London is in the midst of a cold snap. It’s early March and snowstorms have punctuated the past week, burying February in a shroud of pallid frost and maintaining an icy grip in the approach to spring. Perfect conditions, then, for a party helmed by Beneath, the artist Keysound Records boss Blackdown once credited as pioneering a style of music called “sub zero rollage”.
The English capital has ground to a predictable halt in the wintry weather. Public transport is in a worse state than usual, offices have shut early to give home counties commuters a fighting chance of escaping the Zone 6 perimeter. But tonight, 150 people brave the lows of minus three and venture to a south London industrial estate in the shadow of Millwall FC’s feared stadium The Den to dance at the eleventh edition of No Symbols.
Advance tickets are sold out; limited numbers held back for the door. Huddled hopefuls queue with faces broadcasting both excitement and grim determination at securing entry. The sounds of Beneath acting as hype man over Chloe Freida’s dark and atmospheric opening set filter out of the doorway tantalisingly: “Cõvco back-to-back Lee Gamble later, fucking hell that will be a large one!”.
No Symbols started life as a label back in 2012, providing an outlet for Beneath to release his rousing takes on UK soundsystem music. In November 2015 he launched a club night under the same name, hosting dances every few months at Peckham spot Rye Wax through to June 2017. After eight, Beneath decided to relocate the party. One bash was held at Stoke Newington’s Haunt club, and the other two at tonight’s venue, its best home yet, Ormside Projects. The DIY space is used for a multitude of events. In early 2017 it was set up as a temporary sauna and spa, hosting functions ranging from a sex club for self-defining women and non-binary people to novella readings. The ability to precisely tailor the venue was a key draw for Beneath. Rye Wax was a happy first home, but he’s a stickler for “the little things that can make a big difference” to a party.
“I couldn't be in control as much as I wanted to be,” he says. “I like to keep things fresh and interesting, and challenge myself. [Rye Wax] was safe. I didn't have to pay any money to put it on, and it never felt like a risk, it would always sell out because it's a small venue.” During the final three Peckham parties, he was restless for a change. “I mean, sick parties still, but I just wasn't get as much of a kick out of it as before.”
In Ormside Projects, Beneath found somewhere fully customisable to his keen eye for detail. “I can do everything I want. I wanted a smoke machine and a strobe. Mike [who runs the venue] was like, yeah I'll do that for you, no extra price.” The soundsystem is weighty and can be bolstered with extra stacks, and even the DJ booth can be moved. Tonight, he rejected a suggestion to host it in the middle of the room, but appreciates having the option.
The strobe and smoke makes for an intense atmosphere that complements the bass-loaded sounds being showcased. Beneath takes the reins from Chloe Freida and powers through a rowdy set of slamming percussion, palpitating rhythms and screwface bangers. His face is slightly obscured by a black baseball cap, but a grin is visible as he mixes with infectious verve. Through this, he still finds occasions to get on the mic and send out entertaining shouts that spread smiles among the dancefloor. A fraught, spring-loaded club track is interrupted with a quick: “Hold tight me missus!”.
No Symbols is no place for po-faced chinstrokers. It’s a party for headsy music fans, certainly, but ones that aren’t afraid to show they’re having a good time. And Beneath’s focus on the detail that counts always fosters high spirits. In the midst of a rolling techno track, you catch people breaking from their dancefloor trance and pissing themselves with laughter because the DJ is cracking gags or holding an amplified conversation with a friend. Beneath’s command of the mic has become a staple of No Symbols, and while he’s just, in his own words, “chatting shit”, it makes for an environment that feels inclusive, with no separation between the booth and the crowd.
“People have come up to me and said it really brings people in. I'm happy it does that. I just try and create some connection between people playing the music, myself and the crowd,” says Beneath. “I just do it for the jokes really, and to add something else to the nights.”
A shout about “rabbit stew in East Dulwich” is followed by "hold tight the vegans”. Bemused grins ripple around the room. Beneath is thriving in the moment, fully comfortable in the buoyant atmosphere he’s created, but puts his hands over his face and laughs self-consciously days later when explaining the reference - a recent butchers visit he returned home from with a rabbit to the dismay of his girlfriend. Despite not approving of the choice, she cooked him an “amazing rabbit stew”. “I don't know why that came into my head,” he ponders. The latter shout was the effect of spotting his friend and fellow DJ re:ni in the crowd: “She's a vegan and she was at the front, so I was like oh shit I better big up vegans.” Beneath’s all bets are off stewardship of No Symbols filters through the party, lending an enjoyably offbeat and unpredictable vibe to each event.
In conversation Beneath is similarly instinctual. He’s refreshingly honest and unguarded in his comments - qualities that make the Know We chats with friends and guests of No Symbols he publishes online some of the most compelling interviews in dance music. He approaches promoting in a similarly candid fashion. The weekend before No Symbols #11 he posted on the event wall: “if I offered you guest list at a house party on friday whilst I was buzzin I retract my offer. buy a ticket and do it soon”. He also takes a characteristic tone with more serious issues such as dancefloor harassment, which he backs up with diligent care and attentiveness. Posters emblazoned with the message “No Symbols = No Slimeballs” are fixed to walls, the event description reads: “please respect all the staff. dickhead manoeuvres are not tolerated. any problems please let the bar staff or security know”.
He requests post-event feedback via email, and makes himself available throughout each party. “A few people have messaged me about incidents the next day and I've got back to them and helped them out as much as possible. Or they've come up to me in the party and we try to sort it out there and then,” he says. Keeping No Symbols low-key and DIY is a way he’s able to maintain control over important matters while still staying true to the vibe he wants to present. “If I was putting thousands of pounds into a club night, I probably wouldn't say 'If you're a dickhead don't come',” he reflects.
Talking to Beneath, real name Ben Walker, you get the impression that following his instinct has been a driving force in his musical pursuits. His route into dance music came aged 14 playing Cream and Gatecrasher trance discs on a school friend’s all-in-one CDJ unit. He became an avid buyer of publications such as Mixmag and DJ Mag, and after reading that “dubstep was the new thing” he immediately bought every volume of ‘Dubstep Allstars’. “I used to rinse them for like two years in my little Peugeot 106 with fucking alloys on,” he laughs. “I actually blew the back windshield once by playing dubstep really loud.”
Growing up in Stoke meant there was little nightlife to speak of. “The scene was Marcus Nasty would play once a year, and I didn't even like Marcus Nasty then.” Obsessive headphone listening became his primary way of experiencing dubstep. “I used to be proper into Benga. His music is ingrained into my brain, because I'd go out on a Saturday, get fucked up and not go anywhere, just round to my mate's house and listen to Benga's Essential Mix, zoning out with my headphones in,” he recalls. “Everyone else was having banter, I was just sitting there like ‘You should check out this guy Benga!’,” he says, leaning back mimicking a raised headphone voice and intoxicated trance. “They'd put it on and be like, ‘the fuck's this?’”. Upon reading that Benga and Skream used Fruity Loops to make dubstep, he got his hands on a copy and started experimenting.
Moving to Sheffield to study Film Production at university, Walker found himself in a city with a bustling clubbing scene. Plug, Tuesday Club and Dillinja's Valve soundsystem-powered raves became regular haunts, despite a lack of interest from his student peers. “Out of all the people that lived in my halls area, there was only one person that would come with me to all these events,” he says. “I used to buy like four tickets and say: ‘I got tickets to this sick rave if anyone wants to come?", and everyone would say no.”
Another effect of going to university was a student loan in his bank account, which he used to start No Symbols, the label. His tracks had been getting some airplay on Rinse and Deja Vu FM, and inspired by DMZ’s approach of putting out white labels, he decided “fuck it, I’m just gonna do it”. The debut 12” showcased four tracks meeting at an ice-cold intersection between funky and dubstep, laying bass-submerged 4/4 rhythms over precise percussion. Beneath soon drew wider attention, getting tapped for releases by Keysound, Tectonic and experimental label PAN in the following couple of years. The latter outing ‘Vobes’ marked a shift in his sound to weirder territory, and a stray away from functionality has persevered through his releases since.
"I don't want you playing no dry fucking Berlin techno!"
In the press release for ‘No Symbols 006’ he wrote of B1 cut ‘Cack’: “I’ll be shocked if you ever hear this in a club unless it’s me playing it. But even then I’ll still be shocked that I played the fucking thing. Why am I releasing this again?”. Although he jokes, it’s clear Beneath has a confident vision of what he wants to do musically. He uses friends and peers such as Batu and Laksa as sounding boards for feedback, but tends to go with his gut regardless: “Most of the time I'm just like, you don't know what you're on about mate. I'm just gonna do it anyway.” This mindset fuels a discography that brims with individuality. He cites Ricardo Villalobos as an influence, and while we’re not expecting any 37 minute minimal epics on No Symbols any time soon, you can trace a similar aim of spinning people out on the dancefloor through Beneath’s productions and the way he warps vocal samples.
In 2014 he launched a second label called Mistry, primarily to showcase music from new artists he felt were being overlooked, taking a similarly self-assured approach. The inaugural record came from Alex Coulton, fronted with the track ‘Bleep Sequence’. “I fucking love that tune; to me it sounds nuts still. But I'd never heard anyone else play it or mention it, so I thought, if no one else is playing it, no one else is talking about it, I can do something with this tune,” he says. “In hindsight, is that a good way to think about things? You should be releasing music people care about!” he adds with a self-deprecating laugh. But there’s no denying he’s been successful in his intentions for the imprint. Four out of the first eight releases - Webstarr, Laksa, Gaunt and Kailin - were artist debuts, and the former three have gone on to release on labels such as Timedance, Ilian Tape, Midland’s InterGraded and THEM. “That means more to me than just releasing music by established people. Even though it's not best for sales, and bringing attention. I feel it will be good looking back that Mistry is where these people cut their teeth and experimented early on, because that's when you can create some really interesting ideas.”
The Kailin release ‘Fracture’, an eight-track album of emotionally-drenched and anxious ambient soundscapes, marked the first full-length project on Mistry. At the time he had a P&D deal - in which the distributor foots the bill for a release and profits are split - with Boomkat, who suggested doing an LP. Beneath was all for it. “It had all been club tracks, 12 inches. I wanted to do something on a wider scale,” he says. The deal has since expired, and he’s now funding the label from his own pocket, working full-time as a vinyl broker in Soho. He intends to keep releasing music with scope that stretches beyond the dancefloor, and not settle into a comfort zone. “I want to do something with a bit more meaning behind it. But creating that meaning in, or applying it to, electronic music can be a bit vague sometimes,” he says. “And then, most people are probably like ‘fuck off’ anyway. I don't get it when people say electronic music and politics are not connected, when club culture is built out of social revolution.”
Currently, throwing club nights is Beneath’s main focus, driven by his perpetual itch to progress and offer something new. “Records are static, once you put them out that’s it, they’re there forever. People can find them in 100 years,” he says. “I like when something’s there and then it's gone. A party is there and then it disappears.”
In these transient six hour sessions, he’s able to present one-off experiences that only survive in fragmented memory, allowing plenty of space for experimentation. Booking the debut Cõvco back-to-back Lee Gamble set at No Symbols #11 proves to be inspired programming. Their tandem session is as explosive as promised, bringing sweat-soaked pace from start to finish. Footwork rhythms surge into weighty sub-bass that shatters into broken noise, the vocal from Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Cut ‘Em Off’ emerges from the chaos. Strobing light adds to the heady concoction and the crowd loses it, then lose it in another sense when Beneath pipes up on the mic: “Put a donk on it, hold tight the donkeys!”.
Before he lived London, Beneath always planned to move to the city and eventually start a club night, but in time it became a necessity. After an initial few years of steady gigging at spots such as fabric, The Waiting Room and Corsica Studios, his bookings slowed down. No Symbols became a way to keep playing in London and to keep supporting new music, in a setting that fits his scrupulous standards. At first, he admits to being slightly too demanding in his aim: “I used to email the DJs a few days before being like: ‘Listen, you better play as much unreleased stuff as you can. I don't want you playing no dry fucking Berlin techno!’”.
Since then he’s eased off, and cultivated a party defined by an easygoing, familial atmosphere. The line-up doesn’t get announced until a few days before, meaning a pool of regulars snap up most of the tickets. “I want people to come down for the music and the vibe. I want people to come to No Symbols because it's No Symbols,” he says. DJs are paid evenly by splitting the profits, which are modest as ticket prices rarely exceed a tenner. And the flyer art for each party stars snaps of No Symbols punters in party poses, blowing vape smoke or pulling faces. “I love the image of someone sticking their tongue out. I wanted that as a logo. I was going to have a little illustrated tongue, and then my girlfriend was like: ‘What like The Rolling Stones?’,” he says, pausing ruefully. “That's their fucking logo isn't it.”
Still, he hasn’t let The Rolling Stones stop him from using tongue-out portraits to decorate multiple flyers. By always following his vision, doing what he loves, Beneath has carved out a space for himself, his artistic peers and dancers alike to express themselves in environments that are liberating and fun.
A second back-to-back set, this time from TSVI and Wallwork, closes out No Symbols #11, keeping the stamina crew firing on all cylinders ‘til the 6am close. An electronic decibel counter glimmers at the rear of the smoky room, flickering on the verge of 100 dB as the duo power through raucous selections. A peak is hit as Benga and Coki’s monstrous dubstep classic ‘Night’ is pulled out, sending the room into raptures, and no doubt taking Beneath back to those earphones locked-in sessions in Stoke. He’s come a long way since then, but his compulsion towards musical exhilaration has been a constant throughout.
Via Maris’ ‘Shelleys’ and Beneath’s ‘Special Offer / Kushty’ are out now on Mistry, purchase them via Bandcamp
Catch Beneath in Room 2 at Ben UFO’s XOYO residency on June 1
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Staff Writer, follow him on Twitter