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Inside Copenhagen's bass-fuelled garage scene

Although Copenhagen has become best known for a lightning-fast, trance-inflected take on techno in recent years, a new generation of artists are blowing up bassbins with music indebted to the UK sounds of garage, jungle, dubstep and grime. Here, Henry Ivry speaks to key players Main Phase, Smokey, DJ N.E.GIRL,  Lille Høg and others to learn how the Danish capital's bass-driven club scene is thriving

It's winter 2014 and Adam Schierbeck and his former crew, Henri’s Garage, are in the middle of throwing a UK garage night in Copenhagen. Although the city is dominated by house and techno, the party is going off and Schierbeck — now better known to the world as Main Phase — sees the crowd losing it to a particularly naughty track by the Wide Boys. As the track winds down, as is custom for UKG DJs, he rewinds the track, playing it again. The crowd seems confused: why is the same track on? Did the needle skip? Did the DJ nip out for a drink? And while the punters may have forgiven the rewind once that buoyant synthline comes in again, his fellow DJs are less generous. “Could you stop playing the same tune over and over?” another DJs on the line-up asks him. “It’s just weird if we play the same music. We’re DJs, we should play different tunes.”

Fast forward to this past summer and Copenhagen’s Baggen is absolutely heaving for one of Schierbeck’s Pure Butter nights where he invites one of the most exciting players in the British UKG scene to play in the Danish capital: Dr. Dubplate. As soon as a subby bassline comes in, the hands come swarming from the audience into the DJ booth reaching for the jog wheel, trying to get him to load up the rewind. In fact, he recounts, half the night is spent playing the same records again. Schierbeck can’t help but smile when thinking about how things have changed. It’s not just the tunes that his audience understands, but the culture of UK garage generally. And this, as he explains, is what he’s been working towards for the past decade.

When you say Copenhagen to most people in the dance music scene, they are likely to think of the renowned fast techno scene there. Artists like Courtesy, Mama Snake, and Solid Bake have put the city on the map as the go to locale for a particular brand of lightning fast tempos, with the occasional burst of melodic sunshine popping through. But if you happen to find yourself in the Danish capital looking for something with a bit more bass weight, you can also go to Baggen, a 300-person club where the bookings have started to shift their focus to those exploring low-end focused UK club music. Beneath its techno exterior, Copenhagen is home to a thriving scene traversing everything from jungle and garage to dubstep and grime.

Main Phase

“Copenhagen has been on the map for different sorts of music, but I want it put on the map for its bass music” — Main Phase

But, as he makes clear from the outset, Schierbeck isn’t interested in going at it alone. “Copenhagen has been on the map for different sorts of music, but I want it put on the map for its bass music,” he explains. “A lot that’s happening here is extremely beneficial for the scene and the city right now. [It’s] not tied to smoking 1,000 joints and wearing a backpack to a military-style rave. It’s sexy, it’s welcoming, it’s for young people and old people.”

Backpacks in the club or not, Schierbeck has been putting his money where his mouth is for the better part of the past five years. Through his Pure Butter parties he hosts at Baggen, he’s brought everyone from Dr. Dubplate to Darwin to play the Danish capital. As he continues, his goal is to show “that it’s not just techno and trance happening. It doesn’t mean that I have anything against the techno trance people. But I think it’s important to show Copenhagen as more than just fast techno."

He gets animated discussing this, describing the privileged position that he’s found himself in, nearly squirming in his chair as he holds himself back from talking about collaborations with people that are still under embargo. “There are people in my DMs who I never thought would follow,” he beams. “I’m in a position right now that is pretty remarkable, pretty unique for a guy from Copenhagen making grimey UKG that is having this impact on the dance music world.”

From the outside looking in, it might appear like this scene has sprouted up over night. But, Schierbeck is clear to point out that he is just part of the latest generation of Danish producers to fall in love with the airy sound design of bassier UK club music, and careful to namecheck the people who have set the stage for his current ascendance.

smokey

One name that constantly comes up is Simone Øster AKA Smokey. She’s been blowing up bass bins for over a decade with a style of DJing that jumps from jungle and early techno into contemporary grime and drill. After years toiling in the underground, she has gained prominence domestically, if not quite at the international level of Schierbeck, and currently holds a residency at the Danish national radio station where she is pushing sounds from across the hardcore continuum.

She explains that Copenhagen has harboured a vibrant underground for bassier sounds the past decade and change. When she first moved to the city in the late 2000s, dubstep was taking off in the city in a big way. In particular, she remembers the crew OHOI! (which DJ Mag is told was meant as a pirate pun) were throwing parties that brought everyone from Loefah to Skream over to the city. And for her, a young woman moving to the city where she didn’t know anyone, she was welcomed with open arms: “It was such a sweet and welcoming community around this scene,” she explains. “They had a lot of knowledge and they thought that it was cool a young girl was into bass music and I felt naturally merged into that scene. Compared to other experiences I’ve had, people that were 10-years-older were not very nice, this meant a lot when you were a girl coming to Copenhagen alone."

While the OHOI! Crew might have been the first to do it, in the years that followed the first dubstep resurgence, other crews and parties began to emerge converging at the now shuttered club Dunkel. Everyone DJ Mag speaks to for this feature mentions the club with an air of reverence. It was a 100-person cap venue and the smaller size meant that it was much easier for promoters to book more experimental artists — at the time this meant the Hessle Audio crew and the likes of Scuba — to cater to what was then a fairly small community. One of the club’s resident DJs, Psimono, even went on to start bass-music focused label TEAL recordings in 2010, which counts a West Norwood Cassette Library and Kowton release in its back catalogue.

gold tracks

But the scene struggled to take off and really gain traction outside of its dedicated heads. As Schierbeck explains, part of this has to do with the fact that sounds like jungle, 2-step, dubstep, and grime all come from the inner city of London. It is music that embodies a palpable sense of struggle, which is as at odds with the general perception of Copenhagen and Denmark generally. He describes Denmark as “a selfish culture but a safety net with it”, going on to explain that, “[There] is no real struggle for people in Copenhagen, and that contradicts the establishment of UK sounds.” It wasn’t long, he explains, before punters slowly gravitated back towards more traditional house and techno.

This is something that the DJ N.E.GIRL, AKA Esther Wanyama, picked up on when she moved to Copenhagen five years ago from London. She occupies an interesting space within this current scene. She cut her teeth at house parties growing up in Croydon and landed a SUB.FM residency before moving across the Channel. She is also one of the few DJs of colour in the Copenhagen scene that focuses on the low end, and while “the atmosphere was welcoming” the parties she first went to were “very white spaces”: “I do remember clearing floors when I first started mixing in jungle or drum & bass, or even playing Ramadamman [the former alias of Pearson Sound] or Shackelton, the darker stuff that didn’t conform to the 4x4 format.”

She points out that while there has always been a scene of sorts, it has remained static. “There for sure has been a bass scene in Denmark, and the UK-centric sound isn’t new to the city,” she explains. “However, I think the communities around these scenes were a little closed, meaning that a new and diverse range of DJs, ravers, and promoters weren’t so involved. So, when the old crew moved on with their lives, there wasn’t a new generation to sustain it — until recently.”

Copenhagen

Wanyama’s right to point to the fact that a new scene does seem to have exploded. The producer and DJ Bjarke Pedersen, who turns out garage and jungle with hip-hop swagger under his alias, Lille Høg, explains what he sees this current revival as related to both the pent-up emotions that everyone harboured over the course of the pandemic and a national cultural austerity more generally. As a producer, Pedersen has always gravitated towards the bassier end of the stereo field. He remembers learning how to produce by pausing a Rusko video where he had Albeton open and literally trying to copy what he saw on the screen. 

After a few years of trying his hand at making this type of sub-heavy and experimental music, he took a break to focus on hip-hop production (as he puts it, “I was always listening to rap music and we tried to make some rap tracks. This was when Lex Luger style of trap beats took off — it was much easier to make those than the electronic art pieces that you hear on Hessle Audio”), even earning two gold records (one under his satirical Yung Coke alias).

But, now, he’s returned to his first love. There is something in the post-COVID air that has brought not only Pedersen back towards the bassier end of dancefloor music, but has shifted the tidewaters in Copenhagen more generally.  “When you add an element of fun to the music, people think it’s not serious. The techno stuff [had] zero emotions,” he explains, “What’s shifted is a generational thing — Gen Z can go to clubs now and aren’t afraid of being in touch with their music. The techno OGs would say it’s corny, too cheesy. It seems like people are into having more fun now.” Øster makes a similar point: “I like it when things are silly and cheesy. And that’s the UK flavour. As opposed to something that feels [overly serious]. Music should feel fun and charming [so] that you have a nice time instead of [a] super serious vibe." 

Copenhagen

‘The garage scene is fun, bubbling, and welcoming... it’s music that everyone can connect to and it’s very accessible’ — Ludvig Poll, booker at Baggen club

And if there is one word that covers the diverse sounds coming from this scene, it’s fun. On futuristic jungle cut ‘Nunhead’, for example, Main Phase & Lille Høg splice gravity-free breaks over darting synths before the most hands-in-the-air beatdown breakdown you’ll hear all year comes in. Or on ‘100’ from Main Phase’s collaboration with Interplanetary Criminal as ATW: a speed garage track with a snake charmer melody that sounds like it is pulled directly from Indiana Jones. Or given a listen to this mix for FTP from Smokey that includes everything from sleek and silky UKG to gurning donk. 

And while it’s easy to scoff at this idea that Gen Z just wants to have fun, what Pedersen is pointing to is far from superfluous. This is about making club music more accessible. This is where the club Baggen has played a pivotal role. Ludvig Poll, the booker at the club, has integrated this into the venue’s music policy: “When I started getting into electronic music the scene was almost nonexistent — it was either mainstream stuff so if you wanted to get into underground stuff, you’d go to a party with 50 people. I really got into garage because I was like, ‘Fuck, this has the potential.’ It’s so easy to transcend from the mainstream stuff to the more fun, underground stuff.” 

When you add the club’s policy to the fact that Schierbeck and others are able to bring important UK DJs over to the city, you’ve got a perfect cocktail for fermenting a new community. “The club has meant a lot to us, especially for the UK scene,” Poll explains. “People are afraid to go for the bass music scene. It was not what people in Copenhagen wanted. It’s taken a while but, especially with the Pure Butter parties, it’s becoming more and more [prevalent]." 

This is a surprisingly democratic approach to club culture more generally. "People might experience the new UK garage scene in Copenhagen as fresh air.” Shchierbeck explains. “We have a strict door policy and there is a safe space policy — it’s not like we are saying, ‘We’re just having fun’ — but I think it’s a way for people to experience something that isn’t tied to heavy drug use and staying out till 12 the next day... the garage scene is fun, bubbling, and welcoming, but it’s music that everyone can connect to and it’s very accessible."

This encapsulates what makes the scene so exciting. It's music that is celebratory and joyous, marking the start of a new chapter for the city.

Want more? Check out the artists in the first half of this year's DJ Mag Artists to Watch

Henry Ivry is a writer. Follow him on Twitter here