Feature: Kelvin Brown
Interview by Marc Kets
Originally from Coventry, Manchester-based Kelvin Brown has been shaping the local musical landscape for the past few years with his diverse DJ sets, taking in everything from jazz to hip hop to minimal techno, that have been warmly received everywhere from his own Eyes Down night to national platforms such as Benji B's "Deviation" show on 1Extra. His diary is fast filling up with dates everywhere from Jigsaw in Birmingham to destinations such as Barcelona and Porto simply because of his policy on playing music, which is that if a record is good then it needs to be heard, and it is this refreshing attitude that should keep him on the top of the pile for years to come.
How did you initially get into music like hip hop and reggae having grown up in Coventry?Coventry is a really deprived city that had a lot of problems, with very little money and a high unemployment rate. The one thing that we had was the history of the 2-Tone scene, The Specials are from Coventry and it was the one thing that really seemed to happen to city beyond very, very minor football successes. I knew reggae from a really young age. It was what my sister and her friends used to listen to; stuff like The Specials, Bob Marley and things like that. When drum 'n bass came along it was an obvious thing to latch on to because, besides it being really energetic music, it had a lot of references to music like reggae. At the time the roots of the music was very obvious. Now with the music that the kids are listening to on the charts, stuff like the 50 cents and the Ja-Rules there is no obvious lineage. When I first started listening to hip hop and drum 'n' bass in 1989 there was an obvious lineage. You couldn't listen to the music without hearing that it had come from somewhere, so you were quite exposed to the roots of the music straight away. You'd go to a club and hear a hip hop DJ play disco breaks and as the music got into the 90s you had groups like A Tribe Called Quest who would lyrically mention the history in the lyrics to their songs and they'd mention jazz a lot. As a kid I would latch onto that straight away, I wanted to know everything that they were talking about. Hip hop was such an alien world for me, I mean I was a white kid from Coventry and this was a black music from a place that seemed so far away, so I got really into it; I was so into the drums, the lyrics and I'd be learning every single word from a Public Enemy album and they'd be mentioning James Brown and traditional jazz and bebop and I'd go and try and find the records.
So Public Enemy was the first group that really made an impact on you?Yes, I first got into them, then after realizing that they released their albums on Def Jam I began trying to find everything that was released on Def Jam. I would go into these really bad record stores in Coventry, because the city didn't have any good record stores in truth, and I'd read the back of every cassette and try and find a Def Jam logo. Through that I got into other acts like LL Cool J and then I'd notice who produced whose records and then look for other records they produced, and that was how I found the music that I listened to. There was no hip hop scene in Coventry, I was very much an island, literally the only person that I knew that was into this sort of stuff was myself. The thing with growing up in England is that you're exposed to chart music quite quickly and you find yourself forced to listen to whatever rubbish boy band is on the radio or on TV at that particular time, and then for 30 seconds you'd be show Public Enemy and you'd see these guys with all this incredible energy, who were really angry and you'd have Chuck D talking about black power and it all seemed so powerful and it was backed by these huge drum beats and as a kid you'd latch onto that energy. Then you'd have Flava Flav, this guy with gold teeth and a big clock bouncing around the stage and you couldn't help but be a little overwhelmed by it. The more you listened to them you'd realize that they had all these references with the beats that they were sampling and what they were talking about. It seemed like a doorway into this other world. I remember going out and buying "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back" and having to hide it from my mum because it had such explicit lyrics.
In South Africa, at the time, having anything even remotely overtly political, especially something that might have been perceived as being anti-government, would get you into trouble with the authorities. We had groups like Prophets Of the City using speeches by Nelson Mandela as the intros to tracks as on "Age of Truth", and as Shaheen says, "It was a no, a complete no!" So a group like Public Enemy really jumped into the consciousness of people on the Cape Flats who saw their message as a call to arms, a means to get their music and message seen and heard no matter what sort of problems it brought upon them. Unfortunately years earlier we had the unfortunate loss of numerous great musicians moving overseas to escape the stifling suppression brought upon by apartheid, and as a result a lot of the music wasn't really able to be bought in the country and to me that's a great shame. What was your first exposure to South African and music in general from Africa?My first exposure to South African music was Abdullah Ibrahim and it really amazes me that someone can make music that is that powerful and that, for a time, it wasn't even allowed to be heard in his own country. In England we like to moan how backwards people are and how unappreciative people are of music, and we don't realize how lucky we are to live in a society where your opinions are accepted and you can express yourself without fear. We are all fairly tolerant. Even when Public Enemy were being slated in the tabloids you could still walk around with a Public Enemy t-shirt and your parents would've accepted it, it was never a concern that we were into black music, the only concern was the swearing. In England we have hardly any appreciation of African music or even European music such as Polish music or music from Russia. We have a vague knowledge of what we perceive to be world music but it isn't. It is very much coffee table background music that is very dull. In England we do very little to try and understand the music of other cultures. People from other cultures like Japan and parts of Africa for example are used to hearing music in a foreign language. In England we don't really tolerate music in another language. If it's in English we'll accept it, but if it isn't then we don't really want to know anything about it. If it is melodically outside of what we are comfortable with; various changes in scale that challenge the way we listen to music, then we tend to dismiss it. That's why Fela Kuti is so well received here, because we can understand what he is saying, but at the same time his albums that are done in other languages aren't well received for this very reason.
How did you meet Jon K, your partner in Eyes Down?Jon and I are both from similar backgrounds; we're both from the midlands and had the same sort of development from reggae into hip hop and drum 'n bass. We both came from cities that weren't big enough to support really specialist music, so you couldn't just be into one thing for ten years. You were forced to be into a lot of different music by circumstance. When I moved up to Manchester I was really into hip hop and the whole turntablism thing, but I still bought disco records or Moodymann records and to me they were all part of the same thing, my lineage through black music and they're all part of the same scene to me. It was amazing for me to move up here to a big city and meet all these people who had this amazing knowledge of music, but they were all more specialized than I'd ever been. To give you an example some weren't really into anything beyond hip hop from New York between 1992 and 1994. They had this amazing wealth of knowledge of music from that time period, but when I would mention a disco record from the same time they'd just tell me that they weren't into that. That didn't make any sense to me, and that's how Jon and I came together. We were both going to hip hop nights but were both into Patrick Adams and The Misfits, so we had these really obvious connections and there weren't many people in Manchester at the time who had a similar taste in music of that broad a scope. At the time he was quite an established DJ, and I was a kid who'd never played in a club before.
My first perceptions of an Eyes Down night was that you've got a fantastic and knowledgeable crowd who are up for most forms of music. You can play Fela Kuti "Everything Scatter" at 12:30 to a packed floor and everyone will scream and go with you, and in all truth I can't really see that going down in too many places as good a record as it is. You're a lucky man to be playing to a crowd that lets you play what you want and one which goes with you every step of the way.I think they're fantastic in that they get the connections and see the same route through the music as we do. It's a challenge in trying to play all that varied music. As a DJ I am aware of what an emotional impact music can have on somebody. It makes you so happy or it can make you incredibly sad, so hearing an amazing record can lift you up and make you feel alive. I remember the feeling of hearing a John Coltrane record for the first time and I want to try and get this feeling across to the people on the dancefloor, and the only way how I can do that is by playing all the music that excites me. I cannot imagine myself just playing hip hop for two hours. Playing music has always been an extension of what I listen to at home.
What sort of DJ would you classify yourself as, if any?In my opinion there are two types of Djs, hip hop and house. You either got into music by going to house clubs and hearing one bpm for six hours. As a result everything is very smooth when you play and you push people in certain directions very subtly, which is a fantastic skill to have. You have guys like Louie Vega who can make you notice the differences between house records where the sound of a record coming into the mix can be the biggest moment in the world, but I grew up listening to hip hop Djs where it's more like pressing stop and playing a break. Then "stop" and play a jazz record. Then a disco break and all this jumping around is what I do. It's the only way that I know how to play. I have a passion for house music, but I find that the passion disappears very quickly if I'm hearing the same drumbeat for an extended period of time. I'm a DJ that looks for routes through music, so if in half an hour I want to play a Jay Dee record, a Theo Parrish record, an Ethiopian jazz record and a Rhythm & Sound record then I have to find the points through all the records, and that's why I do it. It's a challenge and it's very difficult to do at times. It's a very fine line between building up contrasts in the music and being completely random.
The problem with being eclectic and playing a wide variety of music is that people turn around and become quite obsessed with what you're playing and how you're playing it. Do you find that the cult of the DJ has gotten to a point where certain groups of people are no longer going to a club to dance but to see take notes like they were in a lecture at university?I don't really see being a DJ as a great thing, I find it to be a very marginal art form. People have begun looking at Djs as being on a par with a musician or a composer and we're not. We're completely indebted to the people that make the music that we play, without them we wouldn't have the same impact as if we were expected to play nothing but music that only we have created. They're the artists, and all we do is put one record after another in a way that tries to make both those records sound better in the context of the mix. There are of course times when Djs can play records in a way that makes them sound completely different to how they've sounded in other contexts, and this is a time when I think that being a DJ can be something truly special, but we are just presenting other peoples music and taking praise for their music on any given night. I do also find that a lot people do pay too much into the cult of the DJ. Like when we had Kenny Dixon Jr. play or Theo Parrish play, people stand right in front of the booth like they're expecting this great epiphany to happen. When it truth all a DJ is does is play one record then play another and so on until five hours later they stop and then we're all going to go home. It's as simple as that. Moodymann does get around this by putting up the sheet. It forces the people to dance with each other and the atmosphere that night was really amazing. People just got on with it and danced in different directions and got on with having a good time without having to face the DJ like they were on a terrace on a football pitch. I wish that more Djs would do it, in truth.
What are your perceptions of turntablism?I do see that as a musical form. They are definitely breaking down bits of records and cutting them up and reinterpreting those bits into a whole new structure, but that's not what I am about. I've moved away from this. I try and play as much of a record as I possibly can, I play one record and then I play another record after it. Jeff Mills is a DJ that I greatly admire in that he's so quick. It's not music that I'd readily associate myself with, but when I do hear him play I do hear the moments that he creates by jumping back and forth through his records that are quite special at times. I do find that with a lot of guys who try to be like Jeff Mills, or even hip hop Djs scratching in the intros and then moving on, is that they don't play the parts of the tracks that I am into. I wish they'd just play the records, or at least leave in the bits of the music that are amazing, which they aren't by jumping from track to track so quickly.
I think it's better to play the whole record anyway; it saves you having todrag four record boxes from gig to gig with you. The thing that I have noticed about Manchester is that you don't have have to be technically flawless, but you do have to play great music.That's the really great thing about Manchester is that we've never really paid too much heat to the technicalities. I think that the technicalities are important when you choose to use it. I do make an effort to make sure that when I do choose to mix two records together that it should work. I would much rather hear a DJ play one great record and then play another rather than pitch their records up to plus 8 in a bid to get a mix in when it would've sounded much better if they had just stopped the one and played the other. I think the best Djs in Manchester are the ones that don't put too much sway into their mixing, but when they choose to mix their records and it's perfect. I think it's a case of establishing that you can do it, which allows you to not do it. That way you don't let mixing consume you, which could severely influence the music that you play because the tempos aren't right or it doesn't fit into any specific genre and it stops the person from playing some truly great records because they're so worried about the mixing.
In Manchester you have the shadow of the Unabombers and the Electric Chair looming large on the city. How do you see the influence that they've had on the city's musical tastes?They're a part of a long history of influential Djs in Manchester; as long as you play interesting music then it's all really positive. They're a generation up from me and they come from the time of the likes of Rob Bright from Bugged Out! Their influence is very wide, and many people's first clubbing experience is with them, so they'll hear a techno record on the same night they'll hear a soul record. In Manchester the one thing is that the records that they play become instant classics and you can't escape them when you go out. Manchester is small enough that people can have a huge impact, and that means that I can hear these records so often that they don't have the same impact on me as when I first initially heard them. It's a sad day when you get sick of hearing something like Donna Summer "I Feel Love" and it's not their fault. It's just that people here are into the same records, and they all tend to start playing the same music, so a lot of music becomes overexposed too quickly for my liking. In some cities you can play a hip hop record after a house record and it'll be perceived as being so different, but here we have such a history of eclecticism that by simply doing that you won't stand out. You have to try and hunt down records that other people aren't playing and then join them together in ways that make you stand out above the rest.
I do think that the reason why most people get into playing music is that they feel that they can be unique, but sadly a lot of them just start sounding like their heroes rather than by, as you say, seeking out the brilliant bits of music that the others haven't broken yet. Do you find yourself becoming quite protective of the records that you feel that you've discovered?Not really. I find that it can be really heartening, especially if you've sought the record out and found that other people are into the same music. In that way it can become great to know that people are in the same mindset as you are. It's great that people love the same records that make you feel alive. It's great going to places like Barcelona and Porto and someone plays a piece of music that means so much to you and you get an instant connection with that person.
www.eyesdown.net - Eyes Down is on the first Friday of every month at The Roadhouse in Manchester.
Marc Kets, Jan 2006
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