Voices of Plastic People are raised in protest as iconic club faces closure

The dancefloor is tiny, grimy and pitch-black. The sound system, though, is perhaps the finest in any British nightclub, and it played the opening strains of the now internationally acclaimed "dubstep" music genre – a sort of 21st-century reggae that grew out of boys' suburban bedrooms.

The decks at the iconic underground venue Plastic People, in east London, may stop spinning within months as the unassuming club, a piece of UK musical heritage, is shut down after 16 years of dancing.

In a somewhat trendy protest, thousands of people have joined a campaign against its closure – more than 13,500 in less than a week – which is being brought by the police and Hackney Council on the grounds of "prevention of public nuisance and of crime and disorder" .

The police have explained that they found traces of cocaine in the toilets during a recent undercover raid – not a huge surprise in a British pub or nightclub these days – and that it is too noisy. The 250-person venue's licence may be revoked at a meeting in four weeks.

Plastic People does not have a reputation for excessive rowdiness – certainly not in relation to some of its neighbouring venues – nor as a mecca for enthusiastic drug consumption. Quite the opposite, in fact, as many of the clientele attend for the music. The bar is certainly nothing to write home about.

The Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson described Plastic People as "the best little club in the UK", adding: "These places are crucial to the wellbeing of our cutting-edge club culture." Craig Torrance, the editor of clubs and live music for Mixmag magazine, visited Plastic People two weeks ago and said there was little evidence of drug abuse.

"It has never been renowned as being a particularly druggy night," he said. "In fact, last time I visited they had put oil on the toilet surfaces to stop anyone snorting cocaine off them, so clearly they are trying to meet their licensing obligations."

The record producer and DJ Duke Etienne described the criticisms of Plastic People as "flimsy and outright ridiculous", adding: "Surrounded by venues spewing out drunken, drug-addled punters, Plastic is an oasis... the only club in the area where people come for one reason only: the music."

Plastic People's legacy, apart from the hazy memories of thousands of revellers, is dubstep, bass-heavy underground music ideally suited to smaller venues, which which has crossed the Atlantic and been adopted by US artists such as Eve and by Columbia Records.

The threat to the venue has reinforced a sense among local fans that east London's eclectic cultural life is being "cleaned up" in advance of the 2012 Olympic games.

London's clubbing scene has lost major venues in recent years because of zealous licence officials and large-scale building developments such as Crossrail. In the past four years alone, The End, Studio 54, The Cross, The Key, Turnmills and The Astoria have disappeared off the clubbing map.

Other European cities, Berlin among them, are trying to nudge the British capital off the pedestal of global clubbing.

And in an unfortunate coincidence, London's world-famous Ministry of Sound, which sits at the less intimate end of the dance experience, also faces an uncertain future: a huge upmarket property development is underway across the road, with the local council expected to side with future residents against any late-night thudding.

Plastic People manager Bernard Koudjo said that he still sought a compromise, adding: "This does not mean that all hope is lost."

Additional reporting by Zainab Jama

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