People: Obituary: DJ Derek
Derek Serpell-Morris was an accountant from Bristol who would rise to national notoriety as DJ Derek, the most unlikely of Patois-speaking reggae DJs.
Living in St Paul’s from the early 70s, he developed a deep affection for the music and the people of the Caribbean community to the point where he became a DJ in pubs and clubs.
In time he honed his sets to include toasting – MCing in a Jamaican accent – firstly over vinyl records and later over his famous collection of personally recorded mini-discs.
His growing fame in the Bristol reggae and club scene through the 90s eventually saw him garner attention from across the UK and beyond and he ended up a regular on the festival and club circuit, releasing his own compilation album on Trojan records and appearing in a music video with Dizzee Rascal:
In 2012 he received the city’s highest civic honour, the Lord Mayor’s Medal, for his exploits. A year later he retired from performing, though he did appear at The Thunderbolt’s New Year’s Eve party in 2014.
Away from the DJ booth, he was a softly-spoken true Bristolian, ever friendly and down to earth, with a taste for real ale.
He also had two little-known but impressive claims: to have visited every Wetherspoons pub in the country and to have travelled on every National Express route in the UK. He was last seen in the Commercial Rooms pub on Corn Street, where he was planning his next coach trip to the latest Wetherspoons opening.
Born in Bristol in 1941, Derek was brought up with an older brother and twin sister in Bishopston as the son of a carpenter who was forever in and out of work.
He lived in relative poverty, by his own account, but found solace in music – drawn to an emerging rock’n’roll culture which brought black music to the fore for the first time, albeit often performed by white musicians.
As a young man he worked as an accountant at Fry’s Chocolate Factory (later Cadbury’s) in Keynsham, and in the late 1950s his fascination with music saw him join a local skiffle band where he played the washboard and the drums – on a kit made using parachute material which had fallen on his house during the war.
But as Jamaican immigrants started moving to the St Paul’s area in the late 1950s and 1960s, Derek’s interests moved onto the ska, rocksteady and reggae they brought with them which would eventually shape his persona and fame.
He spent countless nights in St Paul’s visiting venues like the Bamboo Club and the unlicensed ‘blues’ clubs where he eventually made new friends.
He became involved in the soundclash scene where he was expected to look after the finances, given his accountancy background, and this experience made him realise the need to properly understand the heavily accented Caribbean dialect.
“It’s instinct in a situation like that to think I was being stitched up,” he once said in a documentary filmed in 2009.
A Jamaican friend eventually took him to a barber shop in Grosvenor Road, St Paul’s, and told him to “sit down, listen and say nothing” while the conversations ran on.
“It’s the rhythm,” he would later say when explaining how he developed his Patois accent, claiming it was quite easy “once you have the rhythm and the syntax.”
Occasionally, this demeanor and accent would get him into trouble – raising understandable questions from black and white communities alike – but the DJ said it also got him out of trouble.
“If I came out with this low, deep patois, it put them on the back foot straight away,” he said, describing one of many times he was questioned by Jamaican club-goers listening to his sets in St Paul’s.
His first DJ opportunity came at the Star and Garter, on Brook Road, Montpelier, in the late 1970s. “I just found I had this knack,” he said, describing his success with picking the right tunes at the right time.
He slowly established himself, moving around all the local clubs and bars, playing his reggae collection and MC-ing over the top with his microphone. He even went into business fetching the latest releases from London distributors and selling them on to other sound system DJs on the Bristol scene.
In later years the image of his bespectacled, crumpled face with cardigan or ‘iron shirt’ waistcoat standing with one hand on his record decks and the other holding a microphone (or the ever present cigarette) to his lips would eventually be immortalised in popular posters and the cover to his own compilation CD Sweet Memory Sounds.
He became so well-know, that he even found reggae stars who were previously his musical idols knew who he was. “You’re the white man who talks the people’s talk and plays the people’s music,” one said to him.
His reggae eventually took him beyond Bristol, playing at clubs in London and at festivals around the UK, including the biggest of all, Glastonbury, and in the noughties he played at WOMAD festivals in Spain, Singapore and Australia, a development that required him to get his first ever passport at the age of 60.
As Derek grew older the unlikeliness of this elderly white reggae DJ led to numerous short documentaries for TV and radio – including one on Radio Four – and he even appeared as a DJ on a Dizzee Rascal music video during the height of the rapper’s fame.
However presented, though, the unfailing impression was of a straightforward and friendly gentleman with a passion for music and his two other major preoccupations, the first a childhood obsession with buses.
As his DJ life took him out of Bristol he discovered National Express, and through careful planning he eventually rode every National Express route in the country.
This travelling passion linked with the growth of the Wetherspoons pub chain – a favourite of the ale-loving Derek – and as their national network grew he made a point of visiting very one, recording the details of his trip in meticulous notebooks and retaining a till receipt from each pub as proof: a detail that shows his accountancy instincts never waned.
Drinking friends in the last pub he was seen in, the Commercial Rooms on Corn Street, told BBC Radio Bristol during the search for the missing DJ, that Derek had been planning his next trip to the newests opening, with maps and timetables splayed out on the table next to his glass of real ale.
Though in good health and spirits the demands of travelling and the privations of festival sites led him to retire from DJ-ing in 2013 and his final outdoor performance at the Bristol Harbour Festival saw a packed Queen Square audience pay their respects to a local legend.
He officially retired on New Year’s Eve that year, though he also appeared at the 2014 New Year party in the Thunderbolt, Bristol. In a surprise move, he was billed to play at Arcadia festival in Queen Square in September last year.
In recognition for his services to Bristol, Derek was awarded the Lord Mayor’s Medal in April 2012, the highest civic honour in the city.
His Lord Mayor’s Medal citation reads: “Derek Serpell-Morris, best known as DJ Derek, was born and bred in Bristol and retired from his first career in accountancy to follow his love of music in a second career.
“Due to a lively awareness of changing musical styles, DJ Derek has demonstrated a remarkable ability to tap into the tastes of different ethnic groups and generations.
“From his one-time base at the Star and Garter pub in Montpelier he has travelled far and wide, including festivals at Glastonbury and in Spain, and is well known as a DJ who speaks on stage in a unique mix of Jamaican patois and unmistakable Bristolian.
“To be working and totally accepted in a young person’s environment at a ‘mature’ age is highly commendable.”
Main photo by Shotaway
Read more: Timeline showing DJ Derek’s disappearance