KEEP THE FAITH: In the Middle with Steve Luigi

“Northern Soul: it’s not just music, it’s a scene”. Thomas Bennett chats to DJ Steve Luigi ahead of Leeds Central Soul Club’s 50th anniversary celebrations this Sunday at HiFi.

In a small room with wooden interior and sprung floor, a weekly celebration of sound and movement takes place. Of course, I am talking about Leeds’ go-to club for funk, soul and eclecticism, HiFi. The HiFi dancefloor holds fond memories for Leeds locals and students alike, and this month marks the club’s 50th anniversary, a fact that is not always common knowledge, and something that is certainly not helped by the ‘EST. 2000’ on its neon sign that graces the club’s entrance. Having gone through a number of names and transformations, it is heartening to see that HiFi has not neglected its roots. At its core lies a sound and community that gave birth to a club scene of fantastic depth and history now intrinsic to Leeds culture. This sound is Northern Soul.

To celebrate the 50th Birthday of Leeds Central Soul Club (HiFi’s previous name), HiFi will be hosting a Soul all-day event this Sunday, which will be replicating the original sounds, on the original vinyl played by the club’s original DJs. Of the DJs playing, Leeds legend Mr Steve Luigi will be gracing the decks, a name inescapably linked to both Leeds nightlife and the Northern Soul scene. As to appreciate just how and why Soul music continues to give freedom and joy to the people of Leeds, we chatted to the man himself ahead of Sunday’s Northern Soul party.

Steve is a fountain of knowledge on a plethora on dance music genres. His first interaction with Northern Soul started in the late 1960s. At this point Leeds Central had yet to become the soul magnet it eventually became. Wigan, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent and other cities held soul nights of 12 hour dancing sessions and record trading. As Steve states, “Northern Soul… it’s not just music, it’s a scene”. Northern Soul was an alternative, an escape from the music of the charts; it was a movement that fused a close nit group of dancers and music lovers that escaped the conventions of popular culture and provided blisteringly powerful music. “It was a niche scene… if I had never seen you in my life, I could literally walk up to you and start talking to you as though I’d known you forever”.

Steve explained how in 1968, Len Cave the then owner of what is now HiFi, switched the Ballroom orientated focus of the dancefloor on to R&B and rare soul played out by DJ Keith Atkinson. In 1971, the sound changed once again onto Northern Soul and Motown, a sound Steve DJ’d with, danced competitively to and promoted throughout the 1970s. The Central had found its sound.

For those unaware, Northern Soul is dominated by rare 7inch records from the States on obscure labels. Its sound mixes up-tempo punchy kicks with slightly rough recording techniques and powerful vocal deliveries. It may seem curious therefore that this particular genre blossomed in specific cities located in a small bunch of islands far from the US. However, it was the nature and timing of the sound that captured the interest of young music enthusiasts. The agelessness of the music has encouraged a continual interest in the genre: “it’s actually bigger now than it was back in the day when it first started out”. Steve puts this down to the influence of parents on their children, the desire for organic non-computerised sound as well as the music itself, its nature is timeless and its appeal is irresistibly uplifting.

Over the last 50 years, under a number of pretences, Soul, Motown and Northern Soul have continued to ring-out from HiFi’s hefty sound system. In its current weekly form of ‘Move On Up’, the dancefloor receives a crowd of loyal dancers, kept hooked by the impeccable selection of DJ Mathew Bolton. Steve and Mathew play exclusively on vinyl – an integral element of the Northern Soul tradition. Hunting down rare records, building large collections of wax and continually finding new music is a part of the soul scene, loved on a global scale.

Steve’s eyes light up as our conversation turns to vinyl. Given that Steve has set up and ran multiple record shops in Leeds, vinyl has been a part of his development as a DJ and music lover just as much as Northern Soul has been. “Warm… Rich… Deep”, the magic of owning the physical music as well as the sound quality all give vinyl its beauty in Steve’s eyes. In the case of soul music, finding gems and rarities is more obsession than side-line hobby for many. “You might go through 500 before you buy something but it’s that one Holy Grail”. We discuss instances of finding rare yet greatly sought records that can easily fetch from hundreds to thousands of pounds, a number of which Steve has been able to find. Charity shops and Discogs are the goldmines for this trade and the watchful eyes of record dealers everywhere keep the scene’s soul traders on its toes.

We ramble on into the afternoon and, before I know it, the world of revision is beckoning again. From all we discussed from Northern Soul through to Steve’s emergence into the disco then rave, house and techno scenes, one cannot underestimate Steve’s dedication and promotion of dance music. In the history of Leeds’ night life, Steve stands as an essential figure, representative of the various genres and sounds the city has experienced and treasured through the decades. Steve modestly waves away these achievements as a by-product of his love of music and a genuine desire to entertain those on the dance floor: “that’s why I do it, I love to please people”. Whilst other areas of dance music have come to govern Leeds’ night life, Northern Soul stands at the very start of this cultural evolution, and it is thanks to DJs like Steve Luigi and Matthew Bolton that these sounds continue soundtrack our beloved Leeds’ clubs today.

So when you make it down to HiFi’s 50th Anniversary this Sunday, listen to Steve’s set, dance to soul with your fist raised, and buy the man a drink. He’s earnt it.

Thomas Bennett

Image: Hifi