Being asked to write about what’s been good dance music wise in the North East this year was a bit like being asked what my favourite kind of baked good is. By this I mean that there are so many choices, and choosing between them is a more difficult task than trying to make two magnets touch at their north ends. For instance, I like cookies. And brownies. And carrot cake, and chocolate cake, and coffee cake, and lemon drizzle cake, and all other types of cake you could mention. I also like flapjacks, and donuts, and biscuits, and flans, and I’m a sucker for a mince pie, especially at this time of year. I like bread too: sourdough, poppy seed, brioche, Warburton’s: the lot. In fact, when you ask me what my favourite baked good is I essentially turn into Talkie Toaster from that episode of Red Dwarf: rattling off a list of seemingly random items and, eventually, annoying you to the point where you crack me one on the grill just to shut me up.
So it is with the story of dance music in the North East in 2015. Where to even begin? Drum and bass wise, we’ve had Curves, Dilate, Soundclash, and the like bringing countless names to the city such as Ulterior Motive, Sub Zero, and Original Sin. Rubadub have also continued doing the more ‘stadium’ side of things with artists like Sigma and Andy C. Then, on the flipside of the spectrum, Loop, Ape-X, Motion, Nova, Ill Behaviour, and probably loads of others I can’t remember are continually pushing the boundaries of house and techno. Exit have been helping out with much-appreciated dollops of dubstep and grime. Audio Asylum have continued their extraordinary run of bookings by bringing us Scuba, Boddika, Skepta, and god knows who else. DJ EZ now seems to have a six-monthly residency at World Headquarters with Pirate Material. Meanwhile, the dub, reggae, and ‘soundsystem’ styles of music have remained small but wonderfully vibrant. Every weekend there now seems to be two or three nights to choose from when you want to go out: and not just ‘student’ nights – nights run by dedicated promoters with proper DJs for reasons of pleasure rather than profit.
It’s tempting to stay sat on this vibrant musical fence and just declare the scene in its entirety as the real winner of 2015. But, if all the kings’ horses and men were waiting to assemble me afterwards, I’d probably take a leap of faith and declare Lively Up my favourite night of the year. Based at World Headquarters and now entering their fifth year, Lively Up began as a ‘thing’ sometime in late 2011. The name comes from Bob Marley’s ‘Lively Up Yourself’, which he used for quite a long time to open his live sets. Lively Up takes more than just its name from Marley though. You could say they also take their ethos, or spirit, or philosophy from Marley as well. Marley’s songs are peppered with references to Babylon, which – without simplifying too much – is a term that denotes a wide variety of colonialisms, imperialisms, and capitalisms that spread across Africa and the wider world in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The struggle against Babylon, a theme which touches almost all reggae music, is therefore a struggle against these things and their associated structures of oppression. This is why you will find lots of references in reggae, dub, and jungle to the fall of Babylon – ‘all of the youth shall witness the day that Babylon shall fall’, as it’s sampled in Splash’s 1995 jungle masterpiece ‘Babylon’. Put differently, the ethos embraced by Lively Up – and by World Headquarters more widely, it should be said – is one of common unity, regardless of…well, anything really, and a rejection of racism, injustice, and intolerance.
Consequently, when you go to Lively Up it tends to be filled with nice, friendly people having a laugh and having a dance. Nothing else matters. Friendships are germinated and grown there; people you haphazardly bump into on the dancefloor while dancing soon become good mates; and you’ll sometimes find yourself back at random house parties afterwards, laughing and joking with a bunch of people who only hours earlier you didn’t know existed. Of course, it helps that the quality control of the music is spot on as well. Reggae, dub, jungle, drum and bass, hip-hop, and all things in between are all on the menu when you pass through the hallowed doors of World Headquarters into Lively Up. Their 2015 schedule actually began in 2014 with ‘Lively Up’s Christmas Dinner’ on Boxing Day, which featured local tastemakers Loki, Pidge, Kenrick, and a few others. It was an amazing (if blurry) night, in which one of the clearest memories I have was asking Loki if he had any Konflict tunes. I also went with a friend who declared his dislike for drum and bass only moments before entering the club, but five hours later after leaving he was confessing his undying love for it.
Then came the first party of 2015, on the 30th of January, which featured Rodney P, DJ Shepdog, and jungle legend Ray Keith. Valentine’s Day witnessed the full Mungo’s Hi-Fi soundsystem in attendance, which was a shame, considering that a bassline so low one could play Tiddlywinks over it is not my girlfriend’s idea of a romantic evening out. So while I cooked tea, a congregation of singles and couples alike no doubt swayed back and forth to the loving sub pulsing out of that gigantically powerful rig. Next up in March was Demolition Man, Marcus Visionary, and Capitol 1212, followed by a show that I am now very sad to have missed on the 13th of that month. Teaming up with their equally energetic sister Pirate Material, Lively Up booked DJ Q and Sully. I’d heard of Sully beforehand, but with the recent release of his EP on Astrophonica he has catapulted himself right to the top of my Christmas tree. Combining cutting edge drum programming with some of the sounds and approaches of the Good Looking era of DnB, it’s very possibly one of my favourite EPs of the year, and hearing it out would have been an experience. Bah humbug. Not to worry though, because after the delightful Unity Festival I plunged myself well and truly into some superb jungle courtesy of Spooky and Aries at Lively Up’s next night. Others have written about Unity Fest on this very blog, but safe to say that day and night combinations don’t really get much better.
Then came Congo Natty on the 5th of June and, in a special moment for me, Dillinja on the 26th of June. Special in that I had the honour and privilege of playing the first hour. I then took my record box back to my office, dumped it, and returned to drink rum and dance myself silly to Loki and Dillinja. You’ll sense this becoming a theme now, but it was properly memorable. The memories are fleeting but vivid: curfew coming and going; me and my mate Fudge rattling the bars separating the dancefloor from the stage; and Dillinja looking around to see if anyone was going to tell him to stop playing or not and then just whacking on another tune – chaos in the best possible way. I then moved to Oxford for the summer, and consequently missed Charlie P’s performance on the 31st of July and Prince Fatty’s return on the 2nd of October. Lively Up’s fourth birthday was marked two weeks later on the 14th of October by them taking over both floors of WHQ for the first time: Mungo’s Hi-Fi back in one room and Ray Keith back in the other. Then, last but not least, came one of the best bookings of the year. Godfather of drum and bass, orchestrator (quite literally, now) of the ‘Timeless’ LP at around the same time I was born: Goldie. Last time he came to Newcastle was for Turbulence, and with his Metalheadz imprint back to its best it was a properly special occasion. And so we reach the present day and the final party of the year: another joint affair with Pirate Material featuring Jacky Murda and Wen. I was sadly unable to repeat my Boxing Day 2014 antics, but I imagine that by now you’ll be able to hazard an informed guess as to whether it was good or not.
How to sum up Lively Up then? I’ve genuinely never had a bad night there (not even on the occasions the rum has got the better of me). It’s always been filled with lovely people (you will get bought a can of Red Stripe by someone you don’t know ‘just because’ if you go). The music is great (I’ve played a set there, what more proof do you need?). But just as important as, and of course linked to, all of this is the ethos that backs up the night. The messages of unity and love that seem to diffuse from nowhere across the dancefloor when you’re in there. It’s genuinely infectious: the atmosphere seems to seep into you at every moment, subconsciously forcing you to crack a massive smile and dance with that bloke over there like he’s a long lost friend. For all of these reasons, it’s been one of my favourite things about the last year. And it’ll no doubt be one of my favourite things when I sit down to write this very same article for 2016 at this time next year.
Happy Christmas (Dinner) everyone!