While Visions is by no means the only sweaty basement club in Dalston, it is one of the oldest of its kind. Starting out as an actual video bar, Visions has survived the last quarter of a century in a multitude of forms, operating these days as a full-time nightclub.
A night at Visions Video Bar – or just simply Visions – felt a lot like one of those American frat parties I attended during the orientation week of my college career. Visions seems to be a storied institution that has lost the majority of its early history in recent years, much like any American collegiate fraternity.
As you would expect from any venue whose top Yelp review begins with an emphatic "Brraaaaaaaaaaap," Visions was hyped up in my head, and I expected it to be a complete and unfiltered embodiment of British youth culture in brick and concrete form.
Standing patiently in line, I assumed Visions would be for grime what Berghain is for techno, or what 1 Oak is for assholes. As I got my wrist stamped after handing over the 10 pound note, I envisioned myself entering a magical place where infinite Section Boyz posters line the walls, the term "old-school" referred to pre-BBK stuff and I'd be more likely to hear someone like Rejjie Snow than Kendrick Lamar on the deck.
Once I made my way carefully down the sticky staircase, however, I found myself confronted instead by a guy DJing off of his 13-inch MacBook Pro with two OVO stickers plastered onto the case. The Time Out London review advised me I'd be hearing "garage, grime, techno, dancehall, dubstep and bass-drenched house." In its place, the DJ was switching from Miguel to Big Sean to YG, not making the slightest effort to beat-match in transition. I looked around with a sense of disappointment, fearing that I might be one of the eldest people in this room.
I’d already had four shots of Smirnoff by the time the DJ dropped Skepta for the first time. The patrons went ham, reaching peak volume for the evening about halfway through the track. The hype-man was yelling something inaudible as I watched a boy wearing a vest dagger a girl in a crop top softly up against the wall, ready to accelerate his thrusts per minute according to the music.
A group of "mandems" next to me wearing black Stone Island sweaters and curved-brim baseball caps closed their eyes to sway their heads, while their girlfriends/acquaintances/respective dance partners shrieked at the top of their lungs. I joined in.
I might have been witnessing an entire generation's cathartic emotional release, celebrating their own culture's penetration into the greater Western zeitgeist of this decade, or I might've be imagining it all. To the cadence of JME’s voice, I forgot about the DJ's questionable selections and forgave him for playing "IDFWU" two times within the space of an hour and not bothering to find a Serato beat-matching tutorial on YouTube and look up what crossfading is on Google.
In retrospect, part of my initial disappointment stemmed from unrealistic expectations for a club whose target demographic seems to be exclusively kids in their early 20s. Nevertheless, after hearing Skepta and seeing the crowd's reaction, I realized that the majority of my frustration was probably just cultural shock, or, maybe, the exact opposite. Regardless of how wildly the club turned up for Skepta and JME, the evening's playlist mostly felt like a compilation of 106 & Park throughout the years, rather than any distinctive aural representation of the British capital.
Perhaps that's what my friend had meant when she called Visions "corny in the most London way." Visions, like the rest of Britain, seems to be suffering from an identity crisis, and if you asked me whether or not it's a "London club," I wouldn't know how to answer you.
Sure, its diverse crowd is unmistakably London: all the boys and girls posting up in tracksuits resembled something straight out of a Nasir Mazhar lookbook. Nevertheless, on this Friday night, I heard the same generic club bangers that you'd hear in any major city across the pond.
As people have told me, Skepta is doing for London what Drake did for my hometown not too long ago. If ethnomusicological studies conducted by online critics are to be trusted, then Skepta is some sort of social pioneer who has succeeded in demonstrating to the British youth that they're responsible for building their own culture in a grassroots fashion without any foreign aid.
The presence of Skepta in the global eye is testament to the fact that London kids do not need to peep across the Atlantic to foster their creativity - they have everything they need right here. No wonder Skepta garnered that reaction from the crowd.
Still, the U.S. influence was overwhelming. It's hard to swallow now, but I can recall a time before anyone ever called Toronto "The Six." While I never had a fake ID in high school so I couldn't hit up any clubs, I can only imagine that the majority of venues in the city were playing mainly Flo-Rida, not Belly, and Black Eyed Peas, not k-os.
While I don't mean to give some anti-capitalist list of grievances about American cultural hegemony, I do want to make it clear that I can’t really blame anyone at Visions for the lackluster playlist tonight: U.S. cultural domination is happening everywhere, and it has done for some time.
In 2016, mainstream British youth culture seems to sits precariously halfway across the Atlantic. Even in our hyper-connected globalized world, local artists still only really make waves at home after they already make it overseas. After all, it wasn't until Take Care that the Degrassi jokes stopped, and my best friends ceased to bully me for being such a Drake stan.
I guess it's silly of me for getting mad at Visions for not playing enough Skepta or grime, or the stuff I traditionally associate with London. I had walked downstairs with the expectation that my pre-conceived idea of British youth culture would be delivered to me readymade, as if it isn't a constant work in progress.
At the end of last year, people were asking if 2016 would be the year grime penetrates into American urban culture – serving as Britain's great cultural export for the youth of L.A, New York, Chicago, etc. Now that BBK is no longer merely a London or even British "ting," I can't help but wonder what's going to happen next?
Skepta recently dropped a track with iLoveMakonnen. While I don't think the self-proclaimed King of Grime would ever turn his back on Tottenham and cater exclusively to global record execs despite how lucrative it might be, I do worry that grime will eventually become commercialized. Like any sub-culture centered on a type of protest music, there's a valid fear that it will be co-opted by higher market forces. How long will it take before the crowd at Visions stops cheering whenever Skepta comes on?
As Friday night blurred into Saturday morning, I ascended back up to ground level. Desperately straining to remember if the Warren Street McDonald’s was a 24-hour establishment, I walked down the block imagining some parallel universe scenario in which a seedy Toronto club hired some local aux cord DJ to play Milkavelli from his own MacBook covered in 616 stickers.
I boarded one of the iconic London double decker night buses while my friend looked up on Google Maps where we had to get off. I thanked her for helping me get into Visions, telling her that I literally couldn’t have done it without her and that I was terribly sorry that I had a lot of fun and she didn’t.
She told me it was okay.