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‘We’re reclaiming the city!’ – we meet London’s illegal rave kings

Written by
Marcus Barnes

It’s not surprising in London’s current nightlife climate, in which councils are imposing increasingly strict licensing restrictions, that the capital is experiencing a boom in off-grid illegal parties. To find out more, we talked to three (anonymised) London promoters to find out how property prices and bad vibes in clubs are creating a new summer of love. Only with friendlier police this time around...

Promoter #1: ‘Ferdy’

‘Ferdy’ has been running parties since the late ’80s. He runs events almost every weekend, geared towards a more mature, open-minded crowd, commonly held in forests and empty buildings.

Why do you think there’s been more attention on the illegal rave scene over the last year or so?
‘I think the crowd that goes to these parties has changed. Clubs have been getting stretched or simply closing down. Because of security in venues and the red tape they have to jump through, licensed venues aren’t nice places to be. That’s why our scene is becoming mainstream. People have been having fun in the woods for thousands of years. People want to go out, let their hair down and forget about their problems for a few hours.’

How do you go about finding suitable locations for outdoor events?
‘We have regular spots, but we can’t use them all the time because we’ll be seen to be taking the piss. If we continually do parties in one place then the police would be forced to do something. Half the time, though, because we’re considerate, they don’t really care. They can see we’re having a bit of fun, no one’s in danger and they let us carry on.’

What’s your experience of confrontations with the police?
‘It varies depending on how we approach them. If no one goes up and chats to them, they just think it’s a free-for-all. We go up to talk to them, show them around, ask if they’ve had any complaints. Usually, after a chat, the police will let us carry on but tell us we have to stop by a certain time. So we’ll adhere to that, finish up and clear away any rubbish from the site. If you start abusing them, what else can they do but shut the party down?’

You’ve been doing this a while now. How do you stay motivated to keep doing it?
‘I had some time off in the noughties when my kids were growing up. Once they were old enough, I decided to get back out there. I really missed that whole free atmosphere. Coming to these parties is a social event, and a form of therapy for lots of people. Some of the people who come to our parties are well into their seventies. We’ve got one woman who’s 81, she drives down from up north just to come to our parties. She looks forward to every new event. It’s the people that keep this thing alive and keep me and my team inspired with the smiles on their faces. Without these raves, where else would they go?’

How many more years of this do you have?
‘I presume it keeps me young, I’m worried that if I stop I’m gonna get old and start watching telly and get into “Love Island” and all that crap!’

Promoter #2: ‘Louis’

‘Louis’ is a twentysomething Londoner and part of a younger generation of rave organisers putting on illegal parties in the city

How are you involved with illegal raves?
‘I’ve been involved with organising squat parties on and off since I was a teenager. I bought my first rig in 2011. Back in the day, I did parties as far away as Epping Forest. Recently we’ve done raves in Leyton, Vauxhall, Borough and one that took place right in the middle of Soho.’

That sounds audacious
‘Yeah, we were a bit anxious about going ahead, we’d heard Westminster Council are strict. The building we used is turning into a luxury hotel, of course, so it was interesting to get in there before work started and have a party. It turned out fine in the end, no problems at all.’

What are the main benefits of a squat party as opposed to regular clubs?
‘It’s mainly about reclaiming the city. The way things are with overseas investors buying property at the moment is it pushes out people who might want to open small businesses like bars and clubs. Try calling a landlord up and asking if you can have a party in their empty building: they’re not gonna say, “Yeah, sure, that’ll be £500”. Doing what we do means we can take back the city. There can be more community-minded ways to owning the city that go beyond money. We haven’t got money but what we have got is knowledge of the city, buildings, laws – and we leverage that knowledge against people who have money and nothing else. They can keep all their money and buy their buildings, but we try to be smarter than them!’

Promoter #3: ‘Insoucient’

A sound engineer in his thirties, ‘Insoucient’ has co-organised some legendary forest parties in Hackney Wick in recent years, done with a strict ‘leave no trace’ ethos.

What is it that you do?
‘We started doing parties in 2017, utilising interesting spaces like basements, arches, forests. I do this all with a mate, we’re both sound engineers and we have a rig, which has amazing sound. We create a nice buzz by keeping it under the radar – going back to how it was done decades ago. Instead of putting out a phone number, we send a mail out on the morning of the rave with a little map.’

Why do you think illegal raves are on the rise?
‘People want to get away from queuing at clubs and the aggravation they get on at the door. Our parties have a sense of freedom and liberation, which is what rave culture is all about. It’s like a national sport in the UK. In the ’80s the police were shocked by it all, because it was new and counter-cultural. But it’s become accepted and part of our culture now. Plus, the police have better things to do.’

Is the general property crisis in London a factor too?
‘Yeah, 100 percent. That’s where it all started for me. I was really inspired by Fabric’s “Save Our Culture” campaign. I went to all the marches. The whole property thing has spiralled out of control. Just in Hackney Wick, where I’ve been for five years, it’s amazing to see the changes in that short space of time. It’s our city, you should be able to do things without property developers coming in and buying it all up without understanding the importance of culture and the community behind it.’

Is it worth all the effort?
‘It can be tough at times. We get up at ridiculous o’clock to lug subs [speakers] down stairs, load them in vans and get all our mates organised so you can get all this stuff into the forest without being seen. Once we got caught and it was a right pain in the arse. You put a lot of effort into this to provide a liberating space for people but they really appreciate it. That’s one of the things that we thrive on. I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

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