue. He used the profits from the record store to help fund a small gay-oriented dance record label called Almighty Records, which in those days he ran from the Jaeger stock room where he worked his ‘day job’ as a shop assistant! The record store was mostly stocked with music supplied to Martyn by DJ Tricky Dickie who co-owned and ran Trax Records in Greek Street in Soho which supplied Boy George and many other ‘name’ DJs with records over their careers (it eventually closed down in 2008).
I would spend most Friday evenings away from my friends at the bar, in the record store listening to the latest 12” I’d heard the DJs play. I’d invariably leave with a huge stack of records that I probably couldn’t really afford! The criticism from friends was loud and consistent. “Why are you wasting money on that? Get a mix tape from one of the DJs – much cheaper and then you can spend the time with us.”
DO WHAT'S MORALLY RIGHT
To me, buying a mix tape to get my favourite dance music ‘on the cheap’ was morally wrong. I wanted to hear these tracks from the very beginning right to the very end, and I also wanted to financially recompense those that had worked on them. I did not want to hear them in some cut-down form that a DJ somewhere had decided to release purely to supplement his income without paying the original artists what they were due.
This was different from the norm of most clubbers I knew at the time, and different from what other DJs did too. Most saved their pennies as best they could. Back in the days of record stores, I’m sure we’ve all stood behind that annoying DJ who hogged the listening booth for hours, only to then decide not to buy anything after all because he didn’t believe in investing in new music.
But ignoring the overall consensus that I should just buy cheap mix tapes is what got me my first DJ gig. I never actually wanted to be a DJ, in fact I’d never even considered it. Fortunately, however, someone else considered it for me!
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 73, Pages 52-56.