Classic Clubs Vol 1

Way back in Spring I got my first radio commission. Well, actually, I got three: a short feature about tattoos and piercings which I made for The Surgery and went out in August; a documentary about why people make music which transmits next year; and a two-parter on Classic Clubs.

The first part of the latter goes out tonight on 1Xtra, with the second part going out next week. As the name suggests, it’s about nightclubs. Part one is about the clubs that laid the foundations for the powerful and self-regenerating underground music scene we’ve got in the this country, and part two looks at three clubs that invented a new genre. I chased down MCs (got some, lost some), DJs (ditto) and club regulars to try and tell the story of what those places were really like, and to show what they created. I honestly believe that clubs are a massive motor of creativity, and a place where social boundaries can be explored and extended, and I wanted to find a way to communicate that. Clubs (and those that know, will know) can be more than places to show off, more than places to pull, more than places to experiment with drink and drugs. At their best, clubs become a focal point for creativity, for flow, for good times, and for building things that didn’t exist before. Alright, so I’m sounding excitable, but I can’t help it. I’m just not a cynic.

I interviewed Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark for the documentary and he summed it up: “to see a scene develop in front of your eyes is the ultimate thing for any music fan.” There are tonnes of clubs I never went to that I know had major impact: daytime1970s club Crackers, the clubs Norman Jay and Gilles Peterson ran at Dingwalls in the ‘80s; AWOL, Roast, Labyrinth and the hardcore clubs that helped invent jungle; Speed; Eski Dance; Club 69 in Paisley where Detroit techno dons would come and play in a basement under an Indian restaurant on an industrial estate and many others. When people make music together their biochemical signals synchronise: a group’s heart rates, blood pressure and breathing step into collective line and I’d bet a large amount of money that the same thing happens to people who are on a dancefloor, lost in a musical zone.

I took my friend Graham Styles to Deviation a year or so ago, when it was still at Gramophone. Deviation sums up everything I really rate about London clubs: amazing music, a solid sound system, a cool, mixed crowd and that interplay between DJ and crowd that you only get at proper clubs. Graham was one of my original club buddies and we drove in his car from Orpington up town on numerous occasions to numerous clubs. When I took him to Deviation he completely understood and totally loved it. He found his spot at the back by the speakers, and it was like he’d never left. On the way home, he summed it up “I’m just glad the stuff we built is still alive” he said. And that’s why this country is so good at nightclubs, at proper clubs. We keep building on the foundations like a city, pulling down derelict buildings and building new ones, layer upon layer, sound upon sound, memory upon memory. We build, we destroy, we build and that’s why (along with pirate radio) our music is picked up all around the world.

Anyway, the documentaries are what they are. I interviewed DJs in my car in Beckenham Marks and Spencer’s carpark. I caught up with grime promoters on a Northampton roof. I went round to the delightful Jazzie B’s house. I went down to Heartless Crew’s subterranean studio. I finally managed to grab Goldie for ten minutes before he went to DJ at the Red Bull Revolutions in Sound event on the London Eye. It’s not perfect, it’s not definitive, but it was made with love and respect for all the people everywhere who’ve ever had the balls and the energy to put on a club so they can hear the music they love.

Right then, I’m off.

Always FWD>>

Genuinely influential nightclubs are rare and precious. FWD>> is one of those places, and this weekend, it celebrates a decade of influence. Here’s a few reasons I’m proud and happy to have experienced it, and why I’m looking forward to tonight, where DJs from Youngsta to Ben UFO will be playing music from the last ten years of FWD>>

The people behind FWD>> understand the need to create and destroy. They provided the foundations for this thing we call dubstep but it was never just a dubstep club and they never got stuck in a genre. The DJs played (and play) grime, house, garage, weird electronic music, whatever they want.

They’ve curated tonnes of new talent. I can’t tell you how many people I saw go from the dancefloor to the DJ booth. If you’re good, they give you a chance. Ask Ramadanman, Oneman, Braiden, Brackles and countless other people. People who went to the club were inspired to to make music, start record labels and radio shows, to write and design blogs and to photograph what was happening. Once you understood the power of FWD>>, you could apply it to your own life. It’s an excellent philosophy to live by.

FWD>> has serious levels of persistence, confidence, attitude and taste. To start with it was just producers and their friends and the hardcore originals. Later, after a location mutation to Plastic People, and stints on Thursday and Friday it would be busy every week, with big queues outside, so they moved to a Sunday night to deter people who just wanted to get pissed and the fly-by-nights.

As a community, FWD>> is very open-minded. If you’re into it, you’re accepted. I went regularly between 2006 and last year and regularly saw baby-faced youngsters, people in their 30s who’d been through jungle and recognised immediately how good this music was, students in battered trainers, Croydon girls in denim dungarees and allsorts, basically.

FWD>> has been brilliant at creating a space for their music, and letting other people join if they want to. There’s no sense that they’ve ever tried to appeal to anyone. They just do what they do, and they do it well. Sarah Lockheart, Geeneus and Neil Joliffe and resident Youngsta have built something powerful that will continue to influence the UK’s music and creative industries for some years to come.

Hats off, that’s what I say.

James Blake ‘James Blake’… Some Thoughts

I got James Blake’s album in the post today. And as well as the usual feelings of anticipation and curiosity you’d expect to feel when faced with such a hotly-awaited piece of music, I also felt a genuine sense of pride. I didn’t have anything to do with this album, obviously. I didn’t write the stripped down gospel songs, or let the beats fall in that idiosyncratic way, or allow the silence to gain such momentum that it became a presence: 22 year old Blake did all of that in his bedroom. But I know something about it, I know something that he knows, because I also attended FWD>> regularly during that heady period of expansion between 2006 and 2008, a place that is regularly cited as the springboard for Blake’s music. I wasn’t there at the start; I was part of the generation that took over from the hardcore that built dubstep’s foundations, a period that maximised the beginnings, but before the existence of all those horrible records people shout over on Radio1.

When I think about FWD>> I think about the music, and the darkness behind the curtain that separated the dancefloor from the bar area (watch any YouTube footage to see how dark that place was. All you can ever see is the orange light behind the DJ booth and the odd lighter). It was funny, intense, energetic, hedonistic, powerful. You’d meet people from wildly different lives: sophisticated 16 year olds who’d post on the dubstepforum about bouncing across the playground to Barefiles mixes; old school bassheads who had been around the block and recognised that spark of scene genius; short Croydon girls in loads of make-up and shirt dresses; middle-class students and of course the regular contingent of DJs and producers who you’d find at the back, where the bar merged into the cloakroom.

But where is FWD>> in James Blake’s self-titled debut? I can hear shades of Plastician and Skream playing their mix of Black Ghost’s ‘Some Way Through This’, or the first time I heard Appleblim playing there – my overriding memory of that set is hearing shockingly irrational beats with huge cliffsides of compressed air powering through the speakers, and hearing him play ‘Circling’ – or those weekly spins of galloping, understated soulful Mala tracks ‘Left Leg Out’, ‘Blue Notez’ and ‘Lean Forward’.

Most, though, I can hear Kode9 playing Massive Music’s ‘Find My Way’, a song recast to suit the needs of people who’ve grown up with breakbeats and who understand instinctively that music, song structure and rhythm can be re-arranged. ‘Find My Way’ felt like one of the first records I heard within dubstep that could be classed, however vaguely, as a song (that’s excluding all the dancehall and grime lyricists who’ve always surrounded the music) and to me, it’s a definite precursor to Blake’s music. One major difference is that Blake has dropped any hint of Jamaican soundsystem heritage from his album and replaced it with Bon Iver-style vocodered folk (that one second of vocoder on ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, stretched out over a whole song on ‘Lindesfarne I and II’), sparse, skinny gospel (‘Measurements’), and emotional, hungover pop (‘Limit To Your Love’). I might write a fuller album review at some point, but for now, two listens in on a rainy Saturday morning, I think that’s enough.

I saw someone questioning on Twitter whether 2011 would be the ‘year dubstep meets the pub singer’ and at its worst, that’s an apposite and accurate observation. On the other hand, this is a year when people who’ve experienced something special are coming back into the world, armed with everything they know about sub-bass and silence and perfectly misplaced beats and they’re taking this armoury into pop songs. James Blake has done it and who knows what fellow FWD>> alumni Ikonika, Braiden, Subeena, Deadboy or Ramadanman will create over the next few months and years. But I’m telling you. It’s going to be interesting.

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