DJ Paulette interview BN1 Magazine

BN1 Chats with DJ Paulette

Everybody Is Welcome

From the early days of UK club culture to the biggest stages in the world, DJ Paulette is unadornedly a pioneer. Hers is an authentic story which helped shape modern British culture. A titan of the house music scene, she’s won numerous honours over a career lasting three decades, not least DJ Mag Lifetime Achievement award in 2022. She found fame DJing at Flesh, a weekly night at Manchester’s Haçienda – at a time when Section 28 was fuelling all kinds of new problems for the LGBTQ community. From the hippest labels to the inception of Channel 4, via London and Paris, she’s inspired legends and thrilled millions. But that’s quite enough superlatives for now.

She’d been buying records long before becoming a DJ, accumulating a collection of tunes nobody else had. Paulette puts that down to the main reason for her first proper booking – spinning funk, soul, hip hop, disco and house at Manchester’s Number 1 Club, although she’d long been a face on the Manchester club scene through modelling and dancing. “I’d never DJed before and didn’t have any equipment. I could have said ‘no’, but I didn’t… because I love music, nightclubs and people. The combination was there. I’ve been a singer and love performing. DJing was just a way of performing, which wasn’t singing, but did the same thing. I could entertain and make people dance. And I like making people dance. That’s who I am. There’s no other agenda for me.”

She’s intently kept pushing house music forwards, when a lot of other contemporaries are leaning into the lucrative heritage circuit. She has no problems with that scene, but isn’t enamoured by playing retrospective sets packed with bangers from a different generation. “It’s really dangerous to get stuck in that ‘all our yesterdays’ thing. It’s 2024. I’ve never stopped DJing. I didn’t take a hiatus and suddenly come back. I’ve seen it change from being vinyl led to digital. I have zero interest in playing just back-to-back heritage sets. I can do it, and there is a place for it.” But even when playing shows celebrating her time at the Hacienda, she’s mixing in upfront sounds. “Most of the people in front of the decks aren’t even 30 years old, so it’s meaningless to them. Why would I play a load of old tunes that they don’t care about? They might hear a Chaka Khan record and think she’s sampled something which was made in 2022! I play for everybody, not just those who came to see me all those years ago. There’s a responsibility to be relevant and up-to-date.” 

When she was called in to provide an Essential Mix for Radio 1 last year, she offered up a thumping selection of tunes bridging a connection between the sweaty warehouse days of the last century with the most up to date sounds. You can honour the old school without being cheesy, apparently. While Paulette can honour the forefathers and foremothers, she says it’s important to highlight that there is a future. “I keep an ear to the old-school, as this music and culture did come from somewhere, but it’s also going somewhere. It’s not just stuck in the past. Otherwise, we’d all be stuck in a museum, and that would be the end of it.” She’s happy to talk about past masters like Frankie Knuckles, Ron Trent, Kevin Saunderson in the same breath as Leftwing, Carly Wilson and DJ Minx.

I try to get her to narrow down her sound a little, in the vain hope of pigeonholing what she does. Are there any flirtations with the increasingly tougher tech house sounds which are now dominating festivals? “It’s not really tech anything! It’s all just house. If you look at Armand Van Helden, Josh Wink, Masters At Work, Roger Snchez… They were all making really solid, chunky beats. That’s where house was; and is.”  Those producers have been a constant influence, throughout her career, and across the wider music scene. She points out that Todd Terry’s beats can still be heard, in some way, throughout modern club tunes. It’s all house music. And that’s what she plays.

The philosophy around her craft is fairly simple. “I want to make people get out of themselves for an hour or two, and to have a good time. If I want to be clever, I’ll write,” she says with a chuckle. “That’s when I stretch the brain. But when I’m playing music, I come at it from a more emotional place. It’s out of the head and into the heart.” Her ambitions seem to revolve around bringing everyone together for a great time. The approach to playing music unites tracks which are physical and spiritual, all of it able to move a crowd. From a tearing techno track to a dark and bluesy thumper, if it provokes an emotional response she’s going to play it.

This summer, she’s bringing her trademark style to Brighton Pride’s FABULOSO in the Park, firing up its huge Dance Tent for a third time. She’s got strong links with the charity, having known Dulcie Danger (who works behind the scenes there) since the 90s. “When I got chosen to do the Saturday nights at The Zap, she was my warm-up.” The local legend also gets her own section in Paulette’s recent book, Welcome to the Club: The Life and Lessons of a Black Woman DJ.

I’d increasingly been having conversations about how many areas of our culture are dictated by, and tend to venerate, white, straight men. Disappointingly, for all its pretences to equality and unity, dance music is no exception to the issue. When I started looking deeper into the issue, in some attempt to get my head around it, Paullette’s biographical account was the first search result of real relevance. So, here we are…

She’s a great interviewee. Knowledgeable to an almost obsessive degree, patiently explaining when I’m slow to catch on, calmly forthright and quick to laugh. And that’s lucky because I’m clearly not immune to the twisting of history. I was sure Paulette and Dulcie played regular Friday nights at Brighton’s legendary Zap Club (big shout to the cloakroom crew…). In my defence, it was three decades ago, and I didn’t document anything back then.

“People talk about Red, which was Eric Powell and Carl Cox’s night, which WAS on the Friday, or about Coco Steel & Lovebomb on the Saturday, who I took over from… But no one ever talks about my night! And it was packed! I’ve got the pictures and the fliers and everything, but it’s just something that’s been erased. It’s the same as the Hacienda. I’d be there every week, but nobody talks about it.” The book rebalances the scales between the most celebrated superstars and those who have been overlooked. It’s not necessarily rewriting history but giving it a confident nudge back on course. There are a few tough life lessons, several instances of intolerance, plenty of humour and an overriding message of optimism.

Through the pages of Welcome To The Club, Paulette has stuck a flag in the ground and endeavoured to tell the wider story of the last truly great British cultural phenomenon – not least the women DJs, club promoters and tastemakers who made an unspoken impact. “It was massively important to talk to all the people in that book. Not because it’s just a ‘name-dropping clang-fest’. My story is part of a lot of others. I’ve had the benefit and good luck to be involved in lots of key moments in dance music history, and to work with lots of people who were important. So, I wanted to let them speak and tell their story. It’s not all about me. The big thing about rave was the collective. Everybody all at once. Peace, love, unity and respect. We were all in this thing together. And a lot of queer people, who never get talked about.”

Contrary to what breathless homages in the Sunday supplements might have you believe, the UK’s house music explosion wasn’t solely triggered by a quartet of DJ lads going on holiday in Ibiza and discovering a fresh new sound. Of course not. That’s ludicrous. Just like the computer wasn’t created by a single team of engineers. Lots of small groups drew inspiration from those who came before them to innovate and improve. Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker, Danny Rampling and Nicky Holloway didn’t import house music culture into the UK, it was developed by a cast of thousands long before the four landed on the White Isle.

But it is a romantic legend to create hundreds of breathless magazine articles around. “Lots of things were happening all around the world at the same time, which contributed to this electronic dance music culture. Before then, at the end of the 80s, you had Chicago and Detroit creating house and techno music as we know it. The difference between Danny and Paul’s story and that of Derrick May and Juan Atkins, and what was happening in Manchester, is that they didn’t have photographers and journalists there to document it.” 

We shouldn’t totally discount Oakenfold and Rampling’s influence, especially when most of us come back from the Balearics with little more than Baby Shark as an earworm. It’s also unlikely the pair and their mates set out to steal the credit. “The more it’s repeated, the more it becomes the only story. I think, for a very long time, even up until I’d written the book, no one was challenging this. One of the points I make is that it was Danny and Paul… but Nancy Noise and Lisa Loud actually brought the music back for that pair to play. The women’s contribution, even in that story, is missing.”

Even on the gay scene, where so much innovation flourished, people only talk about the iconic Trade nights at London’s Turnmills. She tells me history has overlooked the influence of Vague in Leeds, London’s Queer Nation and Manchester’s Flesh. There were innovative LGBTQ events taking right across the UK. And it comes back to a familiar theme. “Trade was documented. The journalists wrote about it. There was also Tony De Vit, so they had a big DJ who was getting a lot of heat. So, that becomes the only story people want to tell, and everything else drifts into the background.”

At least now there’s some light being cast on those standing in the shadows. Because everyone’s experience is important. We can talk about legends, but we have to recognise how these legends are created. “Is it just the way the media works? You’re either celebrated or hated, and those are the only two stories you hear. But there’s lots of other things happening. Who decides to tell the stories?” 

Paulette says she was already aware of her place in the world before writing the book. So, the process wasn’t a journey of personal discovery. While it’s mostly biographical, it makes a great effort to explore the various challenges for her and her peers. “It’s taken 30 years for me to get to this point, where for some people it’s happened a lot quicker. There are valid reasons for that, and that’s what the book was for. It’s not about understanding it for myself, but to explain it to other people.”

Last month saw her participate in a groundbreaking show at the British library. Called Beyond The Bassline, 500 Years Of British Black Music, it charts 500 years of history through a sumptuous array of materials from the sound and vision archive. Everything from jazz, afroswing and reggae to jungle and grime is represented until August in the landmark show. Paulette was playing alongside Jamz Supernova in the Library’s grand entrance hall, along with participating in a conversation about the true history of the dancefloor. It’s another packed summer for her. There’s shows at Glastonbury, Sonar, Berlin and Ibiza. There’s also a few ideas for the theme of her next book. 

“It’s all ongoing really. There’s notebooks all over the house with ideas. I’ve three really strong ones. I’m going to continue to write. This book was the proof that I can do that. And now I know how to write a book, I’m going to do another. Who it’ll be for, I don’t know. Those are all the intangibles.” She’s originally an arts and literature student, and keen to prove the past isn’t just kings, queens and wars. “History is now, viewed from tomorrow. What we’re doing now is becoming part of history. My frustration was, as a young black British woman, I was only taught one side of history. I think it’s important to understand that every person’s story is important. Gay, straight, white, black – we mustn’t fall into the trap of only telling people certain stories. We must leave the door open so that all stories are told and read, and be available to everybody, so we can inform our opinions.”

DJ Paulette plays the Dance Tent at FABULOSO in the Park, as part of Brighton Pride, on Sat 3 Aug. Her book, Welcome to the Club: The Life and Lessons of a Black Woman DJ, is available now from any self-respecting bookshop. 

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