I had undoubtedly high expectations of Mr. Scruff. Despite having never seen him before, I was aware of his reputation as a tea-loving, pie-fantasising, genre-hopping, crate-digging DJ. He’s a household name amongst the young and the not-so-young (his most popular album Keep It Unreal was released in 1999). However, without any other DJs or acts on the bill I was uncertain if a single five-hour set would be entertaining for the whole night. As well as this, the event’s Valentine’s Day tagline of “romantic basslines for that special someone” made me feel suspect of monotonous, gushy vocals and sexed-up beats that wouldn’t cease.
Well, I had no need to worry. Scruff’s diverse selections were inspiring and testament to his experience. He opened with electronic drones to a largely empty room, but quickly warmed up to more danceable material. There was a heavy focus on solid grooves with plenty of funky breaks, like James Brown’s electric Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose (In The Jungle Groove Remix). But his original house cuts were more impressive, with swirling, flanged pads relaxing limbs freely, and the sultry vocals of rigid (US) garage causing the crowd to tighten up their moves. His fast transitions suited the high-tempo party atmosphere perfectly. He also showcased some new tunes; the one that I distinctly remember sounded as genre-blurring as you might expect as it fused low frequency wobbles with saxophones to an uncomfortable drum rhythm.
There was not the abundance of soppy, overly romantic songs that I feared, nor were there many couples glued together. Instead, groups of friends in search of a party made up the bulk of the crowd. The atmosphere was the best I’ve experienced at the Phoenix, with the revellers, ranging from 18 to 50+, making loads of noise at midnight peak time. Notably, there was a singing along to Scruff’s classic Get A Move On. Groups chatted in the seated area and enjoyed the slower, more romantic tunes in the bar, peppered with stompers such as Roy Ayers’ Running Away. The packed bar congested when there were problems with the till, making it seem far more beneficial to sample one of Scruff’s signature brews, even if it was slightly disorienting to drink tea at a gig.
But it proved no more disorienting than his dizzying array of tunes. His final two hours were filled with bubbling basslines and Jamaican sounds, from The Chantells’ Waiting In The Park, which he expertly dubbed out with the mixer’s delay, to Prince Buster’s ska rendition of Enjoy Yourself, a cheeky reminder at the end of a set - not that this crowd seriously needed reminding. On a related note, Scruff’s famous animations were projected on the Phoenix’s massive screen for most of the gig, but I felt that they were annoying at times. A guy on a laptop synchronised the animations to Scruff’s choices and persisted on displaying an “Incoming bassline alert” graphic, which I felt ruined the surprises that make DJ sets so enjoyable. Some younger people at the front stomped harder following these messages, not necessarily due to the sounds alone but as a result of the prediction and expectations. Similarly, the “Come on” message was a little impersonal and seemed unnecessary for such an energetic set and crowd, though it worked all the same.
The night’s final tunes were the most uncompromising. An unforgettable fiddle romp enthused the faithful crowd that remained, many grinning wildly, not believing what they were hearing. This was followed by a samba that challenged dancers with its jerky rhythm, providing a typically unpredictable end to the evening’s entertainment. Mr. Scruff hung around after his set, chatting to fans and repeating his gratitude, looking knackered but still beaming.
Single or not, this was a great alternative night to a traditional Valentine’s. More specifically, it was an eclectic night that laughed at the categorising and BPM-counting tendencies synonymous with DJ culture and appreciated what you may (or may not) broadly call ‘dance music’.