A unique and historic London rave that brings techno and drum & bass together
Photography: Yushy & Daniel Naylor
“I think people are bored of seeing the same old shit. The same old line-ups. I don’t want to be seeing the same old same old. An event has to have something special about it. If it’s a carbon copy of other nights, why would you want to go?”
Meet Lee. He’s the founder and promoter of Alchemy, a unique London event that spans the full sonic spectrum. Joining dots between cultures, debunking genre-specific trends, the line-ups he puts together are like no other in the UK as they feasibly flex and seamlessly slide from Jazzie B to Jappa, The Advent to Arkaik, Dave Clarke to Dub Phizix.
“I don’t care what genre it is; I just love good music,” he explains. “It could be dub, reggae, techno, jungle, hip-hop, drum & bass. My original idea was to have techno-oriented music in one room and jungle or drum & bass in the other. All blended through the night progressing from a slow BPM to a faster one. That was always my vision.”
It would take almost 15 years, and a sizeable hiatus from the scene, for Lee to truly achieve and realise that vision. To begin with, when it launched in 2007, Alchemy was solely dedicated to drum & bass and jungle. Prior to that, Lee’s earliest drum & bass events Stealth and Primal date back a little further to 2004. They include some of the wildest and most intense drum & bass raves the iconic (but long-since deceased) venue Turnmills had ever known with line-ups that now seem impossible by today’s parameters and budgets. Check this Primal line-up from August 2006. Even by the standards of the era, this was an eclectic rhythmic ceremonial ritual of WTF proportions…
“That one was a real highlight,” he recalls fondly. “I remember it was midnight. I was in the backroom sorting out things and I was really worried the blend of artists might not work. I decided to go out and see how things were going. It was packed and absolutely kicking off. Paradox had just come on and was banging it out. Everyone was smiling and dancing. I was buzzing.”
Lee had many similar experiences during these early promoting years, but his multi-genre vision that Alchemy is known for now – one that can bring together the likes of Calibre and British Murder Boys together on one line-up – wasn’t truly achieved until 2019. To understand why it took him so long to realise his original vision, and why he even had that inspiration in the first place, we have to go back another decade and Lee’s first free party experiences.
“My dad was in the navy so I went to a military school where they were grooming us all to be future warlords. That didn’t happen!” laughs Lee. He describes school as “the best of times and the worst of times”. The worst being the stuffy, archaic institutionalist elitism you’d expect from such a school, not to mention the racism he experienced from the teachers. The best being the moment a Top Buzz mixtape landed in his hands. “I was 14 years old and someone passed me a mixtape. Top Buzz – New Age at the Eclipse. I very clearly remember hearing a track The Witchdoctor’s Sunday Afternoon on it. It’s like a funeral. So dark. I just thought, ‘Wow! What the fuck is this? It’s nuts!’ That was that, that was me.”
Living on the UK south coast in the mid-90s, Lee wasn’t short of places to explore this sound. Raves in quarries, beaches and fields were a frequent attraction and were the perfect place for him to develop his stripes before he looked old enough to get into clubs. Bouncing around from system to system, the seeds for Alchemy were all planted here. “You’d have every sound there. Techno, jungle techno, house, hardcore. I was 15/16, I had no job or money but free parties gave me a chance to hear music and get lost in it all.”
One particular seed sown during this era has been consistent in everything he’s tried to achieve as a promoter ever since. “I want you to lose your mates,” he laughs. It’s something he’s said to me on various occasions over the years. “That’s what it’s all about. Those nights when you feel safe enough to leave your mates, explore and stumble on something you didn’t even know you’d like and lose yourself in the music.”
This has always been the essence of Alchemy, wherever it’s hosted and whatever era Lee’s promoted it in. It comes through complete submersion in the culture. Following his early south coast raves, which led to pilgrimages to Lakota in Bristol, he moved to London around the turn of the century and dived in head first, getting a job as a glass collector at another iconic London venue of yore – The End. At first his mission was to put a stamp on the scene as a DJ.
“I was doing pirate radio, playing anywhere I could, getting all the promos from places like Blackmarket, going from shop to shop,” he remembers. “But it got to a point in 2004 where I realised that there were a lot of people trying to make a name for themselves DJing. We were all on the same circuit, knocking on the same people’s doors and putting in so much effort. I thought, ‘Fuck that!’ I couldn’t be bothered. I wanted to do something for myself.”
So Lee took a bank loan and started promoting. His first ever event Stealth happened in November 2004 with Goldie, Digital, Bailey, GQ, SP:MC, Five Alive and more. A certified success, it led to more events that reached further and further across the D&B universe as Lee got more and more confident with his curations and invited imprints and DJs who’d shaped his love for the music right from the beginning. “To have guys like Reinforced and Moving Shadow host rooms was unbelievable for me,” he notes. “They are the source of jungle and drum & bass. To work with them was pretty mind-blowing.”
The more mind-blowing the events got, and the more reputation Stealth developed and the less of a priority DJing became for the young promoter. “It felt false, like really self-serving and an ego trip,” he explains. “If I’m going to be a promoter, I need to promote! I need to promote other people – the club, the talent and the brand. It felt like the right thing to do and still does.”
“You get people who DJ and they promote their own nights. I have nothing against that whatsoever, but it’s not for me. I remember one time I was doing the warm up set and Micky Finn came up to me. He said, ‘Lee you’ve double booked my slot!’ To be honest my life was pretty chaotic back then and I can’t remember how it was resolved but I do remember thinking, ‘What the fuck do I do?’”
No DJ wants terse words from an aggrieved Micky Finn, certainly not when you’re responsible for running the night. It marked a watershed in Lee’s career as he hung up the headphones and focused on the role he was most invested in – curating legendary line-up blends and hosting memorable drum & bass raves in the capital with the backing of some more seasoned promoters.
“My backers’ vision was more commercial than mine,” he explains. “I was a raver who’d come from the dancefloor into the business. And, as much as they supported the integrity of the line-ups, they always were super focused (and highly skilled) at scaling the events. But for me it was in a way that would inevitably compromise the line ups – which was something I couldn’t buy into. It wasn’t as if I didn’t wish to see Alchemy grow – I just needed artists that suited Alchemy and for Alchemy not to turn into yet another massive commercial event.”
“Fundamentally, there’s a balance between business and pleasure and this balance worked really well for a while because we came from different perspectives,” Lee adds. “I’d put more emphasis on the pleasure, they put more emphasis on the business.”
The word pleasure is meant in a variety of ways; there’s the pleasure experienced by the faithful audience Lee had developed for his events thanks to his attention to detail and insistence on booking acts with musical integrity. There was also pleasure from the music itself. A scene he’d come from and that he valued dearly. But there was also the pleasure from the usual trimmings a life in clubland comes with. This took its toll and, eventually, in 2009, not long after Turnmills closed down for good, Lee hung up his promoter hat.
“To be honest, I didn’t like the direction the music was going in. The home I had for Alchemy had shut down for good and I wasn’t bankrolling it myself. I was at the behest of other people and I didn’t have total control on the line-up,” he admits. For Lee it came to a head at another venue when both the headliner and the guest DJ both played what Lee described as “similarly unremarkable and uninspiring sets.” He knew his time was up.
“I had my head in my hands, it was 2am and, at that point, I was done. I thought, ‘I hate this’. I’d built something into something I felt was really special and it was becoming watered down. I didn’t like it. I was gutted. I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to keep this afloat, I’m going to focus on something else in life.’”
At the time Lee felt this potentially marked the end of his life as a promoter. For almost five years he’d been responsible for some of the most exciting drum & bass jungle dances in London that were up there with some of the most agenda-setting nights the capital could offer in the 2000s; Playaz at Fabric, Renegade Hardware or Ram at The End and mid-weeklies and regulars like Movement and Swerve. But things were about to take a commercial turn as the mainstreamification and early traces of EDM culture began to take root in certain corners of drum & bass.
“I don’t compromise,” he explains. “I felt I was being pressured to book certain guys who just weren’t the right fit for Alchemy. All very talented artists, but you could hear the direction they were taking their music in and it wasn’t for me. I would never change the sound and the ideals I had for Alchemy so I quit.”
To be continued…
Luckily that’s not the end of the story. Focusing on his health, his career and eventually settling down as a family man (while still attending the odd techno night such as the underground institution Lost) Lee eased into a different chapter of his life. “Sometimes you’ve got to take time out, right?” he asks. “When you’re working in this industry sobriety is king. I spent a lot of time focusing on sorting myself out. For me drinking came hand-in-hand with raving. Everything felt and sounded so much better with a drink in my hand. I had a lot of work I needed to do on myself.”
Fast forward a decade to 2019 and Lee – whose life was nowhere near as chaotic as it once was – stumbled on some old videos and photos of his events. “They brought back a lot of fond memories,” he smiles. “Some were from an event we did in 2007 with Andy b2b Randall – I put them in the smallest room in Turnmills to do something a bit different, a bit crazy. Those two for two hours with GQ. It was the nuttiest, most intense thing we had in the club. I set up an Instagram to post some of the videos, Andy shared one of them and it got lots of hits. So I started thinking about maybe doing something again. But this time totally on my own terms…”
No longer working with backers. Lee re-launched Alchemy in May 2019 with an entirely fresh and wholly independent approach. Kicking off at the Hangar in Hackney with a range of old friends who’d played at many of his nights in the past (Fabio, DJ Lee, Mantra, Loxy, Randall) and new kindred spirits who were totally in-tune with Lee’s approach and ethic (Kid Drama, Djinn, Quartz) Alchemy was back on the London rave landscape and gradually began to align with the vision he’d always had.
Even during 2020 – a year that was brutally unforgiving on all aspects of the music industry – the brand weaved and bobbed through sit-down rave strangeness as he worked with the temporary rave space The Cause and curated line-ups that had more and more musical diversity with each event. Acid house pioneer Colin Dale and brutalist architect The Surgeon were two of the first non D&B acts to join the Alchemy fray.
“I had a vision, I knew what type of music I wanted and I wanted to make things as exciting as I could afford… Or couldn’t afford,” he laughs. “You have to make a splash, right? It’s all or nothing at all. Otherwise it looks half-arsed and there’s no buzz about it.”
The buzz was real; as the UK came out of lockdown in July 2021, and ravers could make unrestricted merry once again, Lee took things back to his epic line-up roots and took over The Cause’s four rooms with the Alchemy Festival, a day time bash that flexed the most full flavoured roster he’d ever curated. The line-up ranged from bright young stars like Nia Archives and Sheba Q to pioneers such as A Guy Called Gerald, Rolando, Grooverider and Fabio and the crowd reflected same sense of scope and variety with ravers of all races, ages, genders and backgrounds. All rubbing shoulders, all sharing the moment. Once again reminiscent of the free party roots Alchemy has blossomed from, this healthy reveler blend has become a signature for the brand.
“Quite frankly I don’t care who you are,” grins Lee in a similar spirit to his take on genres. “Everyone is welcome, young or old. Just as long as you’re not a dickhead.”
For Lee, the diversity of the crowd isn’t just down to his anti-dickhead policy, though; it comes down to musical resonance. “Some people look at a line up and connect the dots. You look at people we’ve booked… Calibre, Planetary Assault Systems, Mantra, Dave Clarke, Jehst, Nia Archives,” lists Lee who has booked yet another exciting and deliciously diverse line-up for his next event with the likes of Jah Shaka and DJ Craze headlining at E1 club on August 27. “It’s not about genre, some people just live that life. They have integrity and don’t compromise. That’s what attracts people. Integrity. Consistency. That and not seeing the same old line-ups that they see elsewhere!”
Unwittingly describing himself with those character traits, Lee comes full circle. Almost 20 years since his first events at Turnmills, he’s now in a position to host the raves and realise the vision he’d always had. Forever doing things with integrity and no compromise – even it means taking a ten year break from promoting – Lee represents the same ethos as the line-up, spirit and energy of his brand. Not one to relish the spotlight (this interview is a very rare window into an otherwise private and humble life) he’s quick to highlight other members of the team, such as the venue and its staff, his door team and an advisor who’s had many more years experience running events.
“It’s everybody isn’t it? The club, the staff, the line-up, the crowd,” he considers. “Alchemy means a blend, right? It means diversity. It means putting different components and elements together to make gold and hopefully we’ll be able to do that for a long time to come…”
August 27: Alchemy x E1 – Carnival Edition: Jah Shaka Sound, DJ Craze, Randall B2B Doc Scott, Tim Reaper B2B Sully B2B Coco Bryce, Tailor Jae B2B Ila Brugal, Ayy Den. Tickets and info.