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Britain at Night

Bass, Raves and Bulletproof Vests: The Early Days of Fabric Nightclub

Meeting co-founder Keith Reilly on the 15th anniversary of a London institution.

by JS Rafaeli
24 October 2014, 5:00am

DJ Skitz (left) and Rodney P playing Fabric sometime in the early-2000s (All photos courtesy of Fabric)

Meat market. That's probably the single most scathing phrase you can use to deride any nightclub, instantly summoning images of freshers' week Jägerbomb disasters, overly handsy door staff and the projectile vomit splash zones you have to avoid as the lights come up and you're herded out the door.

So it's a weird irony that London's best club is a building originally constructed as an actual meat market.

Anyone vaguely plugged into the UK's club scene – or just dance music in general – will know Fabric, the labyrinthine meat-and-poultry-storage-facility-turned-dance-mecca at Smithfield Market. It's the clubber's club – a place for dance music fans to lose their minds over dubplates and drops, rather than a glorified speed dating venue with bottle service and a bag search policy.

Co-founder Keith Reilly (far right) with the rest of Fabric's founding PR and promotions team

The venue celebrates its 15th anniversary this week, but I'd doubt that many of the Home Counties drum 'n' bass pilgrims or 8AM teeth-grinders realise how much of its sustained success is bound up in the story, ethos and character of the man I'm interviewing today, co-founder Keith Reilly.

The story begins in the name. The Reillys are one of Britain's most notorious organised crime families, second only to north London's infamous Adams Family – with whom they held regular battles up-and-down Caledonian Road for much of the 80s and 90s. When Keith's uncle John was arrested at age 65, he was holding 12lbs of cocaine and, in the words of the arresting officer, "enough automatic weapons to take on the Taliban".

But Keith insists that none of his immediate family were ever involved in that kind of business. His father was one of 15 brothers, and there was only so much armed robbery and racketeering to go around, so Keith grew up in the (mostly) legitimate world of trucking and distribution. "This is significant," he says, "as it meant that I had access to a lot of empty warehouses."

So Keith did what any Bowie and Velvets-obsessed young man would do given the chance: he started putting on warehouse parties.

"Those nights were absolutely wild – pure garage. Not as in UK garage, but the spirit of old garage – no rules! We played anything from James Brown and Fela Kuti to Chaka Khan and the Stones... all totally illegal, but this was the late 70s, before the warehouse rave scene even existed; the police wouldn't have known what to do even if they could catch us."

It was the anarchic spirit of those early warehouse parties, fuelled by the rise of acid house, that, in 1992, inspired Reilly to quit his CD / vinyl duplication business and start his own club. "It was a reaction to the shit that was around then," he says. "The dance scene had degenerated into happy house or handbag house, or whatever the fuck they wanted to call it. It was all stack-em-high-sell-em-cheap: stuff as many DJs on the flyer, get as many punters to the bar as possible... really nasty crap."

So Keith sold his family home and invested everything he had into creating the club he would want to go to. It took seven years – with innumerable false starts – for Fabric to become a reality. "Farringdon back then was just a shitty old industrial zone, but very central – which was perfect," he recalls. "The space itself was unrecognisable – it took two years of structural work to turn it into a club, but I had the eye from doing warehouse parties... I walked in and I just knew."

But a gift for spotting the perfect location doesn't necessarily mean guaranteed success. "Everyone else in the industry thought we were mad," says Keith. "There was this big West End club called Home that was opening a month before us. I remember one agent, who's actually a good friend now, came down and was like:

"You do realise Home is opening a month before you?"

"Yeah."

"And you do realise their resident DJs are Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling."

"Yeah."

"Well, who are your residents?"

"Terry Francis and Craig Richards."

"Who the fuck are they?"

"They're my friends."

Carl Cox (left) and Craig Richards onstage at Fabric

"I realised as I said it that I must sound like a child, but I just knew I was right. You see, guys like Craig couldn't get a decent gig then – it was all focused on the cheesy house shit, and anyone trying to do anything more sophisticated or soulful was out in the cold. So when we started Fabric our one rule was that we would never ever compromise on the music – and we never have."

As it turned out, Home folded two years later, while Craig Richards and Terry Francis' residency at Fabric is still going strong 15-years on – making it one of the longest continuous club residencies in the history of British popular music.

Goldie onstage at Fabric

One thing that was clear from the opening night was that Fabric was answering a real demand on the London scene.

"Those first nights were carnage," recalls Cameron Leslie, the other Fabric co-founder and Reilly's right-hand man from day one. "We had lines running around the block, and we didn't know how to work the tills or the alarms or anything. Before opening, we didn't have anyone to run our cloakroom – which is seriously important, as it controls the flow in and out – so I ended up calling my dad, the only person we knew who wasn't a drugged-out lunatic, and he ran it like a military operation for the first three months."

"The only thing we did know how to work was the sound system," adds Reilly.

And it's the sound system that sets Fabric apart as much as the booking policy. "In most other clubs, the system is the last thing they put in – it's horrible," Reilly says. "Fabric is built around the system... it's a constant labour of love. Even now our guys are in there all week, tinkering, trying to get it better and better. It's another thing we'll never compromise on."

As anyone who has danced there will know, the magic of the system at Fabric is that, in room one – along with the usual speaker set-up – there are 400 bass transducers under the floor. You feel the bass through your feet as much as you hear it. This "body sonic" system turns everyone in the room into their own little resonating chamber. Your forehead vibrates with the sound, and on a good drum 'n' bass night it's an indescribable feeling.

"Yeah," laughs Reilly, "the only problem was that, in the early days, at some of the loved-up raves, you'd get these girls who'd taken too many pills and were just sitting on the floor with big smiles, getting themselves off. It was like, 'Fuck, we've just built the world's biggest vibrator.'"

With Fabric's immediate success came new dangers. The dealers running the UK drugs business saw a million-pound-a-month market and tried to take over. Reilly started getting serious threats, often to his home, from the kind of people you don't want to receive a serious threat from.

So he was faced with a choice – call his uncles and start a gang war, or try to stay legit, facing off the gangsters on his own. "Well, you run with the hounds, you become a hound," he explains, "and I didn't think I could run that fast. Besides, that nasty business just isn't me. I made it very clear that I'd go to the police – which is usually something you just didn't do with these people. It worked out alright, but it meant wearing a bullet-proof vest for the first year of Fabric, and it cost me my marriage – my wife didn't take kindly to calls in the middle of the night saying that she and the kids had to pack bags and get out of the house."

When asked the inevitable question about "one night that stands out" from those early days, Keith gets slightly misty-eyed. "Having John Peel DJ was special," he says. "He didn't want to do it at first – he'd had bad experiences at clubs before. But he finished the night with 'Teenage Kicks' and the crowd just kept chanting, then carried him out over their shoulders. He was in tears, and so were we; he was like a god to all of us – as a kid I went to sleep with his show in my ears every night."

Talking to Keith Reilly and his team – many of whom are still the original lot who started Fabric 15 years ago – that John Peel spirit of musical exploration shines through. Reilly is emphatic: "All these dance music fashions and genres have come and gone, and we just keep doing what we do. Our rule is that we never try and spot trends, never try and second guess what's going to be popular and never ever put on an artist we don't believe in. That's a mug's game. You're always going to get it wrong eventually.

"I'm obsessive: if I love a great tune, I want you not just to hear it, but to feel exactly the same excitement I do – it drives my friends bloody crazy. I think my only job in the world is to find beautiful things and show them to people – that's it."

Mampi Swift

This may seem grandiose for what is essentially a large building with people, music and alcohol, but Reilly's enthusiasm is infectious, and the consistent quality of Fabric's programming is pretty unique on the London scene. And that attention to detail, and refusal to follow trends, is apparent in everything they do – not least in the fact that, in 2014, they still run a successful subscription record label, based on CDs (remember those?), each presented in that iconic, hand-stamped metal cigar box.

Fabric opened as a stand against the tacky clubs of the late 90s, dominated by names like Judge Jules, Lisa Lashes and Seb Fontaine. It carries on 15 years later as an island in a sea of Steve Aoki, Guetta and Avicii. And long may that continue – a former meat market against the meat markets.

Read more about Fabric 15 on our dance music channel Thump:

Waxing Nostalgic as Fabric Turns 15

Fabric 15: the Techie Who's Been Tripping Out Clubbers for Two Decades

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