We asked our community what their three favourite record labels were and the response was amazing, we have compiled a list of the most popular as well as a few of our favourites for you to feast your eyes (and ears) on.
Few would argue that Motown created the blueprint for the thousands of dance-orientated independent labels that have followed in its wake in the last 60 years. So much of what they did became standard practice, starting with the pairing up of a business savvy music fan (Berry Gordy) and musical goliath (Smokey Robinson) to run the show With an in-house team of writers and producers working with a jaw-dropping stable of soulful singers, they balanced credibility with crossover appeal, ruling both dancefloors and charts through the 60s with acts such as the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Jackson 5.
In the late 60s producer Norman Whitfield captured the zeitgeist with a Motown twist, his more mature, album-orientated sound dubbed “psychedelic soul”; then as the 70s dawned, Gordy finally relented and gave full artistic control to two of his biggest selling artists in Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. He was rewarded with a string of classic albums that redefined soul music for the new decade. The label that had initially billed itself as “the Sound of Young America” successfully morphed into the sound of a slightly more mature, self-aware America. Whilst 1960-73 is viewed as the label’s golden era, it nurtured numerous notable acts well into the 80s, still balancing artistic credibility and commercial success. A crucial sub-text to the Motown story is the role it played in breaking down racial barriers. The political as well as cultural impact in this era of a black-owned label selling millions of records by black artists to a global audience of all ethnicities cannot be underestimated. This is perhaps best illustrated by Marvin Gaye’s classic social commentary album What’s Going On from 1971 …hence our audio pick:
For all its success with RnB in the 50s, rock in the 70s and pop in the 21st century, Atlantic as iconic label is all about its golden decade of 24 carat soul music. Through most of the 60s, Atlantic went toe to toe with Motown for the unofficial soul crown. Many of these tracks were actually release on the Stax label (with its famous fingerpoppin’ logo) due to a pressing and distribution deal; whilst soul artists signed direct to Atlantic often went to record in the Stax studio in Memphis. So…Otis Redding, signed to Stax, distributed by Atlantic; Wilson Pickett, signed to Atlantic, recorded at Stax. Glad we cleared that one up.
The Stax / Atlantic artists, whilst commercially successful, were generally seen as grittier than their Motown counterparts, and often appealed more to the soul purists. Central to the Stax sound was their in-house band, Booker T & the MGs of Green Onions fame. Not only were they dynamite musicians, they were also a multi-racial combo, unheard of at the time; pioneers who paved the way for Sly & the Family Stone and many more. A young Isaac Hayes also learned his craft as part of the Stax in-house recording and songwriting team. Shortly before Atlantic’s tie up with Stax came to an end, they signed Aretha Franklin. In an incredible spell in the late 60s, Aretha released a string of classics which earned her the epithet Queen of Soul. Whilst Atlantic in the 70s was a far broader church, we should note that it was the home of Chic, who like Aretha produced a stellar run of singles in a dizzyingly short time; whilst Atlantic offshoot Cotillion released the Chic-produced Sister Sledge.
Our song choice sees Aretha take an Otis-penned classic and turn it on its head…R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
What Detroit’s Motown was to the 60s, Philadelphia International Records was to the 70s. Learning from then building on the Motown model, PIR also enjoyed massive international success both critically and commercially. A quick look at the label discography and it’s not hard to see why: Love is the Message, TSOP, Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now, Me & Mrs Jones, Bad Luck, Backstabbers, Wake Up Everybody, When Will I See You Again, Love Train…that’s just the tip of a mighty musical iceberg.
Presided over by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, their in-house team of arrangers and musicians was known collectively as MFSB (Mother-Father-Sister-Brother), and included heavyweights like Thom Bell and Vince Montana. PIR also played a crucial role in the ongoing development of dance music, effectively a bridge between the soul that preceded it and the disco and house that were to follow. Yes there are some epic downtempo numbers in the canon, and many a funky gem – but it’s the lushly orchestrated uptempo dancers for which PIR is most famous. Though steeped in the smooth Philly Soul tradition, tracks such as Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes’ The Love I Lost were underpinned by a four to the floor beat (courtesy of drummer Earl Young) that arguably paved the way for disco then house. Small wonder that Philly classics, in both original and remixed form, are still heard on dancefloors worldwide every night of the year.
The name Salsoul, coined by one of their first artists Joe Bataan, was meant to summarise the mix of soul and salsa that he and others were championing in early 70s New York. However, the label was to become best known as the home of numerous disco classics, due in no small part to a classic music industry smash and grab. Philadelphia International’s Gamble & Huff (see above) were in dispute with a number of their crack MFSB team of musicians and arrangers, so Salsoul founders the Cayre brothers took advantage and contracted a number of the key players.
With the newly formed Salsoul Orchestra in place, the label embarked on a release schedule chock-full of bona fide club classics from the likes of Loleatta Holloway, First Choice, Double Exposure and Inner Life (featuring vocalists Jocelyn Brown and Leroy Burgess). More cult than crossover, Salsoul were better positioned than many to ride out the disco backlash, and as the 80s dawned were canny enough to edge back towards funk and soul with the likes of Instant Funk, Aurra and Skyy.
Salsoul closed its doors in 1985, but with accappellas of many of its finest moments readily available, gained a new lease of life when sample-hungry young house producers started to source them for their home made productions. Most famously, Black Box’s anthemic piano house smash Ride On Time plundered Loleatta Holloway’s Love Sensation to million-selling effect. Once the lawyers had done their bit, Holloway was able to capitalise and find a whole new audience; whilst Salsoul remained happy to clear samples for an appropriate deal. From the 90s onwards, the Salsoul catalogue has been remixed many times over. Inevitably the results have been mixed, but the superior mixes have kept these great songs alive on contemporary dancefloors.
Prelude/ West End
Like twin peaks towering over the disco scene, Prelude and West End were pivotal labels in the evolution of dance music. Both New York-based independents started in 1976, each one founded (coincidentally) by experienced record company executives who had served time at soul mainstay Scepter. Prelude’s Marvin Schlachter was very much a stay in the background guy; by contrast West End’s Mel Cheren was a very visible scene face, closely involved in the Paradise Garage. Both were perfectly positioned to nurture NYC’s then underground disco movement – the independents as ever several steps ahead of the majors. Both hit big in the 70s with the likes of the Patrick Adams produced Musique project on Prelude (In The Bush, Keep On Jumping); and Karen Young’s Hot Shot on West End.
Crucially, however, both also survived and thrived long after the majors, seeing disco as a fad, had moved on to misunderstand another genre. So whilst to the uninitiated disco died with the 70s, a look at the West End and Prelude catalogues reveals a plethora of still revered early 80s classics. Right here we find the roots of house and garage, with now ‘seasoned studio veterans’ like Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons afforded the opportunity to continue to weave their magic into the 80s; and DJs like Larry Levan and Francois Kevorkian inextricably entwined with the labels, crafting mixes designed to work on their dancefloors.
From West End our pick is a track that epitomises the out there nature of the Paradise Garage and disco going back underground in the new decade – Larry Levan’s take on Loose Joints’ Is It All Over My Face, an early Arthur Russell project (see Sleeping Bag below). From Prelude, we’ve gone for the classic proto-garage of D Train’s You’re The One For Me.
In 70s New York, the seeds of the global phenomenon that is hip hop were being sown, with the four genre-defining elements all coming together at block parties and open air jams: MCing / DJing / breakdancing / graffiti. It was the foresight of soul singer Sylvia Robinson (best known for her breathy hit Pillow Talk) that saw the sound of the parties committed to wax, as she founded Sugarhill Records, and persuaded rappers Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee to enter a studio and freestyle over Chic’s Good Times. The resultant Rappers Delight, released as the Sugarhill Gang, took everyone by surprise when it became a major worldwide hit in 1979.
However, it took a while for the genre to adapt from the live environment to that of the recording studio. Sugarhill mixed rap releases by the likes of Treacherous Three, Crash Street Mob and Funky Four + 1 with more mainstream material from Viola Wills and Candi Staton. Vitally, however, they got prominent Bronx DJ Grandmaster Flash into the studio. It was Flash and rappers the Furious Five who would strike the next big commercial blow for hip hop (and Sugrahill) with 1982’s The Message. Musically on point and with social commentary lyrics that took rap beyond the world of boasting and partying, it set a new blueprint for the genre.
Message rapper Melle Mel followed up in 1983 with the equally iconic White Lines (misleadingly promoted at the time with ‘Grandmaster’ as part of the act name to give the impression Flash was involved). Despite international success for White Lines, Sugarhill began to be overtaken by newer, younger labels…as the hip hop sound quickly evolved, Sugarhill became stuck with the tag of ’old school’. The label closed in 1986, but its place in history was assured.
Formed in 1981 by Tom Silverman, the man behind tipsheet Dance Music Report, Tommy Boy sat alongside Sugarhill in terms of commitment to getting the nascent rap scene onto vinyl. However, they took a different tack. Silverman zeroed in on Afrika Bambaataa, a DJ initially inspired by Flash and Kool Herc who had formed the Universal Zulu Nation, designed to get kids out of gangs and spreading positive messages via hip hop. Noting Bambaataa’s love of European electronic music, most notably Kraftwerk, Tommy Boy teamed Bam with hotshot new producer Arthur Baker and keyboard player John Robie. This collaboration led to the groundbreaking Planet Rock release as Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force. Two further releases, Looking For The Perfect Beat and Renegades of Funk, further cemented the blueprint of the electro funk sound (later shortened to electro, and not only a crucial strand of hip hop’s early years, but a major influence on future techno producers).
Unlike Sugarhill, Tommy Boy was more attuned to the new wave of young hip hop acts coming through in the mid-80s, and thus remained a major player for the rest of the decade, courtesy of the likes of Stetsasonic, Queen Latifah, and perhaps most notably De La Soul, whose game-changing 3 Feet High and Rising dropped in 1989. Tommy Boy has continued to run in various guises ever since, but this was undoubtedly its iconic era. Sadly more recent headlines have centered on historic claims of sex abuse levelled against Bambaataa in 2016; and this year, De La Soul getting into a very public battle with the label over streaming royalties.
Most of the labels in this list, however much some of them tried to diversify, are inextricably linked with a specific genre or sound. Not so Sleeping Bag. Formed in 1981, Sleeping Bag was, in the very best way possible, all over the shop – a vivid musical snapshot of its hometown of New York in the 80s, a fantastically inventive and genre-mashing period.
Started up by Will Socolov initially as an outlet for the leftfield brilliance of his friend Arthur Russell, it wasn’t long before other NYC experimentalists were knocking on SB’s door (no doubt to Socolov’s relief given Russell’s famed struggles to complete projects). One of Socolov’s finds was an electro wonderkid called Kurtis Mantronik. Not only did he produce a raft of electro classics with rapper MC Tee under the Mantronix moniker, but he also added his producer’s gold dust to vocalist Joyce Sims, with whom Sleeping Bag enjoyed international hits such as All’n’All and Come Into My Life.
If the work of Russell and Mantronik book-ended the Sleeping Bag era (Mantronik also helmed sub-label Fresh, home to many early hip hop gems, including the mighty EPMD), housed inbetween is a discography of rare breadth. This includes the proto-house stylings of Kariya’s Let Me Love You For Tonight and Dhar Braxton’s Jump Back; whilst the presence of Dinosaur L (aka Russell)’s Go Bang and Class Action’s Weekend on the catalogue made Sleeping Bag / Fresh an obvious home for a young Todd Terry, as he re-worked both under his Todd Terry Project moniker.
We are not here to discuss the 21st century version of Def Jam, associated with many a platinum act through now being a cog in the corporate music machine. Let’s talk about the 80s, when snarling independent hip hop label Def Jam took the world by storm. Russell Simmons was already a major player in hip hop, managing his brother Joseph’s increasingly successful band Run DMC amongst others. He fell in love with an independent release by Jazzy Jay and T La Rock, It’s Yours. Jay introduced Simmons to the track’s producer – to his great surprise, a white 21 year old long haired rocker called Rick Rubin.
The pair hit it off, and Simmons agreed to come on board with the fledgling label Rubin had named, with brilliant of the moment simplicity, Def Jam. Rubin brought along his pet project Beastie Boys, and they also picked up on a demo by an aspiring young rapper going by the moniker LL Cool J. Simmons and Rubin had a shared love of super tough beats, whilst Run DMC had already begun to experiment with a rock guitar sound that Rubin was perfectly positioned to fine tune. The pair co-produced Run DMC’s seminal Raising Hell album (Walk This Way, My Adidas, Peter Piper, It’s Tricky), and despite the band being signed to Profile, used the management / production link to co-opt Run DMC into headlining Def Jam tours with the Beasties and LL Cool J. Both acts kicked off big time and Def Jam had arrived.
Then came Public Enemy. Adding political polemic and brutal sonic soundscapes to the Def Jam brew, not to mention adding a focus on image, attitude and band personalities / roles far more commonplace in rock music, PE exploded worldwide. From 1985-1990, Def Jam ruled.
Militant. Radical. Political. Uncompromising. These are all words that crop up with regularity when Underground Resistance is being discussed. Dig a little deeper, and another twist emerges. Futuristic. Galaxy. Mystic. Quadrasonic. Add in the fact that one of the label’s co-founders was Jeff Mills, shortly to be joined by Robert Hood, and you can start to piece it together…so this is clearly a techno label, with the imagery of Funkadelic and the attitude of Public Enemy, right? Well yes…but only to a point…because UR (as it is universally known) goes beyond that.
The key UR word is collective. Members come and go (as Mills and Hood did), but UR supremo and co-founder ‘Mad Mike’ Banks remains as the label reaches its 30thanniversary, guiding the mothership.It’s hard to do justice to the full scope of what UR aims to represent in a few hundred words, but we can give you some pointers. UR is steeped in the musical history of Detroit, not just techno, or Motown, but beyond that to jazz, blues and gospel. It is about self-empowerment (techno as an escape from negativity); and collective empowerment (eg. the label has always controlled its own distribution). Anti-corporate. Anti-bling.
These principles are hardwired into the DNA of all in the UR collective. They live the manifesto that is central to the label’s minimalist website: “…a movement that wants change by sonic revolution…music for the future of the human race. Without this music there will be no peace, no love, no vision.” Of course all this wouldn’t have come to much if the music wasn’t on the money. It has been, inspiringly so, for three decades. Our pick is an early release (UR003) produced by Mad Mike himself:
Trax / DJ International
DJ International and Trax were responsible for that mesmerising first wave of house releases. We’re mining rich seams here. Larry Sherman (Trax) ran a vinyl pressing plant. When the city’s house producers ordered pressings of 500, and within hours were re-ordering a further 1,000, he glimpsed an opportunity. Rocky Jones (DJI) was involved in a record pool. He picked up on some early 12”s, and got laughed out of major label offices. He was convinced this new sound had potential. So far so romantic. Dig a little deeper… suffice it to say that Sherman and Jones are not lauded in the same way in Chicago as Gordy or Banks in Detroit.
Three cautionary tales…
- Hey Rocky, an early Trax release, contained samples from cartoon Rocky & Bullwinkle, including “has Rocky got something up his sleeve”, and “a mean little man.” It was seen in Chicago as a dig at the rival label’s boss.
- The House Sound of Chicago album on London Records is widely credited as helping to break house in the UK. The artwork / credits clearly imply every track was owned by / licensed from DJ International. Trax is nowhere to be seen, yet there’s Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem) by sometime Trax A&R man Marshall Jefferson – TX117.
- Shortly after Frankie Knuckles’ untimely passing in 2014, an online campaign to get Your Love to number one quickly met with opposition from fans pointing out Frankie had severed all Trax ties due to ongoing royalty disputes. Keeper of the Trax flame Screamin’ Rachael felt compelled to put out an impassioned statement promising to donate her “share of monies collected” to his estate and/or charity…but notably stated “I can only speak for myself”.
We will always have the music – here are two of the best:
Gilles Peterson is more relevant than ever because he is forever championing new music, whilst helping the listener join the dots, to place each tune in a wider context, like few others can. He is the closest the club scene has produced to his erstwhile BBC colleague John Peel: mavericks on a lifelong mission. As record label kingpin, there are three main chapters.
Chapter one, Acid Jazz, bravely tried to position the music he loved in the dance music maelstrom of the late 80s. Some notable successes, but much frustration, often due to the label’s tongue in cheek name being misinterpreted. Chapter three is Brownswood, where the 21stcentury Peterson can, in the best sense of the word, indulge – having not only gained the right to do so from a tastemaking standpoint, but also the knowledge to make it viable. In the middle…Talkin’ Loud. Arguably the highest profile of the three, due in no small part to it being part of the heavyweight Universal / Polygram machine. They would shout about Talkin’ Loud, because that’s what majors do…yet you always sensed that frankly, they just didn’t get it.
In interviews, Peterson has referenced his frustrations at trying to operate in that world…but take a step back and look at the music he managed to get out there. Jazz was merely first base for Talkin’ Loud, though that genre’s lust for improvisation was undoubtedly a driving force. London jazz sceners like Galliano and the Young Disciples rubbed shoulders with Bristol drum’n’bass don Roni Size’s Mercury Prize winning Reprazent project and MAW’s NuYorican Soul. Inspired. Oh, and the artwork was superb, and the promotional 70s style tracksuit tops the best piece of record label merchandise ever.
Roger Sanchez, Todd Terry, Kenny Dope, Barbara Tucker, Josh Wink, Armand Van Helden, DJ Pierre, Louie Vega, David Morales, Erick Morillo, Ultra Nate, DJ Sneak, Kerri Chandler… Love and Happiness, Higher State of Consciousness, (Who?) Keeps Changing Your Mind, Generate Power, I Get Lifted, Witch Doktor, Luv Dancin’, King of My Castle, Deep Inside, The Warning… As a rule we’ve looked to avoid simply listing artists and tracks in this round up. However when it comes to Strictly, such is the who’s who of house legends who have recorded for it, listing them (and some of their classic tracks, both crossover smashes and underground anthems) seemed the best way to demonstrate the depth, variety and importance of their huge catalogue.
Strictly was founded in 1989 by businessman Mark Finkelstein and A&R Gladys Pizarro, just as there began to be a noticeable power shift from Chicago to New York as house music’s nerve centre. Through the 90s, the Strictly releases just kept on coming…loads of them, every week, a house music juggernaut, with pretty much every sub-genre covered and mastered. Leading lights on the scene kept coming back to the label; up’n’coming new producers aspired to be on it. A dream position for any A&R.
There were other seminal 90s NYC house labels who all had great tracks and times when they led the pack – Nu-Groove, Emotive, King Street, Nervous amongst them. However few, if any, would deny Strictly the 90s house crown. The label is still active, releasing new material rather relying solely on recycling its heyday…and the strikingly simple graffiti logo lives on. Our pick isn’t one of those listed above, but is an undoubted classic…licensed in the UK by Cooltempo, it was one of the first tracks signed by an eager young A&R man called Simon Dunmore…
There is house music that is sleek, shiny and sexy. And there is house music that is dark, dirty and dangerous. If you name your labels ‘Twisted’ and ‘Tribal’, you’re laying your cards face up as to which camp you’re in. Tribal was a classic case of right time, right place, right people. Central to the piece is Danny Tenaglia. In the mid 90s, following a spell in Miami, Danny was firmly ensconced back in NYC. Often dubbed “the DJs’ DJ”, he was now very much the people’s choice too.
His production career was blossoming, after finding a spiritual home at Tribal with his mix of The Daou’s Surrender Yourself, and his own storming Bottom Heavy. Both tracks found favour with a wide range of DJS, the Tribal sound arguably bridging the gap between the funkier US and progressive European styles of the moment. If there was one other DJ in New York at this time who could match Tenaglia for popularity and hype, it was undoubtedly veteran maverick Junior Vasquez, famed for his marathon sets at the Sound Factory / Twilo. Vasquez also jumped on board the Tribal train, with his Get Your Hands Off My Man an instant NYC classic. Tribal also had a successful UK imprint, which as well as simultaneously releasing all the US productions sourced homegrown tracks from the likes of Salt City Orchestra.
When label boss Rob Di Stefano left parent company IRS, Tribal closed, but very quickly the same team and artist roster reappeared as Twisted. If anything, the quality control was upped even further. Whilst Tenaglia and Vasquez were in many ways the DJ face of Tribal / Twisted, a bunch of exceptionally talented producers were also inextricably linked to the labels’ sound and success. “Elements – that’s what it’s all about”.
If truth be told, most labels stumble into being. Some remain wayward (though still often brilliant), some slowly but surely come up with something resembling a plan or strategy. However, there are exceptions. Labels where you can instantly see a thought process, common strands…dare we say it, a philosophy. Hospital occupies just such a position in the drum ‘n’ bass world. Details matter…be that a thread of continuity running through label branding (a sub label called Med School; an events arm dubbed Hospitality)…tasteful artwork…merchandise you actually want to wear. All these things make artists want to work with you; and help fans identify with and buy into what you are trying to do.
Launched by London Elektricity’s Tony Colman and co-founder Chris Goss in 1996, Hospital has eschewed fads and fashions, and stuck rigidly to helping drum’n’bass develop in myriad directions. A track like Hugh Hardie’s Emerald City is melodic and uplifting, yet laid over the crispest beats; Krakota’s North Winds is pummelling you in the chest one moment, yet has you grinning ear to ear the next; London Elektricity’s Phase Us is arguably modern soul music.