Read an extract from Matthew Collin's new book Rave On: Global Adventures In Electronic Dance Music, as reviewed by Sophia Ignatidou in the February issue of The Wire
Down the rabbit hole we go, descending the stairs from the street, feeling our way through the sudden gloom of the claustrophobic dog-leg tunnel and then emerging into the little blacked-out box of a basement with its metal ventilation shafts and exposed wiring ranged out across the ceiling. As our eyes adjust, all that’s really visible is the glowing green light of the emergency exit sign: 安全出口. There is no product branding on the walls, no external signals filtering in from the outside world somewhere above our heads; nothing to break the spell cast by the stark, esoteric techno rhythms pulsing around the room. Subterranean, mysterious and austere, the Shelter club in Shanghai was like a compact version of the old Tresor vault in Berlin, a model of what an underground club should be – a place where all kinds of things could happen, and maybe even would as the night moves on.
The Shelter was once a real air-raid shelter before becoming one of the first clubs to open in the Yongfu Lu nightlife zone in Shanghai’s French Concession quarter. It was home to the most adventurous musical productions in town – a place where the subcults of dubstep and hiphop, techno and grime, reggae and footwork were tenderly nurtured like exotic flora by enthusiasts and obsessives deep down below China’s most populous city and its streets seething with their irrepressible mercantile energies.
Tonight the party was called VOID, and it was all about the purest of techno. VOID was run by a multinational crew of DJs who saw themselves as guardians of an authentic spirit that must be defended from the forces of uncaring capitalism which would smother its life force with corporate marketing and drain its vital essence.
I went to meet one of them, Ma Haiping, who made records under the name MHP, at the art museum where he worked during the day, and where an exhibition of exquisite Tibetan artefacts was about to open. Wearing a Kraftwerk T-shirt and donnish spectacles, MHP seemed like a scrupulously modest and self-effacing kind of character, but he was also one of the few native Shanghainese electronic dance music producers, and someone who had been involved in many of the frontline developments in the city’s techno culture since the turn of the millennium, his career trajectory shadowing the giddy rush of urban transformation.
In the Golden Age of the 20s and 30s, the Yangtze River port city had been a cosmopolitan metropolis and trading powerhouse, attracting mavericks, tycoons, revolutionaries, artists and gangsters – the ‘Paris of the East’ (or the ‘whore of the Orient’, as some called it). Recalling the pre-war Shanghai of 1937 in his book Empire Of The Sun, JG Ballard described it as “this electric and lurid city, more exciting than any other in the world”. Until the 40s, it was producing the most significant Chinese films of the era, and its culture of embracing the foreign and mixing it with the indigenous was known as haipai – Shanghai style. But after the Japanese invasion and the subsequent Communist takeover in 1949, it became an industrial centre, and when the young Ma Haiping was growing up in the 80s, it was still relatively underdeveloped.
Shanghai’s spectacular revival was decreed by the Communist Party at the beginning of the 90s, when it was decided that it would become a futuristic landmark city to awe the whole of humanity – and quickly. “The speed and efficiency with which the Communist authorities would move Shanghai from mothballed relic of the past to stunning vision of the future would rattle the world,” suggested author Daniel Brook. “In just 20 years, the city’s people would go from commuting to run-down factories by bicycle to riding to the city’s new international airport on the fastest train on Earth. Makeshift huts would be replaced by a high-rise cityscape boasting more skyscrapers than Manhattan.” MHP remembers the Communist Party slogans of that period, when the transformation was getting under way – “Achieve the four modernisations”, “Accelerate urbanisation”, “Change Shanghai every year”. From 1991 onwards, when the free market was permitted to tear through its economy, the city of his childhood started to disappear in front of his eyes and a new one replaced it. Factories were shut down or moved out, astounding new buildings like the retro-cosmic Oriental Pearl Tower sprouted from what used to be farmlands, wharves and warehouse zones across the Huangpu river in the Pudong district, and residential districts spilled outwards as the city expanded relentlessly. “After that, you didn’t even know the streets you grew up with any more, it was so different,” he says.
Chinese writer Mian Mian, the author of novels like Candy and Acid Lover about sexual adventurism and drug-taking among the urban social misfits of the 90s, has also spoken of this profound sense of disorientation brought on by the city’s astonishingly rapid development: “My memory of the early 1990s was that if I shut myself in for a month, the city would change beyond recognition,” she once wrote. “Everyone in the city has been reshaped in this metamorphosis.” MHP first came into contact with foreign avant garde music in the late 90s, when he heard Throbbing Gristle and Japanese noise musician Merzbow on the influential Shanghai radio DJ Sun Mengjin’s late-night show – another of the broadcasters who left a lasting mark on the youth cultures of their countries by creating their own community of sound. “It was amazing – 11 o’clock at night, almost nobody listening. It was like magic,” MHP recalls. “I contacted the guy on the radio, he gave me a lot of CDs so I learned about experimental electronic music. We are a Communist country so I totally understood what industrial music was about – the government controlling minds.” He also remembers going to hear pioneers like Derrick May and Richie Hawtin in Shanghai at some of the earliest techno events in the city, when few others knew or could even comprehend their music. “When Richie Hawtin came to play, there was nearly no one there. I remember a guy next to me asking, ‘Is that CD stuck? Does he need someone to fix the mixer?’ Because he was playing that minimal stuff.” MHP’s modesty couldn’t quite obscure the crucial role he had played in Shanghai’s marginal but inventive alternative music scene over the years. He was a member of the experimental electronic band Aitar and the no wave-style noise-rock quintet Junkyard in the early 2000s, and was also involved in the first of the influential Antidote parties in 2004, with American promoter Michael Ohlsson and fellow Chinese techno producer B6. “Basically most of the current Shanghai electronic music scene developed out of those parties,” says his VOID collective comrade Cameron Wilson.
His music’s vivid, luminous melodies with their retro-robotic Model 500-style basslines won him influential admirers around the world; his Crepuscular Rays EP was released on Dutch veteran Orlando Voorn’s Night Vision label, while The Chinese Connection was issued by Detroit’s Cratesavers International. But although he sometimes played records at the VOID parties at the Shelter, he wasn’t really a club head; on the contrary, he agreed with Jeff Mills’ opinion that “techno wasn’t designed to be dance music, it was designed to be a futurist statement”. MHP preferred to listen to his own music while driving through Shanghai’s riverfront Bund district on a rainy day, scanning the skyline with its mixture of colonial and hypermodern architecture. Techno, for him, was a means to unlock and explore the imagination, and to drift freely through the possibilities that opened up. He collaborated with free jazz musicians and video artists, and spoke of taking inspiration from science fiction writers like Philip K Dick. Techno should be intellectual as well as physical, he believed – and it should always be art, never commerce.
“Now I’m thinking about what Chinese techno music can be. It’s not just a simple mix of techno and Chinese traditional music – no, that’s the wrong way to do it,” he says. “Techno music was made by American people but then it went to Europe, and when it was made by Europeans, it was different. Derrick May in Detroit is not the same as Surgeon in the UK, who is not the same as Basic Channel in Berlin. The Detroit guys have their legend, but we have our own story, and we should make our own music in our own way. But it still needs time to develop.”
The VOID crew were hoping to help create an environment in which the music could develop naturally amid the frantic cultural and economic hubbub of this city of around 24 million people. The opening of the Shelter back in 2007 offered them the opportunity to make a start. “When the Shelter opened it was like a bomb going off, because there was nothing here in Shanghai at that time that was genuinely music-focused. Things did happen, but in isolation. There were pockets of stuff that appeared and then vanished – independent universes that never connected,” says Cameron Wilson, whose DJ alias was Shanghai Ultra although he came from Dunfermline, where once upon a time, when he was a teenager, he made what he claims was the first Scottish gabba record (Unknown Source, Fear Of The Unknown, a grungey industrial stomp).
The Shelter was determinedly different – it was a stark and gritty European-style club created by and for hardcore dance music aficionados. Tonight before the DJs took to the decks, the VOID crew were screening the Jeff Mills documentary Exhibitionist, a masterclass in making music with the Roland TR-909. Wearing a black suit in a white room, Mills’ slender, dextrous fingers manipulate the Japanese drum machine as if there was an entire percussion orchestra responding to the flicks of his baton. VOID were trying to show that there was more to techno than just raving, but the fact that there was even a film about Mills’ 909 technique also indicated how much the music of Detroit had become the focus of some kind of transglobal gnostic sect.
VOID had already brought in Motor City legends Juan Atkins and Robert Hood, as well as various Underground Resistance DJs, to play at the tiny Shanghai venue. “We want to get people into it, spread the word, show what’s behind it,” says Wilson. That also meant demonstrating techno’s ideological integrity: “VOID will not associate with branding or marketing because it would compromise the message. Even drinks sponsorship, we just refused it. We can’t stand it. Sports brands, drinks brands, lifestyle brands, they’re all buzzing around Shanghai trying to exploit the culture. They say they understand the cutting edge, but the cutting edge by definition has nothing to do with them.”
His anti-branding polemic reminded me of the Berghain owners’ determination to exclude corporate logos from their Berlin venue in an attempt to ensure that clubbers were dissevered from the prevailing materialism that characterised daytime life, and relocated in an alternate reality where such values no longer held the same power. “For me, techno gives you a way to see the world differently,” Wilson continues. “Then if you involve brands in it, how is that seeing the world differently?”
The Shelter was founded by renowned local DJ Gary Wang, who pioneered hiphop in China and won the country’s first DMC mixing championships in 2002, and Gareth Williams, a Chinese-speaking Mancunian who married a local reggae vocalist called ChaCha and ran a label called SVBKVLT that released Asian bass and dubwise tracks – a real Shanghainese haipai scenario.
“When it opened, there was nothing like it here at all, so it was packed all the time with people just discovering new music,” Williams recalls. “There were really exciting times in 2008, 2009. People were really positive, thinking the scene was going somewhere great – and it is, but at a much slower speed than we thought then. And now the corporate bullshit has moved in, the branded events, which makes it harder for more independent people like us.”
At VOID, local skate rats in Thrasher hoodies and Adidas sweatpants mingled casually with black-clad disco ladies and Western technoheads in combats. As MHP blasted into a vintage Detroit track, a pair of European hipsters pranced across the dancefloor, lilting and dipping and sketching imaginary arcs with their cigarettes as if they were sparklers, while a group of Chinese lads frolicked in a ragged circle, legs akimbo, throwing out their arms at bizarre angles, abandoning themselves in the darkness to the all-consuming pulse.
Shanghai’s new generation of middle-class youth had more disposable income and leisure time than their predecessors, and far more access to global pop culture through the internet despite the Chinese government’s Great Firewall, which blocked many Western news and entertainment sites. But it was also clear that despite this, expatriates still made up a significant proportion of the clubbing crowd, particularly in Shanghai, where around a quarter of a million foreigners were living in 2015, according to official figures which included people not considered ‘mainland Chinese’, from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Many of the most adventurous promoters were also foreigners. As a major port, Shanghai had repeatedly served as an entry point for fresh ideas from abroad, according to Anna Greenspan, the author of a book about the city’s hunger for modernity, Shanghai Future. “Almost all modern technologies came to Asia via Shanghai. Gaslights were introduced in 1865, the telephone in 1881, electricity in 1882, running water in 1884, and the tram in 1901,” Greenspan wrote.
This relentless desire for new developments also made it a perfect place for new subcultures to emerge: “It has an energy, a vibe, a dynamism and a tension,” Cameron Wilson argues. “It’s in a cultural state of flux, it’s always moving and changing. It’s socially very progressive as well, and that attracts a certain kind of people – not only from abroad, but from the rest of China too.” Yet he admitted that electronic dance music was still a completely marginal subculture here in China’s most heavily populated urban environment: “If you get 300 people at the Shelter, in a city this size, that’s just a speck of sand.”
And inevitably, even that would not last, because nightclubs never do. The Shelter opened its doors for the final time on the last night of 2016 after the authorities declined to renew its licence, meaning that after an adventurous nine year run, it was all over. Gareth Williams announced the news in a wry tone of resignation, offering a fond farewell to all those who had played and partied down there in the darkness: “Fuck it. Thank you. Love you.”
This extract was taken from Chapter Eight: “Outer Limits: Shanghai”. Rave On: Global Adventures In Electronic Dance Music by Matthew Collin is published by Serpent's Tail. It was reviewed by Sophia Ignatidou in The Wire 408. Subscribers can read that review via Exact Editions.