An Oral History of Plastic People
This January gone, London’s best small club closed its doors for the last time.
Plastic People opened in the 1990s on Oxford Street, eventually hosting seminal nights like Erol Alkan’s Trash. For most people however, it’s the club’s second life on Shoreditch’s Curtain Road that will last longest in the memory: home of important nights like FWD>>, CDR and Co-Op, and residencies by DJs like Theo Parrish, Carl Craig, Four Tet and Floating Points, who became a crucial part of the club’s fabric in its later years, helping keep its famed sound system in check after various layout rearrangements. It’s also the location that witnessed most of Plastic People’s drama: in 2010, the club’s licence was under threat from police, prompting a mass petition and forcing sound restrictions on the venue.
This isn’t the first time that Plastic People has been eulogised, and it won’t be the last. Most pieces, however, seem to only focus on one of the things that made Plastic People great – the sound system, the darkness, the role it played in dubstep’s development. The fact is, you could ditch FWD>> (or Co-Op, or CDR) and Plastics would have still been great. Even after the smoking ban and volume restrictions, once the booth went back to the right place it was still a great set-up. It didn’t rely on just one factor, just as it didn’t rely on one community; from the much-touted Co-Op, FWD>>, Balance, Nonsense, Trash and CDR nights to sporadic oddities like Loefah and The Bug’s Bash and one-off midweek noise shows, you could go to Plastics any night of the week and feel like you fitted in – whether it was soundtracked by Detroit greats or barely-on-the-radar Balearic heads.
In keeping with this, we spoke to people from various periods and communities on Plastic People’s timeline: CDR’s Tony Nwachukwu; Co-Op’s Seiji, Dego and IG Culture; Alexander Nut, a regular at the club both as a dancer and with Eglo, the label he co-runs with Floating Points; NTS DJ Jon Rust, who worked the bar and regularly saw how the club’s atmosphere developed from the first record to the last; Steve Spacek and Trash founder Erol Alkan, both regulars at the club’s 1990s home on Oxford Street; Lukid, who co-ran the sporadic Thriller nights with Actress; Butterz Records’ Elijah; and Cedric ‘Woo’ Lassonde, who attended and DJed at the club so regularly that he got married there.
There are other stories to tell, of course: the club’s founder Abdul ‘Ade’ Forsyth and Floating Points have already said their piece, as has Four Tet and Nonsense’s Benny Blanco, who was behind the petition to save the club in 2010. Club manager Charlotte Kepel meanwhile, as important as anyone in the club’s later years, has simply stated that “the time felt right to move on” and is yet to comment further. Some of the specifics behind 2010’s issues and 2015’s closure will never be told. What follows is why the club mattered, from a cross-section of its various communities, as well as thoughts on the future of London clubbing with it – and many of the city’s other clubs – shutting so recently.
All photography comes from Plastic People regular Georgina Cook, with the exception of the Fatima and Alexander Nut photos, both provided by Nut.
“I walked into the club for the first time to be greeted by Fela Kuti’s ‘Upside Down’. Very good start.”
Dego: I first went to Plastic People as a DJ, I was invited to play by Ade himself on his Balance night. This was when it was on Oxford Street. But I used to rave there before Ade got it. That was back when it was called Spats, when b-boys, b-girls and jazz dancers ruled hard in the 1980s.
Steve Spacek: My first memory of it is on Oxford Street. Near the circus, facing north, heading towards TTC, on the right hand side. That’s how I remember it. And when they moved to Old Street I was confused. I couldn’t get the connection. It was a good thing though. In the early days, when we mixed in the studio, in our minds we were imagining how it would sound in Plastic People. For the Spacek stuff, that was a reference for us. It was always. Even to this day. I still think like that sometimes, what would this sound like if I played it in Plastic People? Back in the day myself, Morgan [Zarate] and Jay Scarlett had the Istick night there too, we’d bring the MPCs and laptops down there, put them in the middle of the dancefloor and make beats up.
Erol Alkan: I remember going to Plastic People around late ’94 or ’95, when our friend ran a night called Going Underground. I remember the booth being raised by the entrance, you needed a step ladder to get up there, and there were no lights, a series of pillars and a carpet around the dancefloor which you needed to step down into. The sound system was better than most clubs we went to, and back then we would go to around two clubs a night, seven days a week. Within a couple of months I’d been asked to DJ there so I got to know Ade, Bernard, and Stravick who worked on the door.
Cedric Woo: In November 2000, I walked into the club for the first time to be greeted by Fela Kuti’s ‘Upside Down’ on a Friday night. Very good start. Ade played [Marvin Gaye’s] ‘What’s Going On’ at 3am on New Year’s Day that year. Not only did I never expect to hear it in a club, but it sounded incredible, shivers down the spine business. To say this was a life-changing moment is not an understatement.
Alexander Nut: I first attended Plastic People as a punter – I was going there for a couple of years before I got the opportunity to put a needle to record. I think FWD>> was the first night I went to there, around 2005, when it was on a Thursday, but once I got familiar with the place I just used to turn up to random stuff. The system and the space was kind of addictive.
Jon Rust: The first time I actually stepped into the place was as a clubber, one Thursday in April 2004. The door staff were very friendly. That’s generally a good sign. I remember the first face I saw at the bottom of the stairs was Oris Jay – aka Darqwan, dark garage don. All the way from Sheffield, for a Thursday night! That was the kind of gravity the place had: it really felt like the centre of the universe.
Tony Nwachukwu: With CDR I wanted to create a platform, or space, for this kind of concept – thinking about a night with no headliners, no need to play all banging tunes – let’s just make it about the music, new music. A lot of us make music in isolation, and are very protective about ideas, shy about things like “it’s not quite finished yet, so I don’t want to share it”. So I wanted to do something that was the opposite of all that, and there’s something quite powerful about a space where it’s all about the ideas developing, and seeing how that happens. I had no idea how it would turn out, what the outcome would be, I just wanted to make it happen.
Seiji: Honestly I can’t remember the first time. What I remember was what a nice surprise it was being in this dark cave with one red lightbulb, more minimalistic than what I’d experienced before, very cool. And obviously the incredible sound system. Having proper CDJs was a luxury back then too. Although it might sound like heresy, at the time it was great to not have to cut dubplates anymore. Playing there was unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else, but that was down to Co-Op.
Lukid: Thriller was originally a label started by Actress, on which I did a 12″ and for which my friend Davin [Gormley] did all the design work. Davin tragically passed away five years ago and at some point it was agreed that it would only be right to have some kind of memorial rave in his honour. It ended up being a semi-regular night there, perhaps once or twice a year. The line-ups were unannounced and were irrelevant really as it was more of a friends and family type thing. Davin was a Plastic People regular – it was him, my brother Sam and Paul Camo who introduced me to PP and who I first started to go there regularly with, mostly to the Theo Parrish nights which remain up there with my favourite musical experiences. It made perfect sense that it should be the venue, we wouldn’t have done it anywhere else.
Tony Nwachukwu: CDR was about giving these isolated people a home, in the same way that Plastics was a home for us, where you could turn up every night and know the music was going to be of a certain standard, an aesthetic you had a connection with. And also striking the right balance between education and entertainment. Every night you went there was always an “oh shit! What the fuck was that?” moment.
“There was a family vibe going on that was really inclusive because with such a small space everyone knew each other: the DJs, club staff, dancers, nerds, everyone.”
Elijah: I went to FWD>> most weeks between 2007 and when it stopped there. The day changed a few times, from Friday, to Thursday, to Sunday then back to Thursday. My favourite sessions were probably the Sundays out of those though, it wasn’t as rammed, but still had the best DJs playing alongside each other, and there were never any other options on Sunday.
Dego: I don’t remember what it was like the first time I played at Balance on Oxford Street. Now the first time I spun at Plastic People in Shoreditch I do remember. We had moved Co-Op from Velvet Rooms and the sound could not be compared. I could never play dub CDs at Velvet but at Plastic it was all balanced correctly and we could throw down unreleased material and test new ideas on the night. I held some nasty mixes in Plastic and felt confident enough to not even bother cueing shit on some occasions.
Erol Alkan: By late 1996 Glyn decided he didn’t want to continue and Ade asked if I would be interested in creating my own night. By then I’d DJed in almost every alternative club London had to offer, so I knew what I would want to do if I had charge for my own party. The only reason I agreed was because I trusted Ade wouldn’t judge me too severely if it didn’t do well enough, and he was as I’d hoped: patient, encouraging and above all a music fan, happy to have something different to most other nights. Our first night attracted 60 people, but it built steadily, and by summer we were sold out 15 minutes after opening the doors.
Tony Nwachukwu: CDR nights weren’t mass promoted. Only heads knew it about it really. So if you knew about this place where you could play your tunes, you came down. It was a great filter in that way too, in terms of the people who came. We did very little marketing back then.
Alexander Nut: I went to FWD>> pretty regular back then but I’d also pass through Lost, Bash, Co-Op and Theo on a whim before I actually knew what any of it was. There was tons of no name, random nights there: Floss, A-Cyde, Charlie Dark… they’d be playing at random stuff their all the time. I used to check out the Spine magazine website, and I’d see all these nights advertised there, like the James Brown parties or the Black Pocket night, so I’d turn up to those things not really knowing anyone. I started my Rinse show in 2007 and through that I started to play FWD>>, that was the first times I played there.
Seiji: Co-Op was almost an entire scene in one club, and although the music spread internationally very quickly, really the broken beat scene happened there in a way that it couldn’t anywhere else. There was definitely a family vibe going on that was really inclusive because with such a small space everyone knew each other: the DJs, club staff, dancers, nerds, everyone. It was a really mixed crowd, different generations, classes, colours. It feels cliched to even have to say that, but clubs in London became really monocultural in recent years.
Jon Rust: First time I played at Fabric was for FWD>>, filling in last minute for D1. I was with Soulja when Dean [D1] called to say he couldn’t make it. Maybe a case of right place, right time, but I was already playing on Rinse at the time, so it was a progression. I was gassed. It really was peak time for that sound, dubstep was about to blow – each week there was a queue of people waiting at the door to get in from the start of the night.
Cedric Woo: From 2000 to 2007 I was going to Plastic People religiously, week in week out on Saturdays for Ade’s Balance night. We had a family that bonded there, for us it was the right hand corner by the booth. This is where I grew up musically, where I discovered you could play Pharaoh Sanders next to Metro Area next to Milton Nascimento next to Mos Def. One of Ade’s aims was to always surprise the dancers, to avoid getting them too comfortable (“you wanna hear some disco? Let’s play this Nat Adderley Septet instead!”). This is what had the biggest impact on me as a DJ: what is important isn’t how you can keep a groove or tempo for a couple hours, it is the unexpected changes in the selection and programming that you always remember… when they work!
Alexander Nut: One Sunday I was passing through Shoreditch and I bumped into Mr. Beatnick, he took me to my first CDR session. Soon after all of that, Nonsense started up, and that’s when things really started to develop for me personally.
Jon Rust: I later cottoned on that Saturdays at Plastic were something extra special. Ade’s Balance was a real heads affair. The crowd was more mature and the spectrum of music you’d hear was nothing I’d ever experienced before. I remember hearing about it while still working with at Ammunition. Rat at Rinse had just started working behind the bar and I remember Zinc and Sarah Soulja asking what he thought of the music. “Best music in the entire world” was his reply. Rat was sparing with compliments, so that was all the recommendation I needed. I went the following Saturday and started working behind the bar soon after that. After working behind the bar there you didn’t really care to work at another club again. The levels just wouldn’t compare.
IG Culture: FWD>> had a lot to do with the collective of DJs and producers and the crowd, that ritual of coming to a party twice a month, the appreciation of the event and the realisation that you were part making the event dope. The vibes was heated, even from the early days. When Co-Op moved to Plastics we brought more of the same: bashment style entertainment, oddball music and bonkers party people.
Jon Rust: One of the unique pleasures of working in a club is being able to hear the night play through from the very first record to the last. Plastics was no exception. Hearing a DJ’s early doors selections, with just you, them and that sound system was real treat. Favourite opening track? Toru – formerly staff at Vinyl Junkies, now Reckless, Soho – playing Funkadelic’s ‘Tales of Kidd Funkadelic’.
Erol Alkan: There were no lights, you could barely see the dance floor at times. But it worked perfectly. We chose to make it as dark as possible.
Dego: I liked the fact the turntables were on the dancefloor and you could vibe with the people. The fact that it was pitch black apart from the orange light was great too. That brought it back to a blues dance environment, made people feel uninhibited to dance and also made folks listen more I believe.
Steve Spacek: My main memory is of being in there, it’s dark, everyone is getting down, no one is looking at anyone, not watching nothing except for the music and the DJ. And everyone’s enjoying the music together. That feeling of being in nirvana. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in terms of music and a club environment. It’s the best music I ever heard. It’s sounding the best I ever heard in a club. And everyone around is enjoying it, my friends, my crew, strangers. That’s what I remember Plastic for. The best club environment, hands down.
Lukid: When I think about favourite gigs and nights that I’ve been to it always comes back to this feeling – you can’t quite put your finger on it, but it is unmistakable – and it was something that I think was much easier to achieve in Plastic People than at any other venue. I’m obviously not the first to say it but the darkness made such a massive difference: not quite being able to see the DJ but just getting the hint of their silhouette bobbing to the music in front of the red light, and getting an impression of the movement of the crowd rather than being able to see individual gurners. Basically the vibe was ready made for you at Plastic People, all you had to do was play the right tunes.
Jon Rust: For me, Plastic’s set up was ideal: DJ on a level with the crowd, no fancy staging or dazzling light show, just an incredible sound system and a curtain you could draw at the back to help keep it as dark as possible. Even the mixer, which looked like a piece of garbage with faders and knobs missing, you fell in love with because it sounded great. The intimacy of the space lent itself to DJs playing, and people hearing, music in new ways.
Seiji: The way the booth was set up, as a DJ you were right in front of, if not on the dancefloor, and that massive sound in such a small room was almost too much. The space had something special, it was like a sanctuary where you felt like you were part of something unique, not easily available. This was before live streaming and all that, really even before the culture developed of instant commentary. And because it was a Sunday evening, finishing at 12, there was an extra intensity, you didn’t feel like you were going to drift off into a long night of memory loss, you had to be present, pay attention!
Alexander Nut: The first time I played there was at FWD>>, and it was the first time I’d ever used a mixer like that. That big red Formula Sound thing, it was like an oven placed between two Technics. It was also intimidating because you’d always have a line of people gathered around the booth watching your every move, and on top of that I was bringing a completely new sound to FWD>> – for want of a better description that wonky/beats stuff and future type of sounds. I was a bit paranoid people were gonna start throwing things at me or something, I’d never played in a club that loud before. It took me a couple years before I got used to it.
IG Culture: A good party is a good party. An open crowd who wants to party hard to left-of-center music without hype is becoming a rare thing, Plastic People was in the right place at the right time.
Jon Rust: The space was intimate and so nights often felt like family affairs. No wonder the connections people made there lasted. I first met Oneman flyering at the bottom of the stairs, Femi aka Mr Wonderful was a Nonsense resident, and when he started a radio station (NTS) I knew it would be something to be a part of. It’s also the first place I met Lord Tusk, whose music I ended up starting my own label with.
Alexander Nut: I’d been going to the place regularly, attending it like church. I knew it was a special place, like some kind of holy sanctuary. I’d never had that with a nightclub before, and at the time I didn’t really understand why.
Steve Spacek: The main reason was the sound system. They got that right, Ade locked it down. He was so into the sound. Some nights, near the end, as people filed out he’d get rid of the Technics and go into the little room behind the booth and get out these big german tables, I can’t remember who made them, they were thick, tall and heavy. Separate fader control, speed control, etc, you’d play the music on there, the sound of vinyl through that and then the system was insane. Just the whole fidelity thing, the love of sound in that spot was just mindblowing and breathtaking.
Erol Alkan: It was a great, intimate venue which was more focused on how DJs could communicate with the dancefloor rather then getting people through the door. I attribute part of Trash getting off the ground to Ade’s patience and not expecting us to sell as much alcohol as possible every week. That type of ethos resonates throughout somewhere like Plastic People. I also felt that later at The End. We were very lucky.
“I knew it was a special place, like some kind of holy sanctuary. I’d never had that with a nightclub before, and at the time I didn’t really understand why.”
Cedric Woo: In 2002 I got married there, like, for real. Sushi, cheese, champagne and my parents behind the bar, Alex and John DJing.
Elijah: I only played there for FWD>> and this was at a time when we would have been the only grime set on the line ups. We were usually playing alongside three other dubstep DJs so we never had to make as much of an effort to play different sets to anyone, but we did keep it really upfront. We were pretty much playing our current radio sets of the day, just live in front of people which meant raw unmastered tracks, demos and tunes we had never heard on a system before. Those crowds were more or less the same people that listened to our shows on Rinse FM, it felt really comfortable for us to grow as DJs.
Alexander Nut: I remember the first time James Blake played at FWD>> and the only people in the room were [Eglo singer] Fatima, Elijah and Skilliam and myself. In retrospect that was kinda crazy.
Cedric Woo: François K’s first two gigs at Plastic People were mind blowing. The first one is the stuff of legend, a party we still reminisce over more than 10 years later – some of us still remember all the records played that night (he finished with Pat Metheny’s ‘Are You Going With Me’). This is where he created the blueprint for his Deep Space parties he would start in NYC not long afterwards.
Alexander Nut: Another was the night of my Rinse CD launch, March 22 2009. The line up was Mark Pritchard, Youngsta, Joker and myself… but Joker never turned up. The smoking ban had already been introduced and I don’t know how we got away with it but people really went to town on the special smokes if you catch my drift. The air was thick and green, it was crazy. I played ‘Banana Zoo’, from the Class of 3000 cartoon and the place went off, thats a moment I’ll always remember. FWD>> going off to the theme music from a cartoon! The atmosphere was pretty electric.
Elijah: I keep referring to Plastic as a smokers’ club, because I remember the drastic difference between before and after the smoking ban came in. Before that, it was probably one of the most attentive audiences as the room was small and dark, there isn’t anywhere to go so people just got immersed in the music. When the smoking ban came in it made the dancefloor move a lot more, as people came in and out more often, went out for breaks and didn’t catch the whole of anyone’s sets. I think sometimes it put pressure, especially on the DJs on early to try and keep people on the floor. The best, or most confident guys just still did their thing regardless.
Lukid: Thriller was packed out with Davin’s friends and it turned in to some kind of mad emotionally charged sweaty rave, it was great. It had that thing that I experienced a lot in Plastic People which is a feeling of unity, when it seems as if everyone in the room is hearing the music in the same way. I hate to use the words ‘energy’ and ‘vibrating’ in the same sentence but it feels like there’s an ‘energy’ that is ‘vibrating’ through the room and lifting everyone up. And I don’t mean in some eggy D:Ream kinda way, it could be the darkest tune playing but there’d still be that vibe.
“Unless the kids take charge, London’s going to turn into a playground for the rich.”
Dego: I left Co-Op and only span when Ade or the Nonsense crew asked me. I got to warm up for Dilla because of Ade. It was the only time I met him in person.
IG Culture: Ade was willing to give a new night concessions, he understood that he had to take a chance. It wasn’t strictly about the name Plastic People, it was about building. There were many factors that made Plastic People work: obviously Ade’s drive, he was committed to making it work, but there were good labels around at the time, good promotion, and distribution of underground music as well, DJs who were really getting behind new music. When you’ve got a mix of energetic people involved in the music scene and put them in Plastic People for a night, if something don’t pop off then something’s wrong.
Steve Spacek: Ade made it special. He understood how we all appreciated sound and the feeling of music. Whenever he would jump on and play music he’d go everywhere. It was just a really good home to hear things the way they’re supposed to be heard in a club environment. It was such an amazing environment.
Jon Rust: I think the club’s unique legacy lies in the way it played incubator to so many scenes. Of course, there was FWD>> with dubstep and grime. Most broken beat had been made for Co-Op. CDR had a novel concept that offered producers a chance to road test material outside the usual protocols of getting your music to a DJ. Legendary techno promoters LOST ran an offshoot night, Spacebase. The Voice Collective, even the indie dance kids had Our Disco. Meanwhile, nights such as Nonsense or Gulliver ran much looser music policies, but in doing so, reflected how people were no longer expecting to hear one genre all night long. Others were even more militant and future thinking. Selom (aka Floss Daily, one half of Teens of Thailand with Dean Blunt) ran nights that were way ahead of their time, introducing people to the likes of Actress, Lukid, Tapes, Cherrystones.
Tony Nwachukwu: What’s been fantastic about Plastic People closing is being reminded of what’s important – more than ever. Playing the closing party the other week, on Saturday, with Ade, part of me wondered “maybe I should just stop CDR right here, tonight, cause it’ll never be the same.”
Elijah: The community made it, man. When people are reading this, they might think “it’s just a room with a sound system, how epic can it be?”. It was the people in there that made it special. When we used to go FWD>> it would be mainly other artists watching you play. Some known at the time, and others that broke out much later. So you could have been chatting to someone randomly five years ago in there, then you see a post on a site like yours, and the face looks familiar. You think, “man, this was really a place that a lot of talent passed through and soaked up”.
Tony Nwachukwu: Club culture always evolves and change is always happening. People get older, they get more responsibility, families, and you have to make financial decisions, especially if music doesn’t pay your bills. With Plastics, if you map the musical output, the producers, and the changing area … I mean Old Street was the heart of London from 1994 to around 2005. From 2005 onwards, things began to move further east … One ecosystem was replaced by another, and to me, that was the shift.
Dego: Good venues are owned and managed by people that love the music, entertainment and vibes and wish to contribute to London. All I have seen of late are people solely out to take from London’s rep. Know this: accountants have never done anything great creatively! Unless the kids take charge it’s going to turn into a playground for the rich.
Seiji: I live in Vienna now, I’ve not been enjoying the direction London life has taken generally in recent years. The best atmosphere in a club is when people are really present in the moment, and I don’t feel that so much anymore. So I think culture changes, and it’s best to just look forward to the next thing that comes along. Maybe the grimier vibe of places like Bussey Building will keep it alive, or maybe we need to enjoy music in a different way now. Let’s see.
Jon Rust: All club ventures hold an element of risk, but the risks at Plastic were mitigated by the club’s sense of purpose. Nights like FWD>> were not always packed: for a long time around 04/05 it was the opposite. I remember Bernard who ran the club with Ade saying how bizarre the FWD>> crowd seemed to them – gaunt studio zombies stood nodding, facing the DJ through thick ganja fog. But Ade trusted FWD>> and ran with it, and they went on to affect another twist in the evolution of dance music. I don’t feel big venue promoters who book acts years in advance can come close to that kind of contribution.
Erol Alkan: As long as new small clubs are appearing then there is hope. Small clubs are integral to new talent, it’s great that the larger clubs book new DJs all the time, but small clubs are the way to help something grow in a way only they can. Having said that, it’s also the mindset of the people who are behind new clubs which need to match people like Ade. Without his vision Plastic People would have just been a store room with a sound system. It’s his approach to clubbing which we are celebrating now.
Jon Rust: People wanting to take things further are just going to have to be more industrious to do so. But if Plastic has taught us anything, it’s this – if the ideal is good, the endeavour is entirely worth it. Ade is on record though for having said that the real reason for the club’s closure is simply that Charlotte, who managed the club, was moving on. It might not have been what is was once, but it remained true to its original concept and ideals. Were it not for her, many other people still would not have been touched by the club. It goes to show – often it’s the passion and determination of individuals that keep things going.