Night Fever: Al Kent interviewed
We chat to Glasgow's original disco don Al Kent about the evolution of his unique sound, ahead of his annual Million Dollar Disco party
Ewan Kelly's love affair with disco developed out of the Northern Soul scene, popular in the UK's clubs over three decades ago. After adopting the performing name Al Kent (borrowed from a Detroit singer of the same name, when Kelly was poised to release a record featuring a 'very illegal' sample that required him to use a fictitious name to evade legal repercussions) he went on to launch his own Million Dollar Disco label in the 90s.
Despite the success of his imprint, Kelly grew disillusioned with the saturated 'disco house' market, which prompted him to turn his focus to his DJ career. He's been described as 'Glasgow's answer to Walter Gibbons' – the famed American record producer and early disco DJ – yet he admits that there was no particular catalyst behind his obsession with disco. Rather, it grew organically from his love of 60s soul and Motown tunes. "I don't know when, or why, I started to get more [into disco]," he muses. "Obviously the 70s soul stuff, disco has its roots in that – an awful lot of things cross over; you could say that 70s soul is disco music, and vice-versa."
Kelly established his name with house-styled re-edits and remixes of classic disco samples, but reflecting on the scene during the mid 90s, he reveals that rather than filling a gap in the market, it was "quite the opposite – I think I was kind of jumping on the band wagon more than anything!
"I went through a phase, probably like most of my generation did at some point in the late 80s and early 90s, where you were kind of swept up in this whole house music and acid house party scene," he explains. "My Northern Soul years were also a fantastic time to be alive, but there certainly felt like there was something really happening at the time of that kind of ecstacy culture thing. You could feel change in the air.
"I got swept up in that, and I ended up making music, just because it became a thing you could do. I mean, people were so into it. It didn't really matter how much effort you put in – or how little effort you put in – somebody would put your record out and people would buy it!" he laughs. "You wouldn't make a fortune from it, but it was just a kind of cottage industry that you could really be part of."
The turning point for Kelly came at a gig he'd been booked to play in Croatia, which saw him re-evaluating the style of music he was playing and seeking out a new direction. "I remember going to a record shop and trying to tailor the stuff I was buying to suit [that show], and it was a complete failure," he says candidly. "That was a moment where a lightbulb kind of came on and I went 'Why am I following what I think other people think I should be doing?' And I think since then it's really been the best thing that I've done, just to play what I really like and what I'm passionate about. Obviously you do have to play to a crowd, but without being true to yourself, it's pointless."
With a renewed focus, Kelly recorded Better Days by the Million Dollar Orchestra in 2008 – a double album with a 26-piece band released on BBE Records, home to fellow disco aficionados such as Dimitri From Paris and John Morales. He has also released a number of Disco Loves compilations via BBE, carefully-curated selections of disco rarities. This expansive knowledge of all things disco culminates in Kelly's DJ sets, including his annual Million Dollar Disco party at Glasgow's Berkeley Suite, which sees Kelly delivering a four hour set full of forgotten gems, rarities and rearranged classics. As he states: "I do like producing, I love making music, but there's that kind of instant gratification from DJing that you don't get from making music."
Reappropriated forms of disco are currently creeping back into the mainstream – championed by the likes of the aforementioned Dimitri From Paris, to edits by Australia's Late Nite Tuff Guy, and the Scandinavian 'Northern Disco Lights' movement spearheaded by Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas and Todd Terje. But ask Kelly what disco means to him, and he remains a firm purist. "It all goes back to soul music for me," he says. "The main 'strand' of disco, if you like, that I like is the strings, and the piano, and the nice soulful vocals. I guess the one thing you could say is, authenticity."
Al Kent plays the Million Dollar Disco party at The Berkeley Suite, Glasgow on Sat 20 Jan