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Resident DJs Are The Heroes Of Clubbing, And We Need To Show Them Love

With residencies becoming marketing tools, what next for the community DJ?

by John Thorp
06 January 2014, 8:07pm

Amongst DJs, producers and promoters, there has long been a wistful sense of usually borrowed nostalgia about the age of, Larry Levan, Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles; all of whom played regularly at clubs such as New York's Paradise Garage and Chicago's The Warehouse throughout the seventies and eighties. Here, their sets were typified - especially in the case of Hardy - as an "anything goes" mix of genres and styles. These DJs played all night long, week in, week out, becoming central to their own self-sculpted institutions. But is your friendly, neighbourhood DJ increasingly becoming something of the past?

The appeal and ambition of events like Manchester's Warehouse Project has mirrored the returning ubiquity of dance culture in the UK perfectly and, given it's scale, even influenced it. It's calling card are impressive line-ups that nail up to ten or fifteen artists from each amorphous scene; crying to be shared on Facebook with a, "Fuck me, have you seen this?!" In reality, clubbers are faced with a sort of tyranny of choice across several rooms, perhaps inexplicably catching Blawan showcasing some of the hardest techno known to man, shortly before 8PM. Hours later, in the queue to grab a cab, "Who did you like best?" is met with expressions struggling to connect the dots - although admittedly, come that point, a stacked line up is probably only half the story.

But even a club the size of WHP relies on trusted residents such as Krysko and Greg Lord to set the tone, and ease the masses into the party. There are thousands of under-appreciated, incredibly adept resident DJs all over the world; often equipped with the benefit of being able to dip off early and get stuck into a nearby rider, or take over to close the night after a headliner has left the room at fever pitch. Choosing to rely on style and selection over chart smashes and great haircuts alone, or God forbid, a rubber dinghy, the resident has one of the most rewarding if not romanticised roles on any dance floor. And it's one that suddenly, currently, seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance. 

Mister Saturday Night parties in Brooklyn, NYC

In New York, Justin Carter of Mister Saturday Night has made community the centre of his parties and, in the process, rendered guests as prestigious as Four Tet and Pearson Sound just beautiful shades of the wallpaper. Along with partner Eamon Harkin, Justin describes himself as an initially clinical sounding "logistics operator", but this means controlling everything from the sound system, selecting the security, ensuring the bar staff are kind to everyone and, of course, the records. "It's about an entire experience", reckons Carter:

"One of the best things about playing somewhere for a whole night is that we don't need to drop in… We can really form what's happening in the room. How many times have you been to a party and somebody is just banging out, because that's just what they do? One of the reasons we do what we do is to play the music that we want to."

A big influence on Mister Saturday and Mister Sunday is Glasgow's peerless Optimo; formed and maintained with precision by JD Twitch and Johnnie Wilkes, and forged into history every Sunday night for nearly twenty years, before bowing out of the weekly format in 2011. Whilst their aesthetics and backgrounds differ, at clubs such as Mister Saturday Night and Optimo music new and old weaves together coherently and, at the best of times, transcending genre entirely. 

Whenever the tale of the birth of acid house is recounted, the legend of Ron Hardy playing Phuture's soon-to-be classic "Acid Trax" four times over the course of one night at New York's Music Box is rarely amiss. Faced at first with a nonplussed dance floor, the record was said to have people screaming for more by closing time. They were also known to spike the punch with acid at the Garage but, nonetheless, it's a phenomenon that wasn't lost on Optimo, who were often determined to squeeze floor shaking records from the most unlikely sources. "Lots of records that became Optimo classics are fairly removed from most people's idea of a dance classic, and this was only possible because we had a feverishly loyal and regular crowd. One such track that always springs to mind is 'Everybody's Gotta Live' by Love", Twitch recalls.

"It has no drums or bass line; it's just acoustic guitar and vocals. The record was extremely hard to find and it wasn't anywhere on the internet, but it started to seep into people's heads. Eventually it took on a life of its own and by that point, other DJs in Glasgow had tracked it down and started playing it. I'd hear it in local shops and bars too. That's just one of many examples and one of the things that made having a residency so satisfying."

Whilst the template for raving in British youth culture has held steadfast for the best part of thirty years, it would be impossible to deny dance music's current ubiquity, especially in regards to house. Whereas BBC Radio 1 once scheduled Friday night for 'Dance Anthems', they increasingly make up much of the station's daytime musical output. More and more, people want big tunes, and the accompanying big names behind them. "I'd love to run a club night that only brought amazing but unknown DJs I've encountered to come and play, but sadly it just wouldn't work as people in general are only interested in or have respect for DJs with a degree of name recognition", Twitch says. "A resident DJ needs to be very adept at playing every part of a night. They're in the enviable position of being able to break the kinds of tracks that a touring DJ might have with them all year, but never feel comfortable enough to play."

Few clubbers would argue with the phenomenon Twitch alludes to; the feeling of a record slowly seeping into the mass consciousness of fellow clubbers, there to be dropped at any moment and euphorically recalled the following day. It's a moment that's magnified when accompanied with a unique sense of community. On the airwaves, stations like Rinse have helped introduce a new wave of grassroots selectors through labels like Hessle Audio and Numbers, whilst BBC 6Music's '6Mix' offers up bi-monthly airtime, and a trip into the record bags of statelier figures such as Andrew Weatherall, Erol Alkan and Goldie. These shows almost act as residencies themselves; side-stepping the club to be accessed by music fans in any place, at any time. The allure of playing longer, more varied and therefore more personal sets seems to be a constant beacons for DJs at all levels, as well as their devotees.

Seth Troxler, last year's Resident Advisor-voted #1 DJ in the world, plans to spend 2014 reigning in his vast travels to focus on a series of residencies at Output in New York, Fabric in London and Amsterdam's Trouw; where he will also act as chef at the venue's restaurant, but hopefully not with his knob out. Explaining his decision to THUMP UK,  he felt that:

"When you're playing at huge club line ups or festivals you only get to play an hour and a half. It's hard to build a vibe that'll last in that time and, with EDM now, everything is just this big dumb stage show. Fuck that, man. I just want to hang out at the club and play some jams; where it's dark, sweaty and a bit seedy. I feel that otherwise, there can be a huge disconnect. You don't have the same connection with people that I think is fundamentally the core of our culture."

And whilst Troxler can be be excepted to be seeing more of Fabric, Shoreditch's XOYO meanwhile have taken the seemingly radical move of scheduling four individual residents each Saturday throughout 2014, choosing Eats Everything for the first twelve weeks of the year. In the process, they're claiming a return to a time "where the resident DJ isn't a side-thought, but the headliner." There are a few key differences of course; Eats Everything will also be curating the guests,  unlike whatever poor eighteen-year old deep house fan in Milton Keynes regrettably finds their self warming up for K-Klass. As well as an all-night long session, his guests will include the likes of occasional recording partners Justin Martin and TEED, as well as Skream, Heidi and other big-name circuit regulars.

Whilst Eats' phonebook is undoubtedly impressive they're ultimately all commercially sound choices, as is likely to be a necessity for any residency an eight-hundred capacity venue. Elsewhere however, the resident's model is thriving, albeit in a smaller, less competitive form.

Bradley Zero inside Canavan's Pool Hall, home of Rhythm Section.

In tubeless Peckham, Bradley Zero, internationally known as one of the faces of Boiler Room, has founded a very local concern in Rhthym Section. His twice monthly party in Canavan's Pool Hall is a vinyl-only, community-focused party, with it's roots in sound system culture. 'Peckham Strong' is the vibe, emblazoned on T-shirts amongst its ever increasing converts. "I very rarely have more than two guests and we have 6-8 hours to share between us", explains Zero. 

"I like the fact that there is no rush, no clamouring for the peak time set and a much stronger feeling of 'we're in this together'. I think the resident has to know when to sit back and when to intervene. I guess rule number 1 is 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' - if a guest DJ is in a flow then I'm not going to stop them just so I can play!"

Like Mister Saturday Night, Rhythm Section politely request that their audience make themselves too busy dancing to take photos on the dance floor, and to simply 'be nice'. Zero isn't opposed to larger scale club events, acknowledging that they have "a time and a place", but that Rhythm Section's purpose is far removed from this aesthetic. "Promoters will pack out line- ups in an attempt to entice people to their night, but in doing so inadvertently make their event just like any of the other hundred or so events going on the same weekend", explains Zero. 

"The notable exceptions, such as Rhythm Section, World Unknown, Principals, Body Hammer and Levels are paving the way in creating dances with a sense of continuity and community; a vibe that carries on and evolves from one week to the next with a fan base that is less concerned by 'who' is playing and more intrigued by delving into the next chapter of the dance."

Clubbing is a naturally communal pursuit, and perhaps one of the few cultural institutions that can sincerely offer moments of transcendence and surprise on any scale. It's perhaps why rose tinted glasses are never far from the nose of it's participants as dance music continues to evolve and grow. But take it into your own hands, onto own decks and through to your own people, and it can quickly become something beautiful.

You can follow John Thorp on Twitter here: @MrJohnThorp

Rhythm Section
warehouse project
thump blog
Bradley Zero
Mister Saturday Night
jd twitch