The past couple of years have seen the clubbing landscape in a particularly chaotic state. For all the incredible music, it feels like many sectors of the scene lack a sense of unique purpose or identity; as if each promoter shuffles through the same rolodex of DJs each month and pulls out a slightly different combination of names, making for a succession of entirely adequate, financially dependable nights, but little more. It's hard, then, to really feel a part of something, a contributor to a thriving community, rather than just a consumer deciding where to deposit this month's pay packet.
I was suffering from precisely this sort of fatigue a year or so ago when I stumbled across Rhythm Section. Stumbled is the word: Rye Lane in Peckham, South East London doesn't seem like your textbook party destination. It's a cramped, populous high street, surrounded by middle class residential enclaves, where open-fronted Halal butchers, labyrinthine pound shops and the occasional fried chicken joint compete for space with the usual chain stores and supermarkets. Then there's Canavan's, a low-ceilinged pool club hidden down a pokey corridor, near to Rye Common. The place is little more than a tiny bar, a barely-larger dance floor and, beyond a soundproofed wall, a dozen or so pool tables where a mix of students and locals play late into the night.
Yet once a fortnight, on alternating Fridays and Saturdays, this is the home of Rhythm Section, a party barely a year old but making considerable waves in the city's crowded nightlife. A party which has played host to an impressive array of talent—Andy Blake, FunkinEven, Young Turks, Beautiful Swimmers—and yet seems unconcerned with aggressive booking tactics and safe-bet headliners. A party which, in spite of its modest means and ambitions, has been something of an epiphany for me, and for plenty of others too.
What's immediately striking about a Rhythm Section night is how loose everybody is. As the crowd—young, mostly students, a roughly even gender split—trickles in over the first few hours, dancers skip the self-conscious head-nodding stage and get straight down to business. You can genuinely throw moves here, nobody will judge. Other unusual, if not ground-breaking, features soon emerge: the broad music policy, ranging from funk, soul and disco, to house and eyes-down techno; the vinyl-only credos; the casual ban on taking photos. Set-times are non-existent, with DJs—be they guests or residents—playing several mini-sets each, or teaming up for extended back-to-back sessions. Above all, though, it's the friendliness of it that gets you, the sense that everybody is there for the right reasons—namely, to enjoy the music and each other's company.
Frankie Valentine, a London-based house DJ with three decades of experience, found himself playing at the night after Detroit's Scott Grooves was held up with visa issues. For Valentine, it was the unconventional venue that first struck him. "You go to your regular club night, and depending on the DJ that's playing you kind of know what you're going to get," he says. "But when I got to [Canavan's] I was really surprised. It's a pretty bizarre [location] but really brilliant in its own way—one of those places I didn't expect to see in London."
It's certainly true that the venue, in all its unpolished glory, makes for a welcome contrast to the usual hyper-regimented nightlife spots. This is, after all, the city where "secret warehouse location" can often become code for "overpriced East London function space." "It's half local pool hall and half local house party, or half old-school rave and half old-school disco," says Andrew Ashong, a South East Londoner and producer recently signed to Theo Parrish's Sound Signature imprint. He has played at Rhythm Section but also frequently comes down as a punter. "That's a pretty hard [combination] to find on a regular basis anywhere in London, in my opinion."
This is just the way Rhythm Section founder Bradley Zero Phillip likes it. "It's all about making whoever's playing feel totally chilled out, as if they were jamming at home with some friends," he says. "Not hyping it, not putting anyone on a pedestal. Just dancing to good music." Rhythm Section is Phillip's brainchild, but some may know him from his numerous other activities, such as hosting Boiler Room, promoting as one third of Principals, and curating playlists for 22Tracks. He's one of those charismatic characters with friends in all quarters, and his distinctive dreadlocked profile is eerily omnipresent on dance floors across the capital.
Far from a rootless scenester, though, the Leeds-born Phillip is a committed Peckham resident, having lived in the area for four years. When I arrive at Canavan's to meet him one weekday afternoon, he's busy tuning his ancient hand-me-down subwoofers, while the smattering of middle-aged regulars watching sport at the bar blithely ignore the low-level cacophony taking place behind them. "[Peckham] feels like home now," he says, after we grab a drink and settle in a corner. "I feel like I'm visiting when I go back up to Yorkshire."
Still, Phillip's upbringing plays no small part in his current interests. His father ran a record shop in Bradford in the '70s and now works as a function DJ, playing weddings and the like. It's his old soundsystem that forms the backbone of Phillip's own. "I used to play with him sometimes when I was seven or eight years old," Phillip recalls. "I'd go along to these family fun days and I'd be playing on CDJs. That's kind of how it started."
Phillip moved to London in 2006 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, living in Camden and then Finsbury Park, but found these locales unsatisfying. "There's not any community. You walk to the tube and you go to school and then you come back. I didn't know anyone there." Belonging to a community, it turns out, is a central concern of Phillip's—a fact which is abundantly clear in the way he runs Rhythm Section, a place where the same faces show up night after night. He first visited Peckham for an event at the Sassoon Gallery, a small space by Peckham Rye train station that shares its premises with local scene hub Bar Story. Phillip was immediately taken with the vibrancy of the area and asked for a job there. He ended up working behind the bar, making the hour-long commute from Finsbury Park for the privilege.
Peckham's location—poised equidistantly between Goldsmiths College in New Cross and Camberwell School of Art—makes it a prime spot for arts students to settle in, and by the time Phillip moved to the area he felt thoroughly at home. "There was a really tight-knit scene through fine art. You knew everyone on your street, and the next street, and the next..." He never intended to start a club night, but the opportunity emerged in the approach to Halloween 2011, with plans brewing for a one-off event and Bar Story having lost its late license. "This place [Canavan's] has been here for years, but I'd never been before," he recalls. "It was just like this rough pool hall, very intimidating, just because no one you knew had ever been there. But there was a big blackboard outside with a chalk sign saying, 'Have your party here.' I told Kieran [Canavan's manager] that we wanted to do a Motown night. I thought that would be better than saying, 'we want to play loads of acid house.'"
After a successful opening night, the party gradually settled into a fortnightly rhythm. It's a tough schedule by anyone's standards, but Phillip does the minimum of promotion and doesn't get hung up on world-beating lineups. Rhythm Section can do full-to-capacity blow-outs, sure, but just as often Phillip opts for low-key headliners or residents-only bills, while still managing to pull a crowd—a rare feat in London's saturated landscape. "It's never empty," he says, with a hint of amazement in his voice. "There's never been a quiet one."
One of Rhythm Section's most intriguing stories is that of Deep Soul Konnection. The four-man DJ collective consisting of Adrian Mackey (AKA Adrian Ammo), Na'im Abdurahman (AKA DJ Heart), Jason Spencer and Paul Reynolds have, separately, been heavily involved in the London scene since the early '90s. In the past year, though, they've found new purpose, centred on Peckham's burgeoning scene. Mackey recounts how the group came together in late 2011. After happening upon Rhythm Section affiliate Miles Mears playing at Bar Story one quiet weeknight, he started bringing records along to play himself. There he got talking to Spencer, and before long Reynolds and Abdurahman—old record-shopping friends of Mackey's—were brought on board. Deep Soul Konnection was born, and soon became a local fixture. "After that there was a one-upmanship amongst us. We was all having a laugh, really bouncing off each other," Mackey recalls. "And our sets have just been getting better."
Deep Soul Konnection's tastes may have been forged over two decades, but what's striking is how closely their connoisseur's selection of soul, funk, house and techno matches Rhythm Section's own loose aesthetic, making them a consistent presence at the night. The group attributes Rhythm Section's appeal to the open-mindedness of the crowd. "There's a lot of freedom to play whatever you want here," says Spencer. Reynolds chips in: "There's no pretentiousness. People want to dance, they're not all holding up the wall, you know." He compares Rhythm Section to The Loft, David Mancuso's legendary New York party in which club culture as we know it was germinated. With its out-of-the-way location, open-ended music policy, devoted crowd and distaste for DJ-veneration, Rhythm Section certainly bears echoes of that formative time.
Clearly Peckham will never have the cultural impact of '70s downtown New York, but a now-familiar air of anticipation hangs over the area: the palpable sense of a creative community on the verge of great things. Various publications in the past year have declared Peckham an upcoming neighbourhood. Andrew Ashong, having grown up in the area, sees prospects improving. "[Peckham] is most definitely picking up. At one point Peckham nightlife was pretty much non-existent." It's certainly difficult to ignore the upswell of activity in the area, with an increasing volume of worthwhile nights at the Bussey Building, the Peckham Palais and numerous smaller galleries and impromptu spaces. Rhythm Section, as Peckham's most striking and most dependable night, is at the centre of this activity.
Phillip, though, isn't convinced by attempts to impose a one-size-fits-all narrative on the neighbourhood he loves. "Everyone's like 'Oh, Peckham: the new Dalston.' It's definitely changing but I don't think it's quite got the infrastructure to turn into Dalston. There's not a road five miles long with loads of basements and venues and shops, you know. Rye Lane is what, 600 metres long, and surrounded by houses." He also has an evident fondness for Peckham's parochial outlook. "Half of me wants to brag to everyone about how great Peckham is, and that they should come. But half of me wants them never to find out, and not to bother crossing the river, and to keep it our little secret!"
Such is the dilemma facing any nascent scene, eager to increase its stature yet fearful of sabotaging its own uniqueness. But regardless of the attention that comes its way, Rhythm Section, now well into its second year, will continue to do its thing. "I guess after a year is the point where a lot of other club nights think, 'step it up'—whether it's doing bigger events, booking bigger names, taking it on the road. But I want to scale it back, so that it can't be eaten up by hype," Phillip says. "I've got no plans to move out of the pool hall at the minute because I like the atmosphere here. And if something changed it would stay in Peckham, somehow." He has even considered taking his anti-hype approach one step further: "The plan is, eventually, not to announce lineups at all—it's just Rhythm Section, it's twice a month and you just come down. Not to say that I'm not going to make any effort in booking DJs. But I guess it's to foster a tighter community around [the night]. You know it's going to be good, regardless of who's playing. I don't think it really does matter who's playing anyway."