The Secret DJ: Tales From the Booth

The Secret DJ project’s latest release, Tales From the Booth, reads more like a DJ set than a paperback. It’s a curated selection of memories, stories and vignettes from multiple anonymous DJs that take readers on a trip through the backstage narratives of thirty years of club culture, from a refreshingly faceless perspective. Ahead of its general release, we chatted to The Secret DJ…

You hint in the intro at why this book doesn’t sit in The Secret DJ trilogy. What motivated you to publish something that exists outside the trilogy? Did you already have a collection of tales needing to be told, or did you seek them out in order to assemble them in a compilation?

Hello there. It was all about COVID-19 really. A certain magazine folded, pun intended, very early-on with the state of emergency and cut us all adrift. The Secret DJ live shows are all about other DJs being ‘the secret DJ’ behind a screen and I’ve always tried to involve others so we just applied that thinking to a book. We also had an element of fellow DJs getting in touch or telling me socially that they have stories or they wish they could be anonymous so it is also sort of calling their bluff on that.

So yeah, the motivation was COVID-19. We gave the advance money to the journalists put out of work and also gave them a percentage of it all. Shared the love as they say. I wrote a couple of stories myself to answer your question about having some already there. But we very much sought them out, yes indeed. I mean they are from all corners. All over the world. Highly diverse. We spoke to 82 DJs in the end, although legally we could only use a fraction of that number. So yeah, very much sought them out.

Could you see the behind-the-screen format that The Secret DJ follows working in other mediums? Do you think an unknown jazz ensemble playing behind a screen would make the same statement that an unknown DJ would?

Actually, in the classical world auditioning behind a screen is a thing. Predominantly because nearly every orchestra in the world was stale, pale and male. They introduced it to take prejudice out of the equation. Which is one of the reasons I do it. I love when people tell me they couldn’t tell which of us was playing. Because it really should not matter. Only the music does. It makes a massive difference who is playing a record. And why should it? It’s utterly ridiculous when you stop and think about it. Yeah, it definitely works in another medium ‘cos we just applied it to this book. Right?

Do you have any favourite pieces of music, writing or art that were published anonymously, or under a pseudonym, by a secret creator?

I like the ‘Alan Smithee’ thing. Frustrated, fired or furious film directors removing or being removed from the credits of films and the generic ‘Alan Smithee’ being credited instead. It’s like when I worked in the theatre backstage we had a code that if there was a fire, to avoid panic you say on the tannoy; “would Mister Sands come to the wings please?” So yeah, in answer I think the original Dune film from 1984 is a magnificent work of art despite what nerds have decided by consensus online. And I think David Lynch took his name off ‘cos the studio butchered it in the edit.

I love what The Secret Barrister did with their book. Really opened the lid on what the Conservatives did to the justice system. No surprise to learn it is what they do with everything. Destroy it and then sell off the remains to their mates and each other. It’s a good question, I would answer more generally that for obvious reasons I’m not all that aware of much anonymous art!

Cover of the book The Secret Barrister

You mention you’ve sometimes used the three-act structure of A Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell as a loose reference point when assembling your DJ sets. Any other literature that has inspired your mixing and/or approach to music?

I used to use audio from films and plays in mixes. I used a very old recording of Alice in Wonderland for my first foray into it, some time back in the 80s. I love Richard Burton’s voice so I used to use records of him doing Under Milk Wood or Hamlet too. By playing them from the beginning and dropping them in and out of music borrows the narrative anyway and also influences what you pick musically to go along with it. I did the Radio One Essential Mix in the mid-90s and Pete Tong had to keep interrupting all the spoken word and sound effects sections to remind people they were listening to his show. It was hilarious. A great moment of sabotage. Something I am deeply proud of to this day.

I grew up listening to everything. All sound was fair game. I was like Dougal in Father Ted, sat in a corner playing sound effects records to myself. My Mum thought I was a bit simple when I was a kid! We used to listen to records from Disney films when we were kids when we were having breakfast before school on a dansette that stacked-up tunes like a jukebox. Not songs so much as the dialogue. And The Goon Show and later Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on radio. I was obsessed with the noises in the first Star Wars film. For me there never was and probably still isn’t much in the way of distinction when it comes to sound. Music is just a part of that wider audio world

How do you feel about DJ algorithms? Is an algorithm the ultimate egoless DJ in code form, or are they the antithesis of a DJ, who reads a room and mixes by skill and personal taste?

All tools are open to use or abuse. You can kill someone with a spade or you can plant spuds. I don’t really have any emotions about ironmongery. I do get frustrated at their abuse, however. I think humanity is sleepwalking into the sort of dystopia I used to read about in Sci-fi paperbacks as a kid. It’s quite weird seeing things you were sold pretty much as horror stories become not just common practice but highly sought after. Turkeys voting for Christmas sort of thing. People are always the problem, not the tech. Luckily people are also the solution.

From Elizabethan masked Balls to Daft Punk’s helmets, the history of dancing to music is filled with masks, and both artists and dancers trying to obscure their identity. Do you think dance music’s relationship with masks, monikers and secrecy is solely escapism? Or is there anything else going on? 

In a serious sense, the DNA of dance music is about anonymity and it was a direct protest very much against the mainstream prettification of everything in the 1980s. ‘The Faceless Producer’ was the purpose of it. It was access for those of us who weren’t good looking enough, or too working class, or too parochial, or too weird. That was its fundamental purpose. Now it’s just a bit silly is the whole mask thing, isn’t it?

Personally, I prefer using the screen. I have to use the mask sometimes. People don’t understand that the journalistic side of the books is genuinely dangerous. We criticise the Saudis. They chop people who write critically about them into bits. It’s no joke. So I get some people laughing about the secret side of it and I see why, but they just aren’t thinking. Usually, they haven’t read the books either. So for me, in short, it’s a necessity. Sadly. Organised crime is very much a part of our scene, that gets discussed too. Most of all it is about Britain’s infamously insane libel laws. All sorts of people are at-risk when you tell the truth in the land of lies. Ironically the guilty are on all the front pages and the innocent have to hide behind pseudonyms. So yeah, not quite answering you there. It’s a different issue here.

Do you think the rise of the DJ/producer and the fact that many Producers have to DJ to pay the bills from electronic music has contributed to the commodification of the image of the DJ?

No, I think the Americanisation of the planet is a much larger and longer-lasting factor. It’s not restricted to our industry. I mean, what has being pretty got to do with being an athlete? And yet in my lifetime, I’ve seen footballers go from having no front teeth to being actual models. The issue is capitalism and libertarians turning everything into a ‘market’. And by everything I mean absolutely everything

When researching for Velocity Press’s upcoming reissue of All Crews, Jay from nineties rave promoters World Dance says crowds ‘weren’t as aware of who was mixing in the old days’. Do you agree? Has the commodity fetishisation of the DJ has always happened or is it a recent development?

Well, this is covered in great detail by an excellent and very reasonably-priced book by a devilishly-handsome young fellow. I can’t recall the publisher. Velocipede… something? The Secret Sausage? I forget. Something like that. Striking cover.

During lockdowns live streams of DJs mixing became prolific on social media. As someone interested in how and why an audience watches a DJ, do you think live streaming feeds a culture of fetishisation? Or should a DJ use their image in any way they can in times of financial difficulty?

There’s a ‘market’ for everything now and the market of a desire to see DJs is not only matched but possibly overwhelmed by the market of egos who cannot survive without imposing themselves on others. I think there was a brief moment of authenticity, where people genuinely trapped by COVID and bored at home were being helped out by DJs who wanted to raise people’s spirits. And like all markets, it quickly soured into a slightly desperate, oversubscribed free-for-all where you started to see mega-twats being filmed in shabby-chic broken-down factories miming along to their own ghost-produced records. A lot of big names were too up themselves to even countenance it, to begin with and by the end were begging to be seen. I honestly don’t know how much of it is about money and how efficiently you can actually monetise it. The house always wins these days, pun intended. Techbros hoover-up all the cash.

For me, I’ve never understood anything that is even one remove away from the immediacy of the party. I don’t even really understand an audio mix of a set that doesn’t include the crowd, or Boiler Room, or Hitman and Her, or the very idea of DJ being separated from the dancefloor. So I’m not the best person to ask. It’s a tough one innit. I mean, it’s my only source of income and I just saw it as a global disaster that would mean hunkering down for a bit and shutting up. I dunno, there is a dialogue somewhere about egos and industry being so out of control that with plague raves our DJs and their reps were actually willing to kill… who could have ever said that about Acid House? Just staggering really.

Representation is a hot topic at the moment with DJs like Om Unit signing up for ‘inclusivity riders’ where they’ll only appear on bills with DJs from a variety of backgrounds. Can we use the idea of the DJ as a performative celebrity in a positive way to increase the visibility of DJs from lesser-represented minorities? Or do you feel it should always be avoided? 

Well yes, clearly we are trying to do something with the anonymity thing, then again you get a perfectly valid argument from some ‘minority groups’ (sorry, for want of a better term) that they very much want to be seen. And I get that too. I do think another awful term ‘positive discrimination’ from the USA is creeping-in and of course, I fully understand it and am all for it. There will be a period of adjustment where to get closer to equality the stale, pale and male element will have to take a back seat for once and they will not like it one bit. That is already here. I hope there is more to come.

I fear in our industry a lot of diversity and inclusivity actions are just marketing, PR or lip service. No one in Hollywood really cares about having someone Chinese in a film, they just want that vast Chinese market to give them pots of cash. People in my industry talk the big talk about diversity and then, quite rightly, promote new diverse faces but they still run them into the ground. And aren’t those faces always pretty? And while we are at it, where is the working class representation? Yeah, it’s a minefield and if you argued that I am making my gigs in pitch black with no phones and the DJs unbilled and behind a screen as a way of hiding from all this… I’d have difficulty denying it.

I think it is clear from this 3rd book that ‘we’, and I am part of a team, we understand and promote as best we can these issues. We work with them. I mean my conscience is clear and I engage with the quagmire frequently rather than skirt it. I don’t think there is a quick or easy way to answer a question as dense as that but I won’t polarise or be reductive. The nature of modernity now is to treat all complex issues as things immediately reduced to daft extremes. Engagement is everything. Sticking your head in the sand of the culture war is just another form of defeat. And like all quagmires, sometimes just being in the discussion is already being lost. I just think it’s right to engage and discuss and embrace the complexity of modernity. I mean, we aren’t hiding with what we do, if any of the DJs in either the book or the gigs want to tell people we do not stop them. Happy for them too.

What we are doing doffs a hat to the time the DJ didn’t matter but it’s a modern thing, not really been done. Sure we’ve seen a few copyists pop up and we didn’t invent the component parts. Like there’s been screens in front of the booth, There have been no phones. But we are, or certainly pre-COVID were the only ones doing the full package of no names on promo, screens, no phones, pitch black, sponsorship by audiophile brands like Bozak… the whole schmeer. That’s new. I mean man! You should have seen it. People literally cried that they couldn’t take their phone. Actual tears. Anyway, yeah. It’s a discussion for sure. Someone should write a book I tell ya!

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