Well, I'm writing this on my way to Japan from Australia, 38,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Even after 20 years I never get complacent about how lucky I am to be doing this. When I was asked to write a piece for Resident Advisor, I was aware that they can often read badly like, "How cool is my life everybody!" I want to be clear that I only agreed to do it to share my experiences and hopefully entertain. That is, after all, what a DJ does.
Top: Legends, Manchester
Bottom: The scene at my debut Electric Chair gig
I began this trip back in Leeds on December 27th. It has been an exceptionally cold winter in Yorkshire, and there has been constant snow. My Christmas has been partially ruined by constantly checking BBC weather reports, and worrying if I am going to make it out of Heathrow airport or even across to Manchester for the first gig of my run of dates at the Electric Chair End of Year Riot at Legends.
There are not too many shows that get me nervous these days, but playing at The Electric Chair is one of them. It has an incredible history, I've never played there before and nearly everyone I know from Northern England clubbing is coming. Legends hosted the original Twisted Wheel club, which is widely regarded along with The Torch in Stoke as the birthplace of Northern Soul.
I arrive early to set up my Traktor, and the doors are locked, so I enter into The Outpost bar upstairs. There is a gay couple at the bar with their hands down each other's jeans and a barman cleaning glasses. He grumpily agrees to open up the club doors for me and I descend into an underground catacomb of dark chambers.
I am scheduled to play in the Voodoo House Chamber with Mark E and Prosumer. I am especially looking forward to checking out Mark as I have been playing loads of his music recently. He doesn't disappoint and sets up the room beautifully as the crowd pours in. The venue is packed within an hour of opening. The Unabombers have already got the main room going off to their blend of disco edits and classics. There are so many faces that come out of the woodwork for this party that it takes me a while to squeeze back to my room.
At gigs like this I don't have time to "warm up" or take any time "getting into it." I need to be firing from the start. I've decided to play it quite disco at the start and then play some house later. I open with a remix that Silver City have done of "Fade Away" and the crowd react immediately. I've got enough people that know me in the room to give me the extra support and confidence I need to settle down. I have dug deep through the week and I mix in an old track from Stevie Kotey aptly named "The Buttocks." It gets everyone's butts moving nicely, but when I play Soundstream's "Deeper Love" the room really starts to heat up.
I find gigs are usually crap or superb; there are hardly any in the middle. On this night, I feel like I can do no wrong and I get into my favourite place as a DJ where I'm not even thinking about the next track, the perfect next record to play is simply jumping instantly into my head and every single one is working. I end with Derrick May’s remix of "Wild Times" which always reminds me of my times in Manchester at The Hacienda which was only just down the road on Whitworth Street. Prosumer jumps on and does a great job, playing a lot more disco than I am used to hearing him spin at Panorama Bar.
As I'm packing up the next day my phone rings, it's Darren Emerson. He's seen his itinerary and I'm on the same flight as him to Australia, so he's ringing to arrange meeting up at Heathrow. I'm travelling economy but he's in upper class so he offers to get me into the lounge. I'm still nervous about getting off the ground from Manchester Airport but we take off on time and I make it down to Heathrow. It's chaos down there and I very nearly get bumped off the flight, as it's so full. Darren is ringing me from the lounge and sounds worse for wear already. I eventually make it there, but by now I'm late so he's drunk most of the bar himself.
He is holding court right in the middle of the counter with four bar staff round him and a good few empties. He's got his laptop out and is DJing from his iTunes. The Lounge is massive and very flash; it looks like the reception of a Dubai hotel. I'm fairly certain that the suited and manicured clientele are cursing us and quietly wondering if they can claim compensation from the airline. Darren's on a roll, though, and he orders free champagne so it would be rude not to get involved.
That's my excuse anyway.
Finally it's time to get on board and after a million goodbyes and "I love you guys," we swerve off to the flight. Darren is one of the best guys I have ever met in house music. I see him on the flight one more time when he comes back to try to blag me into the stand up bar in first class. Unfortunately, as I'm packing up to go he drops his glass, which smashes all over the floor by my seat into a trillion tiny shards. The hostesses whisk him away and we clear up the mess to the best of our ability, but the spilt wine stinks. As I look at the glittering slithers every time I sit down, I question my earlier comments about Darren!
LISTEN: Ralph Lawson: Live at Electric Chair End of Year Riot
The blinding heat at Sydney's Space Festival.
When the Ibiza season closes in October, many of the workers follow the sun and head south. Like migrating birds, many travel great distances across oceans and end up on the shores of Australia. So when I arrive in Sydney I am met by the familiar face of Steve White who also runs the driving for We Love Space in Ibiza. He is also picking up Alex Wolfenden, who is one of the residents at We Love and a member of the Acid Mondays who record for 2020 Vision, so I am immediately among friends. The sun is shining so I decide to fight off the jet lag and head straight for Bondi. The other Acid Mondays members are also living out in Oz this winter, so we all meet up for the world's best bacon buttie at Bondi Junction. I'm told the best cure for jet lag is swimming and beer, so I follow instructions. Oddly enough, it works.
Over the past few years, New Year's Eve has changed. It used to be without doubt the biggest and best night of the year, but many promoters overcharge people for the privilege of attending their events and catching a cab is practically impossible or crazy expensive in any major city. Trying to get across Sydney in a car when over one million people are rushing to watch the world famous fireworks is a total non-starter. After an hour we are 100 metres from the hotel, so we get out to walk. It's a good distance and we have all the gear to carry. By the time we arrive at The Museum of Contemporary Art, we're sweating. It is an exceptional venue, though. And when we get upstairs there is an awesome terrace with amazing views and a free bar. The fireworks kick off again at midnight, I search for a track that does them justice. I haven't planned it at all, but one jumps straight to mind: Inner City's "Good Life."
The main event I am over for is the Sydney Space Festival. I am set to play at 3:30pm, and it is already red hot when I arrive. Francois K, M.A.N.D.Y. and Nick Curly are all on the same stage, so I'm in good company. The crew are all incredibly cool and are going out of their way to make sure everything is sorted. One thing they can do little about, though, is the sun. When I arrive Sebastian Leger is on and playing in shade, but one look up tells me that by the time I'm on the sun will be hitting the stage full on.
I am really worried about the laptop and decks working in the heat. I touch the mixer and burn my fingers; you could fry an egg on it. We start to build some cover from flight case lids. I think back to another New Year's show in Sydney on the new millennium eve of 2000. I played before Carl Cox on Bondi beach. That night it was the opposite problem, it was a cold day and there was a strong wind blowing off the sea. The decks were positioned on top of Bondi Pavilion and, in those days, it was all vinyl. I started at 9pm and the records were just flying off. Carl was going on at midnight and it was being broadcast live on Radio One around the world to eight million people. The Radio One producers were absolutely shitting themselves. In true blue Aussie fashion they took the matter in hand and started building. While I was playing they had completed a few shelves that did just enough to block the wind, by the time Coxy came on they had finished a cabin. It was unreal.
As expected the sun is hitting me full in the face as soon as I start, and I can't see anything on the screen or mixer LEDs, so I have to rely on instinct. There is a decent crowd gathering and they look really hot. I am spurred on by their energy to dance in these conditions and their disregard for the sun. I certainly wouldn't be anywhere but in the shade. I decide to keep it very musical and give them some sunshine vibes in return for their efforts. My friends have come backstage and piled into the bar. Our hosts are amazingly accommodating until someone drinks Francois K's champagne. It's time to exit stage left.
Space finishes at 10 PM, and predictably no one wants to go home. There are a million after parties on and I am playing two of them. The first is with Will Saul and, to be polite, is totally crap. I apologise to Will who is doing his best, and we head off to another, which is also kind of lame. I am starting to get tired and there are still three hours to wait until the last one at Spice. After a quick stop-off at a friend's place—which apparently used to be a brothel and has a bar in the living room—my mood lifts and we head off.
By now the only ones left standing are workers and nutters. I am determined to leave Oz on a high, so I get on the decks as soon as I can. Philipp from M.A.N.D.Y. is in the house, which gives me a push to play well. Everyone is loose by now and having a good time. Gary Todd and his Geordie pal Tino have got silver gimp suits on and start breakdancing to the crowd's delight. I start playing classics after a while, and the place rocks out. We end up spinning until mid-day, about a six hour set. It should be time for bed… but, then again, it would be rude to go to sleep when the sun's shining...
LISTEN: Ralph Lawson: Live at Space Festival Sydney
I love Japan.
When I write about Japan I tend to get overexcited. It's been a long-term love affair. I started listening to Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1990, buying Roland drum machines in 1991 and Haruki Murakami became my favourite writer in 1993. I also started producing music at that time and my first ever release went by the Japanese name of Otaku on Soma. However I failed to make it out to the land itself until 2001. I returned in 2006, but on both occasions left culture shocked and unable to make my mark. I always held the belief that I would work well in Japan, but I couldn't understand where I was going wrong. I realised the answer had two parts; it wasn't my time and I had never met the right people.
I book my own travel and normally this works out well, as it cuts down on time spent playing "piggy in the middle" between agent and promoter. This time I have made a massive mistake and written the first gig in my diary as Osaka instead of Tokyo. It would have been far easier to travel direct to Tokyo from Sydney but the flights have been confirmed. So I arrive in Japan over 350km from where I'm supposed to be. Whenever we mess up like this, we have to pay an "idiot tax." This means we have to pay with our time, money or both for our stupid mistakes.
The first inclination that I had finally found my man in Japan, though, is when my new contact Yashima offers to look after me in Osaka and fly me up to Tokyo at no extra charge. It also turns out to be his hometown, so it is actually easier for him to meet me at the airport. I have a good feeling as I breeze through Japanese customs that this is going to be the trip. Within an hour we are drinking sake with friends Yusuke and Yugo and eating fugu (puffer fish) and Osaka's traditional dish okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza). I like the guys immediately.
I arrive in Tokyo the next day. I am staying in the centre of Shibuya, the heart of Tokyo's fashion area. Japanese teenagers are the most fashion-conscious I have seen. But what overwhelms me the most is the sheer speed they move. Japanese people seem to run to every destination. There is a real feeling that time is too precious to waste. My hosts pick up DJ Yui who is playing in the other room at the club. Within minutes she has taught me as many rude Japanese words as she can, including tomodachinko, which is a nonsense word literally meaning "friend penis." If you say it to any young Japanese person, they will immediately fall about laughing and probably invite you for a drink.
As you go into Japanese clubs you will find lockers instead of a cloakroom, which strikes me as a clever idea. Before the doors open, it's traditional for every single person working in the club to gather together in a circle and introduce themselves. The promoter then introduces everyone to rounds of applause. I find it heart-warming. As soon as I go upstairs there are people coming up to shake my hand and talk to me. Japanese people are immediately polite and friendly. It has been a while since I've played in Tokyo and many music heads, producers and DJs have come out. The sound is great and the VJs create some cool images on screens behind me. I'm kind of happy with how I play, but I feel a bit rusty from travelling and the whole experience is so different from Australia that it catches me a little by surprise. Instead of going to sleep when I get in, I go online and download all my new promos as well as buy some new music so I'm prepared for Nagoya the next day. This is when I love the digital age despite all its evils.
The next day is my first bullet train experience. I struggle to find words to describe how superb they are. Maybe the best way to put it is the exact opposite of every journey you've ever taken out of Kings Cross. We arrive in Nagoya within two hours, and I don't know whether to laugh or cry. We are picked up by the promoter and taken to Club JBs to sound-check. The biggest guest at their club is Radio Slave, which is handy as Matt is a friend and I know what music they are digging. The gig is cool, and I have some enthusiastic support at the front. The homework in the morning has paid off and I play far better. They ask me to go on until the end, which means a four hour set. The jet lag is really starting to hit at this point, so the only way to get the last hour done is to have some fun and play classics, as I need picking up myself. It works and everyone leaves happy.
I'm now starting to feel weary, but I am still buzzing with the whole trip, so my mood is good as we travel back down to Osaka. The other two gigs were decent but Triangle in Osaka is by far the best. It is Yashima's hometown so he has personally promoted the show and we have the best crowd of the trip. I start to play at 2am and am cruising along fairly comfortably when suddenly at 4am people start going nuts. I’m not sure if they are now all drunk or they have got used to my music or both, but it is a really amazing experience. The last two hours are just off the hook. The beauty of using Traktor is having so many tunes at my disposal, and I go well off the beaten path and end up playing Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," Cultural Vibe "Ma Foom Bey," Mathew Jonson's "Typerope" and end on an all-time favourite: Galaxy to Galaxy's "Hi Tech Jazz." The guys won't let me stop. There are screams of ''yabai," ''one more'' and more comically ''good vibrations!'' Yashima tells me, ''now my friends, your friends'' and I really believe him.
LISTEN: Ralph Lawson: Live at Triangle, Osaka