In November 1996, the Dutch band Urban Dance Squad gave two shows at the Studentski Kulturni Centar (SKC) in Belgrade, the capital of the then rump state Yugoslavia. The civil war and years of UN sanctions had turned the city's pop scene inward. In 1995 the warring parties signed the Dayton Peace Agreement and a new era seemed to be dawning. Shortly after, The Prodigy came to Belgrade, and a year later it was the turn of Urban Dance Squad. There, in SKC, the band made history, and not just because of the music.
Written by: Guido van Hengel
Photos: Srdjan Veljovic
Breathe with me
On May 1, 2019, the traditional Labor Day demonstrations will take place in Belgrade. This year, the demonstrations overlap with the ongoing protests against the corrupt and autocratic regime of President Aleksandar Vucic, a former aide to the late President Milošević. A somewhat tame procession runs along Kralja Milana Street. There are flags, there are slogans, but it isn't really convincing. Someone is manfully stirring up the crowd on a large cart. He especially relies on the music installation, which plays loud hip-hop: Serbian rap, interspersed with samples of quotes from cracking speeches by the former Yugoslav dictator Tito, who died in 1980. Moments later, 'Firestarter' by British rave pioneers The Prodigy is played. The whole display looks like a yellowed photo from the 1990s: an accomplice of Milošević in power, a demonstration against a corrupt government, a hit from 1996…
Worldwide, the song 'Firestarter' has taken on a bitter aftertaste since March this year due to the suicide of the diabolical dancer and MC Keith Flint. In Serbia, however, "Firestarter" has a very different, deeper meaning. In the nineties, The Prodigy was one of the very few bands that traveled to the troubled pariah of the region to give a concert there. In December 1995, Flint, founder Liam Howlett, among others, performed at the Pioneer Halls in Belgrade, close to the banks of the Danube. Many thousands of young people from all over the country traveled to the capital. During that concert, The Prodigy performed the later hit "Breathe" for the first time. Under the claustrophobic and manic cries – “Psychosomatic, addict insane” – concealed an invitation: “breathe with me”. The Serbian public accepted the invitation with both hands.
The society of Serbia was stuck under Milošević's regime and was traumatized and also ashamed by the civil wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Dragan Ambrozic, now promoter of the renowned stage Dom Omladine, was involved in the organization of the legendary concert and still talks about it with lively enthusiasm. It's November 2018, I meet him backstage, just after the sound check of a three-piece Turkish jazz-rock-fusion band. He walks around, shakes hands, inspects the room and then takes a seat: “Few Western bands dared to go to Belgrade, but The Prodigy had a punk attitude and they didn't care. In 1995 Serbia was a ghetto and the kids felt the ghetto within that ghetto as a group. The song 'Breathe' came in hard.”
Conditions in Serbia at the end of 1995 were indeed stifling, but there was a glimmer of hope. In 1995, under the watchful eye of Bill Clinton, the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims signed a peace treaty in the American town of Dayton. This peace treaty also meant that Western sanctions against Serbia were lifted. Yet hardly any western bands came to perform. Ambrozic: “After the lifting of those sanctions, business was still not booming in Serbia. Agencies did not dare to go and communication was difficult. We are talking about 1995; there was no email yet. Everything had to be done by telephone or fax. Contact was made through networks of DIY agents and people who showed a flexible attitude. It was indeed Minister of Culture Nada Popovic-Perisic who helped us get The Prodigy to Serbia. She really didn't understand it at all, but that was nice. That way I could achieve more. In the end, the regime was even proud of the concert.”
Island of Free Thought
This was the late echo of an unique tradition of untethered Yugoslavia: alternative western pop music could always have flourished there, even under the communist dictatorship. Ilija Duni, singer of the (now defunct) band Petrol and a well-known face from the Belgrade underground, explains: “Alternative music was not only tolerated, but even facilitated, as a kind of useful valve function for the youth. Take the cultural center SKC: the Milošević regime financed it indirectly. Nevertheless, innovative bands continued to play there. SKC has made a crucial contribution to the music and culture of Serbia, especially in the 1990s. It was an island, an island of free thought.”
"We felt stuck between the West and the regime. We had to do it all ourselves."Ilija Duni
Alternative pop music nevertheless faced competition in the late 1980s. The war parties did not promote rock 'n roll, but a kind of cheap version of 'narodna muzika' (folk music): drilly, with oriental beats and an entourage of folklore kitsch. Duni: “In my pre-war high school years, only one or two classmates listened to this music. A few years later, during the war, it could be heard everywhere.” The warlords from the higher political and criminal circles in particular were accompanied on television and elsewhere by the sounds of this 'turbofolk'. In this way, the music became intertwined with the sounds of the civil war, the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, and formed the soundtrack of the disintegration.
In Belgrade, the former capital of the multi-ethnic federation, during the war years, the youth became not only bored and dull, but also disoriented. Duni: “Because of the sanctions from 1992, we couldn't go west and we were stuck with Milošević, the leader who sometimes facilitated us, but whom we hated so much. We felt trapped between the West and the regime. We had to do it all ourselves. In that in-between space we created our own, unique scene, in which all genres got mixed up. It was, in spite of everything, very lively. The music of the time was hybrid: all kinds of crossovers from dub, jazz, rock, heavy metal, rap, hip-hop and whatever. That also suited our position between the East and the West.”
Music and urban culture formed an important basis for the resistance. The dissident radio station B92 played a vital role in feeding the underground resistance with music and cultural ammunition. After the concert of The Prodigy there seemed to be a period of thaw. The war was over, the end of Yugoslavia's dictatorship was in sight and the so-called 'End of History', as many saw the state of the world after the Cold War, now seemed to be moving to Serbia as well.
Duni: “Especially in the days of late 1995, early 1996, we began to feel that Milošević's days would soon be over. That made me feel relieved. At the same time, it was also disturbing that the West praised Milošević for signing the peace in Dayton. He was suddenly the 'gatekeeper of peace in Bosnia'. We got all kinds of interesting music and culture from that same West - albeit diluted. It now seemed as if West was also turning against us. That was confusing.”
“The Prodigy concert was a breakthrough,” says Ambrozic. “After that, it seemed more likely to get bands from the west to Serbia.” It was Konstantin Polsovic, one of the founders of EXIT in Novi Sad (which has since grown into one of the biggest festivals in Europe), who brought the Dutch band Urban Dance Squad to Belgrade for a concert in SKC. This was to take place on November 20, as part of the Rock the Nation Yugoslavia program.
The Dutch crossover band was popular in the region. In 1991 their second album Life 'n Perspectives of a Genuine Crossover was number eight in the year-end list of B92. “That crossover style sounded quite natural to us, because we had something similar in Serbia for a long time,” says Ambrozic. “There was a real Belgrade school with drum and bass from the pioneering band Disciplina Kičme. They released their first records in the early eighties. Belgrade therefore already had a scene for experimenting with different styles, even more than in the other cities of Yugoslavia. Zagreb had cheerful pop bands, Ljubljana had intellectual projects like Laibach, and in Belgrade bands played heavy and innovative music. If you ask me, I think it's in the people, in the energy of the city.”
Duni agrees, and tells how he found it completely natural that Urban Dance Squad came to play in Belgrade: “They played the perfect music for Serbia. They mixed all kinds of styles together, just like us. Urban Dance Squad felt like 'our band', but from the Netherlands. Their hybrid mix matched seamlessly with the dreams and feelings we had at the time. We therefore saw the Netherlands as a tolerant, free and open society. That definitely played a part. Such a culturally mixed band fit our image of a melting pot. I think that also contributed to their success in the United States, where they understand the vibe of the band.” Duni laughs: “It was actually an American and a Serbian band, but then from Holland.”
The observation is not so strange. Urban Dance Squad was proverbially 'un-Dutch'. The eclectic and globally renowned band had seen half the world. The quintet had come together in the eighties in Utrecht and acquired a unique live and cult status in the national underground. After the release of debut album Mental Floss for the Globe (1989), it also went international crescendo. Hits came, including in the US ('Deeper Shade of Soul', 'Fastlane'), and the formation inspired a whole generation of crossover bands, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine and Mano. In addition to the US, the Squad also gained a following in France and Germany and even took part in Japan's music scene.
"Urban Dance Squad not only made the musical connection with us as an audience, but also personally, as people who understand the same sensitivities."Ilija Duni
The wild expression of Rapper Rudeboy, guitarist Tres Manos, drummer Magic Sticks, bassist Sil and DJ DNA also had a dark side. After all, raw energy can turn into conflict. The first confrontations were with the outside world: the record companies and the media. Then the negative energy also went inwards. Much of that tension can already be seen in the documentary Vijf Jaar Wanorde that Bram van Splunteren made in 1991 for VPRO Onrust. In this the band members speak out about the dark sides of fame. A fragment in which rapper Rudeboy looks bitterly into the camera when he talks about the energy around and around the band is very telling: “Immediately after the performance it's over. The rest is all pretend”
In 1993, DJ DNA left the band, in the middle of a tour in France. The other band members did it without the scratcher from then on and came up with a hard and uncompromising album: Persona Non Grata (1994). The single 'Demagogue' became a classic, but the band could not capitalize on the success sufficiently. Similar bands, such as Rage Against the Machine, could.
Belgrade as Planet Ultra
Urban Dance Squad therefore seemed somewhat disoriented in the mid-nineties of the Netherlands. In the aging polder country, which was ruled by a liberal-social-democratic purple polder coalition, everything was consensus and geniality. The serious themes that frontman Rudeboy often raised in a furious tone, such as oppression, resistance, racism, violence and alienation, did not find fertile ground. The music press, often ironic and jolly, made fun of this commitment. Where was that enemy who had the Squad so clearly in their sights? In 1996 the lukewarmly reviewed album Planet Ultra was released. The jubilation of the early years had given way to bored annoyance at best, and more often to outright disapproval.
It was precisely during the tour for this record that Urban Dance Squad hit Belgrade, the capital of forgotten and reviled Serbia. The meeting proved fruitful on both sides: the mood of Urban Dance Squad resonated with that of Serbian music lovers. They both longed for another planet, a place of ultimate freedom. In an interview with the band for the Serbian alternative music magazine Ukus Nestanih, the journalist Ana Davidovic asks about it very specifically: 'I think it's a great title. It reminds me of Belgrade. What does Planet Ultra actually mean to you?” Guitarist Tres Manos answers: “It's about the possibility that you can flee somewhere from misery.” In a Dutch interview Rudeboy says something similar: “Planet Ultra is about the imagination of the world in our heads. When things get too boring, too dull and unbearable, Planet Ultra is about things that go beyond the mundane.”
The message landed in Serbia, and with much impact. The wish to escape an oppressive reality came true that year. In local elections, opposition parties had won earlier that month in all major cities, including Belgrade, Niš, Novi Sad, Kragujevac, and so on. Milošević's regime had suffered a major defeat. Citizens of Belgrade organized joyous demonstrations in the city and flew into each other's arms. Besides the war, would the era of the Milošević regime also be over?
“Slobo [nickname of Slobovan Milošević, ed.] lost,” Duni says, “but he refused to accept the outcome. He declared the elections invalid and within two days all kinds of voting papers were gone. The opposition claimed victory. In that winter it was five years ago that the war had started. We decided there was good reason to protest against the manipulation.”
Ambrozic still remembers how the resistance was mobilized by radio. “Normally, Slobo controlled the media, especially the local media. That was no longer the case in 1996. Radio and television stations also criticized the 'stolen' elections. He panicked."
The commotion about the stolen elections coincided with the arrival of Urban Dance Squad. Srdjan Veljovic was then a photographer for XZ Zabava magazine and was asked to attend the press conference and the concert itself. “Personally I didn't know the band, but I knew it would be something special. I suspected it could be an interesting concert. In those curious days, such events could really grow into something big.”
On November 20, the time had come. Urban Dance Squad played in the main hall. The concert was completely sold out. “We really needed a normal life,” Veljovic says, “A life where you can just go to a band and have fun.” The Squad played many songs from the last record, supplemented with classics such as 'No Kid' and 'Fastlane'. In the absence of DJ DNA, keyboardist U-Gene had traveled along, supplementing the hard rock with swampy chords, squeaky solos or bubbling sounds.
Opener was the cryptic 'Nonstarter', then the haunting 'Inside-Outsider', followed by – appropriately – a funky reckoning with the lies and distortions in the media: 'Tabloid Says'. Veljovic was at the forefront as a photographer: “The atmosphere was intense. That is often the case with the public in Serbia, but I think it was even more than usual then. I can also remember that after the first concert I decided to go a second time. That was not just something.”
The second concert on November 21 was even wilder. “It was a furious concert,” the daily newspaper Blic wrote on November 22. Other newspapers, including the propaganda body of the Milošević government, also praised the enormous energy of the performance. The Dnevni Telegraf described the Squad as "one of the most relevant bands of the 1990s" and the Express spoke of an "extravagant energy".
Duni recalls: “The resistance against the 'stolen elections' started in Niš, in the south of the country, and by the time the second concert was due to take place, the resistance had also come to Belgrade. And so I went to the concert in that rebellious atmosphere. People demonstrated outside, a revolution was in the air. The frustration about the results of the local elections stolen by Slobo was present. The concert was good, the atmosphere was great. The band took the tense atmosphere, used the energy in the air, internalized it, and through the music gave it back to us.”
“A very special moment,” pop journalist Davidovic recalled. “The interaction with the audience was so extreme that the band got emotional with that discharge of energy. I remember Rudeboy having to wipe the tears from his face afterwards.”
The yellow revolution
After the first concert on November 20, the demonstrators gathered in front of SKC for a big action against Milošević. Everything vibrated. The whole city was turned upside down. In his book Serbia Calling, British journalist Matthew Collin tells one of the protesters who worked for radio station B92: “Suddenly, out of nowhere, the students came to the square. It was like a catharsis. The whole atmosphere changed, everyone looked around and realized that this was something new, something different, and that something big was about to happen.”
The Squad was aware of the concert's historical significance and decided to record that evening's concert. It would later be released as the live album Beograd Live – a tribute to the city and the Serbian public.
The demonstrations lasted for a long time: from November 1996 to March 1997, for eighty-four days, in all kinds of weather. Tens of thousands of protesters grew into a crowd of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, who filled the streets of Belgrade and demanded that Milosevic recognize the election results. These were the largest demonstrations in Yugoslavia to date. Families with children, punks and rockers, students and rural people took part in the demonstrations. It was a major theatrical event, in which the pop music of freedom predominated: drum bands, costume parties, performances and performances accompanied the resistance. Because protesters had pelted the state television building with countless eggs, some jokingly called the uprising the "yellow revolution" - referring to the color of the accumulated sludge at the entrance to the main building of Radio Television Serbia (RTS). At times when RTS broadcast news, the protesters reacted by banging pots and pans everywhere. In the demonstrations, sheep walked around with a sign: 'We support Milošević's party'. The uprising transformed into a social performance, in which the Serbs could share their misery on the street, in public space.
In March 1997, the demonstrations came to an end with a somewhat flimsy compromise between the opposition and the government. All energy was gone and the opposition was once again dispersed like loose sand into countless feuding factions. In 1998 a new war broke out in the southernmost Serbian province of Kosovo. Serbian militias and Albanian rebels rioted, thousands of people displaced. In 1999, NATO was to intervene with a bombing raid on Belgrade and other Serbian cities for more than 70 days. The memory of the peaceful resistance of 1996-1997, the performance of unity and ironic criticism of the "stolen elections" faded.
The Disappearance of the Enemy
In November 2018 I visited the SKC press archive, where an elderly lady presented me the press kit of the concert. It's dark in the archive, the lights are off. It's sunny outside, but the shutters are down. When I ask the employees present about memories of the concert, not much comes out. One employee remembers the concert only in general terms and begins a bitter tale of how things used to be better, to the beat of the well-known mantras "nobody likes Serbia" and "the war has destroyed everything here."
When asked whether there is any connection between the Urban Dance Squad concert and the 1996 uprisings, the archivist replies that it is "pure coincidence" that the two events took place at the same time. “We've never been a political podium,” he concludes, and that's it.
Duni sees the correlation of events more in terms of energy and the zeitgeist. “When I think back I see again the influence of the dissident radio station B92, which tried to bring democracy and freedom. And on the other hand, Otpor, the student movement, which in 2000 tried to overthrow Milošević's regime. In the midst of all those developments, in that strange, alienating time, Urban Dance Squad came, and for me that concert is inextricably linked with that time. It's intertwined. Urban Dance Squad was, for us at least, a rebellious band. The committed lyrics, the guitar music, grunge, the elements of rap, symbolic music that acts against the system. I know they hung out with all the audience members afterwards and I believe they went into town. They not only made the musical connection with us as an audience, but also personally, as people who understand the same sensitivities. That, I think, is why it has become such a legendary concert, especially in the alternative, underground circles here in this city.”
The 1996-1997 uprising did not have the desired effect. Ultimately, it was the chaos that arose during and after the bombings of 1999 that ended Milošević's rule. In the Netherlands, Urban Dance Squad reunited with DJ DNA and released a new CD in 1999: Artantica. Although the album sounded fresh, reborn and innovative, it could not postpone or prevent the end of the collaboration. In the same year, guitarist Tres Manos left the band. Then the Squad – just like Yugoslavia – fell apart. The 1990s, an era of cultural crossovers and wild freedom, was coming to an end. What followed was transition, and – for Serbia – entry into the twenty-first century liberal world order. Freedom at last, market forces at last.
Twenty years later, the pop scene has become completely different. Duni says that, unlike before, in the era of the market he first has to sit down with a manager to see how much it costs and how much money he can earn. The market is reality.
On May 1, 2019, photographer Veljovic tells me that he thinks it is "more difficult" in Serbia today than in the 1990s to book a socially critical band. “People here are terribly serious these days,” Veljovic says. "People don't play anymore: children don't, and neither do adults. In the 1996 demonstrations there might not have been much to laugh about, but there was a certain irony, a way of playing, a theatrical creativity that I miss now. Look , today we have here – like everywhere – a Western-capitalist music industry, which is there for entertainment. But then music still had a kind of social function. It meant something to the public."
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.