From playing soul and funk in his local pub, to helping to kick-start London’s acid house scene in the 80s, through to the digital-led DJing revolution that’s sweeping the world today, Danny Rampling has experienced it all. Now with a new book, Everything You Need to Know About DJing and Success, he’s sharing his secrets with the young DJs of today. We caught up with him to find out more.
Danny Rampling really has seen it all. As well as his global club sets, he’s held radio slots on BBC Radio 1, KISS FM in London, and on various stations worldwide to this day. He’s widely credited with helping to kick-start acid house in the south of England following an infamous visit to Ibiza by London DJs in 1987. Alongside fellow DJs including Paul Oakenfold in London (and the Haçienda club in Manchester), he helped launch the UK house explosion that resulted in the now infamous “summer of love” in 1988. From that day forward, dance exploded out of the UK and Europe to become the truly global and barely recognisable phenomenon that it is today.
We spoke with Danny to ask what lessons he can share with our readers.
Hey Danny, good to catch up. You’ve obviously witnessed a whole load of changes over the years. When did you start out?
Well, I’ve always had a passion for collecting music. I always wanted to work in a record store, ever since I bought my first record aged 9! I never managed that, but nonetheless I spent all my money on records from then on. When I was about 20, I had a friend who ran a bar. One night the DJ didn’t turn up and so I was asked to step in. I got paid £8 [about US$12]. I couldn’t believe I was being paid to play records.
Remember, back then DJs did weddings, the radio, or big commercial clubs. I was being paid to play what I wanted in a bar – funk, soul, hip-hop, as was the scene in London at the time. This led to more bar work, and house parties, private parties, that kind of thing…
Lots of our readers, especially with digital DJ kit, will relate to this – they play in local bars on their own gear, for not much more than tune or beer money, learning their trade. I think they’d be interested to know how you managed to make the leap – how you got from there to the professional DJ circuit.
You know, it wasn’t (and isn’t) easy. but there are definitely lessons for DJs today in how I did it. The London club DJ circuit at the time was pretty much a closed shop – there really wasn’t much room for newcomers. But I met influential London promoter and DJ Nicky Holloway, who was part of the so-called London “soul mafia” at the time, which included Pete Tong too. We actually met in Ibiza in ’82. I became his friend, and he was a mentor to me. One thing I say is: Always find a mentor. Find someone who is where you want to be and learn from them. In my case, I helped him with tickets and flyering, always hoping he’d give me a DJ slot. He never did – I think he valued me too much as his little organiser! – but I learned so much from him.
Through all of this I got involved in pirate radio in London which was big at the time, and again I was learning, making contacts. But it was when I went to Ibiza in 1987 with Nicky, Paul [Oakenfold], and Johnny Walker – when we saw how the Balearic house scene was blowing up – that’s when I knew it was ‘my time’.
What do you mean by that? That you felt you’d found your place?
Well, until then I’d been playing soul, funk hip-hop like everyone else – that was the scene in London. But here was house. I went from having no sound of my own and no audience to returning to the UK and launching my club that went on to be legendary, Shoom, in the basement of a gym in Southwark [in east London].
We always tell people here at Digital DJ Tips that promoting your own night is a great way to get established as a DJ. Is that how it worked for you?
That and getting my sound, yes. I found an audience, and it was great to run the club I’d been dreaming of. I did a wedding in that venue a few years before, and thought at the time, ‘this is where I am going to run my club night.’ They were crazy times, of course, and I got there because I’d stuck with it. It took me 7 years to get to the point where I had a sound, and a crowd, and was now an established professional DJ. You can’t give up on your dream, and you’ve got to give it your all.
So did you get any head start with your family? Were you from a musical background?
No, not at all. My brother was a drummer – a really good one, in the punk days. I was always jealous because try as I might, I couldn’t do it – I couldn’t find the rhythm as a drummer.
Quite ironic seeing you ended up being a DJ, then!
Yes! That’s very true. [laughs]
So what’s changed in the 20-odd years since you’ve been a pro DJ?
You know, DJing wasn’t recognised as an art form, or as a craft, till dance music. DJs were frowned upon!
Now, you’ve got David Guetta, the Swedish House Mafia, Tiësto and so on filling stadiums – they’re rock stars, with massive media organisations behind them allowing them to be these types of brand-led successes.But there’s kind of a divide between them and the bar and jobbing club DJs, and there’s still room for this tier of DJ too. In fact, if it wasn’t for the last 20 years of good club DJs, performers like deadmau5 couldn’t exist. But it’s about respect – all people in this scene should respect each other and what everyone else is trying to do.
It’s interesting that you mention deadmau5. He doesn’t even call himself a DJ. Do you think the name “DJ” is getting old, that it needs replacing with something new?
I really hope not. I don’t think so. I mean, DJing at its heart is about a connection – a connection between the DJ and the crowd. It doesn’t matter what kit you’re using or how you’re playing that music, if you haven’t got that connection, you’re not a good DJ, and the crowd looking up at you won’t see you as such.
So have you embraced new technology as the scene has progressed?
Absolutely! I use Traktor and I have to say I love it. It took a while to get used to it, just like it took a while to get used to CDJs when they first came out, but it’s so practical. Essential, in fact, for the touring DJ nowadays. I have to say,though, I am a great fan of WAV files over 320kbps MP3s. I heard Pete Howard of Funktion 1 [respected sound system manufacturers] do a demo of 320kbps MP3s against WAVs and since then, despite the expense, I’ve preferred WAVs.
You are obviously in touch with a lot of other DJs and of course clubbers. What’s their reaction to digital DJing?
There’s definitely a split between pro and anti-digital. It’s getting better though. especially as people are starting to use digital DJing technologies at home. The thing is, there’s still a high level of skill required to DJ properly with digital DJ gear. To musically layer and structure songs with Traktor is not necessarily easy! And to do it in front of a crowd of 100s or 1000s of people and give them a good time – there are a lot of skills to good DJing that have nothing to do with the digital/analogue thing at all.
Which skills in particular are you talking about?
I mean people skills. You’ve got to handle your crowd, plus people asking for music you maybe don’t want to play, for instance. Then outside the DJ box you need to deal with promoters, venue owners, doormen, and you need stamina, good business skills, you need to be able to handle yourself with early mornings, late nights, in foreign places. All of this is important if you want to be a successful DJ.
Indeed, in these days of high levels of marketing, understanding that side of it – about your brand, your image, how you portray yourself – is at least as important as anything else. Doubters usually end up saying ‘it’s actually not as easy as it looks, is it?’. And a lot of these skills, they only come with experience. You’re the curator of the crowd, you’re charged with providing a soundtrack that does the job. Rapport with the crowd is essential, and indeed this is where good DJs come into their own.
A good DJ can keep a dancefloor of 10 people happy all night. Knowing how to keep people entertained has nothing to do with the equipment – and although to a certain extent I think you’re born with it, this can be learned.
What do you think we’ll see in the DJ booth in, say, 5 years’ time?
Good question. I really wouldn’t like to say. I mean, look at just how much things have changed in the past 2 to 3 years, it’s incredible. I think there may well be another leap in technology that will lead us through into the next big thing. Who knows? Video? Holograms? [laughs]
So tell us about your best gig ever.
Well, Shoom in general, of course.
But I’d say the Millennium in South Africa. 30,000 people, outdoors, just such a feeling of positivity at the turn of the century.
And tell us about any memorable mishaps from your DJ career.
Ha ha, well we’ve all turned the tune that’s playing off by mistake. I played in Jersey once and after my first tune the main power grid went down! I think the weirdest mishap was maybe, I remember DJing at some rave many years back, with a vicious alsatian at my legs under the DJ booth for the whole set!
Apart from promoting, it seems that to succeed it helps if DJs are also producers nowadays. Here at Digital DJ Tips we always say to people: try and learn to make music as well as DJ it. Is this your belief?
I think it’s going that way. I mean, it’s become so much more easy to make music nowadays. A few years ago, you had people twiddling their thumbs for days in the studio as you wrestled with old Akai 3000 samplers, now with software it’s like ‘bang, bang, bang’ with blocks of sound, great-sounding synth parts, it’s all so quick and fun.
You did plenty of remixing yourself a few years back. Are you planning on making any music any time soon?
Yes! My goal for 2011 is to have a hit record. I want to make another Kings of Tomorrow “Finally”. I’m committing time to the studio and working with some good people to make that happen.
What else do you have planned for 2011?
I’d like to do more DJing in London – after all, it is my home town. And I am going off on tour to promote the book, doing a Q&A around universities, some demos, and also for some youth charities.
You seem to be as passionate as ever. What’s the secret?
You know, I took a break from DJing a few years ago. Sometimes doing something like that is important. The passion I have now, it’s like I’m starting all over again. Things have changed and you have to work twice as hard to get anywhere today as maybe you used to have to – but it’s all about passion. If you’ve got the passion, you can do it!
• Danny Rampling’s book, Everything You Need to Know About DJing and Success, is available now from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.