Hebden Bridge has been through some significant but subtle changes in the last two decades. Not that the thousands of visitors who flock in each summer would necessarily notice. Still, the West Yorkshire market town remains a beauty spot.
In fact, its scenic views of dramatic hills and foreboding moorlands have led to a property boom as urbanites search for a laidback, progressive rural community within an hour from boom cities like Leeds and Manchester. This change in population, has shifted focus from outsider arts and alternative living to artisanal produce.
The music scene has changed too - you’re no longer likely to fall into cosmic night trippers stomping barefoot to Detroit techno don Kevin Saunderson at The Trades Club and the famed member’s co-operative venue, which now almost-exclusively caters to the kind of live gigs BBC 6 Music’s Mark Riley (rightly) recommends. However, don’t worry, DJ culture still remains integral to the town’s DNA, especially hip hop.
Founded as a crew circa 2007, Heavy Crates is the most visible example of this passion for rhymes and beats. Today the logo stands above a shopfront on the central shopping strip of Crown Street. Trace its roots though, and this second hand trove for collectors has a bigger story to tell.
Run by Tony Driver, who describes the retail offering as “a digger’s paradise”, he tells us that there’s also a record label of the same name that has tied local and regional talent to US heavyweights. Naturally, we start by asking how that happened.
“When we first had the shop there was a Top 10 list every week on our website, featuring different artists. One of those was a guy called A.C. The Program Director, he had a radio station in LA, we would sell the mixtapes. The other artist was Clutchy Hopkins, who’s an instrumental musician. We kind of became friends with them through MySpace,” Driver says, explaining that when the original store closed down he then had the opportunity to travel as both a tourist and DJ. Over several trips to the United States online contacts became face-to-face comrades.
“Through them, I was linked to some other people. One was King Cesar, the other Bazooka Joe. When I went to New York, we met up. Both were already producers with studios that had put out records. So I was working with them and going to America about three times a year. Obviously that also meant I was getting some links to new up and coming rappers or whatever” he continues, recounting how the early list of names soon also included Mitchell Aimss.
Starting with King Caesar’s Switch Lanes, between that release and this moment right now the label has compiled a high quality back catalogue and loyal following. Its collaborative origins are plain to see in the credits, which also speak volumes about Driver’s passion for turning friends into collaborators and vice versa. A tightly-knit, geographically sprawling familial affair, where the likes of UK crew Burgundy Blood, northern English producer Figure 42, and revered Buffalo, NY, rapper Conway the Machine have all found space to work.
Although a new Heavy Crates release is underway, Driver is quick to point out the shop, rather than the label, is the main focal point. Which isn’t surprising; he only opened the current premises early-summer 2020, giving just a brief window of opportunity to get things off the ground between lockdowns.
“When I opened the new shop, I thought it would obviously be hip hop, soul, funk, house predominantly. I mean, I'd have a bit of whatever else, too. But that's completely not the case,” Driver replies when asked what sells, citing Hebden Bridge’s changing community as one factor, with the migration of regular DJ nights from The Trades Club to Todmorden’s Golden Lion, a few miles away, another symptom. “I must have sold 20 copies of Fleetwood Mac Rumours since I was open last June.”
Alongside the varied vinyl racks, which span everything from prog to hordes of deep dancefloor tech bought wholesale from collectors conducting clear outs, the store also makes its presence known through merch. Whether Heavy Crates or Hebden Bridge branded, graffiti-toned lines nod to both pride in the crew, and hometown itself.
“In November, when we got locked down fully, there was no notice whatsoever until that day. I just spent two or three grand on Christmas merch. In my shop I've got a box of Christmas jumpers, a big box of them now just sitting there,” he tells me as the conversation touches on the UK’s in-out coronavirus closures.
“I'm buying again now until I know what's going on… I’m really confident we're gonna be open for a couple of months at least,” he replies after we ask if that uncertainty and chaos has effected confidence to spend. He responds: “You know, June, July, August, September, they're big months here, when it's suddenly alive. So I'm hoping I will have cashed in from them enough to recoup what I've lost out on over lockdown.”
As with all non-essential shops, Heavy Crates was back in action as of 12th April 2021, when doors re-opened with an in-store programme of live DJ sets. Driver wants the format to set a precedent for the future. “Even this last year it has been a bit of a hub. My shops have always been hangouts or whatever for local DJs,” he explains. “But now we're gonna have decks set up permanently, so we can have DJs playing all the time.”
“There's a lot of people I could get to come down, you know, and have a little mix. If they have a gig close by or not. And there’s a large pool of local DJs that want to come down and play. I'm also thinking about an open deck slot so customers can book in for half an hour, maybe stream off their own Instagram or whatever,” he says, tangible confidence befitting an entrepreneur with the tenacity and personal network to deliver on their promises.