Author: Emma Warren
In the heart of Northern Ireland, a transformative movement has quietly gained momentum, harnessing the power of music and community to transcend divides. The birth of Northern Ireland's first DJ workshops has not only brought vibrant beats and rhythms to the region's youth but has also created a catalyst for real change. Through the medium of turntables and mixing boards, these workshops have become an unexpected source of unity and empowerment, offering a creative space where young people from diverse backgrounds can come together, share their stories, and redefine their collective future. In this article, we delve into the inspiring journey of Northern Ireland's pioneering DJ workshops, exploring how they are proving that music can serve as a bridge to understanding and cooperation in a place historically marked by division.
Back in the mid 1990s, Alice Ferguson was running an adult literacy programme for school leavers in Belfast. Her students weren’t particularly engaged. One day she let them bring in a radio and made an offhand comment about the DJ Carl Cox, who she knew through her sons – the well-known DJ Fergie, who was playing headline sets across the UK and Northern Ireland and had a popular hard house show on BBC Radio 1 and his Glasgow-based DJ brother Ken. The kids were amazed that she knew anything about music, let alone dance music, and their response gave their tutor an idea. It was an idea that would connect local young people with culture in ways that would create lasting impact on independent dance music and DJ culture in Northern Ireland.
“Within that moment of music,” she realised, “I had some influence. I said ‘you’re going to be the promoter for a DJ event’ and I incorporated their English and Maths into this music focus. Back in the day everybody wanted to be a DJ.” She made contact with local record shops, recording studios and nightclubs and got work placements for some of the students. In a less tangible way, she also broadened their perspectives – which was, of course, taking place within the context of pre-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland.
“It gave them an appreciation,” she says of this unexpected grassroots creativity. “Some of those young lads, when they’d go for a job interview and they’d be asked ‘what were you doing on Friday nights?’ and they’d say ‘I was down at the corner, throwing bricks at the Peelers [police]’. I like to think that instead of doing that, they were going to the club.”
“They had no more knowledge of DJing than me”
Soon after, Alice Ferguson moved into educational guidance, and would sometimes find herself encouraging music-mad young people to get into dance music, either as a DJ or as a producer or a promoter. “Music,” she says, “kept popping in and out of it.” Gradually she realised that there was a complete absence of projects designed to help young men and women get into the burgeoning dance music economy.
“I was in my 40s,” she says. “I’d set up a company with my two friends Lesley Reilly and Maeve Ferguson, called KeySound, doing personal development training for youth community groups. They had no more knowledge of DJing, than me. I was on holiday with Robert [DJ Fergie] in Ibiza and he said ‘Mum, just do it.’ I think he was fed up of listening to me going on about it. I phoned Lesley and Maeve and said ‘we’re going to do this. Think on a name’. They were taking the groceries out of the back of the car and they just said it: ‘KeyMix’. It was born in that moment.” It was an entirely independent example of grassroots creativity: a music-based youth programme that sat outside of the usual structures and which fed into independent music and clubs in the area.
DJ skills for life
Their idea for a series of DJ workshops was funded by Irish Electric who were handing out money for community projects and in 2002, KeyMix booked a room at the Brownlow community centre in Craigavon, just south of Belfast in County Armagh. The newly-formed team scraped up six sets of DJ turntables and mixers, set them up on pasting tables and crates for early-stage DJs who’d be supported by high-profile mentors supplied by Fergie. Hundreds of people applied for the 24 places, sending in a 30-minute mix CD and written answers to a questionnaire that Alice had devised. It was a success, and sessions followed at a range of venues from community centre and colleges. Sessions also occurred at The Met Arena in Armagh, so that aspiring DJs could practice in the booth of a big club with a massive soundsystem whilst their fellow KeyMixers took part in workshops on how to write an artist biography, or how to approach a club promoter. DJ workshops, industry panels and networking opportunities took place at other KeyMix events. “When I look back, I can see it was as much about personal development as DJing,” says Ferguson. “We talked about visualisation, creating road maps for where you want to get to, and action, how you move yourself forward. They coached each other. That’s not just a skill for DJing – that’s a skill for whatever you’re going to do in life.”
At a time of great segregation, the KeyMix participants came from all across the country, and from across the sectarian divide. “They came from everywhere,” says Ferguson. “Derry! They’d never experienced anything like it – access to people who in their lives were so important. We also looked at other aspects of the industry, because DJing’s not for everyone. We had music mags. We had promoters – if you want to do your own night, this is what you do. I think it was pretty good, honestly.”
On a practical level, KeyMix created a bridge between young people and independent nightclubs and DJs in Northern Ireland, ensuring that the young folk who came through would have practical connections to promoters who’d book them to play. Alice Ferguson lists them out: The Met, Exit, Beach Club, the Red Box, Planet Love, Lush. “We needed the guys to be able to play,” she explains. “There was a very clear structure to it. When I look back I think ‘how did we do this?’ I don’t know. All the local DJs, Robbie Nelson, Gleave Dobbin – names that were important to the people who were coming – they came to the workshops and taught. It was crazy that they done that. To give those young people an opportunity to talk to a DJ they were used to seeing up here – it was fantastic.”
A chip van becomes a DJ booth
Participants went on to DJ at superclubs like Cream and others became producers. For some of the young folk who got involved, it was a fast-track to a life in music. One of the KeyMix DJs, Angela Dunlop, won a chance to DJ at big English club God’s Kitchen which was taking place in Birmingham. Two others opened up for DJ Fergie at a huge BBC Radio 1 show in Larne. Over the years they operated – between 2002 and 2009 – KeyMix sent one person to India to the I Love Music DJ School and took over twenty young DJs to Ibiza to play in the clubs or on the radio.
The story of KeyMix and Ibiza Radio is a good example of the ways that this independent youth project created cultural connections internationally. Radio station HFM Ibiza was based in the club Privilege. KeyMix persuaded them to take on, Tony Rogers, a super keen young guy from Ballymena, who had a background in hospital radio but no other connections to the music industry. In a typically inventive response, KeyMix sponsored Tony, allowing him to spend the season in Ibiza, on the basis that every Monday Ibiza Radio – and then Ibiza Sonica Radio – would run a KeyMix slot. Tony Rogers eventually went on to run the whole radio station. Then he came home, settled down in Ballymena, and won Young Businessman of The Year, redirecting his confidence and experience into commerce – specifically, shipping pallets.
Another time they converted a chip van into a DJ booth, wrapped banners around it, and created a micro-venue for KeyMix DJs to play their tunes as a tiny, grassroots extension of the club Planet Love. “It was crude,” says Alice with a smile on her face. “But nobody cared because people would come and listen to them.” The community obviously thought they were doing something valuable – the organisers were nominated for an award for their contribution to dance music at the Northern Ireland Dance Music Awards 2006 although it was Planet Love, the club that hosted their chip van and which ensured KeyMix had a stage at their festival between 2005 and 2007 that won on the night.
Over seven years – and informally, in the years that followed – KeyMix worked with a broad range of young people, none of whom had prior connections to dance music beyond consuming the music at home or in the clubs. These included girls who had been brought up in the care system, single mothers, homeless communities and people with mental health issues. For these groups, it was less about gaining access to creative industries and more about using music to create connection and to build confidence.
The contribution continues
What did KeyMix achieve? Alice pauses. “We created a space for young people who would have never had access to what we presented them with. Some of them moved into radio, into music, into production.” One KeyMix regular, Boyd Sleator is the founder of strategic cultural organisation Free The Night with DJ Holly Lester. They’re advocating for national change to outdated licencing laws and their work is bearing fruit.
Organisations have been harnessing a cultural interest in dance music for decades, with recent examples including French organisation EuropaVox who collaborate with several universities to offer a springboard into music. KeyMix did it all, in an acutely grassroots style.
“It was rough, it was ready. We weren’t doing it very long but we packed it in,” says Ferguson. Later, she adds another reflection: “I think that we were actually helping to secure the future of dance music in Northern Ireland. Club promoters were bringing the big names and different genres of music but in a very small way we were nurturing the future DJs and producers in a way that no-one else was doing back then in 2002.”
There’s one outcome that outstrips all others, something Alice Ferguson describes as ‘the coming together’. “It was the peace process,” she says. “They came from everywhere. We never asked anyone what religion they were. Here we were, with these guys from Derry and flipping Boyne Square, and no – it was about the music. That people came together, absolutely, was our contribution. We showed: here they are and they have a common factor. That to me was a massive thing.”