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DiY Soundsystem

2 September 14 words: Scott Oliver

We look back at the history behind the legendary free party collective...

Playlist: Digs digs out his 25 DiY corkers

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: pleasure is a political act. The Beastie Boys told us we’ve gotta fight for our right to party, while that even more eminent American thinker, the anarchist Emma Goldman, warned her starchier comrades: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to join your revolution.”

Social transformation was predicated on psychic transformation – on love, not shuffling the same sombre instruments of power. You need to do away with the instruments themselves, among which is Big Brother telling you how to enjoy yourself and what you can do with your body. The powers-that-be won’t be done with you until they’ve entirely regulated your pleasures, invaded your most intimate thoughts, made your desires coincide with the requirements of the social order, captured your imagination. Roll up, roll up: get your pleasure 'ere. “Ah, so that’s what I wanted! X-Factor, I’m a Celebrity, Strictly Come Dancing…” But others want to dance – and dissent – to a very different beat.

Now that we’ve got that straight, much of the rest here is getting bent: rules, minds, whatever...

It may sound far-fetched and faintly absurd today to claim that dancing to house music in a field on ecstasy – really good house, really good E – is a revolutionary act, particularly when revolution is narrowly understood as the overthrow of government and seizure of the state. Yet judged by the reaction of the establishment alone, such escapades can only appear as a threat – a threat to the spoonfed pleasures of an anodyne, commodified cultural space and the docility and conformity they foster. Indeed, Thatcher’s government knew that so-called ‘mindless’ escapism was anything but, and by the late eighties while decimating British industry and the Welfare State, stripping back civic life to the bare-bones (work, consume) had set itself to weeding out from the social body these unregulated desires and lifestyles.

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Images: DiY

Out of the cut and thrust of these culture wars emerged Nottingham’s DiY collective – soundsystem, record label, free party pioneers and more who, by 1997, after throwing an impromptu shindig under the railway arches opposite the Haçienda one Wednesday evening during Anthony H Wilson’s In the City music festival, were described as “culturally, the most dangerous people in the UK”. Why? Because it was anti-accumulation: culture for joy, not profit. ‘Irrational’.

One of DiY’s founders, Harry, outlines the original impetus: “We were very anti-Thatcher and anti-capitalist, but in a non-traditional way. We thought conventional politics had run its course and that only by confronting the status quo in new ways could we make a difference. We believed in the unspoken ideology of liberation through fun. Still do.”

DiY had come bouncing into the world on November 23, 1989 with a night at Nottingham’s Garage club, where they had been seduced by resident DJ Graham Park, a crucial conduit for the strange new sexuo-kinetic voodoo called house music wafting over the Atlantic. The fledgling collective soon decided they wanted to, well, to do it themselves, and set about throwing their own small-scale parties albeit with a full rig while hinting at the their rebelliously hedonistic intent by slipping into disused warehouses to throw down the lowdown to a burgeoning clan of followers.

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DK, Digs, Emma, Woosh, Jack, Harry

The chunkeh, funkeh and a little bit punkeh sounds of the DiY crew were soon wobbling dancefloors at many of Nottingham’s seminal nightspots: the nomadic Bounce visited Venus, Dance Factory, Rockadero’s and Deluxe; Doghouse all-nighters rocked the fabled Marcus Garvey Centre; laid back Tuesday nights bubbled away at The Cookie Club under the Serve Chilled moniker; and later the Floppy Disco nights rumbled along at The Bomb. The collectivism and inclusivity saw sound and light engineers, promoters and DJs receive the same fee, while dress codes and door policy were eschewed in the active pursuit of a mixed crowd. “We always saw music as being a way to break down barriers both socially and politically”, says Pete ‘Woosh’, stalwart DiY spinner.

The core DJs soundtracking those parties – Simon DK, Jack, Digs and Woosh, Emma, Pez, Pip and others: the more the merrier, and the merrier the merrier – took their funk-fuelled utopianism across Britain, hosting sweaty, groove-filled nights in Exeter, Bath, Birmingham, Leicester, Sheffield, Manchester, Hull and elsewhere. They made frequent jaunts to Europe, regularly played the legendary Café del Mar and Space Terrace in Ibiza, threw full-moon parties in Thailand and half-moon parties on the beaches of California, as well as inspiring a generation of now world-renowned house producers in Dallas.

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Back home, a recording studio was established at the Square Centre on Alfred Street North, where sat the DiY Discs label that bumped or nudged the careers of many globally respected artists – Nail, Atjazz, Charles Webster, Schmoov!, Rhythm Plate – along with its downtempo offshoot, Strictly 4 Groovers. Duly catalysed, Nottingham enjoyed a decade at the top table of the mushrooming electronic music scene, becoming a byword for quality underground deep house in the way that, say, Detroit, New York, and Berlin had or would for techno, garage, and minimal.

Not that there was any masterplan, Harry affirms: “We had no big plan in the early days, but we did know what we didn’t want to be – not just a sound system, or another record label, or a superclub, or another Balearic outfit, but all of the above in a setup which could not be pigeonholed. Our only concrete goal was to put on the best parties in human history and we like to think that, on occasion, we came pretty close.” In the pursuit of that goal, it would be outdoors where the real alchemy took place…

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Free party: Half-Moon Bay, California

Increasingly disillusioned by the ever-more commercial acid house parties and Orbital raves, DiY moseyed down to Glastonbury’s now-defunct adjoining Free Festival in 1990, where they hooked up with a group of enlightened travellers. It was serendipity. Over three days of revelry that ended with Happy Mondays’ Bez dancing next to a pony in little more than yellow wellies, a symbiosis germinated.

By eluding the clutches of those aforementioned instruments of power – the work regime, the rent regime, identity defined by possessions, and so forth – the travellers had become increasingly vilified in the right-wing tabloids, a modern ‘folk-devil’ to stir the curtain-twitching fears of Middle England. For the DiY crew, however, these mobile communities were not only kindred spirits; they were of invaluable practical help in spreading the magic inscribed on those 12” wax discs. They provided marquees, generators, and knowledge of the countryside to take party sites. DiY brought the Technics and the tunes. The politics, stimulants, and attitude were mutual.

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It was a marriage made near Devon. And, as the Nottingham-born journalist Matthew Collin wrote in his Altered State, over the next year “travellers and ravers danced a honeymoon rite together in the wide open spaces of King Arthur’s country”. When 10,000 turned up at the Avon Free Festival at Chipping Sodbury on May Bank Holiday 1991, the grass roots were swaying to DiY’s rhythm – a rhythm they’d taken into barns and fields, woods and quarries, getting arrested several times for their trouble.

The risks were everywhere, remembers Harry: “Apart from the risk to our collective sanity, many crew members were busted for this and that; we had to borrow money to buy Black Box, our sound system, which was never completely paid back; and we were robbed several times in inner-city Nottingham: amps, decks, mixers...” When Simon DK was in the dock at Salisbury Crown Court for “providing unlicensed entertainment”, the crew carved “DiY are innocent” into the public gallery as the case collapsed, cheering as they left.

It would be difficult to overstate the revolutionary intoxication of those days, a convergence of music, politics, drugs and culture akin, perhaps, to San Francisco in 1967. The transcendence of the music combined with the empathic qualities of the drug seemed to prefigure new social relations – and escapism is useless unless something of what you’re escaping becomes unravelled, like a (social) fabric being caught on your zipper as you run off into the sunset. Psychic transformation, social transformation: one and the same struggle. The ego-melting epiphany facilitated by ecstasy – the feeling of being part of the swarm – was replicated in DiY’s ego-fusing organisation, its ‘micropolitics’, with requests for individual interviews and press shots refused in the name of the collective.

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Free party: Moreton Lighthouse, 1992

The beauty of dancing at dawn in a field was the humble essence of it all, though, and so the aim of those heady first forays was simple, explains Harry: “To take club music to the fields and the attitude of the fields to the clubs.” And perhaps there was a sprinkling of Notts down there in Druid country, too: “The early years certainly felt like Robin Hood – ignoring the law, fighting the authorities, dancing across the UK and disappearing in the dawn – how could it not?”

Of course, the spirit of adventure was equally palpable for the revellers. Without mobile phones, internet or GPS to steer you to the secret locations, your night began as a magical mystery tour in search of some pulsing, throbbing Xanadu. You had to make an effort, hook into the jungle telegraph, maybe phone the pirate station, Rave FM, for a tip-off. It was cat and mouse, recalls Jack: “The rumour would go round, ‘Derbyshire police have run out of budget this year and they won’t be able to switch any parties off. So we’re pretty much good until whenever’. It was hearsay, but there was the sense that they were trying to play catch-up with you, and you were trying to stay one step ahead of them.” It wouldn’t be long before the tentacles of power caught up.

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The Castlemoreton Festival of May 1992 was both the high-watermark – “our generation’s Woodstock” according to Digs – and the death-knell of this counter-cultural moment. 30,000 partygoers boogying in a field in Worcestershire so alarmed the establishment that the notorious Criminal Justice Act was fast-tracked into law. At 150bpms. The so-called “anti-rave” legislation specifically targeted the “serious distress” caused by “a gathering on land in the open air of twenty or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions)”. Just to be clear, “music” was defined as “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. Tech-NO!

The CJA “definitely made us more overtly political in the conventional sense”, reflects Harry. “I remember reading the draft Bill and seeing the whole section making ‘raving’ a criminal offence, among other even more outrageous sections. It would have been laughable if the Tories had not been so serious.”

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Harry at CJA demonstration

So, with the busies getting busier, DiY hunkered down in the East Midlands, where they continued to throw regular free parties out in Derbyshire while mobilising for the 'right' to do so. There was “a new sense of shared purpose and unity, with many different systems coming together to form ‘All Systems No’ – a pressure group that raised tens of thousands of pounds to fight the Bill, run coaches to demos, print publicity, and bail people out of jail.”

Meanwhile, the record label continued to knock out slab after essential slab of killer tracks – the cream of which appeared on the classic double mix CD, DiY: X – right up until their distributor went bankrupt, which, says Woosh, was “a proper fuckery from a business point of view. We were looking at pushing more album projects through and artist development, and were turning corners on the fiscal side of things. DiY has always been about an attitude: you can kill a record label perhaps, but not an ethos or an idea."

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External blows were followed by internal problems, with less and less convivial hedonistic indulgences being pursued. Momentum was lost and the wide-open vistas of a few years before had contracted. “It was a gradual unravelling, rather than an overnight thing,” observes Jack. As some of the DiY-namism dissipated, operations were inevitably scaled back.

The cultural landscape had mutated, too. Even the relatively staid world of clubbing was affected by changes to licensing laws that meant people no longer had to go dancing to stay out beyond 11pm. Later, the smoking ban altered nocturnal habits further, as did the rise of social media and smart phones. It’s doubtful whether DiY could have found the same lift-off in an environment where the crowd had such ‘endless possibilities’ at their fingertips, and with a generation who might have found it harder to lose themselves in the moment, a moment transformed into the pretext for a Facebook status or Instagram post. The Situationists’ prediction of a society dominated by spectacle, by images, by staging rather than engaging, had crept up imperceptibly, ushered in not so much by conscious design or moral failing as by technology. The clubber, to a certain extent, became a consumer – someone who, by virtue of paying a high ticket price, has expectations, demands, ‘rights’: a set list of hits, the anthems. Conformity breeds and experimentation withers.

While acknowledging the paradox of greater technological connection meaning less actual, human connection, perhaps even greater conservatism among the young, Woosh nonetheless remains optimistic: “For every negative thinker, I like to think there is a positive thinker about to go out and do something different and for themselves.” And perhaps that outlook best encapsulates DiY’s cultural contribution: Do it yourself.

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Indeed, DiY’s cultural impact on Nottingham is unquestionable, not that Woosh would trumpet it: “The legacy is not for us to say. We can only judge ourselves by what we did and why we did it. We stuck to our guns, pushed the sound we believed in and didn’t give a fuck if people didn’t like it. This backfired at times, but that’s how we were. We were making it up as we went along.”

His partner on the decks, Digs, is less reticent: “Yes we did influence a generation of youngsters. That wasn’t by design, but was implicit in our message. We used to laugh that our philosophy actually drew people away from our own parties: Breeze, Babble, Go Tropo, Departure Lounge, The Smokes – all crews inspired by us who went on to throw their own parties in Notts.”

Beyond the impressive discography, the high point was, and remains, the free parties: “It was ‘in the fields’ where the free principle was vital,” says Harry. “No start or finish time, no fences, no security. No rip-off, basically, when many others were cashing in on the rave explosion and turning it to shit. We threw a New Year’s Eve party near Bath in 1992-93 and loads of pissed-off people arrived from a Fantazia do down the road for which they had been charged £50 and wasn’t a patch on our free one, according to them.”

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And the ‘free’ part of free parties was just as much political and psychological as financial, he insists: “Many of the other club owners, promoters and label owners we dealt with could never understand why we didn’t charge and make a fortune. If you didn’t get it, well then you just didn’t get it. We did get it and so did the hundreds of thousands of people who came to our parties and festivals. The beauty and freedom of our dance floors came from the free aspect. The club nights were more of a social – there was still a great atmosphere and top music, but they could never rival the thrill and excitement of the outdoors and the vibe created by dancing under the stars.”

Thus, a dispersed yet reinvigorated DiY’s 25th birthday could have been nothing other than a night dancing under those stars from which all life came, where the only bouncers are those being dropped on the decks, from there pulsating through synapses and out into that vast cosmos, nurturing dreams for better days.

DiY on Facebook

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