Dr/DJ samples two sides of life in career mix

November 5, 2004

At first glance, the life of an academic appears to exist at a polar opposite to that of a DJ. One involves spending hours in solitary and silent study, the other late nights in smoky clubs with thumping music and crowds of people.

But, according to Hillegonda Rietveld - who is both a DJ and an academic - the lifestyles are more similar than many might think.

"A good DJ is a bit of an educator as well as an entertainer," she says.

Dr Rietveld, a senior lecturer in London South Bank University's Arts and Media Scheme and specialist in sonic media, teaches and researches dance culture using her extensive experience of DJing to inform her work.

For her, the two fields marry well. "A DJ's job is not only similar to a lecturer's in terms of time spent on research and performance, it's also similar in terms of career path.

"One needs to 'publish' - in the case of DJs this means production work, remixes and original musical material," she says in her Dutch lilt infused with a Mancunian twang.

"Nevertheless, a DJ's job provides more instant gratification. Only at the end of a long teaching course do you know if students actually liked the material, while on the dance floor people literally vote with their feet."

That said, she has had a theatre full of ordinarily apathetic students applaud spontaneously after one of her dance culture lectures.

After arriving in England in the early 1980s with her band Quando Quango, Dr Rietveld helped develop seminal dance nights at one of the UK's most famous nightclubs, the Hacienda in Manchester.

She has just contributed to a new book on the dance revival now taking place at the club, House Music: The Hacienda Must Be Built , which was published in September.

Dr Rietveld switched to an academic career after getting fed up with the poor pay and conditions of a life in music. It is just one aspect in which she differs from the average academic as rather than moan about pay and conditions, she appreciates them.

"Anyone in arts or media earns a pittance and people are prepared to work for free," she explains. "There are more equal opportunities in academia than there would be in the unregulated world out there."

Going down the academic route offered an escape from all that. "I wanted to grow old gracefully and didn't really fancy becoming the medallion man DJ of yesteryear or the menopausal DJ.

"I think I always wanted to do something a bit more challenging and that's why I chose the academic path. I didn't want to conform to the mainstream pop world. It's terribly, terribly conservative in its cultural values."

This is particularly true in terms of gender stereotyping, Dr Rietveld says. Gender issues in general are clearly something she feels passionately about.

"The dance music world is strangely old fashioned when it comes to gender relations. The people who make it tend to be white men," she says.

"In fact, the gender thing seems to be more important than race. No one ever says, 'Oh, we've already got a black DJ'. No one ever talks in those terms but they do about women."

But the role of gender in dance music does not feature prominently in her research work for fear that she would be pigeonholed as a feminist writer - and then ghettoised for it.

Dr Rietveld's first degree was in English and art history at Leeds Metropolitan University in 1991. Her final-year dissertation on acid house music was deemed to be so good it was published and then picked up by the Home Office as a reference source on rave culture.

The DJing really took off as she studied for her PhD in the cultural understanding of house music. It was both a way of paying her way through her studies and keeping in direct touch with her subject.

"Being a DJ became part of my research because to ensure that I understood the subject matter, I had to be part of the culture," she explains.

In fact, her contacts in the industry made it easy for her to gain access to underground events that would have eluded less well-connected academics.

The PhD thesis was published as a book in 1998 called This Is our House: House Music, Cultural Spaces and Technologies . The idea behind the title being that house music per se does not belong to anyone and each person changes it to suit them.

"It's such a nice principle. There's no such thing as 'proper' house or 'real' house. Everyone who works in that field makes it into something else," Dr Rietveld says.

In the mid-1990s, having completed her PhD, she took up a temporary post as lecturer in media at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Since 1997, she has been at London South Bank University, where she is developing a sonic media course, which combines cultural and practical study of electronic music and sound.

Her latest research work looks at spirituality in post-industrial dance music.

"The way people come to terms with their relationship with machines. Techno music doesn't relate to human culture, it's spiritual and ritualised," Dr Rietveld says.

For the time being, the DJing career has taken a back seat to the academic life she has chosen. But with a yearly gig at the cream of dance festivals, Big Chill, it is never too far away-and her academic passion for dance culture continues unabated.


Leeds Metropolitan University

doing admin on a floating performance pontoon in Rotterdam harbour for a bunch of budding architects

 juggling all the things I want to do in the little time that life provides

is being slow - and narrow-minded people

the world climate will have changed and I'll be growing a moustache. Meanwhile, I hope to have received professional recognition for my creative research work.

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