GRAeme park talks


The term legend is one that gets thrown around a lot these days, but Graeme Park is more than deserving of this status, with his story mirroring the evolution of dance music and club culture itself. 

Coming from humble beginnings in Nottinghams  Selectadisc  record shop in the early 80s, Park would soon become intrinsically linked to the world famous  Hacienda  when  Mike Pickering  asked him to cover for him one fateful night in 1988. Bringing his superb knowledge of the burgeoning house and techno music scene to the decks, he was quickly established as a resident at the club and his place in music history was cemented. 

Ahead of this 8 hour A Night With… this weekend we caught up with Mr Park to get a history and a future lesson…

Hi Graeme, first off can you tell us a bit about how you started off DJing and, also, the All Dayer scene around Nottingham at the time?

I was working in a fantastic record shop in Nottingham called Selectadisc (sadly no more) and playing in a local band.  The owner (Brian Selby, who sadly passed away last year) bought the local Ad Lib club and immediately renamed it The Garage.  As one of his employees I reluctantly became the DJ.  Turns out it was the best decision I ever made.  29 years later Im still spinning tunes.  This was back in 1984, pre house music.  There was a thriving and massive soul and funk all dayer scene that used to visit Rock City in Nottingham and I ended up being asked to DJ there.  It was huge with coach loadds of posses from all over the UK.  I was the only DJ who dint use the mic to get a response from the crowd (e.g. Birmingham posse make some noise! or this ones for all the ladies in the house).  Instead Id cut up two copies of a tune and mess about with acapellas and do a bit of scratching.  I learned a lot at those gigs.

I heard a wonderful story about you almost having a fight with with Eric B in the early 80s – what happened there?

I was DJing at Rock City when LL Cool J, Mantronix and Eric B & Rakim played.  It was mental and Eric B & Rakims Paid In Full was a massive hit at the time and featured the bassline from Dennis Edwards soul/funk classic Dont Look Any Further.  One thing you absolutely do not do when DJing at a gig is play any tunes by any of the acts performing.  Its a big no-no.  However, there was another obscure hip hop tune that also featured the same Dennis Edwards bassline and was in answer to the Eric B & Rakim tune.  I knew it would raise the roof, so I took the decision to play it at the end of my set.  It absolutely went off in Rock City and the place went wild.  I was in my element cutting up two copies of this tune and I remember the moment as if it was yesterday.  Soon afterwards I got a message that Eric B & Rakim wanted to meet me downstairs.  I was quite excited as I was a fan and had remixed one of his previous tunes.  However, as I went deep into the bowels of the venue I was met by a very irate and very large manager who said that Eric B was furious with me for playing his record.  Despite my protestations that I absolutely did not, the even more furious and even larger Eric B appeared covered in gold chains and jewellery.  He proceeded to push me into a corner complaining that I had played his record before he had performed.  I insisted that I had not but he was having none of it.  The equally annoyed Rakim joined him and I was trapped in a corner by three very large gentlemen who were not best pleased.  I pointed out that in actual fact their Paid In Full record totally relied on the bassline of Dennis Edwards Dont Look Any Further and that I played a different record with the same sample.  However this didnt help matters one bit and I suddenly got a little bit scared.  Luckily the Rock City DJ and all dayer legend Jonathan Woodliffe appeared and smoothed things over to my utter relief.  But as I was ushered away, I couldnt resist telling Eric B that when I remixed his tune I replayed all of his scratching because his wasnt very good.  I ran back upstairs and spent the rest of the night hidden in the lighting booth.  I think I was about 22 or 23 at the time and I learnt a valuable lesson about egos that night.

So, when and how did you first get involved with the Hacienda and what were your initial impressions of the club and the scene around it?

I used to visit The Haienda quite a lot to see bands such as Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, and A Ceratin Ratio play live but I never went to any of the club nights.  I met Mike Pickering in 1987 at an i-D Magazine photo shoot about the new breed of underground DJs in London.  We were the only DJs from outside the capital and we hit it off instantly.  We were doing similar things but in totally different venues.  We put on a midweek night in February 1988 called The Northern House Review to promote house music and show the London-centric media that there was a scene up north that was being ignored.  We were sick of reading about rare groove rather than house.  The night was a huge success and later that year Mike asked me to cover his Friday Nude night while he was on holiday.  It was an absolute revelation because although I was playing the same tunes that I was playing in Nottingham, the response from the 2000 strong crowd was hundreds of times bigger than the response I was getting from my 500 strong Garage crowd.  As I was to discover, this wsnt just down to the numbers either.  When Mike came back from holiday I was asked to stay and ended up DJing there for eight glorious years.

How big a part do you think ecstasy had to play in the explosion of acid house – do you think its since been mythologized or was it really a crucial component?

Drugs and clubs go hand in hand.  They always have and always will.  Ecstasy played a huge part in the acid house explosion.  House and ecstasy are natural partners due to the euphoric sensations you get from both.  Put them together and wow!  Light the touch paper and stand well back.  They were made for each other and both played a massive part in the social and cultural revolution of the time.  Although there is a certain amount of mythology and a rose tinted spectacles view of the time, you really cant underestimate the impact of house music, ecstasy and The Haienda.  Their joint legacies are all around us.  Unfortunately younger generations just dont realise it.

Who were some of the US DJs that made the greatest impression on you in the early days of house music – was there anyone in particular that stood out both in terms of track selection and technique?

For me, Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries and Marley Marl.  I used to listen to their mix shows which a friend in New York used to send me on cassette every week.  It wasnt just their wonderful choice of music but their mixing.  It had a massive influence on me in the days when UK DJs didnt mix and couldnt mix and sounded terrible when they tried.  I was determined to be the exception and when I first DJd in New York in 1988 I proved that UK DJs could mix.  Mind you, I was probably the only one who could back then.

Did you go over to the states, Chicago or New York, and sample the early days of house culture over there?

Yes.  In 1989 I Djd in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Boston, San Francisco and LA.  It was an incredible time and Im proud of the fact that my reputation as the skinny bald Scottish guy from The Haienda preceded me and that I managed to live up to expectations.  I met Arthur Baker, John Jellybean Benitez, Mark Kamins, Jon Robie, Marshall Jefferson, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Lil Louis, Todd Terry, Tony Humphries, Frankie Knuckles and others.  I couldnt believe it.  I also toured the US with New Order, Public Image Ltd and The Sugarcubes in 1989 too.  Im sure there;s a book in there somewhere.  Incredible times.

Fast forwarding a bit, what do you make of the house music world today, do you find good music harder to come by in the avalanche of music released each week?

Its tough and ultimately tedious wading through the enormous amount of decidedly average music that arrives in my Inbox every day (around 80 tracks a day- each with several different mixes) but I have to do it because I know that I will find some fantastic new tunes in there somewhere.  And when I do its an utter joy.  There are some superb tunes being made right now that sound like they were made over twenty years ago.  Tunes that would have fitted right in at The Haienda.  But because its so easy to make and release music now due to technology, it means that any half wit can do so and tunes that would never have been made, let alone released, are now appearing everywhere because it doesnt really cost much to do so.  Back in the day it cost money to book a studio, master a atrck, press up some white labels, promote and release a track.  A lot of money.  Money that had to be recouped through sales.  Therefore the quality was largely better.  Thats not the case today and as a result the overall quality of music has suffered detrimentally.  But if you look and trust ceratin record labels and their A&R process, there is some absolutely magnificent music out there.  Its just a bit more difficult to find sometimes.

Do you still play vinyl or have you switched over to digital and what do you make of the ongoing debate around the two – worthless conjecture or valid discussion?

Its all about what you play and not how you play it.  I started using Serato five years ago because it meant I could go back to using vinyl.  I use the Serato vinyl discs to manipulate my digital music files and get the best of both worlds.  I have 20,000 tunes on my hard drive but get to play them on vinyl.  That means I get to mix live and get the tactile feel and delicate touch you only get with vinyl.  Ive tried Ableton, Traktor and other programmes with CDs and midi devices but keep coming back to the simplicity and stability of Serato.  Youll never, ever see me use auto sync purely because I get no joy or thrill out of it.  I adore the hands on approach of live mixing.  You cant beat it.  I think Id be bored otherwise.  But I wont knock any type of DJ software because its democratised the whole process of paying music and ultimately helped improve DJs mixing techniques.  However, the one thing technology cant do is choose the music you play.  That is one skill you cant learn.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Yellow & Black project?

The Yellow and Black Project is an ongoing and occasional project with my musical partner Paul Birchall.  We write, produce, remix and collaborate together and with others.  However, as we both lead incredibly busy lives and have other commitments, releases are few and far between.  But look out for new material weve done with Karima Francis and Angie Brown soon as well as a forthcoming EP of eclectic tunes on Haienda records. 

I understand youve been playing the sax from quite an early age, have you been making music throughout your djing career?

Long before I became a DJ I played saxophone, guitar and sang in a variety of bands.  One was destined for big things too and we supported a couple of well know bands in the early 1980s.  But I left to concentrate on DJing because in the short term I made more money.  But hindsight tells me I made the right decision.

Youve held down radio residencies for many years, do you think that the role of radio is still as vital as ever in the age of the internet?

Radio is vitally important for the discovery of new music from the past present and future.  BBC 6 Music is always on in our house and is proving to be an education to the 8 year old Park twins. 

Your forthcoming 8 hour set at A Night With…affords you the chance to stretch out over the course of the night, how do you approach sets of this length?

Firstly I try not to drink any alcohol for the first four hours but usually fail.  I love doing long sets because I get to warm up and set the tone for myself which is a rare luxury these days.  I also get to play tracks that rarely get heard and also to drop a few surprises.  I do have to concentrate though.  Often a brief conversation with someone can break my train of thought and it takes ages to get it back.  But essentially I just go with the flow and do what Ive been doing for 29 years- pay to the crowd in front of me and make sure they are entertained and leave with a smile on their face.  Its not rocket science.

Graeme plays his A Night With… mandate at Basing House this Friday 12th April. Full details here.

Joe Evans