The list was dominated by American imprints – understandably given that the USA Is the birthplace of house, disco, soul, funk, techno, hip hop and more. It also focussed almost exclusively on labels that are primarily associated with the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
In this sequel, we branch out, focusing on seminal labels which both carried the torch and continually pushed boundaries through the 1990s and into the 21stcentury. Our journey starts in the UK, crosses the channel to mainland Europe, and winds up back in the US of A.
What comes to mind when you hear the words Warp Records? For some, it will be that glorious opening salvo of 1989-90 releases by the likes of LFO, Sweet Exorcist and Nightmares On Wax, all housed in the distinctive purple sleeve. An urgent, new bleep-based sound catapulting Sheffield to centre stage in the still young electronic music world.
For others, it may be the pioneering series of albums released in the 1990s under the Artificial Intelligence banner, “electronic listening music” that looked beyond the dancefloor, and helped establish artists such as Autechre, Black Dog, Richie Hawtin (here in his F.U.S.E guise), and Aphex Twin (as Polygon Window).
It could be another defining electronic act, Scotland’s Boards Of Canada. In stark contrast, others will have been introduced to the world of Warp by ‘00s Mercury Prize-nominated alternative rockers Maximo Park. Add in artists as diverse as Flying Lotus and Grizzly Bear, and it becomes clear there is no ‘Warp sound’. If there are common strands, they can be found in the quality and invention invariably on offer.
Warp recently celebrated their 30thanniversary with a weekend takeover of NTS radio, with 100 hours of broadcasting from a who’s who of the label’s inimitable roster. This followed on from the six CD 10thbirthday Influences, Classics, Remixes set in 1999; and the mighty Warp20 box set in 2009.
And that’s just the music. Warp quickly became about so much more – the videos, from a young Jarvis Cocker and award-winner Chris Cunningham; the distinctive artwork created by fellow Sheffield mavericks The Designers Republic; the launch of Warp films, followed by the Bleep online music store.
To this day, Warp remains as steadfastly independent as it was when Steve Beckett and Rob Mitchell launched it from Sheffield’s FON record store in 1989 alongside producer Rob Gordon. Still, as warp.net tells it, “a synonym for adventures in sound and vision”; or if you prefer their twitter bio definition, “the home of visionary post-genre music.”
Like Warp, XL Recordings launched in 1989, as an add on to Citybeat, the label arm for Groove Records in Soho, long time essential port of call for London’s DJs and import-hungry fraternity. Both label and shop were part of one of the UK’s most successful independent operations, Beggars Banquet. Though mostly associated with rock, Beggars had launched the career of electronic superstar Gary Numan; and had clubland form via homegrown dance act Freeez (Southern Freeze, IOU).
So when a young A&R man called Nick Halkes persuaded Beggars to set up XL to release tracks that were making a noise on the rave scene, it was very much viewed as the kid brother. XL initially licensed in cult US and European artists. The sea change began in 1990, as increasingly they began to sign original material. A then unknown Brighton producer called Dave Clarke released as Hardcore; in 1991, rave DJs Slipmatt & Lime (as SL2) came on board; and a young lad who had dubbed himself The Prodigy chipped in with Charly and Everybody In The Place. These tracks encapsulated the new UK breakbeat-led sound; and with XL also the UK home of Belgian rave anthems Anasthasia by T99 and Cubic 22’s Night In Motion, the label became firmly established as rave central. Kid brother no more.
It was with the 1994 release of an album, The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation, that XL moved onto another level; 1997’s The Fat of the Land, moved both band and label into a different stratosphere. By this stage Halkes had moved on to manage the hugely successful Positiva label, and his former number two Richard Russell had taken over the reins. He remains in situ in 2019, albeit it more as producer than A&R man, and is part of a very different label – a 21stcentury independent that can boast the likes of Adele and Radiohead on the roster; but which also remains perfectly positioned to help acts with a healthy dose of dance music in their DNA, such as The xx and Jungle, reach a wider audience. All owe a huge debt to a Soho record store and a bunch of Essex ravers.
Junior Boy’s Own
First came the Boy’s Own fanzine. Sharp and irreverent, it soon found itself right at the beating heart of the acid house scene. Then the parties – as everyone else went big, Boy’s Own went small – intimate, word of mouth, very much notraves. Then came the label – mark one. Funded by major London Records, there were some great tracks – the ethereal chill out of One Dove’s Fallen, the Balearic sound put through an M4 filter of Bocca Juniors’ Raise, the classic house stylings of DSK’s What Would We Do. However, the London machine clearly didn’t know quite what to do with Boy’s Own.
The two parted company, and the independent Junior Boy’s Own was born. Whilst older and wiser from their experiences, the JBO crew still very much had their collective fingers on clubland’s pulse. Andrew Weatherall brought a cassette into the office of the debut track by a couple of Home Counties boys who were studying in Manchester and had collared him at a gig there. They called themselves the Dust Brothers, but once the west coast hip hop producers of the same name heard about Song To The Siren, they demanded a name change. With the next single being called, Chemical Beats, a new name, the Chemical Brothers, was swiftly adopted. Similarly, label manager Steven Hall had befriended London DJ Darren Emerson, who told him how he was working with a band called Underworld.
Being first base for either the Chemical Brothers or Underworld would have been enough for any label to achieve cult status – but JBO took it even further. More than any other UK label, they also released purist house music on a par with anything coming out of its American homeland. Terry Farley and Pete Heller as Heller & Farley Project, Roach Motel and Fire Island; Ashley Beedle as Black Science Orchestra; Rocky & Diesel, with Beedle also in tow, as X-Press 2. It’s a stunning catalogue – and whereas the 12 issues of the fanzine, these days available packaged together as a hardback coffee table book, are very much a period piece, the music is timeless. To paraphrase an infamous regular feature in the fanzine: all uppers, no downers.
Passion, integrity, honesty, vision – these are the words that come up time and again when discussing the success and longevity of Soma Quality Recordings. It is the same ethos that has served internationally acclaimed DJ duo and Soma co-founders Slam (Orde Meikle and Stuart McMillan) so well. Stuart and Orde founded Soma in 1991 with their manager Dave Clarke and studio collaborators Jim Muotune and Glenn Gibbons. In 2019, all bar Jim are still running the show.
Both Slam and Soma are inextricably woven into the very fabric of electronic music in Scotland, their parties circled months in advance on clubbers’ calendars, and the label’s releases all eagerly anticipated as year on year more techno rabbits are pulled out of hats. Yet this is as far as can be from a parochial set up, as Soma & Slam both marry this dedication to their homeland with an enviable, hard-earned international reputation.
Soma has always been about providing an antidote to the mainstream; and looking forward. A prime example of this was their 25thanniversary box set – no exhuming of old favourites or token remixes here, instead Soma called on friends, collaborators and kindred spirits old and new to give them brand new material. Of course, it helped that the names on the invite list included the likes of Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Josh Wink, Andrew Weatherall and Daft Punk.
Famously, Daft Punk’s early releases landed on Soma, a reflection of both the label’s on point A&R, and the aforementioned international reputation they had already carved out just a few short years into their existence. Da Funk is one of two stone cold mid-1990s classics that bestride the Soma catalogue like dancefloor colossi, the other being Slam’s Positive Education. However, if your familiarity with the Soma catalogue goes little further than this, treats galore await if you dig deeper. The back catalogue is stuffed to the gills with quality house and techno from the likes of Funk D’void, the Black Dog, Silicone Soul and H-Foundation; whilst highlights of the more recent crop include fellow Glaswegians Harvey McKay, Petrichor and Gary Beck alongside a raft of international producers.
Ninja Tune / Mo Wax
A thrilling sense of freedom prevailed in the period immediately after acid house – an environment in which all manner of artists and labels could thrive. In some cases, those who actively wanted to offer an alternative to the increasing ubiquity of house music in clubland were beneficiaries. Coldcut were a case in point. The London duo had come up through the capital’s hip hop and rare groove scenes, and actually championed early house tracks. Their UK take on the sound saw them hit the charts twice in quick succession – with People Hold On featuring Lisa Stansfield; and The Only Way Is Up, with Yazz.
However, they quickly decided the world of Top of the Pops and Smash Hits magazine wasn’t for them, likewise life on a major label. Inspired by a trip to Japan, they set up Ninja Tune on their return, and began releasing more experimental music under pseudonyms. Other maverick producers were attracted to what Ninja was doing, and a fully-fledged label was born. When pressed, the duo will admit that hip hop is at the root of much of what Ninja does, but ultimately the label’s eclecticism is its calling card. From Bonobo via Mr Scruff to Bicep, much like Warp, Ninja Tune has become a hugely influential international set up, strictly on their own terms.
One label the media fleetingly tried to pin on Ninja Tune was trip hop, the term first coined by Mixmag journalist Andy Pemberton to describe the wave of hip hop influenced downtempo electronica. DJ Shadow, the artist whose single Pemberton was reviewing, led the Mo’Wax charge, with a non-conformist bunch including La Funk Mob, Rob Dougan, DJ Krush and UNKLE (label boss James Lavelle’s project with Shadow) also in the vanguard. For a decade of Mo’Wax , the geeks did inherit the earth.
Loaded was a respected Brighton-based house label. King of the pseudonyms and fellow Brightonian Norman Cook had found a home there for his Pizzaman project. When Loaded staffer Damian Harris suggested a sub-label for more leftfield, breaks’n’beats based tunes, label bosses Tim Jeffrey and JC Reid agreed to back the idea, but the trio jokingly dubbed the label Skint (UK slang for penniless, thus the opposite of Loaded). Meanwhile Cook had taken inspiration from the Chemical Brothers, and had come up with yet another alias for his ‘big beat’ project – Fatboy Slim. His Santa Cruz track was Skint 001; and in next to no time, a roster of like-minded beat merchants had come together, amongst them Bentley Rhythm Ace, Cut La Roc, Lo Fidelity All Stars and label boss Harris’s own Midfield General.
The Fatboy Slim success story is well documented, but what was crucial to Skint was that Cook, a veteran of deals with numerous labels both major and independent, had no interest in a transfer to the highest bidder. He stayed with his mates, and this enabled the label to grow with him. They surrounded themselves with a crack team they could trust to look after both the Fatboy Slim project and the label – and used their new found position of strength to offer album deals to artists who trusted not only Skint’s A&R instincts, but also their ability to deliver results. So it was that the second half of the Skint story saw techno don and fellow Brighton resident Dave Clarke, an artist with a finely tuned music industry bullshit detector, sign to the label. He was followed by house heroes X-Press 2, who entrusted their Muzikizum album to the label, and were rewarded with a global hit, Lazy, featuring lyrics and vocals from David Byrne.
Harris, refreshed after a 10 year hiatus from the music industry, has recently been enticed back by BMG, who now own the Skint catalogue, and new music is promised. Watch this space.
At the recent Paris Fashion Week, leading Belgian designer Raf Simons showcased his SpringSummer20 collection. One model strode down the catwalk in a signature Simons blazer – and beneath it was an oversized t shirt emblazoned with an enormous R&S Records logo. The Ferrari-inspired prancing horse has been an iconic image to lovers of cutting edge electronic music, from new beat to techno, for some 30 years, and this was Simons’ way of showing respect to his fellow Belgians Renaat Vandepapeliere & Sabine Maes (R&S).
Belgium has a proud history of electronic music, and in the late 1980s its new beat sound briefly threatened to go global. Ultimately, whilst it may have found itself unable to compete with techno and house, Belgian producers and labels were well positioned to adapt their sound to the international market. R&S had already had a taste of success beyond their own borders when Code 61’s Drop The Deal became an anthem on the Balearic scene; and one of their acts Space Opera, responsible for the Gil Scott-Heron-sampling new beat cut Mandate My Ass, quickly upped the BPMs for techno hit Space 3001, which R&S licensed on to XL. This was the start of an unparalleled run of internationally successful rave anthems which included CJ Bolland’s Rave Signal, Joey Beltram’s Energy Flash, Vamp by Outlander, and Human Resource’s inescapable Dominator.
The label sound expanded and diversified as they released the proto-trance classic Stella by German duo Jam & Spoon; and Dutch producer Jaydee’s genre-straddling Plastic Dreams, which appealed to rave, trance, techno and house fans in equal measure. R&S also licensed in wisely, securing local rights for acts such as Aphex Twin from the UK, and Ramirez from Italy; and signed material direct from Detroit artists such as Juan Atkins’ Model 500 and Kenny Larkin. The strength of the catalogue helped make their In Order To Dance compilation series an essential snapshot of the electronic scene. The label still runs to this day.
Italy had enjoyed a love affair with both soul and disco for many years, and was thus ripe to become a house nation. Crucially, with its own offspring Italo disco having boomed through the 1980s, it also had the infrastructure in place to make things happen quickly. Discomagic had been established as a distributor for several years, but soon had competition from new kids on the block Flying. Many of the Italo house labels springing up were backed by one of the two; almost all relied on them for distribution, including those vital export sales.
Flying’s own label quickly began to release Italian produced tracks, ranging from the sub-Belgian stylings of Digital Boy to Funk Machine’s innovative sampling of US punk icon Jello Biafra’s A Message From Our Sponsors. Then in 1991, in order to differentiate their more specialist releases, they launched Underground Music Movement – with its instantly distinctive block capitals UMM logo, it not only became an Italian home for the likes of Underground Resistance, but also for more cutting edge domestic productions. The music operation was soon backed up by a merchandise arm, with UMM t shirts, especially the long-sleeved version, becoming hugely popular.
In 1993-1995 UMM hit a winning streak. Alex Party’s Saturday Night Party (aka Read My Lips) became a crossover hit. At the opposite end of the scale was Visnadi’s brooding, leftfield Racing Tracks, remixed by Richie Hawtin (and more recently re-edited by Maceo Plex). What wasn’t widely known at the time is that Visnadi was also behind Alex Party. By contrast, another UMM production team, Fathers of Sound, developed and rigidly stuck to a distinctive style, one that saw them have a foot in both the house and progressive camps – to the extent that they were the first DJs after Sasha & Digweed to be invited to compile for Renaissance’s Mix Collection series. Their lead mix on Blast’s Crayzy man was a surprise hit; vocal cut Love Me Tonight, released under the artist name Anthony White, was not only a club hit, but also provided the inspiration for Shapeshifters’ later smash Lola’s Theme.
Roule / Virgin France
Cassius, Motorbass, Stardust, Modjo, Supermen Lovers, Together – from the mid-1990s and into the new century, French house was unavoidable, successful and uplifting in equal measures. Those listed above were generally grouped together under the ‘filter house’ banner (much as earlier French house productions had been equally lazily all bracketed as ‘touch’), but the Gallic scene also incorporated the more cerebral electronica of Etienne De Crecy’s influential Super Discount project; the best-selling chilled sounds of Air; the dancefloor dynamics of Bob Sinclar; the more jazz-inflected approach of St Germain; and the mighty Daft Punk and Dimitri From Paris.
Roule, founded by Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, was very much a part time project. It is frequently cited as the defining filter sound label, when in truth its mere 13 releases (over an 8 year period) also take in techno, funk, and pure US house. It certainly clocked up several landmark releases: Together’s So Much Love To Give, Romanthony’s Hold On, Bangalter’s own solo tracks…and of course Stardust’s monumental Music Sounds Better With You.
However, the ‘labels’ division of Virgin France are also due much credit for the success of many French artists. After the success of their Soma releases (see above), Daft Punk were in huge demand. That they chose to go with a French major label rather than a UK or US heavyweight was very much down to the tenacity of Maya Massabouef. At Virgin she not only looked after the company’s international dance music signings such as Inner City, but had also done licensing deals with cutting edge labels such as Soma and Wall of Sound. She offered Daft Punk the creative freedom they sought, and was also happy to run with their proposed anonymity approach to marketing – which many considered madness, but which proved to be a masterstroke. Having also picked up Air and Stardust, Massabouef proved that a major label could get dance music right.
Well into its third decade, Cologne-based Kompakt is a mainstay of Germany’s electronic music scene, but like our other featured labels, it has a truly global reach, all masterminded from their hometown HQ where everything is under one roof – label, distribution, artist agency…and the record shop that started it all. Several hundred releases in, it is hard to pinpoint a Kompakt sound, but there is an attitude. Techno with melody, sophistication, and an understated swagger. ‘Adult techno’ was how founder Wolfgang Voigt once summarised it, but like the organisation, the A&R approach could also be summarised as everything under one roof. If a track captures the imagination of Voigt and co-founders Jurgen Paape and Michael Mayer, it comes out on Kompakt rather than a hastily-assembled sub-label. There is often an undeniable influence of classic synth pop – so it was not entirely a surprise when the Pet Shop Boys, fans of the label, produced a track on Kompakt, Sam Taylor-Wood’s cover version of I’m In Love With a German Film Star.
Always resistant to the lure of Berlin, staying in Cologne means Kompakt do things their way without the pressure to conform. It’s very much a collective, not only with the three founders still central to the brand, but loyal artists whose work constantly peppers the label’s catalogue. Whilst it goes without saying that Mayer’s and Paape’s own releases come out via Kompakt, clearly the likes of Kolsch, Superpitcher, Thomas Fehlman, Rex the Dog, The Field and Gui Boratto trust Kompakt above others and consider the label to be home.
Nu Groove / Nervous / Subliminal
For sheer weight of both classic tracks and longevity, few would deny Strictly Rhythm the NYC house crown. However, throughout their reign they have been kept kept on their toes by some serious competition.
Out of the traps early were Nu Groove, who really hit their stride when founders Frank and Karen Mendez happened upon the Burrell brothers, Rheji and Ronald. Schooled in all manner of musical styles, the twins worked both together and solo. This meant a serious shot in the arm for the Nu Groove release schedule, and numerous pseudonyms. These included NY House’n Authority, K.A.T.O, Metro, Jazz Documents, The Utopia Project and Bas Noir to name a few. The Nu Groove star burned brightly for four years, with further notable tracks from the likes of Bobby Konders and Basil Hardhaus.
One of the labels that helped fill the void left by Nu Groove’s sudden closure was Nervous. With their instantly recognisable cartoon kid logo, they had a successful merchandise arm running alongside the record releases. As with Strictly, most leading NYC producers have recorded for Nervous, including Masters At Work, Josh Wink and Armand Van Helden. Big vocal tracks were a speciality, with artists such as Kim English and former Ten City member Byron Stingily prominent. The label is still running, founder Michael Weiss remains at the helm, and Murk’s Oscar G and Def Mix’s Hector Romero both feature on their contemporary roster.
In the mid-1990s, producers such as Full Intention in the UK and Mousse T from Germany started to have great success adding an extra European kick to classic American house tracks. Taking notes was upcoming DJ Erick Morillo. Having had international success on Strictly through his Reel To Real project, he spent over a year planning every last detail of his new label before letting the world at large hear a note. The hard work paid off – arguably the first US label to perfect the transatlantic house sound, Subliminal was on fire from day one in 1997. The roster centred around Morillo and his partners in crime Harry ‘Choo Choo’ Romero and Jose Nunez, with the likes of Richard Grey, Robbie Rivera and Harrison Crump being regular contributors. Still active to this day, we sign off with their debut release.