In the Middle with ‘Inner City Electronic’ Curator Ralph Lawson

Given the glut of music festivals in Leeds that have sprung up in recent years (Cocoon In The Park, Garden Party, World Island), one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the inaugural Inner City Electronics on Saturday 2nd of June is just one of many responses to a burgeoning city wide scene. Since it’s being curated by Ralph Lawson, the first person to play a record at the longest running club night in Europe (Back To Basics) and 20/20 Vision label boss, this means the festival reflects an appreciation of the local music scene’s character and history, as well as concern for its future, that sets it apart from the rest.

Lawson’s passion for the both Leeds and the electronic music scene are plain to see; barely thirty seconds pass in our conversation without him reaching back in his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city and it’s club scene to draw comparisons, or to simply take stock at how far Leeds has come. I ask if he thinks Leeds has become the ‘Milan of the North’ that early 1990s Leeds Labour councillor Laura Cohen envisioned it as when Back To Basics was granted one of the first late licences in 1991, something which he thinks has largely come true. He agrees with me that this is in part due to the nearly incomparable reputation that Basics has built up over the years (‘We were never trying to build a superclub, just a party that turned out to be a very successful party’), but recognises the specific historical context that it came about in: ‘The Hacienda [Manchester’s historic nightclub] shut in 1991, I think, and Back To Basics began in November of 1991. So people from Manchester were driving across to Leeds for a night out, it all swapped over. Those two factors, people from Leeds wanting their own nights out as it were, and people from other cities, Nottingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, also coming across to Leeds once the word began to get out.’

This attention to history is just one of the focusses that Lawson has structured Inner City Electronics around. Beyond the impressive array of DJ’s and live acts – KiNK, Peggy Gou, Floating Points, and Avalon Emerson, to name just a few – Lawson has arranged several panel discussions, ranging from Northern Soul DJ Ian Dewhirst and‘s Bill Brewster discussing the history of the Warehouse club, to a talk on the future of women in the music, with Sayang and Lucy Locket from female led Equaliser featuring as panellists. The thread that ties it all together is always Leeds and how the city has developed, and often about getting the city credit where credit is due.

Lawson notes how some of the talks will delve into how the dub techno being produced in the early 1990s wasn’t, despite his emphasis on the the festival being about the ‘meaning of each of the three words: Inner City Electronic’, produced in the inner city. Instead, it was being made further afield in Chapeltown, where the Reggae nights that played on huge sound systems were being used by music producers such as Ability ii and Ital Rockers to produce the sub-bass heavy house music that would become known as Bleeps and Bass – and erroneously attributed to Sheffield alone, since the founders of Warp Records were from the city.

As important as shoring up the festivals credentials with this wealth of cultural knowledge, for Lawson, is the passing on of this knowledge. There’s an arresting sincerity to his voice when he tells me that ‘I know how hard it can be starting out as a DJ, I’ve been there. Part of what we’re trying to do at Inner City is tailor some stuff towards young DJ’s and producers who are just starting out, because there are a lot of pitfalls. Do I need a manager, and/or an agent? How do I get my music onto the right platforms? How do I not get ripped off? These are all questions that we hope having industry professionals in the room to answer can help guide some beginners.’

As our conversation continues, it becomes apparent that Lawson is someone who really believes that music can constitute a genuine counterculture. His tone is one of incredulity when discussing the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. ‘That really pushed it over the edge. No more than 8 people could dance in a public space listening to repetitive beats – not the exact wording. It effectively outlaws House and Techno music. That is how scared the government of the day was of Acid House culture, that fact that there was legislation specifically against it.’

I raised the topic of counterculture in relation to Inner City Electronic as a way of probing Lawson’s motivations, to see if there is perhaps an idealism implicit in his attention to the cultural and historical music scene in the Leeds, and more widely the UK. Is Inner City Electronic Lawson’s own Acid House moment? It’s hard to interpret Sheaf Street’s trendy aesthetic as being comparable to Castlemorton, a 1992 rave that Lawson mentions as being the peak of the movement – a week long rave where around 30,000 people attended at its highest levels. He lingers upon these scenarios to make a point: ‘You felt part of a scene, not just as if you were going to a club. At times when people are scared by people with a lot of power, music politicises things, it becomes a way of life, a way for people to say “This is how we’re going to live our lives, this is how we want our cities to be.” At that point, that’s where the bite of music starts to come back, and that’s where we’re at now.’

In the closing stages of our talk, it’s refreshing to see all the various strands that Lawson has been discussing come together – not simply as a various facets to an attractive music festival, but as a statement of intent. He really believes what he says when he proposes that Inner City Electronic is the local manifestation of that ‘bite’ that he desires from music. ‘Leeds has had a fantastic growth in the past 20 years, and it’s a great place to live. But where’s it gonna go? Inner City is working with Cosmic Slop and MAP for example, who help deprived inner city kids get qualifications in music production, who are based out of Hope House. They’re under threat and it’s likely that the Mabgate area will be gentrified, so they’re fundraising to save the venue. This is where the party becomes a contribution to a crew who are trying to do something good for the city.’

Oliver Staton

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