|Clubbing in Toronto
One of Canada's most vibrant cities for electronic music is more vital than ever, in large part due to its storied history.
It's often said that we come into our own once in our 30s. The same holds true for Toronto's electronic music scene and dance club culture. For the past three decades, electronic music has grown, matured and morphed in Canada's largest city.
At the zenith of the rave days, Toronto was indisputably a North American clubbing capital. From 1995-2001, the planet's top DJs played before audiences of two to twenty thousand—with multiple such parties happening every weekend. That momentum could not be maintained and the crowds died down.
Time has shown this to be a positive thing. Downsizing forced the electronic music community to rethink and re-build. Movements localized and it became obvious that the city's varied scenes needed to support and value Toronto talent rather than lean so heavily on internationals to fill venues. Today, as Toronto acts like Art Department, Austra, Azari & III, Crystal Castles, Egyptrixx and XI are making their mark internationally, there is huge pride here. Fiercely original productions are pouring out of the city's studios, while a vast array of local DJs and producers headline on home turf.
Toronto's many faces: Egyptrixx, Art Department, Austra, Crystal Castles.
With five-and-a-half million people living in the Greater Toronto Area and a steady influx of clubbing tourists, there is the population to support a multitude of options every night of the week. There's a healthy mix of underground and commercial, with venues of all stripes and sizes found in concentrated neighbourhoods across the downtown core.
"There is no one sound when it comes to Toronto and electronic music," states Kenny Glasgow, one half of Art Department and a local veteran who got his start in the thriving warehouse scene of the early '90s and later turned to techno and raves. "There's a scene here for pretty much everything," Glasgow chuckles. "They just range in size."
Similarly, there is no identifiable "Toronto sound" when it comes to productions. Releases tend to represent an amalgam of inspirations. Toronto is hugely influenced by its proximity to the trifecta of American cities that gave rise to modern club music: Detroit, Chicago and New York. All are physically close enough to have allowed an ongoing cultural exchange of DJs and producers. With Canada also being a former British colony, it's no surprise that Brit-produced sounds like New Wave, goth and rave also seep heavily into the mix.
Above all, Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. Over half of the people living here were born outside of Canada, with more than 100 languages heard on the streets. The resulting impact on music production and the range of clubbing options cannot be overestimated.
"The cultural diversity plays a big factor in the way scenes developed here," states Nav Sangha, DJ and owner of underground dance club/hub Wrongbar. "Drum & bass, house, dancehall and reggae—all of those scenes merged and influenced one another in many ways. You'll see DJs hopping from scene to scene. There's a great amount of diversity that may exist in some American cities, but here a lot of scenes and communities are more integrated. I think Toronto is extremely important where the North American market is concerned and it's only just in the last five years or so that I really feel like it's being recognized as such," emphasizes Sangha. "Everyone is turning the pages on the history books and realizing what an important role this city played."
For Toronto, dance club culture begins at Twilight Zone, an afterhours hybrid opened in 1981. It ran for eight years, with disco fans, New Wavers, hip-hop heads and, especially, house music devotees—both gay and straight—on the dance floor week after week. The Zone drew large crowds, and presented early appearances by house bricklayers like Frankie Knuckles. Its impact was so strong that annual tribute parties continue to this day. Through the late '80s to early '90s, the underground warehouse scene exploded, with house DJs sweating up the walls at off-the-grid spaces. Many also represented Toronto through their productions and indie labels. Especially active were heads like Nick Holder (DNH), Peter & Tyrone (83 West), Dino & Terry (Crash), The Stickmen (Stickman), Nick Fiorucci (Hi-Bias), Matt Dimaria AKA M1 (Jinxx) and, later, Mario J and Kenny Glasgow (Method 11:11).
The Method 11:11 team: Kenny Glasgow and Mario J.
At the same time, rave began to swell. 23 Hop was an early key spot for hardcore/jungle while multiple rave production companies held court in large secret locations. Toronto's jungle/drum & bass scene became second in size only to the U.K. as event companies imported England's biggest jungle DJs and MCs while Toronto talents like Dr. No, Mystical & Sniper and Marcus Visionary gained massive followings. Visionary remains one of Toronto's best-loved DJ/producers, playing regularly and producing sounds ranging from breakbeat to soca-inflected garage and bass.
Though the massive rave scene imploded early in the 2000s—largely thanks to political pressures and police crackdowns following negative media coverage—it spawned projects like Tribe Magazine's still-popular message boards and impactful weekend-long events including Sumkidz' Om Summer Solstice Festival and Destiny's WEMF (World Electronic Music Festival). The latter half of the rave decade set the stage for Toronto of today.
Early '90s dance club destination RPM became world-renowned 10,000 capacity club and concert complex The Guvernment in 1996. Regularly packed with weekend warriors, The Guv stands as testament to the vitality of Toronto's nightlife. It has survived and thrived by booking the world's biggest names in dance music—Tiesto, Deep Dish, Pete Tong, Carl Cox, Paul Van Dyk and the like—alongside strong locals, including longtime Spin Saturdays resident DJ Mark Oliver, a key Toronto figure. "It's had such a long, healthy, amazing run," comments Nav Sangha about The Guvernment. "Not everyone is a fan necessarily, but you'd be hard pressed to find a club that's had that consistent of a run anywhere in North American or even worldwide. They're really great at what they do."
Underground house and techno found a purpose-built legal home in Industry Nightclub in 1996. The programming focused heavily on Chicago, Detroit and local talents. "I think that when Industry opened up for electronic dance music, Toronto had opened its eyes and realized 'OK, there is an actual scene here,'" observes Kenny Glasgow, once an Industry resident. "A venue of that size dedicated to underground dance music culture clearly made it something for everybody to enjoy."
Derrick May playing at Industry.
DJ Sneak re-located from Chicago to Toronto largely because of Industry. Techno pioneers guested at the club's Fukhouse weekly alongside promoter Ian Guthrie and then-local DJ/producers like Adam Marshall, Jeff Milligan and Jeremy Caulfield. "There was a lot of techno going on in the mid-to-late '90s," points out Glasgow. "Being so close to Detroit, we were still developing our identity. But the Toronto guys from that period who are now living and travelling around the world were all doing their own things that were different."
Dinamo Azari, then a young raver turned warehouse head and now member of Azari & III, recalls the view from his perch at Industry's lighting board. "Watching guys like Jeff Mills play on six turntables was just incredible," he shares. "Or there was Derrick May, who was so commanding, Mark Farina who blended his tracks so gently, and Sneak with his aggressive, confident style. I was right behind them, the crowds loving it, and it was all just amazing."
The momentum of Toronto's house and techno underground slowed after Industry was forced to close its doors in August of 2000. That closure was directly related to two significant Toronto trends of the late '90s/early '00s: the widespread condo-fication of the downtown core and city council's decision to pass zoning bylaws that limited new dance club licenses to specific areas. It was an experiment that resulted in Toronto's infamous "Entertainment District" developing in an area that had been filled with abandoned factories, artist centres and garment industry operations. At the time, there was a very low residential population.
Soon, a huge volume of venues—from intimate lounges to large, multi-tiered playhouses—cropped up within a very small radius. While the majority were flashy commercial dance clubs, there were hotspots for the underground crowd as well, including post-rave clubbers' paradise System Soundbar. For seven years, System was the place for underground house, techno and drum & bass. Sold to a developer, System closed its doors on January 1, 2006. By then, the Entertainment District had become a victim of its own success and the city's shortsighted planning. Tens of thousands of partiers—many of them driving in from suburbs and surrounding areas—flooded those small city blocks every weekend, with hundreds of police on duty to deal with the drunken brawls, weapons brought into clubs and other offences. It wasn't pretty and, for the most part, it wasn't about the music.
"People aren't afraid to combine and
experiment whereas many other
cities may have, overall, a more
traditionalist approach." – Noah Pred
Indeed, it's the clubs opened by people with vision and a passion for music that remain closest to our hearts. Talk to any Toronto house veteran with a lean to the soulful and beloved two-floor venue Roxy Blu will be mentioned with misty eyes. With its warehouse-like vibe and underground programming, Roxy was a cherished alternative to the raves and commercial clubs. Kruder & Dorfmeister played their first Toronto gig at Roxy, J Dilla dropped a DJ set in 2002 and house cats like Joe Claussell and Dennis Ferrer were frequent headliners. A number of parties that began life at Roxy Blu—in particular Bump N' Hustle with killer resident DJs Paul E. Lopes and Mike Tull, and Solid Garage with core crew Groove Institute—re-located and remain popular.
On a related though more tech-y tip is Footwork Bar, arguably Toronto's best venue dedicated to house and techno. Opened in May of 2005, the mid-sized venue has fantastic, clear and warm sound, a family vibe and partnerships with some of Toronto's strongest house and techno promoters. The layout is ideal for dancing, the lighting simple yet on point and the programming is as inclusive of Toronto DJs and producers as it is touring artists.
Top: The mirrorballs at Footwork.
Middle: Nav Sangha, the man behind Wrongbar.
Bottom: The Comfort Zone: Where clubbers start, end or bookend their weekend in Toronto.
On any given weekend at Footwork, you can expect to find the likes of Derrick Carter, Jimpster, Steve Bug, Carl Craig or Plastikman playing alongside Toronto talents like No.19's Nitin, techno stalwarts Jamie Kidd and Greg Gow or versatile party rockers including Jelo and Deko-ze. "A key principle to the programming has always been to diversify, while maintaining quality," says co-founder Smye AKA DJ Baby Joel. "Not everyone will get their cup of tea every time, but the open-minded music fans will get it most of the time."
Friday nights at Footwork, dubbed Luv This City, are devoted to Toronto jocks while Saturdays regularly feature top touring DJs alongside two or three locals. The club has been fundamental for countless Toronto DJ/producers—Jelo, Jonny White, Carlo Lio and James Teej among them—as they've developed their sounds, styles and audience from Footwork's DJ booth. Sets can be extended and adventurous, especially as the club remains open for dancing long after Toronto's bars stop serving alcohol at 2 AM.
Clubbers visiting Toronto will notice that the vast majority of venues are located in the west end of the city, which is to say well west of our main dividing line known as Yonge Street. No matter where you're headed in the downtown core, getting around is easy. The TTC (public transportation) is decent. Subway trains stop running around 1:30 AM, but many streetcars and buses run 24 hours. Nab a TTC day or weekly pass to save some bucks or, if you're a happy spender, grab a cab. Taxis, while easy to come by (except from 2-3 AM when most bars empty), add up quickly as fares start at $4.25 and increase according to time and distance.
Happily, lots of west end dance clubs, bars and lounges are within easy walking distance from one another. Parkdale (sometimes referred to as 'West Queen West') has become a hotspot as the gentrification of this culturally rich, but economically poor area has been extensive. The 2004 opening of The Drake Hotel is viewed as a turning point. The trendy designer space stands where the original Drake hotel/flophouse was long boarded up. This current Drake features many solid local DJs in its lounge and stellar rooftop patio, but is especially adventurous in the programming of its basement, known as The Drake Underground. Look out for events like monthly groover Evening Standard where the likes of Woolfy and Jamie Jones have guested. Thoughtless Music regularly showcases their take on tech at The Drake while ace promoter/fans like Underdog and 92bpm have presented everyone from Mount Kimbie to Gold Panda, Jimmy Edgar, Daedelus and the Brainfeeder fam.
Other nearby hotspots include the recently closed The Social—once a standout venue for house, electro and bass music—and Nav Sangha's Wrongbar. Both have helped turn this area—for better and for worse—into a weekend destination point where many a hipster has found their way to dance music. Collectively, these bars were ground zero for electro and edgy house, with local artists like Thunderheist, VND/LSM (now AutoErotique), Nacho Lovers and their Fools Gold label mates Jokers of the Scene (recently re-located to Toronto from Ottawa) frequently programmed.
Opened in early 2008, Wrongbar's full sound, booming bass and good size have made it a go-to spot for promoters. The club's wildly popular dubstep and bass music Wednesday weekly Bassmentality, with resident DJs Zeds Dead and Killabits, packs people in, but touring acts ranging from Aloe Blacc to Damian Lazarus and Julio Bashmore have also graced Wrongbar's stage. Like Footwork, the club is a hub for developing sounds and scenes. "The programming is super eclectic and that's the way I want it to be," confirms Sangha who's as likely to book in punk, funk and soul bands as he is DJs.
Not far from Parkdale is the bar, restaurant and nightclub strip of College Street, running from Bathurst west to Ossington. Dubbed Little Italy for its area heritage, this section of College can be insane on weekends. Musically—apart from the top 40 spots that also exist—house and all things four-four dominate. Two-level sweet spot Revival is a bet for soulful house and garage as it hosts popular parties like Do You Love House? and Solid Garage. Across the street is The Mod Club Theatre, which programs a mix of live bands and DJ nights. Embrace Productions presents the busy, electro-heavy Arcade Fridays, and often use Mod Club—given its generous capacity and quality staging and sound—to feature touring acts like Booka Shade, Modeselektor and Trentemoller.
At the corner of College and Spadina, on the edge of both Chinatown and Kensington Market, is infamous afterhours dance club, The Comfort Zone. Opened in the late '90s in the same space once known as Buzz, the barebones CZ is where serious partiers start, end or bookend their weekend experience. Though frequent drug busts have given CZ a seedy rep, it is, above all else, about loud music and dancing. There's a noticeable booking crossover with the house and techno DJs who also play Footwork, but sets here tend to be extra dark, heavy and charged.
While there are many other bar and nightclub nuggets to be discovered in areas like the exploding Ossington and Dundas intersection, a lot of really creative house and techno events in Toronto take place outside of licensed spots. "There's a strong commitment on the part of a lot of people here to do things outside of established venues," says Irving Shaw, half of event production team Promise. "I think that the most wonderful thing about our scene is that people try really hard to find gem locations and use them to create something interesting."
Though it's difficult to find such locations now that so many warehouses and lofts have been re-developed or torn down, Promise men Shaw and David Macleod have stayed true to their rave roots—with many a twist. Since 2000, they've produced highly individual events ranging from warehouse parties to classical and ambient happenings. Their Sunday Cherry Beach parties are legendary—both for the range of house, techno, dub and downtempo DJs they book and because Promise launched an organized campaign that convinced City Council to actually grant legal permits for these free, outdoor parties by the water.
A quick guide to Toronto
We're talking Canada so let's start with beer. We know how to make it and yes, it's a source of pride. Most venues carry at least one of a few fantastic craft beers brewed within the city so ask for an Amsterdam
, Mill Street
or Steam Whistle
when out. Other regional goodies include Wellington
and Flying Monkeys
. Remember: just because a beer is called Molson Canadian doesn't mean we'll vouch for it.
The Ossington strip exploded over the past five years, with bars ranging from cozy to mad uptight. A few faves include the laid back and well-priced Crooked Star
, the rough 'n tumble (in the best ways possible) Sweaty Betty's
and comfy, hip bar/lounge The Ossington
. Bar/lounge Our House
lives up to its name musically while Reposado
is a must for fans of tequila. Head north up to College Street west of Bathurst and you'll find an area dubbed Little Italy, with the packed patios to prove it. There are pubs, clubs and restaurants galore. Two venues on this strip that double as lounges and dance clubs—with a range of great DJs after 10 PM—are Andy Poolhall
and The Crawford.
Toronto is a foodie's paradise. Check out Little Italy, Little India, one of three Chinatowns, Koreatown and, well, you get the point. For good cheap eats, there are loads of good Middle Eastern spots (the Ali Baba's chain is solid), many Vietnamese and Caribbean options, and burrito joints seemingly everywhere. Two personal picks are Tacos El Asador
on Bloor West and Gandhi Roti
on Queen West. For quality, mid-priced meals, check Queen Street institution The Rivoli
(great DJs and bands too) and consistently amazing Cuban-Québécoise bistro Delux
Late Night Food
Leave the clubs and need a little food in your belly? Chances are you'll find yourself on Spadina between College and Queen where many of the Chinatown eateries are still bustling or gobbling up yummy Tex-Mex at Sneaky Dee's
where the music volume competes with that of the rowdy customers. (Try the King's Crown nachos.) It's also quite the experience to hit Poutini's House of Poutine
—poutine being the famously French Canadian dish of french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds—after the Parkdale clubs. They stay open until 3:30 AM on weekends and are packed. It's a must, day or night.
It's damn ugly getting to our waterfront, but once you cross the lanes of traffic, it's beautiful to hang by Lake Ontario. Harbourfront Centre
is a popular spot with its summer festivals featuring free live music (and a great skating rink in winter). Hop a ferry at York and Queens Quay to check the Toronto Islands, with Centre Island being a tourist and family destination and Hanlan's Point featuring a clothing optional beach. There's also a bike trail that runs near the water from one end of the city to another.
Lying just west of T.O.'s main Chinatown, Kensington is one of Toronto's oldest, most multicultural and vibrant neighbourhoods. Food is a major draw as Kensington features dozens of fruit and veggie vendors, specialty shops stocked with fish, cheese and spices, and loads of restaurants repping cuisines from around the world. Home to hippies and hipsters alike, the Market is laid back and full of unique spots, from colourful vintage clothing stores to infamous cannabis culture shop Roach O Rama and its attached Hot Box Café.
One of the most shocking things about Toronto to clubbers from abroad is our rather archaic liquor laws. Bars must stop serving alcohol at 2 AM and, unless they run late while selling water and such (like Footwork Bar), they kick customers out between 2:30 – 3 AM. If you have a drink in your hand nearing 2:45 AM, bar staff will nab it. On the up side, this means that clubs tend to get busy by midnight.
Against many odds, there is still a reasonably thriving warehouse and late night techno scene in Toronto, largely thanks to a community of promoters including Box of Kittens, milkrun and breakandenter. "People in Toronto want Toronto to be a cutting edge city and want to have a good time," claims Erin Berg, one third of the highly active breakandenter crew. "I also think that a lot of people who want that feel that Toronto can be too conservative," she continues. "So when you offer them something that pushes political boundaries, or is in any way smart and subversive, they want to get behind that. And what could be more subversive than 200 people dancing to quality techno music, on a proper soundsystem, at 5 AM in a darkened room in downtown Toronto?"
It's this exact combination—a love of late night possibilities coupled with the quirkiness that can come from pushing at boundaries—that is at the heart of much Toronto-produced electronic music currently breaking through. Art Department and Azari & III have all been producing and playing, in a variety of projects, for well over a decade. Their unique sounds are equally soaked in Toronto's warehouse parties of past and club kid energy of today. Excitingly, these local artists and others like them have amassed sizable audiences both at home and abroad. Collaboration and the development of artist networks through record labels have been central.
"There's a lot more going on with local labels, like No.19," points out Wrongbar's Sangha. "As Art Department and others from No.19 are touring the world, they're doing it through a Toronto-based agency, Most Wanted Entertainment. The infrastructure is now here, so that definitely makes a big difference." Similarly, other local labels like My Favorite Robot, Restructured, Roots and Wings and Rawthentic serve as a team of sorts. If one act breaks through, others on the label stand to benefit.
Noah Pred's Thoughtless Music is a strong example. Though Pred's artist base is international, he consciously supports national and local talent, releasing music by Torontonians including Talal & Zoi, Repair, Co-Op and Arthur Oskan. "There is a real furtive open-mindedness here musically," comments Pred. "You have people like Egyptrixx who spend time listening really openly to techno, house, dubstep and whatever else. People aren't afraid to combine and experiment whereas many other cities may have, overall, a more traditionalist approach."
"You're really starting to see this city blossom, not just in house, but also with people like MSTRKRFT, Crystal Castles and Egyptrixx," agrees Dinamo Azari, letting slip that he and David Psutka, AKA, Egyptrixx have plans to collaborate. "Everybody's pushing their boundaries and I like it."
As a DJ and journalist involved in Toronto's electronic music scene for almost 20 years, I can safely say that we're experiencing a renaissance. It's become impossible to keep up with all of the exciting and inventive sounds being produced here. Artists like beat-bender XI, indie-dancehall duo Bonjay, warped hip-hop act The Weeknd, techno and house producers Basic Soul Unit and Nacho Lovers and whatever you want to call what Jokers of the Scene do grow more nuanced with each recording. This list barely scratches the surface.
Not long ago, many Torontonians seemed to disregard the local. Now there is a palpable sense of pride and assurance. Art Department's Kenny Glasgow is feeling it too. "I'm extremely excited to see and hear what's happening in Toronto," says Glasgow. "I'm loving Azari & III and people who are motivated to make really good music, music that's not cheap. James Teej is also blowing up all over the world; I can't go anywhere and not hear that guy's name, which is great. I'm not a jealous guy; I want more of us to be out here. When I walk into a club to DJ—say at the Panorama Bar in Germany—I like to see an Adam Marshall right beside me. I enjoy seeing my peers from Toronto and I'd like to see more Toronto artists getting a chance to share what they do with the rest of the world."
Published / Monday, 27 June 2011
Photo credits / Header - Marcin Wichary
Kenny Glasgow + Mario J - Afe Society
Raver - Dave
Derrick May at Industry - Simon Plaxton
Comfort Zone - David Waldman