Put A Donk On It

Burnley is one of the focal points of the planet’s most terrifying and hilarious forms of dance music: donk. It’s pretty much the only thing kids live for there.

02 February 2009, 12:00am

The Blackout Crew. From left to right: MCs Dowie, Zak K, Viper, Cover, Rapid and DJs Siddy B and Jonezy at Harmony Youth Centre.  

Blackout Crew fans.

Those looking to shatter their last, lingering hopes for the future of Britain should visit Burnley. What used to be a prosperous cotton-mill town is now decimated by the terminal decline of industry, with entire square miles of housing steel-boarded-up, repossessed and marked for demolition by the local council. Unemployment is all-consuming, violence is a popular pastime—as is the rampant theft of expensive copper pipes from condemned houses to sell as scrap to pay for heroin and crack. It’s practically a ghost town these days, but instead of headless cavaliers with chains clanging around their wrists and ankles, there are gaggles of toothless, skeletal smackheads waddling around in skid-mark-stained tracksuit bottoms. Actually, scratch that—it’s more zombie town than ghost town.

Burnley is also one of the focal points of the planet’s most terrifying and hilarious forms of dance music: donk. It’s pretty much the only thing kids live for there. But drive 40 minutes down the motorway, away from the cluster of northwest donk satellites (Bolton, Wigan, Burnley, Blackpool) and barely anyone’s heard of the genre.

There’s a bit of debate about donk’s origins, but generally people attribute early-90s Dutch producers like Ultrabeat for pioneering the sound. It’s a rave-based dance music created around no-budget 150 bpm bouncy beats, intrusive fog-horned synth stabs, cartoon-y samples, and unsettlingly saccharine highs. It’s basically happy hardcore on a crippling steroid comedown. The word “donk” comes from the relentless, maddening “donk” sound that’s overlaid on the beats. The fact that a whole subculture stems from a noise that originated from an old-school keyboard sound-effect that emulates an empty drainpipe being hit by a paddle tells you pretty much all you need to know. The genre has also been called “Scouse house”, which refers to its early proliferation in Liverpool, and “bounce”, which many locals still use today. Donk has come to represent the sound’s recent influx of MC culture. Inspired by Eminem-copying white-boy rabbiting and early-90s rave MCing, the real donk stars these days are its hype men, whose rhyming has become the focus for most young fans. To some, this sounds like a Daily Mail caricature of an ASBO northerner assaulting a crystal-meth-smoking oompah band.

People outside the northwest are finally starting to hear donk through its very own boy band, Blackout Crew. The Bolton outfit are the only donk MCs to have recorded actual proper songs with verses and choruses. Blackburn dance label All Around The World spied the group through homemade YouTube videos and quickly cashed in by commissioning a series of proper-budget promo videos and releases.

They became our entry into the world of donk after a bunch of their videos were sent in a circular email to Vice staff and friends a few months ago. One track really stood out. It was called “Put a Donk on It”. It’s based around the concept that any type of music can be improved by the simple addition of a “donk”. Go on YouTube now if you haven’t seen it.

In broad accents, Blackout rap about everyday stuff like tits, fighting, weed, shagging, knife crime, cars, ecstasy and their favourite brands of chocolate bar. It’s not your typical boy-band fare, but even so, their fan base is almost exclusively teenage girls and boys. Recently, VBS.TV spent a week travelling round the northwest with the band, soaking up every last drop of donk culture.

Blackout Crew was formed at a community centre in Bolton. The place is called Harmony, and it’s similar to many youth clubs: lots of shiny veneer, bright yellow lights, table-tennis tables, and a tuck shop selling Panda Pops and Space Raiders crisps. But Harmony just happens to have rehearsal rooms and recording studios down the corridor, and every Tuesday and Thursday the place is transformed into a cross between Shameless and 8 Mile. Swarms of kids in matching flammable ensembles with Nike logos shaved into their heads cram into any available space. Donk blares at deafening levels as the kids try to look mean, and occasionally launch into their own version of a “battle rap”. Maybe it’s because I’m a southern puff, but I could only understand every third line or so. Blackout were basically a dream-team of the best MCs who attended Harmony’s open-mic nights, put together by Tony and Charlie, who run the centre. They consist of MCs Cover, Viper, Zak K, Dowie, and Rapid, alongside DJs Jonezy and Siddy B.

After police shut down Harmony’s open mic night owing to aspiring rappers chuffing hash in the car park, we escorted Blackout (who had made a kind of special homecoming goodwill appearance for our benefit) to a gig at an under-18s club just out of the centre of town. There they were met by about a thousand sweaty, red-faced pubescents, all of whom were hyperventilating with excitement. As Blackout opened with “Put a Donk on It,” the venue erupted into surreal pandemonium. The hordes grabbed at them, screaming every syllable like it was donk scripture. After the show, anxious teens scrambled to get close to them and begged members to sign autographs, with one over-excited 12-year-old, who called himself MC Scott, reporting breathlessly that his favourite rappers are “Eminem and MC Dowie”.

All the members of Blackout Crew either live at home with their parents or in council houses. This is what gives them such strong local appeal. The tangibility of having their heroes scuff their heels round the same shopping centres seems to have given many kids a refreshing perspective on the concept of celebrity. “I’d love to be a famous MC when I grow up,” said Scott. “At the weekends, mind. I want a proper job too, like selling cars.”

Wigan Pier donk night.  

Top: Wigan Pier clientele. Bottom: Blackout Crew’s DJ Cover with adoring fans.

The day after watching Blackout Crew get mobbed like the intro sequence to A Hard Day’s Night, we travelled to nearby Wigan, donk’s Mecca. Wigan houses one record shop, Power Records, that exclusively sells one genre: donk. Outside, kids played bootleg donk remixes on their mobile phones with tracks such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Other Side,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” and Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game” getting bouncy makeovers. We were able to evade a pair of gummy thugs from Salford who appeared to have just smoked all of Moss Side’s yearly crack production and caught up with Power Records co-owner, Pam, a girl who’d moved down from Scotland to be closer to the throbbing heart of donk. She explained how they’d tried selling other kinds of music in the shop, stuff you would think may crossover like hardcore or hard house, but to no avail.

“Och, if it doesn’t have a donk on it, Wiganers just don’t want to know,” she said. Asking for a description of your archetypal donk fan, she explained: “The guys are meatheads. They’re all pumped up on steroids, no tops, shaved chests and shaved heads. They wear white trainers and shorts in the winter.”

And how about the girls?

“The girls won’t be wearing much,” she said. “Either fluorescent bikinis and face paint, or just their underwear. Usually they will wear furry boots and have scraped-back gelled hair.”

Later that night we witnessed a crowd of nearly 3,000 of these self-professed “donkeys” welcome Blackout Crew onstage at Wigan Pier nightclub, which, it’s worth pointing out, is the only real club in Wigan, and which these days only plays donk.

Hedonistic weekend escapist culture in Wigan is nothing new. In the 1960s, Wigan Casino became the iconic home to the massive northern soul dances. But when rave culture arrived at the end of the 80s, things changed. As rave evolved, places with African and Caribbean immigrant communities like London and Bristol took to the rolling breakbeats of jungle. Places such as Wigan embraced techno and the deranged euphoria of happy hardcore, and later donk, as their own. Clinging to the bag of pills for dear life and refusing to give up on the weekender dream of 48-hours of chemical heaven, these white working-class areas allowed apocalyptic scenes like those at Wigan Pier to ferment and the careers of people such as Burnley’s MC Grimzie—arguably donk’s most respected MC—to flourish.

“I worked out that the best response I got from crowds was when I say the sickest shit I could think of,” Grimzie explained to us during our Burnley excursion. MC Grimzie’s best-known rap is called “Sexy Nun”. It consists of a rhyme chronicling his seduction, rape, and eventual mutilation and murder of a lady of the cloth. He also likes to dip his wick in the political sphere, expressing his views on issues such as the occupation of Iraq and immigration in verses like this one, from “Asylum Seeker”: “I am no racist, I’m just sick of this shit. A couple of years illegal, then next they’re raping your kids.” Who says politics has no place in music, eh?

Standing at Wigan Pier on our last evening of our northwest pilgrimage, it became apparent that listening to donk for seven hours straight was a bit like being sodomised by a Black and Decker drill in every orifice. But at the same time, the night wasn’t an entirely demoralising experience. The level of frenzied “euphoria” and commitment on display eclipsed anything we’d ever seen. From the second the doors opened, shaven-headed, topless, gurning young men ran onto the dancefloor to pump their limbs with intimidating ferocity, totally losing their shit. There was no queue for the bar because people were far too preoccupied with pumping their fists and popping endless amounts of pills. The crowd was a mixture of skimpily dressed, emaciated rave bunnies and some of the most gruesome thugs you’d ever come across—blokes whose faces had been permanently disfigured by a lifetime of being pummelled by fists every weekend, who’ve probably washed down massive doses of steroids with gallons of Stella for breakfast every morning since they were 11 years old. You could smell the testosterone and adrenaline oozing from their pores. We spoke to one massive bloke from Liverpool who told us that he’d just got out of prison and his main aim of the night was: “Beak (cocaine), bladdered (drunk) and then I’m gonna go and fill someone’s bum in.”

After a week in the northwest immersed in donk culture, it was impossible to deny that it’s the bottom-feeder of the already bottomed-out dance-music food chain. It’s parochial, drug-centred, racist, sexist and violent, and that’s what makes it so, well, special. For all its flaws, donk perfectly mirrors the generation of kids and the society that created it: totally and hopelessly fucked, in every sense of the word.

Watch our cold, hard look at donk on VBS.TV this month. It’s really funny.