The brainchild of DJ Justin Berkmann, the Ministry of Sound was inspired by New York’s Paradise Garage, a gay club that Justin maintains is the best nightclub he’s ever visited. “It was just perfect. It was designed by a psychiatrist who studied what elements were necessary in a nightclub and built it accordingly,” he says.
“I went there for a year and a half and it was only after it closed that I realised how powerful it was,” he continues. After a stint living in New York Justin moved back to London in 1988 and immersed him in the local rave scene (Back to Phuture, Apocalypse Now, Sunrise Parties), quickly noticing the gap in the market for a Paradise Garage style club tweaked to the London dance scene.
Along with his co-founders James Palumbo, Humphrey Waterhouse, Justin set out to create a nightclub that was “based around the dancer and the music rather than selling big bottles of champagne and building a club around the ego of the owner.” The sound was always the main priority; for the first three years they sacrificed a liquor license to ensure a 24-hour music and dance license. Originally the Ministry concept was a loud main room and no sound system in the bar. “We had a big black room with massive sound system and then we would create different sets for the first two years, which is what Studio 54 also did,” he explains.
The club has become a lot “slicker” over its two decades of evolution, Justin says. “Originally the door people weren’t nice -at our club or anywhere in London. They were horrible, arrogant bruisers. But now they’re really nice and it’s a very slick operation,” he says.
As resident DJ for four years Justin played every Saturday night, something he describes as “every DJ’s dream and nightmare.” “It’s an unforgiving sound system and room if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he explains. “I always used to tell people that whatever you do don’t go up to ten because it will probably kill everyone in the room.”
As the first club to bring in New York DJs every week, having DJ Larry Levan play was the icing on the cake for Justin. “In the beginning all the nights were momentous; some I can’t remember and some I’d probably be sued for repeating,” he recalls.
“We wanted to stay open until midday, which we regularly did. Every night was a mad night; we had real celebrities, politicians, princes, but we had a policy of treating everyone the same. Cameras were banned and that anonymity was something people loved; everyone was there for the music.”
With an office staff of at least 100 people, the Ministry has become a historical institution on London’s landscape. The club has recently come under threat as plans for new residential blocks across the road could see it closed down, something Justin says “would be like closing Buckingham Palace.” “I don’t think it’s morally correct. When Ministry moved into Elephant and Castle it was a no-go area, it was dodgy and unsafe and a quick drive through place on your way to France or Dover. Now 20 years later we’ve been partly responsible for improving the area and it just seems a bit ungrateful.”
“We spent an arm and a leg building the box so that inside you had incredible sound and outside you had no noise at all,” he says. While almost every part of the club has changed over the years the starting point: the iconic dancefloor, built on a squash court with thick layers of rubber to prevent fatigue while dancing, has remained the same. “The dancefloor is just this sacred thing; it’s ironic that after all these years it’s the one thing that’s still there.”