The last time I saw Brian Daley, who has died of cancer aged 39, was at Notting Hill Carnival last summer. As DJ Swing, the charismatic face of the south London DJ collective Boogie Bunch, he had just finished playing to roadblocked streets for two days straight. He was about as happy as I had ever seen him, surrounded by friends and fans. At their spot at Carnival, Boogie Bunch – and their peers Rampage and Mastermind Roadshow – drew vast numbers of people for whom Carnival is that rare opportunity to rave on the street.
Brian was one of the most influential British DJs of his generation and, with Boogie Bunch, a link between the hierarchical world of 1970s Jamaican-influenced heavyweight sound systems, such as Saxon International, and Sir Coxsone Outernational and today’s star DJs. Yet, unlike many of its contemporaries, Boogie Bunch’s power base remained at street level. There was no Radio One, Capital or Kiss radio show: mainstream fame eluded them. But this, within a world which still views success with suspicion, sealed their reputation as the “realest” DJs.
Watching Brian at work gave the lie to the view that DJs just play records. Like Soul II Soul, a collective who translated their sound system roots into chart success, Boogie Bunch took the spirit and artistry of sound system culture to a new arena. As DJ Swing, Brian combined roles that, in 1970s sound systems, had been delineated in a strict division of labour. He was selector, judging the mood before drawing the required disc; the deejay, singing and talking over records; the MC warming up the crowd and the operator, all rolled into one.
The arrival of Boogie Bunch at a dance was guaranteed to light up the audience. A sea of Clipper lighters thrust skywards was the standard greeting to DJ Swing’s first selection, invariably a one-off vinyl pressing on which whichever Jamaican deejay or American rapper who happened to be in town extolled the virtues of Boogie Bunch. Loved and respected by his peers, as well as his audiences, he displayed breathtaking skill.
Battersea born and bred, Brian was the youngest of four children. His father Baldwin worked at British Rail, and his mother Beryl for British Airways. They had arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the early 1960s, and Brian’s formative years were spent in the multicultural firmament of 1970s south London. He attended Spencer Park school at a time when London was alive with a youth culture of skinheads, mods and dreads, casuals, punks and rudeboys – all with distinct musical identities, but all permeated by black American soul and disco, and Jamaican reggae. In the early 1980s, when the electronic beats of avant-garde European music fused with New York’s hip-hop, a new London culture was born, to which Brian was an enthusiastic convert. Its devotees spent their Saturdays body-popping in Covent Garden and their Saturday nights at house parties and warehouse raves.
After leaving school, Brian enrolled at South Thames College in Wandsworth. He then worked in Lambeth Council’s housing department until 1998.
In the late 1980s, when commercial clubs were rarely available for “black” nights, Brian and his friend Patrick “Mad P” Bent began DJing at house parties. His adopted persona – DJ Swing – located Brian at that tipping point between 1989 and 1990 when American soul ditched spangly suits, hairy chests, and medallions for hip-hop’s brash confident style and sensibility. Fleetingly “new jack swing”, it was then rebranded as hip-hop soul, and latterly as the modern-day R&B which now dominates the music industry. It is a dominance indebted to the likes of Brian, who championed the new sound in the face of industry apathy.
Building a reputation for creating electricity on the dancefloor, Swing and Mad P, with their friends Sam Kojo and Robert Fordjour, became known from 1991 as Boogie Bunch and graduated to west end clubs. By 1995 they were virtually DJs-in-residence to visiting Americans such as Mary J Blige, Jodeci, Bobby Brown, Redman and Blackstreet – and they were also playing nationwide. In 1998 Brian won the best club DJ Mobo (music of black origin) award, and left his council job for promotions work at the London office of New York hip-hop label Tommy Boy.
Brian was diagnosed with myeloma, a rare form of cancer, in 2004. As a black Briton, the chances of finding a match for the bone marrow transplant which could have prolonged his life were slim and his friends struggled bravely to increase black donor registration levels – a battle recorded in the Channel 4 documentary Saving DJ Swing.
He is survived by his partner Juliette and their children Kasien and Sebastian.
· Brian Daley (DJ Swing), disc jockey, born January 18 1967; died March 22 2006