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90s Free Party House

Joe Muggs is a journalist, writer and DJ who has written for The Guardian, the Telegraph, FACT, Mixmag, and the Wire.


Think about illegal raves and free parties and it’s very possible you imagine deliriously hammering beats, and perhaps rightly so. After all, post the initial wave of acid house, big events – whether in squatted warehouses or out in the wilderness – tended to the hardcore. The sound system name that made the biggest headlines was of course Spiral Tribe with their gabber, hardcore, Mad Max aesthetic and apocalyptic cyberpunk sloganeering. And by the end of the 90s, things got so relentlessly uptempo and crusty that it wasn’t that unlikely for a free party to feature – in the title of a Spymania Records pisstake song – “8 Rigs of Trance”.

But there was another side to the scene. There were plenty of crews who were equally anti-establishment, equally deranged, but with significantly more funk and subtlety. People From Pepperbox, Sugarlump, Tonka, Eze Love, Paradox, Positive Sounds, Freebass, Smokescreen, Slack, Lazy House, Deep Cartel, Sunnyside, Offshore State Circus and, most famously, DiY: all specialised in deep hypnotic grooves, lush soul chords, heartstring-plucking vocals, 303 lines that sang instead of shrieking… in HOUSE. Even sound systems generally known as more banging like Circus Warp and Bedlam at various points dug deep into house music – and it was magical. There is no feeling on earth like watching the sun come up over the English countryside with a few hundred special friends as the piano line of a real deal house record surges in.


Nobody can say for sure where the free party scene began. Acid house involved plenty of illegal partying and had plenty of hippies, punks and other subcultural scoundrels involved from the beginning. Already existing psychedelic party organisations like Sugarlump and Club Dog quickly knitted it into squat/festival culture in clubs, and Salisbury crew (and inspiration for DiY) People From Pepperbox were purportedly the first to play acid house on a traveller site. By the time Sugarlump and multiple other soundsystems put on weekend long non stop raving sessions at Glastonbury 89, something distinct was underway – then as 1990 and 91 went on and rave became hardcore, people started reacting against it, with a desire for something funkier and more intimate.

“We were house purists,” says Harry Harrison, DiY founder and lately the author of Dreaming in Yellow: The Story of DiY Soundsystem; “having been listening to the original house coming out of America which never went over 125 bpm and which was created to create joy and euphoria. We never had a problem with the original techno coming from Detroit, mind, but when hardcore emerged around 1991, it just seemed designed to be unpleasant, not joyous.” Murf Woram of Bedlam had been part of the pre-acid London house scene going back to 1985, and says “One of the main reasons we started up Bedlam was to focus on something other than the hardcore, and build a sound that was built for real techno. Turns out that good house music sounded wicked on our rig too... I would often start playing house at 8am when things got murky and deep and keep on all day.”

Some even went further in the reaction against the hardcore. Dido from Brighton’s Slack crew would play soul and R&B in the backroom of parties, and she recalls at a Slack party in London, a main room DJ abruptly stopping a house tune and dropping into Phyllis Nelson ‘Move Closer’ as an emblematic magic moment. Like many she found a connection to the churchy and communitarian values of house music at a time when rave was bringing people together in the UK: “a musicality that spoke of inclusion and reverence for something bigger than individualism, which politically speaking was the climate at the time. It was a medicine of possibility from other worlds. An elixir of truth outside of our little island. The actual lyrics, not just the music, always made a huge difference for me, and still do. They still sing inside me.” There was an alchemy that took place between the deep soul roots of the music, the “on a mission” ethos of rave, and the anarchic punk / hippie backgrounds of many of the protagonists in the sound systems.


And this house magic rang through some of the most lastingly important gatherings of the early 90s. Recordings of DiY at Castlemorton Common show a sound that’s distinctly British, distinctly of the rave era, shot through with the shuffling beats, organ and piano riffs of the house and garage of Chicago, New York, New Jersey and Detroit. At the Criminal Justice Bill protests of 1994 – which saw tens of thousands of ravers cavorting through central London and having it in Hyde Park – Positive Sounds’s distinctive white speaker boxes with stars on the grilles blasted out deep and funky house.

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