INTERVIEW: Keb Darge “You can make a happier world with good quality music”

I was born in Dufftown, not far from the Glenfiddich distillery,” says Keb Darge, cradling a bourbon in a corner of the French House on Soho’s Dean Street. “I miss the civilisation of the Highlands, which may sound weird, but I’ve also lived in a wee jungle island in the Philippines and I found that there was the same honesty I had in the Highlands. I miss the pure honesty of village life.”

Keb is that rare thing: a man who has lived life to the full and in doing so, and perhaps because he did, has managed to hold on to his sanity and wit. Eyes that are preternaturally bright fix me as he laughs. “My dad was in the war, saw death all around him, came back and told me there is no god. He said, but you do have to go to Sunday school, so give them six pence, but remember son… it’s all shite.

He speaks his mind with a refreshing, flinty logic, his ideas tumbling and flowing in great, ringing salvos of Highland humour. Our drinks finished, he goes to the bar and returns, already speaking before he sits. “I don’t like the bankers, I don’t like the rich elite, I don’t like the corporations. And I get irritated by stupidity and rudeness, and by this new fear of argument and debate.”

But what of his taekwondo skills? I ask, shifting gears. “Well,” he says, “I got a kicking at school from an English boy, and it was such a good kicking that I asked him how he did it. ‘Taekwondo’, he said. So I joined the taekwondo club.” And as a taekwondo master today, it is with equal commitment that he approaches life, politics (calling Corbyn “a very decent boy“) and DJing, taking no prisoners when discussing others who have played a careful sell-out game and all for the improving health of their bank balances.

He’s one of the UK’s and Europe’s most celebrated DJs and has an established global reputation for progressively curated sets, while also keeping a regular slot on Soho Radio. Keb had been around the northern soul and funk scenes for decades and began his career as a Wigan Casino dancer. He moved to London at the age of 22 and helped bring the northern soul scene to London. But he still had a loft filled with records he had picked up in the US, a trove that was later to drive his foray into ‘deep funk’.

I get fed up playing the same records,” he says. “I’m an obsessive compulsive, so when I got into certain styles of music I just had to buy everything, the unknown ones and the rare obscure ones that nobody knows, but then once you’ve done all that, you say ‘Right, what is there now?’

On the northern soul scene the DJs would play a record, then give you a history of who wrote and produced it, and I still do a little bit of that. But the scene is split in two now. There’s a crowd who are interested in where a record comes from, and the other side are dressed in their Wigan [Casino] clothes, who just waddle about to the same 500 records every week and rave about everything they hear on Facebook.

The original reason for the all-nighters was that you had to travel to one to hear this music. The music wasn’t being played anywhere else. I’d travel from Scotland for 12 hours and it was worth it. I mean, even here in Soho there’s probably a bar or café playing ‘Do I Love You’ by Frank Wilson,” he laughs, by way of illustrating just how commonplace the scene has become. “Sadly, the northern scene is not attractive to youngsters now.

So then you realise you have to move scenes to keep it interesting for yourself. I run out of enthusiasm when I run out of records to buy in that style. In the northern soul scene, yeah, new records were turning up, but I’m not going to pay five or eight grand for a record. It was the same with the funk thing, I’d just run out of new discoveries.

There was some substandard stuff turning up, and the American dealers were wanting a grand a time, only because it was rare. But sometimes the records were rare, but shite. So I ploughed into rockabilly, and now ’60s garage. There are collectors who know everything, but I don’t know them. I’m more interested in the crowd I play to.”

Keb’s musical knowledge is nonpareil and by the late 2000s he had diversified into ’50s rockabilly, original RnB and surf music and with Little Edith compiled a series of albums for BBE Records, and worked with Kenny Dope for compilations on Kay-Dee Records. He also collaborated with Paul Weller in 2009 on the well-received ‘Lost & Found’ compilation. To keep creatively busy is to keep the powder dry and the blade sharp.

After the northern scene, I got into the deep funk thing which had the roots of house, and I thought, yeah, young people should be into this. When that became stagnant, I got into the rockabilly thing, and when I did a rockabilly night at Madame JoJo’s on Friday nights, it was absolutely packed with young people enjoying themselves.

If a DJ actually plays the stuff he likes himself, then people will leave with big smiles on their faces, and it won’t be a case of ‘I saw the famous DJ! I saw the famous DJ!’ Which is when people turn up for a name and pretend to enjoy themselves, instead of thinking ‘What the fuck was that tune he just played, it was brilliant!’

I was northern soul boy, then I was funk boy, then I was rockabilly ’50s RnB boy, and now I’m ’60s garage boy. I’m just starting this. The ’60s garage thing is a whole new concept. It is completely new to most folks.

I played the other day in Dundee and the crowd response was ‘Keb, I’ve never heard music like that in my life!’ And when the crowd gets excited, I get excited. But my best response lately has been in Beirut. It’s very lively there on Mar Mikhael Street, oh yes.

And now I’m seeing the garage thing start to take off. When you actually play great records to people like that young woman there,” he says, pointing at a nearby lissom blonde, “in an environment where there are people around her dancing, so she listens, then you’ll engage her. Some scenes write off people for being not open to good music, but it’s only because they haven’t been exposed to it before.

On the London club scene, he is adamant: “Now it’s shite. It was easy before, be it at the Wag or the Brain clubs. Most of the folks who ran the London clubs were involved in music in some way, but nowadays what little is left of the club scene is run by 12-year-old businessmen who have no interest at all in what’s being played and have no long-term idea of how to build a following for their venue. You tell them it takes a few months to build a following, and that they’ll have it for 10 years, but they’re not interested. But that’s not the world, it’s just London.

But the music world in general? Kids are looking for something that’s new, something different. Young folk are in real danger of all becoming consumer robots, but some want to be… rebellious, punky, different.

There is change afoot, and Keb’s experience and judgement have a role to play. “Come midnight in a club, it’s the young women who start dancing and showing an interest, and it’s those young women who will think afterwards, with any luck, ‘Let’s go there again’. Women respond faster to music, as far as I can tell.”

What a reversal, I suggest, with men who once danced floorboards to splinters now preferring to be the wall flowers. “A DJ should inspire,” he says, “should get you used to a new record, then drop it, then play something else, which makes you listen, should make you keep up. And learn. I do believe that if I can get folk to listen to really good satisfying music, it makes them happier people. They’ll be happier and feel richer in themselves.”

Then he grins wolfishly and sums up everything he’s about in one guileless sentence: “You can make a happier world with good quality music, and I really Adam and Eve that.”

Jason Holmes