UK House Wizard Rhythm Doctor on British Dance Culture of the ’80s and ’90s

From the DJ History archives: an interview with the DJ and producer who has been at the forefront of the British dance scene since the ’70s

Rhythm Doctor Herkki Merila

Veteran DJ and producer Rhythm Doctor’s career stretches through some of the biggest developments in British dance music over the past four decades. He got his start in the late ’70s, DJing punk and reggae as a university student in the English Midlands. In the ’80s, he cut his chops as a DJ in the jazz-funk scene that dominated cities like Birmingham. He soon became obsessed with the house music that was starting to come over from America. In 1986, he moved to London and together with his friend Jerry Dammers from The Specials, they founded a night called the 3A’s - Artists Against Apartheid. The party, which featured major guest DJs like Soul II Soul, Tim Westwood, and Coldcut, helped fuel the rise of house music in London.

In the early ’90s, Rhythm Doctor continued pushing house with a party called Feel Real, which featured American stars like Louie Vega, Tony Humphries, and Kevin Saunderson. In 1997, he got married and moved to Tallinn, Estonia, where he lives today.

DJ History

In this 2005 interview with Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Rhythm Doctor recalls some of the people and places that defined ’80s and ’90s dance culture in the UK.

Where are you from and how did you get started?

From Birmingham originally, and I got into DJing while at Lanchester Polytechnic. Punk had just started, I was really into punk and reggae. I’ve got a picture of me DJing when I was 12, so I was always buying records. They gave me a night straight away. Then I started doing a local pub.

Was there much of a scene? Two-tone was starting...

Yeah, but our things were the ones everybody came to. The Specials and everybody. I know Jerry [Dammers] really well. We were The Swinging Cats, an easy-listening two-tone band. I started off being a go-go dancer. Then I played bongos, then lead singer. We had quite a following. Madness loved us, and Bad Manners. On the single I wasn’t singing at all; in live shows the singer couldn’t always keep in tune so I said I’ll do it. And it was so scary. I did one warm up gig at the Hope and Anchor and I was great. Next gig was the Cornish Riviera, 5,000 people. I was shitting myself. We did loads of cover tunes. The bass player went to Dexys Midnight Runners, guitar player went into Special AKA, keyboard player went to Colourfield. We got in the Top 40.

What was your night called where you were DJing?

They were called Dance only Dance and Music Against All Odds, amongst other things. I did them in the Polytechnic and the Hope & Anchor pub in Coventry. Jazz all-dayers were my big break. Jazz-funk all-dayers in Birmingham Locarno, Nottingham Rock City. They were fantastic. I started going to them before I was DJing. Birmingham Locarno was a big, old, typical ballroom with two rooms. Main room held about 1,000 people, and the back room about 400. The main room was Northern Soul, but it was fuckin’ empty, maybe 100 people in this huge room and in the back room was jazz-funk.

DJs were Colin Curtis, Shaun Williams, Graham Warr, and Dave Till, really great DJs from the Midlands scene. I used to go there dancing with Baz Fe Jazz, who was my main cohort at the time, from Coventry. They threw out the Northern Soul and they put the jazz-funk and more electronic music in the big room. Then, in the back room they had pure jazz, and that’s where I started DJing. Amazingly, just last week I saw a guy from the scene, one of the jazz dancers. Still looking amazing, still doing the same moves.

It was very much a dancing thing.

Yeah, all very good-natured, Brummies against the Londoners, or the Manchester lot. They all had different styles.

Did people travel a long way for them?

Yeah, yeah. They had the main room [with] the crews in formation, dancing against one another. Like the Coventry crew against the Leicester crew. Good fun, horns, whistles and great live acts. I saw Lonnie Liston Smith, Mantronix, Sharon Redd, Prince Charles City Beat Band.

They took to the electronic stuff straight away.

Yeah, it seemed to be the same kind of thing. It was a really great scene, once a month on a Sunday. At least every two weeks, you’d do an all-dayer. Good fun.

What kind of crowds?

Maybe 40% black, a young lot and each town had its own dressing thing going on. One time, all the rugby lot started wearing cycling tops. They were the first ones to do that. Then the Coventry boys followed suit. Trends would go around. We’d always bring changes of clothes. [That] continued from the Northern scene, having a bag full of clothes, ’cause it was just pure sweat.

Was it druggy?

No. I didn’t know anyone who took drugs. I used to run a coach from Coventry to different cities. That’s how they used to run it. If you could bring a coach they’d put you on the bill. So there was a big crowd in Coventry, they would follow me. It was a good time. I didn’t know anyone who took any drugs. Not even a spliff, not in them days. You’re talking 18 to 22 years old, it wasn’t so big then.

At that time, it seemed to be that you had to play house or hip-hop or rare groove. But we didn’t.

Did you come to things in the south?

Very rarely. I did one all-dayer in somewhere like Hammersmith, once. The music wasn’t that different but it seemed more urban, more aggressive. I met Tim Westwood; first time I met him was at an all-dayer. Steve Walsh, he used to DJ at them as well. Through Baz I met Gilles Peterson, all that time ago. He had his pirate radio station, his KJazz, in his back shed.

Up a tree or something.

One weekend I did a guest spot from his garden shed playing jazz. Probably ’81, ’82. I moved to London in ’87 or ’88. People were saying, “You’ve got to move, you should be doing music there.” I didn’t want to go. I was probably a bit scared. I used to read The Face and thought what we had was a bit better. I always remember the “Hard Times” article by Robert Elms, and I thought, “I’m playing all the same kind of music, I’ve got my crowd here.” But I finally moved down, I was so lucky. I started doing this three As club – Artists Against Apartheid – in Covent Garden.

It was a youth club which is now a restaurant. The entrance was opposite Pineapple Dance Studio. Jerry found it and asked me to do it with him, and we wrote the youth club a letter, “Can we do a charity thing?” No alcohol, but people brought their own. Beautiful place. If you see Quadrophenia, there’s a youth club place at the start – that was it. There were some glass panels where the kitchen bar was and then arches. I met everybody there because everybody wanted to DJ there, for the cause. Tim Westwood, Soul II Soul. Kid Batchelor came in on it, I met him, very luckily. I met the Bang the Party people, they were the only people into house [music] that I’d met in London. The Three As was fantastic. Lasted for about nine months, every Friday I think.

The main room had a snooker table and table tennis. A fantastic space, fit about 300 people. It got so popular. Norman Jay, Shake & Fingerpop, Brand New Heavies were often in the crowd.

The music was a real mix.

Yeah, it was everything. At that point in time I saw no difference, but it was just at that time when it seemed to be that you had to play house, or hip-hop, or rare groove. But we didn’t. I was mainly pushing the house, and Jerry was mainly pushing the hip-hop and rare groove, but I used to play bits and pieces as well. And all the guest DJs, from On-U Sound System to Tim Westwood, [played] the whole spectrum of music. It didn’t matter. Sadly, it got closed down by the police. They threatened the committee of the charity that ran it that if we opened the next week, they would raid it.

What year?

It must have been about ’86. Public Enemy was massive, “Bring The Noise,” and so was “Acid Trax.” I used to do this mix over “No Way Back,” scratching in the “Free Nelson Mandela” breakdown. Then Jerry decided to make it into the house version, and I did the same thing on it.

The Special AKA - Free Nelson Mandela (The Whole World Is Watching Dance Mix)

Can I flip you back to the all-dayers, that was ’81?


How did the scene change?

Well, house music came in. I remember the first house music tour was at Rock City Nottingham, but it didn’t seem like a different type of music. I remember Robert Owens. They were just PAing vocal things. I remember Larry Sherman throwing records into the crowd. But we were quite up on it. The Midlands people really liked that music, but it didn’t break in London quite so quickly.

But at the all-dayers it was played alongside Mantronix, or boogie tracks. It didn’t seem to matter. It was obviously faster, but it wasn’t seen as something different. People didn’t mind if you played house or slower tracks. I always remember Kid Batchelor telling me, “You’ve got to decide, are you going to play house or hip-hop?” I said, “I’ll play whatever I like.” In the end he was right. It happened I had to play house.

What was Colin Curtis like?

He was great. I contacted him by email recently and asked him how he was, and did he remember me. “Of course I remember you. You and Baz pushing forward all these new exciting sounds.” I didn’t know he thought of me like that. I thought he thought I was a little kid who didn’t know what I was doing.

Where were you getting your records?

There was this shop called Graham Warr records, this DJ in Oasis in Birmingham. He closed down. Then I used to go to Summit records. But the jazz stuff, you just used to trade it at all-dayers. There was a shop in Birmingham called Jazz Music or something. I used to play a lot of Brazilian, fast batucadas and stuff.

I used to do scratching over batucada. In the jazz room, you couldn’t play that all the time. I liked some of the more melodic jazz as well, and there was a group of dancers who danced differently, who didn’t like all this fast stuff. It was quite hard to balance. They wanted to float around, do their ballet jazz, then the younger, more urban kids wanted the fast stuff, almost like breakdancing stuff. Colin was great. The music he had, you didn’t know any of it. I suppose he didn’t know much of what we had, ‘cause we were coming from completely different angles.

Was your apprehension in coming to London because you felt that your scene was trading off something that was stronger in London?

No. We always had the attitude that we were better than London. We were more ahead than them. I was like, “Fuckin’ hell, they haven’t even got into house music yet. What are we going to do?” I remember giving flyers out for the Three As, and overhearing someone say, “That’s where that Northern DJ plays all that house music.”

Where were you living?

Ilford. Seven Kings, then Forest Gate. When I was doing all the warehouse stuff in the early ’90s, I was in Hoxton. I used to come down from Coventry to buy my records at Groove. At least once a month.

Where were you going out?

Clubs. The Wag, Jerry was doing the Wag. Rene started Black Market, he was the host. Trying to get in was mental. You couldn’t get to the door. There was two rooms, bits of house.

Soul II Soul?

That was really weird. I met the Bang The Party guys: Lesley and Kid, and Lesley said, “You’ve go to come to Soul II Soul.” I was going out with a black girl at the time, Hazel, and she went there first. She said it was fantastic. We got to know Daddae Harvey really well, who used to sit on the door there, and we never used to pay, just got invited in. They knew I was a DJ, I suppose. It was great. There was no house music there, and we used to bug ’em, “When are you going to start playing house?” They did. I’ll never forget, they played “Jack the Groove,” and people went bonkers. ‘Cause it had the sample of Cymande in it, so they could relate to it.

Raze - Jack The Groove

That was the thing in London?

Yeah, definitely. The whole image thing, and everybody seemed to be interesting there. You could feel some creative energy.

It’s a tiny place.

I suppose. 400, 500 [capacity]. Great place. I went there a couple of years after they stopped and tried to start again.

It’s a charity or something.

It was nice. It finished early. The alcohol thing was weird. They had some bar at the back, but I can’t remember if you could buy beer.

How did you get into reggae?

When I was 11 or 12, I got into reggae in Birmingham by listening to radio stations. I used to go to Black Wax Records, and I ended up working for them. They turned into Inferno Records. When I moved back to Coventry, I’d go to sound systems all the time. Local ones, and big visiting ones. When I moved to London, I got friendly with a sound from East London, King Originals. Two big rasta twins, Frankie and Wasier, he’s still going. In the Hope and Anchor, we built our own sound system. We built all our own bass bins.

I saw Bob Marley twice in Birmingham. I was going to art college, ’76, ’75. In sixth form, it was really coming up. I remember seeing Bob Marley on Old Grey Whistle Test, recorded it from the speaker. It was the right time for student music and Three As was all tied in with the Rock Against Racism movement.

The tie-up between punk and reggae was fantastic. That was the most exciting time for me. Somehow, you just felt this unity that was real. I remember going to Notting Hill Carnival around that time and it was fucking incredible. Seeing Ari Up from the Slits standing next to some big bass bin, just vibrating. They were really exciting times, when you get that kind of fusion of music. And go-go. I was really into the Kid Creole thing as well. Coati Mundi. Was (Not Was). When those records came out, it was just the music I’d been waiting for.

Kid Creole & The Coconuts present Coati Mundi - Que Pasa/Mi No Pop I

Did you go to Clink Street?

Not at the time of the RIP Parties. After, I used to DJ at Clink Street. I could tell you about Dungeons, up Lea Bridge Road. Paul RIP used to do Fridays at Dungeons, and, I think, Saturdays at Clink Street. And the people I used to work for, Hypnosis, was Linden C, and a few other dubious characters. I did the Saturday at Dungeons.

I don’t know how I met Linden. Probably through Fantasy Radio. That was such a big thing at the time. First time I went there, the sound system was just shite. It was a mental place, absolutely. A complete maze. It’s below a pub. Some old waterworks. ’Cause all the marshes are there. It was just a maze, really hard to know where you were, with the sound and the lights, low ceiling, lots of little tunnels off. Fantastic place. And above it was a pub. And as time progressed, they would use the pub as well. It was massive, thousands of people there.

And lots of different systems?

The system was shit. Because I had done the Three As, I knew about the good sound systems. I said, “Fucking hell, get a good sound system in here.” I ended up being the guy who hired the systems for there.

Who were the DJs down there?

On a Saturday, the guys who ran it were Linden C and Rob Acteson. They would have guests like Paul Anderson, Evil Eddie Richards. Then I got in there, and became a resident. I remember Linden asking me, “What do you think of Richard, then? Mr. C.” I said, “You should get him, he’s a great DJ.” From then on Richard came in, he was fucking hot. He’d been listening to Eddie Richards for years. And Colin Faver. Those were the main people who played there.

What year did it kick off?

I suppose it was ’89. I think by ’90 it had stopped.

It was very much house?

It was house in all the rooms.

Were there different styles emerging?

There was the more trippy stuff and the more soulful stuff. I remember records like “Ride A White Horse,” and I’d wonder, “Why are they playing this kind of shit?” Since then, I’ve got to like that record. There was that kind of sound. A bit more purely electronic, European. There was that split. I forgot to mention Steve Proctor. He was playing with Hypnosis as well, then. And he was totally on that other side of house. Balearic, or something. That was the main difference: the American and the more European sound. I’d play records like Chubb Rock, “Ya Bad Chubbs.” But you wouldn’t get Steve Proctor playing that.

It’s much easier to play to a crowd of people who are on ecstasy. It’s so easy.

Even then, there was a split?

Yeah. It wasn’t so defined. And there were crowds for that. Seemed to me, the suburban people liked the Ibiza, Balearic sound and they would all come from far away to listen to Steve Proctor.

Was Dungeons the key place in the East End?

It really was. It was just mental. Fridays and Saturdays, and some Sundays, if there was a bank holiday. Walked out of there Monday morning, 8 AM in rush hour, like, “What’s going on?” ’Cause I was usually the last one out of there, ’cause I used to pick up all the wires, and tidy up with some of the other crew. I wanted to hear this music on a proper sound system.

The other big thing was Confusion, at the time, with Nicky Trax and Kid Batchelor. And E-Mix, and those people. That was a fantastic scene. They started off in a little place in Greek street, a posh bar with two floors. Always on Sundays, Confusion. That was a great Sunday scene ’cause Kid had a big, unique style. A bit psychedelic, but very soulful. He would play quite unusual records.

When did pills start making a difference?

I was quite naive to this. I’ve never taken any drugs, I was so into the music. I wasn’t that interested, but I realized what a big part they used to play. People are surprised: “What, you used to play that music, and you never used to take any drugs?”


“How did you understand what we were wanting?”

It’s much easier to play to a crowd of people who are on ecstasy. It’s so easy. Well, relatively. It does have its drawbacks. In the early ’90s, I used to play a lot on the South Coast. I remember over time, people said to me, “Your music’s changed, hasn’t it?” Not really. It hadn’t. Between ’90 and ’93, ’94, I was just playing house music that I liked. It wasn’t any different. Lots of similar artists and labels. So I said to this person, “Do you take ecstasy?”


I said, “Well, that’s the answer: it’s not me that’s changed. It’s you, whatever kind of trip you’re on.” I’m sure it affects people like that: one minute something makes sense, then the next it doesn’t.

Did you go to any of the Shut Up and Dance things?

No. I didn’t know what they were up to. Funny you bring them up. I know DJ Hype really well. Known him a long time, he’s a really good friend from the Fantasy days. I was always at places where Hype was DJing. So it’s almost the same thing. ’Cause what they were doing was very different. Without them, there would be no drum & bass. Fact. Them and Hype, they created that whole breakbeat ragga-influenced music.

Can you remember when you first heard it?

It would be on Fantasy. What made them was, they didn’t give a fuck about what they did. It’s like, everything’s in there. Usually it’s not even in time, it’s all mad, it’s all really loose, and they don’t care. I used to say to Hype, “The sample’s all out of time.” He was there when they were doing it, and he’d say, “They don’t care. That’s it. They want it like that.”

Were you aware of the split when hardcore became big?

It’s really hard to remember exactly. I don’t know if I was aware that it was about to happen. But when it happened, it was making my life really difficult. I used to play another place, Waterdon Road in Stratford, some mad, massive warehouse parties. And that music was coming in, and people wanted more and more hardcore. I used to either play first or last. I couldn’t play at peak time anymore, at those parties. So it used to piss me off a bit, ’cause I didn’t like it. It just seems too simplistic to me. House and techno were one thing. They never seemed to be different then, either. You’d play a KMS record next to Masters At Work, and you never really thought about it. On the radio, there were DJs more into the techno thing, and Hype was more into his breakbeats.

People talk about the split when hardcore went off. There were places like Labyrinth…

I used to play at Labyrinth. People used to like what I did, even hardcore promoters. They’d say, “If you want something more mellow, get him.” Even the hardcore people liked what I did. Labyrinth at Four Aces club in Dalston was a mental place. It was rumoured to have a tunnel under the ground where the owners used to escape to the other side of the road. I mean, the early hardcore I could get into it, but when it solidified into this lump, I didn’t like it. But the early stuff was quite interesting.

Like what?

A Homeboy A Hippie and a Funki Dredd, those records. And some of the ones on XL Records, Fantasy UFO, and the Warp stuff, Forgemasters, Unique 3. All those heavy bass records, if they were a little bit off the wall.

Who first took that and ran with it?

I think it’s like Slipmatt, Ratpack. DJ Hype asked me to do the last two Tru Playaz nights he does at fabric, he has an old-school room. The last one was much better than the first one. And Ratpack played after me, I never liked what they did, but I got to appreciate them this time at fabric. They came on after me and they played some great breakbeat stuff I’d never heard before. It was fantastic. At the time, it was a bit more competitive, like, “I don’t want to be involved in that scene.”

After the harder stuff split off, when did the more soulful side start to have its own identity?

Well, we started Feel Real in ’92. I just thought I’d get these DJs who I knew, who’d been a bit underrated: there was Femi B and Rob Acteson. I was going out with Olive at the time, so she DJed as well. So we put the underdogs together and really worked it. We were at the right place at the right time, in the Gardening Club. Linden C was doing his thing in Heaven in the back room on a Friday. By that time Mr. C wasn’t doing that kind of music. To be honest, there weren’t a lot of people doing it. Later on came Phil Asher and the Irish brothers, Noel and Maurice Watson. They played at the Three As.

The hard stuff seemed to be winning out?

I don’t know. I didn’t really pay attention to it.

How long did the Gardening Club last?

About a year-and-a-half, and then we went to Raw. The best time at Gardening Club was the first birthday. Fantastic. We had Louie Vega and Tony Humphries in the gardening club, and in the Rock Garden we had Inner City and Arnold Jarvis. That was the best party we ever had. The first night was great too, because nobody knew what was going to happen. It was weird, in a way. Packed and really good atmosphere, right from the start. I used to have a record shop in Covent Garden then. One of my heroes walked in off the street: LB Bad. Lamont Booker. Just came in with somebody who knew the shop. And he came in on the opening night.

It failed in the end. Bit to do with the club, they were having a lot of trouble with the police. They had the Betty Ford Clinic on a Wednesday, and they raided that. A big part of our success at Feel Real were the door staff. They were our friends, they’d be downstairs partying with us. They loved the vibe. And then Westminster Council, or the police, made them change all their door staff in one go. It was just horrible. One week it was friendly, and the next week, it was like, “Who are these fucking people?” Nasty men, who were obviously there to be as strict and nasty as they could. Before, we had a lenient policy, people were smoking, they said, “Don’t do it too openly.’’ Then, they were searching people and throwing them out. It really killed it.

Then we moved to Raw. It was too big for us. Hard work. We did four, five months. But Rob Acteson had really good contacts. Everybody wanted to play, which was nice. DJ Pierre, Barbara Tucker, Cassio Ware. If they were here, they’d want to play. We had a really good New Years Eve party in Camden with Michael Watford. The Cut Theatre, Soul II Soul used to do things there. Right near the Tube, some kind of theatre. They were friendly, and understood what we wanted to do. It was chaotic, though. There were only two toilets, and we had 700 people there on New Years Eve. The opposition was Centreforce, they were based in Stratford.

What kind of reach did the pirates have?

Pretty big. We had listeners in Cambridge, even. I don’t know how far West, but South a lot. They were how I got most of my work, being on the radio, and being part of that. It was really well listened to.

Did you have any scrapes or get raided?

Got raided once. When I was in the area, wasn’t on the air. It wasn’t so serious at that time.

Did you broadcast live? How did it work?

There was a link. For years we were in this pub in Clapton. It was one of these old smelly pubs, lots of rooms upstairs. We were in there for years. Mr. C was in there too. But then he went to Dance FM, this other station that started up. That was the best time, when it was there, because it was just so easy-going. But then we had to move to some tower blocks in Hackney. In Stratford. But there was only ever three or four places it broadcast from.

This interview was conducted in 2005. © DJ History

By Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton on January 16, 2019

On a different note