How Unorthodox broke new ground in club culture and drum & bass
By Ryan Moss
- 13 Jun 2023
- 17 min read
Unorthodox wears its name like a badge of honour. Both a club night and a community, it’s led by Nathan X, who adorns the decks in drag, bringing a striking look to any booth he steps inside. Alongside him are Clarkus, Pinks and Bugwell; close friends who share his passion to marry the hair-raising beats and kinetic percussion lines of drum & bass with the pomp, pageantry and flamboyance found in queer scenes both in the U.K and beyond.
The community is thriving, with their first sell-out event coming in September 2021. Since then, they’ve gone from strength to strength, ticking off successful events in London and Brighton, festival appearances on home soil and abroad, with plans to bring the event to Bristol, Manchester and Leeds in the pipeline.
In Nathan’s words, “Unorthodox has become a celebration of both queer identity and the power of Drum & Bass”. But this story begins in 2020. It’s the lockdown, a time of instability, ennui and confusion for many people. Back then, Nathan felt conflicted. His love of drum & bass didn’t match up with his identity. “As a queer person who loved Drum & Bass and frequented queer clubs in London, I felt a significant disconnect,” he tells us.
“It left me torn—I wanted to be with my queer community, but I also craved the exhilarating beats of DnB”.
With conflict comes questions, and Nathan had plenty of them. “Why was there such a disconnect? Was I the only one who felt this way? Why didn’t queer people seem to embrace DnB?” So, he posed the question to the world’s largest social media platform: Facebook. To a group with 50,000 members, he asked, “What does everyone think about a queer-focused DnB rave… everybody is welcome?”
“The post exploded”, he tells us. It became one of the most commented-on threads in the group’s history, with a lot of those comments, unfortunately, featuring homophobic slurs and accusations of segregation. But in the comments, a light shone through the cracks: those who wanted a space like Unorthodox, a space that celebrates queer people and their love of drum & bass. “They shared their stories of experiencing homophobia at raves and expressed the need for inclusivity”, says Nathan.
The debate raged on. At the time, Nathan felt that he wasn’t equipped to handle it. But he knew one thing: “A problem had been identified, and a fire had been ignited, one that should not be allowed to burn out. And thus, Unorthodox was born”
This Pride Month, we wanted to shine a light on Unorthodox, a club night and community that has broken new ground in not only drum & bass but in wider club culture too. For this interview, we spoke to Nathan X about the disconnect of a passion not representing parts of an identity, the queer joy felt from Unorthodox, his thoughts on building a safe space and much, much more.
You’ve spoken in previous interviews about being gay, being into D&B but at the time, not presenting as femme. I’m queer and into grime, and even though I present as traditionally masculine, I can empathise with that disconnect of a passion not representing parts of your identity. Can you talk a little bit about what that feels like?
“I’ve always had a deep love for drum & bass ever since I was 16 years old. It became a significant part of my life, and I started DJing and exploring the genre even more when I was studying at university in Brighton. I dedicated much of my time to the clubs, working various roles from bar staff to promotion, and eventually, I had the opportunity to DJ myself. Let’s just say that attending lectures was not at the front of my mind.
However, amidst my immersion in the DnB scene, I felt that I wasn’t fully engaging with my queer identity. I attempted to fit into the traditional drum & bass mould, adopting the black t-shirt and snapback look. It suited me for a while, but as I grew older and learned more about myself, I began to feel disheartened. I realised that I wasn’t truly being authentic to who I was, and this led me to step away from music altogether.
During this time, I started exploring my queer identity. I had moved back to London, my hometown, and began spending more time with my older brother, who is also queer and had recently started working as a drag queen. Initially, I wasn’t sure how to handle it, but eventually, I embraced it and recognised how amazing it was. I started immersing myself in queer spaces and events in London. I experimented with my fashion, makeup, and accessories like crop tops, nails, and chains. I made queer friends and truly came into my own as a young queer individual.
I used to believe that being gay didn’t mean I had to like drag queens or wear makeup, and while that’s true, I began to realise that being queer encompasses so much more than just our attractions. It’s a way of life, a vibrant culture, a sense of family and friends, and an integral part of music, dancing, and so much more.
However, during those three years of personal growth, I also started missing the energy of Drum & Bass raves—the pulsating music, deep basslines, mesmerising lights, and the exhilaration of double drops and MCs. But I felt like I didn’t belong in that scene anymore, as my newfound camp and open self-expression didn’t seem to align with the DnB community.
I even attempted to attend some DnB raves to give it another shot, but I didn’t feel accepted in those spaces. I encountered homophobic comments and faced aggressive questioning about my appearance. This experience was pivotal for me and became one of the driving forces behind my desire to create something where I and others like me could feel accepted and truly fit in.”
The flip side to the last question is you’ve now got access to a space where you can present however you like, are around other LGBTQ people and they all love D&B as much as you do, which is great. Queer joy is hard to put into words, but can you tell us about how it feels to be in that space, especially with it being one you’ve had a hand in creating?
“My relationship with the actual Unorthodox shows is quite unique. Whilst I can see they are undeniably great, with an electric atmosphere that never fails to blow me away, I have a complex experience because I created the space with myself in mind as the target customer. However, during each show, I find myself working tirelessly as a DJ, in drag, liaising with artists, and engaging with ravers and friends. Unorthodox is my baby, and this sense of ownership often leaves me feeling anxious. I have a desire for each event to be a resounding success, which makes it difficult for me to simply relax and enjoy the experience.
To counter this, I recently made a deliberate decision to attend one of the events purely as a punter, removing myself from the operational side of things. I wanted to “test my product,” as they say. It was during the February iteration at Peckham Audio when I finally let my hair down and entrusted the running of the event to my team. I have to say it turned out to be one of the best nights I’ve ever had at a DnB event. I felt completely immersed in the community, forged new friendships, danced the night away, and truly loved every aspect of the music and performances.
However, what I find to be the most profound queer connection I experience is with my closest friends, who also make up my Unorthodox team. Clarkus, Pinks, and Bugwell are not only my trusted allies, but they are also my dearest friends. We have formed a tight-knit group of individuals who share a love and passion for this project. Being queer and having a mutual adoration for drum & bass has created an unbreakable bond among us. This connection is something I never experienced before embarking on this journey, and it is absolutely invaluable and irreplaceable.
One thing I love about Unorthodox is how it breaks the House and Techno dominance of queer events. Don’t get me wrong, the foundations that Chicago house artists built are super important, but queer people like other music too! Can you tell us about the changes you’ve seen in D&B since you started the event?
“You make an interesting point. Raving originated as an anti-establishment movement created by Queer and also Black communities as a means to carve out their own space where they could freely express themselves away from a world that often rejected them.
Raving, at its core, is inherently political. It is disheartening to see how drum & bass has become segregated from the wider queer scene, considering its roots in the inclusive and liberating spirit of raving. With Unorthodox, we aim to reclaim and embody that ethos once again.
I firmly believe that by setting an example and creating a space like Unorthodox, we can have a positive impact on the wider drum & bass scene. I have personally noticed changes occurring at larger drum & bass raves. I see more outwardly queer individuals attending these events, and I sense a greater level of openness and acceptance from others. The period of lockdown, along with significant social movements like Black Lives Matter, has prompted a shift in societal attitudes, leading to increased acceptance of diverse experiences and identities. It seems that we now live in a world where people are more willing to embrace different aspects of life.
When I perform in full drag at regular drum & bass raves, I am showing the world that one can be whoever they want to be and still love this genre of music. As a result, I now feel accepted within the wider drum & bass community, both onstage and backstage with fellow artists. While there is still much work to be done, it is evident that we are moving in the right direction toward a more inclusive and diverse drum & bass scene.”
In the grand scheme of things, Unorthodox is still quite a young event and there aren’t many queer D&B acts. How do you balance booking names big enough to fill a club while still keeping true to the ethos of what you’re trying to achieve?
“Finding the right balance between booking big-name acts and staying true to our ethos has been a challenge for us. Any promoter understands the importance of having headline acts to attract ticket sales and drive growth. However, we are committed to showcasing and uplifting queer artists within the drum & bass scene.
Over time, we are beginning to discover more queer acts, including some well-known names. I always believed that they existed, even if they may choose to keep their sexuality on the down low. For many artists, the focus is primarily on their music, and I respect their creative choices. Nonetheless, we are witnessing a significant increase in the number of outwardly queer artists, which is incredibly encouraging.
When we do book non-queer artists, we decide based on their ethos and whether they are allies of the LGBTQ+ community. For example, we frequently book Charlie Tee from BBC Radio 1’s Drum & Bass show. Charlie is not only a good friend of mine but also a strong supporter of Unorthodox. She has actively promoted, mentored, and assisted us in various ways. Charlie shares our passion for diversity in the drum & bass scene. Her exceptional DJ skills, impeccable song selection, and commitment to fostering inclusivity make them an ideal headliner for our shows.
It is essential for us to strike a balance between showcasing queer artists and creating a platform for allies who actively contribute to our mission of promoting diversity and acceptance in the drum & bass community. By doing so, we can continue to grow while staying true to our values and aspirations.”
On the Unorthodox website, you’ve got the mission statement, which talks about creating a non-threatening rave for people. Obviously, you DJ in drag and the night is aimed at queer people, which goes a long way to creating an inclusive environment. But what other ways do you make Unorthodox a safe space, and how can promoters make their events a safe space?
“While it’s challenging to provide universal advice to other promoters since each event and ethos is unique, based on our own mistakes and experiences, we have implemented several measures to ensure the safety of our events:
Door Picker: At Unorthodox, we have a dedicated individual at the entrance who carefully monitors attendees to prevent any potential troublemakers from entering. If someone raises concerns or seems incompatible with the nature of our event, we engage them in conversation, explain the inclusive nature of Unorthodox, and assess whether they align with the values of our community. If deemed inappropriate, we politely refuse them entry.
Gender-Neutral Toilets: We collaborate closely with our venues to ensure the availability of gender-neutral toilets. This initiative promotes inclusivity and provides a comfortable environment for all attendees. Additionally, we work with male and female security personnel who are briefed about the nature of our event and are committed to maintaining a safe atmosphere.
Safety Officers: To further enhance security, we designate safety officers within the event. These individuals are responsible for vigilantly observing the crowd and promptly addressing any potential issues or disturbances. In addition to the core team’s proactive efforts, the presence of designated safety officers ensures a well-monitored environment.”
Skiddle is a primary ticket seller for Unorthodox. What made you choose us?
“What attracts us the most is the personal nature. Skiddle has shown a genuine interest in supporting Unorthodox, even from its early days. We have also been invited to participate in Skiddle panels, allowing us to share our insights and experiences, Additionally, we have been booked for associated events of Skiddle.
Building strong relationships is essential in this industry, we have positive connections with many members of the Skiddle team and we appreciate the genuine support we receive in our efforts to grow into the successful Queer drum & bass rave we see on the horizon.”
To finish up, what’s one thing you’ve learnt that sticks out the most while you’ve been running Unorthodox?
“Queer people love drum & bass and they know how to party!”
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