Q&A With DJ Dara: "I'm A Raver At Heart, An Old-School Raver"
Irish drum & bass jock Darragh Guilfoyle, known professionally as DJ Dara, emigrated to the New York in 1994, right as the first American rave scene was lifting off. He quickly befriended fellow ex-pat DJ DB (from London); two years later, the pair would open Breakbeat Science, America's first (and only) all-drum & bass store, which hung on for nine yearsamazing, considering the U.S. dance industry's slump during the mid-2000s. Dara also mixed a quartet of CDs for the L.A.-based indie dance label Moonshine between 1998 and 2002.
Tonight Dara and DB, along with San Francisco's Gridlok, headline Step in the Arena, a party in the new Elmhurst, Queens venue Arena, featuring the sound and light system from the now-shuttered Don Hill's in Soho. SOTC spoke with the animated, highly articulate Dara on the phone.
Are you originally from Ireland?
Yes. I'm from Dublin. I had already been DJing for probably about four years before I moved here. The whole jungle/drum & bass thing was just starting here. I had already been DJing for a few years, so I was in the right place at the right time.
There was no such thing as drum & bass when I started in 1990. At the time I was into very noisy stuff like Throbbing Gristle and SPK. I was a huge Psychic TV fan. I had a brother who was a professional drummer. He played some timbales, so I was into a lot of percussive ethnic music like African and Latin American music. I had a friend who lived in London at the time, in late 1990. He used to record tapes from the pirate radio stations and send them over. When I heard this music, it had all of the percussive elements, and also weird noisy elements, it was over for me. That's when I fell in love with it.
I still have a real love for the old-school house and techno sound. I'm still a huge collector of music from that era. It was a very special time, because there were so many seeds planted at that point, which spread into the various subgenres since then. It was a very everything-goes mentality in those days. There were no rules. People were just doing it because they could. It wasn't a business as such yet. I think it comes across in the music from that era.
When you moved to the States, how many records did you bring?
When I moved here first, I really just brought my jungle stuff, probably about 500 [records]. Then I shipped pretty much everything else over the next two years or so, the other 2,000. I've actually I bought more old-school records in recent years than I did back then, 'cause I didn't have the money back then. I went through a period in the early 2000s for about five years where I was just spending a fortune, [laughs] to the point where I have about 10,000 records now.
Why New York? Just because it was New York?
The same reason that most men do anythingbecause my girlfriend at the time wanted to move here. [laughs] In Ireland, I was DJing a little bit and working at a comic book store. But it was really easy to get a green card in Ireland at that time, so basically myself and all my friends got green card. I had never even been to the US at that point, so I was like, "I'm not exactly doing that much here so, yeah, I'll go." We had intended moving to San Francisco. I don't know why. I had some notion that I would like San Francisco better than New York. My girlfriend had two brothers and a sister here, so we were just stopping in New York to earn some money to move to San Francisco. Eighteen years later, [laughs] I'm still in New York.
When you got here, was the jungle scene was very separate from the rave scene? Were they different sorts of audiences or entities
I don't think it was necessarily a different entity. There was definitely jungle at raves. Generally, the side room at a rave tended to be an ambient room. There was a point in 1995 where it switched to being the jungle room, which sucked, because it generally meant you were on the shitty sound system. You were an afterthought, which we always felt was a little unfair because the people who were coming to hear jungle were paying the same ticket price as the people coming to hear the main-floor DJ, yet they were getting shafted on sound quality and lights and stuff.
There was a slight difference in crowd, particularly in 1995-96, because hip-hop was being sampled so heavily in jungle at that point, it attracted a hip-hop crowd that wouldn't have been interested, necessarily, in house or techno, but [were interested in D&B] once they heard a lot of the Wu-Tang samples. There was definitely a lot more of the hip-hop crowd was into jungle than would have been into the rave scene as a whole.
Did you and DB connect as fellow ex-pats?
I think there was a certain connection in that we spoke the same slang and stuff. Somebody told me, "He works at Temple Records on Tuesday afternoon." A month after I got to New York, I went up there. We definitely connected as friends, and he worked at Sm:)e Records at the time, and he said, "You should by the office and I'll give you some records." Our friendship blossomed from there. Definitely there was this connection that we were both from "over there," so to speak. We've been great friends since, for 18 years; he's my oldest friend in NY. We started Breakbeat Science in 1996 together.
What was the inspiration for Breakbeat Science?
At the time, DB became involved in the record store underneath Liquid Sky, Temple Records. DB and these two German guys, Khan and Ingmar opened this record store called Temple Records. It was mainly a techno store, because of these German techno guys. They're actually very well known. DB was involved in doing the jungle part of it, so he asked if I would be interested in coming down and working there one day a week. We would be there for the delivery of the jungle. We really enjoyed it but we always felt like it was a bastard-bitch child in the store. It had people coming in and buying and stuff, but it was still the smallest part of the store, just a couple of bins in this mainly techno store.
We would always say it would be great to open a store and dedicate it to jungle. I guess it was a pioneer idea, because the whole jungle scene was so small at that point. A friend of DB's had a store on Ninth Street called Made In Detroit Clothing Store wanted to get out of her lease, so, DB was like, "Let's give it a shot and see what happens." We didn't know if we would be open for six months, because the idea that you could run a store just selling jungle seemed a little crazy, but it really took off. Certainly none of us made a living from it, that's for sure. The first few months we would do maybe 200 dollars a day. None of us were relying on this for income. We were just happy to be able to keep going.
When I started DJing, I certainly had no idea that I could ever make a living at it. Never. DJing wasn't a career at that point. There were very few people in the world who could be called a professional DJ at that point. So it was never really on my radar as a career path. It was just something I really wanted to do, something I was passionate about, and I was excited about this music and wanted to play it for other people. When I moved here I was waiting tables at a place called Café Orlin on St. Marks Place, between First and Second Avenue, and DJing as well. Then it got to a point that I was earning enough DJing and I didn't have to work anymore, and no one was more surprised than me. 1996 was when I stopped waiting tables.
You're better known as a DJ than as a producer. In the late '90s, was it tempting to say, "Gee, everybody's getting signed to major labels as producersRoni Size, Goldie, DJ Rap; I could probably make some money if I did, too"?
No. I did do a couple albums, and I've done several singles and remixes, but I've always been a DJ first and foremost, and a producer second. When I started off, it was possible to just be a DJ and get somewhere with that. People like DJ Hype, Grooverider, Fabio, all those old school guys, it wasn't production for them: They all started as DJs, and worked as primarily DJs, and remained DJs. That all changed in the late '90s. The only way to break in as a DJ was to put out a big record. A lot of producers were slaving away for days in the studio, and they would make a pittance compared to the guys who were going out and DJing their music. The guys who were out there playing the music for a couple of hours on the weekends were getting paid ten times as much as the guys who were actually making the music. So I can understand the incentive.
How long was Breakbeat Science open?
We opened in '96, and we closed in 2007, finally. We did transform into this clothing store with just a little record store in the back. But it was just such an uphill battle that at a certain point, once you start losing money . . . we didn't mind breaking even. That was fine. That's all we'd ever done. But once it started costing money to stay open, then it's like, "There's no point doing this anymore."
We were in the space on Ninth Street until 2001. We basically had outgrown it. So we moved to this space that was much bigger on Orchard Street, but it was obviously a lot more expensive. We moved there in June of 2001, and we had the best three months we'd ever had since we opened. And then September 11 happened, and everything just collapsed. Business just died. Obviously it kept going, but it wasn't anything like it had been. It really put a huge dent in everybody's business in New York at that point. So it was unfortunate: We had just moved there three months previous, and we had this month's rent that we had to pay, and then this happened, but, c'est la vie.
Breakbeat Science got this name as the go-to store, if you were into jungle or drum & bass. We used to have kids making pilgrimages, coming from cities all over the country: If they're in New York, they have to go to Breakbeat Science. It was almost like a mecca for the jungle scene. We covered jungle like nobody else did. There were stores that did sell jungle, but they couldn't really compete with us on the same level of having everything all the time. We got that reputation because we'd been doing it since 1996. We had die-hard following, so perhaps that is why we were able to stay open as long as we were. Certainly, the clothing store subsidized Breakbeat Science for a while. But really, it was more the transition to digital formats that put an end to it, more than 9/11 or anything else.
Musically, at the end of the '90s, jungle itself became more rigid, less interesting, less efflorescent that it had been at the beginning.
It became less experimental, is really what it was. This is always a struggle. I'm guilty of it too, this, "Music used to be so much better back then." I think we all do that. But the question that I don't really have an answer to, that I ask myself is, "Is it really that this music was that much better back then, or is because I've got these memories attached to it? Is it this reminiscence thing? Does it remind me of hearing it the first time and how excited I was?" Kids now, who are hearing it for the first time, undoubtedly are just as excited about it as I was 20 years ago. And probably in ten years' time they'll be saying, "The music's never as good now as it was back in 2012." So that's the question I can't really answer.
It's definitely less complex than it used to be. That did happen in the late '90s. The reason, I'm not really sure: I think partially when it became a businessI don't want to reduce it to something as simple as an assembly line, where you have to make tunes quick, you have to release more music, because you've got bills to pay. The days of spending three weeks laboring over cutting up a breakbeat were over at that point.
There's still music out there now that's more [complex]. I think in general across the electronic music spectrum things have been, the bar has been lowered in that respect. It's become a lot more disposable. I think a lot of producers came to the realization: "Why am I spending all this time on this tune that people are going to forget about in two weeks? Why would I invest all this time and energy into this thing when it's not going to have a shelf life?"
Step Into the Arena, the night that you guys are doing in Queens, at Arena Lounge, is advertised as a smorgasbord covering the entire history of drum & bass.
That was the promoter's idea. Myself and DB are well-known old-school guys, [so] we do get requests quite a lot to play older [music]. Also, DB is semi-retired from DJing, so he doesn't really keep up with current jungle. Generally, if we're booked to play together, it'll be an old-school thing. That's really what he does now, more or less. But I always enjoyed digging out the old records. There's such a huge amount of music to pick from, going back almost 20 years at this point. It's fun for me to try and pick out things that I haven't played in several years: "Oh my god, remember this tune? I used to play this all the time."
Do you plan to play more current stuff as well?
It really depends. I will have both with me. I may leave DB to do most of the old tunes. It really depends on the response of the crowd. Sometimes you can old school stuff for the crowd, and they will look at you like, [laughs] like you just shot their dog. It always amazes me that kids who perhaps only got into drum & bass in the last couple of yearsold-school jungle just sounds completely alien to them. They just don't get it. Until you play the first tune that even remotely sounds like something [current] . . . you could play old jungle that really sounds nothing like what drum & bass is today. Until you play something with that particular sound that may be currentthen they respond a little bit. But otherwise people just be like, "Eh, what the fuck is this? Where's the drop? Why hasn't it dropped? It's been 30 seconds already. [laughs] Why isn't there another drop?"
I often bring old-school records with me and just see how they respond. If you have even ten people in the crowd who recognize the tune, it's generally enough for them to hype everybody else up. They get if. If they get it, it's a little contagious. So you need to have a few people in there who know what it is you're doing.
Today, do you stringently keep up? Are you in the thick of it?
Oh yeah, absolutely. This is still what I do. It's still my job. It's probably a whole other topic, but I'm not necessarily crazy about this whole digital idea, and the fact that anything can be released. I'm firmly of the belief that just because you can release a tune doesn't mean you should. I do miss [having] A&R men to weed out the mediocre music. Because there's no overhead involved in releasing music anymore, the bar has been lowered substantially. There's a lot of music out there that's OK, but it wouldn't have been good enough to have been pressed on vinyl.
When people say, "[This track sold] 200 downloads on Beatport in two days," my question is always, "OK, you got 200 people paying $1.99 for your tune. How many of those people do you think would've paid $12 or $15 for it?" It's easy to get people to pay $2, but would they pay $12? Because that's what it would have been a few years agothey would've had to if they wanted it. I think that the overhead barrier definitely made sure [there was] a certain standard. There's always been bad music. But I think there's less bad music when it costs money to put it out. People say, "This barrier's been broken, there's all this incredible music that can be discovered now that wouldn't be discovered before." But I see it the other way around. I see that the really incredible music is being buried in an avalanche of mediocre music. [laughs] And it gets harder and harder to find it.
Often, I'll be on Beatport and I'll just give up: "I cannot listen to any more bad music that is right up there next to really quality stuff." What happens is, I just end up going to the same artists that I've known all the time, rather than trying to check out new people, because so much of the new stuff that I check out . . . I'm not saying it's terrible, but there's nothing that makes it stand out. It sounds like a million other people.
Nevertheless, it does seem like thanks to Autonomicthe producers dBridge and instra:mentaland related artists, there has been more excitement in the last five years than there had been for a while.
Absolutely. But still, there's almost two camps: the cerebral camp and the purely physical camp. What I liked about the jungle of the early-to-mid-'90s was the melding of the two, where it was smart, but it also had this really funky, danceable component to it. I think the Autonomic guys, the music that they make is obviously incredibly detailed and creative and whatever. [But] it doesn't necessarily make me want to shake my booty. [laughs]
I'm a raver at heart, an old-school raver. I was dancing before I was DJing. So that's really what I'm looking for. It's got to have something that really hits me where it hurts, that really makes me want to groove. And I feel that a lot of this cerebral stuffyeah, it's really smart, and it's clever, and it's really well edited, but it doesn't really do it for me in a club format. What I want in music is not to be clubbed over the head by the same five sounds all night, which is often what you find, and not just standing in the corner, stroking my chin, going, "Oh, that's an incredibly good edit he just did there." I want something in between.
DJ Dara spins at Step Into The Arena with Gridlock, DB, Big Ears, Vinyl Fatigue, and Meshugs tonight at Arena.
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