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Manchester is the beating heart of new music in the UK

“Where’s better than Manchester?”

  • Words: Mark O'Donnell | Illustrations: Lawrence Abbott
  • 5 December 2017

We're surveying 2017 across a series of features. Here we take a look at Manchester's constantly flourishing scene...

“Where’s better than Manchester?” legendary DMZ and Swamp 81 don Loefah tweeted earlier this year before providing the answer that any self-respecting fan of underground music knows is the truth: “Nowhere at all!”

In 2017, Manchester, a city that’s always had the beat of great music and nightlife coursing through its veins, is in the midst of a new golden era. With its Factory Records and Haçienda heritage, it’s had them before, of course, but this one’s different – it’s rooted in a wave of homegrown hip hop, bass music, soul, grime, d’n’b, trap and more. The artists – and there’s a staggering amount – are artfully articulating life in an 0161 area code through their music and movie-like videos (many of which are also produced locally by KC Locke, Tarnish Vision and J Bannister).

And labels like Mixmag favourites Swing Ting and Madam X’s Kaizen have been setting dancefloors alight through their releases, with Biome, Walton, Murlo and Fox all releasing straight-up fire. As Platt, co-founder of Swing Ting, sees it: “We’ve always had super talented people here, but there’s definitely been more of a spotlight put on the city, something that’s totally deserved.”

Like any significant musical movement, it hasn’t happened overnight. Zed Bias, an honorary Manc and veteran of a seminal scene or two, knows this all too well: “Certain legendary collectives and labels were forged years ago; Estate Recordings, Soul:r, Virus Syndicate, Murkage Cartel, BPM and Hoya Hoya. They developed their own distinct sounds and brought through their own future stars. 2017 was the year Manchester music went viral, but I see it as a continuation of work put in over a decade.”

Putting the work in comes easy to Manchester; it’s a city full of grafters. Combine the tireless work ethic with a DIY state of mind and a mad sense of city pride (made even stronger following the Ariana Grande concert atrocity earlier this year), and you have three key ingredients for Manny’s very own secret sauce.

For a measure of that city pride, you need to look no further than the response to the Grande attack. While the world watched a city come together at the Old Trafford cricket ground concert, the grassroots mobilised across town – 14-man rowdy bass collective LEVELZ hosted an impromptu street party in the Northern Quarter, where they held aloft signs saying, “Keep calm and rave on” and auctioned off bottles of Jägermeister to the highest bidder, not only raising money for the NHS but raising Mancunians’ spirits too. As LEVELZ ringleader Rich Reason sees it: “It made a lot of my friends who live elsewhere in the UK or world realise that Manchester's heart is in the right place when it was put under the periscope of the world's media that week.”

Fundraising initiatives like the Bee Tattoo – which saw people queuing around the block to be inked with the city’s iconic bee emblem – and the ‘Manchester with Love’ compilation followed. LEVELZ affiliate and compilation instigator Jonny Dub explains, “What started out as an idea to do a fundraiser compilation soon became the biggest collection of music (226 tracks in total) to come out of the city of all time. It’s an amazing insight into where the Manchester music scene is at right now, and the breadth of talent that’s coming out of the city.”

And it’s that dazzling amount of talent - across multiple genres and scenes - that’s put Manchester on top. Among a stack of big tunes from established players this year, highlights include Zed Bias’s ‘Different Response’ album, The Mouse Outfit’s ‘I Wonder’ (feat. IAMDDB and Fox), LEVELZ’s latest ‘Frontface’, Chimpo’s anthemic ‘1996’, Chunky’s ‘Vibesman’ and Sparkz’s conscious commentary on the divisive nature of some parts of the media and Manchester as a multicultural family on ‘Stay Awake’. On top of this, soul-rap combo Children of Zeus’s ‘The Story So Far’ has been bigged up as album of the year by Jazzy Jeff on Twitter, and there’s been the stratospheric rise of trap soulstress IAMDDB and the emergence of LayFullStop's poetic lyricism (check ‘Bohemian Queen’ for a taster), plus dozens and dozens of others rising up and doing their thing.

Refreshingly, there’s a ‘one of us wins, we all win’ mentality, which sees established artists backing the youngsters all the way on their channels and IRL. Take KSR, a young lad from South Manchester with a voice that’ll break hearts. LayFullStop says “his sound is mesmerising” and Children of Zeus have already said “it won’t be long before we’re bowing down to this guy.”

Chimpo is a big supporter of Stef Smith, who was chosen to intro the recent 1XtraLive event in Manchester and showed he’s got a big future on ‘Got Ya Money'. Rich Reason tips Just Banco (“as good as any US trap”) and Zed Bias namechecks Slay, Berry Blacc, Oneda, Deiago (producer of the smash-hit 'Shade' by IAMDDB), Black Josh, Sleazy F Baby, Rago Loco and Fiasco.

When quizzed about the next generation, Zed says, “There are guys on the ground - Chunky (contender for Musical Mayor of Manchester, in my humble opinion), Danny ‘Falz’ Fahey from Thirty Pound Gentleman, Pablo Blanquito from Better Days and Trigga from Shadow Demon Coalition - directly assisting the youth coming through, finding them ways of recording for free, helping to break their fall or assist them in their ascent. No-one goes through the door unassisted here. And I'm not talking about managers who can't wait to get artists afloat to earn commission on their work, I'm on about mentors, and lots of them, who only want the best for the artists and for this city.”

In a city full of mentors, Manchester lost one of its finest this year. The incredibly sad, unexpected passing of d’n’b visionary Marcus Intalex was felt right across the world. “He was a facilitator for Manchester music from day one,” says Zed. “His music, and his record label Soul:r, transcended musical and geographical borders, and helped artists like DRS, Fox, Chimpo, Skittles, Dub Phizix, Strategy and Tyler Daley, to name a few. Now these guys are the dons, and they are leading the new lot through.”

Dub Phizix, one of those working to continue Marcus’s legacy, agrees: “Marcus was the catalyst for everything we’re seeing now. He created a culture of support in the city where helping people became the natural thing to do. Now that’s been the state (of things) for a few years, we’re starting to reap the rewards.”

Watch out world - Manchester’s just getting started.

Mark O'Donnell is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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