The Tipping Point 02:
Michelle Hunter, Smoove & Ministry Of Sound’s UKG Love Affair

In a new series led by veteran music journalist and artist manager Chantelle Fiddy, TRENCH resurrects the stories of yesteryear—via those behind the scenes—mapping the landscape of UK music past. This time: a conversation with Michelle Hunter, former promoter of Smoove, Ministry of Sound (2000 – 2005).

While UK garage found its roots in US garage and soulful house, by 1994 things were getting faster and more focused on the power of the bassline, and when the junglists came to the table a couple of years later, UK garage as we now know it was truly born. Where clubs are concerned, what began as a Sunday scene soon grew and promoters were catering for roadblock events.

Ministry of Sound gave UK garage a home at the club at the turn of the century; a staple part of the Friday night listings calendar for the next five years, Smoove reigned supreme in London. Fronted by the then-23 years young promoter Michelle Hunter, alongside Laurence Bagnall (now an artist manager and more), they set trend and boosted the careers of previously underground stars. Facing thousands of cash-carrying punters amid the haze of postcode wars in the capital, their success deserved applause back then, and also now.

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How do you feel when you look back to your work in the early 2000s?

Honestly, I feel so blessed; I think the last time the UK were going out like that to hear riddims being dropped was Northern Soul up North and rock ‘n’ roll down South. To be part of a movement that was a lifestyle but also a musical connection to the street, where I’m from, it was the first time—in my opinion—I’d seen young entrepreneurs, intelligence, people coming in and making something that was their own. It becomes yours and you become a spearhead for a younger generation—it’s fuckin’ fantastic.

I thinking about how much has changed; those nights at Smoove were really the last pre-mobile phone days of clubbing. You were also handling cash, not debit cards like today, and there was a lot of money moving about…

I remember one night we took some serious cash on the door. The only other time I’d seen that was World Dance, Fantasia… But they were illegal raves. And then you’ve got to remember, you’re in the middle of South London and postcode wars were starting to happen. You’ve got all this money in an office and you have to make sure everyone’s safe. We had an amazing door team and great connections with everyone in the industry, as we were honest and integral. We weren’t really going to agents; we were like a family and would just call the acts up. I remember magazine staff from RWD and Dazed & Confused being up there having a drink one day, laughing about beef over ad-sales they’d had a year ago. Even the illegal pirate radio guys—who, at the time, were stealing each other’s antennae—they were all up there having a drink. So the VIP became known as the pub. And people would say on a Friday night, “We’re going to the pub.” But what they really meant was they were going to Smoove at Ministry of Sound.

Where did it all begin for you?

I moved to Brighton when I was 19 and went to an illegal party and said to myself, “Yes! This is me. I’m at home.” I started working for Jess at Juice Radio, putting some nights on, then with Sarah Thaine. When she moved to London, she called and said she couldn’t do it without me, so I left Brighton to go and work for her. I’d been doing really cool drum ‘n’ bass nights and had just got into speed garage—MJ Cole was still a sound engineer and not the MJ Cole we know today—and watching the progression was a great thing to be a part of. I worked under Sarah at Ministry; I was flyering, they had a night in the baby box called S-Moves, and I remember sitting down with Laurence Bagnall, Jay Pender, Nod McDonald, Hector Dewar and discussing how shit Friday nights were. We knew the new thing was R&B and garage and we had to be pushing it. They were like, “You can’t do that to a house club!” Well, we proved everyone wrong. They said if you can get 1,000 people in, you’ll have a night forever and by our fourth week, we had 1,500 in, smashing the shit out of it. I became the promoter with Laurence, who gave me his black book. He told me I was young and into it, so I could do whatever I wanted with it. We booked Masterstepz as our main DJ—he was really doing it—we found Femme Fatale, who was up-and-coming, and the list goes on and on... Then it went into the So Solid days.

Did things change for you as the music changed?

I’d hear all these discussions—this man’s done this, this man’s done that—but I just saw kids like me trying to make some money and get on in life. I remember Wiley being booked and not turning up. He’d come to the Ministry office begging for a spot, promising he would turn up. On the night, [Eskimo Dance promoter] Cheeky came in and said he had “a wicked new MC in the car—he’s going to be fire!” I said, “No. He’s too young to come inside the club.” Only turned out to be Dizzee Rascal! We booked Kano soon after.

Are you still in touch with some of the people from back then?

Yes, some are firm friends... You know what it is? I’ve seen a lot and none of us were choirboys—we weren’t private school-educated, we came from the streets and we partied hard. I was 23 years old programming part of the Millennium Dome, and I have not one qualification to my name, to this day. I couldn’t spell and I was doing flyers—it was hilarious. I knew music, people and the streets and what was going on there and then—that was the blessing. A lot of people pretend, but I don’t deal with that. I was 14 years old raving to people like Jason Kaye and EZ but then I’m able to book them and they become friends. It’s just lovely. Sometimes life sends you on a path that really allows you to find yourself, and Ministry did that for me. People will sometimes ask me how I found it not just as a woman, but as a gay woman, but I’ve never seen myself as straight, gay, white, black. It sounds cliché, but I grew up in an area that was predominantly black and Asian, everyone trying their hardest to get by. There wasn’t a lot of anything when I was younger. So to go into a scene with champagne and Jimmy Choo’s was amazing but I really liked it when we started Street Sounds; Slimzee, God’s Gift, Crazy Titch, More Fire Crew. That was when the next generation started coming through. We’d have a 4/4 night, an all-girls night, the street party, and all-pink parties. Flyers were shit back then but, thanks to our artistic department, we had great flyers, and we marketed it as the real sound of London.

You were a feminist too; I remember you putting a clause in my contract that I could wear boxing boots to work instead of high heels, which was a definite deal breaker. You were one of only a few women in your position in the industrydid you have to be edgy?

You had to have your head about you. But I’m a business woman, so it’s not about gender, it’s just what you believe as a person. I was there to have a great time and make some money. That was achieved. Missy Elliott and Christina Milian rolled up to events because the A&Rs were down there and it was the hottest club night in the country—that, in itself, speaks volumes. Twice As Nice, too, they were so important, and they’re still going. Garage Nation came a bit later but they ate hard, and still do.

You wore a bulletproof vest to work for five yearshow did you handle that?

When you go to work and you’re worrying about your staff getting shot, it’s mad. Nod, my boss—who used to do the door with me—we did it all ourselves, inside and out. Debbie (Coda Agency) used to run for us and she was working with Relentless Records too, and knew so many people; she was really good to have on-side. I remember after the first shooting saying I need a vest, and people were like: “They’re not going to shoot you cause you’re a girl.” I said, “Listen! I ain’t being funny, but I grew up on the streets and I’m telling you a bullet doesn’t see creed, colour, or sexuality.”

Where’s your head at now in life?

When I left, I started working for DV8 training in Brighton, teaching young people how to run events instead of them going to school or college and, to this day, some of them are still running events. I went on to do my own nights in Brighton until about four years ago. I stopped because I’m now a project manager for YMCA, managing seven properties for homeless young people—I gave it all up to give back to the community. I’ve gotten older; I don’t want to stand in a club anymore hoping to earn money. I was still doing well, but I had an opportunity to have what people call ‘a career’. It’s got a lot harder for younger people out there. You used to go out with a tenner, get into a club, take a pill and get home. Now you’ll be getting a McDonalds for that. Now it’s all about look at what I’ve got on. When I started working for YMCA, one minute I’m in the club with people with money, having a great time, but then I’m at work with some of the most traumatised young people in society. When parents are making their children homeless, when you find something with purpose, it can really take over. Mental health is such a big thing these days, and music has always been a release and a way of moving forward. As soon as I wake up, I put music on—it’s food for the soul. Garage gave you energy, and it’s all about energy.


Posted on October 05, 2018