Dead by Dawn, 1995
The following is a chapter translation from my book Apocalypso Disco: La Rave-o-luzione della Post Techno (published in Italian in 2013 by Agenzia X), a collection of non-fiction, “literary remix”, fiction and interviews featuring key post-rave scenes: from break-core, to speed-core, to mash-up, to mutant dance floor, to psytrance, to 8 bit and to gabba. The chapter on gabba was previously translated and published in Dancecult (Balli 2014).
Apocalypso Disco is a mix of musical essays, sonic fiction, auto-fiction and interviews with key personalities in the scenes I inhabited. I would like to clarify the autobiographical element of the book. I was always reluctant to use this technique since I was not usually interested in reading about “other punx”, but in my way of “being one”. Full stop. However, meeting with Agenzia X and learning their methods of oral research on countercultures (here I am thinking of the verbal side of Marco Philopat’s works), as well as their use of the narrative self, has been essential in melting away my inflexibility, making me aware of the epistemological potentiality of narrative in first person. My experience of being “sonically belligerent” must be considered essentially as an investigation on the field, which is not too far from what academic sociology teaches us.
Since I’ve always tried to combine my DJ and producer activities with my writing, even if just for a press release, a record review, a flaming reply on the c8.com forum or in 140 digits on my Twitter account @dj_Balli, I've always done it looking for the camouflaged language typical of the complexity of sound in which I am absorbed. All along, I have used and abused the linguistic scratch techniques, including such neologisms as futuritmachine, phonomotors, scratchadelia, conceptechnics 1200, along with distilling audio-ideas such as sonic fiction, schizophonia and turntablization (the concept of putting every conceivable sound on vinyl with the aim of using them for scratching). What follows is a good example of my “auto-fiction”, exploring that “swinging London” (maybe more appropriate to say that 220 bpm pounding!) of the nineties lost between neo-situationist cults and breakcore music.
They even pointed it out through the headlines of the local BBC news, “Operation Amazon, a Crackdown on London Tube”. Obviously I didn't give a damn about the report and carried on without hesitation, turning up at Walthamstow station every single day after 5pm, asking the passing commuters coming from the City, “you got a spare travel card”?
The 9-to-5 workers were heading back home at that time, throwing away their daily travel cards (still valid till midnight) just after the gates. Stuck as I was at the very last stop of the Victoria line, while being put up by Steve Strange with whom I was sharing a housing benefit council flat, it was in finding that ticket that signalled the start of my daily London adventures (not only mine apparently, as the authorities felt justified in pushing back against the phenomenon).
Indeed, a few days after the beginning of Operation Amazon, my ritual inquiry, “have you got a spare travel card?” was met by a suspicious character, with a crooked rapper-style cap, who invited me to the side where he showed me his TFL badge. He saddled me with a huge fine which, unpaid, ended up in court (but that is another story). After the crackdown, I was left with an incredibly long walk to central London.
I honestly wouldn't be able to say how many miles or kilometres I wandered to get to the 121 Centre on Railton Road in Brixton. I walked through all of Hackney, then London Bridge as I marched on endlessly towards South London.
I am usually a good walker, never complaining about walking somewhere! But that 23rd of August was too painful. After several hours marching, I arrived just in time for the 7pm vegan meal, where all of the Dead by Dawn (surely the most underground party in the UK) organizers, DJs and bartenders were converging.
Christoph Fringeli from Praxis Records, the main organizer of the event, was already there and Nomex, following the dogmas of his Realist Film Unit, was unloading some wrecked monitors that he was using as set design from his van. As usual, only the sound system was missing, we were hiring it from Dan of the Hekate crew.
Sitting at the anarchist centre info-point I noticed a geezer with a green Kraftwerk tee. I thought to myself: “who the fuck is this guy wearing that mainstream t-shirt?”.
He smiles to me: “Hi, I'm Toby, DJ Scud!”.
He didn't say anything more to me that night. His set, halfway between reggae and harsh noise bombardment, was exceptional to say the least. At that party, the full Dead by Dawn crew came up with the brilliant idea of making me the leader of the event’s self-managed kitchen. “You are Italian, you know how to cook”.
That night a mate of mine, DJ Piddu, was playing, over from the Link Project in Bologna, so I had to accept. Despite my efforts, I showed my incompetence as a cook. I didn't know what I could say to debunk the myth of all Italians being good cooks. I got away with cooking a last minute vegan “squat style” “mutoid” of beans and chips.
Meanwhile the setting up was feverish. The sound system had finally arrived and they were setting up in the basement. It was in a square room not any bigger than 10m x 10m, and established as the schizoid Dead by Dawn dancehall.
As usual, the night started at 9pm with the Invisible College meeting, which was basically a public pre-assault noiz-disco-Cambodia debate. On the 23rd of the previous month’s event, John Eden talked about TOPY (Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth), the London Psychogeographical Association was discussed and the Autonomous Astronauts were taking enrolments.
That night, there was heavy anticipation for the bard of all the avant/retro-gardes, Stewart Home. Everybody was wondering if he actually did like techno or not. Talking about the word “techno”, after all the debate of the enigmatic Invisible College with which every Dead by Dawn began, it's worth underlining the dialectical distress that the crew was putting itself under just to define the different genres to print on the flyer. Everybody was aware that none of the sounds had anything to do with traditional techno anymore. Detroit was not just an ocean away, but an entire intergalactic universe away.
Although, to make the event noticeable amidst all the London underground events, we decided to use “techno” on the flyer, along with “speedcore”, which is a Dead by Dawn neologism. Speedcore for our crew didn't name just the genre used to define an ultraspeedy 4/4 kick, but a general heavy and experimental attitude on the dance floor. We got away with using this pair of terms on the flyers.
In other cases, we used the term “hard techno”. As an Italian intolerant towards certain stale rave dogmas, I was always against the term. In the UK this term did not bear the reactionary meaning it still has in Italy (usually written as “hard-tekno”). It was only towards the end, around the 23rd edition of Dead by Dawn, that it finally became clear what most (Kovert, Aphasic, Torah, Jason VFM, Stevvi, Rachel Zhark, Howard Slater, Peter Hodgkinson etc.) were actually playing: hard break or breakcore. An exception was “South-London” electro by Mr. Controlled Weirdness, which was a unique case, but somehow alchemically befitting the music-policy dictated by Dead by Dawn. What emerged was a melting pot of all the black jungle beats, drum 'n' bass, reggae dancehall, hip-hop raging around the Brixton area and the broadside of white noise coming from the most well-known contemporary and industrial music.
“The strike of art is the highest form of art in a neoist society where art has became obsolete and useless!”, boomed Stewart Home. The Invisible College meeting started with these words, officially kicking off the 21st edition of Dead by Dawn. The death of art in Hegel is a romantic concept, outdated, so nineteenth-century. Dada anti-art turned out to be more functional for the system of art than any traditional and classic expression. It's not merely a boycott of the artistic institutions, such as Gustav Metzger and the Art Workers Coalition, but is also a claim of the futility of art and a demand for recognition of union rights (on top of a guaranteed income) for the operators who agree on a vision of an aesthetic universe. It is surely not a surprise that the Art Strike campaign I launched in 1985 was mostly ignored by museums and contemporary art galleries. However some Art Strike Action Committees spread in London, Ireland, Baltimore, Albany (NY), San Francisco and Montevideo. An official movement dispatch also appeared, “YAWN” published by Lloyd Dunn in Iowa City.
Neil interrupted my rendition of Stewart Home's speech whispering in my ear, “there's some guy at the door, asking for the guest list”. It must have been Crash. I looked for him outside the 121 info-Centre. Waiting for me in Railton Road there was that half cut beard (meaning shaved on the right side and grown on the left side...that earned him the nickname “half a beard man”) of Crash, my Milan matey. He was trying, as he did every single time, to sneak in for free. Sure, Crash was always buying a lot of vinyls from Cristoph and was helping out all the time, which included playing for free for the Dead by Dawn cause, but it was only three bloody quid. Anyway, after the usual spiels, I managed to fucking get him in. I fought hard to save him the massive amount of 1 pound 50!!!
We hadn’t seen each other for quite a few days and he had a lot of stuff to tell me about. I was making a big effort to follow him, since he was, as always, super-involved in squatting issues. We went to the top floor of the 121, where the bar and the anti-ambient room were, which was the idea of Paul Nomex, also the official Dead by Dawn VJ. It took the piss out of the chill out zone in conventional parties. Instead of an area designed to help others decompress and relax from the frenzy of the dance floor, as it was in the techno and trance mainstream scene, we introduced a space where the sound was even more unsettling, scraping and rigorous, without any kind of beat. It included bombardments of power-electronics, white noise and walls of cacophonies coming from a previously compiled tape. Everything was playing from a home theatre sound system.
That was the best place to chat, have a drink and a bite. After thirty minutes of Crash’s complaints about his squatting issues I desperately tried to change the subject by any means necessary. He eventually moved to discussing his prediction that the merger of hip-hop and industrial cultures would lead to something really ground breaking in the near future. It seemed to him that this development would happen here in London, the most hyper-advanced megalopolis, with a large African diasporic presence, in all of Europe. While the intuition was interesting, his “prophetic” tone was a bit funny and out of proportion. But, at the end of the day this was exactly what Dead by Dawn was trying to do, to get out from the cul-de-sac of pure noise, already deadlocked from ages, through funk, which was intended not really as a musical genre, but as a goose bump that makes your ass shake.
The rallying cry seemed to call for a combination of the dance floor and sound terrorism. Crash was right that the beer at Dead by Dawn, a discount ale, was still really horrible, despite the party now attracting an average of 150 people. We scarfed down the last of the leftover carrot-balls and the rest of the vegan meal.
Looking for the closest 7/11 to stock up on beverages, we headed downstairs. That was the best place to see the Great Wall of China, made up of old TVs skipped by Paul Nomex, which were functioning as video tapestry for the event. Throughout, a total amount of 35 monitors were obsessively looping the sequence of a high-altitude skiing accident. An insane setup, based on velocity and sped up adrenaline, then obsessively repeated in slow motion in sync with the bumping of the dance floor beat. The themes of the Nomex Realist Film Unit were hyper-kinetic oddities of every kind. Beyond the carom blurting in the snow, I remember a Korean-Japanese doubles table-tennis match... a real must!
There were also scattered everywhere copies of pieces of writing from Technet, an anonymous London collective of experimental writers working on the fusion of literature and electronic music. At every Dead by Dawn we were discovering some cryptic pamphlet in the shape of a flyer: sonic paper stories, organized as tracks, the music pieces of dance music.
TRACK°: EVERY PARTY IS THE END OF AN ERA - something to take and use. Without any apparent reason, they lifted up in the sky both travelling mists of noise and corporal music. Not here, not there, although they revealed again in the corners as notes of groove on the flow of the vinyl /// TRACK*: It was about a noise which sounds like the one of wolves absorbed in howling to the freezing winter sky. I assure you, the pillars of the house were shaking, the windows, hit by the detectable breath of their lungs, were clinking and looking like they were about to disintegrate, as if handfuls of heavy sand had been thrown against the glass plate. In front of this mind-blowing sight we ran away panic stricken, hair upright on our heads; leaving our mantels and hats behind. We scattered in every direction, in streets that in a second were filled up from more than a hundred people, abruptly woken up from their sleep; the crowd headed through the door and towards the ground floor, looking for the origin of this spectral, horrendous, howl, which was raising as if it was coming out the damned sinners lips for eternity in the most extreme of the burning hells (techNET, 1994–95).
We were about to leave the basement when we heard wafts of gastric basses and hyper-broken rhythms. It was DJ Jackal on the console.
The name came from the infamous South American red terrorist. The moniker was always masking a different turntable manipulator, always, of course, from South London. In fact, the sound was pure jungle and absolute nigga hardcore, showing that the bros have it bigger, and musically, they also have an unequalled sense of rhythm, at least to some Caucasian losers like we were.
Coloured from the scratches of the London tube’s concrete recordings, of Canary Wharf and generally of the English megalopolis’s acoustic sprawl, the mix was absolutely killing it. In that moment, in those hundred square meters, the Third World War was happening. The answer from the canteen was charged up, this was music meant to get the masses loose, to cause Pavlov-like reactions. Get some mice, put them in a metallic cage, hermetically seal it and start bombarding the acoustic space with hyper-high-pitched frequencies. A fantastic sensation. A mix of urban nihilism, of post-industrial funk, which in a millisecond was giving sense to a century of noise from Russolo onwards.
I saw Crash suddenly leave the dance floor just when DJ Jackal was mixing beats, which was beyond odd. I followed my friend, who had suddenly gone pale. It was not the speed or any other shit like it...Crash was cut in two with a stomach-ache. The shitter of the 121 was not exactly the Excelsior. I cleared the way for him and he started puking. I came up with a hypothesis, “fuckin' carrot-balls, it must be those”. I realized that Crash was busy in a massive puke... Of course he wasn’t answering. I stopped Paul: “Were the carrots off?” He shrugged, ”don’t know, skipping is usually safe...but you never know...”. The vegan meal, as usual, was skipped. It was from the leftovers of the Brixton Market, which was right in front of the 121. I came out with some king dinners by skipping, but the slight risk of hepatitis a b c d e f g z was always in my mind. Meanwhile, Crash kept on vomiting, locked in the bathroom. Other people started queuing for the shitter.
After fifteen minutes I dragged him out. We went to the upper floor, to the anti-ambient area. He was still dead pale. Must have been food poisoning. Those fuckin' rotten carrots. He was lying on the bench of the info-Centre, walls of empty frequencies in the background. It was a scene he would have enjoyed very much, if only he would have been a bit more conscious.
As a hypochondriac regarding my own health, but also concerned for my friend, I decided to take him home. Night buses would have been a fuckin' delirium...but fuck there were still three Dead by Dawn parties to go before the 23rd and final event! Crash couldn't stay in there like this. After two changes we arrived in Trafalgar Square. I was dragging him with me like a bag of potatoes. From there it was easy to get to every corner of London.
The best part was that in all of Crash’s housing chaos I didn't even know where he was living anymore. “Bah I’ll take him to mine in Walthamstow” I decided. Still 25 minutes to the next night bus though. Not long after, maybe as an effect of the fresh night air, Crash started looking healthy again and feeling generally better.
“Fuck I felt awful...as if I had a line of Baygon!”
“They must have been really rotten for a while those carrots...” I replied, happy to see him in shape again. “Oh but what the hell are we doing in Trafalgar? It's early, just 2 o'clock...”
“Hey pale-faced, you know I'm hypochondriac...you really looked like you were ‘dead by dawn’”.
“Ah ah...you and your dead by dawn uh! Come on, let's get back there, you asshole of a Balli”.
Basically, all the same hassles were repeated getting back to Railton Road. Caught by the emergency before, I had simply paid the ticket to the driver getting into the bus, both for me and for Crash. “There's a trick not to pay the night bus. We just need to sneak in from the exit doors”. Squatter wisdom.
At Trafalgar, it turned out to be even easier. There was always a lot of people getting off, hence by the third night bus we actually managed to sneak on without being seen from the rear-view mirror. In half an hour we were in Kennington again, where the whole mess started. Only one bus in five was opening the back doors, as nearly no one was getting off there. When, once per hour, that bloody fuckin' lucky bus was coming, the doors only opened for a few seconds and sneaking in without getting nicked was an Olympic mission. After almost three hours I lost hope: “Let's do this fuckin' ticket and that's it... it's getting cold as well”!
“No, niet, null.” Diehard as usual, Crash.
But there it was: the 13b. A fat black lady got off, slowed down by massive bags. A huge push comes and...Bam! We found ourselves comfortably seated on the bus. The 13b was the only night transport passing all the way through Brixton, and for this reason it was stopping every single minute. After a hundred stops, by 4:53am we were back on Railton Road.
Day was almost breaking. From a hyper-kinetic kick we could detect the speedcore murder that was being committed in the basement. The entrance was packed. As soon as we arrived on the dance floor the sound cut out. There were quite a few who were dead by dawn, but nothing compared to typical Italian “wastedness”.
We tapped into a debate with Keith Stevvi about a web platform for hard electronic music. Christoph and others, had already opened Subnet, a transnational network for DIY vinyl distribution. To put our contents on the net was a logical consequence. The discussion moved eventually to the anti-chill out zone, in front of a big pot of chips and beans, a post-Dead by Dawn ritual. There were twenty of us, munching chips and scarfing down baked beans (in the UK they are sweet!!).
It was there that c8.com was born (or at least that is when I discovered it)! The forum dedicated to our sound scene at the time is still active. C8 was the menu code for the chips and beans in Railton Road.
“20 C8 courses, please!”
Thanks to Roberta Bononi, Workin Klass Noize and Michael Horowitz.
Modern, liberated, contemporary, of a broad spectrum, artistic, intellectual, post-organic, vegetative, stress-relieving, experimental, extraordinary. All these adjectives are often applied to electronic music, but with DJ Balli (SONIC BELLIGERANZA REC.) things are different.
AA. VV. 1991. Art Strikes Paper. Edinburgh: AK press.
Alien Underground. 1994. Alien Underground 0.0. London: self-published.
Alien Underground. 1995. Alien Underground 0.1. London: self-published.
Balli, Riccardo. 2013. Apocalypso Disco. Milan: Agenzia X.
———. 2014. “How to Cure a Gabba”. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 6(2). <http://dx.doi.org/10.12801/1947-5403.2014.06.02.12>.
Datacide Magazine. 2012.Berlin: Datacide.
Home, Stewart. 1988. The Assault on Culture. London: Aporia Press & Unpopular Books.
techNET. 1994–95. techNET. London: self-published.