Nantong Frontline’s Where You Don’t Go

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Last Friday I headed out to the city of Nantong, which is just a bit up the Yangtze River from Shanghai, to play a set as part of a residency Rankadank are doing out there. Zean, Rankadank’s resident beatboxer and also an emerging DJ/producer, and Jado, a Shanghainese MC, came as well. If you’re coming from outside of China, I think it’s pretty much guaranteed that you won’t ever have heard of Nantong, and even if you do live here or have had a lot of exposure to the country, I’d say there’s still a fair chance it’s escaped your attention. And this is a city with a population of just under two million (that’s only the urban area as well). Part of this is probably because Nantong gets overshadowed by all the other massive cities in the neighourhood: not only have you got Shanghai, but there is also Hangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing. Nantong just can’t compete with these places in terms of culture, history or economic power, and so gets overlooked. On top of that, it can only be reached by train from Shanghai using a highly circuitous route with only such train each day. Nonetheless, Nantong is the latest front to open up as underground, alternative music scenes take root in China.

The club I was playing at is called The Void, and I’d heard about it sometime last year through Weibo and a DJ in the city named a Big Sen, a family man with a love of classic dubstep from FWD’s Hatcha-dominated heyday. I’d figured that the club got its name from the Gaspar Noe film Enter the Void, which has as one of its key locations a bar in Tokyo’s Kabukicho called The Void, and having now been there I doubt I’m wrong: the club was dark and lit mostly by blue, red and UV lights, while up on the walls were a number of weed-related posters (“Good buds stick together”) and the club’s logo, seen on the white tshirts of the staff members, was a pill. It’s kind of funny seeing such overt drug references in a club here in China (it probably is anywhere in the world) as Chinese drug consumption, despite being prodigious, takes place in a more discrete manner. (Make no mistake, The Void is a place for Chinese people; I don’t think you get many laowai in Nantong.) On our way Jado had told me that people in Nantong were way more into smoking weed than people in Shanghai, partly because there wasn’t much else to do.

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The Void was highly reminiscent of Arkham, to the point where ‘reminiscent’ simply seems like a kind way of avoiding the word ‘copying’. Located in the basement of building, the walls and ceiling of the staircase down to the club were almost completely covered in splattered paint and there were UV lights the whole way. Remind you of somewhere? Then once you were inside, it was a bit like if Arkham had been squashed, both in terms of length and height: ahead of you was a stage with some familiar-looking metal barriers in front of it and a reasonable-sized dancefloor. There were some tables and seats to the back and sides.

In pretty much all the alternative music venues I’ve been to in China outside of the first-tier cities, they’ve tried to fuse both live music and DJs. I figure this is as much of out necessity as it is a considered choice about programming: any alternative scene in these kinds of places is so small that it’s not big enough to support more than one, or rather it’s not big enough to support a separate live music venue with all its additional overheads. Then there’s the fact you’re expanding your target audience, but you potentially get a strange mix of a crowd: the rock fans and the clubbers. The way I see it, you could try to work that to your advantage and try to build up some kind of interesting cross-pollination between the two, but, and again I think this comes back to the size of the scene and the limited choice it gives, this doesn’t necessarily happen. A case in point: before me there was a band playing – initially I thought this might be the only two laowai in the whole of Nantong plus their Chinese mate, but it turned out they’re from Shanghai. They were playing pretty standard rock stuff – I’m not sure if they were originals or covers, if the latter then I didn’t recognise them. Then for their final song they played the James Bond theme tune. I actually checked with Zean to see if I wasn’t just imagining this. (In case it needed saying, I use the words ‘underground’ and ‘alternative’ slightly loosely in this piece.) Myself, Jado and Zean were on right after this as soon as the equipment had been switched over, during which time a mix CD of generic house was playing. This is the manner in which your night out in a Chinese city might unfold.

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Once we’d got set up, Zean did his beatboxing and then I started my set. I’d intended to go in with some heavy grime, but the club wasn’t actually that busy, maybe because it was pissing it down with rain outside, so instead I went with Foam Feathers by Nguzunguzu thinking it might be a way of easing into it. I kept it with grime for just under an hour playing tunes by MssingNo, Sir Pixalot, Bok Bok, Spooky, Flava D and others before gradually moving it into more UK garage territory and other kind 130 bpm-ish stuff we’d play at Push and Pull. It was probably this stuff that got the best response: in particular I remember Naaah’s 2much, Deckstar’s 1 Step Further remix and Deadbeat’s Scottish Notez getting a good reaction (one guy was getting so hype he kept climbing up on the barriers). This probably isn’t that surprising: despite being around for some time now, grime is still a strange, unknown thing to most people, and a regular house beat is always going to win out, but these tunes aren’t polite or tepid like a lot of house you hear in Shanghai and it was nice to see people reacting to that kind of rude energy.

The next day I didn’t hang around for long as Zean was heading back to Shanghai early on. What I did see of Nantong mostly consisted of wide avenues and grey buildings. Basically, if you’ve ever been to a non-tier-one Chinese city or just out into the suburbs then you can probably imagine exactly what it looks like. When we got back to Shanghai South Station, Zean said it was like we hadn’t left Nantong. The reverse would be just as true.

It’s hard to say just how much somewhere like The Void helps club music worm its way into the consciousness of Chinese people compared to, say, EDM festivals parachuting in with spectacle and massive marketing budgets. It’s easier to say which kind of enterprise you can really get behind, and if there is a truly Chinese-centred movement, then it’s primarily taking place in these kinds of spots across the country. I wonder how hard it is to really make these local scenes grow, most of the best talent would probably make the move to Shanghai or Beijing eventually, seduced by the pay and brighter prospects, but you’d like to think it was possible. Just recently I’ve been digging into some of the bleep stuff, an early rave sound in the late-80s from the likes of LFO and Nightmares on Wax that came out of Sheffield and Leeds, cities not exactly on the level of London, Birmingham or Manchester. Could Nantong spawn a Chinese bleep?

- Alta

Sub-Culture Weekender

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“Let’s go to the Bund after Shelter”
“Lol wtf”
“That early it’ll be deep”
“It’ll be a recipe for shame and self hate”
“We’re having that kind of weekend”

Sub-Culture are running Shanghai this weekend and Drunk Monk kindly asked us to be involved. We’re playing b2b tonight after the main man Chimpo, from 3 til when the lights go on. It’s going to get rowdy.

Push and Pull #10, Thu 27th March @ The Shelter

We’re heading to The Shelter on Thursday for our 10th installment of Push and Pull, kicking off the weekend early in preparation for the heavily-anticipated Subculture weekender. We’re also playing on Friday night in support of Chimpo at the first Subculture event of the weekend, which is bound to be ramjam and pumping, too.

Thursday we’re stripping it back to the fundamentals: just me and Alta doing what we do best – tearing through the most vital in UK-influenced electronic music from Grime to Garage, to Deep Tech and Jackin’. The past 2 weeks I’ve been out on Thursday nights, and even though I’ve still had to work the next day, it still somewhat magically feels like Iv’e had a 3-day weekend by the time I reach Sunday.  If you’re hesitant about Thursday raving then I suggest you go ahead and give it a go – you might be surprised. And besides, you’re not going to hear music like this anywhere else, any day of the week.

Huge shout out to Tomo Lobo Brennan for his continued hard work on the beatiful flyers. Man deserves a biscuit.

Huge shout out to Tomo Lobo Brennan for his continued hard work on the beatiful flyers. Man deserves a biscuit.

Addiction, violence and MP3 downloads – robjamdj on UK Garage

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Whether you’ve yet heard his name or not, there is no doubt that robjamdj is one of the hidden treasures of Shanghai’s music-scene. Here in Shanghai for many years now, his name is whispered in revered tones by those that know about the man, the myth, the legend that is Rob ‘robjamdj’ Jameson. He is reknowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of UK Garage and a record collection that even Atlas would refuse to carry on his back, but don’t get it twisted; this is no librarian business. Rob hasn’t spent all these years, and all that money collecting records just to fill up his shelves or massage his own ego. He’s bought them because, when you’re a DJ and you hear that one record that absolutely bangs for the first-time, you simply HAVE to find out what it is and then make it your mission to get your hands on it no matter how long it takes you – be it days, months or even years.

Rob has 100s and 100s of records that aren’t available in digital formats, and most likely never will be. Snapshots in time, they serve as a reminder of how in this age of digital products and effortless access for all, looking a few years backwards can be an invigorating, refreshing and inspiring experience. Ahead of robjam’s set down at Push and Pull #9 tomorrow night at The Shelter on Yongfu Lu, we spoke with him about addiction, his love for UK Garage and the emotional turmoil of downloading an MP3.

Rob, tell us about how you came to be known as China’s number 1 authority on UK Garage, and why you’re always introducing yourself as such?

I never introduced myself as such you tart!! Anyway, what I might say is that I’m pretty sure I’ve got the biggest collection of UK Garage vinyls in China and I guess it was UK Garage music that got me buying my first vinyls whilst at uni in Sheffield in 1997. So I was 20 when the scene was at its humble underground beginnings, so maybe I felt and know some of the scene from back in those days which is generally the most talked about period and most revered.

So when/how did your love affair with UK Garage music begin?

It was two mix tapes. I had one mix tape given to me by my brother back in 1996, it was DJ Karl ‘Tuff Enuff’ Brown. I loved the sound of the kick which made a great skip beat and the 4X4 tuff bassline sound that we all recognize in UK underground dance music. It was the track, Tuff Jam’s ‘Experience’ on that mix which made me addicted to the UKG genre, although at that time people weren’t really calling it UKG, just House and Garage. Another one was a double-header cassette from Déjà Vu, which was a rave in Hull, by Brown’s accomplice Matt ‘Jam’ Lamont and CJ Mackintosh. Although that was 1995 and more of the US Garage crossover stuff. I just loved Roger Sanchez’s version of Barry White’s ‘Love Is The Icon’. Proper low-down US Garage.

How important was the UK Garage rave scene to your experience with the music?

Funny, but I never attended many of the club nights as I was at Uni in Sheffield and this scene was very much London-led in its early days. I also spent my 2nd year of Uni in Holland (where I weirdly had access to some now-classic garage tunes no one else wanted there, in a record shop up in the Northern town of Groningen), I also spent my third year in Hong Kong (so that was 1998 and 1999) largely away from where it was happening. The club nights were few and far between- Camden Palace and The Colliseum were the bigger ones, working in SOHO I attended Garage City a few times. Sun City was a big rave then. The scene in those days was very much a South London thing. My major influence was summers spent working in London listening to pirate radio stations like Upfront FM and recording radio sets and trying to find the tunes in Uptown Records and Black Market (now BM SOHO). Of course the Essential Selection on BBC Radio 1 always represented what was up and coming.

How do you feel about the way UK Garage changed over the years? Particularly from the straight 4×4 beat into the 2-step sound that stormed the UK charts?

I disliked nearly all of the 2-step. I loved 4X4 and didn’t like all those cheesy 2-step remixes. I used to go into Uptown Records and a guy called Huckleberry Finn used to sort me out, a really nice bloke. He knew what I liked and would always give me the 4X4 releases. A lot of MJ Cole productions back then. All on Mo’s Music Machine distribution. So I didn’t like the 2-step, and I also wasn’t such a great fan of all the Speed Garage that kind of got mixed in between, and then finally the Grime wasn’t so much for my taste, I guess too dirty for me and I found some of the MC-led productions too aggressive! Looking at old footage of Grime events people are so busy blowing horns and shouting on mics you cant hear the bloody music! I like the softer more soulful underground sounds, more minimalist and danceable tunes with rolling beats and well-constructed, easy-to-listen-to melodies, although the odd deep-down dirty bassline works too. I also never liked the hostility and attitude that went with the scene, whether it’s the issues of the Grime that came in the 2000′s, or the late 90’s problems much documented at Sheffield’s Niche Club with the Speed Garage scene.

Now I am still collecting I am discovering more 2-step gems like Mike Milligan’s productions, DEA stuff and GOD releases. Brilliant productions that stand out and sometimes got hidden in between rubbish that was released when a genre goes commercial and everyone wants a 2-step mix of their R&B release. Its been happening with dub-step the last few years. I do think the increased amount of 2-step did help to prolong the UK Garage scene as from the early days it helped Garage DJ’s to mix in the odd 2-step tune in with their mostly 4X4 set, so that it gave the listener a variation and a rest from 4×4 beat monotony. Don’t forget though that Groove Chronicles and a few others were releasing 2-step tunes earlier than the earliest UK Garage releases back in 1996 and its always been part of the scene.

Why are you still bothering with Vinyl – why not just get Ableton and use the auto-sync mode like a real DJ?

The other day I bought an MP3 download for the first time in 18 years! I won’t buy another. It’s funny, I was so worried I would lose it or it wasn’t downloaded properly and I still am! That’s a new thing that made me realize how much I love vinyl. The feel of the record, getting it out of its sleeve, the age of it is right in front of you. It’s a weathered product like us humans, it gathers dust, scratches and nicks that give it personality. The history of it, the first release, the ‘undergroundness’ and lack of commerciality. The white labels and limited releases. The production information that you get on the label, that leads you to discover about the bloke who was also involved, which in turn spurs you on to look him up on Discogs. The image of the inner label turning around, people listening in the crowd can see/guess and also access your tune more easily, so in turn they are closer to you in spirit. The artwork and design on the sleeve and the weathering of the sleeve that shows age. Searching for old vinyls with other like-minded collectors, finding something you have been looking for for years…re-selling your vinyl to someone who really wants it and making them happy…paying top dollar for a huge tune that very few other people have, and a tune that was only ever released on vinyl…lugging a heavy box around and the feeling you get from that…the look of all my records on the shelf at home always gives me pleasure…searching through them to decide my set…or wondering where that one record is that I feel I want to play that goes with another tune so well and takes me 20 minutes to find…’nuff said?

I guess it’s good to go back and see how it all started, how people started Djing – those were the original DJs. Grandmaster, Herc, Francis Grasso, Frankie Knuckles, David Mancuso, Larry Levan. I personally don’t get excited watching a DJ use CDJs or Ableton, it doesn’t do anything for me apart from the music itself, or if he mixes really really well like Dillinja or DJ Fu, but even then I’ll prefer a DJ who plays vinyl but mixes less ‘cos he takes more time to queue his records. Nearly all the best sets I’ve heard in Shanghai have been on vinyls. It’s a feeling! I love hearing the VOID guys or that Sinagporean dude who plays with Siesta in the Drum and Bass scene. I appreciate they play vinyls and they love their collections and are proud of them.

What are the greatest lengths you’ve gone to get a tune on vinyl? What’s your most expensive record?

I generally buy on the websites Discogs (a marketplace for rare music) or dnrvinyl (a South London record shop specialising in UK Garage). I spent about 70 quid (110 USD) on Anthill Mob’s ‘Confetti Doubles’. I’ve tried writing to Todd Edwards to get him to send me a special cut of ‘Wishing I Were Home’ on vinyl. I would love Kerri Chandler’s first production from 1989 called ‘Super Lover’ but its 300 quid! Luckily, right now I earn enough money to be able to afford to keep buying vinyl, but back in the day I didn’t have much, but I would still spend half my salary on new releases. Sadly when you first buy everything in record shops with bass heavy headphones, everything sounds good so you also buy a lot of crap! That’s an expensive mistake! Vinyl is an addiction, once you get to about 100 of them you either keep going or you give up – it takes balls, dosh, passion and stupidity to keep going! There is a tune I want called ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ by Unknown Artist – a speed garage classic but seriously deep, but it’s 60-120 quid. I will buy it, just don’t know when.

Apart from UK Garage, what else can be found in your record crates?

I have about 150 drum and bass classics mostly from the late 90’s and I have a lot of US Garage, some acid house, some rave scene classics and also some more commercial soulful house from the late 80’s to 2000’s which I like as background music, stuff like Big Shot Records, Gossip Records, Swing City and Cleveland City Records from back in the day. About 1800 vinyls in all.

What kind of a set are you planning to throw down on Thursday for us?

I always play some US Garage that influenced the UK Garage scene, let’s not forget the Yanks started it! Also mostly old early 4X4 UK Garage from 1996 to 1998 and some 2-step seminal tracks from across the years. Very little commercial stuff as usual. Again I’m not a massive mixer I just like to play good tunes and love to play what I just bought.

What are your thoughts on contemporary UK Garage? Any tunes you’re feeling?

UK Garage is a massive scene and rightly is much missed and makes comebacks and what not. Garage in that form will always be there. You read through YouYube and so many people are moaning about music these days and how they miss the old, more edgy, rawer US and UK garage from back in the day. Of course you always have those people but I do agree the productions in those days were rawer, more aoout beats, rather than loads of different sounds, and tunes were good with very few multiple climaxes and knob twiddles as the listener seems to need now. I do like that simplicity. As I said, I’m really an old-skool guy so I always spend my time going back, however there are some old/new producers doing good, more underground things. In the UKG scene Zed Bias, Mosca, Julio Bashmore, George Fitzgerald and Lorenzo are doing good things, DJ EZ is still the guy to follow for mixing old and new. I do still however long for the more underground sounds to come back. The next dance genre will come along and start underground and I’m just hoping its got a 4X4 beat and sounds good at 131BPM. I had high hopes for US Jackin’ house and some of the early stuff is great and I have it, however for me it became commercial too quickly and was quite one dimensional! Let’s see what develops, I’m excited about what might come.

You can catch robjamdj’s set at The Shelter tomorrow night, Thu 27th Feb:

http://www.smartshanghai.com/event/28841

https://www.facebook.com/events/511537502288876/

Push and Pull #9 – 27th February

Push and Pull @ Shelter 27th February

Look at that! A gif! Welcome to 2014. Sorry if that’s hurting your eyes.

If you’re struggling to read it, we’re doing our monthly take over of the Shelter this Thursday, the 27th. We’ve got the UK Garage connoisseur Robjam as our guest, and we’ll have an interview with him up here soon. Until then you can stare at the trippy flyer

20 RMB
10pm – 3am
5 Yongfu Lu, near Fuxing Lu

Grime / Jackin’ / Garage / 4×4

What is a nightclub?

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Not sure? Thankfully the Magnum club in Hong Kong is here to tell us via its recent IPO:

Clubbing is a popular night time activity which has evolved from the discotheques of the 1970s into a modern form of social gathering with lively music, elaborate lighting and a dance floor, supplemented by both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

The aura and atmosphere of the modern clubbing scene is filled with images of people moving in unison to the beat of synthesised remixed dance and electronic music spun out by a DJ perched upon an elevated stage.

It’s kind of amazing how many different things ‘clubbing’ can mean to people, and I suppose that’s the beauty of it. But reading that, it’s maybe only 60% correct, which is perhaps unsurprising when you find out Magnum features diamante-decorated toilets, one of which you can see above. To point out just one omission, alcohol is usually not the only drug people are consuming at raves, although I guess you’re not meant to identify illegal activities to potential investors.

Tomorrow (23rd January) we’re back at the Shelter (more on that here). No flashy light displays. No elevated stages for DJs to ‘perch’ on so they can be venerated by the crowd below. No diamond-encrusted toilets or DJ booths. We play remixes but I imagine not the sort they’re talking about. Just the essentials: a dancefloor and a good sound system. And coming from outside of China you’d be amazed at how rare those last two things are, especially outside of Shanghai and Beijing. Hold tight whoever thought it was a good idea to flood dancefloors with tables so as to remove two key elements of clubs: dancing and spontaneity.

Apparently the humble Jagerbomb is Magnum’s most popular drink. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone have one at Shelter. Meanwhile, Moët champagne is one of Magnum’s highest grossing drinks, and that is one I have seen bought at Shelter. I think they probably sell one bottle every year, and I was fortunate enough to be present on both occasions in 2012 and 2013.

Photo: Wall Street Journal

Push and Pull #8 @ The Shelter this Thursday (23rd Jan)

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Push and Pull is back at The Shelter this Thursday and this month we’ve invited friend of Push and Pull and DJ about town Hernando of the Lose Your Face crew to come down and throw down his take on the UK dance music sound. He’s a fantastic DJ, a great guy and a handsome devil to boot so come down and get your dancing shoes on.

You’ll also have the opportunity to hear Naaah’s new tune, hot off the press, over The Shelter’s sound system:

Alta and Naaah in support.