To describe Andy Carthy as a one-off is probably to understate the situation. He designs all his own album covers and artwork. He's launched his own brand of tea and has a pop-up tea shop set up at many of his gigs selling brews and biscuits. He lugs boxes of vinyl, his own decks and a mixing console around the world in an era when it's quite de rigueur to turn up with nowt but a pair of headphones and memory stick in your pocket.
He cares, basically. You might not have met. You probably haven't. But he still cares about you, and your night out. That's a rarity. You're not just a walking wallet paying for his next business class flight. One can't imagine him flying business class anyway. You're the person who's turned up to dance all night, and by effing crikey, he's going to make sure you have the best time you possibly can by going considerably further than most DJs would deem necessary. You're most welcome.
KEEP IT UNREAL
At the Band on the Wall in Manchester, he holds court monthly and has done so with his night Keep It Unreal — at various other venues, notably Planet K and the Music Box where it resided for 10 years — since 1999. He usually arrives in the afternoon to start setting up. Because a chunk of the music he plays could be best described as 'challenging', he needs to make sure that the soundsystem is set up just so, in order to cope with it. He's got his own customised pre-amps and EQs that need to be tuned up correctly, so that the Cuban salsa record from the '60s that he's just bought can sound like it might have done in Havana when it was first pressed up. Or that obscure punk record that was probably pressed on a shoe-string budget in the first place won't sound either inaudibly muddy or tinny and harsh. These tracks need to make sense, and if the sound is not totally at his disposal, there's a chance they might not. Vinyl's crackles and pops are one thing, but bad sound is entirely unacceptable.
He's got outboard delays which bounce sounds around as he mixes, dub style. He uses Vestax turntables that he's modified over the years, which have been fitted with high-end hi-fi tone arms and reassuringly expensive Audio Technica hi-fi carts and styli. As every slab of vinyl is plucked from its box, it's swept clean with an anti-static brush. Every other track or so, he swabs his needles with cleaning fluid using another tiny brush to ensure they're dust-free and absolutely pristine. His mixer is a Formula Sound, which they used to make locally in Stockport, where he grew up, and of course it too is modded heavily. To be brutal, it looks a bit rubbish by current standards, held together with tape, bashed and a bit bruised. But decades before the likes of Pioneer crafted mixers with a wealth of on-board effects (“Toys”, Scruff calls them), Formula Sound club mixers were an industry standard, built like a tank delivering a clean, clear, reliable signal. It says much about Scruff. Using a Formula Sound is certainly not fashionable. He could use a Urei, a Rane or a Bosak if he wanted the extra swagger, and he'd be perfectly entitled to do so. But he couldn't give a flying monkey's arse about all that.
“Fundamentally, the most important skill of the DJ is selection,” he says over, unsurprisingly, a cup of tea in his local park in leafy Stretford. “And knowing how to work a soundsystem. You have to know what's happening to that signal once it leaves your mixer. So much bad sound in clubs is down to DJs not talking to the sound engineer and ragging the mixer. I need to know the soundsystem inside out, how it behaves, and how I then steer that big machine that I've got control of for the evening. This should be second nature to people. Most DJs are in the studio all week, they know what compression is, they know what EQ is. The better the sound is in a venue, the more you can push and experiment with the music, stuff you might be nervous about playing.”
Contrast this with the last DJ you might have seen, likely playing a series of nuance-free wavs, or even super-compressed MP3s, and who is it who gives more of a shit? It's a meticulous attention to detail that's echoed back at his house. Some 20,000 — possibly more — records are catalogued alphabetically, and annotated with details of origin, style and BPM, surely a baffling, gargantuan task. But ask him where all his Underground Resistance is, and he's there in a flash digging it out.
A bit like the Northern Soul nights of old, there are a few rules if you're going to get the most out of Keep It Unreal. There are no phones allowed on the dancefloor, for a start, and if he spots anyone's faces lit up in the crowd, tweeting or generally buggering about, his long-standing MC Kwasi is there to call you out. And he will, believe it. Oh, and the 'no requests' culture that's slowly but surely become clubland law? Bollocks to that. “That's really weird,” he says. “If you're playing in a club with 500 people, the combined musical knowledge of all those people will far outweigh yours. You've come to hear me, but if you've got a good request, you're on the dancefloor, you're probably more in tune with the flow of the music than I am, because you're purely in the moment without thinking about technical considerations. I've had that, where I've had something cue-ed up, and people have asked for a tune, and I've thought 'I've got that, and it's better than what I was going to put on'. Someone will come up and say, 'Have you got 'Hot Rats' by Zappa?', and I'll think 'Oh yeah, I've never thought to play that in a club!'. Those little things keep you in touch.” It helps having an uncommonly knowledgable crowd, of course.
At Keep It Unreal, it's generally just him playing, all night long. The vast majority of his gigs these days whether in the UK or around the world, are that way inclined too, though there's sometimes the odd warm-up, and of late he's been doing back-to-back sets with new generation Manc and Eglo Records mastermind, Floating Points, a new talent he rates extremely highly.
He's been known for his massive, wide-ranging audio journeys for pretty much as long as he's been DJing. On the night DJ Mag goes to take in a Scruff set, he straddles Black Sabbath, Patrick Cowley, Plaid, an oddball Herbie Hancock release and neck-snapping Pete Rock hip-hop in the space of about 20 minutes, and it somehow flows seamlessly. When an extended psych rock wig-out comes on, there are whoops from the crowd like he's just dropped a Saturday night anthem. And it's the crowd, who are willingly open to his flights of fancy, that make the night so enduring. It ranges from kids obviously just arrived in town for University having their minds blown to a couple in one corner possibly in their 50s, but eyes closed and quietly grooving. There's an innate trust that you simply don't see often enough in the world of nightclubs.
“If the sound is bad, as a DJ you then have to restrict yourself to music that people know,” he says. “They almost make up those missing frequencies from the places they've heard the songs before. If you have a good, clear soundsystem, you can go anywhere. It's like people are physically inside the music, that communication between what's in that groove and what's going into people's ears. People get those more esoteric tunes straight away. That's when the spectrum of what you can play becomes wide open. There's no such thing as 'that's club music' or 'that's home listening' anymore. Playing Nick Drake at two in the morning on a Saturday night. Why not? Records don't need drums in for people to start going mad to. You play a more conventional record after that, and the atmosphere goes absolutely... you're depriving people, teasing and tickling. If you play a load of dry, kind of square house music and then drop a salsa tune from 1960, suddenly that sexiness comes back.”
You don't have to ask around the Manchester music scene too much before you find people willing to extoll the virtues of Scruff and Keep It Unreal. Ryan Hunn, aka Illum Sphere, took much from late nights at the Music Box.
“I used to work in a bar down the road from there at University, maybe 2003 or 2004,” he says. “We’d finish and head up for the last couple of hours. This was around the time I started buying records and the first thing that struck me was the depth and range his sets spanned. I can’t recall just how many records I heard there for the first time. From a lot of Detroit techno, disco, soul, dub and reggae… the list is endless. He had, and still does have the ability to have complete control of the club at all times. Standing in the Music Box watching him play had a major impact on my DJing at a time when the culture and a lot of certain types of music were very new to me.” Hunn's night Hoya:Hoya owes much to that wide-spanning musical programming too, something he and Hoya cohorts Jonny Dub and Jon K would readily acknowledge.
It was as a teenager growing up in Stockport in the '80s where his esoteric tastes converged and he started becoming an obsessive collector. His dad loved blues and ska, his mum '60s soul, but it was never foisted upon him. Genre meant nothing much. It was a case of there being the good shit, and the other shit. “You would buy the new Nitro Deluxe twelve, and the new LL Cool J twelve, and the new Meli'sa Morgan thing. And a bit of Sanchez or Beres Hammond. There'd be maybe five house tracks a week would come through. And you'd get the same music from the same shops. There were two Our Price shops in Stockport. One had an amazing reggae selection, maybe a couple of thousand reggae records, because one bloke who worked there liked reggae. No one bought it really, except me. The other one had a pretty good African record selection. They probably weren't being checked by the finance department.”
Joining the dots between what was being sampled on hip-hop records took him a layer deeper into soul and specialist reggae shows on radio stations like Key 103 (where he'd later get his own show) fed what was becoming a voracious appetite for buying music. As a kid, he'd listen to Tony Blackburn on Radio 1 right through to John Peel, so he'd be getting both anarchic punks Crass as well as Cliff Richard. It was when he realised his dad's music was actually cool that things shifted for him radically. “I was really into Madness when I was a kid. My dad had the Prince Buster single which had 'One Step Beyond' and 'Madness' on it. That blew my mind. I didn't realise that my favourite band had covered a record that my dad owned. My dad was now cool. Prior to that, it was a case of 'My music's better than yours'. It was made in 1967. I was nine. Woah. That was something that made me realise how big music was.
“You don't analyse stuff,” he adds. “It's the same way my daughter will happily listen to Sun-Ra or sing a nursery rhyme. They're both good tunes, both quite different. They wouldn't be in the same part of the record shop, although Sun-Ra did a great version of Batman. But that whole non-discriminatory way of listening to music is very pure and honest. You should hold on to that.”
He embarked on a part-time fine art degree in Sheffield, and also worked part-time in Kwik Save stacking shelves so he could hand over his wages to the arbiters of taste at Eastern Bloc, Piccadilly Records and Spin Inn. Though he'd always been able to draw, he didn't have the same ambition for art that he had for music. But the ambition he had for music had no direction at that stage. He just didn't know what to do with it. He would re-edit and make tape loops on his hi-fi equipment, and then started buying drum machines, guitars, effects pedals, and using a mate's Amiga with sequencing software. But all just as a hobby.
Despite its status in the city, Scruff was never a Hacienda head. The PSV club in Hulme and Man Alive were the clubs that scratched his itch for “more rootsier, black music”.
“I bought all the tunes that were played [at the Hacienda], but I like little basement clubs, where you could just have a Red Stripe and a dance. If I heard house music, it was generally being played with a lot of other stuff.” On meeting local artist, broadcaster and music head Barney Doodlebug, and after giving him a tape of his musical sketches, he very suddenly found himself with a record deal with Factory Records in-house producer Rob Gretton's Rob's Records, and its spin-off, Pleasure. He also got a regular DJ gig at the city's venerable Dry Bar. Soon he was playing all over the city for the likes of Manumission, at Joshua Brooks, Headfunk and even the Hacienda in the early '90s, and playing guest slots at the Unabombers' pivotal Electric Chair night. He released a clutch of early singles, like 'Chicken In A Box', heavy on the samples and heavy on the breaks, through Pleasure, and his self-titled debut album too in 1997.
A Certain Ratio's Martin Moscrop produced some of those early tracks, and he often found himself in “damp, mouse-infested studios in Ancoats” with his Atari and an Akai MPC. He became part of Mark Rae's Grand Central crew having met him through his record shop Fat City, releasing tracks and doing remixes through the Grand Central label and trotting the globe with them on tour. Those years spent face down in Our Price and Piccadilly had paid off, but not through any grand ambition. Just because that sort of dedication seems to find its own way in the world. He sees that similar dedication in the new school of bass obsessives, the likes of the Hessle Audio crew and the aforementioned Floating Points, “whippersnappers”, he calls them but with a deep understanding of both their music and where it's come from.
“I think our tastes compliment each other in part because I spent a lot of my childhood listening to his mixes and radio show on Key 103,” says Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, who has been playing doubtless daunting back-to-back sets with Scruff in recent months. “I hardly know anything he’s playing, but it fits in with an aesthetic that I like to think I operate within. When I was a kid, I would hear about his legendary night at the Music Box, but I was always too young to get in! So growing up, he was a mythical musical force I always hoped I would one day bump into at Fat City, where I spent almost every lunch break from school.”
In the same way that Shepherd held Scruff in high esteem, so Scruff did with the likes of Coldcut. He wrote to their pivotal Ninja Tune label to pay his respects, and they'd send him promos, and he'd send them his releases on Pleasure and Grand Central. When Pleasure packed up after the death of Rob Gretton in 1999, Ninja signed Scruff and work began on his defining long-player, 'Keep It Unreal'. Tracks like 'Spandex Man' entirely typified the instrumental hip-hop sound coming out of Manchester at the time, thanks in no small measure to the close-knit DJ crew around Fat City, the likes of Rae, Mark 1 and Chubby Grooves. Meanwhile, 'Get A Move On' took on a life of its own entirely, its rag-time-esque sample and skipping beat proving entirely irresistible. “I still play it now,” he says. Despite the track's ubiquity, and its strangely random use as a soundbed on countless daytime TV shows, he did the right thing by those he'd sampled — the long deceased blues man T-Bone Walker and oddball avant garde jazz composer Moondog — meaning that it's not made him the fortune you might presume.
“I've not done as well out of that as people think,” he says. “I met the family of the guy who wrote the track for T-Bone Walker at a gig in LA. They came out to say they really appreciated the money they'd got from it. I think they had some medical bills. But it was just really nice to meet them. It was quite surreal.”
He'd bought both of the records from charity shops on the 10-minute walk from Piccadilly train station to the studio, happening to put them on a hi-fi deck when he got there and laying one over the other. Another day of the week, a visit to a different charity shop, dropping the needle on a different part of the record, and it might not have happened at all. “I just bought the Moondog album because it looked mad!” he says. Adding a little trumpet and some double bass from Finga Thing's Sneaky, and Scruff's most recognisable track was realised. “There were five charity shops between me in Stockport and the studio in Manchester. I'd go into all of them. James Last album with a drum break? Yep, I'll take that.”
Ninja have stuck with him ever since, with the sun-soaked 'Trouser Jazz' following 'Keep It Unreal' in 2002, once more emblazoned with his own artwork, and loaded with slinky, feel-good anthems like 'Shrimp', 'Sweetsmoke' and 'Giffin'. It was around this time that he launched his own brand of organic teas under the banner Make Us A Brew, now sadly defunct, though he still co-owns the Teacup cafe and bar in Manchester's Northern Quarter. Scruff likes that Ninja are fully aware of his peculiarities. “There's an ease that comes with working with them,” he says. “They're receptive to the fact that I'm a bit of an oddball and like to do my own thing.”They were fine, for example, with the fact that with his last set, 'Ninja Tuna', he didn't want to release a vinyl album, but eight 12-inch singles.
His latest set, 'Friendly Bacteria', feels different however. Scruff always flirted with the whimsical, jazzy samples and feel-good tunes, but this has bass by the megaton, suggesting that those 'young whippersnappers' he's mentioned, the Hessle crew and suchlike, not to mention the heavy bass sounds coming from Manchester in recent years, might have informed this work. He's also hooked up with Denis Jones, a local exponent of intricate electronica who he met while Jones was supporting Detroit legend Amp Fiddler some years back. Jones appears on four tracks, material they've been working on pretty much since they met, on and off. Jones used to pinch his brother's driving licence and go and see Scruff play at Planet K when he was 17. “We have a similar lack of training in our approach,” says Jones. “We're not as refined as say a trained musician might be, so there's a serendipity to it. Looking for that thing that sparks the ear, and responding to each other. On both sides, it feels like a true exercise in collaboration, because it's something that neither of us would have come up with on our own.
“He's a bit of an unknown quantity,” says Scruff of Jones. “I just didn't know what he was going to come up with. And that's great. Everything has been unusual. With some kind of spark. I'd love to work with him a lot more. I think we've only scratched the surface. I'm not sure what Denis is. But that's why I'm really intrigued by him.”
It also features the legendary Robert Owens on the track 'He Don't' (“I've been a massive fan of him since I was 14,” says Scruff), Manchester jazz exponent and Gondwana Records boss Matthew Halsall and vocalist Vanessa Freeman on two-step shuffler 'Come Find Me'. West London broken beat don Kaidi Tatham is also present, as is Cinematic Orchestra bass player Phil France. “This album's a lot heavier, darker,” he says. “A lot of that is Denis's influence. He uses a lot of drones and lyrically, it's like 'What's going on?!'. There's still playfulness there, but maybe it's more in the drums and the little noises. I've enjoyed playing around with a darker palette. Like when I'm DJing now. I'm playing a lot more punk, and straight-up hard techno, stuff I might have been scared to play 15 years ago. I like grumpy, grimey, dark stuff as much as I love really happy stuff. It's about adding more blacks and greys.”
As much as Scruff has made his name as a thoroughly uncompromising DJ, our equivalent of François K, Laurent Garnier or a latter day David Mancuso, he's still always consuming, always learning, and always wanting, more than anything, to have a good dance. So you'll still see him out and about, making those sonic connections as a punter. But play an easy set of banging classics at your peril. “I want to be pushed and pulled around the dancefloor,” he says. “I don't want to go out and hear a load of tunes I've heard before. It's like going to school and having the same lesson over and over. I want to be educated, I want a new experience. I want to be flummoxed and inspired and confused. I want a DJ to give me their perspective on music, and for it to change mine. Anything less than that, well, I could be doing something else. A dancefloor is a very special place... I want to have my mind blown.” If he's ever blown yours, then that's really the least you can do.
Scruff on the DJ that changed everything — Ade Fakile of Plastic People “He's pretty much solely responsible for my revelation that all music can be club music. Going to listen to him on a Saturday night... he's a venue owner who puts effort into everything; the layout of the club, the soundsystem, he did all the plumbing! He's qualified as a builder now, he's an electrician. A proper DIY man, but really heavy selector as well. No mixing. Here's a 30-minute-long percussion tune. Here's a folk tune that he'll stop after two minutes, 'I'm bored of it'. Here's some dub. Now here's a techno tune. But all done with real presence and energy. It's like 'I'm playing records here. It's my club. I'm not messing around'. When I was playing guests slots in the early '90s, I always felt I had to reign myself in. With your own night, you have no excuses. Kelvin Brown and Jon K too from Eyes Down, whether playing together or individually, both incredible selectors. Not afraid to switch it up or drop it down. Straight up good tunes.”