Progressive House: Labels, Births and Rebirths

    Should you ask any DJ who has been involved in the industry for over ten years, they would surely tell you that the record labels they used at the start are not all of the labels used now. Go back twenty years and you would get even less labels who have spanned the whole of the new millennium. Names such as XL, Ninja Tune, Soma and Nervous Records can wear the longevity badges for staying the course and leading the way in dance music record label terms.

    The same goes for compilation mix CDs which have defined what and how we listen to -certain DJs and genres collectively identify with styles. Around the time raves moved from the fields to clubs, mixtapes were passed around like the golden tickets they pretty much were in those days. Cults were created as the tsunami of electronic music began to rise. Identities formed through a rebellious subculture sweeping every major city in Britain, Europe, North America and the rest of the world chronologically with a nightclub in close proximity.

    While many would prefer to lump the cause of this new craze to the drug of the moment, Ecstasy – and its effect on the enjoyment of music – those responsible for the music were not some jammy folks pressing buttons and making bleeping noises. You only have to watch Carl Cox, Nick Muir or Charlie May play the piano to realise that there has always been real substance behind what was the new generation of producers. Norman Cook was in a pop band, singing ballads before creating his first electronic monster tracks. William Orbit (born William Wainwright), owner of Guerilla Records, stable of the first great wave of progressive house records in the nineties – had already broken the charts with his band Bass-O-Matic in 1990, as well as some recognised tracks of the 1980s under different pseudonyms.

    On that note, before the days of the new millennium’s categories – when this was the next ‘unknown tomorrow’; when even the DJs thought it was all but a ride to be ridden until the fad ended and the governments would somehow spoil the party – setting up a record label (after he had already set up Guerilla Studios in 1979) seemed to serve a purpose for Orbit. The face and future character of progressive house surely owes a great gratitude to the groundwork accomplished not only by Orbit in the eighties – but it actually all tied in to the fully revolving circle of recording and the boom of House Music in the latter part of that decade.

    What did fit into the bigger part of the complex engine unknowingly being constructed – was this circle of DJs and musicians who loved all playing music they made to a new generation of nightclub-goers. It was like the winds had scattered a propagation of electronic talent seeds; fused across the dancefloors and studios of Chicago, New York and Detroit before blowing over Britain and the remainder of Europe. London electronically exploded. Firstly the bud of Rhythm King Records came along (which began as a UK Hip-Hop and House label in 1986), it then created React four years later, then Guerilla Records; along with labels like Hard Hands (owned and opened by Leftfield in 1990). The 1990s in terms of labels and musical direction didn’t know it, but already had a head start.

    By the time 1992 had arrived, the world had already experienced the beginnings of the winds of change. Politically, globally and musically. Before Berlin had reinvented itself as the heartbeat of Techno as which we now recognise it, following the re-marriage of the East and the West in 1989 – it was Frankfurt which led the way in Germany. Through Sven Vath’s early Acid House days along with Roman Flugel and Jorn Elling Wuttke’s act; Acid Jesus – and their influential label; Klang. Between the close-knit West Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, music evolved. Techno and trance began their infancies around European dancefloors. Artists such as Age Of Love made arguably the first, eponymous trance track which defined that era. Things were sonically interweaving, producing hybrid sub-genres of House, played by the same DJs who played Italo House, Acid House and early Techno.

    In 1992, Geoff Oakes began the Renaissance club night at Venue 44 in Mansfield, in the midst of the shift from gritty outdoor raves to the indoor licensed venues. The Hacienda, eighty-six kilometres up the road in Manchester (pretty much the drive from Wollongong to Sydney), had long-established itself as the night’s musical mecca of the north of England, followed by Cream in Liverpool and Back To Basics in Leeds. So what did the less-bewitching, smaller town of Mansfield have to drag the discerning young clubber there at that time? That time of Madchester; The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and The Charlatans. The time of Guerilla Records, Hard Hands, React, Stress Records and…ecstasy? What was Mansfield’s gift to dance music?

    Did it have the introduction of DJs such as Sasha to the Renaissance line-up? Dave Seaman – as the owner of Stress and the editor of Mixmag was added to the resident team at Oakes’ night. So were Coventry’s Parks and Wilson (two members of Tilt, along with John Graham – also known as Quivver) brought in after a while. As were two local northerners who made their names from Renaissance, Nigel Dawson and Ian Ossia. According to Nigel, who kindly spoke to me in the week, it was certainly the effort promoter Geoff Oakes out into each event – which saw the night as well as the music played, reap rewards.

    As mentioned in the previous edition, the term Progressive House was first written in that year, by Dom Phillips of Mixmag. Are the bells beginning to ring about the roots of prog? If that line-up were offered right now at a one-day festival, whether in the north of England, North America, Ibiza, South America or Australasia – there would be a phenomenal rush for ticket purchases. Granted, in Australasia it would be the deprived over 35s who don’t see these names regularly enough – snapping up the tickets! However, after these quarantine months, maybe the young can be educated….

    My chat with Nigel Dawson proved as consolidating to these points – as it was entertaining to hear such humble and honest tales of Mansfield, music and the accounts of the early days of progressive house. Nigel has been based in Sydney, working in Siphonics (this was another thing I learnt – roof guttering) along with his brother, for over a decade. His Dominion moniker in the nineties earned his releases plays from top level prog DJs, as well as tracks used on highly regarded mix CDs and of course, his own mixes for Renaissance. Also, as inspiring for the lesser-known DJs among us, that he plans to return to the DJ booth and to music production this year. Britain’s loss must be progressively Australia’s gain.

    Nigel Dawson

    NJ: Nigel, thanks for chatting today with me for Ozclubbers. When did you first get into prog?

    ND: I was working at a venue in Mansfield – that owned Venue 44, I was warm-up DJ for the commercial DJ. The owner asked me to play and I didn’t have any records, so he gave me £200 to get records, so off I went but I bought what I liked and was playing this warm-up set where everyone was dancing. So when the main DJ came on after me, he was playing the same music as me, so it was a bit “What are you doing?”

    But my brother, my younger brother was manager of Venue 44 and one night he rang me and said “Quick, bring your records – the warm-up DJ hasn’t shown up.” So off I went, up there and Sasha was playing next. I was playing this warm-up set and by 11 o’clock I had everyone dancing. The problem was there were 8 hours left so I’d fucked it up! It was brilliant but Geoff looked at me and said, “What you doing?” and I didn’t play there again for another six months! When you warm up for Sasha you have to calm it. After that, Digweed helped me, saying ‘this is what you need to be playing’ and so on, so after that I realised that warming up is an art.

    NJ: Was that right at the beginning in ’92?

    ND: Yeah, that was right at the beginning. Probably after 6 months I would warm up properly – people would be tapping their feet and thought, ‘Yeah, this sounds good’. Then you’d get the job done. Then Sasha would come on and the whole club would go ballistic. But it was good because when I did The Cross (in London), I would do the warmup and then play at the end. Warmup DJs should be young unknown guys – like me, to keep the crowd interested, play some really great music but not stuff to make them go ‘woohoo’!

    Warming up is one of the most important parts of the night. You don’t want everyone to be going for it when there’s eight hours to go. It took me a few times to get it right and then I found my way onto the flyers. Because I played about ten times before my name was on the flyers.

    We had people coming (to Mansfield) from all over the country – from Scotland, from London. It was like – it can’t be matched. The scene is not the same today – you wouldn’t drive two hundred miles for a night out. It’ll never happen. But there’ll be a lot of changes after this (lockdown).

    Small venues are much better, I’d much rather play at a venue which holds 200 people. It’s far more important to me than having a 10,000 venue with only 3,000 turning up. It’s boring. But the Renaissance sound system was custom built. It was pretty spectacular. You could walk into this dark room with the laser being spectacular. I was very lucky to be involved.

    Renaissance was progressive house. That’s it.”

    NJ: Do you reckon without Renaissance, things as far as progressive house is concerned – wouldn’t be the same?

    ND: Renaissance was progressive house. That’s it. You had your Gatecrasher and your Cream – Gatecrasher was more trancey, even though I found some of my tracks ended on their albums, but Renaissance was – prog.

    NJ: Because it was more of a package, wasn’t it? You had the glam and everything.

    ND: Of course. It was a package – they would go into a club, redress the whole thing and spend thousands on it. It was a package but was very elite.

    NJ: I suppose it was like the 5-star hotel of House Music in the nineties.

    ND: Of course, that was it. That was Geoff’s goal. He was very driven to have that look. When we did Colwick Hall (a grand hotel mansion in Nottingham), you’d walk in and you’d see a five-person string quartet in the entrance. Even I was like ‘What the Fook?’ And having DJs like Sasha and then John – and John, when he came to Renaissance, everyone was thinking – “he’s got to be good’. I immediately clicked with him – and he came to my home and pick me up and take me to gigs and we’d go to places as far as Hull. Everyone talks about John and Sasha but there are so many other brilliant names who played.

    NJ: From looking at your old Renaissance flyers, some of the names are incredible. One point I’m making is that if you could gather a DJ line-up like that now, people would flock to it.

    ND: That’s the problem, people couldn’t afford it. Danny Rampling – another brilliant guy and Dave Seaman who has to be the best person I’ve known for thirty years. He’s so genuine. With Sasha – even though I played with Alex a lot, I didn’t get to know him because he always had a hundred people around him. He always played my music, which was nice. John, I got to know pretty well, and Dave Seaman I’ve played with all over the world and I’ve got to know him well. A genuine person. And Anthony as well – one of the best, a really awesome person.

    NJ: Lovely hearing these stories. If there was any points as far as progressive house – as far as high

    ND: In 92, when it pretty much all started it was John who brought that sound in and I thought ‘I like this’. Throughout the nineties it was really awesome and towards the end went a bit trancey. Even if you listened to the music I made from 94 to 2000 – it got more pumping and pumping and then in the early 2000s, electro came in and I started going ‘I don’t like this’ but again in 2015 with people like Patrice Baumel coming in….I listen to their stuff and think ‘wow’! It’s like melodic and ambient but progressive has soul.

    NJ: So, you do plan to make some more music.

    ND: Yes, I do plan to make more music. I really got into it again in the last few years. I’ve got my first gig in November in about 12 years – but it’s vinyl because I’ve got no clue about all this technology! Technology is scary now! You watch John play and he makes it look like there’s no effort! For years carrying two record boxes around, then now just carrying a memory stick…(laughs)

    Would you start again as Dominion?

    ND: Yeah, I’ll do some more Dominion stuff, it’s just a case of finding someone in Australia on the same wavelength – Anthony’s (Pappa) got some guys in Melbourne and they’re pretty good. We’ll see what happens – I haven’t made a record in 20 years.

    The music’s good now, it had a massive lull but it’s really good now. When I saw Dave (Seaman) in November, he told me that even he had struggled to get gigs for a few years. The way he explained it was that it was like he was sitting at a bus stop, waiting for his (type of) music to come around again. Then progressive came around again.

    NJ: Yes, someone even posted today on Facebook that progressive had gone shit from around 2005 to 2015 and for me it would explain why albums like Involver 2 stood out so much at the time because everything else was so shit. I’m glad it’s found its feet again.

    ND: It was even from the early 2000s when the electro sound started coming in, I was playing my style and people weren’t into it. But it’s a lot better now. Pappa send me about a hundred tracks every week – I contacted Dave last week about his track, which is great. I told him I was making a radio mix and he sent me two tracks straight away. But the music that we’ve got now is really good music. Anthony contacted me because he hasn’t made a track in a while. Dave told me even Anthony had been in the wilderness for a few years, but he’s back with a vengeance with his streaming stuff. He’s such a great guy.

    NJ: Yes. For me personally, around the early 2000s the scene began to change and I started to lose interest in the scene, not the music.

    ND: Same as me. Like today – that selfies thing – that needs to get gone. A lot of people out there are saying the same thing.

    NJ:  Hopefully with this current stop to everything, things may change.

    ND: I hope so. You get resident DJs out there who get paid shit all, but they’re really good. You get top DJs who get paid $10,000. Which takes every penny made on the night, but the kids want their pictures with Carl Cox. It’s got to change.

    NJ: Nigel, thank you so much for speaking with me – it’s been lovely hearing all the stories.

    ND: Take care, mate.

    LEAVE A REPLY

    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here