25 Years in the Game - Interview with DJ Pipes
Hunter S Thompson famously once said: The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side. Despite the irony, Dr Gonzo was never one to shirk away from telling the truth. So it is no surprise that with the ever-connected world of the DJ and the music business that this should ring ever true. DJing is a rewarding pursuit, but it is very taxing, the late hours, dodgy promoters and long distance travel. And not everyone gets to live the rock and roll lifestyle. For a DJ to continue to play out most weekends over quarter of a decade takes a lot of persistence, passion and energy. Given the fickle nature of the dance music scene and the unhealthy distractions associated with it, it is no surprise that so many talented DJs burn out so quickly. Yet there are DJs who have the ability to adapt, research, work hard and maintain a incredible passion for what they do. One is Sheffield-based DJ Pipes who started out playing records in the late 80s and still plays out regularly, from guesting around the UK, to festival appearances at Glastonbury and further afield. Whilst a major driving force has been at the legendary Kabal night alongside other Sheffield heroes - Winston Hazel and Toddla T (both Sheffield music heroes). I tracked down Pipes to discuss whether there was still an underground, his influences and what any aspiring DJ can do to ensure they have the right skills to stick around for as long as possible.
You've been actively involved in underground club culture for over 25 years going back to the emerging acid house and warehouse scenes. What is it that keeps you enthused about being involved in DJing and the underground music scene?
I've always had a dual career as both a designer and DJ then this has allowed me to be very picky about what I choose to do certainly more so with DJ'ing which I've always compromised less with than my full time job. I've always had a fairly broad ear when it comes to music and selection so as the music shifts and changes then so do I keeping things fresh and interesting. Although at the age of 45 I've seen several musical cycles come round at least three times which is a slightly amusing spectacle. I've never felt that fulfilled or thought that I can't do better or be better which is another reason for ploughing on - often into a deep chasm!
To extend that previous question - do you believe there is such a thing as an underground scene or movement as you knew it in the 80s and 90s?
Errrr maybe but is that even relevant anymore or is that the question? I'm waiting to be knocked off my feet and discover something brand new again but maybe I'm just not in the right places at the right times (like the year I was at Notting Hill carnival and bumped into a soundsystem playing Grime instrumentals with about 30 kids crowded round which sounded to me like early bleep/techno). I think the era you're referring to was such a huge youth movement and encompassed much, much more than just music it's hard to say if that will ever happen again and certainly have the social impact it did.
No doubt over that period you have been a big influence on other DJs and club goers, who were your original influences and who inspires you in 2015?
I guess my first immediate influences are the ones that I‘ve always stayed close to and have become my musical foundation if you can call it that. You'll remember as well as me but cities had identity's back then and it was very territorial so one scene generally differed from another. Sheffield at the peak of Acid House sounded very different to Manchester and certainly clubs like Shoom in London. I was pretty tunnel vision for many years and I only really wanted to hear Winston Hazel (who I love to play with), Parrot and Graeme Park who sneaks in there because he played in Sheffield a lot. Those guys were coming from a Soul and Funk foundation which obviously got lost and possibly taken over by the harder, faster, more hedonistic rave music. My good friend Chris Duckenfield embraced stuff from all-over the place and pretty much bucked the trend at the time which follows through to the current day. Chris is a DJ that has the most international respect of any Sheffield born DJ and someone that's been a big influence on me over that last 15 years or so.
Do you think it's helped being part of a vibrant scene within Sheffield and do you see much difference between that and other nearby hives of activity such as Manchester and Nottingham?
I guess I've partly answered this but yeah definitely – I made the easy decision to stay and study in Sheffield back in the late 80's mainly because I felt part of what was happening and saw no need to move elsewhere – the classic Sheffield village mentality!
Starting out in the late 80s as a vinyl DJ and evolving as someone comfortable playing across formats, has it been hard to make those transitions?
A little bit! I've never been the most technically gifted DJ so I mainly relied upon selection and vibe whatever the format. I've never really had a go on Serato and that's mainly because when it started to be widely used it also heralded the start of really awful sound quality. I feel very comfortable with memory sticks and digital files (I always play WAV'S) more so than CD's or even vinyl although it's a very different experience. I like the Pioneer Rekordbox software interface but its good to break things up with vinyl if the equipment is set up correctly.
You're obviously someone who has a genuine love for a wide variety of genres, including hip hop, reggae and house and its various offshoots. What is the genre that holds the most affection for you?
I KNEW YOU'D ASK THIS! Massively difficult to answer – my earliest involvement in any kind of movement or tribe (posse!) was Hip Hop which given its current day mass popularity is still the genre that resonates the most. This is very closely followed by everything else mind! I like to play music that almost sits or slips between the cracks in genres – that's where you find the gold!
Given the various arguments about digital versus analogue DJing, which have gone on for too long now. Do you think the benefits of newer, more affordable technologies and the lowering of barriers into being a DJ outweigh the negatives such as there being too much choice (music and technology wise) and too many DJs?
Yeah definitely although you wouldn't have grime if cheap PC's and Fruity Loops software weren't available at the time. I think it's about being creative with what you've got access to and pushing those tools as far as you can. The analogue digital debate is massively boring; so what do you want to hear? A deep house or chuggy disco dude play loads of lovely vinyl that sounds nice and warm, incredibly boring and linear or some young kid rip the shit out of the party playing dodgy low bit digital files? For me it all depends on the context I've heard combinations of musical formats and genres both done brilliantly and both done incredibly badly. I like to hear things delivered dynamically - audio quality, musical selection and DJ ability all being of equal importance.
What for you is more important, the technical ability or the tune selection?
Tune selection! But there's very little excuse nowadays not to be able to deliver it with technical competence. Believe it or not I'm still learning to be a better DJ – there's loads of room for improvement!
You're not just a DJ, but someone who has been involved in every aspect of the music scene from production to promotion. You're obviously a very creative person through your own design company. How do you maintain the enthusiasm, drive and creativity?
Beer! Seriously? Fuck knows and it's certainly not easy, but I don't really know how to be any other way.
If you could pick one moment from your DJ career that stood out, that you could capture in time for posterity, what would it be?
Last week! I played at a club on massive stage and 3,000 people all had their camera phones out while I twiddled knobs and pretended I was doing something difficult. They weren't there for the moment to dance and get inside the groove, they were there to be part of the hype the spectacle and merry go round of it all – treading water between huge drops. I played for 1 hour exactly and knew exactly what I was gonna play, I managed to run all my social media streams whilst DJ'ing and to cap it all off I got paid shit loads of money. (*This was a nightmare I had the other night btw.)
DJ and club culture, on a global scale as well as locally, has had its ups and downs, in the last few years it's appeared to flourish. How long do you think it can continue in this rich vein or do you foresee a similar period following the dips hip hop and house suffered further down the line?
Well I don't think a mass reset would hurt but the same could be said for mankind as a whole. Hopefully all the privileged kids that are running the music industry will find something else to amuse themselves with and the working class and underprivileged can claim some creative space back.
What advice would you give an aspiring DJ just setting out on their own journey?
Find what you really love and pursue that singular thing with total commitment – hopefully other people will want to get involved. Be aware of what the benchmark is but don't be held back by that – good shit happens when you're right in a place that you couldn't really imagine or plan for. Expect nothing and deliver everything.
And finally, given you're still very active playing at club nights and festivals, if you had a time machine, what advice would you give your younger self starting out behind the wheels of steel?
I'd say: relax be more open and enjoy it more – and buy some decent earplug protection!
You can discover more DJ Pipes here:The DJ Pipes on Soundcloud The DJ Pipes on Twitter
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