“In addition to our special New Years’ Eve party please join us for a celebration and farewell to Tony Humphries who is going over to London to become DJ at Ministry of Sound as of 16th January 1993.” That was the farewell flyer from the Shelter, announcing Tony Humphries’ departure from the Right Coast to London. Having venerated and lauded American DJs in Britain, finally here was a real live one coming over to show us how it was done (whatever ‘it’ was). How would he fare? Would he bring over a unique Brooklyn perspective or would the experience change him?
Having been a regular at the Ministry of Sound during its first few years, mainly because of the unique style of American DJs and, in particular, the New Yorkers, I was slightly obsessed by the Saturday night DJs, however underwhelming the actual the actual room and crowd sometimes were. It was the only place in London and probably the UK were you could see someone play such a diverse range of music over a six or seven hour stretch and I probably learned more about DJing watching those jocks perform at 6 and 7am on a Sunday morning than anywhere else. I caught up with Tony earlier this year to ask him about his experiences at the Ministry in 1993.
Tell me about the period immediately before you took up the Ministry residency?
The year before… Wow. What I remember was mayhem because I believe it was a period when I had too much on my plate. I was doing too much of everything at the time. I was a mad person. I was doing possibly two to three nights at Zanzibar. I was still doing Kiss FM radio. I was still doing studio remixes at the time. I still had a girlfriend who I’d been with for eight years. It was a crazy time for me. I felt like I was married to my reel-to-reel and Technics 1500. I wasn’t interested in going over to the UK initially, but Danny Rampling came over and convinced me and after I’d went over a couple of times and it was cool and I had did Ministry on New Years Eve maybe the year before I became resident. Anyway, it was fabulous, it was too much. I remember playing after Graeme Park and shitting bricks and you know how good he was back then! I remember that night the club had to be shut down for two or three hours. I was a nervous wreck. Everyone just sat around. I think it was the law back then. So I’m walking round the booth doing nothing waiting for it to start up again. I remember they threw a farewell party for me at the Shelter… Wow. Juliet Roberts performed. I believe Chaka Khan also performed. It was pretty tearful but it was really nice.
You were interviewed extensively by Frank Broughton in Mixmag. You seemed slightly frustrated by the industry and the lack of remix work. Do you think that’s a fair comment from back then?
That was probably accurate yes. Because whatever success I had or have, I was holding down the fort. All the great remixers, DJs, producers have done a few of the things I did but I don’t know many who did all three. So that probably was a lesson in doing too much.
In that period New York DJs were not paid very well. They’ve never been paid very well. Was that the case then?
Yeah I would say so. The phenomenon that was happening which you are all responsible for, I should say the UK’s responsible for. No one really knew what the impact of what we were doing was in the States at that time. Not to say that they know what the impact is now! Other than the conferences like Miami and New York there wasn’t any notoriety for anyone in the States. I guess it’s the same now but I guess they don’t even see the magnitutde of DJs and dance music producers over here. They don’t know and they don’t care.
What were the big differences between the UK and the US at that time?
What I noticed was a different energy. Tempo, energy…. I don’t know, it seemed like the songs we were into, close to R&B, close to the song, chill out smok a joint; whereas when I went over there it was like: I want to party! I don’t wanna feel relaxed or down I wanna be crazy. Everything was up. there’s nothing wrong with either type but when I was playing there I had to almost peak throughout all the set. There was no spectrum, starting at 110 and 115 with Love Thang and then going up to 129 and 130. there was none of that. I started at 124 125. the energy of the rooms was just different. Didn’t mean I couldn’t play soulful I just had to start like in the middle of a normal set.
What differences were there between the industry in the UK and US? Were you treated differently?
It’s not really a fair question because obviously I was novelty coming over and they knew that I had the job at the Ministry so I got a lot of support from the labels over there. I gotta lot of support from the stores over there. At the time there was Black Market and Catch A Groove and while I was there I hung out practically there every day with that clique (Abby, Jeremy Newall, Ricky Morrison). That’s where I did my radio shows back to the States and Ricky was one of my best friends. I actually used to record the shows at Ricky Morrison’s house! He used to live on the 2nd floor of the store. It was great. I had a great time man. All the music from there.
Did you feel like a star when you came over?
Well, you know what, because of the madness I came from, I was still sort of in the serious delivery mode. What I mean by that is I figured I came to the Ministry to do what I did at Zanzibar. You understand what I’m saying? That was my head. I didn’t know too many people. So in my head I’ve got to do the same programme, I’ve got to get the same response and want everyone to yell and scream the same way. I was doing my job. It wasn’t a playing thing for me. I was pretty serious about it. I was conscious of reputation. And I was trying to build a little base. That was my mindset when I came over. But… I was treated a little like a star, but I soon learned who the real stars were when I came over. We went on this tour, I think it was myself, Bert Bevans, Justin Berkmann, CJ Mackintosh. We went on this tour with Sasha and we went to Ireland. I was just floored. Wherever we went we did our thing, you know, but when Sasha came on the roof was just blown off. I couldn’t really understand the elements that were making the people go crazy but as soon as he played they would go crazy. If ever a big time DJ wants to get grounded, go on a tour with Sasha and you’ll ground real fast!
Was there a big difference in earning potential in New Jersey and the UK?
Well, you know what, a little bit more. All the things… actually it might have been a little bit less. If you wanna talk about pay for playing. I got paid weekly at (Zanzibar) which was part of Berger Hotels Corporation. The pay was better as a DJ but I didn’t make more money.
Where did you live?
St George’s Square, Pimlico.
When you moved over did MOS meet your expectations?
It was a totally new experience for me. They were really nice. I was treated pretty well. It was Lynn Cosgrove and Jim Masters who I answered to and of course the owner Palumbo. I remember him inviting me over to his house as a welcome or something. Nice place he had.
You told the Face at the time “I know the club’s lost some steam but I can put it back” Do you remember saying that?
Oh boy did I get reprimanded for that! OK, it’s like you go into a boxing match you know how you have to show people you got confidence. I assumed they brought me over to do what I did at Zanzibar. I didn’t realise the make up of the core audience when I got there. As they were trying to filter through who they wanted in the club, I felt like I didn’t have a handle on it, I felt that if I played more local stuff like I did in New Jersey and New York I thought it could make it better than it is. Not that there was a problem there or anything but because I wanted to add something. I wanted some credibility. I wanted to put my stamp on it. That’s what that statement was about. The day after that came out I was told “You can’t make statements like that in the press.” They grilled me for like two hours about that.
I started to get a lot PWL stuff, some UK stuff and a lot of US stuff that was on UK labels and it was funny when I started to play some of that stuff – without naming names – would say to me, “what are you doing playing that stuff?” I’d say “But this is your own stuff!” “But we don’t play this stuff here” And that flipped me out. It was kinda shocking to me. I thought I’d earn brownie points for that and get closer to the industry, closer to the people. Whereas if I would play Sabrina Johnston or Blaze on Movin’ Records it brought the New York company to me, it brought the New Jersey group to me. That’s how I built my reputation over there. I thought, “Man, I can do that here and show that I’m responsible here” I’ll be doing my job. And I met resistance and I couldn’t understand it. Maybe I was dumb to think and I can’t fight a culture that was into that at that time. You know I wanted to know what was going on here because when I was playing over there half the stuff I played was from you guys! D Influence, Brand New Heavies, groups that I held in so much esteem over there. I didn’t find it. So I thought I was gonna be a hero by tying it all together and I got slapped in the face, man! Forget it man, go back home!
Did you make any friends in the UK? Who did you hang out?
There were three or four people who I hung out with: Ricky Morrison, Kid Bachelor, Lesley Morrison and Mark Ravenhill. He worked at Vinyl Solution. They had a record store in a basement. Mark was really cool. Besides my colleagues like CJ and Lynn.
What are your favourite memories of your time there?
Besides the New Yewar’s Eve which was just incredible. The Sound system. Those years, the first years, it was just incredible. They had actually moved the booth downstairs because when I first started to play there, the booth was actually upstairs. They’d moved it to where the entrance was. So a really wicked sound system. I remember the closing hours, the winding down when the lights are still on but there are people still there. Oh man! Those were the like some of the best ones where the hardcore did not want to leave and the security wanted to go home. I don’t know whether it’s a New York thing but you go till the last person drops, that’s the way I was taught. Even if there are three people left you don’t stop! The aura of walking into that room and into that booth felt monstrous. It felt like home. It felt like playing in the Zanzibar did.
Did it change you as a DJ?
Absolutely. It opened my mind to a lot of different things, production, different people. I got a little bit more grounded. I was playing more electronic stuff. Jim Masters used to run a night called The Drum Club and I remember telling him, “Hey man I really wanna do this, I know I can do it.” I went in there, did a set, playing nothing but tracks, electronic tracks, and after I did it it was like, “Oh ok people are into this too huh?!” I probably wouldn’t have went that far before. I experimented and I play those type of mad records now.
How do you feel about New York now in its current state?
Well, what I found out about here is that everything went back underground. It went to the bars and the origins. I’m doing a lot of small parties like Humble Beginnings. It’s very interesting. These kids want techy, soulful records. They don’t want the classics cos that’s 20-30 years ago. It’s almost like the 80s revisited, they sort of like those dubby records with vocals.
Does that fill you with hope that things will improve?
Oh absolutely. It’s not so much of a divide. They don’t say I don’t like techno or whatever. They’re not anti anything. But you can tell when they don’t like something. I do a small gay party on Sundays at a club called APT which is killing it. It’s not a superclub, it’s a small club but the other places, smaller things, these things are happening.