Drumz of The South: photographer Georgina Cook on dubstep, community and her new book
There are certain eras, or moments in electronic music history, that continue to bring people together. From those who were there, in the clubs and in the record stores, stumbling across now-seminal tracks and then-fledging artists as these very scenes were just taking shape. To those who came later, and forged passions long after these moments had peaked, brushing up on their knowledge and experimenting with the sounds and signatures indebted to these periods in whatever ways they could.
The London dubstep scene, particularly in its early-to-mid-00s formative years, is one of these eras. It’s during this time that now-storied venues like Plastic People or pioneering club nights like FWD>> evolved into hubs for like-minded music fans. It was also then that artists such as Mala and Coki, aka Digital Mystikz, Loefah and Skream began ascending to the career heights they’ve reached today.
Georgina Cook played a key role here, too. Back then, the artist and photographer could be found immersed in the crowds at many of these important nights and events. She’d capture candid images of friends, artists and ravers, or amalgamations of the three, all while documenting her adventures over on her blog Drumz of The South, which she launched in 2004.
Last week, Cook started a crowdfunding campaign in the hopes of printing a new photo book that spotlights the very scene that shaped her both personally and professionally. Entitled Drumz of The South: The Dubstep Years (2004-2007), the 220-page book takes its name from Cook’s blog and features a plethora of portraits and club shots. Slated for release in December – so long as the Kickstarter reaches its £20,000 target – the book also includes handwritten maps and notes penned by Cook, a foreword from Make Some Space author Emma Warren plus samples of original Drumz of The South blog posts.
Here, we catch up with Cook to find out more about her journey into photography, Croydon connections and working with the typically elusive Burial.
FWD>> at Plastic People, London (2005)
How did you get into photography?
My parents are creative and they encouraged my creativity. They gave me a small compact camera as a kid. By the age of 16, I had moved on to an SLR. Around that age, I met my friend Anté – I followed and photographed his punk rock band Djevera. Then, when I was 19, I dropped out of a foundation art course to take up a junior photographer role at the South London Press newspaper. The editors let me cover whichever events in the area that I wanted to cover.
Which hobby came first – photography or blogging?
Photography, but I’ve always written in one way or another. Drumz of The South, the blog, started out as an A4 paper newsletter. Prior to that, I had written reviews for the SLP and made zines for friends’ bands. Even as a kid, I used to write in diaries. I’ve always had this powerful urge to record and document my life and experiences.
When did you first come across dubstep and the sounds that were circulating in London, specifically south London, in the early-to-mid-00s?
Through Mala, who I knew from Croydon and Croydon’s (now-gone) Black Sheep Bar. He introduced me to his own music, as well as music from people like Coki, Benny Ill, Loefah, Benga and Skream.
"I’ve always had this powerful urge to record and document my life and experiences"
[L-R] Coki and Mala (Digital Mystikz) in their studio, Croydon (2004) | FWD>> at Plastic People, London (2005)
Which elements of the sound drew you in?
It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before, yet entirely familiar. Really, it was the bass and the space – or ‘dub’ element – to the sound that got me. It was very engulfing.
When did you start picking up photography commissions and shooting events for publications?
While at the South London Press. I was there until early 2005, I think. By that point though, I was already getting commissioned by ATM Magazine quite a bit. My photos were also getting picked up and licensed quite a lot. XLR8R, Fact and Knowledge Magazine were very early supporters of me and my work.
How did you meet some of the artists that you’d later shoot and feature in your blog?
It turns out that I’d already met or rubbed shoulders with lots of them at Croydon house parties without really knowing it! Some artists, such as SGT Pokes, I was already good friends with through the Black Sheep Bar. The rest I largely got to know through FWD>> at Plastic People. I also wasn’t afraid of emailing and asking if I could meet or photograph people, plus Dubstep Forum made it really easy to connect with people further away.
What is it about shooting club nights and being among a crowd that you enjoy?
It’s about collective joy, really. You’re not really an individual entity once you’re part of a sea of people or a community; dancing or vibing to the same sound, with everyone genuinely into it. That last bit is important. That was what was so great about all those early dubstep nights – they were formed around and by a community with a common interest and a genuine shared passion. I have been at club nights or in crowds where people aren’t really into the music, and it’s not that enjoyable.
Loefah, London (2005)
Were ravers and artists receptive to your camera while in club environments?
Yes, for the most part! I think that because I attended nights so regularly – and because of my blog, the Dubstep Forum and MySpace, and all these things that allowed everyone who was interested to connect – I was more of an insider than an outsider. I imagine it helped people to trust me because they knew me already.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that sometimes when I used flash in a dark room – which I tried to avoid but couldn’t avoid completely – it was startling for people because it was blinding at times. Blinded by the lights, but not in the way you’d necessarily want to be! I think everyone forgave that because they knew my intentions were good. You also have to remember that cameras and camera phones weren’t as common at that time. I was often the only person taking photos at these events in the early days. I think everyone knew these events were special, so documenting them was important.
What was it like working with Burial? How did you factor in the anonymity of his persona while shooting him?
I love collaborating with Will. It’s dreamlike. For the portrait we made that most people have seen, I really just asked him to stand next to a puddle and created a photo from his reflection. That was probably a trick I’d learnt at the SLP but it worked well for him and his music – rainy London at night.
Generally speaking, do you plan your shoots out in advance?
Yes, so that I can work out the production side of things – location, equipment, budget, travel, light – and research who I’m working with, what they want or what their expectations are. That’s how I work now, anyway. I like to work on location with real people and real environments as much as possible.
How has your work shifted and evolved over the years?
It’s shifted a lot, but not enough at the same time – I’m working hard to change that. I studied a degree in Fine Art at Croydon College back in 2006. While there, I got really into the object-nature of the photograph. I was mashing-up Polaroids and making sculptures out of prints. In recent years, I’ve been working a lot with plants.
It’s also evolved in the sense that I’m always thinking about how I can pass my skills and experience on now. I lecture and talk about photography as much as possible. I’m heading back to [higher education] soon so I’ll be taking my documentary practice seriously again as well. By the end of this year, once the book is out, I hope to be deep into a new long-term project.
Burial, London (2007)
This seems like a good time to talk about the book actually. We touched on this briefly before, but what was the catalyst behind it?
As I was approaching 40, I started reevaluating my priorities – creative and otherwise. I’ve known for years that I won’t be content when I’m old and grey unless this book is out there. The work has been seen in many places over the years but never cohesively. I wanted to put it all together, bind it up and present it to that early dubstep community and say, ‘There you go, here’s what we did, this was us’. But I also want to offer something that I hope can contribute to art, music and community being valued. Those things need to be more widely valued because they so positively change and shape lives.
I’ve tried working on the book over the last decade in various ways, but never focused hard enough. Because of the special moment that it covers, plus the scale of it, Drumz of The South is the biggest and most important thing that I’ve ever made. I’d go as far as saying its my life’s work. But, I also want to move on from it, positively-speaking. I want to know that it’s out there and that other people care about it. So now I’m 40, and thanks to all the people supporting the book, that’s very nearly real.
How did you approach the book’s design?
I wanted the book to be a thing in its own right. Not just something that presents the photos, but something that complements them. I started up a conversation with Alfie Allen who I found through Sports Banger’s The COVID Letters book which he art directed and designed. I sent him loads of references such as the first iteration of my blog and talked to him about why it had the colours it had, and so on. There were other things I definitely wanted in terms of design, plus concepts I was keen to incorporate. Alfie just got it. Not only got it, but was able to ask me the right questions to help determine things I hadn’t thought about, and refine the things I had. He’s brilliant.
What do you hope that younger readers will get from it?
The same thing that I got from looking at the work of documentary music photographers that I loved when I was younger, and still do now: a visual history of collective joy and community. Plus inspiration, I hope!
Who or what is inspiring you at the moment creatively?
Sports Banger has been a huge inspiration for the past few years. In fact, I have a saying: ‘What would Banger do?’ Please print that so I can put it on a t-shirt, Banger-style! Elsewhere, I’m constantly inspired by Jeremy Deller and Wolfgang Tillmans. They both have one foot in art and one foot in the dance, and I love that. Who else… Jason Evans, Solange – I’m obsessed with Solange.
Is there anyone you didn’t photograph who, on reflection, you wish you had?
Yeah, there are a few people from that early scene who eluded my camera, or who I took hardly any photos of. Sometimes it was their shyness, sometimes mine. Or sometimes, I did get photos of them but the photos weren’t that great – through my own fault! I wish I’d made a bit more effort so they could be in the book, but I hope those people know they’re in there in spirit.
Find out more about the Drumz Of The South The Dubstep Years (2004-2007) Kickstarter here.