I first met Ali Cooke in Kik Flip Records in Leeds. The record shop was below a clothes store called Buffalo which was the first shop in Leeds to sell Stussy clothing. The walls were personally screen printed by Moose, who became an important part of the back to basics production crew and his girlfriend Suzy, who went on to co-host Speed Queen the pioneering Leeds mixed sexuality club. Upstairs housed a studio called Basic (nothing to do with the club) which was where LFO - LFO was made. It was engineered by a guy called Martin Williams, who was also the first person to play me the track, months before it came out. I am not sure what the whole story is but I have three sources that claim Martin had a lot to do with the production. So all in all this building was a veritable treasure trove.
Ali was a big bloke and an equally large character. One time when I was down in the Kik Flip basement he intervened in an altercation over a white label record. In those days labels and promo companies would mail out one or two white label copies of up coming releases to stores in the hope they would support the record. Ali played one of these white label copies over the store PA and both myself and another DJ made a grab for it. We ended up arguing over who got there first and it was getting a little heated. Ali stepped in and sided with me and I walked out the store with my precious record. Looking back now it was a case of white label fever rather than an actual desire for the track itself as I can't even remember what it was.
That was the first time Ali helped me out by using his physical presence. The second time came in the summer of 1992 when back to basics were invited to take part in a Flying club tour of Rimini in Italy. We hosted nights at the famous Peter Pan and Echoes clubs. There were many Italian clubs built in the 70s and 80s on a similar line to the spectacular Ibizan venues like Ku and Pacha. One of the most celebrated was La Baia Degli Angeli where Daniele Baldelli launched his cosmic disco sound. Up the coast from Riccione lies Rimini with Pescara and Bari to the south, which all boasted remarkable discotheques. After Disco they were mainly used as commercial music venues but at the height of house music in Italy they became used as underground clubs. Peter Pan was the biggest and most luxurious of Rimini's clubs. The so-called Balearic network of UK clubs had grown to include basics, Flying, Venus, Most Excellent and Full Circle. Representatives from all these clubs descended upon the poor unsuspecting Italian holiday town of Rimini in July '92.
At the first show we played at Echoes club the manager came over to the DJ booth and threatened to take us off unless we started to play US vocal garage records. It was bedlam in the club with the English contingent throwing blow up beach balls around the dancefloor and they wanted it calmed down for their regulars. They eventually gave up when they realised it was a hopeless challenge to calm down over 200 deranged English clubbers and we kept the music fast and heavy all night. At the next show at Peter Pan the silly antics continued and once again the dancefloor descended into anarchy. I remember Darren Emerson dropping The Orb - A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Center Of The Ultraworld which begins with an intro as long as it's title. While we were waiting for the beat to hit Darren's mate Alex shouted 'Dead Ant' and the entire barmy army got on their backs with their legs kicking around in the air! Once again we had appalled our hosts. On the way out of the club the bouncers, who had been totally unable to act inside with so many people, came after us as we headed down the long driveway from the club. They caught up with myself, my brother George and Mickey Hirst who were straggling slowly down the hill. I turned around just in time to see one launch a kick to Mickey's head. Mickey is a thin fellow and he went flying, there was now no one left between us and three huge and very angry doormen. At that point Ali came up from behind me and shouted, "Hey!" at the top of his voice. Unbelievably this stopped them in their tracks. But it wasn't over.
At the end of the driveway there was more trouble. A few of the locals had also taken a dislike to our dis-respectful behaviour and started a fight with some of the London crew. I heard someone shout,"He's got a knife!"and watched the group part into a circle as a man clearly brandishing a blade turned to face one of our party. The man thrust his blade out in the direction of the Londoner, but it was dodged and while off balance he was knocked to the ground and lost the knife. We saw him run off and we presumed that was the end of the matter, but far from it. He had gone to get his car which he now drove straight into the crowd of revellers. Once again Ali was quick and I heard him shout,"On the wall". There were indeed the surrounding walls of the club behind us and we all jumped up onto them. The local was by now so enraged that he had totally lost all sense of reason. He just repeatedly drove his car into the wall which thankfully didn't collapse. There were sparks coming from his under carriage and his front bumper was hanging on by a screw. Eventually unsuccesful in his mission to kill anyone he sped off, but I can't imagine he got very far in his wrecked car. Ali had twice helped to keep us unharmed. Eventually our bus showed up and we escaped. People decided to go straight to the beach as it was now sunny. This picture of Ali was taken by Mark McNulty on the beach that morning -
Ali was an eclectic DJ before being eclectic was fashionable. Most people equate being an eclectic DJ as being a Balearic DJ. But Ali didn't have much in common, in my view, with the Ibizan Balearic DJs like Alfredo who were playing what were essentially pop songs alongside house music. He had a far harder edge. He had come from following punk and indie bands such as Leeds based Sisters Of Mercy but he also loved Nitzer Ebb and Front 242. So he gravitated towards Belgian New Beat, which also has a tough edge, when it came to dance music. I think one of his greatest traits as a DJ was his sense of fun. DJs take themsleves way too seriously as a general rule but Ali didn't. He got his kicks from testing the boundaries of the audience's taste. How far could he push it ? He was the first DJ I heard play Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit in a nightclub. I later heard Jeremy Healy drop it as well as 2 Many DJs further down the line but he was long before. There was so much energy around at the time in clubs that it really suited the moment. The rock track I always loved that he used to play was CSS - Whole Lot Of Love which was an instrumental cover version of the famous Led Zepellin record.
Ali was also into the more quirky side of house music. He loved cut up records that changed beats continually and threw in a multitude of samples, tracks like Rumble Dub - God Is In The House and Beats Working - Burn Out (Don't Fade Away). These were then mixed in with European records, mainly from Belgium, such as Code 61 - Drop The Deal and Dunne - Espiral. His style was very much about cutting quickly between tracks, which was actually the only way you could mix such diverse records which were also all at very different tempos. It could often sound a mess but in the heat of the moment when he was hitting it right it was fantastic.
So you can get a better picture of his tastes I have included a few of Ali's charts from the time -
Ali Cooke Top Ten January 1992
4. Elixr Vitae - Gotta Release It (Total)
Ali Cooke Top Ten Month Unknown 1992
Ali Cooke Top Ten November 1992
4. Tanazevat - Magnit
7. Dante - Aman
9. Mad feat Tori Amos - This
Ali Cooke 'The Records That Screwed My Life Chart' March 1993
5. Paul Wain & Martin Watson - Shimmer (Time)
The last chart above was printed in Jockey Slut magazine in early March '93, very shortly before his death on March 12th. I have chosen not to go into the details surrounding his death in this piece as they have been well documented in a recent comprehensive interview for DJ History. I wanted to keep this piece focused on Ali, the person, DJ and basics co-founder. I think Weatherall summed it up best when he wrote his obituary in The NME on April 3rd 1993,"Ali would spin whatever took his fancy, from hip-hop to techno, dub to indie. The fact that he shunned the easy path and was always willing to experiment meant his reputation and his popularity spread. It makes me sad to think of the records he could have made, and the people he may have worked with and influenced."
We have part of a rare recorded set from Ali, which has been re-mastered from tape (as best we can) so you can listen for yourself. The session is very different from todays super smooth mixes so you will need to adjust your ears and mind to grasp what it sounded like and the energy it created in the early days of basics on the bottom floor of the Music Factory in 1992. It is every musicians dream that they are heard long after they are gone. I think that is actually what drives us in the first place.