Hailing from a large family (she is the youngest of eight siblings), the Manchester native has been an influential name in dance music since the early 90s, with residencies at The Hacienda, Ministry of Sound, Heaven, Ibiza Rocks, Le Queen in Paris and a myriad of other international clubs, with her carefully curated blend of house, rare groove, hip hop, soul, funk… you name it, as long as people start dancing. 🙂
She also has a longstanding career in TV and radio (she currently hosts shows on Gaydio and Manchester’s Reform Radio), formerly wrote for Mixmag, Ministry, Update and 7 Magazine, spent time in both public relations and A&R, and is an active lecturer, teacher and mentor.
While Paulette has been working in and around the music industry for more than 30 years, last year was a particularly notable one, with the release of the Sheroes EP on Black Riot Records (alongside Chris Massey), as well as an exhibition about her life at the coveted Lowry Art Gallery in Salford, Homebird, which she curated.
This year, she’s making appearances at Parklife, the Bluedot Festival, the Manchester International Festival, the We Out Here Festival and this November’s Homobloc – described as a ‘queer block party for all’ – and is back in the studio working on a new release.
As 909originals discovers, she’s also an outspoken commentator on everything from the revival of rave culture to the nuances of today’s EDM scene… and a lot more besides.
Ladies and gentlemen, Paulette Constable.
Q. Paulette, thanks for talking to us. You seem to be particularly busy at the moment – lots of festival appearances, gigs etc. Things must be going well?
Timing is working in my favour at the moment, in one way. There seems to be a lot more focus on women doing interesting things – last year marked 100 years of women’s suffrage.
I’m not really doing anything different to what I always have done – the difference now is that people seem to be paying a bit more attention to it.
Also, I’ve only been back in the UK since 2015, so I’ve kind of been out of the loop a bit. I was in Europe for 13 years before that, so the UK press weren’t paying too much attention to what I was doing. But I never stopped; I was working non-stop: touring, teaching, getting involved with various organisations.
Q. Plus, there’s been more of a focus on the ‘formative’ days of the dance scene, which you played a big part in?
We’re at a time where you have the 30th anniversary of rave culture, you have Cream and Ministry of Sound turning 25 – there’s a certain ‘coming of age’ taking place in the industry. Plus, The Hacienda has become more talked about because of Hacienda Classical.
All the old ravers are now ‘gravers’, it’s literally a case of rave till you drop! [Laughs] But now you’re seeing kids re-discovering the origins of the scene, the music producers are making acid house again, or are influenced by acid house. It goes in cycles.
Fashion wise, certainly, people are dressing like they did in 1990 or 1991. I heard the tie-dye is the fashion story for 2019, while we’re also seeing a return to fluo, to utility wear – all of which is vintage rave fashion.
Q. For the DJs that have been in the game a long time, though, the ‘good old days’ have never ended – the same DJs are still touring, and still have a loyal following?
Most of us have never stopped working. Ok, the work has probably got a bit thinner on the ground, and new DJs have come along and new festivals have come along, but a lot of the older DJs are still there.
Q. What has been the biggest change, do you think?
There’s a whole different way of creating festival lineups these days – social media is changing the way people view things. I think some of the originators of the scene are perhaps working less because they haven’t got the social media presence that the newer DJs have.
There are lots of talented DJs and producers around now, but there are also those that emerge out of Snapchat and Instagram, who are basically popular because of algorithms, and followers on social media channels… many of which can be bought. It’s a case of ‘fake it till you make it’.
If you look at the DJ Mag Top 100, there are probably 10 or maybe 20 of those DJs that nobody has ever heard of – it’s all about Shazam, Spotify, Mixcloud, SoundCloud and Deezer.
The original DJs don’t think like that, and those that are producers don’t produce like that. They don’t make music to follow a template.
Back when I started DJing, it was all about creating a party. These days, I think everything has to be a strong brand before anyone will look at it, let alone absorb it into their lineup.
Q. Tell me about how you got into DJing? I believe your mother owned a nightclub, and all your brothers and sisters were into different types of music – quite the musical upbringing?
Yes, there’s always the question of was it nature or nurture? I have an identical twin and everyone is always saying to me ‘why don’t you DJ together?’ But my twin can’t DJ.
For some reason, I instinctively knew, as soon as I was in that environment, how to play records for people; what record worked next, and how to keep the party going all night.
It sounds simple, but if you give a box of records to somebody who hasn’t got an instinctive knack for making a playlist, and figuring out where things are going wrong and how they can correct it – or, if a playlist is going right, how to take it to the next level – they won’t know what they are doing.
Even though getting into DJing was a bit of an accident, it was an accident I instinctively grew into. It brought out something in me that was just there all along, I guess.
Q. There was also the record collection that your family had, which I believe was impressive.
We still have them! Nobody has stopped being into music; we’re all still following our individual paths.
Of course there has been some crossover in places. When it comes to funk or soul, I can share that with one or two of my sisters, and I can share jazz with my mum and a couple of my sisters. But certainly in terms of house music, I am the one!
It’s like a big venn diagram – there are some cross-sections, and then there are some of us that are just totally out there.
Q. When you were growing up in the 1980s, it seemed like there was a new genre every few months. That must have also influenced your taste in music?
That’s another thing that sets the older DJs apart – we have no fear of mixing genres. Mixing a hip hop tune into a techno track, and and electro track into some weird s**t like Nine Inch Nails. There was no fear – it was all about the vibe, and creating the best sort of soundscape you can from the records that you have.
Also, vinyl and music in general was not as readily available as it is now. You can get everything you want now at the click of a mouse, no matter where you live in the world. In 1991 or 1992, you played what you had, and what you bought.
Or, if you were someone like Derrick Carter, you made the music as well – if you couldn’t find what you wanted, you just created it.
Q. In 1988, as acid house took off, you were 21 years old. What were you doing?
I was singing in bands; I remember doing a gig at The International, supporting Gil Scott-Heron and another one supporting Curtis Mayfield. I wasn’t DJing – just writing songs and performing.
I was married at the time. I was aware of the Summer of Love thing but my ex-husband didn’t like nightclubs, so we didn’t really go out. We knew about it but I wasn’t a raver; I was happily married, with a house.
It was a case of when I got divorced, that’s when I started DJing. It takes a little push, I guess.
Q. You got your first DJ break at Manchester’s No1 Club, but it was Flesh at The Hacienda that took your career to the next level. How did that come about?
The girl that I was DJing with at the No1 Club knew that they were moving Flesh from the Academy to the Hacienda, so she said ‘once we’ve done this party, I think we should go for it’.
So, we applied – really, it was as simple as that – and we got the gig. It was a case of be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.
I think they wanted something different for the second room, because they already had Tim Lennox, the main resident, upstairs in the main room, and he was was very well known in the north of England for quality house music.
They were looking for a foil for that in the other room, and the music I was playing at the No1 Club was perfect – disco, funk, rare groove, a little bit of house. Just mixing it up, you know? It was a mix of music that people really warmed to.
Q. Back in the early 90s, though, gay club nights weren’t as established as they are now – it was still quite taboo?
It wasn’t so much ‘taboo’, it was more a case that the chief of police was one of the most anti-LGBT people you could meet, as was the city council. I always stress this to people when we talk about Flesh and what it represented. At the time, if you went to a gay night, you actually ran the risk of getting your head kicked in.
Back then, in the north of England, you didn’t even have that much mixing of black and white people in clubs, so going to a gay night, or playing at one, was another thing entirely.
Flesh was certainly one of the turning points, because it was mixing everybody – gay, straight, black, white, men, women, you name it.
Q. Female DJs weren’t exactly ten a penny either.
Right. No other club put women on the decks. You can check the flyers for all the parties in Manchester between 1980 and 1990 and I think you would have been hard-pressed to find a woman’s name on any of them.
A lot of the female DJs around today came through the gay scene. Smokin Jo came through Trade, Princess Julia came through Kinky Gerlinky, Mrs Wood came through Heaven, Angel came through Venus in Nottingham. I came through Flesh.
It’s not that long ago, and it’s really interesting how much we have moved on. Now it doesn’t matter if you are male, female, gay, straight, trans – you can be a DJ.
There are so many female DJs at the top of their game these days, and they’re just considered like everybody else; Amelie Lens, Charlotte de Witte etc would be in the same booking gene pool as Carl Cox, Seth Troxler and people like that. They’re playing the same clubs, they’re on the same festival lineups, they’re playing in Ibiza.
To be honest, I don’t think I would be DJing today if I hadn’t been chosen to play at Flesh – it was a happy accident that only happened because someone was open minded enough to put a woman behind the decks.
Q. After The Hacienda, your career took you through Brighton’s The Zap Club, to London’s Heaven and Ministry of Sound, before you decided to move to Paris. What prompted that move?
I had got as far as I felt I could, first of all. I had wanted to move to France for quite a long time, but had put it off because I had a flat in London. When I sold that, it was a case of ‘do I want to buy another place, or will I try to move over to France?’.
So I gave it a go, with the view that if it didn’t work out, I could always move back. But I ended up staying there for nine years.
When I got into my tenth year, I had to make a decision whether I wanted to be naturalised or not. I decided I didn’t want to, but at the same time, I didn’t want to move back to England either.
So I moved to Ibiza, and tried my hand there – to see if I could tap the same amount of success as I had in Paris.
Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that, but it was still a great experience. The lessons I learned over there certainly helped me get set up in the UK, 13 years after I left.
Q. What did your friends and family think when you decided to return to the UK?
Everybody thought I was insane! [Laughs] There were a couple of people that supported me and told me that what’s happening in Ibiza wasn’t really good for me, that I should try something different. And then there were others that said I didn’t have a chance of breaking back into the club scene in the UK, that the clubs and the people had changed too much.
That last part was true; in terms of the clubs and the promoters, I didn’t know a single person, so I had to start from scratch.
I went from earning good money in Paris to earning 30 quid for a set in a bar, taking what I could get, really.
Q. But you stuck with it, and are now reaping the rewards again.
There are certain things I know about myself that just cannot be changed, and one of those is that music is is my driving force. That’s been the case for pretty much the whole of my working life.
If I ever wanted to stop, I couldn’t – I’m a DJ, that’s what I do. I know the difference between a good record and a bad record. Ok, what I play might not be to everybody’s taste, but I know I can make people dance.
I’m not saying that in any egotistical way, it’s more about knowing who you are. Playing records is second nature to me, I could do it all day. And I have, I’ve done nine-hour sets, seven-hour sets.
1998 .@gillespeterson .@NormanJayMBE #TheEveClub #London – this just popped out of a box 📦 that has been in storage in Ibiza. Starting early for #ThrowbackThursday #tbt #Goodtimes photo courtesy of .@mrperou pic.twitter.com/6ISthEDm1r— PAULETTE (@DJPAULETTE) May 30, 2018
Q. I read somewhere that you prefer to DJ from USB keys. We spoke to CJ Mackintosh recently, and he told us that it didn’t matter what medium a DJ used, the selection of tracks is still the most important factor. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely. I have what I suppose you would call a ‘set’ of tracks that I will instinctively turn to when I want to do a party. It’s not the same set every night, and some nights there may be a core set of house tracks, or a core set of R&B tracks, or a a core set of disco and rare groove tracks.
It’s like a Rubik’s Cube; you don’t always have to go the same route but you want the same results.
When I moved back to the UK from Ibiza, my vinyl didn’t follow me back – it took me two years to bring my vinyl over – so during those two years, I couldn’t play vinyl at all.
So I built up what would have been my vinyl set on a USB, and when the boxes finally came back, I realised that I had pretty much replicated my record collection on digital.
Q. So the current trend for ‘vinyl-only sets’ doesn’t carry much weight with you, then?
Ha! I wish people would stop being so snobbish about music. If it’s a good record or a bad record, I don’t give a s**t if somebody plays on CD or on digital or on vinyl, as long as it makes the party rock.
I absolutely detest the snobbery about ‘vinyl is better than digital’, or that if you don’t play vinyl, you’re a s**t DJ. I’ve heard some pretty shocking DJs playing vinyl, so there you go.
Anything where people are more interested in style over content, I detest that.
Q. ‘Style over content’ is a term often attributed to the EDM scene – what’s your take on EDM?
Within the EDM thing, there are some producers that are f**king good at what they do. I knew Avicii over the years, and you can go back to some of his early stuff and it’s still very strong.
What I dislike about it is the VIP culture, and the amount of money they earn, and the private jets. I wish they would just concentrate on the music. I can’t listen to a lot of EDM any more, and I used to play it.
But I do know which producers are good, and which ones are still rocking it, and which ones I would rather avoid.
At the same time, plenty of people think I’m crap too, and I’m fine with that. I don’t kid myself by thinking everybody loves me and everybody is my friend, but thankfully there are still plenty of people out there that enjoy my sets and will continue to support me.
Music is subjective, after all. And like Anthony J Pike (RIP) always said, “you can’t always be everybody’s cup of tea”.
Q. Tell me about the Homebird exhibition, which took place at the Lowry Art Gallery last year?
It was an incredible experience, which came totally out of the blue, off the back of a poem that I wrote and posted on my WordPress site. The poem was called I Am The One, and as my site is linked to my Twitter and Tumblr other social channels, it went out to the world.
Then, out of the blue, I get an email from the director of The Lowry, who saw my poem, and asked me if I was interested in doing an exhibition, incorporating aspects of my life. It’s not everyday you get asked that, so obviously I said yes, and I went in and I had a chat with them about what structure the exhibition would take.
It was important to have music at the centre of it, but there were so many other aspects of my life that I also brought to the exhibition. I’m a post-Windrush baby; a first generation black British citizen. My parents came over from Jamaica in the 1950s.
So the exhibition was very much about the experience of a young, black British woman growing up in the north of England from the end of the 1960s to 2018… some of the most politically and socially tense years in history. Miners’ strikes, riots in Moss Side and Brixton, Margaret Thatcher, all of that.
On top of that, you have the fact that I’m bisexual, and how I ‘found my tribe’ working at places like Flesh.
One of the walls of the exhibition was a TV wall, and for that, I created a page of the Radio Times, on which I put many of the programmes of cultural and social significance over the years. I remember seeing Sesame Street when I was a child, and it was the first programme that featured black people in a central role, without them being just an ‘extra’, or portraying a criminal or something like that.
Then, you had the likes of Trevor McDonald and Moira Stewart reading the news, and for a young black kid in Manchester, this was groundbreaking; black people were in a position of authority, we were reading the f**king news!
The exhibition ended up running a little over budget in the end, but it was a success; they had 7,000 people through the doors in the end. There were lots of things in my personal possession that I was able to bring along, like my decks, gig posters, things from my time as a publicist, TV presenter, radio presenter. You can see some of the exhibition on my website.
Q. That must have taken it out of you – turning the mirror on your own life?
After the exhibition finished, I didn’t leave the house for two weeks. I was exhausted. It kicked up a lot of dust, and some of that dust had been lying around for a long time. But I’m happy they asked me to do it.
It’s one of the proudest things I’ve ever done in my life.
[Thanks to Paulette for the interview. Main picture by Lee Baxter. For more information, or to contact DJ Paulette, visit djpaulette.co.uk]