Culture

Life on the Road with Dirty Hit, Gen Z's Big Indie Label

We joined rising acts Beabadoobee, No Rome and Oscar Lang last month, taking in the crowds of screaming teens from the other side of the stage.
09 January 2020, 9:00am
Beabadoobee Dirty Hit tour
Photo by Telle Ramos

Cardiff might be freezing in December, but inside a suburban music venue, the air is thick with the sweat of 350 music fans. Signs of life from the side of The Globe’s stage inspire a wave of shrieks, while upstairs, the few parents who have been dragged along by their teen kids sip quietly on beer. They’re here to see three up-and-coming acts: Beabadoobee, Oscar Land and No Rome, all signed to Dirty Hit, an indie UK label hell-bent on discovering tomorrow's next massive thing. And over several nights in late 2019, they're all on the road together.

Depending on your age group and personal tastes, you may already be well-acquainted with Dirty Hit's 19-year-old Brit Award Rising Star nominee Beabadoobee, Manila-born electronic pop artist No Rome and gawky, endearing indie-rock kid Oscar Lang. All three are the label's new faces of British guitar music – that is to say, TikTok-friendly rock with tinges of electro and pop; in tune with labelmates The 1975, sitting at the opposite end to Fat White Family.

Take their music. Bea is a diaristic, matter-of-fact songwriter who juxtaposes mopey sadness with thrashing pop-rock sounds. Her long-time friend Oscar Lang is more of a grunge baby, but with songs like "Hey" homing in on smoking weed and kicking back against Instagram likes. Then there’s Rome. The only kid of the touring trio to properly imbue electronic sounds into his work, he’s gathered a keen fanbase via acid, internet culture and big fashion flex references (like this, on 1975-featuring track "Narcissist": "took a bunch of acid and she told me, 'not again' / now I've gotta tell her that I'm lovin' her friends").

I’ve joined the tour in The Globe's green room, which is situated not through a side door in the venue but by talking down the street, past the Pizza-Go-Go and pokey cafes, through an alleyway, and into a glass-fronted exercise plate studio. Rome, Bea’s drummer Louis and a few of the crew members are here, sat on a tattered couch with tea stains on the wall. I wonder: will the run of shows feel like 2004's Dig!, a director's compression of seven years on and off on with The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre? Or will it be a little cleaner, polished – maybe, even – quite lush and nice?

Pre-gig, in Cardiff, it's a lot of politeness and the 1975. The band's shadow looms huge as punters sing along to “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)" blaring over the venue's speakers and barely acknowledge “Everything is Embarrassing” by Sky Ferreira, lifted from an album released when the majority of them were in primary school. It’s a sweet moment – one that is indicative of just how young everyone here is.

No Rome. Photo by Telle Ramos

First up is Oscar Lang. When he spins his mic by the cord and insists everybody jump, the room shakes; fans fall hard for his silly and sweet indie-pop tracks. It's like a riotous school disco. Rome, meanwhile, starts a moshpit during his set. At one point, a boy in a beanie bounces and sings his way to the barrier, keen to get Rome’s attention (later, a little dumbfounded, he’ll tell me Rome is “just… really good”).

The night feels feels like indie-rock for a generation who won't have been old enough to remember its last early 2000s incarnation – whether in the landfill indie fronted by Johnny Borrell or via hipster acts like MGMT. The ostracised have someone new to idolise now. And tonight, in its closing moments, that’s Beabadoobee. She saunters on stage unassumingly, standing behind her mic stand so it shields her face. As the distorted chords and relentless drum beats dip, Bea sings her words to a beguiled crowd: “You think you know my brain?” she asks. “Are you sure? Are you sure?”

Beabadoobee. Photo by Telle Ramos

The next day the Dirty Hit lot play to a sold-out crowd at the Louisiana, a Bristol pub venue with carpeted floors and a low ceiling. To get backstage, you have to walk through an industrial kitchen. Oscar Lang won’t be getting in here, though. Last night’s chill vibe took a boozy upturn, resulting in a green room ban for him and his band, put in place by everyone else on the tour.

Bea laughs as she recounts the evening. No one cared about the smoking indoors. Nor did they mind the cling-film stretched over the toilet seat. It was Oscar fashioning an American cheese slice into a smiley face and sticking it to the wall like something from Art Basel that did it. “Everyone just gets fucked up every night!” Bea grins, laughing it off. “We play the show – no one drinks before – then we’re in the green room afterwards fuckin’ shit up! It’s so lit!”

She’s in good spirits, having gamely accepted that the Brit Award's 2020 Brit Rising Star prize went to singer Celeste instead. But those awards don’t matter – Bea knows the value of her presence, as a Southeast Asian girl playing guitar on these stages.

Oscar Lang by Telle Ramos

“Guitar music is never dead and girls are gonna take over the world!” she quips. “Like, fully! I’m super proud. A girl came up to me yesterday – a Filipino girl – and she told me I made her proud to be Filipino. Even seeing Rome up there makes my heart happy. That Filipino energy and being proud of who I am, and doing all of these shows with people that I love.”

Tonight in Bristol, however, the crowd is a little harder to win over. Despite a full room, people are less willing to loosen up through Oscar’s set. The vibe leans downwards. Rome, probably frustrated by how static the crowd is compared to Cardiff, feels awkward and cuts his set short.

The Dirty Hit tour... acts and crew. Photo by Telle Ramos

It’s hard to ignore how important the physical validation of a live audience is. If they're less tentative, less willing to open up, it throws things off. But this is all part of the process. If these three acts aim to reach the arena-filling domination of their label mates (that includes 2018 Mercury Prize winners Wolf Alice), they’ll no doubt play their way through several muddied fields worth of crowds.

For now, though, while they play the small venues, you can see why so many young people gravitate towards the acts on the bill. More like a school trip where swearing, smoking and drinking is allowed than it is Ozzy Osbourne snorting ants off the pavement, the Dirty Hit tour, and the acts on it, feel relatable. That’s a good thing. Kids in these towns and cities – the kinds who once looked up to major label pop entities and arsehole rock stars – have idols who feel in reach. But what's next?

@douglasgrnwd