Femi Fem, one third of The Young Disciples

back to the future in funky nights

Interview by Lorayne Crawford, photography by Ronya Galka

Femi Williams (aka Femi Fem) kicked off his career in 1990 as a member of groundbreaking three-piece The Young Disciples with Carleen Anderson and Marco Nelson. The band set the tone for the Acid Jazz movement in London, incorporating funk, soul, hip hop and breakbeats into their soundscape. After the chart success of their single Apparently Nothin’ which came from their Mercury Award-nominated Road To Freedom album on Talkin’ Loud Records, Femi became more involved in the behind-the-scenes aspect of the music industry. He has since been in demand as a writer, producer, remixer, DJ and promoter, doing production and remixing with artists such as Ultra Naté, Estelle and Booty Luv, as well as working on tracks for artists as diverse as Justin Timberlake, Darkman, Mary J. Blige, Des’ree, D’Influence, The Pasadenas and Beyoncé.

He has DJ’d extensively in the UK at clubs such as Cream, Ministry of Sound, Café de Paris, Elbert Wurlings, Jelly Jazz, Old Skool, The Beetroot, Subtone, London’s Jazz Café and Fresh & Funky. He is known internationally, having played for Stevie Wonder, Prince, Janet Jackson, Stella McCartney, Jade Jagger, Gucci and the Russian Embassy. Femi has produced catwalk music for fashion designers Ozwald Boateng, Katherine Hamnett and Julien MacDonald.

He has run a number of clubs including the MOBO Award-winning Rotation on Friday nights at Subterranea in London, he’s promoted the popular and respected Camouflage on Saturdays at The Complex, N1 and from 2009-2013 he was the musical consultant and resident DJ for the Supperclub, in Notting Hill. All of his clubs have successfully attracted a multi-genre music-loving audience and his DJing talents have taken him around the world to countries as far flung as Australia, Dubai, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Hong  Kong (where he supported the late, great Gil Scott Heron), Austria, France, Spain, Ibiza, Ireland, the Czech Republic, New York, and Detroit.

I remember that one night the lights came on and I noticed the Spike Lee had been on the floor

Who or what influenced you to start making music?

Friends in bands, James Brown, the funk & rare groove club scene in London in the 1980s all led me to get into making music

Which instruments do you play and how do you write? Is there an instrument you can’t play but would like to?

I'm a DJ a programmer/producer, I'm not traditional player just operator/programmer of drum machines & turntables, and also some percussion too. 

How did Young Disciples come into being?

Marco was in bands when I met him he got involved in the sound system I was a member of called Shake & Fingerpop started by Norman Jay. We promoted bands that were on the scene Push, Pasadena's & others. Barrie Sharpe with Lacelles also had a strong influence as his DJing at Black Market Friday nights at the WAG. We (Marco & I) had a contact that gave us Bobby 'I know you got soul' Byrd & Vickie Anderson's number. We organised a reunion gig in London for all of the prominent members of James Browns revue known as the JBs. Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Lyn Collins, Marva Whitney & Pee Wee Ellis were among the artist Bobby and Vickie contacted for us and the concert was a raving success. They also introduced us to their daughter Carleen Anderson who was a surprise performer at the JBs reunion concert 1987. We decided there and then to form a group and the Young Disciples was born. 

Tell us about ‘Talking Loud Records’ and why you went there, rather than other labels?

We went to Talking Loud because at the time we thought that Gilles Peterson the A&R coordinator and a great DJ for our style, would understand our approach to music & shared some of our ethos or basic principles to art. Unfortunately, Gilles ended up having to protect his own interest as Talking Loud was part of a multinational music group called Universal. Although there was a measure of success Gilles still found obstacles in front of him with hierarchy and that spelt problems for his signings Omar Galliano Incognito and us Young Disciples. 

How were the Young Disciples received in the USA?

We have a cult underground following and some of the label in the US did feel what we were doing but they didn't push it. Some cool artist such as D'Angelo, Maxwell The Pharcyde and Tribe Called Quest have acknowledged us. Large Professor and Jazzy Jeff also say they dig our sound. Whyclif DJ'd at one of my nights and after Maseo from De La Soul came to spin at my night Rotation he became a friend. 

Were you involved in Carleen Anderson's solo records?

No. Did you not check the credits?

Did you always want to have a DJ career even though you were a successful musician? How did this come about?

I was a DJ then the music expanded. 

Thad Boogie used to DJ with you in Europe, do you still travel and work with other DJ’s? 

I have DJ'd all over the world. This is the perk of my job and I'm very grateful for this. I've been to places such Tokyo Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne just to play my records. That's crazy! 

Do you have any advice to give to up and coming DJs/MC?

Do it with feeling and make sure you love it.

I believe you won a MOBO award for ‘Club Rotation’... What was the idea behind the night and what was your most memorable night there? 

We had many memorable nights the ethos was just about having a black club for all comers and all people. It was in the 90s so R&B was not on the radio. We knew it was gonna be the biggest sound. There were the Bad Boy label tunes Death Row Uptown and Def Jam not forgetting Loud Records. Groups like Tribe Called Quest and Mobb Deep were influencing and were influenced by artist like Mary J Blige Omar and Soul 2 Soul. 

We had all the stars come to the night but it was low key as this was before the internet and the celebrity culture of today. Most people who came to the club were artist or artistic themselves or worked in arts or media so weren't too phased by the stars. Having said that people were pretty bowled over by Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes or Prince turning up to boogie. Biggie Smalls, Maxwell, Busta, Snoop, Goldie, Jazzie B, Mariah, Bobby Brown all came. I remember that one night the lights came on and I noticed the Spike Lee had been on the floor. 

I always love the fact that I'd never heard Sisqo's song 'Thong Song' he came and performed it for free as did many other artist leaving any great memories. The vibe and my team of DJs and MCs made it so special as it was a family feel. 

Tell us about your ‘BigStuff’ night - where is the club and what is it all about?

This is a throwback to the days of the 80s funk revival. It's a loose funk club with an open attitude and house party rather than club feel. Clubs these days are very much about the bling and tables. We are the antithesis to this. Barrie Sharpe was one of the premier style guru of the 80s and I helped with the funk warehouse party scene back then. Disco, Funk, Boogie, Reggae, Hip Hop, Afrofunk that you won't find on compilation albums is our sound. We have brought those experiences back with another family feel although it's not without any modern attitude as we've used social networking to find cool people to be a part of the party. We run it once month and you can find us on Facebook 

When asked as a Muslim what he felt about Al Qaeda being part of his religion he answered what do you feel about Hitler being part of yours?

How do you view the club scene at the moment? How has it changed?

It's far better organised a lot more corporate. There are more managers involved in the music as they want to please big spenders. This has resulted in the club scene becoming homogenised it's one big electronic messy sound. I like the fact that the Afrobeat has come up but even that can be monotonous. Let's face it the club scene has had far more creative times. The underground will rise again though it's hard to stay that way with the net.  

What are you working on at the moment? And what are your future plans?

I'm working with some singer songwriters and a group called Jaramo who are some insanely talented youngsters from Bristol, they play live and sing beautifully. 

What motivates you?

My family.

Who do you admire (dead or alive) and why?

Muhammed Ali because he was the first black icon I could relate to. He also gave the best answers such as when asked (as a Muslim) what he felt about Al Qaeda being part of his religion he answered what do you feel about Hitler being part of yours? 

What is your favourite quote?

We got to have peace

To keep the world alive

And war to cease.

It's Curtis Mayfield

If you were given a 'round the world' ticket, where would you go and why? 

Somewhere warm with clear-water seas.

If you had a time machine what year would you go back/forward to and why?

Would love to see my dad in his clubbing days in the 1950s Soho. He used go the Flamingo Jazz club in Soho Wardour St. The Flamingo is significant to me as I went to the same place when it had change name to the WAG club in the 1980s I met Barrie Sharpe there and Disciples there. 

Do you have a ‘Party Piece’?.. Is there anything ‘unusual’ you can do that you would like to share with us?

Yes I have a Unicycle and I'm training for the South East England Unicycle championships.  

When was the last time you were ‘moved’, and what moved you?

My children move me daily.

How would you like to be remembered?

A good dad that had fun in life.