Looking Back on the Life of Drum and Bass Pioneer DJ Kemistry
DJ Storm and Goldie reflect on the life and work of their close friend and Metalheadz co-founder.
All photos by Jayne Conneely
Never-knowing is never easy, and it's a nagging feeling that tugs at the memory of Kemi Olusanya, better known as DJ Kemistry. As part of Kemistry & Storm, she was a drum and bass pioneer, a devoted friend and fierce creative force, before a freak accident took her life aged just 35. Following her recent decision to share a series of photographs of this era, I spoke to Jayne Conneely (DJ Storm) about her old DJ partner, and the bittersweet magic of her legacy.
When I reach Jayne on the phone it's the day after the 17th anniversary of Kemi's death. She's in a comfortably reflective mood. "I'm living in Kettering which is where Kemi was brought up for most of her life, and when I first met her when I was about 17," she says. "We have a tree here in Kettering, in her memory. Every year I put a white rose on it—her favorite flower—once on her birthday and once on the day that she passed."
Their meeting in Kettering, nestled away in relatively anonymous flatlands of Northamptonshire, began under relatively unassuming circumstances. "I worked in a restaurant at the time," Jayne recalls. "A couple of guys used to come in, and one of them happened to ask me out on a date. He was a sax player in a band. Kemi was going out with the keyboard player." Through dating mutual acquaintances, the pair became friends for the first time. However this was short-lived, with Kemi soon moving to Sheffield to train as a make-up artist and Jayne leaving to study radiography in Oxford. It was only when, in another turn of fate or reason, Jayne needed somewhere to live in London just after Kemi had moved there. "She said she had this really big bedroom and suggested we moved another bed in I could save myself some stress dealing with getting a flat."
It was in this cosy to the point of crowded room in Finsbury Park that their friendship became a partnership, under the common focus of the great British rave. "I'd been in Oxford studying, so while I'd kept up with my music I'd been studying so hadn't really had the time to party." Jayne was introduced to this brave new world by Kemi who had a head start on the scene. "Kemi would bombard me 24/7 with these pirate radio shows and before long we'd both started building our vinyl collection. I still remember the night, New Year's Eve 1990 at Lee Valley Ice Rink, when I found myself staring at the decks, and I looked across and there was Kemi looking as well. We were fascinated. We couldn't move and we couldn't dance, we were just watching them play. We looked at each other and realized that's it—we wanted to do this."
It was also around this time, in 1991, while working in a shop in Camden, that Kemi was approached by a graffiti artist who had recently moved back to the UK after a stint in America. As Jayne remembers it, "She came home and said, 'this mad guy with gold teeth approached me.'"
"I was in New York and Miami for a while, but when I came back to England I moved to Camden where Kemi was working in Red or Dead," Goldie tells me, when I briefly speak to him a few days later. "I kept cycling past and seeing her through the window, her blonde dreadlocks sort of freaked me out. They were so unusual but also made her look like an angel." After eventually convincing her to join him for a date, Kemi in return invited Goldie to join her at a night called Rage in the nightclub Heaven.
Jayne remembers how Goldie initially found the one-love ethos almost jarring. "He pretty much stood in one spot, wouldn't even come downstairs to hear Groove and Fabio. We got home and asked him what was going on and he said he didn't understand it—there were white, black, Chinese people all in one place and we realized, 'he's missed the summer of love'—in Miami where he'd been living everything was still so segregated, he thought something was going to go off. We convinced him to come again and see Fabio and Grooverider. So he came the next week, saw them, and had the same feeling we'd had."
Kemi and Jayne introduced Goldie to the world that would come to define him or, more accurately, the world he would come to define. The three of them began developing plans to work together to form the label which would become Metalheadz, and Jayne and Kemi's aspirations as DJs began to take shape.
"We wanted to come up with names that didn't make us sound like girls," Jayne remembers. "Kemi's dad was a biochemist so Kemistry came quite naturally, and someone said that I had quite a stormy nature. Kemistry and Stormy wasn't quite right but then we thought of Kemistry & Storm. After that, Goldie made us a CV—I think we were the first DJs who ever had a CV!" With a pirate radio show on Touchdown FM, Goldie producing accompanying artwork which Jayne's then boyfriend would sneak into the publishers he worked at during the night to print. "We'd say we were DJs, we wouldn't say anything about our gender, so it wasn't until we turned up that people were like 'oh, they're women.'"
The achievements of Kemistry & Storm, along with Goldie, defined drum and bass in the popular imagination. It was under the Metalheadz banner that the movement sailed; a dark, bizarre, biting, trance-like slip-stream within which Britain's pre-millennial cultures and cliques found common ground. While Goldie has gone on to become the face of this time in most people's memory, it should never be lost as to just how pivotal Kemi and Jayne's roles within the label were. After Goldie's prowess as a solo recording artist saw him signed to Pete Tong's FFRR Records, he handed much of the full time responsibilities of Metalheadz over to the two DJs.
Jayne recalls the initial releases they handled as pivotal. "We were lucky in that two of the first releases we oversaw were "Your Sound" by J.Magik and Dillinja's The Angels Fell EP, which kind of changed the face of Metalheadz. Up until then people had seen it as this weird little label that was putting out these interesting records nobody fully knew what to do with. But everyone played those two records, it really put us on the map."
With Metalheadz on the map, they were offered a regular night at "this club called the Blue Note." The night of course, would go on to attract an international family of drum and bass obsessives, and in the process put Goldie, Kemistry & Storm permanently in the history books. "Blue Note was that cementing for us," Jayne reflects. "Okay, we're here, we've arrived, we know what we're doing."
Kemistry & Storm had gone from passing each-other on the streets of Kettering, to operating at the beating heart of the mid-1990s drum and bass scene in the UK. Fittingly, in January 1999 they released their DJ Kicks mix that both captured the twisted-spirit of their dual character, as well as marking the first female led entry to the hugely important series. It was this release that also led to Kemi and Jayne touring the US, where the DJ Kicks release had elevated their status even further on the international scene. Dominating both their underground roots and making stark waves into the mainstream consciousness, their visit to the US marked a pinnacle in their careers.
"We were in Tampa, I think on the last day of the tour, and we just felt something was really wrong," Jayne tells me, holding her thought briefly. "Kemi was saying 'wow, I can feel that somebody is going to die,' and I felt the same, flying back to the UK I couldn't get this darkness out of me."
In the early hours of the 25th of April 1999, Jayne was driving herself and Kemi back from a show in Southampton when the van in front of them dislodged the steel body of a cat's eye sending it through their windscreen. It struck Kemi, killing her instantly. It is one of the only times an incident of this nature has ever been recorded, and is the only time it has resulted in a fatality.
"She always knew she was going to die young," Goldie plainly states on the subject of the almost pre-ordained nature of her passing. Our phone call is only brief, a short break between his recording sessions, but it didn't take long to get a measure of the indelible mark she left on his life. "She was very much my muse. It was a very special relationship and she was in many ways the first soulmate I ever knew." By coincidence, these are the exact words used by Jayne: "my soul-mate, my soul sister."
It's worth mentioning at this point—and only briefly as the legacy of Kemistry & Storm deserves to exist far beyond a conversation about gender—that their story is a reasonable silence upon any doubt as to the presence and importance of women in dance music. Not only did they play a pivotal role in establishing one of the most important British labels of all time (Metalheadz), hold down a residency in an era defining nightclub (Blue Note) and record a mix that best encapsulates an entire genre (DJ Kicks), but they did it all with complete creative independence, and a spirit that has lived on far beyond their collective heyday.
Yet to her friends, Kemi will most importantly be remembered as an inspiration. An individual who possessed almost spiritual qualities—an aura which inspired constant invention and unflinching devotion. So, while it's true we'll never know what DJ Kemistry might have gone on to do, we can be sure that what she did is protected from the passing of time, indefinitely. And even if we never know, perhaps she did. As Jayne tells me at the end of our call, "Kemi always said she'd be the Marilyn Monroe of the drum and bass scene, 'I'll be notorious,' and well, that's actually what happened."