By Sheela Sarvananda
Bill Brewster calls himself a 'hack, deejay and record collector'. Yet only two of those descriptions fit the bill.
Hailing from Grimsby, England he is, as he shares, a record collector, first and foremost. That he is a renowned disc jockey (DJ) as well would be understating it, just a touch. His name is synonymous with ground-breaking, room-reverberating underground house music (amongst other genres) and a good time on the dance floor.
Brewster is fully-entrenched as an industry-player who has earned his stripes. He helms household labels in music, like deep house outfit Forensic, and Sugar Daddy Records.
He also cut his teeth as a DJ playing at his own underground Low Life warehouse parties in New York City. This is one of two things (besides making your own music) he says every DJ needs to do to come into their own.
Every aspect of his music career stems from his love of innovative music. Yet, saying that runs the risk of sounding like all the other hats he wears is a throwaway, by-the-by, happenstance. And that's about as far from the truth as you can get about the man himself.
The bare facts: Brewster is a deejay, writer and musician. Starting out as a singer in a post-punk band in the eighties, today his music takes him all over, and you can find him spinning the decks in clubs like Fabric in London and at music festivals like the Big Chill in the United Kingdom. He is a music maven, bar none.
Most recently, he flew into town for an exclusive, invite-only event at The Vault, a buzz-worthy hotspot in Singapore that is fast-solidifying a reputation for creating intimate, signature experiences for clientele who want a great night out.
And here's a quick history lesson for music-buffs: he's also a co-author on one of the most elemental works on music today, and a frontrunner in documenting the aural history of the DJ scene and club culture, 'Last Night a DJ Saved My Life'. Translated into eight languages and coming in at over 150,000 copies sold (and counting) since it was written, this is a quintessential tome that is synonymous with his own subculture and landscape.
Together with his writing partner and fellow disc jockey, Frank Broughton, the team has produced four books in total, to date — with the first being the book they are best known for, one that The Observer listed as one of the greatest music books ever written. No small feat for the man who got into music for the love of the game alone.
Brewster says he realised the importance of putting pen to paper and contextualising the music scene whilst living and working in New York, where he met and became lifelong mates with Broughton, also English.
"We were both going out to clubs in New York and what struck us both was the amount of history that existed there. You know, you talk to the older people and they know which deejay played a record for the first time. They'd be saying 'Oh yeah, so-and-so broke that record and so-and-so broke this record.' How the hell do you know who broke that record, you know? It's bizarre, but they did!" he notes.
"They knew all this stuff, it was in their heads and we just thought, this stuff has just got to be written down. What we helped do is establish the idea that this stuff is a culture that is worth documenting," he explains.
At home, Brewster is a family man who holds down the fort during the week while wife Elizabeth works. You'll find him happily carrying out all his fatherly duties, family dog Jarvis in tow, alongside his kids — daughter Lola and son Ferdy. Music takes a backseat, as his day marches along with drop-offs and pick-ups, playtime, making tea and getting his children ready for bed at day's end — only to have it all begin again the following day.
If he has some time, Brewster either reads or makes music in the studio. He generally hands over the reins to his wife over the weekend, when he has to travel for work. However, for him, there's nothing better than being with his family, even while working. He calls his wife his partner-in-crime and says his older child is only just beginning to fathom who he is.
"My daughter is just starting to understand that what I do is not normal. She would tell people in her class, and then her teacher asked me to come in and talk about my job. And so I brought photographs in of my daughter Lola with me, at different festivals. She asked my wife if I was famous one day!" (And for enquiring minds that want to know, his wife answered, "A little bit.")
In Singapore for the first time, he says he's always wanted to come here ever since he was a child hearing British soldiers stationed here during World War II send in requests for songs on the radio. That sparked his curiosity about the country, and when The Vault came knocking, he answered without hesitation.
Brewster says audiences the world over have more commonalities than differences, and that his role is to help them take it to the floor — and, in keeping with the grounding he received in New York in the art of playing a 12-hour long sets, getting them to keep it there.
"People want to dance and hopefully, you have the music to engage them and give them what it is they're looking for. It's essentially the same thing — they want to go out and have a good time, and hopefully you're going to help facilitate that."
For the man who credits disco music as the basis for all modern music, he says he's always keeping an eye out for developments in the scene. However, to him, the innovation of the seventies, eighties and nineties has taken a backseat, it would seem. He references dubstep as being on the radar of late, but says even then, the real innovation with the genre was happening over five years ago. Although he sees music as being vibrant still, Brewster worries for the industry in general.
"I don't think the future is very bright for musicians, to be honest. I think most deejays now have accepted the fact that they're making music effectively as a business card that helps them get more gigs and travel. It's very difficult to make money from music now, those days are in the past. Because I think you've got a generation of kids growing up today who don't pay for music. And they're only going to pass on their attitude to their kids, and the next generation — and it's just going to get worse and worse. And so it's either something you do because it's inside you and you need to get it out, or because you think it's going to help you get more gigs," he points out.
And he would know. Amongst the many also-rans, Bill Brewster is one of the few who has made lasting headway in the DJ and music culture at home and abroad, and for a reason. He might drop the bass on occasion with the best of them, but you can always count on him to bring the beat back. Without a doubt, he's arrived, and is here to stay.