How Visions Became The Studio 54 For A Grime Generation

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Jordan Curtis Hughes

London is the land of the restless youth. Over the past couple of years, its nightlife scene has constantly shapeshifted, like a Charmander ready to take the plunge to become Charmeleon. Scores of venues have reached cult status—Miranda, Bussey Building and Cargo to name a few—but over at Visions Video Bar, the following is intense.

The club has seen its fair share of transformation in its 18-year span, going from a banqueting suite to one of the most popular venues around. On the surface, its appearance is subtle—a small door in the middle of Dalston’s Kingsland Road, sandwiched in-between bigger bars and restaurants. You could be forgiven for missing it during the day, but at night, things get lit. Walking through the small door and down the stairs, you enter a sparse basement with fierce fluorescent lighting, and the Visions logo splattered at every corner, packed to the brim with exuberant, lively teens and young adults skanking to some of the hardest tunes around. “Go hard or go home,” the venue’s slogan, has been lived by its audience in abundance, week after week.

Crafting Visions into the cultural hub it became, Gianno Parris, its former general manager from 2013-2016, has a lot to do with the aura it carries. Speaking on his early days as the boss, he remembers: “I hired a team of young and cool locals to work at the bar; it’s important that the staff reflect the intended crowd. I dropped all the promoters and made all the nights in-house to create the Visions brand of party. The bar staff, being young and cool naturally, had party ideas—and we became one big team and put the nights on together. We handed out flyers up and down Kingsland Road like it was going out of fashion [laughs].”

It was this approach that, over time, led Visions to attract a like-minded audience. Along with the guerrilla tactics Gianno and the team took, cheap drinks and compelling live sets where the acts are touching distance from the crowd were equally vital, lighting up the dancefloor for bold and brash kids to mosh. The Visions dancefloor is as visceral and intense as it gets, with its musical palette catering heavily to trap, perhaps more so than grime. “I always thought to myself, ‘What would girls like to party to?’” says Parris on booking live acts. “I used to work on events back in the day with Choice FM and Masterstepz so I developed a feeling for what makes a good DJ line-up. Some people just book big names, do a flyer and run around gassed, but when you go to their event it doesn't flow right. It's important to understand your DJ’s strengths and weaknesses so you know where to place them on the night.”

They believe in their own hype, too: TV screens replaying past nights all over the place gives the impression of awareness of the club’s power to draw in revellers. “The club used to be a banqueting suite; god knows what they used to put on the TVs, but they had them up,” says Gianno. “Everyone loves the analog era so we just kept them.”

It’s smart marketing, as the red and white of the logo has reached iconic status. Naturally filtering to the internet, Visions’ social media presence is exceptional, interacting with followers through a variety of memes and messages projecting the joy of making the guestlist, or having to confront Monday after a wild weekend in E8. Essentially teases, they add to the lustre and allure of ‘The Great Visions Night Out’, persuading onlookers to join the wave. From Thursday night to Sunday night, queues stretch across the road, riddled with trendy, impressionable kids in multiple variations of everything from Stone Island to Balenciaga, looking to get a piece of the action. The bouji guestlist before 8pm policy has undoubtedly crushed many dreams on arrival, and if you’re a dude with a group of dudes, forget about it; you better make some female friends before trying to get in. One look at the website and it is painfully obvious that most kids are there to be noticed—to say they’re at Visions holds some degree of social weight. The power of Instagram likes is almost scary, like a social currency that the kids exchange with each other for the good of the squad and x number of followers.

“Visions was a lifestyle; we partied for days on-end! There was no such thing as a school night because no one did 9-5 jobs.”

Visions’ success led to a takeover of London’s premier music festival, Lovebox, where their own stage hosted Newham Generals, Nu Brand Flexxx and a slew of up and comers, both in 2015 and 2016. The message was clear: Visions had gone mainstream. But it had this reputation, where the coolest of the cool socialised, and partied the night away. This isn’t paying obscene amounts of money on the door and on drinks in the hope of hearing something you like, but carefully cultivated nights for the youth. Skepta filmed his “Man (Gang)” video in the club’s VIP area, littered with graffiti from famous visitors, while Pharrell and Wiz Khalifa also paid visits. Rappers started shouting out the club in their bars (Oscar #Worldpeace recently spat: “and I got something in Visions”), giving it legitimacy in the public imagination. All of a sudden, anyone who was anyone was having a vision in Visions.

Speaking on the celebrity recognition, Parris says: “The definition of big name changed over time. Siobhan Bell and Darq E Freaker were the first notable DJs to show love. Then Meridian Dan, Skepta, Jammer, BBK, they came after. All manner of celebrities and interesting people would drift in and out of the wave. Visions was a lifestyle; we partied for days on-end! There was no such thing as a school night because no one did 9-5 jobs. You were either an artist, a student, someone who worked in entertainment or fashion, or you were finding yourself and had no fixed profession. It was like living in a sick festival 24/7.”

But things haven’t all been plain sailing. Just last year, the club gained more mainstream press, but for the wrong reasons, having to defend themselves after denying entry to a 19-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, saying it was her fault that she didn’t inform them of her condition beforehand. In addition to being widely insensitive, it was highly discriminatory. Essentially dictating an individual’s right to enter, it was a bad image to be attached to Visions, whether they could have prevented it or not.

This wasn’t the beginning of the end however, because the wheels had been set in motion long before. In Gianno’s words, “London’s coolest crowd stopped going. It's no longer the epicentre of London youth music and culture. There was a time when if you were an A&R, or worked in certain areas of fashion and media, you needed to go for work. It was the place where important things happened. You'd miss a weekend then hear that Pharrell Williams and Ed Sheeran were there.”

“There was a time when if you were an A&R, or worked in certain areas of fashion and media, you needed to go for work.”

Gianno’s words are plain to see in the landscape of clubbing culture in London. With Kamio, Birthdays and other venues now the premier spaces for a great night, Visions has fallen by the way side in terms of popularity. The urgency for people to go there, and only there, has diminished, because it isn’t unique anymore. Gianno himself left his position as general manager late last year—he tells me it was to pursue a new challenge—and he now runs his own club night. Visions has lost its lustre, which may explain why you don’t hear of rappers, models and other famous people roaming the basement anymore. The question of whether it can recapture its past glories remains but, to Gianno, they need to look forward instead of back: “They need to craft a new future and not cling on to the shadow of what was.”

What that new future might be is anyone’s guess and, perhaps, it has already had its time in the sun. But Visions will always hold a place in the realm of youth music and culture in London, simply for channelling that energy, creating a space for the youth, and moulding a blueprint for future venues to attract them, on its own terms. This might be more important than any endorsement a celebrity could give or any namedrop in a lyric. “My most fond memories are of the build-up,” says Gianno. “Designing the flyers and getting them printed, throwing spontaneous after-parties and lock-ins—it’s all been a movie.”

Posted on September 18, 2017