It is very rare, if not a myth, that any landlord would allow for a party to be held on his property.
Low Life's been an amazing party for 20 years
and we wanted to end it on a high
For a rabble of 50-500 people – if he's lucky – to tear a hole through his earner in a single night is the stuff of nightmares. But there are always exceptions.
Such was the case of Lincolnshire-born DJs and music writers Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton; who met for the first time in New York. Permitted by gay landlord Jeffrey, they held their first major party in Broughton’s basement flat in Harlem, 1995. Jeffrey even baked glazed cream cakes for the night.
The party went on to become Low Life and was brought back to the UK by Brewster and Broughton. It took its inspiration from their experiences in New York clubs such as the Sound Factory. As well as a reminder of what they would describe as “the inclusive parties found in the glory years of New York and during the rave era in Britain”.
Their first meeting in New York also resulted in an unprecedented book on the complete history of DJing Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. It was released in 1999 and followed a year after by the launch of DJ History – an online platform for music discovery and discussion.
After 20 years of joy, Low Life will come to an end after a final party this Halloween. It will follow a Low Life set at Electric Elephant 2015 on Monday.
We caught up with Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton before they set off to Tisno, Croatia.
Will you stop playing together as Low Life after the finale?
FB I think it's more about having the freedom to do different things. Low Life's been an amazing party for 20 years and we wanted to end it on a high rather than let it dribble on. This Valentine's was our 20th anniversary party. It was pretty spectacular – one of the very best.
I'm sure we'll do parties together but it just won't be Low Life.
What were your reasons for moving to New York?
Bill Brewster Well, I was working for DMC in the UK. At that time DMC owned Mixmag and they also owned a weekly trade publication called Mixmag Update, which I was editing. They had an office in New York and the guy who was running that office wanted to come back. So they offered me the job.
He was in his late 50s and from a generation
where AIDS had killed all his friends
It wasn't particularly a long-held ambition – I'd only been there once before. But from my point of view, it all happened very quickly. They offered the job on the Friday and I had to tell them on Monday whether it was yes or no. I moved out 10 days after that.
FB I was already living there when Bill came over. I was made redundant off a magazine and a girl I was seeing was also in the same situation. We had one plan, which was to be unemployed over the winter and go to the gym for free – and all the other things you could do on the dole back then. The other idea was to go and have an adventure in New York. So in 1990, we went to New York.
I went to meet Bill because I'd been writing for Update USA. So when I went to meet my new editor, he was wearing a Grimsby Town FC sweater. I was like, oh no, you're not from fucking Grimsby are you. Because I'm from Lincoln, which is just up the road. We knew people in common so it made it a nice Englishman in New York situation.
How long was it between that first meeting and your first Low Life party?
BB It was early summer 1994 when I moved out. We met within the first week of me arriving.
FB And the idea came about when Bill came up to my house for Thanksgiving. I was living in Harlem in this strange house full of club people.
This guy Jeffrey owned it. He was in his late 50s and from a generation where AIDS had killed all his friends – including his boyfriend who he bought the house with. He was a gentrifying homesteader, one of the first white people to get a big house up in Harlem.
So he had this house full of club freaks and drag queens. It was a great place. I was living there in a basement with no windows, and Jeffrey cooked a very memorable dish.
It was asparagus soup, consisting of eight cans of Campbell's asparagus soup and sherry – not a flavour combination you can recommend. He was sitting there getting drunk and stoned, pouring more and more sherry into this soup.
Then we all sat down at this big, long dinner table – the house was very grand and theatrical. And there was maybe about 10 people and Jeffrey was just holding court, raconteur that he was, telling very queeny jokes and some fabulous, hilarious stories.
All the black people in the house were like,
you can't have a party without food
Meanwhile, no one was daring to eat the soup because it was so horrible. He hadn't even tried it because he was chatting away so long. Finally he tasted it and just said, oh I'm sorry.
That was when we realised that it was a very party-shaped house.
BB The first party was then in March 1995.
Was it mainly with your group of friends?
FB The thing is, the house was quite a motley crew of people. They were people who went clubbing at all types of different places. So they invited their friends, we invited our friends. Bill was running the DMC office there, which meant that every DJ in New York heard about it.
I remember all the black people in the house were like, you can't have a party without food. So they started cooking up a storm. There was this huge spread of chicken and sweet potato pie. Jeffrey got into the swing of things and baked these cakes. We had three completely beautiful cream cakes glazed under glass containers. So the party became known as the Cakes Under Glass Party.
How many parties came after that?
BB We did five in total.
FB Some were in the house in Harlem and then in places like Steve's loft on Bleecker Street. The final one was my going home [to the UK] party.
Was it through this motley crew that the idea for the book came about?
FB I think we decided to write a book together before meeting them. But Jeffrey was interesting and part of that gay generation in New York that helped detonate things.
We figured originally that it was going to be a history of disco – very much Stonewall and the gay liberation riot, right up until AIDS. That was how we framed it.
You'd have butterflies in your stomach thinking about what the next eight hours would be like
It wasn't until we were back in England when our editor Doug Young at Headline [publisher] said, why don't you write the whole history of the DJ because no one's ever done that.
That was the genius stroke and we decided to write a history that was so comprehensive that no one could follow in its footsteps.
How was the partying scene in New York at that time?
FB There was a club called the Sound Factory which we both used to go to, which was kind of the last of its kind. It was a very underground club, with a group of the same people who all knew each other and went every week.
I remember cueing up outside there and it felt like such a secret – you'd have butterflies in your stomach thinking about what the next eight hours would be like. It was the only club like that that was of any size. It was huge and became Twilo. I think the capacity was something like 3000 but the atmosphere was like a family.
It wasn't very commercial – there was no alcohol. It was a club that was all about the music. People didn't hang around at the edges chatting; they didn't hang around and smoke even. They were just there for a workout.
That kind of club in New York was like all the great clubs before that – like the Paradise Garage. It was the end of the era when that club closed in 1995.
It all began in New York and we felt like
we'd come from the motherland
It was a real coincidence that we did this party because everyone was waiting on news on whether the Sound Factory would re-open. And I guess there was a bit of a gap to fill.
When you returned to the UK, did you feel you had a lot to bring back?
BB That makes it sound like we were bringing potatoes and tobacco back from the New World. It wasn't quite like that. But we were obviously inspired by the times we spent in New York and fired up by a lot of the things.
It seemed to us that the scene was slightly more mature than it was in the UK. That's not to say that there wasn't a great scene in the UK. But it all began in New York and we felt like we'd come from the motherland really. So I supposed in that sense we did.
FB I think that there's parallels. If you think about what was going on in the UK, although I missed some of the later raves from 1990 onwards, it was very similar. It was not about being a commercial thing but about togetherness and people taking a lot of drugs – not drinking.
That was the same as when you think about lots of those New York clubs. The Sound Factory was very black and very gay in those early years. There was a similar spirituality in the rave movement but it looked very different.
With rave in the UK, a lot of people were doing this crazy thing of taking drugs and dancing to this music for the first time. Whereas in New York, you already had that history of clubbing since disco.
Going on to the book that you guys did, how was the process of working together as a writing duo?
BB For Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, we sat together and wrote chapter plans. Once we got the deal, we divvied up the chapters and would then come back and go through things together.
FB The exciting thing about writing that book was just discovering how certain things were connected, which no one thought were connected.
We never had commercial ambitions;
it was always just a party
Like hip hop and disco, which came from similar roots – Afrika Bambaataa was getting his records from the disco scene. Or how this Belgium guy [Jean-Claude Maury] took this scene of eclecticism [found in Belgium’s popcorn and new beat scenes] and inspired the eclecticism of Ibiza.
The unique thing about the way that me and Bill worked together was I don't think anyone else could have done it in the same way. Because we lived in the US and came from the UK, we had this transatlantic perspective. I don't think that many people at that time did.
If someone in the UK had tried to write a similar book, it would have started in Ibiza. We knew it started before that and had the urge to go a bit deeper.
There was this revelation – which is really controversial now – but all the northern soul DJs were like, you've got to talk to Jimmy Savile. We were like, what. They said he was a really important part of the story because he was the first guy to really do this and try and make money out of it.
Could you speak about the beginning of Low Life in London?
BB We started doing them about six months after Frank got back from New York. We didn't have a name for the first three or four parties – even though they're known as the early Low Life parties now.
The first one we did in Frank's mate Skelly's loft in Kingsland Road. It held about 150 people maybe.
FB Yeah it was pretty sweaty. It was at the very top of 54 Kingsland Road, so we figured we had to do a Studio 54 party. The second one was a space-themed one and the third one was Gangsta Gangsta.
Did you want to do the same type of party as the ones you did in New York?
FB We had a conversation where we were like, it won't work in London. But then we did it and it worked. It was very much the same thing. The difference was that it was a party not a club. We never had commercial ambitions; it was always just a party. I think that was what held us in good stead.
What were your intentions for setting up the DJ History website?
BB When we first did it, it was literally to publicise Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. For the first three or four years, it was just a little bit of content and not a great deal else. Then in May 2003, we built a forum for it and redesigned it slightly.
DJ History definitely changed peoples
attitudes to what disco was
It then started taking on a life of its own. We were lucky that loads of people from around the world started to assemble in the forum. The website grew out of the forum’s success.
As music journalists, writers and editors, did it feel strange to have this forum in front of you?
BB It didn't feel strange to me. It was no different to the conversations that you'd have in a record store or with your mates in the pub. Really, that's all an internet forum is – it's all Facebook is. What was great about it was being able to share and discover music with people who were interested in similar things to you.
Had you been interacting in other forums before?
BB I was registered on a couple of other forums. One called Deep House Page, which was based in Chicago, and another called Soul Strut, which was another American forum. Then there was a British one called Vinyl Vulture.
So I was really hanging out on forums a bit before and that was the motivation for adding a forum onto DJ History. It's just the nerdy part of my personality because it was a way of finding out about more records.
Did you feel it was increasing your understanding of music?
BB Not really. It was simply just, I'm going to discover more great records. As much as I'd like to offer an altruistic explanation for this, it was just very greedy.
FB I think the whole Balearic and Italo disco discoveries coincided with the rise of digital music. There were people sending files of lost tracks and DJ performances.
It's sad to be part of a generation where
you can see this atrophy of a skill
It was really where that started. DJ History was one of the first places where there was a real currency in those kinds of things. Like discovering mixes from the 1980s and trying to identify the tracks.
It was an exciting time for the internet and I think DJ History definitely changed peoples attitudes to what disco was – and to what 1980s European music was.
How do you feel about music journalism today?
FB I think it's a real shame because you've got a lot of amateurs who haven't got much training and don't really know what they're doing. And there's so many people that are self-publishing that it makes it hard for people to make a living. The quality of everything has just gone through the floor.
BB To be honest, that's really just journalism generally. I don't think music journalism is exceptional to journalism; it's just a difficult time for journalists. I think it's sad to be part of a generation where you can see this atrophy of a skill.
Why do you think that is? The internet has been around for some time but it seems like a more recent problem.
FB It's the rise of social networks. Everyone's a publisher now. The last five years have changed everything where, if there's an article that someone likes, they'll just circulate it and share it. And things get currency; not necessarily by being good, but just by being popular.
It's what the internet does. The sensationalist stuff just rises to the top. And the quality stuff, that takes a lot of work, doesn't. It's the bottom line that if you can't get paid for journalism, you're going to do it in a slapdash way. You're not going to spend a lot of time pouring over sources and writing a deep historical thing that might take you three months if you're not getting paid for it.
It's the same with books and anything else. It's the tragedy of our times. Everything is out there but nothing's really valued. It's the same with records. Because you can now stream any track you want or get it from a file-sharing site, you don't really value it anymore.
I remember watching a documentary about the first blues musicians in London. They used to get on a bus to go and hear a record. Just with someone they'd never met before because they'd heard he had a Muddy Waters record. That excitement that used to come with collecting things and knowledge, people don't really have anymore. It's a dying thing and very sad for the human race.
What’s the solution?
FB Turn the internet off.