Noel Watson, along with his brother Maurice, was among the first DJs to play house music in London. At their club Delirium, initially known as a hip hop night, they became so unpopular for playing this new style of music that cages were built around the DJ booth to protect them from missiles.
Tell me how you got into dance music?
I started back in ’82 at the Demob warehouse parties that were run by Chris Sullivan and Chris Brick. Chris Sullivan who went on to run the Wag and was in Blue Rondo.
The Welsh boys.
But how did you start collecting records?
I was collecting records even when I was growing up in Ireland as a kid. I was really into music; me and my brother Maurice and two other friends had a band in Hollywood in Ireland, a little indie band. We were into the Only Ones, Roxy Music, punk, Stranglers. Basically, I got into black music through listening to John Peel Show as a kid in the ’70s, listening to dub and reggae. I was really into dub. Then gradually got more into funk and soul. One of the biggest soul records that formed me was Roy Ayers’ Running Away. That really got me into dance music, and then Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life. That was the start of it. When we came over to London, Maurice and I…
So you came over together?
What year were you born?
Did you always get on with each other? You were always into similar things?
Yeah. We were like twins. We did everything together. We were very close.
Pretty unusual for brothers, usually a lot more competitive.
Well, we fought a lot and we beat the shit out of each other, as all brothers do, but at the same time we were very very close. Same interest in music, same interest in fashion, art, cinema, everything. We were very very similar.
What made you decide to move to London, was it a committee decision by the two of you?
Problems with violence and aggression in Belfast.
Are you Catholic or Protestant?
Well, we grew up Protestant, but my mum’s a Jehovah Witness! Strict Jehovah.
Did that cause problems?
Not really, my mum and dad were pretty cool. I could smoke dope when I was at home. My mum preferred that to drinking and coming home drunk. We weren’t drinkers, we were more stoners. Actually Maurice didn’t drink or smoke then, he was just into soft drinks.
Yeah. Until he came to London, and then he started getting more into it.
When did you move to London?
Why did you come, was it to form a band or something?
Yeah, to get into music and to get job opportunities in fashion. Maurice worked for Demob. He was a master tailor. We worked together in a tailoring business in Belfast. I run the shop downstairs and measured people up for the suits and he was upstairs making them.
You got a job quickly?
Really quickly. We got hooked up with people really quickly. We would go to clubs and got involved with the right people very quickly. The main club for me was Le Beat Route. Steve Lewis from Le Beat Route was my main inspiration to start DJing really. I used to idolise him. I ended up working with him in Black Market and I told him, ‘Steve you’re my hero!’. He would play a lot of Roy Ayers, a lot of rare James Brown, JB’s. I seen Madonna perform at Le Beat Route, she’d just come over to London. Boy George and all that lot was there. We were all standing there like this [arms folded] right in front of her, just watching her. She danced on this little dancefloor with two dancers. She did Everybody, her first single.
What was so special about Steve Lewis?
Just the eclecticism of his music choices. At that time, a lot of the clubs were cheesy and a lot of the music was… if you went to the soul clubs it was very straight, dress-wise it was very straight. Le Beat Route was a follow on from the New Romantic era. Steve Strange was going there. We were New Romantics. I used to wear some mad gear! I used to go and see the Slits and Pop Group and I got friendly with Bruce Smith who was the drummer and then I met Neneh [Cherry]. She was only 16 and basically we all lived in west London, in the Grove, so we knew all that crew.
What became Rip, Rig & Panic, basically.
Yeah. Sean Oliver who was in RR&P was the DJ with me and Maurice who ran Battlebridge Road, the warehouse party scene. Sean was our third partner. We ran an illegal warehouse party there for about a year. Jazzie B would come, Nellee Hooper would come, Malcolm McLaren would come and bring us white labels of Buffalo Girls. Sex Pistols and The Clash would hang out there. Andrew McPhearson, the photographer would come and take pictures there. Neneh Cherry and Andrea Oliver would do the bar for us. I would give them £500 and she’d go down to Acton to get all the booze and set up a bar. They’d be on one side of the stage with the bar and me and Sean and Maurice would be on the other side, DJing. The only lights we’d have would be above the bar and the turntables. The rest would be pitch black. We put army camouflage netting all over the ceiling and the walls.
When did you start doing that?
What was the inspiration for that? I know Dirtbox was going, but there weren’t many precedents?
Well, we know about the rap scene and hip hop scene and they were just plugging things into street lamps so we thought ‘we’ll do the same’. So we were getting early rap records, records by Material, playing that sort of stuff.
What types of things did you play?
Maurice was already heavily into B-boys…
Scratching and stuff?
Barry K Sharpe used to come down and throw things at us because we would never let records finish! We’d cut them up. Maurice was an incredible cutter, mixer and scratcher. He could do everything, transforming, the lot. So the kids would come and watch, Nellee and all the Wild Bunch, the Massive Attack boys like Daddy G would hang out on stage and watch us cut. We’d be cutting up all the old JB’s stuff, the old breakbeat records Herman Kelly Dance to Drummer’s Beat.
How long did you do that for?
We did it for about a year and then the police turned up one night and they busted the club. They sealed off the whole road and wouldn’t let anyone down. It was packed every week.
You did it weekly!?
Yeah, every Saturday night. We handed out little paper flyers in black and white that Sean would do. They used to have all these little bizarre things from art books, very obscure imagery, and we’d just hand them out to people we knew. It was amazing.
How many people did it hold?
350 people and we’d ram it, totally ram it, people like Jazzie would come and not be able to get in n because we rammed it so much. It was wild.
How did you find the venue?
Sean found it. It was a disused school. We had a problem with drug dealers selling heroin in the toilets because heroin was a big drug then. A lot of the kids in the club were taking it. Heroin and uppers and downers, and puffing. We had problems with it, they took over the girls’ toilet to sell. We had to keep tabs on that and then the police got involved.
How did you get away with for so long?
Well, it was word of mouth, it was at the back of Kings Cross, near the Goods Yard and there were no residents there. It was derelict at the time so there was no one there to complain. No one knew about it except us and our crew.
What was the crowd like at the parties you did at Battlebridge Road?
It was the cutting edge of London fashion, art, music people. Everybody was there. Right across the board, models, bands, cinema, art world, very trendy.
Cheap to get in?
No, it was expensive to get in, I think we charged nine quid to get in which was a lot of money. And we ran the bar.
You were raking it in!
Yeah, we were making money. I bought a flat, a BMW and a recording studio! [laughs]. We were making money, yeah. It was good fun., Everybody knew each other. If you knew the right people – and we did. Incredible.
How did the Demob parties come about?
It was in Roseberry Avenue in an underground clothes basement that they used for sewing machines and making clothes. It became derelict so we put sawdust down. Don Letts came down and shot a video down there for Freeez’s AEIOU. Terry Farley used to come and hang out with his crew. Neneh and Sade used to come and dance.
Terry told me he came down there and heard that new electronic sound for the first time there…
We were playing things like Run DMC Sucker MC’s, the beats, and mixing rap acappellas on the top of them. No one had heard that shit in London and people were going mad. It was mental. We’d run them to six, seven or eight o’clock until the sunlight came through. It was wild. This happened around the same time, so we were running lots of parties.
How long did Maurice work for Demob?
Well… Demob all caved in eventually. You’d go there on a Friday round the back, and you’d go behind a curtain and there’d be someone sitting there dealing up drugs. People would be coming in and buying drugs. Crazy. We did a massive Demob party at the Electric Ballroom in Camden it was that huge. But Tom Dixon…
The guy who was in Funkapolitan?
Yes, he and Toby Anderson used to be in Funkapolitan. They ran a club Titanic, I would go there as a guest and play with Tom Dixon.
Ah, that’s the one in Berkeley Square wasn’t it? Newtrament did that, too, no?
Tell me about that.
That was on the other end of the scale from what we were doing, it was more fashionable west London crowd. You had Crolla, the shop, it was all of his crowd, very west London, fashion, money people. But it was a good club, you know. They had Newtrament, they had rap battles, it was mad, brilliant.
Who was Newtrament?
He used to come to our flat and pester me and Maurice. He knew we had all the breaks and we could cut and mix. So me him and Maurice would do beats together on DMX drum machines and synthesisers. We’d work together on music. Then he went off and made that record, London Bridge, he blew up for a little while. He was an amazing little guy. His name was Bertrand.
Was he a Yank?
No, British. Mad.
In what way?
He was a nutty mad guy, but way ahead of his time fashion wise. He’d wear a back pack, B-Boy gear, woolly hat, ski goggles. Maurice and I had a whole house in Westbourne Grove, three floors, one of the floors was just keyboards, turntables. We had six 1200 turntables set up at one point. We’d mix the Streetsounds albums in there, just hire in a tape machine. All the Electro albums, Maurice and I mixed them. We did Electro 2, 3, 4, 5, 7. Mastermind did 1, 6, 8 and 9. We’d do all the mixes in there.
Did you get a credit for that?
Yeah, it just says mixed by Noel and Maurice. Or we went under the name Bunny Rock for a while.
What was your reaction when you first heard hip hop?
I remember hearing Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel and it was at an 8th Wonder gig with Patsy Kensit. Graham Ball put on an 8th Wonder gig, Tom Dixon and the Funkapolitan guys were DJing. I think it was Tom who played Grandmaster Flash. Blew me away. What the fuck?! We’d been collecting early rap records on Sugarhill, things like Funky Four Plus 1, Spoonie G. It just blew us away.
When you heard the Flash, did you realise what he was doing? Had you read about it?
Maurice got on a plane and went to New York and sussed it out. He came back with a big record bag full of beats and records.
Did he literally hear it and think I’m off?!
Fucking jumped on a plane and went to New York. He ended up going back there and living. He married a Japanese girl who he worked with at Commes Des Garçons and ended up living there for ten years. That’s why he ended up developing all the addictions that he did and… ended up killing himself, you know what I mean? He would take anything… crack, cocaine, ecstasy… Maurice had ecstasy tablets before anybody in this country even knew what they were.
He was living in New York and hanging out with Jean-Michel Basquait. We did a Commes Des Garçons fashion show with Jean-Michel, we modelled in it and Jean-Michel was there, Andy Warhol was there and before we went out on the catwalk Jean-Michel went out and got a bag of coke, a bag of crack, and spliff. High as fuck! This was ’84 or 85. Naomi Campbell and Veronica Webb were in the show, but they were only young girls then. We used to sneak round the back and look at the girls changing. It was brilliant! Some photographer took loads of pictures of us and we had an after show party in this restaurant. Matt Dillon and all his mates were there dressed in teddy boy suits and they showed the fashion show and we were off our nuts. Just mad. Mental. Really mad days. Incredible.
So did you DJ in NYC?
Yeah. I DJed at Area, MK. Maurice would DJ at The World and when he would go to Japan, I would go over and cover for him.
So where was he DJing in NYC?
He went to set up Black Market in Chicago with Rene [Gelston] as well. They set that up in New York. He DJed at The Choice and all those little places. Maurice phoned me at six in the morning one night. He was putting the discs on for Larry Levan, because they couldn’t see the labels, because they’d been doing Special K. Maurice said, ‘Don’t ever take Special K. There are people here talking to the walls. Larry can’t even see the labels.’ But he was on it as well, he was taking loads of it. I’m no angel, but there are certain lines I won’t go over.
When did Maurice leave here?
What had you been doing up until then?
We’d been doing Delirium at the Astoria, 2,500 people every week.
When did you start doing it?
In 1985 we started doing it, with Robin King, Nick Trulocke, and Spencer Style. Spencer was a very affluent, very astute businessman. He knew the Chelsea set. He was a money guy. He was great at sorting out the venues, though. We would turn 2,000 people away every Saturday night. Our opening night, we had Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Whodini all performing, and Jam Master Jay DJing with me and Maurice. That was our opening night party! I’ve got the original flyer for that night. Rachel Auburn did the VIP Room and Dave Dorrell. He did a little thing for us at one stage.
And it was a hip hop night, basically?
Yeah, it started off as hip hop. Maurice went to New York, came back with a bag of house records and went, ‘You’re not going to believe what I’ve got. There’s another new thing going on, wait till you hear this!’ Acid Tracks, stuff like that, started playing that.
What was your reaction when you first heard it?
Well, I was like ‘Look, Maurice, this is too gay orientated. I don’t really like it.’ But he was like, ‘Noel, this is the thing, ok?’. Even the Beastie Boys said to me, ‘Your brother’s barking up the wrong tree with this, man!’ We used to hang out with the Beasties when I was in New York. They were like, ‘What you doing man turning your back on the brothers playing this fag music’. But when I started listening to it, and the way Maurice played it I thought, ‘I can dig this, this is cool’. Then we brought Marshall Jefferson and Virgo and Jackmaster Funk to Delirium and put on a house night.
When was that? Had you already been playing house there?
Yeah. It cleared the floor. People booed us. Bottles and cans been thrown at us. Black kids didn’t like it. But the white kids did like it.
This is so weird, it’s the opposite in the Midlands and North…
London was different though.
Do you think it’s because they were into hip hop?
Yeah, it’s part of that aggressive culture that hip hop has.
What were the first house records you played at Delirium?
Marshall Jefferson Move Your Body was a classic, Virgo. We used to play William S, it’s on Trax. I’ll try and find out what it’s called. Master C&J with Liz Torres In The City. That was a big track for us. Then Maurice would play Love Is The Message, he would play a lot of the classic disco.
Which he’d got from going to New York?
How did house go over when you first played it?
There was a negative reaction to it. People didn’t want to dance it. It cleared the floor. You’d have people like Andy Weatherall and Phil Asher there sitting on the stairs listening what we were doing. Maurice was the first person to play Just Ice Cold Getting Dumb ’cos he brought it back from NYC, and he was cutting that up. Then he played the house stuff and people would be like, ‘I wish you’d go back and play the beats and cut them up’. But then it got to the stage where I’d do the cutting and playing the hip hop and the beats and Maurice was pure house and disco classics. He was like, ‘They’re going to have to learn to dance to this and they’re going to have to learn what this music is and we’re gonna have to be the ones who break this because it’s cutting edge.’
Did you feel like this was a mission?
Yeah. You have to educate. If you’re gonna be anything in life and put yourself out as the cream or the best… We were the top DJs in London at that stage. We played all the trendiest parties, all the best clubs, we were booked for all the top events and it caused a lot of grief with a lot of other DJs, so many people were jealous. But we were getting those gigs because we were cutting edge. You have to be cutting edge or there is no point in doing it. No one in this life gets anywhere by following a trend. Look at the Neptunes!
Tell me about the infamous cages [built around the DJ booth at Delirium]?
They were built around us because we were getting so much abuse. They were throwing things at us, bottle and cans, so they had a little cage to stop them hitting us and the decks.
So how long did it go from people thinking this was shit to thinking it was good?
Well, other people, like Dave Dorrell, started playing at it at Raw. Eventually we all stuck at it, then we did a night at Limelight, me and Maurice, it was pure house and we brought over Darryl Pandy. Love Can’t Turn Around was a huge record then and it became a hit, the club started getting busier and the crowd changed, the black kids stopped coming to the clubs we were doing. The white kids and the gay kids embraced it and it took off. That’s why we went to Heaven. Maurice moved to New York after the Astoria, I took Delirium with Robin King to Heaven. We had the whole club.
What was that like?
Fuckin’ amazing! Danny Rampling was there. People on the speakers at the end of the night.
When we interviewed Danny, he said that there was a small pocket of about 40-50 people who really got it and they were hanging out at Delirium.
Well, yeah. I’d seen those guys. First time I met Jenni Rampling she was trying to get into the DJ booth at Heaven. Paul Oakenfold was sitting with me in the booth and I said, ‘Who’s that girl?’ He said, ‘Her name’s Jenni, she runs a club called Shoom. You and Maurice should play there’. Maurice was going to New York and I was involved in Heaven so I thought it was conflict of interest, but I shouldn’t have done that. Eventually I did play at Shoom, when it was at Kensington High Street. I went to the original club at the Fitness Centre.
When did Delirium move to Heaven?
1987 or 1988. It was just before Land Of Oz. When we moved Paul took it over and took our fuckin’ crowd! Just carried on with what we were doing and took the whole acid thing. We started that, but he took it on and made it huge.
Could you see that happening when it was unfolding? Could you see it being huge?
Yeah, I could but I didn’t like a lot of the crowd they had coming to their clubs. I thought they were too rough. It was a rough crowd. They were thugs. But they were thugs, but they became loved up! And all the south London boys knew them but I didn’t, it was a different firm. I was west London.
What was it like going to Shoom?
It was amazing. Danny would play amazing records. The crowd were so… there was such a mix of people there, you’d have your loved up thugs, fashion people and Patrick Cox was standing behind Danny the night I was there when Danny was DJing. On the other side of them was 12 guys all in Arsenal shirts! ‘What the fuck is this?!’ It was a very different mix of people and the drug element with ecstasy had kicked in so they were all… By that stage I’d done so much in London, for six or seven years, and I thought there was a new little firm coming up. And I worked in Black Market for about two years and I was doing the big raves for Tony Colston Hayter. And ended up doing events and clubs for people that I wasn’t really into, but I did them… But the vibe was incredible.
What did Maurice think when it blew up?
He was in New York, so he was doing the World with David Piccioni, Frankie Knuckles and all that. He was involved in his scene there. But I would put him on as a guest at Heaven when he came over. But he would get the hump because he’d play Troglodyte by Jimmy Castor Bunch and stuff like that… Actually that was the last record we played at Delirium. Everybody was in the booth, Paul Oakenfold, the atmosphere was electric. They all knew it was the last one, it was an incredible feeling, but Maurice was a right purist and real music snob. He would get the hump that a lot of the people weren’t on the same level as him. He thought the house scene over here was too happy and drug-orientated; that people didn’t understand the culture or the music. He also didn’t like the fact that it became so white. When Delirium started it was 50/50.
How long did it take to go white?
About a year from it starting. The black kids just disappeared. Our policy for Delirium at Heaven was pure house downstairs and hip hop upstairs. We had guests but sometimes I’d play the whole night and I’d play Tony Humphries mixtapes over the system with ads and everything! But they loved it!
What about electro?
We introduced electro in the warehouse parties, before house. That got a fantastic reaction straight away. Off the wall. Pac Jam was huge, anything on Sunnyview was huge. Egyptian Lover.
What was your attraction to them?
It was a new genre, it was innovative. The Smurf thing was big, too, and the kids danced to them. A lot of hip hop then was not very dance-orientated, so that’s why we picked up on it.
Was there any crossover between you and George Power’s thing at Electric Ballroom?
No their crowds were naff. Too straight. Too boring. They weren’t trendy enough for us, we were more into the fashion things. Not because we were stuck up snobs, but that was our friends and our crew. I hung out with Tom Binns. Tom Binns is a top jewellery designer, he lives in LA. He was one of my best mates. We were involved in the fashion crowd.
When was the first time you came across ecstasy?
1987 or 1986 in New York, first time I ever took it was in the back of a limousine with Maurice. Cruising round clubs. You know Rammelzee, the rapper? Well, he wouldn’t get out of his limo, so we would sit in there taking Es. It could even have been 1985.
When did you first see it in London?
Yeah, yeah. They were taking heroin, cocaine, uppers downers, weed. But it was mostly coke and heroin. Battlebridge Road, Roseberry Avenue. All the clubs that I did were very drug orientated.
What about the fashiony crowd at the Hug Club doing it weren’t there?
I don’t know. You see the Rip, Rig & Panic crowd… Sean died of Sickle Cell when he was only 28 and he was shooting heroin.
When Es first started appearing at Delirium was it obvious?
Yeah. It was alcohol and weed and coke at the start.
And what was the crowd at Delirium?
Very young, fashion, trendy, but across the board.
Is it true there was a riot at Delirium?
Yes, there was. I think it was Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers. I think even on the opening night there was a big off. One of the guys from Def Jam, I remember him jumping off the stage and smacking someone because they were giving LL Cool J grief.
A few people mentioned to me it was a bit rough in parts.
Yes, there would be little gangs in corners and you couldn’t control all of them. There was a few muggings.
When did you notice Es coming into it?
Can you find out exactly when you moved there?
It must have been 1987, it was so long ago…
What change did that make?
Suddenly everybody who was anti house music loved it. They were hugging each other. It was amazing. I played Strings of Life there and people would go mad.
Did you get to see the other guys playing it, too, like Colin Faver?
I used to go and check Colin out at the Camden Palace a lot. Colin Faver was dope. He was wicked. I really respected him as a DJ. I met Kid Bachelor around, I ended up doing parties with him. Colin Faver, dope guy, major respect for him. He was bang on it, top boy. He was the don.
Who else played there?
Eddie Richards. Mostly I’d only go to Colin Faver and Eddie Richards’ things, because they were the only good nights. The rest of it was cheesy shit. I was quite a snob, I was a bit elitist, and a bit up my own arse. But I was only young, I was a kid, and you’ve got to have that arrogance to make it when you’re young.
Top boy. I used to go to his things. Really lovely guy. We loved Mark, I’d bumped into him when we were shopping. I remember him telling me about his first S-Express record. He said, ‘I think you’ll like this’. And it was amazing. I went round his flat and played it that night at Delirium. Dave Dorrell with Pump Up The Volume as well, I had a white label of that. I had Jellybean as a guest and he played it twice.
What were the big records at Delirium?
Criminal Element Orchestra, Strings of Life. I’d play classics as well. I’ll have to try and remember… Mr Fingers’ Can You Feel It. Marshall Jefferson. Fast Eddie. There were obscure ones as well that Maurice sent me from New York that I scribbled the name out on them!
So Maurice was still in the loop?
Yeah, he lived and breathed it till the day he died. He was obsessed, more than me.
He moved back here didn’t he?
He came back and DJed but he was wrecked. He’d copy Levan and turn the music off for maybe ten minutes…. ‘Maurice, for fuck’s sake it’s not New York!’ it went a bit pear-shaped. I sent him back to Ireland to try and get him on the straight and narrow, he got a beautiful house there. Then he decided to stay there. Six years ago this month, May 2nd. My dad died on May 5th, two days after him. It was all related to his missus, split up from her lost his child, he was heartbroken. She sold his fucking records in Japan, but there are some at my mum’s and there’s some unreal shit there. All sitting in a wardrobe in my mum’s in Belfast.
Interviewed by Bill Brewster in a pub on the Harrow Road, 26.5.05