Music

Celebrating 25 years of Ministry of Sound

As London’s first superclub marks a quarter-century, a founder shares the secrets of its success.
Written by Ben Homewood
6 min readPublished on
Ministry Of Sound turns 25 years old this year
Ministry Of Sound turns 25 years old this year
In the summer of 1990, Justin Berkmann snuck into a grotty-looking building on Gaunt Street in Elephant and Castle, south east London. Inside was a garage dotted with parked cars and pigeons, every surface caked in bird droppings. The sun blazed through the metal framework beneath the glass roof and the 26-year-old DJ thought, 'Oh my God'.
On September 21, 1991 the building opened as Ministry of Sound, with Berkmann joined behind the decks by Jazzy M and Paul Oakenfold. Now, Berkmann is about to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the club he founded with old Etonian entrepreneurs James Palumbo and Humphrey Waterhouse. His memory of that scouting mission remains vivid.
"It was a beautiful experience walking into that space. I'd been looking at building clubs for years and when you go into a space that's gonna be a club it screams at you, 'I can be a club, look at me!' You get this feeling of 'Oh my God, this could be incredible'."
A cheeky Buckingham Palace stunt, 1996
A cheeky Buckingham Palace stunt, 1996

The birth of a superclub

Using their cars and Waterhouse's west London flat as an office, the three men spent 21 arduous months realising Berkmann's vision of an after-hours partying utopia where the focus was on the music – specifically, house music popularised in New York, Chicago and Detroit. "It was seven days a week, 365 days a year work. Eat, s**t and sleep the project," remembers Berkmann.
The strain was too much for Ray De Maudsley, responsible for introducing Berkmann to his new business partners, and he abandoned ship. "He went off the rails, it was really tough," says Berkmann, adding that controversial plans for 24-hour opening and no alcohol license – both unheard of in clubs at the time – led people to doubt the sanity of the three dreamers behind Ministry.
But Berkmann remained stubborn and blocked out the naysayers. Inspired by two mid-'80s years spent in New York spinning records with Sensible House, and religiously dancing to resident DJ and dance pioneer Larry Levan at Paradise Garage – the Manhattan car park venue he describes as "the best club I've ever seen" – he wouldn't rest until he'd opened something similar in London.
Ministry Of Sound print ad, 1990s
Ministry Of Sound print ad, 1990s

Building a dancefloor

"My obsession is finding the magic that makes a nightclub hum," says the 52-year-old, who has since opened Ministry venues in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. He saw the same in Michael Brody, who designed Paradise Garage. "He nailed what was necessary for a nightclub and designed the Garage as simply as possible, giving people what they need to stay there as long as possible so they love it and come back week after week."
The dancefloor is sacred turf – if they ever pull up that floor I want a piece of that
Justin Berkmann
Berkmann's principal idea – which drained funds so badly the club opened with only three lights and transparent plastic sheeting functioning as toilet doors – was The Box, Ministry's imposing main room with a speaker stack in each corner and a floor made from springy squash court material, used so the sound would vibrate into punters’ bodies. "That’s bone induction, we put double the padding. The dancefloor is the only thing in the club that's been there since day one. That's 25 years of glorious parties. That's sacred turf. If they ever pull up that floor I want a piece of it."
Ministry’s club bar, 2005
Ministry’s club bar, 2005
If only those boards could talk. Berkmann says there were plenty of well-known faces in attendance at Ministry, but the club's strict no-cameras policy, and the founder's insistence that everyone should be able to dance unhassled after seeing A-listers including Eddie Murphy and Grace Jones do so at Paradise Garage, meant that their anonymity was preserved. Diego Maradona, though, was unlucky. On his visit, word of his presence spread and suddenly he was bathed in a spotlight on the dancefloor. Berkmann, an avid fan of Napoli, one of the Argentine soccer legend's former clubs, regrets not being there, but says he's not surprised his hero made a swift exit.
Indeed, for Berkmann, Ministry has never been about famous faces. He started it with community and music in mind, and the club has been run with an anyone's-welcome policy that stretches from the mixed, multi-cultural crowd to an open-minded booking policy. "There was this group of New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Detroit DJs that I had as a shopping list. I was going through one-by-one and if they did a brilliant job they came back. People played whatever they wanted."

Finding an audience

During its first year, the club attracted an industry crowd, which was important for spreading the word (the internet had only been invented four weeks before Ministry opened), but was fickle by nature. After that, the hardcore descended. "It was the best crowd I've ever seen anywhere outside Naples," Berkmann says. A mid-'90s visit to party with Italian DJ Claudio Coccoluto changed his life – he was blown away by the positivity there and fell in love with the city where he would meet his wife.
It’s really important clubs retain their position as the birthplace of music. We’d be screwed without them
Justin Berkmann
If Berkmann's memories of the "oneness" on Ministry's dancefloor sound faintly hippyish now, it's because he successfully bottled the "goosebumps and tears" he experienced at Paradise Garage. "It happened when we had Larry over [to DJ] and 200 New Yorkers over for Frankie Knuckles' birthday," he says. In fact, the first moment Berkmann realised he'd achieved what he set out to was with Levan, who came over to DJ and ended up staying for three months.
"It was the second time he played and we were up in the VIP, and he said, 'This is incredible'. I think a tear came to the eye. It was the ultimate accolade."
Early Ministry advertising
Early Ministry advertising

Looking to the future

It's a touching memory, but it's tempting to see Ministry’s continued dominance of club culture as a greater prize. Berkmann doesn't just believe nightclubs are vitally important to emerging music and underground youth culture, he lives by it. It's no surprise to hear he rails against recent closures of London clubs like Dance Tunnel, and Fabric's temporary hiatus.
His insistence on the importance of simplicity, the soundsystem, the space and the crowd clarifies just why Ministry prevails – people need clubs like this one. "It's really important clubs retain their position as the birthplace of music," he insists. "We'd be screwed without them."
After our call, he'll head out for a day of 25th birthday celebration meetings, but Berkmann sounds frantic, hungry and far from ready to chill out with cake and a party bag. He talks with wide-eyed excitement about Ministry's introduction of Dolby's Atmos sound concept, which programs cinema-style soundscape experiences onto dance tracks, and hints that he's still on the lookout for his next grimy old building.
"For me it's a half-done job. Ministry was my first attempt – I'd like to do the full bells and whistles now."
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