The south London vinyl-only, no-photo dance party that keeps the world locked out

Poetry in a pool hall and a new gem in the night order, as we open the lid on Peckham's best dance party, Rhythm Section.

One of my favourite nights is Rhythm Section. It’s held in a pool hall at the not-so-nice end of Rye Lane in Peckham. The dancefloor at the end of the bar holds about 100, and you can always pop off for a quick game as a breather. Part of a small wave of nights and firms like Boiler Room, NTS and countless residents-only parties, Rhythm Section combines a democratic ethic with a determinedly elitist musical policy, and a belief that artfulness and fun are both crucial to enjoying dance music, and that history is made at night.

It’s some of the best music in London, with an open policy, located somewhere at warmer, weirder ends of house, disco, world music, soul and techno. There’s a vinyl-only DJ policy, a no photo policy, sometimes bands come down and bookings tend to be friends of friends who love playing records. These are people who want to play incredible music on decks held on fold-up tables to their friends, who in turn want to dance and flirt and chat and drink and not worry about anything. Like the London borough that surrounds it, it’s rough round the edges, full of good people and sexy as hell. Through it, I’ve got to know the guy who runs the night, Bradley Phillip, who also helps out at the Boiler Room, and I sent him some quick questions about the night.

Can you tell us something about why and how you set the party up?

I’d been looking for a fresh space to put on a party where I could play the records that I played with friends every friday at Bar Story. We always had a great time but the bar closes at 10, so as soon as you started to get into the groove it was last orders.

Around that time (8 months ago) I had discovered JFK’s pool hall (now Canavan’s) just round the corner on rye lane. I noticed the sign outside reading ‘host your party here’. Initially sceptical, I told the guvnor, Kieran I wanted to put on a Motown night and that I could bring a few people down. That night, my dad (a veteran northern DJ) rang me from Leeds, asking if he could stay at mine the next weekend. I said ‘Yes, if you Bring your soundsystem.’ He brought the soundsystem, and 250 odd people came along too.

Could you explain something about your bookings? How about your musical policy?

The bookings come from going out and seeing people play and being inspired. They come from talking to people at length about music and connecting with them over shared passions and they come from visiting peoples houses and digging through their record collections and discovering how much more there is to learn.

I’m totally uninterested in booking the most hyped new producer and I’m not going after big name acts. I’m not so bothered about listening to mixes or DJ ‘skills’. Some of the best people who have played at rhythm section have just put one record on after the other, fade in/fade out and it was magic! You can’t capture that in a pre recorded mix.

Musical policy wise we aim for total freedom but taste undeniably creeps in. Rhythm Section is in some ways a reaction against a certain type of party that i was fed up with. Put it this way: your more likely to hear soul, disco, african music and experimental house/techno than dubstep, garage or UK funky. I think Rhythm Section plays the long game and aims for a deeper sound rather than big hits and huge drops. Importantly, I absolutely despise set times.

You began with a 100% vinyl policy – how does that affect the night and the music played?

It separates the wheat from the chaff. I don’t intend to be too militant about this, but there’s so many ‘DJ’s’ that turn up with a memory stick of big hits and mix them perfectly on CDJs for their 45 minute set, then go home. Without set times and without CDs, the DJs are invested in the night from start to end, and it feels more like one DJ playing all night, which is kind of how it should be. It’s a hark back to the ‘good old days’ of which I know nothing about first hand but can really relate to in an almost romantic sense. By putting a few obstacles in the way of would-be performers, I can hopefully project this retro sensibility onto a very contemporary happening.

It’s also a real opportunity for all the DJs and vinyl collectors to bond over these real objects, swap notes and compare collections. It is limiting in terms of how may records you can carry and this limit on resources puts a DJ in a position where they must be more creative with what’s infront of them; take risks, throw in an oddball and do something unexpected and possibly brilliant. Having 10000 songs at your fingertips on a laptop is surprisingly oppressive. Above all it sounds better.

Much has been made about the growth of the Peckham scene. What are your thoughts on this?

Peckham is a small place. there’s one bar that shuts at 10pm, 3 or 4 pubs, a pool hall, a club and a handful of art galleries. All this talk of it being the new Dalston / Shoreditch / whatever isn’t only annoying but it’s actually total bullshit – the infrastructure isn’t there, and anyone crossing the river expecting a mini Kingsland Road will be disappointed.

It’s a residential area that’s nearby a number of art and music schools, so the creative population is super high. That’s why when we put a good party on, it’s really good. The community is tight knit , so when the word spreads about a good party, everyone’s there in force and it feels like you’re at a big house party with all your friends and all their friends.

Only a few years ago, the Peckham social calendar was based strictly around house parties. There was no regular club night or ‘go-to’ spot. I remember in 2008 when someone’s house got destroyed by hoards of art students every weekend, i was a victim once. (never again!) I think that culture of tight knit community, sharing the highs and lows (as well as the gossip) definitely fed into the ethos of the burgeoning music scene that’s happening in Peckham now. Even in terms of the DJs and musicians, some of the guys who would be running into the kitchen of said house party to plug their ipod into the hifi are know playing in clubs and on radio all over the world.

It’s only really in the last few months that peoples ears have began to prick about this little scene south of the river. A few exciting spaces have presented themselves in the last year and the Bussey Building is quite rightly becoming a go to spot for an all out warehouse rave. I started Rhythm section to provide something with regularity. Peckham was lacking something dependable, in the least predictable sense.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of running a night in a pool hall?

Well, for the first few parties we were literally at the bottom of the pool hall amongst the tables. After doing this a few times the venue saw the potential and actually built a sound proofed wall and installed a dancefloor next to the bar area to avoid pool table collisions and spillages and give us a bit more rom to dance!

In terms of ambiance, I think the pool table is the perfect ice breaker. We’ve got 12 of them! Empty clubs can be pretty intimidating places, and there’s always a stigma attached to being the first person there, waiting for the masses to arrive. When you arrive at Rhythm Section this awkward pre-dancefloor moment is almost non existent. There’s a real smooth transition from empty venue–crowded pool hall–crowded dancefloor as people are lured in slowly. By 1am the pool players are usually dwindling and the dancefloor pumping. I like this organic transition.

Disadvantages are things like air conditioning and sound proofing. It get’s sweaty, and with the thin brick walls and the neighbours, Canavan’s is never going to be a haven for bass music, but I’m OK with that.

I like the night because it takes very good music and great DJs and has a really fun, unpretentious atmosphere. Is an certain anti-elitism an important part of the night?

As far as the crowd and the atmosphere in the room is concerned I couldn’t agree more. We’re not prescribing to a genre or sound, we’re not trying to be really hip or cutting edge, it really is just about good music that makes you dance. All tribes welcome.

Elitism plays a big part behind the decks and that shouldn’t be denied. The 100% Vinyl rule is elitist and exclusive. It’s in place to deter those who are not sufficiently committed to put a lot of time and money into buying the music they’re going to play. If your going to spend £7 on every song you want to play in a 3 hour set you better mean it! I absolutely want an elite team of DJs behind the decks, not in order for them to preach but just so they can do the job really well.

You have a long history of collaborating with other nights. Would you like to say anything about that?

I don’t know if we have a long history per se but it is a regular thing we do. ‘Rhythm Section’ is every 3rd Saturday, and ‘Rhythm Section +’ is every Last friday. This is when I collaborate with another set of residents and play back to back all night. There’s no line up for the last friday parties, just RS + a collective.

Residents are often the best DJs but rarely get a chance to play all night or command the floor at peak time, so this series was an attempt to right that wrong.

I’ve also done a number of events with Ali from Warm, who lives just round the corner from me in Peckham. Our parties have been about getting as many local people involved and teaming them up with some headline acts from Ali’s roster to give Peckham something spectacular.

Scott Grooves is an incredible booking. What made you go for him?

Well he kind of went for me. As you know Rhythm section isn’t really a big budget operation. It’s always £3/5 and as I mentioned I’m not really going after big name headliners and i’ve never even considered booking international DJs and flying people in. I don’t think of myself as a promoter, more a DJ who runs a party. Rhythm Section is strongly rooted in Detroit’s musical history, be it the funk or soul, the off kilter house or the thumping techno. I have a huge admiration for guys like Scott who champion vinyl and really respect the art of DJing. Big name or not, he fits into the RS ethos perfectly.

What’s currently inspiring you?

The TV and radio are inspiring me – NTS radio and Boiler Room TV to be specific. Good music’s finally getting air time and I’m so excited to be a part of that. What a great thing that such legit bunch of people are getting massive exposure and reaching out to thousands of people with great, challenging music. It’s an exciting time to be involved in underground music, while it straddles the mainstream but remains fiercely independent and experimental.

What are the plans for the future?

Consistency and regularity. I want to start an exchange program with people from other countries who are doing a similar thing to myself; foster an international Rhythm section community by doing gig swaps and providing board for a few nights and taking people out crate digging, that kind of thing.

I also want to build a custom high fidelity audiophile sound system. The Rhythm Section sounds sings sweetly enough as it is, but sound can always sound better. David Mancuso’s loft parties on the lucky cloud soundsystem are a big inspiration for that, but as with most things, this takes time and money, but one has to dream. I must control my addiction to vinyl.

Scott Grooves is playing Rhythm Section alongside Andrew Ashtong, Deep Soul Konnection at Canavan’s, 188 Rye Lane, Lane

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