Made in Sheffield: The Creative City Locals Would Rather You Didn’t Know About

Made in Sheffield: The Creative City Locals Would Rather You Didn’t Know About

From bleep to bassline, we dive head first into the creative flames of this less-talked-about south Yorkshire city.

This article first appeared in Volume 32: Homegrown.

are some cities that thrive on their carefully cultivated
reputations. New York
is the world’s first 24-hour capital; Paris is
famous for romance; and
is a multicultural mash-up. But Sheffield? Unless you’re
from this particular city, it’s unlikely you know much about its
constitution. That’s no accident; locals here are unflinchingly
grounded and scathing at the first signs of pomposity or self
congratulation – they treasure their city’s incognito status. But
what this modest veil masks is history bursting with cultural
resonance spanning beyond five decades. Sheffield has a lot worth
celebrating, but be wary the renegade who dares pop that

A compelling juxtaposition of post-industrial skyline against
the lush green crests of the Peak
, Sheffield lies in the underbelly of South Yorkshire.
It’s home to more than 730,000 people. Many declare that much like
Rome, the
city was built on seven hills and, regardless of this statement’s
accuracy, what can be agreed is that they are all extremely steep.
In the 19th century it was world-renowned for its steel production,
which sparked exponential economic boom for the city and its
residents, but after the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Second
World War and subsequent recessions, a period of more troubling
times followed. It’s against this relatively bleak backdrop that
its cultural foundations have flourished.

Creativity frequently rises from the ashes of austerity, but
what makes Sheffield so unique is the pioneering role it’s played
across so many genres of the arts, and music is at the heart of
that. Mainstream bands including The Human League, Pulp, Arctic
Monkeys, and Moloko all have their roots in Sheffield, while venues
such as The Leadmill have been pivotal in providing a platform for
emerging and established live acts who have gone on to receive
international acclaim. But it’s perhaps the input into the canon of
electronic music that’s less well chronicled outside city lines,
and here that a talented bunch of people really do excel.

In the late 1980s, rave culture had a vice-like grip on the UK,
providing escapism from a country dogged by a gloomy socio-economic
setting. Records imported from cities across the Atlantic stoked
its popularity, and while places such as Detroit – to which
Sheffield’s industrial and musical heritage is often compared – are
entrenched in the scene’s history, Sheffield takes a backseat.
That’s despite it being the birthplace of bleep, a distinctly UK
sound that became synonymous with unmodulated synths and throbbing
sub-low bass lines.

It began in 1989 with a track called The Theme by Unique 3,
which was released on the now legendary label, Warp Records. An
overnight success, it marked the arrival of a new underground
sound, one which went on to influence bands and producers such as
LFO and Nightmares on Wax, and pave the way for myriad UK genres
including breakbeat and jungle to dubstep and grime.

Of those, its most notorious offshoot is probably bassline.
Popular in the early 2000s, it’s characterised by a classic 4/4
rhythm, 140 bpm tempo and over-excitable crowds, which sadly made
it a target for police keen to cut rising crime numbers in the
city. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop tracks such as T2’s
Heartbroken soaring up the charts and into people’s living rooms.
“Bassline was really a reflection of the moment,” Sheffield-based
DJ, Mr Dubz, tells me. “And it influenced a whole generation of
kids.” Its surging influence was cut short in 2005 when Niche, the
nightclub irrevocably intertwined with the sound’s explosion, was
closed down following a police raid. Yet instead of fading to
insignificance, bassline morphed into what’s now considered bass
house, a slower incarnation of its former self that’s managed to
dodge the gaze of the authorities and become enmeshed as the
defining sound across multiple northern cities.

The fact that a variety of subcultures have allowed the space to
blossom isn’t exceptional but is certainly unusual, and in
Sheffield there are many reasons for that. Cheap living and
inspiring scenery no doubt play a part, but integral to the city’s
cultural identity is its collection of creative minds who invest
time and effort into the arts scene and support of regional talent.
“It’s only a small music community, but they’re all really
passionate,” expands Mr Dubz, whose first forays behind the decks
came at the University of Sheffield’s Foundry venue and the iconic
Tuesday Club, but now gets frequent plays on both BBC Radio 1Xtra
and Rinse FM. “I was lucky because I was able to go from imagining
myself playing somewhere spectacular in my bedroom to playing a
real live venue,” he adds. “It was really gracious of the guys who
gave me a step-up to allow me to do that.”

This gregariousness is palpable across the arts, and for poet,
artist and musician, Genevieve Carver, it was recognisable
immediately after she made the cross-country leap from London to
Sheffield. “I had a preconception that poetry was pretentious, but
I found this scene and it was so welcoming,” she says. “People were
reading poems in the back room of a pub and it was just a normal
thing to do, no one was declaring ‘I’m a poet!’ There’s a lot more
room for comedy here, it’s less about taking yourself seriously.”
Being surrounded by a network of like-minded people – Sheffield has
twice the national average of people employed in the creative
industries – who encourage artistic tendencies also helps, and with
initiatives such as Wordlife offering would-be performers a
platform to feel their way, amateurs are encouraged to experiment.
“There’s a lot of space to play and find out what you’re trying to
say,” she adds. “You really feel like you’re part of something
rather than lost in a big sea of people.”

This stripped-back approach to performing and sharing art was a
key driver for Sheffield’s former Lord Mayor Magid Magid when he
appointed hip-hop artist Otis Mensah as the city’s first ever poet
laureate in 2018. “He wanted to show what’s different about the
arts scene here,” Otis says. “It was about breaking traditions and
giving other voices the time to shine.”

It’s a path similar to the one Magid himself charted as the
city’s youngest and first ethnic-Somali and Green Party councillor
to hold the role of Lord Mayor, and it was a move intended to help
smash predefined stuffy stereotypes and traditions, which left
unchallenged can contort into oppression. “There are lots of
beautiful pockets of culture in this city; it’s not just white
indie bands that come from here,” Otis affirms. “So this role was
about taking up space.”

The importance of championing diverse and underrepresented
voices is mirrored at Theatre Deli, one of the city’s most beloved
fixtures, and that breeds a unique affinity among workers and
locals. “I’ve never worked with such an amazing community of
people,” Producer Programmer Sara Hill explains. “It’s so open and
supportive, it feels like there’s a complete lack of competition.”
Once housed within an old Woolworths building, Theatre Deli has
made use of Sheffield’s glut of industrial meanwhile spaces and is
now a vital contributor to the city’s diverse theatre complex – the
largest outside of London. By involving local communities and
attempting to remove the social stigma that surrounds art, the aim
is to break down the barriers that prevent everyone from enjoying
creativity. “In Sheffield, it’s a small, grass-roots scene and that
helps it be collaborative,” she affirms. “There’s very much an
attitude that we’re all in this together.”

It’s this cooperative approach and lack of pretentiousness that
sets Sheffield apart from its fellow northern cities. “Being down
to earth is highly prized here,” Sara continues. “I think a lot of
people quite like the fact that Sheffield remains under the radar.”
Indeed, there’s a definite low-key pride in the city’s cultural
achievements, and while a reluctance to celebrate that publicly can
prove detrimental (a study in 2018/ 2019 revealed that Arts Council
England spent £49 per head in Manchester’s cultural scene, compared
to less than £10 for Sheffield), the potential for exhibitionism
and the commercialism that could follow simply goes against the

In a time when we’re all being encouraged to think locally for
the sake of the planet and are bombarded with homogenised images of
how to lead our lives, Sheffield’s inward-facing outlook and
considered pace of life seems better placed than most to weather
the storm and challenge the cultural status quo in the process. “We
have more space and time here,” Otis muses. “There’s an opportunity
to mull things over a little more.” Form an orderly queue for this
quietly extraordinary city, folks.

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