Naughty but Niche: Sheffield’s Subterranean Superbrand
The UKs urban music scene has become completely dominated with bassline and speed garage in the last few years. This explosion seemed to happen over night but as any ardent Niche fan will tell you, the story started much further back.
From humble beginnings as a Sheffield nightclub, Niche has evolved into a global entity. As the club grew and the music evolved, so too has the meaning of the word. With the development of speed garage and 4/4, the term ‘bassline house’ or just bassline, became increasingly prevalent and eventually the club was credited with the creation of this new sound. Some even refer to it simply as Niche. The most significant media on which the music was distributed was on the infamous ‘Niche Tapes’. These tapes we’re fundamental in getting the trademark pop tune bootlegs, underpinned by infectious and bouncy basslines, out to the public who seemed to have an insatiable appetite for them.
The Niche story is a rich one to say the least: Born out of the UK underground dance explosion, Tarnished by the authorities and branded a home for drugs and violence, Dramatically raided and closed down and then rising up from the ashes to become a clubbing empire and spawning the most popular UK urban genre of today. The club has gone full circle. Once a thorn in the side of South Yorkshire Police, now used by the authorities to demonstrate how to correctly run a club. It’s been an exciting 16 years to say the least.
The story begins with the birth of the early rave scene of the late 80s and early ninties. Sheffield was a perfect place for the rave music and culture to develop as this once thriving industrial city was ravaged by the Thatcher years and left desolate but overflowing with abandoned spaces of all sorts and sizes. The DIY mentality was allowed to flourish as people set out into the city with speaker boxes and wire-cutters.
One man who knows the true ins and outs of the history is Steve Baxendale, the godfather of the operation. I met the founding father of Niche at his new location ‘The Vibe’, another Sheffield club, now housing the whole organisation. The recently completed studios are gleaming with new equipment but I decided a darkened corner of the alcoved upstairs room of the club was a more apt setting to hear the chequered and colourful history of Niche from Steve Baxendale, its charismatic owner.
Where did it begin for you?
“It began in about 1992. The underground scene was coming along strong, led by the speed garage. All of a sudden underground raves we’re appearing in all the little warehouses, indiscriminate cellars and old units in the city. I sought out a cutlery warehouse, a little-mesters, which was derelict and decided to convert that into an underground rave. Everyone was sick of the commercial clubs (still essentially discos) and the military regime that they incorporated. They wanted throbbing underground music and to chill out in peace.”
Steve acknowledged also that there was a buzz in the air at this time. People had endured the 80s under Thatcher (not a pleasant experience in Sheff) and the Criminal Justice Act of 94 was round the corner. It was a time of change. Steve’s attitude to life is apparent soon after meeting him. Anything is achievable with a bit of hard graft. It was with this mentality that the original (Sylvester Street, Sheffield) club came into being.
‘We started with one side of the building, ripped a few walls out, put a soundsystem in and painted the walls black. We then used our underground messaging system to let the ravers know they should come and see us. From the second week we had queues, it kicked straight off.’
The music at this time was speed garage and a bit of house but it was the garage that would prevail as the most important sound. The police we’re quick to react to the rave’s by passing legislation and cracking down on the promoters.
‘We we’re up against the authorities from the off. The raids added an extra buzz. The kids loved being spread-eagled against a wall, star-fished and 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. So the police got a bit cute and started taking the sound systems (using new the laws) and all the equipment. From that time on, we always had spare systems knocking about. As soon as the police left with the first rig, the next one would come out and the party would start again. We knew they changed shift at 3am, once they’d raided us we’d start up again after 3, knowing that the new shift would not endure the paperwork of a second raid.’
3 years of continuous raids started to become a little tiring for the Baxendales and no doubt the novelty was wearing off for the punters too.
‘At that point we got a bit cute too and we had notices on the walls stating that all the equipment we’re on hire and therefore could not be touched by anyone who did not own it. We beat em with that one! Once the authorities realised that we weren’t going away they said that they would give me a license if I did things correctly.’
Steve began to tackle the red tape and the building was fitted out with all the necessary equipment to become legal. They gave it him with one restriction, no alcohol license. After a brief stint of punters going round the back into a van to get their booze, the police wised up to this. Steve believed that they didn’t think the club could be financially viable without alcohol on sale. Water sales we’re massive and kept the club afloat in the early legal days.
‘We never tolerated any dealing in the club but inevitably we couldn’t stop people taking things before they came. Water was all they needed to stay safe and hydrated, there was no violence. We had a great vibe because no-one was pissed up and wanting to fight, they we’re dancing around and enjoying the vibe. That was the ethos of the night.’
By the mid-ninties Niche was a thriving club with a large number of people attending every weekend. A significant change took place at this time.
‘The DJs asked if they could take the vocals out of the speed garage (pitched vocals, particularly female singers we’re a central point of the sound) 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. The Niche tapes were selling very strongly, selling out at each event. The queues we’re getting huge!’
‘The gangsters from other cities also started showing up at this point. They saw us as an easy target. They knew everyone was off their nuts and they could see an opportunity to move in. They knew that if they could latch onto a percentage of that market, they’d have a big chunk. So our war then was stopping these dealers coming in, on top of that, making sure the doorman stayed on the straight. 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.’
More new legislation was on the cards which brought mixed blessings for Niche. The extended drinking hours brought an increase in revenue and the club finally, got a liquor license. The clientele had changed from off-their-head ravers to people who enjoyed the image of drinking brandy and champagne, this became their biggest seller.
‘When the police finally got the power (at a similar time) to not have to go to court and run around to make an inspection. The inspector achieved the power to enter the club at will. It was racism. They decided that because we were attracting a black audience they would come down hard on us.’
The police report into the raid and closure of Niche at Sylvester Street in 2005 said that they were attracting an undesirable crowd of members from the black gangland community who were bringing their ways to the city and cementing links with other gangs from major cities. There had been a shooting incident outside the club around this time. The shutdown by the police was called ‘Operation Repatriation’. The fact that a club with a perceived black crowd had a white owner meant that the police could close it without fear of the race card being used in defence. The writing was on the wall, the police wanted it shut and they got their way.
This was another important moment in the evolution of Niche. Although it was already being used to describe the genre, Niche lost its attachment to one particular club. Though this was a sad loss for the ravers (Steve even opened it up to the public after the shutdown and let punters take mementos from the building to aid their grief) it allowed Niche to become a global music brand by allowing listeners from further a field to see Niche as more than just a club. After a brief period of running events at The Limit, Niche moved into its current home in The Vibe. The police still won’t allow Steve to call a club ‘Niche’ but The Vibe is home to Niche Recordings, Bhangra Niche and hosts the online radio station.
The old location for Niche was on the outskirts of the city centre whereas its current home at The Vibe is very much in the centre of Sheffield. The police forced this move, which could have provoked a lot of trouble in the city centre. Steve chose however to embrace the police’s demands for strict door policies and cameras and this has brought the club back to its trouble-free roots. Steve keeps his doormen out of view inside the club but at the slightest flare-up of trouble they are silently alerted to any area by buzzers and a patented system of illuminated switchboards which light up to indicate where they should go. Police who once fought to close him down bring copies of Niche compilations for Steve to sign for their kids. The police have a presence in the club and they’re happy that it’s run correctly. Although the current Sheffield gang problem is something for Steve to be aware of, he knows the gangs (mostly of youths) and knows how to control them.
A more recent benchmark moment was selling 100,000 copies of the CD compilation ‘The Sound of Bassline’ in 2007. A collaboration with Ministry Sound that could be bought in your local Tesco’s. This indicates just how much hype there is around the music that was forged in the old redundant workshops of Sheffield. The original Niche lover identity was a northern, working-class raver. With the popularity of the music this has grown to include all ethnicities and even increasing interest from middle-class listeners. Steve reacted to the appreciation for Niche music by young British Asians by introducing Bhangra Niche. In order to ensure authenticity, this was done with business partners fully versed in Asian music. The fusion of classic Bollywood songs and tearing Niche basslines is the ultimate UK fusion music. Steve showed me a video from the Bradford Mela which showed literally thousands of youngsters going absolutely insane with excitement as soon as they heard their first Bhangra Niche tune. The first album was launched last year and is selling out faster that Steve can press them.
Niche is the most significant urban contribution from Sheffield ever and is a huge export for the city. Musically Niche still caters for the classic tracks that were first played all those years ago but the 4/4, the Bhangra and Desi Niche and all the other sub-genres are where the youths interest is. Proudest of all would be Steve’s brother, Mick, who lost his life defending the club he loved.
By Alex Deadman - January 2009
(Since this article was written, Club Vibe has been rebranded as Niche)