I was invited to give a talk at Leeds College of Music earlier this week (thanks to Jez Willis of the Utah Saints, who now lectures at the college). The prompt was to do a “masterclass” in writing about music (I broke it down into three sections: role and voice, editing and fact checking, and morals and purpose), as well as trace my own career path. I’m trying to practice what I preached (blogs are a great way to flesh out thoughts and hone your writing!) so here’s a little of what I shared.
As I told the students, I moved to Leeds in 1998, ostensibly to do a degree in English Literature and Sociology at the University of Leeds, but the real reason I went was to go clubbing. Having grown up in a small Midlands town with a weekly cattle market and a claim to fame in locally made pork pies (as a vegetarian family, I’m not sure how we ended up there), I was, like most young teens in the mid ‘90s, obsessed with Top of the Pops. Week after week, I would be rewarded with tunes I dreamed of dancing to in rooms full of people all doing the same; tunes by Baby D, Grace, Reel 2 Real, Tony di Bart, N-Trance, and so on. Dance music, or a crossover take on it, was pop music in the UK of the mid-’90s. And it made me want to move it, move it.
So when I landed in Leeds, I quickly worked out who among my new neighbours in my student accommodation were as eager to embrace clubbing as I was, and then I got right to it. We’d be out three or four nights a week, dancing to everything from house to techno to breaks to trance to hard house. Almost every Saturday, we’d be the first on the dance floor at Back To Basics at The Mint Club and the last to leave. (Alongside Ralph Lawson, the excellent residents included Paul Woolford, who is also now known as Special Request.) Everything I’ve ever learned about dance music has its roots in these formative clubbing experiences. At Basics, I learned that house music came from Chicago thanks to seeing phenomenal DJs like Derrick Carter and DJ Sneak play. Some friends started a night called Technique, where I learned from UR’s DJ Rolando that techno’s liquid emotion is the sound of Detroit, and from Miss Kittin that being in dialogue with the past can help forge a new path forwards. For my five years in Leeds, nearly everything I learned came from dancing; I moved my body to the music to soak up its signals.
Early on, I discovered that writing about a club night meant I could get on the guest list. I applied to become one of Mixmag’s “Let’s ‘Ave It Corp” reader reviewers and was overjoyed when I got the go-ahead, dutifully filing something like 50 words after satisfyingly sweaty nights at Basics, Speed Queen, and more. Once I had a few clippings to my name, I cut them all out (the magazine collector in me is wincing) and stuck them in a folder alongside a feature I wrote about the rise of women DJs for the Leeds Student Paper (circa 2001). This I took to the editor of local listings magazine, The Leeds Guide, who kindly gave me the job of Clubs Editor in winter 2001, a few months after I graduated. For two years, I compiled the magazine’s clubs listings, wrote about upcoming nights, and interviewed visiting DJs. I think it paid £50 a month. But as a skint clubber getting by as a waitress at Pizza Express, it was my dream job: I got in everywhere for free.
The moment I really fell in love with the world of music writing, however, was when I bagged a work experience gig at the now-defunct Jockey Slut in early 2002. It had long been my favourite magazine in the whole world – I also regularly bought The Face, but it was Jockey Slut‘s nerd-level love for electronic music that had my heart. I got the opportunity off the back of a passionate letter I mailed to the editor (I still have a copy somewhere). It no doubt helped that I was a regular at Bugged Out, a night the Jockey Slut founders ran. In February 2002, I spent a month in the Jockey Slut office in London and was very much in awe of the editorial team (I remember cramming in the weeks before, re-reading all the back issues, lest they quiz me on my dance music knowledge). As well as transcribing a badly recorded Chemical Brothers interview and the like, I was instructed to tag along on a cover shoot with The Streets and ask passersby on the streets of Brixton what they thought of his debut album Original Pirate Material for a side feature (see below). It was the first time I got to peer inside the machine of a story: the subject, the writer, and the photographer, all working in real-time to stitch it together. I was smitten.
That’s some of the story, anyway.