Blessing in disguise? Four underground collectives on how the pandemic has transformed the UK DIY music scene
We meet the underground crews who’ve been thriving in the pandemic
The past year has carved an unlikely niche for the UK’s underground, DIY music scene. Since COVID lockdowns struck in March 2020 – and whether they operate in club, indie or community music – these collectives have either cropped up at blistering speed or thrived in ways they could not have foreseen, despite the disease’s impositions on time, finances, and freedom.
Online DJ streaming has all but dominated the attention of every deprived former club-goer of the past year. Meanwhile, small labels are still benefiting from low-cost cassette production and market gaps in their local cities. They’ve signed production deals, and have upgraded from streaming in their bedrooms to broadcasting from venues. Some are even pouncing at the opportunity to support charitable causes; Daytimers’ 25-DJ-strong livestream in March, for example, raised £12 grand for Khalsa Aid, helping to support the Indian farmers suffering from stringent agriculture laws.
Forget your FOLDs and Boiler Rooms; these kids are doing it from the ground up, blagging it with no investors or sponsorships, reaping the unlikely benefits of unemployment, isolation, economic stasis, and, put simply, more time on their hands.
We spoke to Rohan Rakhit and Riva (Daytimers), Allecto (Late Night Shopper), Tallulah Webb (Sad Club), and No.Madd (Habits) for their own experiences of setting up online DJ streams, the pandemic’s impact on cassette and vinyl production, the charitable causes they have helped to promote, and their belief in the invincibility of UK DIY.
Check out an exclusive DJ mix by No.Madd of Habits premiering with Juno here:
ROHAN RAKHIT & RIVA / DAYTIMERS
Who are you and what kind of music you represent?
ROHAN RAKHIT: I’m an Actor, DJ, and Broadcaster based in London. I’m part of the internal team for Daytimers, and also have radio residencies with 1020 Radio, Mimm Radio, and AAJA Deptford.
Daytimers (found at @daytimers_uk) is a collective that was born during the first lockdown, for South Asian artists. We give South Asians a platform to celebrate their artistry, in whatever form that may be. It has seriously expanded and grown exponentially as a result of everything moving online. We’ve met loads of amazing people, and the community has really come together around us.
RIVA: I’m Riva, a DJ and part of the internal team for Daytimers. I’ve played for Threads Radio, NARR Radio, Boxout FM, Balamii and Vandelay Radio.
It’s not just about music, it’s so broad. We even have specific subgroups, which focus on South Asian queer artists and DJs. I wouldn’t want to limit us to just music, because we have a lot of graphic designers, visual people, clothes designers, loads of different creatives basically. But we’re very much down for underground music in all its many forms, and give people a platform to express that however they want. We do other stuff as well, but the idea is to create an underground community for that network of people.
What were you up to before you started – do you have any kind of background in the DIY scene?
ROHAN: I’ve been involved with community radio stations for quite a few years now, be it virtually or in person. I used to live in Nottingham, and there was a station there called CityBeat Radio, which genuinely operated in some back room in this community arts centre, with like a desk, one little HP monitor from like 2002, and a pair of turntables.
It was so much fun and we had a little community. So I guess I’ve been involved with the DIY scene for quite a while. It’s been so great to see community radio have such a massive resurgence recently. It’s also so inspiring to see more and more stations come up. For example, some of our friends from Daytimers have started a radio station in Leicester called Lowertone, just from their house. They’ve booked Sicaria Sound for an event in Leicester post-lockdown and are putting out great content.
Daytimers launched last year, and you’ve since pretty much skyrocketed in popularity. Has it been a smooth come-up, or have you faced challenges along the way?
ROHAN: I’ve been there from the beginning, but I wasn’t part of the internal team initially. I don’t think we ever thought it would get the traction it’s getting now. Especially with how South Asian underground cultures have evolved in the past. They usually become pretty popular, reach a peak, and then die off. Historically, they’ve struggled to assimilate into mainstream musical culture. Not that that’s happened for us yet, but we’re seeing a lot more love and popularity from across different publications and DJs, regardless of their ethnicity. So that’s been great to see. Did we ever expect it? Definitely not.
RIVA: I think it’s testament to the South Asian community. With the scene at the moment, times are changing, and we’ve been really fortunate to have been welcomed the way we have. When Rohan and I started messaging about it before we even met each other, it was this really small project, and then the next thing you know there’s major articles being written about what’s happening. And that is absolutely reflective of the space we walked into and the people around us. We’re still only under a year old and that’s a pretty crazy thing.
Working with No Nazar, you raised £12K for Khalsa Aid for a recent DJ stream in support of the farmers’ protests in India. You invited over 25 DJs to join a 24-hour performance. That is staggering. Were you surprised by the amount you raised and the impact you had?
RIVA: Absolutely. The event (watchable at twitch.tv/daytimers) took 4 and a half weeks to organise, from start to end. That was from Instagram messaging Rohan, to the 13th March. That in itself was quite a big achievement. Honestly, I don’t have the words to describe what it was like. Every minute, something new was happening. Our team was initially 3 people but it ended up being like 11 or 12 towards the end. On the day, we had a different team, with even more people monitoring the chat and all. And just the way it came together was seamless. We were like, “when are things going to go wrong?” – it was almost going too well. As we were pushing it and started our marketing campaign, it just kept pushing, kept going. It’s not even sunk in yet. In terms of fundraising when we first set our target, I didn’t expect the fundraiser to be so big. It’s still not really hit us, and even now we’re getting quite big donations. It’s clearly had an impact, and our event spoke to people in many different ways.
Be it if you’re supporting the farmers, or if you’re somebody finally being able to look at a lineup, and being able to relate to them and reflect, to think, “this is who I am”, or be it seeing our community get a seat at the table within this scene – not just the South Asian community, but the entire underground – it was monumental. At one point our event reached Berlin, and it was even being shared in that space. It grew very, very quickly.
Have you since been able to witness the impact that money has had in India?
RIVA: Not yet, and I think that will take some time. We have been speaking to Khalsa Aid, and it’s a pleasure to be able to bring to the mainstream a very important event in history, one that has been overlooked in mainstream media.
How did you get those DJs to join – did you reach out to them all individually?
ROHAN: I think the network was somewhat pre-existing, because it was basically the result of a South Asian underground wave that came before us. There was a night in London by a DJ called Ahadadream called No ID, which championed South Asian DJs and gave them a platform. Once Ahad spoke to one of the co-founders of Daytimers, he was very much down for helping us to succeed. So a lot of the network has been done through him and others like him in a very organic and natural way. It was great that we could basically get every big South Asian DJ on one line-up. But in my opinion, that’s not good enough. This should have gone on for a lot longer, even 24 hours every day for a week, for example, with South Asian DJs filling every single slot.
But yeah, everyone knows everyone, and everyone was down for championing each other, but in terms of getting international DJs involved, it was really nice to see how many of our UK lot and DJs had links with Boxout FM in India. A few of us have done guest mixes for them, and they were very much down to introduce us to people. It’s the same with the US side; we worked with a collective called No Nazar based in the West Coast. It happened very naturally, and once people clocked onto the scale of it, they were down for getting involved.
Could you explain your influence from British Asian daytime raves?
ROHAN: Daytime raves were a very much British Asian phenomenon, which occurred in the 80s and 90s mainly in the north of England. They mainly took place in community centres in Bradford and other big cities in the north, where South Asian DJs would book them out, and provide a space in the day for teenagers and all age groups to come and share and dance, and let loose in a time that wasn’t very liberal, both societally and domestically. Without a community of first- or second-generation immigrants, you weren’t given the scope to go out.
So in order to have fun, these kids and teenagers bunked off triple sport in their school timetable, and just went to these daytime raves. They had an amazing time, and musically it was such a rich period for British Asian music, because people started fusing their identities with their Britishness, and it started reflecting in the music. So people started fusing bhangra with genres like garage, dubstep and jungle, and that spurred the this incredible wave of Asian underground music.
There’s so much more to say about the spaces for women and queer people in particular. In our community it’s hard enough to identify as part of those groups, so daytime raves were essential for that freedom of expression.
What part has the pandemic played in your situation – would you have put on a real life event if not for lockdown?
ROHAN: I guess the founders of Daytimers just had more time in the pandemic to spend on a project like this, and make sure it was done well.I think our community was crying out for something like it. There were different waves of the Asian underground before us, but nothing has assimilated into mainstream culture as much as us. A lot of DIY platforms, say Late Night Shopper for example, have definitely come as a result of all of us needing or wanting new forms of entertainment. That’s why things like Worldwide FM or NTS, or even smaller community radio stations, have even bigger audiences now.
In a recent interview, you said the ability to organise DJ streams comes from a position of privilege. Of course, not everyone can ‘DIY’ – do it themselves. How would you advise others wanting to do similar things to best mobilise their privilege?
ROHAN: We were talking about the privilege we had to be able to express our political opinion, being in the West. People in India are being actively silenced by the government and witch hunted as a result of their opinions. I think we’re obviously extremely privileged to be able to put on any sort of DJ event, or do any sort of radio show. Our privilege comes from allowing us to do DIY streams and make them inherently political for matters that relate to our community. There are two layers to it, economic privilege, and then the ability to express ourselves musically.
RIVA: I also think when you DIY events, it’s in some ways more complicated online than it is in person. I used to do events at university, and there wasn’t much to think about in terms of aesthetics. You just show up to a room and dance. But here, there was a lot of field work required from people, and when we were doing it on a £0 budget, a lot of people were sacrificing their time from work, sacrificing their craft they would normally charge for. With us being able to be in a situation in which we could ask someone, “can you do this for us for free?”, there’s a lot of privilege that comes with that. We were constantly asking others to put us in touch with others. On the external side, if we were a small collective, or if this were the only thing we were doing, it would have been a lot harder. We were so lucky to have the resources we had, and otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. Unless you’re working for a company, it’s very hard to just create that out of thin air with zero money.
In your experience, is there a strong relationship between ‘DIY’ and activism? were you inspired by any other similar initiatives or collectives?
RIVA: I think that when it comes to social and political justice and any kind of activism, there’s no guidebook. It comes from the community, the people, the cause, and the beauty in that is that everything you do for fighting for justice on that matter is grown organically, and very tailored to what you do. Anything to do with any form of issue that is being discussed in that vein will always, always be DIY.
The biggest thing that was in my mind when we initially started this thing was reach. Our conversation began being like, “we just dont get why no one is talking about this”. We were reposting the protests on social media, and no one else was, and you saw other movements, and everyone was reposting them, but no one was reposting about this one. We were just thinking, “why does no one care? This is the biggest protest in the history of the world.” That was the main factor guiding everything.
One way would be to take to the streets and do leafleting, but we thought that in this age, the Internet livestream was much more powerful. And what do people love? With people I know, it’s music. With the central guiding factor being, “how can we raise the profile of what’s going on?” Because it wasn’t being discussed. The rest of the team were asking it too – with every detail coming up in conversation. How should we present it, what colours should we use, who should be on our lineup, what statements do we want to make? It was always about how best we could put the topic forward. So in creating this homemade project, DIY was our only guiding factor.
Efforts like yours are a starkly ‘bottom-up’ approach to bringing about change. But which do you think is more powerful, ‘bottom-up’ or ‘top-down’ approaches to collective action?
RIVA: I think it’s a bit of both, but top-down activism only comes from bottom-up activism. At the end of the day, unless there’s some kind of overriding economic factor that will push for these changes before we do, it’s usually coming from the bottom up in today’s age. It’s very important to make sure these things are being pushed forward, so that it can be considered at a higher level and debated. I defo think there’s a lot to be said about the bottom in order to reach the top.
Are there any South Asian creatives you’d like to particularly recommend or shout out?
ROHAN: So, so many. I don’t know where to begin. In terms of DJs, the one DJ from our lot who’s doing incredible things right now, and is probably going to play a lot of festivals this summer as a result, is Yung Singh. He put out these punjabi garage mixes and they went everywhere. He’s in our Daytimers internal team as well, so definitely go and check out his stuff.
Besides that we have so many amazing DJs in the collective, namely, Chande, GracieT, DJ Priya, Rani, Zar, Temujin, Mera Bhai, Saachi, Shivum Sharma, Vindya, and so many more! Loads of us are doing bits, and it’s given us all a crazy platform!
We’d also like to shout out the incredible producers and graphic designers involved. Daytimers Co-Founders Provhat Rahman & King Monday, Darama, Kishan, Goldtooth, Nikhil Beats, Manj, MIRZA, and Saadaan are all great producers.
And then on the design angle, most of our design is done by a guy called Amad (@amad.studio) who lives in the States. He’s worked on every single project. The brand was born from him, but we also collaborated with a guy called Sunny (@sunnyformats) who is based in Leicester. So It’s a really nice international, non-London-centric approach. A lot of collectives get bogged down, just being based in London. We operate on an international basis now. If you want to join Daytimers now, you can just message our Instagram for a Discord link, which we operate on primarily now. Everything is monitored by a group of admins and is very safe.
There are so many more creatives we could name both from within the collective and outside of the collective, but hopefully these names will give you a flavour of what is bringing the Asian underground the newfound respect it deserves.
We’ve also got South Asian people from the West Indies, and we’re actively looking for more people from across the wider South Asian diaspora – not just people originally from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh.
Are there any particular resources you’d like to point Juno readers towards to support the cause or just to understand the crisis in India?
The Grewal Twins post nice overviews of everything. Tractor2Timeline is also an incredible resource, they have daily updates on what is happening at the protest sites.
Those are the two main resources that are quite accessible. A lot of the footage and news stuff is really hard to find. We were so motivated by the lack of visibility in the first place. You have to actively want to find stuff out about it.
What can we expect next from you?
Big things. We’ve got loads of projects we started before the livestream that are still on-going. We’ve got a monthly release on our label, and we released the first one last March. It’s all on our Bandcamp page. The first project was our EP launch. We put out a 30-track compilation of all South Asian artists and producers, which was our way into the industry, and we used that to raise money for the human rights charity Restless Beings.
We’re now keeping the monthly release going, but it’ll be just one track per month instead of 30. I don’t know how much else I can say. Expect… things. We’re going to move away from the online world, which is a given, and we have things in place for that to happen, but we’ll still keep that DIY online culture going, because it’s what made us. We will never stop giving South Asians opportunities and a platform, that’s for sure.
ALLECTO / LATE NIGHT SHOPPER
Who are you and what kind of music do you represent?
I run Late Night Shopper, which is now a live streaming-based radio station run out of Venue MOT Unit 20 every week. We represent underground community UK music, and London music. Just the London underground scene. We’re not genre specific, we just get artists and DJs who are interesting and are trying to say something different with their music, and who aren’t trying to go down the same path as everyone else. We’re just trying to support it and give it more exposure.
We had eight wheelups in the last set. We’re doing it in a club space, but it’s a livestream, so people are a bit less inhibited. But it’s still got the right kind of adrenaline. There aren’t many people in the room, but it feels like there are a lot of people, still.
What was the motivation to start streaming?
It was just a realisation that as an event, LNS wasn’t going to do any parties, and had no way to keep our engagement in the scene as a collective and as a platform. Personally, on a wider note, I’ve engaged with streams more than ever before due to COVID; there is a market like me stuck at home and wanting something different. I was quite disillusioned with streams and thought it wouldn’t have legs, but I realised later that there is a lot of worth in it, and people want to engage with it. It’s here to stay now.
What were you up to before you started – do you have any kind of background in the DIY scene?
We started as a party in Manchester, and were always involved in DIY culture there. We did a squat party with this collective Art on the Sly, and in Manchester I’d been playing these unlicensed parties in the city. I think the DIY aspect had always ben attached to it. Our friend Bella does our art, for example. We’re always trying to foster that “who do we know” thing, and make it more of a collective.
What part did the pandemic play in your situation?
There’s definitely been some ups out of this quite negative situation. Even the arrangement with every space we’ve used so far, they’ve all ben like, “this space isn’t being used, because nothing’s happening, so I’m going to let you do what you want to do.” Also, the audience for streaming – the people actually engaging with it – have got more respect for it than before. Streams didn’t have that same allure before. When people have been so detached from going out, it creates something. I can still listen to the music I actually like, and it’s different because I get the visual element of being there. I feel like I’m having a party, but I’m just in my bedroom.
It’s easy now for an institution like Boiler Room to continue what they’re doing already, but you started from the ground up, which must have made things harder. What kinds of challenges have there been for you along the way?
I think not having a budget is always going to affect it. We have to make do with things. A while ago, we were experimenting with different camera angles, but we couldn’t afford loads of cameras so we now only do one angle. It’s been less of an obstacle as we went on, though, because the simplicity of things is what makes it good. We can leve it to FOLD and Fabric to do all this incredible high-end stuff, because that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create a community. That’s what it’s about, rather than a financial investment.
No-one is selling tickets. Not having big budgeting teams is very DIY, in the sense that we’re all trying to do it. You don’t have specialists in different departments. Having said that, we’ve always been really supported by Venue MOT.
You were originally in Manchester, before moving down to London. How would you say the scene differs in Manchester compared to London? Surely a big part of your footing is from the parties you threw back then?
I think one of the things that Machester has that London doesn’t is a real lack of pretentiousness in dance music. There’s obviously pretentiousness everywhere, but the general atmosphere in Manchester is that it doesn’t matter what people look like or anything like that. It’s not the concern, everyone is there for the music. There are spaces like that in London, but there’s less of that hub because its so big. In Manchester there’s very much a tight knit community of people, you don’t really have a London scene in the same way. There are more pockets of different scenes in different spaces. But London has endless options, there’s so much choice, which is kind of mad about here compared to the North.
I think our preferred musical genres definitely have been shaped by Manchester. The music I liked to play at university was leftfield bassier stuff, which was massively unfluenced by my own circle of friends in Manchester as well as the DJs at the White Hotel. I thought I could be trying that. It’s got that richness of talent. Having that experience there has made me open to most genres of music. It’s kind of a collapse of genres and boundaries between them. I’m rubbish with genres. When someone asks me what tags we’re going to put for each show i’m just like, “no idea mate”. Just call it dance music, electro, whatever.
You invite roughly seven or so different DJs to the platform per week, which is insane. A friend of ours even described you as the last bastion of watchable DJ sets in London. How do you find the time?
It helps being quite unemployed. That helps. And, going back to the pandemic, I’ve had way more time that I ever would have. I think because of that, we definitely had a bit of a snowball effect. We knew some people in Manchester and then down in London. Then you get more followers and more engagement, but at the beginning, it took going through radio shows and Mixcloud. But we’re not just trying to get the biggest DJs we can, there’s got to be an element of grassroots to it. One of the hardest things is that, normally, this would be really easy if you went out. Usually you just go out and meet people.
You use Venue MOT Unit 18 and 20 as your home base. What’s it like to host there?
Great. Venue MOT are great. The first time we went and met the owner, from the first conversation we had, you could tell it would going to be good. His whole thought process was, “this is your thing, but i’m going to facilitate it and let you come in.” There’s something worthwhile in it that isn’t commercial. It’s not money-based or commercial. It’s just putting out culture.
It’s a more fragile thing than people realised. They’ve provided us with so much kit and allowed us to grow, which undoubtedly helps our appeal. You’re playing a livestream in a club, and you’re on the soundsystem. You’re on these monitors in front of you and you can hear it, and there are other people in the room. What’s the word I’m looking for? Adrenaline. It’s not just playing things in a studio.
What can we expect next from you?
More of the same, although we did a collaboration with Next Door Records at Bush Hall in London. which we’ve got recorded. Not gonna lie, it’s nuts. I’m actually gassed, because me and MI-EL (who helps organise the LNS streams with me) did a set as well. Then there’s Left, Right & Centre at the REC Centre. That’s actually up in Manchester. And of course, more Venue MOT.
I’m gonna get DJ Maximum (who did a stream with us a few weeks ago) to get Skepta down as well. We want to grow, we’re concerned about having organic growth. We’re not looking for a sudden surge in people, only to then lose momentum. You have to trust in people on the art side of it, not just clout or hype.
TALLULAH WEBB / SAD CLUB RECORDS
Who are you and what kind of music do you represent?
We are a London-based independent record label. We don’t have any strict rules on what kind of music we represent, but it always ends up being small UK artists within the boundaries of indie / folk. We are a really family-oriented label, and we aim to create a strong sense of community from it.
What were you up to before you started Sad Club – did you have any kind of background or prior experience in DIY?
I had just left school, and had been working at a record shop for some time. I was also doing a few internships with a label and promotions company which helped a lot. But, in terms of knowing what it’s like to run a label, I had absolutely no experience. I really did have no idea what I was doing, and didn’t really know of anyone who could help me. It kind of started as a side project, just to do something fun for artists, and took a few years for it to get serious! I’m so glad it worked like that because the lack of inhibitions let me start it and throw myself into it that young.
What do you think of the term ‘DIY’? Do you find it an appropriate term for your label?
I think it’s a weird term, but I kind of see it as synonymous to a small independent label. I guess we are totally DIY, as I am doing most of the work myself! When Sad Club started, I think that DIY term was a lot clearer, because there was time to try out different things, like screen printing tees and bags, and doing a lot of the artwork. But we’re edging away from all of that.
You began in 2016, and have since survived the pandemic. What kind of impact has COVID-19 had on the reception of Sad Club’s releases, if any?
Oh god, it’s been really weird. The past year has been mad, and it was the year that gave Sad Club a new lease of life, strangely. This time last year I had just finished university, which led to us signing a distribution deal & working with a lot more artists. It’s been good in a way that its allowed me to get my head down to work a lot harder on releases, but in terms of the reception of them, it’s been difficult.
A lot of things have been postponed, like artists tours and, of course, shows. But that didn’t make us change our release schedule. We have faced a lot of challenges and found it weird at first that everything was virtual for a year, but I think its a good invention test in finding new ways to catch people’s attention & garner traction for your artists.
What about the pandemic’s impact on cassette (and more recently, vinyl) production – have there been extra challenges?
I haven’t really seen much of a challenge with cassette production, but vinyl has taken absolutely years! We’ve been quoted on a 6-months wait time at the moment, which is definitely a challenge. It’s great to see that people have continuously been supporting us by buying our physical releases, and thank god for Bandcamp Friday!
Many of your artists (e.g. John Myrtle, Clara Mann) have supported their music with live-streamed performances. With their unnatural buzz this past year, and opinion divided over their comparison to real live shows, what are your thoughts on live music streams? Are they a blessing or a curse?
I think they’ve definitely been a blessing! I remember in the first few months of the pandemic, I was watching more gigs than I had been pre-pandemic! I’ve had so many good evenings watching shows and going wild in the comments section. Pretty cursed having to reconnect so many times because the internet has gone out.
I think people are focusing a lot more on really well-done live sessions over livestreams, now. We have just released two really great ones with both Clara Mann & John Myrtle filmed with Delinquent Sessions who are fantastic. The former was filmed on a Lightship in London, and the latter in an art shop in Leeds.
Sad Club is strongly influenced by the ‘DIY look’, with bedroom-like drawings on covers and posters, and that’s not to mention your close proximity to zines with a DIY footing, like So Young. Why do you think the indie scene responds to this aesthetic so well? Have there been any changes to this response over the past year?
That’s what we’re going for! As a label, we’re heavily influenced by the Sarah Records 80’s indie-pop scene. Merch like Sarah Records’ Saropoly is just beyond cool. I don’t think Sad Clubopoly would take off quite so well, though. I think So Young plays a huge part in consolidating the aesthetic, they are the spearheads of the look!
It’s a really accessible aesthetic – you don’t need photoshop or an artistic hand to put a collage together, so that’s super appealing about it. Anyone can do it!
You’re now firmly rooted in what has become known as the ‘London scene’. In your opinion, how well has the scene coped during the pandemic?
It’s been incredibly tough. Fundraisers for venues like The Windmill & The Lexington have been brilliant, but unfortunately a lot of venues have had to close too. I guess we will see the extent of the damage on the other side, I just really hope that gigs can happen soon!
What can we expect next from you?
More vinyl, more tapes, more absolute indie bangers.
NO.MADD / HABITS
Who are you and what kind of music do you represent?
My name’s Michael, I DJ under the name of No.Madd, but that’s in the process of being changed, as these things happen early on in your DJ career. I DJ for the collective Habits, but I also do all of the tech side of things and all of the audio engineering, and any setups for streaming, making sure things are gain staged correctly for events.
Habits is a grassroots collective based in Leeds. We do primarily drum n’ bass and jungle, but we do branch out into different avenues from time to time. Through lockdown we were lucky enough to have a couple events to put on at some venues in Leeds. But surprisingly, it’s opened up certain avenues which we weren’t pursuing earlier.
What was the motivation to start streaming?
At the very beginning of lockdown, we saw the opportunity to showcase producers and DJs that may not have had a platform to do so otherwise. Streaming is no new venture; it’s been around for a while, especially for people in video games. But prior to this whole situation, the big cats held a monopoly on streaming. It only made a difference if you had a headliner come through – one you might see on the festivals at like Boomtown – because people are more inclined to tune in to watch a big name.
The game all changed in lockdown. People suddenly didn’t mind seeing their friends doing something. We got in relatively early on this, and got some great members coming in as a result. That’s not the best way to gauge the success of something artistic, but it’s still great, because by the time we exit lockdown, we’re going to have cultivated a much bigger collective and fanbase.
There’s two tiers of DJ, and sometimes they can transition from the first to the second. The first is the hobbyist who messes around and has fun with a couple cans and their mates. Then the next tier is those who are slightly more committed. It’s their lifeblood, their heart and soul. And that’s what all of us are about. We all just absolutely love what we play. I’m sure you can find the same ethos running through every single vein of the electronic music tapestry.
What were you up to before Habits started – did you have any kind of background or prior experience in DIY?
We were streaming out of my house last year. Luke, who runs HABITS with Pete, was still coming over to mine cos that was still allowed at the time. We got thinking, “what are our opportunities here?” We couldn’t play out. But we could sing and dance and have a jolly good time. So it dawned on us that we didn’t need a venue per se; we could use what we had and where we were. Luke has a background in media, especially photography, so he was no stranger to it. At the time I had a vinyl setup, a good setup going. Music tech has always been something I’m quite anal about. Having studied music at Leeds, it all fit into place. I thought, “why don’t we do this on a semi-professional level?”
We knew we could get it sounding better than anyone else. Not to toot my own horn, but that’s something I will go crazy for. I will make sure all the levels are perfect, and throw invisible shoes at DJs who are redlining. We’re always going to stand out and make a show of ourselves. For people in the creative industry to be denied their art or passion is incredibly damaging to the human psyche, so for us as much as anyone else, we found the methods to do this relatively early, and I’m glad we did.
What challenges have you faced along the way? Have these been worsened or lessened by the pandemic?
As the years progressed, something became a hindrance to us, as is the case for every streaming collective: copyright strikes. It’s an absolute nightmare. It baffles me. You bought the music and own the music, and you’re just playing the music in a club setting. When you’re struck, what’s happening isn’t really copyright, you’re actually just violating the T&Cs for whatever service you’re streaming on.
It’s not even like the big shots are getting away scot-free from this as well. I was watching a John B stream a couple of weeks ago, and he was playing one of his own tracks. Now, this is someone who’s been in the game for 20+ years, and is a bona fide Metalheadz OG. And, yeah, they came along and slapped him with a takedown for one of his own tracks.
It’s had such an adverse effect. There’s no real money to be made; people aren’t gonna go, “oh, OK, well we can’t listen to these streams, so we’re going to go and buy all the music we were meant to be hearing instead”. It’s the complete opposite. All the labels and artists involved in playing the music are all getting really good publicity. It just feels like it’s being stifled down for very little reason.
Your focus on drum and bass is insane, given that it’s hard enough to host a stream series on its own, let alone make it genre-specific. How do you find the DJs? Are you all a group of friends, or do you reach out to local talent as well?
It’s a bit of both. We do have a core collective who are all friends, but then we do reach out to some friends of friends of friends. But by then, everyone who comes through by default becomes a friend.
The drum & bass community is very communal, as it happens. Every music community is going to have its beard-strokers, telling you, “back in my day, this, that and the other”, but we do still have this sort of brotherhood. I wish there was a less gender-specific term to use there, but it conveys the concept quite well. It’s almost surprising to people who aren’t drum n’ bass fans, because all they hear is big breakwork going on, and they think to themselves, “it’s just very aggressive music that goes dududududu”. But you’ll find the most lovely people, especially if you just pop out to the smoking section, which we all miss.
Finding people is easy. All you have to do is put out posters and send out some messages, and you get people messaging too. 9 times out of 10, they’re lovely, and if they’re not quite up to the level of being presentable (and there is a standard, you can’t have someone just come and clang for an hour), you say, “that’s great, come back to us in 6 months, fantastic, we’ll stay in touch.” It’s just very positive.
How would you describe the underground music scene in Leeds? As a first hand witness, how has it stayed alive in the pandemic?
I would say it’s a healthy scene, and it’s growing, which is fantastic. Personally I’ve not always been the biggest fan of techno, and all that 4×4 rhythmic stuff that happens between 120-135bpm. But that’s changed recently. This city has opened me up to a lot of new experiences. There are a couple of producers responsible for that. Mani Festo I can’t say a bad word about, he plays in so many different styles.
But the drum & bass community is not quite as well established here. It’s only in the past 5 or 10 years that it’s come along in the strides that it has. In a city so full of students and free-thinking people, there’s a lot of knowledge.
Obviously we’ve had Beaverworks for ages; shoutouts to Graham and Carol, who have been the rock through everything, hosting everything from Sub Dubs to High Rises to Jungle Jams. But for the grassroots underground drum n’ bass scene, it would be really hard to talk about it without driving home the importance of the Old Red Bus Station. As a venue, it’s just been an absolute melting pot for producers and DJs in the scene. It’s a pub and bar, which then converts itself into a club space, and for that reason it’s unique. It’s not like they’ve half-arsed the second half of that, either. It almost puts everyone on the same level, and we’re not talking small name DJs. We’re talking Dillinja coming through, and people from the Rupture Sound Kru on the jungle side of things, License To Jungle, really big names. It is no joke. They’ve always pushed local talent too, and without a venue like that, I can’t see the scene having developed the way that it has.
For streaming locations, you recently upgraded from your room in Leeds to Beaverworks. What’s it like to host there?
Amazing, amazing. It’s allowed us to garner a following, and has put in touch with more established names. We’ve got Degs, Munroe and Faction coming through to Old Red, and it’s a pleasure to support all of them because I look up to every single one of them.
That ability to make that step from streaming in our own living rooms and back gardens, to venues, is just incredible. I think the way it went down is that prior to lockdown, Luke and Pete, who are the main cohorts for HABITS, have actually put on an event or two through Beaverworks. That butterfly-effected into a couple of other things, so they weren’t perfect strangers. When we started streaming, it garnered Beaverworks’ attention, and they invited us to do stuff in their basement. Which is amazing. If anyone’s been to Leeds, lived in Leeds, partied here, they will have gone to Beaverworks, and if so, they’ve experienced that basement. What it lacks in sonic fidelity it makes up for in vibes, tenfold. If you’re there for a rave, youre there. Even though it’s empty we’ve got incredible photography, lasers – we go all out.
What can we expect next from you?
Lots. This second lockdown is not the beginning of the end, it’s the beginning of the second beginning. We’ve come out quite well. It’s just a shame that these copyright takedowns have happened, because it would be fantastic to continue streaming indefinitely. If it weren’t for those, we could do mid-week episodes if we wanted to, and showcase different sounds and experiment with what a DJ can do. It doesn’t have to always be fast 174bpm bangers either; there’s a lot that goes on from 174bpm all the way down to 70 or 60bpm. But that isn’t possible at the moment, and I really hope that changes.
Jude Iago JAmes