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Rhythm Section: Exporting house music from Peckham to the World

The South London party and label has become an international force to be reckoned with

  • Words: Aurora Mitchell | Photography: Vicky Grout
  • 21 February 2017

Wandering through Elephant And Castle Shopping Centre on a winter evening trying to find the legendary Palace Superbowl, I bump into Rhythm Section founder Bradley Zero, alongside NTS host and Honest Jon’s employee Zakia Sewell and YAM Records’ Theo Kozlowski. Striding towards the bowling lanes, we meet more of Rhythm Section and settle down cosily in a huge, purple velvet sofa that looks like it’s been lifted straight from a theatre. Everyone chats among themselves, drinking from huge jugs of beer, laughing and ridiculing each other over topics such as who has the best cheese game. As the entire core team gathers as well as some of the label’s artists – FYI Chris and half of Chaos In The CBD are present – it’s apparent just how busy everyone involved in the South London label/party has become. Various members have come straight here from planes or are gearing up to fly halfway across the world.

As we take over two bowling lanes, everyone is relaxed and at ease with each another, people laughing and filming as Label Manager Anu and Beans of Chaos In The CBD cross arms to try and drink from one another’s beer. A request for bumpers for the lanes resounds through the room and events manager Mali retorts: “Bumpers up? It’s like hitting the sync button on a CDJ!”

Rhythm Section may be a Peckham-based operation with a run of form that’s bringing it to worldwide recognition but most of all, it’s a family. While it’s grown from and maintained close-knit roots, Rhythm Section is one of the most in-demand and talked about parties across London – a roadblock event with a large queue every two weeks whether the guest DJ is world-renowned or new in the game. It’s also a record label (complete with its own newly-minted sub-label, International Black), releasing a host of local and global talent at the forefront of underground house music (and beyond).

It all started in late 2011 at Canavan’s Pool Club at the end of Peckham’s Rye Lane. It’s not your typical London club setting: half of the inside is a venue, with wooden floors and décor that transports you back to being at a youth club, and the other half is a room full of pool tables, used seven nights a week by the area’s hotshots. Bradley Zero had been playing with friends down the road at Bar Story but the venue’s early closing time of 10pm was stunting the flow of their sets so he managed to relocate to Canavan’s, which has a much later licence. Zero felt that his vision was something that was lacking from Peckham at the time. “There was just a few big warehouse raves here and there which is all well and good,” he says as we sit talking in The Peckham Pelican café, a couple of months after we meet for bowling. “But I wanted something a bit more intimate and a community of people who appreciated the same thing and trusted that it was going to be friendly and interesting and new.”

In its first year alone, Rhythm Section had Funkineven, Bill Kouligas and Beautiful Swimmers play sets down at the pool hall. “For us, and a lot of people like us in the States, we used to not even have good club options for events, so we would do the same thing as Bradley – holler at some seemingly random place to see if we could get down in the back, after they were closed,” says Max D of Beautiful Swimmers. “The first time we played, I remember Mali, who now works for Rhythm Section, was up front writing the names of tunes on his arm with a marker because he was so psyched on them.” As it snowballed and rapidly gained momentum over the next couple of years, with a crowd that was largely a mix between heads and the student population of South East London, the vibe and ethos of the night remained untainted. “I never felt like I was trying to build it up to the point where it was always full or profitable or selling out. It just kinda happened quite early on,” Bradley Zero says. “I realised that people came for the party rather than the names, which was always the idea.”

There’s never been a strict music policy when it comes to Rhythm Section. You can hear soul, disco, acid, techno and kuduro in the same night. Keeping an open mind is key to being in attendance and if you go into the dance expecting something in particular, you may end up leaving disappointed. The only music policy comes down to being on the other side of the decks. Everyone who plays at Rhythm Section must strictly work with 100 per cent vinyl. While that may raise questions in terms of cultivating an atmosphere of elitism and exclusivity behind the decks, it was a choice that was made due to not having CDJs to work with at the time that the party started.

And Bradley Zero only has two rules for you to keep in mind: “One is be nice and the second is no phones on the dancefloor.“ Everyone and anyone is welcome and at most Rhythm Sections, you’re likely to bump into an excited first timer in the queue who heard about the night through a friend and has no idea who’s playing. There’s a particular atmosphere once inside that could best be described as romantic: friends dance intimately and couples and strangers unite on the dancefloor, warm smiles spreading across their faces as whoever’s playing switches from selection to selection behind a booth where a neon sign with the letters SE15, Peckham’s postcode, flashes brightly. There’s by no means a shortage of wild memories from the night. Anu describes a particularly memorable moment: “Once a guy got carried out of Canavan’s for taking his top off.” There have even been RS family members getting involved.“Some ridiculous things have happened… Bradley’s dad DJing on the night Whitney Houston died,” Mali says.

The bimonthly parties have ushered in a whole new group of small, community-run night and day businesses in Peckham that have branched out from the monolith of arts and music space Bussey Building. Rye Wax has established as a club and record shop and taco spot, with both members of Rhythm Section affiliates FYI Chris working in the basement, supplying personal recommendations for records and chat behind the counter. Record shop and in-store spot YAM popped up in a shopping arcade down the street, with multiple RS favourites and regulars becoming involved in the shop including Chaos In The CBD’s Beans. Both shops are two of the first ports of call if you’re looking to pick up some new Rhythm Section on wax.

Label Manager Anu first met Bradley Zero at one of the Rhythm Section nights, a long time before she was in contact with him about becoming part of the operation. “After going to the night with Sassy J in January, I spoke to Bradley about how it would be great to see more female DJs at RS,” she tells me. “He told me that it needed to start from the core and within the team so I told him to hire me… And he did.” Since she started in March 2016, they’ve booked Shanti Celeste and Jayda G. The latter felt like a particularly special moment. Her lively and positive energy and spirit is the epitome of what Rhythm Section is about. On that night, Jayda occasionally made her way into the crowd, dancing with people as a permanent grin swept across her face. People were hugging and creating dance circles and whispering to each other in a non-obtrusive way about tracks being played. That’s how clubbing in London should be.

Back in 2014, Zero made the decision to expand the night into an endeavour that would give devoted fans something tangible to possess. The eponymously-titled label started with an album fittingly called ‘Rye Lane Volume 1’ by South East London local Al Dobson Jr. It set the tone for a label that now specialises in nocturnal, introspective house with jazz keys and live percussion. The connection to Peckham is just as heavily felt via record – with two records coming one after the other from Henry Wu and Chaos In The CBD titled ‘Good Morning Peckham’ and ‘Midnight In Peckham’. While ‘Rye Lane Volume 1’ solidified a vibe from the start, Zero feels it’s these two records that really cemented Rhythm Section International, to use its full name, as a label. It's now 20 releases deep and broke in to the top 10 of Mixmag's Labels Of The Year in 2016.

The visual identity has also been a really important part of the imprint – each release comes with artwork of a shadowed man holding up a Rhythm Section logo and the record title in bold lettering. The template is masterminded by Jack J of Vancouver house duo Pender Street Steppers, who’ve made strong links and friendships with the Rhythm Section family. “No one had really heard of Mood Hut when I first brought them over,” Zero tells me.

Behind the scenes of the label, Anu works on everything from design to promotion to distribution - occasionally enlisting Mali’s help. Mali works on A&R for the label as well as being Events Manager. His start comes from being “probably the greatest Rhythm Section fan boy who used to lie, beg and steal to go to the dances.” Completing the core unit is Emily, Team Assistant and a burgeoning DJ in her own right. As Bradley Zero starts to travel further afield more often, Mali, Anu and Emily are playing a more prominent part in the future of Rhythm Section. When we meet, I ask whether Zero’s extensive touring schedule means he would think about taking a back seat with his role at Rhythm Section at any point, his answer being no. “I’ve got a good team now to help that machine tick over while I’m away. It’s not about me taking the Bradley Zero show on the road, it’s more of an extension of what we do.”

Rhythm Section has just turned half a decade old and it’s become something much bigger than the South East London borough of Peckham. Australia in particular has become a focal point, with a large majority of Rhythm Section’s bookings coming from down under. It just came naturally to Zero for it to be skewed that way. One of the label’s most successful records, 'Midnight In Peckham', comes from two New Zealand natives who moved to Peckham. They quickly managed to capture the atmosphere and bottle it into 4 tracks that transport you to the feeling of walking down Rye Lane alone in the dark. “Australia’s become a home from home and there are more plans to take that vibe to different places around the country and cities in the world,” states Zero. Rhythm Section has always drawn from worldwide talent but the operation itself is moving beyond that pool hall in the far corner on Rye Lane.

While we sit and chat, Bradley reveals that the regular parties are no longer going to be held at Canavan’s Pool Hall – instead, they're going to be upscaled slightly and will take place at Bussey Building. There are no concrete plans put in place yet after that but Bradley mentions that the Colombian in Elephant And Castle is on their radar as another place to host a Rhythm Section party.

For the fifth anniversary in Autumn last year though, their usual spot of Canavan’s is exactly where they partied, with Session Victim as their guests. “Being sprayed with champagne at the 5th birthday was pretty wild,” Anu recounts, this time sitting at a long booth in Camberwell’s Silk Road restaurant the week of that celebration with a large part of the Rhythm Section family and extended family members. Everyone clinks bottles as a cheers to celebrate coming so far. Talking to Mali after, he delivers three words that have come to summarise Rhythm Section so well: “Strength in unity.”

Aurora Mitchell is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter here

Vicky Grout is a freelance photographer and regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow her on Twitter here

Hear a six-hour recording from Rhythm Section's fifth birthday below

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