2008 Anno Domini / Year of the Rat will be remembered as a difficult one for China in general. Its effects were felt by all, including those involved in Shanghai’s numerous musical scenes. It was a year in which artists, promoters and fans had to deal with even more obstacles and barriers than usual in their quest to generate culture and make the whole metropolis live up to its reputation as one of Asia’s most dynamic and happening cities.
This was just about achieved, against all the odds. Spiraling real estate costs in the city pushed up rents and in turn drink and admission prices, and the revolving door of new venues continuously opening and closing every weekend spun at dizzying pace, confusing punters and making it harder for established spots to develop their regular crowds.
These problems, of course, carried over from the previous couple of years. However, 2008 had some fresh shenanigans up its sleeve. The Chinese bureaucracy spider went into Olympics overdrive, furiously spinning a complex web of red tape in which many of the creative community became hopelessly entangled. Strict new visa rules came into effect in May, and since so few had “real jobs”, many had no choice but to bail as expiry dates neared, either to France, or friendly neighbouring Asian states. This meant that Shanghai, whose nightlife is generally more bustling in the summer, was somewhat dusty and cobweb-ridden from July onwards, at least for foreign-frequented venues anyway. But a few cunning underground flies did manage to evade the trap and create a real buzz.
The start of the year began in ominous fashion, when DKD, one of Shanghai’s long standing clubs, and one of the first to bring international Djs to the city, closed in January. DKD had led a pioneering role in Shanghai’s electronic music scene since 1999 when Maoming Lu was the only place in town to be. Later moving to a basement on Huai Hai Zhong Lu, it hosted top names such as Nick Warren, Carl Cox and Armin Van Buuren. Not personal favourites of this Shanghaiist by any means but DKD laid the foundations and introduced the city to electronic music culture and for that alone its closure is regretted. It was a Shanghai institution. Somewhat ironically, it succumbed because it stopped blazing a trail and changed itself to try to follow trends. It closed down for a period in 2007 for a makeover which served only to alienate some of its old fans and fail to capture the dice-shaking, hip-hop demographic deemed necessary for survival. Local DJ Carl Lorimer documents the the rise and fall of DKD in an excellent article on Smart Shanghai.
In many ways, it was superceeded by Bon Bon, who this year brought a steady diet of big name DJs from the world of mainstream Hip Hop and dance, although it too was hit by mysterious closures during the Olympic period. Bon Bon also deserves kudos for giving local Drum and Bass crew, Phreaktion, the chance to shine, who brought some of the biggest names from the genre to the city, such as Goldie, LTJ Bukem and Dieselboy, to name a few.
Also closing within weeks of DKD was Mint, which shocked many as it was previously always a safe bet at the weekend for some house music and a busy dancefloor. Around about the same time, 4Live, the successor to the ill-fated Tanghui venues, also bit the dust, which meant a loss for both the live and electronic music scenes. The more upmarket Bund venues were not safe either. Attica, a seemingly well-established nightclub which offered punters unparalled views of the Lujiazui skyline to gaze upon whilst posing the night away, sent out an SOS when they started hosting open deck nights where anyone could turn up and play. Sure enough, it closed soon afterwards in September.
But 2008 was the year when the electronic and alternative scenes finally established themselves after a few years of bouncing around between different venues which were often not fit for purpose. Of course much of this had to do with the emergence of The Shelter as Shanghai’s epicentre of alternative and underground music. Its instant success underlined the fact that such a venue should have been established years earlier. Instead short-termism ruled and investors couldn’t resist the lure of further saturating the top end of the market, chasing the perceived easy money formula of over-priced drinks, swanky bars, and places to be “seen”. Whilst 2008 saw no let-up in the furious pace of new spots opening up, venue owners realised the need to offer something different to survive in such a competitive market. The Shelter thus helped develop the alternative scene, which ultimately benefited other venues too, such as Logo (Ben Huang’s Yellow night), Anar (Andreas Franco’s Minimal Therapy), Cs Bar (Antidote) and The Hut, all known to host various electronic music events from time to time. The somewhat paradoxically-named Windows Underground also opened its doors, dropping its original plans to serve the starved live music scene to offer the dance crowd yet more options. It since appears to have reverted to the standard Windows formula of cheap booze and good times.
The Shelter however had a great first year, despite the venue itself being forced to close during August for absurd Olympics-related security reasons. In terms of the musical goings-on, The Shelter provided locally-based and native Shanghainese DJs a solid platform on which to provide the city with proper beats. The Lab Crew dropped the real hip-hop, Uprooted Sunshine continued to be one of the few, if not the only, reggae soundsystem in China, and the Sweatshop brought bass-heavy music with innovative nights from the likes of Macau dubstep producer N1D. Void brought Detroit Techno legend Robert Hood to China for the first time, who demonstrated how to move an entire dancefloor at 138bpm with consumate ease. Their other big guest of the year, DJ Bone, did likewise, whilst ruffling a few feathers with an underground outburst on Shanghaiist which in turn created ripples in the global dance music press. New promoters Free the Wax were a welcome additon to the promoter scene, bringing a fresh approach and memorable nights from the likes of Harmonic 313 and James Pants, who will probably be remembered as the first performer of karaoke at The Shelter. Local Shanghainese producer and founding member of the Antidote crew B6 held a very successful release party of his new album, “Post Haze“. He was just one of the many indigenous producers and DJs championed by Antidote, who continued to strive to connect the laowai and local electronic music crowds. Meanwhile, 2008 witnessed another passing of sorts, with the final Micro party, after being a fixture on the Shanghai scene at various venues for more than three years with their imaginative themes and devotion to the minimal sound.
The best way of summing up 2008 and looking forward to 2009 is to quote Gang Star’s DJ Premier.
“Underground will live forever, baby! We just like roaches: never dyin’, always livin’. And on that note, lets get back to the program.”
The author of this post is a member of Void Shanghai