Guests at Niche nightclub, Sheffield, the home of bassline
Remember bassline – northern Britain's greatest contribution to dance music since Manchester discovered pills and smiley faces? If not, it sounded a bit like a wobblier UK garage, if So Solid had been into dancing and pitched-up female vocals instead of leather trousers and gun crime.
The genre – birthed sometime in the early 2000s – hit its peak in 2005, when hundreds of punters would travel to Sheffield's Niche nightclub every weekend to listen to bassline on its home turf.
Sadly, that was also the year the scene would meet its demise, after 300 police officers raided Niche on the grounds that it was being used as a "crack house", i.e. that the premises were being used for the supply of class-A drugs. Which, to be fair, they were. But the consequences of that raid went much further than the usual club drug bust. While British police might still be regularly shutting down raves almost a decade on – with last month's Just Jam event in London the most obvious recent example – the difference with bassline was that they effectively managed to put the brakes on an entire genre.
Niche club on Sidney Street, Sheffield
For a while, bassline was known as "Niche music" – the club and the sound inside it were synonymous. The scene also emerged as the majority of the UK was still switching from dial-up to broadband, meaning the compilation tapes that Niche DJs put out were some of the only access fans had to the music. In fact, releases back then rarely made it further than a small-run 12" pressing – until T2 released "Heartbroken" in 2007 and every Yates's resident in the country started blasting bassline between "Umbrella" and Cascada.
In a recording that's been hidden away on the hard drive of Sheffield DJ and MC Alex Deadman, Niche founder and owner Steve Baxendale talks frankly about the rise and fall of his club. By the end, according to Alex's interview, Niche became an all-out war between bouncers and the gangs and dealers who'd congregate inside. On one night in 1998, two bouncers were stabbed and Steve's brother Michael – a martial arts expert and then-Niche manager – was brutally murdered outside the club. But things weren't anything like that when it all began, long before bassline came along in the 2000s.
"The underground scene was coming along strong in the early 90s – everyone was sick of the commercial clubs and the military regime that [you had to go through inside]," Baxendale begins on the recording. "They wanted throbbing underground music and to chill out in peace."
In 1992, Steve bought an abandoned warehouse on Sidney Street – one of many like it in Sheffield at the time – and set up Niche, then a bare-bones, all-night house club. "Water was our main product, because obviously the drug scene was strong then," said Steve. "Even when we were tight with the dealers, you couldn’t stop people coming in who were off their nut. We preferred to have them off their nut – drinking water, no violence, great music, everybody sweating their balls off, shirts off, girls in bikinis. It was fantastic – it were on fire."
At this point, the only drugs to come through Niche's doors were in the pockets of users, not dealers. "There was no violence then, because there was no turf wars. Dealers were kept out of it – all the aggravation is usually around dealers."
Despite the fact that nobody was getting stabbed, drugs were still the enemy. "For about three years it was continuous raid upon raid – we were up against the authorities from the off," said Steve, which is presumably because he was operating the venue illegally at this point. "The kids loved being spread-eagled against the wall and starfish searched. The police might find a bit of weed on them, then they’d go away and, within an hour, we’d be firing up again. They’d pinch your soundsystem and your decks, so we always had a spare system knocking about. Straight back in."
After three years of attracting increasingly bigger crowds, in 1995 Steve had the warehouse fitted out to meet all the relevant safety regulations. But Niche already had a bad reputation with the authorities, and was only allowed to become a legal venue on one condition: that it didn't have an alcohol license. This seemed like an odd decision for a club that was already notorious for drug use, and – predictably – more and more visitors came in gurning, not really minding too much that they wouldn't be able to shell out £4 (€4.7) on a watered-down pint. "It’s a fact that clubs can’t survive without somebody taking some kind of substance," argues Steve.
Roughly two years after Niche was awarded legal status, local authorities "realised we weren’t going away" and gave Steve his booze license. It was around this time that bassline began to emerge.
"The DJs asked if they could take the vocals out of the speed garage and the house, and just thump up the bass a bit," said Steve. "This led to a change from a predominantly white crowd to a predominantly black crowd. Bassline music was evolving. London never had bassline music as we had it here – they had grime. It was our DJs at Niche who created that sound."
As more people started to hear about bassline, Niche – both its spiritual and actual home by this point – began getting busier. "Guys would travel from all over the country because they were hunting down this new music,” said Steve. Unfortunately, that influx of out-of-towners also started to attract gangsters from other cities. "They saw us as an easy target. They knew everyone was off their nuts – ready supply and demand going on here," said Steve. "If they could latch onto a percentage of that market, they were going to be well off. So our war was stopping these dealers from coming in, and – on top of that – making sure the doormen stayed on the straight."
A guy with a tattoo of the Niche logo
The scene was thriving, but the busier it got, the more Steve had to put up with dealers and the gang beefs being played out on his dancefloor.
"The police were aware we had a battle going on, but they didn’t appreciate the amount of work we put into stopping these people coming in – they thought we’d turned a blind eye," he said. "The dealers wouldn’t throw their weight around with us because we would up our game. We had good lads – hard, working-class lads who could handle a fight. The only thing the dealers understood was violence; it was dog-eat-dog during that time. We had to survive because we had a good club. The law didn’t like us because we had our own rulebook, which was contrary to theirs."
Unsurprisingly, when you decide that your rulebook is completely and violently opposed to the law, the authorities often decide to fuck with you. And in November of 2005, that's exactly what happened; over 300 police stormed Niche in a raid they called "Operation Repatriation", a name that – given bassline and Niche's ties to black culture – it's hard to believe they got away with, even a decade ago.
According to Baxendale, the police had argued that the club was "attracting an undesirable clientele from all areas of the black gangland wars, who were bringing their bad ways to this city and cementing relationships with people from other major cities". But, in reality, "they raided on the grounds of a ‘crack house’ closure, because [punters] were able to buy drugs in the club, they said".
The UK club scene has always been caught in the crossfire of the War on Drugs, but the way that South Yorkshire police and the Sheffield city council openly declared war on Niche, the bassline scene and the people involved was unprecedented. Despite the fact that none of the club's management were charged with anything, Niche was shut down. That, however, was about the only win for the police; all the raid turned up, according to one particularly inflammatory local report, was a handful of pills. Considering the operation cost £680,000 (€810,000) of public money, it couldn't be classified as anything other than a complete failure, and the officer who'd orchestrated it was subsequently shipped off to Wales.
With Niche gone, the next step was banishing bassline and the "undesirable clientele" it supposedly brought to Sheffield. In the following years, Steve opened a club called Vibe, on Charter Row in the centre of town, but kept his DJs from playing any bassline. "Due to police restrictions, the music policy at Club Vibe was tied down to classics and vocals, with a strict ban on the then-infamous 4×4 productions," explains Baxendale. [4x4 in this sense refers to a new, more feminine style of bassline that started to emerge in the late 00s.]
Other venue owners and the police effectively banned the genre from being played anywhere in Sheffield, and the campaign was successful. Local bassline DJs Jamie Duggan and Shaun "Banger" Scott have said they felt as though they were personally banned from performing anywhere in their home city, and even those who hated bassline agree that its time was cut short.
High levels of security ("They got cameras inside wired up to the police station as a condition," said Steve at the time) kept Vibe out of trouble for its first couple of years, and in 2009 restrictions were slightly relaxed. Steve decided to expand the Vibe premises to create a replica of the old Sidney Street venue. "Niche began to breathe once again in the city that created it," Baxendale said, recalling how people from the original bassline scene began congregating in his new club.
But Niche on Charter Row was short-lived. Restrictions were now so tight that a court forced the club to use membership cards that took weeks to issue. The business was becoming unviable and Steve was getting fed up. "The writing was on the wall; they weren't going to have any of it, so I just upped sticks and moved."
Soon after giving the interview that Alex Deadman shared with me, Niche was forced out of Sheffield for good, taking the city's bassline scene with it. The relationship between dance music, nightlife, drugs and criminality in the Niche story demonstrates how improving drug policy could also improve British nightlife. The existing prohibition laws are what sustain the dealers who brought bassline to its knees; decriminalise all the substances they were selling, and they'd have no market left to stab each other over. Obviously it's too late to save bassline now, but it's a thought that could potentially make a big difference to the future of British culture.
A documentary on the rise and fall of Niche is scheduled for release later this year, and includes a recent interview with Baxendale, who the film team tracked down in Spain. All uncredited photographs courtesy of the team behind the doc.