It might not get the attention it deserves but Leeds has been at the forefront of the ever-changing world of dance music for the past decade – but where does it go from here?
November 1995 and the rest of the UK is slowly coming out of the cocaine fuelled haze of Britpop and all the shameless self-promoting antics that come with it. Over the pond in America though and the iconic Stateside music paper Billboard is in Leeds telling the story of a hedonistic revolution taking place in one of the UK’s most forward thinking musical cities.
But there are no guitars and no rock’n’roll stars to see here. In fact, Larry Flick’s Dance Trax feature has instead followed house pioneer and New Yorker Todd Terry to this “quiet corner” of the British Isles, witnessing a rare dance music utopia.
“Beneath a faux sky of swirling lasers and coloured strobe lights, the congregation of distinctive personalities seems to have metamorphosed into a singular, primal sea of gnashing and grinding flesh. For a split second, the unity that one fantasises about becomes a fleeting reality. There are no differences based on race, sexuality or politics – just the universal bliss of a transcending experience.”
In short, this sums up everything you need to know about dance music – of whatever style – when it is at its ultimate peak. What’s more interesting to note is that it’s taken one of America’s most vocal supporters on a journey to what was then a relatively small city in Yorkshire to see it at its most unifying and most powerful. To some extent that connection between Leeds and dance music still pervades, but its story is one that few others can claim to match.
From across the Pennines
However, it would be rude to start without mentioning Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub, without which the blossoming of rave culture and the subsequent move into the provincial dives, there would quite possibly be no such story to tell.
The legendary Mancunian venue influenced more than just dance music – it was also responsible for the development of shoegaze indie into Baggy, Madchester and Britpop – but its knock on effect on the burgeoning decadence of youth would breathe new life into Leeds’ nightlife.
Enter Back to Basics – by fusing a punk ethos with the latest sounds emerging from the clubs elsewhere, Dave Beer and co-founder Ali Cook took on the super-clubs with an inventive and typically Northern ‘we’re better on our own’ attitude.
Whilst the night, as it still does, enjoys a journeyman-like status thanks to its home never being set truly in one place, it’s less about where and more about when. The parties have become notorious tales to tell by those still around to tell them, alongside the prowess earned by breaking some of the biggest dance artists, from Derrick Carter, Danny Tenaglia and Francois K to Daft Punk, Basement Jaxx and Andrew Weatherall… what a night that would be.
Soon after Basics, came the night Todd Terry proceeded to turn into his church in 1995 – Hard Times. It’s the recently returned apex of house music that, from 1993 under the guidance of Steve Raine, became one of the most influential nights initially in Huddersfield and then at The Music Factory in Leeds from 1995.
It was a night that grew into a label and laid its mark across the country, including a residency at Bagley’s in London. Out of Terry’s set spawned the infamous Hard Times compilation, whilst the likes of David Morales, Louis Vega and Roger Sanchez all made appearances – all influential names that have gone onto define genres and soundtrack countless hangovers.
Hard Times eventually stuttered to a standstill (until its return in 2012 at Mint Club, Stinky’s and The Garage before taking up home in the same historic venue (quite possibly the oldest club in the country) as Hard Times when the latter closed unceremoniously.
A refreshing change
As with any genre, time can’t stand still and with the changing face of Leeds’ nightlife, it has done quite successfully. The likes of Mint Club popped up thanks to the nouse of esteemed promoter Shane Graham in the wake of the early hedonism of Basics and Hard Times, and in itself it has become a force for a new era of techno featuring its ground-breaking Funktion One soundsystem and the inimitable Sven Vath – a man still inextricably linked to all raves good in the city, who will appear once more at Cocoon In The Park again this year.
Today, however, there are so many strands of dance music – house, garage, jungle, dubstep, drum & bass, so on and so forth – that it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. But the opening of a venue such as Mint Club has given people a place to appreciate good music and skilled DJs on a regular basis.
What has undoubtedly benefited Leeds and its ability to place itself at the forefront of clubbing in the UK has been the influence of the students – whilst they might not spin the records, this ever-changing make up dictates week by week, month by month, year by year, what goes down well and what’s quickly chucked on Hard To Find.
But what is Leeds’ like right now as a place for those looking for the best nightlife they can possibly gain? Does it live up to a reputation that precedes the city? One industry insider (preferring to remain nameless) says there’s work to do.
“If I’m being completely honest, I don’t think that level of innovation is there these days. A lot of promoters in Leeds are getting pretty lazy – booking the same safe names time and time again. The fact that there are so many nights and so much competition probably has a lot to do with this – nights would rather play it safe and keep their audience where they’ve got them. Which is understandable I guess. “
The reluctance to continue pushing barriers may not be a surprise, but is without a doubt a shame to witness occurring. After the impact the likes of mono_cult, Technique and Louche have had on not merely popularising house music and its strands, but also making it a sustainable way of showing how Leeds manages to continue to set itself apart from the rest, with infamous garden parties, courtyard parties and one-off events pulling in names and numbers.
There is something to be said for the nails-down-a-chalkboard rise of EDM (chart dance, to me and thee) across the globe thanks to Guetta, Harris and co that is impacting on what people are now looking for and hence, what people are willing to put on. “[People] just go wherever their mates are going. It’s impossible to overstate the significance of house music’s newfound mainstream popularity in all of this, too – even your Mum’s listening to Duke Dumont these days. “
Where to from here?
It isn’t all negative – the rep Leeds has gained is something noted by this observer as something to hold on to.
“Leeds has long been one of the country’s best cities for clubbing – going back to the heyday of The Warehouse in the 70s/80s and continuing with the likes of Back to Basics, Hard Times, and such in the 1990s – not forgetting The Orbit in Morley, which (despite its unassuming location) gained a pretty fearsome rep for bringing techno stalwarts like Jeff Mills and Robert Hood (and even Aphex Twin, I think) to Leeds. House and Techno aside, it’s important to consider the role played by Subdub and the West Indian Centre – probably one of the country’s most important dub/reggae institutions, not to mention dubstep (back when it was still good)”
The diversity of choice now plays to Leeds’ favour. The aforementioned influx of students has given rise to diverse tastes and hence there are slew of venues and labels that have become influential whilst maintaining the ethos that Leeds has been accustomed to over the past twenty years.
The likes of HiFi Club and their respective nights are all making their mark by bringing the best names to the city, putting on events that are renowned for their atmosphere and quality. Nods also go to Ralph Lawson’s 2020 Vision and Stargaze labels, amongst others, that have helped reinvent the city’s vinyl and label culture.
But, can Leeds’ illustrious past transcend to a new and diversifying audience in 2014, one that is actively seeking the most talented, and the most boundary pushing DJs and clubnights?
Like any type of music, there is a way, and the journey of Leeds’ dance music heritage tells us that It’s never far away, particularly with some of the people still trying to do things in the right way. The universal bliss of a transcending experience is Leeds’ gift to the world, it’s time to take it back.
The Five Best Clubs and Nights in Leeds
The party in Leedz rarely stops in 2014. Whether you’re after house or techno, trance or garage, Leeds has a smattering of venues ready for you to dance the night away in – but which will you pick?
As much of a creative hub as it is just another club, Canal Mills has earned a reputation for putting on memorable events in its unique setting. Against the back drop of old industrial Leeds, the night comes alive with the help of luminaries such as mono_cult and 2020 Vision, who’ve brought the likes of Four Tet, Disclosure, Greg Wilson and Jon Hopkins to the city.
The underground club on Call Lane is one of Leeds’ best venues and has the support of aficionados who span genres and trends. Their Butter Side Up and Mavrik nights have become something of a legend in the city with the fervour around them a result of the quality names they can pull in such as Theo Parrish, Mike Huckaby, Floating Points and Bill Brewster.
Whilst the venue is described by our observer as ‘an absolute dive’ it stills brings the punters in, and the fact it has such a respected atmosphere means it rarely puts folk off going. The range of events, from Back to Basics nights to Dusk, Remedy and The Full Works, means Beaver Works continues to be one of Leeds’ most bustling nights out.
This underground cave used to be the wonderful hellhole that was Subculture. Having been taken over and reinvented as the first word in future underground dance music, Beat Bar has earned its credibility, welcoming acts as varied as Gilles Peterson, Lonnie Liston Smith, J Roxx and Big Daddy Kane.
The HiFi Club
Another venture underground and not a new venture by any means, but HiFi Club on Central Road is a Leeds institution, with a reputation for the best in funk, soul and jazz, as well as hip-hop, garage, afro-beat and any other ‘genre’ you want to throw out there. The lines are blurred at HiFi creating an altogether more fun and more eclectic night out.
Louche images courtesy of IGR Photo.