Scotland might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of Disco music. But just as surely as it spawned the inventors of hypnosis, deep-fried Mars bars and television, old Caledonia also gave birth to one of the genre’s greatest ambassadors. Once described by Joey Negro as “Scotland’s answer to Walter Gibbons,” Al Kent is surely one of the world’s foremost experts in the groovier end of the soul music spectrum.
A self confessed mod, Al Kent is naturally drawn to low-down and “real” street sounds as opposed to the saccharine style for which Disco is often (and wrongly) maligned. Al’s rare records don’t just sit clinically alphabetized on some private shelf. His is a working collection, used not only for DJ sets but also for the carefully crafted re-edits upon which built his reputation. Having produced with samples for years, in 2008 Al began working with musicians on his “Million Dollar Orchestra” project, leaping right in at the deep end and recording a 26-piece band for the debut album.
More recently, his series of compilations on BBE have been a joy to behold for lovers of proper Soul and Disco music (apart those some mean-spirited record collectors who hate the thought of “normal” people getting hold of their rare treasures). With the 4th and latest installment of his Disco Love album series currently making waves throughout the scene, we caught up with Al Kent to find out more.
Describe your early life: how did you first become obsessed with music and buying records?
I can’t actually remember “getting into” music or records. I mean, it wasn’t a thing back then – everybody had records, everybody’s parents and grandparents had records, everybody was “into” music. I think now that music has become so disposable it seems more of a thing to actually be “into” it – if you have a set of speakers instead of a phone to listen to stuff, then you’re hardcore. But when I was young you didn’t even think twice about it. But then you realize that other people maybe don’t buy as many records as you, and are maybe buying completely different music, and they buy records less often, and they’re not bringing a bag of records to every school Disco or House party… That’s when it becomes a thing.
Growing up in Scotland, how did you first get exposed to disco and house music?
My initiation was through Soul music. I was a young mod so I was listening to things like Marvin Gaye or the Temptations while my pals at school were listening to Wham or U2. Then I found out about Northern Soul and got a bit obsessed with that. Well, very obsessed – being surrounded by a bunch of people who are equally obsessed with records, totally consumed by music, where there are thousands of records for sale at events – that’s my idea of heaven.
I’d hear some ’70s stuff at these events which initially bugged me because it got in the way of the ’60s stuff but through time I got to like a few bits, and then a few more bits until I kind of got into it. What I didn’t realize was a lot of those records were Disco records – things like Bill Brandon, Bileo, Bill Harris and so on. I’ve told this story a million times but I’d never been interested in 12″ singles, but I wanted a copy of 4 Below Zero and the only one I could find was the Roulette 12″ so I bought that, as I was way too impatient back then. Even with “Roulette Disco” plastered across the sleeve, it still didn’t dawn on me that there was a cool side to Disco. But slowly I started to get it and I was intrigued by this scene that had gone almost unnoticed on my side of the world.
The turning point was finding this Disco collection in an old Glasgow record shop that had obviously just been lying there for years – I recognized things like Salsoul because Skip Mahoney or Eddie Holman were well known to me and a lot of the other things looked interesting. So I bought a ton of them for next to nothing. I was quite fascinated by these things: names of remixers and producers were repeated on a lot of the labels and began to tell a story that I wanted to know more about.
You were involved in the “Disco House” scene for many years. Who were your favorite artists at the time?
I was never that into House Music, certainly not to the extent I was into Soul. I went to a lot of parties which were incredible at that time. It was a great period despite the fact there was quite a lot of shit going on in the world. I think that’s partly why the parties were so good: pure escapism. I bought quite a few records and to be fair, if I hadn’t I probably would never have become a DJ. But I didn’t have the passion for that kind of music. You forget that it’s not just DJs who are buying records, especially back then. I’d be playing some crap on Soulfuric or something to these guys who’d just spent their wages on Masters at Work dubs that I’d never heard of. That’s just wrong so I pretty quickly stopped playing House Music.
I really loved the earlier “Disco House” stuff… Chocolate Fudge, Disco Elements, Earth People and all that stuff. That’s what inspired me to try to make tracks. But then that “Filtered-Disco-By-Numbers” thing happened. Every week there would be twenty records released that started with sixteen bars of drums, a Disco sample filtered up over the next sixteen, nothing happening till a middle bit where the drums dropped out and it went a bit filtery again, then back to the sample. That was boring. Unfortunately I was as guilty as anyone of doing that stuff. That’s when I realized I should maybe try a new direction.
There seems to be resurgence in Disco House at the moment – have you considered re-visiting the genre?
I’ve kind of toyed with the idea because now that the dust has settled on all the crap, there’s some quite interesting stuff happening. But it would feel like a step backwards. And it comes back to that same scenario where I’d be making music I’m not passionate about, which is never a good thing.
From your compilations and edits it’s clear that your record collection is formidable to say the least. How large is it now?
I can honestly say I have no idea. I’ve never attempted to count my records. But it’s certainly nowhere near as vast as people seem to think. The thing is, I don’t “collect” records. I buy music I like. And I constantly sell records to pay for things I’d prefer to own. So my “collection” doesn’t grow very much. Or certainly doesn’t grow quickly.
Do you still buy a lot of music?
Absolutely. It’s hard now obviously – I never look at eBay for records and don’t enjoy “digging” online as it’s so monotonous. If I want a certain record I’ll have a look around for it, but sitting at a screen clicking links, scrolling through pages of info, waiting for a clip to load, pressing the back button – it’s stressing me out even just describing it! So I probably don’t buy as many records now as I used to but only through lack of opportunity rather than lack of interest.
I don’t really buy the vinyl snob thing. Don’t get me wrong: a record will always sound better than a CD or a digital file (in theory) but when you see these guys with their record weights and they’re playing on a Pioneer mixer, they clearly don’t get it.
Are there still any particular records you’d like to get your hands on?
There are obviously some records that I love which have eluded me, but I’m not as hung up on them as I once was. Before the internet and eBay and all that there was a bit of sport to this: finding guys with records, really getting your hands dirty, trying to hide your excitement when you find something valuable. Or sprinting to a phone box when the postman’s delivered a new list and desperately trying to get through to order a record, hoping to God no one’s beat you to it. Now every record you ever dreamt of appears on eBay at some point and you just need enough money to put a high snipe on it and sit back and wait. The prices shoot up, dealers get wise and the thrill of the chase is gone. So I kind of prefer to avoid the obvious big money records and try to find things everyone else is ignoring. But even that is getting more difficult now.
When you first started making edits, were they strictly used for your own sets?
Yes. And they still are. I’ve obviously released a few in my time but I’ve never done anything simply to put out. Everything I do is to enhance my DJ sets.
The advent of Soundcloud and cheap production saw a huge trend for “Disco Edits” a few years ago, turning bedroom Ableton users into touring DJs. As someone who’s been doing this for a long time, what are your feelings about this shift?
This is something that kind of gets under my skin a bit. I mean – by all means, play with Ableton, make some edits, play them in your sets. But make them good! Soundcloud is awash with these half-arsed edits and works in progress that are clearly just there in an attempt to get some comments and likes – a bit of ego stroking.
The half-arsed stuff on Soundcloud sounds like somebody just loaded up Ableton, boshed in a random Disco record, looped a couple of really obvious sections and called it finished.
If somebody got some gigs out of it, then they clearly did something right. I’m obviously not going to name any names but I’ve seen a few people hype themselves beyond anything you’d be comfortable with and manage to make themselves a career despite a lack of talent. But in general I think if somebody is successful because they made some good music and shared it on Soundcloud, it’s not really so different to guys making white labels and getting some gigs way back when.
As a listener, there’s a clear difference in quality and style between edits by people like yourself, John Morales, Kon etc. and the new-school “Soundcloud generation.” Can you explain it?
It’s really just people wanting to run before they can walk. For me, I messed about and messed about with stuff before I sussed out how things worked. Gradually you get a bit better at certain things and maybe get a distinctive style or something. The half-arsed stuff on Soundcloud sounds like somebody just loaded up Ableton, boshed in a random Disco record, looped a couple of really obvious sections and called it finished. It’s too easy to share this stuff too – before Soundcloud you could make as much crap as you wanted but it wouldn’t make it any further than your bedroom. Now you can share it with the world for free, and there’s no quality control.
And it comes down to ego too. A lot of these people just want to be famous on the Internet. They’re not passionate about the music; they don’t treat the songs with respect. They just want people to comment and share.
I’m sounding quite negative here – there’s probably a lot of good stuff happening on Soundcloud but I’m so put off by the garbage that I’m not hearing it.
What makes a good edit? Or a bad one for that matter?
A good edit really is in the ear of the beholder. It’s difficult to say what makes something good. I’ve done something really simple sometimes, just a tweak to make a song longer or something and it turns out to be the most popular thing I’ve ever done. I just think if somebody has a good ear for music and knows what they’re doing, if they understand why they’re editing something, they can make a good edit. There’s no formula.
And obviously the opposite is true for a bad edit. If your records are shit and you don’t really know what you’re doing, if you’re making an edit for the sake of making an edit so you can get some comments on the internet – then there’s a good chance it won’t be great. And if you don’t improve, or at least completely alter the original song, it’s not worth it, don’t bother.
Your Disco Demands series is on its 4th installment now. How do you approach the task of putting together a compilation LP?
It’s really nothing more than a collection of music I really like. It’s not exactly a task – the actual work is done by BBE, as they have to do all the detective work and contractual stuff. I do the good bit – buying records and listening to music!
What do you think it is about Disco that captures a new generation of fans seemingly every few years?
It’s really hard to say as I have my own reasons for loving it which I’m sure are completely different reasons to a guy who got into Disco after hearing Derrick Carter or whoever. My reason, apart from the fact I love Soul music in general, is that most of it was recorded at the peak of music production. In the 1970s budgets were still high, equipment was sophisticated, musicians were incredible. There weren’t any shortcuts to making good music.
So you have these really well made, phenomenal records. But that started to die off in the ’80s — budgets disappeared, cheaper equipment was introduced, quality dipped. Not entirely, but things did generally change for the worse. I find it difficult to appreciate a lot of stuff that came out after the ’70s simply because it can’t stand up against those records that I love. I’m sure a lot of people appreciate that, even if it’s subconsciously.
But there are a lot of young kids who like Disco and won’t think of it in the same way I do. I think as long as DJs keep playing these records people will keep enjoying them. It’s pretty irresistible music and even now that whole 1970s Disco scene has a real mystique about it that people find alluring.
The bottom line is, it’s simply great music and great music will always find an audience.
As a DJ, do you still play strictly vinyl? If so, what does the format mean to you? If not, what made you switch it up?
I still love records and I still buy as many records as I possibly can. But they stay at home. I only play edits that I’ve made now so it’s CDs for me unfortunately.
I don’t really buy the vinyl snob thing, though I do understand the principal. Don’t get me wrong: a record will always sound better than a CD or a digital file (in theory) but when you see these guys with their record weights and all that stuff and they’re playing on a Pioneer mixer, they clearly don’t get it. Music is there to be heard, nobody’s impressed if you put a weight on top of your records, or if you sound like shit but you sound like shit playing a record rather than a CD.
Having said all that, I never really listen to anything else at home. I don’t think I own a CD that wasn’t given to me as a promo or something. My wife and daughters all play records. So from that point of view the format is really special to me and always will be.
How did you go from working with samples and edits to putting together the Million Dollar Orchestra and recording with musicians? Was it a steep learning curve?
There was a lot of trial and error involved. I was lucky to find Marco Rea whose studio we used and who engineered all the recording. He’s very talented, has a great ear and is very, very musical. Marco’s always played in bands and has a lot of production work under his belt so it was kind of second nature to him.
I gave myself a lot of work though as we just let the band jam on a lot of the tracks so I ended up with maybe twenty minute songs in some cases which I then had to edit and arrange. I really just treated everything the same way I would if I was using samples… except there was a hell of a lot of them! If I’d been making sample based records I’d probably have something like six to eight tracks running, all quantized: really simple stuff.
When it came to editing the Million Dollar Orchestra we were up to like sixty tracks or something on some songs and with it being live, nothing was quantized. So it was pretty complex stuff.
What are you listening to in terms of new music?
I don’t really do new music! I like what I like and they stopped making that music sometime around 1980. Obviously I hear things that I might enjoy but I can’t really think of anything that I could say I’ve “listened” to.
What’s next for Al Kent?
The main thing will be another Million Dollar Orchestra album… that’s kind of underway. Got some songs written, some demos recorded, so that should hopefully start to come together soon. I’ve got some remixes happening, lots of new edits and hopefully lots of DJing!
Disco, Love and the DJs that brought House Music to the White House: originally published inside 5 Magazine Issue #131, featuring Al Kent, Quentin Harris, The Chosen Few DJs in Washington, Anaxander and more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full access to everything House Music – on sale for just $1 an issue!