Keb Darge dug for gold
It’s a sweltering late morning in South Beach, the temperature already north of 90. I am, if memory serves me correctly, watching the vibrations from a nearby subwoofer cause my water glass to slowly slide across the table, when I hear a distinctive voice: “Dennis lad are we going to the beach? I still haven’t seen it you know, shite they never stop with that bumpity, bumpity here, my fookin’ ears!” The voice cloaked in a Scottish brogue belongs to the one and only Keb Darge and he’s at this Winter Music Conference in the mid-2000s to play a party with Kenny ‘Dope’ for their newly formed Kay-Dee label.
We indeed hit the beach, and later in the day I take him to my pal Rich Medina’s Jump-n-Funk party, a jam driven by Afrobeat, and also drawing a crowd that is refreshingly dark and lovely. Upon arrival we catch the event approaching its first peak, I turn to say something to Keb, but he’s gone. I go to greet friends and from the perch of the booth I see Keb fully engaged on the dancefloor, moving in that unique northern soul style, properly on time and gracefully flowing with the Egypt 80 rhythms. He stays on the floor for the next few hours, breaking for some water and an occasional drink, but leaving the party thoroughly soaked having made a legion of new friends. This story stays with me because one of the aspects that makes Keb’s’ playing so vital is that he has the perspective of the dancefloor embedded in his sensibility, he is a great dancer, and it has informed his playing as he has developed and progressed through multiple genres of music from northern soul, funk, rockabilly, surf and now garage. Like every great DJ, Keb forges an intimate connection with the audience, and takes them on a trip, in his case while playing some of the rarest 45s on the planet. I caught up with Keb over a period of a few days this spring, and we talked about his storied history, life during and post-Covid, and where he wants to go musically.
Interviewed and written by Dennis Kane, winter 2022 and spring 2023.
So where did you grow up?
The highlands of Scotland, a town called Elgin, about 200 miles north of Edinburgh.
What was your first memorable experience with music, the radio?
Initially I wasn’t really responsive to music, then I got a proper kickin’ at school and got put into hospital. I picked a fight with 40 people, which is a tactical mistake. I got a concrete bin cracked over my head, when I came out of the hospital I thought: Right I’m gonna pick a fight with the one English lad in the mob and prove that I’m not a softy, I start to fight him and he spins and cracks me in the ribs with a side kick, then as I am going down, he smashes my collar bone with an axe kick,
I was like, ‘Fuckin’ hell, what was that?’ It was Taekwondo.
I asked him, ‘How the fuck did you do that?’
He told me, ‘It’s a Korean martial art that I practice at the Royal Air Force base.’
I thought that was great, ‘Can I join?’
So I started studying with him at the RAF base several times a week. Cut to the base’s Christmas party, I think it is 1973 or ’74, they were playing Abba and Gary Glitter and all the shite of the day and I watched these three RAF boys go up to the DJ and hand him a wee handful of records and talk to him. The music suddenly changed, and it was amazing, it was like a harder more intense version of Motown, and these three guys started dancing, spinning and doing splits. Penomenal! I thought if I can learn to dance like that I’ll for sure get properly shagged. I asked them what the music was, and they said, ‘Northern soul’. They invited me to a club in Dundee the following weekend. Initially, I was into the dancing before the music, it was exciting, the motion and form of it. I became a regular and also started to go to Wigan Casino. It took me a year for it to disseminate in my brain just how extraordinary some of these tunes were. Then I started to focus on the records and begin deciding which ones really appealed to me, but that first year it was the dancing.
You were really putting effort into working on physically mastering moves?
Yeah, I was already a Taekwondo boy, so I was very well stretched, I could do the box splits, and when I went to Wigan, I watched the best dancers and copied them. Subsequently my dancing started to really respond to the specifics of the records. I would do my Taekwondo training, and then work out dance moves. This was 1975. The moves from martial art practice, and what it allowed my body to do, were translating into gestures I was building into my routine, in some ways not dissimilar to B-Boy culture.
OK so you’re going to these nights and going to Wigan Casino, how is the music getting into your life day to day? Were there underground radio programmes at the time?
No, my craving for northern led me to start buying records at Wigan and I thought well if I go back to Scotland, I can give these to the local DJ to play for me. I initially started buying so I would have something to dance to.
At this point are specific northern tunes starting to percolate your heart? Like say The Natural Fours’ ‘I Thought You Were Mine’? I remember you talking about that.
I was probably trying to unload a spare copy on you [laughter]. One of the first tunes that really haunted me was The Human Beings’ ‘Nobody But Me’, that’s really a garage tune, the way the song comes in, very raw, but it had me going up to the DJ to ask what it was. Prior to that when I went to Wigan there was a large room full of dealers back from the States selling records, I would just ask the dealer to pick out some tunes and tell him my budget. I used to break into chemists and steal gear (drugs) and sell that so that I always had money in my pocket for records.
So first dancing and now buying records; when did you actually start to play them out?
It didn’t take long, I think in ’76 there was a club night in Aberdeen I would go to, it was more Boney M. and Barry White, but the DJ was starting a soul night on a Sunday, and invited me down to play. I agreed, as long as he would also play some, so I could dance. Sunday night: Keb Darge at The Royal Hotel in Aberdeen!
Now you transition to playing and you are immersed in it as a life.
Indeed, I’m seeing a life happening. I remember hearing Ron Holden’s ‘I’ll Forgive And Forget’, I needed it. I met a guy at Blackpool with a box of tunes and he wanted £7 for it (it goes for about $150 now) and that was a week’s wages. I thought what would my mum say about spending that amount for a record? Then some cunt was going to try and buy it, and I said fuck it and took the plunge. I played it at my Sunday and some people danced. The following Sunday people showed up from Edinburgh and Dundee to hear Keb Darge play Ron Holden. It’s only the second copy in the country. Ohhhh and then I realised: look for the special tunes, build your sets around that. I started chasing the rare and unique records. I started meeting the real hardcore dealers, the one’s going to the States monthly and getting proper discoveries, songs I could break. There was a definite rush and ego boost, but the tunes themselves were just electric to me.
As a DJ to share something you have found and that means a lot to you and to see it move people is an incredible feeling.
What was unique about Wigan, was that of 2,000 there, a majority of them would know the song, the label and the artist. It was an informed and passionate audience and they were hungry for new discoveries. Things are different now, people are more coming out for the club and the scene, you have to play records much longer before people become aware of them.
That’s true across the board, but I feel like the joy and passion, along with confidence in what you are playing still translates to people. When I first heard you play, I knew a very slim margin of your selections, but your excitement and programming made it all appealing and there is an infectious energy that builds.
It’s a fuckin’ party not a museum, let’s go! Things have to be fresh. Towards the end of my deep funk phase I was getting bored shitless, I had lost enthusiasm. My work here is done. I needed to move forward to maintain that joy.
To back track for a second, how did you go from your love of northern soul to playing deep funk?
D.I.V.O.R.C.E. I got divorced in 1987 and the house was in my then wife’s name, so I thought I’ll sell my records. I got about £80,000 for them. Butch and Rob Marriot – both exemplary northern soul DJs bought the big tunes – UK dealer John Manship snatched most of the rest. I was able to give her a pile of money, get her to sign the divorce papers and house over to me and move on with our lives.
I had a neighbour, who I knew since he was 14, this guy Raw Deal (Jim Robins), he recorded on Talkin’ Loud Records and he brought me a cassette of rare funk tunes. I thought, ‘Oh these are really good’. So I asked: ‘Where did you get them?’
He told me, ‘You gave them to me a few years ago, they’re from your loft.’
‘What?! Give ’em back.’
I went up to my loft and I had boxes and boxes of records that weren’t northern, so I kind of ignored them, then I went through what I had, and realised I had a great set of funk. I used to sell records to the rare groove boys, Sir Norman Jay and Roy the Roach, but they wouldn’t splurge on the expensive, actual rare records, so I kept them. I then started going to all my northern pals and getting the funk records they didn’t want, and soon I had a proper collection of funk. Then I got a booking in Japan in 1989, and it was there that I did my first deep funk set. It went over big, lots of lovely Japanese girls. Hell yes, I’m going to make a scene out of this.
Is this when you started the residency at Madame JoJo’s?
I was doing a Thursday at the Wag called Leave My Wife Alone. I did that for a year, but it wasn’t my party, and the financials weren’t really right. I then moved to a few other spots with DJ Snowboy (Mark Cotgrove), but they were up and down, and he moved on. Finally, I went to look at Madame JoJo’s, and the night that I went in there were a few strippers on stage and a few old guys wanking away. I loved the vibe, we came to terms and I did my first night. We had about 120 people. I went back the following week and the doorman wouldn’t let me in, I said, ‘Hell squire I’ve hired the club.’ He had me wait and a female mate I recognised came up the stairs: ‘Keb what are you doing here?’
‘I’m here to DJ.’
‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘I’ll tell Stanley and the lot to stay around.’
‘Who the fuck is that? It was Stanley Kubrick, and he was filming something for Eyes Wide Shut in the club. The same night Time Out sent a reporter to check on the party, the reporter comes in and sees Stanley and the wee fellow, what’s his name?
Yeah, him his wife and the lot of them, and the reporter writes it up: ‘Amazing underground spot, frequented by Stanley Kubrick and Tom Cruise. Keb Darge, deep funk, London’s best kept secret…’ We went on for 18 years, packed solid every fucking week.
It was a great space, sleazy in just the right way. Same with the block it was on.
It’s all been gentrified now.
It was fun playing a night there with you, you stayed for a bit to see if I was ok, and mysteriously you disappeared until near the end.
Yeah, I had a Japanese rope bondage master tying up my then wife at home, so I ducked out to enjoy that, you had things under control lad.
So out of this period comes your compilations for BBE?
I think that started in ’94. I used to stand outside certain clubs giving out flyers for Deep Funk and there was always this other chap doing the same for his night. His name was Pete Adarkwah and we became mates. He came to the night and stood in the DJ booth with me, he was like: ‘Holy Fuck, I’ve never heard these tunes, you have to do a compilation for my label.’
I said, ‘Nah I don’t want cunts like Gilles Peterson stealing the tunes and pretending, they discovered them.’ [laughter] Pete was very cool about it, he assured me they would put my name on the cover and credit me with the compilation so people will know and, boom, off we went. Next, I was in NYC, and Kenny Dope and Jazzy Jeff were reaching out to me, I did a night with some cunt named Dennis Can or something [laughter] It was really the success of those compilations with BBE that had me flying around the world and spending a lot of time in Japan.
How did you become friends with Sharon Jones?
Sharon and them [her band the Dap-Kings] when they first played at the Jazz Café in London, the venue never booked them hotel rooms, so I let the whole lot stay at my place. So Sharon said, ‘Fuck the Jazz Café I’ll sing at your night for free.’ She knew the crowd at JoJo’s would be into it, we became fast friends after that. She was amazing, the perfect artist. What a terrible heartbreaking loss.
How did you start Kay-Dee records with Kenny Dope?
Well Kenny and I had a chat about it, he had the idea to do a label, and the next thing I know there were T-shirts, and the label was starting, he moved very quickly. Initially I was feeding him the tunes to go after and license, but then I was losing interest in funk, and left it to Kenny. He wasn’t interested in rockabilly. It wouldn’t have fit the MAW image. I love Kenny and he is still buying and digging. When he comes to London, we go have dinner.
This deep funk movement was blossoming, and a lot of hip hop influenced DJs started collecting pricey 45s and doing nights. It felt staid and nerdish, and I remember you telling me then that you were getting restless and needed to move on.
Great unknowns were getting harder and harder to discover, things were stagnating. I wouldn’t play records I thought were substandard just because they fit the genre, so I felt stuck on a number of levels. I wanted something fresh, but also wanted to maintain a high level of quality. Funk never possessed me as much as northern soul, or even rockabilly. I knew the funk was good, but rockabilly resonated with me, and I was using my funds from being a funk DJ to buy loads of rockabilly 45s. There was a lot of uncharted territory to explore. So I decided to do a second night at JoJo’s where I played some northern and rockabilly. I began doing a night, Lost & Found, with Andy Smith, and it really took off. The funk night stayed steady, perhaps some fall off, but this new night began getting lines down the block.
Around this time, you are also starting to add in some surf sounds…
Aye, surf and ’50s rhythm & blues, some big northern tunes as well. I knew this crowd had never heard most of these records, so I was excited to share the discoveries. Lo and behold lots of people started copying the format. Suddenly there were numerous new vintage DJs in London! (There had been proper underground rockabilly DJs there since the seventies but they had kept it to themselves.)
So how do you end up leaving London and going to the Philippines?
Oh well this spectacular bitch – gestures to his wife, the lovely Edith – met this absolutely wonderful woman and we went to the Philippines in 2008 to get married, and also see where she grew up, a province called Eastern Samar. We flew out there, and I’m in this small village and Edith is asking me, ‘Are you all right honey? You aren’t speaking much.’ I was silent for days.
I regret missing that period of your life [laughter]
I was overwhelmed, I loved it there, I felt so at home and relaxed. I asked her if we could live there, and then I spoke with her father about land and it was very affordable. We purchased a lot and set about building a place. My idea was once the house was constructed, I would leave London, make Samar our home base, and I would DJ in Japan and south-east Asia. So away we went, and I had just set up monthlies in Japan and this great club in Shanghai when unfortunately, the typhoon hit.
It sounds like it was utterly devastating.
Aye it trashed the house and the land. The damage was epic, there were over 10,000 dead, I was pulling out dead bodies from the debris and sea for three weeks. My adrenalin was on overdrive.
I remember you telling me that while out looking for bodies you started finding records on the beach.
Yes, an old radio station DJ from Manila had been wiped away with his house, and there were his records scattered along the beach, mixed with bodies everywhere, some were bodies that had already been buried and they had resurfaced from their graves as a result of the tsunami. It was otherworldly, the smell of the decomposing bodies, the sadness.
I remember there were lots of issues with the recovery as well, issues with supplies and funding, we were emailing, and you had me write to a few people to get the word out.
Yes, I was warring with the mayor and the government over the corruption. A month or so after the tsunami we moved to Manila and we were staying with a schoolteacher who was into northern soul in his younger days, he was very direct with me, he said: ‘Look Keb they aren’t going to come and arrest you, they will just come and shoot the lot of us, and that will be the end of your complaints. You had better go, I don’t want my daughter shot, and I’d rather stay alive as well.’ So we fucked off back to London, to the grey misery!
I am happy you both survived and am also impressed that you and Edith began collaborating as DJs as well.
We were doing that before we left London, Edith was playing with me at JoJo’s and we had done several compilations together. When Edith first arrived in London, I got a phone call from John Manship; ‘Keb I just bought a warehouse from the States, there are 70,000 ’50s records in there and I haven’t a clue what they are, do you want to come and assess and perhaps do some northern trades?’ I thought, hell her first week in the country and I am dragging her to go look at 45s. I pitched it as a trip to the country. She was enthusiastic and started selecting records from the collection, she put together about 200 45s that she liked, and eventually she wanted to play them, so she began playing at JoJo’s. It was very innocent, me being the collector I would only play rarities, but Edith had never really heard Elvis or Chuck Berry, and she would play those along some £400 record she selected. It was a fresh combination, and her playing got a real response from the floor.
Playing and collecting as long as I have, it doesn’t matter to me if something is super rare, or well known, or inexpensive. It’s how the particular record moves me and how it fits together and creates a mood or arc.
Aye, I remember James Trouble, who used to run the Deep Funk nights, putting a post up on the Deep Funk website saying, “‘ went to Madame JoJo’s and it was just full of young girls dancing who didn’t know the labels or the songs’. and I thought hmmm that’s a bad thing?
Tell me about your relationship with Wacko Maria [Japanese high-end streetwear label, created in 2005 by Atsuhiko Mori]. I’ve seen you doing some parties for them with some lowlife DJ from California [laughter]
Yeah, before the Covid shite they would have DJ Harvey and I over to do their Christmas parties for them, the Wacko Maria boys are great fellas. Mori really saved me during Covid, he gave me loads of ridiculous jobs to do, so that he could give me money when I had nothing coming in. I would programme music for his shops. He was very gracious, a magnificent lad, and I am indebted to him for the support. Harvey and I are his two favourite DJs, so he has us out every Christmas to play their party. Mori has become a fiend for the garage sound and is spending a king’s ransom building a collection.
How did you get into garage?
Since ’89 I had been playing in Japan and I would always get a booking in Kobe. But when I was living in the Philippines, I couldn’t get a date there, and I asked the promoters why? ‘Well, Keb, Kobe has gone completely northern soul. It’s the northern soul capital of the world’. And I thought: oh really?, and I decided I’m going to get some northern soul tunes, but not the style already canonised, I’m going to get this more vicious sound, like The Burning Bush’s ‘Keeps On Burning’, which is too white and rock’n’roll for today’s northern scene, which is primarily soulful. I got on to this big dealer Barry Wickham from San Francisco. I said: ‘Barry I want records like The Seven Dwarves’ ‘Stop Girl’
‘Well, Keb’, he informed me, ‘that style is called garage.’ I was like what?! He played me the Savoys and the Omens, and I was blown away. Jesus fuck this is so good. I sold my rockabilly records, and went full on mental for this garage sound. Like deep funk it will take some time to get this fully off the ground, but it is already happening, people are gravitating toward it. The energy, the intensity, and it’s my mission to make it go huge. It’s a lot like techno, except it’s music.
Check Keb’s vivid on the ground account of the typhoon for Huffington Post –>
© Dennis Kane
This interview was conducted and written by Dennis Kane.