One winter’s night in Cambridge, 14-year-old Harvey Bassett dreamt of Tony Manero. Who is John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever.
Standing over Bassett’s bed, the white-suited Brooklynite told him, “Stick with disco kid.” Bassett, drummer for a punk band named Ersatz at the time, took note of the request.
Just one of many stories that form part of DJ Harvey’s legend and history. Which spans the eras of disco, punk, hip hop, house, garage – plus all the variations and subsequent revivals.
Things were definitely going on and we wanted a piece of it
Bassett’s 30-year-long career as a DJ has moved from his involvement with the UK soundsystem Tonka Hi-Fi. Starting his own night Moist at the Gardening Club, Covent Garden – featuring sets from US DJs such as Larry Levan. A residency at Ministry of Sound. Setting up the Black Cock disco-edit label with Gerry Rooney. Inspiring a new era of cosmic disco (following originators such as DJs Beppe Loda and Daniele Baldelli). And setting up the Sarcastic Disco warehouse parties in Los Angeles.
In anticipation of his headline set at Electric Elephant Festival, Croatia, we caught up with DJ Harvey in Barcelona to hear about his story.
Before this interview, I'd read several that you'd done before. One thing that struck me was that you had a different story to tell each time.
Well, I guess you could say I've had a full life.
Could you speak about your first band?
The group was called Black Blood. It was with my mates who were farmer’s sons – we were just over 10-11 years-old. We used to rehearse in a haystack so that we couldn't be heard. The only thing was that we couldn't smoke. But we'd play Jimi Hendrix covers on the palettes in the barn, with a little microphone, a bass guitar, me on the drums etc. It was a great laugh.
Was punk music quite accessible in Cambridge at the time?
I don't even know how the world operated then – before the internet. I think they used to send carrier pigeons with messages saying, the new youth movement has arrived near you.
I mean there were radio shows, TV, a host of brothers and sisters and cousins. You'd see people walking down the street with straight-leg trousers on – which was always shocking. Then there were all the horror stories that you'd hear about through the press. Things were definitely going on and we wanted a piece of it.
With your post-punk group Ersatz, which came after, it all happened quite early on didn't it?
Yeah, I was about 13-14 when John Peel endorsed us. Which was awful young but I think if you're a happening kid, you should be on the road by 15-16.
Did you send the demo in?
I didn't personally. Our bass player did, a guy named Hugh Ashton. He was really the mastermind behind the record label Leisure Sounds. I think there were only ever two releases.
But John listened to 99% of the stuff he was sent and happened to take a liking to our music. I'd seriously thought I'd made it. It wasn't until taking a leak at Hugh's house a year later, when I saw 875 out of the 1000 records we'd pressed piled up in Hugh's toilet. I realised then that we weren't going anywhere.
Did you get introduced to DJing through local discos?
Growing up in the 1970s, discos were just part and parcel of growing up. People forget that during the 1970s, Never Mind the Bollocks and Saturday Night Fever came out at the same time.
At that time, a DJ wasn't necessarily the most glamorous of pursuits
Discos were hard to avoid. You'd go to school discos or a little community centre and dance around. Or we'd go practicing in a haystack and might even get a little Parent-Teacher Association gig or something down at the Alma pub in Cambridge.
So disco was around but while I loved the music and dancing, my focus was often on the guy that was doing the lights. They used to have things called road shows, travelling discos that would go into the community centres and the village halls.
If you were lucky, there would be a DJ and a lighting guy. I was always fascinated by the lighting guy. He'd have a bubble machine, a strobe, a smoke machine and a couple of projectors doing underwater scenes.
At that time, a DJ wasn't necessarily the most glamorous of pursuits. I'm sure that out there in gay New York it was a different story but in bum fuck nowhere it wasn't.
When you moved to London in the mid-1980s, there was a guy called TJ who was a bit of a mentor?
Ah yes, the Acton gang rapist. He was a pleasant chappy!
I was a motorcycle courier at the time and he was a security guard at American Express on Haymarket. We'd been talking and I found out he was a DJ on pirate radio stations in West London. I'd expressed an interest, went round to his house and he'd displayed some rather fine mixing skills.
I enjoyed hip hop culture, graffiti and definitely did my fair share of criminal damage
He had two records on the mix and I think someone knocked on the front door. He went up and answered the door, returned, and during that time the records remained in the mix. I was impressed, to put it lightly.
That was definitely his greatest influence on me. Although he had an in to many of the record shops in the West End at that time. He gave me an introduction and I went on to play only a few shows on a small pirate radio station.
And then, he went on to find infamy as a gang rapist. So fuck that guy.
What made you want to take that trip to New York?
My friend Choci Roc – who was a graffiti writer and DJ, as well as a fine gentleman and a bit of a nutcase – basically offered me a ticket to New York. So I went over at the end of 1985 on a voyage of discovery to really get my head around this new movement called hip hop. Of course New York at that time was the motherland.
Were you involved with graffiti much in London?
Yes and no. I would never consider myself a graffiti artist. I enjoyed hip hop culture, graffiti and definitely did my fair share of criminal damage. But I never developed the style that other artists I knew had.
My place in hip hop was really as a DJ. I soon found that and it was my contribution to the scene.
Was Covent Garden the main hang out at that time?
A lot of the breakdancers would street perform there. There was also a little area by the pavilion that had a writer's bench. But there was a vibrant scene all over London at that time. With house parties, squat parties and nightclubs. There was all sorts of stuff.
We wanted to have a group identity for the warehouse and squat parties we were doing
Places like Breakers Yard or Spats, where I had my first nightclub job. B-boys were welcome at Philip Salon's Mud Club. There was the Africa Centre. All the pre-acid house warehouse scene with Mutoid Waste, Westworld, Shake 'n' Fingerpop. There was a huge scene for southern soul, funk and groove –which connected to the breakbeat scene and hip hop. It was endless.
When you went to New York you stayed with the Rock Steady Crew?
I hung with what was left of them at that point. They were quite fragmented, though we did go and dance with them at the Palladium.
Any particularly fond memories?
In a word, yes. It was quite an intense place – now it’s just a yuppie village. At that time, it was still trying to recover from the 1970s. Crack cocaine was making its presence felt, so was Mayor Ed Koch.
So I was running around at this time. Being around Run DMC and the Fat Boys, and there not being enough room on the train to put up your name.
Larry Levan became a friend of yours in the 1990s. Did you come across him that first time in New York?
No. The last thing we wanted to find then was gay disco. Saying that, we did go to the Saint. Which is probably about as gay a disco that's ever been. I've never seen so many men having sex at the same time.
But we went to all sorts of places though. The Reggae Lounge, the Devil's Nest, the Tunnel, the Roxy, Studio 54. But we did not go to Paradise Garage.
It wasn't on you radar?
I think by that time it was really popular and quite difficult to get in. You'd have to know people at the door and membership was quite strict.
Could you speak about your involvement with Tone Death Krew (TDK)?
TDK goes back to my days in Cambridge but it was the dawning of what became the Tonka Sound System in many ways. We wanted to have a group identity for the warehouse and squat parties we were doing.
I never see a change; technology might change the nature of it but I see more of the same
Being heavily influenced by reggae sound system culture, we had a DJ, an engineer, and operator etc. It was a loose collective of DJs and enthusiasts.
It came along at the same time as the rise of acid house. We put on parties from 1986 to around 1993. Until it became too difficult to get any sense out of 10 drug-addled nutcases. So it sort of fell apart really.
When you started doing your Moist night. Did you feel the scene changed?
I never see a change. Technology might change the nature of it but I see more of the same. People have gone out and wanted to socialise and dance to music probably since the beginning of time. That just perpetuates itself.
I mean in 1994, there was the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act to stop people raving. But people always find a way around it. There was a certain shift from the illegal warehouse parties to the opening up of licensing laws and the birth of superclubs – Cream, Ministry of Sound.
With Moist, you could go till 6am. Which was plenty of time.
So you feel there is never an obvious transition; that things just move forward?
Yeah, there are subtle shifts and movements in technology. There's one thing I think that's always strange that I noticed in Los Angeles is that you can drive around with an assault rifle in the back of your car but you can't dance after 2am. Things like that just baffle me.
But yeah, the 1990s. Little did we know that the 1990s would be the last period of time when chart positions would be determined by vinyl sales. That put the 1990s in the last golden age of vinyl.
Followed by the rise of different technologies like CDs and all the rest. Now, it actually seems quite difficult to play a record because engineers don't know how to set up turntables – my last three gigs are case in point.
You pour Jack Daniels in with one hand and super powers come out the other
And the 1990s were of course put to bed with the biggest anti-climax of all time – the millennium. That took me three months to get over. I just locked myself in a room and sort of held myself.
After that you moved to Los Angeles?
Yeah, shortly after 9/11. That was the actual climax at the turn of the century. The big bang – or the biggest fireworks displays since Hiroshima, as my father would say.
LA was the next chapter in the wobbly, wonderful world of DJ Harvey. It was also 10 years of being an undocumented alien in America,
You went without securing a visa didn't you?
That's a polite way to put it. But I also had a nightclub in Hawaii, which was a lot of fun. And then there were the Sarcastic Disco parties in LA. Which were some of the best underground dance parties in that period.
I've seen that video where you were mixing with a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
With a giant bottle of Jack Daniels too. You pour Jack Daniels in with one hand and super powers come out the other.
Sarcastic was great though. Me and Paul Takahashi of the Sarcastic Disco clothing label basically masterminded these parties. They were just very traditional warehouse parties in and around Los Angeles.
Warehouse parties had been around in Los Angeles since the 1990s right?
Yeah, people like Doc Martin and Mark Farina had been doing it. But it probably could go back to the 1960s with happenings and the like. But when we started the Sarcastic Disco parties, there was a little bit of a lull. Sarcastic created and filled that niche in LA and we went almost undisturbed for pretty much 10 years.
Do you feel a longstanding night like that is always the most comfortable setting?
Yeah, I think so. But I've always considered myself as a nightclub DJ first off. Then warehouse DJ. And now the festival – which has been a new frontier for me. But I'm working it out.
Great, I think I'll leave you to it then.
Well, I hope you've got enough there. Everything I said was bullshit anyway. You should make something up. Slip a little one in there maybe, create a legend.