by Jem, with much help from Ced & Cyril
Thank you friends!
Before even beginning to tell the story of Beauty and the Beat, we want to list as many as possible of the friends without whom it would never have been possible, and never will be. These are the people who have helped us move speakers, decorate venues, prepare buffets, fill dancefloors and generally be what we are. We’re bound to have missed someone off – if we have we’re really sorry and please tell us so we can amend immediately. Thank you all so much!
Estelle du Boulay
Fong Ying Lam
Now for the story…
Beauty and the Beat has its roots in a long, broad tradition that includes the spiritual jazz of the Coltranes and Sun Ra; the trance-rhythms and rebel rock infusing so much African, Caribbean, Latin and Brazilian music; the countercultural matrix of acid rock, fusion and psychedelic funk; the underground river that flows through disco, house, techno and other electronica; the experimental cyberfunk of Kraftwerk, Can and their descendants. It’s an Afro-psychedelic tradition that values creative, intense, hypnotic and celebratory musics as means for bringing people together, while enabling them to enjoy their differences. It’s a tradition in which we experience togetherness as a mode of true freedom as well as physical joy. Or in other words: free your mind, and your ass will follow ! (Or indeed vice-versa). Oh yes!
BATB has taken inspiration from many sources, but two parties in particular stand out as crucial. The Loft -David Mancuso’s long-running underground disco party in New York City- has been a key source for almost all of dance music culture, indirectly or directly, since its inception in 1970. Cedric first met David and danced at the Loft on a visit to New York around 2001, shortly after he moved to London from his native France. I had lived in London for years already, and although Ced and I didn’t meet till 2003, we were already hanging out at some of the same clubs, and were on the paths that would bring us together soon enough. In particular, in 2002 I became part of the group (including Tim Lawrence and Colleen Murphy) who would bring David to London for regular parties for several years starting in 2003. You can read all about how that started at: http://testpressing.org/2015/06/the-loft-colleen-murphy-in-conversation-with-tim-lawrence/.
At the same time, from around 2001, Cedric was attending the very important ‘Balance’ nights at Plastic People, of which I had, by chance, attended the the very first of, a couple of years earlier. Cyril, a friend of his from France, was visiting Ced regularly, hanging out at Balance and at Ced’s house parties, eventually moving in with him for a few crucial months in 2004, when he would really receive a kind of crash course in music and DJ-ing from Ced, and was also able to develop his own style and interests very quickly. Ced was also running and DJ-ing the ‘Voices’ parties with his friends John and Alex, at Plastic People. Thinking about it, I guess the example of Voices, and maybe also, more famously, Body & Soul (the legendary NYC deep house party run by Danny Krivit, Francois K and Joe Claussell), must eventually have influenced our assumption that a party that was organised by 3 main ‘musical hosts’ ( to use Mancuso’s expression), with very little input from guest DJs who didn’t know the party and the crowd, was an ideal format. It’s certainly worked for us.
How it all began: from house parties to BATB
Personally I had been on the rave scene since the early 90s and had even written a book about it (with Ewan Pearson ) which was published in 1999, but had always been frustrated by a number of aspects of that culture. In London in particular, there almost seemed to be an inverse relationship between a party having a strong countercultural identity and it having music that many people would actually want to dance to, and that was also formally interesting. I’d got tired of the machismo on the jungle scene and while the trance scene was full of nice people, the music was dreadful -super-white, funkless, sexless. At home I would listen to deep house stations like Pleasure FM but I couldn’t bear clubs like the Ministry of Sound where their music would actually get played – they were just yuppy meat-markets on the whole. Back in the early 90s some of the UK free party crews like DiY in Nottingham were playing deep house, but in London that music was usually seen as strictly for nice boys and girls in smart shirts and slinky dresses.
Around 2000, Lazy Dog at the Notting Hill Arts Club was a welcome exception, where deep house was mixed up for a committed party crowd that was socially mixed and always friendly, and would queue around the block for hours to get in on a Sunday afternoon! I wouldn’t know it till years later, but Ced and I must have been in those queues together more than once. But Lazy Dog still suffered from the problem that bedevilled every single British dance music event in any genre – a crappy sound system that always made me wish I was at home dancing to my hi-fi…which quite often, when not out raving or clubbing, and along with up to 100 mates at a time, I actually was. So hearing David Mancuso play, learning about the Loft (which started as a house party!) and its audiophile aesthetic, and occasionally going to Balance, with its mix of house, jazz and Afrobeat – and where they deliberately strove for close-to-audiophile sound quality – felt like some kind of vindication of things I had always suspected: crap sound isn’t necessary, and interesting dance music is compatible with countercultural values, even outside the unique context of New York City. And house parties are normally better than clubs!
A shared dedication to the house party as a creative art form, quickly brought Cyril, Ced and I together, when we met on the dancefloor at the London Loft parties. By the time the crew around those parties had evolved into Lucky Cloud Sound System, the three of us were ready to put on a night of our own: the house parties were just getting too big for our houses. We were also learning enough from David Mancuso about the fine art of hi-fi audio to try to put those lessons into practice.
Cedric, by 2005, was already a very experienced semi-pro DJ, and party organiser, going back to his university days, and was hosting all-night house parties literally every weekend, in a classic Mancuso style. I had been collecting dance records and preparing all-night mixtapes for my own house parties for many years, although I’d frankly become tired of the musical conservatism of most of the British white raver types who usually turned up to them. Personally one of my secret motivations for getting involved with the London loft parties was always the hope that I’d get a few more people round to my place who wouldn’t leave the room when I started playing hi-life, or deep jazz, or the Tom Tom Club. What I wasn’t fully expecting was that this new crowd of Loft friends, and especially these cool French guys, would go absolutely crazy when I played exactly those kind of tunes! And Cyril , as I mentioned, went from dabbling to having a very deep knowledge of music and its social use during his long sojourn with Ced in 2004.
So I guess, looking back now, we were clearly ready for putting on a night But it didn’t start to seem like a real possibility until we started to acquire some serious hardware. When Lucky Cloud bought its full sound system in 2005, we helped Cyril to purchase a pair of Klipschorn speakers like those used at the New York, London and Japanese loft parties. Cyril getting this pair of speakers really seemed to symbolise and concretise the possibility of us doing some kind of party of our own, as he was the first to realise clearly. And so Beauty and the Beat was born in June 2005. The name was borrowed from the title of an experimental hip-hop album by Edan, but personally I was happy enough to learn that it had also been the name of the debut album from the Go-Gos; a very occasional fondness for guitar rock, pop and inspirational gems from the punk continuum has always been one of the hallmarks of the BATB mix.
June 2005…a very big month
For me personally that first BATB party came at the end of possibly the toughest 6 months of my life. I had ended up with responsibility for putting together the sound system for Lucky Cloud. The Lucky Cloud / London Loft parties having started in 2003, in late 2004 we (Tim, Colleen and myself) decided that we would take the plunge, borrow a load of money, and buy our own sound system instead of hiring in commercial club systems as we had been doing. As I say, I had ended up with the job of putting together the system for Luck Cloud, having to go from knowing nothing to being something of an audio-expert in a very short space of time, with David trying to explain to me some difficult concepts that he understood intuitively and intimately , but wasn’t always able to get me to understand using mere language.
Colleen – who would end up taking charge of the Lucky Cloud sound system once my own kids came along – had just had a baby (Arianna – who is such a big girl now!), and wasn’t in much of a position to help, so I had the responsibility of learning a completely new skill-set in 6 months, spending nearly 30 grand that we had borrowed with a business loan, all leading up to a party that would be DJ-ed by the notoriously exacting David Mancuso, and without the system being tested before the very day of that party. There were all kinds of absurdities to the process, that probably culminated on the day that a large truck turned up at my house with 8 Klipschorn speakers on it, the driver inquiring nonchalantly: ’you do have a forklift, don’t you?’. I didn’t.
Things wren’t made easier by the fact that we were trying to do something – put together a sound system for a 300-person dance party, using only true audiophile components – which had been done by David in NYC, and by his acolytes in Japan, but was virtually unheard of in the UK, as far as we could ascertain. So it was hard to find anyone from the hi-fi scene who could give us any meaningful advice. We would learn later that Andrew Pirie in Glasgow HAD been doing this at his night Melting Point for while already, but we hadn’t met him yet. Still I had a lot of love and support from the crew, from my friends, from David, and from my partner Jo. So somehow, after 6 months of turmoil and uncertainty, and with the luck of the Loft shining down on us… we did it! The June 2005 Loft party was a big success, David was very happy, and we never looked back.
This was a very busy and demanding time for all of us, really – Cyril had just moved in with his future wife, Pauline, and Ced was developing his rep as a DJ. Looking back, it’s almost hard to see how we got the energy really to make BATB happen. Although there had been this growing sense of inevitability that Ced and I would put on some kind of night together born from our fusing house parties, I think to be honest that if Cyril hadn’t taken the initiative actually to make it happen, then probably it never would have done. Not for the last time, he and Ced were willing to put in most of the organisational work leading up to the first party, when I was too busy with other things – but over the years we’ve managed to distribute the work pretty evenly between us without having to think about it too much; somehow, without ever really articulating it explicitly, we all seem to have known from the start that BATB was something very important to all of us and something with the potential to grow steadily over time, rather than just being a one- or two- year venture. So, one way or another the first BATB happened just a couple of weeks after that first London Loft party with the new sound system. This was all in June 2005 – I guess one of the most momentous months of my life, in retrospect.
The continuing adventures of Beauty and the Beat
For the first year, BATB was a bi-monthly party in a basement gallery venue in Waterloo that couldn’t hold much more than 100 people, where sweat would routinely drip from the ceiling and walls onto the records while we were playing! Our friend Joao would drive us and our gear in his VW camper van. Shannon Woo would run the door and act as overall guardian of the vibe.
It’s hard to imagine now, but a night like BATB in those days was almost completely dependent on a sympathetic listing appearing in the listings magazine Time Out. BATB was always difficult to categorise, and consequently the listings that they would publish for us would veer between open sneering and enthusiastic sympathy (at one point they seemed to find our explicit rejection of corporate sponsorship to be somehow offensive in its earnestness…well, that was the culture of pre-recession, Nathan Barley-era Shoreditch, for you…but other times they were very nice to us). This was frankly frustrating much of the time, and nothing has made me so glad to have entered the age of social media, which over the years really helped the party to grow slowly but surely. We had a bit of a lucky break with the short-lived, much-missed dance-oriented listings mag One Week to Live giving us and the Loft parties some support around this time, but it was MySpace and Facebook, as well as old-fashioned word-of-mouth, which really got our crowds growing.
Once the gallery closed in 2006, we looked for a venue closer to our East London home, moving to Bar 512 on Kingsland Road, becoming the first crew to put on a regular disco-based party in Dalston, despite receiving no credit at all for that once the Dalston disco scene started to be hyped up in the press a couple of years later (!). By the time that hype was happening, around 2007-8 we had moved up the road to a beautiful venue in an old boys club, that we had clearly outgrown by the time, at our farewell New Years Eve Party, the police turned up and threatened to shut the party down (they didn’t, in the end – we’re not a very dangerous-looking group of people). Since that time I would say that BATB has really been driven by the rapid gentrification of East London, moving steadily further east every few years as whatever neighbourhood we’ve landed in gets transformed from bohemian to bourgeois. Hopefully Hackney Wick, where we’re moving as of July 2015, will be able to retain its character for a few years! Or maybe, finally, even better we can start to prevent the complete take-over of London by the bourgeois elite. Take Back the City! – http://www.takebackthecity.org.
Anyway, from the Boys Club, we moved to the New Empowering Church opposite London Fields in Hackney, which really became our natural home, and where the crowds grew from 200 to 400 on average, over the course of 5 years. For some reason we’ve never really figured out (although getting props from Giles Peterson on R6 didn’t hurt! – thanks Giles :)!), the party crossed a threshold of popularity in 2013/4, when we went from often struggling to fill the venue, to seeing queues around the block. During this time we finally went monthly, and I think we really achieved a new level of shared confidence and conviction in our sound, our vibe, and the whole project. This was the period when some friends of ours, Amit and Aneesh Patel, who’d been coming to the party since 2005, opened the Brilliant Corners venue / restaurant and Dalston, always citing BATB as a major inspiration, and really creating a social hub between parties for many of our friends and collaborators. We’re so proud of them and all that the Brilliant Corners crew have achieved.
What’s it all about?
We’ve talked about, and tried to define, the specificity of our aesthetic, but it isn’t easy to nail down. I tend to want to insist that our musical style is not merely ‘eclectic’ in the sense of picking tunes randomly or crossing genres for the sake of it – there’s always a deep aesthetic logic to our musical selections. I think that very often the music we play combines a sense of rhythmic density and relative complexity with a degree of accessibility and melody…but this isn’t a fixed rule. I think we always like records that are not formulaic, whatever their genre. We probably play a slightly different range of musics than you’ll hear at a Loft party, simply because of our different backgrounds, although I tend to think that we still don’t play much that David or Colleen wouldn’t like.
We share the traditional commitment of the Loft and other classic New York parties to the ideal of ‘programming’ – carefully selecting records in a sequence that makes a kind of emotional sense, and that suits the different stages of the evening, whether or not any beat-mixing is actually involved. On the other hand we’re not so committed to the ideal of the pure effortless flow that is normal on that scene – we’ll quite often change tempo, drop pace or move around generically in order to generate a bit of narrative drama for the dancers. It’s not a question of deliberately shaking people up or anything like that – we’re not into avant-gardism for its own sake. Thinking about it, I think it’s probably a tendency that we we picked up from other scenes we’ve had contact with over the years, such as reggae and jazz-dance. We were all long-standing fans of roots and dub before we ever met, plus there was a strong jazz-dance element to our crowd, as to the Balance crowd, from early on…and in fact Tim Lawrence and I used to go out to Giles Peterson’s night at Bar Rumba years before we started the Loft parties…so I think those are probably important influences on the style in which we present records.
People often ask about our commitment to audiophile sound. This is something that has many aspects. One is simply that once you’ve experienced it, you simply can’t go back. I had David staying at my house for several days at a time when the London Loft parties started, and he knew exactly what he was doing – he would get out his bits of audiophile kit and plug them into my home system and blow my mind with them, and very quickly he’d got me hooked. There’s just no going back once you’ve drunk the audiophile kool-aid. As David warned would happen, I find it very difficult to go out to ordinary venues at all these days – the sound is just so horrible.
I think there are some bigger issues at stake here too though. One reason people putting on parties and running venues generally don’t care at all about audio is that it’s expensive and time-consuming to do it well, but there’s arguably even something a little more sinister to it than that. As our friend David Vickers points out – in venues with crap sound (i.e. all commercial venues), people are subtly encouraged to drink more by the unconscious need to dull their senses to the horrible barrage of noise which is what comes out of most commercial PA systems. If there’s a really nice sound system, it encourages people to dance, to relax without the need for booze, and to open up to the beauty of a range of musics that would normally seem inaccessible. It’s probably the key reason why venues are almost always annoyed with us for how little our dancers tend to drink (and no, that isn’t just cos they’re all on drugs – it’s not at if drugs aren’t rife in those commercial spaces, is it?).
Beyond all this though, I think there’s also a profound sense in which attending to the material quality of sound is about acknowledging the ways in which music is a collaborative, social, mediated, collective experience, at all times. It’s part of the individualist mythology of our culture that people often seem to think music is just sort of beamed directly from the minds of the artists to those of the listeners, ignoring the absolute necessity for all of the other elements in the process – from sound engineers to people who make record-player needles. But that’s just not the reality of how music, or anything else works. In reality, everything and everyone is connected to, and dependent on, everything else.
Music culture is a very good illustration of this truth I think. I mean, just recently we’ve been preparing to release our first record. It’s a remix of a track by a band that we’re friends with, done by a producer in Germany whose work we like. But the whole process has been entirely collaborative and consultative involving us all in back-and-forth-dialogue with the producer as the ideas evolved, as well as attending the mastering sessions.There’s really no ‘author’ of this record. That’s a good example of how these things work – nothing is ever really produced by just one person or even by a handful of individuals – it’s the relationships between us all that are productive, relationships that are material and physical as well as just social. And attending to the crucial importance of the cables, the amps, the precise calibration of the cartridges – it’s part of acknowledging that truth. And it works! How do you get a crowd full of disco dancers to dance for 20 minutes to Sun Ra? 😉 By playing it to them on a beautiful audiophile sound system, so they can really appreciate the dense layering of the sound – that’s how!
This social nature of the endeavour is crucial to what BATB is all about. We have always, along the way, relied on the love, help and support of a core group of friends and family, and on the rare occasions when we let someone else behind the turntables, it’s always someone from this crew rather than some celebrity DJ that we turn to. We’ve continued to improve the sound system, in collaboration with Lucky Cloud and brilliant audio experts like Andrew Pirie, Justin Greenslade and Iain Mackie, and I guess we always will. I do sometimes feel that the people who’ve helped us haven’t always got the public props that they’ve deserve. We love you all so much!
And this really gets to the heart of what the party is all about for us. BATB is a collective creation that involves, us, the dancers, the people who make the records, the engineers who designed our amps, the people serving drinks in the venue, everyone who contributes to Lucky Cloud, without which there would be no BATB, really everyone…it’s not reducible to us as individuals, and we are all very clear that individual ego plays no part in the creativity, the cultivation and care that the development of this collective organism requires. For sure it creeps in – it’s hard not to feel big-headed when you’ve just finished a long set and people are calling you a genius – but we’re always conscious of the need not to succumb to any such narcissism – which I guess is really something we learned from David Mancuso. BATB doesn’t belong to anyone and it belongs to all of us – it’s an ‘assemblage’, a kind of living machine, that aims to produce an experience of collective joy, and joy in collectivity, which is real, not just escapism, that is a safe public space (especially for women), that is not hierarchical, that is not there to make money for anyone. To us, that’s a beautiful thing, and it’s worth all the late nights and all the back-breaking labour which carrying Klipschorns all over London entails. People sometimes ask when we’re going to give it up. I always answer ‘ when our kids can carry on the party without us’.