Amongst dilapidated warehouses, secluded backstreets, and decaying memories of an industrial boom city, a compelling integration of Birmingham diversity, and creativity, is underway. A central hub for those keen to express their vision, building on the notion that this “second” city has something more to offer – that ‘something’ is Listening Sessions.
Founded in 2013 – by Mat ‘Goosensei’ Goose and Tom ‘Elkie’ Hayes – as a monthly event showcase hosted at the historic Club PST (People Stand Together); a space for budding local producers to meet, test their new creations, and share ideas. Born out of a wave of illegal backstreet venues in the late 80s and early 90s, the club has long championed an unwavering sense of local community and all-inclusiveness, built around a shared loved of underground music.
In its formative years elements of reggae, dub, drum and bass, and dubstep were most prominent – more in line with the sounds that have long been associated with the PST agenda – but as the event has developed, further genres have been incorporated, with techno, house, garage, and hip hop blending into the fold. It is this collaborative spirit of not just community, but music too, that brings a significant vibrancy to each showcase, journeying seamlessly through myriad genres on a single night.
This growing circle of creative minds, who selflessly promote local music, art, cultural identity, and above all, self expression, are one of a few independents (with clothing brand PROVIDE, and bass-centric collective Sum Cellar, on the same page) working hard to release the city of its cursed “second city” narrative; a damaging, and wholly restricting description that has seen use across the nation in publications like The Guardian, The Telegraph, and even within local news outlets like the Birmingham Post, and Birmingham Mail. This is not a city claiming to be the best, simply one that is tired of having its identity stripped down to a colloquial assumption.
Since its inception the members involved have been rising exponentially, a clear indication of the chord its mantra has struck within the local creative sect. Now there are more than 200 producers who’ve been fostered by the Listening Sessions brand; over 50 of which have become session regulars, while continuing to adopt new members every month.
Following an influx of affiliated artist signings on local, national and international labels, a result of the brand’s avid nurturing of grassroots culture, blueprints for the next leg of the journey were finally put in motion; the Listening Sessions record label was born.
The label’s first release, Yilan’s Contortion/Exoskeleton EP; a twisted rendition of techno and bass hybridity, gained notable recognition with support from Mumdance, Madam X, and air time on underground radio staple Rinse FM. Beau Thomas, one of the most sought-after mastering engineers in the business, also has his own endorsement with the brand, lending his extensive industry knowledge to perfect the well of productions stemming from the label.
Continuing the brand’s fervour for diversity, every release is set to bring something fresh, original, and innovative across the genre spectrum; LS 002 promises heavy tracks from jungle/dnb enthusiasts Slaine and Skudkid, with microphone warrior Natty D crafting some appropriately rugged vocal work for good measure.
Although in its early days, given its extensive history and ongoing support from some key taste-makers, the Listening Sessions label has the ideal formula. Capitalising on a long overshadowed desire for creative recognition within the city, the artists of the underground have been gifted the perfect platform. Not just to present their voice to a thriving local community, but to broadcast their unrestricted, forward-thinking ideas to a wider stage beyond the confines of Brum.
As the label celebrates its 4th birthday this month, transparency and a drive to innovate sit at the core of Listening Sessions. Emerging from a space which nurtures the free-flow of ideas; where local artists can flourish organically beyond the traditional barriers of genre, expectation and judgement – working in sync to build a new collective voice in the city of Birmingham.
Words by Kristian Birch-Hurst