Unsung Pioneers: Colin Dale

Unsung Pioneers speaks to the artists who’ve helped shape dance music as we know it, but haven’t received the credit they deserve. This time, Marcus Barnes meets Colin Dale, a legendary leader of the UK underground.

18 min
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Oct 13, 2021
Marcus Barnes

30 years ago, the UK was still feeling the huge ripples that reverberated from the acid house explosion, which occurred during the so-called Second Summer of Love in 1988. In recent times, journalists and media observers have taken a more considered approach to this era, excavating the nuance and complexity of the build up to what many now refer to as a “social revolution.”

Case in point, conversations with pioneers like Colin Dale help us look beyond the dominant and highly simplistic acid house origin myth that four DJs went to Ibiza, took ecstasy for the first time, came home and started acid house.

“The move into house music was actually really gradual,” Colin explains. “It wasn’t an overnight thing. It was very gradual from about ‘86, and it really took off around ‘88.”

Speak to any British techno head who came up in the early nineties about their influences, and they’ll almost certainly namecheck “The Colins” (Dale and the late Faver), who both hosted seminal shows on Kiss FM. Tapes of the shows made their way across the UK and the rest of the world, as both men carved out their respective niches away from the prevailing acid house sound. Techno was Colin Dale’s forte, and his show, called Abstrakt Dance, became the stuff of legend thanks to his progressive selection and the show’s inspired format.

“I had three hours; the first two hours I’d play new releases, because we got loads of them, and the last hour was called Outer Limits,” he says. “That’s where I went out on a limb and it could be really weird. It could be ambient, could be spoken word. Just really different.” Outer Limits ended up even more popular than the first two hours, as Colin traversed the spectrum of ‘out there’ electronica, with acts such as Nine Inch Nails, Front 242, and Nitzer Ebb on regular rotation.

Colin explains that his inspiration for the format came from Detroit enigma The Electrifying Mojo, demonstrating that it all comes full circle with techno and the influence of Motor City’s revered maverick of the airwaves. Mojo’s show was one of the cornerstones of the development of Detroit techno, inspiring its pioneers and breaking their music on the radio. Through his show, Colin made strong links with Motor City, visiting the techno mecca and featuring the city’s pioneers on his show regularly. “I don’t think there was a Detroit artist that we didn’t have on the show, either live or on the phone,” he says.

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In the UK, Colin had already been operating on community radio (using a CB radio) to share his passion for music. He says he always had a predilection for unusual sounds and the non-commercial side of music — an offbeat taste that preceded his move into electronic music. Even in his funk and soul days, he used the title Abstrakt Dance (now also the name of his record label) to represent his penchant for the obscure.

Colin indulged his leftfield tastes even more when he started working at record shops in the mid-eighties, before his DJ and radio career really kicked off. Of the several shops he worked in, it was Mi Price (later Swag Records) in Croydon, south London, that became the most prominent. While it originally catered to jazz funk specialists, the shop eventually became a hub for house and techno under the guidance of Jazzy M, another criminally overlooked pioneer who Colin remembers as being one of the first DJs to champion house music on the radio. And an assorted cast of London’s DJ community either passed through the door or manned the counter at Mi Price, among them Carl Cox and Luke Slater.

Working in record shops meant Colin was privy to the latest US imports, grabbing what he could for himself and making links with all of the iconic labels across the pond. At this early stage he was still one of just a handful of DJs who were tuned in to the new electronic sounds coming out of Chicago and Detroit. An infamous story he often recounts describes his days as a resident at a funk and soul event. One night, Colin decided to spin a couple of house tracks at the end of his set, and he was sacked not long afterwards. Ironically, the DJs who ran the night (and gave him the chop) later became well known on the house circuit.

When the first house music imports were filtering into London’s record shops, it was a tiny group of outliers who embraced the music, and it was mostly gay clubs where you could hear it. Rare groove — music that looked backwards — soul and funk dominated the landscape, especially among black crowds. The strange, futuristic, electronic sounds of house music were met with a wall of disapproval by these crowds whenever it was played. It took a few years before things began to turn around, but early adopters like Jazzy M, Eddie Richards, Colin Faver, Mr. C, Fabio, Grooverider, Danny Rampling, Kid Batchelor and several others, helped nurture the music, going against the grain to champion the sounds they loved.

Thankfully, risky maneuvers were welcomed on then-pirate station Kiss FM, and Abstrakt Dance gave Colin a platform to share his music across London, then nationally and internationally thanks to the proliferation of cassette tape recordings of the show. Artists from the UK’s first wave of techno aficionados, such as Ben Sims, Kirk Degiorgio, Dave Clarke and many more, all credit Colin’s show with being an essential component in the growth of British techno. Not only did he feature all of the greats from the US, including an infamous appearance from the entire Underground Resistance crew, he also brought in UK upstarts such as The Prodigy and Aphex Twin when they were just starting out. As he recalls these moments, Colin speaks with humility and excitement, reliving it all as he speaks. Never one to brag or boast, his dedication to sharing music always places the art ahead of himself, without a hint of ego creeping in at any point during my interview.

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Like so many of his peers, Colin was fascinated with music as a youngster. A keen record collector and radio listener, he discovered Radio Luxembourg when he was 12, which introduced him to early forms of dance music via the Discothèque with Benny Brown show, which aired at 11pm on Thursdays. A few years later he got himself a job at a bank and made a beeline for London’s clubs.

“That’s when I really got into music because it gave me money to go out and start dressing trendily and exploring London’s nightlife,” he says.

During this period, dancing was a preoccupation for the majority of men who were frequenting jazz funk and soul clubs up and down the country. They would form crews and battle it out on the dance floor, wearing flamboyant outfits, make up and all manner of outlandish accessories in a form of peacocking, inspired by the stars of American funk and soul. Colin was no different, forming a crew with drum & bass pioneer Fabio and Colin’s brother, Trevor. Calling themselves Free Base, they were out dancing every weekend at spots such as Spats, Crackers and 100 Club. He describes painting his nails and wearing makeup and tight trousers — all part of the show as they vied for the attention of girls, while also trying to outdo the other dance crews.

“The passion for dancing was so strong, especially with the whole soul and funk thing — it was all geared around dancing,” he explains. “For the boys, it was about attracting girls, and the best way to get girls in the club was to go and throw down.”

Out of this period came greats like the late Paul “Trouble” Anderson, a highly respected and popular dancer who went on to inspire a whole generation of house DJs thanks to his unique style and persona. In fact, dancers were just as famous as the DJs, if not more so. Colin cites crews like Unknown Quantity, who appeared at the Jazz Cafe every Thursday, alongside Trevor Shakes and John O’Reilly, among those who were renowned for their moves on the dance floor. This underreported era of British music underpins the foundations of today’s rave culture, a crucial period for the evolution of dance music culture, when “dance music” really meant dancing.

Along with Fabio, a fellow Brixtonite, Colin explored the emergent club culture in London’s West End, and together they began following specific DJs. Robbie Vincent on BBC Radio London (launched to compete with the glut of pirate stations that popped up in the seventies), Steve Walsh, Gordon “Mac” McNamee, Steve Jackson and Paul Anderson were among the selectors they followed from club to club. Incidentally, Fabio credits Colin with turning him on the electronic sounds that began to emerge at this time and, of course, Fabio went on to be instrumental in the birth of jungle and drum & bass.

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Parallel to his club exploits, Colin was steadily building a reputation as a DJ and radio broadcaster. British hip hop gatekeeper and radio personality Tim Westwood gave Colin his break at another seminal venue, Gossips, in Soho. Westwood was already renowned on the DJ circuit, so being booked by him was a big deal. He also met one of his idols, Gordon Mac, which led to a show on Kiss FM (Mac was one of the founders). As the acid house revolution took hold across the UK, Colin was in the eye of the storm and, in the years that followed 1988’s Summer Of Love, he was launched onto the global circuit. He travelled the world, picked up features in all of the best-known music magazines and, most excitingly for him, witnessed his friends and peers get elevated too.

“Me, Colin (Faver) and Dave Angel were really early in locking down our sound and deciding, ‘This is what we do’” he explains. “And the beauty of it all for me and Colin was that there wasn’t many DJs on the radio doing that. So we were really, really lucky.”

In his typically modest way, Colin uses the word lucky a lot during our chat, and he’s quick to shift the focus away from himself and onto the wider rave community when asked about his contribution to the UK’s early techno scene. “I’m very, very aware that it happened because of hundreds of people like me doing their thing. Not only here, but up and down the country, because it seems as though [historic reports] are always very London-centric,” he states.

As he became an established figure on the national and international circuit, Colin began to explore production. His first releases were created with the aid of an engineer and his debut was signed to Paul Oakenfold’s Perfecto label on a compilation called Hardcore DJ’s… Take Control. Also on the comp were his friends Fabio and Grooverider, Carl Cox, Steve Bicknell and Eddie Richards, along with New Yorkers Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones. Two years later, in 1994, Colin did what he thought all DJs should do and launched his own label, named after his infamous radio show. Abstrakt Dance has now been running for 27 years and one of its most recent releases, the Guided Light EP, is from Colin himself. Though his forays into the production world have been intermittent, he’s managed to cultivate a sound of his own: deep, groovy, designed to work the floor, just as he did back in the eighties when he was dancing with Free Base.

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In more recent times, magazine features have been rare, and coverage of Colin’s career minimal. For some, this would be cue to berate the press and bemoan the lack of attention, however, Colin simply expresses a logical explanation — that the music press usually report on what’s new and exciting, rather than what’s been around for a long time. Pressed further on the issue, he again includes others in his reasoning. “It really isn’t just me, I know lots of my peers — that I’ve actually worked with for the last 30 years — in exactly the same boat,” he says. “They’ve got record labels, they’re consistently out and about, still travelling the world and doing really good things, and it’s exactly the same for them.”

“I mean there’s people like Jazzy M who, for me, was one of the first people I heard play house music in the UK, really pioneering, and he’s rarely, rarely featured in any magazine,” Colin adds.

As restrictions on travel and club activity have been relaxed over the past few months, Colin has been back out on the road after an extremely challenging year without any gigs. Ever positive and driven, he speaks about his optimism, and draws my attention to the forthcoming releases on his Abstrakt Dance label, promising to send them over when we’re finished talking. Over a career spanning more than 30 years, Colin Dale has maintained his passion and innate humility at every juncture.

Even when things got tough, or he wasn’t getting any press, his work ethic remained high and he stayed dedicated to the music first and foremost. He’s never stopped giving back to the culture and community that gave him the opportunity to achieve his dreams, and he’ll keep on giving, no matter what comes next.

Marcus Barnes is an author, journalist, copywriter, and tastemaker with over 15 years experience in print and online. Find him on Twitter.