As one of the world's original superclubs turns 20, Carol Driver looks at how it transformed from an underground venue into a global brand?.

When New York’s Paradise Garage closed in 1987, it left ?a gaping hole in what was then an adolescent world of clubbing. Up there with America’s Studio 54 and The Loft, the former parking garage catered for a different audience; rather than a white, middle-class scene, it had a mixed crowd, ran gay nights and was the first venue to put a DJ ?at the centre of attention.

It also didn’t sell alcohol – it was all about the house music. New York was a nightclub trendsetter; the scene was more advanced and there was nothing like Paradise Garage in the UK. Justin Berkmann was working as a DJ in the States at the time and saw the impact on the community when it closed.

“I saw the negative effect and how important it had been to people,” Berkmann explains. “I decided it was time to come home, and my dream was to build a club along the lines of that place.

“The same concept – based around lots of different rooms and different vibes; something that was open late, didn’t have alcohol and was basically a hub for everyone in the nightclub or service industry to go to after work.”

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It became Berkmann’s obsession to create a club with the sound and atmosphere he’d only ever experienced across the pond. After meeting two entrepreneurial “old Etonians”, James Palumbo and Humphrey Waterhouse, he sold them his dream, and they invested.

Within 21 months, the Ministry of Sound opened its doors in Elephant & Castle in September 1991 – 20 years ago next month.

“I realised we were on to something when, within a month, we had four times as many people queuing outside the club as we had inside it,” Berkmann explains.

“We were going for a bunch of unprecedented things. ?We were going for no alcohol and we were going for a music and dance licence which was twenty-four-seven, so we could run parties from and to any time we wanted.”

At the same time Paradise Garage was closing in America, the UK was embracing a music scene of its own – rave. During the “summers of love” in the late Eighties, thousands would dance the night away at free parties in warehouses or fields. Hand in hand with staying up all night came the increased popularity of ’club drugs’ – with ecstasy, speed and acid being the chemicals of choice.

But politicians began to crack down on these spontaneous parties; bylaws were passed by local councils who introduced fees for such events – spelling the end for what had become the illegal rave. For Berkmann, this movement was integral for the vibe he wanted in Ministry.

“Normal people of all classes and ages were going into fields and getting mashed up and listening to rave music,” he says. “House music was the last serious youth movement; like Mods and punk and rock ’n’ roll – and it was colossal and encompassed everyone. I look at [the scene] today and there’s nothing on the level of that. But there was no club that catered for that. So that’s what Ministry was brought in to cater to: without any restrictions.”

Superstar DJ David Morales agrees. He played at Ministry when it first opened as one of a handful of key players Berkmann brought in to recreate the US vibe.

He says: “It was an honour to play there; it had an incredible sound system. It was known for quality. You had the likes of Paul Oakenfold, Louie Vega, Danny Rampling, CJ Mackintosh, Frankie Knuckles … who were at that time representing what club music was.

“Berkmann came very close to the concept of Paradise Garage; there was no bar, you entered into the dancefloor and that room was for one thing; to listen to music and dance.” Very quickly, Ministry built itself into a global brand. Its sought-after DJs toured venues across the world – everyone wanted a piece of the action. Through its record label and compilation CDs and merchandising, it began to rake in money – selling more than 50 million albums to date.

Berkmann left in 1994, but Ministry kept growing – opening offices in Germany, Australia, the US, Egypt, Malaysia and Spain. It added international events, bars, electronics and fashion to its portfolio.

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The brand has been through rocky times, though – with profits going up and down over the years. In 2004, Ministry revealed it lost £15million during a disastrous expansion. It was also linked by controversy in 2006 when a court heard it had been marked by terrorists as a possible bombing target.

Today, the venue is fighting for its existence – with a planning application for a 41-storey residential development threatening the club’s entertainment licence.

An e-petition ( has gone global, with Ministry saying it ”refuses to sit idly by and let this happen” adding: ”If we lose Ministry, we are losing a vital piece of youth culture in this country.”

But according to both Berkmann and Morales, the times are a changing anyway. “Today people have a misconception of what a club should be. It was about the culture and the art of DJing; with the new generation, it’s not about that,” Morales says.

“It’s about people who want to hang out in VIP sections in cool clubs, not because they care about the music or the club, but because someone’s said it’s cool.”

And for Berkmann, it’s always been about his love of music – something that, for him, doesn’t get better with age.

“I find today’s music quite dark and quite boring. The Nineties were positive years and the music did have soul and did evoke serious emotional response. But that all changed in 2001, when the Twin Towers came down.”

But regardless of what the clubbing scene evolves into, Ministry is still very much a fundamental part of it. So is Berkmann proud?

“It’s a bit like having a kid who becomes really successful and well known. I’m proud it’s something that has grown into such a huge success,” he says. “I’m pleased I built something that’s so cool.”

Ministry of Sound will be celebrating its 20th anniversary with ?three events from Sept 16-18 (see below)  103 Gaunt St, SE1 6DP?  Elephant & Castle

Ministry: ?the gallery

Kicking off the celebrations with a main-room melange of trance heroes. Taking control of the Box will be resident Eddie Halliwell as well as Sean Tyas, Sied Van Riel and Jochen Miller. Danny Rampling and X-press 2 will give a helping hand in 103.
Friday, Sept 16


Saturday sessions

Nic Fanciulli, Dennis Ferrer and Matthias Tanzmann return to the Box. And Ministry residents Joe ?& Will are adding to the ?mix for the 103, playing alongside Burns and Da da Life. While DJ Mag will host the first Twenty Terrace in MoS's outdoor space.  
Saturday, Sept 17 


20 years of house music

Quite possibly the last time you will see CJ Mackintosh, Frankie Knuckles and David Morales play together. All three DJs will be in the same room for the first time in years. Farley & Heller plus Claudio Coccoluto have also been added to the bill.
Sunday, Sept 18 


Live & remastered

Way before the ?stuff of downloads, Ministry was pumping out tunes. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, it's taken the original recordings from club nights back in the day and digitally remastered them, offering you a slice of dance music history.  Released

Monday, 19 Sept