There are DJs we are introduced to via friends, ones we stumble upon ourselves and ones who are so talented, so ahead of the game, its almost impossible to miss them. Darren Emerson is all those DJs and so much more. He began his career mixing hip hop at 14 and by 16 he was regularly gigging in his local venues. It was in 1990, as fate would have it, he was introduced to Rick Smith and Karl Hyde and together they would go on to become one of the most successful Techno groups in dance music history – Underworld. Darren parted ways with the band in 2000 and found instant success as a solo DJ playing around the world for dance super brand Global Underground. To date he has 3 CDs with them, each one a little piece of dance floor history. As well as being a superb DJ and producer, Darren is also a record label owner, promoter and proud father. His label Underwater, founded in 1994 was a staple in my collection and countless others and his new label Detone is also doing well. Fresh from his recent sold out Japanese tour, I caught up with Darren to chronicle his career thus far, his hopes for the future and DJ Culture.
Hello Darren, I’m so pleased you could find time for an interview with us at This is Progressive. How was Japan? You’ve been gigging there since you were 19..
No worries – thanks for getting in touch. Japan was great as always. I have said it before and will say it again, those guys have been insanely loyal to me over the years and it’s always a pleasure to play there. This time round I was promoting my Detone CD mix compilation on Lastrum and I had a blast over the 5 gigs as always. Big thanks again to everyone involved.
You started DJing when you were only 14 and gigging by the age of 16. Can you explain what the clubs were like back then?
Apart from the odd Glitzy places here and there the clubs were pretty much the same as they are now. People go there to have a good time and party, that’s what it’s all about.
Turntablism was big in the late 80s and DMC were the guys who developed the DJ Championships. Would you have liked to compete? I understand you were really in to it…
I did enjoy cutting and scratching with two of the same records and I was a fan of the DMC Championships and it’s winners but it wasn’t something I ever considered entering.
At the time how did you go about finding records? Were they all sent to you, or did you do a lot of crate digging? Do you think that that experience (crate digging) is lost to this new generation of DJs who regard websites like Beatport as the norm?
I used to get sent records from a lot of great labels but then again, I loved sifting through records in the stores as well. This is definitely lost on the new generations although I keep hearing about vinyl having a bit of resurgence. My recent releases as The White Lamp on Hotflush, Futureboogie and Sonar Kollektiv were all released on vinyl + digital so there is still a market for it, even if it’s much less than it was when I was still spinning vinyl.
You grew up in Essex, a hotbed of musical talent, I believe you even babysat Ram Records owner Andy C! What do you think it was about the area that inspired you all?
Haha, yeah. Have you been reading the DMC interview?
Truth be told, yes! I always like to research my guests thoroughly. hahaha, so you were going to tell me about your musical roots in Essex…
Funk, Soul and Disco was always big around Essex, especially in the 70’s & 80’s and even though some of that was before my time, I was a fan of the music – as a lot of us were – I think we just followed that vibe into the respective genres be it Electro, Hip Hop, Acid House through to House & Techno.
I understand you were a regular at Spectrum.. Paul Oakenfold along with Colin Favor and Jazzy M were pioneers pushing a new sound in London. Can you tell us about the experience of travelling into London, attending the rave and the journey home.
It was very exciting…. as youngsters ourselves, we would wonder if we’d get past the guy on the door (Steve Maize, part of the Boys Own gang). I was very much into Acid House, I used to go to the all-dayers, and it was all new and very euphoric. I was a trainspotter so going out and hearing tunes like Strings of Life just reminded me of how it was a melting pot of great music with nutty people going berserk.
I guess you also have a few other rave experiences too, like the M25 orbital parties….
Yeah I went to a few …. used to do my DJ set in the clubs on the Saturday, then through to the M25 raves for sunrise on the Sunday which was just an extension of the night before. That was the proper rave sound, but I was more into going to the clubs and special events, like where I stepped in for Weatherall at the Boys Own event at Bognor. I was always much more for the clubs than the raves.
Do you think the second ‘Summer of Love’ (1988) and the following growth in the rave scene was a good thing culturally? Its said that the introduction of E’s at parties got rival football fans to dance together and enjoy the music. Whilst not condoning drug use, did you ever imagine another way in which football hooliganism, a blight on the UK’s image in the 80s, would decrease?
It was a good time for everyone to get together. Like yourself, not condoning drug use, it’s certainly the wider opinion that Ecstasy brought everyone together including rival football fans!
The early 90s were a very rich time for music. Britpop was in full swing with bands like the Happy Mondays and the Charlatans bringing guitar rock back in to fashion. It was around this time you were introduced to Rick Smith and while Karl Hyde was away in LA you began to formulate a new electronic band which would be known as Underworld. In the beginning though you were known as Lemon Interupt and Steppin Razor. Bigmouth (as LI) and the remixes of Song for Life (as SR) are tracks many still play today. Had you had much studio experience at that point?
When I was 15, I bought a sampler & sequencer so was heading in the right direction studio wise from the start. When I met Rick, I learned a lot in his studio in the control room, vocal booth etc. I was teaching Rick stuff about dance music beats and Rick was teaching me the studio side of things. He was a great teacher. Steppin Razor was an alias that Rick & I used together. Named after a famous Pete Tosh track & also Neuromancer book.
What was your biggest achievement in the studio? Which track are you most proud of?
Tough to say – I’ve had some great originals but also great remixes. Some of the stuff I was doing a long time ago still stands up today. Bjork, William Orbit, Orbital – those remixes bring back fond memories & late nights. There’s probably as much stuff that I haven’t put out hiding in the studio, gathering dust :)
During those years with the band you made 3 very successful albums. Was the process you went through writing the albums the same, or did your work flow develop over time?
Me & Rick knew each other inside out so things would flow. We really knew each other well. We also had our own studios where we’d go off and write stuff and then come back together, collaborate, chopping and changing quite a lot. For instance Karl would be around with his guitar and writing lyrics sometimes during, sometimes after we’d laid down beats. There was never a set rule.
You split from the band in 2000 to concentrate on solo projects and were immediately back on tour with those loveable Geordie rogues James and Andy. Global Underground has gone on to be a massive influence to a generation of clubbers, but at the time, did you think it would be so successful and what attracted you in the first instance?
Well, at first they used to record the DJ sets on tape and sell them from events at Shindig. I wasn’t up for working with them at first but they turned it around – by not being dodgy haha. They wanted me to do one and that’s when I decided to go to Uruguay. What I was bringing to GU was quite different to the progressive stuff they were doing, I was bringing more Techno & House to my mixes.
One of the big selling points of series was the imagery and story which unfolded in the book that accompanied the CDs. You could put the music on and be transported around the world. Have you a favourite destination from that series and what made the location so special for you?
I would have to say Uruguay – it brings back fond memories and was really amazing! Sasha & Lee Burridge were there with me, plus some Argentinian friends. We had a great time together in Punta del Este. Really good memories.
Touring can take up massive chunks of your life. How do you find a work/life balance?
I spend a lot of time juggling iCals!
I understand you’re now a proud father. When old enough, will you encourage your kids into the music business or hope they choose a different path?
I will let my kids do what they want to do, I’d never push anything on them but with that said, my Daughter is very musical. My Son is more into Superhero’s, Fifa and Playstations at the moment.
Having circumnavigated the world countless times, it would be fair to say you know a thing or two about long haul flights. When you’re not on tour where do you take the family on holiday?
Ibiza for a quiet one believe it or not; the Balaearics is a common holiday destination for us. Having a 5 year old Son can be difficult for the long haul although I have taken my eldest to Dubai to see friends. Us Emersons do like a beach!
They say you don’t listen to Jimmy (Hendrix), you hear him… Greg Wilson recently stated that because the pace of life has quickened, the kids aren’t able to appreciate music in the same way as when we were young. Do you think this is true and what do you believe the cause to be?
It’s definitely true. With everything being digital, it’s easy to make tracks and music is even more accessible. Saturated with 1000s of tracks coming out every day, you can’t keep up with it whereas you would save money in the old days, play an album inside out, read the sleeves. This doesn’t happen anymore. Or at least not like it used to.
After 25 years of DJing, whats your set up like now with the advent of DJ technology? Do you miss carrying boxes of vinyl everywhere?
I do miss it but at the same time, I enjoy using USB’s or SD cards as well. Easy to travel when you’re on tour. I can sort the music out on the plane which you obviously couldn’t do with vinyl so it certainly has it’s benefits.
Do you think the art of DJing has changed now because of the use of computers? Was it something that was inevitable and should we police the art form more to detract fake DJs and those in it for the money?
The hands-on approach has changed in some regards but I am a fan of the changes in technology. At the end of the day, the art of DJing is reading the floor and playing the right tunes at the right moment to the right audience and that doesn’t really matter how you’re doing it. Although, if you’re pre-recording, where’s the art in that? I think if you are using original techniques with new technologies (without being “fake” as you say) then that’s okay. I certainly promote that message – it’s great the things that the likes of Richie Hawtin, James Zabiela and Luciano do with new technology. Things that weren’t possible with vinyl only.
You’ve been fortunate to DJ at all manner of festivals, clubs and after parties. Is there a gig thats instantly comes to mind as your favourite?
I love playing in Japan, in Ibiza, Australia, all over the World actually. I’ve had the pleasure of playing some great parties and festivals and it’s really hard to pick a single one out unfortunately, so I know that’s a bit of a boring answer. I’m really blessed to have had the opportunity to play in the finest places in the World, having residencies on the White Isle (Ibiza), living and playing there every week amongst others. It’s impossible to pick one out.
You’re still in the game after all these years, whats the secret to longevity in this industry?
I think it’s import to be able to reinvent and try new things, but avoiding bandwagons and knowing what’s going on around you. I always make sure the core of what I am doing is the same – groovy House & Techno. Always has been really but then there are elements that I change with aliases etc, for example The White Lamp is less of a club-thing, whereas the stuff I do under my own name is very much clubby. It’s always been the way really.
After the success of the Paul Rutherford remix (my favourite track of 2013 btw) you now have a new track out – Hotdog. Are we going to see more of the same in 2014?
Thanks mate that’s really nice to hear. I’ve just had a Darren Emerson remix out on Hotflush for my alter-ego, The White Lamp. Next up I have a 2-track EP (Forza/Vamos) coming out on Sian’s Octopus Recordings and a follow up track on Bedrock’s Miami release (‘Feel It’). I’m working on some original material for Tronic and my Detone label too plus The White Lamp album so it’s all go for 2014.
Conference season is to begin shortly with Miami WMC. Theres so many now, do you have to pick and choose or do you try to attend them all?
I like Miami but this year my focus is on IMS & ADE.
Darren, its been an absolute pleasure to chat with you, we wish you all the success in the world with your various projects. Finally, where can we see you this year?
My agency & management team are currently planning out an Australian tour for me soon, plus something in South America during the Summer time. We’re looking at a Sonar showcase too amongst some other cool European gigs. I’m also playing at Bedrock this Easter in London so keep an eye out for that guys!
And of course, don’t forget to check out my social media pages for all the details.
Thanks for great questions. Big love.
01// Graze – Skip/Crush [New Canada]
02// Chymera – Tidal [Ovum Recordings]
03// Neil Browne – That Morning Made [Detone]
04// Phil Kieran – Going There [Hotflush Recordings]
05// Richy – Going There (Ahmed Remix) [Hotflush Recordings]
06// Bam Bam – The Twiilight Zone [Westbrook/ Urban]
07// Claudia Anderson – Hysteria [Singular Records]
08// Andy Blake – Cave Paintings 2x [Cave Paintings]
09// Neville Watson – Crossing the I’s [Don’t Be Afraid Records]
10// Darren Emerson – Vamos [Octopus Records]
11// Charles Fenckler – Fabrik [Soma]
12// Freakiss – Sound Trackiss [Groove Factory]