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“Sobriety taught me that life is worth living”: Life lessons with DJ Fat Tony

From coping with prison and crack dens to friendship with Keith Haring and the Beastie Boys, Fat Tony shares wisdom acquired through his tumultuous life

  • Seb Wheeler
  • 19 July 2022

After going viral in our documentary a couple of years back, the most famous DJ you have actually now heard of has released a biography that goes into even further detail about his story as the Soho club kid who turned the London and New York scenes upside down during the heyday of clubbing.

Tony's book is also the most intimate portrayal of his addiction to drugs and sex and his fightback from the depths of addiction to being a clean DJ who advocates for sobriety while continuing to tour the world, playing everything from Donatella Versace's birthday party to superclubs in Ibiza to dirty raves in London.

Read this next: Fat Tony: "Freddie Mercury gave me my first line of cocaine"

As you'd expect, there are plenty of riotous anecdotes along the way but the most important takeaway from Tony's story is that of a character who refuses to let life beat him, even when the odds are more than stacked against him. We caught up with the London born and bred DJ to get some more stories, insight and mouthy wisdom – and guess what, he's still not taking requests.

What did you learn about Ibiza the first time you were there?

That you could do loads and loads of drugs and no one would give a shit. No that’s not true! It was probably one of the most free spirited places I’d ever been to at that time. Dancing in a club where there was no roof, that was just insane. You could be who you wanted to be without judgement. In London, at that time, and in other places around the world - there was so much going on for members of my community. The LGBTQ+ community, we were being oppressed so badly. It wasn’t okay to be gay in the '80s and the '90s. But in Ibiza, we could be who we wanted to be, we could wear what we wanted to wear, and nobody would bat an eyelid.

And you were there before Oakenfold?

I certainly was! I went in 1983. And not in a boastful way, like oh yeah I was there before, but I went in 1983. Everyone goes somewhere, and arrives somewhere, at the right time in their lives. And the first time I ever went was to Privilege, it was Ku Club at that point in time. My friend had a key to open the back door for VIPs, and we went in and we were like “wow”, it was this incredible space with fountains and we were blown away. It was like being in the biggest supermarket you’ve ever been in.

And Boy George nicked your passport?

Yeah, Boy George did nick my passport! I came back from being out tripping for three days on a motorbike. I actually spent one day with Adamski and me and him went off in mopeds up the hill. I couldn’t ride a moped to save my life, but in that state of mind I could have flown a plane! I remember coming back and I was with my friend Nick and we had been out for three days, and everyone was packing up the villa to go home - and when I came back I was like ‘hi everyone’ and they were like ‘where the fuck have you been, we’re leaving’ and I was confused like ‘what do you mean?’ and they just said ‘you know full well we’re leaving today!’. Then I just said, oh you know what, just go without me. And I fell asleep in that villa for around nine hours and I woke up to pitch black and absolutely nothing and no one, they had taken everything! My clothes, my wallet, my passport! All to teach me a lesson.

Read this next: Why DJs and ravers are embracing sobriety

What do you think of Ibiza now?

I love Ibiza now! I went over the pandemic as well, I went when dancing wasn’t allowed on the Island and all the clubs were closed. But what it reminded me of was the first time I ever went, it reminded me of the beauty and the purity of the island but without all the external stuff going on. And even coming back now, it’s incredible. I was there at the beginning of May, I’ll be going back soon. It’s incredible - the energy is back, the magic, I don’t know how long for because we like to ruin things, but we’ll see!

What did you learn from acid house?

Again, to actually feel music instead of listen to music. Up until that point, I was just listening to music, but when acid house came along I was actually feeling the music. The drugs we were taking were so pure and so free, when you dropped your first E, it was a different form of MDMA. You were just so in touch with the vibration and music and everything.

What were the early acid house parties like?

We all knew we were breaking the law, and we all knew what we were doing, and we knew that we could get away with it because there was such a big mass of people. Everyone was there for the same music, everyone was there to dance, and they were there to take whatever it was that they wanted to take. Primarily, it was about the music. That changed really quickly, the wind changed when it became both more monetised and more criminalised. The fun went out very quickly, and it was really sad. It was such a magical thing, the excitement of going up and down motorways, of walking through fields covered in cow shit just to get to your gig. The police would shut down motorways, and you’d have to get out and go cross country. The lights were in the distance, and you’d have to follow them. This meant crossing fields, going over barbed wire, jumping fences. It was mad.

Read this next: We spoke to an ecstasy dealer from the acid house era

What did you learn from ecstasy?

How to dribble! How to gurn! How to lose my vision. Those were the good days. But also, the feeling of being with a group of people, and you’re all on it together. You’re all on the same high, and you all knew what to expect and you loved each other. There was a real sense of unity. The fun and the unity that you had was remarkable. I ended up loving all my enemies, you forgive people. I didn’t have much to forgive them for! But on ecstasy, you could just cuddle them and tell them you love them!

What did you learn from earning £20k a week?

How to go shopping, basically. Simple! How to spend £20k. It was easy come, easy go money. I had no respect for any of it. Come Tuesday, and I couldn’t afford a packet of cigarettes. But come Thursday, I was earning again. The cycle was always there, so I learned to disrespect and disregard any money.

What did you spend it on?

Drugs.

What did you learn from Keith Haring?

Keith Haring was a wonderful person. I learned how to laugh at myself. I was a really traumatised soul at that point, but when I met Keith he showed me that I didn’t need to be that hung up on my past and what I’d been through. To laugh at yourself is a real gift. He taught me how to channel creativity. Whatever I did and whatever I do, unless it’s channelled properly it’s a mess.

What did you learn from the Beastie Boys?

I learned how to have fun, and not give a fucking shit about anyone or anything. They were the biggest stars on the planet and they didn’t give a fuck about anything except having fun. They would come into your living room and they would demolish it, Adam would be stood on his head and he’d be pissing on your sofa. For me, I’d suddenly met people who were like me. Now you’d hear stuff like ‘he’s got ADHD’, but back then it was called having fun.

Read this next: Fat Tony: "DJs are not dispensable"

What did you learn from New York?

New York was mind blowing the first time I ever went. To go from London, which was basically four streets, that was the clubbing scene back then. We had Shoreditch and Peckham but not like today, we didn’t have anything happening in those areas. So to go to New York and to have the Avenue 8s, and to have the uptown, and to have East and West villages — it was mindblowing. So to arrive on the tail end of Studio 54 closing, but then Palladium opening and Area - and all of these incredible clubs. The Saint, Paradise Garage — everyone talks about Paradise Garage and it was incredible but there are so many places that never got the same amount of attention. You know, places like Tunnel, Save The Robots. You put your own life in your hands by trying to get there sometimes, but that was the thrill of it. You’d have ecstasy as well. I learned, very quickly, what good dance music was. That was the main thing. I used to tape Kiss FM because there’d be tracks on there that I had never heard before. The I’d go to sound factory and when I’d play things people would want to know where it is from. This is really where I got my main music taste from.

What was the difference between London and New York clubbing at that time?

The difference was that everyone in New York wanted to be in London, and everyone in London wanted to be in New York. We were at the start of the Britpop era, and all of these British designers would get sent over to New York and in London we were on the tail end of the new romantics, all of that had just died. It was the start of the private members clubs, and elitism had just started to creep in. House music was starting to get in swing. People were letting their hair down in New York, there was so much freedom. It was also pre-AIDs - so there was this bustling energy in the air. New York, well it was famous for the meat packing district, the Anvil club. New York really was mind-blowing, it genuinely was the city that never sleeps. At this point, it was two dollars to a pound, so you’d go to New York and you could buy everything. Including every kind of drug under the sun. You could go shopping and come home with 10 pairs of jeans, it was crazy.

What did you learn from turning your parents house into a crack den?

Haha! I learned not to do that, because you get kicked out. That was going to be my forever home, or so I thought. I learnrf not to move a K dealer into one of the spare bedrooms, not to move a coke dealer into one of the other spare bedrooms. And not to invite the entire contents of a club back home on a Monday morning - because they don’t leave for three days. And on my mum’s estate - it turned into a gay beach! People would be sunbathing outside on the pavement, half of them were probably in K holes. People would drive by in their cars and shout “queers!”. The majority of the neighbours loved it, but the rest of them didn’t. I learned very quickly that it was kind of the wrong thing to do, not that I really cared.

What did you learn from prison?

Prison was a tough one. When you’re stripped of everything and you’re in there and living on fear, and the only thing holding you together is that you’re innocent, and you know you’re innocent, you’re going to get out of there by fighting your corner. I wasn’t even allowed to make a phone call in prison. It taught me a different form of humanity. It stripped me right back. The ego was gone, everything was gone while I was in Pentonville Prison. It was awful, but the only thing that kept me going was that I knew that I was innocent.

Did you ever get a phone call?

I did get a phone call. I’d been in a police cell for four days and I went to court and they put me straight into Pentonville. I arrived to Pentonville and they put me on A-wing, up on the top floor. I was up there and I was in a cell and I was like ‘thank god I’m on my own’, and then suddenly, in walks in this big guy and he says “hey, you alright”, and I’ve just been sat there crying. He looked at me and said do you want some powders or some pills. Then I looked at him and I said that I was in recovery. I thought he was going to walk off, but then he said ‘oh my girlfriend is in recovery, you might know her’. It was one of those scenarios where I thought there was no way I’d know his girlfriend but it turns out I was in rehab with her. And I’d helped her go and see her children and that, and he told me to wait, and he got me a mobile phone. It was the first time I was able to call my mum and my boyfriend and tell them what had happened. All the knew was that I was in prison. The biggest thing I learned while I was in prison was being honest; the fact that I said that I was in recovery meant that I was able to get a mobile phone. I was looked after. If I came out with some rubbish story or I relapsed, it would have been game over.

What did you learn from rehab?

Not to take drugs! I learned how to be nice to people, that's one of the main ones. When we’re lost in addiction, the world revolves around us, what people think about me etc. Then suddenly, when you’re transported to a facility and there’s 19 other people, it’s all about them and you, you know quickly it’s not just about you. To sit and listen to other people's problems and to open up and identify that something is going on, sitting and listening has taught me a lot. Just because someone doesn’t look like you, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respect them. I learned acceptance, but I also learned how to love myself, learn from myself and learn how to learn from others.

Read this next: DJs share their tips for going sober in the rave

What did you learn from people thinking you were dead?

How fickle our world is. The fact that people thought I was dead and didn’t care pretty much summed up where I was in life. I never wanted to be that throwaway again. People thought I was dead and didn’t really give a shit about me, I never wanted to be in that situation again. I’d hope people would cry and mourn for me. I was in a faraway world, I didn’t care about myself so why would anyone else care?

What have you learned from sobriety?

That life is worth living. That I am loveable, and that I have freedom. I care about not only myself but also people in my company and in my life and in my world. If I have another drink then that will be the end of everything I have, that freedom would go. One is too many and a thousand is never enough. I’ve learned that it’s okay to cry. I’ve always ran away from my feelings, and I learned that it’s okay to be me. Other people’s opinions don’t matter, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but keep it to yourself. Not everyone is the same, and thank God not everyone is! I used to think, oh I’m not getting on with them because they’re not like me, but thank God there’s no more people like me! I’ve learned that I love life more than anything, I cherish my life. Music is the best drug there ever is in the entire world. Whatever you take, it will never match the high that music will give you.

What have you learned from memes?

So much! I learned I’m a really good thief! Every day I post a thought of the day, and there’s a lot of thought that goes into that. I think about where my mind and mental head is, I’ll see something on the news, or I’ll see something my friend has said. I’d go through my vast library, I have around 75,000 pictures on my phone. I’ll look for things and I’ll post them. I’ve learned that it can change your thought process for the day. In the pandemic, we were pumped with fear from the minute we opened our eyes to the minute we closed them. I learned through memes that you can make people laugh, and you can change someone’s whole day by just posting something funny. Eventually, it gets shared around and it comes back to me. They’re there to laugh at how ridiculous life is, and how ridiculously serious some people take themselves. Laughter is the best form of medicine, when we laugh at stuff that we’ve been through. I post a lot of drug memes and I post a lot of trauma memes, but I post them to laugh because laughing takes the power out of that stuff. If you laugh, you overcome it. Laughing, belly laughing, not out of fear. That’s what memes are about. Some are nasty and bitchy, but I stay away from all that. Sometimes I want to! But I stay away from that initial first thought. The first thought always gets me into trouble, but it’s the second and third thoughts that I act on today.

Read this next: Let's face it: Berghain has become dance music's biggest meme

What have you learned from social media?

To never read the comments! When you put yourself out there, like I have in this book, you’re left vulnerable. People prey on that stuff, you know Brian who sits in his bedroom all day on his keyboard will think he’s a better DJ than you and has a better record collection. He’ll always comment though. If I’m in a certain newspaper, I read those comments and you can tell that people leave those kinds of comments because they don’t relate to my lifestyle. I’ve learned not to go there. Your opinion is your opinion, it means nothing to me.

What have you learned about staying relevant?

I’ve learned that I don’t need to try and stay relevant. By putting one foot in front of the other, and just loving what I do and being me is relevant enough. I don’t have a game plan for three months, or six months, I don’t have strategy meetings. I don’t care if my followers are going down, I’ve learned to keep it in the day and make sure today is fucking great.

What have you learned about not taking requests?

Just the fact that we as DJs are artists. If I was making music today and I put out a track and suddenly one person said ‘oh you should change the bassline, it’s not quite right, that hook is not quite right’, why would you listen? That’s the same as taking requests. Regardless of who you are and what you’re doing. You get one little person who wants to be negative and will come up to you, and will ask for house music or whatever, but go away! Let us do our job! We’re not jukeboxes, if you want that then go to your local pub and stay there!

I Don't Take Requests is out now, get it here

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