I Knew Dom Phillips. He Was a Very Good Man

dom-phillips

Dom Phillips was. Every time I’ve typed these three words since his murder last month, I freeze up.

I pause and collect myself. I will never accept how Dom’s life was unfairly taken. I imagine his final terror-filled moments facing down the barrel of a thug’s gun in the thick of the Amazon, and I sob. I think of his wife and family. I think of Bruno Pereira and his family, too. He lost his life alongside Dom. The pain and heartache their families have to live with are beyond words.

I am going to do my best to honor Dom. A colleague. A man of integrity. Someone who influenced me greatly. A man I am proud to have called a friend.

I met Dom Phillips in 1996. He was the editor of London-based Mixmag, the number-one selling DJ/dance music magazine in the world — back when people bought magazines. Electronic music was mainstream in Europe and bubbling up in America. I was one of a handful of journalists documenting the nascent scene in the States. I was eventually hired by DMC, Mixmag’s parent company, to launch and edit the U.S. version of Mixmag.

Technically, Dom and I met in 1992. I was working my first staff job at Dance Music Report, a fledgling biweekly trade magazine published by Tommy Boy Records’ Tom Silverman. Dom contributed a column about the London music scene. I remember not long after I started editing one of Dom’s columns. He used the word “lorry” — perhaps a reference to the cult U.K. band Red Lorry Yellow Lorry? — and added in parentheses, “That’s a truck, schmuck.” How a British guy knew to use a Yiddish word made an impression on this Jewish kid from New York City.

Four years later, I was working with Dom. In June 1996, I flew to London to work with Mixmag‘s editorial team. The goal of my visit was to learn about their process and get to know the team. There was a catch — no hotel. I had to stay a few days with each editor.

The first stop was at the managing director’s posh apartment off Oxford Street, complete with a cleaner. It was a lovely experience. A few days later, it was off to Dom’s comfortable flat in Finsbury Park for a few nights.

However, the quality of my accommodations quickly went downhill. I found myself sleeping on couches in dirty flats blanketed with cat hair. I stayed with a couple who bickered. The situation was starting to get to me. I was excited about the professional opportunity, but the combination of not sleeping and having no time for myself began to weigh on me.

Toward the end of a fast-paced production day, Dom noticed I wasn’t myself. He pulled me aside and asked me how I was doing. I told him I was learning a lot and appreciated everyone’s hospitality. However, the couch surfing situation was becoming unsustainable. Since we both knew the publishers wouldn’t spring for even the cheapest hotel room, I suggested it was time for me to return to New York.

After hearing me out, Dom pulled out his house keys.

“Nonsense,” he said, putting the keys in my hand. “Take them.”

Dom said he’d stay at his girlfriend’s place. (Her name was Nuala, and she eventually became his first wife.) Thanks to Dom, I ended up getting into a commuting routine. I got to enjoy the park in the morning and have downtime at the end of the day. No more cat hair or being in the middle of a squabbling couple. Dom’s generosity made the rest of my visit a joy.

A few other instances stand out from my stay in London.

UEFA Euro 1996 was taking place. There were high hopes for the English team — at least that’s what I was told by my colleagues — and most of the staff had left the office to watch an afternoon match at a nearby pub. I wanted to finish work and lagged behind. As I was leaving the office, Dom was intensely working with someone. I waved goodbye and asked Dom if he was interested in going to see the game at the pub. Standing with both arms leaning on the table, he looked at me like I was insane. Of course he was going. “Uh, yeah.” He paused and then smiled. “See you later.”

Then there was the time I almost got into a fight with drum ‘n’ bass icon Goldie at his Metalheadz night at the Blue Note in Hoxton.

Around the time of my visit to Goldie’s famed Sunday party, Mixmag Update, a weekly trade offshoot of Mixmag published by DMC, erroneously published a story about Goldie and singer/artist Björk, who were a couple at the time. Goldie was not happy about the article. When Goldie saw me snap a few pictures of Doc Scott spinning behind the decks, he came barreling toward me. Goldie pulled me aside and got in my face. “Are you with Mixmag?!”

In the end, the situation turned out alright, no thanks to the Mixmag staffers who left me to fend for myself by cowering in the corner of the club.

Dom reminded me of what I’ve always known  — writers and editors must serve the story above all else. Getting the story right is mission-critical.  

The next morning, I got to the open-plan office and sat down at my desk. It was quiet. People were at their computers typing away. Dom, who had already been briefed about the incident with Goldie, broke the silence by calmly asking me from across the room, “So Darren, how was the Blue Note last night?”

Hilarity ensued.

Then there was an impromptu trip to Liverpool that I believe Dom had a hand in coordinating with superstar DJ Dave Seaman (the first editor of Mixmag), who took me to his gig at the now-defunct Cream for 36 hours of insanity.

All I remember of the trek is visiting Liverpool’s waterfront, seeing Beatles statues, Dave driving over the speed limit in his flashy Mercedes-Benz and an insanely packed nightclub where everyone was off their head and offering me drugs.

There was the time a freelance writer stopped by the Mixmag office in Paddington located on quaint Lancaster Mews. The editors circled and were yucking it up with the writer. Later I was given their story to edit; the draft was terrible. I was unsure what to do. I decided to fix what I could, pass it along and hope for the best.

Later in the day, Dom sat down on the empty chair beside me. He looked serious. He wanted to have “a word.”

“What happened with so-and-so’s article?”

I rolled my eyes.

“Honestly?” I told him I thought the draft was awful.

We both smiled. I sensed he was relieved — we were on the same wavelength.

Dom said I should’ve said something to him. He was right.

I shared that as an outsider the situation felt awkward given how chummy everyone was with the writer. Dom reminded me of what I’ve always known — writers and editors must serve the story above all else. Getting the story right is mission-critical.

After Mixmag was sold to EMAP, the U.S. publication I edited was renamed Mixer. Dom, who probably could’ve worked himself up and across the corporate ladder within the company’s massive editorial portfolio, had already chosen another professional path.

One day Dom called to tell me he was leaving Mixmag. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t imagine Mixmag without him at the helm. He said his work was done. He wanted to do something else. He wanted to write and produce documentaries. (Dom went on to make 12 documentaries that I know of from 2000 to 2005.) It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

In 2002, Dom came to New York City to film Timo Maas: Pretty Funky For a Blond German, a documentary about the legendary DJ/producer. He served a dual role as the film’s producer and director. Dom told me he was on a tight budget. As he had done for me six years prior, I gave him the keys to my apartment in Little Italy and told him to make himself at home. He was grateful, and I was happy to help a friend. I crashed at my now wife’s place in Brooklyn.

Since I had interviewed Timo and put him on the cover of Mixer, Dom interviewed me on camera for the documentary. It was a lot of fun hanging out with him and seeing his creativity transferred to a different medium.

Here’s a clip of Pretty Funky… featuring yours truly:

After shooting in New York was almost complete, I remember Dom mentioning an upcoming pilgrimage to Canal Jeans, a now-defunct sportswear and vintage store on Broadway in Soho. Dom loved shopping at that store. He always returned home with shopping bags stuffed with clothes sporting the store’s iconic black-and-white checker design. I remember his profound disappointment when I told him Canal Jeans had just closed.

Like Dom, I took on new professional opportunities and challenges. I launched Big Shot in 2003 and went on to run editorial projects for global brands. Whenever I needed content from Brazil, I would tap Dom to contribute.

Superstar DJs Here We Go! The Rise and Fall of the Superstar DJBy this time, Dom had moved to Brazil and published his acclaimed 2009 book, Superstar DJs Here We Go! The Rise and Fall of the Superstar DJ, a look at dance music’s rise from the underground.

Over the years, Dom cultivated a deep love affair with Brazil. A few times, he invited me to visit. He offered to introduce me to friends I could stay with, but the timing never worked out.

The last time Dom and I met in person was for dinner about nine years ago at Bozu, a quaint Japanese tapas bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We sat at the dimly lit bar, drank Hitachino white ale and dined on yakitori, sushi bombs and Miyazaki fried chicken. I forget why Dom was in town. It may have been something to do with his book. We reminisced a bit about the old days but mostly talked about the present and the future.

In Brazil, he was working as a freelance writer and learning Portuguese. I was impressed by his dedication and love for his adopted country.

Dom told me about meeting a group of ex-pat journalists living in Brazil.  If I remember the story correctly, a correspondent from Bloomberg heard about a trade publication needing a reporter to cover oil and gas. Despite being transparent about not knowing much about either sector, Dom got the reporting gig anyway.

“You turn up at a press conference. It’s fast and quick. You listen to what is said, maybe ask a question and then write it up,” he told me.

He parlayed this experience into covering politics and the environment. Whenever I saw Dom’s byline — whether in The Guardian, The Washington Post or The New York Times — I always smiled. I was proud of him and in awe. He was doing important work. I knew from our brief exchanges on social media it wasn’t easy, but I was glad he was fulfilled and living a life of purpose.

At dinner, we talked about personal reinvention. Dom, who had grown up in Bebington, Merseyside near Liverpool, England, told me it was something he knew first-hand about. He confided that he had changed his accent many years ago. I thought he was joking.

In a moment I will never forget, Dom slipped into a Liverpudlian dialect. He sounded like John, Paul, George or Ringo.

“I used to talk like this. Can you believe it?”

My full stomach hurt from laughing so hard.

Now comes the hard part — ending this tribute and saying goodbye.

I’ll close by saying Dom always found a way to make order out of chaos. It was his gift.

His intentions were always pure.

He was never focused on personal gain or building his “brand.”

He was selfless and fearless.

He cared about people and his work.

He spoke the truth and reflected what he saw — both good and bad — back to us.

Dom Phillips was an extraordinary force for good in this world. I’m not alone in saying we could use a lot more people like him.

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Darren Ressler

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