90s rave crew DiY Sound System: ‘We definitely sacrificed our sanity’ | Music

In 2014, one of the first and most celebrated sound systems of the UK’s rave era marked 25 years in the same way they had started. In a packed out marquee in the idyllic Derbyshire countryside, under the glint of a disco ball, DiY’s co-founders Harry Harrison, Rick “Digs” Down, Simon “DK” Smith and Pete “Woosh” Birch united under the groove of house music to throw their last free party together. “It went on and on through to Sunday,” says Harrison. “It was fantastic but very messy. The police turned up. It was proper DiY, like the old days.”

This quartet of inveterate ravers – and a wider party crew of around 100 active members – spent those old days creating dance music events that bridged two kindred yet separate worlds: the outdoor free parties that were much maligned by police and the press, and the new urban clubbing scene that exploded in their wake. DiY’s story has now been chronicled in a book by Harrison called Dreaming in Yellow, named in honour of an audaciously trippy track made by Smith and Birch, who died in 2020 after a five-year battle with cancer. “I’d known him since I was 15,” Harrison says. “We were the musical-theoretical-political duo at the heart of it all, really.”

Harrison, Birch and co founded DiY following the two acid house “summers of love” in 1988 and 1989, convinced that they were going to change the world. “I think we did, a bit,” Harrison declares. “We had discovered a way of moving barriers between north and south, black and white, gay and straight, men and women.” They would use the crew’s own cultural diversity – squatters and students, travellers and townies, fashionistas and football lads – as a statement: if we can work (and party) together, then so can you. “House was a feeling that ran deep in all of us,” says Emma Kirby, a traveller who became DiY’s first female DJ. “Most travellers and city clubbers united with no prejudices. We were all accepting of each other.”

DiY in 1991.
‘Travellers and city clubbers united with no prejudices. We were all accepting of each other’ … DiY in 1991

“DiY put themselves on the line for dance music,” says Matthew Collin, author of Altered State, an authoritative history of rave. “They were trying to do something idealistic in the hedonistic world of dance culture.” For Collin, sound systems like DiY – itinerant units that threw unlicensed parties in fields, quarries and other outdoor spaces – represented a radical revolt against the state and the increased infringement on personal liberties in the UK that began with police violence against the travelling community at free festivals in the 70s and 80s, and calcified during the rave era at the turn of the 90s. As Harrison points out in his book, DiY’s politics were “based on hedonism as much as protest, dancing as much as discussion”.

DiY’s story played out in those ungoverned fields and quarries, and the catalyst was Glastonbury’s last free festival on the Travellers Field in 1990. The crew had been attending since 1985 and by the summer of 1990, DiY’s budding DJs had thrown a few house parties and club nights in Nottingham. They didn’t have a sound system yet, just enthusiasm and DJ gear, which they loaded into a van. They would end up taking over Hawkwind’s pyramid-shaped marquee in the free zone, battling with bands to play some of Glastonbury’s earliest iterations of dance music. “Glastonbury was our pivotal moment,” says Harrison. “We were there in the Pyramid and we were blessed by the KLF. That’s some pretty strong magic!”

When Kirby started DJing under her first name for DiY, she returned to her teenage love of hip-hop and electro; Rick “Digs” Down leaned into disco and funk, and he and Pete “Woosh” Birch quickly became a formidable DJ duo with their Served Chilled brand. Simon “DK” Smith was DiY’s proper house head, who would rather buy records than food. Harrison, meanwhile, was “an indie kid at heart” who quit DJing after three disastrous attempts.

DiY flyers and record covers.
DiY flyers and record covers. Photograph: Harry Harrison

His book is littered with colourful anecdotes, such as Bez, eyes popping out of his head, staring down a horse in the pyramid marquee at Glastonbury 1990, or DiY DJ Pezz impersonating Sasha when the soon to be superstar DJ gets detained by snow. When DiY hosted a night at the Haçienda, which is where they had been turned on to house music in the first place, the crew were ejected after a member was caught smoking weed, and the DJs were personally booted off the decks by their boyhood heroes, Tony Wilson and Peter Hook. DiY were invited back, only to be kicked out again for trashing the VIP room, causing the club’s head of security to brandish them, Harrison says, “worse than the Happy Mondays”.

Harrison is careful to couch DiY’s shenanigans in their social and political context. Another pivotal moment in his book is Castlemorton, the notorious week-long free festival that took place in Worcestershire in May 1992. DiY’s devotion to house music, alongside the likes of John Coltrane, De La Soul and George Clinton, made them stand out from the rest of the “nosebleed techno” sound systems such as Spiral Tribe that had coalesced in this quaint corner of England. The book begins with Harrison and Birch gazing down at the site on the first night, which Harrison describes as “some giant military operation, or perhaps a huge, dark creature with endless rows of bright white eyes”.

“Castlemorton was probably the best PR we ever did,” Harrison says now, given the popularity of their tent – and the high-profile fallout from the event. The local MP Michael Spicer claimed the free party crews had “combined to terrorise the local community to the extent that some residents had to undergo psychiatric treatment”, and the furore led to the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJA) that criminalised unlicensed events playing music characterised by “the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.

Harry Harrison addresses riot police during a CJB demonstration in Trafalgar Square, 1994.
Harry Harrison addresses riot police during a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1994. Photograph: Alan Lodge

In the book Harrison describes the CJA as “madness, both laughable and sinister”. Reflecting on it now, he adds: “There were bits in the CJA that were worse than the rave bit: it abolished the centuries-old right to silence upon arrest, it privatised prisons, it introduced DNA swabs and adult sentencing for juveniles.”

The years between Castlemorton and the CJA passing into law galvanised DiY. They teamed up with other Midlands sound systems to form the activist group All Systems No!, raising around £50,000 to fight the CJA. They subsidised buses down to London to attend a series of protest marches in 1994 with “quite a lot of them ending in comic circumstances”, says Harrison, as when DiY members (Harrison included) stripped naked to join the other politicised party-goers dancing in the fountains of Trafalgar Square during the first “Kill the Bill” demo. Harrison ended up in a police cell that day – not for the first time – and he alleges he was assaulted by riot officers. “We were never going to win but we certainly gave it a good go and had a laugh doing it,” he says, “and if DiY had an epitaph, that’s pretty much it.”

The dichotomy between social anger and hedonistic indulgence started to collapse as one impulse superseded the other. Harrison’s drug references throughout Dreaming in Yellow are frequent and candid; what’s missing are the darker consequences of DiY’s – and indeed, the rave generation’s – ubiquitous drug use. “We lost people to the darkness,” admits Harrison. “A lot became addicts and are still addicts. A lot of people are clean. I went to rehab myself in 2008.”

Harrison now works as a counsellor for people with substance use issues. “Stick to what you know,” he laughs, but then becomes serious. “As the rave generation, we burned ourselves out, and the four of us at the heart of it definitely sacrificed our sanity for the sake of DiY.”

Rick, Harry, Pete, Simon pictured in Wales, 2013.
Rick, Harry, Pete, Simon pictured in Wales in 2013. Photograph: Dilys Jones

Harrison and Birch had a huge falling out in 1997, Harrison moved to San Francisco and DiY “was never quite the same again”. (The pair made up a decade later when Harrison returned to the UK.) “Digs”, now known as Grace Sands, is the only really active DJ from the collective: a key figure in the queer London scene with a residency at the cult NYD party Adonis, who regularly plays Glastonbury for Block 9’s NYC Downlow.

Since Birch’s death, the crew have officially disbanded. Is this really the end? “We never really stopped being DiY,” Harrison concludes. “It wasn’t like working for Tesco. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice for us – it has been a lifelong mission to change the world through quality music, comradeship and above all, love. You can never kill a state of mind. The mission continues.”