Manchester’s Underground is Thriving Despite The Odds

Even before coronavirus put global nightlife in jeopardy, Manchester’s underground was swimming against the tide. But as Martin Guttridge-Hewitt shows, this UK city is still thriving in some unique and important ways.

15 min
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Mar 13, 2020
Martin Guttridge-Hewitt

For a city that claims to talk straight, the north of England’s biggest metropolis can be a contradictory place. It’s home to strikingly affluent areas, with more multi-millionaires in the city region than anywhere outside London. Yet you’ll also find some of the most deprived areas in England here, and the appalling working conditions of the industrial revolution — a revolution catalysed by Manchester — helped inspire Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto.

Home to nearly 3 million people, the region pulls in £169 million annually from music tourism, with 1.9 million tickets sold each year to more gigs per person than anywhere else in the country, according to UK Music’s Greater Manchester Music Review. But the fight to preserve and develop venues increasingly feels like a losing battle, as developers transform the skyline to match perceived economic prosperity.

Grassroots spaces have long-been under threat amid this clamour for space, but the city‘s growth was around four times the averages for the UK and European Union over the last five years. Pressure on independent culture has been particularly pronounced, and only major public institutions with commercial partnerships seem to fit the glass and steel landscape. The Factory, a soon-to-open, impressive-looking £115 million contemporary arts centre, is one example.

Its name is a nod to Manchester’s famous Factory Records, which counted Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, and others amongst its roster. The imprint cultivated unarguably great bands, and ran the iconic Hacienda nightclub. Its story, and the story of the Madchester era, are now infamous. And they’re an important part of the history of electronic music and the city itself. But their popularity have constantly overshadowed less popularised scenes that coexisted, preceded or followed, and many still sit in those shadows.

17 years after arriving, I see Manchester as more musically fertile than at any point since moving. That’s despite a lack of comprehensive infrastructure to help artists flourish from ground up, be it management or mastering facilities. In short, the city’s artists produce and perform against a backdrop of struggle, yet their music is some of the country’s most exciting and important. Wanting to know more, I spoke to four artists to discuss what makes Manchester so artistically significant, yet so problematic.


Imported African beats

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“I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad gig in Manchester,” Nongi Oliphant says. Born in South Africa, Oliphant moved to Manchester around 2007. Today, she represents styles of bass music that are only just beginning to have an impact on UK clubs, from kwaito to gqom, through her SNO moniker. “Most of the time I play, the reception is incredible,” she says. “People love what I play, even if they don’t know it.”

Oliphant’s entry into DJing came almost by chance. Telling her story, she launches into an anecdote that perfectly reflects the city’s famous informality. “I think it was 2015. My friend Levi [Love] had a night at Soup Kitchen and he couldn’t play so asked me to cover for him. I’d never played for anyone, I didn’t know how to mix, and he basically said that the guy who would be playing before me would show me how to cue the records,” she laughs. “He stayed with me for a bit of time to make sure I was okay — I think three or four tunes — then left me… I played for about four hours.”

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Oliphant’s uncle’s expansive record collection — spanning bubblegum to disco — was a huge influence on the future selector. Though it’s no longer in the family (much to Oliphant’s disappointment), that broad scope of music still informs her selections, which can be heard at residencies for global beat soiree Banana Hill, and at Electrik, a bar in the southern suburb of Chorlton owned by Manchester club heroes The Unabombers. Their own Electric Chair parties are also known for sonic scope.

“The music scene is great here. You have a lot of nights that offer different kinds of genres, and I think everyone is really supportive of each other,” Oliphant says. The recent launch of UnitedWeStream is a highly visible example of that attitude. Greater Manchester’s creative community, from music to theatre, is rallying together by platforming local talent online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


Experimentation over attitude

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“Appearance means nothing here. I think that’s why it’s a really good place to be. Everyone is judged, but I think you’re judged to a different moral level.”

I’m talking with Henrietta Smith-Rolla, also known as Afrodeutsche, about her memories of first visiting the city. She was living in London at the time, and found inspiration in the socio-political perspectives of people she met at Manchester’s after parties.

“I think there’s this honesty that runs through Manchester. What you have, which really interests me, is a lot of artists that don’t have records out, haven’t released anything, but are making the most amazing stuff,” she says. “And they know they can talk about it and share it with the people they want and don’t have to sell their music to a bunch of people to get an opinion or get what they need out of it.”

Afrodeutsche is perhaps one of Manchester’s biggest contemporary electronic music success stories. She discovered the melancholic nuances of jungle as a kid living in Devon, South West England, where the only record store in town was Onionheart Records. In 2004, she relocated to Manchester, leaving a career in music management behind for one making her own music. Since then, her output has ranged from mutated bass-techno and electro informed by the likes of Drexciya, to classical piano work and collaborations with female choirs, including gospel and rap. And her 2018 album, Break Before Make, came via the seminal Skam imprint, which is based in Greater Manchester’s Rochdale borough. In April she was supposed to take her celebrated Amt der Seele A/V show to London’s Re-Textured festival after debuting at Berlin’s CTM last year — one of countless shows cancelled due to coronavirus.

“Manchester is known for its music, whether you like that music or not. [But] the infrastructure has really gone to shit,” she says. “We have Hidden, as well as The White Hotel, which has been established for a long time, and it’s a brilliant, brilliant venue. But it’s disappointing that we only really have two proper clubs, because this city was really about that other side of being able to put on a night. I don’t know how many promoters are still out there doing it, but we lack places for them.” Without proper funding, the future Manchester’s club culture will be in even greater jeopardy after covid.

Iceboy Violet

Lessons in honesty

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“I want people to be able to feel vulnerable in the space,” Tobago Tracks-affiliated experimental artist Iceboy Violet explains. “If I force myself to be really open and vulnerable about what’s going on, then hopefully people will feel less alone and be more willing to open up themselves.” It’s the week after an in-store event with Violet at Wilderness Records, in the district of Withington, and we’re discussing the motivation behind their musical identity, which marries sparse leftfield electronics and grime.

“A lot of my lyrics are about oppression, the thickness in the air, difficulties of living under capitalism,” Violet says. “A lot of the time I feel quite powerless here. It’s not necessarily a uniquely Manchester thing, but when I’m writing, it’s specific places in Manchester. Things I’ve seen that have particularly affected me. The way we interact with the space as people in Manchester, the skyline, the way the streets and the city look are big parts of my writing, both the way it is exciting and also horrible.

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“For me it’s been quite stark and shocking to see what’s happened since I moved here, around three years ago,” Violet continues, referencing the striking differences between Manchester’s cityscape today and in 2017. Things are certainly bigger now, and arguably less human. “The Salford area just next to the city centre, it’s like Blade Runner now, you know?”

Violet originally hails from West Yorkshire, and moved to Manchester three years ago. Preparations are currently underway to drop The Block EP via Mutuality, the imprint they co-run. A deeply personal work several years in the making, discontent is a consistent theme on The Block, which tackles subjects like imposter syndrome, community and queerness head-on. Perhaps this betrays how much the producer, MC and aspiring social volunteer thinks of their adopted hometown.

“I care so much because I do love this place and see the beauty it manifests,” Violet says, before expounding on the importance of Manchester’s music community. “One of the things we can do is document things, the experiences, and give people temporary relief. Providing affordable nights out, spaces for people to meet and connect — [the venue] Partisan is really good for that — giving access to the best parts of music and nightlife to people. Even if it’s not instantly materially helpful, it’s just quite good for people’s spirituality and connectedness.”


Keeping the rave alive

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“Yeah, we don’t give a fuck,” Hannah Garvey jokes. I’ve suggested a painfully contrived theory — Manchester’s lack of what she describes as “powerful organisations” that are capable of platforming underground artists globally, is because the city is independent to a fault. The obsession with doing things on its own terms might not really be the problem, but it certainly guides the music community’s outlook.

Garvey DJs and produces as Djinn, and is highly respected in drum & bass circles and beyond. While the genre has had a foothold in Manchester for decades, it has rarely been dominant. Even so, her party Formless ranks as one of the UK’s most coveted events for those who dig deep into the genre. Like Afrodeutsche, her rave induction involved rural environments — namely free parties in England’s picturesque Lake District. Those raves piqued her interest in the hardcore continuum, which blossomed after moving to Manchester in 2007.

“The style I liked wasn’t being represented much up here,” she says. “So it was about booking people that I would like to see play, and the added bonus of getting to play. I don’t play every night because I don’t see a need to. There’s only six hours, so let’s get some other rotation in.”

At one point, Garvey thought about moving to London. “Not because I wanted to move to London, but I felt that’s where all the opportunities are for music,” she says. “But then I thought, you know what, I like it up here, there’s a lot of talented people up here, so let’s build our city. I’m sure lots of other people have had that same feeling as well, and that’s why there’s so much going on right now.”

This last point is particularly resonant considering the COVID-19 nightmare — it’s unlikely we’ll see much going on for the foreseeable, exacerbating the lack of spaces we’ve heard about. Remove that context, though, and Manchester’s current musical landscape remains strong, because it encourages experimentation and independence, nurturing a diversity of ideas. Whether Manchester’s great cultural capacity is ever valued as much as its capital remains to be seen. But the city would surely be stronger for it.

Martin Guttridge-Hewitt is a freelance journalist living in Manchester. Find him on Twitter.

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