“In 2012, I was told that no one would hire a black, female DJ with grey hair,” says DJ Paulette, classily not revealing who it was. But it happened during a dinner in Amsterdam, with three influential men, and initially it left her a bit shaken. But not for long.
Fuck that, indeed. As if to compound the fuck that-ness, since she was given the bad news that her career situation was probably terminal, she’s found herself in more demand, more relevant and more influential than perhaps she’s ever been in more than 30 years behind the decks.
A pillar of the worldwide DJ community, Manchester turntable royalty and an inspiration to a new generation, Paulette is an icon in a time when that word is thrown around an awful lot. Selector, A&R, scholar, journalist, publicist, broadcaster, renaissance woman and all-round mensch, she’s now an author.
Her first book, Welcome to the Club: The Life and Lessons of a Black Woman DJ, is published today by Manchester University Press. A treatise on the state of a multi-million pound/dollar industry, it discusses at length the dizzying highs and lows of club culture, feminism, queer culture and latent prejudice, racism and ageism in the music business.
This isn’t some lurid tabloid account of clubbing excesses (OK, there are most certainly a few spangled moments), though it’s nonetheless captivating for that. “Notes of a DJ,” poet Lemn Sissay has called it.
It’s a social and political history, a joyful document of what has been a pretty wild ride both for herself and for nightlife the world over, from Paris to Ibiza, Manchester to London.
Along the way, she champions the women of the industry – pivotal London club Fabric’s programming director Judy Griffiths, new school DJs like Jamz Supernova and Sherelle, old school ones like Marcia Carr, Dulcie Danger, Lisa Loud, Rachel Auburn, Nancy Noise and Smokin Jo, and industry titans like Strictly Rhythm’s legendary Gladys Pizzaro. She lauds praise too on Marea Stamper, aka The Blessed Madonna, who she rates among the best in the world right now.
She says that rather than pave the way, she ‘held the door open’ for those like her to come through. Of course, her contribution amounts to much more than that.
“She’s so supportive of all the women coming through after her, in everything from the DJ space, to the broadcast space, to label owners, journalism,” says 6 Music and 1Xtra’s Jamz Supernova.
“Reading the book, I was in awe of what she’s done. She’s done everything, and all to a really high level, and I felt a little bit frustrated that I didn’t know about it and her sooner, when I was coming through.
“Had I known about her when I was starting out, I wouldn’t have had so much of an imposter syndrome, and I’d have set my sights a lot higher. She’s always been there. So I felt frustrated but also inspired by the longevity of her career. She makes us know we belong.”
It all started, as so many things do, a bit by accident. Paulette first put two records together by ‘happenstance’. A friend of a friend was running a night at Manchester’s Number One club. They’d run out of money for a DJ, and as an owner of a steadily growing collection of vinyl she’d been amassing since she was young, Paulette’s name came up.
“It was nine till two, 30 quid. That was decent money then. I’d never done it before, I didn’t have decks at home. I had one tutorial session. I blended one record into another record, and that was it. That was my training. I went into the club having had one 10 minute tutorial.”
The rest is history. Paul Cons was at the party, the Hacienda promoter who had just launched a monthly, midweek night called Flesh. The club, which started in 1991 amid a hail of slogans like ‘it’s queer up north’ and ‘queer as fuck’, became an epicentre of UK queer culture, and one of the most influential LGBTQ+ clubs the country has ever seen.
Leigh Bowery, Pet Shop Boys, Vivienne Westwood – it received queer royalty onto the Hacienda’s hallowed dancefloor, and was as forward-thinking as it was provocative. Because it welcomed in anyone over 18, with the age of same-sex consent in 1991 still being 21, it also flew the flag for breaking the law.
Paulette was recruited as its backroom resident. “I didn’t follow a single female DJ. They weren’t around,” she says. It was only when she met Kath McDermott, who would become her fellow resident at Flesh and a lifelong friend, that she realised she was not alone. “Until I DJed at Flesh, I did not see one other female DJ.”
Manchester DJs like Alan Maskell, Dave Booth, Steve Proctor, Colin Curtis and Greg Wilson – all gents, of course – moulded her sound.
“Did they make me want to put records together? Not really, but they gave me a good education in how to put a set together and keep a dancefloor moving. A lot of what I play now has everything to do with the music I was hearing then. Kraftwerk. Grace Jones. Depeche Mode, early Human League, Cabaret Voltaire. A bit more angular. I like punchy music.”
And while those DJs shaped her sound, Flesh shaped her outlook. “[Before Flesh] There weren’t people kissing their best mates on the door, just to get into the party,” she says.
“But that’s what Flesh did. It suddenly made it cool to be gay. It was mad, at the same time, I’m studying for my degree, where everyone thinks I’m this boring housewife, some boring mature student, and then the last Wednesday of every month, I’m going out in absolutely fuck all; PVC bikinis, handcuffs, leather, sequins, fluffy bras.”
Paulette says there was ‘a change coming’, and Manchester was at the forefront of the places leading it. Bars like Manto in the village ‘chipped away’ at prejudices, with its glass front in stark and proud contrast to the hidden-away gay bars behind blackened windows – sometimes no windows at all, lest they be caved in – that had come before it.
Tabloids screamed ‘Gaychester’, and the Flesh parties only became wilder. On one occasion, a swimming pool was erected in the club which, obviously, leaked and then flooded the venue. It was known for its mix of high fashion and low life.
“I could be who I wanted to be, play what I wanted to play,” she says. “I kept certain haberdashers in Stockport and Manchester in business for about four years. If you wanted an outfit, you had to make it yourself.”
It was both education and baptism of fire, and scored her a fleeting TV career, co-presenting late-night show Juice with Johnny Dangerously and Tara Newley, daughter of Joan Collins. Next came London to seek her fortune, working in A&R and press at Mercury Records, as well as for the likes of storied house labels Azuli and Defected, rubbing shoulders with everyone from Gilles Peterson to David Guetta to Roni Size to Masters At Work, and all the while cementing her own career as a world class DJ, playing everywhere from the Ministry of Sound to the Rex Club in Paris.
And while there were the highs, playing for crowds of 30,000 people alongside the very best DJs in the world and dominating the Ibiza superclubs, she also documents the periods where work thinned and she found herself back in Manchester, playing bars and small club gigs.
She also quit drinking for good in 2018, and with vocal (and local) champions like Luke Unabomber and Sprechen Music’s Chris Massey, with whom she released the call-to-arms Sheroes, she’s rapidly and decisively climbing back to the top once again.
As Mayor Andy Burnham says in his cover quote for Welcome To The Club: “Any list of the pioneers of the Manchester club scene, and the international scene it so heavily influenced, is not complete without the name DJ Paulette.
“Ours is a city that celebrates those who challenge elites, break down barriers and open doors for others to walk through. Paulette has done all of those things and more and that is why we are so proud of her.’
She has, and we are.
“Never underestimate me,” she says. As if we ever would.
Welcome To The Club is out today on Manchester University Press.
Jamz Supernova will be in conversation with DJ Paulette at HOME on Thursday 25 January. You can get tickets here…