Rock of Ages
There are only a handful of DJs whose names resonate beyond dance music: John Digweed is one of them. Back in the salad days of the late Nineties, when the genre exploded from an underground cultural renaissance to a global industry, the British-born Digweed and his frequent partner Sasha invaded arenas and nightclubs all over the nation, spinning tag-team sets that virtually defined the rave experience for hundreds of thousands of revelers.
On Fabric 20, a popular mix CD series inspired by a London nightclub, Digweed returns to the progressive roots of his early ground-breaking mixes such as Renaissance: The Mix Collection, the 1994 collaboration with Sasha that first brought him to national attention. Opening with Pete Moss's ambient and heavenly "Strive to Live (16b mix)" and closing with Matrix and Danny J's heartfelt "Vertigo (Goldtrix remix)," Digweed flits through minimal, kinetic tracks by techno and house producers such as Adam Johnson (who records for Miami label Merck), Martin Solveig, DJ Rasoul, and others. It's a funky, rhythmic mix. For music snobs who automatically associate him with progressive house, it's a revelatory, inspiring experience to hear an established DJ remake his sound and give upstarts such as Michael Mayer and Optimo a serious run for their money.
John Digweed occasionally remixes tracks for artists as disparate as Brit-rock band the Music ("Freedom Fighters") and Quincy Jones ("Glimmer" on Jones's The New Mixes, Vol. 1); he also produces records with Nick Muir under the name Bedrock. But he is first and foremost a DJ who says he plays most Fridays and Saturdays. (Keep in mind that many working DJs spin up to five nights a week.) His other chief concern is the progressive house record label he owns with Muir, which also happens to be named Bedrock. It has launched a number of stars, from Steve Lawler and Jimmy Van M to Chris Fortier and Danny Howells. As a result, Digweed has rightfully earned a reputation as a mentor, a role the 37-year-old veteran seemingly relishes.
The following are excerpts from a phone conversation with Digweed while he was in London, which is always a crazy time for him. He usually has a lot of catching up to do after spending most of his life on tour, away from home.
New Times: Fabric 20 is an excellent mix CD. It seems different from your other mix CDs in that it incorporates other styles of music such as German techno and ambient music. Are you working on diversifying your repertoire?
John Digweed: Ah, I just think I wanted to ... I mean, that club Fabric has such a good sound system, and the crowd and the night and everything, it lends itself to playing great music.
My musical sound has changed. I think the fact that you say the album sounds different from previous albums is a good compliment. I don't want to be known for playing just one sound. I want to be changing and moving and trying different sounds and elements within my sets.
What sound do you find people normally associating you with?
I think they use the word "progressive," but progressive started out as a term for forward-thinking music, and it covered a wide range of genres. But ... it ended up becoming a genre of its own. I don't really feel that I display one sound anyway. If anyone has heard me play an extended set, they know that it'll start off with that kinda deep, groovy house, and it builds on that to get into harder, driving, almost techno in some circumstances. It all depends on the club, the venue, what time you start the set, what time you actually go on, and everything else. I haven't got one set that I played at a club from 12:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., then play [again] at [another] club from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. I work on the fly of how the crowd is and what I feel I should be dropping at that time.
You adapt according to the venue you're playing.
Yeah. Obviously there's a certain sound that I want to be pushing, but in those certain realms. I want to make sure that the night is as successful as possible. If I'm going on at five in the morning, and the night is already going off and going crazy, I wouldn't start with the 16b remix from the Fabric 20 CD because it's too much of a mood change and a killer.
What's the status of Sasha and Digweed? Most people here in America know you because of your association with him.
Sasha has been doing his residency in New York [at crobar NYC] and Los Angeles [at Avalon], and he actually lives in America now, so his base is in the States. But we're doing some shows in Europe, and we're doing a party at conference. He has a new mix album coming out, and before that he had his Involver tour for his Involver album. We both have got separate projects, and then we come together and do special one-off parties around the world. I think that makes it exciting for the crowd because they know we don't play every week together like we used to.
Do you feel that dance music is still producing major stars? I haven't heard of any emerge since Ti'sto. But it seems that, back in the late Nineties, there were quite a few of them.
Ti'sto has been DJing for quite a long time. It wasn't like he just appeared. He had been DJing for seven or eight years, maybe longer, before [his popularity] exploded. I think with a lot of DJs it's that slow process of really finding their sound and their groove. And then, when it does happen, they've got the experience behind them because they've been DJing a long time. They know what they want to do when they start to gain success. DJs don't become superstars overnight; you can't start playing turntables and then six months later become the biggest DJ in the world. It just never seems to happen like that.
Can you name any DJs who are starting to reach that level?
I mean, look at someone like Hernan Cattaneo from Argentina. I mean, he's had a cracking 24 months. He came in at number six in the [2004 DJ magazine Top 100 DJs poll], and he's done that by sheer hard work, traveling, doing mix CDs, doing his radio shows, and just being consistently good when he goes out and plays. James Zabiela is another young DJ who is just on the road, DJing, and playing cracking sets.
You've got your Bedrock imprint. Bedrock is well known for discovering and catapulting DJs into the limelight. In what ways do you support these new artists?
Well, I've got years of experience. Last year I did a workshop; I went around to universities and spoke to up-and-coming DJs. We did a Q and A for an hour, and had a chance to use the turntables and CDs. When I first started DJing, I was very fortunate. I latched on to some great DJs that were playing in my local town. They knew the right way to DJ: how to program [the right records to play in a set], how to build a night ... it's common knowledge, really. But you tell a DJ, look, if you're on first, and there are four people in the club, you don't want all the lights going and the sound as loud as it will go. You're warming things up, setting the mood. It's all little things where, if someone doesn't tell you, you're just going to go in and say, "This is my moment of glory! Ta da!"
Who are some of Bedrock's up-and-coming artists?
Nowadays, for a lot of young DJs, getting their own mix album is almost impossible. A lot of labels aren't taking as many risks on unknown talent. I felt that I was in a position where I could help these guys out. So we started the Original Series. Desyn Masiello, who put together a great compilation [last year called Original Series: OS_01], did the first one. Then we had Jonathan Lisle, who just released his. We've got Luke Fair coming up in the summer. Those are the guys who really impressed me over the past few years. When you're a young DJ, you can give out as many mix CDs as you want. But once you've got an official mix CD behind you, it almost adds that extra bit of clout, doesn't it? It's like, if someone is willing to invest thousands of pounds to push this project forward ... if I can do that to push these guys' careers, then I want to help these guys.
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