Every city in the world has a Phil Asher or two. They are the party-starters or organisers. The DJs that do all the digging but don’t always get the credit. The residents who only the locals know and love. The backroom motivators, the genre innovators, the gifted grafters. The DJs’ DJs. The unsung heroes.
But the outpouring of love and multiple tributes that appeared upon news of Asher’s death, suggest that his reach and popularity were far greater than we first imagined. Typical of Phil’s personality – humble, understated and always generous – that only now do we fully appreciate the impact his music has had on us all. Or, as he told DMC World: “Underground and undercover: that’s me; not one for the limelight.”
Phil Asher was West London to the core. It’s where he was born and raised and where he lived all of his life. His first job in the industry was working at Roy The Roach’s Quaff Records in Lancaster Road, near Ladbroke Grove, in 1989, alongside his best mate Ray Whittard. In the ’90s Asher was part of a loose conglomeration of Kensington-based DJs, producers and A&Rs, that included his mentor Noel Watson, in thrall to new house sounds emanating from the US, frequently using the tongue-in-cheek acronym LGNJAS (Ladbroke Grove New Jersey Appreciation Society) on 12-inch releases.
Later in the decade, broken beat, a specifically British sound inspired by jazz, jungle, hip hop and rare groove, also emerged from the same London district, with Mike Slocombe and Spencer Weekes’ Goya Music – holed-up in the basement in Kensal Rise’s Saga Centre – an informal HQ. Asher again was in the thick of it, co-founding the influential CoOp, with Demus, Dego and IG Culture, the club that provided a platform for the nascent style to break out internationally.
Phil’s next club venture, a collaboration with Patrick Forge, was Inspiration Information, named for the seminal Shuggie Otis LP, again in his beloved West London at the cozy Notting Hill Arts Club. A weekly Friday night that lasted over ten years with music that ranged from Junior Murvin to Underground Resistance and Herbie Hancock to Minnie Riperton. “Phil and Patrick Forge had an idea for an all-female warm-up session called Ladies First with me, and a few fab girl DJs,” recalls Inspiration Information resident Katie Barber. “I played most Fridays for at least four hours before Phil and Patrick took over and I did this for the next eight years. Phil became like a brother to me. He was my teacher, my mentor, my friend. His generosity and warmth had no bounds.”
His first productions (again with Ray Whittard) came out in 1992, Two Shiny Heads and Pascals Bongo Massive (alongside percussionist Pascal) and he soon developed a distinctive sound that may have begun with house music, but eventually stretched beyond easily-defined boundaries. It was impossible to pin down Asher’s studio style, beyond his predilection for rocking beats on a sampler or two (“Phil was a genius on the MPC,” says Kiwi comrade Nathan Haines). His productions ranged from r'n'b, funk, dub, broken beat and even (under his Phlash & Friends name) the dark and deeper end of house. There are a plenty (like the abstract Phoojun) that defy easy categorisation.
His most durable partnership was alongside Luke McCarthy, as Restless Soul. One of their early productions was ‘Sykodelik’, a brilliant slice of techno-disco that was a big Weatherall favourite (he also remixed it under his Two Lone Swordsman moniker). They went on to remix Jamiroquai, Peven Everett, Earth, Wind & Fire and countless other acts. And not forgetting, many years before the edit craze of the noughties, Phil was releasing his own (now highly collectible) mash-ups and disco re-workings on the JPR Inc label.
“It was a very special time in my life,” remembers Haines, whose 'Sound Travels' was produced by Asher. “When we started it, I didn’t have any UK produced albums out. Phil said to me very early on that if he produced the album it would give me an international career. He was right. That was the gift he gave me. When it dropped my life changed overnight. All of sudden I had a worldwide audience through Phil and the label and all of the goodwill Phil had. Phil was part of a larger global scene and he connected us all through the music.”
Asher was that rare breed of DJ, one for whom genres were irrelevant. He liked all types of music and had a widescreen view of a DJ’s job, that ranged from jazz to techno. “Remembering the special times when Phil and I played together at Lost,” wrote Kirk Degiorgio on Twitter. “Yes - he could play anywhere and always smash it: a PROPER DJ.” The type of DJ, in fact, who could play alongside Kirk, smash the Panorama Bar and then play spiritual jazz at Inspiration Information (and make it work).
Nathan Haines had been working on a new album project with Phil and recalls the last conversation they’d had. “It was very real. We were both in a great place and ready to continue our journey of making music together. Sadly things have changed, but I will keep that journey alive and reach out to some producers and musicians who were close to Phil to help me finish what we started.”
Roy Marsh – aka Roy The Roach – was the man who brought him into the industry and one of Phil’s oldest friends: “A DJ’s job is to look through the piles of crap to find the nuggets of gold and that’s what Phil did. He played music not because someone else had told him it was good; he played the music that touched his soul, that lifted his heart and spirits. That man had so much love in him. He loved people, he loved music, he loved animals, he loved everything and when you love everything you give love back and that’s what he did when he stood behind the decks.” Phil Asher: the original Ladbroke groover.
Bill Brewster is a regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow him on Twitter