I first met Bill Brewster in 1996 when DMC hired me to serve as the founding Editor of Mixmag USA. The monthly magazine morphed out of Mixmag Update USA and later became Mixer magazine after DMC sold Mixmag was sold to EMAP.
Bill, who was running DMC’s office, was returning home to England. While dance music was blossoming in clubs and rave-music hotbeds around the world, Bill, who later went on to co-write a selection of books with Frank Broughton including How to DJ (Properly): The Art and Science of Playing Records, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and The Record Players: The story of dance music told by history’s greatest DJs, found himself at the epicenter of New York City’s vibrant club scene that was rife with stellar parties, a bevy of DJ/producers, labels galore and amazing record shopping.
Having just released Bill Brewster presents Tribal Rites (Eskimo Recordings), a massive 41-track compilation featuring nuggets from Chicken Lips, Swag, Maurizio and Larry Heard, we connected with Bill about how living for a spell in the Big Apple made an indelible mark on his musical psyche.
Dance music from the ’90s is quite popular among the current generation of DJs, producers and clubbers. What do you reckon to be the connection they’re making with this era of music?
Bill Brewster: 1991-1995 is probably my favorite era of house music. It was a period when several nations had learned how to make really good house tracks, sales were high enough to attract talented musicians and producers and the music has stood the test of time well, generally. It’s an era I often revisit when I’m looking for interesting music to play. Plus, there are loads of killer records that are not well-known that are super cheap, too.
You had a stint living in NYC in the ’90s. What led you to NYC? How long were you there and why did you eventually return home to England?
I was working for DMC from 1993 (the then publishers of Mixmag) and I was editing their UK DJ trade magazine Mixmag Update when they offered me the opportunity to move over to New York to run their office. I was there for two amazing years but my then girlfriend’s father was dying of cancer and she needed to be near to him for his last months so we came back. Had it not been for that, we would have stayed longer.
There were many special things about the NYC scene in the ’90s. I remember walking down Broadway, stopping by labels and grabbing test pressings. Then there was listening to DJ Disciple’s radio show and waiting for Tony Humphries’ playlist to come through the fax machine. What are some of your fondest memories of the period?
There are so many. Our office was on the corner of Broadway and Bond Street, and within 200m we had Liquid Groove, Power Music (DJ Duke’s stable of labels), King Street Sounds (and Nitegrooves), Tribal America and Northcott Productions, who ran Sub-Urban and several other labels. Every Friday, I’d do the rounds of all the labels, picking up the latest test pressings and maybe going for lunch with either Tedd Patterson from Liquid Groove or Rob [DiStefano] at Tribal America. Then in the evening, I’d walk up Broadway and maybe drop in on Nervous and Strictly Rhythm before going into For The Record, because a lot of the DJs congregated at [Def Mix owner] Judy Weinstein’s on a Friday. You really felt you were in middle of everything there — and for a time, I was.
I used to regularly shop in Dance Tracks and Vinylmania … I also used to shop in Rock & Soul, Eightball and this guy Aldo ran a great store on, I think, 14th Street, but I can’t remember what it was called. My secret spot, though, was Chelsea Book & Records, which was up around 17th Street, between 6th and 7th. I found so many incredible records in that place and nothing was more than $3.
There were so many different scenes going on — everything from Storm Raves to Wild Pitch parties. In terms of clubs and after-hours, where did you hang out and have the most fun? What’s your favorite clubbing/DJ memory during your stay in NYC?
Well, I met my long-time partner-in-crime Frank Broughton almost as soon as I moved to NYC. We were devotees of the Sound Factory and went every week without fail on a Saturday. I was also a regular at the Sound Factory Bar on a Wednesday, which was a big dance music industry hangout, where Louie Vega was resident and Barbara Tucker hosted. At that time François K was just starting to DJ again and he used to play in the downstairs room quite regularly. My favorite after-hours place, where I used to play semi-often, was Save The Robots in Alphabet City. I loved that place. The most memorable night was actually in Vinyl, shortly before they launched Body & Soul. François K was playing a one-off party with Juan Atkins and the music was amazing all night; they played everything from Womack & Womack to deep Detroit techno.
Your new compilation affirms your boundless love of record collecting. Where were your go-to NYC record shops at the time?
I used to regularly shop in Dance Tracks and Vinylmania, and I’m still friendly with both Stefan and Charlie from those stores. I also used to shop in Rock & Soul, Eightball and this guy Aldo ran a great store on, I think, 14th Street, but I can’t remember what it was called. My secret spot, though, was Chelsea Book & Records, which was up around 17th Street, between 6th and 7th. I found so many incredible records in that place and nothing was more than $3.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your best finds. Which special releases did you unearth during your time in Gotham?
Firstly, there are all the great records that I was sent or given while I lived there. Sometimes, I was there when a DAT arrived at Tribal America and Rob would play me stuff that hadn’t yet been released, such as Funky Green Dogs’ “Fired Up!,” which was a huge record at the Sound Factory a long time before it was released. I treasure those records, which I didn’t even pay for, just as much as the other records that I found second-hand. There are too many to list, but among my $2 and $3 finds at Chelsea Book & Records were things like Sympho-State’s “You Know What I Like,” a rare Leroy Burgess production and also books like Albert Goldman’s Disco and Tribal Rites by David Diebold, which this compilation is named after; I found that for $4 in CB&R and now sells for ridiculous sums.
NYC has changed so much since you left. In some ways it’s a gentrified shadow of its former self, but it still has an underground pulse that refuses to quit. What’s it like when you go back to visit?
I find walking round my old neighborhood (East Village) pretty sobering, because it feels like all the people of color have been expelled. It used to be a vibrant, multi-racial neighborhood, but seems to have been colonized by the cast from Dawson’s Creek. There are obviously still interesting things happening out in the boroughs, so I tend to stick around there now rather than Manhattan, which has lost most of its sparkle for me now.
Now that your latest release is out this begs the obligatory “what’s next for you” question…
Well, long-term that is an as-yet unrevealed TV project in the offing, plus a tour of the Far East in February, in the short-term. Oh, and a reissue label hopefully launching in 2018.
How do you plan on ringing in 2018?
With a Grimsby Town away win at Crewe Alexandra.
Thanks and best of luck with everything.
Image by Bella Fenning