Few DJs on the planet command as much respect as Fabio. Tony Nwachukwu goes deep with one of London dance music's true pioneers.
That set the stage for Fabio the jungle DJ. Jungle was a genre he helped establish along with Grooverider at the influential club night Rage, which took place at Heaven from 1988 through 1993. As Joe Muggs wrote in his review of last year's 30 Years Of Rage compilation, Fabio and Grooverider's upstairs room at the Charing Cross club emerged from the acid house scene to become "one of the key crucibles for a much harder, darker, blacker sound and scene that would eventually become jungle and drum & bass."
CDR's Tony Nwachukwu spoke to Fabio in depth about his 30-plus years as a DJ. What you find below is in fact two conversations edited into one. The first discussion took place in front of a live audience at RA's twenty four/seven party in London last December; the second interview was a follow-up phone conversation between Fabio and Nwachukwu earlier this year. The pair talk about changes in technology (Fabio began mixing cassette tapes on a ghetto blaster, and currently creates playlists on rekordbox), the difficulties of mixing jungle records and what precisely has fuelled his decades-long thirst for pushing things forward.
Tell me about your first DJ set.
Well, I didn't aspire to be a DJ at all, I wanted to be a singer. I can't believe I ever had that dream. When I was growing up, at that time, DJing was just a guy who used to play music. You used to have roadshows, guys used to carry around their equipment and have like their speakers and lights and shit like that.
My friend Colin Dale, he called me up on the landline one day and was like, "Yo, listen, can you go and do a show for me?" I said, "What do you mean, do a show?" He was like, "Look, it's this radio station, I can't do it, I don't want to piss them off." And my mum used to have this bag, she used to carry her washing in it. So I put about 60 records in the bag and staggered down to the station. I remember walking in, I was so nervous and the guy at the station went, "You're on in five minutes."
The guy at the station said, "What are you going to call yourself?" I went, "Oh, do you have to make up a name?" He said, "Yeah, just call yourself anything." The first thing that came to my mind, I was going out with this Italian girl who I went out with for about two days and she started talking about babies and she said, "If we have a baby, I want to call him Fabio." And I was like, "Slow down." But I thought, that name's cool. So when they asked, "What name do you want to be?" I said, "Fabio." And he just looked at me and was like, "What are you talking about, Fabio?" And he's like, "You're a black man!" Anyway he said, "Call yourself Pablo," after Augustus Pablo, and he was like, "That's much cooler." So when we started, the first thing I said was "DJ Fabio" and he just looked at me like, "What have you done?" I said, "Oh shit, let me change it!" And he went, "No, you can't change it."
I ended up DJing for six hours. The next DJ didn't turn up and I just caught the bug. I started getting people ringing me up, I got a response. And I was like, "Oh right, this is dope, I want to do this, this is me." The station guy was like, "For someone who's never done this before, you're really good." So he said, "Do you want to do the daytime show?" And I wasn't working at the time, so I was like, "Yeah! Fuck it." I did 1-3 PM every day, and I could hone my whole style.
What were you playing on the radio? Soul and funk essentially, right?
At the time there was the rare groove thing going on, so there was James Brown and bands like Pleasure and Slave. And we were kind of fronting that. I go back into that stuff now, I've really got back into my funk and soul.
You grew up in Brixton, so the reggae influence was there too.
Yeah, you had people like Jah Shaka. A good mate of mine tried to make him use Serato, and he was like, "Yo, brother, listen, I know you're doing your thing, but you need to start getting with the times and use Serato." [Laughs.] And Shaka still uses ceramic needles, I think he bought 25 of them in the '80s and he still uses them. For me, he's everything, that guy was without doubt the greatest influence really on me, because what he used to play, it used to be so underground. He used to care about everything that I cared about. And his music had its roots...
I was literally going to say that word—it's rooted, right?
Principled is what it is.
And he's still doing that now. And I remember, stupidly, I recently asked for a selfie with him and all his crew were like, "Don't bring that camera nowhere near Shaka, right?" I was, "All right, calm down, bro." But he's a great influence. And he's still great.
So back then, what was your approach to finding tunes and crafting your set?
Get the money from the dole office and blow it on tunes, do you know what I'm saying? And then in about '86, I was into hip-hop as well, very early electro. I remember my first gig, my first proper gig, I've got to give it up to Tim Westwood. He used to do a gig at a place called Gossips at Dean Street in the West End. Tim rang me, and he was like, "Yo, you got records, yeah?" And I was like, "Yeah." He went, "Come down." And then, you know I cut my teeth playing Gossips for Tim. Yeah, man. And then it never took off for me as a soul DJ.
Why is that? Is it because it was too competitive?
You know, at that time as well, you know, we looked up to them guys, like Paul ["Trouble"] Anderson as gods. I never ever thought I could ever be in that kind of league. They were just on another level. They'd been doing it for a while and we were young and we just thought, "Look, we're doing our thing on the radio." We were loving the radio. I think radio was massive. It become a really cool underground thing.
And also there was a really good connection between pirate radio and the clubs, right?
Yeah. So we used to do the odd club night at the Archers in Vauxhall. At this time my mum and dad were still saying, what are you doing with your life? I dropped out of college. I was a bright guy at school, they had high hopes for me and then I went to college and decided to play dominoes for three years. I became really, really good at playing dominoes. I blew it at college. It's sliding doors, innit? Maybe I would have ended up being a doctor or something like that.
Doctor Fabio, mate.
Yeah, or stacking shelves in Tesco's, one of the two.
But when you weren't on the radio, how did you practice?
Well, that's a good question, because on pirate radio back in '83, the technical aspect wasn't really there. We DJed on belt-drives, which were notoriously slow, they slurred when you started them, you couldn't even rewind the tune. They just went forward and that was it. The funny thing is, around '81, we were getting the first tapes from America which used to have mixing, and we were just like, "Wow... How are these guys doing it, what is this new form of DJing?"
Back then in England, DJs like Froggy, who was a funk DJ, he was the first one I heard mix, he used to be on a pirate station. And when I say mix… I don't mean mix like how it is now. He used to just chop tunes. He used to go from one tune to another. Before that, people in clubs would play a track and talk. They would play a track, they would say the name and make some stupid banter. That's what a DJ was. The ones you hear on the radio—that's what DJs used to do in the clubs, which now, looking back on it, is bizarre. There was a DJ called Derek B, who has passed away, he was a real pioneer too.
The problem with mixing back in the day was that it was one console, and hip-hop, funk and soul was made from live instrumentation, so it didn't have perfect timing. Everything we have today is down to Technics, because they moved the pitch. It was the first deck to ever move the pitch. So if a track was moving faster or slower, you could technically make them the same BPM, which was mind-blowing. But when I first heard about Technics I thought well, "What's the point of it?," because mixing wasn't even a thing, really. Colin, he told me about them and I was like, "Yeah, whatever." He got a pair, I don't know how he got them but I was blown away. But I didn't have decks so I couldn't practice. We used to have ghetto blasters.
So, a double cassette?
Yes, double cassette ones. In the really early days, you could attempt a form of mixing, because you had the two tracks and you could fade one into the other or play them at the same time. Playing them at the same time sounded like a pile of shit, but it was playing two records at the same time. Also, you could play a track until the end and then start the other one, which was mixing in the early days. It wasn't beat mixing. It was just the fact you were fading one track into another.
So were you around Colin's loads?
Yeah, he used to live around the corner from me. And even in the early days, we used to try and scratch and mix hip-hop, which was difficult. House is made for mixing. It's made at certain BPMs, and you had space at the beginning of tunes with just the drums, which you could mix easily. With hip-hop, you could literally mix for about 10-20 seconds and take it out. I was awful, I didn't really catch onto mixing for a long time. Some people are really naturally gifted at mixing. Colin got it straight away. I found it hard because I came from years of not mixing, of dusty needles. But you know, I got the hang of it.
Let's move to the emergence of the house scene. There was the soul scene, but people like you took the opportunity to segue into different kind of music.
I remember buying Paid In Full, by Eric B. & Rakim, from Red Records in Brixton. I thought it was just the dopest album at the time. And I remember going to buy that and a friend of mine said, "I've got this track called 'Mystery Of Love' by these guys from Chicago," and he was like, "Listen to it."
And I got home and I remember I just threw the Mr Fingers track down in the corner and I was listening to Eric B. & Rakim all night, going, "This is the most amazing album I've ever heard." And then I remember seeing it on the floor and I was going, "Oh, what's this track again?" And it put it on, and then on came the "do, do, do, do, da, da, da," and I was like, "Oh, this track's got groove, it sounds all right."
The Fingers Inc. album [Another Side] changed my life. Hearing "Never No More Lonely," and Robert Owens' voice, it was soul, new age soul. This is the first time I ever saw the link between electronic music and soul, because at the time everyone thought electronic music couldn't be soulful.
There was a real rebellion against electronic music. You know all the real heads were like, "Electronic music's soulless." And this was the first time I heard black music, guys that took stuff from Kraftwerk and they added the richness of Motown and Philadelphia International. I was the same feeling I got when I listened to The O'Jays and shit for the first time. And that was it for me. I got really into the whole Chicago house sound and then acid came along
OK. Were your soul mates happy with you?
No, not at all. They were not happy with me. I brought a couple of my mates down to Heaven and they went in there five minutes and they were going, "This is terrible music, I don't know what's happened to you. You've been exorcised, you don't even understand, like this is so far away from soul music." And I'm going, "Yeah but there is soul there." And they're like, "There ain't no soul. How can you listen to Phyllis Hyman and then listen to acid tracks? I don't understand where you see that link."
I used to have fights with these guys and they just didn't get it. So I was like, I want to leave that behind. It was a decision I had to make because it was a movement.
Tell me about that transition into house music.
With house music, you had to mix it. Funk and soul you didn't have to mix. I used to play funk tracks and the dust would settle on the needle. I managed to just pick up the needle, wipe the dust off, and put it back on. Back then no one gave a shit. But with house, we had to learn to mix. That was the first thing.
I never really thought I was going to be good enough as a house DJ. I think that's because it was the start of something new and we could be at the top of that line. I used to listen to house DJs like Colin Faver and Eddie Richards, and I never really thought I would be on a level. But you know I had an inferiority complex about DJing for a long, long time. I never thought I was good enough, ever. I only got confidence really when jungle started.
Because you were pioneering it.
We were pioneering that shit, you know what I'm saying? Whereas house, we used to go into [London record shop] Blackmarket [Records] and I used to stand up in this queue with everybody and someone would walk in and go, "Where's my records?" And they'd get a bag of records and walk out. And I used to be like, "When's that ever going to happen for me?"
And it did, eventually it happened. One of the guys that used to run Blackmarket, one day he came in and he was like, "I'm going to have a bag of records for you next time." And I was like, "You're shitting me, right?" And he was like, "No, I'm not." So I waited—and this is some ego shit—I was outside Blackmarket and waited until he was around. And I pushed everyone out of the way and was like, "My records please." And he gave me this bag and I was like, "Thank you." I walked out with everyone going, "Who the fuck's he? How did he get the records?" I was waiting for that moment for three years. That's when I knew I'd arrived, man.
How do you read the room when you're playing?
That's really important because I don't plan my sets. I always tend to go off a vibe, I tend to play something that everyone knows first and then I can get them in the palm of my hands a little bit. If you go into a club where you're not 100 percent sure what the crowd's into, I'll start with a big intro, but it's maybe not something they know, just to see what they're up for. Some crowds are different, sometimes you go out and the crowd wants to hear music they know all night, especially jungle crowds. They tend to not want to hear anything apart from 20, 30 tunes, which are the same tunes everyone else has already played, which is quite annoying sometimes. I've found you can play jungle sets on autopilot a lot of the time, I don't tend to read the crowd because all you've got to do is play big tunes. I toured America in November, and that was different because from state to state they like different shit.
Oh, OK. So tell us a bit more about that.
Some places just like their music harder than others. You go to San Francisco and it's cool because you can play whatever you want. After all, the crowd there is very nurtured, the night there, they've got a night called Stamina. It's on a Sunday night in a little room and it's really great. It's been going for about 15 years and they know what they want to hear. You can go in there and play a bunch of new stuff and they will just lap it up. I went to a few other places too, I went to Dallas and it wasn't a drum & bass crowd that wanted to hear new stuff, they were more like...
An EDM crowd maybe?
Not so much, but you get that sometimes in certain places. Florida was a bit like that, they really wanted it hard, a lot of energy, lots of big stabs and drops. Places like LA and San Francisco that have had nights for years, the crowd was very educated, and they wanted to be educated. That's the thing, you go out sometimes and you've got crowds that are like, "Yeah, what you got, you got any new shit for me?" and you go to other places and the crowds just want you to play stuff that they know.
When you're at festivals it's quite weird. You can't really go wrong because you've got 10,000 people in front of you. You can play after a very hype DJ that's got everyone going absolutely mad with their type of mixing. There are different types of mixing now. You've got the DJ that will play 100 tunes in an hour, they will literally play records to the drop and mix it out with three decks, they've got their own MC, and it's this whole euphoric, intense kinda vibe. I don't DJ like that. I'm still old school, I play the tunes.
The good thing about what you said is that you acknowledge that OK, this guy or girl has hyped it, and what you're gonna do is the opposite, you're gonna flip it and do what you were talking about earlier, where you play a track with a long, atmospheric intro, almost like re-programming the space.
Don't get me wrong, it's difficult because you're coming on after someone that's tearing the place down. I come on and I think—well, you've already booked me because I'm Fabio. You could've booked another hype DJ but that's not me. I will play a set where you have to listen to what I'm doing, and you've got to get into it that way, rather than me just creating a spark and you going with that. I can't actually DJ that quickly, I don't plan my sets so I've got to ad lib—I don't know what's coming next.
That intensity comes from DJs that really practice their set over and over again, they know exactly when the drop is going to be, they've got cue points, they're gonna mix it at a certain time, and that's their set, everywhere you go that DJ will play that set. I'm totally the opposite, everywhere you go, I will play a different set. I don't ever play the same set twice, ever. That's one thing, whether you like me or hate me, you will never hear me playing the same set twice. I've never done that in my 30, nearly 40 years of DJing. You might hear me playing a lot of the same tunes, but never in the same order. Even when I'm touring, I just tend to play even the same tracks but in a different order. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with planning a set, but it's just not me. I can't sit down and think, "Right, well, this tune, I'm gonna play it for one and a half minutes, then I'm gonna mix it out." My brain's been wired for me to do things the way I do and I can never change it.
How do you get your own style and personality across?
I've always said, style makes a good DJ. Take two DJs, let's say Randall and a warm-up DJ, and say they played in the same club, and they're playing exactly the same tunes at the same times. I'd walk in, and I'd know which one is Randall. There's a certain way Randall mixes. Like LTJ Bukem, like Andy C, like Friction, Grooverider. All of these guys are there for a reason, because they've got a unique signature, a unique style that everyone has bought into. Everyone's got a different way of doing it which is fascinating really, but I've got my way of doing it and it's not, "I'm gonna tear your nightclub to pieces"—I'm not gonna do that.
Sometimes, that's hard to accept with DJing. You walk in and a DJ has got the crowd going absolutely mad, at the end they get a minute-long standing ovation and then you've got to come on. Sometimes it's like I'm playing opera or something, but my brain is wired to know that, at the end of the day, I have been booked here for a reason. You either get into my flow or you don't get it. If you don't get it, you can go home. You know what, it works most of the time—98 percent of the time it works, because I think I know what I'm doing, so I know how to get myself out of a hole, always. It's just down to experience, I know what tunes to play just to keep the crowd there if I have to. It's a totally unconscious thing, I can't tell you how I do it, but I can do it, I've just got a way of making them stay. Whether they think I'm better than mr-the-guy-before, who was allegedly doing cartwheels and drinks a gallon of water, maybe not, but you know, I've got a way of making you listen to what I do at least, and then you can gather your own opinions.
That's just the experience of DJs knowing what to do and keeping the crowd there no matter what. I do think that's important. You've got to entertain them, they've paid their money and you've got to make them have a good night whether they like you or not. You've also got people that we converted and come along and tell you they came to listen to your set at X club and it was fucking amazing. That kind of thing makes doing what I do special, it makes me want to do it forever. When someone goes, "My mate took me out and I didn't know what to expect and I had a fucking amazing night"—those things are special. That's the buzz of DJing that will never go, when you know you've made someone's night. There are so many different styles and it's great to see that me and Grooverider are still relevant now.
I think the thing about drum & bass is there's a fantastic lineage there, there are a lot of silos for sure, but yourself, Groove and a lot of you guys that pioneered the scene, there has always been an acknowledgement of the past. By and large, the scene has always respected the lineage and the history.
It is amazing, and the case in point is Chase & Status coming back with their return to jungle. It was great because they've got this whole new bunch of kids into jungle and they brought back all the old-school DJs, like DJ Ron, Brockie and Frostie, they brought us all back man, they brought us to these young crowds. They mixed it up and brought some of the new guys in too, but it was great. There's always that respect for jungle and how it started, and the fact it's been going for so long is down to the DJs that were around the beginning.
Now, to be honest, it's stronger than ever. I think you've got a whole new wave of kids that are fascinated with jungle, the way that I was fascinated with rare groove back in the day. You're always fascinated by things that you missed, you know, I remember hearing about Woodstock when I was growing up I'd be thinking, "Fucking hell, that sounds amazing!" and you sit there and think to yourself, "Wow, I wish I was around at that time." You're now getting that with jungle, with all these kids wishing they were around in '96 and '98. There's that real homage to jungle that I think will always be around. People are still fascinated.
Absolutely. How different is your approach to mixing jungle and drum & bass in comparison to other genres? Say, hip-hop or something?
Yeah, well there's even a massive difference between drum & bass and jungle. Jungle was made when people didn't really technically know what they were doing. Sometimes you're playing jungle and some of the edits are so bad, because no one cared. That was the connection to punk music. Here are these kids that aren't musically trained at all and they just went in and created a sound they like. And jungle was that, it wasn't technical. No one had a clue what they were doing back in the day, and that was why it was so magical. It was warm, un-technical and all about the vibe, it's not about technique. You listen to jungle tunes, some of them you can hear are so badly mastered, they sound absolutely awful. But that's what made it so special. Jungle's a vibe. It was just these guys that were just going on liking the vibe of the tune, not caring if the drums or the vocals are out, or if the chords are out of key—I don't give a shit, it all sounds good to me.
I also think that the good thing about jungle, and this is what drum & bass took, at least initially anyway, was the fact that there was a really strong template to work with. Obviously using the Amen break, there were a few key breaks that kinda made the template. So, if you had your Amen break, your tuned 808, your sampled chord and your vocal sample then you're good.
I've got to do a jungle mix in a minute and I'm shitting myself because it's all over the shop. You're never going to get used to mixing jungle because it's all over the place. You get different variations with sonics, some tunes sound really good and some sound awful, but you love them and have to play them. That goes back to the time where we were all playing these tunes and they were badly mastered—at the time no one ever went up to you and went, "I really like that tune but the master's really bad on it"—no one ever said that, ever. No one ever said they liked the tune but the mastering sounds shit, no one ever cared.
Yeah, but also because it was new and fresh, right?
Absolutely, it was the tune first. We heard the beat, we heard the drums and were like, "That's a tune, man!" That's all that mattered in those days. Now, it is different. Drum & bass is very technical, maybe not so much liquid because it goes off a vibe more than technique, but Noisia, Black Sun Empire have taken the sonics to another level. Pendulum, Bad Company, Ed Rush & Optical's Wormhole and the Virus [Recordings] stuff, they were the start of that, "We're gonna put some technique in this shit."
Science PHD shit, yeah.
Yeah, these geeky little kids put some science in it, which put off a lot of people because it got too analytical. I saw a lot of people not liking the way jungle had gone in those days, and not feeling like they were in it, because it got really technical to a point where it took the emotion out of it.