A couple of years ago I got involved in a conversation about which record labels were the most instrumental in shaping our understanding and love of electronic music. It tuned out to be a harder question to answer than I first thought. It became even harder when it turned out one of the people involved in the conversation had never heard of Transmat or Metroplex. To not own any records on either of these seminal labels is one thing, to not like their musical style is another, but I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea that they had never heard of them. It’s a bit like a rock guitarist not knowing who Hendrix or Pete Townsend are. Of course, part of me had a sneaking regard for such ignorance, smacking as it did of sort of brash year-zero view of the world where history is a dull dead weight on progress. But another part of me simply thought ‘what a tit’. I’m still not sure which response was right.
This aside, it really was a deceptively hard question, but one made easier by the fact I’m anal enough to follow labels as much as I follow producers. Even from my earliest days, when I first got into the idea of music as something other than background noise, I’ve obsessed about labels: Tamla Motown, Atlantic, and Chess right at the start, to US punk and Brit indy set-ups like Creation, Rough Trade, SST, Blast First or Touch and Go. Each of them kinked the thread away into new directions and each of them brought new musical experiences coloured by their own ethos and aesthetics.
Electronic music was an entirely new level of nerd-out, and there seemed to be as many labels as there were records. In some senses it was almost the apex of the idea of independent labels – a concept taken to an almost unbelievably extreme level by people with virtually no links to the industry working out of bedrooms and kitchens and dingy basements, sinking all of their money into putting out music they loved, music that would never have been heard otherwise. There have always been labels like this, but the explosive growth of a new culture in the aftermath of house musics arrival acted as a staggering amphetamine shot. I have dozens of records that were released by labels who immediately vanished from history, as if they were odd lifeforms living the entirety of their momentary lives for the opportunity of that one release. That’s to say nothing of the ones that started in the same shallow pool and went on to world domination.
Labels are beyond count now. Back then the utter reliance of vinyl acted as a form of natural selection, a brake on unstoppable growth. It’s different now, and although the number of labels who are doing great things is probably higher than any other point in our history, it is matched by the bad, the vain, and the lazy. Digital distribution has democratized everything in ways we still can’t fathom. It has been a boon for good music, but it has come at the cost of setting the price of admission so low that people seldom pause to consider whether or not something should be done just because it can be done.
Which labels influenced my tastes the most is a difficult question because there are too many to list. I’ve always liked labels which have held true to a particular philosophy of sound, championing a stable of artists who share a similar tastes, but with unique takes. And I’ve also always been impressed with those labels who jump from genre to genre with little to connect the records until you dig deeper and discover that beneath pronounced musical differences there are in fact common themes and ideas that bring everything together.
Rather than delve into the labels that have had an effect on me right now, I think I’ll take a label on a semi regular basis and talk about it slightly more in-depth. A lot of you, the vets who fought the techno wars, might not find much in them aside from nostalgia (although they’re not all old choices) but for the rest, those who are coming into all this with fresh excitement, I hope there’ll be something to get you going.
Tonight’s tune? Even by my standards it’s a tenuous link. Derrick May took the name of his label from this track, apparently. Err, that’s it. Well, almost. Night Drive is one of the first tunes I ever felt deeply, head over heals in love with. It slapped me in the face with the same force that Rythim is Rythim’s Kao-tic Harmony had when I first heard it. I think Metroplex might be a good place to start.