London Ted talk reflects on the highs and lows of club & DJ culture

Dr Karenza Moore reveals ecstasy is still the clubbers’ choice after 20 years

IT was supposed to be a reflection on all things good about DJ and club culture; the music, the technology, the history, but journalist and blogger Joe Muggs wanted to add a touch of dark reality to the special Tedx event Redefining the DJ.

‘DJ Culture is appalling; it’s people who are just a set of cogs playing the same old tracks again and again’, he said.

The audience laughed nervously as he continued lambasting the romantic ideas of kids in a hedonistic daze believing they will find all they are looking for in a dark and sweaty room.

Naively turning your back on education, work and relationships thinking you don’t need anything else except a good time before, years later, crashing back to reality unable to do much more than flip burgers or pull pints is not big, clever or underground, he said.

Fortunately he made an exception of those present, but his points were a valid and important reminder of the collateral damage that goes hand-in-hand with the electronic music and party scene.

But it wasn’t all bad news at the seminar, at the Truman Brewery, in East London, organised by Tunde Olaoye, a promoter, DJ and Ted lecture fan, who wants to see more serious discussion on what he says has been a marginalised part of British culture, the economy and even education.

The speakers covered a broad range of subjects and histories that have informed and split the scene over the decades as well as offering personal examples of how to get on in a difficult industry.

Jerome Sydenham, who moved to New York in the eighties as a young Nigerian to follow his dream of becoming a successful DJ and producer, told how he nearly threw it all away partying seven nights a week before waking up to what he could lose – his green card and residency at one of New York’s most exclusive clubs.

Being a success in this industry is down to the individual remaining focused, he said, just look at Jeff Mills who’s in his fifties and still cutting it at the top.

Sydenham went on to give a fascinating insight into the world of A&R at Atlantic records explaining how the big labels’ failure to nurture and give a public face, through video and radio coverage, to the new house and techno producers they signed in the late eighties meant there was little return on their investment.

Released from their contracts the new wave of producers returned to the independents where they enjoyed considerable success.

But this left it to the club DJs playing the records, often producers themselves, to soak up the credit and become the face of the new sound.

He also revealed how bosses at the major labels made a concerted effort to kill off vinyl in favour of CDs by buying up presses around the world before literally dumping them in the ocean.

Fortunately independents took up the mantle, printing the records themselves, leading to a resurgence in vinyl in recent years, although print runs are notably counted in their hundreds rather than the thousands of yesteryear.

The move from vinyl to CDs and more latterly MP3s was the subject of Tony Andrews’, founder of the legendary Funktion-One sound-systems, talk on the quality of music.

His message was simple: don’t touch MP3s with a barge pole!

He said: “Sound quality and our hearing isn’t given the attention it deserves … and it’s really got worse since the advent of digital and the overuse of gain – particularly by DJs.”

Andrews said he wasn’t against digital and that if WAV files, the digital format on CDs that stream at 1440kbps, are used it could be better, but so-called high quality MP3s (320kbps) are being recorded at a quarter of that.

Staying on the technology tip the audience saw the first public demonstration of the Alphasphere, which evolved from a bunch of polystyrene coffee cups, balloons and a hacked midi-keyboard five years ago to the fully functioning prototype (see below) completed last week.

Creator Adam Place, of Nu Desine, said he was inspired to make a new interface to replace the midi-keyboard that felt ‘unnatural’ for playing anything other than piano.

There were also talks on setting up a radio station that morphed into a record label and more – the message being don’t tie yourself down, the history of the record, looking at copyright and how it restricts progress, but the underlying theme and lesson was one of originality, non-conformity, freedom of expression, re-inventing yourself and strength of mind.

However it would have been a fallacy to suggest that it’s all highbrow and drugs weren’t a fundamental part of the scene – for good or for bad – and so it was entirely appropriate that Dr Karenza Moore, of Lancaster University, spoke about their role in club culture.

A party girl herself, she has been officially researching club and drug culture for the past six years but unofficially for more than 20.

She took the audience through the explosion of the rave scene back in the late eighties and the moral panic that surrounded it – fuelled by the red-tops and the death of Leah Betts – before the Criminal Justice Bill largely put an end to outdoor raves forcing them into restrictive clubs.

The move was ‘coincidentally’ mirrored by an aggressive marketing campaign by the alcohol companies, which had seen a massive decline in sales, with alco-pops and energy drinks pitched as the new ecstasy.

Moore also reminded us of the lesser-known Criminal Justice (Raves) Bill 2008 that made it illegal to even look like you were setting-up a rave!

But ultimately her research revealed that 20-years-on ecstasy was still the clubbers’ drug of choice despite it’s disappearance between 2008 and 2010 and the increased use of drugs like ketamine and mephedrone.

And despite warning of the consequences of young people being criminalised by drug convictions she stopped short of calling for legalisation.

However despite Muggs’ annihilation of much of club culture, Moore’s academic research decreed it’s effects had been largely positive; a point supported by the agreeable crowd.

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