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Techno in the City: the story of TOYTOY

Run your finger through the history of techno and you will eventually come to the source: Belleville, Detroit in the mid-1980s. It was here where the Belleville Three — Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and Derrick May — first melded Chicago House, Funk, Electro and Electric Jazz to create the blueprint for what we now know as techno music. It was a sonic fusion at the very foundations of today’s club culture. ‘Clubbing’ as a practice is threaded with the histories of warehouse raves, inner-city politics and underground counterculture. And its soundtrack was a blend of techno and acid house: alternative electronic music. Nearly three decades after techno’s inception in Detroit, one of its founding fathers, Kevin Saunderson, would find himself on the decks at a small basement nightclub in Rosebank, at a weekly event called TOYTOY.

I sat down with Fabio — owner, promoter and DJ at And Club — to talk about the history of the TOYTOY phenomenon.

Reflecting back on his initiation into Johannesburg nightlife during the 90s, Fabio recounted stories of a club called Idols. Positioned on End Street, in Doorfontein, it would later become ESP: a landmark in the Johannesburg rave scene. During the mid-90s, inner-city Johannesburg experienced a forceful rave movement and Fabio immersed himself in that scene. This is when he says he first started to draw distinction between the music he was hearing on the radio, and the alternative, electronic dance music that reverberated through city raves. He decided to try out DJ’ing, regularly rummaging for vinyls at House Africa Records, on Louis Botha Avenue.  It was here that he first met Graham Hector (G-Force). “He was fundamental in getting the rave scene going”, Fabio told me. “I was star-struck at first”.

In 1997, Fabio moved to London, where he collected music and experienced the night-scene, later also spending some time in the Netherlands. When he returned in 2000, the rave scene had settled. Deep House was starting to take off in a big way, and although he enjoyed the sound, for Fabio this wasn’t party music.

Feeling like Johannesburg club culture was missing an alternative electronic scene, he and Ryan Vermaak (Dogstarr) began throwing parties, having both also been involved in line-ups for festivals like Rustler’s valley. Teaming up with G-force, they formed a DJ collective called Digital Rockit.

The first TOYTOY was thrown as a once-off event at Carfax, and, in line with the theme, saw the venue draped in inflatable toys. The Carfax venue already had important weight in the city’s rave scene, and in the tradition of global culture was converted from derelict industrial space into a club space. TOYTOY’s aim was to fill a gap in Johannesburg’s club culture, offering the best of alternative electronic dance music, and attracting both international and local talent.

During the noughties, Digital Rockit put on multiple parties, often losing money in each iteration. “We a used to spend ridiculous amounts of money on sound. Double, triple the amount of money that other promoters would spend. Because we believed this was the most important part of the event”. But something felt different about TOYTOY, and the team started playing with the idea of hosting it as a weekly night.

They began in the basement of Capital Music Café in Rosebank. “On the first night we had about 30 people and we had an international DJ. It was horrific. We thought, ‘What have we done?’ But slowly somehow we started connecting with an audience and people started coming”.  It was during their time at Capital that the indomitable Kevin Saunderson featured on the lineup. Craig and Grant Van Rensburg (Sound Sensible) also came on as important partners, as did Andi Dill. At this stage TOYTOY drew an older crowd, many of whom were friends of the organisers, but it also started to attract a much younger generation, which Fabio found heartening. “We would hopefully spawn a new generation of DJ’s and producers and people who see potential in this music”.

From very early on, the organisers of TOYTOY started to give pedantic attention to the sound quality, investing in expert sound systems. “People felt the music. Really in their bodies. The base was powerful. Without that, TOYTOY wouldn’t be what it is now.”

When Ryan and Fabio opened the first And Club in the basement of Braamfontein’s Alexandra Theatre, TOYTOY became the Friday night party. Owning venue would help them sustain TOYTOY, for which they had thus far only been claiming door revenue. The duo acquired a ferociously expensive sound system from the UK. The Void Acoustics Air Motion was the first of its kind in South Africa. The event ran there for some time, but ultimately moved to its current Newtown home. The move also entailed a fundamental creative component. “We had to wrestle back creative control. [Unless it’s our own venue] it’s not gonna look the way we want it to look”, Fabio said.

When they moved And Club to Gwi Gwi Mrebi, Fabio and his team were absolutely pedantic” about how they wanted the space laid out. “We’ve situated the bar in the middle. It [the club] is compact. It flows really well. There’s an outside area.” Regulars at TOYTOY speak about the spaciousness of And, the ease of accessing the bar, and the wooden interior. The crowd travel mostly from the Northern Suburbs. Some come from as far as Pretoria and Centurian.  “I’m a firm believer in inner-city clubbing” says Fabio. “I just don’t think it should be in the suburbs. At all. From a noise level point of view, to people out on the streets. And just the edginess of what the city brings you.” It makes sense, Fabio went on to say, even within the narrative of electronic music. Jo’burg is a tough, gritty city with many comparisons to be drawn with Detroit.

The predominantly white (but nevertheless mixed) partygoers at TOYTOY are not representative of Johannesburg’s inner-city working class. But they have nevertheless become significant participants in the city’s night culture, where TOYTOY features prominently in the weekly calendar. Today TOYTOY attracts approximately 500 clubbers weekly. The magnet remains the music, attracting international artists from the world’s most renowned clubs, including Berghain (Berlin), Trouw (Amsterdam) and Fabric (London).  Over the years, TOYTOY has hosted a sea of local and global acts including Kill The DJ’s, Butane, Dubspeeka and Transmicsoul. Together, the resident DJs probably have close to 80 years of experience behind them.

Uncompromising music curation is at the heart of TOYTOY’s success. “You shouldn’t really ask to play at TOYTOY” Fabio says. “You should be invited. To play there you kind of have to be an established DJ. You have to be doing your thing. You have to be pushing your sound.” Fabio tells me DJ’s will prepare for as long as two weeks before a TOYTOY set.

And because the music and the immersion are primary, TOYTOY does not allow photographs, and cellphones in general are discouraged. “We don’t want you on your phone” says Fabio. “It’s about bringing you into the music. Close your eyes”.

“[TOYTOY is] about what we curate as a music experience”, Fabio explains. “When you start reaching people and they start connecting with you on that level, it’s not copy-able.”

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