On the history of the selector – abridged

Since the creation of the “DJ”as we know it today, which we can accurately-ish place at the start of seventies, two ideas of a DJ emerged personified by two key figures; Frank Degrasso and David Mancuso. While Degrasso is largely considered the the founder of the mix, the first person to beat match and segue one track over to the next, Mancuso approached DJing in a very different way. Mancuso took to the music itself to narrate an evening’s progression with the “DJ” taking a more passive role than the fulcrum around which it all depended. In a Loft apartment in the artistically affluent New York of the seventies, Mancuso’s philosophy to DJing was more like that of a late night, mute radio jock, allowing the music to stand on its own and perhaps even establishing the purest form of what we understand as clubbing today, but that’s for a different article. Mancuso, a hi-fidelity sound obsessive, avoided mixing and anything that might obscure the sound of the original recording, to play each record as the artist intended most regularly at his infamous Loft parties. He never used a DJ mixer, and with very little between stylus and speaker, Mancuso’s ideology was that of pure sound, unmarred by device and person alike in pure appreciation of the music where the audience always took centre stage and the records would form the sinewy bond between the people and the night.

From that point on two ideas of the DJ would be constructed: the DJ as performer as embodied by Degrasso, and later by the likes of Sasha and Klock; and the DJ as selector in the form of David Mancuso, which has evolved through DJs like Young Marco, Lena Willikens and Motor City Drum Ensemble. Where DJ’s like Degrasso and his lineage centered around the performance aspects of the DJ, often in favour of the more functional dance tracks, Mancuso’s more introverted and socialist clubbing ideology informed an approach to DJing that pivoted around the music, and function invariably was in the end result and not in the execution. Whereas the the DJ as individual would go on to covet the spotlight, the DJ’s that opted for the selector’s approach achieved notoriety only through back channels, whispers from the underground of remarkable records being spun in the shadows by serious music heads away from the glare of the big-room dance track. The selectors were always on the lookout for those rare finds that took a lot of effort and knowledge to come by, and although for a DJ like Mancuso it meant not mixing in the contemporary DJ sense, it was more about a musical dedication that went far beyond than just stringing a few sure-thing-tracks together and looking for that alternative hit, the B-side or the unknown artist or label, that made the dance floor a more esoteric thing than the DJs that went for the obvious hit. It obviously happened around the seventies in a landscape where DJs were known by the tracks they played, regardless of which inclination they followed in their style of mixing. So intrinsic was a record to a DJ that audiences would “know who had broken a record” even two decades on as Bill Brewster explains in an RA exchange. It was clear from the origins of the DJ, whether selector or otherwise, that there was a serious connection between singular pieces of music and the DJ’s that played them and where they took it to the extreme, a selector existed.

The selectors broke records not for their contemporary appeal, but for their rarity, their obscurity. When and if a selector broke a record, there would be little to no chance that it could exist in another record bag. They broke the records that were limited releases, short run presses of some obscure group that might have only released one DIY record, but that record was a miracle unto itself. It might not have had the commercial appeal of a pop song, but it would light up the dance floor and more often than not outlive their contemporaries to become legends in their own rights with all credit going to the selector who took the time and patience to find said record and play it to a receptive audience. Yes, the selector existed because of digging, and although this is common practise today, in the seventies and the eighties it wasn’t nearly as popular amongst DJs always on the lookout for that new record they could breakout on the dance floor. Levan, for instance used to play a new record consistently through the night until that record became ingrained in the collective consciousness on the dance floor, drummed into people like an incessant playlist of a radio channel. Audiences that might not have warmed to the record at first would dance to it by the end of the night. On the other end of the scale the selector would have to go deeper, dig further back into the archives to find that track that would work on the same level but immediately and without the aid of contemporary appeal. That takes a truly special record and the more unknown, unfamiliar and anomalous it was it was, the more it came as an instantaneous surprise to drive the dance floor into a new direction. “When we started digging it wasn’t a popular thing to do”, remembers Sadar Bahar in an old interview, a selector that cut his teeth at Chicago’s other Warehouse. He was explaining it in reference to digging Soul music, which for a DJ that came to prominence during an age of Disco moving over to House was a very unlikely direction, considering the absolutely massive beat-orientated sets from the likes of Levan at around the same time. During a period of edits, remixes and the first emergence of the DJ-producer, the music was in the here and now, and looking back into the annals was not the most popular thing to do. Sadar Bahar preferred the road less ventured however, and won the respect of audiences and peers alike for his concerted efforts in finding that less obvious records when everybody else was jumping on the next thing, to great effect. Although he came from Chicago, and was an integral part of the House scene before it was even called House, Sadar Bahar is one of those oblique figures in dance music, but an important one and because he approaches music like a selector, still perusing boxes of used records today in search of that sparkle in the rough, he is also a timeless figure that continuously warrants the attention of heads everywhere.

It wasn’t however in the US, where the idea of selector would truly become defined, but from the most unlikely of places, the English north and home of the Northern Soul movement. In a place and an era that saw a predominantly working class society exist, entertainment was a rarefied, conservative affair taking place in ballrooms with barely more than comedians and waltz standards as entertainment. Those black and white films you see of the English north from that era were not indicative of the technology available, but rather just what the region inspired in film makers, a dull lifeless aesthetic with little to no escape for the hardworking folks that existed there; that was until Northern Soul came along. At a time when black American music was only the purview of private radio stations and a few unique record stores in London, Northern Soul brought it to dancefloors where high kicks and baggy corduroy trousers offered a vastly different approach to the sequence and opulence that Disco would eventually become. When the DJ’s in New York started moving into the sounds of a commercialised consumerist Disco, the Northern Soul movement looked to the out-dated R&B and motown records of the sixties for their soundtrack, but it was never about the obvious record that everybody could sing along to. “We found our own records in defiance of (BBC) Radio 1, in defiance of the news media, and in great defiance to Top of the Pops”, explains Northern Soul DJ and legendary figure, “Ian Levine” in the BBC documentary: Northern Soul Living for the Weekend. “Northern Soul started out as us looking for records with the Motown Sound that weren’t on Motown, and the more they had flopped, the more they were a B-side that no one had ever heard before, the more desireable they became”, continues Levine. In that single sentence, Ian Levine defines the idea selector – a DJ that digs for obscurities and rarities, the tracks that could have easily been as popular as their contemporary counterparts, but which for some  reason (label, promotion, and unfortunately looks) never attained the same stature as their counterparts. Tracks like The Tams’, “hey girl don’t bother me” and Duke Brown’s “Crying over you” were admired for the honesty and epitomised by their lo-fi sound and rawness, which spoke to a working class and its pragmatism. It was and has always been the selector’s role to draw attention to these records and while peers were playing the latest, and popular records to catch more ears on the dance floor, Northern Soul reversed the roles and pounced on an audience’s desire to go out dancing to uptempo music to introduce the masses to these rare and often exclusive gems.  

In the wake of Northern Soul and Disco’s patriots like Mancuso, the rise of the  DJ as performer, and an extension of Degrasso, Siano and Levan, came with household names like Frankie Knuckles (who had already started making waves in Disco as a Levan apprentice), Larry Heard and Todd Terry taking to the sound of House music through the eighties, sounds that favoured the locked groove of a drum machine and the synthesised landscape of a post-modernist eighties society in search of the modernity of an insatiable capitalist future. By the time Sadar Bahar came onto the scene properly, It seemed for the most part that the selector had had its day and that those looking to find that rare late groove were left behind in the forward mobility of an idealised, but unsustainable progression. In machine-driven music where the DJ turned producer and were now setting pop music trends there was no room for the music of the past or the obscure, only the relevant future. But there was always going to be a problem. The average DJ was still a facilitator and there wasn’t nearly enough of this new music to facilitate an evening, and above that it lacked the the dynamism of a night. Cue Bill Brewster on his first experiences on House: “I remember it was September 1987 and Mark Moore was playing and Adrian (my friend) played the usual stuff, a bit of go-go, some Hip-Hop, maybe some House and Electro, lots of stuff mixed together. Then Mark Moore came on and just played House records for two hours, and I was like; ‘What the fuck is this’”.

It was clear House would be a great new thing, but it wouldn’t be enough for a night and certainly not enough for Ibiza, where night turned into day and day turned into night and DJs like José Padilla and Alfredo had to modulate an evening/morning’s through an extensive set. Combine this with the fact that these DJs had limited resources for records on an isolated island sans Ryanair, and what you got was DJs turning to the obscure b-sides of an eclectic record collection. “Ibizan disc jockeys had to squeeze out every playable track from their collections” writes Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton in a DJ saved my life. “This meant finding rare gems on mainstream albums, scouring unthinkable artists for anomalous masterpieces and repurposing tracks never intended for the dance floor.” It wasn’t just about playing Phuture’s “Acid Trax” which now could also fit into a selectors set, but also playing Cure’s “The Blood”. It was those vague unintentional dance records from an encyclopedic musical mind that on first glance should never accommodate the dance floor, but found a fluidity between contrasting musical moments, that informed and pleased the nonpartisan; marginalised music fan. And with that the Balearic sound was born.

That Balearic sound was eventually interpreted by the likes of Paul Oakenfold and Pete Tong, who brought it back to the UK and the north as Acid House, and the sound of the Factory in Manchester amongst other things. In fact Acid House would be a misnomer and in the second summer of love, when this music started making its way to the UK, it was nothing like the 303 sharp jackin beats we had heard from Chicago in the late eighties, but rather an electronic House sound that took the eccentricities of the melodic Balearic sound applied to the consistencies of a locked groove, with a kaleidoscopic vision of what dance music constitutes. Amongst other things, it gave us our first glimpse of the superstar DJ, an anomaly which came to prominence significantly throughout the nineties and was at its peak when Trance, a direct descendant of that Balearic sound of Ibiza, brought it to the world stage through household names like Sasha and John Digweed. With more new music like this gentrifying sound of Balearic there was enough of it to fill a DJ set now, and digging towards the back of a crate wasn’t even necessary let alone playing that obscure rarity. Collecting dust somewhere in the back of a record shop.

It seemed that the days of the selector were numbered throughout the nineties where those big garish DJ sets and stages from Tiesto and like took a serious foothold, but there would eventually be a saving grace, the Internet. Shortly after the world wide web happened forums like DJhistory.com and the Dubstep forum started cropping up and gave rise to a new selector, one with uncapped data and the wealth of knowledge from an extensive online community at his/her disposal. In the early 2000’s DJ’s like Prins Thomas and Todd terje would haunt DJhistory.com for those rarefied moments, like cliff Richard’s funky B-sides or the 45’s to play at 33. While later, over across the channel Dubstep forum would create a new youthful community exchanging and sharing ideas on black English dance music and beyond. Characters like Ben UFO and Addison Groove would engross themselves in the esoteric music from unlikely sources through clandestine meetings on forum threads that would lead everywhere from Dubstep, to Acid and obscure House samples. Considering that, it might be obvious why dubstep itself was such a short-lived phenomenon, as DJs and artist quickly ventured into new directions after its initial existence. Dubstep turned to House, Techno and even Disco, and a DJ like Ben UFO took on a new versatility that directly opposed genre-specific mixes, the selector for a post-Internet world. Today Ben UFO’s sets can go through the Hessle Audio catalogue, stomp off into the world of classic Chicago House, abruptly change direction into Detroit and then come back to the UK through Garage. Where electronic music for the dance floor has existed for well over a lifetime, those rare B-sides aren’t coming from The Cure or Motown  look-a-likes anymore, but rather from a vast catalogue of everything from Ambient to Vaporwave, where new presses today are even smaller in number, and finding that weird flip on a little unknown House label is more envogue than ever thanks to internet’s deep net musical anomalies like Lo-Fi House.

In Norway even, what was first established by the likes of Prins Thomas and Pål Strangefruit is embodied today in DJs like DJ Nuhhh, Øyvind Morken and Olefonken, DJs that not only trawl the history of music, for that less obscure unknown gems, but also find that modern equivalent that will set their dance floor apart from the ubiquitous deep/tech House set. Speak to a selector like Øyvind Morken and topics can range from proto-House records from level 42’s keyboardist Wally Badarou to Shackleton’s recent very unusual releases on Honest Jons. Øyvind forms a select group of DJs like Ben UFO, Young Marco, prins Thomas and Sadar Bahar with a lineage to the roots of the selector. They are uncompromising DJs with an extensive knowledge, consummate consumers of music whose finger is not only the pulse of new music, but constantly finding new old music to present in the context of a contemporary mix. “It’s better to buy (records) all the time than to miss stuff”, said Prins Thomas in an interview with this blog earlier this year. The selector is also a perpetually unfulfilled collector. There’s an insistent and voracious drive for consistent discovery, not only to bolster personal collections, but to present tracks not as functional DJ tools, but rather as the oddity finding a context much more significant than latest Beatport highlight.

From Mancuso to Marco there is a thread underpinning them that sets them apart from their contemporaries. They are the selectors, the DJs that stretch just that little bit further in their pursuit for the obscure and the idiosyncratic. They number amongst some of the best DJs today and even at a time when everything is available to everybody they still manage to find their niche. Although labels like Dekmantel have started putting more emphasis on their role on the dance floor’s musical development, the selector is hardly a contemporary construct, it’s congruous with its time, but not dependent on it. This defines the selector today in the landscape where the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips, but they still tend to stray towards the same viral magnetism that informs the populace. While we still barely brush the upper layers of music and its culture, the selectors are somewhere at the back digging deeper and longer, in search of that one record… which constantly alludes their record bag.