What were your aims when you founded Tru Thoughts? What was the label’s raison d’etre? We started the label in 1999 from Rob Luis’ stairwell and the reason for starting the label was that we were running a weekly club night (called phonic:hoop) and we noticed promoters were coming in and pinching our acts, so we thought that if we released their music then we would create a roster of acts for both club and label. Musically we wanted to release soul, jazz and funk, but in its more contemporary terms.
Has it changed at all over the last ten years? I think our love of music and our dreams of running a label have remained, and the people we work with on the label, in the office and day to day follow that same philosophy. Musically it has been an enjoyable journey. We have always supported our key producers on the journeys they have taken. So Nostalgia 77 went from hip hop, funky 7s to winning the John Peel Play More Jazz Award with his jazz releases, Quantic went from bedroom producer to fronting a funk band (Quantic Soul Orchestra) and then moving to Colombia and making music with artists from South America (Quantic and his Combo Barbaro) and Lance from The Bamboos has done music as The Bamboos (funk and soul), Lanu (broken beat and dance music) and introduced us to Kylie Auldist (soul, jazz, funk singer). All of these journeys have happened organically and we have been involved all the way. We may not have planned all the stages, but we have enjoyed where they have gone and have supported them.
When you were running it from underneath Rob Luis’ stairs, did you think that you’d reach your tenth anniversary? Ha ha, no chance! I was running around trying to not get caught putting posters in illegal places and Rob was mostly buying and developing his huge record collection.
How did the label fit in with the music scene in Brighton around the millennium? Do you think nowadays that the Brighton music scene is assumed to just involve skinny jeaned indie pop? When we started the label, the town was popular for the style of ourselves, Skint and Catskills Records. Trip hop, nu jazz, big beat, whatever the names were, it was a stage where people were sampling, looping, cutting up and mixing styles. Very hip hop in its base, but with a world of influences. Our weekly night (and our Mr Scruff monthly night) pulled in around 2000 people a month, so there were some amazing parties. We have changed things around over the years, moved away from this level of club promotion and concentrated on selling music around the world and in that time also the licensing laws changed and clubs compete with bars; things have gotten more thinly spread over town. I think it was great that the clubs were packed. You couldnt book a venue in Brighton on a weekend night as clubs were so popular, and now you can easily go and get a club for a birthday party. Back then it meant people had to work hard to deliver something special and parties were bigger. But I am not one to dwell on how things used to be, as I am as excited about our music and nights as I ever was. Brighton is an ever-changing and developing music town and that remains strong.
When the label was smaller you must have been choosing your artists personally, has that changed? When we started we did tended to sign people based in Brighton, or friends of people down here, so that meant Nostalgia 77, Natural Self, Quantic, Bonobo etc. Nowadays we get sent demos from all over the world. But in a way our scene (which doesnt really have a name) has a network across the world. So we are friends with the labels who do our music all over the world and so it feels like the same family in Brighton, but in a larger sense.
Considering your releases range from electronica and drum & bass to soul & funk, what is the unifying thread between all the artists you have signed? Rob picks the acts based on something that he likes in their specific ear for a tune. So when we signed Flevans the first time around he was doing music on a 4 track, but Rob liked his quirky sounds and how he put them together. Flevans thought it was a mate pretending to be Rob, when Rob called him. Rob has never told me this, but Flevans mentioned that he thinks he told him in colourful language to um, go away. But all of our acts have a certain individual sound and that is what we are drawn to.
In which musical directions are you looking to expand the label? Last year was our 10th birthday year and it was enjoyable doing the parties and our special 3 disc booklet. But we also sat at the end of the year and decided that we wanted to take the label back to its route of more future looking music. This year we have signed Maddslinky aka Zed Bias, who is collaborating with and getting mixes from people like Toddla T, MJ Cole, Omar, Skream, Mr Scruff, Blame and AtJazz, which is an exciting project with all these quality artists from a range of genres. We have also got a double compilation album form Zero dB (Ninja Tune) and then add to this the more classic sound of The Bamboos (check out the video of On The Sly on YouTube) and Quantic’s Flowering Inferno project.
If you could sign anyone, who would you take on? We have had the pleasure of working with a lot of the people we wanted to. There have been one or two acts in ten years that we have tried to sign and lost, but it is a pretty small percentage thankfully. We were sad to see Alice Russell leave the label, but this can happen when acts want to try a different route to selling music. It is complicated to explain, but people have different ways of looking to sell music and we have a certain model that has worked well for us and attracts some acts, but with Alice she wanted a different form. We hope she will record for us in some form again soon. In terms of others, well we would want to get some massive acts of course! I dont know maybe the Quantic/Stevie Wonder album is what we should aim at!
How did the Unfold/Tru Thoughts Covers album come about? Was that your idea or the artists? When the Quantic Soul Orchestra album was being put together Quantic and ourselves felt that the retro cover version was an overdone thing, and so Will (Quantic) did versions of Mr Scruff, Sunshine Anderson and 4Hero. That theme has stayed throughout the label with Nostalgia 77 and Alice doing Seven Nation Army, The Bamboos doing Max Sedgley’s Happy etc… and we got asked a lot to put them all on an album. We felt conscious of the whole Mark Ronson thing, but wanted to put them out anyway as we have ten years of them. It is a great album. Really handy for party DJing!
Tell us about Zebra Traffic. How did that get started? We always wanted hip hop to be a part of our releases. We felt that it needed its own label (and hip hop buyers are a bit unforgiving if you mix genres!) but one of the key things was the potential of releasing music by Phi Life Cypher and Life, who remain one of the best crews the UK has seen.
Are there any plans for an album of hip hop covers by Tru Thoughts artists? We thought that Hot 8 Brass Band would sound good covering Snoop Dogg and maybe Alice Russell covering Wu Tang Clan. What do you think? Nice idea! I might pinch that, Thanks!!! Alice doing Wu Tang would be classic.
Tru Thoughts has prospered in a time when independent labels and recordshops also have been in decline. What has Tru Thoughts done differently? This comes down to where I mentioned the way that we run the label. We started with little money so we had to do everything ourselves, and this kind of stuck over the years. We are careful with money and let the music do the talking. If a country loves a certain album then we put money in to support that and so on and so forth. Some feel this is us being too cautious, but we have unfortunately seen so many of our favourite labels go down because they took big risks. We want to be around for the next 30 years and onwards.
Increasingly, records are being released through vinyl and mp3 only, do you think that combination is the future? The business is ever changing. Vinyl was dead a few years ago and now people are saying it is becoming more popular (it is growing in the States for instance). We keep an eye on changes and consider each release on what we think will work. We still sell a good number of CDs worldwide and the album format does tend to be central to our ways of working music.
How do you think the music industry will overcome the problem of music piracy? Or continue to be profitable in a world where people download music for free? It won’t be able to overcome it I think, it is a rare business where the thing it sells – the CD – can be easily given out between people for free in the same quality. That will remain. For us we hope that enough people don’t want to do that. I buy music when I want to get something as I want the artist to get paid and make more money. This attitude is shared by a lot of people I feel. Maybe we won’t sell a million cds but we might just sell 100,000 and we can make a living and release more music for that.
Do you have any tips for musicians who want to copy Tru Thoughts model of starting a label to release their own material? Or for anyone brave enough to go about starting their own label? I think it is all about promoting the music. The worst thing people do when they start a club night for instance is think that they can put a small advert in one mag and then their club will be full. You have to poster, advertise, do online promo, tell everyone you have ever met and go into every shop in Brighton and invite them. The same is the case for a label. The music bit is the simple bit. You then have to work hard. Don’t be put off though. It is a a great job to have. But maybe don’t expect to make a huge living!