Wheel of fortune spins DJ out of a dark corner

Adventures on the Wheels of Steel
November 2, 2001

As club culture took a grip in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so did a new breed of celebrity - far beyond anything imagined by the radio DJs of the 1960s and 1970s. The lowly DJ, previously shunted to a dark corner of the dance hall, became a star, surrounded by huge podiums, state-of-the-art record decks, laser light shows and bouncers, and rewarded with extortionate fees, groupies and mass adulation. Meanwhile, the actual job of playing songs for an audience remained exactly the same.

This status shift has always been something of a mystery. The role of DJ is not so very different from that of a film projectionist, yet the perks of DJ-ing today are on a par with those of pop and film stars. I have yet to hear of a celebrity projectionist. There are many talentless film actors and musicians who enjoy celebrity status, yet many are talented. Whether or not any DJs are talented is debatable: anyone with a vague musicality and a modicum of technical understanding can turn their hand to DJ-ing - as proved by the Channel 4 show Faking It, where a classically trained cellist was taught DJ-ing and then tested out at a "happening" nightclub. Neither the punters nor the panel of DJ judges spotted the impostor.

This book is an exploration of DJ culture through the years and goes some way to explaining how, when, and to some extent why, the cult of the DJ formed. The author, a successful club DJ, interviews established DJs as disparate as Jimmy Saville, BBC Radio 1's Pete Tong and the ultra-hip club vinyl spinner Sasha alongside unknowns, such as a DJ who holds Smiths/Morrissey nights at his local pub and who regards the idea of DJ-ing as the route to fame, girls and riches as preposterous.

Haslam writes well and leaves no aspect of DJ-dom untouched. He talks to club-goers and promoters from the early 1960s mod scene through to northern soul DJs of the 1970s, rare groove DJs of the 1980s and contestants for the DMC Technics World DJ Championships. This is a complete picture of what it means, and has meant, to be a DJ. A non-chronological account laden with anecdotes, it manages to convey an unusual history of the evolution of dance, club and drug culture and its inextricable - if often inexplicable - deification of the man (occasionally the woman) who plays the records.

As a DJ himself, Haslam was never likely to concede that he and his kind are basically doing no more than anyone who has ever made a compilation tape, but his book is nonetheless interesting and entertaining. The celebrity DJ is ridiculous, but the phenomenon of the celebrity DJ is strangely compelling.

Ronita Dutta is a freelance journalist specialising in popular culture.

Adventures on the Wheels of Steel: The Rise of the Superstar DJs

Author - Dave Haslam
ISBN - 1 84115 432 6
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £10.00
Pages - 256

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