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The enduring energy of Nottingham's DIY underground

Nottingham's rich musical heritage has always had a raw edge, from punk rock to acid and rap. That spirit lives on in a new generation of DIY rave promoters and artists. DJ Mag takes a look at the city's musical history, and speaks to key players past and present, to find out what makes Nottingham special 

128 miles north from the bright lights of London lies Nottingham. A vibrant creative community, Nottingham’s musical heritage has not just survived, but evolved, and its underground electronic scene is making the city a destination for ravers throughout the Midlands. From intimate dancing to dynamic, art-driven raves and an impressive inner city festival, all run by local promoters, the city has hit top speed in its journey to being crowned the UK’s next raving destination.

Nottingham’s rock roots has long given the city’s rave scene a raw edge. Punk ruled Nottingham in the ’70s and ’80s, with bands like Heresy, Concrete Sox, and Fudge Tunnel, and when it became a dance hub in the early ’90s, the city’s taste for rock transformed into a taste for acid house. 

Venus is often referred to as Nottingham’s answer to the Haçienda, and brought in punters far and wide for hardcore and acid house parties. James Bailie is a local legend in Nottingham. He ran Venus between 1990 and 1994 and, in roughly the same time period, had a stint as trance legend Sasha’s manager. He managed and opened clubs in the city: Venus was first, with its fashionable edge, followed by Deluxe, and in 1997, Bailie turned jazz club Hippo into The Bomb, with its cross-genre bookings for emerging dance music styles. 

“We’re talking progressive, acid house in the main room, piano house in the other room, and Balearic stuff as well. Friday night had drum & bass nights and alternative breakbeat nights,” The Bomb resident Dan explains. “On Saturday nights, the main room was house and techno. Eclectic in the back room, disco, and house upstairs – that New York sound. The Bomb had a really good standard of bookings on a consistent basis. We just didn’t have to go anywhere else.” 

Bailie ran The Bomb for seven years. In 2004, before leaving Nottingham for London, Bailie set up Stealth, a behemoth venue that’s still the go-to for weekly dance music from global headliners, and sits at the top of the student-focused city’s pecking order. It’s a two-room, 660 capacity space that’s hosted Gerd Janson, Hunee, and Nathan Fake, to name a few. But the past focus on The Bomb and the contemporary dominance of Stealth can often overshadow Nottingham’s long-running and eclectic underground scene.

One of the earliest spots for dance music in the city, The Garage, took over a space that had been, throughout the ’80s, a reggae club, then a punk and indie bar. When The Garage opened in the early ’90s, it continued to attract the kind of ‘ahead of the curve’ music fans that made its previous iterations successful. This time, it was the fans who were intrigued by the early house sound. 

“The rave scene [in Nottingham as well as the wider UK] really came about in the first instance when the Chicago house movement began,” former owner of The Garage, Ian Gardiner, tells us. “Our DJ, Graeme Park, introduced that music into what was basically a post-punk nightclub.” Park – a knowledgeable record collector, after playing motown and disco in the club since 1983 – brought the sounds of Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Derrick May, and Farley Jackmaster Funk to The Garage in 1986. 

As more popular styles of house music gradually made their way into the city’s 1000-plus capacity venues, like NG-1, Gardiner notes that The Garage changed its sound to rare groove, acid jazz, hip-hop, and disco, purposefully creating a more sonically diverse and underground space. Although other venues later achieved it, The Garage was the first club to play post-punk and rock in one room, and dance music in another. “The most important thing,” he reflects, “is that Nottingham people are open to all sorts of music and the crowds mix so well. It was amazing! We could still do with a venue that does that.”

From its punk and acid roots, Nottingham’s raw musical edge lives on: in rock bands, like Sleaford Mods, in grime, with MC’s like Mez, and in hip-hop, too. One of the city’s biggest labels, Deal Maker Records, having been giving platforms to hip-hop artists since 2003. Their ‘UK Duty Paid’ compilation, showcases 24 Nottingham rappers, includes Scorzayzee, a daring and clever lyricist whose track ‘Great Britain’ made him a local favourite. He’s been an MC since 1994, and is a fountain of knowledge for the early days of hip-hop in the north of England.

“I’m very proud to have played a small role in Nottingham being recognised for good music,” Scorzayzee says. “Recent statistics show that we are the poorest city in the UK. I say we are the richest in music. “It’s always had a big hip-hop scene from the break-dancing days of the ’80s at Rock City, right through the grime era and up ‘till now. Here’s a fun fact for you: my song ‘Crepps’ in 2001 is the reason you call trainers ‘Crepps’. That was a Nottingham slang word. Every time you see Crep Protect in a store, think ‘that’s Notts that gave you that!’”

"I guess we’re not trying to take on the world. It’s raw, it’s got acid house running through its veins, and is a real independent scene run by real people”

Bass-orientated club music has also been a staple – unsurprising, given that bassline was born not much further north, in Sheffield.  The characterful face of Nottingham bassline, Darkzy, shot up in the scene after posting the words ‘book me xxxxx’ on Stealth’s Facebook page in 2016. Showcases a boisterous and animated spin on the genre, he produces screeching, head-banging beats far from the once subtler flavours of bassline. 

He’s quickly become a city-wide legend among students thanks to his controversial humour, both in his sets and out and about in the city, and he’s headlined the annual dance music Detonate festival, which takes place in Colwick Country Park not far from the centre. Last year, Darkzy sold out the 2,000 capacity Rock City venue three nights in a row. 

Arguably the city’s most important dance music figure right now, though, is promoter and DJ Lukas Wigflex. The godfather of ‘rudeboy techno’, he’s been pushing all things dark, weird, and bleep-y in the Nottingham techno scene for 13 years. The party series takes over venues like grimy, industrial The Brickworks, student-spot Box, or even one-off spots, like city rooftops or caves. Events differ in style: one might explore UK garage, another might be a fusion of breakbeat, 2-step, and electro, or a straight journey through house and techno. Their venue takeovers give each party a sense of freedom, nodding to the city’s acid house roots. 

“We’re just happy putting on interesting parties without the same old line-ups,” he says. “The crowd’s good. It’s not an overly-documented, soap opera place, y’know – I guess we’re not trying to take on the world. It’s raw, it’s got acid house running through its veins, and is a real independent scene run by real people.” 

The success of Wigflex is down to a changing club landscape in Nottingham. Spaces like Venus, The Bomb, and The Garage created a legacy, but with club closures rife, younger promoters have to come up with more inventive, DIY ways to run quality underground dance parties. “When we first started going raving [in the ’90s] there was more choice,” Lukas remembers. 

“There were a lot more promoters and it was a lot more fun. The smoking ban changed a lot of stuff – it got a bit dry, slowed down – but recently there’s been a lot of younger promoters. They’re starting to realise ‘Okay, we haven’t got a lot of clubs, but let’s see where we can go with our parties’. We’ve got our own thing going on and it’s worth sticking around for.” 

Lukas’s point about the next generation of DIY promoters is key. In the last year, promoters Expert Death have introduced a wealth of top notch gigs with the UK’s upcoming bass-driven talent into the city. Expert Death have one motto: ‘No Lights. No Visuals. No Stages.’ The night is run by George Inman. “Wigflex have done such a good job of providing a ‘fully immersive’ experience with visuals and interesting sounds,” he explains, “that I felt there was very little point attempting that in Nottingham, so I always tried to provide dark intimate rooms in a bid to encourage a similar level of immersion with less elements.” 

“Often I find myself wishing clubs that I go to were smaller or darker, and having never got to experience places like Plastic People, I’ve sort of tried to provide that intensity in a different way,” Inman continues. “I want to represent the weird hybridity that exists in Nottingham. Even though we’ve had artists play who can be tagged as grime or garage pretty confidently, the other aim was to provide a platform for this conglomerate soundtrack of grime, garage, and techno that I think represents Nottingham’s place in UK electronic music.”

Lukas remarks on recent parties that have made an impact. After the last-minute cancellation of this year’s Houghton Festival due to stormy weather, Wigflex hosted a surprise rave in a Norfolk barn, which they comically dubbed Barnarellas. Last month, they hosted a rave in the woods with Special Request and Saoirse, which got shut down by the neighbours at 9PM. “It was a bang in the centre, opposite the prison. They were like: ‘It’s fucking very loud.’ The police were happy to keep it going, but the neighbours were less keen.” This month, they hosted their 13th birthday party, with a back-to-back set from Ben UFO and Batu and a live set from Rrose in The Brickworks. 

In May, he debuted Wigflex City Fest, which saw him take over 14 city venues, including an art gallery with a mega lighting rig set-up with Yazmin Lacey, Bufiman, and more, an ambient stage where ravers lay on beanbags, and an intimate cave-rave beneath an unassuming pub. Showcasing local talent alongside Midland, Honey Dijon, Peach, and Call Super, the one-day festival merged blinding sets with art installations and was a mammoth event that Lukas “staked everything on”. 

“Fucking hell, it killed me mate,” Lukas admits, laughing. “It was a lot of hard work. I didn’t really get to enjoy it because I was rushing all day but the last two hours when I got to play” – referring to his 4am set at NG1 – “everyone was happy and still there. That was a cool moment for me.” He says that next year’s City Fest is set to be bigger and better, he insists, with more visuals and more exciting concepts. 

Another pair of new promoters are Glaswegian brothers Auld Rab and Tam O’Shanter, who run Audiobahn – a no frills party that, in the last year, has hosted Banoffee Pies, Bruce, and Space Dimension Controller. Falling for the rave scene while in university, the brothers’ started Audiobahn in 2018 because of a lack of bookings they wanted to see in the city, and drew inspiration from their old favourite, Sub Club. This month, their party at the intimate Bar Eleven pushed a high-energy, electro-tinged sound, with sets from resident DJs Nikki O and Kurty. 

Other newcomers include Peach Fuzz, who have hosted a diverse, long-form crate-diggers and contemporary producers, including Yak, Stevie Cox, Jon K, and Object Blue. Peach Fuzz is held in the Chameleon Arts Cafe, a 140-capacity venue above a Clinton Cards shop. “There are such amazing small venues such as the Chameleon, and those venues wouldn’t be used for this sort of rave-y music if it wasn’t for [parties like] us, Audiobahn, and Expert Death,” Matt says. There’s a tight-knit community at these small events, “but it’s like a house party, it has that energetic vibe,” he says. “We [promoters] all support each other - we’re all trying to make it better together and we all communicate. There’s no backstabbing.”

This relatively small city is going through an important change in 2019. Contemporary underground electronic music is not the sole domain of Stealth’s weekly offerings, or even Wigflex’s conceptual one-off raves or regular parties. Gradually, an ecosystem of DIY promoters has emerged from both, where young ravers met and decided to form their own crews. There are fewer key, specialist venues now than in decades past, like Venus, The Bomb, and The Garage, but the passion persists. Nottingham’s underground music scene – boisterous, punkish, in your face – is now in the hands of a new generation. 

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Oliver Payne is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here