Bristol-based DJ Derek Morris is an iconic figure in Britain’s reggae, ska, dancehall and soul music scene. Retiring at the end of this year and playing his last gig outside Bristol after the Brixton Splash, DJ Derek talks to the Weekender…
You were an accountant for Cadbury’s before you became DJ Derek. Did you ever expect this kind of success?
I didn’t know I was going to be a DJ; I was a drummer in a band and I always loved black R&B and rap music from America, which you could never get here. When the Jamaicans came to Bristol in the late ‘50s I finally found a pub that welcomed black people in and we started to hear this stuff. I built friendships with some great DJs, acquired some of the records but it was years later that I tried my hand at DJ-ing and found how popular that music was. I was asked to DJ ‘for some beer money’ at a West Indian pub and things took off from there. I was asked to play at domino dances and wedding receptions. The turning point was in 1994 when BBC2 made a documentary about me as a middle class white man immersed in Bristol’s black music scene. Then I started making a living out of it and the rest, as they say, is history.
You’ve enjoyed a decades-long career; how big is your music collection?
I transferred my entire vinyl collection onto mini disc and it took two and a half years. There were 32,000 tracks but it’s the best thing I ever did. I have 900 mini discs with two and a half hours on every mini disc and I carry 50 around with me, which is still a lot more music than I need at any one time. I like to have variety. Now that I’m retiring at the end of the year I’m a little less of a purist, not that I’ve ever considered myself that. With the gigs I do now I’m tending to play what’s been most popular over the years because it’s the last time they’ll be played that way.
So, why are you retiring?
I’m going to be 72 years old this year and I want to have some time to myself while I’m still relatively fit and healthy. I’ll be doing lots of traveling. I love Wetherspoon pubs; I’d been to every single one in the country up until yesterday when two more were opened so I’ll be going off to visit them. I love real ale, the prices are amazingly cheap and the food is really good value. There’s nowhere I haven’t seen now in England; I’ve been on every train and bus route.
Is it true you’ve never actually been to Jamaica?
I’ve never been there, though lots of Jamaicans think I have because I can talk like a Jamaican. I sat in a Jamaican barber shop in St Paul’s and I’d keep my eyes and ears open and mouth shut. There was a record producer who I’d only talked to on the phone and he thought I was Jamaican until I turned up to his office and his jaw just dropped when he saw a white man in a three-piece suit. He thought I was the tax man! They used to keep the shutters down when I started out DJ-ing in Bristol because people thought a white DJ couldn’t understand that kind of music. I love the fact that I’m a white DJ playing reggae at the invitation of West Indian people.
Up on the Roof with DJ Derek and Friends is part of an official Brixton Splash after-party at The Lambeth (formerly Brixton Clubhouse), 467 Brixton Road, SW9 8HH on Sunday 4 August from 3pm-1am. Admission: £5-10. http://www.residentadvisor.net /event.aspx?495580