From championing dubstep and grime, to letting girls wear trainers, FWD>> has gone down in clubbing lore. Here's why …
Fast FWD>> ... Skream, Jammer and Wiley gather around the decks. Photograph: Georgina Cook
This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of FWD>>, the iconic British club night that created a space for British Underground Music to thrive. Before grime and dubstep had an official name, it was at FWD>> in east London that you could hear bassy beats, and skank with the skinny teenagers who would later become some of the most influential dubstep artists of their generation. It was where Mala, Coki, Skream and Benga were first heard. For many discerning clubbers, FWD>> is the stuff of legend, and here's 10 reasons why …
It helped change the face of pop
FWD>> showcased Ramadanman, Coki, Skream, Kode 9 and Benga but it was more than just a dubstep night. It also paid homage to grime, garage and house, pushing through some of the best British talent over the last 10 years. "I saw FWD>> as an incubator of new ideas," says Ramadanman. "As the sound system was so good, there were no worries about your new tune not being faithfully reproduced, which I think led to more experimentalism." Without this, it seems unlikely that James Blake, Katy B and countless others would have made mainstream waves today.
You could go on your own because it felt like a family
People felt fine venturing out to FWD>> on their own, because they felt sure they'd meet people they knew inside. There was a terrific sense of community. DJ Zinc recalls celebrating Skream's birthday together drinking shots at the bar, while Benga commented on "how familiar it all felt". It's unusual to consider how attached people can be to a club. It wasn't unheard of to have a favourite spot in the grimy corners of the Velvet Rooms (the night moved to Plastic People in 2005). According to Ramandanman: "Plastic People is an intense club. It's no frills, no fancy lights, smoke machines. Just a big pair of speakers and decks. But FWD>> changed my life." Journalist Emma Warren recalls: "There was a real community. The only time I ever saw someone not turn up for a set was Joker, and that was because he missed his train from Bristol. When Martin [Clark] played for the first time, he was so good that people started a petition to get him back again. There was a sense that people felt as if it was theirs. You didn't go along in a passive way – it was active, you were part of it."
The girls could wear trainers
If you were partying in the 90s and you liked "urban" music, it was highly likely that you went to Garage Nation. Remember Craig David? Wookie? Sweet Female Attitude (they'd bring you flowers, don't you know)? Garage dominated the pop charts, and the girls at Garage Nation were slick and sexy. FWD>>, on the other hand, embraced a completely different style. The girls wore trainers, a sign that the polished, commercial garage era was nearing the end. As Benga puts it: "People didn't watch for what each other was wearing." The dress code was an anti dress code, and DJ Zinc fondly remembers "suits being turned away at the door because it wasn't an after-work, getting smashed kind of thing ... FWD>> was for people serious about the music."
The DJs would arrive in white limos (but you wouldn't know this)
Well, Croydon-based DJs such as Skream and Hatcha, who travelled from south to east London in limousines for the simple reason that they were cheaper than taxis. The irony being, of course, that there was no sense of celebrity attached to any of those DJs – according to Zinc they'd often "get it to stop round the corner, 'cos it was a bit embarrassing".
There was no hierarchy
All my personal experiences of FWD>> have been dancing to bass and marveling at how many of the DJs end up on the dancefloor themselves with no sign of fans asking for autographs. The clubbers were too busy getting lost in the music, which is why it became a common practice for people in front of the DJ to lean forward and "pull up the track" (ie reload a song that was particularly great). Kode 9 recalls his favourite reload moment: "I remember hearing Classic Deluxe by Horsepower Productions and running from the back of the club to the DJ booth, just to rewind the track. Standard."
It created iconic images
FWD>> attracted a host of industry veterans. Chock full of photographers, A&Rs and journalists, the night was well documented through the underground media. One photographer of note, Georgina Cook (aka DrumzoftheSouth) was a FWD>> staple, documenting the scene. She took the above photo in April 2005 and comments: "At that time there were a few FWD>> regulars getting anxious about the introduction of grime DJs and MCs to the FWD>> lineups. So it was pretty special when Mala (Digital Mystikz) and Wiley (Roll Deep) were billed on the same night and even more special to watch the reaction of Jammer, Wiley and Skepta when Mala dropped Skream's phenomenal Midnight Request Line.
They would stay open when only one person was on the dancefloor
FWD>> was known for embracing the new. So new, in fact, that not everyone was initially up to speed with, say, the breakneck 140bpm of grime, or the heavy bass wobbles of dubstep. Writer, DJ and FWD>> regular Martin Clark comments that: "There were a few times when we'd do a mix and look up and there were, like, two or three people left on the dancefloor, or no one at all, but we'd carry on because it was about getting lost in the music." Journalist and clubber Chantelle Fiddy adds: "The girl count was about five in the early days: me, Ms Dynamite and a few others on the dancefloor, but none of that mattered because we were embracing the excitement about these new sounds."
It inspired the wider scene
Mark Gurney of 2nd Drop records says FWD>> inspired the name of his label: "Mala from Digital Mystikz didn't play at FWD>> on that many occasions and he never allowed recordings of his sets, so it was a real moment in 2007 when he graced the Plastic People controls and played his dubstep anthem Lean Forward. For those who know this tune, it has the most beastly second drop, which would get rewinds even though it came two thirds of the way through the record. I remember muttering to myself in a haze of weed smoke and Guinness that it was "all about the second Drop". I texted my best mate James to tell him I had a name for our new label whose first release would be a then little-known producer called Ramadanman, in May of that year."
They couldn't keep the secret appearances a secret
It was at FWD>> that a new secret production outfit called Magnetic Man debuted. Well, it was supposed to be a secret, anyway. As Mark Gurney remembers: "The core dubstep cognoscenti had been caning their tunes Everything Cool and Soulz for months, but nothing was officially known about them. As you walked into Plastic People and on to the dark dancefloor, the decks had been covered by a white mesh screen, a ruse to conceal the identity of the act. But as the hardcore fans had been there since the doors opened we'd seen everyone who'd come in and out of the club. Also, the fact that Benga's Afro was strikingly outlined behind the screen probably didn't help …
They survived closure
FWD>> came close to closure at the beginning of last year, following moves from the Met to review the licence of the club. Although their reasons concerned the prevention of crime and disorder and public nuisance, Kode 9 claims "there were no fights in FWD>>". A petition was quickly issued, with fans celebrating the club's diversity, and the infamous Plastic People survived. As a result, the night has lived to inspire a new generation, collaborating with the radio station Rinse, and continuing to do what it does best – celebrating young talent. Elijah, of grime label Butterz Recordings, says: "I was going before I started to DJ, it was part of the reason I started to buy records, then part of the reason I wanted to take DJing seriously, then once I did that it was my aim to play there myself." Long may it continue.