B2B2B2Bs, ‘classics’ sets, ‘house party takeovers’, ‘hybrid DJ/live performances’; as one successful club promoter recently commented on Twitter, “people buy tickets to a concept, not a DJ anymore. It’s so saturated at the moment that you need something more than a lineup now.” However, within the wash of Instagram friendly events, one concept that lives and dies by its simplicity has made a gradual and welcome resurgence: the marathon DJ set.
Over the course of dance music’s history, the concept of one DJ steering the sound of a night from start to finish is as consistent as the sound of the kick drum. Trailblazing clubs such as Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage and David Mancuso’s The Loft, both in New York City, thrived on their founders’ peerless tastes, and were more likely to see live performances than other DJs popping in to spin the remix package of their last single. More contemporary equivalents, such as once weekly, now occasional Glaswegian party Optimo, London masters secretsundaze and Brooklyn summertime favourite Mister Saturday Night, have followed suit.
Undoubtedly, the gradual rise of internet radio has allowed deeper, more immediate access into any tastemakers’ record buying habits, as well as their diverse, dutifully ordered USB folders. Outside the club space, online stations such as Rinse, NTS and WNYC have made rising stars out of ambitious DJs such as Jackmaster, Bradley Zero, Moxie, Tim Sweeney and Bake. And while each of these talented individuals has a hand in their own label, they are primarily established as tastemakers in the truest sense, pushing music forward from the past, present and future, even if none of it is their own. Their audiences are open minded, driven by a desire to hear new music, and above all else, want to dance for as long as possible.
Alongside the recent wave of ‘DJ’s DJs’, there’s still always the sort of breakthrough producer known for that anthem, who remain equally keen to showcase their interest in, say, vintage jungle. These potentially pigeonholed artists are increasingly able to work their knowledge and talent outside of the usual boundaries. Major artists such as Eats Everything, Benji B and Bicep have undertaken weekly residencies at XOYO, each delving into their broader taste and presumably impressive phone contacts to curate distinctive lineups.
“Time and time again, I have come to the end of a two-hour set and just started to really enjoy it, and then it’s over.”
“I think on a very basic level it was an attempt to try and connect with the crowds I was DJing for in a different way”, explains Midland, aka Harry Agius, who has just completed a marathon run of UK shows with only himself behind the decks. “Time and time again, I have come to the end of a two-hour set and just started to really enjoy it, and then it’s over. It was also a challenge that interested me. DJing week in week out can at times feel a bit routine, and I don’t want it to ever feel like that, so this was my attempt to sidestep that feeling.”
On a chilly, typically boisterous Friday night at Liverpool’s Shipping Forecast, Agius slowly warms up the crowd with soul and funk, moving unmixed at first into disco and slow-mo house, with tracks such as Glass Candy’s “Geto Boys” and the heart wrenching Eros edit of Barbara Mason’s “Darling Come Back Home” given full room to breathe in the hazy, intimate surroundings of the basement club.
Gradually and subtly, the tempo rises, as the tight flow of Midland’s mixing and expert looping gels together, the mass of bodies around the decks gradually locking into the rhythm. Before they find faith in the masses, almost all successful DJs master the art of the warm up, and fortunately, it’s a skill that almost all manage to retain.
“I think the most important part of the tour has been learning that you can’t, and shouldn’t, be playing at full pelt all night”, reflects Aguis, with his solo trip around the UK club scene polished off. “There will be times when the atmosphere will be more subdued when you take it down, but this acts more as a palette cleanser for everyone. Making sure you have your music really well organised is also key. I never plan my sets, bar maybe the first couple of tracks, but it’s good to have all your ducks in a row when you want to change direction.”
Those changes in direction are firmly felt and embraced throughout the duration of Midland’s set, which slips seamlessly and unpredictably between cut-up disco, soulful-yet-driving house and forays into offbeat techno. And, while the rhythmic responsibilities of the role are still adhered to – at least in Liverpool – Agius fails to drop a note of his beloved ELO. The inherent bond between selector and audience at All Night events generate a reassuring, even forgiving atmosphere. Is handing the DJ controls for an evening the ideal way to experience dance music? And does the tendency to overstuff lineups actually work against the crowd?
“I grew up listening to DJs playing sets of an hour or 90 minutes, who were all essentially in competition with each other to be recognised and remembered over the course of a night,” recalls Ben UFO, aka Ben Thomson. As one of the founding trio behind groundbreaking label Hessle Audio, alongside Pearson Sound and Pangaea, Thomson is also one of the most truly versatile and understandably well respected DJs in the world today. “There’s an undeniable energy generated by that approach, and I think that energy is one of the things that gave UK dance music such a distinct identity for so long.”
For better or worse, the unprecedented availability and back cataloguing of music over the past decade has helped to deconstruct much of the tribalism associated with various UK music scenes, simultaneously injecting clubs with a new, open minded energy of their own. Thomson speaks of a fundamental “desire to look beyond the immediate confines of specific genres, and to draw lines between the sounds that had inspired the dance music that we all grew up with.” It’s an admirable notion, and if UFO and his peers are now offered a wider musical freedom in clubs, the seeds have been sown over time.
“If you listen back to the radio shows David, Kev and I broadcasted while we were living in Leeds, while it’s obvious that dubstep formed their core, we always drew from other areas as well – garage, house, techno… worlds that seem so connected that they’re almost inseparable now, but which in 2010 felt like very distinct scenes, at least from our perspective”, recalls Thomson. “We played all this stuff together, and eventually we started to get sent music which was being made by people who were specifically influenced by that approach, which in turn made it easier to present the music as a coherent whole.”
“It gives you freedom in the sense that if people know you are playing all night, then they expect something different and to be surprised.”
A clubber’s generation earlier, London-based DJ Erol Alkan ran and played his legendary Trash night each Monday from 1997 until 2007, only missing one party in the decade. Over the years, the club’s aesthetic naturally if unpredictably evolved from an outsider indie club to embrace electro, while always remaining eclectic, alternative and driven by its founders’ adventurous mixing and taste. Once Trash was shuttered at its peak, Alkan began to play all-night long sessions at London’s Fire, culminating with a twelve hour set at Easter 2013, drawing together his disparate tastes over a full turn of the clock.
“It gives you freedom in the sense that if people know you are playing all night, then they expect something different and to be surprised”, Alkan explains. “It’s also a gift to be able to weave all those different sounds and eras into one journey and engage with the room. And you need to choose your curveballs very carefully, but when you get it right, it’s like nothing else.”
Although like other trusted DJs, he still plays occasional All Night sets at venues such as Glasgow’s Sub Club, Alkan purposefully avoided the novelty of endurance, drawing his eventual line at twelve hours of music.
“That was enough for me”, Alkan admits. “I really enjoyed it and it didn’t feel that long. For that particular set, it felt like over a thousand people stayed from start to finish, so I know that it took something special to keep them locked in throughout.”
Similarly, despite the hedonistic appeal of the seemingly never ending party lived out at clubs such as Berghain, Ben UFO agrees that in this regard, UK club licensing limitations can generate inspiration, at least from the DJ’s perspective.
“The only thing I sometimes dislike about all night sets in clubs with flexible licensing conditions is being presented with an open-ended finishing time”, he suggests “I think my style of DJing relies on variation and often sharp contrasts to generate peaks in energy, which can be exhausting for people over long periods of time, so having an end-point in mind is helpful when it comes to managing the energy levels. I also much prefer the experience of a night having a distinct and celebratory ending, as opposed to fizzling out when the last person eventually goes home.”
While a DJ focused on house and techno might easily plot an ascending path from lo-slung disco and dub all the way through to the relentless cuts in their Dance Mania collection, how do you maintain the energy when your chosen genre is all about energy itself? Andy C, still perhaps the UK’s leading ambassador of D&B, is no stranger to the concept himself. His All Night tour culminates in 2016 with a date of his own at London’s vast Alexandra Palace. How do you ease your pedal off the metal when you’re regularly pushing 150BPM?
“To be honest, I like to kick off all guns blazing!”, he explains with unbridled enthusiasm. “I generally go on around 11pm/midnight, so my intention is to get the party going from the off.”
“Surprises keep the vibe alive.”
Andy C, real name Andy Clarke, is in a unique position, having run his label Ram Records since 1992, helping him maintain a vision and fan base that have allowed his appearances to remain consistently popular, even when D&B has occasionally found itself pushed back underground. And while he can still throw it down on the decks as hard as anyone, detached from the short, sharp sets that characterise the genre, does he ever feel that more names act as a hinderance rather than a help?
“I always thought that since way back”, reveals Clarke. “Don’t get me wrong, at festivals and the right gigs, it’s great to have a variety of acts and DJs to listen to. But in a club I always felt as though I’d just started getting into the vibe, and then it was time to end. Our genre is blessed with a huge amount of variety in styles and an incredible pool of talented artists. For me as a DJ, I’ve always loved all the sides to D&B, so having longer sets allows me to express that love and show just how much diversity the music has.”
Clarke is also well known for his technically meticulous three-deck set up, allowing him to push the boundaries of his own needle dropping abilities and ensure the mix is always busy.
“It basically helps me to have more fun and mix in a way where I can keep it all sounding fluid and full of energy”, Clarke explains. “Having two tunes in the mix, you might have an idea pop in your head for a tune that’d blend, and just drop it in. Surprises keep the vibe alive. Just this weekend gone, I played for ten hours over two sets… I must have got through 500 tunes or more overall.”
Crucially, besides music itself, whatever might be fuelling the energy on the floor remains only the business of the dancers. But ten hours of selection and mixing records is an obvious physical and psychological challenge for any DJ. What might be the best option beneath the decks in order to gain a flash of stamina?
“My real revelation this tour has been apples during my set”, reveals Midland. “They are an instant pick me up. Flapjacks and peanut M&Ms, too. Anything that has sugar and slow burning energy.”
With a bottomless well of hype constantly refilled for an ever increasing number of DJs, it can’t be guaranteed that an All Night set will always stand as a hallmark of taste. After all, records will always be easier to find and play in quantity, rather than quality. But the greatest dance floors have always thrived in a state of freedom. And freedom begins in the booth.
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