The weird and wonderful world of Mr Scruff
DJ EXPO 2014: Critically acclaimed as one of the most creative and eclectic DJs of our generation, Mr Scruff has been concocting his strange aural brews since the mid 90s. Born Andy Carthy, this Manchester-hailing artist is known for his marathon live sets and off-the-wall sounds that have inspired countless other DJs; setting them free to carve out their own colourful niches.
With a new album, Friendly Bacteria, due out this May - and a take-over gig at London's Roundhouse on May 31 sure to stun - now is a good time for us to dig a little deeper and find out what makes Mr Scruff tick behind the decks. Going back to his early days, we discover how disco and the infamous 80s mega mix played a part in awakening his fledgling DJ aspirations.
You have a huge appetite for music - especially obscure stuff. Where did it all begin?
"The mid 80s was the era of the mega mix. Obviously that started in the mid 70s with a lot of disco medleys, but by the 80s you had a lot of the New York guys like Latin Rascals, Shep Pettibone, and Steinski doing studio quality mega mixes.
"They were well blended, in key, and with a lot of the latest releases. Stuff like the Dynamite Mix series, for instance. Then the DMC Championships were being broadcast and people like Chad Jackson and Greg Wilson were doing end of year mixes.
"Here in the UK, a lot of regional radio stations had at least ten hours per week of specialist programming that kept you update with the latest music. I sat at home copying those mixes. Early on I was pretty rubbish but eventually it clicked."
Did you hit the ground running or did it take lot of work?
"It was weird. For ten years I was a bedroom DJ. I could count on one hand the number of people I knew who were into the same music, so I just made up this imaginary world in my head where you could play anything and all the music would work together.
"I was completely self-taught and went from doing pause button tapes on the family hi-fi to getting up to speed on three decks and knowing a lot about different kinds of music. Well enough to play them to other people, anyway, and doing mellow bar gigs.
"I've got a hip-hop mix on Soundcloud from 1992 that shows where I was at. At home I had one fixed speed deck, one dodgy vari-speed belt drive turntable, and an £80 Realistic mixer from Tandy."
"I find the whole idea of preparing DJ sets a bit strange. It's like going to the pub and someone turning up with a pre-planned conversation written down"
You are known for being creative in your performances. What tools help with that?
"I use a Formula Sound PM100 mixer, which is quite an old mixer with Vestax decks that have Rega tone arms and some nice Grado hi-fi cartridges because I still play vinyl. I used to play some stuff off CD but nowadays I tend to just play 24bit .wavs off a memory stick and one of the Pioneer's because it sounds a lot better than a CD.
"When it comes to music, emphasise the fun aspect because DJing is about playing good records in the right order and making sure people have a good night. If you get too caught up in the technical stuff it detracts from the atmosphere. Especially if you're playing records that are in your box because they're amazing…There's very little you can do to improve them.
"Don't always feel like you have to do something to improve a record. Sometimes I'll emphasise something with a little EQ or volume."
You can check out Mr Scruff's gear here...
How do you choose what to play?
"The records tell you how to play them. If a record has an amazing ending - and unless you have some astounding mix where there's wordplay, its in key and it works like a dream - you should leave a gap. Similarly, if a record has an amazing intro that will set the record up.
"Some records are very linear and are great DJ tools, which is all well and good, but most records have a start, middle and an end. If your job as a DJ is to move a selection of records through different moods, tempos and shades, let the music do some of that work for you.
"Listen to your records in more ways than one and don't let the feeling that you need to interfere with the record override what the music is about."
How much prep do you do in advance for your sets?
"I find the whole idea of preparing DJ sets a bit strange. It's like going to the pub and someone turning up with a pre-planned conversation written down. When DJing, in one way you're the centre of attention whilst in another way the most important thing is the crowd and they way they interact and have a good time.
"You're there to lubricate the social gears - you're not the be all and end all. Getting the right people into a club is far more difficult than putting some records on in the right order.
"It's about learning the language of the music you're into, then speaking it confidently in public. Throw in a few curve balls, too - its good to provide some difficult moments because then, when you do play a big tune or something that everyone's familiar with, it'll have twice the impact it would if you just played stuff people know all the time. Playing big tunes all night is like having a conversation made up entirely of pleasantries."
"[DJing] is about knowing your music inside out and having a real hunger for finding new music but also the history of music you're already into"
What do you think are the essentials when it comes to being a good DJ?
"Technical stuff aside, the essentials are an obsession with music. When you're a DJ trying to join different pieces of music together, if you have a thorough knowledge of its roots it makes much more sense. It goes from just slinging a load of records on to you telling a story and telling it with authority.
"It's about knowing your music inside out, having a real hunger for finding new music but also the history of music you're already into. It's your job to be a conduit so take it seriously.
"You almost have to evangelise about the music you love in a way that gets other people into it. The best way to do that is to pay attention to what's going on in the room when you're DJing and put one record on after another in a way that builds energy. It's like a conversation between you and crowd."
Words: Hamish Mackintosh
Mr Scruff's Friendly Bacteria is out May 19 on Ninja Tune.