There is a certain irony in suggesting that nostalgia is having a moment but, thanks to the pandemic, we’ve all spent a large proportion of the last 18 months reminiscing about the past. That’s especially true for fans of live music and clubbing, who found themselves without a regular outlet for escapism and access to good times.
We speak to the founder of ROAR: The ’90s Rave Podcast, a music and art project that whisked listeners on a technicolour trip down memory lane by providing unparalleled access to key players in a scene that defined a generation, while giving exposure to new ‘90s-inspired rave music by up-and-coming producers.
Founded and hosted by journalist and broadcaster Tom Latchem, ROAR became a must-listen over the course of its year-long life, featuring icons like Fabio & Grooverider, Mampi Swift and DJ Slipmatt, who all dusted off stories from back in the day and talked candidly about the events that shaped them. Back in July, Latchem ‘indefinitely paused’ the project, which has been curated forever into the British Library Sound Archive as a podcast of cultural significance, but here he discusses ROAR’s roots, what made it resonate with listeners, and why there’s still much to be told about this pivotal period of rave history.
Where did the idea come from?
During lockdown I was getting more immersed in old rave sets on YouTube and Soundcloud, which is also true for a lot of our listeners. Basically, I had a lot of time on my hands, and would often disappear down rabbit holes. I didn’t start properly raving myself till about 2000 but I was learning loads about the rave scene in the ‘90s and thinking to myself, “Where are all the interviews with artists and promoters? How can I find out more about the people involved in this?” Most of the previous interviews with the main figures of the scene were conducted pre-internet and published in fanzines rather than having been done by journalists, which meant many of those interviews that are still available weren’t great.
On top of that, I left my presenting job on talkSport in 2018 and missed broadcasting. I’d had Slipmatt, F&G, Jumpin’ Jack Frost and Bryan Gee on my overnight show, primarily because they all love talking about sport, and we’d talk about their lives and careers, too. I even played a snippet of Slipmatt’s classic SMD1 anthem — which I am sure must make me the first person to play happy hardcore on talkSport!
So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a long-form interview series with leading figures from the ‘90s rave scene?” I pulled together a little team of friends I used to rave with, who included Grantus Arts who created our logo and cartoon versions of everyone we interviewed, and a graphic designer – because bright and bold iconography was such an important part of the ‘90s rave scene – and away we went.
As a journalist, I love long-form interviews because you can really get under the skin of topics and get to explore in-depth fascinating human-interest stories, and I knew I could get those four guys because I already had a relationship with them. I thought, “If I can get them on then surely the rest will follow” – and they did! Some of the interviews were up to four hours long – there was a lot to cover, after all – and nobody had ever done anything like this before. The artists loved exploring their careers in such a relaxed and in-depth way, and ravers loved hearing them do so.
As you say, the interviews were quite detailed. How much prep went into each one?
Given the paucity of available information about the ‘90s rave scene, I researched each interview for probably around 10-12 hours on average. When it comes to interviewing, I don’t do things by halves! But that’s what made the interviews so detailed and in-depth.
Do you think that’s why the podcast stuck with people?
Yeah, I think so. Also, I’ve never viewed it as serious project, it was always about fun and passion, which I think comes across. And I think that worked well, because there was so much heavy stuff going on in the world. We also encouraged listener questions to put our audience at the heart of the project. Both they, and the artists, were sat at home doing the same as us guys – which was largely fuck all – and so they spent lockdown joining us on a joyful journey through their beloved ‘90s rave scene.Array
Photo: Gavin Watson
What highlights stand out for you over the duration of the series?
We did Hospital Records founder and CEO Tony Colman’s first ever interview about the race storm that engulfed the label last year, which saw him accused by a former staff member of not having any black staff or a strong enough black roster, which many felt was unacceptable in a scene which was born out of multiculturalism and Black culture. Fascinating insight.
And we did MC MC’s first interview in seven years, where he talked about certain things for the first time, including how he proposed to his girlfriend DJ Rap on stage and then they split up three weeks later! Almost everyone we interviewed embraced what ROAR was trying to do, and spoke with real honesty, which was great.
After we interviewed Mistress Mo, who ran Flashback at the Que Club back in the day, she thanked us — not just for the interview and giving her chance to be a part of the project but for giving the rave scene something to dip into anytime they felt down. Seeing people express sentiments like that was really touching and made it all worthwhile.
When did the podcast really start to take off?
Our first four interviews were audio-only, and they did better than we’d hoped, but our audience kept telling us they wanted to see their heroes interviewed on camera. Plus, YouTube is the growth platform so moving to a video podcast just took ROAR to another level. What took it beyond that was the MC MC and Ribbz episodes in January.
Both of those were our highest viewed ever — around 20,000 views each – which I think was because they were so popular back in the day but don’t have any online presence and so have an air of mystery to them. But ROAR was grown entirely organically. We spent nothing on marketing and with a bit of financial backing I am sure the project could have real scope for further growth, to take in the ‘90s-inspired rave scene which seems to be growing.
With that in mind, it seems a shame to have called it a day. What made you decide to pull the plug?
Firstly, it was always started as a lockdown project to keep us entertained and busy and give something back to a scene that we love during a time when we were shorn of events. Secondly, I had a second kid on the way, with all the time constraints that involves, and I couldn’t justify putting in 25 hours a week on the project with a newborn covering me in vomit and screaming the house down. With raves also returning, it seemed an apt time to take a break.
So, when we got to our one-year anniversary in July I just thought, “I’m gonna do a mic drop”, because in true rave-style, it’s always better to go out with a bang than a whimper. When I put out our goodbye message, we had hundreds of responses from people saying they were gutted, including one person who said we stopped them from taking their own life.
They told me happy hardcore was the only thing they were into as a kid, but that they never knew anything about the people behind the music and the scene. So during lockdown, which brought their mental health problems back with a vengeance and they felt suicidal, all of a sudden they had access to insight about their favourite players in the scene. It gave them something to look forward to at the end of every week. Of all the things we achieved, I think I’m probably most proud of that.
What did you personally discover from hosting the podcast?
I’ve been on a musical journey because when I started the podcast I was more into happy hardcore and now I’m bang into ‘91-‘94 jungle, techno and jungle techno! I found a new world with so many amazing human stories. What would a lot of these people have done if it wasn’t for the rave scene? Not just artists but everyone involved?
A lot of them would’ve become involved in criminality or even be dead, and they admit it. So the rave scene in the ‘90s really was a unifying movement that helped a lot of people. When people talk about the negatives of the scene – and let’s be honest, it wasn’t all peace, love, unity and respect, there were plenty of dark and dodgy elements – they probably really understand the good it did for so many people, a legacy which continues three decades on.
The ‘90s scene was very much rooted in underground culture. Is that something that can still exist?
Not in the same way because whatever you’re into now you can find it. Back then it was all about passing around tapes to your mates and going to record shops to hear the new releases and get your flyers. There was a real sense of togetherness and of sharing something special. Garage in the late ‘90s was probably the last genuine mass underground movement before the age of the internet gave us unlimited access to all types of music. As one of our listeners said, it used to be a movement, and now it’s just music. They’re probably right.
So what are your thoughts about the current rave scene?
The problem with the British rave scene – as I see it – goes back to the split between jungle and happy hardcore in 1994, and it subsequently became much more genre-specific. Whereas initially the music was all ‘just hardcore’, by 1996, happy hardcore had gone almost totally down the four-beat European route and it was a completely different sound to where the breakbeat-led jungle drum and bass went. This quickly became a problem, particularly at the big multi-genre events where, as soon as a jungle DJ’s set ended and a happy hardcore jock came on, thousands of ravers just swapped rooms to listen to the type of music they most liked.
Since then, the rave scene has fragmented even further to the point where now you’ve got labels running specific nights for a particular sub-genre of music, and the issue is that everything becomes disparate in a way it doesn’t in other countries, as far as I’m aware. And while drum and bass has become massive, four-beat hardcore scene is currently dead, for reasons we could analyse all day. Young people also seem to care more about their image, camera phones and social media, while we know that they do drugs less than previous generations, and I think all this often reflects in the music, which is a shame. This seems not to be so much the case in other countries, where people are more like, “Let’s just go party!” regardless of what’s playing.
So, there needs to be more people coming together, to create a more unified rave scene. Though things do seem to be improving, which is heartening. There’s loads of quality ‘90s inspired new rave music being made and dozens of new releases each week, including by young producers such as 14-year-old Semah who we featured on our weekly Track Attack feature to let people know about new tunes, and there are some amazing rave events cropping up.
I recently went to a cracking little party called Distant Planet. Its music policy is hardcore, acid, techno, and jungle – both new and old, vinyl only – and it’s attended by a wonderfully mixed crowd. There were 20-something Black female junglists brocking out next to the middle aged old white dudes like me – and a bunch of goths even turned up to party.
Hidden away in what felt like a squat in deepest darkest Deptford, you don’t chance upon events like this, and so it’s the epitome of an underground party. People who were there in the ‘90s say what’s happening now has echoes of those days. Whether it will continue or die away again remains to be seen, but it’s an exciting time and has plenty of room to grow. There’s a seemingly increased desire for rave music in mainstream culture so I’m intrigued to see where it goes.
There are still some big names missing from the narrative. Is there scope for more episodes?
Despite me having indefinitely paused ROAR, the series is far from over. In jungle drum and bass, I would love to interview LTJ Bukem because he was such a pioneer and is so mysterious. Like MC GQ, Hype is someone who you wouldn’t want missing from the story, and he has an amazing story to tell. Skibadee helped change the face of MCing in drum and bass and is a bona fide star of the scene.
Sharkey did the same in hardcore and has also had a fascinating life – the series wouldn’t be complete without him. Then there are hardcore legends like Carl Cox – there aren’t many rave artists from the ‘90s who don’t describe him as an influence and I’d love to interview him about his decision to leave the scene – and The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett, plus Brisk and Vibes and Scott Brown and several others. There’s still so much more to say. Hopefully we can get some funding together not just to continue the series but also grow ROAR to support the scene’s current resurgence.
What are your parting thoughts for now?
The messages we received throughout the series and when we paused it mean we can proudly say we created something fun, special and culturally significant. And it was very important to me to make something that had an element of social good as well, which I think we achieved. It’d be a shame for us to never do anything ever again, and I am confident we will be able to start back up again refreshed after a break, but if not then we walk away knowing we made a real impact on a scene which we all adore. If I never make another episode I can look back and say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my career. It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.