Femi Fem – DJ, writer, producer
We’ve been masterminding our next YMC Journal all summer and it’s a special one! Enjoy a deep dive into the world of our friend Femi Fem, an iconic stalwart of the London music scene.From hosting legendary parties to forming Young Disciples, Mobo winner and Mercury Prize-nominated Femi set the tone for the acid jazz movement in London. We sit down to talk about the seminal album ‘Road To Freedom,’ an album that feels as pertinent now as it did when first released in 1991, and sharing the dancefloor with some greats.
Great to chat with you. Could we start by talking about the Young Disciples, the band you were in with Carleen Anderson and Marco Nelson in the early 1990s? How did you guys meet and what inspired the music?
The Young Disciples emerged from the warehouse party scene of the late 1980s. Back then, the younger generation was creating a new, multi-cultural identity. Before moving to Fulham, Marco lived in Reading, just west of London, and was part of the music scene there. We first met at the Wag club in Soho – one of the most influential clubs in London at the time. We connected over our shared love of music, and he helped me spread the word on the parties that Norman Jay and Judge Jules were putting on at the time, Family Funktion and Shake ’n’ Fingerpop. Of course, back then, the only way to promote something was through word-of-mouth.
We both loved the James Brown funk and decided it would be a great idea to get his band the JB’s over from America. We actually called Bobby Byrd, bandleader and James Brown’s right-hand man, directly at his home from Marco’s grandfather’s flat. His pops wasn’t too happy about the phone bill! This was a fresh move as a lot of the music at that time sampled their music, and we were playing their records in the clubs and at warehouse parties. Bobby was married to Vicki Anderson, the singer from the James Brown revue, who is Carleen’s mum. We first met Carleen at the JB’s gig we promoted at the Town & Country club [now called the Forum] in north London in 1987.
So that’s how we hooked up. Together with other musicians and like-minded folk like Demus, our engineer, we started working on creating the sound that you hear on the album. And that sound was born out of the mix of cultures, tastes and passion of the people involved. And we spoke out about injustice. Not in anger, but hope; which is much more powerful.
And that album is Road to Freedom (1991). It ended up being the Young Disciples only album. But it is hailed as a genuine classic, and a seminal record of the genre often referred to as acid jazz. In fact, it was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Award in the inaugural year. What was the music scene like back then?
Well, we were aware of lots of different things going on that were not part of the everyday narrative. So, we brought our own, new perspectives which we couldn’t help expressing through the music. The first Iraq war was going on, and Kuwait had just been invaded. It genuinely felt like a dangerous time, so that’s why we ended up writing the lyrics, “What have we learned from history? Apparently nothing.”
We also wanted to move forward, away from the old-guard soul scene. There were too many people that loved the music but did not really approve of the types of people making that music. So, our influences were really mixed, and inspired by the different kinds of people who we hung out with at parties, the studio, etc.
Acid jazz was the fun title that came out from Gilles [Peterson] and Marco playing together at a night called Babylon at the West End club Heaven. They were playing a fusion of jazz, hip hop, reggae, afro-funk, jungle, rare groove and funk. The crowd was a collage of art students, soul and funksters, London kids and just about anyone switched onto this meshed up soundtrack.
How would you describe your sound?
It was an attempt to fuse all our influences to create something new. Through my family, who were a central part of the Sierra Leonean community in London, I was exposed to the West African sound growing up. Highlife and Afrobeat formed the backbeat of my youth. And Marco – thanks to his mum – had a quality Northern Soul and Motown record collection. He also had a great selection of Fela Kuti records which he played to me. So our tastes immediately resonated. The connection between James Brown and Fela Kuti fascinated us both. We were also into artists like Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye; musicians who sang a kind of sceptical optimism.
And in our younger raving days, we’d both frequented blues dances and reggae soundclashes. So, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Studio 1 and rocksteady were also part of our own gumbo stew. And we got a lot of the rocksteady tunes from the legendary Peckings record shop on Askew Road in Shepherd’s Bush. And, of course, jazz. And vibraphone aficionado Johnny Lytle played on the Young Disciples track ‘Freedom Suite’. Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis and the JB’s also played on the album, and they probably play more jazz than funk.
We were already playing hip hop in our DJ sets then as well. It was still relatively young back then, not mainstream like it is today. We’d mix in tracks by artists like A Tribe Called Quest and producer Marley Marl. The rare groove scene had been around a while at that point too with DJs like Norman Jay, Lascelle Gordon, Paul “Trouble” Anderson, Steve Jervier and Barrie Sharpe. These guys were all great selectors who helped me find a musical path. That sound also helped to give us a dance floor momentum.
And I was also hunting down the exciting new tracks of the day from specialist record shops like Black Market in Soho, Honest Jon’s on Portobello Road and Red Records in Brixton. Records like ‘Hold On’ by En Vogue and ‘So You Like What You See’ by Samuelle. And the first Guy album. In fact, swingbeat was also an influence on the album.
What legacy do you think the acid jazz scene left behind?
We were part of a turning point in musical history. People were experimenting with electronic music, and hip hop and dance music were both coming of age. We also began to hear ‘real’ musical compositions that stumped all the doubters. It was a music that could be both meaningful and enjoyable. You just need to look at who has cited the acid jazz/rare groove scene as an influence – everyone from Amy Winehouse, Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx to Jamiroquai. I’ve played with DJs from the jungle, drum ’n’ bass and UK garage scenes and it’s interesting how many mention the Young Disciples as an influence. So, it really is a sound that has travelled across a broad musical spectrum. Today you can see a clear family tree all the way to grime and Modern Afrobeats.
You mentioned earlier that you were already involved in the London music scene before the Young Disciples.
My first party was Norman and Joey Jay’s Good Times with my school friend Alec Selby. The party was a takeover of his sister’s flat. Every time the sound system broke down, Joey would have to rewire it. Norman would put on Loose End’s ‘Hangin’ On a String’ to placate the crowd and then “wheel and come again” to start it up again. Necessity was the mother of invention back in those days.
This was right at the beginning of the warehouse parties, Shake & Fingerpop and Family Funktion; so this is before rave and acid house. London was a bit more feral and run down then so Norman and co. were finding these abandoned spaces and setting up their equipment. When the authorities arrived, we soon realised it was better to put the middle-class, white guys (Judge Jules, Mark Rayner, Dan Benedict) in front of them to appease them. We could be political by stealth. And we laughed all the way. Now, these empty spaces are penthouse flats, shopping malls and corporate offices.
And, of course, there is your own club, Rotation.
I ran Rotation with my partner Chris Crooks from 1994 until 2001. In the past few years, we’ve done a few revival parties. The most recent one was back in February, and we did a New Year’s Eve party at our original spot, Subterania on Ladbroke Grove. Loose Ends did a live PA at that one. And when things get back to normal, we’re looking to do another big party there.
Rotation was – and is – built around the idea of an inclusive night for everyone, with a forward-thinking, positive outlook. It’s about reaching out to one another. This means we’ve built a chic, musically open-minded crowd.
The night is developed around a party atmosphere with funk-based, hip hop energy, reminiscent of the late ‘80s and early ’90s. Over the years, we’ve had some big-name guests. Goldie popped along with Bjork when they were dating. Spike Lee was last man standing on the dancefloor when the bouncers kindly let him be. Jamiroquai, Omar and Daddy G have all come along. Prince even came down too. And Puff Daddy (before he became P Diddy) bought all the DJs champagne once for playing records from his Bad Boy label – before they were being played out in New York. Biggie Smalls, Maxwell, Guru and Busta Rhymes all partied with us pre-smartphone days.
And let me give a shout out to the DJs who have played with us. Alex (Alex Baby) Turnbull, DJ Dodge, Manny Norte, Seb Chew, Matt White, DJ Swing, T-Money, Mark Ronson, Semtex and Mase from De La Soul. Wycliff Jean from the Fugees played too on Carnival weekend one year. DJ Lonyo of Comme Ci Comme Ca fame started his music career with us, so we were the first to hear his UK garage hit ‘Summer Of Love’. There was also the night Sisqo previewed his worldwide hit ‘Thong Song’.
Chris and I also won a Mobo award for Rotation.
You’ve DJ’ed all around the world too. Any highlights?
Many. I’ve played in Japan, Australia and the USA amongst others. I’ve played with Gang Starr and Jon Lucien as well, and I’ve DJ’ed at parties in London for Janet Jackson and Prince. I had an amazing night in Hong Kong once playing at a Gil Scott-Heron concert. He’d lost his passport so the promoter, Mikey Smith, had to spend the day convincing border control that his ID was legitimate. Eventually, we got him through, and the crowd was none the wiser. I managed to get my copy of his album It’s Your World signed by him too. Recently, I tested a theory by playing some Fela tunes. Paul McCartney came off the dancefloor to commend me on the records. I must admit I was cheating as I know he’s a Fela fan. I could have chosen the Meters, but I went with the afrobeat instead.
And, of course, you’ve always been working as a writer and producer. Can you tell us about some of the projects you have worked on over the years?
Recently I’ve been involved in a collective call The Eye of the High. Watch out for high-quality sounds coming from them soon. We’re modelling ourselves on the peace, love and understanding of old school soul and jazz – with an eye to the future. The counterculture of protest as manifest across the arts is also a big part. And yes, I’ve worked with many great musicians, singers, producers and technicians – its a very extended family.
And you also have your own radio show on Mi-Soul.
Yes, in the show I aim to forge a map around the world of music encompassing all the styles that have influenced, enthused and entertained me and my scene through the experiences and places I’ve been. Added into that, I drop timely elements – whether it’s something going on in the world at a meta scale or something that I’ve noticed personally during that week.
I also use the show to pay respect to the greatest – whether that is a show devoted to Stevie [Wonder] or Aretha [Franklin], playing a spectrum of their tunes, or to somebody that has made particular strides, where the music makes sense to what they are about – whether that be my mum or Muhammad Ali.
During lockdown, I wanted to bring in poignant lyrics, contemporary and historical, to give a positive, yet reflective, outlook to what’s going on right now.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in DJing and producing today?
Make sure that you enjoy what you’re doing. Be 100 per cent about it and set your sights high. It’s up to you to imagine what you can do, then do it. Look with your eyes wide open. I always like the idea that inspiration is everywhere; you just have to find it. Look in unusual and varied places as you can never tell where the brightest ideas will spring from.
Femi Fem’s show is on Mi-Soul radio every Sunday from 7pm-9pm