The Music of Waltham Forest

Published Friday 29 November by Owen

As part of the Waltham Forest firework display for 2019, world champion DJ Mighty Atom created a special soundtrack that charted the musical heritage of the borough. 

The soundtrack included everything from jazz to heavy metal, shoegaze to grime and was the perfect accompaniment to a spectacular firework display. Click here to listen again to the full mix and see a full track listing. 

DJ Mighty Atom also wrote a special article about how and why he created this mix....


Earlier this year I was approached by Sam Hunt, The Creative Director for The London Borough of Culture, to create a mix featuring music with a connection to the London Borough of Waltham Forest. This mix would then become the soundtrack to a fireworks display to celebrate the year’s programme of cultural and arts events.

0:00 – 07:00 Minutes

I knew that the right intro for this project had to create a sense of drama and tension. When thinking about musicians with a connection to the Borough there is a man who has spent decades creating dramatic, suspenseful music, Michael Nyman CBE.

Michael Nyman has scored numerous films but is probably most famous for his multiple platinum soundtrack to the 1994 movie, The Piano (starring Sam Neil). In 1999 Nyman also composed the soundtrack to the Hollywood movie, Ravenous (starring Guy Pearce), in collaboration with another musician from the Borough, Damon Albarn (more on him later).

For this project I took an excerpt from a piece Nyman wrote for the inauguration of the TGV North-European Paris-Lille line. MGV, or Musique à Grande Vitesse (High-Speed Music) is a 1993 musical composition commissioned by the Festival de Lille and was first performed by the Michael Nyman Band and the Orchestre national de Lille on 26 September 1993. In order to accentuate the driving sense of momentum I re-edited several different sections, adding drums and vocal samples to build energy.

Michael Nyman was a student at the Sir George Monoux Grammar School in Walthamstow, although he wasn’t the only musically gifted student to attend the school. Several decades earlier a young boy by the name of John Dankworth was getting his first music lessons on the clarinet and violin before finally settling on the alto sax as his instrument of choice.

Sir John Phillip William Dankworth, CBE (20 September 1927 – 6 February 2010), was an English jazz composer, saxophonist, clarinettist and film composer. He grew up in Highams Park, a suburb of Chingford, and attended Selwyn Boys’ (Junior) School in Highams Park and later Sir George Monoux Grammar School in Walthamstow.

Dankworth is recognised as one of the British Jazz greats and everyone from; Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gilespie, Herbie Hancock have performed or collaborated with Dankworth at one stage in his illustrious career.

Dankworth’s influence is far reaching and his music has inspired multiple generations of Hip Hop artists such as Gangstarr, Big L and Madlib. Dankworth’s music was sampled to become the central elements of two seminal tracks (“Above the Clouds” and “All 4 Tha Cash”) by the New York Hip Hop group, Gangstarr. I have presented these tracks side by side within this first section to represent how music from the Borough has had a global impact, and continues to do so.

The idea that one of Hip Hop’s most revered producers from New York, DJ Premier, was inspired by a Jazz musician who went to school in Waltham Forest and travelled to New York in the ‘40s playing on the Queen Mary cruise liner, has a wonderful circular synchronicity to it. New York influences Waltham Forest… and Waltham Forest influences New York.

The final John Dankworth sample connection in this section comes courtesy of Gorillaz (again we will get to Damon Albarn in due course), here sampling the score John Dankworth created for the film Modesty Blaise. There is also something quite magical about the idea that seminal artists from the Borough are inspiring each other decades apart.

The next track is probably one of the most recognisable on the mix, Primal Scream’s “Loaded”, from their album “Screamadelica” (which won the first ever Mercury music prize in 1992 and has sold over 3 million copies worldwide). The connection to the Borough might not be obvious here, but “Loaded” was actually recorded at Bark studios near Blackhorse Road. To make things interesting I mixed over the vocals from the influential, but underground, UK Hip Hop group Gunshot.

Gunshot were formed in Leyton, in 1989. They were originally called Sudden Impact, but as Gunshot they became one of the leading lights in the “Britcore” movement – a style of UK Hip Hop which mixed British and Caribbean influences and put the focus on rapping with the native British accent. The ‘Britcore’ sound of groups like Gunshot, Hijack and Son of Noise was characterized by its fast tempo and aggressive feel.

Kaytranada’s reflip of NAO brings us up to the present and shows us an example of an amazing artist emerging from the Borough and achieving global success. NAO attended Leyton 6th Form College, where she studied music. NAO has collaborated with a number of the leading lights of modern UK music including; Stormzy, Mura Masa and Disclosure, as well as having co-writing credits on songs with Ariana Grande and Nile Rodgers & Chic.

07:00 – 12:00 Minutes

In order to switch the mood I used a remix of a Talvin Singh track from his Mercury Prize winning album ‘OK’ (released in 1998), which was instrumental in helping to shine a spotlight on Asian music. Talvin was also commissioned to produce music for the opening ceremony of the London Borough of Culture celebrations so deserves a special mention for what he’s still doing now to represent Waltham Forest. Talvin Singh grew up in Leytonstone and was awarded an OBE in 2014 to recognise his contributions to music and culture.

Continuing into more experimental territory, the mix segues into “You Made Me Realise” by My Bloody Valentine. Although an Irish band by birth, they recorded this seminal work at the aforementioned Bark studios in Walthamstow.

The Cure and Bauhaus are two other bands with no physical connection to the Borough, but who both had their early work released by the iconic “Small Wonder Records” Label. Small Wonder Records was a record label and shop of the same name that operated out of 162 Hoe Street in Walthamstow for many years. Managed by Pete and Mari Stennett, Small Wonder Records specialised in releasing records by punk rock and post-punk bands.

12:00 – 20:00 Minutes

Now we come to Damon Albarn who, alongside East 17, is probably one of the most recognisable figures in the musical history of the Borough. Music from Albarn’s various projects feature multiple times within the mix, and probably need little introduction. I have put a bit of a creative spin on some of the more obvious ones, including adding vocals from the pioneering grime MC, Lethal Bizzle to the anthemic Blur hit ‘Song 2’, before switching it for the sounds of a pre-Bruce Dickinson Iron Maiden (with the title track to their ‘Phantom of the Opera’ album from 1980). Maiden’s connection to the Borough is through their bassist, songwriter and founding member, Steve Harris. He has been the band’s only constant member since their inception in 1975 and one of only two to have appeared on all of their albums, the other being guitarist Dave Murray.

The mix then features two more Lethal Bizzle tracks – ‘Go Hard’ and ‘Oi’ (which reached number 7 on the UK Singles Chart). ‘Oi’ was a collaborative effort with Ozzie B and Neeko as ‘More Fire Crew’, and is recognised as one of the first commercially successful Grime tracks – several years before the genre had a name and was still seen as a form of aggressive Garage. Speaking of Garage, I was slightly self-indulgent and included my favourite Gorillaz remix – Ed Case and Sweetie Irie’s refix of “Clint Eastwood”.

Now in faster territory, I wanted to use this section of the mix to showcase Waltham Forest’s Pirate Radio history. Dance 93FM was the most prominent Pirate in the Borough and some of it’s residents went on to become leading figures in their respective genres. I featured my favourite Kenny Ken track in the mix, as he was a resident on the station for a number of years. Other notable residents included a Pre “The Shamen” Mr C, as well as a 14-year-old DJ EZ, who although a Tottenham resident, would ride over to Walthamstow on his bike to get his first big break on Pirate Radio. DJ EZ would be so keen to get as much airtime on the station as possible that he would volunteer to play the whole of the Christmas day period when all the other DJ’s were tucking into Turkey with their families. You can still see EZ’s penchant for super long DJ sets, most notably his colossal 24 hour performance in aid of Cancer Research which raised over £60,000 for the UK charity.

Waltham Forest’s other connection to Pirate radio culture is via the most famous London pirate of them all, Kiss. Kiss broadcast illegally for 4 years before achieving it’s first broadcast license in 1989. One of Kiss’ founders, Gordon McNamee lived in the borough and there was a period where the Kiss FM studio was housed in the now demolished Ernest Richards Tower (part of the Boundary estate where Lethal Bizzle grew up).

To round off the Hardcore Jungle vibes I included my favourite track from DJ Rap (with Aston under their Engineers without Fears guise). The track ‘Spiritual Aura’ is a bonafide Hardcore classic and shows the direction of travel as ‘Jungle’ was emerging from the chaotic maelstrom of Rave in 1993. DJ Rap lived in the Borough for several years as a teenager and her dad ran a hotel in the area.

20:00 – 25:00 Minutes

For the final portion of the mix I wanted to build the energy and excitement and my favourite Bloc Party track ‘Helicopter’ did this perfectly. One of Bloc Party’s founding members, guitarist Russell Lissack, was born in Chingford.

Finally I used Jammer’s track “Back to the 90’s” to transition into East 17’s behemoth of a 90’s Ballad – “Stay Another Day”. As a child growing up in the 90’s I remember it being the Christmas number 1 in 1994, and whilst undeniably cheesy, it does have a slightly questionable place in my heart. As part of the Borough of Culture’s ‘Art Night’ series of events, The Chequers Pub hosted an interactive performance, which consisted of people singing along to the song all night. When I walked past the event it hit me how deeply ingrained this song was in the consciousness of people who grew up in the 90’s.