NEON LIGHTS – Words With British DJ Mr. Scruff

Now & Then | Written By, NOW!Singapore | November 9th, 2015

In the run up to the Neon Lights festival on November 28 to 29, Marissa Trew spoke with renowned British DJ, Mr Scruff about the influence of technology on modern music, his incredibly long DJ sets and his “potato style” cartoons.




How do you think the artistic community has changed over the past decade, given all the transitions from the shift of the influence of radio in music, the revival of vinyl etc.?

I think the main difference in the way the community’s changed is in ten years, there’s a lot more generations of people involved. Also, I think the whole way people digest and share creative information may have changed. I think the main change isn’t in technology or anything like that. People still dance to music late at night in a small room and the Internet’s changed nothing about that.

I think the main change is just newer people all the time. The established people get a bit older and are doing stuff out of town a bit more and there are hundreds of younger people waiting for that gap, and that’s something that’s always happening. It’s brilliant and very inspiring because the opportunities for young people and the constant influx of new talent mean that the older generations and the established artists can’t get too lazy.

So would you say that music has transitioned with the changes and that new talent and new sounds are appearing in music?

Well it depends. There have been a lot of developments in music but then I think when you’ve been doing it a while you see a lot of these ideas are kind of taking on board old ideas as well. Now 20 year-old kids are really into the old soul music. There are a lot of young people who are making deep house, the kind that 40-year old people like. So, it’s kind of odd. You see the innovation but you also see the cycles. It helps make all the connections between all the different eras of my record collection of all the music I’m interested in. I think once you’ve been doing it for a while, you think there are slight nuances and changes but nothing’s really that new. I think it’s all about making connections with all the music people have done before but with a personal twist on it. Then you’re creating something that’s quite naturally yours, which by default is new because it’s unique.

Though with the technology we have these days, surely we have access to music we might not have been exposed to before.

Yea, of course. I think one thing that’s come out of the internet is the massive amount of choice, which seems really appealing to people. People will say ‘wow, I can have 10,000 songs on my computer, and I’ve got 500 channels to choose from, blah blah blah’. People’s brains aren’t wired like that. I think you just end up being a little bit frustrated because you can’t settle on anything. But now I think there’s so much more variety on magazines, DJs or blogs just because the choice is so overwhelming. You kind of need someone to sift through all this stuff.

One thing I like about the internet is that if a 17-year old suddenly becomes enchanted by northern soul music, in 6 months time you can get a pretty good knowledge whereas a few years ago, through reading books and magazines and radio, that might have taken you 6 years. If you discover something that you love, it’s a lot easier to find out about it nowadays but I think the chances of actually discovering something that can change your life are maybe a bit smaller, just because everyone’s in their own little box.

Do you think there’s now too much focus in trying to identify yourself with one particular genre or one particular style?

With ‘specialisation’ [in a particular genre] with radio stations doing just one thing, that kind of thing, is that they’re afraid to lose listeners. I think radio stations are for people who already know what they want to hear already and don’t want to get scared away, which is why you get onto these bland stations that say ‘right, we only play music from the 70s and just so you don’t have a heart attack, we’re going to warn you what we’re going to play, just in case you weren’t expecting Paul McCartney, we won’t want to shock you’.

A lot of the TV and radio stations rely so much on advertising income and marketing to a particular demographic. If their research tells them people who buy Bosch washing machines like to listen to Travis, then the radio station will play Travis as a Bosch advertisement. It’s almost like the complete opposite of how music should be played. You have presenters who don’t choose the music and all that kind of thing. It’s just a shame that mainstream media have to overthink every decision so much that it stops feeling kind of natural and easy.

Back in the 90s, if you played house at a hip hop club, people would start hurtling abuse at you and it’s strange… the original hip hop DJs before hip hop was on vinyl, played the same records as the disco DJs, but just mixed it slightly differently. There are a lot of people trying to be cool by listening to a certain kind of music that they’re passionate about, which is great. But what I don’t like about specialised musicians is a passion that means disliking music that isn’t to their taste.

When it comes to your own performances, where you play sets for up to 6 or 8 hours, first of all – where do you find all your energy? Also, what do you think makes the experience distinctly your performance?

For me, I enjoy it; I enjoy sharing music. When I start DJing, I don’t want to stop. I come from a generation where it wasn’t unusual to DJ all night. Many DJs back in the 60s and 70s would play 7 to 8 hours a night, 6 or 7 days a week.

So in our generation, we basically don’t have any staying power!

[Laughs] Well, guest DJing started happening in the very early 90s and you’d get a flyer and a big fuss made about it. I think that all my early gigs were regular gigs in bars so I was playing 4 to 5 hours, 3 or 4 times a week minimum. It was always focused on different kinds of music – you know, one night it was reggae night, then hip hop night, then the next would be soul night – and it got to a point where I was sick of segregating myself based on what different nights’ music policies are. You have to see the connections between hip hop and house music. To present all the different tunes in different ways, it just seems a lot of fun to join all the dots together and once you start delving back into the history of artists and realise that there are a lot more links than there are divisions. It’s exciting when you realise these little links between different pieces of music when you’re DJing and that’s what keeps the energy going. When you make those connections as you’re playing, it’s as new to you as it is to the audience.

How do you come up with your album and track titles, as well as your illustrations? They’re all very quirky and quite tongue-in-cheek.

I suppose it’s one way of saying that it’s good to be serious and passionate about it [music] and I’m very geeky and I love details and stuff, that to other people seem quite boring, but is essentially a part of educating myself just so I can do the job properly. I think it’s recognising that although there’s a lot of behind the scenes geekiness, when you’re presenting the music to people, it’s gotta be done with a smile and a bit of humour because you should take the music seriously, but not yourself.

It’s part of just maintaining that enthusiasm and humour and that’s part of what I am anyway. I am very into putting different things together that may not on paper quite work, the same way Monty Python’s sense of humour. I suppose there’s an eccentricity there but that’s part of me and that’s how it comes out in the music. Obviously, when thinking of names of track titles and doing little potato cartoons, it’s something that I do anyway. It fits quite naturally now.

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