By now, even the most casual of hedonists will have recognised that UK nightlife has been undergoing a radical shift. Last year, for instance, it was revealed that over half of the country’s nightclubs have been bulldozed and replaced with the sort of apartment complexes that usually come with a chain restaurant, some form of express supermarket and gym buttoned on underneath. In fact, venues are closing at such an alarming rate, it’s become a cliche to moan about it; shock has been replaced with resignation, and according to some some articles, young club goers are reluctant to retreat from the warm, takeaway-stained bosom of their duvets again.
However, scratch beneath the scaremongering figures and reactive think pieces, and you’ll see underground club culture is thriving. Where certain areas of London may be crumbling beneath the weight of Carluccio chains and bashment bans, others are blossoming. The grinding jaws and damp trainers at nights like the Rhythm Section in Peckham and venues like the recently opened Phonox in Brixton or Dalston’s long-standing sweat-box Visions are sketching a different reality to the one painted in the repeated rhetoric about club culture’s decline. Then there’s Britain’s Illegal Rave Renaissance, where – with the help of bolt-cutters – kids are huffing balloons into the early hours in dilapidated warehouses across the country.
Tread further away from London and toward Manchester, and you’ll find a microcosm of music-loving promoters, artists, and punters waiting to open their doors. Which is exactly where LEVELZ, a 14-piece collective, step into the picture. Made up from a host of names across Manchester’s music scene, the collective count some of the city’s most well-known DJs, MCs and producers, as well as promoters and label-heads within their ranks – from Chimpo and Dub Phizix to Chunky, Black Josh, and Truthos Mufasa. On paper, these names sound like the product of a discarded script for a Guy Ritchie film. In Manchester though, they’re embodying the sweaty, jaw-swinging days of the Haçienda and pushing them into the future, getting young adults out of the beds and back into the club.
Even though LEVELZ’s individual members have been around for years, it was after dropping their debut 13-track mixtape LVL11 in January this year when they really stepped up a gear, quickly gaining a reputation for their notoriously chaotic and spontaneous live shows. At the launch party for that mixtape, they smashed out a packed Star & Garter venue, leaving the crowd with pairs of shoes so damaged they can never be worn again and a severe fear for their respiratory systems. In case you need an aural description of how that event went, listen to their most recent track “ROWDY BADD” – which darts through fragments of bassline, grime and dubstep – then reimagine it as a renaissance painting of hundreds of people gasping for air, eyes rolling in the back of their heads as they stretch for bottles of tap water from their mate’s outstretched arms.
Throughout the show, the LEVELZ crew would swap the spotlight for the pit, walk around the bar chatting to fans and friends, or just take a break from the stage, which was as packed as the venue. This messy and tumultuous atmosphere felt less like a mixtape launch and more like a house party that threatened to end up on the Manchester Evening News. Whatever they are doing right, it's getting people back into Manchester’s clubs again. Even though the group themselves sometimes aren’t even sure what’s going on.
“I did my first ever stage dive last night,” laughs Jonny Dub as we reminisce about the launch in their studio the next day, when I interviewed them earlier this year. “You what!?” interrupts MC Chimpo, “where was I for all this!?”. The answer is that he split his time between spitting bars onstage, mixing grime riddims and treading on toes in the crowd, never too far away from a can of Carlsberg Export.
“When we’re on stage there’s not a clear line where the stage ends and the crowd begins,” Chimpo tells me. “We sometimes even get people up from the crowd to do the lyrics for us.” Around the studio with us are some of the biggest names in Manchester’s bass music scene, accompanied by some of the biggest hangovers in the city. Outside the snow is teeming down and, while the single electric heater wasn’t exactly providing much relief, we basically ignored the cold in favour of listening to the dubs which had just been delivered to Chimpo that day ahead of the Red Bull Culture Clash, which LEVELZ would be taking part in.
That event eventually saw LEVELZ romp home with the Culture Clash title, beating Made in Manchester and Dub Smugglers. On the night, their futuristic sound system blasted out the bass-shaking sounds of Kurupt FM, Sweet Female Attitude and The Prodigy, while the crew thrashed each other at badminton, crowd-surfed in a rubber dinghy and licked off shots from a kids’ bow and arrow set. But most noticeably, like the launch night for their mixtape, the Culture Clash saw huge swathes of the city’s local crowd come out in full force to support them. Aside from the music though, what’s bringing these kids out? How has the infrastructure of Manchester’s clubbing scene changed since it’s decades old heyday?
After spending years as a promoter and DJ around Manchester, LEVELZ’s manager Rich Reason has an answer. For the past few years, he’s been cultivating an environment where smaller groups like Levelz can succeed; his nomadic Hit & Run d&b nights are popular with both students and locals, and were often attended by the artists who would go on to join LEVELZ.
“With [nights like] The Warehouse Project bringing the big guys to town, that allowed me to book the little guys and the local artists,” Rich explains. The result is a scene which is both self-sufficient and collaborative, with fans who view the artists as extensions of their social circles; people they see around town or on nights out. Rather than chase recognition from London, for these artists it’s about smashing it at smaller clubs like Joshua Brooks or the Soup Kitchen every week. In some ways these artists don’t even care about getting a headline spot at the Warehouse project; they just care about getting mashed up and bringing their mates along too. Or at least that’s how it feels in LEVELZ’s video for “LVL 07”.
“For a long time, the Warehouse Project had a problem with all of us lot,” recalls Manchester MC DRS, who is part of local hip hop crew Broke ‘n’ English, “so I did stuff with Annie Mac and Goldie and whoever, and eventually they couldn’t keep us out of the building. They basically had to book us because they knew we’d be there pissing around anyway. That’s the guerrilla mentality of the city.”
This isn’t a first for DRS, either. Broke ‘n’ English used to host a radio show called Fuck Fat City after Fat City Records refused to sell their music. “In the end they had to sign us to keep us quiet,” he tells the room with a laugh, adding: “then we used to go to their events and make people say fuck Fat City all the time”.
LEVELZ aren’t the only group who are subverting the cultural conversation and getting Manchester’s music fans back into the club - and part of it is to do with the city's storied tradition of musical experimentation and acceptance. From the Madchester sound of Happy Mondays to the twisted DIY grime of Bugzy Malone, Manchester has always been known for adopting musical trends quickly, and pushing them in new and unexpected directions. Rich Reason points out that this is particularly true with music of black origin. “Look at northern soul as an example,” he explains. “The first places to take to that music in the UK were Wigan and Manchester... if Manchester hears something good then it will adopt it and make it its own.”
“There’s an attitude of I Can Do It Better up here,” UKG producer Zed Bias tells me. “I’m not from Manchester but I have that mindset and that’s why I fit in up here…There isn’t a fear up here of people getting involved and doing their own spin on a sound,” he continues. “The musical palette is made up of loads of different colours and sounds and cultures, and that’s what makes it Manchester.”
DRS agrees, telling me: “There’s something in the water up here, coming from those mountains over there, that just makes people believe in themselves. If you listen to to Happy Mondays, then LEVELZ, or Stone Roses and Bipolar Sunshine, you can hear Manchester. It’s so coherent; it’s like there’s an equator running through the city. Even Oasis and all that stuff, it’s an attitude in everybody”.
Speaking to the artists that pepper the Northern city, it does feel like there’s no pretence here, and no bullshit. There is, however, a strong regional identity which runs through every aspect of the scene, resulting in music with such a unique sound and range of influences that it simply could not have been made anywhere else in the country. This is a scene that takes in sounds from all over the world, and spits it back out with a strong Mancunian accent.
“I think part of the appeal is that we’re all obviously top mates,” explains Chimpo, “except for Rich.” Rich sighs, “yeah, I’m just all about the benjamins to be honest”.
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