It's interesting, though, as you can find the stamp "Made in Finland" on almost every product hailing from the northern country. Whether it be the unmistakably sleek design or even its literature, Finland's Minister of Culture aims to sell the country's cultural output like a brand. It's easy to understand why: The country stood under Swedish—and, later, Russian—rule until it gained its independence in 1917. Cultural and national identity are, of course, tightly interwoven, and Finland has been trying to build a distinct and independent one ever since.
The same goes, in a way, for electronic music in Helsinki. The city has a lot to offer, but you have to know where to look. The scene established itself in the early '90s, thanks to pioneers like Toni Rantanen, AKA Lil' Tony, and Tommi Grönlund. The latter was the founder of Sähkö Recordings, an imprint which has become a household name among experimental techno heads. They began to release tracks from Pan Sonic and Klas Lindblad, AKA Sasse, from Turku. Around the same time the rave movement came ashore and, like many other places, a small group of people started to organize illegal parties. Techno was the first sound to take hold in the city.
Techno students and techno teachers
The arrival of techno in Helsinki was, in no small part, due to the work of student organizations Entropy and Hytky. In 1993, Entropy was founded at Technical University of Helsinki, which is located in the seeming utopia of a red brick complex in Espoo, built by the famous architect Alvar Aalto. Apart from a conference center, some shops and a gym, there are not many leisure time activities in this pragmatic paradise, which means that the local techno community had to take matters into its own hands.
Entropy is the oldest student organization focused on electronic music in the metropolitan area and their first event bore the meaningful title Boing Boom Tschak. Since then they've organized countless parties, ranging from warehouse nights to psy-trance gatherings in the forest to DJ workshops. Hytky is Entropy's counterpart at Helsinki University. This past May, they had a party called Midnight Society, which gave me the opportunity to meet up with the brains behind the event. I barged into the final preparations and was led into their neat and tidy breakout room in the basement of the student dorm, which was packed with an incredibly well-organized team of young students.
At this point Hytky is already in its fifth generation, yet some of the veterans stay on, helping put on events on the city. Apart from all the idealism, there is still a practical aspect behind the concept: At 4 AM sharp, local clubs have to close their doors, which means that the lights go on around half past three. The institutional knowledge with a group like Hytky, however, has meant there are rarely any issues with the police. Alcohol is often not sold at their events, but that means the students enjoy some freedom without having to fear any consequences.
International DJs often come through: Coming up, Hytky has shows planned with Stewart Walker, Danish dub techno producer Mikkel Metal and Soulphiction. But many Finns that have gained international fame got a local start at Hytky—acts like Villa Nah, Jori Hulkkonen, Orkidea and AGF/ Delay are just a small sample of those that have played an event.
The same goes for Samuli Kemppi, who has been a strong supporter of both Hytky and Entropy. Some time ago, he also used to be one of the residents at the M-Bar. The cosy joint lies next to Lasipalatsi, a typical example of sleek, minimalistic Finnish architecture. It also offers a view to the ostentatious parliament and the much disputed silhouette of Kiasma, Helsinki's modern art museum.
During his residency at M-Bar, Kemppi used to curate the monthly Valtimo Klubi, delivering sounds from the Finnish techno scene, with visitors like Rasmus Hedlund, Marko Laine and Juho Kahilainen. Although he's disappointed that the type of techno he makes doesn't get the audience in Helsinki he feels it deserves, Kemppi has remained in the city, dedicated to its promotion. Despite the stiff prices, Kemppi regards the city as a "good place to be creative" and he's full of praise for fellow artists and bookers, especially those who managed to get the small scene going. He cited Hytky, Entropy and Domestic Techno Inspection—an event that serves to highlight live performances of Finnish artists—as key pillars in the techno community.
Subsequent to our interview, he invited me to join him at Bar Loop, where he was about to play a set to a ridiculously small audience. It was funny, in a way, to see Kemppi in this environment and to think that he would be playing at Berghain only weeks later. But such is the life of a local techno artist in Helsinki these days. While it's nice to live here, other scenes do bigger business in the city itself.
House and its preacher
Kuudes Linja, literally translated as "Sixth Avenue," is one of the hubs of Helsinki's nightlife. In order to get there, though, one has to leave downtown Helsinki towards Kallio, which was once regarded as the city's worst neighborhood. Nowadays, relatively cheap rents draw many artists to its narrow grey avenues. At night, those streets are illuminated by kinky neon advertisements and, in fact, the father of Ville Valo—lead singer of HIM, and one of Finland's most famous celebrities—keeps his porn shop in that area. From all over the city one can spot the church of Kallio, enthroned on its eponymous hill. At its bottom lies an old factory, where Kuudes Linja and its smaller brother, Siltanen, are situated.
Earlier this year, Kuudes Linja hosted the third edition of Darkroom, an event where a world famous DJ—whose name is not revealed beforehand—plays a full seven hour set. At 12 AM people were already queuing. It was only after a while that I finally managed to get in, past the terrace and the wardrobe, up the stairs and into the heart of the club that is often called Kuutonen by the locals. Darkroom #3 lived up to its name. There was no lighting apart from some subtle visuals, which were projected onto five rags hanging from the ceiling. Only when the DJ grabbed his cellphone to go through his crate could the audience see that it was Innervisions boss Dixon behind the decks.
It's with good reason: The locals have learned to trust the way Rantanen and his team work: "The music, the customers, the personnel, the quality of audio, mostly quite unique locations...and because we are family," says Tony when I ask him what makes his clubs work so well. With a talent for business and an incredible expertise in house music, the reputation of his clubs have drawn the attention of audience and artists alike. But he's doing much more than running clubs these days: Lil' Tony has had records on Innervisions, Moodmusic and Versatile, just to name a few. Moreover, he is a founding member of the jazzy NuSpirit Helsinki collective. As a booker, he's brought Theo Parrish, Derrick May, Carl Craig, his colleagues from Innervisions and many more to Finland.
The most internationally renowned of his successes thus far was Redrum, which closed in August of this year. It was only a few blocks away from Helsinki Cathedral, the capital's landmark. For a long time, there hadn't been a place with comparable line-ups. Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann were big admirers, the latter referring to Redrum as one of his favorite clubs in an RA feature in 2009.
It's been replaced by Club YK, Tony's latest venture. With his usual attention to detail, it's already been host to Motor City Drum Ensemble, Dixon and others, spread across two main nights on Friday and Saturday: Cosmic City and Into The Groove. Saturday night, though, is the city's biggest night. The downtown of Helsinki turns into mayhem, with more than a handful of people suffering from excessive drinking.
Dirty basslines and squeezed leads
An unlikely sound that has flowered in the city in recent years is that off the UK bass variety. It has one home: The Playground, formerly known as Rose Garden, which is situated in the historical worker's district Punavuori. The quarter is also dubbed Rööperi and, nowadays, seems to be an area where all the city's creative types are moving. During the daytime there are plenty of great galleries to check out. When it gets dark, though, the area turns into a small party mile, with crowded bars, clubs and an international feeling.
When you reach the entrance of Playground, you step through an inner yard and will likely have to avoid the crowd waiting outside the karaoke bar next door. Go down to the basement, and you'll find two small dance floors that, despite their size, still feel like a maze of sorts. The club is known for its official afterparties—held there once a month—when the fun stops for an hour and the club reopens at 5 AM and often goes on until noon. One of the best nights held there is centered around the team that puts together the show BTCHPLS on Bassoradio. They specialize in dirty basslines and broken beats, and have featured local dubstep hero Tes La Rok as well as N-Type over the past few months.
I met Ville Tikkanen, AKA Wiljam Basso and the founder of Bassoradio, at Ravintola Nolla, a neat restaurant with live electronic music, that lies just a stone's throw away from Club YK. Bassoradio started in the '90s as a school project at the national broadcasting station YLE. The feedback was so positive that Ville and a buddy decided to build up the radio station into a full-time concern. (Nowadays it provides up-to-date information about Finnish electronic music, as artists like Samuli Kemppi bring their own varied sounds to the airwaves.)
At Nolla, Tikkanen introduced me to Yves Rockers Crew. He was celebrating his release on Top Billin' with a live set at Playground. The Finnish label and its versatile portfolio of artists are gradually growing, but co-founder Sami Nenola has focused his sights on nurturing Finnish acts specifically. Nenola is passionate about vinyl culture, but he and Wiljam Basso pointed out that the scene has grown exponentially thanks to digital releases. It shouldn't be underestimated how hard it is to find the hottest vinyl in Helsinki. There simply aren't enough customers to be able to sustain many cutting-edge shops.
The Skwee movement was born in Finland and Sweden. The leading Finnish label is undoubtedly Harmönia, which is headed by producer and DJ Mesak. Although some renowned magazines have already covered this style in detail, it's still a very familial scene. The debut album of Eero Johannes opened things to a wider audience after it was picked up by Planet Mu. For those looking to dig deeper into skweee, your best bet is David Giehse's documentary We Are Skweee which provides footage from the Swedish-Finnish soundclash at Sonar 2008. Sweden won by a nose, just like they always seem to do in important ice hockey competitions between the two neighboring countries.
Summer in the city: Festival season
Helsinki: A quick guide
The most beautiful place to stay is probably the design hotel Klaus K, which offers stylish rooms and a nice bar/ club that is crowded by local youngsters during the nights. It lies directly in the centre of the city. As Helsinki is rather small, you can walk almost any distance from there. Like other countries in Northern Europe, Finland's prices are on the high side, and it's no different for accommodation. A cheap impersonal alternative is Omenahotelli, and there are nice hostels spread all over the city. Erottajanpuisto in Punavuori offers a laidback atmosphere and quick access to cool bars and restaurants around the area.
If you want to check for vinyl from local artists, there's no better stop than Stupido Records on Iso Roobertinkatu. They have a diverse selection and, if you bring up the right record, the staff might even tell you some insider stories about the music you're about to buy.
Prices are quite stiff in Helsinki. And you'll find that nowhere more apparent when it comes to food and drink. You'll find a lot of international joints with Indian, Nepalese or Turkish food that offer good meals for reasonable prices, though. If you want to go for a traditional Finnish meal, you definitely have to check out Ravintola Juuri, which has small "sapas"—a local version of tapas—on the menu. Or simply go to Ravintola Nolla, where you can listen to local DJs, while getting into the mood to party with a delicious meal and a glass of beer.
During the day
Apart from the sights you likely already know, one should not miss the Finnish Design Museum and Kiasma, the museum for Modern Art. The Punavuori and Kallio neighborhoods have a lot of brilliant galleries. My personal favorite is Myymala2 on Uudemaankatu. If you're lucky, you might even step into a live performance while checking out one of their temporary exhibitions.
The final major piece of the Helsinki clubbing puzzle is the summer festival season. To get an insight into how it works, I sat down with Aku, AKA Huoratron. He used to be one of the figureheads of New Judas, an imprint based in both Helsinki and Berlin. Nowadays, he's signed to Canadian label Last Gang alongside MSTRKRFT, Boys Noize and Crystal Castles. His performance at the 2009 Flow Festival was among the event's finest. His aggressive and overdriven sounds—mostly generated from a Game Boy—made the audience go wild in the almost bursting power station at Suvilahti, while his basslines shook the building's enormous pillars. Reflecting on it, he simply says: "It's about making dark shit with happy machines, you know."
It shouldn't be a surprise perhaps to know that the event's clubbing program is curated by none other than Lil' Tony. This year's artists included Ricardo Villalobos, Four Tet, Caribou and LCD Soundsystem, but local heroes such as Jori Hulkkonen, Vladislav Delay, Clouds and Arch of Neo played a showcase at Suvilahti under the name "Finns do it better." The event has gotten progressively larger year after year, which has led to a more versatile line-up, but also a dramatic increase in ticket prices.
The short summer in Finland is quite famous for its rock festivals. But there are electronic music festivals all over the country. The season actually starts in winter with Pixelache, an event that concerns itself with electronic arts and subcultures. This year, Vladislav Delay performed a live soundtrack to famous Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's I Hired a Contract Killer to round up the program. Outside of Helsinki, the best known festival is Turku Modern, which has hosted Jori Hulkkonen, Villa Nah, Renaissance Man and Hannulelauri, and there is also the annual festival Konemetsä in the forest of Marttila, which has an emphasis on trance and techno. Due to organizational issues, however, the latter festival was laid to rest. At least for this year. Although Flow Festival is undoubtedly the key event, Helsinki does good work too: Bassoradio's Bass Fest is only one of a few events worth checking out.
Indeed, Helsinki is a varied place. Techno, house, bass. And there's much more than that as well. Helsinki has everything required for quality clubbing: The people are up for it, the places are often perfect environments to lose it and the sound is often impeccable. While it may not often get mentioned as one of the key Scandinavian clubbing destinations, Helsinki is among the best that Northern Europe has to offer.