Last month the DJ Food album ‘Kaleidoscope’ had its 20 year anniversary.
It’s obviously a strange time right now in which things like birthdays and anniversaries, anything with associated memories or emotional significance, arrive with additional gravitas and tend to trigger a period of reflection and pondering. We’ve been on ‘lockdown’ for such a short time relatively speaking, but we’re already pining for suspended associations and swerving off down nostalgic paths of reminiscence. This particular record’s anniversary has had us reflecting for a few weeks!
DJ Food is really called Kevin Foakes (but see below) and has been a chum for about a quarter of a century. It feels completely bizarre to type that, having been a bunch of cocky, sleep-deprived twenty-somethings when we first met, with the concept of middle-age not even a speck on the horizon of expectation, but here we are.
‘Kaleidoscope’ the album was released in 2000 and was the first DJ Food album produced by PC and Strictly Kev, two producers who’d been part of a larger squad known as ‘DJ Food’ for a few years, around a core of Matt Black and Jonathan More, themselves otherwise known as Coldcut. So Kevin Foakes is Strictly Kev — come on, keep up — everyone’s got a DJ name haven’t they? (Well we should, even if we don’t DJ) — and it was buying and playing his records on the new and exciting Ninja Tune label from the early 90s that brought him into our line of sight (he designed the label’s iconic logo).
In the early to mid 90s Leigh and I were fast and furious, setting the pace for future life, playing, buying, performing and reviewing records with a voracious appetite. With no ‘online’ or streaming — just tapes, CDs and vinyl — music was sourced through record shops, gigs, trips to London, word of mouth, sharing and swapping, making tapes for each other, radio (both legit and otherwise) and through hassling record companies for their new releases. We were just beginning to play regularly on a pirate radio station in 1997, and ‘acquired’ much of our material by telling record companies just that, who in turn were eager to get their releases heard by the people who were bored with the mainstream and would be the hands that spun the records on the turntables of clubs and festivals. If you wrote an honest review and faxed it back to the label, your feedback helped shape what was released and in what form (this remix or that one?) and the deal worked handsomely in both directions.
We met Kev in 1995 or 6. We were fans, and I’d sent a keen and wordy fax from my Grandma’s vacant bungalow where we were living. I’d sent it to what I thought was his Openmind fax number — that being the design and art direction side of his operation — by phoning directory enquiries for the number. We knew roughly where he/Ninja were based, so when a London number came back I didn’t question it. I think it was a children’s television company who politely rang me back to say ‘wrong number, but thanks for the enthusiasm’ — so I tried again, I think via Ninja direct.
Either way, we got through and swapped a few faxes (the phone phaux pas breaking what little ice there might have been), talking about music and art and life until at some point, Kev pointed out I didn’t have to keep faxing, we could just have a phone chat. So we did!
And that was the beginning of a friendship that went on longer than any of us could even be bothered to think about at that time. Leigh and I went to gigs, we visited, drank tea, we swapped little pressies; we made him post-gig cakes, he gave us records and coveted guest list spots. Nevertheless, when April 2000 rolled around, the annoying millennium guff finally out of the way, and we received an advance CD copy of ‘Kaleidoscope’ with a hand-written note, we were chuffed to bits.
It was a barking mad but brilliant record made of cue balls, jazz, riffs, big meaty breaks, velvety Ken Nordine voiceovers, the near-goth sulk of ‘The Crow’ and some Debussy. You could dance your bollocks off to it (let’s say in Hoxton Square’s so-cool-it-got-annoying Blue Note, long since closed) or noodle away to it in an armchair with headphones, pontificating about the samples and nodding. Or, in my case particularly, you could get a shitload of work done to it, such was its pace and absorbing texture. It never, ever feels old, or tired; we’re wary of nostalgia, and are reluctant reminiscers, so we never like to ruin a good record by loading it with too much memory or colouring it with one of those emotional time-stamps from which it can never progress. Thankfully, though, this record never succumbed to that; as well as being very much of its time, ‘Kaleidoscope’ was always well ahead of its time, so it’s still as fresh and silly and ornery as the day we first played that CD.
What ‘Kaleidoscope’ always was was a ‘trip’ — in both senses of the word. Composed of what feel like two distinct halves, the album is nonetheless a journey, rollocking through tracks which flow into one another despite being very different from each other (hmm, I sound like an apprentice music reviewer…) You can dip into it repeatedly, if you just, for example, fancy the pick-me-up of ‘The Riff’, or the soothing goth-tinged murk of ‘Nevermore’, a swooping fantastical thing of whispers which erupts into a drum frenzy of trumpets and cymbal crashes.
One of the noticeable features of the DJ Food albums that Kev had more of an influence on — those he worked on with PC or, later, solo — is that sense of a voyage, with stops along the way, rather than a collection of separate tracks. They’re more like epics — ‘The Search Engine’ is something of a magnum opus — than the early DJ Food albums which were essentially a box of DJ tools which you could remove one at a time and fit to your DJ set! We adored them though, because nothing like that really existed before; they spoke to our love of beats, scratching and hip-hop, and also ANYTHING coming out of Ninja at that time was exciting and novel. Picture these albums arriving at about the same time as Portishead, also new and vivid, and you can begin to visualise the scene. (I also thought the knife and fork in the Food logo were supremely clever.)
What Kev’s always done is something we feel we’ve always done too: projects that he WANTS to do, which may or may not work, and are certainly not driven or shaped by commercial outcomes or monetary gain.
If it’s interesting, creative, hasn’t been done before and represents a bit of a challenge — and we think we people will enjoy it — we’ll give it a go. Our working lives have been peppered with projects that wouldn’t make any commercial sense — in that they cost us more to do than they will ever return — because we want to do them, and we think we can do them, and because we’re only on the planet once. We’ve been inspired by Kev for many years; who memorably told us “I look forward to Mondays, I can do exactly what I want every day of the week”.
Take his 4-tonearm turntable project for example. When he told us what he was plotting to do last year, we were delighted at this gleeful release of the (not so inner) nerd, being an investigation into using four tonearms on a single turntable. It’s more sophisticated than that of course, but I’m writing as a turntable outsider with almost no technical knowledge. He’s also got the confidence to recruit his heroes into his work — weaving his writing, archiving and design prowess into live projects based on his love of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and all thing ZTT, for example, and bringing in “The” Matt Johnson to work with him on his own cover of The The’s GIANT, a boyhood favourite, on ‘The Search Engine’. Bold moves, you might say, but it shows you really can work with your heroes when you’re offering something creatively interesting, relevant and authentic.
Now sharing all of the outcomes of his new turntable experiments with locked grooves and effects on Bandcamp under his new label Infinite Illectrik, you can hear the present and future sound of DJ Food.
Kev and his music have remained in our lives ever since we first made contact, through over two decades of creativity, house moves, a wedding, new albums, kids, life and evolving careers. Funny, kind, prolific and a total realist (not to mention hardcore archivist and mighty handy with the pencils and a Mac) he was the first person we thought of to feature in our ‘Stupid Enough’ documentary — about how real people carve out creative careers for themselves — and we liked his ‘Search Engine’ album and ensuing body of visual work with Henry Flint so much that we put on an exhibition of it in our little gallery space. We hope we’ll creatively cross paths again in our lifetimes, we just have no idea yet what form that might take, if it does.
So I suppose having said all of that ‘Kaleidoscope’ is loaded with emotions and memories, just not the sort that hobble you with backwards glances in the middle of doing something, or leave you thinking ‘those were the days’. Those WERE some days, and then there’ve been all these other days too, since, full of more music, and friendship, and laughing inappropriately at things in the small hours.
It’s awkward to write about your friend when you’re also still a fan of them, but what a wonderful thing to be feeling awkward about.
~ † ~
can be bought from Ninja Tune
or read about in more detail on Kev’s massive and incredibly thorough blog
DJ Food’s visual work can be explored here
and he has a busy Mixcloud collection here, which is added to weekly.