Acid house pioneer Justin Robertson started DJing and producing when he studied philosophy in Manchester in the eighties and went from being a devoted Hacienda fan to becoming a resident in the 1990s. He has been busy reinventing himself and collaborating with a range of DJs and musicians ever since. He will play at Beat-Herder Festival in the Ribble Valley, starting on 5 July
What was the first piece of music that you felt belonged to you, not your older brother or anyone else?
My brother was very influential on me. He went away to university and came back with a copy of Remain in Light by the Talking Heads, a David Hockney art book and a new haircut. He was all weird and I thought, this is excellent. So I got into bands like The Fall through him. When I moved to Manchester, I was 18 and a sort of indie kid who liked bits of reggae and used to collect dub records and roots reggae stuff. The house stuff is the first thing that felt like new for my generation, something that a lot of people didn’t understand. A lot of the music press, the rock music press, even the quite cool music press, didn’t get it at all when it first started because it was this amorphous structureless sprawling minimalistic thing. A lot of music papers were saying “This can only last for a bit” or dismissively saying “This is just disco made with machines” and “It’s got no soul”. I thought, excellent, I’m going get into this because no one gets it. I’d pick something from that era, by Adonis.
When did you know you could make a living from DJing?
I’ve been doing it for quite a long time. Things were a little different when I started. I left university in 1989, started working at Eastern Bloc records and just fell into it all really. There wasn’t a big developed scene for DJs then and it wasn’t what you might call – though I hate the term – an industry. Agents or managers for DJs were unheard of. I knew some time in the early nineties, when acid house went from being something people thought might be over in a week to something that was here to stay. When the studio stuff took off as well, I didn’t really have time to work in the shop anymore. Like most things in my life it’s happened more by accident than design.
You played at the Hacienda. Was that right at the beginning of your career as a DJ?
Me and my friend Greg Fenton – who is a DJ as well ¬ started a club night called Spice on a Sunday night in a little club in Manchester. Manchester at the time was fairly solid Chicago house and Detroit techno. Our ethos was that we wanted to play music that was a bit different from everything else. When we started that night off, we got a little following together so the Hacienda asked me to play a Balearic room downstairs. Then I progressed into playing upstairs occasionally. In the early days of the classic Hot and Nude nights, I was more a fan and I got the occasional gig playing weird records in the cellar. Later on in the nineties, I was a resident at their techno night called Hallucienda. I used to go there religiously as a teenager. That’s my main education. It was all very exciting.
Manchester was weird at the time – really exciting, some really good clubs but also this undercurrent of violence
But you must have experienced the downfall of the Hacienda as well…
We were running a club night called Most Excellent when the Hacienda was closed. Manchester was weird at the time: it was really exciting, there were some really good clubs on and a lot of really interesting music being made. There was also this undercurrent of violence and gang trouble and fighting that was unfortunate and connected to a few clubs, which got a bit out of hand. These things happen and Manchester clubbing survived it and was stronger for it. It was a shame to see but it’s very rare that things stay amazing for long periods of time and when the Hacienda was good, it was untouchable. To my mind it is still the greatest club in the world, and I’ve been to a few, I can tell you. It’s definitely the best club I’ve ever been to in terms of the atmosphere at its heyday. Things went a bit astray then and it’s a bit of a shame, some of the things that tarnished the reputation, but there you go. It’s fitting that a place like that had such an interesting and turbulent history.
Do you think ultimately ecstasy has made a positive impact on the social and cultural landscape?
You can be coy about drug use, or abuse, but every generation has it: people smoked weed and took acid in the 1960s, speed and cocaine in the 1970s and 80s, and ecstasy was our generation’s drug of choice. It was a catalyst for a lot of creativity and, with all drugs, it also led some people into the dark abyss. It was a catalyst for a lot of amazing things, and if that would’ve happened without ecstasy? To some extent, the music was happening before the drug, but it gave people the energy, the all-night aspect and the counter-culture feel of the whole thing. I could be prudish about it but I had some killer times on ecstasy. There you go – I’m not going to lie. All things in moderation.
I think it definitely made a difference in terms of how the dance music scene has taken off here in the UK as opposed to, say, the US, for example.
The lasting legacy of it is that now you go to clubs and you meet people, someone who’s involved in investment banking, someone who’s a scaffolder, someone who’s unemployed, someone who’s from some a far-flung part of the world – it’s all sorts of people being brought together to listen to electronic music, where nightclubs in the eighties were either for people to get really drunk and have a fight or places where you dressed up and couldn’t get in unless you were a person of a certain calibre on the guest list and you were wearing designer clothing. Ecstasy wasn’t just around in the club world but in fact it caused peace to break out in football grounds. In terms of the social mathematics of it, it is on the positive side rather than on the negative.
It’s good that there’s a flourishing of different genres
Do you miss the times when dance music was more eclectic and less divided into sub-genres?
Not really, no – things progress and change. I play some bobs all over the place – it’s good that there’s a flourishing of different genres. It shows how healthy the electronic scene is. It can give birth to all these different sub-genres – people find their space, what they’re into and what they’re excited about. You get a lot of people complaining “every week on Beatport there’s a new subgenre” and I think that’s quite good because otherwise it’s just the same old thing. Traditional house music would become unexciting and stale if it was an orthodox form of music, but it’s not so it keeps morphing, which is really exciting. More so now than when I first started playing acid house, in the broader sense of the world of house music, we were all playing the same records – there weren’t that many around. It’s quite nice that there is a bit more variety.
What is the world’s best club night now?
That’s impossible to say, there’s loads of good things. If I’m referring back to my adopted hometown, what they’re doing at the Warehouse Project is really exciting. When it’s on it’s like a festival every night, there are so many DJs you can hear in one space. But there’s tons of little basement parties. I did a basement party the other day somewhere in London – I don’t even know where it was – a couple of hundred people and it was amazing. People are making their own scenes all over the place.
Do you think your life would have taken a different turn had you not come to Manchester to study?
Yeah, I’ve got absolutely no idea what I would have done. I often ask myself that question. The reason I went to Manchester is because of music. I loved all the bands. I hadn’t actually been to the Hacienda, that was more pre-acid house. Going to hear Mike Pickering play at the Hacienda on a Friday night changed my life entirely. I’d like to have been involved in music – whether writing about it, making it or playing it. I would’ve gravitated towards music, but who knows, if acid house hadn’t happened, if DJ Pierre hadn’t messed about with a 303 and someone hadn’t synthesised ecstasy, who knows what would’ve happened? I always wanted to go to Manchester and I’m glad I did. I haven’t really done anything – I’ve worked in a record shop, in a medical records department and in a graveyard. And I’ve got a philosophy degree.
Where do you enjoy playing the most?
I played at a club called Platonic Love in Messina, Sicily, last week. It was a beautiful place and really good energy in the club. I played a few good nights in Italy recently. There’s some really great stuff going on, I haven’t had a bad weekend in ages – all the clubs are exciting for different reasons.
Which DJ living or dead do you most admire and why?
All the Hacienda DJs: Jon DaSilva, Mike Pickering, Graeme Park, Martin Prendergast. These people really introduced me to house music and how to play it properly and mix. Jon DaSilva used to live quite near me in Moss Side. I used to go to his house and – annoyingly – watch him mixing and take his records. I’ve always admired Andrew Weatherall – he’s always been someone who has taken risks and played interesting music and been true to himself. But there are so many good people around – young people like Daniel Avery who I’m working with who’s an amazing producer and DJ.
What is your most prized record?
I’ve got a really amazing dub record called Five Man Army that I really treasure. But I love all my records – it’s hard to pick, really. That one I still use to play once a week. It used to be the first record to play at Spice. It’s an old dub record, which as it turns out is really hard to get, but I managed to get it from a record shop in High Wycombe for 50 pence. If I had to pick one today, that would be it. Tomorrow it would be something totally different.
What was the last record you bought?
The last record I bought was an old one – Albert Ayler, an album called New Glass. Late sixties, groovy I’d say. It’s very good.
I like clothes but I’m not that interested in fashion
Where does your love of fashion come from?
I like clothes but I’m not that interested in fashion. I like clothes, I like dressing up like a kid – get the dressing up box out. My wife is a stylist. She works in fashion and it’s a kind of battle with the mirror in the morning, who gets the most time in front of the mirror. It’s not always been that. I went through phases. It’s something I kind of dedicated my life to in more recent years. I buy books, records and clothes – those are my vices. I quite enjoy it. I don’t have a car, I don’t spend much money on anything else.
Do you still get chased down the street for the way you dress?
Not for a while. I still get quite a lot of abuse. Some people just don’t like hats – they get a real umbrage when you wear a hat. My biggest hate – I was in a club in London the other week, people just grab your hat and put it on, they think that’s all right to do. No, don’t do that.
It’s a magical experience when you go out to Beat-Herder
Is this your first time playing at Beat-Herder?
It’s the second time. It’s always good fun so I’m looking forward to it. I love all the effort they’re putting into it. It’s a magical experience when you go out there. I’ve been there once before, and when you’re walking around the site you come across all these bizarre structures that they’ve erected around the place. It’s such a refreshing thing. Often you get these quite corporate and heavily sponsored events. A lot of festivals these days seem to be soulless. It’s such a nice change to see some people put their heart and soul into it. When I last played Beat-Herder, it was just amazing. I played up in the woods. It was just surreal, with crazy alien shapes coming out of the trees. It was madness – definitely one of my festival highlights.
Justin Robertson plays Beat-Herder’s Fortress stage on Friday 5 July. Tickets for Beat-Herder are £105 adult weekend ticket (£111 including booking fee)