What was the moment that triggered my love of music and my DJ career? Probably, like you, I can point to a whole host of experiences rather than a single stand out. I started DJing in a professional sense extremely late on, aged 33 to be exact! My story is different and my emergence as a DJ somewhat unusual, but this has shaped who I am and how I perform.
My name is Aelred, as in ‘ale’ (the beer) and ‘red’ the colour. For all the history buffs out there, the name derives from the 11th century King of the English, Ethelred. I simply go by ‘A’ for short now and it’s even become part of my branding.
I was born in South Africa to a vicar father and a secretary mother. My dad wasn’t really into music, except for the odd traditional Indian song which was all he allowed to be played at home. My mum was loyal and went along with his rules. I later discovered that she loved Elvis, but stopped listening to his music after getting married. How sad is that? I grew up during apartheid. Segregation between race was normal. It affected where you could live, where you could holiday, which beach you could visit, which part of the shop you could be in, which entrance or serving hatch you could use. It was just a part of life and the rules were very clearly defined. You just got on with it.
However, the segregation did also influence your group’s taste in music. My father was a community leader and despised being told what you could and couldn’t do based on the colour of your skin.
So he offered me every opportunity to enjoy richness of diversity and inclusion. I was lucky enough to be sent to a private school and had the benefit of learning and interacting with any racial group. We didn’t have an AV club or music club at school, so FM radio became the main way of discovering new music.
I grew up with the music of the 80s,having totally missed the disco era only to discover it during the 90s – and I loved it! I still love disco to this day, which probably explains why I love house music too.
Given my insulated home life, a lot of my musical influences were stumbled upon. My parents didn’t have well-paid jobs and while they provided everything I needed, I never had enough cash to splash out on anything music related. Vinyl records and players weren’t part of my upbringing, so I missed that format.
The first time I bought a hi-fi unit was as a teenager, funded by making and selling Easter eggs (they were all the rage at our local church!). The proceeds went towards a Blaupunkt hi-fi; not the separates version, the cheaper one made from a single lump of plastic with grooves (to make it look like separates).
Yeah, that was me with my cheap player… but it was mine and it had a CD player, a record player and twin tape decks with amazing high-speed dubbing. This was my pride and joy and my first CD was Simply Red’s ‘Stars’, bought for me by my mum from the local supermarket.
As we weren’t allowed to live in central areas, there weren’t any record shops close by. Going down to a local music store to flip through the latest releases wasn’t even a concept. However there was a large chain store called Musica in some shopping malls. I would visit every few months to build up my collection. I bought CDs because it was digital and therefore, in my mind, better. Boy, what a naive fool! I did cherish every inch of the ‘plastic givers of music pleasure’ and I read every single thing on the inserts to learn as much as I could about the artists.
We didn’t have MTV either, as South Africa was undergoing sanctions. Even now it’s like Christmas when I discover a music video or a Top of the Pops episode I’ve never seen. Growing up, all I knew was that I liked the beats of both Biggie and Pac, no idea of anyone's rivalry. I was living under a rock. A rock in the African sun, but definitely under a rock. A totally different story to yours, I’m sure?
Along came the awesome 90s, the decade that started to blend and blur the boundaries. Pop, R&B, hip-hop and gangster rap were all around me and I enjoyed it! I remember writing down every single lyric, every single curse word, every bit of naughtiness, excitement and rebelliousness.
Then artists started to blend hip-hop with rock and grunge, a winning formula that slowly became mainstream. A turning point came when I listened to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana. Wow, I could not believe what I was hearing. It sounded real and it sounded raw and it encouraged me to explore music outside of what a segregated society dictated I should listen to. It made me question why South African rules and politics were dictating the type of music genre for ‘my group’ (what a load of…).
Undoubtedly this was an awesome decade, not just for music but also a new societal awakening, which included Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Epic, inspiring and at times chaotic celebrations marked a new era and, at long last, I was allowed to vote, which naturally makes you feel a part of something.
My knowledge of what was popular was still dictated by the radio, with the Top 40 show on a Sunday being the highlight of my week. I would sit with ears pinned back waiting for the jingles to be over, recording onto C-60 tapes by using two fingers to press the play and record button. Yellow HB pencil poised and ready, of course. The latest songs were literally at my fingertips. Later on I realised I could use two tape players to play my recordings using volume as a mixer, fading in and out of tracks.
I started to understand phrasing, as I wanted to see if I could beat the system by cutting the annoying presenter. Discovering new music became an obsession, much like vinyl crate-digging I suppose.My freshly curated playlists were then used as illegally pirated tracks for my friends. I enjoyed playing music for other people, but my first gig was a strange one. I had a friend who lived an hour away. I couldn’t easily get to his place to play the tapes, so I called him on the phone and played 20 minutes of music by lifting the handset every two or three minutes to announce the next track.
Thinking back to it now, it was the most ridiculous thing. It must have sounded awful at the other end. But that was a way for me to share my music with a person I valued, my friend Garth Hermanus. He really appreciated my work and loved being introduced to new music, so it became a regular thing. Garth was a brilliant scholar and was destined to become a doctor like his dad. Incidentally, he had a huge stutter that disappeared when he sang – it’s like his frustrations disappeared when music was involved.
Garth was tragically killed, by a police car of all things, whilst out for a run one Sunday morning. His mum and dad came to school one day to bring back a few of his things and they wanted to meet his classmates. Of course, I was the first to offer to speak with them.
When his mum said, with a smile, “Oh, you’re the guy who used to play music down the phone for Garth,” it was one of the most bittersweet moments of my life. I didn’t know how to react, but I knew how it made me feel: proud to have shared my love of music.
When I left school, music was put on hold. My studies took priority, I went on to qualify as an electrical engineer, and I set off on a career through various jobs. I finally left South Africa with an aspiration to work and travel abroad. In February 1999, I sold much of what I owned, said goodbye to my family, stuffed as many belongings as I could into a backpack, and headed off to the UK with £850 to my name.
In the UK my world opened up. Festivals, pubs, clubs – music everywhere. I was in a new and exciting world and I started to observe entertainers: they were true to their craft and punters like me loved it. I wanted to have some of that; I was desperate to learn. People would come over to my flat for pre-drinks and it was natural that I would start to share music again.
I soon invested in equipment to get the house party started. PCDJ Red with a Vestax VCI100 were my first gear obsessions. (By the way, the gear obsession has never ended, much to my wife’s annoyance!) House parties soon turned into parties in gardens and hired community halls. No payment moved to beers, from beers to hard cash, sometimes bottles of Jack Daniels. My setup also evolved, though I cringe when I look back. I still obsess over presentation; I take pride in what I do. Yes, I am a sad cable policeman, but only for my own rigs!
So now you know why it’s taken me so long to get into the DJing game. And I wouldn’t change a single thing. It’s never too late to learn something new and as long as you have love for what you do, that’s a winning combination!
That positivity is balanced out somewhat by one of the low points in my DJ career. It came when I did a gig for a school parents’ Christmas party one year. I had a lot of people saying the usual, “play my song or else,” and lots of drunken requests too. One lady begged me to play ‘Counting Stars’ by One Republic, but I knew it wouldn’t work with the current vibe. I still went to the effort to look out for her but she disappeared, so I decided to play safe and not use the song.
As it turned out, she’d been outside looking after her sick friend. Whilst packing up, she laid into me for not playing her song. She told me she had only asked for one and that she wasn’t rude like others were, but that I still I didn’t play it. I felt bad, really bad. From that day on, I’ve always taken and played requests, no matter what. Because the event is not only about me. That will probably divide opinions, I’m sure!
The theme of loving what I do and keeping on top of self-development are threads that run through my whole life and all my passions. An amazing and inspiring chapter in my DJ career started recently. In 2018 I had a rethink about what brings me joy and where I get my energy from. DJing, producing and entertaining were right at the top of the list. I wanted to push my skills to another level, so I started reading more and seeking out resources that would help me notch things up.
It’s funny how the universe works. At the time, I was living in a little village just outside of Guildford and one Sunday evening we heard a knock at the door. My wife answered the door, as I was busy rehearsing for a gig with a mate of mine. (We were preparing to play back-to-back at a party, our first gig together, and much of the evening was spent scratching our heads trying to work out how to fit two large controllers on my DJ booth.) “This bloke just dropped this off for you,” she said, handing me Randy Bartlett’s ‘1% Solution’ DVD.
How bizarre, I thought. Royal Mail doesn’t deliver on a Sunday. So I chased after the delivery person, which was when I met Steven Honeyball (Pro Mobile’s Business Development Manager). He told me he lived around the corner and wanted to hand-deliver the DVD and perhaps meet me. What a wonderful connection the universe offered me that day. Steve introduced me to both NADJ and Pro Mobile and I went along to several meet-ups and curry nights.
Through connecting with a wide network, I get an even bigger enjoyment from what can be quite a solitary role as a mobile DJ. These meetings and events have taken my business and focus to another level. In fact, my first Pro Mobile Conference ticket paid for itself immediately by connecting me with an amazing group of like-minded DJs who have shared work with me. For all this, I am truly grateful, Mr Honeyball!
I started off by saying this may be a different story. I was comparatively late to the game and have a very different upbringing to most DJs I meet, but every experience makes us unique. If you’ve read this far, thank you. If you’re reading this and you’ve not booked to attend the next Pro Mobile Conference, do it. You’ll find it benefits you in ways you can’t imagine – and it’s good for your soul! I look forward to seeing you there in 2023.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 114, Pages 14-18.