Over the course of the past decade or so, a handful of daytime parties have come to practically define the British clubbing landscape. In London, the likes of secretsundaze and Fuse have long reigned supreme, but back in Birmingham in 2005, another crew started to make their presence felt in a manner many thought impossible.
That crew was BELOW, the Sunday day-time party started by promoter Lee McDonald and resident/promoter Adam Shelton. BELOW has since morphed into an altogether different beast, and is now rightly respected as arguably the midland's most consistent party.
We caught up with Mr. McDonald on the eve of their 8th birthday party to discuss the story so far...
How did you and Adam first meet?
Well we used to go to the same parties, Moneypenny's would you believe. Adam would be there pretty much most weeks, I had never spoken to him but he would look cool as fuck in his tailored Westwood suit.
I was there one night with an accountant who did nothing all night other than talk about how loaded he was and his beloved BMW Z3. I was itching to get away from him. Then the cool kid walked passed. To escape, I got talking to Adam who asked me if I wanted to go the Hush with him (the afters in Birmingham at the time). I escaped and had it right off with Adam - I knew we were going to be close friends when he was that gone he attempted to put his house keys in the cigarette machine to buy some fags.
What was your original inspiration for BELOW?
Well after that evening in the Hush, I told Adam at a chill-out that he should leave his job and come live in Ibiza with me. It was my second season, we both stumbled across DC10 / Circo Loco and that completely changed our outlook on parties.
When back in the UK, we would visit Secretsundaze in London. Giles and James would use quirky non-commercial spaces, we really admired the guys attitude to a rave and thought if we can implement this north of London, then we will be help re-shape the scene in Birmingham.
This is a cliché but the loyal crowd has been a massive factor in our success. We still have the originals that supported us from day dot arrive to have it out for a few days.
Great friendships and relationships have been formed at BELOW... Was there something lacking in Birmingham at the time?
It was the same old funky house, electro and classic bassline tripe that you get on Ministry compilations. It was pretty bad, personal preference of course, but for us, the only cool parties at the time were Jigsaw, Bam Bam and Leftfoot. So we spent our time in London, at secretsundaze in Alfresco spaces, djscandance in raw warehouses and Clandestino at The End Club, which for us helped inspire Cellar Door at The Rainbow.
Who played at your first party and how did it go?
Well, BELOW came of age with its first gig at The Rainbow, but we did do three parties previous. One at a quirky underground space called The Sunflower lounge for 70 people sold out and went right off. I have to add though, the first two parties were called 'BELOW the beltz' because they rhymed with 'AD Sheltz' so can we really count these?! It was when we discovered the charm and originality of The Rainbow Courtyard that we knew something special was about to develop. So we dropped the beltz, found the logo on as a font on 'windigs 3' and took it from there.
Alongside yourselves and Subb-an, who are the other protagonists in the BELOW story? What does each member contribute? What do you both contribute?
Within the early stages, the musical knowledge and organisational skills of Ross Trepelton - combined with his relationship with the agents – meant that the first 3 years would not have been the same. He was there from the beginning - a top bloke but then became Dr Clart and his job involved moving cities so we lost him. I took over the relationships with agents and fronting the party.
Adam's dj career really exploded with international gigs all over the world, he was able to spread the love for BELOW in places I couldn't. Of course, the popularity and the success of One Records with two BELOW residents as head-honchos gave the party a new life over the last couple of years.
This is a cliché but the loyal crowd has been a massive factor in our success. We still have the originals that supported us from day dot arrive to have it out for a few days. Great friendships and relationships have been formed at BELOW. The Leeds crew, Manchester heads all over.
The late Despo was a resident at BELOW too. He was the life and soul of any party and we recently tragically lost him to cancer. There will always feel like there is something missing without his energy on the dancefloor, behind the decks and at the afterparty.
Of course, venue is key and the discovery of The Rainbow was pivotal in the rise of BELOW.
'Slobodan', a close friend and my bar man, but more importantly the guy who called me one day on my old-school Sony Ericcson with a yellow screen to say: 'Lee, I'm sat here in some bad-boy courtyard eating a bag of scratching's and reading a paper with a John Smiths in my hand. You will want to do a party here'. That was the game-changing comment and life changing for me as it was the first space in a series of The Rainbow Venues. I have no tattoos. Apparently, once you have one you want more - well that's how I feel about quirky spaces.
Was it difficult at the start to gain momentum for the party?
No. The first show in The Rainbow we had 150 people with Matt Tolfrey and Tom Craven headlining. As Birmingham wasn't as clued up musically, we really played on the fact that Tolfrey had played fabric and used it all over the marketing. What happened monthly Sundays from that day on was insane.
Queues would stretch hundreds of yards down Digbeth High Street. More and more people were falling for the beats and there was a buzz around the city and the rest of the UK. It was so rewarding to see people share our passion. There was a refreshing change and inspired the hunger for more.
Was there ever a period when you thought about sacking it all in?
When the landlord, 'Irish Joe' gave us an opportunity to own 50% of The Rainbow Pub/Courtyard I fell off my chair, giggled, got carried away and ran around begging people for money. Finally, I talked Adam into it, we got the money together but what the fuck did we know about running a pub?! The stress levels I cant explain, living on nothing, eating pot noodles, driving a battered white transit van and sleeping 3 hours a night. It was tough, and because we're slaves for the rave, we took on another property The Rainbow Warehouse. Why? To keep it fresh for the punters. It's a great feeling to see the crowd enjoying a space you have discovered.
How have the parties influenced the city's scene? Do you find there are more people involved and interested in house and techno in the city now?
Well I'm not claiming we were the first to do Sunday parties of course. Sundisential was born in Birmingham but that was hard dance in a commercial club. We're taking parties to innovative, non commercial, alfresco spaces and playing music we loved that the midlands was starved of. Face is a prime example, implementing the raw feel of BELOW at its home The Rainbow Courtyard every Saturday.
I felt the time was right and the market place big enough. Me, Elliot and Scott promote this party on a weekly basis and we are proud to be one of only a handful of weekly house and techno parties in the UK. No denying though the inspiration for this event came from BELOW.
There are a number of factors that make a space and event work, collaborating all of our experiences along the way has helped us withstand competition from new clubs, nights, events and promoters attempting to implement what we do.
Having more nights and promoters in the Midlands is a positive. It's great to see the scene growing and individual independent promoters blossoming. One of my favourite being Cloak & Dagger. It's mint being at a rave and not having to worry about anything apart from one hand to hold my drink in.
I gather that' s something you both take great pride in?
Of course, it's always been about the rave, the party and making sure our punters are smiling. That's what it’s always been about. We fucking love a rave.
At what stage did you realise that you were on to something pretty special with the party, though?
When the fire chiefs told me that the Rainbow was condemned and deemed unsafe. I asked how they knew and it was a rival promoter that tipped them off. We had to take BELOW on the road for 4 months whilst the work was done on the Courtyard.
In this time we really found our identity and used a series of non commercial spaces all over the midlands from a car park, drained pools, strip clubs, empty warehouses, a vintage shop, a thai restaurant, street parties. You name it, we found an area for some decks and a sound system. The party really gained some momentum so whoever that promoter was, a big thank you.
What are your fondest memories of the party over the years?
There are far too many to mention, the first Warehouse rave was mental. Going against the grain and throwing a FREE Bank Holiday party resulted in thousands rocking up. Party at Snobs, a 60s club where legends Carl Cox and Garnier played, was special. Taking the clothes from a vintage shop putting them in two articulated lorries, having a rave, toilets blowing up after advertising luxury toilets and then on NYD having to put the shop back together rail for rail. Along the way to be involved in a party at The End with Circo Loco AND Secretsundaze was something else.
Another memory was our 7th Birthday working with Cocoon to throw a rave on the street. It was rewarding to work alongside such a respected worldwide brand.
Of course the big highlight was BELOW presenting Circo Loco in the Arena that attracted 7500 punters and to see Adam Shelton warm up at the party that inspired us to do what we do today.
Your 8th birthday is coming up. Can you tell us a bit about what you've got in store for that?
It's a big alfresco party Saturday daytime with all our early influences. Inner City live, Derrick May, DJ Sneak, Mr C, Todd Terry, Kevin Saunderson and of course Adam Shelton. It's a heavy line up, all day Saturday and onto a free after party in our Warehouse.
Then on the Sunday our spiritual home, The Rainbow Courtyard with another monster line up. The line up and the venues make this event, it's what were about. We’re calling on everybody that has supported BELOW over the last eight years, to come and join us for a mammoth weekend.
And what advice would you give to anyone considering starting their own party?
Do it for the party, not the money.
BELOW - 8th Birthday Weekend - 04 - 05 May
160 Digbeth High Street B12 0LD Birmingham, UK
BELOW in association with Wobble
Midday till Midnight – Saturday 4 May
INNER CITY LIVE PA
The Rainbow Warehouse
12-6am – BELOW Residents Special
Adam Shelton B2B Alex Arnout
Tristan De Cunha
**THE ALL NEW GARDEN LAUNCH**
Very special guest
The Lovely Helen
Rainbow Courtyard & Cellar Door
Sunday - 3till3am
Paranoid London (live)
Yamen & EDA