Acid House Icon Mr. C on the Realities of Dance Music
“How underground is an underground DJ when he’s being paid ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars a show?”
When he first stepped into the spotlight in the mid-‘80s, Richard West (aka Mr. C) was at the center of the UK’s acid house movement, one of the zeniths of electronic dance music. As a headlining DJ, label owner, nightclub impresario and frontman for ‘90s techno-pop stars the Shamen, there is little he hasn’t accomplished over an almost 30-year career. But that hasn’t halted his ambition. After decades in London, Mr. C moved to Los Angeles in 2010, right as electronic music was experiencing another apex moment—probably its highest ever.
This pinnacle means endless opportunity, as well as additional challenges for the community of artists who make up EDM’s immense industry. And unlike his previously held kingpin stature in London, Mr. C faces today’s conditions as something of an upstart, laboring over his Superfreq label and events brand with the sort of commitment to quality rarely found in today’s hit-and-run DJ culture.
Insomniac sat down with West over coffee in a shaded canyon of Echo Park to discuss the trials (and some triumphs) of the current state of dance music in Los Angeles and beyond.
We’re supposed to discuss the “state of electronic music.” So, uh, what are you listening to these days?
Listening to lots of good stuff. But there is a lot of music coming out right now that is being made by numbers. A lot of the young kids are getting involved because they see all these star DJs getting all the adulation and thinking, “I can do that.” And with the software so cheap and easy to use now, pretty much anybody can start making music for virtually nothing. I feel that’s really taken down the quality of music in the last few years.
Also, it’s so easy to digitally release a record now and get someone to distribute it. That’s leading DJs to be lazy with their shopping and their selection. That’s taking down the quality of what the end-user is listening to on the dancefloor.
So not a very optimistic view?
No, it’s not. But at the same time, there are a lot of people who are making a lot of effort. So now you gotta put it down to the DJs and distributors, getting them to raise their own bar. Some digital distributors just don’t care. They’ll release about anything, sell 100 downloads and get their little bit of money. It’s not like they’re wasting warehouse space storing vinyl that they can’t sell. There should be some sort of standard that digital distributors stick to—or at least have a connection with the labels they work with. Take a stand and say, “We believe in these labels that we work with,” rather than just taking on loads of labels.
It’s not good. I go out, and I’m hearing music that sounds like I’ve heard it all before, but it’s allegedly new. Is that the best that we’ve got? Then there are other DJs who make an effort and have their own sound. So it’s a little swings and roundabouts. You lose it on the swings and gain it on the roundabouts.
The good thing is that amongst all the rubbish, with so many people making music, there has to be a larger net sum of good music out there. The more the music crosses over, and the more people want to do it, more will come through.
Maybe we should define what exactly you’re talking about, with “dance music” being so broad.
I’m talking about the so-called “underground.” I’m not even thinking about David Spaguetta. Those guys are so far removed from my world, we might as well be talking about trash metal. I’m talking about supposedly futuristic dancefloors. You still have big-name DJs earning a shitload of money. How underground is an underground DJ when he’s being paid ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars a show?
“Back in the day, DJs played other people’s records and helped to celebrate life and tear dancefloors apart and set roofs on fire. That’s what DJing was meant to be about.”
Why does money matter?
Money matters because you have to play a certain style of music to obtain that—or stand there in your god pose, with hands in the air, every breakdown. It’s gotta be one or the other. The ones that have their hands in the air are gonna have the people screaming, and that’s where the problem begins. You get a 21-year-old on the dancefloor thinking, “I wish that was me.”
Do they wish that because they love music and want to share their passion? Or because there’s a DJ booth full of chicks wanting to get around the DJ. Where do you draw the line?
But even 20 years ago, there was still DJs getting the girls. You’d have to go back to the '80s to find the real blue-collar-type working DJ nobody knows, who hides in a corner and plays records simply for the music.
I still think there are a lot of DJs who want to turn people on to good-quality music. Because the scene is so huge, there is always meant to be artists. Is a DJ/producer an artist or a copyist? If only 5 percent are artists, that’s still a huge number of people.
Part of the problem is the fact that you have to be a DJ-slash-producer.
That’s a huge part of the problem. Back in the day, we used to go listen to DJs. They played other people’s records and helped to celebrate life and tear dancefloors apart and set roofs on fire. That’s what DJing was meant to be about. And there are DJs who don’t produce who are overlooked. That’s one of my biggest peeves.
I consider myself a DJ first and producer second. I have a discography as long as your arm, but I consider myself a DJ first. I know a few DJs out there who don’t produce, who are incredible, who should be out there touring the world, but don’t get the opportunity because they don’t kiss the right buttholes.
You have to blame promoters as well. Promoters don’t do what the name says they’re doing. How many promoters actually promote, instead of just booking big names, paying overinflated fees to overinflated egos to play to kids who wouldn’t know the difference between tech house and acid house?
Who’s an example?
It’s not really for me to name names.
“The upside is that it’s now a dance world… so as much as I’m bitching about things, it’s actually fantastic.”
I meant example of the good DJs.
One who comes to mind immediately is Murf. He was a resident DJ with me at Subterrain at the End in London. He is an encyclopedia of music. His mixing is out of this world. His selection and taste and integrity is beyond whatever you can imagine, and no one knows who he is. And that’s because he doesn’t make records.
There’s a lot of blame to be doled out. You can blame the agents for charging so much. You can blame the promoters for only booking DJs who are in the news. You can blame the copyists who only want to get in.
But the upside is that it’s now a dance world. People are dancing in every major city on the planet. People are making music in every city on the planet. There are good people who want to make music for art’s sake in every city on the planet. So as much as I’m bitching about things, it’s actually fantastic.
You’ve been in L.A. over five years now, seemingly from right when things picked up.
I love L.A. It has its problems, but… The change had already started when I moved here. That was one of the reasons I thought I could come to L.A. From my own point of view, America gives me a chance I no longer have in London. After DJing on Kiss FM for a decade and owning the best club in the world, and running my labels and throwing warehouse parties and being a pop star, and just doing everything I could possibly do in London, it was only repetitive.
Here in America, I can have a bit of an influence and maybe inspire a few people. L.A. was a great move. It’s a huge city; there are tons of people who love to dance. It’s a strange place, I think because of the alcohol laws. I hope Los Angeles gets in line with the rest of the world and increases the drinking time. If bars were open until 4am, parties could go until 5am, which is perfect for L.A.
People in L.A. like their days. Even if you do an underground, it’s done by 6am—while in London or Berlin, it continues for days. People in L.A. want to do stuff with their days. They want to go to the beach, go shopping, meet friends for lunch, or hang out by the pool. That’s what L.A. is about: body- and mind-conscious. But increasing the alcohol just by an hour or two would give people more options without having to throw drinks back before 2am.
People ask me, since I owned the End in London, if I would open a club in L.A. Yeah, I would, if I could do that sort of a club. But right now, it’s impossible because of the licensing laws.
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