Andrew Ryce profiles the Shanghai label leading the inspiring club music movement in China.
Underneath Yongfu Lu, once one of Shanghai's premiere nightlife streets in the former French Concession, sits a Cold War-era nuclear bunker where modern Chinese club music was born. From 2007 through 2016 this basement was called Shelter. It was different to the glitzy, expat-oriented clubs that came before it: no plush furniture, no bottle service, no fancy lighting. It was a dingy concrete basement with worn-out walls and an emphasis on cheap drinks and throbbing music. "For better or for worse, they'd rather have an empty floor than play cheesy tunes," said one SmartShanghai article. "They are not the friendliest people, but they keep it real."
The venue changed the scene in Shanghai, introducing a new style of clubbing to China. Out of Shelter came SVBKVLT. Established in 2013, the label has become the beating heart of Shanghai's small but inspiring scene, which mixes fashion, technology and music. Along with fellow label Genome 6.66Mbp, SVBKVLT is where to go to hear cutting-edge electronic music from China.
SVBKVLT is an experimental club music label, part of a global network where producers throw together sub-genres and create loud, fast and often confrontational tracks. Its key artists include breakout star 33EMYBW, who calls her music "limb dance," and Zaliva-D, a Beijing duo who sound like a military marching band from Mars. The Shanghai-based US artist Osheyack makes Ballroom and gabber-infused tracks with a fierce finesse, while Hyph11e mashes up gqom and grime.
Last year the label released the astounding Cache 01 compilation, the HOXXXYA album from Indonesia's Gabber Modus Operandi and a joint release with Uganda's Hakuna Kulala that saw Slikback collaborate with Hyph11e on one EP, and Osheyack, 33EMYBW and Yen Tech on another.
The label was started as an offshoot of a dubstep party run by Mancunian expat Gaz Williams with his friend (and, at the time, noted Shanghai DJ) Blaise Deville. Williams was first drawn to China because of his love for Wu-Tang Clan and kung fu movies—he even visited the Wudang Mountains, which gave the rap group their name—but his goofy obsession soon became serious. After teaching English in Qingdao and traveling around China, he learned Mandarin and enrolled at Shanghai University, where he was introduced to the local dance music scene, which at the time still revolved around outsiders and Western expats.
Williams started a dub and reggae night at C's, one of the most hallowed venues in Shanghai nightlife history, before forming a collective, PAUSE, with Michael Ohlsson and Jane Siesta (a local drum & bass DJ and promoter). They threw an event at a divey bar called Blue Ice before Williams finished university and headed back to the UK. Before long, he was back in Shanghai and had taken over Blue Ice, turning it into Shelter with Gary Wang. The club's dark confines, and Williams' raucous, bass-heavy Subculture night, left an impression on almost everyone who went or played.
Williams saw the club not just as an events space, but as a place to foster a scene—a community oriented around world-class dance music instead of bottles of cognac and champagne. The Subculture night made Shelter a hotspot for genres like dubstep, drum & bass and hip-hop, though the club hosted all kinds of events. For many young Chinese, it was where they first discovered nightlife.
SVBKVLT started as a low-key operation. Williams released a few old-school beat tapes from some of his friends: Hong Kong's Floyd Cheung, local artist Faded Ghost (who also goes by ChaCha, and previously collaborated with Kode9), and Manila pair Cali[h8 and Red-I, along with the duo SLV, who also gave the label its first vinyl release.
"Hyph11E moved to Shanghai from Beijing, Osheyack started playing at Shelter, Tzusing's releases on L.I.E.S. were getting a lot of attention and in the midst of all of that, Genome started putting on nights—suddenly Shelter was filling up with hundreds of Chinese teenagers and 20-somethings," SVBKVLT artist Swimful told me over email. "It felt like there was a demand for Shanghai-made club music. Around that time you could drop '叶子' by Hyph11E, my 'Shanghai Remake,' or Zean, Dirty K or Osheyack tunes, and the crowd would recognize it. That's when I felt the scene really galvanized and SVBKVLT became really important for us."
In late 2016, Shelter was forced to close after failing to renew its lease. A few months later, Williams opened a new club, ALL, on Xiangyang North Lu in the neighbouring Changning district. ALL wasn't meant to be Shelter's successor, but it was where Shelter’s crowd flocked after its closing, along with Elevator, known for its techno and house booking policy. In addition to club nights, the venue hosts screenings, relaxed get-togethers and concerts. It's a new hub for the Shanghai scene, with a bustling schedule of local and international guests.
Williams is a friendly, open-minded guy who respects and admires the culture around him. He seems more interested in supporting local artists than promoting himself. Both Shelter and SVBKVLT have become incubators of sorts for artists in China, giving them a platform when few other labels would.
"Shelter and ALL have played an indispensable role in promoting and developing electronic music scene in China," 33EMYBW said. "Not just music, but also expanding to other cultural and art forms."
After ALL opened, releases from artists like Swimful started to earn traction abroad. The style of the label—confrontational, fast, hybridized—began to form in 2016 with releases from Osheyack and Prettybwoy, culminating in Hyph11e's "Black Pepper," a SVBKVLT anthem that Williams signed immediately after hearing her play it at Elevator. (Two years later, Williams signed Gabber Modus Operandi in the toilets at Berghain after watching them play live at CTM Festival.)
SVBKVLT has become the source of the most exciting club music in the world right now. In this Label Of The Month article, we profile six of its key acts.