Gone To A Rave: The Scratchmaster! Talking With Dj Sy


DJ Sy’s a bit of an enigma. I love his early sets – some of the rave tapes from 92-93 are easily some of the best live recordings of the hardcore era out there; clattering, explosive walls of noise that see Sy cutting through tracks at an insane speed, scratching with the skill of a kid who’s grown up obsessing over hip hop. Even when the mixes teeter on the edge of disaster, the chopping between tracks turning into a brutal, disruptive assault, it’s all done with such supreme confidence that Sy comes out winning. At his best, you get a sense that he’s attained some pure zen state, almost vanishing within his own mix, riding across a tumultuous sea of sound, elevating to rave heaven. Better still, as Sy was playing multiple gigs every weekend during this period, there’s more than enough tapes of him out there smashing it out to present a vast stand-alone catalogue of golden age Sy.

But, if I'm honest I just can’t get on with the direction he took when the scene split into jungle/ hardcore camps around 94-95. Sy pursued the increasingly frantic happy and trancecore sounds – loads of pop vocals, nothing but 4/4 beats, and, for me, a narrowing of his horizons. Financially it definitely worked out for him, and I’m not here to judge anyone else’s taste, but I personally I wish I’d got to hear what he could have done if he’d chosen to carry on mixing up the hardcore with the jungle. As he’s playing the upcoming Moondance festival, it seemed a good opp to find out about the roots of his sound, why he switched to a pure happy route, and what’s it like to be knocking on 50 and still rinsing happy hardcore.

Tell me how you got into music

I’m originally from Croydon, and it was through radio stations that I got into the music. One night I was tuning across the radio and I came across Invicta Radio– I think it was Mastermind Roadshow on, they were a couple of guys, Mad Max and Dave VJ, and they were playing New York New York by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Up to that point I’d been quite heavily into ska, the Specials and all of that, but when I came across this track I’d never heard anything by it. It was funky, it was a rap, immediately I was hooked. I stayed in every night tuned into that radio station for months and months, listen to rap. I ended up getting Technics decks a couple of years after that through a Saturday job

That was quite a commitment in those days

Yeah. There was no one else in my school into the music- maybe two blokes in a thousand kids. So yeah it was really rare to be into it. It wasn’t the normal thing to do – it was even really difficult to find out what the decks were that the hip hop DJs were using cos there was no internet back then

How did you find out what the decks were?

I went to a hip hop night with an MC I used to do demo tapes with, and that was the first time I saw a DJ in front of me live. I remember staring at them for the whole show, I must have been about 14, 15, staring at these two decks thinking I want them, I want them. I did a little scratching before then, but when I got the Technics it transformed what I could do.

What was the show?

I can’t remember the name, but it was in Brixton, and all the British guys who were around then played; Hijack, Cookie Crew – I think Mastermind were DJing there which is how I knew about it.

So finding the decks must have been hard – learning to scratch must have been harder

That’s the thing, it sounds like I’m trying to big myself up, but I had to work it out myself. There was no digital support, no videos I could watch – that hip hop show I mentioned was one of only a very few I went to and you couldn’t really see what was going on because you couldn’t get up close. So I was completely self-taught.

And the scratching became such a feature of your sets

I bought it from my hip hop grounding, then carried on doing it even when I played house music. I’m a bit gutted about that whole thing, because to keep on top of it you’ve got to practice 5-6 hours a day, and at the start I used to do that. But I got so pissed off with turning up to clubs and the set up not being right, the mixer being a weird mixer with no cross fader, or the decks being 10 feet apart, I kinda lost faith in it, so I didn’t keep up the practice. It’s a bit of an excuse, but I’d get to a gig after having practiced a new technique or pattern, and I just couldn’t do it. I’d get so pissed off – it’s something I’ve always done but I didn’t follow through because of that fact. But still, I got known for scratching, and people started tagging me as ‘the UK’s number one scratchmaster’ which bothered me a bit. I mean it was flattering, but you look at some of these guys, these proper hip hop guys who live and breathe hip hop scratching and they’re a million miles further advanced than what I do. I just use it as an addition, I use it to augment the music – if there’s a flatter bit of a track I’ll try and give a bit more rhythm to it – it’s not a main feature, I try and keep it subtler.

I think that’s why it’s different to hip hop scratching; it’s there in service to the dancefloor rather than in service of making you look good.

Yeah, very true. That’s a good way of putting it – a very political way of putting it hahaha… DJs who scratch all over a vocal are twats, you want them to shut the fuck up..

So when did you take it out and start playing

I went to university in Nottingham and got together with a load of like-minded people who were into urban music, hip hop, soul and all of that, and we put a night on for students, and then that was pretty popular. Because of that there was a wine bar in the centre of Nottingham that my mate managed to sweet talk us a gig in. It went well the first night, and within two weeks it was rammed. The owner of that wine bar owned a club in town, and he put me on there – that went well, he then moved to a club called Venus in Nottinghma that’s quite famous, and it all kicked off there. That was just at the time of tracks by LFO and Nightmares on Wax, and the rave scene really started. The hip hop had been good, but it wasn’t really club music back then, and with the summer of love of ’88, and house music coming over to the UK, I really loved it. So this fella bought Venus and it went mental – I caught it right at the right time with those tracks coming out. The manager wanted to keep it a trendy sort of London Balearic club, but because I don’t really like that sort of stuff I stuck to the proper underground hard rave stuff, and it went mad. There were queues around the block. The owner got rid of me in the end because the clientele was too rave based and he didn’t like it. He was very fashion conscious, and he wanted to be right on the cusp of every changing trend – rave has always been a bit of a bastard niche, it’s always been a bit looked down upon and he didn’t want to go down that path. I mean, of course with the drugs that are associated with it you can understand it from a certain point of view – you don’t want 2000 kids off their faces in Nottingham city centre, the national press were against it. Crazy times.

How did you get from there to a national stage?

The start of that was through DJ SS. He booked me for an event in Leicester, for one of his Nemesis gigs, which was 2-3000 people. They were awesome raves, really really good. I played that and that got my name out into record shops on flyers. Then I was booked to play in Amnesia in Coventry which was massive back then, and it went from there really. Once Gideon from Obsession – or Fantazia as it was known back then – booked me, he took me down to Exeter, down to the South coast.

There are so many stories of people getting stitched for payment, or encountering gangsters, is this something you came across?

I never did. To be honest, I never had time to hang about in raves. At that time I was really getting busy – I’d do Newcastle, over to Carlisle, then over to Exeter in the same night. It’s a bit gutting really, I would have liked to experience it a bit more, to soak up the atmosphere rather than just turn up and play, but that’s the way it was.

What were the tunes that came out around 1991 – 92 that really sounded to you like the sound was being pushed forward?

That’s easy – Edge #1 – well, it’s called Compounded and the artist is Edge #1. I remember I was at an Ark night in Leeds – it’s something I was doing from 91-95. They were wicked nights, and I remember one night Grooverider was on, and at last I had a chance to check some other DJs out. He pulled that tune out, and it was something that I’d never heard before. Most of the other stuff was pure breakbeat then, but this had the kick to it, and that synth line. I went up to him and said ‘what the fuck is that!?’ I think that’s a real seminal track.

What point did you get into the production?

That was about ‘94. Heavy breakbeat stuff had split off into jungle, but there were a few DJs who still liked the four/four kick – it was noticeable in 92 – 93 hardcore that there were tracks that had the 4/4 kick running through, but in ’94 it branched off into a genre of just that, a lot happier as well, lots of piano breaks in there. ‘94 was when I still had a full time job, but I had so many gigs that I thought I just can’t carry on working 7 til 5 or whatever it was – I’d end up having to cancel gigs because I was so tired. So I thought, everywhere I was DJing was busy, it was a really good time for raves, so I made the decision to quit the day job and start producing. It was crazy times – I think Slipmatt’s SMD #1 did about 20,000 copies. For something that’s not being advertised on radio that’s not bad for a day’s work.

And you were pursing the happier 4/4 sound – was that a conscious decision to move away from the breakbeats?

To be honest it was forced, which is unfortunate. My favourite era, which is probably 87-90, the tunes I really liked were the bass heavy breakbeat tunes,  really dark tunes like Unique 3, Nightmares on Wax, LFO… I dunno. I really liked the early 90s as well, up to 94, because there was the mixture, you could play a piano track, and then follow it with the darkest thing you’ve heard in your life and the crowd would lap it up. But when it split you kinda had to make a choice. I remember in 94, the jungle stuff was just a bit too dark and monotonous, it was all amen breaks and I wasn’t really inspired by it, but then it bothers me that the happy scene was a bit too happy – there wasn’t much variation in it. So I tried to introduce a bit of darkness into the tracks, but it split so much. It was amazing how it split so immensely. Within the space of a year happy hardcore was a million miles away from jungle. It was ridiculously popular and the atmosphere at happy hardcore raves was out of this world, but it always bugged me that there wasn’t more variety and that if you did do something a bit different it didn’t get as good a reaction as the really happy stuff.

Then in the late 90s and early 00s there was a period where vinyl stopped selling and record shops started closing down. How did you react to this? Was there ever a point where you were worried?

There’s been a few occasions like that. Around 98-99 happy hardcore had run it’s course a little bit, and the scene started to take a bit of a dip. That was a worrying time, but luckily the trance element was introduced, that gave it another kick up the balls as it were – that style is still around 16 years later. That got popular, and by 2005-06 it was absolutely massive again, it picked right up. That coincided with the decline of vinyl – vinyl sales were a big chunk of my income and I had to adapt to the digital market which at the time was nowhere near as big. That’s the reason I stopped producing, you’ve got to support yourself and now there’s just not the financial reward in producing hardcore. It’s a shame but that’s how it’s gone.

And do you play new school gigs now?

I play the odd new school gig, but most of what I’m playing is 2000 – 2012 – I mean someone asks me to play an old skool gig, I reach for the early 90s stuff then realise that most of the kids in the room weren’t born in the early 90s…

Is it a surreal situation to find yourself, at whatever age you are, playing this very youthful music?

Yeah, 100%, but it’s all good, the gigs I’ve been doing this year especially. There’s not many people doing old skool gigs of the era I’m covering so it goes down really well – people always want to hear classics and there’s not many other DJs who do it.

How do you feel about the fact that the music you’ve pursued still has a pariah status after all these years?

I think the tempo has a lot to do with it – one of the reasons why it’s never been played on radio. Hardcore with that big four/four kick at 180 bpm.. Radio is paid for by advertisers, and if advertisers don’t like what they’re hearing, well it’s a commercial world. But to be honest, it’s kind of good that it hasn’t crossed over, it still keeps it underground. Nowadays it’s not my main revenue earning profession, so its good to be able to play underground music

So you’ve got another job?

Yeah I’m in property development now, I’ve been doing it for about 10 years – with the decline in record sales and downloads I had to branch out and do something else. It’s good – Djing now I’m not doing it just for the money, I’m doing it more for enjoyment than having to pay the bills.

Are you a naturally manic person? Because to me, 180 bpm is manic. You seem pretty laidback to be honest..

Hahaha, I’m very laidback I’d say – the thing with hardcore is you get the half tempo feel to it – it sounds like 90 bpm to me, it’s the way you interpret it I suppose. I remember when the tempos started to creep up and Ellis-D put out a track called something like ‘keep rave at 140 bpm’ – and you’d hear tracks faster than that and be like Jesus Christ it’s too fast! Now we’re at 180 bpm and I don’t even bat an eyelid. It’s crazy how you get used to it.

OK, finally what’s the greatest rave you played at?

I think the 1992 Fantazia at Matchams Park in Bournemouth. I was doing a very late set, 4 til 5 or 5 til 6 or something. I drove down and it was a beautiful morning. The sun was coming up, and it was dead quiet where I parked. I walked up 500 yards, walked round the corner into this huge crowd of 10 or 15,000 people going mental as the sun came up. It was absolutely wicked.   

DJ SY plays Found Presents: Moondance at The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on Sunday 18th September: http://moondancefestival.co.uk/

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