It’s safe to say that I rarely interview someone who spends the first fifteen minutes discussing the Wetherspoon’s pubs in my hometown of Stoke-on-Trent. Then again, it’s safe to say that this interview, with Derek Morris or DJ Derek as he is more commonly known was never going to be anything other than a unique experience.
At seventy two years old, you would imagine that Derek would be beginning to tire of the nocturnal, transient lifestyle of a professional DJ but this could not be further from the truth. My plan, to spend an evening with him had finally come to fruition and as I made my way to The Sir Michael Balcon, or Ealing Broadway Wetherspoon’s as it is more commonly known, I scrawled a few last minute questions into my notepad.
I arrived to find Derek at the far end of the bar, pint at the ready, his backpack resting on the ledge next to him. As we kept an eye out for a spare table on what was a typically busy Saturday night, the Wetherspoon’s of Stoke served as a means to find common ground. Admittedly, I haven’t been to all of them, Derek though has. An ardent fan of real ale and the pub chain’s nationwide reliability to provide a well-priced selection, Derek has visited every single Wetherspoon’s in the UK. It’s quite an achievement and one made all the more doable by his profession. A man who has also travelled every single National Express bus route in the UK, Derek’s love for Reggae music and the culture that surrounds it undoubtedly defines him in his career. Offstage however, his passion for travel and a good ale are more than notable.
When I finally spotted a small table towards the front of the pub, we took our seats and the conversation turned to music. Derek played washboard in a skiffle band back in the 1950s but it was Ska, the forerunner to Reggae that soon grabbed his attention. Living in the St. Paul’s area of Bristol, Derek found himself at the heart of the burgeoning Jamaican community. This of course was the perfect place to be as the evolution of ska into rock steady and reggae unfolded.
His first noteworthy gig as a DJ came in the 70s when the Star and Garter in Bristol, already an established Jamaican pub was taken over by a friend of Derek’s; a bus driver called Hector. Knowing that Derek had a great love for the music and a record collection to back it up, Hector asked him to come down and play some of his records in exchange for a little beer money. At the time, having quit his job as an accountant at Cadbury’s, he was on the dole and agreed. Derek didn’t look back.
During Saturday lunchtime sessions he would often play 50s and 60s American Rhythm and Blues music and when the men who worked in the Jamaican bakery up the road came in (covered in flour) during their lunch break, the songs struck a chord with them.
Switching to a Jamaican patois accent, Derek recalled their comments, “You take us back a year, Ya play some sweet memory sounds”. At this stage he began to develop quite a reputation locally under the moniker of DJ Derek Sweet Memory Sounds. The deep voiced patois is another feature of Derek’s gigs that instantly capture attention. I was curious to find out at which point he learnt the language and he explained that it roughly coincided with being asked to play at clubs set up specifically for ‘Big People’, adults from the Jamaican communities who wanted to go out and hear their kind of music.
Derek was taken down to a Barber Shop on Grosvenor Road, St. Paul’s and told to keep his eyes open, ears open and mouth shut until he was ready to say something. Sure enough, having got used to the rhythm and syntax of the language, Derek began to incorporate it into his act. This became particularly useful when he would play for coach loads of Jamaicans coming down to the newly opened clubs from Birmingham.
All day events would see Derek begin his set sitting behind a screen, from where he would MC in patois and play a laid back set initially while people greeted each other and ate before steadily winding up the proceedings and packing the dance floor. He would play the biggest hit of the time, follow it with another and then whip back the screen. By then, the reaction then of “Oh my, the DJ is white!” was far better than the “Why you got a white DJ?” that would otherwise occur. Soon though, Derek cemented his reputation and the screen trick became a thing of the past.
Indeed this reputation soared beyond Derek’s wildest expectations. When Toots and the Maytals played in the UK in the 1980s (having just supported UB40 in Holland, a travesty as he points out) Derek went backstage to meet Toots. As Derek, somewhat awestruck introduced himself, Toots interjected with, “Yeah man, everybody know you. You’re the white man that talk the people’s talk and play the people’s music.”
Managers of world famous reggae acts now began calling Derek to offer him work as a support act on the UK legs of their tours. Still, Derek insists that it was a half hour BBC2 documentary in 1994 that really made him as a full-time DJ. Painting him as a so-called middle class white man who was totally immersed in the black music culture in Bristol, the documentary made Derek a household name and allowed him to work three nights a week, as he still does today.
Curious as to how many records Derek must have accrued in his nearly half century career, I was surprised to hear that he no longer had any. Having had access to the main reggae warehouse in London, he had always been first to get hold of the latest imports from Jamaica. As a result he knew what was hot and made sure he got a copy or version that no one else had then, ten years ago, he made the curious decision to convert to minidisc.
He is now able to carry around 5000 tracks with him each night he is playing, allowing for remarkable flexibility. Having recorded around 33000 tracks from vinyl to the obsolete format he then sold his entire record collection, auctioning the most desirable records to the highest bidders. He bought 900 minidiscs at 50p each and claims that only two have ever broken on him. His first two minidisc players cost him around £300 each, the next £100 and the last player he bought, £18. My initial reaction to his use of minidiscs was one of surprise but it makes perfect sense. His small backpack contains a couple of players, two boxes of 30 or so minidiscs, a pair of leads and some spare batteries for the players. Versus lugging around flight case after flight case of records I can see the appeal and as a bonus, Derek insists the analogue recording means that none of the soul of the records is lost.
We left the Sir Michael Balcon and made our way to the Notting Hill Arts club, where Derek’s once-a-month residency has been in place for years. I was curious to find out how younger club goers react to him. He told me that at the Arts Club they all know him so the novelty of his age and the music he plays is overridden by his reputation. Appearing in a Dizzee Rascal video back in 2010 also gave him kudos with a new generation of music fans. He sums up the effect of that collaboration charmingly, reflecting that “Rather than the parents telling their kids that ‘this guy is a legend’, it started to happen the other way around.”
It soon becomes apparent that Derek gets as much of a kick from seeing the younger members’ reactions to the music as they do from him. He retains the same enthusiasm for songs that he had when they came out, many of them original records that a youthful crowd only know through covers and samples. His sets thus, can become something of a musical education at times where he delves into the archives to play something that is new to his audience, yet decades old. One such record is Sea Cruise by Frankie Ford who Derek describes as a Black American Rhythm and Blues band with a young, handsome, Elvis-lookalike singer. He notes that mixed race bands were frowned upon at the time but the song was a hit regardless. On occasion, he drops the original after playing a white label dancehall reggae version that surfaced in the 1980s, taking his audience on a musical journey not dissimilar to the one that the bakers first enjoyed all those years ago.
Arriving at the doors of the club where Derek is rightly considered a legend, he had no bother sneaking me in for free but did tell me that on occasion, security guards assume that when he arrives by taxi to less regular venues that, “The young black guy is the DJ and I’m the taxi driver helping him with his stuff”. As we made our way through the crowd in an already packed Notting Hill Arts Club, I noticed the walls peppered with light projections depicting Derek and the words “Sweet Memory Sounds”, the name adopted by this wildly popular night. We got behind the booth, located underneath angled ceiling of the main staircase to be greeted by the night’s other resident DJ Mylon. Mylon was relieved I was there to help him control the hordes of revellers who constantly badger Derek for photographs. Sure enough, before Derek had even finished his swift set-up, a group of young ladies were already lingering with intent.
Once he started his set with some customary deep-voiced patois, the entirety of the club appeared to be putty in Derek’s hands. I could spot the regulars who took their position on the raised area early on and remained there all night, completely in tune with the master of ceremonies. Earlier in the pub, Derek had told me that Jamaicans in particular really understand patterns in music, pointing out at the same time, the heartbeat rhythm that Reggae (for the most part) is based upon. There is more to his DJing though than merely acknowledging these patterns, precise and instinctive manipulation of the treble and bass on the records saw Desmond Dekker once tell Derek, “You don’t just play records man, you PLAY records”.
On the evidence before me, I couldn’t have agreed more. It is not by chance or persistence that DJ Derek is still playing 3 to 4 nights a week at this stage in his life. His understanding of not only the music and its soul but also his crowd is quite formidable. In much the same way as you hear musicians refer to getting into the zone when they are playing, so that their actions are more instinctive than anything else, Derek gets into a similar state. Each time he plays a record that sends the crowd wild and you wonder how he will possibly follow it, he drops something else that keeps the enraptured audience glued to the dance floor.
Marijuana is synonymous with both West African and Reggae culture and interestingly it remains one element of the lifestyle that Derek hasn’t immersed himself in. He explained to me in the pub that when he smokes ganja, he can’t get music out of his head all night and he has that problem anyway. Resultantly, throughout his set a regular supply of ale is brought to him on request and his only journey away from the booth is for a cigarette. Again in deep patois he explains to the transfixed audience, “I need to get some nicotine in me alcohol stream” before taking his well earnt mid-show break.
Just before the set drew to a close, one of the door staff, also called Derek came to greet the night’s main attraction before letting his dreadlocks down and dancing amongst the crowd. The two men re-convened again as the club closed and it was obvious that they share a long friendship built on the back of Derek’s 15 year residency at the West London venue. I made my way with the two Dereks to the bus stop, a tradition between the two that spanned all of those 15 years and reflected on an evening spent with not only a legend but a compelling individual whose passion for music and real ale are helplessly infectious.
DJ Derek tops the bill at Notting Hill Arts Club’s New Year’s Eve Celebrations and plays the second Saturday of the month there for Sweet Memory Sounds. Listings of other upcoming gigs around the UK can be found here.
Words and Photographs by Alec Dudson