Durham Duz Dance 003: From Durham student to international DJ John B

Bag degree. Try and become a DJ. If that doesn’t work out, become a cellular biologist

The night started a whole lot earlier than other nights. I walked into an intimate set up in an unrecognisably (but intentionally) empty Loft where John B spent some quality time with members of Durham’s DJing society.

Far from showing up a few hours before his set that night, the artist arrived in Durham the day before and intended to stay a couple of days. Sure, Durham’s a lovely place, but it is quite rare for DJs to take a weekend to relish it. But John B had a reason to, he was once a student at Durham not too long ago. 

John B giving advice and sharing stories with some of Durham’s student DJs

A graduate from the class of ninety-something, he bagged himself a cellular biology degree. As we walked outside to the back end of Loft (next to their lovely assortment of rubbish), he gave a “shout out to the Mildert Massive”, a phrase that I’d heard from Mildertians of today, but had no idea it had roots so strong. It was in this moment that I knew I was about to receive some first-hand insight into Durham’s dance scene history. 

He got “the vibe that it was similar to how it is now”. He continues, “Durham is quite a studious place- most people are into more mainstream stuff and underground dance music culture is not a big part of the vibe here, but there’s people that are really into it ‘cause they come from all around the country”. 

The producer was a part of the dance music minority while he was at Durham. He recounted: “Me and a couple of my friends ran a club night here [at Loft] when it used to be called club Elysium, doing Drum and Bass to try and just show people how cool it is and share our love [for it]”. He did mention, however, that “it was always a lot of work to get people to come out”.

“I’d have to go around flyering all the colleges several days a week”, “put flyers out on all the dining tables. We did alright but like… it wasn’t rammed”.

He adds: “We had a lot of really good stuff here, but a lot of that was because I was able to get the big names to come because I started producing then and they knew me and they’d come for cheaper… also we did our nights on a Tuesday so they wouldn’t be playing anywhere else anyway”.

He recalled memories of his first ever DJ gig at Trevs and trying to get booked for sets wherever he could. When he wasn’t DJing he could be found at Klute in his trendy Hilfiger garms, boiling in a puffer, completely disgruntled by the mainstream tunes that everyone was singing along to. 

A snap of our lovely set-up cozying up to a year’s worth of Loft rubbish bins

He mentioned a few things that are still going on today. John B’s friend started Purple FM which would go on to be Purple Radio. He mentioned going to and doing gigs at ‘bops’. I asked about whether these events he would put on and attend as a student would attract certain communities within Durham, as an attempt to tease out whether the stereotypes of Durham were strong during his time. He said: “There were stereotypes and tribalism back then. I don’t know what it’s like now, but it felt like there was a lot of segregation back then”. He touched on the Hill vs Bailey divide and expressed regret that he was “prejudiced against the rahs” as he went to a state school, but that “there was no need”.

While John B’s degree was unrelated to what he does now, he did have some takeaways. He found that his “ability to work under pressure with seemingly impossible workloads and incredible deadlines” has benefited him in his career. In fact, he was able to go all in on his creative career because his degree was something to fall back on, a safety blanket. Those of you that are pondering venturing into the risky business of reaching for your dreams, John B went about it by taking a year, living at home to see where music could take him, and if it didn’t work out, he had his Durham degree. Just like you will (ideally— strike situation pending of course).

Upon leaving he did mention, “there was maybe a year or two years after I graduated- I would still come back to help with the club night and play”. Lo and behold, nearly 25 years later in the place he used to know as Elysium, he stood in a circle of budding DJs and producers, giving advice and sharing his experiences. He gave them his time, energy and well-wishes. Once I reach my dreams and you reach yours, perhaps we’ll take a note from John B and not lose track of remembering who we once were, and give back to the place we once were. 

If John B’s story resonated with you, check him out on his Insta and his work on Spotify!

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