The new community: How records are shaping local culture in South East London

The new community: How records are shaping local culture in South East London

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Three record shops have opened within one hundred metres of each other on Peckham’s Rye Lane in the last six months. They are the physical manifestation of a record culture that has been bubbling beneath the surface for some time.

“The best thing has been realising how many local people put records out,” says Chris Coupe, who opened Rye Wax with Tom Stiedl as an extension of the Bussey Building with the blessings of owner Mickey Smith in August this year. “Obviously people want to bring their records here so that we can sell them for them. It’s really been exciting how many people are putting records out, especially in Peckham specifically.”

Unlike many vibrant local music scenes, the energy in South East London is not so much built around live music as it is built around records. Alongside new shops Rye Wax, YAM and Do!! You!!! that have opened, 2014 has been a breakthrough year for local vinyl-friendly labels 22A and Rhythm Section, and has seen several others surface who now use the shops as direct distribution.

Although Peckham is really just a concentrated example of the raft of new shops and labels that have blossomed as a result of vinyl’s Indian Summer – Deptford Vinyl, The Record & Book Bar in West Norwood and Spotty Vinyl in New Cross have all opened nearby in the last eighteen months, not to mention Love Vinyl in Hoxton and new branches of Sister Ray and Flashback in Shoreditch – the fact remains that this small part of South East London now has about as many record shops per square metre as Soho.

Tenderlonious’ 22A label may be more Lewisham than Southwark, but you’re just as likely to find their records at YAM as Sounds of the Universe. “Putting out these records is like documenting history in the most authentic way that I can,” he says. “When I’m gone it doesn’t matter to me what my bank balance is saying, I’d rather just have left behind a documentation of what I was about in my lifetime. For me, pressing music onto vinyl is the most efficient way of doing that.”

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The problem is, the last thing Peckham needs is more hype. Vice all but christened it the new Dalston eighteen months ago, Dazed have dedicated a whole week to it as “radical London’s most crucial area” and even the Evening Standard, the grim reaper for many an individual London quarter has come knocking at least twice in the last few years. The truth is, it doesn’t deserve such reductive treatment. On the surface, Peckham is just another a small town centre with a typically multi-cultural artery (once tipped as the Oxford Street of the south), a few decent pubs, the odd bar that shuts before the Overground does and two recognizable clubs, one of which is still a pool hall most of the time.

Still, there remains a local mistrust of excessive hype which manifests itself as a sort of inverse status anxiety. “Peckham’s been a flash card to use for a long time, but it’s not as big as everyone has made it out to be,” Chris at Rye Wax explains. “It’s still just a little town in London where there happens just to be a community and a load of friendly people.”

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What’s become abundantly clear is that one level of this community has evolved with records at its core. Aside from the new shops, the vinyl-only nights and labels, local spaces like the Peckham Pelican regularly host events that bring people together with records, whether at listening parties or the newly established Independent Label Fair. “I think the community comes from the parties and from the parties comes the labels and records” says Miles Davies of Ears Have Eyes, one of several small imprints to deliver their records to Rye Wax in person. “It’s so great to have two very friendly record shops on your doorstep”.

Nestled between Camberwell School of Arts and Goldsmiths, Peckham has long been a natural and neutral ground for students of both universities to converge. Rye Wax and YAM are run by such graduates who’ve been living working in the area long enough to identify a demand for their new outlets. Tom Lawes, who founded YAM with Theo Kozłowski describes the evolution as ‘organic’, a term that’s all the more apt given that one of the latest places you can buy records on the Rye is in the back room of a whole food grocers.

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Another important member of this community is Bradley ‘Zero’ Phillips’, the man behind the area’s most established party Rhythm Section and subsequent label offshoot Rhythm Section International. In his case, the fact that Rhythm Section evolved as a vinyl-only night was “half to do with the fact that I only had two technics, and no budget to hire CDJs. And… half to do with the idea of separating the DJs who meant it from the DJs who would just fill their hard drive with the latest tunes and wing it.”

The fact that everyone he has booked turns up with a bag of records is just as important. “It was like a social club”, he explains; “bringing all your records, getting them out, having a good natter over who’s got what and then hanging out”. Or in other words, the much overlooked suspicion that the most attractive thing about records is people.

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On the label side of things, Rhythm Section may call itself ‘International’, but two of its first three outings have been rooted in the local with Al Dobson Jr.’s Rye Lane Volume One, and Ruf Dug’s ‘3am Canavan’s special’ mix on the follow up EP both pointing to local ‘landmarks’. Furthermore, the label’s new t-shirt design is derived from the Southwark council logo from the ’80s, described by Bradley as “partly local, partly nostalgic and partly due to a sincere fondness for the community ‘togetherness’ hinted at in the design.”

For Bradley, like many here, Peckham is an adopted home. Another label to settle in the area is First Word Records run by DJ Gilla, who left Leeds only to find similar bonds in South London. “I think the shops opening up (Rye Wax, YAM and Do!! You!!!) are providing a focus… which can only be a good thing. Having all three on the same road is great – it reminds me of the Northern Quarter in Manchester back in the day – you had Piccadilly, Fat City, Vinyl Exchange, Vox Pops and Beatin’ Rhythm within a hundred yards of each other in the so-called ‘Vinyl Valley’ and it can really build a culture.”

“The other week we had three 18 year old clearly first year students come in and spend 50 quid on jazz,”, says Tom at YAM, “but then you also get families, there’s a bloke and his missus and their daughter and they always come and they all have a dig.”

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The Rye’s latest record store owner Charlie Bones made the short switch from east London just six months ago and now finds himself set up in a small unit in one of two Sky Shopping arcades on Rye Lane, surrounded by records once heard on his NTS breakfast show Do!! You!!! and a pair of sewing machines he tinkers with behind the till. When the fabric and fashion traders in the units next door saw his sewing machines the first thing they asked was whether he was trying to poach their customers.

For Charlie though the shop is both a personal work space and a way of selling, or perhaps better, sharing his personal collection with the world, born out of a deep-seated suspicion of record shops as typically elitist and stand-offish entities. And where Do!! You!!! makes a stand for inclusivity and dialogue, the fact that none of the new shop owners on the Rye are old enough to have bought records when they were last de rigeour gives the impression everyone’s basically happy to learn on the job and discover music themselves as they go.

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Despite the disparate origins and diverse motives of those involved, there are structures specific to the area that act as a form of social glue and over the course of these interviews, one name cropped up more than any other. As the community activist and campaigner behind Peckham Vision which, among countless projects, is active in protecting the area’s artistic communities, Eileen Conn has left a particularly big impression on both Gilla and Bradley. “When you couple grassroots support like that with the huge numbers of arts students in the area it can really help to sustain a creative environment,” explains Gilla.

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Picking up the story Bradley describes the longevity of her impact in binding the area to its musicians. “In the ’70s, Eileen was involved in a protest as part of the Peckham Action Group, to resist the rebuilding of Southwark town hall,” explains Bradley.

“In fact, as part of the protest, a local punk band made this amazing 7” record called ‘No Town Hall’. I got hold of a copy. Interesting fact: the address on the label is Nutbrook Street, still Eileen’s house, and it’s one road over from mine, which is the address on the Rhythm Section International label.”

It’s a sensitivity to details like this that make Peckham feel like the exception rather than the norm. Somewhere along the line it has retained a semblance of the diverse and conscientious communities that are being bulldozed out of other areas of London and the personalities that are brought to the fore in a culture of physical record trading is about as good an expression of this as anything else.

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So what of the hype and the spectre of development that looms in its shadow? Bradley likes to quote his friend Dimitri Launder, founder of Area 10, the now-bulldozed Peckham Institute of the Arts. “Foam is liminal. Bubbles burst. Cultural Bubbles are short-lived because they are not built with creativity at their core, but rather economy or hype. Cultural foam develops over time, with experimentation and many creative acts. Foam is the future.”

Click next to find out more about the Rhythm Section and 22A and click here for photos from the three stores that have turned Peckham into a destination for record shopping and fans of vinyl-only 7″ club nights.

All photos by Arianna Power.


  • Ruth Gibbs

    shout out to Rat Records in Camberwell. Good prices and always worth a dig