North West Rising: Greater Manchester’s underground music scene checks in
Experimental artists across the city are onto something special, and even Kanye knows it. We talk to Space Afrika, Blackhaine and CURRENTMOODGIRL about The White Hotel and the power of community.
In the final frames of the video for B£E, this summer’s single by Space Afrika, the imposing figure of Blackhaine is running in slow motion down a grey, desolate backstreet in Salford. Here in this post-industrial corner of Greater Manchester – a desert of hulking Victorian mills, knackered industrial units, empty car parks and fences wrapped in barbed wire – sunlight is obscured by the high brick walls of Strangeways high-security men’s prison.
So from where is Blackhaine – the Preston-raised, Salford-based rapper and dancer who had a hand in choreographing Kanye West’s most recent DONDA playback event – running?
If it looks like a dingy garage, then that’s because it was a dingy garage until five years ago. Then, it became The White Hotel, a crucial hub for club culture in the North West of England and one of the most exciting experimental scenes in the UK.
Five years ago, I was living in London, paying twice my present rent and being mithered by reports from friends about a new club back home. It was, apparently, freezing. There was a bar in a hole down on the floor, and nobody really knew what time it shut. When I eventually visited, I clocked the large crucifix hanging over the main bar, offering Sunday morning benediction to a diverse clientele ranging from North Manchester geezers and South Manchester experimental heads to genuinely concerning hedonists (tag yourself).
At the heart of the North West’s experimental scene is Space Afrika. Mates since primary school, the Mancunian duo of Josh Reidy and Joshua Inyang, both 29, devoured UK rap and grime via Channel U before developing a taste for the adventurous side of club music in their early adult lives.
Since their first cassette release, 2014’s Above The Concrete/Below The Concrete, Space Afrika have captured something of the city – its nightlife, its urban spaces, its transport – with thick, smoky downer dub and ambient, often making use of found sounds.
“Manchester isn’t the easiest city to get around,” says Inyang, reflecting on the city’s failed transport system over a pint at the Northern Quarter’s Common bar. “So all that getting on buses, walking to new spaces… We began to enjoy those experiences a lot; it was part of the night out. We got into a mental journey of absorbing those sounds.”
If Burial was the sonic world of the London night bus, Space Afrika, then, are the sound of being ripped off by two different bus companies on a journey only marginally quicker than walking.
While mainstream ambient music is increasingly aimed at appearing on chillout playlists for frazzled office workers, Space Afrika’s 2018 debut album Somewhere Decent to Live was ambient with a purpose – ghostly sonics with a relationship to the body and the city. The duo’s next release, June 2020 mixtape hybtwibt? (an abbreviation for “have you been through what I’ve been through?”), was something of a belated breakthrough for Space Afrika and a Bandcamp Friday hit, with proceeds being split between a range of Black causes.
Shortly before the pandemic hit, Reidy had moved to Berlin, meaning lockdown was particularly challenging for the pair. They were separated geographically but also dealing with personal loss, and all this amidst the public trauma of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. hybtwibt? was quickly created in response.
On the track oh baby, strings hug a looping soulful female vocal sample, all undercut by audio from the 2016 viral YouTube video of nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant’s tearful testimony to Charlotte city council following the fatal police shooting of African-American Keith Scott in the North Carolina city.
“There was a distinct message to get across with that mixtape,” explains Inyang, “which was completely spontaneous and one of the most difficult periods of our lives. All of this stuff is happening and I’m like: ‘Don’t worry, I got you, come and stay with me and I’ll sort you.’ I was distraught, but I was making music as my only resort to get through the days.”
“It was an interesting way to have a look at what Manchester means,” says Reidy, recalling the process of making hybtwibt?, over the phone from Berlin. “During the pandemic, the only thing you have to hold onto is memories. How did it feel to be in those clubs and spaces? [We had a] longing for this memory of Manchester.”
Unsurprisingly, Space Afrika’s new album, Honest Labour, is also powerfully inspired by Greater Manchester. Equally, its release is well-timed, coming amidst surging interest in buzzing underground acts in the North West, such as Blackhaine, Preston-based artist and label head Rainy Miller, rapper Iceboy Violet and producer aya, who releases her debut album via Hyperdub later this year.
Take Honest Labour track Meet Me at Sacha’s. It’s an audio portrait of standing outside the curious Northern Quarter landmark, a cheap ‘n’ easy budget hotel, more popular with elderly karaoke goers and the briefest of short-term romantic liaisons than its TripAdvisor ratings may suggest.
“If you’re at the afters, or walking back from The White Hotel, or having an afters, or going to pick up, [the euphemism is] ‘meet me at Sasha’s,’” explains Inyang with a laugh. “That was Josh’s interpretation of what it would be like to be stood outside Sasha’s in any of those experiences. I love that track so much – it’s like the soundtrack to a dead gritty British film.”
As well as genuflecting on Manchester’s physical space, Honest Labour also nods towards the new generation of artists operating around the region today, with guest appearances from local poet Kinsey Lloyd and Blackhaine.
The latter, the 26-year-old born Tom Heyes, is operating at the crossover between drill and avant-garde choreography. When he raps, his flat Northern vowels conjure comedown paranoia, simmering rage suppressed by emotional numbness and a life of crime seemingly only just out of shot. But it’s his choreography – bluntly abbreviated to “choreo” for him – that, prior to his Kanye call-up, had seen him take commissions for Gucci and rapper Mykki Blanco.
When, a few years ago, Blackhaine got into Japanese butoh dance, he also began to take inspiration from the horrific contortions suffered by users of spice – the street drug that’s still devastating communities across the North West, visible across Manchester’s city centre.
“Blackhaine blew me away,” recalls Inyang of his first impressions. “I thought: ‘What the fuck and who the fuck is this?’ Searching his name I found a couple more tracks, and just thought, ‘this is ridiculous’. So to find he’s from the Moors, close to home, Chorley!” he marvels. “The visual element is extremely moving, this guy’s an incredible dancer and he can rap like that – it’s insane.”
Connecting with Blackhaine, the duo quickly went into the studio and recorded B£E.
“If you look at the words, a lot of them are about faith, finding faith in a dark place,” explains Blackhaine of the track, the first single from Honest Labour. “Space Afrika are my brothers, really they are. That was the first recording we’d done and we’ve done a lot since then. It’s a lot deeper than a working relationship. It’s deeper than music.”
Creativity, of course, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It needs spaces in which it can flourish, people who will put faith in it, rents not so high as to crush your capacity for it. And while other local club spaces such as Manchester’s Hidden or Soup Kitchen are also vital, The White Hotel has inculcated creativity more than anywhere else.
“Once you create a hub for like-minded people to party, drink, smoke, talk, you’re basically planting seeds for things to thrive,” says Inyang. “Beyond being at the forefront of art and experimental music, they really give a fuck. They go: ‘OK, if you want to do this show, how do you want to do it?’”
“The White Hotel has helped me a lot,” affirms Blackhaine, “and there’s a lot more to come out. I can do what I want there, sets that I couldn’t do in London. The crowd in there has allowed me to develop my own sound, and I just keep pushing forward.” A pause. “Really, me and The White Hotel is the best relationship I’ve developed.”
The fact that experimental music is flourishing in this area suggests a kind of resilience. The one-two punch of austerity and the pandemic has been bruising for the North West. Empty words from a snide Conservative government about “levelling up” have proved meaningless so far. But artists, musicians and DJs are taking matters into their own hands and creating something for themselves.
And, like the work of Blackhaine, it often relates directly to the pain in the North West over the last 10 years. Any of the artists mentioned in this feature is just one small part of this.
While living and creating in London is out of reach for many, these days there are plenty of artists operating in Manchester who, a few years ago, would have felt no option but to work in the capital. This isn’t to be complacent about living in Manchester, though, which is increasingly under siege from shady property developers with an insatiable appetite for profit.
The artist known as CURRENTMOODGIRL knows all about that. Greta Carroll makes music that ranges from pummeling electronica to Lynchian gothic pop. She’s inspired heavily by her mental health challenges and life in the city.
“It’s definitely true that the Manchester music scene has finally moved on from the indie or punk thing into something that’s actually new and modern,” argues Carroll, referring to the city’s Factory Records and Haçienda – a legacy that has become a nostalgia-industrial-complex. “And there’s inspiring things going on around the LGBT scene, too, like the Partisan lot.”
Partisan, a dance collective operating near Salford’s Islington Mill, are specifically focused on creating inclusive spaces by and for marginalised groups. Carroll is also working on a project with Manchester Collective, a group of musicians who have recently bridged the somewhat unlikely gap between regular performances at The White Hotel and the Royal Albert Hall, performing at this summer’s BBC Proms.
I hope we begin to see a few Royal Albert Hall regulars continuing the cultural cross-pollination and popping up to this former garage in Salford sometime soon.
It’s a Saturday night in August, and the rain that has persisted in Manchester all month has finally cleared. At the Soup Kitchen bar and club in the city centre, the downstairs space is hosting the debut, quickly-sold-out showcase by Rainy Mailer’s label, Fixed Abode.
From the same Preston ends as his collaborator Blackhaine, you can clock the producer/musician/songwriter in the B£E video, forming an unholy trinity with Blackhaine and Inyang. Miller’s own music is street-sensitive bedroom pop, pitched somewhere between Frank Ocean and Dean Blunt, all autotuned vocals and drizzly, lo-fi guitars.
At first, the atmosphere in the packed basement is collegial – there are bear hugs as artists exit the stage, Joshua Inyang observing proceedings from the DJ booth and offering encouragement. This changes, however, when Blackhaine takes to the stage. Or rather, when Blackhaine creates his own stage, simply carving out a square metre of space for himself on the dancefloor.
Black cap peaked low, he pushes his body to, and then violently away from, the microphone stand, then against the PA system, as if controlled by an electric current. His performance is the only moment in the night when camera phones are out and illuminating the entire room. In Manchester tonight, Blackhaine is greeted with the serious reverence of a star.
Afterwards, I catch up with Inyang. He’s in a reflective mood.
”Manchester has always had unbelievable artists and unbelievable art,” he begins. “But people got stuck and attached to a legacy, where they felt they have to follow up on the legacy or do it in the manner [of what artists did before], and be the next Joy Division.”
“But when you affiliate all of us,” Inyang continues, “not only are we carrying all of our skills, and honing in on our skills and uplifting each other, we’re really putting the city at the forefront. Me and Josh can’t move forward without the rest of the city moving forward.”
Well, undeniably now, for Manchester and the North West, things are moving forward. It’s happening – swear down.