90s clubland mischief with author DJ Dribbler
Harry's Kebabs is one of the only books I’ve read from cover to cover in less than a day. I think it was because of just how much I believed in the characters and what they got up to. These were the older fellas I’d meet at my first after parties who dressed sharply like gangsters or football hooligans, but who probably did no worse than dabble in little bits of this and that. The way they told stories about bygone scenes (and the hijinks that went with them) would make me assume that things must have been better in their day, but they’d have a bit more class than to make such a statement themselves; always remaining respectful of the young ‘uns for as long as they provided an audience.
Although technically a work of fiction, it was no surprise when I found out that Harry’s Kebabs is very much based on reality. The characters are a conflation of various people that author Russ Forman (AKA DJ Dribbler) has met down the years, and the plot is made up of stories they have told him. When the book talks of a brothel in Clitterhouse Road, it’s actually true. So too is the concept of a group of roguish scenesters getting by on income from emptying quiz machines in pubs.
The golden thread between the characters is a very real kebab shop in King’s Cross (I remember this place well – the doner meat was absolutely disgusting!) and readers may also recognise references to Coldharbour Lane and the 414 Club in Brixton.
As you will see from the interview, DJ Dribbler has certainly lived a bit of a life himself, having been Orbital’s tour DJ and a DJ at Pure: an absolute institution of techno that started in Edinburgh and spread all over the UK and how the biker gangs of Peebles got into the rave scene…
I was sold on this book from page one. The first thing I’d done when I woke up that morning was to check how Jimmy White had got on the previous night, and then whaddya know, a couple of hours later, I’m reading a book where he is all over the first chapter!
Yeah, Jimmy did a round robin regularly up at The Windmill in Cricklewood, 25 tables at once. Clovis, the one-armed pool player in the book, is based on a real one-armed pool player I met in the Caribbean and my friend Malcolm who used to play Jimmy White in The Windmill. Malcolm never actually beat him in real life but in the book, I let him win.
The way you quote Jimmy White is exactly how he would speak if someone took money off him. I totally believed it. I read it in his accent!
I wrote to Jimmy, sent him the chapter. He wrote back and said he wanted a copy when it came out. His manager as well. I need to send them actually. I’ve been amazed at the support I’ve had. Luke Solomon wrote a great thing on social media about it, I’ve had DJ Mag, Iamcru and Mixmag write about it. I met Jonny Rock at Pike’s for Harvey. Boochie from Belgium’s Listen! Festival introduced us, and me as an author. He asked the name of the book and was like “No way I just bought your book.” He’d seen Luke post about it.
The depiction of the times seems accurate – I think that’s why people have cottoned onto it. Even though it’s fiction and not specifically about clubland, it seems more spot-on than half of the DJs I hear bigging themselves up about the good old days.
People talk about dog lives and dog years. I think it’s the same for DJs. There’s so much that gets exaggerated. Everything they remember back to, add a few years to it. So many DJs from '93 tell you they were there or started in '89. In DJ years, it’s reality plus a few more years!
The book references the footie culture and club culture of the time, so I want to know your take on what the raves really did. The NME wing of the press will have you believe that football firms were broken up because they were raving and started hugging each other on the terraces, but I just don’t buy it. Surely it was more about running the doors of raves?
The football thing was savaged by raving, same as everything else. It just wasn’t about that anymore. The focus changed. It was true for every cultural movement around, everyone into music and partying in general. No one wanted to miss out because raves were so much fun. They still had that herd-mob travelling aspect to it but pride in your town shifted to partying and who was best at that. Some firms in some cities did move to door control and making money. When you do make that move into clubland you don’t want any trouble. There was criminality right from the start of Acid House. That underground criminality and money attracted real villains, so you needed crews and firms that could handle it I suppose.
Obviously the ICF… it’s pretty well-documented they got into it.
Yeah, a lot were, not just them. They were doing radio as well. I don’t know them, but I was a huge fan of Centre Force (radio).
What was the general sound?
Hip Hop-style DJing with house music and acid. There was little choice with the music in the early days. Now there are a thousand tunes a week but then it felt like you could pretty much buy everything coming out that was good. 1989 was just mad for tunes. Then it branched out, techno, drum n bass etc. We got a lot of tunes from the pirates. They were so important but they all got shut down in 1990 around the time of the Gulf War. When they came back it was different.
This was news to me when I read the book – that the Gulf War was cited as an excuse by the authorities for shutting down pirate radio.
We were doing a couple up in Scotland. I mean, we were interfering with taxi frequencies and Pizzaland orders, nothing dangerous. All the other stations in London, they shut or went legit around January 1990. They blamed the Gulf War and the need for control of the airwaves. Pirate radio was a great way to co-ordinate 10,000 people to go into fields and party but we just wanted to get the tunes heard, nothing more to it, just the buzz of pulling it off, doing a pirate. A few mobs tried to muscle in [in Scotland] but they weren’t well organised. We were on a different level and truly passionate about sharing the music and the radio aspect of it. The real guys who first did it in Glasgow and with us in Edinburgh were like us, just mental. Didn’t want any bother and it wasn’t dark – it was fun. We were just hardcore about everything we did and if London had pirates and that was part of it, then so would we. In London they were breaking into aircraft hangers or warehouses, having a backup party ready, and if the police came, fighting them! We didn’t want any of that. If the police came it was over. Time to go home.
These football firms meeting up in bland chain pubs to fight… you were clear about it in the book that a mid-90s tear-up would normally occur in one of these. But why?
That was the artistic licence section of the book. I assumed they wanted to fight in places where the police wouldn’t come so quickly, so more well to-do. I tried to write that scene and lighten the violence and emphasise the chaos, while showing Shifty’s loveable nature. It’s a juxtapose.
So the firms had a heart then?!?
Well, let’s say I gave them one. I specifically didn’t want to talk about drugs or violence too much in the book. I think it’s gratuitous and boring to talk about that in a book about those times. I covered those details with humour and description, did things from a third-party viewpoint, outside looking in, using the barmaid. I wanted to paint pictures and let those that know those situations fill in the blanks. I didn’t want to go into describing violence or drug use or any of that boring crap. I deliberately avoided it.
So tell me about the characters. Who were they in real life, and what kind of clubs were they going to?
They were running their own parties but 414 in Brixton and The Crypt were integral. Chox was a face at 414 and Trooper is a well-loved DJ from the time. That scene in the patty shop in the book happened outside the 414 and Blacker Dread’s old place. All the characters in the book and the stories are mashed up from real people and real stories. Pete would take speed and play quiz machines all day, memorising the answers. 20p was 20 quid. He played until they barred him and ended up having to travel to play. Shifty was a poker player, Arsenal fan. That’s his real name. I always found it funny that people would play a guy called Shifty at poker. I gave him a photographic memory instead of Pete’s secret weapon. My mate Malcolm is probably four of the characters at points, but mainly Chox. Nettles was a guy I met who did that BMW hailstone scam, hahaha. Clovis was a geezer I knew in the Caribbean and an old neighbour who asked to borrow 100 quid.
One of the best bits of the book is the true story of a chain of events that began with Dribbler having an argument in a patty shop and ended with him a bloody mess in Brixton McDonald’s at 6am surrounded by thousands of sweaty men in sailor’s outfits who had just been turned out of Love Muscle at Fridge. He swears that a West Indian man holding a staff on the other side of the road took umbrage at the patty-shop incident and put him into a trance, which meant he walked straight into the door of a taxi. I decided to spend the rest of the interview fishing for more Dribbler tales…
In 1989 when I was at college there were very few clubs doing proper house music. People still wore Armani polo necks and suit jackets in Glasgow. They wouldn’t let us in wearing Kickers and duffle coats. There would be one night per week or two – there were few DJs who were really on it. We’d take over basements of pubs with like-minded owners. Everyone kind of came together in 1989 and by 1990 things had all merged but before that there wasn’t much – we had to go looking for it. So I started The Cathedral Club. Every college club was entitled to use the college minibus once a month…
Uh oh. I can see where this is going!
We’d get 15 ravers together, go down, park outside Manchester Cathedral and then go to the Hacienda. Then we’d go to Leeds in a convoy of 40 motors behind a white Sierra and see Nightmares On Wax at Twilight Zone in Chapeltown. Saturday, through to Nottingham for Kool Kat with Graeme Park, always taking pictures or memorising what the cathedral looked like in case anyone asked, but luckily they never did. I was chatting to George Nightmares about this other day actually. He’s got the book as well.
What a crazy time that must have been. It was like anywhere of a certain size in the north of England would just be going off. Derrick May tells a funny story about what he was greeted with in Stoke. He just couldn’t believe what everyone looked like.
Those guys were scared of the smoke and strobes. They couldn’t see in the smoke at Pure, no one could. They said it was dangerous and in Detroit there would be muggings. (laughs)
Derrick played Pure, 1991 on Easter Sunday. As DJs, we were blown away. We’d never heard anything like his energy and the purity of the techno. It’s the best set I’ve ever heard. Many future DJs and artists you would know were influenced by that set.
[although the mix below is wrongly labelled as 1993, it is indeed the mix from that fateful night].
Pure was the real deal, very natural and genuine. I ended up touring with Orbital. We had friends in London and the crews started linking up. That’s how I wound up DJing in London more, meeting all the characters and where the book comes from, basically.
I just love the idea of someone being so good at quiz machines they get banned from half of the UK, so they then have to relegate themselves to service stations, but only when they’re full of football fans!
Yeah, the perfect distraction. Service stations played a massive part in Acid House and football culture.
It’s beautiful! It’s ironic! These service stations that every upstanding citizen goes to and thinks are bland and homogenous… but little do they know.
Yeah, they’re a little Las Vegas! The new book is a road trip and they sustain themselves by stopping at every service station on the way. They attend a rubber & leather night up in Newcastle – which is based on one I DJ’d at – and meet this guy from Peebles Rotary Club who gets exuberant and invites them up to Peebles to DJ the gala disco, but the problem with Peebles is that any discos are an excuse for biker gangs to turn up and fight.
Did this happen in real life?
Yeah! We did this gala event in Peebles. These bikers turned up for a fight, still into all that shite. They got pills for the first time, had no idea what was going on… they were gubbed. A mass game of tig & tag broke out on the dancefloor. Our mate started it, told them that’s what you do. The rival bikers turned up looking for trouble but quickly realised something else was going on and got some too. They just got involved. And that’s the basis for the next novel. Surely somebody had to write it?
But before the follow up comes out, make sure you read Harry’s Kebabs first!