Sound Of Thunder #069 – 20 Years Of Rainy City Music
This week saw the release of ‘Forward – 20 Years of Rainy City Music’, a compilation celebrating two decades of music on a well-regarded, but until recently, fairly obscure underground house label from Manchester. It is a release which is more intriguing than many other similar packages that come and go, largely because it is not a retrospective. As the title suggests, it looks forward rather than back, and contains only new, unreleased music, which is certainly a unique take on a twenty-year celebration compilation.
Whilst the nature of the complication is slightly unusual, it accurately reflects of the vision of the man behind Rainy City and much of the music the label has released, Irfan Rainy. His may not be a name which is familiar to all, but Irfan is steeped in house music culture, not just that of his home town in Manchester, where he established the label, but wider house music culture, with musical connections in London, New York, Detroit, Berlin and a deep understanding of what the music means to the people in these places and further afield.
He is a man that witnessed the birth of acid house, but through the lens of someone who had lived the pre-house dance scene in the north west. A man that was there as the crowds and hedonism exploded at the Hacienda, a man who made late night motorway drives to London to soak up what was happening at the Ministry in it’s heyday, a man whose music is revered and popularised by many, from underground heads in Detroit to Resident Advisor A-Listers such as Motor City Drum Ensemble, Prosumer, Ame and Dixon and he is also a man whose refuses to wallow in part glories, he is a man who is always looking ahead and pushing both his music and the scene on.
His is a story of dedication and purism. Purism not just of one sound, but an ideal, music for the love of music. I met him over fish and chip in Stoke Newington to hear it first-hand.
Like most everything relating to house music and Manchester, one might expect this all to start in the Hacienda, but Irfan is not a shoegazing student from the Shires who went to university and underwent an ecstasy aided conversion to dancing on podiums amongst the lasers, he has a journey that started in the pre-acid house black dance scene of working class Manchester.
“When I look back, the Hacienda is what we call phase 2 of early house [in Manchester], the real house is Mike Shaft, Stu Allen, what I call ‘black music guys’. They are the ones that broke house music in Manchester. My youth club leader asked me, in ‘86, have you heard this music? House music, and I was like yeah, Mike Shaft plays in on the radio! I used to tape everything on Piccadilly Radio with Mike Shaft and then I got a Saturday job and I started buying an import at a time from Spin Inn Records, a tiny shop on Cross Street, probably like 10’ by 10’, full of black music, but the scene was black music. They were soul boys and my friends were all break dancers so that was the very first street culture. The second was house music. When those guys were sick of street soul or electro, I thought, wow there is this new thing from Chicago called house, and that’s how I started."
For years there has been a healthy debate how house music became established Britain and one of the more contentious strands of that, has been the rivalry between the scenes in London and Manchester, with some very vocal figures arguing that while London had the fashion and media that would be written about, dancers were unaccepting of house, whereas their counterparts in Manchester not only readily accepted the more mechanical sounds of early house but were more purist, creating a discrete house scene back when those early imports hit these shores.
Interestingly, Irfan reflects on this period in a less revisionary way and has a different take on how house music was first made its mark, “I know who the people are that I think were pivotal in making that scene special. Mike Shaft, even you could say, Colin Curtis, because Colin Curtis used to play house. Now, the connection with the jazz dance thing, Foot Patrol [who are famously filmed dancing to early house at a Moss Side party in 1986] and watching dancer – we had a very famous club in Manchester called Berlin, and Berlin was Hewan Clarke and Colin Curtis. It was basically the first UK Dance Jazz Club that I ever heard of, where they were copying styles from Tap, Jazz, Ballet & Street Jazz, and doing something new and playing very, very heavy jazz records from the Sixties onwards at about 140 bpm light Jazz, Samba Jazz, Straight Jazz, you know, people like, Eddie Jefferson, like very unusual Raul De Souza records, just all over the place, very, very heavy, high level, fast Jazz. So some of those guys switched to house when house became the thing.”
Much like London, where house seeped in alongside other black American dance music, Manchester did eventually reach a tipping point and the same missing ingredient triggered it, “It only really changed in Manchester in ’88. And that’s because acid arrived along with ecstasy, and mainly, ‘New Yorkers’ arrived on the scene. ‘New Yorker’s were super -loved -up -pills. I mean I saw SO much stuff being a guy who never took anything. I saw scenes like a Roman fantasy from 2000 years ago, I saw men take their shirts off and rub Vaseline into the necks of men they literally met within 5 minutes, I used to think “what the fuck is going on?” because obviously I didn’t understand how ecstasy was making people loved up. What it did to the scene though was the black kids who were into soul music, as soon as Acid came went “this is too mad for me, what the fuck is this crazy shit”, and they saw that people who weren’t naturally into their music suddenly started liking their music, and It’s a bit of a dilemma when you have this lovely little secret thing that is your love, say you are a postman and at the weekend you love house music and it’s your special little thing, it’s not the sort of thing that feels special when the indie kids start liking it.”
“I used to go to the Hacienda in ’87 when there was nobody there and then suddenly, what the fuck is going on, where are all these people coming from?! Wednesday night, 1000 people in a queue, what are we missing out on here?” This is the point when the Hacienda really took over because the Hacienda was unusual in the sense that the dancers were part of the jazz scene, the game changer is because you had this incredible warehouse venue that you walked into and see it all, you can go downstairs, go to the cloakroom, have a sandwich, go up to the bar or you can go to the club on the right which has got another 4 sections, you’ve got the alcove, the eyes could wander, you could wander in the venue like a cave almost, explore, and that’s the thing that you notice looking back that it was unique. You don’t get that anymore, you just see it, and ’88 was the summer of love, the year the scene really exploded;it’s crazy when I look back at those times, I saw a mad crazy bunch of people wearing £2,000 Armani suits and then scallies, down and out working class kids and they are all there in Manchester, gangs, Irish gangs from Salford, black gangs from Moss Side, you’ve got such a melting pot of the most unusual mix of people you could ever see.”
Despite being from a more purist black dance background, unlike many of his peers who fell away from the acid house explosion, Irfan immersed himself in it, but rather than lose those years in a haze of pill popping, he homed in on an aspect of the music that planted the music-making seed and shaped much of his output in later years, “In ’87, ’88, I got in to techno really early, Model 500, Derrick May, I knew these records are not from Chicago, they’ve got something else going on, so when I heard Derrick and Juan that was the first time that I thought, right I want to make music, I had been collecting for a few years but when I heard what they were doing, it was more sophisticated, more intellectual, more depth to the music. I thought these guys have got a different brain, these guys are from somewhere else. It wasn’t just pow pow pow, the hit from a house record, the jackin’ thing, these guys were from the future, it was like me hearing electro, this is from the same planet but coming from a different direction. If you look at electro, Cybertron’s ‘Clear’, ’Cosmic Cars’ or ‘Alleys of your Mind’, in England we put them under the electro/hip hop banner but they are techno records! No one had coined the phrase techno!”
“We connected with them very early. I always say New York and London, Manchester and Detroit. I used to religiously follow Derrick May, when he came to the Hacienda, I would never miss a show but what I loved about them was a rawness and a very grounded element to them, there wasn’t that superiority element with, the New Yorkers had a ‘centre of the universe’ thing that I didn’t get from Detroit. All so black, something very afro-centric and Malcolm X about their work. I loved that, that’s the culture I grew up in, my icon in my house was Muhammad Ali, racism was a thing and music was a place where you could feel comfortable. They were the progressives of the day. Another part of why we felt comfortable, I don’t think if it was New Order world, I would have felt so in to it. Because New Order means nothing to me. Never has. I have always pushed Manchester, I know New Order are huge but not on the scene I came from. I asked Hewan Clarke, he knew the New Order guys, how was their record made and he said they used to hear him play this track, they used to hound him and say play it again, they made Blue Monday from this record. Klein & MBO – Dirty Talk.”
Listening back to Irfan’s work it is clear that techno was not the only influence, much of his music has a different edge to it, still black but less mechanical, “In ‘86 not only was House Music the thing in Manchester, Go-Go was big too, so I always listened to Go-Go as well as house music, and Hip Hop – Mantronix. When I heard their music, I was like, this is techno again, 808, 909, lots of edits, chopping up tape was major back then, I didn’t know anything about it, there was a guy called Chep Nunez, he was from the freestyle scene of New York, he was the King of tape chopping. So when we heard the edits and chops, Derrick was into that, cutting, reversing, getting the chalk out with the razor blade, cutting it, the most sophisticated chap doing it was Nunez, this guy was a master, he was the King of editing a piece of music and putting crazy mad triplets, drops and fills. He took it to a serious level but I don’t think I would be the same person if I wasn’t into Hip Hop, because of my early time in dance and hip hop the 80’s was an incredible time. One of the biggest records was Sugar Bear ‘Don’t’ Scandalise Mine’. Massive Hip Hop record from the States. King of the Beats by Mantronix, another huge record at the Hacienda, Hip Hop is my other big influence and that’s what led me to the poetry and everything else. It was Hip Hop & House that makes the music, you can’t have one without the other.”
While immersing himself in all of the richness and diversity of musical influences the Manchester scene had to offer, that seed, planted when he first heard the techno sounds coming out of Detroit, had properly taken root, and the young Irfan just needed an opportunity and outlet to which would let these young buds of musical creativity flourish. Fortunately, opportunity was just about to come to knocking and Irfan was going to seize it, “In ’88, in Sixth Form, I met my partner, Cyril Rex Leon, and he had already been making music for a couple of years, kind of when midi had just begun. He was a bit of a whizz and I was like, “how the fuck are you doing this?”, we need to be friends. I used to go to his house, he was using a BBC micro programme, a black screen and all I could see was zeros and ones, what is this? How are you making music?! He had a [Roland] 606, and a couple of keyboards but his music reminded me of Detroit, a bit more random, less sophisticated but I could see where it was going. He was quite futuristic, I started hanging out with him, and I watched him for a couple of years and we started going into the studio, I‘d sit back and say let’s try this and that, and as he was a drum machine and keyboard player, I learnt watching him. We made music together from 1990, 27 years now, all my albums, everything on Rainy City, 90% of my output is with him.”
The young production team were up and running but another piece of their studio jigsaw was about to slot into place, “Another other influence was A Guy Called Gerald, when he was still part of 808 State. I started to go to Eastern Bloc [record shop] I became good friends with Martin Price, one of the members of 808 State and owner of the shop, and Martin introduced me to Gerald in there in ’88. I went to their very first show, at the Boardwalk, when they played live. So, they were an influence but we could see that Gerald was the genius, he was the guy. I became good friends with him too and used to go to his studio in the early nineties. He is the one that told me to get the [Akai] MPC60, he said, “I’ve just come back from New York, Joe Smooth is using this machine, he made me use it, you need to use this machine. So we went and bought it, every single record we made was with a MPC60. We were house guys using the machines hip hop kids were using, low quality, 12 bit, with a crunch, and a quantise, a timing of the groove which was just unique. The thing about black American house music was the swing and the groove, MPC has a beautiful swing. Putting a beat in there and shuffling it, sounded beautiful and it gave us the edge.”
As Irfan and Cyril’s production skills continued to develop, like most young producers, they wanted to get their music out, and in the pre-internet and soundcloud days of the early 1990s, there was only one way to do that, put out a record. Things did not go smoothly for them at first.
“We tried to be smart fuckers, we thought we don’t want to release on an English label, we want to come out on one of these American labels, so I talked to the American independents in Chicago & New York and when they offered me $50 a track and all that, I thought our pants are being pulled down, so fuck this, let’s just do our own label. So if you look at the look of our label we tried to make it look like one of those little independents from the States. My graphic designer at the time, a guy from Bristol, Nick Fry, we connected heavily, because he was also into this deep underground New York sound, so he had records like I had from all these little labels, from New Jersey like Acebeat, and early New York labels like Quark, and we tried to copy that aesthetic.”
Despite the initial set-back, opportunity once again about to come knocking, via an unlikely meeting in a North London rave venue, with a London DJ, introduced to Irfan by a Manchester University student.
“Sampling disco was the thing in the early 90’s and the king of that was Paul Trouble Anderson, he was the god of house music at the time. What the change was in the ‘90’s was Masters at Work arrived. The Kenlou Dub was the shit, was the thing. In the ‘90s they took over, all the cool clubs are playing this and they started sampling disco as well, everyone was sampling disco and that’s how I got into disco. My very first record, we sampled Joe Batan, and that was because of Strictly Rhythm and Paul Trouble Anderson, sampling disco records was a thing. So we had all these demos, sampling disco records, but we didn’t know what to do with them. A London friend of mine, who was at university in Manchester, knew Phil Asher and went to meet him at Bagleys, he said bring some demos for me and I gave him a cassette, a three track demo. We just hit it off with Phil, we recognised him from the house room he did at Lost [legendary London techno night] at the Vox in Brixton, and he’s the one that got in with Slip n Slide. They said they would distribute the records – we would make the but they would distribute them. That’s how we started.”
Distribution deal in place, Rainy City Music was up and running but rather than swamp the market with lots of releases, the quality control was high and the release schedule measured, “This is another reason Derrick May was such an influence, we only believed in putting out 4 a year, keep it to that and put everything into that. When a new Transmat used to come out there was a massive anticipation for the next release. I used to see it at the shops, a queue to buy the next Derrick May record and that was the way to do it. We couldn’t do a 100 releases a year. It helped us live life and not spend life in front of the computer scene or the sequencer. That’s’ what’s kept me going even to this day. Kept my sanity.”
This proved to be a sage strategy, with the records finding favour with some of the key DJs in scene at the time and maybe more tellingly, 20 years on they are still popular, although this popularity seemed to be concentrate on foreign shores, “At the Hacienda, before it closed down, I heard Kenny Carpenter, Kerri Chandler, loads of American DJs were playing my first and second releases at the Hacienda, it was working. The people we wanted to like them, did, but only a few people in England seemed to get it.”
The recent album launch party, at London’s Love Vinyl record store, saw people such as Detroit’s Kai Alce, Boiler Room and NTS taste maker, Bradley Zero, and old friend, Phil Asher turn out to support new Rainy City music, and the original releases have remained popular over the years, with support from DJs such as Theo Parish, Marcellus Pittman, Rick Wade, Mike Huckaby, Patrice Scott, and Jay Daniel, underlining the musical bond Irfan has with Detroit. However, when Jay, and Parisian house obsessive, Jeremy Underground, featured one of the original Rainy City records in their Boiler Room sets, the label was truly thrust back into the modern spotlight.
City People ‘It’s All in the Groove’, which featured on the second Rainy City release back in 1996, was little more than the title suggested, a groove. But what a groove, perfectly demonstrating Irfan’s trademark MPC swing, it slowly sucks you in, the subtle instrumentation weaving in and out of the infectious beat. It is as real as house music gets and proved to be a highlight of both Jay and Jeremy’s sets. Unsurprisingly the price of the originals on Discogs started to rise and eventually went through the roof, as demand rapidly outstripped the availability of the record.
Its new found popularity, combined with the demand for re-pressings of rare records meant that Irfan had numerous request to license the record, as someone who prefers to look forward rather than back, he resisted. Then someone closer latched onto the idea, “I met Danilo Plessow about 8 or 9 years ago at a party in Manchester, we got on instantly and I gave him a bunch of vinyl from my back catalogue. Then every time he came back to Manchester, he would call me and l’d take him record digging to second hand spots. One these times he told me he didn’t have a copy of ‘It’s All in the Groove' and said it was selling for a lot on Discogs, £100 at one point. I said I was going to repress it at some point, as many labels had enquired but I had rejected all of them. He said maybe he could repress it [on MCDE] and jokingly, I said if he was serious, to ask me again next time we met.”
Danilo was not joking though and he did not forget either. So the next time they met, he asked again and this time Irfan did not laugh it off, “It was 20 years since start of the label, so the timing was spot on… and he fitted the identity of that record.”
Motor City Drum Ensemble was not the only A-list German DJ whose ears were being pricked by Rainy City releases at that time. At the tail end of 2015, Innervisions released ‘Too Much Information, a record by little known act, Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra. Irfan and Cyril provided one of the two mixes, afrocentric, hypnotic, and melding their love of Fela Kuti and afrobeat with the duo’s distinctive house groove. On flip, Swiss based Nigerian artist Laolu fused afro vibe with the euphoric big room sound for which Innervisions has become renowned.
More than just providing one of the mixes, Irfan was responsible for the record surfacing at all. Dele Sosimi, approached him about remixing some of his work and Irfan chose 'Too Much Information'. Timmy Regisford was remixing for the digital market, so Irfan enlisted the skills of Haitian New Yorker and Spiritual Life artist, Jephté Guillaume and Raoul K, an Ivorian artist residing in Germany, to remix it, with a view to putting out a vinyl release. The remixes took well over a year to come together, with Raoul bringing Laolu onto the project, but Irfan’s perseverance paid-off, because Dixon heard the mixes and was blown away. The Innervisons release was accompanied by a press release which simply said, “Dixon and Âme’s favourite track of the year.” It was a bold statement from two of the biggest DJs in house music, but their judgement proved well founded, it went on to become absolutely huge, sound-tracking the summer of 2016.
2016 was not only shaping up to be one of the biggest years for Rainy City, it was also the label’s 20th anniversary. Most records labels would mark such an event with a retrospective but in keeping with the label’s ethos, Irfan continued to look forward and decided to celebrate the previous 20 years with a double album of entirely new music.
Another aspect of the label’s ethos, however, delayed the release, politics. Irfan explains, “Nina Simone, if you’re not talking about the issues of today, your art is worthless. I’ve always thought, let’s talk about it. The album was delayed was because I wanted that track, ‘Detroit is Black’. I delayed my album 6 months to get that and it A1 on the tracklist for a reason.”
The track in question, produced by Slum Village DJ Wajeed, explores the problems society faces in modern day Detroit, and the first of three conscious, cerebral house tracks that the album opens with. Irfan provides the next two, with Bonafide Rojas delivering the vocal and Indian artist Unnayanna the remix, on ‘Shook’, before Innervisions and Yoruba artist, Toto Chiavetta, remixes Manhattan Hip Hop Poet, Baba’s ‘Freedom Music’, channelling the vibe of Bobby Konders’ and ‘The Poem’.
By this point of the album, a pattern is emerging, the track order is not accidental, it is almost like a DJ set, with the opening tracks making the listener sit up and take notice, hooking them in, before taking them into the night. The last track on the first disc, sinks into the jazzy deepness of ‘Butterfly’, a Herbie Hancock cover so soaked in the fug of late night basements, you can almost feel the smoke sting your eyes, before things really step up a gear on disc two.
Unnayanaa, opens up. A Manchester student from Bangalore, who met Irfan whilst studying to be a studio engineer, Irfan remembers him visiting his flat almost every day for 3 months, then on the last day before he returned to India, getting on the turntables, “He started scratching, like Q-Bert! He has been coming to my flat all this and time and hadn’t even mentioned he was a turntablist! It was amazing.” Unnayanaa’s productions owe little to Hip Hop though, also recording on Irfan’s other label, ‘Something in the Water’, which provides an outlet for darker, machine soul music, his contribution to this album, ‘P9’, is very much in that vein, and one of the highlights of the album.
Another of Irfan’s aliases and ‘Something in the Water’ staple, Pitched Black, sees out the third side of the album with ’Micorgravity’, which occupies space somewhere between Dennis Ferrer’s and Jerome Sydenham’s ‘Sandcastles’ and Âme’s ‘Rej’.
Then, like light filtering through the skylights of a club as the night draws to a close and the sun rises, the mood lightens on the final side of the album. First up is Irfan’s edit of the ‘Truth’ by Edinburgh duo, Soul Renegades. Warm and bright, it pulls the listener out the night and into the morning.
Finally, the album closes, appropriately, by the label’s founders, Irfan and Cyril’s ‘Lighter Shades of Blues’. Deep, jazzy and already attracting plaudits from DJ Spinna, DJ Aakmael, and long-time fan, Mike Huckaby. Deep and jazzy, but light, it’s the sound of the last dance, the journey home the after party.
It’s a beautiful ending to a what is actually quite a stunning album, from label whose quality is borne out by its longevity. It may not have sold tens of thousands of records and its success may have been a slow to burn, but the people that know, the people that matter care.
Irfan sums up, “Who are we to want fame and success of monetary value, when people like Van Gogh died penniless. That’s what keeps me in the business, I’m not looking for a reward, I’m looking for the journey. The journey is the reward. Not the financial gain the capitalist, neo-liberal economy, that’s not reward. Reward is giving yourself to the art and that’s why I’m still doing it. And I feel like I’m only just starting.”
20 years in and maybe the best is yet to come from Irfan and Rainy City?
The next Thunder is on Easter Thursday at Corsica Studios, with Beautiful Swimmers, Red Rack’em, Miles Simpson and more. Tickets HERE