He may not be as famous as Richie Hawtin, Sven Väth, or any other of dance music’s legendary artists, but 52-year-old Bill Brewster has contributed his fare share to the culture. With fellow Englishman Frank Broughton, he authored ‘99’s Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. Tracing the history of DJing from day one, the book delves heavily into the invention of hip hop, house and other genres. Until then, no one had ever tackled the history so deeply or accurately. It shows in the figures. At last count, the book had been translated into a dozen languages or so, and sold 150,000 copies across America and the UK. Apart from this monumental achievement, Brewster has also counted himself a journalist, promoter, DJ, producer and label owner. And maybe, at a stretch, historian.
“I think of historians as being slightly fusty men who smoke pipes and know a lot about Greek history,” Brewster quips. “The whole point about documenting the things that I have is precisely because no one else was interested. So, I'm kind of a default historian, I guess.” Can you blame him? Since his adolescence in the ‘70s, everything has changed about music. The way it’s made, delivered and consumed. “When I was a kid, music wasn't all around you in the way that it is now,” he says. “We used to have a thing called ‘Dial-a-Disc’. You used to put two pence into a public telephone, and then you could choose a tune from the Top 40. We'd all stand in a public telephone booth, and then we'd cradle the telephone to our collective ears.” When it came to buying 7-inch singles, the teenage Brewster used to number them as they entered his collection. “I don't think I ever got above about 25,” he says, later explaining how costly the mini-size vinyls were.
Of course, with the rise of the internet and computers, things are much different nowadays. “I think music has become more of a commodity, and less simply about art and music for itself,” Brewster says. Despite this, he’s pleased with the openness of the younger generation, and describes them as knowledgeable. “I find I never have any problem playing music to a slightly younger audience,” he says. “They're certainly a lot more receptive than a lot of 40-year-old people who've only grown up knowing house music.” Seemingly, this sentiment has shaped Brewster’s life dramatically. He’s a determined educator, whether through print or via his eclectic DJ sets. The latter, he says, are about playing people something new, whether it’s from the ‘80s or last week. Or in his words: “For every one nerdy trainspotter person like me, there's 99 people who don't care, who just want to listen to what's on Top Of The Pops. Maybe that's just how society is. You've only got a 1 percent of nerds, and they're the ones that go out and find the good tunes for the 99 percent that don't give a shit.”
Typically, his thirst for spontaneity means even Brewster is largely in the dark about what his sets will entail. “I don't generally look at my records beforehand,” he says. “What I might do is choose a tune that I'm going to start with, even then I wouldn't select that until an hour, half an hour before I play. And it still might change.” He has quite a bit to say about the craft, actually. Another of his books – yes, he’s written several – is titled How to DJ Properly. People’s biggest mistake, Brewster says, is mixing. “They think mixing is really important, and it's not. It's part of the tools of being a DJ, but it's by no means the most essential part,” he says. “The most essential part is track selection, and how you put music together. For me, that beats mixing any day.”
And you can bet Brewster knows a thing or two about selection. At home, he’s got over 12,000 records stashed, a surprisingly low number compared to some other DJs his age. “I know it sort of sounds ridiculous, but it doesn't seem excessive to me,” he says. “And actually, I often look at it and I can see huge gaps of things that I think should be in there, but aren't. I know that sounds utterly absurd, and a little bit nuts, but that's how I feel.”
Then there’s his 30 plus years of clubbing, in which he claims to have seen “most things”, some of them “semi-unprintable”. “Someone doing a poo on the dance floor, because he was so off his head; all kinds of things,” he says. At one gig, a drunk punter actually pissed into Frank Broughton’s record box, destroying the covers of several treasured bits of wax. Despite such misadventures, and demoralisation by the realities of the music industry, his spirit is still alive and well. “I don't think you can continue for so long if you're really cynical,” he says. “I’ve been going out clubbing since the late '70s, but I still really get a kick when I walk into a club and I can hear the bass.” And apparently, age has no impact on this at all. “I think the most important thing is to keep staying in touch with what's going on,” Brewster says. “I think as long as you've got enthusiasm for new music, there's no reason why you can't continue.”
Bill Brewster [UK] plays New Guernica on Friday May 18.