HOW TO DOCUMENT DANCE MUSIC CULTURE

For some time, I have been concerned about the documentation of dance music and club culture, and specifically the way that history has been chronicled. It was one of the main reasons I threw myself into researching and writing Join The Future: Bleep Techno and the Birth of British Bass Music with such vigour; after all, if a story has not been told, airbrushed out of the dominant narrative or simply overlooked, I feel that as a journalist and music obsessive I have a duty to try and put the record straight.

I’ve now gone one step further and written an essay for DJ magazine’s website discussing the issues surrounding documentation of dance music culture in more detail, including a call-to-arms for all those who are passionate about documenting culture, whether that’s by writing, blogging, podcasting, making documentary films, taking photos or creating fanzines. You can read that feature by clicking here.

The call-out aspect of the piece and my desire to encourage others to document culture was inspired by the work of another experienced journalist, Emma Warren. She’s quoted in that article and I’ve had a number of other conversations with her over the last few months about the subject. She firmly believes that the best way to encourage others to document culture is to ‘pull back the curtain’ and explain the process. This way, others can see how you did it and follow in your footsteps – or at the very least see that documenting culture is accessible to anyone who is passionate and committed, regardless of whether or not you write, broadcast or take photos for a living.

I attended one of Emma’s “Documenting Your Culture” workshops in Bristol in December 2019 and found it invigorating and thought-provoking. The workshops she’s been running are loosely based on the coda she wrote at the end of her fantastic book on key London DIY space Total Refreshment Centre, Make Some Space (head here to grab a copy – it’s well worth a read). In that she explains exactly how she researched, wrote and published the book herself. The coda begins with some well thought-out words on the documentation of culture that I would echo, including this pertinent section on cultural history:

More people telling their own stories also helps address the imbalance of broadly privileged people telling the story of broadly marginalized communities with all the assumptions and erasure that brings. History doesn’t write itself… We all need to do a better job of advocating for culture, and ensuring that our stories are trenchantly sent out into the world. We have what soundsystem historian and sociologist Les Black calls the ‘hidden archive’ of the streets at our fingertips and we should make the most of it.”

Emma’s words, both in the Make Some Space coda and during the workshop I attended, made me think about what I could do to encourage others to get out there and start digging into overlooked and under-reported aspects of dance music culture, in order to preserve important stories and musical movements for future generations. With Emma’s blessing, I’ve decided to follow in her footsteps and detail – relatively briefly, for reasons of space – how I researched and wrote Join The Future, and what I learned along the way. I’m presenting it here so that others can hopefully get a peek “behind the curtain” and be inspired to do something similar.

Before I start, I wanted to quickly deal with one of Emma’s key points, which is about the importance of authority to authorship. Basically, culture should be documented by those with authority, and there are two ways of gaining this: either by lived experience/being a part of the culture being documented, or by doing so much work and research that you become the authority. In my case, it was the latter; although I lived in Yorkshire during the ‘Bleep era’, I was too young to be an active raver. I love the music and find it fascinating on a number of levels, so spent years finding out all I could about it. If you’re passionate about a sound, scene, venue or musical movement, you could do the same and become an authority on it. I’ll warn you now that it’s a time consuming process, but also one that is hugely rewarding (particularly when you see genuinely overlooked but important individuals finally get their dues).

What follows is a mixture of practical advice, pointers, things to think about and pitfalls to avoid. It’s a kind of loose blueprint of how you might go about turning an idea into a finished non-fiction book. Some of the things I’ve included are specific to the narrative non-fiction structure/style used in my book, but most are relevant across all formats (oral history, collections of essays etc). This is what I learned/how I did it – I hope you find it helpful.

Matt Anniss, March 2020.

 

  1. FILL IN THE GAPS

There are loads of important and interesting scenes, sounds and styles that have not been well documented. I first started digging into Bleep & Bass for two reasons: I loved the music and very little had been written about it. It was a genuine mystery. If you’re passionate about something that has been overlooked when the history of dance music has been written – whether that’s happy hardcore, bassline, freestyle or a short-lived but vibrant regional scene – then start digging!

  1. START SMALL BUT THINK BIG

What became Join The Future began as a simple article for Resident Advisor telling the story of the style and why it was important. Afterwards I realized I’d barely scratched the surface and there was a much larger story to tell. My original plan, hatched with Optimo’s JD Twitch, was to put together a compilation that came packaged with a lengthy booklet telling the story of Bleep. When the labels we approached eventually turned this down, I decided to research and write a book instead. You can find more about the story of the compilation and how it fits in to the Join The Future story here.

  1. BELIEVE IN YOUR ARGUMENT

Mine was that Bleep mattered because it was the first fully homegrown style of UK dance music and provided a bass-heavy, soundsystem influenced blueprint for others to follow. Finding facts to back this up drove me on for over five years.

  1. QUESTION THE PREVAILING NARRATIVE

It might be right, but there’s a good chance it isn’t – or at least it only tells part of the story. If you find evidence that contradicts the established version of events don’t ignore it – you could be on to something important. Follow these leads up rigorously and if it takes you in different directions, roll with it. Eventually you’ll be able to tie all of these threads together.

  1. IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE MUSIC

You’ll need to understand the style of music you’re writing about inside out, the influences that came together to forge it and how it impacted on the music that followed. Listen to as much as you can, even the ultra-obscure, so-so releases that are best forgotten. Thankfully even the most obscure tracks can now be found online (YouTube being the best bet for this when it comes to little-known vinyl-only releases from the past).

  1. FIND EXISTING SOURCES

Very few scenes and sounds have never had any media coverage or have not been documented in any way at all. Scour the Internet for any articles, YouTube clips and photos that might be relevant. Check out previously published books on anything even vaguely related to the story you want to tell, even passing references.

If you’re a UK resident, apply for a reader pass at the British Library then check out their online catalogue to see what relevant magazines, journals and newspapers they hold in stock – you can put in an order for them to be delivered to one of their reading rooms on a specific day, then go down and read/photocopy relevant articles. I spent a couple of days going through all of the copies of The Face, I-D and Mixmag published between 1988 and ’91 for references to Bleep and other articles related to people in the story. I didn’t find loads, but there certainly were some brilliant – and relevant – articles that I’d never have found had I not done that.

  1. READ THE LABELS

By obsessively checking the credits you’ll start noticing lesser-known names cropping up on all sorts of different releases. Discogs can be used to cross-reference these names and the other record labels they released on (as well as providing a list of tracks to check out/find). Make a note of these seemingly lesser-known names: they could well be the unsung heroes who shaped the sound behind the scenes. (Even if they’re not, their story may well still be worth telling)

  1. TURN DETECTIVE AND FIND PEOPLE

This is time consuming but can get great results if you’re committed to the cause. If you can’t find someone straight away, try and talk to other artists who worked with them – they may have an idea of their current location. If they don’t know, don’t give up: the Internet is a wonderful tool for finding even the most obscure people.

Social media, and Facebook in particular, is a handy tool. I found some of the people I interviewed in Join The Future this way, searching their name and then discounting anyone too young or old to be the person I was looking for. Other useful indicators include ‘friends lists’ (I.E are they friends with people you know played a part in the story) and location (even if someone has moved, if you can see they have links to a specific place that was important in the story it’s more likely to be the person you’re looking for). When you find them, explain in detail what you’re trying to do and why. While some may still ignore you or turn down interview requests, people are more likely to agree if they can see you have the right intentions (IE to tell their tale accurately and reflect their contribution to a larger, more significant story).

  1. INTERVIEW A LOT OF PEOPLE

Do not just rely on a handful of big names – to get the real story you have to find and interview a lot of people, and particularly those who were active behind the scenes and never enjoyed a big media profile at the time. The best example in Join The Future is Martin Williams AKA DJ Martin. His good friend and sometime studio partner Homer Harriott introduced us, and in turn Martin introduced me to many more interviewees.

  1. VISIT YOUR INTERVIEWEES

Face to face interviews generally get much better results than ones over the phone. It’s also far easier to develop a rapport with someone if you’re sat directly opposite. Traveling to them also shows that you’re serious.

  1. RECORD AND TRANSCRIBE EVERY INTERVIEW

I cannot stress this enough. The transcription part is long-winded and very time consuming, but it helps because you’ll not only need to include quotes in the book, but also cross-reference with other interviews in order to find connections between people (their involvement in an earlier scene, say, or the fact that they grew up two or three streets apart). You’ll end up with a vast archive of interviews that adds up to hundreds of thousands of words. I have four box files full of print-outs of transcribed interviews; when it came to the final writing process, this was a godsend (even if my desk did end up under a mountain of paper).

  1. SPEND TIME IN KEY LOCATIONS

I felt that my understanding of Bleep & Bass was heightened and sharpened by spending more time in the cities it emerged from, and in particular key neighbourhoods such as Chapeltown in Leeds. I spent one afternoon wandering around Chapeltown looking up locations of known ‘Blues’ clubs and other venues from the period. Of course, all were long gone but that wasn’t the point: I wanted to get a feel of how these places sat within their communities. On another occasion I spent an afternoon walking around Leeds city centre with Kevin ‘Boy Wonder’ Harper, getting him to point out places they used to play and hang out in the days of their club night Downbeat.

  1. DEVELOP RELATIONSHIPS

It can take time for people to open up to you or to feel comfortable enough to answer tougher questions. Keep in touch and arrange follow-up interviews from time to time. It may take three or four interviews over a few years to get the full story, plus you can also ask about things that have come to light in your research since your last conversation with them.

I now speak to Rob Gordon regularly, but it took me years of occasional phone calls to get an interview, and even then it was thanks to Liam O’Shea at Sheffield’s No Bounds festival (with a little assistance from my old IDJ colleague Oli Warwick). Once we’d done the first interview and I’d shown Rob I was trustworthy, I returned to Sheffield regularly to do follow-up interviews and dig into microscopic aspects of his story (EG how he produced certain records, the internal politics of Warp Records, the stories behind how certain records were signed to the label etc). Rob was convinced that I was genuine in wanting to tell his story properly and was happy to tell it me. Not all of it matched what other people told me, but then everyone experiences events differently – you can always present both sides of the story in your finished book and not take sides (which, incidentally, is what I tried to do when interviewees disagreed).

  1. CONTEXT IS KEY

Although telling the story of how a musical movement took place, and the individuals who made it happen, is interesting, I think it’s important to explain why it happened too. That means that events leading up to the earliest records being made are equally as important as the events themselves. It’s not just specific events/things that happened either, but also the specific environment that scene pioneers grew up in.

For Join The Future, I did a lot of reading and research into the politics and economy of Yorkshire in the 1980s and early 90s. As quite a few in the story had been unemployed when they began their dance music journey, I also trawled through the UK parliament online archives to find youth unemployment figures discussed in committees in the mid/late 1980s. It took a while but eventually I was able to find constituency-by-constituency breakdowns of youth unemployment in Yorkshire in 1987.

  1. ALL MUSIC HISTORIES ARE SOCIAL HISTORIES

This was a great piece of advice given to me by the now Editorial Director of Viking books, Tom Killingbeck. He’s right. Culture is in part shaped by the society we live in, often as a celebration of it, or reaction against it. Everyone is a product of their environment to a degree, with class and race – and your experience of it – being hugely important. Keep this in mind throughout the process.

  1. FIND THE CONNECTIONS… THEN DIG SOME MORE

When you talk to a large volume of people, as I did, you begin to notice patterns emerging. In the case of Join The Future, these patterns included a number of artists who had been committed jazz dancers, DJs/producers with roots in soundsystem culture, people who had been turned on to dance music by electro, and the largely working class roots of the sound’s early creators. I spent time digging in to all of these aspects, in some cases writing pieces for websites or publications such as RBMA based on my research (this one about the soul all-dayer scene is particularly pertinent).

  1. BE OPEN TO COLLABORATION

Four years ago I was contacted out of the blue by three graphic design students in Leeds, who wanted to create a book about Bleep as their final assessed piece. They asked if I would be interested in providing the words. I agreed, partly because it forced me to start working out a structure and narrative, and partly because they said they would help turn it into a proper book once they’d finished their degree (they did that, too; the Join The Future branding we use today was created back then and Kieran Walsh, one of the then students, typeset the finished version for Velocity Press in the summer of 2019).

Kieran, Jake Simmonds and Harry O’Brien gave me a very tight deadline, but I hit it and the resultant short manuscript (circa 30,000 words) later formed the basis for parts of the book. The “four act” structure I used in the finished book and the stylised way of introducing chapters (complete with a quote to kick off/set the tone for each) both first appeared in their one-off version, which was put on show in the Leeds College of Art’s 2016 graduation show.

  1. WORK OUT A NARRATIVE STRUCTURE

When you’re dealing with events that happened over a relatively short period of time, it’s impossible to write the story purely chronologically. Therefore you need to sketch out a structure that tells the story you want to tell in a way that can sustain a narrative. I chose to do this initially by dividing the story into parts, or acts; the first on the pre-history and context, the second on the birth of the sound, the third on the spread and mutation and the fourth on the sound’s demise and lasting legacy.

Initially the chapters in parts two, three and four were mostly based on key records and the people that made them, but I later tweaked this as it seemed to restrictive. In the final version the chapters are themed around key artists, labels, trends, developments and aspects of the story (EG Nightmares on Wax and the role of rivalry, Chill Music and the role played by the home counties rave scene, Rob Gordon, Forgemasters and the Birth of Warp Records etc).

  1. CREATE A BOOKMAP

A bookmap is a chapter-by -chapter breakdown of a prospective book’s contents that serves four key purposes. The first is to set out how you are going to arrange the information to create a coherent narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end (even non-fiction books can have a story structure – in fact it often helps to retain reader interest). The second purpose is to give you something to write to and keep you on track. The third is to highlight areas of potential weakness that need further research (when I settled on my final bookmap, I realized that I needed to strengthen the latter quarter of the book and focused the final stage of my research on that). Finally, your bookmap can also act as a kind of extended synopsis for prospective publishers (should you choose to go down that route – many choose to self-publish these days).

  1. WRITE SOME KILLER SAMPLE TEXT

For those who have never pitched a book to a publisher or tried to get signed to a literary agency, sample text is exactly what you think it is: a taster of the book that can be used by decision-makers when they’re assessing whether to sign it, or you as a writer. Generally speaking they’re normally looking for a concurrent run of chapters (three seems average, though sometimes they require a specific number of words such as 10,000 rather than a set number of chapters), starting at the beginning of the book.

Regardless of whether you want your book to be “signed”, creating the strongest possible sample text is a good exercise as it allows you to nail your style and tone, which can then be continued throughout the book. For the record, the sample text I provided to Colin at Velocity Press, which ended up in Join The Future being snapped up, comprised of the introduction (“Weight From The Bass”) and the first two main chapters (“Culture Clash” and “The Dance”). While these changed a little before publication, they’re very close to the sample text versions.

  1. BECOME A PARTICIPANT OBSERVER

There are various narrative devices you can employ in these kinds of hidden histories of overlooked music, and becoming a ‘participant observer’ is one of them. By that I mean including references to your own journey while writing the book, events you’ve attended and places you’ve been. Some writers, particularly Matthew Collin, are superb at this. I didn’t want the book to be about me – it isn’t, and should never have been – but I did think that including some flavour based on my experiences during the research phase could help contextualise and personalise it. Hence the introduction based around a Boiler Room event I attended, reflections on my experiences visiting Leeds West Indian Carnival, references to my day with Kevin ‘Boy Wonder’ Harper and the material in the conclusion about my conversations with old and new generations of Sheffield music-makers.

  1. CONNECT THE PAST AND PRESENT

Part of my argument in Join The Future is that Bleep remains relevant because of the role it played in shaping the UK bass music blueprint. I felt that it was important to find a way of introducing this idea right at the start, and of course including it in the conclusion. That’s why the introduction is based around a particularly pertinent Boiler Room event at which lots of Bleep tunes were played by two of the sound’s early pioneers, and why the concluding chapter includes the thoughts of a young-ish Sheffield producer called Utah, as well as references to other 20-somethings I met along the way who had made the same connections between Bleep and other styles of bass music that I had.

  1. FACT CHECK EVERYTHING

One of the biggest issues with dance music history is how poorly it has been documented in the past. Sometimes it is impossible to verify people’s accounts of events. However, you can go back to people when a new story emerges and see if it matches their recollection. If two or three people agree then that’s more likely to be the true story, or as close as you can get to it. There were things I left out of Join The Future because I couldn’t get them verified with any certainty, as well as examples where I presented contrasting stories to allow readers to make up their own minds. This is history after all and you owe it to both those involved and future generations to get as close to the truth as you can – there are enough myths masquerading as truth already.

  1. USE FOOTNOTES

Join The Future is detailed – very detailed – but I realised quite early on that balancing lots of information with the need for narrative and analysis was very tricky. There were nuggets of info or trivia I found interesting but didn’t really fit the main body text, or simply slowed down the pace and flow of each chapter. My solution was to include these things as footnotes, which can either by read as an aside or ignored by the reader.

  1. PEOPLE ARE THE HEART OF YOUR STORY

While the music, its impact and legacy is the overall focus of Join The Future, the heart of the story is the people that made, played and released it. Never forget this. Make sure you find a way of telling their stories and reflecting how the music impacted on their life as much as they impacted the music. Once you get to know people through multiple interviews and visits, you’ll feel a strong responsibility to do their story justice. At least I did; I’d hope you would too.

  1. GIVE YOURSELF A DEADLINE

Without a deadline there’s a tendency to keep digging and doing research forever. If Colin Steven at Velocity Press hadn’t come along and told me he needed a finished manuscript in three and a half months, I’d probably still be digging away now. Having a deadline sharpens your mind. I wouldn’t recommend writing a 100,000-word book (or 80,000 words of it anyway) in three months because it’s insanely hard work, though it is doable (or at least it was for me as a full-time freelance writer – it would have been impossible if I was holding down a regular 9-5 office job).

  1. WRITE, WRITE, PAUSE, REVISE

In the month leading up to the deadline I got into a pattern that worked for me, namely writing chapters on concurrent days (sometimes three) and then spending the next day going back and tweaking, revising and rewriting what I’d just done. Allowing space and distance between writing and revising is helpful in my experience. By the time I went back to a chapter, a couple of days had passed and therefore it felt like I was looking at it with fresh eyes.

  1. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS

You’ve done so much research and work that you should know the story inside out and arguably better than anyone else. Trust your instincts: if you think something is important, or you’ve reached a particular conclusion, back your judgement. Someone may pick it apart down the line but that’s to be expected – as long as your analysis is backed up by your research, experience and knowledge you’ve done your job.

  1. DON’T BE AFRAID TO REVISE YOUR VIEWS

It can take a long time to join all of the dots and come to conclusions, and when you do they might differ from the opinion you had at the start of the process. Don’t be afraid of this: embrace it! After all, it’s the result of a lot of work and a lot of thought based on the evidence you have gathered (or at least it should be).

  1. WHEN IT’S DONE, IT’S DONE

Resist the temptation to go over it again and again. Get someone else to read it and ideally edit it. They may suggest rewrites; again, embrace this – the finished, printed book will be all the stronger for it.

  1. DON’T STOP DIGGING

Just because you’ve finished writing a book that documents an overlooked aspect of music culture doesn’t mean you have to stop digging. I continue to find out more about Bleep and Bass and the people who made it. Eventually I’ll make transcriptions of all of my interviews available to researchers and eager readers. It will take some time, but I’ve already started getting the archive together. After all, what use is doing all the work and not making it available to others? This is shared culture and the results of research should be available to all those who are interested in it. (Speaking of which, if you’re working on a book or article and would like access to specific transcriptions or parts of my research, get in touch and I’ll do my best to help).

  1. AND FINALLY…

In the words of the Nike advertising slogan, JUST DO IT. If I can do it, anyone can. So what are you waiting for?

 

Published by

mattanniss

Freelance writer, editor, copywriter and communications professional. Music obsessive. DJ. Sports anorak.

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