Explore the transformation of Toronto’s nightlife: from the iconic arts and music complex We’ave, to Club 56, to the rise of DIY events.
This story was researched and written by Emerging Historian Nadia Sule (2023) and made possible by the generous support of our Tours Program Presenting Sponsor, TD Bank Group through the TD Ready Commitment.
Last updated: December 31, 2023
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At the turn of the 21st century, Toronto’s multiculturalism increasingly became reflected in its club scene, with venues and events catering to a wide range of cultural and musical tastes. House and techno remained popular as music genres, but there was also growing interest in drum ‘n’ bass, trance, as well as the integration of hip-hop and R&B. This period saw a rise in themed nights and clubs dedicated to specific genres or cultural communities.
One example of this shift in Toronto’s club scene was We’ave, a venue located at 330 Dundas Street West. Open from 1997 to 2000, We’ave was an arts and music complex that began as an artist co-op. The club was located in a three-story building located opposite the Art Gallery of Ontario, with OCAD nearby. We’ave stood at a cultural intersection, blending the worlds of visual arts, music, and community engagement. The space allowed DJs and party producers to stretch their imaginations.
The venue was also a notable home for rising female DJs at a time when Toronto’s DJ scene was predominantly male. This support helped to foster a more inclusive and diverse music scene in the city. Lauren Speers, known as DJ Chocolate, created the weekly “Chicks Dig It”, which showcased female DJ talent. This event quickly became emblematic of We’ave’s inclusive community atmosphere and its policy of embracing diverse musical styles.
By highlighting female DJs, “Chicks Dig It” contributed to broader cultural and social movements that advocated for gender equality and women’s empowerment. The above clip from City-TV’s The New Music show (circa 1998) gives us a glimpse into “Chicks Dig It”, and captures a specific moment in the evolution of the music scene. As DJ Chocolate explains, the weekly event was created with the hope that it would pave the way for more forums or spaces for female DJs in Toronto.
Although it was open for only a short period, Club 56 left a lasting impact on the city’s club scene. Located at 56C Kensington Avenue, the spot had previously been an after-hours spot and a Vietnamese karaoke bar before becoming Club 56 in 2001. Open until 2004, Club 56 was highly regarded for hosting a diverse array of unique parties, encompassing genres such as deep-funk, rhythm and blues, and garage-rock. One of the most notable parties was Hot Times!, a collaboration between DJs Mike Wallace and Rob Judges, which was known for its rousing flyers and diverse music.
The club boasted a distinct and somewhat tropical allure, characterized by its jungle-grotto theme, fish tank DJ table, low ceilings, and mirrored décor. Its design featured an intimate layout with a bar, lounge area, and dance floor. Club 56 emerged as a hotspot in the early 2000s, offering an alternative to the commercial music and luxury of mainstream clubs. It became known for its gritty, close-knit vibe. Rob Judges, who left Club 56 in 2003, noted that Hot Times! grew so popular that many people, including friends, had to be turned away at the door due to space constraints. Eventually, the event moved to different venues in Toronto. Club 56 itself closed in 2004.
As time went on, clubs in Toronto would attract large crowds and contribute to a vibrant nightlife. At first, it was quite rare to hear rap music playing in the bars of the Entertainment District on weekend nights. As underground youth culture became more popular and as hip-hop began to climb the charts, Toronto clubs began to loosen their reservations and embraced the genre. Clubs were filled with people looking for places to dance to their favourite charting songs. Nightclub owners and managers was quick to notice this trend and provided venues and events that catered to this increasing demand.
Slowly but surely, downtown streets began to face challenges from a growing residential community and stricter regulations. Nightclubs would lead to problems like general rowdiness, noise complaints, violence, and traffic congestion. With clubs popping up all over the city as well as condos, they were bound to face conflict wherever they relocated. Also, large venue spaces or warehouses have become increasingly less affordable compared to the past, so DIY party throwers have trouble finding spaces for their events. The rising land value coupled with the tensions between residents and nightclub businesses has led to the decline in the overall number of nightclubs in the downtown core leading up to the COVID 19 pandemic.
Similar to other cities around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact on Toronto’s nightlife and club scene. Aside from increased concerns about crowded spaces, entertainment spots like nightclubs and bars were some of the earliest businesses mandated to shut down as a measure to curb the virus’s spread. The extended shutdowns caused significant financial hardship for these venues. A lot of nightclubs and bars were at risk of shutting down for good because they were losing money. In a post-pandemic landscape, there was a chance to deliberately shape our city’s nightlife that resulted in a new wave in the nightclub scene that focused more on DIY events. These events are less focused on profit margins but on creating an experience and space for the audience. A strong sense of community defines many of these events, often organized around specific cultural, artistic, or social themes and can serve as a gathering point for like-minded individuals.
The collective curates musical experiences that celebrate art, electronic dance, underground and alternative music from across Africa and the diaspora. Afrique Like Me is also a pioneer of Eko Electronic, a fusion of alternative electronic music, funk, underground elements, West African music and Afrobeats.
Known for its event series, which bears the same name, Afrique Like Me started with an intimate after hours party in Toronto’s west end. The party grew into an event held in unconventional spaces, and is now a mainstay on the city’s social calendar.
The group’s focus on African electronic dance music and their intentional inclusivity of women and gender non-conforming individuals mirror the broader trends in Toronto’s club scene. This reflects the city’s multiculturalism and the shift towards more diverse and inclusive events, similar to the essence that We’ave’s”Chicks Dig It” initiative were attempting to address.
The collective has performed in Canada as well as internationally, supporting acts such as Francis Mercier, AMÈMÈ, Keys N Krates, Joezi and Awen; at events such as Pride Toronto and Lumaterra; and at numerous venues, including Ace Hotel Toronto, Drake Hotel, Velvet Underground, CODA, Soluna, and Sub Division.
They emphasize creating a unique, welcoming, and non-judgmental space, much like the early DIY scenes. This approach is a response to the commercial aspects of club culture and the desire to foster genuine community connections, which is a significant aspect of the post-COVID rebirth of the club scene. Just as clubs began embracing hip-hop and other genres in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Afrique Like Me represents the ongoing evolution of musical tastes in Toronto and the introduction of less mainstream genres to wider audiences due to our diverse society. The post-Covid environment seemed desolate and dire because of the decline of traditional nightclubs due to rising land values, residential conflicts, and regulatory issue. This environment is precisely the kind of conditions that DIY events like those organized by Afrique Like Me are responding to. By creating their own spaces and focusing on community rather than profit, they adapt to the changing urban and economic landscape of Toronto.
Razaq El Toro is the founder of Afrique Like Me and is a DJ, music producer and digital creative based in Toronto. Born and raised in Lagos Nigeria, Razaq’s musical journey is inspired by native sounds from the homeland, electronic music programming and global grooves.
Listen to Razaq El Toro discuss his philosophy of encouraging club-goers to expect the unexpected and to be open to discovering new music
A member of the Afrique Like Me collective, Sonic Griot is a Toronto- and Nairobi-based DJ and multidisciplinary creative of Ghanaian heritage who grew up in Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa. She weaves the influences of her pan-African upbringing into her work and performance.
Although she has a broad-based taste in music that spans numerous genres, Sonic Griot is best known for curating vibes with African alternative and electronic dance music, her eclectic aesthetic, love of dance, energetic performance and deep connection with her audience.
Sonic Griot is also the creator of Syrup, an underground event that puts established and upcoming women DJs and gender expansive folks who play electronic music on center stage, and NYUMBANI, an alternative electronic music event series in Nairobi.
Listen to Sonic Griot talk about community, creating a welcoming space, and Afrique Like Me’s approach.
Martin Ses, a Nigerian artist based in Toronto, has been actively engaged in various creative fields since 2010, encompassing photography, filmmaking, and music production. In addition to his artistic endeavours, he is also known for his work as a DJ and fashion designer. Operating under the moniker “martinses” since 2018, he is a key member of the collective renowned for orchestrating intensely captivating nightlife events in both Toronto and Lagos.
Currently, Martin Ses is immersed in the creation of his first EP, having already made a mark with the release of his single ‘Moonlight’ in the summer of 2023.
Listen to Martin Ses talk about constructing each event as a journey. This approach contrasts with more traditional, predictable club nights, highlighting the shift towards more innovative and explorative event formats in the city.
Erika Lindberg has carved a niche in the world of nightlife photography, particularly in Toronto. Committed to nurturing artistic talent and fostering a sense of community, they excel in capturing the essence of experimental creativity within the dynamic nightlife scene. Rooted in both academia and counter-culture, Erika has dedicate their life to the art of creating the stage for which they invite others to perform.
Listen to Erika talk about the shift towards greater inclusiveness and support in the club scene, driven in part by the ability to organise DIY events without the need for a brand backing. They discuss the integration of art and music in nightlife, and share their perspective as a photographer who documents the energy and atmosphere at events. Erika believes that documenting such events is essential for preserving the city’s history and cultural underground, as many aspects of Toronto’s culture have been undocumented in the past.
Erika’s photography captures the evolution of Toronto’s nightclubs, visually representing the diverse and welcoming nature of these new spaces. The rise of DIY events, as mentioned by Erika, is a significant theme in the current era of Toronto’s music scene. DIY events refer to a gathering or party that often have a communal aspect and a high level of customization due to the hands-on nature of the event planning.
Some of these DIY events are beginning to bubble out of the underground category and spill out to international and global stages. These include groups like Kuruza who recently sold out HISTORY and Peprally. The focus on documenting events and following these collectives through Erika’s photography provides a visual narrative of the raw, authentic energy of these DIY spaces, contrasting with the more commercialized club environments of the past. The photographs and footage that has been collected serves as a historical archive, capturing moments and movements that might otherwise be forgotten, and sometimes aid in the tracking of an artist’s development, pushing DJs towards bigger stages, like Bambi.
Erika’s and similar others’ work not only captures but also reflects and enhances the themes of multiculturalism and artistic integration. Videos have the unique ability to capture the atmosphere of events, which can be powerful in conveying the energy of the night. Documentation provides a visual dimension to the narrative, offering a tangible record of the cultural and social shifts within this vibrant community.
Watch a video recap some events from 2023’s nightclub and DIY scene below:
Filmed, edited, and produced by Erika Lindberg
CP24. (2022, November 17). Exhausted condo residents living near nightclub in Toronto pushing for more rules.
D. Balkissoon, “Party Monsters ” Toronto Life, 2007. 44-51.
Then & Now Toronto. (2014). 1990s. Retrieved from http://thenandnowtoronto.com/category/decades/1990s/
M. Posner, Gentrification of Queen Street takes former Big Bop space from punk to funk. The Globe and Mail, February 25, 2011. , M.
Denise Benson, “56 Kensington a.k.a. Club 56”, Then & Now Toronto. December 2014.