Following the untimely death of Andrew Weatherall, I thought I would share with you some of the lessons that we DJs can learn from his long and illustrious career.
I have found myself revisiting his substantial musical legacy, which, in recent weeks, has also helped me to beat the lockdown blues.
Throughout his mercurial career, he forged a singular path, spanning decades, scenes and genres, while also enjoying renown as an artist, a writer and an iconoclast of the acid house revolution.
Few have had such a profound effect on the evolution of dance music as “The Guvnor” and, though he is no longer with us, he remains a huge source of inspiration, both musically and otherwise.
Lesson one: A single gig can change your life forever
“When I first started I wasn’t a DJ, just someone who played records.”– Andrew Weatherall
Before the UK’s Summer of Love in 1988, young Weatherall already considered himself a “jaded clubber” who DJ’d odd gigs while writing for his fanzine Boys Own. Like many DJs who emerged out of the UK’s acid house scene, he grew up on a diet of soul, funk, punk, indie and disco.
Meanwhile, fellow DJ, Danny Rampling, had just returned from Ibiza with a new mission. He wanted to recreate the captivating euphoria of Ibiza’s Balearic scene, where DJs like Amnesia’s fabled DJ Alfredo were mixing traditional indie, funk and disco tracks with the then-new sounds coming out of Chicago and Detroit.
A Madchester flashback
Nothing captures the heady euphoria of the “Madchester” scene in Manchester, England, quite like Andrew Weatherall and Paul Oakenfold’s remix of Hallelujah by The Happy Mondays.
The result was Shoom, the London club which, along with other legendary nightspots like Manchester’s Haçienda, was one of the initial sparks which triggered the explosion of British house music.
Rampling invited Weatherall to play at the club, alongside other future superstars like Paul Oakenfold and Carl Cox, which, in turn, led to Weatherall’s early forays into production – and that gig changed everything.
Following some critically acclaimed remixes of indie bands like the Happy Mondays and My Bloody Valentine, Weatherall was asked to produce an album for Primal Scream – and history beckoned.
Lesson two: It’s all about the groove
Ever the musical omnivore, Weatherall had no intention of locking Primal Scream into a flat, 4/4 house format, and instead drew on a diverse range of influences ranging from ambient and dub to acid house, gospel and punk rock. The result was Screamadelica, widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of the 1990s.
As well as helping to further boost his DJing career, the album also cemented Weatherall’s reputation as a unique and highly prolific producer and remixer, a man who could effortlessly straddle the seemingly incompatible worlds of rock and dance music.
While still honing his skills as a producer, Weatherall developed a simple but highly effective formula: Focus, first of all, on the bassline and percussion. Once you’ve got that groove everything else will fall into place, and inspiration can come from anywhere.
The pulsing bass and echo of dub, the abrasive attitude of punk, the percussive twang of rockabilly rhythm guitar, the hazy jangling of 60s psychedelia and the swirling synth-driven arpeggios of electro and acid house – all found their place within the nourishing sonic stews of Weatherall’s epic productions.
A classic album production
Produced when Weatherall was only just learning his way around the studio, Screamadelica by Primal Scream is widely regarded by both indie and dance music fans alike as one of THE defining albums of 90s club culture.
Lesson three: Strive for selection, not perfection
“It’s all a means of escape, it’s all a means of transcending yourself.” – Andrew Weatherall
When Weatherall first started out in Shoom he played a variety of different styles of music much like a regular disco DJ. He didn’t even know how to beatmix yet but, thanks to his selection skills, it hardly mattered.
Many DJs, particularly those just starting out, often get caught up on the technical aspects of the craft. They worry about whether their mixing is good enough or become obsessed with having the “right” equipment and forget the most important thing about being a DJ – making people dance.
Check out Andrew Weatherall’s Podcast
In his NTS podcast, “Music’s Not For Everyone”, Weatherall would ask listeners to don their ceremonial robes, before taking them on a mystical journey through unchartered musical frontiers which included such diverse sounds as new age, post-punk, ambient, reggae, acid house and good ole fashioned rock ‘n’ roll.
For Weatherall, the tunes always came first. His encyclopaedic knowledge of music stretched from 50s rhythm ‘n’ blues to bleeding-edge techno and everything in between. He also had an innate ability for playing fresh new material that nobody had heard before. His philosophy was to always take the very best of everything, in both his production and his eclectic sets, weaving sounds together in new and inventive ways.
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So the lesson is to stop obsessing about equipment and forget about the Beatport Top Ten. Instead use this time to broaden your horizons and unleash your inner geek, leaping down musical rabbit holes while absorbing everything you can. There’s so much new and exciting music out there to discover, not to mention decades of music to go back and explore – and frustrating though social distancing may be, there’s never been a better time to do so.
Lesson four: Take your music seriously, but not yourself
Weatherall could be cocky and highly opinionated, or he could be humble and self-deprecating – sometimes in the space of the same sentence. Of all of his chosen subjects for ridicule, though, it often felt like his favourite subject was himself. Sure he could act the part of diva DJ, especially in the early stages of his career, but that’s all it ever was, an act. As a rule, he preferred to let the music do the talking.
The Chemicals repaying a favour
The Chemicals’ 1995 treatment of Tow Truck turned The Sabres of Paradise’s blues-tinged trip-hop chugger into a massive, big beat monster.
As a club promoter and label boss he gave exposure to various budding artists, the most famous example being the Chemical Brothers, signing them to his Junior Boys Own label, remixing their tracks and giving them their first gig at his Sabresonic nights. The Chemicals soon returned the favour with a remix for his group The Sabres of Paradise, providing a rollicking big beat remix of their track Tow Truck, which remains a classic to this day.
Lesson five: Be a storyteller
Following his death, it seemed that every obituary article, at some point, described Weatherall as a raconteur. Even within the pantheon of acid house era DJs, never short of colourful characters, none could spin a yarn quite like him. His ability to tell amusing anecdotes or go off on tangents on the most esoteric subjects was legendary.
This narrative style also carried over into his music. Talking about DJ’s who can take you on a “journey” might be a cliché nowadays, until you listen to his old Essential Mixes or his Ministry of Sound album The Masterpiece to hear precisely how it’s done.
A Masterpiece from the master
Released by Ministry of Sound in 2012, Weatherall’s The Masterpiece is a three-disc compilation mix of slow and steady cosmic grooves – a fresh style pioneered at his own A Love From Outer Space events.
Lesson six: Ride the vibe
One of the most important things a DJ needs to learn is how to read the crowd and how to respond to their reaction to the music you are playing. Not as easy as it sounds, though Weatherall made it seem effortless. His sets were always tight, but never seemed overly prepared or contrived, they were carefully curated, yes, but flowed naturally and always bristled with spontaneity.
“It’s quite vampyric, DJing”, he once told The Guardian, “You’re never going to have that feeling of hearing that record for the first time again, but if you look into the eyes of someone who’s hearing it for the first time, it’s a nice vicarious feeling.”
So embrace that feeling and learn how to tap into those emotional triggers, feel the anticipation building before you drop that banger you’ve been saving up, knowing it’s going to drive an already heaving dancefloor into an absolute frenzy.
A classic mix from back in the day…
This 1994 mix sees Weatherall with his techno hat firmly on, smashing out banger after banger from top producers like Dave Clarke, K Hand, 808 State, Robert Armani and Bandulu. Gone are the smooth transitions of his latter years, in favour of a raw and relentless assault of pounding beats and infectious backspins.
Lesson seven: Be a trendsetter, not a follower
“I don’t go and change musical direction, just sidestep.” – Andrew Weatherall
A 1994 Mixmag issue placed Weatherall on the front page with the headline, “Weatherall changes his tune.” Only six years into his professional career and he was already being lambasted by the magazine as jaded and self-indulgent for his refusal to stay put and be pigeonholed. That was 26 years ago – and he hadn’t even really started yet.
From punk to acid house, techno, electro and even folk music, Weatherall produced and influenced a variety of musical scenes, while at the same time transcending all of them. Plus, there was much more to Weatherall than just music. He was a writer, an artist and a voracious reader, house music’s top Renaissance man.
The Two Lone Swordsmen era
Following the breakup of the Sabres of Paradise, Weatherall started a new group, 2 Lone Swordsmen, with Keith Tenniswood (a.k.a. Radioactive Man) who, along with groups like Detroit’s Drexciya, were part of the vanguard of the late 90s electro revival. Of course, true to form, Weatherall would later steer the group in a more indie rock direction, while still retaining their glitchy electronic sound.
In terms of fashion, he was also well ahead of the curve, sometimes a dapper soul boy, other times a punk and rocking an immaculately-groomed Victorian moustache well before anyone knew what a hipster even was. Once a scene became established he would move on, claiming that he never liked “scenes”, and preferred being at the cutting edge.
In terms of constant reinvention, no other DJ came close. So while many of his peers leapfrogged from scene to scene, Weatherall was practically Bowie-like in his desire to experiment with new styles, musically or otherwise, while others tried desperately to catch up.
Lesson eight: Be fearless
Weatherall often spoke of his teenage years, when his outlandish fashion choices made him a prime target for local yobs. To avoid being beaten up he realised it wasn’t enough to wear the clothes, he also had to wear the attitude the clothes represented, allowing him to pass unscathed. It was this attitude which carried him forward throughout his career.
The punky arrogance and aristocratic posturing of his Lord Sabre alter ego may have subsided with age, but that fearless sense of individuality never left him, driving him on to explore new musical and artistic horizons, such as displaying his lino art in galleries and even opting to sing on his own solo projects.
Don’t stay in your comfort zone!
This track “Confidence Man”, from his 2016 solo album Covenanza, is pure distilled Weatherall, drawing on influences such as dub, disco, rock and techno. It’s also noteworthy for featuring the man himself as both lyricist and vocalist. The lesson here is that you should never be afraid to go outside your confidence zone and try something new!
Lesson nine: Be a renegade – stand out, be you!
Some DJs are easily grouped together while others stand apart. Weatherall was certainly in the latter category. His sense of style, his eloquence in speech and his maverick approach to the music industry was unique. A true renegade, he didn’t need to try to be cool, for him it just happened.
Hunter S Thompson once said, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”. Well, the world has never seemed quite so weird as it does right now, so this is not the time to follow the status quo. Instead, it’s time to embrace the strange and the unexpected and let your true personality, your uniqueness, shine through – because that’s what true star power is made of.
A Renaissance man
In this Thump interview, we watch Weatherall working on one of his lino art pieces while he discusses, among other things, his roots and musical influences and his philosophy to DJing.
Lesson ten: True artists never compromise
“It’s a job, not a career…. I didn’t want to end up not liking music.” – Andrew Weatherall
One cannot ever imagine Weatherall the headliner, Jesus pose silhouette behind the decks, his torso drenched in lasers – this simply was not his style. While many of his contemporaries did end up going the superstar DJ route, including early Shoom alumni like Paul Oakenfold and Carl Cox, Weatherall preferred to play smaller clubs and venues, staying closer to his underground roots and remaining true to himself and his artistic vision.
Likewise, it would have been easy for him to make the transition from Screamadelica to becoming a pop music producer (Oakenfold, for example, once worked and toured with U2) but this didn’t interest him either. Instead, he regularly shunned the limelight, and the cash that came with it, to pursue projects which he found the most artistically fulfilling.
Now obviously that doesn’t mean you should never compromise as a DJ – gigs pay the bills, the dancefloor is your master and DJing is a business after all – but rather pledge to only compromise that which you are willing to compromise, musically, artistically and ethically. Which brings us to our final point…
Fancy a rabbithole? Check out the Weatherdrive…
The Weatherdrive is a fan-curated archive of Weatherall mixes ranging from 2020 all the way back to the late 80s. To download files you need to be signed into a Google account first, right-click on the file you want to download, select the Get sharable link option, then paste the link into your browser and download. You can also check out some of his remix work in this extensive Spotify playlist.
Lesson eleven: “Don’t let the grubby little opportunists get you down.”
With these now immortal words Weatherall ended each episode of his monthly NTS podcast, Music’s Not For Everyone. Of all the Guvnor’s nuggets of sage advice, this one might well be the most salient for the times we find ourselves in.
As a DJ you will face all sorts of challenges – dodgy promoters, stingy venue owners, gobby punters, toxic online trolls and various parasitical hangers-on – all trying to take advantage and rob you of your energy, your spirit and, of course, your money. But if you always do what you love, and do it with passion, they can never stop you, only temporarily slow you down.
Learn to DJ with us: The Complete DJ Course
This philosophy applies to the wider world beyond the DJ booth too. Even in frightening times like these, there are those who are trying to take advantage and make a fast buck or to divide us to serve their own ends. But if we hold tight to the founding principles of the acid house scene – peace, unity, empathy, diversity and recuperative powers of music and dance – their attempts will be much more easily thwarted.
So use this time to expand your musical knowledge and your collection to bring new vitality to your sets. Because I’m certain that, once this mess is finally over, people are going to want to party harder than they ever have before