Caspar Melville Interview

Caspar Melville is a lecturer in Global Creative & Cultural Industries at SOAS, University of London. His new book, It’s a London Thing: How Rare Groove, Acid House and Jungle Remapped the City, does what it says on the tin. Caspar says, “The book is a social history of dance (multi)cultures in London from the late ‘60s to the end of the ‘90s. I focus in particular on these genres because they were all based on black music, but made and consumed by an interracial group of people, and I look at this all in the context of musical traditions of the African diaspora and the structure of racial and class divisions in the city, which the musicat certain pointswas able to overcome.”

How did you get to where you are today, professionally? 

Well, I started my working life as a music journalist, writing for small independent UK magazines like Blues & Soul and Touch magazine. I came to writing because I was infatuated with black music—jazz, soul, funk, hip hop—and London’s disc-based dance club cultures of the 1980s. This was where I discovered James Brown, Gil Scott Heron, Roy Ayers, Nina Simone, and was educated in the riches of the American and Jamaican music industries by DJs like Norman Jay, Jazzie B (Soul II Soul), and Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson. Because I wasn’t a musician, or a DJ or a great dancer (though I was enthusiastic) I had to write about it instead. Of course, I wasn’t paid enough as a journalist to live, so I always waited tables or did bar work during this time too. I was also a determined record collector, spending a lot of time in second hand chops and junk shops searching for “rare grooves.” 

In 1989 I went for a year to UCSC in Santa Cruz as part of my degree (American Studies, Sussex). While I was there was a huge earthquake, which killed a lot of people in San Francisco and knocked down the main street in Santa Cruz, including the book and record shop called Logos. So Logos opened up their huge warehouse down by the railway tracks as a record shop and it had thousands and thousands of records—including a lot of original Blue Note and Prestige Jazz, Motown and James Brown, Terry Callier, Donald Byrd, so I spent all my time and all my money in there and built a good collection, which I had to ship back to London. 

When I finished my degree in Brighton I moved back to the US, on a journalist visa, to live with my girlfriend who I had met at Santa Cruz. We moved to San Francisco where I lived until 1997. I met up with other music lovers and DJs and we started a jazz magazine called On The One. (It called itself a “jazzmopolitan” magazine. Yes, we were a bit pretentious.) This allowed us to meet and talk to lots of musicians, and to build a crowd for live events in the city. We did clubs and parties—my favourite was DJing at the legendary Nickie’s Bar-B-Que on Haight Street. It was a good moment in music, and we created a kind of acid jazz scene in the city, which had a lot of great bands like Charlie Hunter and Ohnedaruth (the house band from the Church of John Coltrane), and we helped promote live shows by London bands like Jamiroquai, Incognito and Omar, UFO from Japan and Kruder and Dorfmeister from Austria. 

The high point of San Francisco—at least in retrospect—was when I attempted to hold a London-style illegal warehouse party on New Year’s Eve in a photographers studio, not realising how hardcore American cops are about underage drinking. I got arrested just before midnight while I was DJing (I was playing Lonnie Listen Smith’s Expansions I remember) by a very gun happy SWAT team, and dragged off to jail. It was a really surreal evening because the cops were watching the Steve McQueen film Bullitt on TV, so we had a funky soundtrack. We shared the cell with a Mexican guy who was tripping on acid (and had coincidentally stolen my partner’s leather jacket the previous week). This guy pissed in a plastic bag and lobbed it over the wall into the squad room. Two cops took off their guns, came in to the cell a gave him a beating while he swore at them. At about 4am the cell filled with queer anarcho-punks in ballet tutus high on ecstasy, who also had their party raided, and the whole thing became very Hieronymus Bosch. I was released without charge the next day.

I returned to London in 1997. For a while I kept up the journalism. I got flown out to New York for a listening party for one of Puffy’s albumswhich was as dismal as it sounds—and then again to interview Jennifer Lopez for her album release. It didn’t go well, I thought the album was rubbish, she had done six straight interviews and was bored. We didn’t hit it off. After this I decided to find another way to write about music, so I applied to Goldsmiths in London to do an MA in media, because that was where Paul Gilroy taught. He was the only academic I’d ever seen write with knowledge and care about black music—reggae, hip hop—and treating it as a serious form of knowledge and culture. 

After that, I did a PhD and started work on the book I had always wanted to write about London club culture and the influence of reggae sound systems and soul on their development. It took a while, things got crazy. My girlfriend (not the American one) got pregnant, then 9/11 happened and things got serious. I needed a proper job so I started writing for the online political magazine openDemnocracy.net, first as media editor and then executive editor with a staff of 20. It took me seven years to finish my PhD, and even then it was really not very good. 

After five years I got a new job as the editor of a small godless magazine called New Humanist, publishing a lot of debate about religion and secularism and science—this was the high God Delusion days, though we managed to piss Richard Dawkins off quite a lot by putting a caricature of him on the cover. But I still had unfinished business with music, so after seven years I speculatively applied for a job at SOAS to teach a new MA in Global Creative & Cultural Industries. (I didn’t know what it was at the time, either.) Much to my surprise, I got it. It took me a while to figure out what I was supposed to teach, and how to teach, and then I got back on with why I came into academia in the first place: to write the book on London Club Culture. It was extremely painful and very hard work, but came out on 21 November so, like childbirth, that is all forgotten and I’m just feeling a lot of love for my new baby. 

Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.

I hesitate to say I was lucky. It’s often the excuse of privileged white men like me who benefit, without even trying, from an unfairly structured system. But... I was lucky. As I was considering who I should approach and not really knowing how, I met an editor (shockingly considerably younger than me!) who I really liked and seemed to get the idea: Tom Dark at Manchester University Press. His interests in race, social-geography and culture matched my own, and he gave me the confidence to go through what was a laborious process. You need to write a detailed proposal, which they send off to readers: two of whom liked the idea, one of which said, “Oh no, not another book about how black music has been oppressed and become a site of cultural resistance. Boring!” Luckily he was ignored, so we moved to the next stage signing a contract and agreeing delivery date. 

Then there was months and months—years—of pain. I had my PhD thesis, but it was really choked up with academic bollocks. I did my PhD at the highpoint of Foucauldian post-structuralism, and I wrote like I’d swallowed a dictionary. So, I actually ended up reusing a lot of the interviews and arguments, and doing new interviews to bring it up to date, but rewriting every single word. I’ve never been in such a state. I couldn’t sleep, I was beset by anxiety and the certainty that it was shit and I’d never finish it. I didn’t do any housework or childcare (as my girlfriend reminds me, frequently). 

Eventually I had a draft. It went back to the publishers who sent it out again to readers. At the same time, I sent it to two academics I trust that know the scenes I was talking about. The publisher readers were positive. My friends were actually more critical, and because of the very good advice from one, I actually cut two chapters out of the book. About a year ago now, I submitted the final draft. As it made its way through the rather slow academic publishing system, I spent time sourcing images and permissions, including eight brilliant colour shots from the photographer Dave Swindells, who has an incredible archive of club images. 

Next stage was the proofing. I worked with a very meticulous proofreader and we went back and forth three times doing all the fiddling bits. Last thing was an index, I found a great professional—Paula Baines—to do this. Then it was all signed off, and it was out of my hands. One of the most important conversations we had had, early on, was whether this would be a “trade” book (general market) or an academic book. I needed it to be an academic book. It was a requirement of my job, but I also wanted it to have that status and become part of the academic archive for future generations of scholars to know about these too-easily forgotten cultural scenes. Nowadays, academic books are often prohibitively expensive, sometimes £90 a time, and usually in hardback with a paperback only coming if sales are strong enough. Somehow I persuaded then to make it paperback first, at a reasonable price, which I’m very grateful for. (It’s £15.99 in the UK, and I think, $30 including postage for the US.) 

Was there much of a research process? What did that look like?

The research process was based on interviews. I’d been doing these for 30 years, and could draw on some of my journalistic ones, but I also spoke to a lot of the key players in club culture in London. In 2018, I worked on a project about the impact of Jamaican music on Britain called Bass Culture, and this allowed me to talk to some people who I had missed (legends like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell), and to incorporate some of this research into the book too. Other than that there was a lot of books, magazines, blog posts, music (of course), podcasts, and a lot of thinking—and, of course, a lifetime going out to dance and listen to music, which I still do, though not as much as I’d like. 

How did you go about writing the actual book? 

Being an academic at a “research-intensive” university is quite a privilege in that you get time to research and write. I could write during the time the university is not teaching (about 20 weeks a year), and after finishing my three-year probation at SOAS I got a two-term sabbatical, which allowed me to do the bulk of the writing. There were a lot of weekends and late nights too. 

The best part of the process was that, as I wrote each chapter, I could listen back to the music from that period, and realise all over again how great it was. (Thank you YouTube!) But when I’m actually writing the music goes off. I can’t do both and the music is too distracting and commands my attention. My writing style is extremely wasteful and long-winded. I usually sit down and write and write until I have something, and then I go back and rewrite and cut and shape and move stuff around, until it’s almost completely different. I read my stuff out loud to myself to check for errors and get the rhythm right. I would guess that I have re-read and worked over every sentence in the book at least five and probably ten times. I find the writing really hard, but I love the re-writing and editing, something I learnt from my days as a magazine editor working on other people’s copy. Basically, it has taken me until now to learn how to be a good enough writer to write this book. 

What are a few films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the music you're talking about?

Films

Babylon

Franco Rossi’s brilliant film about reggae and racism in the 1970s. 

The Harder They Come and Rockers

Both Jamaica-based but relevant to London because the music and culture of Jamaica was such a strong influence here. 

Black to Techno

A relatively new short film by Jenn Nkiru about the birth of techno in Detroit. 

Saturday Night Fever

John Badham’s surprisingly good disco film, but also an object lesson in how to whitewash black culture. 

Young Soul Rebels

Isaac Julien’s film about the soul multicultures in London.

Everybody in the Place

Jeremy Deller’s recent experimental documentary about about acid house and rave culture.

Books

The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy

A powerful articulation of how afro-diasporic music should be considered as part of a “counter-culture to modernity.”

In Search of the Black Fantastic by Richard Iton

A brilliant meditation on the relationship between politics and black music in the post-Civil Rights period, by a great Canadian academic who died tragically young.

Love Saves The Day by Tim Lawrence 

A very detailed and loving history of the emergence of black gay disco in New York in the 1970s, starting with David Mancuso’s Loft Parties. 

Black London by Marc Matera

A study of how London became an “Afro-Metropolis”, suffused with radical diasporic politics and Pan-Africanism in the early-mid twentieth century.

Space, Place and Gender by Doreen Massey 

A great work of spatial politics by a cultural studies inclined geographer.

Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?

Paul Gilroy has been the biggest influence on my work and ideas, through his brilliant series of books starting with Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, and including The Black Atlanticand Darker Than Blue. All my work is in some way a dialogue with Gilroy’s ideas. I’ve got to know him quite well and he gave me a really generous endorsement for the book, which is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. The other mentor figure is Les Back, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths. He was never my teacher but he examined my PhD and he is such a warm and generous and collegiate person. He is the person who has shown me that intellect and rigour can go hand in hand with kindness. He’s a good friend now, and also a brilliant writer and thinker and you should all read his books. Start with Academic Diary, which is full of wise words and sharp analysis.

What's one tip that you'd give someone looking to write a music book right now?

You need to really care about your subject (no one else will, at least initially). Spend a lot of time developing your data and living with your subject, and really commit. Don’t do it to get rich and famous, don’t expect it to be easy or lucrative, do it because it’s a book you yourself would want to read. Do it because you think it matters that what you have to say is heard and the things you want to write about are recorded for the future. But still do it, the more the merrier. 

Anything you want to plug?

Er... well there’s this book I have out, which it would be great if folks would buy and read. There is little money in academic books, but I’m just so excited by the idea that there are people out there in the world engaging with ideas that have been holed up in my head for decades and now they are running free. I really want to know what readers make of it, and I look forward to the feedback, whatever it is. I’d also like to say that I still DJ occasionally and I am available for weddings, 50th birthday parties and bar mitzvahs at a very reasonable rate. (Vinyl only, I’m too old to change up.)