Photography: K Frost & Lucas Perilini (Courtesy of Audiology)
What’s it like to be a drum and bass fan in New Zealand as the rest of the world still struggles to contain a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic?
That’s the question UKF asked me to answer for the worldwide drum and bass community and hopefully let you experience vicariously the current rave atmosphere in one of the few places in the world lucky enough to do so without restriction.
After attending and performing at a number of club nights and doofs over the period of a tumultuous 2020, everyone I spoke to said it was a surreal experience to be partying while knowing our global brethren were not as fortunate.
Then came the international acts… Committed to the cause to the point they went through two weeks of isolation on arrival, the anticipation for their arrival was so high that we’ve enjoyed the biggest ever drum & bass shows the country has seen, including a tour from three major league headliners Friction, Sub Focus and Dimension. Which is where I found myself just over a week ago in the beautiful Hagley Park, Christchurch, to enjoy an outdoor day/night gig of incredible proportions.
The atmosphere was palpable from the queue alone: sun-dappled trees, bucky hats and floral tees, a sea of moustaches and mullets, crispy skin and satisfied smiles. Animal masks, blow-up unicorns, onesies and tattoos and glitter. Familiar descriptions for anyone who has been to an outdoor summer rave down under, but with an added heightened energy and anticipation, not only from fellow ravers but from the artists themselves – finally another chance to flex long-stored dubplates and classic faves on a huge rig to a sea of adoring fans! For most DJs, it had been the best part of a year since they played to crowds this size. As for us blessed Kiwis? We were intent on making the most of it.
But how did we get here? Nobody quite suspected what was in store for the live music scene at the start of 2020. Drum and bass was in rude health, with incredible releases weekly, a bumper festival season wrapping up, and healthy competition between the UK and global hotspots in Europe, the Americas and Asia-Pacific. The bustling live scene in New Zealand was in strong shape in all it’s many forms: from massive multi-day festivals such as Northern Bass, Rhythm & Vines and Bay Dreams to underground doofs and raves; sound systems aplenty gracing both indoor and outdoor venues; sweaty club nights for locals and internationals alike, as well as open decks, mainstream and pirate radio, and the humble house party.
Touring artists have long shown their appreciation of New Zealand rave culture. In 2018, frequent visitor Andy C said “I love coming back to New Zealand, man. It’s such a beautiful part of the world, the people are fantastic. The vibe here, you always leave here with such positive energy, just a positive emotion and it’s lovely.” Over 2019 a slew of international acts had toured with great success and spoke highly of their experience: from Bou to AC-13 to Kanine and Hedex, the new generation of artists especially found great success amongst a predominantly youthful audience.
In January of 2020 the popularity of drum and bass in New Zealand was at an all-time high, riding a wave of mainstream recognition thanks to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s love for the genre (famously gifting Shapeshifter’s The System Is A Vampire to a visiting Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan in 2018), Tali winning Best Electronic Artist at the 2019 Vodafone NZ Music Awards (the first solo woman in 10 years to be nominated for this particular award) and the rapid rise of fresh local stars such as Lee Mvtthews, Flowidus, Fairbrother, Burnzy, Zeisha and Elipsa (to name just a few).
As March rolled around, the effects of COVID took everyone by surprise and the impact was immediate: with strict lockdowns around the world forcing people inside, the events industry and live music scene took a massive blow, forever changing the way we interacted with our favourite artists. Like everywhere else, Kiwis sheltered indoors and the resulting rise in live-streaming was noticeable – from high profile artists like A.M.C. to the humble bedroom DJ, everyone was in on the action. Powerhouse local promoters Sub180 teamed with Bloc2Bloc to play host to exciting young talent both here and over the shores, with local legends like Greeen, Tweed, Pirapus and Deep Notion bumping shoulders with UK counterparts such as Crossy, Gray, Disrupta and Kaz.
Moving into April, as lockdowns continued, the long-running friendly rivalry between the UK and NZ drum and bass scenes culminated in a month-long meme war on popular Facebook group D&B Memes, eventually crowning New Zealand as the champion. A frivolous and largely jokey result, but when June rolled around, the strict approach to social distancing implemented by the NZ government meant a gradual return to live music events, and cooped-up ravers could once again stretch their legs and get pummelled by bass music to their heart’s content, much to the envy and chagrin of those less fortunate (read: everyone outside NZ).
For the back half of 2020, the local scene benefitted from the absence of touring internationals, meaning NZ artists got an extended run of shows. Although dominated by the “Big 4” NZ acts (Concord Dawn, The Upbeats, State Of Mind and Trei) and other established artists (Shapeshifter, TRUTH, Optimus Gryme, Chiccoreli), the door opened for new and lesser-known acts to ply their trade and raise their profile: the likes of Azifm, Catch-22, Poris, Sly Chaos and Unsub.
But it wasn’t long before overseas eyes began turning to New Zealand as it became clear that live music events weren’t going to be returning any time soon. Veteran producer/DJ and frequent visitor A-Sides had already weathered the lockdown over here, but was soon joined by an emigrating Alix Perez, an extended stay from one half of Artificial Intelligence, as well expat Need For Mirrors booking December-January shows.
Word also spread quickly about major international headliners for our summer festival season: Dimension, Sub Focus and Friction, some of the biggest names in D&B, were undergoing quarantine for a string of appearances throughout the country. When they rolled through my hometown, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to capture a snapshot of the state of play, so on a glorious mid-summer afternoon I joined throngs of junglists making their way to the lush central park of our resilient city.
As people filed in, waiting for drinks and chatting to mates, the support acts kicked off proceedings. Mylen is an up-and-coming young producer, and was obviously excited and humbled to be warming up the sound system, which he did with a nice selection of liquid staples like Be True and Roll The Dice before moving into dancefloor territory as the crowd built. Fairbrother has built a solid online following after honing his craft on local radio and a raft of international supports, as well as achieving a degree of notoriety for bootlegging a classic Kiwi TV ad. Bringing rolling bass with funky vocals he had everyone bopping along and feeling good, ratcheting up the pressure throughout his set with current popular cuts like Break – Piece Of My Heart, DLR & Break – Hit The Target as well as some trademark heavyweight doubles and triples (‘The Chain’ bootleg with The Sauce’s ‘Roll The Dice’ Remix and Break’s ‘Hard Noize’ Remix was especially sickl.) In an early indication of the special vibe of unity, the crowd lifted their voices to sing-along to a bootleg of Juice Newton’s Angel Of The Morning, as well as State of Mind’s remix of the classic Shapeshifter tune Dutchies.
Dazzling late-day sun beamed down as Dimension took to the stage to his customary intro tune (Mozart’s ‘Requiem’), a stagehand hurriedly erecting cardboard coverings for the CDJ’s due to the extreme light causing issues with viewing the display. It didn’t stop him from quickly getting stuck in, doubling Devotion into the iconic Solar System by Sub Focus. It was to be a recurring theme throughout, with each artist spinning both their own, and each other’s tunes, including the Dimension and Sub Focus collab Desire.
Despite New Zealand drum and bass fans being hugely proud and supportive of local artists, touring internationals generate a special kind of excitement, with some of them attaining a celebrity status that sets them apart. Dimension is a perfect example of this: suave, decked out in black, shirt cuffs rolled up like an 80s illusionist, cigarette in one hand, and the kind of hair that always looks like wind is blowing through it, all lends him an air of intrigue and prestige befitting his music and promotional image. A gifted musician who seems to reel off catchy, melodic, memorable tunes with ease, he quickly moved through some of his biggest hits: Don’t Sleep, If You Want To, Remedy and Saviour all had the heaving audience flinging hands in the air.
The evening’s first airing of Wilkinson’s classic Afterglow had everyone singing at the top of their lungs, while D&B takes on Flume and The Chemical Brothers also triggered nostalgic reactions. New cut Offender did serious damage, too. On a stadium sound system with an up-for-it crowd, the 4×4 drop provoked one of the biggest responses of the night. As his set neared an end he took to the mic: “Hi guys, I’m Dimension. This is new music…” leading to new cuts off imminent debut LP Organ, including next single Alive, a soaring dancefloor tune with gorgeous female vocals.
The unassuming Friction appeared next alongside surprise guest Dynamite MC, as the brilliant sunshine dipped behind rolling cloud, ushering in a change of vibe as uplifting dancefloor gave way to technical pyrotechnics and deep selections. Introing with the first big hit on his label Elevate Records – a take on Gorillaz’ Dare – he wasted no time whipping the crowd up with a VIP of his Metrik collab Ultrafunk into the mandatory Bunker, demonstrating why his DJ skills have been in high demand for two decades. Unexpected transitions elicited delighted squeals of “oiiiii” from adoring fans, bass faces twisted in delight: Groove Armada’s Superstylin’ crashing into Break’s In My Mind remix; Friction and K-Tee’s twist on Johnny L’s Back To Your Roots bumping up against Shimon’s monstrous refix of Titan; Flume’s You & Me morphing into Dimension’s UK.
Dynamite MC expertly guided proceedings, hyping the crowd for incoming tunes and skilfully blending the vocal refrains of outgoing tracks. Over the second outing of Afterglow he sang “who cares where we go?” and it seemed all too fitting for a touring musician in his element. Likewise Friction’s remix of Right Here, Right Now, with Dynamite repeating the lyrics, took on extra meaning on a night where the vibe was gratitude. “We came all the way from the UK… We’re very fortunate and very happy…” Judging from how animated Friction was, arms flailing at disgusting drops, and Dynamite’s massive smile and cute crowd interactions, it was clear these weren’t just hollow words.
Darkness was setting in by the time Sub Focus and MC ID entered the fray, the impressive visual and lighting displays kicking into full gear as he opened with the epic Air I Breathe by himself and Wilkinson. Although a less animated DJ behind the decks than his co-headliners, he exudes the confidence of a seasoned performer, utterly in command of his craft. Utilising many of the same tunes to devastating effect (Solar System, Devotion, and ‘Offender’ all went off), dancefloor titans like Metrik also got a good showing (including his take on Sub Focus’ anthemic X-Ray and S.P.Y.’s remix of his We Got It). A third airing of Afterglow still had everyone singing along amongst the smoke and lasers, and near the end of the set Sub Focus’ own Siren got the only reload of the night. Hands, phone screens and lighters raised high, everyone soaked up the euphoria, satisfied smiles and voices in unison, sharing in the special magic generated by this music we love.
All around, chance reunions and random interactions contributed to the community spirit, and I couldn’t help but feel like the collective energy experienced at these events was reflective of New Zealand’s willpower to overcome COVID. Throughout the past six months it was a common talking point, the realisation of just how fortunate we are to partake in the rave: we’re acutely aware of international heads and ravers being not-so-lucky and it has added an extra edge to our parties: a responsibility to enjoy the moment, because who knows what comes next?
On the horizon, more and more UK artists are lining up to grace our shores, enduring the forced isolation and virus testing in order to bring their passion to one of the only places they can. From Delta Heavy to Macky Gee, K Motionz and Upgrade; Sub180’s Urban Jungle Festival featuring a full Born On Road takeover; to the Executioner himself selling out shows at stadiums in all our main centres in a matter of minutes. Word has it that Kanine even snagged a working visa for an extended stay over here, and it’s easy to see why. A nation mad about drum and bass has become a beacon and safe haven for those who treasure the genre, and we couldn’t be more blessed.
Whether it’s a good thing for smaller local artists remains to be seen – 2020 was a boon for a market that had arguably become oversaturated with touring internationals filling our gig calendars weekly – but one thing is for sure: the continued resilience of drum and bass has weathered a lot of storms, so we celebrate for everyone who can’t, and hope for a return to normality, in a stronger state than ever before.