Old time vinyl DJs aka a brief history of Funkdub

0 Posted by - 23rd November 2019 - Features, Features & Reviews, Top Picks by 3DJ, Top Picks by G-Kush

You’ll never give it up it’s in your blood” so said a good pal and fellow DJ as we were talking about being in the more senior sector of selectors these days, well that’s almost certainly true, but after quite a run now seems as good a time as any to reflect on 15 years of Funkdub…

The Pre Funkdub years

Spinback to 2004. No facebook, no twitter, no instagram, no serato, smoking in pubs, 5 years before the financial crisis and a time when austerity was a word only used in dusty old books. It feels like a blinking of an eye since a couple of blokes with some boxes of records thought they might start a club night in Chester. Though the world has changed, by imperceptible degrees in virtually every conceivable way, there are still some constants, like Funkdub having a birthday knees up.

But before we go to the start, we have to go back even further than that… The 1990s now look like a uniquely care free, wildly creative and hedonistic time period. The club and alternative culture that had been incubated and exploded in the 1980s mutated, found maturity and punched through into mainstream consciousness. Against that backdrop Sam & I had been living parallel lives whilst studying. Both spinning records at our respective University indie discos in the heyday of the Brit Pop boom, whilst simultaneously putting on DIY club nights and parties playing bass music.

In 1999 serendipity contrived to make our paths cross in Chester, and it instantly became apparent our record boxes were virtually the same. At that point common threads included all kinds of Hip Hop, DJ Shadow, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Orbital, Ninja Tune, Mo’Wax and the Dub, Reggae Funk & Soul that had been the imprint for those artists and labels. Then as now in many ways Chester was a small City that suffered from being in the shadow of the northern behemoths of Manchester and Liverpool. That is not to say that the city was a complete back water, a few years earlier K-Klass & Phat Phil Cooper had started out in Chester and there were always flashes of potential. However the consensus was that Chester had some good venues but it really lacked a coherent scene of it’s own, and back then it was often pot luck if you ever encountered any sort of good music. Those pre-Funkdub years were spent buying a LOT of vinyl records, going to a stack of gigs in Manchester, particularly the Grand Central and Fat City nights, as well as putting on house parties and working on DJ sets.

In 2004 we finally decided to take the plunge, instead of moaning that our adopted home town wasn’t playing the music we liked, why not put something on ourselves. We’d cobbled together a mixtape and phoned up a venue that looked a likely candidate, a place called City Bar on City Road. We’d been for a few pints there and stumbled across some pretty decent music in the basement. I nervously phoned them up, to my surprise the owner didn’t seem too bothered about hearing the mix tape and basically said here’s a date, give it a shot chaps! The next pretty giddy step was to phone up Sam. We needed a poster, a name and to try and get some people to show up, none of which I had the first clue about. Sam, in addition to his exemplary taste in tunes, was a talented graphic designer, web designer and all round renaissance man and immediately had a plethora of ideas to kick start the thing. Thus, our own night was born. Those that remember will recall the very first night we went under a different moniker, and the reason and method for changing the name was a confluence of coincidences, suffice to say for one night only we were Weekend Breaks!

The Early Years & the Chester Scene

Weekend Breaks, then Funkdub – the early years

The very first night was on the 8th of October 2004, and to our relief and surprise there was a decent crowd. People turned up essentially because Sam & I begged everyone we knew, their mothers, brothers and family cats to come down, and, bless them, they did. Notwithstanding that our debut club night was the only occasion in 15 years where there was a little bit of argey bargey on the dance floor, so many people showed up that owner’s till receipts meant we got another shot. The next show was the following month, and we asked our good pal Ann (aka Shikibu) to come and play a guest slot, at that time we were very much spinning hip-hop and breaks, she injected some much needed funk & soul into the mix. Then there was the small matter of the name. As we were fixing up the second night, we checked the posters in the window and noticed there was another night called “Beyond The Breaks” running at City Bar, two things became apparent, 1) They were good sorts, and it was an excellent night 2) They’d started before us, so we couldn’t keep “Weekend Breaks”. After much agonising, Sam, it was always Sam, hit upon the perfect name, the name that reflected the music that underpinned everything we liked, and in some ways ended up defining the direction the of the night. On 26th of November 2004 “Funkdub” stepped out.

Chris had been long trading under the DJ moniker Gentleman Kush, and i’d plucked my own name from a sleeve as homage to some of my favourite plagiarists, The Beastie Boys. The name Funkdub though was born out of a heavy night on the decks – digging deep into my Mo’Wax collection and the 1995 Sam Sever/The Raiders Of The Lost Art track, What’s That Sound? I just couldn’t get it out of my head. With a bit of a tweaking it just worked for what we were up to…

Sam Hutchinson aka 3DJ

The next couple of years were, quite frankly, insane. City Bar had been persuaded to give us a monthly residency and in and around that time Chester really began to grow a scene of it’s own. Any DJ will tell you that the single best way to learn your craft, is to play shows, and play as many as you can. Any promoter will tell you the best way to build your own night is to support your local scene i.e. – get to know other DJs promoters and bands, turn up to the nights, invite guests from other nights, play guest slots yourself. At that time Sam was running his own business, I was working full time and studying part time, but we managed to fit in playing a hell of a lot of shows. If a toilet door was having an opening party, we’d turn up with a bag of vinyl. During that period we started to build up a web of collaborators and pals. Colin (aka Woj) also joined us as one of our regular guest selectors, we’d spotted a guy called Ian (aka Easy) playing a really great set at “Beyond The Breaks” and invited him to play a guest slot with us. Not long after that Ian started his own club night, “Surgery” which went on to become a cestrian institution.

The yellow years!

We generally had decent crowds turn up to those basement shows, but not for all of them. Because here’s the thing, any musician or DJ who tells you that they’ve never played to an empty room is either a liar or isn’t a DJ or a musician. The third show of the Funkdub residency was just one of those occasions, after two great gigs the one after that was a total bust. January 2005 at City Bar was just us and a couple of friends, and beats echoing around an empty basement until the lights came on, but we’d already started drowning our sorrows long before that. At that point we thought we’d ridden our luck but the train had hit the buffers, we might give it one more go before we’d likely have to slope back to the day jobs knowing that at least we tried. But, but, but, as so many people have learnt before and since, you have to play the empty shows to get to the good ones. The next show we played in March 2005 is still one my favourite ever Funkdub nights, one of those evenings where the crowd, the records and the DJs all connect perfectly, and any DJ or Musician will also tell you, when it all connects like that there’s simply nothing better. It was that night that bought us to the attention of the Nu Northern Soul Crew. Phat Phil Cooper had always been a legend in Chester and the Northern club scene, and back then he was collaborating with Phil Charnock and Ste Hodge on the Sick Trumpet record label and club night. Those boys had experience and skills to burn and first came to play in summer of 2005 and were kind enough to come back for our first birthday bash, the support and knowledge they provided in our early years was huge.

Funkdub presents Wax On/Off, Lockdown & A Mighty Boosh Bash

The following year or two saw the Chester scene really grow and develop. Surgery started out in 2006 and other nights were springing up, including the likes of – Perfect Pitch, Funkmode, Soultrain, Everything Is Now, Can’t Afford The Rock. There was cross pollination as well, Freak had started out in Chester & went on to become one of the biggest club nights in the region from its Wrexham base. Planet Of The Breaks, had a residency in Shrewsbury but some of their finest DJs (Deviant & Stet) were based in Chester and were collaborating with us and various other local promoters and DJs. The spread of venues putting on alternative music got wider as well. Instead of just the incubator of the City Bar basement, Alexanders Jazz Bar was working with us and other alternative promoters, as did Off The Wall (a venue that previously had the most mainstream of reputations) the Firkin pub on the canal was putting on the Eclecticity events gathering all the different local DJs. The head honcho of all the alternative venues had always been (and still is), Telfords Warehouse, but we’ll get to that. Funkdub itself also started to expand, regular guests Shikibu & Woj setting up off shoot “Wax On / Wax Off”, long time pal and collaborator Tomlinator setting up Jungle & Drum n Bass night “Lockdown”, all with terrific 3DJ designs. At the end of 2006 City Bar hosted the “Mighty Boosh Bash” with most of the local nights involved some outstanding VJs, and some of the city’s finest ever fancy dress.

Diesler (Tru Thoughts) and the Pama International (Trojan Records) shows

The Telfords Era

But we, and particularly Sam, were not satisfied with just running our residency and collaborations. We’d dipped our toes in the water of bringing some bigger names, booking Diesler to spin in the City Bar basement had been an early coup, and promoting and putting on live music had always been a huge ambition. Moreover we always wanted to hook up with the venue that had always been a beacon for great independent music in the city, Telfords Warehouse. Sam had been building up various connections through design and music work, and had hooked up with Sean Flowerdew, the brains behind London International Ska Festival and the chief operator of the first new signing to Trojan records in 30 years, Pama International. A deal was struck and the 1st ever Funkdub Live show happened at Telfords Warehouse on 27th of April 2006, and what a show Pama put on (one of only a handful of live acts to have played at Funkdub more than once).

FD Barcelona (via Hollyoaks), The Iron Gun and Vote Funkdub

A word at this point has to be said about two of the vital elements of Funkdub, and that is visual style and promotion. It’s no good having a bunch of great records, if you can’t generate a scene. 3DJ absolutely excelled at this. The poster and flyer designs were always nothing short of spectacular, in particular once we started putting on the live shows the designs took on new dimensions. We really knew we’d made it when one of our City Bar posters turned up in Chester’s finest soap, Hollyoaks! Sam also branched out & did various album sleeve designs, including the Sleeve for Mungo’s Hi Fi’s debut. One of my absolute favourites of the designs was the “Revolution Will Not Be Televised” poster in 2007, put together for the relaunch of funkdub.info as it then was. Strange thought it sounds now the mid noughties were still the pre social media age, and the time of internet chat forums, and the thing we did have was our own website with it’s very own corner for chat. For a few years the Funkdub “banter”, (way before that word got ruined), was great repository for all kinds of music based chat, with the local heads and people from all around the UK and the rest of world getting involved. But then, in some ways as now, you couldn’t substitute for good word of mouth and shoe leather i.e. shoving posters and flyers in every available nook & cranny. For an election themed event we posted flyers through virtually every door in Hoole, the owner of City Bar was threatened with legal action by the council because of our rogue flyering manoeuvres. It all seems a long way away from boosting events on Facebook & Insta likes & all the business that makes up the modern promo diet.

Little Barrie (who later sound tracked Better Call Saul), Yes King (Mark Rae & Rhys Adams’ fantastic ensemble & Smerin’s Anti Social Club

From 2006 onwards we put on regular nights at Telfords Warehouse, whilst simultaneously maintaining the City Bar residency and the off-shoot nights. There were so many memorable shows, the second birthday when Little Barrie came to play was an unforgettably good gig, with a queue around the corner. The second Pama International show the following year was possibly even better than the first one, Max Sedgley & The Shoots, Yes King, Jimmy Screech and Smerin’s Anti Social Club all stick in the memory. But in truth we were spoilt with the live acts who came to play. The criteria was pretty straightforward, we both liked them & we thought they’d put on a good show. The musical styles were diverse as well: Reggae, Hip Hop, Ska, Soul, Ska-Punk, Rock, Dub Step, Jungle, Electronica and various points in between.

Gentleman’s Dub Club, Hackney Colliery Band & The Funkdub Croquet Club

We also tried to catch bands and artists who were on the way up, persuading them to call in to a small venue in Chester during a tour. 3DJ was particularly good at unearthing untapped gems. Notable acts we caught on the upswing were Gentleman’s Dub Club back in 2010, who played one of the most floor shaking shows Telfords has ever seen, Hackney Colliery Band in 2012, who were spotted playing at the Olympics a few months later, The Skints also called in later the same year, for what was a roadblock of a show. Eva Lazarus & Dub Mafia dropped by in 2013 for a mesmerising gig. Then of course there’s cestrian Josh Whitehouse who played with Fran & Josh at our mini-festival at Alexanders in 2007, as well as returning with More Like Trees in 2011, and guesting with Lazy Habits in 2015 – you’re now more likely to see him on the silver screen.

Mr 45 aka Keb Darge, Mr Reel to Reel aka Greg Wilson and The Mighty Dub Pistols

We also persuaded a few pretty well established acts and DJ’s to come by too. Keb Darge had a pal in Chester and agreed to play a show, provided he was kept in whiskey. He played a blinding set and was a thoroughly good bloke to boot. North West legend Greg Wilson also came and played a brilliant set and gave us a rare opportunity to play some house music at Funkdub. The one that 3DJ had been chasing was the mighty Dub Pistols, and in 2010 they came up to Telfords and played one of our favourite ever shows.

Joe

Smoke Like a Fish, The Skints & Buster Shuffle

2012 bought tragedy and deep sadness, Sam’s younger brother Joe aka DJ 5K4ND4L passed away, he had in many ways been a younger brother to all of us. He’d been a regular guest selector at Funkdub, visiting from the North East and bringing great tunes and effortless ease & brio behind the decks. Joe also pointed us in the direction of some of the best acts who ever came to play, most memorably Smoke Like a Fish & The Skints. In 2012, Sam booked Buster Shuffle to come and play in a show that was dedicated to Joe’s memory, it was an emotional and fitting celebration. RIP Joe, never forgotten.

More Recent Years

From Dubstep to Reggae, Hip-Hop, Folk & Blues to Craig Charles’ Funk & Soul

New opportunities began to open up in 2013, the Telfords shows continued, with heavyweight dub step from CODA and one of our favourite ever Funkdub guests, Bison, another outstanding 3DJ find, (he’d heard a whisper they were at Glastonbury, sought them out in a far flung corner and knew instantly they had to come to Chester to play a show!). They travelled over from Sheffield to play a truly barnstorming set for our 9th birthday.

For the first time that we could remember Chester opened up a venue that had a big enough capacity to host bigger bands and events on the touring circuit. The Live Rooms got in touch and it was clear that they were an important addition to the local scene and they’re still going strong now. We worked with them putting in DJ support for some of our favourite acts including Craig Charles first shows in Chester, as well as The Beat, Dreadzone, DJ Nu-Mark & Slimkid3. There was also a pretty unforgettable night when ourselves and local legend & co-conspirator Ally Kidd Cameron supported Pharoahe Monch. It was was a remarkable show, and what quite a few people may not remember is that Pharoahe’s backing band that night were Ezra Collective, who are now making a very big impression in the UK jazz scene.

MMIV-MMXIV-MMXIX

The 10th Birthday was another night that burns long in the memory. In 2014 we brought back a bunch of our pals & fellow travellers to spin some records, Wax On / Wax Off, Easy from Surgery and DJ Deviant from Planet of The Breaks (who even made us a brilliant mini-mix for the occasion). There was only one candidate for the 10th Birthday live act, after they took the roof off Telfords The Dub Pistols simply had to come back. Uncle Barry and the crew agreed and played a magical show, and a whole bunch of friends turned out. Standing on the balcony watching the band light things up Sam & I agreed that we could happily pull up the stumps and have no regrets. But it wasn’t quite time to call it a day, we were still enjoying it and there were still opportunities in Chester, we also started looking in new directions and finally recorded a few mixes here and there.

A brief word at this point about spinning records, because for the vast majority of the last 15 years that’s what we’ve done. Back in 2004 all DJs used vinyl pretty much exclusively, though CDJs were developing, digital DJing simply didn’t exist. I recall reading in a magazine, sometime around 2003 Royksopp had played a DJ set with vinyl records controlling MP3s, it sounded like strange voodoo magic. Old time vinyl DJs will tell you back in the day that if you wanted to play a track you had to find it and buy it, the art of DJing was informed by the never ending search for new, old and interesting music, on plastic. The tell-tale twitch of a crate digger when they see a box of records is unmistakeable. By the time we even first started out, by hook or by crook we’d been digging in crates for too many years to mention. So whilst we didn’t, and still don’t, pretend to be the most technically gifted DJs to ever walk the earth, what we did have was a lot of different records in all kinds of styles and a willingness to put them together in new shapes.

Having resisted the tides like King Canute for so many years, both 3DJ and I have embraced the digital revolution, Sam started using CDJs several years ago and we’ve both finally made the switch to Serato. The lessons of playing with vinyl (knowledge of your records, selecting your bag, and learning to count beats etc), are vital. It’s easy to get misty eyed about the old ways: saving up for decks (and only Technics would do) and spending all our spare money on vinyl, but in all honesty the new systems allow for much greater creative freedom and have democratised DJing in a way that can only be applauded.

Beyond Chester

Having a big bag of records and making lots of pals along the way has bought opportunities to play at some of our favourite events. In the early days 3DJ played a set at D-Percussion in Manchester and we played over at Luv*Jam Supporting Andy Weatherall alongside the Surgery boys in Wrexham (when I dropped all of our records on the floor from a great height). We’ve been lucky enough to play at London International Ska Festival supporting Jerry Dammers. We also got to play sets at the incredible Boomtown Fair, at the Chai Wallahs tent and between the bands on the Town Centre stage. More recently we met Rory, who’d been running Positive Vibration in Liverpool, the one day reggae parties stepped up to become a full blown urban festival, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing slots in 2016, 2017 and 2018 and supporting what is a fantastic event. The good news is that after a year off the full festival is back again in 2020. Those sets also put is in contact with another North West institution, Africa Oye, the biggest and best free festival in the country, we’ve been honoured to play sessions on the Freetown and Trenchtown stages.

Throughout the first 10 years we never stopped for long enough to breath, never mind record a mix, in fact for over a decade the only mix that had seen the light of day was 3DJ’s laid back tribute to MCA & the Beastie Boys. Matters improved a little more recently with his all vinyl tribute to Kruder & Dorfmeister proving to be a huge hit and in the last few years I finally managed to record my first sessions since those tapes from before Funkdub.

2019

From 2004 to 2015 & beyond…

That brings us more or less up to date and 15 years have passed in what seems like a heartbeat. Throughout the first 10 years every October / November we’d put on a birthday event, it became a standing joke that we had more birthdays than most people had hot dinners. But it turns out we haven’t had a birthday bash since 2014. So for the 15th birthday we’ve gone back to our spiritual home at Telfords Warehouse and we’ve gone with the template that’s always worked, find a band on the way up who we both really like. We think we’ve found a really really good one this time in The Kubricks, their last album is terrific, and was produced by past Funkdub guests Gentleman’s Dub Club, they’ve also got a brand new single coming out the day before the show and are already booked to play London International Ska festival in 2020*.

As for what happens to Funkdub next, that’s really the question. The Chester scene has moved in new directions, the likes of Stepping Tiger are doing great things, bringing Steam Down and Theon Cross to the City, meanwhile Nghtwrk are holding down the club side of matters, and the Live Rooms is attracting great acts on tour, with Wirral’s Dub Defenders regularly playing top quality support slots, and our own 3DJ fulfilling a lifetime ambition by supporting PWEI. Old pal Stew is now running the Commonhall St. Social with regular top quality DJs. Local allies Rebel Skum (Ally Kid & DJ Deviant) are still producing incredible mixes and stylings. Telfords is as independent minded as ever, and pals Adam Walton & Tony Bear still support great and interesting new music, and there are plenty more promoters and venues coming through.

But probably the most important thing to reflect on at this point is the importance of a local scene, and how all of music is based on that. Without the regular crew of people who turned out to our events for so many years we’d have never got out of the starting house. All over the UK and the world there are small promoters putting on events because they love music and the importance of the people who come out to support those events cannot be over stated. Because all the big promoters were small promoters once, all the big artists were small artists once and the small events all over the country are the lifeblood of a thriving music scene. So this is really a shout out to all promoters, fans and venues everywhere that support music they love. It’s a shout out in particular to everyone who supported our very small corner in all of this – to the: Acts, DJs, VJs, Venues and all the people who came out, big up yourselves. As for us, well this feels like an end point to a 15 year Chester residency, but as our pal said, and anyone who loves music knows “you’ll never give it up, it’s in your blood“.

*ps. it’s not quite over yet, we’re definitely playing at The London International Ska Festival next year!