Crossover and collectivity: Why London's house underground is evolving
There are a number of parallel Afro house scenes developing within London’s underground, as a variety of influences propel the movement in new directions. NKC reports
An Afro house movement
As Scratcha DVA puts it, “the bounce” is back in UK club music, and we owe it largely to South Africa. Over the last few years, South African styles of house have boomed in popularity in London’s clubs, including the townships’ newest development: amapiano.
KG tells me that as amapiano has become “commercialised and universalised in some way,” the buzz around the genre has contributed towards greater transcontinental interest in African music. This has coincided with a broader cultural turn towards Africa, which can be linked to the global political atmosphere following on from the Black Lives Matter protests and uprisings of 2020.
“We're in a very racially charged era,” KG explains. “Everything is surging when it comes to race relations, and pop culture is a microcosm of what’s happening in the wider world. Music has definitely been influenced by that.”
There are now multiple London scenes pushing the sounds of African and African-influenced house music. KG sees these as “different dimensions” of an overall Afro house movement, which are in diasporic conversation with each other and the sounds of the continent. “It’s one big cloth and there are different patches,” says KG. “All of these hybrid sounds are the patches within that cloth… and these sustain the Afro house umbrella.”
Such an expansive definition of ‘Afro house’ might be contentious for some, because the phrase is often associated specifically with a deep, progressive and ‘ancestral’ house sound, with slow builds and melodic release drawn out across intricately syncopated percussion. This is represented in the UK by artists like Mr Silk, INTUIT, Kitty Amor, Sef Kombo and D-Malice. In its most techno-influenced and gradually evolving form, it’s also known as ‘Afro tech,’ and in London you can hear it at nights like Til Two, Undiluted, Motherland and Sessions, or on Drums Radio (alongside amapiano). It’s backed up by a hardworking scene that has been bubbling away for over a decade, and is now breaking through to larger audiences via Sef Kombo’s work for Defected sub-label Sondela.
But this alternative definition of Afro house – as an umbrella term for many hybrid, African-inspired house sounds – makes it a little easier to connect the dots between various contemporary UK club scenes. As KG tells me, it’s important not to “conflate them all as one,” but recognising how these sounds are “cut from the same cloth” empowers the overall Afro house movement.
KG’s own patch in the cloth takes influence from a mixed bag of genres like amapiano, gqom, grime, highlife and Afrobeats. Most of the artists working along similar lines hit their stride in the later stages of UK funky – like Hagan, Roska, Ikonika, Fiyahdred, the Tribal Brothers and Scratcha. Now, artists in this scene drop conceptually-driven albums and EP projects in the same breath as club bangers, showcase their selections abroad, and DJ at mixed genre nights in London and around the UK – including Looney Choonz, Club Djembe, and KG’s Rhythm City. As Scratcha tells me, DJs in this scene pull in a crowd loosely united by their urge “to get away from anything boring in the electronic world… to go out and vibe to something that’s new.”
There is also a rapidly growing amapiano scene in the UK where the music policy sticks fairly close to the sound’s South African roots. Parties like Dankie Sounds, Piano People, Red Hour, Abantu and Ama Fest cater to busy crowds in London, Ghana and South Africa, and curate showcases from Ibiza to Amsterdam. These events are a visual spectacle as much as a sonic experience, with on-stage dancers, themed dress codes and a strong emphasis on the audience’s self-expression. DJs like Charisse C, Mixolis, Nicky Summers, Ade Smilez, Kwamzy and Duo play side-by-side at events in London with visiting artists from the continent, and are part of a younger generation who have largely come into their own since the final UK lockdown ended. Again, it’s useful to see these DJs as part of an Afro house umbrella movement, because they don’t all strictly play amapiano – often dipping into other genres like gqom, Afro tech and deep house.
Having drawn on South African influences since the early 2000s, particularly via genres like tribal house and soulful house, there is another Afro house scene which is perhaps the longest established and historically most overlooked in the London underground. This is formed of collectives like Circle, The Originals, and Sounds of the Underground; nights like Soul Sure, House of Joy, and Soul Session; and DJs like Pioneer, Supa D, DJ Petchy, DJ Wigman, Antony Ranz, Kismet, DJ IC, Antonio Pascal, Angie B and countless more. These DJs have a musical history that runs through many iterations of London’s dance genres, from grime and garage all the way back to jungle – but they have all converged on percussive-focused forms of house music.
Around 2007, this scene gave rise to UK funky, which was London’s DIY reimagining of the broken beat, tribal and funky house sounds that DJs had long been playing in the underground circuit. By the 2010s, with UK funky’s so-called ‘nursery rhyme skanks,’ music media erasure, and lack of label infrastructure causing its popularity to wane, London’s house DJs and ravers turned to bass-heavy variants of deep and tech-house instead, which became known as ‘deep tech’. Deep tech adopted some of the syncopation of UK funky in its basslines, but was an overall more robotic, on-the-grid sound than its soulful, tribal and funky house precedents, trading organic percussion for a more pared back and mechanical rhythm section.
Now, alongside the still-simmering popularity of deep tech, much of London’s underground house ravers are gravitating once more to Afro house sounds. DJs are blending funky and soulful house with amapiano and amapiano-influenced UK productions. DJ SP tells me the resurgent popularity of these sounds has connected with the same crowds who went out to places like Fridge Bar, Brixton, which was a foundational club for UK funky in the late 2000s. “I feel like there’s a cultural and a generational thing going on. For the older ravers it’s what’s most similar to what we first started listening to, with UK funky, until it went quite techy. It’s come back around full circle, but this time with the influence of amapiano and a lot more UK producers.”
Supa D also describes it as a “full circle” moment, telling me that the Afro house scene he’s part of “was always there, but now everyone’s jumped back on it, and that’s ultimately rebirthed it again. Loads of us didn’t give up on it, basically. Sometimes it’s about doing what you believe in – and when there’s good quality music out there, you can’t go wrong.”
As part of this rebirth, there has been a burst of new club nights in London’s house music ecosystem – like Decibel, Ambience, House Memoirs, Da Dungeon LDN, The Jungle, Antidote and Awoken to name just a few. A fresh crew of DJs are breaking through (or returning) and forming their own collectives, and producers are running amapiano influences through the UK’s palimpsestic bass music history. Much of the underground energy seems to be emanating from Supa D’s corner: the Afro house scene that blends soulful and funky house with amapiano. But this scene has points of overlap with the younger generation amapiano scene, the Afro tech scene, and the crossover scene of the former-UK funky artists too.
Sounds like London
Supa D’s houSupa has been an event brand for many years, but in 2019, wanting to platform the producers around him and grow the scene further, he launched a label of the same name. Since then, it’s rapidly become a flagship imprint for soulful, amapiano and Afro house sounds emanating from the UK. Supa D and Mr Taffa’s ‘AMA’ remix of LushKells and D.Tee in De Party’s ‘King & Queen’ was the first tune to blow up – a sweet singalong anthem that combines the springy log drum bass of amapiano with the forward momentum of funky house. Representing the more underground, grimey side of houSupa are Scotti Dee’s bass-focused rollers, like ‘Lost in Abyss’, ‘1234’ and ‘Sea Moss,’ and Mr Taffa’s energetic tech-house infused bangers, like ‘Safari’ and ‘Roll Da Bass’. As Supa D points out, you can hear the UK’s underground subgenres filtering through much of the label’s output, alongside the South African influences. “It’s amapiano, Afro house, but a UK style of it – it’s still got that UK-ness.”
The “UK-ness” partly arises from a soundsystem sensibility that prioritises bass and its vibe-altering capacities. The collective that make up the label – including Coldsteps, Scotti Dee, Truce and more – have a long history in London’s music culture that stretches through family backgrounds into reggae dancehall, brought to the UK by West Indian soundsystem DJs. Although the genre’s roots are in South Africa, the bass focus of amapiano readily connects with this soundsystem lineage. “My dad owned a soundsystem,” Supa D explains. “When I was growing up, coming from the soundsystem background, heavy basslines always created that vibe that people love. A lot of ama tracks are bass-driven. When it hits you, and you’ve got a proper system, you can’t really go round it.”
In early 2019, Supa D, Pioneer, Antony Ranz, Truce and Kismet were some of the first DJs to break amapiano’s basslines to London crowds at nights like Afrotized, blending fresh tracks from South Africa, like MDU aka TRP’s ‘Sghubu,’ with soulful and funky house classics from the US and UK. As Supa explains, to make amapiano tracks work in their sets, they needed to speed them up. “We were making it fit into what we play and how we play. That’s where we might do things differently compared to the SA DJs, where everything is set at one tempo. We would jumble and mix it up, and make it work in our world and our vibe.”
The way houSupa’s producers blend sounds to create this “UK-ness” owes a lot to this style of DJing – creating a cultural and musical meeting point between house styles from South Africa, Europe, the UK and the US. It’s a formula with historical precedents: much the same way UK producers created their own sped-up and stripped-back version of US garage, producers surrounding houSupa began incorporating elements of amapiano into their more up-tempo funky and Afro house tracks.
Marcus Damon perhaps sums up the process best with one of his track titles – ‘Sounds Like London’. He’s also a producer who expertly holds together hybrid styles and outputs, releasing on houSupa, Club Djembe, his own imprint Damonised Music, and through his collective Lekker (co-run with Tabs and Martell). The two tracks that launched his recent rise are ‘Momentum’ and ‘Pussy Fairy.’ ‘Momentum’ is perfectly primed to call back to early UK funky in the “full circle” moment Supa D refers to. The track layers a sample of Yonurican’s ‘Boriken Soul’ (a late 2000s New York house track that was reappropriated as a UK funky anthem) over an updated, amapiano-inspired rhythm section. ‘Pussy Fairy’ sees him collaborate with unsung house legend Antony Ranz to extend UK underground club music’s commitment to steamy R&B vocals, crossing Jhené Aiko’s acapella with a lilting, techy bassline.
Both Marcus Damon and Supa D tell me that the UK’s hybrid Afro house sound has come out of producers learning something new – trying to recreate South Africa’s subgenres, but missing the mark in a productive way. “I feel like, in 2020,” Marcus says, “everyone was still learning about this amapiano sound. So there were people making crossovers.” Supa D says that it’s been a transitional phase, where UK producers were “getting influence from SA but making it their own.”
As Golden Lady points out, when people in London talk about “ama”, they’re often talking about this hybrid sound, rather than amapiano in its native form. Some UK producers have built more faithful recreations of South African amapiano and Afro tech. On houSupa, releases by Truce, DJ IC and Maestro stay closer to the source material. Looking beyond, artists like Kwamzy and Growzie have released a wealth of tightly produced music that explores African house styles on their respective Bandcamp pages, with a keen ear for the details developing from South Africa.
For the South London-based Growzie, his initial encounter with the music – hearing it first-hand in South Africa, rather than at club nights down the road – inspired him to work more closely with the original sounds. Travelling to South Africa in 2019 to see family, he went to a street party in Durban, where he heard gqom and amapiano for the first time. “I’ve gone there and I’ve seen a DJ playing some heavy-hitting music, and I’m like – this sounds like grime, but it’s South African grime to me, because it’s underground,” Growzie explains. “I was listening to it, I’m hearing the drums and the bassline, and I’m like, what?! Everyone is dancing around me, and my head is exploding with ideas and thoughts, like – I want to make this.”
Growzie puts his own twist on the influences – bringing in video game and film samples, and flipping unexpected classics – but at heart he’s a student of the South African sounds, reeling off subgenre names as we speak, like Private School, Bacardi, Sgija and Bique. He showcases these at events like Amapiano Brunch, which draws sharply dressed crowds in central London.
There are other UK producers and labels that have been creating hybrid amapiano, UK funky and Afro house sounds in recent years, which you’d be more likely to hear in sets from DJs associated with the later developments of UK funky – like KG, Scratcha, Sir Salem and Marcus Nasty.
Drmzu, run by the old-school underground garage DJ Funky Smith, have been dropping a steady stream of chunky Afro house rollers from secretive artists like Sanaa, Kaang and IAMPocks. GRNDOU7 REKORDZ has a whole host of bootlegs and diamond-in-the-rough refixes on Bandcamp. Mista Mos has proven himself to be a one-man powerhouse of new music, releasing jacking UK funky tracks laced with soundsystem samples on his HSEWRKS and 3DOM MUSIC imprints. And European 305 have been pushing refined and harmony-focused tracks under their ‘funkyama’ subgenre.
The label Devine UK, headed up by Mad One, is responsible for people’s favourites that you hear both in crossover, grimey UK funky sets, and in the more soulful, funky house and amapiano focused London scene. Although dense with log drums, Devine UK releases tend to feature heavier kicks and more hyperactive basslines than their amapiano influences. The sounds are comparable to Hyperdub’s recent releases from Fiyahdred and Ikonika.
These similarities come from Mad One’s background in dark-side UK funky. In the late 2000s, after a long stint producing grime (including uncredited instrumentals on seminal underground mixtapes), Mad One went back to his roots and dropped a track inspired by the syncopated drum patterns of early garage – ‘House Girls’. With its punchy stabs and growling subs, it quickly became an underground anthem after Marcus Nasty started playing it out in Ayia Napa.
Fast forward a decade and, after Mad One took a break from music to concentrate on working and family life, it was once again Marcus Nasty who put his tracks back into focus – inviting him on Flex FM in 2020. Re-energised, Mad One got back in the studio and produced a series of new bangers containing his trademark piano chords and gritty basslines, including ‘Triblenatic’, a bulked-up 2021 rework of ‘House Girls’, and his slinky flip of Tems’ ‘Found’. “Everything just kicked in place again,” Mad One tells me, “I was getting bare love. That was when I said to myself – let me give this one more shot.”
The New Shift
Perhaps unexpectedly, the UK’s multiple lockdowns seem to have benefitted different pockets of the Afro house movement in certain ways – particularly the underground London scene focused on blending soulful, funky house and amapiano. DJ SP is part of a new wave of ravers-turned-DJs who have quickly become regular names on the scene after previously taking in the sounds from the dancefloor. “Lockdown gave a lot of people, including myself, the opportunity to explore DJing,” she tells me, “whereas before they might not have had the time because of work and other commitments.”
With a complete disruption to the normal practices of the events industry during lockdowns, new DJs turned to livestreaming. At that time, many people were seeking out communal, even therapeutic experiences of music that connected to them on more personal and emotional levels, instead of tuning into the established names you’d usually find on event line-ups. “People who had been DJing before,” DJ SP says, “had probably been used to getting paid for DJing – that’s their job. Whereas us who had started out during lockdown, we were doing it just for fun, which brought a different element and vibe to it.”
If you watch one of Mad One’s Congregation Room livestreams, which he continues today, every DJ or their host is on the mic, shouting out everyone dropping comments and fire emojis. The viewers are mostly regulars, friends and fellow DJs, recognising and hyping up each new production. It’s music as a collaborative outlet, a scene-building ritual, where everyone is participating. It’s also, as Mad One says, about positive vibes and energy – “that’s what Devine UK stands for – love, peace, unity, and ‘feel-good.’”
Sir Salem, Nique J, Porsh and DJ SP all made connections and friendships in London’s house music scenes through these lockdown livestreams. “A lot of my friends weren’t really into house music,” Porsh tells me. “So to make friends online and know that they enjoy the same music – it was a sense of community. We all started talking through Instagram and group chats and things like that. Since we’ve come out of lockdown we’ve become friends and we go out to raves together.”
The sense of community that was maintained through livestreams, and the ability for DJs and collectives to build audiences without taking risks on event spaces, laid the foundations for many new club nights to spring up post-lockdown. Glamzino’s House Memoirs began as a multi-genre livestream, and has now launched as a night at Jungle Bar, Brixton, bringing together both established and more up-and-coming DJs from the soulful, funky house and amapiano scene. Marcus Damon, Tabs and Martell featured on various livestreams representing their collective Lekker during the pandemic, and are now packing out dancefloors at Boxpark Croydon.
Porsh recently started The Jungle with ShoTime, a night that focuses on deep and spiritual Afro tech sounds. She tells me that the lockdowns also had the effect of bringing more women and a more musically diverse group of people into London’s house music ecosystem. “It made a much-needed change in this London scene. Because I’ll have to admit, when I used to go raving it was the same names I’d be seeing, and there was the same type of events.” In particular, she explains, there are “a lot of females coming through now. That’s been a much needed change as well. It’s created this new shift.”
DJ SP launched her night, Antidote, in late 2022, featuring PAs from LushKells and Mei-Sing alongside DJs like Angie B, Nique J, Porsh, Louise G and more. Though she’s keen to see more variety “and more women on line-ups too,” this isn’t the stated aim of Antidote. “We’re DJs in our own right, and we don’t have to be saying ‘all-female’ and all that stuff.”
The first Antidote events have taken place in Pop Brixton, also home to houSupa’s new label showcase night, This is houSupa. DJ SP tells me that Pop has provided a good space to introduce new audiences to the hybrid funky house and amapiano music being made by UK producers. “You see everyone when you’re down there. It’s very casual - people come as they are and hold a vibe. You get people who have come in after work and people who are specifically coming down for that event. So you get a nice mixture.”
Peckham Audio is another key venue for multiple Afro house scenes. Its moody red lights, sunken dancefloor and weighty soundsystem provide a home for Scotti Dee and Taffa’s monthly night Awoken, which showcases heavy hitters in the soulful house, funky and amapiano scene, consistently selling out advance tickets. The club also plays host to Looney Choonz, founded by RJ, who DJs alongside guests and residents Ronnie Loko, Sir Salem and DJ Play. RJ tells me that Peckham Audio’s management are particularly open to up-and-coming events, which explains why it’s been so integral to these developing scenes. “The setup is epic and the sound engineers are really switched on – any minor issue, they’re on it straightaway.”
DJs at Looney Choonz lean into the grimier, higher energy side of the UK funky and amapiano crossover sounds. Nique J, who has earned herself the title of ‘La Reina de #Unshazamble’ from Sir Salem and Growzie after taking up DJing in 2019, delves deep for hard-to-find tracks and creates her own edits for Looney Choonz’s open-minded audience. “Whether I’m playing or on the dancefloor,” Nique J explains, “it’s just the energy of the events. Every time they do one it’s always a different feeling that you leave with, a different high that you’re on.”
The main message
The boundaries between London’s Afro house scenes are not hard and fast. DJs, sounds and popular tracks move between the Afro tech scene, the former UK funky crossover scene, the new amapiano scene, and the longstanding funky, amapiano and soulful house scene. But there is a sense among some that there is more room for collaboration and unity. “I like how there are a lot of new faces – newcomers, new DJs, old DJs – they’re out there and they’re on the scene,” Sir Salem tells me. “But I honestly feel that with certain brands, they’re not branching out as much. They just keep it in-house.”
Growzie urges everyone to think bigger, saying that London’s DJs and producers “need to reunite… to build something.” Looking at South Africa’s amapiano scenes, where there are routinely five or more artist names bound together on a single track, Growzie sees “more of a free-flowing behaviour when it comes to collaborating” that the UK currently lacks. “South Africa showed us something that the UK still isn’t doing right now – unity.” Scratcha echoes this vision in the context of live events, imagining the potential to bring UK Afro house scenes together into more of a unified umbrella movement – something like drum ‘n’ bass, with all its styles and subgenres, for African-inspired house music in London. “There are all these different scenes, doing the same thing,” Scratcha says, “but when it comes to dances, I feel like it could be greater if everything was going on under one roof.”
There may be reasons that people want to work somewhat independently. Due to amapiano’s huge growth in popularity, some DJs feel that the deeper, slower burning Afro house and Afro tech sounds are being overshadowed, and London’s audiences aren’t as receptive to them because they’re less well-known. Porsh tells me that, on mixed genre line-ups, “I’ve found that I’m the only one that plays the Afro tech sound. I’m very mindful that the vast majority of people coming to these events – they love amapiano. So that’s what they want to hear.” One of the reasons she has started The Jungle is to build people’s familiarity with deeper Afro tech sounds.
There’s also a certain amount of protection, or curation (depending on how you look at it), involved in developing and maintaining a sound with a strong following. Supa D explains that UK funky lost its way – and its underground audience – when it became too gimmicky, trying to hit the charts with singalong skanks. “Now, there has to be quality control. If it’s gimmicky, then it can go left.”
When it comes to drawing influence from amapiano, Supa D emphasises houSupa’s collective respect for the South African sound’s roots. If the TikTok-primed dance-trend tracks come from South Africa, Supa tells me, that’s fine. “But with us doing it, anything that we come with has to be proper, because we’ve got more to prove. Over there they’ve got so much talent, it’s effortless. Here, we’re trying to feed off their vibe and create our own, so you have to respect it.” Nonetheless, Supa D is confident that everyone is “more or less on that same wavelength now. Everyone’s advanced since the funky days.”
With that said about separation, there are places where London’s Afro house scenes are already drawing together and naturally cross-pollinating. Da Dungeon LDN book Afro tech DJs like INTUIT, hybrid soulful house DJs like Antony Ranz, and amapiano specialists like Mixolis all on the same line-ups, and they collaborated with Ama Fest in 2022 to run its third stage: an open-top double decker bus blasting out the latest underground heaters from Marcus Damon and Sir Salem alongside deep amapiano and Afro house selections from Larizzle and Golden Lady. Dankie Sounds – who have had a meteoric rise since starting up post-lockdown – equally seem to draw from all scenes for their Dankie Rooms events, putting South African DJ Melzi and London Afro house veteran Kismet on the bill with upcoming duo Tashwayy Sounds.
New, burgeoning night Everything is Rhythm have made it part of its mission statement to bring every aspect of London’s house music underground – amapiano, Afro tech, UK funky, soulful house, deep tech – into one event. Sir Salem reserves a lot of praise for this mindset. “That’s the main message – that everyone should be bringing each and every person to the same table. Everyone’s going to have their own fanbase, but why can’t everybody also join and grow?”
It’s promising to hear rising DJs talking about shaking things up with collectivist outlooks, holding out a love of music and DJ culture that has thrived through multiple lockdowns. Fresh club sounds continue to bubble up unexpectedly from the underground: South Africa’s township producers have inspired novel sonic connections in the UK, bringing sub-heavy log drum experimentation into London’s house music ecosystem. Slotting into London’s soulful and funky-indebted Afro house scene, partly via soundsystem culture, amapiano’s rise has inspired a wave of hybrid UK productions traversing scenes and outpacing simple categorisation. Keeping all the potential points of crossover in mind, there are still many new seams to be stitched into the Afro house umbrella movement.
NKC is a writer, DJ, producer and founder of the Even The Strong label, follow him on Twitter