One of the most inspiring stories we’ve come across is that of the late Derek Serpell-Morris. Derek was a local legend from Bristol, UK who was more widely known by his stage name, DJ Derek. He became instantly recognizable due to his trademark clean-cut, sharp dressed, sleeveless cardigan, spectacles and tie-wearing image, his unusual accent, and use of Jamaican patois on stage.
Derek Morris was born in Bristol, the second son of a carpenter and a housewife. Derek’s earliest memory was of a wartime barrage balloon falling on his family home. His mother saved yards of the balloon’s tough fabric. Years later, Derek would use this fabric (stretched over a cheese box) to build his first drum.
As a teen and young adult, he found himself performing in several local bands, playing the drums and skiffle board. Music was his interest, but – like most of us – he chose to be practical in his career choice. Derek went into accounting, a career that lasted close to two decades. In the end, though, passions prevailed, and towards the end of his spell as an accountant, Derek became a successful DJ, a career which would span the next 40 years for him.
“Accidental” DJ Career Beginnings
Derek has stated that his career as a DJ began “by accident” when, in his mid-30s, he started selecting music at the now famous Star & Garter pub in the Montpelier area of Bristol. A local Jamaican bus driver who had recently taken over management of the venue told him to bring some of his records to the pub and perform “in exchange for beer money”. The reputation of Derek’s record collection preceded him and the bus driver “knew [Derek] had something for everybody”.
Initially, some of the mainly Jamaican customer-base of the Star & Garter were confused to hear of a white DJ playing music there, but Derek’s fast building fanbase was quick to tell them to reserve judgment until they had at least heard his music. Soon enough, Derek eliminated any doubt that he deserved his residency at the venue. His career and legacy had truly begun to form.
Derek has described the sensation he felt one night early on in his DJ career when the headlining band failed to show up and he found himself having to keep the crowd entertained single-handedly all night long: “…People were asking me for records I’d already got lined up and ready to go. It sent a chill down my spine, it was uncanny – and it told me that this was something I could do, and will keep on doing till I drop dead over the decks.”
Achievements as a DJ
After many years of touring and performing locally, he became seen as a fixture in Bristol’s music scene and garnered the status of ‘local legend’. Many years of hard work later, he was nicknamed “Britain’s Oldest DJ” and received a medal from the Lord Mayor for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Music’. He also became known for the positive way in which he would end his DJ sets. He often opted to finish with Bob Marley’s classic hit – ‘One Love’ due to its life-affirming message of togetherness. Another quirk Derek became known for was choosing to perform his shows using MiniDisc players, rather than a more traditional DJ setup involving records, CDs or a laptop.
Derek’s DJ career saw him traveling internationally for shows across the world, as well as playing major music festivals, such as Glastonbury and The Big Chill. He found himself playing to crowds of up to 50,000 people. Derek also released a compilation CD on Trojan Records (the biggest and most respected reggae record label in the world). His love of music also saw him build a priceless record collection of over 52,000 records! He was a huge fan favorite, with the age of his fanbase ranging from 18-year-old university students to seniors his own age.
Filmmaker, radio DJ, and personal friend to Derek, Don Letts said “He taught me about the importance of culture in bringing people together. He was an English treasure”. Letts described the DJ as “a reggae encyclopedia”. And, although Derek never visited Jamaica, he spent a lot of time with Jamaicans to the extent that he adopted their patois and his own local accent morphed into a unique hybrid of Bristolian and Carribean. This ended up helping him become more readily accepted within the black music industry.
Sadly, DJ Derek passed away in 2015, just 6 months after playing his final ever DJ performance. Since his death, there have been a huge number of tributes to him from other DJs and fans. There have also been various DJ Derek murals painted and Bristol’s current mayor is planning a city tribute for him. Derek’s genuine love for Jamaican music has rubbed off on several generations of his fans who he influenced over his epic career.
As Derek himself often said: “Live the life you love and love the life you live”.
Lessons to Learn from DJ Derek
- Choosing a new path is a lifelong adventure and you can do it at any time.
- Hard work, passion, and consistency pay dividends.
- Quirkiness, uniqueness, and originality help you stand out and may lead to success and adoration.
- Do what you love. Follow your passion. Live a full life. Love your life.
Here’s a two-part interview in which DJ Derek discusses his fascinating life and career: