Angus Finlayson profiles a Manchester party and label defined by its colourful take on dancehall, garage and grime.
I'm about a mile into the city centre, in a subterranean cuboid with peeling walls, a big soundsystem and a rudimentary bar, experiencing a different side of Manchester. The room smells of old socks and a single helium balloon floats next to the DJ booth, as if in a half-hearted attempt to spruce up the place. Upstairs at the door, the bouncer is already turning people away, and rebuffed hopefuls mingle with the Northern Quarter's weekend drinking traffic. Downstairs, local veteran Joey B is coming to the end of a warm-up dancehall set and Murlo is waiting in the wings.
The night's host, MC Fox, takes advantage of the pause to address the 200-strong crowd.
"If you didn't know, tonight Swing Ting's launching some EP business. We got a new release out. It happens to be my release. But I'm not biased… but I think it is pretty special. If you bought it, say 'Oi!'"
There's an appreciative "Oi!" from the floor.
"I really hope you ain't fuckin' lying, yeah," he says, wiping the sweat from his face with the crisp white towel he's carrying over one shoulder. Murlo steps up, impassive under his signature snapback. His rapidfire 30-minute set takes in Kahn & Neek's ragga monster "Backchat," UK funky, a slick UK garage medley, bassline, a remix of Scratcha's grime banger "The End," and "Downtown Uptown," a colourful track he co-produced for Fox's EP. There are two rewinds and a lot of dancing. It's not yet 1 AM.
There has long been more to Manchester's club scene than the endless Haçienda nostalgia would suggest. Swing Ting, a club night and occasional production team, was formed in this crucible of different styles and crews. In the past two years, it's matured into an excellent label, and become one of the city's most exciting outfits.
The label's output is diverse and mostly digi-only. Highlights include an album from Madd Again!, a collision of dancehall and British bass music featuring producer Zed Bias and vocalists Trigga, Specialist Moss and Killa Benz; Famous Eno's futuristic club stormer "Jaws Riddim"; the rugged reggaeton hybrids of British-Columbian DJ Florentino; and sickly-sweet garage anthem "Tease Me," produced by label founders Samrai and Platt, and crowned by a killer vocal from Kingston MC Kemikal.
To make sense of this colourful splurge of styles, it's worth making a trip to Soup Kitchen, where Swing Ting have been holding court since 2011. (For most of that stretch it's been a monthly party, meaning the regulars have had plenty of time to become killer DJs.) If you can't, the label's catalogue might seem scattergun at first. After a while you realise it's all soundsystem music, balancing formal invention with bass-heavy utility. It's international in outlook, too, but more inspired by decades-old conversations between the Caribbean and the UK than by recent trends in globalised club music. And it's invariably a lot of fun.
You'll hear the Swing Ting guys refer to this sound as "street rave." Balraj Samrai, talking via Skype a few days before my trip to Manchester, struggles to be more specific. "I guess we like a lot of MC-based stuff, vocal-based stuff. Things that are not too self-conscious about what they are trying to do. We quite like that innocence to a sound—not trying to polish it too much. Like a roughness to the quality of something, but that still can be really functional in a dance setting."
He's just come from work at a nearby school, and his smart getup—a shirt and a v-neck sweater—matches his thoughtful manner.
"I know that's a bit vague. Sometimes I'll really like something and then Ruben [Platt] will really like it, and then Joey [B] will really like it—and it's quite hard to describe why. I don't think we label what we like. So we're lucky in that we've never pigeonholed ourselves. It could change in ten years or in five years or in a year."
Ruben Platt is a little more direct when I meet him, Joey B and Murlo a few days later, at a coffee spot close to Soup Kitchen.
"It's always been a bit of a joke," he says. "It's definitely not an attempt to make a new genre or something like that. It was a good catch-all term for this soundsystem-ready music that came from all these different places and different tempos but had… I guess a certain attitude or something. 'Cause really there's not much connecting, say, an old Noreaga Neptunes track with some new dancehall thing or a garage tune or something."
If there is a connecting thread, it's the pair's shared taste and history. They met about a decade ago in student halls. Samrai had come from the Midlands to study philosophy; Platt, studying history of art, grew up in the Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, home of the cosy British TV show Last Of The Summer Wine. They bonded over a love of early 2000s rap and R&B, and threw themselves into Manchester's diverse scene.
Samrai recalls nights spent at Friends And Family, the club night linked to the Fat City record shop where he worked, Mr. Scruff's night at the Music Box and weirder events promoted by Conor Thomas of Pelican Neck (what would become Boomkat). Sometimes they'd travel to Leeds for dubstep nights at the West Indian Centre. (While the style never gripped Manchester in the way it did London, they learnt from it that "having a really good soundsystem is key," as Platt puts it.)
Then there was Hoya:Hoya, a key node in the global hip-hop-leaning sound of the late '00s. As "a multi-genre night that had its own identity," Hoya was a sort of blueprint for what Swing Ting would become, and one of its residents, Jon K, helped inspire the duo's DJing style. "If you wanted to sum up everything that was really good with Manchester's club scene I think he's the one," says Platt. "You could throw him into pretty much any party."
Samrai, it turns out, is sitting in Jon K's living room as we speak; he'd been invited round to watch the England-Wales football match after work. "I think everybody always knew that he was the DJ's DJ," he says. "People would play at nights and often realise he was sort of stealing the show. Just with being really... I guess eclectic. That word gets bandied around. It's not easy to thread a vibe through different genres, but we really rated what he was doing with it. I guess we tried to take that template—take lots of different styles and thread something through them. But with a more streetwise kind of sound."
Another eye-opener was Hot Milk, a night co-promoted by Swing Ting resident DJ Joey B, now the third person behind the label. "When Hot Milk started there were no real dancehall nights in town, apart from the shirts-and-skirts places where the sound's not very good," Joey explains at the coffee place. He's a few years older than the Swing Ting guys, and wears a broad snapback that frames his thin face. "The only places where you could listen to new Jamaican music were in the hood. Those dances are great, but it wasn't happening in town."
Echoing what The Heatwave were doing in London, Hot Milk threw nights in a club Joey describes as "kind of a corridor." Platt says the night was "sweaty and hot" and had its priorities right: the crew cared enough about sound to lug local soundsystem Megatone Sound Foundation up the club's spiral staircase, but didn't indulge headsy seriousness. Swing Ting has a similar ethos: "you don't take yourselves too seriously but you make sure the foundations are there."
Both Platt and Samrai describe a particular Hot Milk experience, in about 2006, as formative. The guest DJ, Sheffield's Toddla T, was pretty unknown at the time, but they were inspired by the way he mixed things they loved—dancehall, rap and garage—with the bassline house of his hometown. "That was such a big watershed moment for us," Platt says. "It was good to see that it was possible to draw these links and it doesn't freak people out." The pair left with a lasting appreciation for an often maligned genre. "After that, we were always raiding bargain bins and things," recalls Samrai. "Bassline was this totally underrated music in a lot of shops."
This wasn't the only time Swing Ting dedicated itself to under-appreciated music. A love for the colourful and fun, especially when prevailing trends are going the other way, has informed much of their activity. When stern dubstep was dominant, they were rummaging through UK garage history—a few years before the garage revival sent many of those records into the Discogs stratosphere. They were championing early UK funky when it was still confined to those shirts-and-skirts clubs with bad sound. As with Hot Milk and dancehall before them, this was a deciding factor in starting the Swing Ting night. And when, a few years later, UK music turned moody again, they decided to put a long-discussed plan into action and start a label.
"Things had gone quite dark," Samrai says of music around 2014. "The colourful sound of funky and things had started to go off. And we were starting to play a lot more unreleased music at the parties. There wasn't a home for it necessarily, and it felt like there was a common sound."
After a spell at a karaoke bar in Chinatown, Swing Ting settled into its monthly slot at Soup Kitchen. To keep stress to a minimum, the duo stopped booking expensive headliners in favour of friends and associates. By inviting favourites back repeatedly, and making Joey B and Murlo official residents, they built close relationships with a small group of artists.
You can feel the family vibe in Soup Kitchen's dingy basement. Set times are relaxed and the DJs hang out behind the decks bantering with one another and Fox. At a high point of Murlo's set, Platt leans in behind him to pull up the track. Next up is Rinse FM affiliate Brackles; before he starts, Fox gets back on the mic.
"Swing Ting! If you've never been here before you should get to know: everybody who plays inside here is somebody we love and somebody we consider family. Right now the next person on the decks goes by the name of Brackles. Somebody say 'Oii!'"
Thanks to a USB malfunction, Brackles is making do with the tracks he could grab from his Google Play account at short notice. You wouldn't know it: his bouncy set draws neat lines between the UK funky of yesteryear and glossier Afrobeats. The DJ has previously ribbed Fox for "slacking off and taking fag breaks" during Swing Ting; perhaps to annoy him, Fox does just that midway through his set. As he returns the sound abruptly cuts out. "I think Brackles broke the decks," he announces. "These Southerners don't know how to use technology."
The two of them were responsible for the very first Swing Ting release, which almost wasn't a Swing Ting release at all. It was first promised to another label; when that fell through, Platt and Samrai happened to be talking to a distributor. Signing "Skank" was a no-brainer: it's Swing Ting to a tee, a smart cross-genre hybrid with plenty of colour and soundsystem weight. Around the same time, Samrai met Famous Eno at Notting Hill Carnival, and heard a remix of the track, which had been sitting on his harddrive for a year. "The whole thing was a month or two decision," he recalls. "We didn't really look back."
A flurry of releases followed. Samrai & Platt's "One Step" rendered grime rubbery and spacious, and kept the dancehall connection through a vocal from Trigganom. Zed Bias—an acquaintance from the Manchester scene—called Samrai up offering an album from his Madd Again! project. (Samrai describes him as "another person who joins the dots between stuff—he was there for garage, dubstep, and he's still going.") Famous Eno's incendiary "Jaws Riddim" and Florentino's debut EP followed shortly after.
"We got this momentum and we just kept going," says Platt. "Sometime after we put out the Madd Again! album I wrote down what we'd put out, and it'd all come out in the space of about eight months. Just to see that and be like, 'OK, this has happened'—it's a nice feeling."
It also helped to give the Swing Ting project more weight. "We all love doing the party but I guess it is temporary. Since the label started it feels like we're building something. It's sort of legitimised the stuff to outside people. People take notice of it much more outside Manchester."
For those outsiders just discovering the label, its eighth release, featuring an all-star cast of Swing Ting artists, is a good place to start. It's the debut solo EP of the night's host, Fox, whose roots in Manchester go deep. (He was part of the Megatone Sound Foundation, who supplied the sound for Hot Milk, years before Joey B arrived in the city). Platt and Samrai first heard him hosting at Hot Milk around 2010, and enlisted him for Swing Ting shortly after. "He's got so much knowledge," Platt says. "He's grown up around all this music and he's been around a lot. He just knows these tunes." He works all over the city—other affiliations include MC-producer crew Levelz and drum & bass night Soul:ution—"but Swing Ting definitely brings something out of him. You can tell he's really enjoying himself."
On the Musik EP, Fox showcases his versatility, singjaying over a spread of unusual beats. He makes it look easy, just as he does behind the booth at Soup Kitchen. In places the EP is pretty abstract: Florentino tackles space-age dancehall on "Vacio," and Famous Eno delivers his blippy rhythms on "Big Man Ting." Samrai co-produces two friendlier tracks: the "Skank"-echoing "New Swing" with Brackles, and "Downtown Uptown," which is splashed with Murlo's telltale melodies. "I Swear" is cartoonish digi-reggae by Puppy Disco, part of Equiknoxx. (Swing Ting is close with the Jamaican crew; their "Bubble" is the label's ninth release.)
A few of these tracks get a spin at the launch night. In each case the crowd seems to know the words, and Fox sings triumphantly along to his own vocal. It's now past 2 AM. Most of those 60,000 Stone Roses fans are probably tucked up in bed, but there's still a hundred-odd faithful dancers in the Soup Kitchen basement. Platt and Samrai have just played an inspired set, ascending from 100-odd BPM up to house tempo via half a dozen different styles. When Murlo returns to the decks at 2.30, with the 4 AM curfew approaching, Fox warns us that "we're squeezing the last moments out of Swing Ting."
We're catapulted into 15 minutes of ridiculous jungle and jump-up drum & bass, climaxing with M Beat & Nazlyn's remix of Anita Baker's "Sweet Love," a ballad for the ages with a breakbeat slapped on top. Within a few tracks Murlo has somehow found his way to Ashanti's "Only U." A little while later the other DJs return for a back-to-back free-for-all (except Brackles, who's presumably exhausted his Google Play account).
They settle into a victory lap of circa-2000 hip-hop and R&B, the music that Platt and Samrai bonded over a decade ago. The hits come thick and fast: Outkast's "So Fresh, So Clean," 50 Cent's "21 Questions," Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go." As closing time nears, they delve back into the '90s, and Fox leans in over the mixer, occasionally cutting the track to fit in a few words. Perhaps unexpectedly, the night's climax comes courtesy of Mariah Carey's "Fantasy." It's hard to say who dropped it: any of the night's DJs are capable of that sort of cheeky move. The remaining crowd loses it, and so does Fox, screaming "bombaclat!!" and reaching for his towel.
Platt and Samrai join the dots with this quick trip through the Swing Ting catalogue, spanning from weirdo dancehall to colourful UK hybrids, and featuring plenty of rave horns.
Fox - Vacio ft. Trigganom
Florentino - Split in 2
Equiknoxx Music - Bubble ft. Devin Di Dakta
Madd Again! - Jump Inna Mi Whip
Brackles - Carbon
Florentino - Llamada
Famous Eno - Gangsters ft. Alexx A-Game, Serocee & Fox
Fox - Downtown Uptown
Madd Again! - Duggu
Brackles - Skank ft. Fox
Brackles - Skank (Famous Eno Remix) ft. Fox & Trigganom
Samrai & Platt - One Step ft. Trigganom
Famous Eno - Jaws
Madd Again! - Breadline (Tings Are So Hard) ft. DJ Q
Samrai & Platt - Tease Me ft. Kemikal