It’s been over a year since Unorthodox threw their first party in Peckham Audio’s basement, and the achievements that they’ve unlocked in that time have been nothing short of remarkable.
Together with promoters like Queer Rave and Drag n Bass, Unorthodox have merged two scenes into one phenomenon that was, until last year, unheard of – queer parties and drum & bass. Given the surging popularity of drag this past decade, it was long overdue. With drum & bass drag queen Nathan X (Toby Nathan) at the helm, Unorthodox are pioneering a new radical and flavourful blend.
When we first spoke with Nathan back in 2021, he told us about microaggressions and a “macho” reputation of drum & bass that had left LGBTQ+ people such as himself feeling unable to express their identity in the scene. In spite of its roots at Rage in the queer club Heaven, and a longer lineage stretching back to black and queer house and techno parties in Chicago and Detroit, Nathan argued that drum & bass no longer felt like a safe place for LGBTQ+ ravers. He founded Unorthodox to carve out that space.
As it turns out, the scene was more than ready for it. In just a short time, the Unorthodox crew has bagged themselves some massive sets, from El Dorado to the Village Underground, Tomorrowland and the much coveted Friday evening slot at Boomtown. They’ve even nabbed a spot taking over Spotify’s Queer Spaces playlist, giving their grassroots movement a global platform throughout Pride Month.
But arguably Unorthodox’s biggest achievement is the community they have built around themselves. Growing from one viral Facebook poll posted by Nathan in the Facebook group DnB Talk last year, the crew now counts among its ranks legends like Chickaboo, Mandidextrous, and Changing Faces, with rising stars Pinks and Clarkus helping to steer the group both behind the decks and offstage. More than just a promoter, Unorthodox is a family, which throws its arms wide open to all who felt like they didn’t have a place in the drum & bass scene previously.
To celebrate how far they’ve come, Unorthodox just threw an anniversary party in the place where it all began, Peckham Audio. We sat down with Nathan to catch up on his very busy year, how the scene has improved for LGBTQ+ ravers, and what still needs some work.
Congratulations on Unorthodox’s first year! How was the birthday party?
Really good. The first event is the easy one because everyone’s like, “What’s this? I’m going to go check it out,” but then those people don’t necessarily come to the second or the third event. The first year is always a tough one, but the first birthday party was the best one we’ve done so far. We’ve done a lot of work, been at festivals in the summer and we’re getting in the right places, so when it got to our first birthday, we were really hitting our target market. We had people there who travelled from Paris – they even booked their Eurostar tickets to come to the next one, they loved it that much. We had quite a few older ravers as well, being like, “I’ve been waiting 20 years for this event.”
So you feel like you found your core audience now?
Yeah, I think that’s it, and aside from that, we have just a great bunch of artists. There are so many pieces that came together to make it a great show. I think we’ve really found our footing musically as well. At the end of the day, the most important thing with everything we’re doing is the music, and seeing how far I’ve come and my resident DJs are coming in a year is really great.
One of our mates said to us the biggest difference from the first Unorthodox to this Unorthodox is actually the music. We’ve got more experience. We’re better DJs and better performers.
And what are some of your favourite moments from the past year?
The highlight has to be Boomtown. I’ve been going to Boomtown for years. You stand there in the crowd and you look up at those big stages and you think as a DJ, “I’d love to be there.” But that voice inside you says you’re never really going to get there, because you’re not a producer. You’re not good enough. Younger me would be very proud to see myself up there.
I get really nervous when I do an Unorthodox DJ set at the Unorthodox events, but for some reason at Boomtown, I wasn’t nervous. It felt right. It felt like everything had been leading up to this moment here. If you watch the promo video, you can see I’ve got my family around me. We’re all getting ready, getting into drag, getting into makeup, having a bubble backstage. We all walk up on stage together. There was a spraying champagne bottle over the crowd.
It was just great. We did the drum & bass thing, and we did it in our own way, and it was received just as well as any other act on that stage, if not better.
You were at Tomorrowland this summer as well, which is perhaps a less obvious drum & bass festival. How was that experience?
A very different kind of highlight, but also a highlight because we hosted our own stage there. When I got the email, I couldn’t quite believe it. I had to check the emails, check the URLs, make sure I wasn’t being spammed or anything. I remember when we picked another artist for it, they contacted me and they said, “They’re booking me for Tomorrowland? Are you sure it’s real?” And I was like, “Yeah! It’s real. We’re going.”
It was really fun to do something like that – to go to such a crazy big festival and have a stage. We got treated like royalty – beautiful hotel, the most amazing food backstage, unlimited drinks. You want to go home, you get in the back of a Mercedes tour bus and off you go. That was surreal in a different kind of way. People who were at our stage were absolutely loving it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It felt like a holiday for me and the crew. That was a really nice moment in the summer.
Since you started Unorthodox, have you noticed any differences within the drum & bass scene for the LGBTQ+ community?
When we started, we actually really struggled to find LGBT artists. That was a big thing for us. I was like, “I don’t have anyone to DJ at this event – what am I going to do?” But now we’ve got a whole network of queer artists. There are a lot of people who were never that public about being queer in the scene, but now feel they can be through Unorthodox.
I was playing in Amsterdam last week on a completely cisgender straight line up. The event was not promoted as any sort of queer event, just as a bog standard drum & bass night. For me, a few years back, I would have been like, “I could never step into a drum & bass rave in drag,” but I stepped into a drum & bass rave in drag.
I get up on stage and go, “I go by the name Nathan X. I’m the UK’s first drag drum & bass DJ,” and the crowd goes wild. I don’t need to say anything else. People love it, people are all for it. People want something new. People were getting into the booth or vibing with me as I walked around the club. It was like being a celebrity.
It’s just so great to see how positively I can be received as a drag queen drum & bass DJ. That’s a huge change.
The scene’s reaction to Mr Traumatik’s homophobic comments seemed like a good indication the scene had changed too.
I did see some people being like, “Why is he being cancelled?” and other homophobic comments, as you do because not everyone’s on the same page. But it was so supportive to see so many people be like, “No, that’s wrong.” I don’t think the scene five years ago would have reacted the same way.
On a personal level, do you feel safer expressing your identity within drum & bass?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve had some guys be a bit passive aggressive to me at raves in the past year, but that’s one out of thousands. The problem is it takes one person to ruin your night. I’m quite thick skinned, so it’s quite hard for that sort of thing to affect me, but I know someone else would be really upset if someone was being aggressive with them. So not everything’s perfect, but there’s definitely been progress.
One thing I do notice way more now is seeing a lot more openly queer people coming to drum & bass raves. I often see a lot of people who come to Unorthodox shows, and then I go to other drum & bass raves and they’re there too, and they’re dressed up looking how they would at Unorthodox. I think them being able to be themselves in our space means that they go, “Actually I want to be like this. I’m going to be like this everywhere.” That’s an important part of Unorthodox empowering people.
Unorthodox is feeling especially relevant right now, with all the vitriol that trans people are getting in the press. What role do you think Unorthodox has to play in trans representation?
We try to do everything we can to make our spaces as open to trans and non-binary people as possible. We worked really hard with our venues to make sure they have gender neutral toilets and male and female security. For a lot of people who are transitioning, or don’t know what they want to be, they can come in and experiment with that at Unorthodox. That’s a great space for them to do that.
We’re also seeing a lot of trans artists. We’ve got Mandidextrous and Changing Faces. They love working with us, and we absolutely love working with them as well. They’re both phenomenal producers and phenomenal DJs. Having them in the spotlight creates a figurehead for the trans community, and for drum & bass as well.
Do you get a sense that your movement is growing? Have you come across any other queer drum & bass events being set up in other places?
Yeah, totally. There was one that happened in the Netherlands, but I don’t think they’re going to continue because they struggled and had lots of homophobia. And I get it because I see homophobia as well. It is a tough job. It’s political and you’re dealing with people’s emotions. You’re dealing with people who might be scared or might not know what they want from themselves. They’re transitioning or they’re coming out. It’s a very sensitive thing. I would say to anyone who wants to set up this sort of thing, hit me up and I can give you some advice, because it’s not easy.
At the same time, it’s absolutely great because we are seeing other brands pop up. We started the first one, and we’ve set a precedent for people to be like, “Oh, we can also do this. We’re going to get involved.”
So you’ve got the night and the community and some high profile bookings behind you this year. Where do you want Unorthodox to be in the next 10 years?
Successful record label, some merch, we’re going to be doing events as big as Printworks, and hopefully have changed the landscape of drum & bass. We’re more than just a queer event. We are the new future of drum & bass.