Listen to the show below – Phonetics DJs (Chris, Danny, Stoaty)
Back in the early 2000s Sheffield nightlife scene was a very different place. CDJs were relatively un-trusted, Hip Hop & DnB were the main styles of underground music. Dubstep was unheard of and everyone smoked in the clubs whether intentionally or passively.
Phonetics was the staple Sheffield Saturday night for anyone into Hip Hop. UK Hip Hop was gaining huge momentum with artist like Roots Manuva Ty, Jehst & Braintax showing that while we all loved the classic US Boom Bap sound the UK had something serious to offer.
With a perfect balance of UK and international artists I was exposed to many of the big names in the Hip Hop scene in this 500 capacity venue where it felt like everyone knew everyone else.
As the scene developed bookings at the night did too bringing in the emerging broken beat music that had very few outlets outside of the capital along with some amazing vocalists and performers to the humble Sheffield stage.
For the last few months I have spotlighted some of the DJs and artists that have helped mould the Sheffield music scene on my UK Mondo show. Phonetics was obviously was very high on that list. I caught up with Chris Welch ahead of their guest mix to quiz him about the Phonetics days.
- I know there was a few of you involved but where did the Phonetics idea and model come from?
CW: In terms of the people, it actually started out as a Monday night at The Casbah. Think we used to get about 30 people in! Originally it was started by Levi Bussue and Steve Marks. I’d just moved to Sheffield and was looking for places to DJ at and I got taken for a half a pint by them and paid about £4 for the first night so was impressed straight away! Nights like the Tuesday Club were in their infancy (yep that long ago) and there were already nights such as NY Sushi around but there was the emerging UK hip hop sound that Riles and Levi, in particular, were pushing. What I loved about it at first was the lack of strategy (unless I was missing something) and they just gave us total freedom to play what we wanted. We were just excited about the music we were playing and being able to do so at our own nights!
We moved to a Thursday and for a time just tried to do as much stuff in different places as a unit as possible. But the Casbah was where the core group of DJs were formed: me, Danny Mager, Riles and Levi – later on DJs such as Stoaty and Matt Garber played with us too after we had moved to Saturdays at Po Na Na.
Steve left and a bloke called Stuart ran it alongside Levi. It became Phonetics and it stayed there for about 4 years. It’s hard to believe now that a night playing the music we did ran for that amount of time as a weekly…some of our guests were known and pulled a crowd but others were not well known at all. I guess it was before late bars so it was either go to a club or go home and as much as all of us love free stuff, there’s something about paying to get in somewhere that you give it more of a chance. We kept the entrance fee low (Levi operated on 1980s Yorkshire prices) and the crowd was a diverse mix of music heads, stoners (early doors would involve big fugs of smoke around the seating area), a bunch of then school-kids who we found out later were far too young to be in there but who just loved the music, students and people who seemed to chance upon it, loved it and kept coming back. There was no dress code or any of that bollocks and when rappers asked for a VIP area they often were left sorely disappointed.
Levi was the driving force musically behind the night. He’d get bored really easily, would only put on stuff that he was excited about and would always look to keep expanding what we were playing and putting on…I think at times we lost the crowd with some of the acts we were excited about but the crowd weren’t but it was all with good intentions! After Po Na Na closed down we did a few bits and pieces at various venues and were moving more into a live music direction but suitable venues were an issue. The final night we did was with a live performance from this mental Japanese jazz band called Soil & Pimp Sessions which was like jazz with a punk mentality. They ripped the place up, 90 minutes of fire and no encores (although maybe that had something to do with them mistaking my raw pork steaks for their rider and eating the lot!) and that seemed a good place to finish. At one point Phonetics was running in three cities and were heavily involved in events like The Big Bang at the Ski Village. In our fourth year we’d sort of weathered a storm but then the club’s ownership and reputation became a problem which kind of ended things prematurely.
It was just brilliant good fun, exciting music and something we all cared deeply about. Like all good club nights, it was messy, honest and heartfelt rather than corporate, slick and soulless – sometimes it was all over the place but it was full of good people and when a small community forms for a period of time out of a club night and it feels like it matters to people then that’s a really good feeling. We’ve toyed with the idea of doing one-off reunion nights but we are not that big on nostalgia and actually we just sat there coming up with acts and music we like now so it perhaps wouldn’t work in that way. Maybe one day it will happen. It’s nice to dig out some of those old tunes for the show though as most of them are gathering dust and sitting pretty on the shelves at home.
Levi: Phonetics was all about co-operation with other nights in the city during that time. We all had our rivalries but, for example, I was always forcing Maley (Tuesday Club) away from his degree and we were all out promoting Phonetics and Tuesday Club…one helped the other so it made sense and it led to Double Cooked at the National Centre for Pop Music…remember that place? We did other collaborations too including Big Bang with NY Sushi and nights just called Sheffield at the Uni with Remedy as well. Plus some really good joint NYE with Scuba who were upstairs in the same club. At one point, we were all sharing the same office space. We also gave an outlet to many local and breakthrough artists, all female line ups and wanted to push what we had rather than just always bringing in ‘names’. We got known for the hip hop originally but actually for the first few years we had a proper jazz dance night involved too with Mark Jones and Mr Skip doing a monthly so it’s not entirely accurate.
We took Phonetics abroad to Le Big Bang in France and other cities around the UK and I really liked the flyers we were producing – we were getting quite political with some of them– our one of Bush in a Nazi pose and the words ‘Dance While You Still Can’ was apparently seen on the million man march against the Iraq War in 2003.
- Which are the stand-out artists that you had play for you guys?
Levi and CW: Think Mark B (RIP) & Blade sticks in the memory due to it being a night when I think it was clear we were onto something. The early hip hop nights with people like Taskforce were raw and just had these kids who were so passionate about the music. Roots Manuva (around the time ‘Witness’ was released) played our first birthday and it was about 150 over capacity, sweaty beyond belief and just gloriously messy. Saian Supa Crew – this French hip hop group that were used to playing in massive venues – came and just destroyed it and opened up a whole new dimension for us in the things we felt we could do. Fat Freddy’s Drop, who Levi booked after hearing one track was a bit of a risk as it was a Saturday night and we’ve got this unknown kiwi spaced out reggae 8 piece band with one 12” single out that we’d picked up from The Store all squeezed onto a stage that wasn’t really a stage. Then there was the whole short-lived Brazilian DnB thing – Fernanda Porto and Mad Zoo, Drumagick they were brilliant, they were very humble and just excited to be playing – no sense of entitlement that you get with some DJs – their energy and vibe just won everyone over straight away.
- The Broken Beat scene was always accused of being too London centric and insular. How did you find booking these artists and putting them on to a crowd 200 miles up the road from London?
CW: Difficult at times! We loved that music from the start and those tunes still stand the test of time. I remember clearing a floor in the first few weeks of Phonetics by playing Afronaught’s ‘Transcend Me’..the whole dancefloor walked off to get a drink! I think we put off some of the hip hop crowd with our excitement about it but you can’t stand still when it comes to music. We booked a lot of DJs working around this scene: Dego, Seiji, Phil Asher, Bugz in the Attic, Patrick Forge, Benji B…some had already worked out that South Yorkshire wasn’t Plastic People and adapted well – we had Seiji, Benji B and Spacek back, Bugz in the Attic did a live thing which went off…Others were a bit too militant and had come to play their broken beat white labels regardless of whether the club was emptying. It was a bit of a shame as it could have been so much more and, in the end, petered out. Having lived in London, I understood the mentality but just feel it sometimes alienated people with its ‘Don’t you get it?’ mentality. Having said that, when you’re sticking your neck out and just making exciting music that you want to make then why compromise?
By the time we finished up though, I think we got a partial success as tunes such as 4 Hero’s ‘Hold it Down’, Seiji’s stuff, loads of Bugz stuff and Zero DB’s remix of Suba’s ‘Samba do gringo de Paulista’ became Phonetics anthems.
Levi: Actually one of the best nights we ever had was when the entire Bugz in the Attic crew came with Lyric L and Kaidi Tatham on Keys and drums. Pete Simpson jumped on the mic with them and they all just smashed it and we continued way beyond opening hours as people wouldn’t leave.
- What artists are still getting you excited about music these days?
CW: Too many! I love the resurgent jazz stuff at the moment: Kamasi Washington, Sons of Kemet, Theo Croker, Moses Boyd etc…people who wouldn’t have checked it out a few years ago are giving it a chance so that’s great. I love it when music I like does well and, you know, the artist gets to survive and make more great music!
There’s load of incredible soul music too such as Hiatus Kaiyote out of Melbourne – if we were still running Phonetics we’d have sold our shoes to put them on! – Michael Kiwanuka, Anderson Paak, Harleighblu, Adrian Younge.
I like some of the footwork stuff and beats stuff like Flying Lotus, Kaytranada etc. And then there’s loads of afro-influenced stuff that just works so well on dancefloors. Check out a track by London Afrobeat Collective called Oye (iZem remix)…that’s the sort of stuff which, when I hear it, all I can think of is when I can get to play it out. Then usually it bombs…BUT later people like it.
You’ve got to check out these gents called Future Wildstyle as well!
Levi: Loads of stuff but one label whose stuff I’m loving is Mello Music group…good quality hip hop and soul out of the US.
- I have guested a few times on your Sheffield Live show. Along with this what are you guys up to musically right now.
Well, Danny is still DJing – you can catch him warming up the room for Thundercat in Leeds in August…I’m playing out quite a bit still, doing my latin music thing, Soul Rebels in Leeds which is a great live music meets club thing put on by the legendary DJ Lubi. Me and Danny play over there and you’re a regular guest too!
Am also at the Kabal Tramlines thing and was really chuffed to get invited to play their last party earlier this year! Love them lot. Then am with you at Cut Chemist and Soundwave Festival in August. So that’s all lovely – I still love DJing and don’t have any plans to stop…perhaps when my hearing goes and I can’t hear the kids calling me names in my day job (teacher). Actually that might come in handy! Riles is a Dad now and Levi is learning the giant orchestral harp for a solo project called ‘The Peruvian in an Indigo Mood’ – he’s like the new Alice Coltrane but with a Yorkshire accent*. We did an album under the name Phuture Motion about 5 or 6 years ago which is shockingly still available at all good online stores or via me for a quid or two. I’m proud of that album actually but at the moment we haven’t got any plans to do some more…we shall see!
*May not be true.
Jon Phonics – Seeta
Champion – Chrome
Majora – Moves On (Killjoy Remix)
Top cat – Request The Style (Special Request Remix)
Deekline & Specimen A Feat. Rubi Dan – Ra Ra Ra
Pharaoh K – Duke
Negativ – Stealth VIP
Jon Phonics – Ka$h Money
Omar – I Want It To Be (Scratch Professer Retwist)
Thatmanmonkz – A Fly New Tune
Old School Hip Hop Mix
1) Das Efx – Represent The Real (Featuring KRS-One)
2) Tha Alkaholiks – Make Room
3) Beatnuts- Watch Out Now
4) Das EFX – They Want EFX
5) Cypress Hill – How i could just kill a man
6) A Tribe Called Quest – Award Tour
7) Lords Of The Underground – Flow On(Pete Rock Remix)
8) Nas – Halftime
9) Craig Mack – Flava In Ya Ear
10) N.W.A – Express Yourself
11) Nice & Smooth – Hip Hop Junkies
12) Capone N Noreaga Invincible
13) Biz Markie – Turn The Party Out
14) Camp Lo – Say Word (feat. Jungle Brown)
15) Pete Rock & CL Smooth – T.R.O.Y. (They reminisce over you)
16) Main Source – Looking At The Front Door
17) The Pharcyde- Soul Flower (Remix)
18) Rakim – Guess Who’s Back
19) Mos Def – Mathematics
20) Afu-Ra – Poisonous Taoist
21) Original Flavor – Can I Get Open