The interior of Shelter, which is carved entirely out of stone. Photos courtesy of Shelter.
“We kicked out the Backstreet Boys one time. We didn’t let them in because they wouldn’t pay 80 RMB [around $13 USD] for tickets. I think it was a drum and bass party,” says Gareth Williams, co-founder of the dingy, stone-walled bat cave that is Shelter—Shanghai's most revered underground nightclub. “This Russian girl came down to the bar, and I thought she said, ‘Do you know the Beastie Boys,’” continues Shelter's other co-founder, Gary Wang, “I didn’t even take her seriously because I just heard [Adam Yauch] had cancer. Although I think we let them in eventually.”
Gareth and Gary, both stocky, bearded, and with a fondness for black hoodies, look exactly like the type of dudes you see in every major metropolis—the ones slouching in the sooty corner of a warehouse party, or staring out of bus windows with their headphones firmly clamped on. But as the head honchos of Shelter, a nightclub housed in an actual World War II-era bomb shelter, they're more than your average drum and bass Joes. Over the last six years, they've become the quiet commanders of China's rapidly growing underground scene, drawing diverse headliners like Das Racist, Cut Chemist, Gang Starr's DJ Premier and Kode 9 into their subterranean cave. But what's perhaps most surprising is how long Shelter's been able to chug along while sticking to its guns as a place where VIPs aren't welcome.
The pair met in the early 2000s, when Gary was running a warehouse venue in Shanghai called The Lab, a popular haunt for the city's small community of DJs. Gareth, who'd just moved from Manchester, England, with a job so many foreign transplants find themselves with—teaching English—would come hang out. One day, Gary's friend tipped him off about a "weird space" on Yong Fu Road that would be a really good place to throw parties.
"It was a typical Chinese club then called Blue Ice," Gary said, "and before that, it was a café and a public bathhouse, I think." They tracked down the manager, and pitched a novel idea: throwing an old-school hip-hop party called "Back to the Roots." Ten months later, their party was so popular, 400 people would tumble down the club’s narrow stairs on a good night.
Eventually, Blue Ice’s manager offered them co-ownership of the space. “He told me, ‘We’re not doing well. Do whatever you want,’” Gary said. The pair jumped on the chance to run a club their way—and the venue’s low ceilings, stone walls, and subterranean squalor finally became what it was destined to be: a throbbing incubator for techno of the Robert Hood-iest kind.
Shelter’s opening night fell on December 1, 2007, and it declared its allegiances with its headliner: Nomadico from the militantly anti-commercial Detroit crew, Underground Resistance. But Gary and Gareth were DJs. And even though they knew they wanted to have sick sound systems and talented promoters, they had no idea how to run a club. Luckily, the Chinese manager of Blue Ice was sticking around, and he could deal with the hassles of government restrictions and guanxi—the Chinese style of business that involves plenty of mutual back-rubbing.
“We had world music nights, new jazz nights, small record fairs, and live electronic music acts that aren't dance floor stuff,” Gary said. “We weren’t trying to make millions.” But Shelter started booming nonetheless, largely because there wasn’t any other venue around that was doing the same thing.
Today, anyone who walks down Yong Fu Lu can see the effects of Shelter’s success: the tree-lined street is lined with rooftop beer gardens, coke-dusted hookah lounges… and hustlers aggressively pushing their shitty hashish. “When we first opened, there was like, a single pet shop,” laughs Gareth. But even though everything around them has changed, the guys insist that they never will.
A walk through a long, dark tunnel precludes every night at Shelter.
“We haven’t changed at all! We’re still working with the same promoters we started with,” Gary said. “The problem in Shanghai is that if a place doesn’t make money, they close. Nowadays, new clubs open all the time—we haven’t even heard their names yet, and they’re already gone.”
It becomes evident that neither has much respect for the sprawling entertainment complexes frequented by local Chinese—clubs with names like M1NT and Obama. Gary put it simply, “People go to Chinese clubs because they want a show. It's about showing off. It's nothing about the music… Chinese clubs are like a circus. On acid.”
Flashy clubs are just part of the blinged-out lifestyle that China’s nouveau-riche are indulging in. But according to Gareth, that’s gradually starting to change—in the early years, Shelter’s crowd was mostly foreigners. But now, more and more locals are streaming through the door. And new venues like Arkham—along with old ones like Dada, LoGo, and Mao Live House—are holding down Shanghai’s underground.
But why haven’t any Chinese DJs broken into the international club scene? DJ Spenny, a guy who made waves by claiming he was China’s biggest DJ, is from… Britain. “[DJ Spenny] is very good at being a shit DJ,” Gareth said. “The real stars of the scene—Cha Cha, B6, SLV, MHP—aren’t good promoters of themselves.” Gary adds, “It’ll take a while for [that kind of culture] to happen. Maybe in 50 years. In Japan, you can make enough money DJing to support yourself. It’s tough to do that here.”
Until then, Gareth and Gary plan to keep kicking ass and taking names. So far, they’ve only had to close twice: for the 2008 Olympics, and the 2010 World Exposition, when the government forced them to evacuate so the space could be used as an actual shelter. Besides that, they claim to have had few other disturbances from local authorities, thanks in large part to staying under-the-radar. While they don’t have an official closing time, their policy is to “kick people out before old ladies walking their dogs in the morning start bumping into drunk people.” Gary, the more cynical of the pair, chimed in, “The cops don’t want you to call them! They don’t want to move their ass.”