The Fabio Interview
We give our dictaphone a real workout as we enjoy an in-depth discussion with a living legend…
Fabio is a drum & bass icon, a man whose profound affect on the genre is even more startling given his virtually non existent studio output. DJ-ing for well over twenty years, he’s spent a large proportion of that pioneering the more musical side of the scene, both with his Radio 1 show, his label Creative Source, and his residencies – most notably Swerve. On Friday 11th April, Swerve and Creative Source come together for an all-nighter with a sizzling hot line-up of talent. We sat Fabio down and got his views on everything from long sets to dubstep to Tim Westwood’s footwear. Read all about it…
You’re playing a four hour set at the all-nighter. Are you looking forward to it, and what can people expect from you?
I don’t know man. I never have a planned idea of what I’m going to do, I really don’t. I might play four hours of my regular stuff, but stretch it out a bit, I will probably play a bit more old school than I normally play, but to me four hours aint even that long really. DJing’s weird, once you start, and get on a roll, four hours goes by really quickly, Marky can tell you that. It’s not as hard as people like to think; when me and Groove started out we were playing eight or nine hour sets, so it’s not daunting for me at all.
Do you miss those nine hour sets?
I do. Nowadays you get a lot of gigs where you play for like forty minutes which is so annoying, and so not what I started out doing, you know? I think it’s getting more individual again though, particularly over the last year or so - crowds are more up for people taking them on a journey whereas before they were more into impact. Even the likes of Andy C are doing longer sets now, Friction, Hype and all them guys – it’s a trend that I hope will stay. You’ll always have certain promoters that will want to have twenty DJs on a line up and I’m not knocking it, but for me personally it’s not creative enough.
What was the thinking behind the rest of the line-up for the night?
Well the second room in The End is a good room - you feel like you’re in a separate club. It’s very important to put strong line-ups in there, and I wanted it to be all D&B as well. I just wanted that room to be very deep, people expressing themselves, not too anal with some obscure jazz DJ. Sometimes that sort of thing looks great on a flyer, but in practise it doesn’t work, so this is a proper D&B night.
Swerve is one of the longest running weekly drum & bass parties in London – what’s the secret to its success?
Wednesday is a really good day for a club night. It’s bang in the middle of the week and I think people don’t normally go out to hear anything but proper music. Proper ‘music people’ come out on a Wednesday, and the great sound system in that room helps immeasurably. Also I’ve got to give props to Gideon, he’s one of the best sound guys out there, he’s so on the ball. Having him around you always feel like if anything goes wrong he can correct it straightaway. The fact that it’s probably the only long-running drum & bass night without an MC is pretty unique. I think a lot of DJs hide behind MCs, they can get away with playing big tunes because the MCs like it and you can get into that whole crowd-hyping thing. DJs come to Swerve and feel a bit naked because the crowd is very knowledgeable. They will let you know if you play a load of shit. I’ve seen a few DJs be quite surprised, I would hate to say found out, but a few DJs have kind of crashed in there haha. I’ve seen them look for the MC or look for a way out, and there’s no way out in there – if you lose it, you lose it, simple as that, and I like that aspect. Also, we’re lucky that even when we’ve got nights that aren’t so busy you’ve still got regulars that are so faithful. It could be snowing outside with 110 people inside but the regulars are there and they’ll enjoy themselves in the same way as if there was 500 people in there. They give it that family kind of feel, keep the identity and keep it Swerve.
Musically, do you instruct DJs to play a ‘Swerve set’?
No, I just want people to be happy with what they played, and come out feeling they can do what they want in there. I think the biggest problem with drum & bass is that you speak to 90% of DJs and they compromise most times they play out. I’ve spoken to Andy and Friction about it and they both have come down to Swerve and loved playing tunes they would never normally play - especially as it’s gone off. I don’t ever tell anyone they’ve got to come down and play musical, they could play a few jump up tunes as well, I don’t care as long as it’s what they want to play.
Is breaking new talent something you’ve aimed to do with Creative Source?
Yeah, and it’s exciting. Naibu, he’s only 20, a classically trained musician from France, and we gave him his first ever release – he’s been around for ages without having any of his stuff picked up, now loads of people are bringing out his music. We had Lynx, we put out ‘Mariachi’ before ‘Disco Dodo’ and now Lynx is one of the staple drum & bass names out there. Alix Perez, we brought out his 12” like 15 months ago and now he’s one of the hottest names on the scene. People tend to move upwards after having a release on the label and it’s great to see that. If you like a certain kind of drum & bass, Creative Source does more or less deliver. You can look back on labels like Motown and you can pick anything out of that catalogue and more often than not you’re going to get something that is class, and that’s what I wanted. In twenty years time when I’m forty haha, I want to be able to sit down and pick out anything and be able to say “you know what, that’s a bad tune.” That’s the thinking behind everything.
Back in the days of nights like Rage, you could get away with playing all kinds of styles and genres. Do you wish this was still the case at drum & bass nights, and can you ever see those days returning?
No and I’ll tell you why, music has changed. The speeds were different back in the day. You can’t go from 170 to 120 BPM without fucking the dancefloor up unless you’re incredibly skilled. Well you can do it but you really have to know what you’re doing and it’s a massive risk. Secondly there weren’t so many different genres out there and the sounds were a lot more similar than they are now. You could play Joey Beltram ‘Energy Flash’ and Lennie De Ice ‘We are I.E.’ because they were the same speed and the vibe was very similar. And I’ll tell you another thing, techno and drum & bass didn’t have such separate identities, people just liked dance music back in the day, and now even within drum & bass you get ten different splits. People now tend to latch on to really subtle differences in music - the set I play at Swerve I could never play at One Nation because people would probably bottle me! To be totally honest with you, people aint as open minded as they used to be. I think that’s the crux of it.
It is happening a bit with dubstep creeping into a few DJs sets…
Yeah I’ve heard Shy do that, Zinc do it and Lynx do it, and I think that’s good. They are cousins, they’re very similar, a lot of the same sounds and a lot of the same people, but you still get the odd person who’s like “ugghhh he played a dubstep tune”. I hope that a rift doesn’t develop because at the moment there’s a healthy respect for dubstep and I think it’s good because every now and then drum & bass needs a kick up the ass and I think it’s got one at the moment. A lot of the drum & bass guys are drawing influences from dubstep; Breakage sent me a couple of dubstep tunes that he’s done and they’re sick sick sick. I want to see where that goes, I think it’s an interesting development, to see how the two can merge. I hope a lot of drum & bass DJs do play more dubstep in their sets, because I think it could open a lot of doors.
Dubstep as a genre has been very innovative and experimental over the last couple of years, do you think drum & bass still pushes boundaries in the same way?
Yes I do. In the last year there’s been a whole load of new producers out there, and they’re young. Drum & bass was relying on the Dillinjas and guys that were in their late 30s to produce the music, now these kids are coming through and they’re from all over the world as well. Drum & bass had a habit of being over-produced, and people are getting raw with the sounds again, quite clinical and soulful, but at the same time being very electronic, which was the thing that the Detroit boys did back in the 80s. They made music that was very electronic but they put these incredible pads over the music to create that emotion, and I think that’s happening now with a few of the guys coming through.
But would you say that this approach is innovative?
I don’t think music has to be innovative or world-changing. It just has to have a vibe. It’s like with early jungle - It weren’t ground-breaking, it weren’t cutting edge, it was just raw, vibey music. I think house music has remained big for so long, because it’s vibey; you would’ve thought people would be so bored of four to the floor by now, but that’s what makes it what is. And electro; electro’s nothing new, there are tunes that we used to play at Rage that I could play now and people would think it’s a brand new electro tune. But the big tunes, whether it’s house, electro, dubstep, D&B, it’s all about the vibe. That Benga & Coki tune ‘Night’, that’s just a vibe, nothing to it, anyone could’ve made that tune, it’s bouncy and it makes you feel a certain way, and as long as music makes you feel something it doesn’t have to be ground-breaking. I think people put too much emphasis on music being ground-breaking nowadays, as long as it makes me feel like “damn”, and if in six months time I can pick it up and it still makes me feel the same way then that’s a good tune.
‘Night’ and ‘Disco Dodo’ have shown how effective a simple tune can be…
Yeah, like ‘Pulp Fiction’, there’s a similarity, it’s a nothing tune. I remember getting that tune from Alex Reece - I was known at the time as playing ‘intelligent drum & bass’, and Alex gave me a tape and said “listen to this”. I took it home and I couldn’t tell you what it was about it made it so special but I phoned him up and I was like “Alex, that tune is incredible”. Anyway, that Friday I played at Voodoo Magic in Leicester Square which was like a real jungle place, ragga jungle heaven, all the big DJs at the time were there. I wasn’t playing in a lot of places, and I was getting a lot of hate because of the ‘intelligent tag’, everyone thought I was trying to say jungle wasn’t intelligent and I was lording it over everyone. I went on and I played a real Speed set, and it weren’t working. I remember the crowd just looking at me, and all the DJs grinning behind my back, and I could really sense it, I was dying on my ass.
I thought right, I’ve got one tune left, and no one had ever heard ‘Pulp Fiction’, ever, this was the first time it was gonna get played. The MC said “Fabio’s about to play his last tune” and literally you could hear a pin drop. I thought right I’m gonna do it, fuck it, I’ve got nothing to lose, and I put it on and it’s got that silent start, and everyone in the crowd was just staring at me. But when that bassline came in, I mean never ever have I seen anything like it, everyone in the club at the same time said “fucccking helllll”. I could see all them DJs who had been laughing just looking at me like “where the hell did you get that from?” I’ll tell you what, that’s my favourite moment as a DJ, it’s the most euphoric I have ever felt. Half way through that tune the whole crowd went crazy, and by the end of the tune, the MC said “make some noise for Fabio” and everyone just applauded, and that shows what one tune can do. That tune saved me that night. It’s gone on to be one of the biggest selling and greatest drum & bass tunes of all time.
There must have been a few occasions like that in your career where you’ve recognised how special a tune is through moments like that?
Yeah, ‘Disco Dodo’ was the same. First time I dropped ‘Mystic’ by Calibre, first time I heard ‘Leviticus’ played, or first time Rider dropped ‘Bambaataa’, or first time I heard ‘Incredible’ by General Levy, or ‘Music’ by LTJ Bukem. I was nearly in tears when I first heard Bukem play that. That tune made me realise how beautiful drum & bass could sound. I came off and just thought, that’s it for me, I’m always gonna love this music because of that tune, and ‘Horizons’ as well. Both of them, incredible. You can put those two tunes against any track from any genre and they stand up. I defy anyone to listen to ‘Horizons’ and tell me they don’t like it. It’s as perfect a drum & bass tune as you can get.
How do you still manage to connect to your audience when you consider two things – the change in the profile of your average drum & bass listener, and the widening age gap since the early days?
You know what, people ask me that, and I think it’s that the music keeps me young. I’m getting on a bit now and I’ve been around a long time but I never feel like I’m too old for this, or I’m bored. I know a lot of people that have grown out of the music. Even last night someone said to me online “Fab, do you know what, I’ve had it with drum & bass, I’m not making music so much anymore” and he said to me “how do you do it?” and I couldn’t tell him. I think maybe it’s just because I do genuinely like every form of drum & bass, I like all of it, I really, really do. I will know when the time is right, because if I don’t feel it, I won’t be able to do it. I can’t be out there playing music that I don’t like.
Ink was saying in an interview recently about this, that as soon as you’re not feeling it anymore you’ll get called out…
Yeah, I remember about eight years ago I met a big DJ, a real icon of mine and we were playing in a club in Europe and he was saying “fucking house music’s dead, I fucking hate it.” And I was like “why are you still playing it?” and he said “for the money.” And he played a three hour set and started with a packed dance floor, I came back an hour later after I’d done my set and there was nobody in there. They could tell! They know when you’re not in it, you can’t fool punters, especially a knowledgeable crowd, so when I start slipping they’ll let me know.
What would you do after that?
I don’t know. It would have to be something in music, I can never see myself falling out of love with music. DJ-ing is such a buzz and we’re all addicted to it really. It’s not like being a footballer where by the time you’re 32 you’re finished. Music’s different, you’ve still got Annie Nightingale on Radio 1, David Rodigan, Tim Westwood, people like that are a testament. Tim Westwood is still walking around in baggy jeans, and his laces untied and all that. I went on a gig with Tim Westwood about a year ago, and he turned up at the airport with his jeans tucked into his Timberland’s – which weren’t laced up – and the baggiest t-shirt… people laugh at him but he does it because he loves it so much! He doesn’t care if people laugh at him. David Rodigan, he goes to Jamaica, he’s the only white guy at a soundclash with 4,000 people there, and he’s 58 years old, but he’ll go and destroy soundsystems, and they’ve got so much respect for him out there. I saw David Rodigan at Fabric, and he was like “Fab, I’ve just come back from Kingston, I played against the hottest young soundsystems, and I buried the lot of them!” And that’s encouraging. That passion – I know I’ll still have it when I’m 60. Sometimes I think I’m not as good as I was 10 or 15 years ago, but as long as you’ve still got that passion, and people still tell you you’re changing their lives, you’ve gotta keep on doing it.
If you had to play one last record at Swerve what would it be?
That’s a tough one. It would be either ‘Atlantis’, ‘Music’, or ‘Horizons’. One of those three Bukem tunes. Probably ‘Horizons’ because for me it embodies everything I love about drum & bass, and everything I love about music is in that tune. It’s also got so many memories for me, that is the most complete drum & bass tune for me. It’s very special. I think ‘Horizons’ would be very apt. It wouldn’t be the end for me though, I’d still be here!