WORDS: ILAN RUBENS
A cornerstone for the jungle scene in the UK and abroad, A Way of Life hits the 30 year milestone, having spent the last three decades pioneering cutting-edge underground music. Starting out in 1992, AWOL brought together veterans of the scene Randall, Micky Finn, Kenny Ken, Gachet, Darren Jay, GQ and Fearless, along with their breakbeat dubplates to London’s Paradise Club. Down the line the brand marked their home at London’s iconic Ministry of Sound nightclub, the setting for the legendary ‘AWOL Live at the Ministry’ album. As A Way of Life returned to Ministry for their 30th birthday, we caught up with Darren Jay to reflect on three decades of music, memories and an ever-lasting legacy.
So Darren, firstly a huge congratulations for 30 years of A Way of Life! When you hear that out loud, how does that make you feel about reaching this milestone, and your overall time in the scene?
I’ll be honest, the first thing I thought was how old I am! But of course I feel very proud. When AWOL started in 1992, if you asked anyone then whether we would still be doing it now, I don’t think many people would have said yes. I would have liked to have thought so but you never know. Obviously when it comes to event brands, there is no end goal. You see how long it lasts, and if you last with it.
The funny thing is that most of the big names that are now in jungle and drum and bass, most of them started out as House DJs, myself included. We all used to play it, but there was never a meeting between everyone saying ‘let’s get off this house music and let’s get on breakbeats’ – the music just sort of divided. Back in the day, Fabio and Grooverider were playing the same music Carl Cox was, but Carl went down a certain road and the other two gravitated more towards the breakbeats. You follow what you love, and that is what I ended up doing.
No one could have ever guessed the longevity of it. We did three albums for MCA Records, ‘Total Science’, the first coming out in 1995 – the first album was the early days of jungle, quite breakbeaty; the second was jungle and the third one was quite liquidy, but back then it was called ‘intelligent drum and bass’. I remember people saying ‘oh this intelligent drum and bass won’t last’, or ‘this will last about five years before something else comes around’. Well I bet Bukem or Calibre would have had something to say! It just goes to show that some things catch people in a different way, people hear certain things and it stays with them. Like I said it’s not something that you plan long term, if it lasts then it lasts. But with the music and the events, it makes me feel very proud that we are still around – 30 years ey, who would have thought it?!
So as you mentioned, AWOL started up in 1992. Let’s take it back to the formation of the brand and how you got involved with it?
Yeah so the brand was formed by Chris and Jay, who used to put on World Dance too. They ran a few different nights and AWOL was one they started at the Paradise Club. It certainly wasn’t the line up you get now, I think the only people who were involved at first was possibly GQ, Kenny and Micky Finn. Also there was quite a bit of house. But AWOL didn’t take off, so a few of the guys said ‘look we’ll move the housey stuff downstairs, and you guys can do the breakbeaty stuff upstairs’. The downstairs hosted the likes of Roy the Roach as a resident DJ, and occasionally Frankie ‘Shag’ Bones and Eddie Richards. Upstairs got Randall and Gachet involved and then next thing you had this team – Micky Finn, GQ, Kenny Ken, Randall and Gachet, as well as a guy called Rizzy who was the warm up DJ.
In 1991 I was living in Tenerife where I met a guy called John O’Brien, and we got on like a house on fire. He asked me for a tape of one of my mixes, which he passed on to Jay back in London. When I went back to the UK, I got a call from Jay, he said ‘I really like the tape, if any of the AWOL DJs start to get busier and they can’t make it, would you like to be a backup?’. Absolutely I would!
One night I was working on the Friday, and partying hard in the evening, getting up on the Saturday thinking I was going to spend a quiet night recovering. 2 o’clock in the morning the phone ended up ringing, and it was Jay on the other end: ‘Darren, can you get here in an hour? Randall can’t make it’. I thought ‘right, this is my opportunity’, and made my way over there. I’d been there a couple times before, I remember the sound system being legendary, and at the time that was the best monitor I’d ever played on. It was so loud and the quality was amazing.
I kept it up for a while, just being a substitute DJ before I started putting myself out there a bit more. One day I got called in and they said ‘we’ve had a chat, and think we should bring you in as a permanent part of the team’. And that is how I became part of AWOL. I was never part of the first wave of artists, but I was brought in once it started picking up and the rest was history.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, there have been tough times where people didn’t want to go to parties, and there was a time when jungle music had a bad name. There has been a lot of setbacks and many reasons to stop, so it makes me proud that we have got through all of that adversity and have carried on. I can say with confidence that AWOL has kept its integrity and quality over the last 30 years.
And what was it like working alongside these now legends, in the early days, before they were seen as veterans of the scene?
It was very unique having a solid team like that. The original team will always be Micky Finn, Randall, Kenny Ken, GQ and Gachet, and then I joined a little after them, alongside Fearless. We were one of the first brands to do that, because you go to parties and they might have a few of the same artists on a lineup. But at AWOL, this is the team EVERY single week! And that’s how it stayed for the best part of 5 or 6 years.
As a team there was a rivalry there, but it was a healthy rivalry. I loved it. One week Randall will be smashing it, then another week Kenny, then Micky, Gachet, sometimes me. We were each playing two-hour sets, so we could take the crowd on a journey. I remember going over to Kenny one week and saying ‘nobody wanted to follow you after that set!’. But what I loved was that everybody supported each other, there was never any jealousy. There was competition, but it was healthy competition.
When we had guests come in, some were the biggest DJs in the scene, and they used to say ‘it’s tough to play at AWOL’. Being such a close-knit team, it was hard for an outsider to come in and impose their own thing on it. Not only this, DJs would often come and finish their night at AWOL after working. You would look across the crowd and the whole industry was there, I remember the likes of Fabio, Grooverider, Goldie all coming. I think that speaks volumes about AWOL and the collection of DJs performing.
What were any significant moments during your time with AWOL?
One funny story that has always stuck with me, and I have got to big up Uncle Dugs as he was the one who reminded me about this. When playing at AWOL I used to take this box I had made, it was basically a tiny coffin, and could fit about 330 records in. It was massive, it took two people to carry! But I always brought it, just in case somebody didn’t turn up and I had to fill in. Remember we were playing two hour sets, so that could easily turn into a four-hour set. One night, the floodgates all opened at once – something had happened on the roads, somebody else was stuck somewhere. It meant Randall, Micky, Kenny, none of them could make it. I ended up playing an entire night of AWOL on my own! Just myself for 10 hours! But the funny thing is if someone says to you ‘you’ve got to play 10 hours’ that’s a big ask. But instead it was ‘right I’ve got to play two hours’ and then it turned into another two hours, and then another, and I ended up playing the whole night! I can say I found some amazing B-sides to my records that night. And good thing I brought my coffin of records, it really saved me that night!
And after moving on from the Paradise Club, the home of AWOL became the Ministry of Sound. Can we find out more about the relationship with this venue?
So following the Paradise Club we went to the SW1 nightclub, before regular events at Ministry of Sound. I remember being in Jay’s office once, and he said ‘we might have a little surprise for the team, we are doing Ministry’.We did a couple of one-off parties there on a Thursday night, which sold out. First night we ever did it, you couldn’t have got any more people in there. So they obviously saw the potential in the brand. And I think when we took it to Ministry, that opened it up to a lot of people who were just starting to get into jungle. They must have thought ‘Oh it’s at Ministry, I’m going to go to that!’. This was around 1995, 96, and the jungle scene had blown up. The music was on Top of the Pops, it had gone international, and now you’ve got one of the best clubs in Europe pushing this music, while so many other venues weren’t playing jungle.
That’s what started off the relationship, and I think what sealed it was the Christmas night parties we hosted there. Every Christmas for about four years, you’d finish off your dinner and then head down to Ministry of Sound for a night of jungle! We thought it was hilarious, people all walking around in their new jumpers!
We also recorded the famous live album there, ‘AWOL Live at the Ministry’ which went on to be groundbreaking. I have travelled the world a bit in my time and everywhere I went, people had a CD or vinyl copy of that album. But that sealed the bond and we have had a healthy relationship ever since! Even now I can honestly say, across all the years we have been there, some of the parties we have done in the last few years have been some of the best we’ve done.
Obviously AWOL has been around for a long time, but the brand has moved with the times and has become a platform for new generations of artists?
Yes exactly, we are always trying to keep an eye out for what is coming next, and who the new people are. I think that if you look at any scene, if it doesn’t encourage new talent, it doesn’t evolve. Whenever we had a second room at our events we’ve always made an effort to champion new artists. We would bring down the likes of Logan D, Voltage, Serum, I remember asking the Kings of the Rollers to play for us before they properly blew up. We always used to try and keep it relevant and fresh. That’s why we added more artists to the AWOL brand, like Brockie, Det, 2Shy and Moose, who have all got involved with us in the last five years. I think it’s important to let things develop and evolve.
And then to mark the 30th year you returned to the Ministry of Sound for an allstar event?
Yes, we were very excited about putting on this party. Obviously for a long while everything was up in the air regarding COVID, with venues and putting on events. But now everything’s back on track, we managed to lock down Ministry, on a good day, and all the artists were available. When we announced it, that first 48 hours was the most tickets we’ve ever sold for any event. And the tickets trickled out regularly after that. I think if people had never been to an AWOL before, you could not have picked a better one to go to. The event was a perfect reflection of 30 years.
Of course we had the original group on the line up, but we also brought in a bunch of name we hadn’t used before this event: SL8R, Mrs Magoo, Jakes, Mozey, Ego Trippin, T>I. When bringing in these DJs, we were very excited about what would go on in the second room. We also had TC doing his first ever jungle set in the main room, which was a nice little curve ball!
We also brought in the old guard of the downstairs – Trevor Fung, Tony Trax, Tommy Cockles, among others. This was the first time these guys were playing together again since the days of AWOL, which was special for us, getting them all back and tipping our cap to them from the olden days. Overall across four rooms, there was a bit of everything going on. But now it’s nice to draw a line under it and continue on for what we can do for the next ten years.
And then alongside this what else can we expect from AWOL?
Of course we’ve got festival season creeping closer. AWOL will be at Sunbourne festival over at Hainault Recreation Ground on 24th September. This will be with Sunbourne and Moondance. We’ve also got a stage at Hospitality on the Beach, Friday 3rd June in Albania. We’ve also got a date penciled in at the Arch in Brighton. That will probably be the end of the dates surrounding AWOL as the main focus wa0s the 30 year birthday, and then once that is out of the way we can concentrate on all the others too. But it is safe to say we are keeping busy, 30 years later and no signs of slowing down! After all, it’s a way of life!