This is an earlier version of and article later published on VICE – Photos my own.
Sheffield’s war on Bassline
What happened on the dance floor of Niche on Sydney Street was huge, the club produced the genera of bassline, Sheffield’s greatest musical export of the noughties. In 2005 the club and the sound were peaking. Hundreds of fans would travel from all over the north to hear the world’s best Bassline on its home turf. Then, on a busy night in November that year, ‘Operation Repatriation’ saw the venue raided by over 300 police officers on grounds of a ‘crack house’ closure. Nearly a decade later the details of how UK’s war on drugs, a war supposedly against the gangs controlling drug supply and using clubs for deals, became a war on Bassline, which would go on to be one of the most tightly controlled and policed music scenes in recent times.
Bassline was speed garage’s lairy, northern younger sibling. It emerged from a sound developing across the midlands and was crystallized on a dance floor of Niche that lies hidden down the decaying industrial backwater of Sydney Street. Bassline offered an alternative to garage and grime that northerners could call their own, and the sound continues to feed into the work of ‘Off me Nut’ records, Toddla T and other Sheffield favorites today. ‘The Sound of Bassline’ sold over 100,000 copies and Via Malia and Napa the sound had its moment of international acclaim, (you’ll remember ‘Heartbroken’ by T2 if you went anywhere near a Yates in 2007.)
Bassline was literally known as ‘Niche music,’ the club and the sound were synonymous. It emerged just before the Internet revolution, so the Club and the Niche tapes defined and controlled the genre. Ultimately the Niche Brand had the potential to compete with the likes of the almighty Gatecrasher (also now absent from the city) as a representative of Sheffield’s unique nightlife, but Bassline was never valued or marketed and finally went the way of Manchester’s Hacienda; brought to its knees by dealers and gangs and banished from the city.
The UK club scene is forever caught in the crossfire of the war on drugs – but the way that South Yorkshire police and the City Council openly declared war on Niche, the Bassline scene and the people involved is unprecedented. The Niche brand and its laurel leaves logo represented a community and movement, not just a business. In 2010, the owner of Niche and godfather of the scene, Steve Baxendale, said of this community, “The Niche is what they talk about, its their underground thing… its part of the Sheffield culture, its a northern identity, its theirs.” But until 2007 “no mention of the dreaded ‘N’ word (Niche) or widely recognized laurel leaves” was allowed, resulting in the brand’s sudden disappearance.
But most shocking of all is the way the authorities stopped merely policing the problems and became draconian tune selectors. “Due to police restrictions the music policy at Club Vibe was tied down to classics and vocals, with a strict ban on the then infamous 4×4 productions that were taking over,” explained Baxendale. It was all too reminiscent of the indiscriminate legislation passed to tackle illegal raves in the 1980s that specifically described gatherings from which “repetitive beats,” (aka House and Techno) could be heard, as targets.
In a recording that’s been hidden in the hard drive of Sheffield DJ and MC, Alex Deadman, Steve is heard talking frankly and honestly for the first time about the rise and fall of Niche. It’s a side of the story that’s not yet been heard and it paints South Yorkshire Police in a not altogether unfamiliar light. Just as the story of Bassline is tied to the story of Niche, the story of Niche is the story of its owner. Prolific nightlife entrepreneur, fitness fanatic and so-called ‘strong man,’ Baxendale is a character that divided opinion.
But what isn’t disputed is the fact that Baxendale was fighting an uphill struggle against a familiar set of problems induced by prohibition. In the end, it became an all out war against the gangs and dealers congregating in the club. A war Steve and his elite force of bouncers were heavily invested in. On a single night in 1998 two bouncers were stabbed and Steve’s brother, Mr. Michael Baxendale, a martial arts expert and then the manager of Niche was tragically and brutally murdered outside his place of work. But when it all stated, at the birth of Niche, things were quite different.
“We only had two door staff,” Baxendale begins. In 1992, the “underground scene was coming along strong… everyone was sick of the commercial clubs and the military regime that they incorporated. They wanted throbbing underground music and to chill out in peace.” Steve purchased one of Sheffield’s many abandoned cutler warehouse and set up the first Niche, a bare bones, all-night house club, pretty different from the luxury brand it became. “Water was our main product, because obviously the drugs scene were (sic) coming along strong then. Even when we were tight with the dealers you couldn’t stop people coming in that were off their nut… we preferred to have them off their nut, drinking water… no violence, great music, everybody sweating their balls off, shirts off, girls wore bikinis. It was fantastic, it were on fire.” At this point the only ‘problem’ was drug users, not dealers, “there was no violence then because there was no turf wars. Dealers were kept out… all the aggravation is usually around dealers.”
Violence or not, dugs were the enemy and the tory government was playing hardball. A relentless game of cat and mouse developed between his organization and the police, “for about thee years it was continuous raid upon raid… We were up against the authorities from the off. The kids loved being spread-eagled against the wall, starfish searched. They (the police) might find a bit of weed on them and then they’d go away and within an hour we’d be firing up again… They’d pinch your sound system; they’d take your decks… so we always had a spare system knocking about. Straight back in.”
After three years Niche was still drawing huge crowds and Steve had the warehouse was fitted out to meet all the relevant safety regulations. But Niche was already renowned for negative as well as positive reasons; Niche was made legal under only one condition. No alcohol license. And so rather predictably the drug problems continued to escalate. Steve is realistic and about drug use in clubs, “it’s a fact that clubs can’t survive without somebody taking some substance. The alcohol, that’s a drug in it-self.”
Eventually, “they realized we weren’t going away,” and a license was granted. At this point, Bassline began to emerge, “The DJs asked if they could take the vocals out of the speed garage and the house and just thump up the bass a bit. This led to a change from a predominantly white crowd to a predominantly black crowd. Bassline music was evolving. London never had Bassline music as we had it here, they had the grime. It was our DJs, at the Niche, that created that sound. It went from an underground club with a smaller community to a massive UK wide thing with people coming from all over the country. It became a darker sound with thundering Basslines.”
As this exciting new sound emerged the popularity and desirability of Niche soared, “guys would travel from all over the country because they were hunting down this new music, this bassline.” But the real problems started when gangsters from other cities also started showing up, “they saw us as an easy target. They knew everyone was off their nuts; ready supply and demand going on here. If they could latch onto a percentage of that market, they were going to be well off. So, our war was stopping these dealers coming in, on top of that, making sure the doorman stayed on the straight.
The scene was thriving, but darkness lingered around the fringes. As the effects of drugs and crime began to overwhelm the scene Baxendale’s response would be decisive. His control of the venue was instrumental and his ethos permeated the entire community. “The police were aware we had a battle going on but they didn’t appreciate the amount of work we put into stopping these people coming in, they thought we’d turned a blind eye. They (the dealers) wouldn’t throw their weight around with us because we would up our game plan. We had good lads, hard, working class lads that could handle a fight. The only thing the dealers understood was violence. It was dog eat dog at this time, we had to survive because we had a good club. The law didn’t like us because we had our own rule book which was contrary to theirs.”
With such an attitude friction between the police and Niche was inevitable. Baxendale was not above the law. In 2005 the rule of law was restored. The raid cost £680,000 of public money, but Sheffield music fans felt the greatest cost. According to Baxendale the police had argued that the club was “attracting an undesirable clientele, from all areas of the black gang-land wars, who were bringing their bad ways to this city and cementing relationships with people from other major cities.” But in reality, “they raided on the grounds of a ‘crack house’ closure, because (customers) were able to buy drugs in the club, they said… the fact they called the raid ‘repatriation,’ that confirmed my thoughts.”
The doors of this cultural melting pot were slammed shut, Niche on Sydney Street never reopened and the bassline scene never recover. Crucially, none of those involved in the running of the club were ever charged in the operation, despite some inflammatory reporting by the local press about a handful of pills recovered during the raid, the raid was an utter failure. Even the police seem to have recognized this; the inspired officer who orchestrated the vast ‘Operating Repatriation’ was subsequently shipped off to Wales. Without Niche, the gangsters simply had one less place to congregate, but no serious criminals were apprehended that night.
With the club gone the only targets were the Niche brand and the culture and sound it sustained. In following years Baxendale opened ‘Vibe’ on Charter Row, but bassline was off the menu. Other venue owners, the police and fearful local people effectively banned the genre from being played anywhere in the city. The campaign was successful, even those who hated the sound agree its time was cut short. Dj’s such as Jamie Duggan and Shaun ‘Banger’ Scott have said they felt as if they were personally banned from perform anywhere in their home city. This explicit genre specific profiling raises the startling proposition that someone, somewhere in the police or council had a definition of Bassline and was prepared to enforce it.
Unprecedented levels of security kept Vibe comparatively safe, “they forced me into the middle of the city… now they’ve got the big brother on me, they got inside cameras wired up to the police station as a condition, and now they can just sit back and watch what they can’t get a grip off… the drug wars they can’t get a grip of.” By this point Baxendale claims they had a “relationship with the police… co-operation both ways, we’d hand drug dealers over that we caught, and we’d go the distance, we’d go to court… five year sentences were handed down… we’d had had it hard, and we would just like to have an easier ride now.”
In 2009 restrictions were slightly relaxed, and Steve had just expanded the Vibe Premises to create a replica of the old Sydney Street venue, as Baxendale put it, “Niche began to breathe once again in the city that created it.” The most popular drinks were whisky, brandy and cheap champagne. Niche’s second incarnation certainly differed from the club’s roots, but despite everything, it firmly held the same reputation as a mecca for lovers of Bassline. Resident JR said in 2009, “If you go to Embrace, ninety percent of people will be pissed, they go there to get drunk and pull. They come here because it’s a community. They come to Niche because it’s Niche. They wanna be seen in this place, here.” (Embrace is Sheffield’s answer to the Oceana style super clubs that litter the nations high streets.)
But Niche on Charter Row existed as ‘Niche’ for just weeks. Restrictions were now so tight a court had forced the club to use membership cards that took weeks to issue. The business was becoming unviable and Baxendale was fed up, just as before in 2005, “the writing was on the wall, that they weren’t going to have any of it, and so I just up sticks and moved.” Soon after giving the interview Niche was definitively forced out of the city.
The Charter Row venue reopened as the mainstream club Replica, whose most notable run in with the law was when an advert for their student night, ‘Eat my Disco’, featuring speech coming out of a girl’s crotch reading, “you’re going to get laid!” got banned by the ASA because it, “linked alcohol and sexual success”. So, arguably Sheffield’s most well recognized and creatively productive clubbing brand is now invisible in the city, apart from the boarded up shell of the Legendary Sydney street club still bearing the weathered Niche name.
In the years since Bassline was chased out of town parties of very different nature have been thriving in Sheffield’s cutlery warehouses. The city brings in its fair share of big names to headline the large commercial clubs, but interestingly, prohibition has arguably been a contributing factor in the increasingly underground nature of some dance music scenes. An underground, do-it-yourself subculture that is more prominent in Sheffield than arguably anywhere else in the UK.
Temporary out of town venues like DLS (Dirty Little Secret), Yellow Arch Studios, Dan Sane and Hope Works have taken the lead. Punters don’t buy quite as many drinks, but they’re prepared to spend fifteen quid on a ticket if it’s got the right name on it. They come for the music and the dance floor; they come for the drugs no more than the drinkers go to Embrace for the drinks. DLS is a labyrinth of old workshops in in the old red light district. Its very different from Niche, describes itself as, “the venue portion of a block of art, music and design studios rented out to the cities creative souls.” The crowd is more middle-class and student orientated, but critically, it’s never become associated with the large-scale drug dealing or gang activity that plagued Bassline nights.
Last year DLS’s closed for a time due to council pressure. It only ever had a temporary license, which explains its forgiving security policy (for punters, not dealers), out of town position and relative autonomy. Other clubs, who have invested heavily for the privilege of being inner-city venues, meeting all relevant guidelines, have long been unimpressed by DLS’s rising success. But despite the pressure, the positive culture nurtured at DLS has won out.
The club was saved when their partners, ‘Party for the People,’ won 10k of lottery funding to expand their community work and the club has since been rebranded as ‘The Night kitchen.’ This time at least, the war on drugs has been tempered and the venue looks set to remain an important nucleus for Sheffield’s surviving creative community. Maybe, finally, the authorities have a better understanding of the reality of a warehouse full of people on pills. Unlike the drunks bulldozing their way up and down the nations high streets every weekend looking for something to drink, fight or fornicate with, or a club full of dealers and gangsters, there’s actually very little chance of trouble occurring at such nights. If the dealers stay away, the venue stays safe.
It’s hard to say what nightlife in the UK would look like if drugs were decriminalized in the form already described in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and to say if Niche would have been saved, but drugs are now more popular, numerous and dangerous than ever. For want of a better word, drugs are an industry, a dangerous and volatile industry that is given freely to a criminal underworld to run and to profit from. It’s an industry where consumers can become addicted, controlled and extorted. An industry whose illegality and profitability often attracts and aligns with youth cultures keen to be portrayed as both rebellious and affluent – It follows as inevitable that the boundaries between the criminal and sinister drug industry and the creative and hedonistic world of music and nightlife should become blurred. And in the case of Bassline, these two worlds became too blurred, with devastating effects for the latter.
Momentum has shifted. In the last two years the mainstream media has begun to have an honest discussion about drug policy. The drug war has failed, producing countries are on their knees and the criminal underworld that runs the industry has continued to boom. But, without prohibition, is it morally acceptable to allow people to take drugs for the sake of their health and our society? There is far from a satisfactory answer to this second question.
Yet the Niche story and the relationship between dance music, nightlife, drugs and criminality in Sheffield demonstrates that the harm being caused by prohibition, and it should serve as further impetus for us to now ask if decriminalization and regulation could protect our citizens, culture and society better than the war on drugs. Later on this year a Documentary on the rise and fall of Niche is scheduled for release. It includes words from Baxendale, who the film team tracked down in Spain, and promises to shed light on the many murky aspects of this story.
It’s too late to save bassline, but hopefully the tragic story of Niche will serve as a warning for the future. It’s time the UK took steps to protect is greatest cultural export on the past century and took the drugs market out of the hand of criminals only interested in profits and power. The existing prohibition laws continue to sustain the criminals who harm Sheffield’s nightlife and endanger its music fans. Decriminalisation is the alternative. An alternative that is increasingly worthy of public debate.