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Sasha Mania: The First DJ Pin-up? 
It happened, fittingly enough, on Mixmag’s Club Tour. There was a queue to shake the DJ’s hand, a little unusual perhaps, although not for Sasha. But surely there’s never been a DJ before who has had some wide-eyed chap inviting him to snog his girlfriend. It was the telling point. He may only be a DJ to many in the South, but in the North and the Midlands the man is a flaming hero. And whereas there have been plenty of star DJs before, Sasha is the first to be so successful precisely because of his DJing. After all the hyperbole and rhetoric, Britain’s dance revolution has arrived. In person.
DRIPPING sweat in a nightclub in Leeds, a very, very large man pulls on my sleeve. Shouting above the roars of whistles and screams he says, “You want to know about the man called Sasha?, I’ll tell you why he’s so good... “ He smiles and wipes more sweat from under his hairline, all the while swaying patiently in time, his hands flicking under and over each other like spawning salmon, his eyes bulging wide. “It’s because... because... “ he smiles again, even wider this time, and shrugs, a great shake of his body that sends the sweat cascading down his torso, “ ...he’s the man.” And, with a final shrug, a final nod, he’s falling back into the crowd, arms held high.
Sasha is good. There’s no doubt about it. He can fill floors on the strength of his name alone. He’s treated like a fully-fledged pop star, recognised in clubland, lauded and lionised. On a more rarefied level than any of his contemporaries, he’s a pure DJ. Gradually, he is expanding into the world of remixing, but it’s his DJing that brings him the plaudits, the fame and the money. And the boys queuing up to shake his hand. And the girls queuing up to kiss him. A strange way for a purveyor of a traditionally faceless trade to be treated.
Sasha isn’t the first to make DJing something more than putting records on to a turntable. Yet for a generation that spends so much of their time in clubs, listening to one DJ after another, Sasha manages to stand alone. His cult is still biggest in the North, but as he threatens to move on to track creation, the buzz will spread. In the process, the way music and performance are understood will change. More than ever, as dance becomes pop, the DJ will replace the pop star and Sasha will be at the forefront.
Not that he’s sure why. As he describes it, sitting in a smokey pub filled with extras from the theatre across the road, he just fell into DJing. Moving from Bangor to Manchester in early ’88, he blagged his way into the business by lying about his ability on the decks. Work on pirate radio station WBLF and the odd night at the Hacienda followed, until he set up his own club in Aston.
“I think” he says, “I just did it at the time because there was a great buzz going round, and sort of fell into the style that I developed. It wasn’t a conscious thing to try to be different, but I just found that I always like to throw in really mad things. Things that were really different.’ Which meant in the early days, long acappellas and piano tunes filling up the floor at Shelleys. Nowadays, it means mixing Sinead O’Connor over heavy techno, or what he refers to as his “notorious” Whitney Houston mix.
The constant enthusiasm as he talks about music is evident. Even rifling through the hundreds of records he receives every month doesn’t dampen it. For Sasha, DJing is a love of music, not a love of making money. But the fame is an added bonus even if he can’t describe what makes him so popular.
“It’s hard to say... I just try to put thought into what I do, and into being creative. I’m always looking for new tracks, for new sounds... even now I will spend a couple of days a week on the decks trying out different things. Playing new stuff before anybody else has got it is the most important thing, but using acappellas and sound effects adds to the whole feeling. I like really fluid mixes too, not just ones in time, but ones that harmonise – so you can leave them playing for three minutes and you don’t know what sound comes from which track.”
Being adventurous and keeping away from the obvious repetition of ‘Peace’ and ‘Rhythm Is A Mystery’ is the future of DJing for Sasha. Unlike his peers, there is the feel of play about his spontaneous technique, mixing together sounds live that might or might not work, getting off on the vibe of uncertainty. Relying on his wits and being bothered to make the total effort.
The influence on popular culture of the DJ is increasing. By taking old sounds, old songs and mixing them into new ones, DJs are producing a constant stream of one-off original tracks. A constant flow of remixes.
Pop music is no longer defined by the three minute single with definite beginning, middle and finale. It’s production that is now in a state of flux, constantly changing, constantly evolving. Far from being unimaginative reproducers of commercial culture, the best DJs are getting their hands dirty declaring nothing as sacred and producing flowing ‘live’ and improvised music as a soundtrack to our lives.
And while the nature of pop music changes, so does the image and persona of its performers. The aura of the original artist, the creator, has been tugged away. Now the power belongs to those who play with the pieces, with what’s already there. And an aura is developing around those, who, like Sasha, do it best. While the best ‘pop’ icons are those who can play around with images, like Madonna or the Pet Shop Boys, the best DJs are those who can play around with references and hints of sound. Who are never satisfied with the final decoration of contentment. Things move far too fast for that.
Sasha’s already talking about stage performances, presenting the clubland audience with more of a spectacular, more of a challenge. The DJ’s production of a live sound fulfils the prediction of the late US rock promoter Bill Graham that audiences “don’t go to see the artists but to be in the presence of the artist, to share the space with the artist.”
The DJ himself is the black hole around which the signifiers of his presence – the flow of music, individually-styled – are pulled. Sasha wants to add to that yet more personal tags, “there’s no creativity in just turning up to a club if you’re making music and doing a PA with a few dancers. When I make music, I want to mix it into the tracks I’m DJing with, so there’s five hours or something of sound: and there will be performers on stage as part of a story-like idea – nobody has done in dance music what the Pet Shop Boys did on stage with theatre.” Perhap, maybe, because it’s too much of a risk, when DJs can always fill out clubs by playing records.
As a natural progression from live mixing, Sasha talks about dropping in samples and tapes, creating a maze of sounds that are spontaneously fashioned. He has the freedom to work towards those ends, being in the forefront of the scene, as the structure of popular music changes.
“The rave or the club has replaced the live gig,” he points out. “Kids travel to see people like me or Grooverider, and it’s like the Stones were in the ’60s, the same energy about things.” And anyway, although he doesn’t say it, nobody goes to gigs anymore. Sasha and his contemporaries are the new pop stars. And, as with the Stones, others are following on, tripping on the idea of the fame and the glamour. Sasha made it there first because he was in the right place doing the right things at the right time.
But if that energy of ’88-’91 is reminiscent of the atmosphere produced during the early ’60s in rock music, then things are set to get more difficult as the audience gets younger, less sophisticated and less willing to hear experimentation. Already, too many are satisfied with merely the latest rave anthem.
Dance music has got so big, it has become the whole of pop. Although there are underground scenes developing out of it, especially in the smaller clubs, like Venus in Nottingham, where a strict door policy and good music keep things more vibrant and alive. But generally, a set of new DJs is coming through who are willing only to stick to what they know.
“It’s the easiest way of getting a crowd to move,” says Sasha, “putting on a piano house track and getting them to put their hands in the air. That used to be my trademark but everybody is doing it and the tracks that are created aren’t very good anyway. It’s too easy to stick to one sort of music, it works much better to play heavy techno for fifteen minutes and then follow it up with piano tunes. The effect is fifty times better.”
The chief problem though for a DJ like Sasha is how not to get sucked into the hero worship he faces. “People are starting to treat me like a pop star if they’ve never met me. It can be really annoying, if you’ve just played a bad set and someone comes up and says, ‘really wicked.’ It’s like, ‘No, I wasn’t.’”
“But,” he goes on, “enough people are listening who know what’s going on to keep me on my toes. People now expect a spectacle because there is such a big hype around my name. But if I do a mix that doesn’t flow, it really does my head in.”
The amount of work that he gets means he is forever travelling, hardly ever going back to his home base in Manchester. Something which puts an undoubted strain on his personal life and takes him away from the North, where he started and where he still dominates. But still, being a DJ is what he loves. Even moving into remixing and eventually into writing and self-production won’t alter that. He feels it’s a natural move to go from breaking new records (which he certainly did with the cover version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’) to remixing and making them.
“I think DJs who don’t want to make their own records are soft, because no-one knows better than a DJ what creates a buzz on the floor. When I’m working in the studio I am always thinking about what this track would sound like out in a club. It will be the DJs who are most spontaneous and creative in a club who are going to make the most imaginative records, because they’ll know how sounds go to together. People like Park and Tony Ross and Nipper are exciting DJs.” Of course, the step from DJ life (even at superstar level) to general pop life will cause problems for Sasha , especially when it comes to publicity. He wasn’t even sure about doing this interview, pointing out again and again that he really has nothing to say. But the buzz isn’t likely to stop growing for a while yet. And if it does? “The DJing will still be what I want to do. Seeing my face in a magazine is great, but the DJing is what it is all about.”
Originally published in Mixmag, December 1991
Didn't Sasha beat matey over the head with his handbag for writing that piece?... Or was it the God one?...
Not sure..beach_borosix wrote:Didn't Sasha beat matey over the head with his handbag for writing that piece?... Or was it the God one?...
It was the Son of God one circa 1994.