Anyone who’s ever met Dec Lennon, aka Krystal Klear, will know that he’s not often short for words, and we thought he’d be a natural for our first-person Perspectives series, so we asked him for his thoughts on modern clubbing. The Dublin-born DJ and producer has always had a keen sense of dance music history, as his three very different Boiler Room appearances – here, here and here – show, and he asked if he could talk about how this digging into the past has affected his view of the present for better or worse. He didn’t disappoint, and what follows is a deeply personal take on dance music’s relationship to its own past, the joy of discovery, and the pleasure and pain of standing on the shoulders of giants.
I became a crate-digger by accident. When I started buying records I seriously didn’t know what I was listening to or buying. I had this sense that there was a lot of politics and rigmarole about what you were supposed to buy, because I hung out with a load of hip hop people, a lot of crate-diggers and beat makers, and it was like kids with Premier League stickers for albums. There were certain rules and laws to buying records, about whether you got an original copy or a repress, but I didn’t have a clue about any of that. The only reason I even bought records was because I was hanging round a shop selling them which also sold graffiti stuff, and I was only there for the graffiti stuff, but bit by bit records became part of the thing too.
For all I knew, when I was first buying old records, I could’ve been buying something that was brand new. Likewise I remember buying a Nicole Willis & The Soul Investigators [Helsinki-based modern soul singer & Jimi Tenor Collaborator] record, purely for the sound, and thinking this sounded fresh, although I suppose it’s a retro sound. My naivety was leading me to certain things and certain discoveries, and over time eventually I realised that I was buying a lot more older records – but circumstantially in a club setting, in a listening setting, those still sounded new to me. It was fluke, more than anything else: I never walked in at 14 going “I’m going to buy retro Chicago house records, that’s my sound!” because I had no idea what that was.
At that age, though, I knew hip hop, I knew Wu Tang stuff and De La Soul stuff, and I was just starting to understand the process and understand the men behind the music, so I was getting into Dilla, RZA and getting my head round what they did. I was actually already a sample fiend without even knowing it because my dad used to play a lot of good stuff, like he used to play Chaka Khan “Fate” in the car all the time so I recognised the sample of it straight away when Stardust came out. My dad knew bits of stuff, so when I went “what the fuck dad, they’ve totally skanked Chaka Khan” he told me that no, they’d sampled it.
So at 15 I bought a turntable and an MPC and started trying to put beats together, and at 16 I started DJing – although that was just weddings and 21st birthdays, and eventually the biggest, cheesiest club in Dublin: it was like the Tiger Tiger of Dublin. So my musical world was split. I was making good money but playing shit records at this club, and I was buying these records that I loved and half thought I could sample but made no sense in hip hop. I was buying a load of crap, but also a load of great disco, boogie, house type stuff, records I still play now: I was buying Carrie Lucas records and they just didn’t work for one second in the bedroom backpacker J Dilla hip-hop beats that I was making. And then finally as my skills and tastes developed, it all came together into what I do now.
The way old and new fit together with me comes back to my naivety: I just have a scrapbook mentality, I don’t ever consciously think “this track is old and will sound good next to something new”, I just think “this song’s banging and that song’s banging and together they’ll be super banging.” I know there’s lots of DJs who’ll consciously decide they might put a Burrell Brothers track beside a Kowton record because X or Y element in the older one is relevant to what’s happening now and this will work for that reason – and occasionally I’ll do that but really when I started what it was about was purely, self-indulgently, to play it because I liked it, and that’s still what motivates me.
Now, Ireland didn’t really have a home for someone like me. In the way that Calum and Jack and the Numbers boys had the Sub Club and Optimo, or someone in London would have had Plastic People, Dublin didn’t have that for me. Mark Murphy and Choice Cuts put on nights that were quite educational for me as a young guy, but these were exceptions. So most of my understanding ended up coming from books like Love Saves The Day, or from watching documentaries on Channel 4 after midnight, or from bits and bobs of things. I would start by getting into something like Daft Punk and Armand Van Helden, then I’d go back to Kenny Dope and start reading interviews, see a mention of the Sound Factory or the Paradise Garage, and not know what these things were but need to know more.
Ten years ago, when I was 17, the internet wasn’t the initial source – for me, anyway. YouTube was barely even a thing, there was no music streaming, so it was more about going on Amazon and ordering books about disco culture and club culture, or videos like Wild Style or Beat Street where they’d show scenes at The Roxy or The Mud Club. And when I find out about something I want to know everything about it, so I’d take that as a jump-off point to dig further, to read up about David Mancuso, and Larry Levan, anything to do with New York disco and house, or other little obsessions I had like the French Touch stuff.
“You look at the stories of Levan or Ron Hardy or Mancuso, and you can’t help but want that.”
Because of all this, I kind of lived in a fantasy world of clubs gone by. Any of my mates will tell you, I’m the biggest romantic out there: as an example, the other day, I interviewed Louie Vega on Rinse, it was just a short thing about his new album, but all I wanted was to go “Tell me! Tell me! Tell me every little story about you and Kenny Dope making beats in a garage with an MPC then rolling into a club with new DAT tapes…” – I totally romanticised every single detail of it. Part of me wishes that I was born in a different time, because in retrospect those times, those moments of creation are everything to me.
Most of all, I live with this sense that the great DJs could do whatever they wanted with a dancefloor. You look at the stories of Levan or Ron Hardy or Mancuso, what they would play, how much care they would take to create these insane moments on the dancefloor, and you can’t help but want that. Mancuso just cutting the music and playing the sound of rain for two minutes before playing “Love is the Message”, or Levan putting the heaters on in the Garage for three hours, then suddenly shutting them off, switching on cold fans and playing Weather Report or something. You can’t not be romantic about that idea!
I’m the worst person for understanding politics, but I do feel like because of the social situations and the political air that early dance culture came out of – because of the fact races socialising together was frowned on, because of the pressure on gay people to stay hidden, all of that – that people were more open minded to what a DJ could do. They had so much bigger things to worry about in their lives than whether the beatmatching was perfect on this or that mix. And I think that, and the fact the blueprint was still being created, gave the DJs a freedom to really wheel and deal, which you can very rarely get nowadays. You try playing a rain sample for two minutes and they’ll just go “What the fuck is going on? This is shit. What was yer man doing?” I mean, maybe I’m just a shit DJ and I haven’t realised it yet, but if I play something that’s more than three minutes and is in any way chilled or not a going-bananas-to-it track, people will just stand still or even walk away.
“When you’re at a friend’s house you’re at the most comfortable in the world. You’ll take your shoes off, you’ll take your shirt off…”
There are still parties where you can get away with that sort of thing, and god knows if I could play those every night I would. But nowadays there’s such a formula, there’s an expectancy to nightclub culture that has deteriorated the main frame of what it’s all about. People are spoiled. It’s a double edged sword, of course: it puts a roof over my head, so I can’t exactly knock the formula, I can’t just say “fuck that” to it. But the bottom line is money, even the good people doing the good parties have to have an eye on that bottom line, and that inevitably gets in the way of the original ethos of “love saves the day”, of “let’s just get together to enjoy ourselves”, by pushing everything towards being predictable and easy to package and sell tickets for. And that leads to the thing that really fucking aggravates me: the fact that the energy level has to be the same, all the way through the two or three hours of a set. There’s no room for unpredictability.
My idea of the perfect party is one that feels like you’re at someone’s house, no matter how big it is or loud the music it is. Not just at anyone’s house: at a friend’s house – because when you’re at a friend’s house you’re at the most comfortable in the world. You’ll take your shoes off, you’ll take your shirt off, you’ll do any kind of dance you want, whatever. That’s what Mancuso originally had with The Loft. But when you’re queueing in the rain and there’s bouncers and heavy-headedness and guys taking drugs that aren’t good and people getting aggro around you and people just there because it’s the “thing to do”, it doesn’t exactly build the right endorphins and the right sense of trust for people to go “right, this guy’s doing something different in the DJ booth tonight, and that’s cool”.
I’m not Albert fucking Einstein, but I do know that I see a bit of a bigger picture to DJing than just pumping it out, one track after another on exactly the same energy level. There’s people who can do it, because they’ve always gone in with that sense of no compromise – the Floating Points, the Theo Parrishes, the Four Tets, the Slow To Speaks – and maybe I need to push it even further so that people know that when they see my name, that they’ll get techno dropped into some mad psychedelic boogie thing then through disco and into something else completely.
I can do that at Hoya:Hoya in Manchester, one of the few places that’s just based around music as a whole, but again, this is an exception. What we need more than anything else – what I in my romanticised way feel like is the basis of club culture itself – are to be able to expect the unexpected. Of course, really it’s not about me, it’s not about my romantic thoughts, it’s about the young kids going out – and what they want is to have a good time, to get on the good foot and do the bad thing, and it’s my job to give them what they want. I’ve got no illusions about that. But somewhere in the middle of that, I hope that I, and the rest of nightclub culture, can find room for that sense of the unexpected that was there right at the foundation of it all.
Krystal Klear’s new single “One Night Only (ft. Yasmin) is out on 15th March. Preorder it here.
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