Inside Sheffield’s underground nightlife

It’s approaching half two in the morning.

An orderly queue has formed up the cellar steps of a Sheffield end-of-terrace. The unofficial line snakes into the kitchen and out into the garden. I’m not quite at the stairs yet, but I can see the door. Frustratingly, it opens outwards into the kitchen, severing the line of party-goers every time someone emerges. A one-in-one out system has evolved to avoid congestion on the steep concrete steps. Below our feet, the floor tingles from the vibrations. As the next group of friends descend into the cellar, the stairs become a tunnel, filtering the repetitive gurgle of disco music into a clean cackle. Everything is loud. Shuffling closer and closer to the door, I feel like a radar as I tune into the shouted conversations sweeping through the kitchen in distorted waves.

Someone’s sparked a joint by the backdoor. Tangy smoke creeps around the room like a ghost. By this time, I’m at the threshold. The schmoozy glow of fairy lights has clothed everyone in a purple hue but it does little to light the narrow stairway. I hold my housemate’s hand. Maybe it’s the poppers, but the last few steps are like jumping into the deep end of a pool.

Splash. For a moment I am swallowed by a transcendent jumble of LED lights, glitter and the faint smell of damp. When I resurface, I’m surrounded by my friends and I’m laughing.

Once famous for its industrial history, Sheffield has morphed into a young, vibrant city of roughly 60,000 students. It’s nightlife reflects this. In the city centre, clubs and bars promote Sheffield as a place where music history is made; Arctic Monkeys, Pulp and the Human League all started here. Sheffield is also cheap; cheap drinks, cheap ticket prices and cheap rent feed its night-time economy. This cultural transition from industrial powerhouse to student playground left a surprising by-product in the rented houses that sit on the periphery of the city centre, basements. And now these hidden rooms are being used by students dissatisfied with the uniformity of a student night-out in Sheffield.

These dark, damp chambers, once practical storehouses for Sheffield’s working population, have found a new life.

“People get bored of club venues that are made for cheesy nights,” Lucia, 20, tells me, “having a night in a venue like a house or a warehouse is more exciting because you know the night will be something different.” Obviously house parties have always been a part of the Sheffield student experience but the prevalence of young people partying in the depths of their rented student accommodation, instead of in a club or a bar is an enlightening indicator as to what many require from a night-out. These dark, damp chambers, once practical storehouses for Sheffield’s working population, have found a new life.

A basement or cellar was an essential requirement when my friends and I looked for somewhere to live in final year. Dressing up the space with lights and sparkly pound-shop decorations was an almost nostalgic experience, resonant of the den-building I would do as a child. Aside from the party itself, the thrill of hosting came from turning an unremarkable space into one of adventure and play.

Compared to the untouchable mundanity of the rest of our student house, the creative potential of its basement felt limitless. Our cellar was comprised of three rooms. The first had a strange altar-like stone table, a common feature of many cellars in Sheffield. We used it to sit the decks. The other two rooms we adorned with strobe lights and streamers. A solitary bulb was the only working electrical appliance in the basement, so we weaved an intricate thread of extension leads through the net wiring of the ceiling and up the stairs in order to power everything. Looking back, it was definitely a fire hazard.

The popularity of these DIY parties gesture towards a nation-wide decline in UK nightlife. The BBC reported that nearly half of the UK’s nightclubs closed their doors between 2005 and 2015. In 2018, the Guardian found that a staggering £200 million had been wiped off the value of the UK night-time economy. Rising rent prices and changing tastes are among a plethora of factors influencing the scene. Radio 1 DJ and presenter, Annie Mac argues that the ‘precious opportunity to experience human connection and stand beside each other in a small space and all hear the same thing’ is compromised by our generation’s addiction to social media. To make a profit, clubs cater to a generalised audience, limiting the diversity and unique ‘magic of club culture’ (Annie Mac, The Guardian, Webchat, 2017).

It feels distant, isolated. You don’t know what time it is down there, it’s like a secret club.

Resisting this wave of standardisation is the basement party. It’s a trend that figuratively and literally embodies the spirit of the underground. “It feels distant… isolated,” says Liam, 22, as he sits on my bed scrolling through Instagram, “you don’t know what the time is down there, it’s like a secret club.” There is an appetite for unique night-time experiences and basement parties allow young people to take their night into their own hands. Liam, pausing his scrolling briefly to think, says, “The party-goer becomes the curator of their own night, not bound by student drink offers or opening and closing times. Rather, the space becomes an expression of one’s own individuality.” Impressed by his comment, I turn to write it down quickly and allow him to proceed with his incessant scrolling.

Like it or not, we live in a culture of convenience and nightlife isn’t exempt from such pressures. “They [basement parties] are free unlike clubs. If it’s dead you can just leave rather than wait a bit to try and get your money’s worth,” Frank, 21, explains. These DIY nights are versatile, free and most importantly, bring-your-own-booze. Abbie, 21, who completely transformed our house into a gothic dungeon for her ‘spooktacular b-day boogie’, notes how even “the people DJing are always DJing for free. They’re doing it somewhat for the publicity but also just to provide people with genuinely good music that you don’t get in clubs.”

Less an organised movement and more an incidental trend, Sheffield’s house party culture is widespread due to the sheer number of student houses with a basement. An element of exclusivity remains in these spaces; a need to be invited in (there’s nothing more awkward than accidentally admitting you’re gate-crashing to a party host.) Yet these parties have a reputation for having, as Abbie puts it, a “communal and close feeling… people interact far more at house parties which is obviously down to drugs but also because people feel more relaxed and willing to socialise with everyone around them.”

As a queer person, finding spaces which foster this accepting attitude can make a world of difference, especially in a city devoid of a strong and inclusive LGBTQ+ identity. “There’s far more respect for people around you at house parties… [they] are far safer spaces,” Abbie says.

DJ and student, Danielle Clarke, 20, embraces this sense of freedom which is seemingly innate to house party culture. “Club promoters will sometimes suggest tailoring your style of mixing to the style of the night they are putting on. So, in this sense, house parties give me more freedom to play what I want to play, instead of what a crowd in a club wants me to play.” She says while clubs and club promoters aren’t so much a negative influence on her work, the open environment of Sheffield’s house party scene allows her to experiment with her craft. The lack of a “stage or formal set up… makes me feel more relaxed as most people I know are there.” The DJ and her audience are closer. It’s an intimate yet profoundly liberating setting that deconstructs the typical dichotomy of DJ/audience, allowing both to share in their equal love of music.

It’s an intimate yet profoundly liberating setting that deconstructs the typical dichotomy of DJ/audience, allowing both to share in their equal love of music.

Of course, it is not the end of the big night-out in Sheffield. Where there is a demand for nights which are inexpensive, visually unique and play great music, businesses will capitalise on it. Alternative nights, many tailored to a queer community left behind by the inadequacies of Sheffield’s so-called ‘gay quarter’, continue to pop up. Likewise, venues such as Hope Works and Gut Level emulate the creative intimacy of a house party and serve as beautifully immersive spaces to forget the mundane. But hidden away on your average street, behind the door and beneath the surface, is a thriving subculture of basement partygoers creating unique spaces predicated on child-like creativity, student-savvy resourcefulness and an insatiable desire for connection in an increasingly fragmented world. It would seem that to guarantee a good night-out in Sheffield, there really is no place like home.

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