R&B used to be a dirty word in Shoreditch. That was until Sara El Dabi and Loren Platt dusted off their Moschino jeans, dug out their favourite Missy Elliot records and invited their friends to join the party. They call it Work It. And you can work it out for yourself.
It’s just gone 10.30pm on a wet Saturday night in April but inside Concrete – the new underground space off Shoreditch High Street – the dance floor has started to swell.
Inside this low-ceilinged, industrial-inspired club, partygoers sip on cheap mixers and perch on the raw wood picnic benches that line edge of the venue.
As the DJ drops Lil Kim’s The Jump Off, clubbers abandon conversation and rush to the centre of the dance floor.
The dimly lit lanterns which hang from the iron ceiling glow around the dancers as they bump bodies and become lost in the dirty, jerky beat.
We’re gathered at ‘Work It’, the bi-monthly east London club night that pays tribute to the golden age of hip hop and R&B.
It’s where the 90s aesthetics of garish fashion labels and urban excess complement the ‘ghetto fabulous’ soundtrack which once reigned high on the charts.
Established four years ago, Work It has become a noted nocturnal destination for hip-hop heads.
It’s also a firm favourite with the fashion pack too – nail art mogul Sharmadean Reid has been spotted here with her pals, so has model-of-the-moment Jourdan Dunn and DJ Nick Grimshaw.
Like a hop hop hacienda, rude boys roam around in their fresh trainers and hide behind their designer sunglasses; indie boys feel safe in their Christmas jumpers and Vans bopping to B.I.G and archetypal Topshop girls rediscover their youth by getting down to early Destiny’s Child records.
A slew of bespoke nights and guerrilla events have trailed in Work It’s wake across London and the night’s been hailed as game-changing – for daring to defy the area’s strict electro punk policy and offer twenty-something’s an alternative.
But for Work It’s founders, Sara El Dabi and Loren Platt, they started their venture primarily for themselves, their friends and anyone who felt “cheated” at not being on the guest list at West End nightclubs.
“When we were in our going-out phase and the only place that played the music we liked was the West End, but it wasn’t really our scene’, says Loren, 28.
“It was very ‘blingy’ and we couldn’t go out dressed in T-shirts and jeans. We got pissed off at going to parties and feeling cheated after queuing up and not being on the guest list.
“We wanted to go out locally with our friends, pay £3 entrance fee and dance to the music we wanted to hear.”
The first Work It was held in Visions Video Bar in Dalston, east London, and attracted 80 people.
“We weren’t well-connected and so we didn’t have an instant audience… it was just our sisters and our best mates. The first one felt like our ‘Sweet 16th’ and it was so much fun,” says 29-year-old Sara.
And it was that innocent party vibe that soon created interest and through word of mouth, attendance grew by the third event.
According to Loren, Work It never started out as a business; promotion was local and DJs were recruited through their network of friends.
At that time in Dalston, the commercial side began to creep through and big companies spotted the money-making potential from the burgeoning ‘hipster’ scene.
The scene was lampooned in Chris Morris’ cult comedy, Nathan Barley; Stoke Newington nerds, sailor tattoos and dip dyed hair suddenly were in vogue and overnight, clubs like 93 Feet East and Brickhouse seemingly switched from garage and grime to electroclash and indie disco.
It was a struggle for survival for smaller venues in Hackney as big companies saw the potential and linked with venues like The Nest on Stoke Newington Road and The Old Blue Last on Great Eastern Street – the latter being owned by Vice magazine.
“The changing scene in Dalston is really interesting,” says Loren, “it used to be about going to Kings Cross and raving under the arches until 6am.
“You couldn’t do that around here 10 years ago but now the scene’s moved east –that feeling you can get into that party no-one’s heard about has returned… it’s about the experience of partying again and being part of something.”
And for Sara and Loren, being part of something made them enthusiastic about creating something people could enjoy.
The duo met through their day jobs as graphic designers and soon discovered their mutual admiration for striking 90s imagery, the vulgarity of hip-hop fashion and of course, the music.
This enabled them to cut-and-paste their favourite elements of the decade and marry their artistic merits to create flyers and printed T-shirts with lyrics from well-known hip hop and R&B tracks – which they gave out for free when Work It went bi-monthly at Concrete in 2010.
“We liked the idea of giving out a freebie and thought a lyric on a T-shirt would be representative of the night,” says Sara.
Work It has now become their full-time jobs, and in addition to running the night, they host London Fashion Week parties, entertain crowds at music festivals and recently, they teamed up with high street chain Urban Outfitters to create a capsule collection of T-shirts and bags.
More recently, to coincide with Hackney Weekend festival, the duo joined forces with Radio 1 to train Hackney youngsters in the art of DJing and event production
But Sara and Loren don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs in the business-sense. According to them, what they do is nothing special in their circle.
From her work as a graphic designer, Sara says it’s normal to “be your own boss” and to be a bit of a hustler.
“Hackney is really unique – you can’t swing a cat without hitting an entrepreneur. Everyone’s doing a side project or trying to get something off the ground – that’s our experience so it doesn’t seems that special.”
Back on the dancefloor, the honeyed sounds of SWV’s slowjam, Weak fills the room and it’s the final song of the night.
A group of five girls, all of whom have been throwing some serious shapes all night, kick off sky-high wedged shoes and hop on to the picnic tables.
Before long, the lights come up and there’s a mad dash to the cloakroom.
As the duo take raffle tickets from revellers desperate for their coats, one girl enthusiastically thanks Sara for her free T-shirt.
“Things like that drive us to make the next night even better,” reflects Sara.
“She’s now got a keepsake from tonight, something to remind her of tonight. She may have paid £5 to get in but this experience is priceless.”
♫ Ginuwine – ‘Pony’