John Digweed is one of those iconic names in electronic music that will never fade away. Now a music legend, and a pioneer of the progressive and house genres, Digweed began DJing at the tender age of 15 out of his hometown of Hastings, England, and has been making his mark on the music industry for over 20 years. We were lucky enough to catch up with him just minutes before he closed out the Beatport Stage at the Movement Festival a few weeks back to talk playing house in Detroit, the first ever Renaissance compilation album, and the pros and cons of the digital landscape.
You just arrived in Detroit a couple hours ago. How has it been so far?
Bit wet! But there’s lots of energy out there, so that’s great to see. I literally just ran into the festival now, but it’s great to be here.
Are you looking forward to playing?
Yes! Of course—that’s why I’m here [laughs].
What can we expect from your set?
Probably quite tough, I imagine. I’m closing out the stage, so I have to keep the energy alive. I don’t ever really know what I’m gonna do until I get out there, so I just play and I see how the crowd reacts, and I go from there.
I read that you still get nervous before your sets, even after so many years in the business. Do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions?
I always try to take a good 20 minutes to myself to really get in the zone. I’ll catch the last bit of the DJ before me to see how the crowd is reacting—but nothing too complicated, no standing on my head or anything like that [laughs].
No shots of tequila?
No [laughs], nothing like that!
You’ve been an integral part of the house scene for a very long time. Will you be doing anything to adapt your set given that you’re in such a techno-centric city like Detroit?
I think people who are coming out to hear me play, want to hear what I normally play rather than a record that a DJ from Detroit would typically play. I just do my thing and I think people will like it!
You’ve played in cities all over the world. Have you noticed differences in the way that the crowd reacts to or interacts with music?
It’s kind of strange to think about what’s happened with electronic music, you know, with the internet and with YouTube. In the ’90s, people didn’t have nearly as much access to electronic music or to hearing DJs’ sets. They’d hear it on CDs or the odd early Essential Mix from Radio One, but now with the internet, people have much more awareness in terms of knowing a certain DJ’s style or what their performances are usually like. So, if I play in Australia or South America, people aren’t thinking, “What is this music? What’s this guy doing?” The internet’s really allowed people to be connected to your music; they can follow you and like what you do. I tend to find that wherever I go, I never walk away from a set thinking that the crowd didn’t understand what I did. I’ve never had any real disasters in that sense [laughs].
That’s good to hear! So, you mentioned that you improvise a bit when you’re up there. How do you gauge the crowd’s reaction?
Well, I think I’ve been doing this long enough that I get up there and I can kind of just feel my way through my set. The first couple records are the hardest bit, and from there it will just flow naturally. You’ve got to make sure you nail your first couple records—those are the ones that lock the crowd in.
You and Sasha are responsible for the first-ever proper DJ compilation album from quite a while ago. Looking back on that Renaissance compilation, what do you think of your track selection?
I mean… I think the reason why that album really stood out, even now, coming up on 20 years, is because it came out; it was really the first of its kind, as you mentioned. We picked the best records from that era, and people know them because of that album—they don’t know them from anywhere else, because there was nothing else out there like that at the time. It told the story of that period in time so well. That was the best thing about it.
At the time, did you think putting together that album would have the reaction or effect that it did?
We had no idea that it would be so successful. As with most things that are successful, you don’t plan it; it was just something we really wanted to do. We got to do something legit and sell it properly. Back then, DJs would have their sets recorded and they’d be sold out the back of a car at Sunday market. You’d never get any say in it; it was all done behind your back… so, it was this whole new experience to get to choose what would be included on the album. I can listen to that album and it brings back great memories. I’m definitely not disappointed in the track selection at all.
Are there any tracks on there you’d still play today?
Yeah, there’s some Leftfield tracks on there I’ll still bring out. My memory’s a bit foggy after 18 hours of traveling [laughs], but yeah, there’s definitely a lot of great stuff on there—they’re classics.
I read somewhere that one of the biggest things that’s changed in a DJ’s life is the SD card. You seem to be a supporter of the digital movement, but do you ever miss the way things were?
I used to fly out to New York every month for five years, with two big boxes of records, a shoulder bag of records, a suitcase… If I tried to do that now, with the airlines, it would just be a nightmare. I travel so much, I can be away for 16 days at a time, and be able to update my set every day that I’m away—and I love that. I think there’s pros and cons to both sides of it, though. I love vinyl. I think there’s something about it that’s just super-sexy—really tangible. I’ve still got all my records at home, but from a DJing point of view, you can’t beat the digital age we’re in now.
Photo by Jordan Loyd