Smokescreen Free Party Sound System

Andy Riley

DJ and Producer (United Kingdom)


When it comes to the UK free party scene, one of the most prominent Sound Systems over the last quarter of a century has been Smokescreen. Their parties and club nights have become synonymous with quality house music, good vibes and a loyal crowd prepared to travel far and wide for a night on the tiles, or under the stars. From humble beginnings, Smokescreen carved out a particular brand of deep house, which they made their own. Over the years, their DJs have gone on to enjoy international careers, build studios, start record labels and equipment businesses, as well as creating workshops for the next generation of DJs and producers. But their roots remain, and Smokescreen are as popular now as they were during their hedonistic heyday over the course of the 90s, and now attracting the next generation of party people who come out to dance with the old-school heads (some of whom are their parents!).

Smokescreen was born in 1991. Originally from Sheffield, the crew concentrated their early endeavours around the steel city. As their reputation grew, their free parties started to gain momentum (picking up the baton from trailblazing rigs such as Nottingham’s DiY). In ‘93 Smokescreen started their first regular club night at the Lo Club Derby, further cementing their reputation as word of mouth spread and more people were bitten with the Smokescreen bug. As 1994 approached, the free party scene was truly vibrant, but became more politicized in the build up to the Tory 1994 Criminal Justice Act (CJA), a kneejerk reaction to the now legendary Castlemorton free festival in 1992. The new law would criminalise free parties to the extent that it actually prohibited the public playing of music which it defined as “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. 

In response Smokescreen, and other midlands sound systems, organised to raise awareness with a series of all-nighters entitled “All Systems No”, later emended to “All Systems Go” once the bill became law. These events would raise funds to provide support to any crews affected by the proposed new law and build a community sound system that could be used instead of individual Systems risking their own kit to do parties. Smokescreen and DiY also took their rigs to the subsequent CJA demos in London that summer which attracted thousands of people from all over the country.

Butts Quarry Party 1994. Photo credit Garry Pfeffer: 1994

Lincolnshire Free Party 1994. Photo credit Garry Pfeffer: 1994

Derbyshire Quarry Party 1995. Photo credit Garry Pfeffer: 1995

By 94/95 Smokescreen hit their peak, putting on a party and/or a club night every weekend. People from Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby, Birmingham, as well as revellers from the across the country, would wait in anticipation for the directions to appear by answerphone on Saturday night and turn out in their hundreds, while regular club nights such as Nottingham’s Skyy Club were rammed to capacity. Around this time Smokescreen embarked on their first international road trip to Croatia. This was to be one of several trips to Europe including Teknivals in the Czech Republic and Spain where Smokescreen provided the house sound amongst the techno systems of Desert Storm and Total Resistance.

Crich, Whatstandwell Quarry 1996. Photo credit Garry Pfeffer: 1996

Phantom Manor Lincolnshire 2000. Photo credit Garry Pfeffer: 2000

As the decade drew to a close Smokescreen club nights continued apace, and perhaps the most fondly remembered are Derby’s Rockhouse nights. For ten years Smokescreen hosted what became a clubbing institution with 800 people coming through the door every month to get sweaty on the illuminated dance floor. At the same time the free parties continued around the Derbyshire and Lincolnshire traveller sites, and in any woodland or quarries that might be available. These didn’t come without considerable risk and Smokescreen parties in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were busted, people arrested and equipment confiscated. In 1999 at a small party in Lincolnshire, Smokescreen were made an example of. Several members were arrested and charged, and Smokescreen’s famed rig was seized for the final time. 10,000 quid’s worth of amps, cables and speakers disappeared for good. But you can’t keep a good crew down and such was the support and good will for the party people who had sacrificed everything, that funds were raised, equipment provided and Smokescreen lived to groove another day!

And so to the 21st century. Smokescreen saw in the millennium collaborating with fellow House aficionados DiY at a huge party with around a 1000 people in attendance, as well as an “unofficial” party outside one of the gates at the Glastonbury festival that year in 3 days of glorious sunshine. By this time several core DJs had made the step into music production, culminating with the hugely successful “Drop Music” record label. Drop Music enabled the Smokescreen sound to be exported all over the world, and some of their DJs to represent on the global stage, playing in some of the top national and international clubs, but all the while keeping to the Smokescreen ethos of quality house, refusing to compromise or bow to trends and whatever the stylistic flavour of the month might be. An attitude which has served them well for the best part of 30 years. Meanwhile the party continues, with a Smokescreen club night at Nottingham’s Maze having run for 10 years solid, and a dance floor as enthusiastic as ever. As I said earlier, you can’t keep a good crew down!

Max Heath Smokescreen Set on MHYH Radio. (The Camouflaged Disco 2021).

Smokescreen 30th Birthday 2022

Celebrating 30 years of house mayhem Smokescreen embarked on a series of club nights and parties including stops at Ultrasound in Lincoln, Glowbalistic in Leeds, S4G Boat Party in London, Glastonbury Festival, Duvet Vous in Bristol, Hidden Warehouse in Nottingham, Hockley Social Club in Birmingham, Quadrant in Prague and the fantastic Smokescreen Campout Weekender. For the weekender Smokescreen pulled out all the stops; recruiting the services of 50 plus DJs and friends from the local scene, and including two tented arenas, a bar, on-site food, an “afters” club space and camping for 750 plus people. It truly was the highlight of what was already shaping up to be a fantastic summer for many people. Going into autumn 2022 Smokescreen have once again sold out the Hidden Warehouse in Nottingham, with another one planned in December. Thirty years on, and Smokescreen look to be as relevant and vibrant as ever. Long may it continue.

Smokescreen Campout Birthday Celebration Nottinghamshire 2022. Photo credit: Nick Clague 2022

Smokescreen Campout Birthday Celebration Nottinghamshire 2022. Photo credit: Nick Clague 2022

Smokescreen Campout Birthday Celebration Nottinghamshire 2022. Photo credit: Nick Clague 2022

Smokescreen Campout Birthday Celebration Nottinghamshire 2022. Photo credit: Nick Clague 2022

Author Biography

Andy Riley has been DJing with Smokescreen from 1993 to present. In 1998 he and fellow smokescreen member Laurence Ritchie formed Inland Knights and began writing tracks for their label Dropmusic. Dropmusic went on to become one of the most highly regarded house labels of the 21st century and catapulted Ritchie and Riley to national and international success. Despite this Andy and Laurence never strayed far from their underground roots and still maintain an involvement with both Smokescreen and their local scene.

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The Camouflaged Disco. “Max (Smokescreen) Camouflaged Disco MHYH radio show 03.07.2021”. Soundcloud audio, 2:00:34, 2021.