In our Under the Influence series, we trace the ideas of underground artists, designers, labels, and collectives, and the impact that they’ve had on pop culture as we know it, examining how the revolutionary aesthetics and attitudes of outsiders make their way into the mainstream – and importantly, how much that should be valued and not forgotten.
Kemistry and Storm hold an almost mythical status in the drum & bass scene. Their mid-90s sets captured their flair behind the decks, defined by an unparalleled track selection, long, carefully crafted mixes, and a potent chemistry between the two DJs that spurred the crowd on. “I knew they were bound for stardom,” says Goldie, who established the Metalheadz label with help from the two DJs and gifted them with their first set of turntables. “They would mix it, man. They were holding shit, arranging the drops, they would drop again into another double drop. They were underrated, and they were just so much darker.”
Kemistry (Valerie Olukemi A. Olusanya, or “Kemi”) and Storm (Jayne Conneely) both grew up in Kettering, a small town in the UK’s East Midlands, and would together help shape Metalheadz into one of drum & bass’s most notorious record labels. They inspired a new generation of DJs with their 1999 contribution to the DJ-Kicks series, a 17-track, one-hour mix that’s at times dark and dystopian, at others smooth and melodic. But their trajectory was tragically cut short when, just three months after DJ-Kicks came out, a freak car accident took Kemi’s life. “Kemi had always tried to find something where she could be who she was, and look like she was, and achieve something – and that was in DJing drum & bass,” says Conneely. “She’d found it and she was so content. She always said, ‘I just want to make a difference.’ And you know, that’s what we have on her plaque. ‘DJ Kemistry, she wanted to make a difference.’ And she did.”
Olusanya first introduced Conneely to rave culture in 1988, after Conneely, fresh from studying in Oxford, had qualified as a radiographer and moved to London to look for work. In need of a place to stay, Conneely took up Olusanya’s offer to split the rent on her bedroom in a Finsbury Park townhouse, where her friend proceeded to bombard her with the sounds of pirate radio stations. Conneely had so far missed the underground dance scene, but through Olusanya’s recommendations she discovered a love for the art of mixing. Together, they began practising on Olusanya’s Amstrad system, holding their thumbs over the belt drive to get their records in time. “We started getting really obsessed with raving and buying vinyl,” Conneely says. “We were kind of asking ourselves the question, how can we be with this music 24/7?”
Then Olusanya started dating Goldie, after he spotted her working in Red Or Dead on his cycle route to Camden. At the time, he was known as a graffiti artist, and had just returned home from painting and exhibiting in the US. While ravers were holding their second Summer of Love in the UK, he had been busy immersing himself in America’s burgeoning hip hop scene. Olusanya and Conneely took him to Fabio & Grooverider’s party Rage, credited as the incubator for early jungle music, at London nightclub Heaven, where he got his first taste for hardcore. “The tunes that these two were playing were the catalyst for Kemi and Storm,” Goldie says. “Kemi was the Fabio, Storm was more the Grooverider. I realised how passionate they were about these guys. I kind of related to that because of my passion for hip hop DJs.”
Goldie was quickly assimilated into this harder and faster genre of music, joining his friends every Thursday at Rage then piling back to their flat for afters. Olusanya and Conneely dragged their Binatone and Amstrad Midi-systems into one room, where they practiced mixing their huge bank of records. “That was my introduction,” says Goldie. “They introduced me to absolutely everybody that was making music in the way that I wanted to.” It was here, in the small hours, that he shared his dream for the trio: he would make the music, Kemistry and Storm would DJ, and they would all be united under one iconic drum & bass label. He paid for their first proper set of decks in 1991 off the back of his first EP, The Ajax Project, and set up Metalheadz in 1994. A year later, the Blue Note in Hoxton offered Metalheadz what would become the label’s legendary Sunday night residency, where they pushed a tougher sound to an increasingly international crowd. Goldie became busier when London Records signed him to produce his seminal album Timeless, and in 1995, he asked Kemistry and Storm to help manage the label.
“I think they were a big part of me getting on Metalheadz,” says Steve Carr, better known as Digital, who made his debut for the label in 1996 and has maintained a tight relationship with them since. “I wasn’t the obvious thing, and neither were they. I’d make one or two of the regular amen tracks, but then I’d make some quirky stuff. And they were into it, they championed me.” Kemistry and Storm helped foster a community of drum & bass devotees who were pushing the genre in new directions. They handled the promotion and A&R for classic tracks like Dillinja’s “The Angels Fell” and J Majik’s “Your Sound”, and hosted meetings where they offered advice to the label’s young producers, helping to steer the musical direction of a song or deciphering which DJs should be given the next release. “They always looked out for artists,” says Digital. “Not just in a music sense, but the people. That’s what made Metalheadz. They got that family vibe. They literally pulled people together.”
DJ Flight is best known in the drum & bass scene for her show The Next Chapter on BBC Radio 1xtra, but she hadn’t even considered DJing when she first encountered Kemistry and Storm. She was transfixed when she caught them at the SW1 Club in Victoria when she was just 17. “I was just staring at them, watching what they were doing,” Flight says. “One of the guys that I was out with came over and said, ‘That will be you in five years time.’” After that, Flight turned up to every gig she could, and with her heroes’ encouragement, created her first two mixtapes. Her big break came one night at Swerve, Fabio’s drum & bass night at The Velvet Rooms, when Kemistry and Storm asked her to make a tape they could give to Goldie. “They said, ‘We want to bring in a new girl into the camp and we think you’re ready,’” she says. But Kemi died shortly afterwards, and Flight only heard Goldie’s feedback months later when she bumped into him at a Metalheadz night in Camden. “He said, ‘Kemi and Jayne think you’re good. That means you’re good. Let’s give you a go,’” she says. By coincidence, Flight’s first set with Metalheadz was also one of Storm’s first gigs since the accident. At the end of the night, she gifted Flight with Kemistry’s decks.
“For women especially, to see somebody like you up there, it’s definitely inspirational,” says Alicia Bauer, aka Alley Cat, who started DJing in San Francisco and now manages her own label named Kokeshi. She met Olusanya and Conneely when she came to support one of their gigs in Germany, and later moved to London where she and Flight both became residents at Feline, a night promoting women in drum & bass that Conneely ran at Herbal in 2007. Alongside artists like Miss Pink, Mantra, and MC Chickaboo, they targeted the gender balance in lineups by filling both the upstairs and downstairs with women DJs and helped to create a space that prioritised women ravers in a male-dominated scene. “The great thing about it is that a lot of girls came out to our night, so it got skewed more toward the female audience,” says Alley Cat.
“Kemi had always tried to find something where she could be who she was, and look like she was, and achieve something – and that was in DJing drum & bass. She’d found it and she was so content” – DJ Storm
Kemistry and Storm’s contribution to drum & bass is crystallised in their DJ-Kicks compilation, which sits in a club culture hall of fame alongside entries into the series by Carl Craig, Four Tet, and Nina Kraviz. The series curators, the record label !K7, hunted for the duo for two years before they finally tracked them down in 1998, when a mutual acquaintance introduced them while walking the streets of Miami. “I thought they were very brave to back Kemi and myself,” says Conneely. “We were women in a male-dominated scene, even though we were doing well in our careers. It was nice to see that they had no bias and they just thought we were the best at what we do.”
Kemistry and Storm made a bold but fitting move for DJ-Kicks. Not only were they the first female duo to feature, theirs was also the first pure drum & bass and jungle entry on a predominantly house, techno, and downtempo-oriented series. “It was a Metalheadz vibe,” says Conneely. The pair seized the opportunity to showcase their favourite producers of that time. Their friendship with Goldie bestowed them a one-off version of “Hyaena”; a dubplate of DJ Die’s “Clear Skyz” illustrated the Bristol sound; and John B., J Majik, and Dillinja were some of the producers championed at Metalheadz. “It’s a good representation of that time,” says Digital, whose track “Mission Accomplished”, a collaboration with Spirit, appeared on the mix. “They covered a lot of the scene. It’s a good album to look to for a bit of proper history for the drum & bass scene and the different artists involved.”
“I’ve never rinsed a CD so hard in my entire life,” says B. Traits, the Canadian DJ who joined Shy FX’s Digital Soundboy label in 2007 and went on to host her own weekly slot on BBC Radio 1. She had just bought her first set of turntables when she listened to Kemistry and Storm’s compilation. “It wasn’t all the big tracks of that year. Every single track was excellent, and it was blended perfectly. Their skills as DJs cut through on that mix, as selectors and as master mixers. To actually see two female DJs that were successful was a game changer for me, especially when I could literally count on one hand the amount that I knew. And they were united. It was like, you can be a part of this crew and you don’t have to be a dude. You can be a part a movement.”
Kemistry and Storm styled themselves as one singular DJ, each retaining their own distinct style while sharing a box of vinyl between them – Storm was known for her deep, growling tunes, while Kemistry favoured more off-kilter sounds. Ordinarily they split their sets down the middle and they took turns to start or finish, but the DJ-Kicks album led them to create a more integrated mix. “We wanted as many artists that we cared about as possible to be on this album, so we had to break it down differently,” says Conneely. “I think that was a real true idea of how Kemistry and Storm work together.
But that union was abruptly severed just a few days after they returned from touring DJ-Kicks around America. On the drive back from a Southampton gig, a rogue cat’s eye, a reflective device used to mark out the centre of UK roads, came loose and flew through the windscreen. Olusanya was killed instantly. “We were very yin and yang, me and Kemi,” says Conneely. “We balanced each other out. So for me to lose half of myself… it was just so shocking.” When Storm returned to play a night run by V Recordings, she continued to split the set between Olusanya’s records and her own. “It was overwhelming at first,” she says, “but actually, it was the best thing I ever did, because it was the place I still felt Kemi. I’ve changed my style over the years to be more ‘Kemistry and Storm’ rather than just ‘Storm’. We were both brave, but I think Kemi was braver first to play that slightly more obscure tune.”
Conneely’s influence has now spread beyond drum & bass with the help of Mumdance, who saw Storm play with Kemistry when he snuck into Brighton’s Essential Music Festival at 13 years old. He’d never heard a DJ mix tracks live before, or experienced a sound system so loud. “That was probably the first dancefloor epiphany that I ever had. It was the first time I’d been physically hit in the face by sound,” Mumdance says. “The Metalheadz aesthetic, and that dark, dystopian dread that Storm specialises in, is probably the prime influence not only on what I do, but on what Pinch does, on what Logos does, and countless other producers.” Mumdance finally met Conneely at a Boiler Room showcase he hosted in 2014, where he invited some of the artists who’d most impacted his style over the years to perform. “She said it was quite pivotal to the next wave of her career,” he says. “A lot of kids who had never heard of her saw her come on deck and smash it. Now she’s been discovered by a whole new crowd.”
In today’s club culture, Storm gets to spread her dark and wild sound to multigenre events like Dimensions and Unsound festivals, and Mumdance’s label Different Circles’ nights. It’s an apt throwback to the genre’s origins, when Fabio and Grooverider were first mixing rave techno with breakbeat, watched by two fledgling DJs who were trying to emulate them at home. “We were like little sponges at the time,” Conneely says. “Fabio taught me how to tell a story, Grooverider taught me how to select. When Randall came along, he put the mixing into perspective. That is what we wanted to achieve, and I think we did. People started saying, ‘We love your style, it’s kind of the rough with the smooth.’ I think Kemistry and Storm took a little bit of everybody and made it into our own.”
Tags: bass, DJ Storm, dnb, drum n bass, Goldie, jungle, Kemistry & Storm, Metalheadz