While the mid-to-late 90s saw a swing towards big dance events, so-called Superclubs and carpeted out-of-town shopping estate spaces with shirt-and-shoes policies, there was always a home for the no-frills clubber in Cardiff with the Hippo Club, Philharmonic, Clwb Ifor Bach and Emporium. It’s the latter we’re going to reminisce about today.
If you went, you’ll know what we mean by sweaty walls, staircases that were not safe in heels, and a dance floor that swayed up and down with the movement of the dancers. This was largely before mobile phones, just the occasional disposable camera (remember having to develop film?), so there aren’t detailed records on the internet. The club was slap-bang in the centre of town on St Mary’s Street, a stone’s throw from Cardiff Castle. The main room was good for DJs and revellers alike – slightly elevated decks overlooking a long, mostly dark and smoke-filled dancefloor. The decks hung from the roof from a metal rig to prevent the vinyl jumping, although a few forward-thinking promoters brought their own CDJs when that become more commonplace. There was some sort of podium to the side of the room for the enthusiastic ravers. There was also an attic room accessed by a condensation-lined stairwell or perilous spiral staircase (more on the infamous top step later). The toilets were a communal space for people to chat absolute nonsense to one another. And somewhere in the middle of it all sat a redundant fireplace from a past life of the building. Not to forget the set of stairs that led nowhere, lined with people forging life-long friendships – 20 years on and many of those same people still share dancefloors. It’s a special bond.
This was not a high-gloss, glitter cannons kind of place, although when it first opened it was aimed at the high-end club experience. It was a place to forget about your weekday worries and dance until the early hours. In its lifetime the venue was home to a wide range of promoters covering pretty much the full spectrum of dance music, and even entertained a mid-week student night at one point. But weekends were the time to go. Early adopters 110% (from Cardiff’s much loved record shop Catapult) broke the seal for dance music in Emporium, leading the way for nights on rotation including big beat and breaks from P’tangyangkipperbang…yeah; drum’n’bass night Bulletproof; the funkier end of house music from L’America; Time Flies joined the roster in 1997; techno was covered by Vurt; later came hard dance from Bionic; and in the early 00s CoolHouse joined the party. When the film Human Traffic was being filmed in Cardiff, there was only one choice for the ‘outside the club’ scenes and that was Emporium.
I don’t trust my memories entirely so I’ve asked some friends for their recollections. These are people whose nights I went to, DJed at, and who became friends. I think Vurt was my first taste of Emporium, I didn’t know who the guest DJ was that night but I knew resident Owain K through friends – he was a great DJ then and remains well-respected to this day. Bulletproof was always rowdy, in a good way, and was a favourite of mine during a particularly fruitful period for drum’n’bass music around the turn of the millennium. Finally, the last time I stepped foot into the Emporium was for CoolHouse and it felt like a culmination of all the best bits of my many visits.
Over to Owain K (DJ and promoter, Vurt): "Looking back, The Emporium was one of those essential spots and melting pots that gave DJs like myself the opportunity to play on a fat soundsystem alongside top flight DJs. Who'd have thought we'd get Dave Clarke, Darren Emerson, Mr C, Dave Angel, Funk D'Void and Terry Francis passing through for us? Not to mention getting to hear Louie Vega, Slam, Dimitri from Paris amongst others... the vibe was ridiculous!"
Will Jones (promoter Bulletproof/ Vurt): “I'd been out there when it was called The Loop. It was a bit average, nothing special. We'd been unceremoniously thrown out of Clwb (that's another story) and Tim [Corrigan – venue manager] offered us the chance to move Bulletproof to his club. It was a step up for us, we had to switch the style of line ups to make it work. It was the making of the night.
“The most memorable nights...that's a tough one. Bit of a cliche but there were too many. I'd say hosting Fabio, Grooverider and Kosheen (Live) on BBC Radio 1 was up there. The Metalheadz nights were always great as well, especially when Goldie was booked. Being locked in the secret amp room (if you know you know) with him telling me shit Tom Jones jokes whilst I quizzed him about Bjork was...interesting.
“It's always great to see Big Tim. I can't see how we would've survived without all his help through the years. He ran a great club and kept us all in check.”
Damon Williams (promoter, CoolHouse): “The key ingredients to a successful night for me were the music, the crowd and most importantly the venue. And The Emporium was that venue.
“Over 20 years on people still remember our CoolHouse nights fondly, and especially those at the Emporium. From Yousef making his debut in Cardiff back in November 2002, Layo & Bushwacka playing for the first time in Wales in 2003, to Nic Fanciulli who was at the time a young up-and-coming DJ and went on to become one of the world’s biggest house DJs. Paul Woolford aka Special Request, Omid 16b, Wally Lopez, Futureshock, and Lottie all played in The Emporium.
“Some other interesting facts: at the back of the main dance floor there was a glass roof window and I believe the club had a door that led into castle arcade. The upstairs was a nice compact room where normally you showcased local DJ talent. Both Dave Mills and myself played in that room the first time in 1999 as CoolHouse. I can remember sweat pouring from the walls! And of course you had to watch out for the famous top step, which almost everyone tripped on if you were a new visitor to the club or you maybe have over indulged in certain substances.
“One of the stand out moments for us was in 2004 when Peace Division (aka Clive Henry and Justin Drake) made their first appearance in Wales. This was before the days of social media and the internet was in its infancy. We always worked really hard to promote the events but it was all down to walk ups on the night. In the end it was knee deep from the DJ booth all the way to the back of the club - it was proper rammed in there. I remember Clive and Justin’s faces when I walked them from the back of the club into the DJ booth, they couldn't believe it, the place was bouncing. Matt Joy, our resident, warmed up the crowd perfectly and I can remember them both turning round and saying to me, “You've got a proper underground club here” and I think ultimately that is what I wanted to achieve as a promoter. Reflecting back now, the club had a special atmosphere and I don’t think Cardiff has had a club like it since”.
Here at In The Music we wanted to design an exclusive t-shirt for those in the know and to celebrate the good times, by paying tribute to one of the most iconic venues (on this side of the Severn Bridge) during a fantastic era for club music. It wasn’t just the place that made it special, it was the people. No club event is anything without people enjoying themselves, having a good attitude and making somewhere feel like home.