“Think Croydon and a few things come to mind; Kate Moss, punk band The Damned, Crystal Palace football club, Peep Show and of course Dubstep, the now world conquering music genre that will forever be linked to the south London suburb. What you never hear though, is any mention of Tech House, another world conquering music genre,” reads the paragraph accompanying Swag Classics 001. “And to be honest we’re a little bit peeved about that. Because if Tech House has a spiritual home, it’s Croydon, and that is due mainly to Swag Records and the people that gravitated towards the humble West Croydon record shop and studio.”
This year, the Swag Records family lost one of its own, Liz Edwards. She spent more than ten years working at and managing the influential Croydon record shop as well as its eponymous label, which was an essential node in the English house music scene that blossomed in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Edwards and her partner also ran their own party, Kerfuffle, which – over the course of two decades – hosted many artists involved in the interconnected network of producers, DJs and labels that created a distinctly British sound: funky, hypnotic grooves with conga patterns, reverb-drenched wails and swaggering dub basslines.
“When we first started, the term ‘tech-house’ had yet to be invented,” writes Martyn Rochester in the “about” section of Kerfuffle’s website. “Applying it to Kerfuffle is almost accurate but not quite. Our music bubbles under without ever banging. It’s always funky but never formula. It embraces electronica without noodling, US house without the divas and techno without the ego.”
According to Terry Francis, a flagship resident DJ at the famous London nightclub fabric, the term “tech-house” was coined at Swag, where he worked alongside Edwards for seven years. Swag opened in the early ’90s and became a focal point for DJs like Francis, who staffed and shopped at the store, made tunes in its upstairs studio spaces and released music on its eponymous label or one of its many imprints.
And if the secondhand market prices for releases from Swag and imprints like Surreal or London Housing Benefit are any indication, people are revisiting the catalogs Edwards helped to create and promote. Most platters from Surreal now go for upwards of €30 on Discogs. In the years before her death, Edwards was the organizer of the aforementioned reissue label of canonical releases from the Swag universe.
Edwards was vital in this scene, but she operated quietly. Although she was an experienced DJ who started playing records at European ski resorts and military bases in the 1980s, she was better known as a promoter via Kerfuffle and, to a lesser extent, parties she threw in the United Arab Emirates while living in Dubai for several years in the 1990s. She shared the music she loved on the radio more often than in clubs via a twice-weekly program on Capitol Radio in Abu Dhabi, and more recently she ran a monthly Saturday afternoon slot on the Brighton-based station 1BTN from 2015 until her death. Her last show aired in April 2018 and featured Eddie Richards, the Swag Records alumnus and Wiggle co-founder.
As a record clerk, label manager and party promoter, Edwards provided material to the best-known champions of British tech-house, released their music and booked them for live performances. But she never made a record herself. “She was a fierce lady among men, leading the charge, without making a big deal of it,” wrote Judy Griffith, the Promotions Manager at fabric, in a post honoring Edwards as a “pivotal force behind the house music community.”
Maybe it’s precisely because she never made a “big deal” about her work that Edwards never got due credit for it. Humility is a virtue in the putatively democratic paradigm of club culture, where music is presented to an audience without identifying its creator. The selector is – or at least, was – an anti-rock star who performs behind a wall of equipment and often on the same level as the dancers. But the veneration of anonymity also makes it that much easier for pivotal forces to slip through the cracks and remain unknown to the history they helped create. That’s especially true of people like Edwards, who operated mostly behind-the-scenes to promote others’ work.
“Liz really did so much in a very male-dominated scene, and I owe her a lot,” Jane Fitz wrote in a comment on a Resident Advisor news item reporting Edwards’ passing. “As a person she possessed true grit added to a pure devotion to selling and playing records.”
One reason tech-house rarely gets talked about these days in glowing terms is what it sounded like when it became successful: high-definition sounds arranged into tightly quantized rhythms engineered to impact large audiences. The upside to the stigma surrounding tech-house, however, is that it’s allowed for the extended Swag universe to be rediscovered by enthusiastic fans who may have missed the movement while it was happening. To sift through the network of labels Edwards helped facilitate feels like encountering a hidden chapter in dance music history, the baby that got thrown out with the big-room bathwater. And that’s an increasingly rare, exciting feeling in a time where every minute detail of the present and past are exhaustively mapped out and documented.
The recent run of Swag represses were Edwards’ last and most public acts as a savvy vinyl saleswoman and personable guide. They also indicate a renewed interest in the scene to which she devoted half of her life, which in turn presents an opportunity to rewrite its history more deliberately and fully. The Swag Classics 001 press text sums it up best: “And now all these years later some of those records made in that little room at the top of the old Victorian building that housed the Swag headquarters are finally starting to get the recognition they deserve.”
So, too, are the humble but critical people who worked behind the scenes to make it happen.
Illustration: André Gottschalk