John Digweed talks 'the long way round' and preserving the art of DJing
For all the icons and pioneers to fall out of the industry limelight, John Digweed has remained an ever-fixed focal point. Far from a dinosaur to the ‘yesterday’ of electronic dance evolution, his relevance to both the digital market and the live dance sphere has not stumbled with time. If anything, it has expanded. Epitomized in the on-going festival presence and the wealth of artists found flourishing under his Bedrock Records imprint, Digweed is the industry’s most outspoken survivor. The history books tell of John ushering his diverse aural journeys through makeshift sound systems found fuelling the early field raves that signalled the birth of British rave culture. Past the legendary collaboration duties alongside Sasha and Nick Muir, the latter of whom he collaborated with for the recent Bedrock album Versus, John’s two-decades of hit-making establish him an essential spokesperson to the underground and personable DJ etiquette. Dancing Astronaut was afforded a chat with John to scope the nerves and professional nuances of a dance icon apparently invulnerable to the modern electronic revolution.
With craft and its cultural perspective moving at lightning pace, you could forgive the long serving industry mogul for watching over its forward footsteps with considerable skepticism. But a conversation with John comes with no bitter undertones to the ‘explosion’ otherwise greatly over-exaggerated by the mainstream press. Reassuringly, his musings come with a little more objectivity. “The scene has been growing for so many years now,” he admits. “For the USA over the last for years it’s exploded more than anywhere else. All around the world there are club events taking place with electronic music being front and center, This explosion has also allowed loads of new talent to shine which is great for the scene as it keep it fresh and me on my toes. I feel that in 2014 there will be more new clubs opening more festivals and more investment into the electronic scene. That is an exciting prospect!”
For the modern dance market, the concept of investment more than often boils down to outlandish figures. Time, patience and passion may not be as easily marketable, but for John they have proven a consistent professional currency. Motivated by an overriding passion rather than a popularity steered agenda, John admits to have never been interested in the notion of commercial success. As a DJ’s DJ, however, John stands notably unparalleled. His technique is tried and tested, his programming welcomingly unpredictable, and as a result his sets consistently deliver a bigger picture of an unpretentious sect of global dance music. More recently captured in his ‘Live In Argentina’ compilation instalment, the long road taken continues to tick all the boxes both on the floor and in retrospective format. If we can still call DJing a modern art form, Digweed remains its proud protagonist. He explains: “I took years for DJs to get the recognition they deserved for packing out clubs due to that fact that they were playing there. So it`s amazing that these days DJs can fill stadiums and arena`s and do massive club tours all over the world. It really shows that people really need a release from work, studies or just life in general where they can lose themselves in the music and be with like-minded people for several hours. With new DJs and producers coming along all the time DJ Culture is not going anywhere fast. For me I still feel the best place to see a DJ and get a proper experience is in a club setting with a great sound system and minimal lights.“
In an earlier feature, Armin Van Buuren had attempted to persuade us that nowadays anyone could be a DJ. When the proposition is extended to John, a man whose honing of the craft has spanned decades, the human vs. technological debate is given a notably two-sided spin. “I think when it was just two turntable and a mixer it was a level playing field you could either mix two records together or you could not, it really did sort the men from the boys,” he explains. “When it was vinyl-only it meant spending hours in record shops listening to tracks to try and make your set stand out. Now you can Google your favorite DJ’s track list and download a large percentage of their sets on a matter of clicks on the computer. Armin is right to a certain extent anyone can be a DJ these days but not many can be a great DJ. The technology helps you so much with mixing but a computer cannot replace the human passion for music.”
The Bedrock head honcho is far from a dissatisfied advocate of yesterday’s mediums. Subjective taste and popular movements considered, there is no draconian venom to be found in his assessment of the 21st century swell. “If Britney Spears lip sync’s through a whole concert to 20,000 kids nobody cares as there is a great show with all the lights and visuals thrown in on top,” he offers, “Likewise, if a DJ is playing a pre mix or just going through the same playlist in the same order for the last two months and the co2 is spraying and the confetti is shooting out with lasers and great visuals, do the crowd really care if they are having the best time of there life? Most likely not! A lot of these artists are massive beyond belief so they must be doing something right and good luck to them it’s just not my scene to do the same thing over and over again. There are many DJ’s out there playing amazing sets week after week from the heart just as there are DJ’s playing the same sets. It’s for the crowds to experience and then choose what they like. I love all the new technology that keeps coming along that allows you to do things you could only dream of years ago, plus it shows that the scene is not standing still — it’s striving to evolve all the time.”
His take of the term progressive house, however, comes with a little less tolerance. For a man once deemed ‘the’ progressive house icon of British club land, the bastardization of the term remains a consistent blemish to an artist otherwise unrelated to more of its recently asserted hallmarks on the Beatport charts. “People always want to put things in a box – they feel it’s easier to explain to someone — he’s a techno DJ or he is an EDM DJ,” he suggests. “Anyone who has heard me play an extended set knows that I can start from deep house right through to techno and everything in-between so how do you put that into a box? It`s frustrating when people review me as a ‘progressive’ DJ when the tracks that are considered ‘progressive’ these days are a million miles away from what I play. I don’t think you will ever change this because people just seem to search on Google and take whatever is written on there as the truth.”
If you think labelling the music is frustrating, try running things behind the digital market. With Bedrock now into its 15th year of purveying underground music from across the continents, its variety of talent comes unparalleled. To John, its ongoing health comes as a labour of love product – even against the shifting attitudes, technology and formats. “Running a label takes a lot of work and organization but if like me you love music and the industry it’s a natural progression to want to own your own label and be in control of your own releases as well as discovering new talent. The whole shift from vinyl to digital was very tough and took us a while to adjust to a new way of doing business, but we have learned and I think got stronger as a end result. Helping set up Guy J`s imprint is also a sign that we want to help develop artists we believe in so they can build there own brand.”
If electronic music can be speculated to have developed an ego amid its leaps and bounds, it is yet to rub off on John. He promises a consistent wave of talent for the impending New Year, alluding to the figureheads new and old that have kept the label and tastemaker relevant to the constantly shifting global market. In an industry where the man found shouting loudest too often steals the show, it is John Digweed’s ability to let the music and coherent passion do all the talking that is truly inspiring. True to the idiom of old dogs and new tricks, his is an agenda as inoffensive and honorable as it is educational to anyone with the inclination to take the road less traveled toward industrious success. If it’s Digweed’s agenda versus the world, allies are unlikely to be in sparse supply.