Electronic music in the steel city – the history and the heritage

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By Liam Deacon

Other than the Arctic Monkeys and Jarvis Cocker, most southerners couldn’t tell you a thing about the sounds of Sheffield. It’s an inward-looking city, trapped between steep hills and drowned out by some noisy neighbors.

Its electronic sounds are largely ignored and unknown to the mainstream. As local legend Pipes put it, “historically, the city has always been hemmed in… there’s a certain harshness that comes through in what the city produces musically; the people here have always been wary of outside influences.”   

And from this isolation and self-obsession, Sheffielders have developed a real ‘ear for the unusual’ – the electronic sounds of steel city are underground and experimental, if not just plain strange. Yet such a small city has produced some groundbreaking sounds that have repeatedly gone global. Here are some highlights.

Synth Pop/New Wave

In terms of electronic music, Sheffield’s story begins with synth-pop. In 1983, Manchester’s New Order release ‘Blue Monday’ and the British mainstream went mad for synth pop, Gary Numan, and Depeche Mode.
But it was here in Sheffield, in the autumn of post-punk, where the British synth-pop scene was born. As early as 1978, The Human League released their revolutionary first single, ‘Being Boiled’, and in 1979, the ever strange and mystifying Cabaret Voltaire appeared.
New wave bands like Heaven 17, ABC and Clock DVA followed and Sheffield would forever be associated with the iconic ‘80s sound. These pioneers made some bangers and set the precedent for an experimental electronic sound that echoes in productions coming out of the Steel city even today.

Blues and Soul

As in many northern cities, northern soul was huge in Sheffield. In the sixties and seventies, a thriving blues and soul scene developed, carried by well known black-driven street soundsystems.
The scene continued into the eighties and is best remember by the legendary Jive Turkey night held in the Town Hall. It was renowned across the north and frequently compared to the Hacienda as one of the defining churches of British club culture.
Jive turkey brought many of Sheffield’s different dance scenes together under one roof, “for a couple of years we had a really good mix of people… the older crowd were coming back from Ibiza… but the black crowd was still there as well… we were playing music to the old crowd, but we’d got the energy of the ‘E’ people in there as well,” says resident, DJ Parrot. It was one of the first places in Sheffield play house and techno.

Bleep Techno

House and techno kicked off across the pond, Paul Oakenfold found himself on an Island called Ibiza, half the UK had a Gary, and the second ‘summer of love’ went down – nightlife changed forever.
Sheffield was not left behind, and—typically—it came out with its own unique brand of modern club music: bleep techno.
In the mid ‘90s, the experimental electronic sound of the 80s distilled into something darker and industrial in the warehouses of Sheffield. Bleep techno was an inner city, aggressive sound of funky, minimalist beats, characterized by electronic bleeps and other futuristic notes.
The sound lives on in its purest form in the city today, with pioneers like The Black Dog and Forgemasters, with their project Bleep Sheffield, still going strong.

Warp Records

Warp Records first release was a track by the mighty Forgemasters. The Label went on to become one of the most innovative and influential labels the UK has ever seen. They’re bigger than ever today, working with artists like Nightmares on Wax, Hudson Mohawke, Flying Lotus and Mount Kimbie.
One Mark Brydon who started FON was also associated with the label, later a member of the duo Moloko, formed in Sheffield, and are best know for their 1999 belter, ‘Sing It Back’.

Bassline

In the early 2000s, Bassline emerged – garage’s lairy northern younger sibling. It was well outside the city’s musical canon, and Sheffield had heard nothing like it before.
It appeared around the same time as grime down south, but differed immensely. It developed from speed garage with pitched up female vocals and unmistakable wobbly basslines.
The story of Bassline is the story of Niche, the notorious Sydney Street club from where the sound emerged. It was raided by 300 officers in 2006 and subsequently closed. The police and council pressured local promoters and venues and the community and culture that surrounded the club, and ultimately the genera itself, were effectively banished from the city. It was dramatic stuff.
But bassline made a comeback. The sound can still be heard in the productions of Toddla T and up and coming producers like Checan, who’s currently fusing the sound with deep house.
Off-me-nut records took the sound to the next level. Mixing in everything from hardcore to techno. Their productions, and parties for that matter, are some of the maddest in town.

Gatecrasher

The Gatecrasher brand settled in the center of Sheffield in 1996, where it remained until Gatecrasher 1 burnt down 2007. The Gatecrasher Kids, as they were known, started a revolution in British club culture that beckoned in the era of the super club.
The club was instrumental in the rise of trance, but known later for playing an array of progressive house sounds. Residences included goliaths like Judge Jules and, thanks to a partnership with the Ministry of Sound, the Sheffield brand once dominated from Ibiza to London.
Efforts to bring the club back to Sheffield failed, in 2010 when the council refused planning permission for a proposed new venue below the Cheesegrater car park.

Steel City today

Who knows what sounds will dominate on the dance floors of Sheffield in coming years. There’s no default setting, no dominant brand, a plurality of small DIY promoter and clubs run things now. And it’s that plurality that’s helped Sheffield stand out in the past. “I’ve been around the world and Sheffield remains the absolute best place… The atmosphere was totally unique; it’s still unique now.  You’ve got the boys in there, the girls, a massive mix of music… techno next to reggae… all under one warehouse roof… it all makes so much sense” says Toddla T.
With the appearance of Party for the People, The Night Kitchen, Hope Works and the continuing success of The Harley, Yellow Arch Studios, Kabal, Tuesday Club and Sheffield Techno Institute, the future of Sheffield’s electronic music scene is looking strong. As Stephen ‘Mal’ Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire once said, “Sheffield has a real resilience about it; it is backs against the wall-type stuff…there’s no Manchester magic here, only the real determination to get on with the job, and make something happen.”

Sheffield is the city that surrounds you, assuming you live here. It continues to exist in its own little way.

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