“I took photos to preserve our culture, the spirit of the dance and the amazing producers who made banging tunes,” says Eddie Otchere, explaining why he first got into photography. Otchere, who is best known for his portraits of seminal rappers and DJs from the mid-1990s and early noughties, has lensed everyone from Aaliyah to Biggie Smalls and the Wu-Tang Clan. “I wanted to create imagery that could actually define them, their sound and where they were at.”
Documenting the music scene on both sides of the Atlantic, Otchere spent a good part of the ‘90s capturing the evolution of Drum and Bass – a genre which developed out of Jungle, later splintering into Garage and Grime. These images now feature extensively in a new book, titled Who Say Reload (Velocity Press), which offers an oral history of the movement.
“I hope the book reminds people of how good it felt to dance as a group of people together,” says Otchere. “All races dancing together… with no judgment, just good drugs.”
Otchere entered the raving scene “quite late”, he says, after spending the latter part of the ‘80s and early ‘90s mixing tracks with his friends from their bedrooms in south London. At the time, most of the raves were happening outside of London, in fields and by airports, or as Otchere describes them, “mythical places I couldn’t get to by car”.
During this time, the scene was subject to a major crackdown under the Thatcher government. “They [the government] came down on people like a ton of bricks. People gathering in a field? They were like ‘Boom! Arrest them’,” remembers Otchere. But the crowds were often indifferent to authority: “There are amazing stories of the police turning up to raves in the countryside and turning on their sirens to disperse everybody, and everybody just dancing to the sirens!”
It wasn’t until the late ‘90s, as the parties started moving out of fields and into cities, that Otchere began to immerse himself in the Drum and Bass scene. By the early ‘90s, the Tory government was collapsing, and “Everything in the country was broken, finished and done,” remembers Otchere. “As young people, we just wanted to have a good time – and we built a culture with that.”
Empty spaces started popping up that young people could rock up to, bringing their sound systems along and dancing all night. This later gave way to clubs like Ministry of Sound and Fabric, which saw a once underground scene explode onto the mainstream.
Between 1994 and 1996, Otchere was the official photographer for Metalheadz: Blue Note sessions – a night held every Sunday in Hoxton Square run by Goldie. “When the music became established… It kind of squeezed the rave experience down to three, four hours and made it more urban. We’d try and get to the club early because the queues would get ridiculous at seven or eight [pm], and they finished at midnight because of old school licensing laws. But you felt like you’d been dancing all night.”
“It was week in and week out,” continues Otchere, “and kind of like a spiritual experience.”
Otchere cites Goldie – who appears on the cover of the book – as one of the scene’s pioneers, alongside other DJs, like D-Bridge and Krust. “They pushed the envelope, and that has preserved them in history as legends,” he says. The Windrush generation, who brought dub over from Jamaica, also played a vital role in the genre’s development. Their contributions are what led to “bass underpinning the frequency of this country for at least 30 years,” Otchere says. “It gave us a culture that we could export around the world.”
While the photos might strike a note of sadness in our present moment as the fate of so many of London’s nightclubs hangs in the balance, Otchere hopes people still find joy in the book. “It’s not wrong to think things can be better than they are. We should look back on everything, because it was an amazing time, and find value in that.”
Who Say Reload is out now on Velocity Press.