In the early 2000s, DJs at a club based in a former cutlery works in Sheffield started blending house tracks with speed garage. The style they developed, known as Niche, 4×4 and, finally, bassline, became a phenomenon. The scene’s most famous clubs became legendary while the genre’s leading artists took the sound into the charts. Then it suddenly disappeared.
As musical landmarks go, the Niche nightclub is probably most politely described as unassuming. The now abandoned venue sits on Sidney Street in Sheffield, a snapshot of stereotypical post-industrial Northern grimness. Abandoned steel workshops line both sides of the street, their windows bordered and walls covered in scrawled tags. The building itself is decorated by vicious looking razor wire and cctv cameras. But, as unlikely as it seems now, for a few years in the early to mid 2000s, this same building was a Mecca for Northern dance music.
In its heyday, Niche attracted a crowd drawn from all over Yorkshire, from across the Pennines in Lancashire and up from the Midlands. People made their way from Leicester, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester to spend their weekends in this former warehouse on a Sheffield back street. Niche’s status grew out of it’s reputation as the birthplace and focal point of a vibrant music scene that swept through the region and captured the imaginations of a generation of producers and fans in the area.
Bassline, as the genre that emerged from Niche became known, took the sound of the London-centric garage scene and instilled its own flavour. Young artists from provincial towns far from the capital drove the music forwards, churning out tracks from bedrooms in South Yorkshire, Dewsbury and Huddersfield. Their music provided the soundtrack to a thriving rave scene that turned run down industrial estates into destinations worth travelling miles for.
Ultimately though, bassline burnt itself out quickly. Plagued by a reputation for attracting violence and drugs, the clubs the scene was built on struggled to keep the doors open. After briefly expanding in to the clubs of Ayia Napa and the UK charts, the genre rapidly retreated back to obscurity.
Today the scene has been largely forgotten outside of its birthplace, written off as a short lived 00s fad in the same vein as New Rave. Others sneer at it as little more than a poppy Northern rip off of garage. But love it or hate it, bassline represents the best of British music culture. With no more than a handful of producers sharing their music online and a few clubs like Niche, bassline provided a sound and identity for a region.
The story of bassline’s early days is really the story of Niche. Opened in 1992 by local promoter Steve Baxendale, the club started as an attempt to bring warehouse rave culture, then thriving around the country thanks to acid house, to South Yorkshire. A fixture of Sheffield’s underground club scene throughout the 90s, the club’s rise to prominence really started in the early 2000s. By this time, Niche had embraced the garage sound coming out of London, putting on raves blending UKG with house and attracting a multiracial crowd.
But while while down south the trend began moving away from the upbeat style of garage towards the darker sounds of grime and early dubstep, a new movement started emerging around Niche. Around 2003 the club began developing it’s own signature sound. Bassline is often categorised as a derivative of garage but Niche owner Steve Baxendale dismissed this as an oversimplification. In a 2007 interview with RWD, he argued it was at least as influenced by house. Taking elements from house, speed garage and UKG, bassline was, at it’s name suggests, defined by heavy bass and a jumpy energy. Female vocals also featured heavily.
While grime was booming on pirate radio in London, bassline stepped in to the gap left by garage’s decline. While the genres that emerged from UKG seemed to be moving out of the clubs in the capital, bassline took the dance floor friendly feel of garage and built on it. In contrast to it’s more menacing southern cousins, the Niche sound had a broader appeal. The music was energetic and made for the club, attracting a young, mixed crowd. Nights at Niche began to take on legendary status. The crowds grew rapidly as fans from beyond Sheffield and Yorkshire started making their way to the club.
By the mid 2000s, Niche, as the genre was often dubbed, had outgrown it’s namesake. The sound, alternatively known as Niche or 4×4 before ultimately being labelled bassline, had spread beyond it’s birthplace. Leeds became a focal point of the scene, home to a number of dedicated nights and some of it’s leading producers such at t2 and DJ Q from nearby Huddersfield.
The midlands was also quick to embrace bassline, with nights springing up in Birmingham and Leicester.
Niche’s supremacy in the scene was also being challenged by an even more unlikely rival. Sheridan’s was another warehouse turned club on an industrial estate in the West Yorkshire town of Dewsbury. The club’s decks stood in a makeshift wooden hut, where DJs played to heaving crowds behind a chicken wire screen. The dingy surroundings didn’t discourage the genre’s leading artists and legions of fans from travelling there though, as seen in Dazed’s recent documentary on the scene. Bassline DJ, Paleface, even argues that it was Sheridan’s, not Niche, where the scene really exploded.
The atmosphere in Sheridans encapsulated bassline’s appeal. Described by t2 in the Dazed documentary as “like the wild, wild west,” the club was a joyously chaotic venue, enthusiastically built around a homegrown scene. The crowd at Sheridan’s was inclusive. The party vibe was more appealing to women than the aggressive, hyper masculinity of grime or dubstep while white, black and Asian youth from across Yorkshire and beyond mixed at the venue. Bassline represented a return to an uninhibited rave scene, something that had been conspicuously missing after the glory days of the garage scene.
While bassline thrived on the back of this new popularity and club’s found their rooms packed every weekend, the success came with a price. Niche began to attract gangs from outside Sheffield, keen to capitalise on the profits to be made from supplying drugs to the growing crowds. This inevitably brought conflict between rival groups which in turn brought police attention. In 2004 a man was shot in the stomach in a drive-by outside the club. South Yorkshire Police increasingly viewed Niche and bassline music in general as a problem.
Unfortunately, the trouble wasn’t confined to Niche or Sheffield either. Later that year, 23 year old Michael Hanley was shot dead outside Sheridan’s. Hanley was a massive bassline fan who had been targeted and killed for the gold chain he was wearing by a group of Huddersfield drug dealers.
Sheridan’s continued to thrive despite the killing but bassline’s association with crime brought about the demise of it’s birthplace. On a Saturday night in November 2005, Niche was dramatically raided by 300 police officers and sniffer dogs. 12 arrests were made and the club was permanently shut down under a “crackhouse closure” order. Niche’s owner, Steve Baxendale, has since criticised the police’s heavy handedness. He points to the code name of the raid, “Operation Repatriation,” as evidence of it’s racial overtones. Baxendale still maintains that police singled out Niche because of the black clientele it attracted.
Ironically though, Niche’s closure only seemed to boost the scene’s success. With bassline no longer tied to the club, dedicated nights sprung up in more towns and cities. Sheridan’s was now the premier venue for the music and attracted all the scenes biggest artists to one place. No longer the preserve of a small but dedicated fan base willing to travel to Niche, bassline had come to dominate the music scene in much of the north and midlands. The clubs that catered to bassline were packed while those too young to experience them firsthand were busy sharing tracks via bluetooth.
By Summer 2006, bassline was breaking through at British clubbing destinations abroad such as Malia and Ayia Napa. This exposed the scene to people outside the North and caught the attention of southern DJs. Suddenly bassline became the next big thing. Music media started covering the scene and predicting big things over the next few years. 1xtra began adding bassline tracks to its playlists. The appetite for bassline was rising and labels scrambled to put out singles.
Most of the big tracks that defined bassline outside of it’s original fan base were in fact old songs released to cash in on it’s sudden popularity. The song (probably for many the only one) that most people associate with the genre is t2’s “Heartbroken.” But by the time it reached national airwaves, reaching number two in the UK singles charts, “Heartbroken” had already been and gone on the bassline club circuit. Similarly H Two O and Platnum’s “What’s it gonna be?” was also two years old by the time it also reached number two in the chart in 2008.
Ultimately though, after this outburst of hit singles and a couple of Ministry of Sound compilations, bassline’s time in the spotlight was over almost as soon as it began. Predictions that it was the sound of the future proved way off. “Heartbroken” and “What’s it Gonna Be” were everywhere, but they turned out to be the peak of the genre’s success rather than it’s first wave. Mainstream British dance music quickly moved onto dubstep. In summer 2008 bassline had dominated the radio waves and stormed the charts, by summer 2009 it was already a musical afterthought.
Why did bassline disappear so quickly? One issue was the legal problems the scene faced. Before it had reached the charts, bassline had already become associated in many places with gangs, drugs and violence. In Sheffield, bassline nights became increasingly difficult to put on due to strict monitoring by authorities. Eventually the restrictions became so severe the genre was essentially banned from the city that created it.
Existing bassline clubs elsewhere found themselves under similarly tight scrutiny. As the original venues were closed or security tightened, others weren’t falling over themselves to fill the void. Promoters had little interest in getting involved in a scene that seemed to invite crime, violence and police attention.
Bassline wasn’t the only scene at the time that suffered from a bad image. But unlike grime, bassline was built on the clubbing experience it offered, and with this becoming harder and harder to find, it’s appeal slowly ebbed away. As club promoters shunned bassline, producers began to drift towards less vilified genres, taking the fans with them.
However, for all the talk of bassline being driven into the ground by the authorities, there were signs that the scene was past it’s peak even at the same time it was coming to national attention. The female vocal driven, bouncy sound that was presented by Ministry of Sound and Radio 1 was already being replaced by a grimier style focused on MCs and dark bass by 2007. The Oceana-friendly version of bassline being played on the radio no longer reflected the music that was actually being made at the time.
By 2008, the scene was already splintering. Those who had preferred the lighter style of bassline drifted towards house while other artists started producing grime and dubstep. The number of club nights dedicated to bassline dwindled and the scene faded away.
Looking back now it’s easy to write bassline off as a minor footnote in British music. It’s heyday didn’t last long and most people’s knowledge of the genre extends to at most around three commercial tracks. A lot of the songs sound dated and out of place played on anything but a tinny nokia speaker. But that’s overlooking the impact that bassline had on the region that produced it. Bassline was a genre built out of nothing. The scene started with a few young producers working on their computers and a small group of clubs based on run down industrial estates. Out of this grew one of the most lively and exciting dance scenes of the 2000s.