It’s a Tuesday night and a blue line on an iPhone leads us around the streets and pathways of Hulme, just south of Central Manchester. As we get closer to our destination, the muffled sound of bassy hip-hop echoes in a graffiti-smothered underpass.
When we reach the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re in the middle of a motorway roundabout, where producer and DJ Metrodome is set up under a small marquee. As the sun lowers in the sky, reggae and dub pumps through the speakers, and food on the barbecue eventually begins to sizzle. Tonight’s gathering was conceived by an anonymous affiliate of Manchester’s Levelz crew – the 14-strong music collective who’ve been generating hype across the UK and beyond – after he’d discovered a stray plug in the underpass. Deciding that it was an opportunity too good to miss, the crew hooked up a sound system and distributed the postcode via text messages, Facebook and Whatsapp to tip off their audience without attracting too much unwanted attention.
A lot of the attendees look like students (it’s been promoted as an end of term party) but they’re a mixed group of kids – some rock Supreme and man-bags while others don dreadlocked hair. A suited businessman, who’s likely wandered into the situation on his way home from work, decides to settle down and catch the vibe.
As the alcohol gets flowing and darkness begins to provide a comforting shroud over the scene, the beginnings of a party (at least on the crowd’s part; Levelz have been in party mode since we arrived) slowly begin to form. There’s a group enthusiastically discussing the news that Atlanta trap legend Gucci Mane is finally free from jail, while Metrodome, who has been on DJ duties for a good few hours by now, begins to perform a karaoke version of Usher’s U Don’t Have To Call using his headphones as a mic.
While Levelz have only been active as a collective since 2013, it’s been a whirlwind few years. Since kicking things off with a trio of cypher videos, they’ve won their hometown’s edition of Red Bull Culture Clash, taken over Apple Music’s Beats 1 for an evening, hosted a five-hour Boiler Room, appeared on Rinse FM’s The Grime Show and dropped in for a Radio 1 session with Toddla T. Googling leads down a rabbit hole of output from all 14 members, with their musical output ranging from grime, garage, 160 BPM cyphers, drum‘n’bass and laid-back hip-hop. With so many genres thrown into the mix, Levelz are a truly versatile collective, and they’ve taken a power- in-numbers approach in order to make some noise beyond their hometown.
"￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼London might have more opportunities, but if you haven’t got loads of money it’s a more stressful environment. I’d rather be broke and having a buzz” - Chimpo
Levelz’ origins can be traced back to long-running Manchester bass music night HIT & RUN, promoted by the group’s now-manager Rich Reason, which gave the crew’s members a platform to perform alongside the likes of Kaytranada and James Blake and connect with local record label Estate Recordings, which was home to the likes of Broke N £nglish, Skittles, Chimpo and Fox. The community vibe of the nights (at which many Estate Recordings artists would attend whether they’d been booked or not) began to develop further, and Rich recognised a huge wave of energy within the scene.
In August 2013, Rich called a meeting with a group of artists that he knew were all already friends and would work well together, as well as some younger MCs from a crew called Ape Cult – featuring Black Josh, Truthos Mufasa and Metrodome. “The couple of shows they had done for me had confirmed their undeniable star quality,” he remembers. “Even though at the time I wondered if Josh and I would ever be able to see eye-to-eye.” With such a contrast between their ages and backgrounds, Rich recalls the young rapper viewing him suspiciously in the meeting.
Rich believes that the relationships that had developed through HIT & RUN and Estate Recordings were vital to building trust, and facilitated a strong team mentality. Levelz introduced themselves to Manchester through weekly parties, and to the world with three cyphers that established their versatility when it came to handling three different tempos, and demonstrated their multi-dimensional tastes and abilities.
Last December, Levelz hid away in Wales to record the group mixtape LVL 11 – a collection of tracks that showcased their talent as producers, their agility as MCs and the goofy humour that inevitably occurs when they all get together as mates. And while the tape makes a strong collaborative statement, it shouldn’t be viewed as the work of a 14-man band, but rather a loose collective model similar to the likes of Odd Future or Awful Records. “Levelz was made to help us individually by moving together,” Josh explains. Rich concurs: “If Josh or Skittles’ solo projects blow up, then it’s only going to reflect back on Levelz.”
Later on at the Levelz barbecue, a homeless guy, who’s been dipping in and out of the event since the beginning, is watching over from a high vantage point. He suddenly waves to alert the crew of potential trouble, and three police officers appear silhouetted on the horizon. With the officers making their way down the bank towards the gathering, Chunky grabs the mic. “Everybody, can we make some noise for the police,” he exclaims, the officers approaching. “We love the job that you do.”
Rich is the natural choice to liaise with the police, as disappointment crosses the faces of the crowd. After a short exchange, Chunky picks up the mic to break the news. “They said we can carry on!” he announced. “They said if you aren’t dancing they’re going to shut it down. If you’re hanging around like yobs. I agree with that officer.” Suddenly the party is in full effect, everyone is crowded around the barbeque dancing. “Can we give a round of applause to the police for being fucking safe,” Rich adds as the police retreat. “That’s Manchester for you.”
While the Levelz crew are diverse in terms of sound and background, the city of Manchester is the thread that ties it all together. Chimpo – the producer, DJ and MC who’s arguably one of the most revered members of the collective – believes that living in the city promotes the crew’s varied approach. “There’s loads of different vibes up here but they all seem to cross pollinate,” he explains. “I think that’s important to all of our lot’s music, because it’s a bit more mixed up. This is my home and I’ve not been anywhere that matches it. London might have more opportunities but the quality of life is lower if you haven’t got loads of money so it’s a more stressful environment. I’d rather be broke and having a buzz.” They also try to ensure that everything, from their merchandise to design and videos, is created by fellow Manchester residents. Simply put, “it’s a Levelz thing, it’s a Manchester thing.”
“Levelz was made to help us individually by moving together” - Black Josh
The crowd begin to integrate more with the crew, and the mic begins doing the rounds. The sounds get a little grimier as Skittles, Chunky and T Man trade bars. When the crew begin to wrap things up, fans assist in clearing up the area with black bags. One girl tells me that since Levelz are doing such positive things for the city, she wants to make sure there’s nothing leftover that could get them in trouble. With the last of the equipment being packed into a white van, the group members head towards the city’s Mint Club to get the afterparty going, and heavens finally crack, letting a downpour wash over the temporary barbecue site while lightning flashes in the sky.
“It symbolised a lot about what I love about Manchester,” Rich says later while reflecting on the party. “It’s perhaps a nod to the days when that area was a good bit wilder and more anarchic. It’s great to see so much development in the city, but I don’t want it to become another identikit steel and glass haven for only those with means.”
Levelz appear at Boomtown Fair, Hampshire, 11-14 August