Walls of ever-changing lights run down both sides of the room, creating a psychedelic effect that’s enough to stop you dead in your tracks. But the crowd shows no sign of stopping: several thousand of them, enraptured by tonight’s DJs, Kerri Chandler and Chez Damier.
One of the most diverse audiences to be seen on a UK dancefloor, they are variously black, white and brown, range in age from mid-20s to late 40s and if mainly British, also feature pilgrims from all corners of the globe. They are united in the width of their smiles, the glint in their eyes, when they sing without prompt and when they dance as one. Arms aloft, they reach for a spirit that undoubtedly inhabits this room. If it wasn’t for the skillful visual machinery, not to mention the pounding disco, vocal and deep house, this would feel like being in the midst of some evangelical church.
This is Friday, the first night of the 52nd Southport Weekender, and the 5,500 people here have just embarked on what will be an emotional experience. Many are longstanding attendees who have met and made lifelong friends, or even partners, at the event. But amid the joy runs an element of sadness: after 28 years, the organisers have announced that this Southport Weekender will be the last.
“I can’t believe it,” one dancer, a mother from Manchester tells us. She’s here this weekend with friends and her daughter. “There’s nowhere like this place. I’ve been coming for over 15 years, I’ve introduced friends to the event and many have then introduced others. What’ll we do now?”
Thankfully the sadness is forgotten, for a while at least, as Chandler and Damier start to channel that special Southport Weekender feeling. “He has so much energy, he’s amazing,” Damier tells us as he admires the evergreen New York producer/DJ, close friend and back-to-back DJ partner for the next four hours. “I just have to remember to not talk much to him because he’s in the motherfucking zone,” he laughs.Indeed, Chandler is constantly on the move; when not DJing, he’s adding live keys to Damier’s selections. When David Morales arrives on stage unannounced, Chandler invites him to EQ the version of ‘Lovin’ Is Really My Game’ he’s playing.
Such is his popularity, Kerri has become practically a Southport Weekender resident, almost ever-present in the last decade’s line-ups. An engineer at heart, he is often seen running between rooms, tweaking the sound for other DJs– always beneficially. Damier kicks things off with a remix of a 1980s African dance track, ‘Yembele’ by Samba Mapangala. It’s a curveball for a 2,000-capacity room used to house and disco.”That’s the fun part of playing back-to-back,” says Chandler, delighting in his friend’s bold selection: “not knowing where it’s going to go.”Damier quickly moves into the room’s comfort zone with the Tedd Patterson mix of Black Science Orchestra’s ‘Where Were You’, its fathomless bassline an echo of the material released on Prescription Records, the deep house label Damier ran with Ron Trent in the 90s. Trent, who plays the night after, can be seen by the side of the stage, smiling and nodding approvingly as Damier drops the François K mix of ‘Go Bang’ by Dinosaur L. Later, Chandler moves through more techno-edged selections that recall relatively recent collabs with Dennis Ferrer and Jerome Sydenham. Ancient deep house cuts such as Marshall Jefferson Presents Truth ‘Open Our Eyes’ get audible yelps of approval from the crowd.
Southport Weekender was founded in 1987 by soul fan Alex Lowes, who envisaged a northern music weekend similar to the soul events then popular in the south, but with a more progressive music policy. The event has showcased hip hop and r’n’b, disco, Latin, African music, reggae, techno, jazz and leftfield dance with with Gangstarr, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Chaka Khan and Faith Evans among past guests. But it is with deep and vocal house that the event has become best known. “Back in ’87, when Southport first started, I was playing clubs in New York,” says Chandler, who’s been DJing since he was 13. “I was recording my first records.” “I was running my first club, the Music Institute in Detroit,” says Chez.
The Music Institute only ran between ’88 and ’90, but its importance cannot be overstated. With Derrick May as main DJ, it became a focal point for Detroit’s embryonic techno scene, bringing the studio-produced music of Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and May to the streets of their peers and inspiring much of Detroit’s second wave like Carl Craig and Underground Resistance. After it ended, Damier moved to New York to run the office of Saunderson’s KMS label, where he first met Chandler. “We’re the same age, but I felt like such a child under him,” Damier says. “Kerri was the only one who looked like he knew what he was doing. I think the rest of us were just trying.”
While visiting family back in Chicago, Damier was introduced to Ron Trent, a prodigious music talent who had produced the anthemic ‘Altered States’ aged just 17. They hit it off. Damier and Trent’s first collaborative efforts, such as ‘The Choice’, were issued in the final days of KMS. “We did a deal with Kevin to take over his studio and we lived there,” Damier tells me, “that’s how we started Prescription.” Spirited, epic and sonically unique, Prescription Records and its sub-label Balance (which Damier still runs) not only defines what deep house truly is, it remains a blueprint for what the genre, now so often used as a catch-all term for anything that’s not techno or EDM, can still be.
By comparison, Chandler’s well-documented career saw him acting as a loner. He founded Madhouse, his first label, in the early 90s. He’s since worked ceaselessly, producing an evolving catalogue that is without parallel that has helped define New York’s distinct house sound.”Because Kerri is a bona fide DJ he realises you’ve got to change with the times,” says Damier. “We grew up with Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna – people who had to keep reinventing themselves. Kerri’s one of the few who have managed to reinvent himself in house music and do it successfully.”
As relevant now as he was 20 years ago (catch him at DC10 again this summer), Chandler’s profile, unlike many of his early peers, has never been higher.But the same cannot be said for the weekend’s festivities. Throughout its tenure as the UK’s premier black music event, Southport Weekender has showcased the vital contribution of black American house DJs and producers to the now global dance music sound. From pioneering guest DJ invites and live sets from the likes of Fingers Inc, through the 1990s’ popularity peak of vocal house, the event’s soul roots ensured that this truest version of house music was supported.
This dedication delighted its existing audience, but worked to the event’s detriment. Southport Weekender and its music became old hat. Media outlets wouldn’t cover it when there were bacchanalian German clubs or new European sub-genres to be freshly mined. New recruits arrived solely via word of mouth, and ultimately that wasn’t enough. As its core audience aged, got mortgages and had kids, some started to drop out and weren’t replaced. The event went from running twice yearly in its 1990s peak to facing a huge debt through lack of sales this year, resulting in the announcement that this is to be the last – the tragic irony being that this has happened at a time of unmatched hunger for real, authentic house music.
Original feature from Mixmag