On the week of our new regular Crate Diggin’ Friday at Nottingham’s new Rough Trade venue, heres an attempt to unpack the origins of crate digging and consider what crate digging actually means in the modern sense. (Not everyone’s a DJ you know!)
Back in the old days (i’m old enough to remember), before the internet and all that new stuff, DJs had to physically search for their music... no click and download, no infinite digital database of music we now call YouTube, Discogs or other such tools. DJs would travel to discerning shops, buy from dealers and exchange knowledge and learn from the more learned, hopefully. The art of being a DJ was very much the art of being a digger. Digging for music could be spending 4 hours in your local shop or flying to a different country to scour the second hand shops and random shacks for lost music. There was simplicity in the act, the further you looked, the more you found, a physical journey. Since the digital revolution, the journey has been mainly guided by social media, vast knowledge lost in our hard drives and music becoming an ubiquitous non-commodity.
Crate digging is very much a DJ term and a DJ practice. The concept of a DJ playing music from different times and places is Djing for the love and art of DJing as opposed to playing the latest hits, ‘classics’ mobile disco style or playing a particular micro genre of dance music.
There are no precise origins of this practice, but the concept of mixing the origins probably strongly emerged with DJ’s like David Mancuso at his early 70’s New York loft parties, the UK’s Northern Soul scene, Italy’s Daniele Baldelli and the early hip hop DJs such as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc. There are probably countless other world examples I don’t know about.
Crate Diggin is an attitude towards DJing which in principle if about finding music outside your sphere of influences, it’s a school of thought that I was introduced to when I first started playing out.
Whilst DJing in the South West of England, I was exposed to compilers and DJs like John Stapleton and GIlles Peterson as well as as influential labels such as Mo’Wax and Ninja Tunes. It was the combination of new music and great old finds that got me and our crew into the back rooms of the leading Drum and Bass gigs of the day. Whilst Kemistry and Storm, or Grooverider were playing their genre specific sets, we were mixing the old with the new. It’s a tradition and approach that has underpinned much of my time spent playing records.
Anyway, for those that don’t know, don’t understand or who are confused by ‘Crate Digging’, here are my four factors to try and sum it up.
Firstly its about discovery, finding a great track, which is taken and adopted and celebrated by a different scene, a different time and a different country. The Northern Soul Scene was one of the greatest exponents of this factor. DJ Ian Levine, born into a relatively wealthy family, went on holiday to the USA, a rarity in 1970s working Britain and discovered and brought back to the UK the greatest haul of Northern Soul seven inches in history. This process of discovery is facilitated by those that travel, that see a scene in a different light and re-imagine it back home.
Then there is rarity. In the digital world, even rarity is becoming rare in itself. Pre-web rarity usually meant that someone, somewhere had somehow got hold of music that was out of context, often with very few copies in existence. This still applies today, but ‘rare’ often translates into infinite downloads 9or endless re-edits), which in one way, is beautifully democratic, however, it means it’s no longer rare as a piece of music, only rare as an object.
However, staying with rarity, a kind of switch has happened as old rare music becomes a commodity. Perhaps true rarities of today are not just a dusty 45 which was pressed once, but the masses of undiscovered music producers, that may only make one track, that only make it as far as Bandcamp, that nobody takes any notice of, but might be a work of genius.
The third factor is context. For some reason, music from different places and times, somehow, can strike a chord with a new audience. The adoption of ‘breaks’ in the block parties of the late seventies and early eighties, tracks like ‘The Clapping Song’ by Shirley Ellis, rediscovered by the likes of Kool Herc. The point here is that ‘The Clapping Song’ was a big hit, selling over a million copies in 1965, not what you would call rare, but the switch of context, connecting the track with a different time and culture created a new way of hearing the music. The Switch from twee Sixties pop song to killer hip hop break.
The Fourth factor, transcends simple definition and has got nothing to do with the digital revolution. The fourth factor of crate digging is the art of storytelling through music. The personal journey of discovery of the DJ that is willing to search rather than follow trends, to build a pattern, landscape or perhaps a collage, which tells a story that no one else has told. An obscure piece of electronica made yesterday to some people is familiar, to others its science fiction, a soul seven inch to one man is iconic, to another it is history. The experience of music changes between generations, some music transcends time, some music become irrelevant.When a DJ curates music for a room or a dance floor, it becomes a story of different times and places, rather than trends. The true art of Crate Digging, is to simply tell a story.
And they all lived happily ever after...Joff