A thick haze of smoke spreads across the dancefloor as neon lights rhythmically scan from above. You could be in any number of clubs on any number of nights in any number of cities, countries or continents. But pop out into the smoking area and you quickly realise where you are, as the London Eye and Savoy Hotel loom into view. Once crowned ‘Britain’s Ugliest Building’ (back in 1967, and in a poll of Daily Mail readers), tonight the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre offers a stunning setting for electronic beats.
The brutalist behemoth has evolved into the UK’s largest arts centre, expanding across 17 acres. Its venues host everything from opera concerts to graduation ceremonies: it even managed to fit in an all-day Q&A session with the Dalai Lama. And it’s showcased innovative and experimental electronic music, particularly from female artists, for over half a century. In 1968, Queen Elizabeth Hall hosted the first London Concert of Electronic Music by British Composers, featuring live performances from Radiophonic Workshop luminaries Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire.
Fifty years on and female electronic experimentation has returned to Queen Elizabeth Hall via Concrete Lates, the Southbank Centre’s new monthly electronic dance music night, typically running until 2am. According to Bengi Unsal, Senior Contemporary Music Programmer, the inspiration behind Concrete Lates is the centre’s long-standing reputation for pushing experimental electronic music made by pioneering women.
The Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room closed as part of refurbishment work in 2015, including the foyer area that now houses Concrete Lates. “[We] opened it out, added a bar, polished up our famous concrete and brought in dramatic new lights and an incredible soundsystem,” says Unsal. “As soon as I saw it, I could see the potential for something we’ve never had before”.
Having started just five months ago following the reopening of the spaces, Concrete Lates has already worked with an extensive list of partners, including Hyperdub and Shiva Feshareki. “I hope to do more of this,” says Unsal, “working with major players in the scene to support the superb talent in underground electronic music out there right now.”
No surprise, then, that Unsal reached out to Discwoman – a music collective and booking agency based in New York that exclusively represents women (both cis and trans) and genderqueer artists – to host a night at Concrete Lates, both parties heavily invested in the fight to promote visibility in dance music.
“We wanted to try out a new space after doing some great events at Corsica [Studios],” says Discwoman co-founder Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson. “We think it’s good to change things up a bit and this felt kind of random, and we were into that.” The night reflects this approach, with London-based DJs Kamixlo and Peach joining Discwoman mainstays Shyboi and Umfang (who also co-runs the agency): “We love booking people we know, and both Kamixlo and Peach we’d known and admired previously, so it made sense,” says Frankie.
Last year, Umfang told Mixmag that the agency was looking to break up its artists and have them represented as themselves in the wake of promoters cashing in on marketing-driven collective bookings. But, Hutchinson clarifies, “we still throw Discwoman parties – we just don’t want our acts to only be booked within the confines of Discwoman events; we want to push people to learn and book the artists we represent as individuals as they’re all vastly different and we want to celebrate that”.
True enough; the showcase is refreshingly diverse and each act brings their own distinct approach behind the decks. Kamixlo’s set is not so much a warm-up as a dip into the baking depths of hell, the Bala Club boss dropping a remix of ‘Say It Right’ in which Nelly Furtado’s saintly vocals get swamped in febrile fury. His fierce selections prepare the crowd for Peach’s superb set, which includes o.utlier’s nine-minute romper ‘Eastbound’ and Frank de Wulf’s rowdy remix of Outlander’s R&S classic ‘Vamp’.
As the intensity mounts during Shyboi’s explosive hour, it’s hard to avoid the stark contrast between clubby music and un-clubby date and time. As a result, attendees look either fully committed – the night “knows what it is but it doesn’t give a fuck”, according to one particularly eager partygoer – or a little confused, but this uncertainty feeds into the energy of the party. Some balloons get bashed about in jubilation to Cardi B’s ‘Money Bag’, while a figure ghosts across the foyer in a long brown coat and shin-level white cowboy boot-style Air Max, as if Columbo had made a pit stop in Foot Locker.
Umfang nails the peak-time slot, every battle-tested track giving another defibrillator shock to a crowd that seems like it could actually keep going for another few hours. Couples hold hands and lock lips during some Umfang-spun belters, the glitchy lights transforming them into loved-up 8bit sprites.
The four-hour running time is a gift and curse. Longer sets from the DJs would be great, but as a showcase, it offers a taster of what each artist brings to a club on a weekly basis. The Southbank Centre adds another string to its bow by hosting a collective every bit as engaging and important as itself, a night that demonstrates the power of Discwoman while reasserting the Centre’s reputation as a true hub of female electronic creativity.
James Ball is freelance writer, follow him on Twitter