Whether it's Stone Roses reunion gigs or Oasis covers on John Lewis Christmas adverts, the Manchester of yore is still hanging around. Yet despite the lingering presence of nostalgic reminders, a fresh aesthetic has been bubbling in the city over the last twelve months: one of racial diversity, and that's pushing eerie dancehall bangers and tempo-twisting, gate-crashing club rap smashes to the forefront of the Mancunian identity. It’s here, up in the Northern "windy city", where the progressive edge of new British music is happening.
"Black culture and music was truly a big thing within the area, and Manchester was one of the first places to accept and embrace this in the mainstream," says Omar Guedar, of the collective Mvson. "If you look back on the minimal content out there and listen to the stories from parents who were involved in running clubs in that era you can really tell there was a massive community vibe back then. Our aim is to reinvent this for our generation."
Mvson specialise in meticulously curated parties, taking over unique venues and investing in décor that pays homage to the historical events and eras that inspire them, from the moon landings to the 90s. Given that some electronic music can feel impersonal, the collective cite putting their personalities into everything as key to their success on the house music circuit. They imprinted their personality on the city's nightlife this year, with their debut Hello released on Kerri Chandler's Madtech Records.
Another Manchester collective, Grey, comprising of solo artists Bipolar Sunshine, Gaika, Jazz Purple and August&Us, are on a similar mission to redefine the meaning of Black British music in the North, away from clichéd urban stereotypes. Reimagining everything from pop to psychedelia, the group’s recent output includes the unapologetically infectious “Middle” from Bipolar Sunshine, and DJ Snake and Gaika’s "Blasphemer", an anthemic protest song which tackles police brutality head on. Testament to the power of collective branding, their October debut concert was a sellout, taking place at Manchester's music mecca Soup Kitchen.
The Soup Kitchen is a vital cog in the clockwork of this city's music scene, also home to Swing Ting, who are arguably one of Manchester’s best club nights and now record labels. It was this outfit who assisted the birth of Madd Again’s MaddTing Vol. 1, winner of Apple Music’s 'Reggae Album of 2015'.
Consisting of Manc drum n' bass heavyweight Zed Bias and equally legendary MCs Trigga, Specialist Moss and Killa Benz, Madd Again’s sound is a unique mash-up of bashment, grime, garage and dancehall, achieved through their pan-genre decades-worth of expertise. "Working as part of Madd Again isn't too far away from what I've always done, really," explains Zed Bias. "I've always loved working with reggae inspired vocals, mashing them together with harder edged beats and bass. What makes Madd Again such a joy to be part of is when we step out live and perform together as a collective."
While groups like Madd Again, Grey, and Mvson have opted for a collective aesthetic, one Manchester artist did away with any camaraderie and proceeded to go it alone this year, arriving with a now legendary Fire In The Booth. His name: Bugzy Malone (above). Whatever you think of the way he captured the nation's attention – his war with Chipmunk split fanbases in half – the man repped 0161 like no one else these past twelve months and his debut EP Walk With Me entered the charts at an incredibly impressive number 8, beating the positions of albums from far more established UK rappers. Yet despite Bugzy’s own solo mission, collaboration has been at the root of Manchester’s boundary pushing music.
“In the last two or three years it feels like a flood of new artists have appeared from our clouds – and every single one of them I've been lucky enough to work with has inspired me,” says Manchester producer Hey Gamal, who worked on a vast swathe of the tracks that’ve come from the city this year. “From Bugzy to Gaika, August&us to Tikur, I feel like every genre of music I could possibly want to work on is now here and that the quality of it is even more exciting than anywhere else in the world. Now when I'm away, I just want to come home.”
Even though most of the year’s collaborations were organic – with artists either growing up together, meeting at school, in clubs or studios – there is undoubtedly a belief in strength in numbers, especially when musicians are faced with indie-focused local media or competing with artists whose chosen genres are synonymous with certain cities (such as grime in London). DJ Madam X, who was commissioned by Red Bull to release a mixtape solely based on Manchester’s music for the company’s fifth birthday, argues that this ethos is at the heart of the Manchester sound.
“It's not about setting trends, or following fashions dictated by the capital, people just generally have this creative freedom to be themselves and it really reflects in the music's raw and unique energy. You're not gonna find another Chunky, Chimpo or Biome anywhere else basically.”
Zed Bias agrees: "I've never been more excited to be living and making music in Manchester. Over the last couple of years I feel the spotlight has shone on us way more up here and that’s truly because the energy levels are extremely high. There is a big pool of artists and producers, old and new, who genuinely check for each other and respect each other’s art. In 2015 Manchester has some of the finest MCs in the world, and they've worked together over the years in all different combinations. You could write a book about it!’"
The beauty of Manchester lies in its paradoxical nature. On the one hand it’s a postmodern metropolis filled with genre-defying sounds, while on the other, it’s a creative community so tightly knit it could well have sprung from an Elizabeth Gaskell novel. The tension harks back to the city’s inability to completely free itself from its past, but on this occasion, the shackles have proven to be the right catalyst for creative excellence. Thanks to this, the rest of the world is pricking up its ears once again. "If there's a thread that runs through the Manchester sound this year," declares Zed Bias, "it’s the sound of optimism and confidence. Swagger on merit."