Take a trip down memory lane with the History Of House party
Everyone loves a bit of nostalgia, especially when it makes you wave your arms, shuffle your feet and generally have a ruddy good time. And that’s exactly what you can expect from History Of House when it, with its three heavyweight DJs from the halcyon days of the ’90s UK club scene, rolls into Dubai on March 7 (you have the chance to win tickets by clicking here).
The trio of Graeme Park, Allister Whitehead and John Kelly all played pivotal roles in the emerging UK scene, and helped steer the good ship dance music to mass markets back in the day.
Now they’re bringing their unmistakeable sound on a trip down memory lane in Dubai at Level 41 of Media One Hotel.
Whitehead cut his teeth at the Koolkat club in Nottingham before moving on to seminal clubs Venus and Cream. As his DJ career took off and clubs around the globe came calling, Allister became a household name amongst Britain’s fresh-faced clubbing fraternity thanks to a number of mix CDs for Fantazia. John Kelly, meanwhile, helped ignite dance music in Liverpool where he once owned a club with James Barton, later of Cream fame. A regular fixture at the UK’s biggest clubs – Cream, GodsKitchen, Slinky, The Arches and Gatecrasher – Kelly also cemented his reputation at every major club in Ibiza.
Former Haçienda DJ Graeme Park celebrates 30 years as a DJ this year and his story mirrors the evolution of dance music and club culture. Parky was working in a Nottingham record shop when he latched onto the first house records filtering through from Chicago, Detroit and New York. Aside from his eight-year residency at The Haçienda, he was one of the first British DJs to take house music out to Australia, South America and Asia.
There’s also a PA from Rozalla, famous for her club hit Everybody’s Free (below), with extra deck support from Eat Retro’s Mark Pickup and Manchester DJ Jon Besant.
Ahead of the one-off show, our friends at Hype sat down with Park, who is this year celebrating his third decade behind the decks. This is not only the story of Graeme Park, but of house music itself…
Where are you? I lecture on a Wednesday at Glyndwr University so I’m just walking to a café. I’m part of the Creative Media And Technology Department, which covers music production and engineering, TV production and stuff I have experience of – TV, radio and music, basically.
How do you find being in front of a crowd of students vs a crowd of clubbers? It’s the same really; it’s just a performance. It’s easier to DJ though because you play to the crowd. You’re thinking on your feet when you’re lecturing and fielding random questions – you have to be fully prepared.
Where and when did you first hear what could be called a house record? I worked in an independent record store in Nottingham, during the days when every town had several. People felt weird about going to this one though: it was dark and had loud music playing, so people like me loved it. I ended up getting a job by accident then became the singles buyer. I was buying lots of chart stuff so it was great for my knowledge, but then distributers mentioned this new stuff from Chicago and Detroit. I told them to chuck one of each in.
Did you think the world was ready for it? Actually, I don’t think any other buyer in the shop would have taken these obscure house records because they wouldn’t have thought they would sell. I didn’t get them in to sell, though; I got them in to check out myself!
You were already DJing at this point, so what were you playing before house? I was playing anything and everything – funk, soul, electro stuff, hip hop, loads of 12” remixes of ABC, Talking Heads, New Order: they all had club versions on the 12” release.
How did people react when you played these new-fangled house records? I thought they were amazing and fortunately all the punters in the club agreed with me. The odd house tune in ’86 became half a dozen a week, and then by the end of ’87 there was a strong flow of these records coming over.
Why did they strike such a chord with you? The thing is, early hip hop was faster than it is now, maybe 120 BPM, so was electro, so was Talking Heads and most of the club remixes, so it all just blended in seamlessly with the new house records. Back then mixing wasn’t really a British DJ thing, but I just found myself having so much fun going from Big Daddy Kane to Marshall Jefferson and mixing it up. There was nothing like it – it sounded like very raw disco music.
Have you ever experienced anything like it before or since? I was just old enough to get punk first time round when I was a young teenager. It was raw and dangerous and, to me, house was like that all over again, but instead of being angsty it was more about synthesisers and disco.
When did you decide to pursue a DJ career full-time? I played in bands and worked in the record shop five days a week. The guy who owned the record shop liked me so he gave me some gigs in his club, The Garage.
Were you getting paid? I got £25 for a DJ gig, as well as £110 a week for working in the record shop, and in bands you might be lucky to get a fiver at the end of the night so I soon gave up playing in the band.
And then came The Haçienda residency… I already used to go there to see bands all the time – a Certain Ratio, indie white funk stuff. I was a fan of Factory Records so I knew it well before I DJed there.
So how did the DJ gig come about? I met [Haçienda resident] Mike Pickering at a photo-shoot for i-D Magazine. We were the only non-London people there so we hit it off. After that he just called me one day and asked me to cover for him when he went on holiday.
So tell us about the first time you went to one of the Friday night parties at The Haçienda… I went on the train; we had dinner, then went into the club. It filled up rapidly and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Mike was playing the same music I was in Nottingham at The Garage, but instead of 500 people there were 1,500 people going mad.
Why did The Haçienda crowd get it first before everyone else do you think? They may have had a little assistance.
How else did the crowds differ? In Nottingham people loved getting dressed up, they were fashionable and sharp. In Manchester, they were scruffy as anything – lank hair, shorts, bandanas, baggy T-shirts – but there was just so much energy.
Did you keep up the Nottingham residency, then? Yeah, and before long it turned into a mini Haçienda. People started dressing down and more and more of them turned up. Then it spread around the UK. I was playing the Leadmill in Sheffield midweek, Friday at The Haçienda and Saturday at The Garage. By 1989 people were travelling to see you at each of the nights.
And how did it spread from there? New promoters in places like Derby and the rest of the UK started to pop up. They wanted me at weekends but I was loyal to my residencies so ended up saying I could play Tuesday nights or whatever, sometimes even playing seven nights a week around the UK.
When did you get your first international booking? A guy from New York called Mark Kamins – who dated and discovered Madonna – was friends with Mike and came to The Haçienda. He was like, “Oh my gawd, Graeme, if you play New York you will kill it, maaan.”
It must have been daunting to go play Americans their own music back to them? Well, I was booked to play MARS in the Meatpacking District. It was on three floors. In January 1989 I’d never been abroad before and we go for a week and there I am playing American music to Americans.
How did it go? Arthur Baker, John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez and Todd Terry were all stood watching me. Mark said, “Hey man, they’re here to see you because they’ve heard of The Haçienda.” I was suddenly going every two months and it was amazing. In those years I was still learning my craft.
Do you think the art of the DJ has been lost over the years because of headliners, shorter sets, etc? Totally, I agree, and I’m part of that, as I don’t have any residencies any more. I’m all over the place.
Is that choice or…? That’s just the way it is. It started to happen ten years ago – I was doing a residency but no-one was coming. Part of that is that it’s harder to get exclusive music now – everyone has everything unless people play all their own music, which is often rubbish.
How do you counter that? Well, I don’t want to be like many of my peers who just play the classics. I’ve got a 150 square foot lock-up full of vinyl. Every now and then I pop down there, grab four boxes and go through them to pull out old forgotten or overlooked stuff. I like that at gigs younger blokes hold Shazam to the speakers and can’t find the tunes I play cause I have one of only 300 test pressings from 1992. It gives me a slight USP.
Does new music excite you as much as old? Certainly, but lots of people now make music that sounds like it was made 20 years ago!
Do you still go in record shops or do you miss the community of them from back in the day? If I see one I’m straight in there, but dance music isn’t as vibrant as it used to be because the relationship between the record shop, customer and DJ has gone.
So forums are not as gratifying to you? No. When I found an amazing record I’d recommend it to people. You’d hear stuff by accident in a record store and that doesn’t really happen online. Instead, you listen to ten seconds of a track and it’s a bit clinical.
Have you been an early adopter or have you rallied against technological developments? I never really liked CDs, as great as CDJs are, it’s not vinyl. I used to think that at every gig but eventually I had to stop playing vinyl because so little was released on the format. Then I went to Canada and everyone was playing Serato with vinyl. They were laughing at me with my CD wallet, spraying CDs everywhere whenever I opened it. I got home and got hooked up with Serato and it feels just like using vinyl, which is great. Plus, it keeps everything at the same pitch, you can loop, put effects on… I love it!
Are dancefloors and clubs as good as they used to be? It depends where you are. Brands are very important now, where it was all unchartered territory back then. Pop up venues and warehouses are always great parties nowadays. It brought some freshness to the scene in around 2008 when the recession hit.
What are you most proud of in your career and do you regret anything? Back in the ’90s I was releasing pretty much one remix a week, which I am really proud of – some of them are really well known, like the Inner City ones, and some are stinkers, but I’m proud of that. Having a family and a wife who works means I don’t produce much now though. I suppose I’m also proud of the fact I have been a constant on the scene for 30 years and that I was quite often the first British DJ to play in a lot of weird places that people play all the time now, like in Eastern Europe and stuff.
Too many DJs now are concerned with the money and the fame and not the music. It’s not about you, ultimately it’s about the music coming out of the speakers and the dancefloor, it’s not about how many people vote for you in the DJ Magazine Top 100 or whatever.
The one regret I have is that I spent everything I earned. I don’t 100 per cent regret that because I wouldn’t have had the fun I had. Maybe I partied a bit too much and lots of Mondays and Tuesday went to waste, but again, it was a lot of fun.
What’s next for you? Having said what I just said, I have a massive tune with Juan Kidd coming out, which I’m really excited about.