Over the past six years, Josey Rebelle’s Rinse FM show has become a Sunday morning haven of quality electronic music and hangover soothing chat. But as the big gigs stack up, how is one of London’s finest selectors dealing with spending more time behind the decks than the desk?
“I hate being the centre of attention with a passion,” explains Josey Rebelle. “If I play the last set and people clap at the end, I feel so uncomfortable. I pretend I’ve dropped something or I’m putting my records back in my bag, and duck down.”
It’s a surprising admission from someone whose job is essentially being the centre of attention – and Josey has no reason to be bashful, no matter how modest her nature. In clubs, and via her six-year stint on Rinse FM, she’s built a rep as one of the most effective and interesting DJs around, thanks to shape-shifting, genre-bending sets that effortlessly move from classic rare groove and disco records to upfront house and techno, via garage, jungle and whatever else she feels like. In person, her hair topped by an African-print bucket hat as we chat a few days before her debut solo headline show at Hackney’s Pickle Factory, she’s the picture of relaxed London cool.
And it’s exactly her lack of ego and determination to put the music first that’s helped Josey stand out from so many of her peers and, in turn, made her a force to be reckoned with on the dancefloors of top-tier parties like Fabric, Panorama Bar, De School and Plastic People. Since quitting her day job a year ago, bigger and bigger bookings have been flying in for the Tottenham native as the world sits up and takes notice. This September will take her from Dimensions and Outlook festivals in Croatia to gigs in New York and San Francisco before finishing the month with a debut set in the gargantuan main room at Manchester’s Warehouse Project.
It’s little wonder heavyweights as varied as Goldie and Rinse boss Geeneus are fighting her corner, with the latter telling Mixmag, “Josey is an amazing human being with a true uncontaminated love for music and culture. She does what she does out of pure love, and I think that’s visible for everyone to see.”
“I feel like a raver first and foremost,” Josey says, unwittingly confirming Geneus’s appraisal; “I might be there to DJ, but I feel as excited as the crowd is during my sets. I always ask myself: ‘Would I dance to this, would I be head-down skanking in the corner?’ If the answer’s yes, I’m into it. It doesn’t matter what type of music that is.”
This instinctive and open-minded approach to her craft makes Josey’s sets compelling. Spanning not just genres, but decades too, her selections are a reflection of the rich variety of music that’s soundtracked her life, from the reggae, soca and calypso of her St Lucian parents to her sister’s soul records and the house, techno and jungle with which her brother taught her to mix when she was 12.
“I’m from a musical family,” she explains. “I know that sounds like a massive cliché but it’s true: if you ever listen to my Rinse show, whatever I play, it’s the music I’ve been surrounded with my entire life.”
Rinse FM has been instrumental in Josey’s rise; her three-hour Sunday morning show a constant fixture in her life for over half a decade now. It’s a place where she now feels entirely at home, despite initial reservations about working in radio.
“Around six years ago I was playing at Plastic People a lot and that led to Rinse offering me the three to five in the morning show,” she says. “I’d turned down radio before because I had a full-time job in TV production, but there was something so ridiculous about doing that time slot and then being in work for nine in the morning that I just said yes.”
Time obviously hasn’t tempered Josey’s zeal for her show – or for the station, either – and though the now-legal broadcaster has plenty of competition for its place in the vanguard of UK underground music, she’s in little doubt that Rinse is stronger than ever.
"If I’m just being myself then social media is okay...but building a ‘personal brand’ – that feels a bit cringe to me."
“The station line-up is so diverse, and that’s what I love about it. Even if you just look at Sundays, when I play, the artists and the music are incredible,” she says. “I feel really at home there, and no matter how busy my DJing work gets, I’ll always want to get back there on a Sunday to do my show.”
But with her bookings now taking her far beyond the M25, that might be easier said than done. Her profile is clearly blossoming and, as such, you have to wonder how someone that hates the limelight so much deals with the self-promotion and social media game that seems to be an essential part of the modern day DJ game.
“There are times when I genuinely hate social media,” she says, gently shaking her head and her eyes rolling to the side with obvious disapproval of the whole online promo circus. “I think the biggest issue I have with DJing is having to put yourself at the centre of attention like that. If I’m just being myself then social media is okay, but posting loads of flyers of stuff I’m playing at and building a ‘personal brand’ – that feels a bit cringe to me. It’s the limelight thing again; it’s not for me. When I’m in in the DJ booth, I feel protected by a cloak of darkness.”
Throughout our conversation, Josey’s self-effacing nature shines through, but there’s much more to her than simply being a DJ. She studied at LSE, the London university long renowned for political activism, and as we wrap things up it’s clear her time there has left its mark.
“Politically, the world looks kind of fucked at the moment,” she says, the smile leaving her face for the first time.
“The shock of Brexit and Trump’s election made me realise what a bubble a lot of us live in,” she explains. “Not everybody sees things the way people in London or a creative industry like music might do. And now, with what’s happening in America, the fact that it’s 2017 and suddenly we’re talking about Nazis again… how did that happen?
“But the music industry isn’t some liberal meritocracy utopia where we’re exempt from all this stuff either. Diversity on line-ups is an issue, and that’s not just me saying that because I’m a woman and I’m black. I can see people pulling their socks up a bit, but the race thing doesn’t make sense to me. This music was originally created by black people, and growing up a lot of the people around me doing music were black kids. What’s happened where whole generations have not been able to get in and progress?
“It’s one of those things that once you see it, it’s hard to un-see: the lack of diversity sticks out like a sore thumb. But it’s not just the music industry – it’s the world. I’m not sure what the solution is, but we need to acknowledge that there is an issue. People need to speak up now. It’s not enough to be silently disapproving any more; you have to stand up and make your voice heard.”
When it comes to what matters, maybe Josey’s not so shy after all.
Listen to Josey Rebelle’s Rinse FM show every Sunday between 10am–1pm
This feature is taken from the October 2017 issue of Mixmag
Jonathan Cook is a freelance journalist
[Photos: Kevin Lake]