Come into the Lightby Themba Kriger / 27.03.2012
As a DJ, Chris Powell started playing clubs during the late 80s, when most of the current party generation was still a romantic fantasy or, at best, in diapers. Having come to South Africa in the early 90s to spread the message of house, he has now returned to get a final glimpse at South Africa and the evolution of its party scene.
Mahala: You started spinning records in the late 80s, long before many of our readers hit their first dancefloor. Can you take us back to that time, what and where were you playing?
Chris Powell: I first cut my teeth as a DJ back in ’87 at the tender age of sixteen, playing in the bars and clubs of my home town, Southend, just outside London, dropping early house, old school hip hop and original breaks. I was in the tail end of the great western Baby Boom and the clubs were always packed though the music was generally weak pop or tired disco. So I started DJing for purely selfish reasons, just so I could hear some good underground music instead of the commercial papshmier going on all around. I got into the acid jazz scene in ’88 and got to work with Gilles Peterson and Dr Bob Jones, learning my art from the masters of the moment.
In the early days, it was records or nothing, and DJs had to master beatmatching to keep a party going. These days, controllers are the norm. How do you think this will impact the future of DJ sets?
I used to edit tracks via two tape-decks and make special loops of breaks to play out, but these days technology is replacing the art of the mixing. Every coin has two sides and the flip of this is that with the new effects and tools available, a DJ can make a remix live and direct, sampling a break from one cut and lopping it over another to make something completely unique. So just as some DJs’ would simply mix-in, mix-out, now some jocks will just let the beat-matcher sort their job out for them. But it’s those who rely on skills and not technology that will rise above the melée of would-be DJs and use the new tools to create music as art – the way it should be.
Have you noticed a change in party culture? Are the days of peace, love, unity and respect over?
To be honest, I don’t know if they were ever really here. Drugs can make people delusional and the effect of ecstasy on the dancefloors in the late 80s and 90s helped many to lose their inhibitions, but it was ultimately just momentary euphoria to most and served as an escape from the corporate drudgery that was rife in western Europe at the time, rather than representing a revolutionary movement. What the rave scene offered was a sense of hope, albeit artificially stimulated, and this seeped through the counter-culture movements and lit a creative spark in many, which ultimately led to me coming here to Cape Town back in ’91 to help spread the message of the good groove and all the psychedelic fruits that the movement had born in Ibiza and beyond. As ecstasy became exploited with other drugs, so the motive of the scene changed and the movement fractured into a myriad sub-genres, from the original hardcore scene which then moved into jungle, then drum’n’bass. Most still heralded the peace and positivity of the earlier days, though the level of drug abuse was bringing in criminal elements and the whole psyche started to shift. As for right now, I think that hope and optimism are essential parts of club culture as an influence on those who like to party and this is still evident in the club scene today. But I think the whole smiley culture that went with the rave scene was destined to die out when everyone sobered up. Now, the global dance scene is incredibly creative, though the corporate identity has been stamped on so much of its product, it can be hard to distinguish the cool from the contrived. There is always hope though – with each new generation of clubber there comes a unique spirit and it’s up to us as DJs and promoters to light that fire and keep it burning.
Moombahton is a global genre, with much of it’s development happening through various internet sources. In this respect it is similar to the fringe sounds of witchhouse, for example. Do you expect a shift away from local scenes pushing a particular sound, with new sub-genres growing on the internet first, before hitting any particular city?
With the internet and, in particular, Soundcloud and Facebook, the opportunities for unknown artists to tap in to the scene or help to push it their way are easier than ever. Soundcloud is like a record shop, business front and promo stockist all rolled into one and it allows a platform for artists from as diverse locations as Australia and Canada to push their sound from the fringe into the main clubland capitals of Miami, New York and London. Under the tag of moombahton, tracks from all over the world crop up almost daily and are fed to the following DJs who can then show their support by posting links onto Facebook and, thus, new hits are born every single day. I always try to write to an artist whose music I download to show them my appreciation and to wish them well – something which would ave been impossible in the last century, so it’s all good. The difference between the support for witch house and moombahton is that witch house is a fraction of an old scene and moombahton is the start of a new one. Although it does have sounds similar to cumbia and kwaito but the essence and creative force is wholly original. Instead of working against the other underground sounds it does well to work with them, running alongside dubstep and drum’n’bass as the perfeect compliment in the emerging bass party scene and with the opportunities for DJs and producers to cross genres opens up a whole host of musical opportunities for us all to enjoy
Are you worried that moombahton will go the way of dubstep, electro, etc. becoming harder and chasing the next big drop?
Nothing ever stays the same, and that’s also true of dance music. moombahton, like dubstep and drum’n’bass before it, is just another side on the dice cube of dance, it’s how you roll it that makes your sound unique. Many areas of the moombah groove are very tough, freq-heavy hardcore tracks, only for the headstrong though helping to power the youthful side of the movement, whereas other sounds within the scene enter a more spiritual, spaced-out sound such as that of the excellent Mango Troops and David Heartbreak out of Miami, Pickster and Melo out of Phoenix, Arizona and then you have the funkier side pioneered by artists and remixers such as Sabbo in Tel Aviv, Pete Kovary in Budapest and Neki Stranac in Belgrade. I think that once a scene is popular it is almost doomed by its own success, but Moombah, unlike Dubstep has the ability to evolve and has already mutated into several sub-genres. As a DJ whoo likes to work up the BPMs during a set, preferably from Zero to kick off and a peak at around 150, moombahton sits alongside chillout, dub funk, old school hip hop and breaks in my regular sets and is a cornerstone of my sound. Will it suffer the same fate as the other scenes? I doubt it. I think it will play its part in the underground sound for as long as people like to dance.
Drugs seem to play an important role in defining the atmosphere of dance culture. Do you think it is a vital ingredient to get a party going or do you think a movement such as Straight Edge will come along in an effort to shift the focus towards sobriety?
Underground culture and narcotics have had a close bonding since the days when the Merry Pranksters put on the first raves in the desert back in the early ‘60s and with the rise of psychedelics into popular culture around the first Summer Of Love, so drugs and dance seemed to be forged together. The laws of amphetamine aerobics are clear cut in clubland and there are few scenes or subcultures which have not incorporated drugs into their psyche. Hedonistic behaviour would happen just as much in silence to be honest. Dance music just happens to make a good soundtrack.
What motivated your first visit to South Africa and what did you get up to while you were here?
A friend of a friend gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse – six months DJing in the beautiful city of Cape Town with a chance to introduce the sound of rave culture to the club scene of the city, with tequila on tap and as many women as I could handle. Okay, the first two came right, but hey. Since my return this time I’ve played at Kitchener’s in Joburg then came down to the Cape to play at Cold Turkey, The Assembly for the Mahala Debuts & Experiments party, the Amigos launch party at Delos in Woodstock, EVOL for an old school house / Eden reunion gig. The strangest thing is, I came here in some ways to say goodbye and pay homage for the good times of old. It seems I must be doing something right as most of the venues I’ve played want me back next summer, so I had better go hone my skills.
What prompted your return to South Africa?
Well, sadly I am going blind. I picked up a rare eye condition a few years ago and it’s been killing my vision in stages. I was worried that the time may come when I wouldn’t be able to see the beauty of the Cape ever again and, so, I organised with a few promoters here to come back to do some dates and take in the visual memories one last time. It’s been great to be back though, seeing how the scene has progressed since my first time out here and with events such as Cold Turkey kicking the shit out here now, it’s been a revelation to see the many different cultures in South Africa being in harmony.
Have you come to terms with your coming blindness? Will you continue playing once your sight has left you?
To be honest I have to be thankful I haven’t gone deaf! To summarise, the plane is going to crash in to the mountain – I can either stick my head between my legs and kiss my ass goodbye or I can enjoy the view on the way down. I have seen more things with my eyes in my time on earth than most people will see in a lifetime so I have to be grateful. Yes, there are times when I introduce myself to the same person three times in a night and it gets me down. I don’t like the fact that I can’t see the dancefloor any more, but I have the sound of the crowd to back me up and a feeling for the music that rarely fails, so on a personal level, this dude abides and rises to the challenge.
What does the South African scene have that makes it unique, conversely what do you find across the ocean that is lacking in the local scene?
I think that what Cape Town and South Africa as a whole has is a combination of ambition and opportunity and is striving for a sense of identity that is already diluted in the west. We, there, have fought long and hard to forge our own individual brands on the hide of club culture and the musical melting pot still bubbles over, but we don’t have the ability to embrace the same level of cultural change available here. When I was first here, back in 1991, the amount of credible underground music was almost non-existent. Now, via kwaito, the resurgent hip hop scene and the hectic techno and trance outfits across the country, the creative force within South Africa is seizing the opportunities that multi-culturalism has afforded it, though I worry this interaction may be still be limited. I have seen and heard ructions within the industry since I’ve been here from some in the hip hop and house community, that change isn’t happening fast enough. Equally there are still some areas of the scene which I’ve witnesssed that appear almost exclusively entrenched in one culture or another and this doesn’t seem very healthy. Though the rainbow nation embraces all colours, it would appear that some still shine brighter than others, if you know what I mean.
What would you like to share with our readers?
My respect, my love of music and my wish to return to this fine city and rock the party once more. This is a beautiful place – a multi-cultural melting pot which has thrown off the shackles of its past and embraces a brighter future. Having seen the state of the place at the end of the bad ol’ days it’s warmed my heart and soul to see how much progress has been made and that the future looks brighter than ever.
If anyone wants to track me down to get sets and radio show downloads they can find me on Facebook at the ChrisFM page or just friend me up at Chris Powell – I don’t bite and have been known to be quite funny on occasion and any friend of Mahala is a friend of mine.