The 'Bonkers!' legend on the enduring appeal of happy hardcore
There's been much talk, in recent years, of "the hardcore continuum", whether it's Paul Woolford heading back to the rave in his Special Request guise, or The Guardian suddenly getting all excited about gabber.
Spare a thought, then, for happy hardcore – the most maligned dance music genre of them all. Emerging from the fag-end of the original rave/hardcore movement round about 1993/4, after jungle/drum & bass had gone off to do its own thing, "happy" in its heyday drew tens of thousands to mega-raves all across the country, while React's Bonkers! compilations, which faithfully documented hard dance's many stylistic twists and turns from 1996 to 2009, regularly crashed into the Top 10. Not the Top 10 of this or that download site's specialist genre chart – the real one.
Yet throughout that time, media support and critical respect for the genre remained practically non-existent. While the larger dance music magazines worked themselves into a lather over mixed-in-key ambient-prog-breaks bore-athons, the happy hardcore fraternity had to rely, for support, on specialist publications like To The Core, Dream and Eternity. Not that they seemed to mind, too much: they just stuck their chins out and declared once more that "hardcore will never die".
And they may have had a point. Take scene legend DJ Dougal, for instance, whose career dates right back to the original rave/hardcore era: a quick glimpse at his Discogs page confirms that the Northampton DJ born Paul Clarke is now approaching 30 years in the game, and hasn't slowed down once during that time. Neither in terms of his workload, nor when it comes to beats per minute!
Most recently, he supplied Parlophone with a DJ Dougal Breaks Mix of Outcry's Tell Me Why that sounded suspiciously like it had snuck in from 1993 through the backdoor. Which seemed as good an excuse as any to get him on the phone and let him give us the case for happy hardcore's defence…
You started very young, didn't you? Didn't I read that you played Dreamscape when you were 15 or something?
"Yeah, I was the first DJ to play any of the Dreamscape events. It was 1991 when I was first on, but I'd already been playing at Milwaukee's for a year and half before that. It all actually started with work experience: I was sent to a disco PA-type shop, just working in the shop during the day. And then the guys in there said, 'We're setting up a huge PA system in the middle of nowhere, do you want to come". So I went running back to my Mum and Dad's, and my Dad was a DJ anyway, so they were pretty open-minded people and said I could do it."
"So we loaded up this huge van with some massive speakers, and drove out towards Bedford from Northampton, and there's this place called Souldrop Turn, and that's where Milwaukee's was. Well, it wasn't even called Milwaukee's then, it was called Castaways. So we set the speakers up, and a fog machine, and about 10 o'clock all these cars started piling into this field, with all these crazily-dressed people in flared trousers and big floppy hats, and I'm just looking at them going 'This is amazing'.
"And then when I first heard the bass drop through those massive speakers… I'd never heard anything like it. These big rave-y basslines… the song that sticks out in my mind was Mr Kirk's Nightmare. That night literally changed my life! So after doing my work experience, I decided I wanted to use that same soundsystem to put on a rave at my school. So I went into my school, hired out the college block and got all my friends to do flyers and posters. We sold tickets for £2.50 each and I put on the poster that we were going to have a 10K soundsystem, but no-one believed me! People were like "Yeah, right… you'll have 200W tops if you're lucky!". In the end I had to say 'Okay then… if it's not 10K you can have your money back, how about that?'.
"So the night came, all the people from the shop got right behind me with setting it all up cos it was a big block, it could hold about 400, 500 people. So we set up these 15-foot speaker stacks, and when we put a track on to test the system while people were still sat outside, the building literally shook, we had lights falling down and all sorts. So that 10K rig became legendary in the local area… and I got banned from ever hiring out the college block again!"
So you basically went to your first raves as crew, rather than a punter?
So at what point did you become DJ Dougal?
"Well, I was still at school, and because I had such a passion for the music, I did paper rounds every morning and god knows what, and I managed over the course of about six months, a year to save up enough money for a pair of 1210s. And then I saved up some more and got some speakers, and I started doing, like, little mini-raves for cool people. Back then if you were 21 years old and you were having a party and you wanted rave music, you couldn't go out and hire the local mobile disco DJ, so I started doing all these little parties, and that led to me getting asked to play in few little bars and stuff.
"And then the guy that set up ESP, who recognised me from setting up the speakers at his event, came in and saw me scratching. And he was like, 'Do that again', and so I did and he said, 'Right, I want you doing that in my club, you're coming to play for me!'. So I went from setting up the speakers at ESP to actually DJing, and then he took me to the side one day and said, 'I'm putting on a big event at Sanctuary' – well, it wasn't even called Sanctuary then, it was just a warehouse, but he came up with the name Sanctuary.
"And then he said, 'You'll need a DJ name, because I'm doing the flyers next week. Oh and by the way, you're going to be playing to three or four thousand people.' I was like, 'What?!'. So I went back to school and said to my mates, 'I need a DJ name', because they'd all just been calling me DJ Paul and I was like, I need something a bit better than that'. And someone said, 'It's gotta be Dougal, you look like Dougal off The Magic Roundabout!' because I had long blonde hair at the time.
"So that's where the name came from, and that was the first Dreamscape event, which I'll never forget as long as I live. I remember I had the 2001: A Space Odyssey record and I played that as everyone came in, and then I dropped the first tune and that was it."
And you've never really been away since, have you? Unlike a lot of veteran DJs we speak to, there are no gaps in your production CV at all… which is quite rare!
"It is quite rare, and to be honest I don't know why I've been so lucky. Whether it's just because I have a genuine passion for it, or… I don't know. But yeah, I've been very blessed. And with this music in particular it seems like, if it drops down in one country, it takes off somewhere else. Like Australia became a big place for us for a while, then it comes back to the UK for a while, and then somewhere else. But it's like there's always this core group of fans and they keep us going."
You talk about the music going out of favour in the UK… that's something of an understatement, surely? Because happy hardcore's had a terrible time in the press over the years…
"Yeah, it's an interesting one. I think there's point where, if something gets too big… like with happy hardcore, at one point it was the biggest-selling music in the UK. We were doing the Bonkers! albums and going to No 1, we got gold discs and everything. And it's like anything, when something gets that big people want to knock it down, because they want to make their music the big thing.
"But happy hardcore was a particulary easy one to pick on, I think, because it's happy, it's melodic-based, but the technology we had in that era was very basic, compared to the next era on when it went to trance and stuff, when you had all these incredible synths come along like the Virus and Supernova and stuff. The trance scene got very technically advanced, whereas we were doing the happy hardcore stuff on a Tandy 16-channel mixer, and Akai S950 sampler and an M1 keyboard, because that's all we had.
"But also, anything that's 'happy' is never seen as cool. Moody music is always seen as cool but the minute you put a catchy riff on it, suddenly it's cheesy! So people who didn't care about being cool or not loved it, but if you wanted to be seen as cool, then it's always the darkest music that's seen as the coolest. We were the opposite of that: we weren't the coolest kids at school… but we were the friendliest! Happy hardcore was where people who didn't fit in could hang out, and there was never any fighting or trouble, because it was a happy vibe. But that wasn't seen as cool."
Is there not a class element to it as well? It's like with punk: certain styles that appealed to middle class kids at art college got lauded, but styles that appealed more to working class kids got looked down on…
"Yeah, I think there is. Happy hardcore was definitely for people who didn't have much money, unlike the garage scene for instance which was all about having the flashest clothes and the bling watches and popping bottles of champagne. Happy hardcore was for people like me, people who were brought up on council estates."
So if happy hardcore got a bad press – because people sneer at happy, unpretentious music, and because of the class factor – does that mean it's ripe for re-evaluation? If someone's never heard any happy hardcore, how would you sell it to them?
"I would say that it's music where, if you really let yourself go dancing to it in a rave environment, it's like the friendliest place… the music's uplifting, there are melodies in it that get stuck in your head, it's fast-paced and energetic which lets you really let off steam and because there's vocals in it, actual songs, when the vocals come in everyone's singing along at the top of their voices – the atmosphere at a happy hardcore event is unbelievable.
"When you've got 10,000 people in front of you singing back a Darren Styles track or whatever, it's just incredible. It's hard to explain but it's just the vibe and atmosphere of a happy hardcore rave. I mean I'll go to house clubs and hear the big name DJs, and it just doesn't have the same atmosphere. The dancefloor's a lot more mellow, whereas at a happy hardcore rave everyone's jumping up and down and going nuts. Sometimes I've had to get someone to hold onto the decks because the dancefloor's jumping around so much! It's madness, in the best possible way."
Any downsides? It used to be quite a druggy scene, for one thing…
"Well, the early rave and hardcore scene was, which is where happy hardcore came out of. But by the time the actual happy hardcore scene had come along, because the music was so melodic and so energetic, it was like people didn't actually need to be on drugs, because there was so much to get into. Compared to other styles that were darker and more monotonous and maybe you needed drugs to keep going, but with happy hardcore… there were drugs on the scene, of course, but I'd say not as much as other scenes, just because our records didn't just do the same thing for six or seven minutes. With our records, it's 16 bars of this, big piano breakdown, 16 bars of something else… it's like music for people with ADHD! So you can't really get bored, because the music keeps changing, it's not just one loop playing over and over again."
"But to be honest, I'm not really the person to ask, because I've always been a bit naive to it – I don't take drugs, it's a route I've never been down. So when I'm behind the decks I'm just having a good time watching other people enjoy themselves – I couldn't really tell you whether they're on drugs or not."
Fair enough! So let's move on to happy hardcore today… where should people be looking, if they want to know more? Who are the happy hardcore labels/clubs/raves/DJs/producers they should check out?
"Well, would you believe, I was meant to be playing Creamfields this year? But that's been postponed till next year now. So with the scene now… well, we've pretty much dropped the 'happy' tag now, the music's still pretty much the same but people just call it hardcore or hard dance or 170bpm or whatever. And it's pretty much fused with hardstyle: the big hardstyle DJs are using our melodies, we're using some of their bass sounds and everyone's playing together at big events like HSU (Hard Styles Unite) in Australia. That's a 20,000-capacity in event, and we do big events in LA as well, and Tokyo. In London there isn't much going on but there are big raves scattered across the UK still, I'll be down in Bournemouth one week and up in Coalville the next. Actually Coalville Emporium would be a great place for someone who's new to the scene to start, they do a great event there called Ravers Reunited.
"As far as record labels go there's Monstercat, they're a huge American label who've signed loads of our stuff and done well with it, there's Electric Fox which is Darren Styles and The Tweakers, who are getting huge – they've been instrumental in blurring the lines between hardcore and hardstyle. I'd say hardstyle is about 150-155 bpm whereas hardcore is more like 160-170, but apart from that they sound very similar these days. And there's an Australian label called 170 – that's run by a guy called Al who's a great engineer and producer. I'd say if you listen to anything on those three labels, you'll be getting the cream of the crop and you're going to hear some very, very well-produced music. And it's not cheesy, either!" [laughs]
Your sister's also a DJ, isn't she?
"She used to be, I used to have a bar/club in Northampton for a while, so my sister DJ'd there every weekend for seven years. And my Dad was a DJ as well, and he's always had a great passion for music, and he's always supported me – like, one of the most incredible things I've got, is rave footage from my earliest sets in 1991, so you've got people like The Prodigy and Carl Cox on there, right through drum & bass raves and Godskitchen and all the rest of it. And that's all because my Dad came out with me and brought his camera with him! One day I'll convince Netflix or someone to see the value in it, and maybe we can put something together, but it hasn't happened yet."
Well, there's something to fall back on if you get fed up with DJing! After all, look at what Daniel 'Billy' Bunter's done with his Music Mondays publishing company…
"Yeah yeah! It's amazing what he's achieved there."
Let's talk about the new remix for Outcry…
"Yeah, so… we set ourselves a challenge of turning that track into something that might have come out in 1991, because those breaks – they never go out of fashion. So that mix I've done is really a homage to that point where hardcore was just turning into happy hardcore: you've got Amen breaks and a big dark bassline but you've got a killer piano line as well. What I like about it is, if you've played that record 25 years ago, Radio 1 would have been like, 'What the hell is this?'. But nowadays, now that Radio 1 plays jungle and stuff, it's just a really cool track. It's uplifting, sure, but I wouldn't say it's cheesy. I wasn't sure what Warner would make of it, but they got really excited so here we are."
We were pitched the single as a "comeback" but as previously discussed, you've never really been away! So is that really how you see it?
"I don't know about a comeback as such. But that sound – breakbeats and pianos – that's where my heart's been at since 1991/92, really, so I'd like to see that have a bit of a resurgence, certainly. I mean, there was that Frankie Wah track recently: that's been absolutely smashing it, but that's got breakbeats and pianos and to me it sounds like a rave track from 1991! So we'll see what happens."
And are you hoping it goes Top 40 – would that be a nice one to tick off?
"It would, really, because I've had No 1 albums and gold albums and stuff, but I've never had a hit single. So yeah, that's one thing it would be nice to say I'd done. But I'm not banking on it."
You've been in the game a long time, so you've seen a lot changes in the scene. What have the best and worst of those changes been?
"The thing I think is a shame… back in the early 90s, the excitement was just so incredible, because the whole thing was kind of hidden. You had to pick up a flyer to know about the raves and you had to go to a rave to get the flyers, and you had to really hunt around to find the records you wanted – you couldn't just get on Spotify and blast through 1,000 records in a day. Which is great, but I think some of the excitement's gone, because people just take it for granted.
"I think how DJs get well-known has changed as well. It used to be purely on merit: you know, you were only as good as your last set, but if you did a great set on Friday, then everyone was talking about you on the Monday. That was how you made your name. Nowadays it's like, who's doing the most Instagram posts, who's showing off the most, who's got the best-looking selfies… the Instagram world is people sharing shit that isn't even true. There are DJs out there that became popular just because they were good at social media. And there's nothing really to back that up, and yet they're still there because of all the social media hype.
"I can't be bothered with all that. I do use Instagram but only very rarely… basically that's where I struggle, as a slightly older DJ. Because social media fries my head."
After all these years in the game, what keeps you motivated?
"Well, I've always been a people person, and when I get passionate about something, it becomes my life, it really does. Like, before I really got into music and DJing I was a mad skateboarder, and we got involved with building big ramps and stuff. The council made us take them down, of course. But it was the same with music: once I got into it I just loved having people come round my house and sit on my bed and I'd play them all this great music. Stuff like Inner City Big Fun and Nitro Deluxe This Brutal House… I'd sit people down in my bedroom and make them listen to this music with the lights out on big 18-inch subwoofers, because I just love playing to people and making people feel the same thing that I'm feeling. And that's never left me, that desire that if I'm passionate about something, I want other people to feel it too."
"I've never liked stuff that conforms, I think people should be able to do what they want to do, as long as they're not harming anyone else, and I think somehow this music's part of that for me. Because it brings people together, and it doesn't matter if you're wearing flares or a pair of swimming trunks, it doesn't matter if you've got 50p or a million quid, the music puts you all in one place and everyone's equal, everyone's together."
You've mentioned your Dad quite a lot, what sort of music did he play when he was DJing?
"He was a rock DJ, he loved T-Rex and Santana and bands like that. He used to be a photographer in London in the Sixties, so he'd go round people's houses and there'd be people like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix there, just jamming. And then through the photography he started actually playing this music as a DJ, and later on he'd do things like corporate functions and Motown nights and stuff like that. He'd play everything, because his music taste is so versatile. But he hasn't DJ'd since about 1985. We still had a couple of belt-drives at home, though."
Finally, what else is going on for you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
"Well, there's the remix for Outcry that you know about. And then as far as proper hardcore music goes, I've got releases coming up on 170 and Religion Records, which is a little label Jerry Wright and myself run, although most of my tracks now go the bigger hardstyle labels because they get that big audience.
"And I've also done a breakbeat track with Angie Brown from Bizarre Inc, which isn't really a million miles from the piano-breaks thing. That's coming out on Champion soon, they were one of the great labels from back in the day, so with Angie's pedigree as well it just seemed like a good fit."
Words: Russell Deeks
Outcry's Tell Me Why is out now on Parlophone
Tags: DJ Dougal, Outcry, Parlophone, hardcore, happy hardcore, rave, Bonkers!, React, hardstyle, Angie Brown, Champion, 170, Monstercat, Darren Styles, The Tweakers, Electric Fox, Dreamscape, Ravers Reunited