Derek Morris AKA DJ Derek is the Bristol born and bred reggae DJ famed for his love of Weatherspoons pubs, National Express coach journeys and of course music of Jamaican origin. A man whose career in DJing only really begun well into his 30s, yet he’s gone on to accomplish some stupendous achievements. Derek began by hosting his sets in a deep voiced, patois dialect which he picked up from the local pubs and barber shops in the St Pauls area of Bristol. Those of you who know little of the man may recognise him as the OAP throwing a disco for pensioners in the Dizzee track Dirtee Disco, those of you who know much of the man will be aware of his ability to sincerely captivate any audience and take them on a charming musical journey like no other. As the city prepares for his visit to the Harley on Friday for Quality Control‘s 2nd show, I called him up on a hot & sticky evening to ask him a few questions about his lengthy musical career and discover a fair few things I didn’t know about this 71 year old.
*Ring Ring* *Ring Ring* – that’s me setting the scene there.
Chris Arnold: Hey Derek! No time for chatter, we have an interview to do! Tell me, with an extremely impressive career spanning multiple decades in which you’ve played hundreds of different venues, you must have a few places you count as favourites?
Derek Morris: Well the main venue that I’ve stuck with over the years is the Notting Hill Arts Club, it’s my current and last residency. I decided to stop all the others as they started to restrict my ability to travel up and down the country. This NYE will be last gig I do there and will also be my last ever gig.
CA: Your last ever gig?! I heard rumours but I wasn’t aware it was confirmed!
DM: Well yes, in fact I was away travelling and gigging last weekend and when I returned I saw the story plastered over the Bristol evening post, someone had let the cat out of the bag! I then headlined St Paul’s Carnival which is where I live, and it was a very emotional evening. I have Harbour Festival coming up as well, that will be my last ever open air show and I’ll be playing at a home crowd in front of loads of people. I’m pretty sure that will choke me up, I’ve always opened it and I’ve seen so many artists come by, even James Brown did back in the day.
CA: Wow, so this gig on Friday in Sheffield will be your last ever performance in the city?
DM: Yes, I may do a show in Leeds and perhaps one in Nottingham before NYE. I will be 72 the fortnight before I do my last ever gig, and while I’m reasonably healthy it’ll be nice to do some travelling without carting my gear around!
CA: There’s certainly nothing wrong with that! You’ve had a great career Derek, are there any highlights that stick out right now?
DM: Oh, too many highlights to mention, playing Jamaican Independence Dance is one, it was the first year Bristol had a black mayor and the first year Jamaican Independence had a white DJ! Touring across the World with Womad is certainly another. Around the year 2000 I played Singapore, Australia, Prague, Paris, Gran Canaria, Ireland. It was back after I just changed to minidisc, I could have never done that with all my vinyl. I remember playing at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in front of 50 000 people, it was at a free festival on this Spanish island and nobody comes out until midnight. Well they only went and stuck me on at midnight! I had no idea what to open up with until I thought “well they are Spanish so I’ll open with Ole Ole Ole!“, it was brilliant!
DM: I remember years later at Rob de Bank’s festival, Bestival, they had put me up in the Afterburner stage, it’s a real ramshackle stage, looks like a rock has just hit it. They put me on just as it was getting dark and I decided that I would open with Ole Ole Ole again, and as I played it all these fireworks going off and the brilliant thing was that they kept them in time with the music. At the time all these things just seem so surreal, it’s a job to take it in. It’s only when you look back you think “I can’t believe I did that”.
CA: Over the years you’ve played alongside some of the biggest names in reggae, you must have met plenty of the artists whose music you’ve played?
DM: That’s the wonderful thing you see, I used to watch people like Toots, Desmond Dekker when I was younger. Over the years and certainly from the 80s onwards, I’ve actually met all of my heroes as well as supporting them. When I met Toots he said “Yeah man, everybody know you. You’re the white man that talk the people’s talk and play the people’s music”, it was a reputation that I had garnered through word of mouth wihout realising. Had I known I might have worn a bigger sized hat back then! It’s been a wonderful, wonderful 2nd part of my life. As a younger man spending most of time of the dole to then be invited to play the music that I love is extremely humbling. Back then a lot of black people thought that white people had been using black music, they’ve been conscious of the fact that I’ve been promoting black music. I was playing music that would never have been played on the BBC for example.
CA: Naturally, you’ve proven yourself as a worthy DJ.
DM: Yes, I feel so now, as I mentioned before playing for Jamaican Independence Dance, after that then I was invited to do a few more, including the Dominican Independance Dance. This was a big opportunity for me to play to an audience of which the vast majority were black. Back then I had a big reputation in the West Country as white DJ so everyone knew about me in that area, but there were a huge amount of the black community travelling down from the midlands, Birmingham and such. When they got there they were asking “why have you got a white DJ?“. Well I got them all dancing and a steel band were supposed to be playing after me but they called up to say that they had broken down en route and couldn’t come. I had to keep these 500 people dancing for about 4 hours! It was brilliant though, I got them into a frame of mind where I was selecting that was just magic. I was selecting tunes and people were coming up and asking me for a tune and it was the next one that I was going to play. This happened quite a few times that night – I was literally getting goosebumps. It was the first time that I realised I could play for a 100% black crowd, I really thought that was the pinnacle of my career.
CA: It certainly appears that you do more then just play music, you have a deep-rooted, emotional bond with your audience. How exactly are you going to mentally prepare for your last show?
DM: You know, NYE might be very hectic, when I play there it’s usually 1 in 1 out right up until 30 minutes before I finish, but it certainly will be emotional. I’m a very busy man up until NYE, the whole summer is booked right through apart from a couple of weekends which I’ve purposely kept free. The last few years I’ve only 1 weekend a year off, by the time I’ve gone through with everything that I shall be content hanging not my headphones but my minidiscs.
CA: Derek, it’s been an absolute pleasure, thank you so much for this insight into your career!
DM: Thank you, and see you all on Friday.
An extremely fascinating and humbling man. He sucked me into his tales with his fantastic story-telling as soon as we started talking. He also mentioned such things as interviews with ITV as well as a potential documentary with Don Letts on the way so watch out for them, his final 6 months as a DJ are undoubtedly going to be a very busy time for the soon-to-be 72 year old.
Right now he’ll be headlining Quality Control at The Harley this Friday night. Free before 11, £2 before midnight and £4 afterwards. Also on the bill are Walker, Clipboard, Stoaty & The Quality Controllers. Facebook event here.
DJ Derek – we salute you!