The word ‘pioneer’ is used a hell of a lot these days when describing most artists within their relative field, however, not many can wear the term as easily as Darren Emerson. International superstar DJ, label owner, producer and, of course, one-time member of the stratospherically successful dance act Underworld, Darren needs little introduction.
Beginning a career mixing hip hop records at the tender age of 14, Darren has collaborated with almost every artist under the sun from Sasha through to Depeche Mode, Bjork, Massive Attack and The Chemical Brothers alongside creating some of the most influential DJ mix compilations of our time for Global Underground, Cream, Underwater and more.
I was going to write a huge introduction here but I don't really feel it's necessary as we ALL KNOW exactly the impact he has had within the scene... so without further to do.... here is the wonderful Mr. Darren Emerson.
Hi Darren! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today! How are you doing? Is life all back to normal now after ‘the long pause’?
I'm good thanks. I'm very excited about coming down to Australia again. Got some great friends I can’t wait to catch up with. It's been awhile. Yeah, life is slowly getting back to normal at long last. It's been a bloody nightmare to be honest.. I'm just waiting to get back out to DJ'ing and doing what I love.
So lets start at the very beginning.... What music did you listen to growing up? What kind of music did your parents listen to? Do you think any of this has influenced your sound throughout the years and if so, how?
So there was always lots of music being played in my house. My parents would listen to loads of different things.. Loads of soul, Stylistics, Stevie Wonder and lots of Motown. My mum was a big Jerry Rafferty fan and she also loved Fleetwood Mac. At the age of three my parents gave me a record deck where the arm would drop down and shitloads of 7 inch records. I couldn't read them but I went by the colours and I would stay up in my bedroom all day playing records and singing at the top of my voice. I would use the big radiator as a piano and spend my days being a rock n roll star. Without even knowing it that was a start of my DJ career.
I’ve read you started DJing at 14!! Can you tell us all a little about how your career started so early and how you went from hip hop to house music? How did you decide you were going to be a performer?
Basically I was surrounded by music from the word GO!
By the time when I was a young teenager the art of cutting and scratching was on the top of my agenda. I was really into Grandmaster Flash etc. On the wheels of steel..cutting and scratching and that's what I wanted to do. When I turned 14 I was lucky to get a mobile DJ unit for Christmas and that's how I taught myself how to cut and scratch. I learnt the hard way as it was a belt driven deck. So I would speed up or slow down the record with my fingers.
At around the same time I was also already heavily into the electro scene. World-class wrecking crew, Egyptian Lover, Nucleus, David DMX, Man parish etc etc. I was about 16 when I started listening to a lot of pirate radio stations. There was a guy called Jazzy M that was doing a house show. This house music was just coming over from Chicago and Jazzy was on the ball. I loved the sound of house because it had that electro feeling but also loads of soul in it as well which I grew up on. I was hooked immediately. Soon after that I got my pair of Technics and a Harrison mixer and by the age of 17 I was DJ'ing in clubs. I think by this stage I knew knew I had my career planned out.
Can you tell our readers about how you first came to meet with Karl Hyde and Rick Smith and form Underworld and this time in your life? Had you had much studio experience at this point? You were ‘pioneers’ [there’s that word again! ] of live electronic music. In the days before Ableton, was it difficult to take what you did in the studio and translate it to the stage?
There was a lot more work involved to take the live shows out before the Ableton days etc. Rick did a lot of the programming.. bless him. We basically sampled all of the main elements of the tracks and then they would play out of individual channels on the mixer. We had 56 channels on the mixer that we would control and do live mixes of our tracks on the fly. We were properly in the deep end sometimes! We didn't even know what we were going to start off with usually so it was like a DJ set in a way... just going with the flow. We became pretty good at it :)
In hindsight that creative freedom has always been part of my core .
You guys made 3 very successful albums during the years. All quite different but always with that underlying ‘Underworld’ sound to them. Is the writing process for each album different or does it develop over time? We are all [VERY] aware of the phenomenal success the zeitgeist-capturing hit ‘Born Slippy’ had on mainstream consciousness so I’m going to refrain in boring you with [yet] another question on the creation of this track, however, my question here is: After making a track that emboldens a whole generation goes ballistic like this one did (and not just within the underground dance scene either] how does that change the band as whole? All of a sudden the DJ becomes the pop star... The band becomes a kind of vanguard of a new trend. How did you personally deal with the spotlight and looking back... what do you think of the track as a whole?
Much like the magic bond with the crowd that I feel when DJ'ing or producing in my studio there are moments when the creativity is sublime, definitely with Underworld, it helped as I consider both Kyle and Rick to be super talented and together we achieved that magic creative moment many times. We had no idea how the music we were making would be received and were so focused on our craft. I'm definitely proud of those years as it taught me that music and technology is a constant evolution and to never stop or bow down to being boxed into what institutions sometimes try to box you into.
Can you name some music that has that timeless appeal to you?
Jazz funk man
Is it harder to get enthusiastic about being a DJ as you get older?
Absolutely not. If anything it’s easier. I have nothing to prove anymore! I've done everything I could have possibly dreamed of. I really enjoy playing new tracks I’ve just written or new remixes into my sets and to see the crowds reaction. It’s still a great feeling. Older? It’s just a number.
You have obviously worked with a sleuth of mega-star artists such as Sasha, Bjork, Massive Attack and Depeche Mode (to name a few!). Can you tell us what collaboration you are most proud of and why?
They all served a purpose at different times and they all mean a lot. They’re all pretty fucking amazing :)
Are you comfortable with the level of success you've achieved?
Yeah I’m cool :) During the pandemic I produced a lot of new stuff. As long as people enjoy it I can’t see myself stopping.
You clearly enjoy working in collaboration with fellow musically creative peeps and have joined forces with good friends of GDMC Dave Seaman and Danny Howells to form 3D. Can you tell our readers how this came about and what you most enjoy about sharing your collective love for music together? Would you say you and the 2 other D’s share the same ‘musical perspective’?
I've know Danny and Dave for many years now. We were on the same line up at Ministry of Sound. Dave remembered when we were with Danny Tenaglia once having a photo taken and Danny T said "OOhh 3D".... That's how the name came about. Dave remembered what Danny T had said so at the MOS gig he already had the 3D idea.
What advice would you give to young musicians out there?
Be yourself!! Don’t be a sheep!!
You have pretty much enjoyed every aspiring DJ’s dream residencies over the years... from Ministry of Sound to your own ‘Underwater’ nights at Pacha in Ibiza. What are some of your most memorable highlights of that time of your life and how do you think club culture has changed around the world compared to then? *Apart from people not dancing anymore ;)
Blimey!! My most memorable highlights from that time of my life!! There were so many good times over the years. My UNDERWATER nights at The End nightclub in London were fantastic. My residency at the Ministry of Sound, Open all hours. That was pretty special. The early days down The Milk Bar. My residencies at the Limelight nightclub and of course Pacha in Ibiza. Want me to go on?? Playing all over Japan and taking techno over there in the early 90s. Now it seems everyone loves techno. :) I was one of the 1st DJ’s to take dance music to Argentina (ask Hernan!) lol.. Being the 1st DJ to take dance music to Glastonbury Festival at the experimental sound field in the early 90’s... I mean, the list could go on..
Has it changed??? Things come and go.. in and out.. round & round.. but we all still happy to have a good time at the end of the day.
We’ve heard so much already about your past work, projects and releases. Is there anything new you’re working on and that we should be excited about?
THE WHITE LAMP HUFFA REMIXES DARREN EMERSON NEW MATERIAL UNDERWATER DETONE
And in closing today, can you tell our readers what they can expect when coming to see you play for Seladoria next month here in Melbourne?
A really good time.. Decent music and lots of smiles!
Thanks so much for your time today Darren! It was an honour. See ya on the dance floor in Melbourne in a few weeks! Front left speaker ;)
Thanks Bean! Looking forward to it!
Links to all things DARREN EMERSON below:
Beatport: https://www.beatport.com/artist/darren-emerson/555 SELADORIA EVENT: https://ripplepresents.com.au/
For more info on Global Dance Music Collective please follow:
Our next artist interview will be published on Friday the 6th of May at 7:30pm (AEST)