Luke to Luke: Early experiences in nightlife and beyond
Two pivotal figures in UK dance music culture reflect on their backgrounds and roots as we talk shop with Luke Una and Luke Howard.
There’s a lot to be learnt from those early experiences in dance music, in clubs when everything seems so fresh and new and exciting. There’s also a lot to be learnt from what comes to follow as you watch it grow, unravel and piece itself back together again into something new.
Luke Una and Luke Howard are two dj’s who have respectively carved exciting and interesting careers in dance and electronic music – deviating from the status quo and tending to focus on the leftfield, the out there and the eccentric they have forged reputations as two of the most intriguing and innovative selectors the country has to offer.
The pair have also worked tirelessly as residents and promoters across many years – with Luke Una the founder behind Homoelectric parties and Luke Howard one of the crew that makes up Horse Meat Disco. Together they have a fierce pedigree and have helped to guide the direction of dance music and queer culture not only in the UK but around the world.
Rather coincidentally each of these Luke’s has just curated a compilation of some of the music which has soundtracked their experiences found in those odd spaces after the dance has ended – some old, some new.
Una: We were both High Storrs (Sheffield school) kids of course. My first visions of you was when I was in fifth year and sixth form and you were was this tall, handsome lad in a green bomber jacket. I was a bit older than you but I probably remembered you more than the other way around. When I look back at that it seems funny when people mention it “Yeah, me Luke both went to the same school”.
Howard: We were sort of living very similar sort of lives and have quite a lot of people in common. My family weren’t from Sheffield, they’re from London.
Una: Like my parents, I know you have a socialist connection with your dad.
Howard: After my dad died, I found out that he actually went to Sheffield to set up the SWP there. There used to be this guy called Tony Cliff and basically he sent my dad like a missionary to set up the SWP in Sheffield. He used to teach miners and steelworkers and get them to do degrees to help them to get on to degree courses.
Una: Politics was very personal to me. The first time I got involved in politics was because I have a mixed race family and my sister was black. When we came up to Sheffield my dad made sure that we went to a mixed school. The first person I ever met in the SWP would definitely have known your dad. I actually joined the SWP at about 15 so I would have met your dad at some point.Joining the Anti Nazi league was personal the beginning of my years of activism.
Howard: You probably did because he was campaigning right up to before he died. He was an activist until the end.
Una: Although my mum and dad both came from working class backgrounds, I guess in some sense they were middle class in a way. Very, very liberal. They were very kind, decent, honorable people but they were very political. As soon as we got to Sheffield, my mum pretty much joined all the campaigns, Greenham Common, Women Against Closures. It was democratic and very real though. I remember coming to Sheffield at that time, it’s still got that it’s a very warm, inclusive blue collar city.
Howard: They used to call it the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire didn’t they. I don’t know if you remember, I think it was about 1982, they had these free gigs throughout the summer at the polytechnic which is now Hallam uni, and you could go and just get these tickets for these free gigs. I remember I saw New Order, I think the Comsat Angels were supporting. I think I saw Kid Creole and The Coconuts there as well.
Kid Creole & The Coconuts
Una: The music thing was all happening in Sheffield. It was still very underground but there were lots of people at High Storrs who went to a lot of music stuff. They were going to see Winston and Parrot and it was kind of like the Jazz Funk all dayer scene. The first thing I ever saw was at Wigwam…
Howard: I went to Wigwam, before I left I went to Wigwam.
Una: Yeah, there were all these exotic people. There was a guy called Gypsy John and he was called Gypsy John because he used to wear all designer Westwood gear.
Howard: He used to wear pirate stuff. And he had long hair. Curly hair.
Una: Parrot was beautifully dressed in dungarees. There’s this counterculture that I love. I love the fashion. I love the flamboyance. Because I was a bit of a peacock I just loved it. But then there was the music and it was like it was the beginning of that very exciting time. It was such a small city, Sheffield, but it was so tight knit. There was a little fanzine called Brickollage, which was just this little mix of fashion and music and students and locals putting their things together. Looking back it was such a small thing but there was a real magic for me because I think most of the beginning of my love for music was then. I was hearing people like Parrot and Winston playing all that kind of electro funk and when house music happened it just suddenly felt like the shock of the new. To me it was a crazily exciting world.
Howard: I started going to The Limit in 1983 when I was 14 and I just felt like I found my people. It was a Monday and Wednesday and anybody that wasn’t a townie was in there. I suppose that was my first taste of nightclubs – I’d been to gigs. and I’d sort of seen the politics through a lot of the punk gigs and Rock Against Racism but when I went to The Limit with my jacket and my flat top I was like, “Right, I’m a trendy now”.
Una: I mean, in a way your life was quite mad because you sort of saw some of that life then that was quite rough around there as well.
Howard: Yeah, there was a blues called Solomon’s at the end of our street. His children were younger than me but I used to know them from the street. Sometimes I would go there and they would let us in and we would buy chicken and dumplings and just sort of rock out to the bass for a few hours.
Una: There was the West family as well whom I went to school with and Damian Mcomb.
Howard: I was bezzie mates with Darren. Solomon’s was at the end of my street and then if you walked through this alleyway there was Sonny’s and there was a gambling house next to that. So I used to go in there with Darren because he knew everybody. I don’t think they really liked it because we were children but it was the only place where you could get food and drink at like two o’clock in the morning. So sometimes, if we were staying up late, and we had a bit of pocket money, we’d go in there for some fried chicken and dumplings and a Ribena.
Una: Looking back, it was quite mad really. Those worlds kind of collided, and I’d never seen that before.
Howard: The thing was, I discovered clubs in Sheffield and that was where I felt at home and so when I went to gay clubs in London, I was just like, “This is my life now”, you know? I’ve got to be part of this, because it just feels safe. And it feels like, I don’t have to worry, I don’t have to pretend that I have to explain anything to anyone. And that’s really how I ended up being a DJ, because I just used to go to clubs all the time. It’s where I felt at home, I felt comfortable. I loved music. And I also really liked dancing. And then it just became sort of inevitable that I paid attention to what the DJ was doing and I was buying records and whatnot.
Una: I’d always personally felt more accepted and more comfortable in gay queer clubs. I felt accepted, I liked the dynamic of it. I remember going to Queer Nation and the next I heard of you, I remember seeing stuff of yours in The Face.
The Face Magazine
Howard: I was DJ of the month in The Face. I hadn’t really been DJing for very long but Patrick Lilly, who ran Queer Nation, was was a PR guru and he knew the editor of The Face. I think he basically said, “get him in there”. I’d had a few warm ups, done a few squat gigs and then I met Patrick Lily at High On Hope through Jeffrey Hinton and Princess Julia and he said, “I’m starting a night that’s going to be a gay version of High on Hope” and I just blagged him and said “I’ve got a lot of disco and house records” and he booked me and I warmed up for Julia For the first six weeks no one came and then I don’t know what happened but suddenly it just went boom and it was really busy every week. and we had about three or four years of that just being. Weirdly, I ended up DJing with loads of legends because when The Ministry opened about a year after we’d started, if anyone from the industry came, they would tell everybody “that’s that’s the best night, that’s better than The Ministry.” And so the Ministry would let DJs play there once they’ve done their gig there. We had Frankie Knuckle, we had Francoise K, Kenny Carpenter used to do a lot. We had a lot of PA so we had Barbara Tucker, Ultra Naté and Sharon Redd. We had Colonel Abrams one night doing a PA on a stage that was like a foot high. And Pete Burns was just like, rocking out in front of him. I always remember it was just brilliant watching The Colonel and the Pete Burns just kind of really loving each other.
Una: At that time, I was massively collecting records and I was into the American house thing coming through and all its various strands. I think the gay scene in London was a golden era and I think nationally nothing really touched it. In Manchester it probably took till Acid House clause 28 for things to begin to change but the music began to improve and suddenly that had its own little ecosystem within acid house. I just loved it. I loved the freedom of it. I found it really comfortable.
Howard: I used to play in the Gay Traitor and a few times I did the main floor. I used to have anxiety dreams about playing on the main floor (both at Flesh, the monthly gay night at Hacienda). I honestly used to have a dream that I was DJing and I put a record on and it would be an intro of 10 minutes, and everyone was looking up at me saying “The fuck is this?” And then I’d look through my record box and I think this one, they’re gonna love this one. And I’d put it on and it would be the same thing happening!
Una: I guess it’s weird for me being a kind of a straight man and in that environment as well, but I used to go and by about one o’clock it was so hot in there I was just down to my Calvin Klein’s walking about. I used to drink as well so I had a pint pot. It’s not just the fact it was a gay club, it the fact I was pretty much naked but it was I didn’t even think about it being a thing. It just felt the most natural thing in the world to do. And it felt so exciting. For me, it was like acid house again but even more explosive in terms of the vibe in that room. There was the sex thing, but much more important than that, there was just this absolute amazing liberation and flamboyance. I’ve never felt so alive in a club ever, and so many things that I did later on, came from that because I just this is what I love, this perfect crowd of people. Just suddenly there was this real unity and the atmosphere was just great. Homoelectric and Homobloc came out of this. This liberation. This transcendental experience. Everything seemed possible. Pure love and togetherness.
“I suppose once I discovered nightclubs, that was it. I just didn’t want to leave that world.”
Howard: I suppose once I discovered nightclubs, that was it. I just didn’t want to leave that world. I sort of ended up being a DJ and then going back up north to play in Manchester. I couldn’t really believe it. Also it was all records then so it was luggin a big box of records with you wherever you went. I didn’t really did a lot of traveling because I didn’t I wasn’t very good at DJing to other crowds. I knew the crowd at Queer Nation really well, I knew what they wanted, and so I was really good at that. But often when I got taken out of my comfort zone, I just couldn’t do it.
Una: It’s funny when you say that. I remember when you played Home-electric with the other Luke and you could just tell you’re being schooled in that world just by the way you play. When you hear Americans play, there’s just a sound. Its got a pure deep soulfulness to it . I think in many ways we’ve had a similar path in that we’ve started very young in music and we’re still here. For me, most of my most exciting moments weren’t necessarily about hedonism, it was just in someone’s flat or house. People started playing you records and that for me was I was beginning to listen to non-dance music. I was quite loose and cosmic and you’d hear these records that could be anything but everything just sounded so incredible. It could be Sade, Brazilian music or jazz, none of that music meant anything to me before house music but house music just allowed me to stay up late and then suddenly open this door to all this music. So it was this big counterculture. You kind of lived and breathed it and I was just listening to music all the time. Most of ‘E Soul Cultura’ was informed from the mid ’80s onwards, just from friends. I remember there were these guys called Winston ,Alex and Raif. They were playing me all this Cuban jazz music, I went “What’s this music? It’s amazing”. There’s no way you know, that door would not have opened had I not stayed up late. There was something very beautiful about it. I just found this real love of all these other forms of music.
Howard: Yeah, I think I’m pretty similar as well and it is where we sort of have had very parallel lives and we started young and we’re still here. It’s always been about music and staying up late. I never wanted to go to bed. I just wanted to be alive in the nighttime. Although I do quite like an early night now.
Una: I know, these days I get up at 5am and come into the studio and just listen to loads of albums. I know it’s a very obvious thing, saying it sounds trite, but it was music that really saved me in that era. I’d always loved music, but it became something very different. That kind of transcendental part of it really changed the way I listen to music. Minus the kind of recreational drug thing never really happening anymore, apart from very carefully chosen nights, mostly I just stay up late by myself now in here and just listen. And I just love that.
Howard: I think I feel the same. I think music really saved me as well, because it gave me a focus. It gave me something to obsess about away from sex and drugs, the two things that could have killed me in the 80s. I felt like I was on a mission. You’d get excited about music and then you want to find your own music, you want to find your own treasure. Like you were saying about going through your record collection and I sort of did a similar thing. It’s like, I’ve got all this treasure, and it’s going to help me, it’s going to support me, it’s going to support my mental health. I can dance around if I want to, or I can just listen and cry if I want to. Brazilian music has this thing that really enchants me. A lot of it is about Candomblé, which is the Afro Brazilian religion so a lot of those songs are about all this pantheon of gods and goddesses and listening to that music, if it’s a bit like listening to gospel music, or, you know, choral music, it’s sort of more than music because it’s spiritual. I’m not cosmic, I’m not spiritual, I’m not a religious person, but I felt like, just by listening to that music, it was kind of giving me this sort of strength. Everything’s gonna be okay, we can get through this. I just felt like if I put music on it was like taking a Prozac or something. It was like, I feel okay.
Una: When I started doing radio when lockdown began it was a bit of serendipity. The obsession with going through my record collection began this whole cathartic process, which was quite painful at times, for lots of different reasons, but there were joyous moments with it. I fell in love again, literally, deeply in love again with music over the last two years. Honestly, I’ve fallen in love with it more than I’ve ever been in love with it.
Howard: I think it’s funny doing these compilations, because I used to make tapes for people who were special to me, or people that I wanted to impress a bit or people that I wanted to just share something that I really liked. DJ Paulette was telling me she’s still got some of my tapes. So she was a special person and then I had a few friends who I knew were really into music and so I would make them a tape. And like you said, it wasn’t necessarily dance music, it was just stuff that you really listened to and wanted to share with people. And that was the way it was done. Now we make playlists or we’re lucky enough to be able to put compilations out and things like that. Me and James have a Rinse FM show every Sunday and again that’s a bit like doing a mixtape for someone.
Una: I think people love that. I think one of the things about your Back To Mine compilation is there’s a personal story to it as well. People love the story.
Luke Una’s compilation on Mr Bongo can be found HERE
Luke Howard’s compilation alongside Horse Meat Disco can be found HERE.