Deep tech, London underground house, and music media erasure: an interview with Sean Von Piff

Written By Jake Colvin (NKC)

Towards the end of 2013, when I thought I wanted to write about music for money, I emailed a well-known online music magazine to pitch an article on London’s house music scene. I’d been to a few parties that year and seen a new crowd of people doing a shuffling dance to house music. Sunglasses on, sidewinding across the floor, bottle of water in hand, maybe huffing a balloon – if you were going out in the early 2010s in any major UK city, especially London, you should at least have a vague idea of what I’m talking about. I tried to explain in the pitch that, if you dug deeper between the anti-shuffle snobbery and the NOS canisters, there was a new sound and scene emerging, a fresh variant on house music that working class and black DJs and producers in London had created following the recent wane of UK funky. Some of these producers had longer musical histories, with backgrounds in jungle, garage and grime. You could trace a clear line through all these genres to this new house sound and hear it too. I reiterated how important we all knew these earlier genres were to British dance music and argued that this new strain of house music was set to be the same. Here was their chance to cover a new London scene as it was unfolding. I exchanged a few emails with one editor, then another editor, and then they stopped replying.

"...the truth was that it wasn’t really my story to tell."

At that time, hardly anyone in the music media was covering this emerging house sound. Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson was the only writer who seemed to know what was going on, writing an article titled ‘Shuffle Trouble’ for Mixmag. With no media coverage of the music or the scene, the best resource of information and recommendations I could find on this new sound was a lengthy thread on a music forum. One of the most active and passionate posters was Sean Von Piff, an occasional music writer and full-time house music obsessive.

I’m glad I didn’t follow the pitch up any further, because the truth was that it wasn’t really my story to tell. I wouldn’t have known a fraction as much about London’s house music scene, or have known which raves to go to, or have seen it as the important development in the UK’s musical history that it was, if it wasn’t for Sean’s posts on the forum. There were other aspiring music writers and music obsessives on there, and I’m convinced that few of us would have delved into this new house scene in the way we did then if Sean hadn’t been hammering it home that something major was right there being ignored.

In August 2014 Sean wrote an article on ‘hood house’ for Complex, coining a term that had been thrown around by those involved. Aside from Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson’s writing, this was the first article that managed to break through the thick walls of racism and classism in UK music media to really do justice to the black and working class producer-DJs pioneering the sound. Gradually, a few more pieces trickled out: Dominic Morris for the Guardian in December 2014 – at which point the term ‘deep tech’ seemed to have stuck – and then Joe Roberts for RBMA the following year.

Throughout June this year, following the police murder of George Floyd and the BLM protests, worldwide lockdowns put sustained focus on the longstanding racist inequalities that are being reinforced and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Music media institutions who had long been criticised for their own racist and classist biases made statements promising to change. Black people organised panel discussions to unpack the issues and push white people in the music industry to act right.

I couldn’t help thinking back to this London house scene, which seemed like a missing piece in many discussions and statements on racism in the UK’s music industry. London’s black and working class house scene remained completely unmentioned among the wealth of end of decade music scene round-ups and essays in 2019. I remembered Sean’s hood house article, his forum posts and when we met up with some other house fans to go to an Audio Rehab night at Ministry of Sound in 2014. He went on to become editor of Warm & Easy, an online music magazine covering the frontlines of black British music from 2017 until 2019, but this was sadly decommissioned due to money pressures.

I decided to reach out to Sean again in early July, and interviewed him for two hours on deep tech. We talked about how the scene swept up in part due to the popularity of UK funky and soulful house, sounds that turned a lot of ravers onto slower tempos and introduced them to house, laying the groundwork sonically and culturally for new strains to emerge. We chatted about the rough and ready approach a lot of DJs and producers in the scene took, which created tracks on the more experimental edges, and the shuffling and hardcore crowd energy that made the raves the most memorable I’ve experienced.

We also talked about the disheartening side of the deep tech story – how it was written out of its rightful place in UK dance music’s recent history. The predominantly black and working class people who found a new love of house through this scene were subject to racism and classism from white and European house fans, who were into conventional deep house, tech house and minimal. They claimed ownership of this music and the spaces you could hear it. Most clickbait and music media writers spent their time fanning these flames or studiously ignoring the scene. Roshan Chauhan’s first letter dropped the week after Sean and I spoke, and the second was published more recently, using first-hand accounts and statistical data to irrefutably demonstrate the UK music press’ racism and classism, with the deep tech scene as a prime example. The piece went a huge way towards putting deep tech more firmly in its place as an integral movement in the musical cultures of London and the UK’s larger cities. I hope this interview with Sean provides another few stories, more context and critical starting points on a music scene and cultural movement that was almost completely erased from recent history.

 

From UK funky to deep tech

Deep tech arose at a time when virtually all dance scenes in the UK were beginning to converge on some strain of house music. Sean got into house on the crossover between UK Funky and its more stripped back, dubby variants, starting from Supa D and MA1’s Rinse CDs, Geeneus’s productions, DJ Petchy on Live FM and getting to Perempay and the Circle crew’s Rinse FM shows around 2009-2010. Meanwhile he noticed DJs and producers making post-Dubstep had also started moving housewards, as had the student party circuit: “It all started coming towards the middle, even though you might be coming from this shard, or that might have been your introduction … it all started coming towards the middle in a build-up.” We both remember the 2011 re-release of Jamie Jones’ remix of ‘Hungry for the Power’ by Azari & III, and Julio Bashmore’s ‘Au Seve’ a year later as scene-crossing anthems that proved house music’s ubiquity in the UK around that time.

"People loved funky...but funky just got rinsed"

Although both post-dubstep producer-DJs and students dancing to Bicep had also landed on house in the 2010s, it was deep tech that firmly stood out as a fully-fledged London movement, and one that definitively took over from the city’s dance scenes before it. In Sean’s 2014 Complex article, he describes how hood house filled the space left by UK funky’s ‘untimely demise.’ UK funky was the first dance genre I actively got into, clicking through recommended YouTube videos, finding mixes and reading music blogs from 2008 onwards. But by the time I arrived in London in 2010 for university, it seemed like I’d missed its peak, and a lot of the DJs and producers I’d associated it with were gravitating towards house.

“People loved funky, especially the ACS [Afro Caribbean Society] uni crowd, but funky just got rinsed,” Sean tells me. Perhaps there were structural issues around a lack of labels, releases and distribution channels for funky, but Sean mostly associates the dwindling popularity of the sound in the London club scene with the rise of what some people at the time called ‘nursery rhyme funky,’ like K.I.G.’s ‘Heads, Shoulders, Kneez and Toez’. He points out that the harder side of UK funky was still there, and lasted longer in some corners of the scene – artists like Lil Silva, Hard House Banton, Jook 10, Sunday Roast, LR Groove and Razzlerman among many others – but overall it wasn’t “the direction that funky ended up going in.”

Deep tech gained traction when it brought in a harder, bass-driven sound to fill this gap. At first, as Sean explains, this grittier sound was borrowed from other scenes but recontextualised for London’s crowds. “When you want something that’s hard, for the streets, you’re gonna try and start pickpocketing sounds from places – like yeah, cool, that might be some German icy minimal tune, but play it in the right context it’s gonna sound like some grimey East London shit.”

An example of this that really sticks in my memory is Oliver Huntemann & Stephan Bodzin – ‘Rubin,’ first released in 2006 on German techno label International Deejay Gigolo Records. It’s a chugging tech house roller centred on a two-note bassline that tears into your chest on a system. It’s hard not to imagine this track itself being influenced by the grime coming out of East London around the time of its release. A little while later, you could hear it being plugged back into the same environments by grime-turned-house DJ Majesty (formerly DJ Pacman of Mucky Wolfpack) at his deep tech night Audiowhore.

The curation of European tracks with this “hard-edged bass sound,” Sean explains, was key to deep tech’s appeal as it took over from funky and soulful house and was popularised by former grime, funky and house DJs. “It was making this London sound more accessible – we lost it with funky, but we can still do something with what we’ve got.” It’s also a style of selection that has many precedents in UK club music history – think of US house and garage being sped and broken up to become UK garage and 2-step, or UK funky DJs playing out drum heavy tracks by US producers like Kerri Chandler, Karizma and Marlon D alongside more stripped back and rough tracks from European funky house like DJ Gregory and Hardsoul, plus the odd electro house track like ‘Rat Alert’ by Jan Driver.

One of deep tech’s most definitive homegrown anthems, and one that captures some of the sonic connections it had with UK funky, was Tazer, ‘Wet Dollars’, originally released on Recess Recordings in 2013. Tazer had previously been known for darkside UK funky tracks like ‘Perca Controle’ and ‘Supreme Being’ on Sun Tribe Terrace, but ‘Wet Dollars’ was a shift in sound that changed his life. Doing away with the loose and organic snares of UK funky, but keeping some of the rhythmic hallmarks, the track centres on syncopated digital drum hits layered up on a simple but industrially charged bass riff. This rhythmic approach to bass, using just a few notes almost like an extra weighty percussion-line, is characteristic of a lot of my favourite deep tech tracks – Jack N Danny’s ‘Wanna Know’, A2H’s ‘Effin Cockneys’, and S.E.F.’s ‘M-O-E’.

"The tracks could be rude, but they could also be the most sophisticated."

Two DJs were pivotal to this shift towards tougher bass sounds, both of which Sean counts among his favourites: Mark Radford and Lee ‘B3’ Edwards. Mark Radford started his Saturday night Rinse FM show in 2011 and his label Audio Rehab in 2012, and is widely regarded as one of the godfathers of deep tech. The early Audio Rehab releases featured UK producers making a mutant form of the tech house he championed: former UK funky producer Carnao Beats’ ‘Just Say Nothing’ stretched, syncopated and plummeted a bass synth up and down the octaves in a way no conservative Euro tech house producer would have dared. The actual feel of this track in a cavernous space was otherworldly, and it was like ‘Wet Dollars’ and Carnao’s other early anthem ‘H.O.U.S.E’ for the big crowd reaction it drew.

As Sean puts it, the producers on Audio Rehab “knew how to use the equipment,” having been in the production game since the early days of UK funky, dubstep, garage, or even jungle. The tracks “could be rude, but they could also be the most sophisticated.” Another standout producer from the beginning of Audio Rehab was RS4, who injected more than a decade of sub-knowledge as Oris Jay and Darqwan into the warp and shuffle of some of the slickest deep tech tracks, like the tough as nails ‘All Around’ and the more laidback ‘Walking On.’

Lee ‘B3’ Edwards is perhaps less well-known to those outside the scene than Radford, but Sean considers him an equally important figure in deep tech and an “unsung UK dance hero”. He drew many of his tracks from the output of House ENT, a label he was closely involved with, and his own imprint Eastside Records. “He was playing the proper bedroom UK stuff, the rudimentary, rough and ready” tracks, Sean tells me, “and some of these tunes aren’t even good, but some of them are fuckin’ slappin’.” This was the biggest appeal of B3’s sets – the raw energy and uncut gems. They were filled with tracks from producers who were new to the game and were learning to create from each other. As Sean puts it, “with the kinda tracks you’d find on Eastside Recordings and House ENT, a guy like Lance Morgan was learning to create off the back of the sound that he was playing a year ago. And certain producers are learning to produce off of tracks that Lance has made.”

Having a somewhat low barrier to entry, with flexible quality control on production and a willingness to run tracks that contain something special even if they’re not all the way there yet, is what Sean sees as a central ingredient for a mass musical movement, time and again. “It’s the only way, it works good and bad… How else you gonna do it, how else you gonna jump on it? From punk with three chords and thinking yeah I can do that – to Jesse Saunders making a tune that everyone thought ‘we can make a better tune than that’… That’s how it spreads init, grime – same ting. Funky – same ting.”

Sean’s right to emphasise this, because most of the deep tech tracks that I love listening back to are the ones that strayed furthest from deep or tech house conventions. Trixz ‘Cry For You’ on B3’s Eastside Records, for example, is disarming in the way it throws almost-off-key Jodeci samples over gritty low-budget synth sounds and jerky FX, in an arrangement that owes more to grime instrumentals than house. Sean also mentions Strange Static in this rough and ready label category, who released my favourite deep tech EP, Hollow One’s ‘Intoxicated’. Hollow One’s tracks seem like the perfect result of not taking things too seriously, sampling the sound of a NOS cannister hissing into a balloon in ‘Physical’ – a staple of deep tech’s auditory environment, like whistles were to hardcore – and layering vocal clips and scattergun snares on top of each other to hallucinatory effect in ‘808’.

With a similarly idiosyncratic approach to production, Paul Robinson – one of the most consistently out-there producers in the scene – did melancholic house well on tracks like ‘Rise’ for House ENT, but also channelled the sci-fi vibes of early acid house into deep tech on his own label Mokujin Recordings. ‘F’in What’ on Mokujin verges on a dubstep-house crossover, grinding, halting and occasionally reaching for deep DnB pads. Admittedly, these weren’t the sorts of tracks you’d routinely hear in the biggest raves or mixes unless these producers were playing them, but the experimental edge of deep tech, also including acts like Studio 37, was where the most fun was to be heard.

Two more producer-DJs in the deep tech scene that Sean reserves special props for both hail from the Midlands. “Arun Verone, I’d say, is probably the best deep tech DJ, ever.” Arun Verone had previously made a name for himself as bassline producer DJ Pantha and transferred bassline’s irreverence into bouncy, groove-laden house tracks, like one of my personal faves ‘The Coming (Keep It Coming)’. Similarly, the prolific X5 Dubs, whose biggest tracks can be found on House ENT or as free downloads on his SoundCloud, moved over from bassline to put a distinctly raucous spin on deep tech. Tracks like ‘I Enter Refix’ and ‘Shapes’ came off almost like a UK take on electro, with reinforced bass, loose hats and hard hitting claps and snares. As Sean puts it, “they [both] have the bassline background in their learning which then, in this context, comes in a different way.” Maybe it’s no coincidence that you can hear a similar vibe, full of swing and unforgiving percussion, running through tracks by Manchester’s Calle Lebraun, like ‘I’m Going Back to Calle’ and ‘Sometimes I (Fantasize) ft Abbee,’ both on MFR Records.

 

Deep tech in the clubs

As Sean explains, deep tech benefitted from the foundations that UK funky and other London house scenes had created sonically, but also in the audiences they had built. Sean names several established house raves – Soul Heaven, Destination House and Rhythm n Funk – that had long been “catering to a black audience” in London, playing mostly soulful house throughout 2007-10, as well as the long-standing Southport Weekender. It was this heritage and infrastructure of house nights and day parties that deep tech emerged into, whilst the DJs pulled the sonics in a tougher and more techy direction.

"It was nuts man, it was ram, it was ram differently… the atmosphere was electric bruv."

Deep tech was the first club scene Sean felt he really needed to absorb in person, and it was his early online descriptions of it that made me feel the same. In 2012, he started working in security for festivals, where he got a sense of how many ravers this new sound was bringing out. He got a group of friends to go to a House ENT night at Club Union in Vauxhall, south London for his birthday the following year. “It was nuts man, it was ram, it was ram differently… the atmosphere was electric bruv.”

Vauxhall was undoubtedly the true home of deep tech. “For the rawest, no dresscode, you just rock up there… it is what it is, Vauxhall was the crowning jewel of that shit.” Club Union and Club No. 65 were at the epicentre, with a dedicated crowd coming at all hours of the clubs’ 24-hour weekend openings. What you found at deep tech raves in Vauxhall was truly representative of London’s inner-city demographic. A few people might have stumbled in, but none were there to observe or spectate. “For one yeah, the ratio demographically is like 70% black. And the white people that are there, they’re not cultural tourists… everyone’s looking in place… even the actual tourists!” The vibe was loose, “people are screwfacing… it’s dance music but it’s got that energy… people were smoking inside the venue, it’s so rammed that you can’t even walk.”

The party at Club Union was one of the first times Sean saw people “cutting shapes” to house music in a club environment. He thought of it as “the perfect expression” to the music and was set on learning it before the next rave. The focus of deep tech nights was the dancing and the interactions between the crowd on the dancefloor as much as, or even more than, the DJs on the lineup. If you didn’t know how to move yet, you better learn. As Sean explains, people were “looking at certain people like, ‘these man don’t even know these tunes, these man don’t even know how to dance.’ I remember two chicks saying that to me, walking past me man. I was like ‘boiiii!’”

The first deep tech night I went to was Ava Word™ at XOYO in east London at the start of 2013. I’d recently got back from a few months living in Berlin, where I’d started to get into house and techno. The vibe of Ava Word™ couldn’t be much further from a Berlin clubnight. No eyes-down techno one-step and quiet reverence for the DJ, Ava Word™ was serious footwork, sunglasses inside and shouting at the headliners to ‘fuck offfffff!’ – or the trademark ‘ava word!’ – every time they dropped a banger. At the time, I couldn’t really tell the music apart from the sort of tech house I’d been hearing in Berlin, but the reactions to it were something else entirely. Whenever I listened back to deep tech sets and mixes on headphones afterwards I was picturing the Ava Word™ crowd going off to it.

"The Coronet was the fucking cauldron, that was the big boy place."

While Ava Word™at XOYO was an introduction to the atmosphere, it was the first event I went to at The Coronet (Audiowhore) that sent me to my backyard night after night in the following weeks to practice my shuffle. Whereas clubs in Vauxhall had capacities in the hundreds, The Coronet had space for literally thousands of ravers. The first thing to hit you in the space was the sheer number of people cutting shapes on the floor.

“Coronet is No. 65 time ten… The Coronet was the fucking cauldron, that was the big boy place,” Sean enthuses. A former theatre, the venue was a well-established institution in Elephant and Castle, south London, first built in 1872 and operating as a nightclub from 2003-2018 with a unique art-deco architecture. Over the years it provided a slightly surreal home for anything from crusty psytrance raves to dancehall and reggaeton nights for the local black and Latin communities. It was a difficult venue to police due to its labyrinthine layout, so there was usually a slightly lawless energy inside, and deep tech events were no different. I described to Sean how my first time there was a bit of a shock to the system, he agreed and compared it to other cavernous venues.

“I was intimidated going there bruv,” Sean tells me, “it’s intimidating seeing such a reckless abandon for law, and people doing whatever they want. The throng of people – the whole thing was exciting. The elements of like, okay there might be some shady people. There are people here for the music, there are people here that have just stumbled in on it. The build-up and the mix was just crazy man. Coronet is just one of them clubs, I don’t know, like Opera House or Scala, it’s moody init. But if you can avoid it, and really, you can always avoid certain shit – you have to be a bit smart, d’you know what I mean? But it was a good night.”

Another key venue for the London house scene and, unlike many others, one that remains open now, is Great Suffolk Street Warehouse (aka the Tunnels or GSS). After The Coronet was closed through a project to gentrify the area that ruthlessly displaced its black and Latin communities, the Tunnels became the home of underground deep tech brand House of Silk. This is run by DJ S, a mainstay of British dance music also widely known in garage for his mix CDs on the legendary Pure Silk compilations. Right up until the pandemic hit House of Silk was regularly selling out the Tunnels, with a capacity of 3,000 – few dance events in London consistently match that scale – and already has similar size post-pandemic events planned.

Sean points out that the same went for Steven Cee and DJ Majesty’s events Audiowhore and Siesta, also finding homes at The Coronet and the Tunnels. At the height of deep tech these parties were keeping up with long-established global house brands that far exceeded them on resources and had access to more conventionally well-regarded clubs and venues in London. “Audiowhore… was a roadblock. Bigger than a FUSE London or Secret Sundaze. It’s rivalling CircoLoco events in London. That’s a really big deal, and they’re getting no coverage.”

 

Music media ignorance

This brings me to another point I was keen to talk to Sean about, and one that was carefully dissected in Rosh’s letter: the media coverage of deep tech. Sean was one of a very small number of people who wrote about this scene and sound while it was going on in a nuanced and well-researched way. He saw it for what it was – a new development in London and the UK’s dance music history – and went out of his way to persuade other writers and music lovers to do the same through the aforementioned forum. There was a wealth of media and clickbait coverage out there that focused solely on the dance people were doing to it and the apparent controversy surrounding it, and practically nothing that mentioned the music itself.

To gather a bit of context on how this went on, it’s important to get reacquainted with the mood of the times around shuffling in the early to mid-2010s. Sean sums up the overall vibe as “racism and snobbery” which came from people within predominantly white house music scenes. This was directed at the new demographics who had largely been introduced to house through deep tech, as Sean says, “the London lot” of “black inner-city people” and the “white inner-city people” of east London, Essex and the surrounding areas. These were the people unpretentiously “having it” at house events, with less studied knowledge of the recent European history of house.

“When house did kick off you’ve got a lot of people, even myself included, it’s like, where can we take in house? House is such a… there’s so many different types, and that’s why it ticked off or rubbed some people’s noses the wrong way. Because you’ve got a bunch of people who started listening to house maybe through Mark Radford. And they’ve got no idea who the fuck Ricardo Villalobos is. And they’re saying, Mark Radford’s the best house DJ ever, and if Mark Radford, or B3, or Majesty’s not on the night, it’s a shit night. And we’re gonna come into your party and start shuffling the place up. Bunning zoots and smoking blem, that type of vibe init… So there was that kinda ‘these people are invading the house scene’ vibe, definitely.”

As deep tech converted more and more ravers from grime and UK funky to house, and house’s overall popularity swelled to a mass musical movement, the shuffling that the new house contingent were doing to the music became a vehicle for the racism and classism of the white middle class and European house listeners in London, who felt that their music and spaces were being invaded by people they didn’t like. This started with “snootiness” and people “turning up their nose,” towards shufflers, as Sean puts it, to more blatant racism and classism. The people shuffling to deep tech were ridiculed and the dance was characterised as invasive – physically maybe, but socially and culturally first and foremost. Sean points me to this image of the Anti-Foot Shuffling Campaign on Facebook (the page was eventually deleted) archived by Marcus Barnes in an article in 2013 about shuffle snobbery. The focus on clothing and ‘what comes with’ the shuffling was a blatant expression of dog whistle racism and classism; ‘London’s current virus’ a trope of more insidious xenophobia.

(Photo credit: Marcus Barnes)

The racism and classism of the shuffling controversy was perceptively analysed by Greg Wilson on his blog at the time, and he drew comparisons and connections between the anti-shuffling snobbery through the early 2010s to the erasure of black people from the story of house music’s introduction to the UK in the 1980s in Manchester. As Sean reiterates in our conversation, the shuffling that people did to deep tech was a direct descendant of the dances of black collectives like Foot Patrol, a Manchester dance crew from the ‘80s that Wilson references. Sean concedes that if you can’t shuffle well “it is kinda in your face, and you could be doing that in the wrong place and stepping on people’s shoes.” But on the whole, it was a serious art and community building practice for London’s house ravers. “There were classes like Housewarmers in Elephant and Castle/Peckham that people were going to. They were fostering a sense of community. They would meet up once a week and battle and then at the club they would tear it down. Guys like Kassidy Chapz and Evolution became actual faces in the dance, like low key club celebs.” In 2014, The New British put out a poignant documentary, ‘RELEASE’, where a crew of dancers who called Club No. 65 in Vauxhall home (some of whom danced at Housewarmers) described what shuffling and the house scene meant to them: a mode of self-expression; an escape from difficult circumstances; a way to meet new people.

It’s heart-wrenching to recall what they came up against. The shuffle-snobbery escalated into a very British racism and classism as it became adopted as policy by clubs and nights trying to appease their white and middle class audiences, or forced to adhere to racist restrictions by the police. As Sean recalls, “it wasn’t just don’t come in shuffling,” it was the banning of “anyone wearing an Armani bag, a man bag, wearing shades, that kind of stuff.” Again, Marcus Barnes and Sean deserve credit for saving images like these that capture the prevailing mood of the white house ‘establishment’ at the time.

(Left photo credit: Marcus Barnes)
(Photos below credit: Marcus Barnes & Sean Piffen)

Sean also points me to one of the most egregious examples, Circo Loco’s policy announcement that they would be ‘maintaining’ their ‘“Ibiza” or “regular”’ audience (see photo on right), instructing their security staff to screen people at the door who did not fit their ‘Established [sic] customer profile’. The screenshot is taken from one of Funk Butcher’s tweets, where he rhetorically asked people to offer their interpretation of what the customer notice could mean. Sean sends me other tweets and retweets by long-established black house DJs like Kismet and Sef Kombo highlighting the policy’s racism.

(Photo credit: Funk Butcher)

There are nuances to this, which Sean is keen to make clear. With house becoming the go-to party sound for London and the UK’s larger cities, some of the beef that arises from deep-rooted race and class-based inequality was more likely to occur at or in proximity to the raves, especially at the apex of house’s popularity in the UK as a whole. Any “bad vibes,” Sean says, “didn’t come from shuffling, it came from trendy gangsters, basically, coming to raves cause it’s the new in-thing and loads of girls are there.”

Clickbait journalism and half-baked polemics repeated the classist and racist tropes of the anti-shuffling brigade: Unilad ran an article titled ‘The UNILAD Guide To Being a Shuffling Twat’ and the now-defunct Breaks Mag went with ‘Deep House and Deeper V-Necks’. What was most disappointing to see was people in the wider music press adopting the same language, positions and general reluctance to dig into the music that significant numbers of the dancers were shuffling to. A Mixmag article had tech house down as ‘Japanese knotweed’ and conflated the former grime producers of deep tech with the house establishment they were being excluded from. Even the articles that were broadly sympathetic to shuffling, on larger and smaller platforms, didn’t actually get to the deep tech scene that catalysed it. A listicle in the Guardian noted the racist overtones of the shuffling controversy as an intro to a light rundown of other trends in club culture to be banned from raves. Clive Martin’s 2013 article on shuffling for Vice named the clubs and areas that were important to the scene, interviewed a well-known shuffling crew and perceived the class and race warfare at the anti-shuffling issue’s heart. But he never looked into the most important aspect – the music that the most well-known shufflers were dancing to – namechecking Julio Bashmore, Eats Everything and Hot Creations instead.

This type of coverage was the norm, skating across the furore surrounding the shuffle and, unwittingly or not, encouraging the attitude that a working class and black music scene was not to be treated seriously as a cultural movement. In contrast, Sean’s writing about deep tech was a proper dive into the artists and DJs that were being ignored. He had also wanted to cover the pivotal labels, but this didn’t fit the editorial slant media publications were looking for at the time. “To take a scene seriously, you want the kinda coverage that reflects it seriously. You don’t want it to be mentioned in a sideswiping send-up article.” Sean wanted to see journalism that wasn’t just about “the personalities,” but instead “about the sound, about the music.”

Though they were smashing it on the underground through their own network of nights in London, deep tech artists and DJs didn’t get booked to the same lucrative international festival circuits that white UK house and techno artists did. They created their own ecosystems and forged the next step in London’s club culture following on from grime and UK funky, but didn’t reap the benefits due to the lack of media coverage. When crews like House ENT went to Ibiza, as Lee B3 Edwards describes, they pulled through racist hostility to create busy beach party crowds on the doorstep of mainstream house events. “These man did well for themselves,” Sean says, “it’s just unfortunate that, if they did get that look in from some of the gatekeepers and the big boys at the table, they could have done a lot more.”

More crucially, the lack of serious and well-researched media coverage culminated in cultural erasure. “If you’re not reading about it, and you’re not seeing it or experiencing it, you wouldn’t know it exists. So you wouldn’t even know that, rah, DJ Pioneer is actually like, a legend.” As Sean says, this causes “a disconnect between the music of my generation and people older than me and the young lot coming through … they call it untz untz music … they think house is white people’s music and they think house and garage is white people’s music.”

“That’s the thing with the UK: because people might not get written about and covered in the way they should, you don’t even know who your own legends are. Then it comes to a point that an entire culture and way of learning is just not passed on from generation to generation. And that’s what it’s come to now, because I can’t really see the youngers coming out with a new brand of dance music.”

Sean thinks this goes “beyond racial lines” to class. When dealing with UK music, the media usually look for “a middle-class representation” of it, which means “they’re gonna miss a lot of shit, or they’re only going to slant it towards one way of pushing the agenda, so you’re not getting the whole thing. Journalism definitely, is a middle-class playground.”

“It would be all well and good if the music industry or music journalism was middle class and was full of people that were actually self-aware and took time to either ensure the right people were telling the stories, or they had the good intentions to go out and get the full story. That would be perfect. But it doesn’t break that way unfortunately – and that’s the real problem.”

Journalists set the agenda for deep tech house in the UK: shuffling was a silly dance craze and there wasn’t anything more to it. The black and working class DJs and producers of the deep tech scene underpinning London and the UK’s house movement missed out on the rewards any sustained and scene-focused media would have generated.

 

Deep tech and the hardcore continuum

It’s virtually impossible to get into discussions on the recent history of British dance music without someone mentioning ‘the hardcore continuum’. From 1992 to 1999, Simon Reynolds wrote a series of articles for The Wire about the development of a set of music scenes, sounds and subgenres that he would retrospectively group together as the hardcore continuum. This was ‘a musical tradition/subcultural tribe’ that was the British equivalent to hip hop or reggae: ‘a musical system that endures while evolving at an insane rate.’ It began with ‘bleep tunes from the North East, breakbeat house and ragga techno from London’ and evolved into hardcore, jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, garage and grime, whilst maintaining much of the same personnel (artists, DJs and promoters) and much of the same musical infrastructure (pirate radio, record shops and clubs in less gentrified city areas). Reynolds wrote extensively on this musical culture, placing it rightly into a developing history of British ‘working class leisure’ and expounding on it with references to cultural theory and aesthetic philosophy.

In 2009 Reynolds and others debated the hardcore continuum at a symposium organised by FACT Mag. Here, where it was discussed as a theory of the links between these genres, it was noted by participants like Jeremy Gilbert that much of the debate focused on London’s latest musical developments. Reynolds was not convinced by UK funky, stating that it was ‘demographically and geographically … squarely in the continuum’ with an ‘overlap of personnel with earlier phases,’ but that he thought its strongly house-influenced sound was ‘too mature, too slinky and sophisticated’ to be part of the continuum proper (although years later he came around to deep tech). Other prominent figures, like influential and well-respected cultural theorist Mark Fisher, felt similarly about UK funky. Fisher wrote in FACT Mag that funky sounded ‘arid, undercooked and tasteful.’ It felt like a vague aversion to house music was blinkering white theorists and critics who had previously been strong advocates for emergent black and working class dance scenes, and this set the tone for much of the music media familiar with the hardcore continuum in the following years.

"The hardcore continuum is real as shit"

To someone looking for media coverage of what the ‘personnel’ in the continuum were doing around this time, the hardcore continuum debate, as insightful on the earlier genres as it was, felt like a distraction. The best resources on UK funky and London’s house scene came from people closer to the scene – conversations between the DJs and producers, such as this interview by Martin Clark, writing by funky documentarians Makeda ‘Queen of Sheba’ Wilson and UKFunky.net (which later became Soundplate.com), and later video interviews by Theo ‘Stretch’ Lewis for Locate Your Shoot, one half of the aforementioned Studio 37.

For Sean, there is no question of the overall continuum’s realness or importance, but it’s where emphasis and credit is given that was often misplaced. “The hardcore continuum is real as shit,” he says, but adds, “I’d prefer a better name for it that actually gave homage to the Windrush generation, because without them none of this shit would be here.” The Windrush generation’s impact was clear in Reynolds’ accounts of the continuum. They made soundsystems and dance music an integral part of Britain’s sonic and cultural identity, and you can hear the samples, syncopation and bass pressure of West Indian genres like ragga, dancehall and soca throughout the genres that were grouped together as the hardcore continuum, from jungle and drum ‘n bass, to garage, dubstep and grime.

Deep tech DJs and producers drew heavily on techniques and sounds inherited from these earlier UK dance genres – sets were often hosted by MCs, DJs often went for faster blends, harder buildups and cuts than your conventional house DJ, and the tracks crossed rap and RnB samples with heavy bass pressure. Some producers directly sampled and referenced these recent subgenres. Max Britton’s facemelting ‘Filthy Games’ clips the same vocal sample from Montana Sextet feat. Nadiyah’s ‘Who Needs Enemies’ as Studio 2’s 1993 hardcore track ‘Dirty Games’. Listen out for the Wiley drum hits in Majesty’s ‘Less Is More’. Watch this video of Jack N Danny’s ‘Rhythm N Gash’ deep tech edit and try not to tell me to fuck off. In this way deep tech was, as Sean says, “a perfect expression of British dance culture,” exactly the kind of music that “you would expect to come out of the same cycle” of working class and black artists in the UK putting their spin on contemporary house.

It’s fun to piece the samples and references together, but emphasising deep tech’s links to these earlier subgenres as a critical end in itself feels entirely reductive. When approaching and trying to understand new musical developments, questions of authenticity that revolve only around sonic lineage are the wrong ones to try to answer. For Sean, crucially, the musical culture of London’s multicultural working class is the hardcore continuum, whatever it sounds like. “If the music is coming from those people, then automatically it classifies as hardcore continuum, regardless of what you think about it. It’s coming from the same source.” In that period of the 2010s, deep tech had nearly everyone in that demographic producing house, “the same way that drill just sucked up the vacuum of people that might have been making grime … deep tech sucked up that vacuum of people.”

For these reasons, this music was part of the same recent history of London’s multicultural working class dance music, whether you liked house or not. The fundamental part of the original hardcore continuum theory that music writers and my fellow obsessives could do with keeping hold of, is that it tried to engage seriously with black and working class dance scenes, openly and with the music and culture put first.

 

Space for house in a new environment

The last deep tech night I went to was House of Silk in 2017, where many of the same anthems from a few years earlier were still on rotation, and the crowd had become a bit more home counties and seemed less committed to the shuffle. The last house rave Sean could remember going to was before the scene seemed to him to be tailing off, around 2016. At that time he started to feel that parts of the scene were tending towards a more commercial style. “Money is what spun it off in the end, with events like Audiowhore changing their sound to more of a tech house sound. Because eventually you come to this stage where it’s like, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I think that happened to a lot of these guys.”

Sean doesn’t rule out the possibility that the overall lack of media coverage, and the unchallenged negative attention they were getting from the white house scene, may have blunted deep tech’s more experimental and unique edges. He imagines the thinking that may have prevailed. “If you wanna get the look-ins and you want to take it to the next level, then we gotta start playing tech house. And maybe if we all start playing tech house we might lose some of the people doing a madness.”

Linked to this was the closure of key venues for the deep tech scene through aggressive council and police tactics. In this House ENT documentary, deep tech producer Anticx describes how it was predominantly high-profile commercial house events such as FUSE that had been able to survive recently in an environment where London’s clubs were being rapidly closed, and connects this to a loss of diversity in the sounds that were being pushed. “The councils and the police have had a major input in closing down a lot of venues,” Anticx says, “half of the venues that were around back then don’t even exist now, or they’ve probably been turned into your local Tesco Metro. So, you know, events now, they’re a bit more watered down in that sense, that people want to play it safe.”

"I’m more curious to see if [house] music can come back into these communities again, and if so, how."

Under a crony capitalist system that lurches on, the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to intensify issues of gentrification and venue closures in the UK. The rate of unlicensed parties, which was already creeping up in London in response to a lack of spaces, seems sure to increase in the next few years. With clubs shut or continuing with socially distanced seated events, the only places for dancing now are streets and secluded parties. Sean is watching closely for the next developments in this context, and whether house could see a mass return to London’s black and working class club culture.

“You can’t stop people, and people are going to be more creative about it. You’ve got all these block parties happening… These are people that just live in an area or on an estate and people come out with decks, a mixer, a couple speakers. So people definitely want to come out, and hopefully the conditions will be in play, whether legally or illegally, for people to start doing shit again. I’m more curious to see if [house] music can come back into these communities again, and if so, how.”

The music media system that ignored deep tech and erased black and working class DJs and artists seems to have begun its own reckoning. Sean is looking forward to major shifts in the music industry as a result of the lockdown and the ongoing protests. “Chaos is a ladder init. So people are always going to be able to pattern up, and I hope they do… I’m on Twitter a lot and the way that conversations are taking place – it’s quite heated and the lines are drawn. You’ve gotta think that something’s gonna come out of this.” The black radio station No Signal and the upcoming #blackout issue of Mixmag, edited by Funk Butcher, are the first things he’s pleased to see being lifted out of the debris.

I wrote this article for a few reasons. First and foremost was to try to get across, with Sean’s insights, what made deep tech one of the most exciting UK club culture movements of the past decade. The story of UK funky is often told as a genre that burned brightly then mysteriously vanished. In fact, funky and soulful house laid the groundwork for a London hood house takeover, which was at the core of house music’s popularity across the whole of the UK by the middle of the decade. Deep tech DJs drew for the harder, bass-heavy side of European deep and tech house, recontextualising these tracks into a different whole, and inspiring a new wave of UK producers from garage, grime and funky to put their spin on these sounds. The tracks that followed were products of the same sonic environment: often drawing for grimey synths and rhythmic bass; taking an irreverent approach to house conventions. Deep tech was part of a sea change that Sean and I could barely scratch on in two hours. There are many more artists, DJs and labels that I’m sure other people will highlight as the written coverage this scene has long been overdue comes out.

Beyond the sound, it was the raves, the shuffling and the community of dancers that emerged around deep tech that made it a full-blown cultural movement. The shuffle might have ended up virtually everywhere in the UK shortly afterwards, but the deep tech scene was where it started, via the dance lineage of the black and working class house scenes of the ‘80s. Deep tech clubnights and raves were full of movement; they were unpretentious places to cut loose and cut shapes. The emphasis on dancing built community and held focus on the self-expression of the people on the floor rather than just the DJs in the booth.

I also wrote this piece to give a shout out to Sean. The deep tech tracks I’ve mentioned here were some of my favourite dance tracks of that decade, which I wouldn’t have uncovered without Sean’s recommendations, and as a newcomer to London nor would I have known where to go to hear them. As a journalist Sean perceived these house tracks and raves, at an early point, as the next step from UK funky in London’s musical trajectory. He also became an advocate for the scene, repeatedly pointing out what was going on and what was being missed to other aspiring and established music journalists. 

Partly as a result of this, deep tech changed the way I looked at both the music media and the hardcore continuum. The only type of music writing that deserves to be taken seriously, as Sean summarises, is that which looks at things broadly, at the connections between artists, labels and scenes, honestly appraising the material circumstances they’re working within. The debate over the hardcore continuum theory and its rightful genre-heir, just as UK funky and London’s house scene was getting into its stride, played a part in the media’s blindspots. The general questioning of these genres’ sonic links with the continuum theory unfortunately aligned with a broad backlash against working class and black people in house scenes. For me, what Sean highlights about the continuum is the most essential part to remember: that it was a multicultural working class London and UK that created these musical developments. If you’re trying to locate the next phases of that musical culture in a different demographic, you’re getting it wrong from the start.

The snobbery and discrimination that was hurled at shufflers and new house fans in London and across the UK throughout the mid-2010s was clear to see – many writers commented on it one way or another, some went towards challenging it. But even the sections of the music media that didn’t blindly regurgitate the derision still didn’t dig into the music. This was a colossal disservice to the deep tech DJs, producers, promoters and dancers who persevered through a heavy storm of racism, classism and erasure to create one of London’s largest and most vital music scenes of the 2010s.

Thanks to Sean for his additional words and feedback on this article and Rosh for his comments.