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Interview: Keb Darge

It's '50s and '60s surf, rockabilly and tittyshakers from this famed crate-digger on Friday evening. He tells us why still he does it.
By Sep 3, 2013 Nightlife

The music director of a local Shanghai nightclub recently told me he has a electro DJ that performs exclusively sans headphones: he just lines up the little bits that represent where the beats are on his DJ computer program, then throws it out to the floor. This is pretty much the opposite of what Keb Darge is about.

Since the '70s, he's been one of the world's purveyors of rockabilly, northern soul and funk: music that requires working more with texture and mood then calculating beats per minute. Darge first got gigs as a DJ in his native Scotland before moving down to London. Around 1997 he started his famed and influential residency at Madame Jojo's in London on Saturdays, playing mostly rocking tunes from the 1950s.

The late 1990s also saw him release multiple series of compilation albums, including working with some unexpected partners in the world of hip hop. Unimpressed with the scene in London (“going downhill,” he says), Darge recently moved to his wifes's native Philippines. There he plays some gigs around Manilla and basks in the “sunshine and happy people.”

Shelter big chief V-Nuts is bringing Darge and his big stack of records over for this gig on Friday, which will be his only date on the Chinese Mainland. V-Nuts and his Quality Control cadets will be in support. Cover is 50rmb and doors open at 10pm.

Mr. Darge politely obliged to give us an interview about his years of DJing and music collecting, why he doesn't play house music, his secret stash of floor fillers and the chances you'll see him bust out a move on the dance floor.


SmSh: You're playing at The Shelter, a venue that almost exclusively caters to electronic / hip hop fans. Is this typical for you? Do you cater your set depending on the venue?

Keb Darge: I do prepare a box of emergency records in case the crowd know nothing I am playing, but they consist of classics in the same genres I play. So it will all be '50s and '60s surf, rockabilly, tittyshakers, R&B, [and] northern soul. I never liked electronic music, and never played it. I do find however that nowadays more trendy youngsters are into my stuff, and it's just kids or old crusties into the electronic stuff. Never been to Shanghai yet, though.

SmSh: Is there a specific reason you don't DJ, say, house and hip hop, but do play funk, soul, etc?

KD: Simple reason... I never liked house or hip hop. I had all the big DJs playing tunes to try and convert me, but it never worked. It all sounded too contrived to me.

SmSh: The “Lost and Found” series is one of my favorites. It features another artist known to The Shelter, Cut Chemist. You also compiled with RZA. How did these relationship develop? Do you interact a lot with DJs who typically work in genres like hip hop?

KD: Strangely, though I never liked hip hop, I built up a strong following among hip hop producers because of my record collection I suppose. Lucas [RZA], and Josh [DJ Shadow], were personal friends of mine through record collecting before I actually knew they were DJs or roducers. Kenny Dope used to get me over to the US to DJ, and he introduced me to most of the others. There was a period when my flat in London always had some producer type trawling through my records recording breaks on a DAT [laughs].

SmSh: What do you say to the criticism that the music you spin is “old?” I've always said that music not heard is new to the listener. Does that sound about right?

KD: I agree entirely with the “if it's not heard before then it's new” theory. I can't understand why anybody would want to listen to sub-standard music simply because it was new. They would then miss out on years of great pleasure hearing great tunes.

SmSh: Why did you move to Asia? How has that worked out for you?

KD: I moved because my wife wanted to come home and London was going downhill, and getting too expensive, and because I like sunshine and happy people, and I get that here. My work dropped off a lot for the first year, but it's picking up nicely now.

SmSh: This is a bit abstract, but do you find yourself attracted specifically to music that chronicles life different from your own life or era? Do you see that fascination related to your moving to the Philippines?

KD: Nah, I'm not that fancy. I just love records that I haven't heard before that make me feel good when I hear them. Even the move to the Philippines is just as simple as the answer above. I see most people of the world as being basically the same inside once you pass the cultural differences. Virtually everybody here is a Catholic, and I believe in no magic fairies in the sky, so that confused some people at first, but now I have a lot of good friends here.

SmSh: At their peak, what were the nights at Madame Jojo's like?

KD: At there peak? [Laughs.] They never stopped peaking. It was full for over 16 years, and still full when I did my last spot. I been in touch with what's going on in London now, and it seems that rockabilly music and fashion is huge. Lots of new teenage bands playing rockabilly now, and lots more clubs and bars playing it than ever before. My mate who took over my spot at Jo Jo's has been asked to do a tour of London schools teaching 15 and 16-year-olds about being a rockabilly DJ. That's what they want now.

When my son was at school he had lessons in how to scratch and mix which I told him would die soon. He thought I was an old fool at the time, but now he admits I was right. I reckon the nights at Jo Jo's are still peaking without me. I did have a short period where I realized funk was dying a death, and I needed to change. Luckily I already had one of the best rockin' collections in the world [laughs].

SmSh: Have you had much of a chance to interact with some of the older musicians whose music you spin? Any good stories?

KD: I tracked down lots of the old artists, and had many of them in tears when I gave them their royalties check, and told them how popular there music was in the UK. Most of them were total failures first time round. I still get Rickey Calloway thanking me about one a month. That's been going on for almost 15 years, and he is in his seventies now, but he still sends the thank-you messages on Facebook.

Lovely man.

SmSh: Does it actively bother you that much of the music you work with is considered lost, that many people have no idea about it? Or are you Zen about it?

KD: It doesn't worry me, cause I would be out of a job if everybody knew all the good records. It does confuse me that people are happy to listen to shit instead of making an effort to find something better.

SmSh: Your Wikipedia page mentions you started as a dancer. Can we expect you to bust any moves in Shanghai?

KD: [Laughs] I do still dance, but I'm an old fart now. It would be like watching an old video of me dancing in slow motion.


Catch Keb Darge this Friday at Quality Control's night at The Shelter. 50rmb. More details here.


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  • stokeson45

    Always loved this crotchety man and his fantastic 45s.

  • Heatwolves

    solid interview. looking forward to the show.

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