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Mr Scruff 20 Years of Keeping It Unreal

Now Then sat down for a chat with local legend Mr Scruff to talk about DJing, Manchester, and introducing his daughter to music production

Producer, cartoonist, father and devoted record collector – there’s a long list that Mr Scruff fits into his week. There’s a lot of good taste within the DJ’s 2,000-plus records, and both the people of Manchester and those further afield certainly agree. Gracing the crowds with good, varied soulful music since the early 1980s, Mr Scruff has honed his style and sound to create sets that we love to party to.

Now Then sat down for a chat with the local legend to talk about DJing, Manchester, and introducing his daughter to the world of music production.

A lot of DJs at the moment stand firmly in one genre and stay there. You, however, focus on the importance of good music and pride yourself in presenting an eclectic mix of sounds and styles. Do you feel pressure to pigeonhole yourself? Or is it even necessary to fit into one particular box?

I think it’s more down to the kind of person you are. I mean, some people like to nerd out on just one thing, whether that’s carpentry or a certain type of cuisine, whereas other people dabble in a bit of everything. Speciality in that way is important, though. People like me who are a bit all over the place couldn’t exist without the artists, DJs and collectives that are solely focused on one genre. I play a lot of different music, but my interest in all of these genres is taken from very specialist scenes. This is mostly from listening to the radio when I was a kid. Those were the days of specialist shows – house, reggae, etc.

How would you categorise your own genre?

You’re always aware of a mix of genres and release of music in particular scenes, like in record shops, clubs, as well as on the radio. But then there are people like me that are nosy. I like to think about where the music comes from and why this music is created. If you take it back a few years you begin to see that all of these scenes that seem very separate are actually all connected. Music is primarily created by people re-contextualising other people’s music, so these ‘boxes’ don’t exist as much as you’d think. It’s also your personal preference. I didn’t particularly set myself a target to be different to other DJs. It’s just the influences that I happened to have had access to when I was younger.

Are these early influences what first drew you to start producing music? Or did this inspiration come from elsewhere?

I started DJing in about ’83. Around that time, even though you had mixes in clubs from the ‘70s, what you quite often heard on the radio were mix or specialist shows. There’d be a featured DJ doing a mix – in Manchester it was people like Chad Jackson, Greg Wilson, OMD, DJ KA and Mr Spin. I would always hear these local bedroom DJs, some of which also had national reputations. All of this studio mixing, which was very intricate with a lot of edits, and constantly with two or more records going at the same time; very choppy and dynamic sounds. So my introduction to the technical side of producing was generally studio based. Obviously when I was 11, I wasn’t going clubbing and I didn’t have Soundcloud or anything like that, so I was only exposed to the studio side of DJing. The type of music I was listening to, hip-hop and early house, was basically made from mixing other records and using lots of electronics. So I began doing mixes, and bought drum machines and synths to then play over the top of them. The beginning was very much just being in the lab and spending long hours, then I found myself making my own tunes.

Since these early shows, how have you seen the music scene in Manchester evolve?

The spirit’s definitely still there. Although, the clubs were a lot less regulated, you used to generally have quite dodgy security – gangsters in clubs and that kind of thing. Other than that though, not a lot has really changed. We’ve always had a really good, strong, home-grown music scene, as well as a natural influx of students. A large proportion of people come to Manchester because of the music, although it’s probably not what they tell their parents. Then most of those people end up setting up their whole lives here, becoming involved in the local scene and bringing their own different perspectives. So, 25 years ago I was playing in Manchester every weekend, but now I’m elsewhere most weekends and the next generation is there to take over and take up the slack.

Manchester has always been small enough for everyone to know what’s going on in different scenes, but big enough to have a lot of venues and variety. People are always finding these little interesting nooks and crannies. So not a massive amount has changed. The city is definitely still bubbling and buzzing.

You have a monthly residency at Band on the Wall. Why did you decide to have a returning slot?

All of my DJ gigs for the first three years of my career were residencies or regular guest slots. In ’94 I started playing regular slots in town – Atlas Bar, Joshua Brooks and a few other bars that are now closed. It becomes comfortable and you get the ability to experiment and try stuff out. When you’ve got a venue that you know inside out, in terms of the staff, the sound system, a lot of the regulars, you can improve and benefit the night each month. Like, tweaking the sound, looking at stuff like capacity, making little touches like not using your phone on the dance floor.

For me, I don’t think I could do what I do as a DJ if I didn’t have a residency. I’ve always felt like I needed a regular slot, to give me a kind of grounding. You become a part of the furniture, which I really like. You end up becoming a lot more invested in it and it’s not just like any other gig.

Do you prefer doing sets in your hometown?

I like all of it. Playing in new places, making that introduction and finding really good local scenes to tap into. There are a lot of connections to be made through music. You can meet people all over the world and learn about them. As we do in Manchester, they have their residents and have worked to build up decent clubs.

Being able to connect and meet people on the same wavelength in different cities and countries is a really good thing. It does get a bit boring, having the same experiences all the time. Whether I’m in somewhere like Australia, America or Canada, there are always people that invite me to go record shopping with them. And then you start playing music for that crowd. It’s not about just going and having a good gig. It’s about making friends in new places and discovering the lens through which they view music. You are able to view what you do through other people’s eyes, which is liberating in itself because you don’t get stuck in a rut.

You perform with a refreshingly adaptive approach to DJing, as you don’t overly plan and rehearse your sets. This obviously requires a wealth of knowledge. Do you think people’s appreciation of this knowledge is the key to your success?

Partly, but the main thing people are out for is to enjoy themselves and socialise. So it’s more about getting across the passion and excitement. I’m excited about this music and I want you to feel excited about it too. Especially because knowledge can be very dry. It can become a bit like a history lesson. A part of it is all about the research and the knowledge, a daily obsession, but then you have to bring it to life. It’s up to me to make a cohesive story with the records. So I don’t think it’s all about the knowledge. Although the variety and the depth of the music will attract people who are similarly geeky like me, who will get their minds blown by hearing records they’ve never heard before. Also, the whole cartoon thing is quite important. It adds a sense of humour to it. You don’t have to take it all so seriously. A lot of scenes can be quite exclusive; you have to earn your right to be there, which is cool because it will attract interesting people. But some people just want to go on a night out and have a good time, and maybe not even know what music they’re dancing to. It’s important to welcome people who bring a different energy; who aren’t experts.

As well as being an iconic producer you are also a family man, do you ever encourage your daughter to get into the music industry?

Yeah, so my daughter is eight. She knows about DJs and she can use a CDJ and USB sticks and stuff. So it’s there if she wants it, you know? I’m very careful to not shove it onto her, though. It’s more just like, you’ve grown up around it and it probably seems normal, so if you’re interested in it then come and ask. I took her to We Out Here festival this year, she heard Children of Zeus and afterwards she came to me asking, “What’s that tune?” If she hears a tune she likes I just pop it on a USB for her, which is actually already full of classics.

I suppose watching DJ sets of other people sparks a different reaction to if it’s your dad…

Yeah, definitely, and also she’s hearing it in context at a festival. She comes to them a lot with me and comes on stage, she’s used to it. I think she gets inspired by seeing all the different artists. Up until I started taking her to festivals, she’d been surrounded by all the equipment but not been that bothered, so when she comes to me and asks about it I show her how to use it. The intergenerational aspect of music festivals is a wonderful thing. It shouldn’t be unusual to be mixed with other ages. Students should get used to going in clubs and seeing people who are older than their dad – who have been clubbing since before you were born! You have generations now of parents who are taking their kids to festivals. So they are growing up with all this access to music. Surrounded by it, which is incredibly important, it becomes second nature to them. Imagine how advanced they’ll be when they’re teenagers and young adults.

So you’re in the studio at the moment recording new music. When can we expect new releases?

I started to get the itch to get back in the studio. I’ve been touring loads over the last couple of years, which has been brilliant but I think I need to back off a bit and do a few less gigs. I need to have a few more weekends off and get working in the studio. I’ve been building a new studio over the last year, which I’ve just finished, so over winter I’ll be hibernating in there.

But, yeah, there’s nothing coming out imminently. It’s 20 years since the Keep it Unreal album came out, so I’m releasing an anniversary reissue of that. I’ll use that as a little stop-gap while I’m working in the studio on some bits and bobs. It’s nice to have the opportunity to do that. Especially with family as well, if I’m away at weekends I need make myself available in the week. So I’m just trying to make some time for that. There’s a lot of good music being released at the moment anyway, so I’m not in any mad rush.

Next article in issue 67

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