Image Credits: Jordan Hughes and Chris Payne
Rave of the Future
The Manchester International Festival has gone from strength to strength over the past few years, taking over the city to showcase innovation and progression in the arts. Thousands and thousands of people take part every two years the event occurs and every time around the event grows with bigger artists and more to do. Taking place in a host of venues across Manchester, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a taste for eclectic art galleries or unsigned bands, MIF has something for everyone with an interest in showcasing creativity.
I was lucky enough to bag tickets to go and see one of the more exclusive shows during MIF, grime artist Skepta’s Dystopia987. Designed in collaboration with creative studio TEM and renowned playwright Dawn King, the aim of the show was to showcase Skepta’s vision of the future by means of an immersive and intimate experience, utilising technology to create the ‘rave of the future’, a party unprecedented. Described as ‘deep, dark, radical and riveting’ by the press, did Skepta manage to achieve his aims with this special performance? Read on to find out.
There was a lot of hush-hush around the location of the show in the run-up to it. The idea (presumably) was to generate the same feel as the secret raves of the late 80s and early 90s, where the location was passed around by word of mouth rather than being re-tweeted or posted on a Facebook status. In the afternoon I was sent a text message with coordinates, pointing to a location on the corner of London Road, underneath the Mancunian Way and I was told that once there I would receive further instruction. Upon arrival, there were a fair few other gig-goers milling around, some wearing ‘Grime MC’ shirts from the recent JME secret shows of a similar nature, others looking bemused, but everyone buzzing with anticipation.
A black-clad figure with neon face paint emerged from the nearby construction yard to give us our instructions. He asked us to follow him, advising that it was a short walk to the venue and that ‘Darmian’ was awaiting our arrival. With much fervour and hushed excitement, we were led through an industrial maze of building sites, past scrapped lorries and abandoned warehouses, eventually leading to a row of old railway caverns not far from Piccadilly Station. Here we queued up for security, all phones being placed into locked Yondr Pouches during the bag searches. In the queue, we were told that ‘Darmian’ wanted us to be ourselves and interact with each other, rather than our phones.
Upon entering the venue, we were lined up against temporary metal fence panels covered in worksheets and ‘scanned’ before we finally got to the venue proper. Inside was all neon lighting juxtaposed with signs that displayed ‘free your mind’ and ‘no phone zone’. I was given a pair of headphones to put on which relayed instructions from ‘Darmian’ about connecting with people and wanting to create a distraction-free zone where we could just be human. I was instructed to look to the left and look to the right, take the hand of the person next to me (if they allowed me to) and make and hold eye contact with them, smile at them and see if they smiled back. I was told that ‘Future Rave Technology’ was in operation and that ‘Darmian’ was watching me, before the instructions ended and I was left to my own devices.
Confusingly I had been given coloured tokens when entering the venue which went unexplained, I was simply told that ‘Darmian’ wanted me to have them. Taking inspiration from the headphone-relayed instructions I spoke to other partygoers to get the low down on what to do with them. Different colours offered you different things, from face-paint to thermal imaging photography to an alternative reality experience. I was advised by one the ‘Energy Crew’, Skepta’s neon face-paint and LED adorned helpers that we were being watched by Darmian to ensure we were interacting with one another, that it was a journey of self-discovery.
Alongside being handed a handwritten note that said ‘You have good energy‘ and smiling at an admirer-inundated Marina Abramovic I found this section slightly puzzling. Despite being told to be free and be yourself there seemed to be a lot of self-awareness, and I got the feeling that a lot of people were aware of it being an art piece and seemed to be milling around waiting for something to happen instead of enjoying themselves, whilst others were treating it as a regular club night, getting the cans of Red Stripe in and dancing joyously. I quickly decided not to bother trying to unravel the mystifying nature of this room and follow the example of the other half of the attendees, grabbing some cans of my own and heading towards where the pumping basslines emanated from.
The next room was vast in scope, an old railway cavern re-purposed for raving. A lighting rig ran the length of the ceiling with a projector attached, moving back and forth across the length and breadth of the room, displaying the thermal imagery of people taken next door as well as shining a laser light show onto the curved roof. Speakers were attached, equidistant from one another, blasting remixes of Skepta’s backing tracks orchestrated by the DJ on stage in the centre of the room. The bass was enough to shake your entire body, sub-depth frequencies you could feel from your feet to your chest. In this room it felt more like a party, people enjoying themselves with plenty of good-natured talking and some outlandish dance moves.
For the first time in the night, I reached into my pocket to check my phone, forgetting that it was locked away in the Yondr Pouch in the cloakroom. It was interesting to note the time dilation effect; I was unsure how much time had elapsed whilst I had been in there. Had it been an hour? Two or even three? I also reflected at how often we look at our pocket-sized devices, which I guessed was the point of the pouches and part of the night as a whole. Then the call came out that we were ready, the voice of ‘Darmian’ I heard through my headphones at the start of the night stating ‘we are free’ before worksheets were pulled away to reveal two entrances to the next room.
The next part of the experience was an identically sized room to the previous, except this time the centrepiece was a construction of metal scaffolding and light rigs backed by huge screens, a multi-platformed stage that towered over the audience. As the room filled up and anticipation simmered to the brim, the opening synth stabs of ‘Pure Water’ played by DJ Maximum rang out before Skepta appeared on the platform, hooded-up with neon gloves, all unbridled energy and delivery. Skepta circled the tower, gesturing towards the audience and imploring us to forget our Instagram names and Twitter handles and just be ourselves, if only for one night. He stated that ‘everyone is going through some s**t but tonight we’re gonna leave that outside‘ and gave multiple shout-outs to his ‘Energy Crew’, the LED and face-paint decorated helpers for the night. As a tribute to the recently imprisoned A$AP Rocky he started a chant of ‘free Rocky’ before playing ‘Praise The Lord’, his recent collaboration with the incarcerated American superstar.
Hits such as ‘That’s Not Me’ and ‘Shutdown’ drove the crowd wild and it was a real party atmosphere during this section of the night, with mosh pits and ‘getting low’ aplenty, beleaguered bar staff walking around with trays of Red Stripe and some distinctive odours in the air. It was refreshing to not feel like I was waiting for something to happen and instead just enjoy the artist performing and for the first time in the night I felt like I was actually experiencing as opposed to being told to feel something. It was a short but sweet set, coming to a slightly underwhelming end as the last song was played and as Skepta disappeared back inside his metallic construction we were hurried out by the ‘Energy Crew’, sweaty and breathless, hoping for an encore that wouldn’t materialise.
That’s Not Me
The excited and open-mouthed partygoers filtered out onto Fairfield Street, immediately latching onto their phones to catch up on what they had missed whilst being inside, or perhaps to fill others in on how it had been. Had anyone really heeded Skepta’s calls to free yourself from your phone and social media accounts? I’m not so sure, but I can say without reproach that everyone enjoyed their night. Despite the calls to interact with one another the most connected I felt was enjoying the music and dancing with everyone whilst Skepta performed, rather than the slightly forced-feeling build-up to the performance itself, which in my opinion fell a little flat.
Overall the night was an enjoyable one if you just take it as being a chance to see a great artist perform his set. Good tunes and good vibes were the order of things and I walked out with a smile on my face. During the press meetup beforehand, we were advised that Dystopia987 was designed to be an experience rather than a gig, a melding of music and technology to create something wholly unique. I went in expecting holograms and mixed reality, however, I found that the most pertinent bits of technology utilised were the Yondr Pouches that locked our phones away, freeing us to look up and around rather than look down.
Skepta’s DYSTOPIA987 at Manchester International Festival 2019 image credits Jordan Hughes and Chris Payne
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Matt is a multi-instrumentalist, music geek and current Content Creator at Dawsons Music. He composes, records and produces out of his home studio in Manchester as well as playing in two bands, China Moon and Sawbones.