What the 90s Rave Scene Looked Like in the UK

We spoke to photographer Mattko about his new book, 'Exist to Resist.'

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Feb 13 2017, 4:27pm

Top photo: Moss Side Carnival, 1989. All photos by Matt Smith

On May Day in 1994, Mattko (a.k.a. Matthew Smith) and his friends drove sound systems from Bristol to London to play in Trafalgar Square as part of a mass demonstration against the Criminal Justice Act. The impending legislation was designed, in part, to quash the increasingly uncontrollable rave scene that had seduced half the nation's youth.

"It was a life-changing moment," says Mattko. "It illustrated the power of dance music to unite and create community."

This May Day, Mattko will release Exist to Resist, a book of photographs and essays documenting the parties and protests that took place between 1989 and 1997. It's a scene he lived and breathed. "My intention was to bear witness to this culture and to provide a personal truth to counter mass media and political representation," he says. "Skint and mostly on the dole, I traveled the country during these times doing exactly that."

Since launching this month, Mattko's Kickstarter has raised more than $16,000, so the book will happen. Here's what its creator had to say.

The Criminal Justice Act protest in 1994

VICE: It's hard to imagine a time when there weren't cameras everywhere, but you point out that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was much more unusual.
Mattko: The scene had existed for quite a few years before I discovered it, and during those years, it had consistently been persecuted by authority and the media. Cameras, especially 35mm cameras, were generally distrusted, as were people using them. You could either be press or undercover.

Do you have key memories from the free party scene that really capture what it was like?
We got invited to do a party in Wales once. When we got there, the venue was completely unsuitable; it was way too close to houses and had no parking. So some local lads told us about another party in some woods not far away in the Black Mountains and suggested we go and hook up with them. One of them got in the truck and played navigator for us. During the journey, we just seemed to pick up more and more people until there was a massive convoy behind. I remember thinking, I hope we don't attract undue attention as we snaked our way down dual carriageways across the Welsh countryside at 50 miles per hour.

Finally, in the middle of the night, we spied lights through the trees in a forest. There was a track and, at the end, what we thought was the entrance to the party. I pulled up at the gate and a bloke ran up to the window shouting and gesticulating wildly, so I turned off the engine, gave him a big smile, and said, "Hello, we've come to join the party." He was totally red in the face and furiously shouting, "What are you doing? You can't park there! What the fuck are you up to?" It turned out that the event was the first Big Chill that we'd accidentally gatecrashed. It took at least another hour to back everyone out of that lane, and we ended up on the side of Hay Bluff, which was just up the road, partying for the next two days.

A 1995 festival in Somerset

How would you describe the link between partying and political resistance?
Partying only became overtly political when it was criminalized. The government made it that way by creating legislation to outlaw it. In a way, it made the culture all the more attractive. In order to rebel, there has to be something to rebel against. Making such a positive experience, that so many people had shared, into a criminal activity was never going to be a legislative decision that promoted a feeling of inclusion in the general population, especially when that legislation granted the industries of policing and government the right to intrude into the lives of ordinary people in ways they had never had before.

Is getting fucked up an act of resistance?
Thinking and feeling independently—and acting on those thoughts and beliefs to stand up for something that's worthwhile—is resistance. There's no act of resistance in vacuuming so much K up your schnozz that you can't talk, dance, or communicate.

Notting Hill Carnival, 1989

To what extent did sound-system culture unite people from different social groups? Maybe that's the strength of partying as resistance?
People were united in the crime of having a good time. The legislation affected everyone from football fans to Morris dancers, and, in doing so, the legislation impacted on the civil liberties of the entire UK population. Raves and festivals brought people from different races and different style subcultures together in the same way that the great Afro Caribbean carnivals of the time brought people together in music and celebration. In terms of public protest, having large mobile sound systems present was a revelation, because it meant everyone had a focus on the entertainment, which made protest a lot more fun in the process.

People are still having parties and mass public protest is hugely visible again. Do you see parallels, and, with the benefit of three decades worth of experience, in what direction would you like to see things go?
The modern festival industry is one of the saving graces of modern life in this country. I heard on the radio the other day that 5 percent of the population registered for Glastonbury tickets this year. Five percent! That's a huge number of people. And huge numbers of people can have a direct effect on democracy and create a will for political change. The people of this country can change its political direction through their cultural choices. Culture is far more powerful than any political management consultancy. That's one of the reasons the government has sought to enclose and control it. In my short lifetime, traditional notions of right, left, and center politics have become redundant. A smokescreen used to divide, rule, and control. We need to reevaluate the nature of our democracy and leadership structures and come up with something new that's actually fit for purpose. But you can say all this in just three words: Exist to resist.

Mattko's Kickstarter is here. There are still a number of books available at lower prices and music downloads for supporters. More funding means a show and film will happen, too. Join Mattko's Thunderclap here.

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