Sound systems & House parties

Sound systems & House parties

Photo of teenagers in the 1980s at a youth club disco

For the past year we’ve been researching the history of pirate radio and rave in Waltham Forest during the period 1989-1994. The following includes extracts of oral histories conducted with significant local contributors.

In order to tell this story we need to go a couple of decades further back and start with the introduction of sound system culture to the borough, particularly the impact of the borough’s Jamaican residents on the music scene and how a relatively small population has had a seismic impact on local and national culture.

From the 1960s onwards, West Indian families were making Waltham Forest their home (the 1961 census shows 687 people from the Caribbean in Walthamstow and Leyton*). Over the decades that followed that population grew and sound system culture, soul music and the need to find alternative and DIY venues for music (due to racism and exclusion) became fundamental building blocks in the development of a national dance music scene and all its many sub genres.

MC Navigator (also known as Specky Ranx), MC, recording artist and presenter, was born in Walthamstow in 1963 to a Jamaican father and a white mother, he remembers growing up in Walthamstow in the 1970s as, “Very East End. Old school man. Very culturally, traditionally English, you know. There wasn’t a lot of love for West Indians.”

“Black people could not really get into clubs in them times so it would just be house parties and we’d go all over the place. My dad had so many friends, West Indian friends, and we’d just go to house parties. At the parties it was ska, blue beat, rock steady, calypso and mento. Jamaicans, Barbajans, Antiguans, Vincentians and all the different cultures. Rum, curry goat and rice, souse, roti, patties. So much love and good memories for me”.

MC Navigator
Image of a young MC Navigator with his arm around a friend's shoulders
MC Navigator (Specky Ranx) (right) and Mikey Eastwood (left), early 1980s, Walthamstow. Courtesy of MC Navigator

By the eighties, sound systems were making use of pubs, community centres and youth centres around the borough. For a predominantly black audience who weren’t able to access the facilities of clubs, these alternative venues were key to hearing new music and socialising. A directory of sounds from the time lists four Leyton-based systems, Imperial Youth, Tokyo the Monarch, Sir Wayne and Unitone of Leyton. Mike Stone from Walthamstow, Promoter of Empathy: State of Mind nights and Founder of Dance 93.0 FM, was a box boy for Sir Wayne’s Sound System, “An old style, reggae sound system”, “We used to follow them about as box boys, carry the boxes and help them wire them in clubs. The one I remember mostly was the Red Lion up in Leytonstone”. MC Navigator, who started out as a mic man for Walthamstow sound system Intruder said, “The sound system used to come and string up their whole big sound in there with loads of boxes. They’d shake the place down”. For Navigator, the opportunity led to him working his way through the ranks, first making a name for himself as Specky Ranx with UK sound system Phase One in Tottenham at the age of 16, then Fatman Hi-Fi and finally Unity where he joined forces with Ragga Twins.

Image from the 1980s showing Leytonstone High Street
Leytonstone High Street (showing the Red Lion on the right hand side), 1987. Image courtesy of Tim Brown

In the early eighties, whilst a student at Waltham Forest College, DJ, Producer and Promoter, Linden C saw a Saxon versus Unity sound clash at Walthamstow Assembly Hall. “It was the very first Sound Clash thing that I ever went to and everyone was making a really big deal of it… Saxon just blew it apart, I thought they were amazing, so I started following Saxon after that.”

Using youth clubs and sports halls also meant a younger crowd could attend and be influenced by the music. As a 13 year old, DJ and Producer, Adrian H remembers going to all-dayers at Lloyd Park and Markhouse Road youth centre in Walthamstow and seeing TNT Sound System and DJ Ron, “It was just being able to see people like that and then kind of doing it ourselves with our soul parties. That was my inspiration right there”.

Photo of teenagers in the 1980s at a youth club disco
Lennie De Ice at Mini Mart Sound System, Lloyd Park, 1985. Courtesy of Lennie De Ice

In 1981, the Dread Broadcasting Corporation, Britain’s first black run pirate radio station began broadcasting on FM from Ladbroke Grove. Playing rarely heard calypso, reggae, soca, jazz and hip hop, the signal reached across London and beyond. For many local young people, this became an opportunity to both hear new music but also to get their own music played and by the end of the eighties, Waltham Forest had a number of their own influential stations broadcasting from the borough’s tower blocks.  

The pirate radio stations became the modern-day reggae sound systems. It was a platform where people could be heard by an audience and express themselves, either as a selector DJ or as a vocalist artist or MC.

MC Navigator

MC Navigator saw the scene evolve as young Londoners got creatively involved. “During the late eighties, it kind of switched, the youngsters that were coming through had a different interpretation of sound system because of the influence of hip hop. They’d developed a new style of rapping which would be kind of like ragga, Cockney ragga… they were the first ones that actually started rapping in a UK accent and got respect for that, whereas we would be strictly Jamaican”.

House parties were important too, for hearing new music, meeting like-minded people and trying out skills. The many local estates were rich with opportunities for parties. 

Boundary Road Estate they used to keep parties, Priory Court… Chingford Hall Estate, Leyton, Cathall Estate. Leyton Youth Centre with the cricket ground, they used to keep dances in there. When I first started going out to parties it was house parties and blues dances” said MC Navigator. On Cathall Estate, Adrian H remembered playing at parties, “Taking loads of records in milk crates, really heavy crates and if the lifts were broken you’d be walking up loads of flights of stairs with them”. And for Dlux, Cathall Estate was a hugely influential place, “I grew up around an estate in Leytonstonewe would have parties, house parties, parties in the community centre and stuff like that, wherever we could get a space we’d have a party and we’d be playing our hip hop and then someone would put on an early track like, Impedance, Tainted Love … and it would just turn the whole event on its head and people wanted more of that. I can remember stuff like Meltdown, Quartz.

Cathall Road Estate, 1980s, courtesy of Vestry House Museum

Jessie Grace Mellor remembers one of the first house parties she went to, around Billet Road. It was actually a paid party. My sister did the backdrops for it. It was just a really good atmosphere, everyone was very happy. It was on a terrace just off the North Circular. It was a very loud party but no one came to shut us down. That was one of my first raving experiences and is really close to my heart.

Roger the Doctor described his weekly cycle of parties, “You go to the party on Saturday, everyone has a good time, the Sunday everyone’s hurting, you’re talking about it until the Friday comes around again and Friday everyone’s talking about ‘my party’s next’”.

Handrawn flyer for a night at the YMCA, Forest Road, Walthamstow, courtesy of Phatmedia Archive
Handrawn flyer for a night at the YMCA, Forest Road, Walthamstow, courtesy of Phatmedia Archive
Handrawn flyer for a party in Shernhall Street, , courtesy of Phatmedia Archive
Handrawn flyer for a party in Shernhall Street, courtesy of Phatmedia Archive

In the eighties, regular soul nights began occupying smaller venues up and down the borough with varying degrees of acceptance.

At pubs like the Red Lion on Leytonstone High Road, many local DJ’s, including Roy Balfourth remembered locals Derek Boland and Linden C putting on soul nights.

Further down Leytonstone High Street, Linden C and Tim Strudwick would go to soul nights at the Plough and Harrow, and Roger the Doctor remembered, the Phoenix Club, opposite Leytonstone Fire Station, “It opened at 1am, whether it was legal or not, we don’t know. But we used to come out at 6am, 7am in the morning. It was downstairs so most people couldn’t hear it”.

Roy Balfourth, Linden C and MC Navigator all referenced a club at Walthamstow Central, called at various points, Cloud 9 or Central Park. Roy Balfourth regularly went to a soul night called there Scud, organised by Simon Scott; Linden C remembered the slogan as you walked in it said, “Walk in, Dance Out”. MC Navigator used to go  there to listen to, “Jah Tubby, the white guy Keith”.

When Simon Scott moved his soul night to Chingford, Roy says, “one weekend it kicked off between us and the skinheads because Chingford was renowned for skinheads back then”.


Cloud 9 club at Walthamstow Central, seen on the right hand side with 'Walk in, Dance out' written on the outside, 1980s. Courtesy of Walthamstow in Pictures

Another consistently referenced influence was DJ Froggy who played predominantly black Amercian music to a whiter crowd every week in Ilford. “He was playing very kind of American funk, soul, Maze, Frankie Beverly and … this whole kind of jazz funk, but he never used to play like the obvious records that most of the other DJs were playing”, recalled Linden C, “It was mainly through seeing him, and just seeing how he was, and the way he controlled the crowd and stuff, I kind of thought yeah, I’d love to do that”. Roger the Doctor would travel to Ilford and back on the night bus with 20 to 30 friends from Waltham Forest, “My biggest influence of a DJ would have to be DJ Froggy”. Ronnie Herel described him as, “An Essex soul DJ legend” who inspired him to mix. After the club had finished and it was time to go home Mike Stone said, “There would be a group of us, after midnight all walking home together, back to Waltham Forest, just running about and enjoying life”.

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In the mid to late eighties, Derek B, Linden C and Tim Strudwick were pushing house parties further, appropriating empty properties and putting on ‘Haunted House’ parties, playing mainly soul and rare groove. Tim says, “We’d get into a venue, we’d get the electricity on and we’d get a sound system, we’d go down the wholesalers and buy some booze and we’d put on a party. In the beginning there were probably about 100 people. If we were lucky we’d charge £3 to get in, then as more people got to hear about us, we tried out bigger venues”. One of these in Colworth Road, Leytonstone, inspired Mike Stone to start putting on parties himself in a property that, “Was designated to be torn down. It was a pre-cursor to the early warehouse raves”. 

Most black people and certain types of white people wouldn't get in clubs at that time. So it was.... not a kind of rebelling, but it was just doing your own thing and everyone was welcome. And there was never any trouble.

Linden C

With this potent mix of music, culture and DIY traditions entrepreneurial young people took the opportunity to put on events of increasing ambition. One early rave in 1988 was due to take place in Highams Park, the first organised by Erol Belafonte, called Baptism. It was reportedly later cancelled but Erol went on to organise a number of highly successful events around London under the name Jericho. He also partnered with other local talent like Bizzy-B and Brain Records on nights in Leytonstone.

Baptism flyer showing location at Highams Park broadway
Baptism rave flyer, 1988 showing location at Higham Park Broadway, E4, courtesy of Peter Baptiste

Linden C, Tim Strudwick and Rob Acteson went on to promote the successful Hypnonis events, the first of which was in an empty property in Orford Road, Walthamstow, which had been the local art college. 

There were huge mannequin sculptures left in there that people had made with plaster and chicken wire. We painted the whole place and mannequins with fluorescent paint and had UV lights, strobes and smoke machines. It was like Dante's Inferno, it was bonkers. As the whole place heated up, the paint started running off the walls and everybody in there was covered from head to foot in florescent paint!

Tim Strudwick
Flyer for a party by Hypnosis
Newspaper cutting from the Sunday Sport with negative coverage of the Hypnosis rave in Orford Road
At the rave in Orford Road, Walthamstow, an undercover Sunday Sport reporter covered the party, 1988

*statistics from research by Peter Ashan as part of We Are Here project.