While the general consensus may be that DJ culture has found its downward spiral amid the commercial club overhaul, John Digweed is yet to be persuaded. As a bona fide veteran of the British dance explosion, and renowned for his technical abilities behind the decks, Digweed’s Bedrock imprint and corresponding club nights have set in motion a seemingly perfect revival of new age electronic music cut to the stone of heyday club culture.
Taking to the global festival and club circuit like a duck to water throughout 2012, Digweed and a host of his fellow label cohorts also held a huge anniversary session at Fire nightclub in South London to celebrate the 14 years and more than 100 singles that have forged his imprint.
Now, with the release of Live In London—a compilation collecting more than four hours of the music—the British legend sat down with Beatport News to discuss his landmark return to the infamous capital city and to reflect on the ever-changing landscape of an industry he has served dutifully.
Those more seasoned electronic music fans will know you as something of an underground sensation where British dance music and its development is concerned. Was the UK a positive scene to cut your teeth in back in the day, and how have you seen it grow and develop within your career?
The UK was the place to cut your teeth, and I learned a hell of a lot from promoting my early parties in Hastings. You really had to get out there, speak to people, and try and convince them that they should really check out this basement club on a Thursday night, so they could hear music they had never heard before. Also, being an early resident at Rage (at Heaven, London) in 1991, I learned so much in terms of suddenly DJing in a big main room and how to build and program my set to the next DJ. The vibe at this time was so positive with more outdoor parties and bigger raves, to the complete reverse a year later with promoters looking to offer something more exclusive for the next clubbing revolution with the likes of the Milk Bar, Back to Basic, Venus, and Renaissance. If you look at the UK 20 years on, you still have great clubs like Fabric, Sankeys, The Warehouse Project events, plus amazing festivals all over the summer months. The UK has never rested on its laurels in terms of trying to push things forward, so there is always somewhere to go out.
Do you believe that DJ culture still exists within the modern market, and is there still an obvious hunger for the style of DJ journeys that you have purveyed throughout your career?
Music, just like fashion, goes in and out of style, but if your goal is like mine—to always be searching for great new music to play out—you stand a good chance of holding onto your fan base and winning over new people at the same time. As for the musical journey, I look at it as a nice alternative to being hit over the head with the same Top 20 hit tracks that everybody is playing. I want people to get lost in the music but also have a sense of “WTF is this track, and I need a copy of it!” I love to DJ, and even though I don’t jump around and dance in the booth, I think people know I have a real genuine passion for what I do.
Over the years you have become renowned for your technical approach to DJing and programming live sets, but you must have had to deal with a lot of technological developments along the way. How would you say this has changed and shaped the way DJ sets are performed, and has it been completely to the gain of DJs?
When it was just turntables and a mixer, it was a level playing field—you could either mix records or you couldn’t. Today, with Traktor, Ableton, and the latest CDJs, those loose mixes have all been tightened up with technology, so now the real skill is the track selection and how you create the mood for your set. I think these formats are great, but can also lend themselves to allowing the same playlists to be played night after night as it`s right there in front of you and it worked the night before. This might work for some DJs, but for me, I always want to try and challenge myself with new mixes at every gig. As for pre- recorded sets—DJs that just press play—that’s a whole other debate.
The survival and maintenance of Bedrock as a label and live force remains an impressive feat for such a diverse imprint, given the turbulent tides that surround the wider recording industry. How has the concept grown, and how do you intend to build upon the positivity the platform continues to breed?
The label and club night has done way better than I ever set out to do, so anything we do these days is a bonus. The label is in its best place in years and I think we offer a good platform to new artists as well as some of the long-standing favorites. The fact that we have been developing more artist albums recently is very exciting, too. As for the club nights, I could not wish for a more loyal and supportive crowd.
London vs. America—two key territories for you, yet two very different crowds. How do you interpret the differences in culture and taste having experienced both scenes firsthand, and does the industry need both to remain a healthy one?
I have been going out to the States for over 20 years, so I have seen it from the very start with small pockets of electronic culture in Florida, San Francisco, LA, and New York. Even when Twilo was at its peak in 1999, 2000, and all the press and media were getting excited, it never got any support from radio or MTV, as most of the tracks were made by European producers who had no exposure in the States. Once you add Guetta and some big R&B stars, radio and MTV went crazy for it. You also have to factor in that you can’t drink in a club until you are 21 in the States, so with the rise in all these huge events that are 16 and up, that is a huge audience that you can reach and who are looking for something to do at the weekend. The promoters spend so much money on production that for a 16-year-old’s first experience of an electronic event it must be pretty mind-blowing!
Slowing, I am starting to see that more of the big events are showcasing arenas with more underground and techno-style DJs, which is great news as even though they are getting into the scene through the big cheesy DJs, there will always be a few that are there being part of the crowd but are really looking for something with a bit more depth and these arenas will offer a genuine alternative to the main-stage madness.
In the UK, you also get into music at an earlier age, but as you can go to clubs at 18, you seem to have quite a lot of choice with smaller events, and the UK has always tended to try and search out new and exciting underground scenes over the big commercial sounds.
Talk us through the London anniversary night itself—the mood, atmosphere, and experience of playing for such an extended period of time. What do these extended sets offer as far as the DJ is concerned?
It was the first time that we have held an event at Fire, and I must say, I was very impressed—and the feedback has all been very positive as well. Lineup-wise, I think we showcased a great diverse selection of DJs and artists over the five rooms and this gave people plenty of choice throughout the night. As for me, getting to play for eight hours at a Bedrock party is a dream gig! There is so much great music out there, so this extended set time really allows me to play from the deep sounds at the start of my set to the tougher stuff later on. The mood at the party was pretty special with people traveling from all over the world to come to it, which also makes me feel extra happy that people have made such an effort for me and makes me really want to play out of my skin. I am also happy that after listening through to the recording of the party, we decided to release it. We live in a world of SoundCloud, Mixcloud, and free DJ mixes on the internet, so for the fans who want something more than an MP3 file, hopefully the music and the album packaging will be a nice memory for them.