Dimitri from Paris and Joey Negro both rate him as their favourite disco DJ. He ploughed his life savings into recording a fully orchestrated Disco album using vintage equipment. His edits left Theo Parrish speechless, and he made Rahaan cry with joy when he played. There’s no-one quite like Al Kent and ahead of his gig at The Magnet in Liverpool this weekend, we checked in with Glasgow’s answer to Walter Gibbons and discovered a passion that’s almost unmatched in dance music culture.
You were raised on Northern Soul: what do you make of the seeming revival that’s taking place at the moment, especially ‘crossover’ elements in popular culture such as Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ and ‘Northern Soul Girl’ Levanna Mclean?
I think I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand it’s got to be a good thing – the scene’s been going for over forty years, it’s had its ups and downs but it’s survived remarkably well. You can still find somewhere to go any weekend, records are still changing hands and the passion is still there for thousands of people. But I guess to keep surviving it needs some kids. That’s where the problem comes in though – does it need kids to come along because they saw a Shredded Wheat advert, or because ASDA are selling a cut price Northern Soul CD box set? When the BBC made a documentary about Wigan Casino in 1975 there was a big who-ha because the soulies didn’t want TV cameras there. The result, predictably, was a million kids turning up in big baggy trousers wanting to stomp along to anything with the “right” beat (Joe 90, Nine Times Out of Ten, Footsie and the theme from Hawaii bloody 5-0 off the top of my head). That could have been the death of the scene if there wash’t such passion elsewhere to keep it going after the Casino’s predictable demise.
So Shredded Wheat adverts and endless programs about Wigan could well be the new This England. The Northern Soul film could be the new Quadrophenia. A revival could be extremely bad for the scene because once something enters the mainstream it attracts civilians. And civilians are idiots who don’t understand things. The whole point of northern soul, and the whole reason it has survived, is this inability to be marketed. As soon as something becomes accessible and therefore commercial it’s over. That’s a simple fact of life. If northern soul becomes a load of kids dancing in baggy trousers and floaty skirts to the same thirty songs that have been reissued ad infinitum, alienating the actual people who have kept the scene alive for forty years in the process, is that really a healthy scene?
I don’t want to be offensive to “Northern Soul Girl Levanna” because she’s just a young lassie doing her thing. But she’s the very antithesis of northern soul. Making videos of yourself miming and dancing for Facebook likes and YouTube comments isn’t really something I’d associate with such a credible underground scene. She’s become (or is attempting to be) the “face of Northern Soul” which the scene has never needed. She’s a young girl, she doesn’t know any better, but she’s making an arse of herself and the whole scene because she clearly thrives on attention. But that’s young girls for you I suppose. And because, for whatever bizarre reason, she chose to dance to a Pharrell song that happens to have the same name as a Velvet Hammer song, now Pharrell’s associated with northern soul? Maybe I don’t have mixed feelings. Maybe a revival is the worst thing ever!
What’s your preferred DJ set up? I noticed you played on the Alpha Recording System 4100 rotary mixer recently, how was that?
I do really enjoy playing on a nice setup. The problem a lot of the time though is the actual system. The Alpha mixer is a thing of beauty (although deep down I’m a Bozak man) but it can be frustrating when it sounds like shit on the dancefloor. I guess it could be worse – a shit Pioneer through a shit system for example (don’t get me started on Pioneer mixers) – but it’s something promoters and especially club owners really need to think more deeply about.
Quality of sound is the number one most important thing there is to consider if you’re going to charge people money and play music to them. The other thing that always makes me sad is DJing on a stage. I don’t get it. I’m not performing, I’m just playing music for people to dance to. And as corny as it probably sounds, I want to feel the energy of the room too. I might as well put on a mix CD and watch YouTube videos for a couple of hours for all the intensity I’m feeling up there. So, an ideal set up for me is a small dark room, a booth that’s on floor level, with no barriers and therefore no distance between me and the dancefloor, a nice sound system that’s been calibrated to suit the room and maintained by someone other than the guy who changes the barrels, a nice high quality mixer and a long, long set where I don’t have to watch the clock.
I’ve noticed a much younger audience digging the credible sounds of yesteryear at recent parties – Hustle in Liverpool, So Flute in Manchester and SuncéBeat festival in Croatia all attracting clued up dancers in their early 20s. Why do you think this might be?
I’ve actually noticed even younger than that. When I played in Manchester recently the queue took ages to go in because everyone was getting asked for ID! In fact the last three or four parties I’ve played have been full of teenagers. I have no idea where they’ve come from. Maybe it’s a cyclical thing. Maybe it’s just because music now is shit. The only thing I’d say is they should learn some songs because they don’t know when to cheer and get excited which spoils the moment when I play my biggest record!
At the same time, I’ve noticed many of the great ‘modern soul’ DJs now tend to play soulful house for the majority of their sets – what do you make of this transition?
Hmmm, it’s not for me. I can’t comment too much as I haven’t really heard any of the sets, but “soulful” house is pretty far removed form what I understand “modern soul” to be. I guess we all have to move with the times but I’d be pretty pissed off if I went to a soul do and that’s what was being played.
You’re still collecting records, can you share some of your recent treasured finds?
The first thing I have to say to that is I don’t “collect” records. I know it’s only a term but I really don’t like the connotations it conjures up. I guess I used to be a collector because I had this in built snobbery coming from the northern soul thing that every record had to have a value or be a secret discovery, or be something I needed to complete a label. Don’t get me wrong, I still love those records and still hunt them down like a man possessed, but too often nowadays the quality of music is eclipsed by the scarcity of a record. A shite song is only worth £500 to an idiot. And a lot of “collectors” seem to fall into that trap. Collectors generally play in the back room, on the ropey sound system, to the guys with beer bellies that just want to look at the labels of the records you’re playing. I’ve been there and done that. I’d rather be seen as a DJ than a record collector.
But to answer your question! The most exciting thing I’ve “found” recently is something I’ve actually had for years and never really noticed – “You Never Loved Me” by Ava Cherry. I don’t know why it’s been overlooked because it’s a near perfect disco record – screaming diva, strings, percussion break, all the bits I love. It just looks so uninteresting that it took me twenty years to even listen to it. I’m always finding things though. There’s a Disco Love 4 coming soon, a few of them will be on there.
In your DJ sets, you exclusively play older recordings. Do you ever feel restricted by this?
I suppose I do a little bit sometimes. I’ve got pretty broad musical tastes believe it or not so it would be nice to sometimes play a set that reflects that. Or sometimes I’ll find a record I know would cause mayhem and I can’t benefit from it. At the same time though it’s challenging – I can’t simply play a set of new records by whoever’s in vogue, which would be so much easier. Anyone can do that. There’s quite a broad spectrum of styles within what I perceive as disco, so it’s not like I’m just playing Salsoul every gig, so it’s not all that restrictive really.
I’ve made my stance though – I play the music I love, I play what I’d like to hear if I was on the dancefloor. And I play it from the heart. I’m actually quite proud of what I do because there are a million DJs who’d describe themselves as “Disco DJs” and they’re not. I think it’s a nice thing to call yourself for cool points but playing a boogie record you found in Oxfam among your Greg Wilson edits and some “nu disco” isn’t really anything to write home about these days.
The thing with what I play though, or the way I play it, that I think people maybe don’t realise is that it sounds contemporary. I edit everything I play (hence the CDs) so you’re not going to hear disco record after disco record with cheesy bits and clumsy mixing. This probably relates to the “Collector” issue above, I’m possibly losing work because I’m seen as a record collector who plays old music which is probably very niche, when really it isn’t. Ask the 18 year olds in Manchester! Someone I really respect told me I’m a maverick once and that was quite cool for me.
Alongside your musical endeavours, you are also a graphic designer – how has your musical education inspired this aspect of your creativity?
I’m not sure my musical education as such has helped but probably my love of the “disco era” – which takes in everything from the graphics, the fashion, the art and so on – has been a big influence on what I do. Although I’m influenced by a lot of other stuff too, none of it is contemporary.
Can you share with us some design work you are especially proud of?
Here’s a few..
Your Disco Demands series featured some quite revealing artwork, where did these photographs come from?
From extensive research! It was a tough job as they say, but someone had to do it. Google’s a marvellous thing, I got a few leads on models I’d like to use with various search terms, did some digging, found some sites, eventually discovered the girl we used and managed to trace a magazine she appeared in, dug around till I found a copy and that was that.
How was the artwork received?
Mostly well. There was only one person who had an issue with it but she was a bit of a nutter so I didn’t really pay her much attention. I think most people recognise that it’s pretty tongue in cheek.
What music projects are you working on at the moment?
A few things. The main one is hopefully going to be another Million Dollar Orchestra album. I’ve been writing some bits and need to do some sums and have some conversations but that’s something I’d like to do this year. I’m in the middle of doing some more remixes of The Far Out Monster Disco Orchestra. As mentioned above, Disco Love 4 is coming very soon. And my labour of love, The Men In The Glass Booth, which has taken a few years to complete will hopefully not be far behind.