Picture the scene: a dingy nightclub in Zone 5 that you’ve queued for two hours to get in to. In the booth, a snapback-sporting DJ blasting out wobbly basslines that are so powerful you can feel your face vibrating. The air is thick with sweat and your £2.10 pint of Carlsberg is warm in your hand. The year is 2010. This is Croydon, this is The Black Sheep Bar and this is the heyday of dubstep.
We know, we know: Skrillex is making a comeback, but we’re not talking about the mainstream EDM you see college bros rocking out to at Tomorrowland. We’re talking about UK dubstep. A quintessentially London sound, in its prime it brought us gun fingers and bass face, and pushed the boundaries of electronic music. Today, the genre’s influences can be heard in low and slow techno, as well as in the ongoing success of labels like Deep Medi and Swamp 81. The OG sound still has a dedicated fanbase and in April Printworks will host the seminal dubstep party, FWD>>. And let’s not forget it brought us bangers like Katy B’s ‘Katy on a Mission’ and ‘Eastern Jam’ by Chase & Status.
The Black Sheep Bar played a vital role in all of this. It’s where the trailblazers of the sound like SGT Pokes, Mala, Loefah and Coki became friends, the group who went on to found the innovative DMZ label and club night in Brixton. So, how did a grimy club on the outskirts of the city become an essential home for this pioneering, slightly chaotic – and occasionally cringy – genre of music?
The birth of The Black Sheep
Let’s take it back to 1998, when The Black Sheep opened. The fabled grotty bar sprung up in CR0 to offer a much-needed alternative for music lovers who didn’t quite fit in with the dress-code-heavy, flashy, pop-blasting clubs like Tiger Tiger that dominated the era. ‘When we started there were about ten clubs in Croydon,’ says Stephanie Darkes, who worked for the Black Sheep as a bar supervisor and then as promoter from 2002 to 2011. ‘The Black Sheep was doing things that no one else was doing, musically, at the time in that area.’
At the time, one of the only other nightclubs in Croydon was a joint down the street called Joe Bananas. ‘It was a high-street piss-up spot: stag dos, drunk-mums-crying-outside kind of vibes,’ says dubstep MC SGT Pokes, who joined the Sheep as a bartender in 1999.
You could show up in your Tesco work uniform – no one gave a shit – Jessica
It was Darkes’s idea to introduce live bands to The Black Sheep. Prior to its dubstep days, the Sheep hosted indie nights, drum ’n’ bass nights, metal nights, and some of London’s first queer and fetish parties. And when going out generally meant getting dressed up to the nines and heading out to dance around your handbag before necking on with the closest cute guy or gal, at The Black Sheep you could show up in whatever you liked. ‘It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from,’ says former regular Jessica. ‘You could go in a pair of high tops and trackie bottoms or leggings and have the best time. You could even show up in your Tesco work uniform – no one gave a shit because people were there for the music.’
And despite being a fairly small venue (it had a capacity of just 250 people), The Black Sheep attracted huge names, with acts like Pendulum, Grooverider and Enter Shikari taking over the dancefloor over the years. Even Ed Sheeran once played an open-mic night there. ‘People used to travel to go out in Croydon because there weren’t other places [in London] that had the variety we did,’ says Darkes. ‘It was pretty epic.’
The superior musical offerings meant it wasn’t unusual to see goths in one corner and a group of headbanging rockers in the other. ‘It was a spot that felt like it didn’t really exist,’ says Pokes. ‘There’d be a load of biker guys hanging out over there. Emo kids over there. There were guys breakdancing when it was early and the party hadn’t started yet. It was like an American high-school movie.’
But how did a pub for misfits, metalheads and assorted eccentrics end up nurturing London’s definitive electronic music subculture?
The dawn of dubstep
In the early noughties, a new sound started to emerge from Croydon. Cooked up in basements, bedrooms and pirate radio stations, young producers were making music on their clunky thick-screened computers and even their PlayStations. Slower than its predecessors jungle and two-step, ‘dubstep’ was their wobbly, bassier cousin. Think: Pendulum meets an extremely low-pitched foghorn. In 2006, Time Out called it ‘the most genuinely exciting sound to have emerged from London for a decade’.
Unlike in the glamorous champers-and-charlie UK garage scene, dubstep producers weren’t doing it for the clout or the girls or the drugs. It was about making actually interesting music. The majority of dubstep wasn’t upbeat or energising – it was melancholic and dark. And by incorporating everything from film soundtracks to video games, its wiggy sub-bass was the ideal bed for a musical soup of influences.
At first, people didn’t get it – it wasn’t meant to be heard at home through tinny speakers. The hallmark of great dubstep was its face-melting bass vibrations, with ground-quaking frequencies that pulled ravers out of their bedrooms and into the clubs, where it was designed to be played loud through fuck-off sound systems. It was also the first new dance music genre to come along in a while – until that point, there’d been a lot of garage, drum ’n’ bass, and jungle – and producers were starting to get bored.
There were two vital parties that laid the groundwork for nights at The Black Sheep: FWD>> at the Velvet Rooms in Soho, which then found a home at Shoreditch’s Plastic People, and DMZ in Brixton. But when it came to production, there was no question that dubstep was a south London sound. While grime and UK garage were stalwarts of the east, dubstep ruled the south. Young DJs and producers like Loefah, Horsepower and Mala grew up in Croydon and neighbouring Norwood, as did Skream, who brought dubstep into the mainstream with runaway hits like ‘Midnight Request Line’ and his remix of La Roux’s ‘In for the Kill’.
We all grew up listening to different music: hardcore, jungle, house, garage, R&B, ragga, dub. London was a melting pot – Mala
Croydon was not trendy or cool, but its lack of cachet forced producers to use their imaginations. ‘I remember watching a TV programme years ago where somebody described Croydon as the “asshole of the south”,’ Mala chuckles. ‘I didn’t grow up on an estate, but you’d look outside and the concrete ground was grey. You’d look at the buildings, they’re mostly grey. Seven times out of ten, the sky would be grey.’
Despite its mundanity, south London provided the perfect mishmash of cultures and influences. ‘We all grew up listening to different music: hardcore, jungle, house, garage, R&B, ragga, dub,’ says Mala. ‘London was a melting pot that gave us the freedom and opportunity to explore, so it was natural that the style of music we made came from where it did.’
A Croydon-based dubstep family was forming. Attendees of the parties would often congregate at the Big Apple record shop in Croydon, down the road from the Black Sheep. There was a rumour that the producers would all hire a limo and ride together to FWD>> nights. Big Apple’s record label would go on to be the first place to put out dubstep music by Skream, Benga and Digital Mystikz. And the DMZ crew, a record label and club night made up of Digital Mystikz (Mala and Coki), Loefah and hosted by SGT Pokes, all ended up having links to the Black Sheep.
Enter the Sheep
It’s fitting that a genre that was famously no-hype and no-bling would wind up at The Black Sheep, an eclectic bar for misfits and alternative types, with a not-so-great sound system, in an unglamorous part of London.
In 2004, SGT Pokes, who was one of the senior bar staff at the time, started up an irregular Sunday party called Dub Sessions, which helped to introduce electronic and dance music to The Black Sheep Bar. It was mainly a gathering of producers and close pals of the DJs. Dub Sessions was a DIY outfit: Loefah, Coki or Mala – aka the Digital Mystikz duo – would be on the decks, while Pokes would MC. Before the 2007 smoking ban, the air would be thick with skunk.
Why did they turn to the Sheep? ‘Most other places wouldn’t have allowed it,’ Mala says. The music was initially considered too weird and genre-defying to be played in most clubs. ‘Even the record shops didn’t know where to put it because it had no real terminology.’
Those early nights were more of an excuse for the producers to play the music they wanted to hear, often to an empty room. Despite that, many of dubstep’s originators, including Kode 9, Yongsta and Horsepower, all played the Dub Sessions, laying the ground-quaking foundations for what was to come on the genre’s scene.
But Croydon wasn’t ready for the cavernous bass and hypnotic hooks of dubstep just yet. ‘[Owner] Paul [Bossick] had pulled the night by the third one.’ Pokes says. ‘He was like: “I've had bad feedback from the regulars who come in early. They don’t even like the reggae.”’ The producers went back to hanging out at Big Apple and making tunes on their PCs. But they weren’t about to throw in the towel just yet.
Fast forward to 2008.
Dance music was transitioning from analogue to digital, while burgeoning platforms like Myspace, as well as Dubstep Forum and Grime Forum allowed producers and fans to share music easily. Dubstep emerged to the masses on the cusp of a new digital world.
Music heads were Bluetoothing each other tunes to play out loud on their Sony Ericssons and LG Chocolates, while radio shows like Mary Anne Hobbs’s ‘Dubstep Warz’, Sarah/Soulja Lockhart’s programme on RinseFM, and hits like the aforementioned ‘Midnight Request Line’ brought the genre to prominence. ‘Radio was really important,’ Pokes recalls. ‘People were playing mixes they had to access online, which was generally through their phones. A lot of the artists were sharing tunes on MSN.’
Suddenly, dubstep was popular and Darkes was asking Pokes to bring his nights back to the Black Sheep. ‘I think they felt a lot of pride in the fact that it was a Croydon thing,’ he says.
I remember Skream and Benga stage-diving out of an 8ft high DJ box – SGT Pokes
Thus, Pokes’s seminal dubstep night, Croydub – now a global brand, which will celebrate its fifteenth birthday this year – was born. ‘I knew it was gonna take a while just to convince people to go a bit further and come to Croydon,’ he says, knowing he would have to compete with more central and established dubstep nights like FWD>> and DMZ to draw a crowd. ‘But by mid-2009 they [Croydub] were roadblock events. People were queuing from early down the road. Every one of them was just insane.’
The nights, which ran until 4am, were tribal. The mammoth sound system was locked behind big industrial bars. ‘You would feel your internal organs shaking,’ Darkes says. ‘The speakers ripped through your insides: it was intense’. Dubstep’s jumble of influences brought people together at The Black Sheep in a way that other genres hadn’t really done before. This was a place where you could see a middle-aged bus driver sporting a vest and dancing manically on speed, next to a 74-year-old Irishman doing press-ups (true story). Metallers would rub shoulders with grime heads. ‘There was a divide between lots of dance cultures and scenes in the early 2000s,’ says Pokes. ‘Having a rock crowd at an electronic night was like Daniel in the lions’ den.’
There were barely any rules, and nothing was off-limits. ‘Black Sheep was the only place that was willing to get down and dirty,’ Pokes says. ‘I remember Skream and Benga stage diving out of an 8ft-high DJ box.’
In an old post on Dubstep Forum, one punter recalls being held up by his mates as he got some much-needed shut-eye in the club. ‘Sheep are quite cool about power naps, I think. As long as you’re not causing trouble, they’ll let you get away with most things,’ he writes.
‘There was that one time [REDACTED] got so drunk he pissed in the sink by the glass wash and threw up on his cock,’ another regular tells Time Out. This was when the most expensive draught beer was £2.50. On Sunday nights, tequila shots and pints were a quid, making for a lethal combo. But all good things must come to an end.
The demise of the Sheep
Pokes ran Croydub successfully for a good few years. Then out of the blue, in 2013, The Black Sheep was sold. ‘Two weeks away from one of the best line-ups I had ever put together, one of the managers messaged me like: “It’s such a shame about Croydub”,’ he recalls. He had no idea what she was talking about. ‘She was like: “The bar has been sold, effective immediately. Saturday, at midnight is the end of the Sheep.”’
The Black Sheep had been suffering since licensing laws changed in 2005, allowing pubs to stay open much later and swallowing up late-night club customers. ‘The Black Sheep closing was inevitable,’ says Darkes. ‘When I left in 2011, everything was starting to fold in terms of the nighttime economy. They were turning the space above The Black Sheep into flats. It used to be offices, so it was only a matter of time before there were noise complaints.’
It’s a story that is all too familiar for London’s nightlife. The beloved venue was handed over to property developers and regulars were dismayed, with some even calling the police over its closure. ‘It was really sudden,’ says Pokes. ‘I think Paul was given an offer he couldn’t refuse.’
By then, dubstep was also falling out of favour: its name became tarnished by American ‘brostep’, with the genre associated with the screeching jackhammer sounds of Skrillex’s ‘Bangarang’. But mainstream North American EDM was a far cry from the original London sound. ‘Those over-the-top stadium shows with pyrotechnics were the antithesis of what we were doing,’ Pokes says.
The legacy of The Black Sheep
Today, The Black Sheep is a Polish supermarket. ‘It was Croydon’s last hope,’ says Pokes. Croydon’s clubbing landscape in 2022 is pretty barren. Unless you’re up for listening to tepid tech-house at Boxpark, which feels more akin to a shopping-centre food court than a raucous bar, you’re strapped for choice in the area. According to Darkes, Croydon’s nightlife is ‘on its knees’.
Happily, Croydub lives on outside its spiritual home, touring club nights and festival stages with a community around the world.
Not one person I spoke to for this article had a bad word to say about the grungey bar on Croydon High Street. In the 15 years it was open, The Black Sheep solidified itself as a safe haven for people who felt like they didn’t fit in with the mainstream. ‘The Black Sheep famously didn’t have a great sound system, but the vibes in that place were undeniable,’ says Pokes. ‘It really was a sanctuary for misfits. It was by name as it was by nature.’
See SGT Pokes, Skream, Coki, Horsepower and more at FWD>> at Printworks on April 7.
Jayda G is lighting up London dancefloors.