Belfast might not be synonymous with sweaty dancefloors and top-notch line-ups, but a fledgling scene has taken root and is dancing to the beat of its own drum. Tiarnán Ó Muilleoir dishes up the ravey gravy.
If your knowledge of dance music and Belfast doesn’t extend further than the live news cycle, you might be surprised to find there’s more to it than dodgy pills and drunken teenagers fighting at Hardwell. Away from the tabloid glare, a new wave of DJs and promoters, along with scene veterans like Shine, are forging an exciting electronic revival in the city.
Balancing local and international talent, recent mega-bookings include Motor City Drum Ensemble, Midland, and Levon Vincent, backed up by residents like the Twitch, Ackright, and Nocturne DJs. Most weekends now involve a choice between one of two great nights – punters were recently torn between Panorama resident Tama Sumo and Trevino on the same Saturday evening.
Shine, the legendary club night over several rooms at Queen’s Student Union, is still going strong, hosting a variety of big names every couple of months, supported by local acts like Chris Hanna and Cromby. These local producers and DJs – along with breakthrough Belfast acts like Space Dimension Controller and Bicep – are currently making waves in the electronic scene, with upcoming releases on Belfast’s own Champion Sound and Extended Play labels.
With a few hundred people involved at most, the scene is close-knit, with plenty of crossover in sounds and faces. “We’re all mates” is how Bobby Analogue from Ackright describes the family feeling evident in the scene. At an Ackright party last year, Dutch house legend Gerd signed local act Schmutz up on the spot through word of mouth. Their ‘Slaned EP is set to be released in the near future on Gerd’s 4lux label.
Venues regularly fill up before 10pm, with crowd demographics falling solidly between the ages of 18 and 25, reflecting the energy of post-conflict kids hungry for dance music in the wake of dubstep’s implosion and the return of quality MDMA via the deep web.
Strict licensing hours, with last orders at 1am and entertainment ending at 3am, mean punters exploit their time on the dance floor to the utmost, with high-energy vibes at most nights before the inevitable after party. Indian whooping, tops off, banging on low roofs…things can get rowdy.
That’s not to say there isn’t variety within the wider scene, with a range of sounds and vibes from house and disco to nosebleed techno, and attendant sub-cultures. “People definitely come for the doof – we have that reputation,” is how Oisin O’Brien describes his brainchild DSNT. Part record label, part promoters, part design company, DSNT has of late hosted techno heavyweights like Ancient Methods, AnD, and Sunil Sharpe in Belfast, with performances usually accompanied by Oisin’s own mind-melting visuals. They’ve also embraced the venerable techno tradition of adapting post-industrial environments to their own ends, hosting several all-night raves in Belfast’s disused textile mills.
Perhaps most impressively, this nascent scene is flourishing in the face of a still divided society, as well as institutional political and moral opposition.
While open warfare has thankfully abated in the northern capital, communities are more divided than ever, with more miles of peace walls, more school segregation, and now, with the recession and austerity, fewer working class kids encountering ‘the other side’ in the workplace or education. In this context electronic music is one of the few bridges between Belfast’s post-conflict youth, where the combination of serotonin and four to the floor engenders non-sectarian dance floor camaraderie.
This was famously documented first time round in Desmond Bell’s brilliant 1994 documentary ‘Dancing on Narrow Ground’ which charted the nascent friendships between young Catholics and Protestants in the era of rave and paramilitary ceasefires.
Orbital’s eponymous track was inspired by similar euphoria. But while Bell’s documentary concluded on a negative note, noting the fragility of those dance floor friendships as sectarian killings carried on outside the rave bubble, there remains nothing quite like a Belfast rave. The transgressive edge to nights where the music is an escape from ghettoised sectarianism recaptures the utopic bent of the earliest dance music and its marginalized constituents.
Today, while ravers aren’t being denounced as Satanists – as happened in the 1990s, politicians and the media predictably remain more beholden to morally conservative interest groups than licentious youth.
Partly this reflects the conservative ‘tie up the swings on a Sunday’ voter base of political parties in the North, but equally the lack of interest from shortsighted politicians in facilitating young people having a good time. When the recent wave of PMA-linked deaths occurred in the North, politicians on all sides washed their hands of responsibility – despite policing and health powers resting with devolved ministries, allowing for the introduction of pill testing or decriminalization.
Moreover, as health minister Edwin Poots (the same dinosaur who opposes gay blood donations – but that’s another story) sensationally alleged, it is more than likely that the PSNI are able to identity the (predominantly loyalist) paramilitaries selling dodgy pills, they just lack the appetite for the confrontation that would follow prosecution in the wake of the flag protests over the past year.
In spite of recent favourable public consultation, licensing laws remain strict and are unlikely to be reformed anytime soon. Oisin from DSNT believes that a mandate exists to change the current laws, but equally that it’s a question of personal autonomy: “realistically who the fuck should tell you when you’re allowed to dance”?
A sensationalist mainstream press doesn’t help the cause of electronic music in Northern Ireland, with the recent Hardwell incident being used to fuel moralist anger over late night events and drug use. A Belfast promoter told me that he waited three days in a row for a call from the Nolan Show (the nordie equivalent of Joe Duffy) to join in the debate on licensing laws, a call that never came.
On top of this, BBC recently cut their flagship local music program on Radio Ulster, Across the Line, further reducing the avenues for positive mainstream exposure for the electronic scene. Bobby from Ackright points out that “there’s no sectarianism in the scene, and that’s something the media should be covering”, but a media beholden to conservative readers on both sides of the communal divide remains obstinately negative.
With upcoming bookings including Kyle Hall (Ackright), Perc (DSNT), and Steffi and Virginia (Twitch) – along with the seemingly never-ending flow of new releases and mixes from local artists – Belfast ravers are spoiled for choice over the coming weekends as we head into summer. The current mood in the Belfast scene is best summed up by Bobby Analogue: “Belfast isn’t Berlin, it’s not London, but it’s nice”.
Photos by Ruairi Drayne