[Young Echo @ Exchange, Bristol. 03/07/14]
Kahn is lighting sticks of incense and placing them into the monitor speakers behind him on the small stage when I wander in around midnight. At first, I feel as though I’m an interloper crashing a house party in someone’s living room as most of the crowd, 80 or so strong at the peak, seem to know each other. There are pats on the back and greetings, the sense of familiarity and intimacy boosted by the modest dimensions of the Exchange, on Bristol’s Old Market.
Empty Red Stripe cans start accumulating on the peripheries of the makeshift DJ booth as El Kid plays a set of early nineties stoner hip hop, lots of Pharcyde and Mos Def, and the night gently warms up. MCs are huddled around the stage, the mic swapping hands frequently and the whole set-up feeling very much like a bunch of mates getting together to play a bunch of tunes, which is exactly how Young Echo started out, a collective of friends making ramshackle but adventurous podcasts from each others’ bedrooms, experimenting with the sonic spaces opened up by dubstep and techno but stripping them back further, to an almost skeletal minimalism, maintaining the loosest allegiance to conventions of musical genre.
Jabu intercedes with a brief set of soul, slowing things down and allowing the tones to get smokier and deeper, but it’s as the tall and skinny form of Ishaan Sound takes to the decks that the night suddenly takes off. The bass starts to plummet and heads start to nod as he drops some of his trademark steppers dub, skanking and bopping in an impressive angular halo of elbows. His timing is impeccable, and he has read the crowd’s appetites perfectly, perhaps because the boundaries between the performers and audience are blurry at best and evaporate at several points throughout the evening. He is raving just as hard as them and clearly feels in no way superior.
In a way, the scene calls to mind the musical philosophy of hardcore bands, seeking to erase hierarchies of performer/audience by refusing to play on stages and choosing to play their gigs in the middle of the floor, surrounded by their fans. It goes without saying that the development of UK bass music is tied inexorably to Jamaican soundsystem culture. Yet the boundary-pushing creativity of small-scale scenes like Young Echo arguably owes just as much to the DIY influences of punk, with its emphasis on greater horizontality between players and fans and authentic expression taking precedence over any commercial whims. Indeed, the photocopied cut-and-paste posters that advertised the event hark back to the visual culture of punk’s first wave. The whole event is shot through with a very tolerant and accommodating attitude, allowing each member of the collective free expression to experiment, creating a very open space allowing for a multitude of possibilities of what sound system culture could mean.
It is this openness and mutual respect that permits the penetrating dub of Ishaan Sound to give way to the live electronic improvisation of Vessel, another member of the collective who has a rig set up on an adjacent table, squeezed into the back corner of the club, an impressive bank of samplers, synths, drum machines and delay pedals; a techno-fetishist’s dream. A craftsman with his tools, he conjures up a thundering tribal-industrial landscape, of harsh yet precise beats, skilfully filtering in sonic references from unexpected sources: Michael Jackson and Soul II Soul samples slowly bubbling up through the maelstrom of noise. ‘I haven’t practised this, it’s going to be a bit rough’ he warns, before stripping off his shirt. A young woman across the floor shouts back: ‘we like it rough!’
The final delivery of dark dubstep and grime from Kahn and Neek brings the event full circle, rooting it in its foundations. By now the crowd is in full-blown rave mode, and the night ends where it should, 80 heads in a room, skanking hard.