In Defence of Noise: Rave Culture and the Night Club

I’m regularly asked about the best gigs I have been to. Whilst the Arctic Monkeys at Earls Court in 2014 and Radiohead at the Pyramid Stage in 2017 are two of the greatest moments of my life the fact is that my best live music experiences have been through the DJ and the Nightclub. In regard to subculture, the greatest difference between my parents’ generation and mine is the arrival of rave culture. In the 90’s through DJ’s and nightclubs an entirely new subcultural scene emerged with the creation of musical genre’s like Jungle, Drum and Base, Techno and Dub Step. The way that this music is enjoyed, loud and immersive from the hours of midnight to 6 am, was something new to our country. If you are young enough to have raved till sunlight then you have experienced one of the greatest joys of Western Liberal modernity as these experiences are the complete immersion and connection with sound and vibration, manipulating the mind into feeling good much longer than the body is used to.

To rave is to activate one of the most exhilarating constellations of the urban infrastructure. The Corner shop, the Tesco’s, the Pre’s, the conversation and music at the pre’s, the Taxi, the interaction with taxi drivers, the street lights, the roads, the human traffic, getting searched, the night club, the different rooms, the crowd of people from different classes, ethnicities and sexualities, the eye contact, the loos, the inspection of the generally strange industrial space in the smokers, the sober bar man, the food from the local kebab shop, the exhaustion. Aside from work, in going to a rave you are spending the longest time that you ever spend in the same place in the middle of a city. Normally, raves will last 8 hours, with people arriving at midnight and leaving around 5 or 6 am. In London you spend 6 hours in Smithfield’s at Fabric. In Bristol you are spending 6 hours on Stokes Croft at Lakota and in Manchester you spend 6 hours underneath Manchester Piccadilly at the Warehouse project. These evenings feel like 6-hour meditations on the soul of the city.

Attending the University of Bristol between 2014 and 2017, the city exhibited the greatest side of rave culture. Because of post-war West Indian migration, the city hosted a great deal of post-colonial spaces that formed the roots of modern Bristol’s greatest subcultural exports. During the 60’s Bristol had West Indian clubs like the Bamboo club hosting greats like Bob Marley, Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and Lee Dorsey. Just as my first introduction towards the performance of Sound System culture was at the Notting Hill Carnival at the age of 15, I would expect many Bristolians were introduced to Reggae records and Dub Plates through St. Paul’s Carnival. Post-Colonial spaces were established around the University of Bristol’s Wills Library. Next door to modern day Taka Taka was Revolver Records one of the country’s greatest record shops in the 80’s and then left of Wills Library underneath the White Hart Pub was the site of the Dug-Out nightclub. Hip Hop, Reggae and Dub music would be bought from Revolver Records and then played on sound systems at the Dug Out allowing groups like Massive Attack to hone talents at DJ’ing and MC’ing. Today it is places like Lakota, Thekla, The Love Inn and of course Motion that are the descendants of this sound system tradition. At University, if you weren’t working then you were likely to be found in one of these night clubs.

Two of the most important strands of modern rave subculture are from West Indian music and the European continent. The roots of Modern British rave music like Grime, Dubstep, Drum and Base and Jungle lie in West Indian Dub and Reggae. This cross fertilisation of DJ’ing and MC’ing is best exemplified through songs like the Newham Generals song Hard and the Plastician and Skepta song I See You. London music collectives like HyperDub and Swamp 81 pay homage towards their West Indian roots in the name of the label. The other strain of musical subgenre’s that dominate Britain’s best nightclubs are European exports. The rave scene has created space to furnish European subcultural superstars, who through playing music without lyrics, or simply other people’s songs, are able to transcend language barriers. Festival line-ups are a testament towards strength of cultural connection between English speaking peoples. Primarily Glastonbury hosts artists from Britain, Ireland, Canada, the USA and Australia. Performance wise, Glastonbury, a festival helped set up by Arabella Churchill, is the realisation of the cultural community of Winston Churchill’s English Speaking Peoples. However, come nightfall of Glastonbury, find yourself in Shangri-La or Bloc 9 and there is a huge chance that you will come across European superstars like Hunee, Antal, Amelia lens, Ben Klock, Gerd Janson or Marcel Dettman playing disco, house and techno. Aside from Nico, Hans Zimmer and Kraftwerk, Techno is the only modern German export to have been established in Britain and sounds like music from the front line of the cold war as demonstrated in the David Bowie album Low. Therefore, whilst Europe has been largely absent from British mainstream culture the nightclub created a space where the European might become King or Queen.

Modern DJ’s are academics of sound. They have spent thousands of hours with records. They have to have heard everything that everyone has listened to and everything that no one has listened to. Playing sets, they have to specialise in multiple genres and excel at at least one. When they are selecting sets, they need to be able to respond towards the emotion of the audience, the social context and the spatial and locational context. A DJ set is like a collage or an algorithm. Every song compliments the next and contribute towards the whole. For artists like Four Tet and Mike Skinner they have to select other people’s music that will bring the most from their own. The best DJ’s are obsessives that are keen to know more music and play it better than their peers.

The phenomenological experience as a raver is an extreme and intense immersion of the senses. Song’s like Mike Skinner’s Lights Are Blinding My Eye’s and Jamie XX’s All Raving Under One Roof provide excellent descriptions of these symposiums. The nightclub smells like sweat, smoke machines, cigarette smoke and marijuana. The strobe lights are bright and constant. There is the taste of alcohol and energy drinks. There is a strong sense of physical intimacy, some romantic some uncomfortable. There is the acute variations in sound waves depending on where you are in the club. There is vibration through all the walls. There is the foundation of dancing in the two step followed by the swaying of the head, the curling of the arms and the pointing of the gun fingers. There is the direct link between your body and the sound waves reacting towards the arrival of every vibration on the hear drum. There is the rich form of bodily communication as people hug and dance. There’s the consummation of flirtation. The amelioration of relationships. The staring into peoples excited eyes. There is the awkward conversation in which you can’t quite hear what someone says amidst the noise. There is the navigation to and from the smokers. There is the vodka mixer from someone’s bag. There is the voice note so you can find the song the DJ’s playing. There is the release from virtual solitude, scanning thousands of pages of scholarly articles and books. There is the strongest display of the beauty and biopower of youth.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is attempting to impeach protest on the basis of noise. Through the nightclub, the rave subculture has created palaces of noise and spaces that articulate and communicate the experience of Europe’s urban centres and act as testaments towards the benevolent power of noise. These rare sites are built through the digital infrastructures of social media whose nature has been greatly experienced yet seldom conceptualised in the mainstream. In regard to the idea of post-war Britain, the nightclub has been one of the greatest space of cultural cross fertilisation.

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