as eskimo dance hits wembley this weekend, we celebrate grime’s most important rave
With Wiley, Ghetts, and Devlin setting the Eskimo Dance stage alight on Saturday, a selection of the scene's key commentators explain the importance and influence of Wiley’s seminal rave.
Kano and Wiley
Over the past 15 years, Eskimo Dance has gone from a sweaty UKG rave in Watford to a marquee grime event at Wembley Stadium. The initial M.O, of the night hasn't changed much since day one: "to get all of the scene under one roof" and watch until the early hours as the stars of the genre compete to be crowned the people's champ. Whether in Leeds, London, or Liverpool, the atmosphere at Eskimo Dance is always palpable. The sense of competitive energy constantly hits new peaks, as each act brings a new energy to the stage.
Taking a break in 2006 (around the time Form 696 was actioned), Eskimo Dance returned in 2012 with Wiley bringing onboard Cheeky, himself a key part of the scene since his days manning the decks at east London record shop Rhythm Division. These days, it's less a clash session, more a celebration, as the entire team — from Wiley and Cheeky to Lilz, Zack, and Tyrone — has proven it knows how to put on an amazing night with purely positive energy. The best dances always end up in a free-for-all — like the time Skepta dropped into Building Six at the O2 and performed an impromptu, and unannounced, BBK set joined by the night's entire lineup (including Ghetts and Kano). Or when JME raised the roof at Croydon Boxpark in October when he unexpectedly joined Ghetts, Jammer, and Section Boyz onstage.
This weekend, Eskimo Dance will play its biggest stage yet, as Wiley, Chip, Devlin, Ghetts, Frisco, Fekky, Jammer, Stefflon Don, and Solo 45 take to Wembley Arena. That's just the named lineup. Knowing Eskimo Dance, the one thing you can expect is the unexpected.
In this extract from This Is Grime, everyone from DJ Target to Tinie Tempah unpack the historical legacy of Eskimo Dance, and its influence on the culture.
Matt Mason, former Editor-in-Chief of RWD magazine
"They were amazing raves to be at. The energy was crazy. The Sidewinders and the Eskis, where everyone was onstage together… man. Looking back now, it feels like being at Woodstock in the 60s or The Loft in the 70s or Ibiza in 88. History was made."
Maxwell D, MC
"That whole Eskimo thing — that comes from Jamaican dance culture. Me, Wiley, and Flow Dan, we used to watch all those videos at my flat. I had all the Soundclash videos, and we would watch them all. We tried to turn our Pay As U Go stage shows into that. I would come on and get reloads, Wiley would come on, he'll get reloads. We saw that was how we got impact in the raves."
Riko Dan, MC
"To other MCs who don't chat patois I don't really know how important it is to them, but I know to the likes of Doctor, me, Gift, Flow Dan [Jamaican dancehall culture] is very important. I think without that kind of teaching, I wouldn't be half the MC that I am. That's played a major part in the making of me."
First Eskimo Dance, 2002
"It all stems from the Saxon Sound days, it's the same thing. In Jamaica, the DJ will play a riddim, and people will jump on and spit. So I'm coming here from Jamaica in the early 00s and I'm hearing the same things. It's not the same type of beats, but the energy is the same. That's why I was so into it. People enjoying themselves and doing what they wanted to do. That's what drew me in."
"Reloads is a very important part of the culture. Sometimes I read the comments on YouTube and some people don't understand why they keep stopping the tune. I find that funny. It's a very big part of the culture. It might not mean to me now what it did back then, 'cause I've been doing it so long, but I remember getting my first reload. You feel superhuman. You feel sick."
"We started on tapes. I used to get to places like Wolverhampton and they'd be like, 'Ah blud, I've been listening to you for fucking ages, I've got the TDK.' That was when we realized like, 'Oh, we're famous out here.' We'd be coming home at 7 o'clock in the morning, we didn't have a hotel, nothing. We used to just go up there, buss up the mic all night, for at least an hour and a half — none of these 15 minute sets and breeze out — and we'd just spray out our bellies, sweating. It was the tapes and tapepacks that helped spread that and helped make us famous."
Eskimo Dance, Red Bull Culture Clash, 2016
Target, producer & DJ
"The internet just made it accessible for everyone — which was good and bad. That deadened the rave scene. Well, not that alone. There was the police locking things off too…"
"I remember going to Eskimo Dance, the one at SE1 club, and there was a big riot and it got locked off. I remember Wiley jumping in the crowd, everyone was going crazy. Basically, a fight happened, and everyone jumped onstage. Everyone was going mad, there was girls getting knocked down left, right, and center. It was too much. When it kicked off in that place, it went crazy."
"Before the internet and YouTube, if you wanted to hear or see grime, you had to go to Eskimo Dance, go and buy the records in Rhythm Division, you had to listen to the radio. People used to write about grime being a scary scene; there was only a few outsiders that weren't shook to get involved. There was incidents like there would be anywhere, but it was more stereotyping than anything 'cause it was loads of black kids with their hoods up."
Tinie Tempah, MC
"I snuck out to my first Eskimo Dance in Year 9 or Year 10. I shouldn't have even got in. I left my house with my cousin, Henry, and I put two pillows in the bed so my mom would think I was still asleep. I didn't have any swag then, so I don't know what I was wearing, but somehow I got in. I remember seeing Lethal B who was wearing this brown leather jacket. It was like seeing my idols, my heroes. People started rushing the door and I managed to slip in and that was my first experience of a grime rave. It was proper scary but one of the most exciting experiences ever."
"You see those days, yeah, the scene was very, very black, it was very Afro-Caribbean. It was African and Caribbean kids for the first couple years and obviously you're gonna have the bad man Irish yout' who's there as well giving zero fucks, not feeling intimidated at all. It was 15 to 24-year-olds in one club and the energy was buzzing; it was sick man. It had a dark vibe and those times you could still smoke in the club, it was legal still. There's a fucking cloud of weed in the club… It was different, it was in a different time. Eskimo Dance was mad still."
Cheeky, promoter, Eskimo Dance
"I started Audiowhore, which was going really good. I rang up Wiley around 2012, and said 'Lets bring it back. Lets bring Eski Dance back.' Wiley loves a crazy idea, so he was on it. At the time, no one thinks it's gonna work, the police won't let Eskimo Dance happen. In the end, Proud2 said yes. They gave us the worst date of the year, the third week of January, but it ended up being the best. Everyone was bored and wanted to get out. The police put the risk at high, but it went ahead. And it was a great night."
Lilz, PR, Eskimo Dance
"Before, it was a shoobz, now it's like a concert. Before it was authentic, and ok yes, you can't recreate that, but now it's a lot more professional."
Eskimo Dance, 2014
"No one was earning money in the old days. It was, 'Lets go radio, lets go rave.' There wasn't agents saying, 'Don't play this rave 'cause you won't sell out your tour.' That killed off the authenticity too. I think agents really killed that. But, look, grime is pop now, we're in the bubble. The crowd back then was hood. It was the back end of what garage was, when garage started to go bad, they moved onto grime. When I say hood, I mean, there was a more than likely chance of it getting locked off. Now, it's students."
Zack, Eskimo Dance host
"The difference between the original Eskimo Dance and this one, we can recreate the vibe now in pretty much every city, it's the same sort of vibe. In the original Eskimo Dance, you could never, ever recreate what was happening then cos it was so organic. A lot of the artists that came there, the styles they had, the flows they had, the energies they had, the hunger they had, some of the MCs we had all on the same night, we can never get all of those artists together on one small stage. It's never gonna happen again. We had, in Area, Dizzee Rascal, Megaman, Asher D, that garage/ grime crossover. That was when So Solid realized, 'We're gonna stay with the garage thing and let the grime MC's do the grime thing'."
Eskimo Dance, 2016, Birmingham
"Whenever anyone asks me my story, how I got this, I always say it's luck. You can work as hard as you like, but you need luck on your side. Luck of timing. Right place, right time. The luckiest thing to happen to me was December 2014. The venue at Indigo2 didn't want us to come back because of all the drama we caused, and I was about to give up, but in the end I forced them to do the party. And that was the resurrection of grime. That was the first Eskimo Dance in over a year and the numbers, in terms of sales, was crazy. Up 40, 50% on the previous event. The numbers were dying before, but this one, boom. And it's gone up from then. It felt like, straight away, lets book Bristol Academy. We've sold out London, it's time to take this on the road and do it properly. We sold out Bristol instantly, then I knew. Not just that Eskimo Dance was back, but that the scene, grime was back."
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Olivia Rose