THE first time Charles Gettis came to the UK was as a private in the 91st Airborne Division of the US Army. His first sight of the country came through the early morning November mists covering the vast open spaces of the Greenham Common airbase near Newbury, Berkshire as he stepped out of the belly of a huge USAAF cargo plane onto the tarmac below.
Now long discharged from the army, the 26-year-old Gettis has returned to the UK in an altogether different role, in the guise of his turntablist alter-ego, Deejay Punk-Roc. He’s one of a small group of American DJs who have set up home here to take advantage of the burgeoning club scene which grew up in the wake of the acid house explosion of 1988.
Gettis, working in a series of dead-end jobs after he left the military, found his options severely limited in his home town of Brooklyn. The story goes that Andrew Erskine, the head of Merseyside independent label Airdog, somehow heard Punk-Roc’s self-produced My Beatbox, visited him in Brooklyn and persuaded him that he could make a splash in the UK by promoting his music on the back of his not-inconsiderable DJing skills. He didn’t have to ask twice.
Based in Toxteth, Liverpool since January, Gettis’s gamble has paid off in a big way. He’s been pleasantly surprised by the speed and scale of his success. His debut album Chickeneye was released to almost unanimously positive reviews last month, while he returned to the States to support the Prodigy on a two-week tour.
On his return to the UK, he played a couple of gigs, including one at NY Sushi in Sheffield, before jetting off the a festival in Holland. Next week he releases Far Out, another single from the album. A trip to Japan is scheduled for the autumn. It’s non-stop.
“For some people, what’s happening to me now might be a dream come true, but not for me – cause I never even dreamed it in the first place,” says Gettis as he relaxes in his hotel room after the Sheffield date. “I’ve been making music for as long time, but it was never made to be pressed up and sold to the public. I thought that music was something that other people made and I bought.”
Despite his relative success in this country, Gettis sees his relocation to Liverpool as a purely temporary arrangement.
“I like Liverpool,” he tells me, “hell yeah. I love it. But New York is always going to be home for me. Liverpool is probably the best place I could be based in England. I’d rather spend time with the kind of people you find in Liverpool, cause they real. People with nothin’ appreciate things a lot more than people who’ve had stuff all their lives. That’s something I don’t ever want to separate myself from.”
He has a few problems with the Scouse accent, but certain turns of phrase still baffle him ocassionally.
“The first time someone called me ‘kidda’ I thought they were fucking around with me,” remembers the bullish former Green Beret (pictured). “I was like, Yo, whassup? We getting’ physical here or what?
“I think that’s where we really differ. In England, people are prepared to put up with more shit from each other. When you front me up, or anybody else back home, you gotta take it all the way man. So a lot of the time it doesn’t happen in the first place.”
Britain’s relatively relaxed and laid-back environment finds favour with other American DJs. When you come from a place like Brooklyn or Detroit, you’re not going to worry too much about anywhere in Britain. As Marshall Jefferson puts it, “You can walk around at night.”
Jefferson, who made his name producing seminal house tunes such as Move Your Body, It’s Alright by Sterling Void and Someday by Ce Ce Rogers’, is another DJ from over there who is currently doing very well over here. Like Gettis, he falls short of permanently setting up home here, preferring instead to maintain an apartment in Chicago while staying in Britain for six months of each year, using it as a base to fly to various gigs across Europe.
“I have a place here because it’s cheaper than a hotel,” says the affable 38-year-old producer (pictured) over the phone from his house in Billericay, Essex. “All my gigs are usually booked together and the reason for that is that I’m afraid of flying. So instead of flying 10 hours from Chicago every weekend, I fly for maybe one or two hours from here. I figure than one or two hours of sheer terror has to be better than 10.”
But as well as Britain being both a literal and metaphorical halfway house between the US and Europe – it certainly isn’t America, but we at least speak the same language, more or less – veterans of the house scene like Jefferson have other reasons for basing themselves in the UK.
Despite the fact that house music originated in Chicago, club culture – or at least the kind of dance music culture we recognise in the UK – is confined to a few cities in the US, although there are signs of change in that by all accounts. In the UK Marshall Jefferson is a house music legend. In the US he’s just another DJ from Chicago.
And of course, in addition to the recognition and respect American DJs enjoy in Britain, there’s also a financial dimension to all of this. It isn’t unusual for top names to earn up to £1000 for a two-hour slot. But the busiest times of the year for DJs – Christmas and New Year – are the times when spending time with family and friends is most important.
“Christmas, I always spend in Chicago,” says Jefferson. “The New Year things are hard to turn down. My manager begs me to do all the New Year stuff because it’s like three or four times the usual fee for each gig. One good night at New Year, with three or four dates, could maybe hold you off for six months.”
Detroit DJ and producer Claude Young Jr is still finding his feet in the UK. He met an English woman working in London a few years ago, married and set up home in Detroit. Perhaps not surprisingly, his wife didn’t take to life in Detroit and the pair returned to the UK in 1995, and eventually ended up divorcing. Young, 29, decided to stick around, and has been living in north London ever since.
A dedicated Anglophile who grew up watching PBS re-runs of vintage British science-fiction like Dr Who, Blake’s Seven and The Tomorrow People, Young (pictured) is still excited about living in the UK.
“A lot of the stuff from those shows I didn’t really understand until I started living here. Now it all makes sense,” he says with a laugh.
But quite apart from such rarefied diversions, as a black American man, like Gettis and Jefferson, is perhaps best impressed by the absence of racial tension he finds in the UK.
“There’s a lot of cool stuff about Britain but one of the things I like most is the way in which it’s a real multi-cultural place. As in all countries, you’re always going to get race problems, but I’ve met a lot of different types of people in Britain and you just don’t get that mix in the States.
“I love pubs,” he continues. “That’s my thing. Bar culture in the States is more of a pick-up thing where as the pub seems to be much more a meeting place for people who live in the area, and I enjoy that. That whole idea is really cool. I go to my local all the time.”
Young wouldn’t just say that relocating to the UK is the quickest way for black American performers to find success today – as far as he’s concerned, it’s just about the only way they can do it.
He points to Gettis’s touring the US with the Prodigy as the perfect example of the hoops his countrymen are forced to jump through. Here’s a talented DJ playing to massive audiences – up to 50,000 people at a time – but the only way he’s able to do that in his own country is through the patronage of a British artist.
And you could probably argue that Liam Howlett is playing what is, more or less, a British take on what was originally a black American style of music.
“It sucks, but it’s nothing new,” says a resigned Young. “You think back to people like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, all those jazz guys. They couldn’t get anywhere in the States. It was the same with Jimi Hendrix. No one was interested. They had to come over to Europe to get any kind of respect. It’s not so different, even now.”
Frank Tope, assistant editor of Muzik magazine thinks that the influx of foreign DJs settling in this country is only natural, given the explosion of club culture over the last 10 years.
“It’s easy to see the attraction of coming over here. The dance scene is so big and such a central part of youth culture that it must seem like heaven to someone in the States, for example, where the whole thing is still a bit of a minority interest.
“But Britain is just a nicer place in general. Have you been to Detroit? It’s fucking horrible. I can understand perfectly why someone would want to move away from somewhere like that. And despite the fact that techno originated in Detroit, there’s absolutely no techno scene there whatsoever – people just listen to rap or whatever. By comparison with all that, moving to Britain must seem like a great idea.”
[This feature was first published in the Big Issue in the North in September 1998]