Alan Russell (Black Vinyl Records) Q&A

Welcome to Magazine Sixty, Alan. Black Vinyl Records began around 1996/97 in London. What can you remember about how easy/ difficult it was to set up a label back then, releasing on vinyl and how music was distributed pre-digital and with Social media?

Hi Greg, thanks for inviting me. Well, Black Vinyl was actually the second label I was involved with, as it started life as the ‘tracks’ offshoot of Hott Records that I had started back in (…hurriedly checks Discogs…) 1991/2. That label was funded by a ‘silent’ partner who owned a studio in the basement of an old school building in (pre-Gentrification) Farringdon, EC1. From here I started working with my first production partner Richard Green, who was the resident studio engineer, and we started doing a few things (The first single on Hott was by us under the name EC2). Back then the industry was mainly geared towards getting things signed to a major label, something I was extremely wary of as I didn’t want to make cheesy dance-pop or gimmicky ‘mash-ups’ that seemed to be the order of the day in the UK. So basically I persuaded the owner to start a label to release our own productions and to sign stuff from overseas, add our own versions and mixes and release in the UK and Europe. That’s how it started. I don’t know if it was easier or harder, but it was very, very different. No email, no digital files. Everything was done manually. For example artwork was all done with hard copies, biked from designer to printers and then sent to the pressing plant. Masters were cut by lathe and the ‘metal’ sent on a bike to the plant. The pressed vinyl was put into sleeves by hand. It was a very labour intensive operation. And everyone needed to be paid.…it was not cheap!

How would you describe the ethos of Black Vinyl Records?

Well, when it began it was all about releasing underground records that had no pretensions of becoming hits or crossing over. It was about making records for DJ’s to rock a club with. Sell a few thousand and do the next one. I was inspired by the likes of Strictly Rhythm in New York or even earlier by punk labels like Stiff Records, who eschewed the mainstream and sought to build trust in, and loyalty to, the label itself. I wanted Black Vinyl to be the sort of label you would buy on sight without even listening to it beforehand. In terms of the ‘sound’ of the label, at first it was about ‘tracky’ stuff, rather than vocals, which at the time I saved for Hott. So it was only after Hott finished and I took full control of Black Vinyl that this changed a little and I was open to releasing vocal stuff on the label as well. The over-arching ethos was, is and will always be, to release music we personally love. It’s never been about getting the ‘big names’ of the day or latching on to whatever is ‘trendy’ at any given time. We have never followed trends or jumped on passing bandwagons and we never will.

You spent a lot time DJ’ing in Europe. How did those connections come about and how did you find that experience compared with playing in the UK?

Well it started with a few gigs here and there – Germany, Belgium… I have no idea how or why….But then my ‘break’ came when Italian promoter Maurizio Clemente got in touch, initially, I think, because he liked what I wrote about in ECHOES, and I started playing regularly in Italy. Maurizio also managed Tony Humphries in Europe so I found myself playing alongside Tony or often in the same clubs as him but a week later or a week before! That went on for nearly ten years. I also had another manager in Portugal, Carlos Calico, who got me some amazing gigs in clubs like Kadoc and Locomia, two of the biggest clubs in Europe at the time. And I had Henri Kohn getting me regular gigs in Germany and I also played in Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece…even Norway, all way way waaaaay back! Crikey I even remember flying to gigs where it was still legal to smoke onboard! How did I find the experience? It was a different world! We were treated like stars, you know? Just wonderful times.

You are just about to release your debut artist album: Tracks From The Tropics on the classic Italian label IRMA. Can you tell us about how you produce music in terms of favourite software/ hardware? Where do you take your inspiration from when creating a track (other music, or something you have watched, Art you have looked at, or something completely unrelated)?

In terms of the mechanics, the whole album is produced in Logic Pro. I’ve got an iMac and some decent monitors and an Akai keyboard plus a few other bits and bobs, but nothing fancy. I do have a good friend down here (Torsten Stenzel) who has a very nice studio, so he did some keys for me (‘The Dream’) and we did some mixing down at his place, but basically it’s all fairly low budget, lo-fi, home-made vibes. As for inspiration, that’s tricky. Sometimes a track might start out with a sample or a loop that Janet or I have found, so then I start building drums around that loop or that sample, and often as the track develops that original idea might get dropped altogether and the track goes off in an entirely different direction. I think a lot of the other influences are quite subliminal. I like movies and I am very much into Politics and History and Art so yeah, I think all those things have an influence. As for IRMA, well I’m just so happy they have signed it! I’ve known Cesare for over 30 years and he was very open to the concept. I think it’s a good fit.

IRMA records · Tracks From The Tropics (album sampler)

The album sounds like all your musical influences are spread across the selection of tracks. Can you tell us about those and about your musical past pre Dance Music (which bands meant the most to you musically and politically or image wise)?

I’m really pleased that comes across in the album. I’m of an age when I do actually remember the world before House Music so I was very much influenced by a huge raft of music that pre-dates House. The Clash were always the band for me when I was a kid. I liked a lot of the punky stuff. The track ‘War Dance’ actually began with a sample of the track of the same name by Killing Joke. ‘March Of The Saints’ is inspired by a track by Chris Bailey of the Aussie punk band The Saints. But I also love Santana and Tangerine Dream and Curtis Mayfield and Lou Reed and Neil Young and Augustus Pablo and Scientist and King Tubby, and the Philly sound and the Disco classics…loads of stuff from across the spectrum….and I think it all goes in.

Talking of which how did you see the evolution of House Music happen in London (UK) and who where its most important figures/ clubs?

I saw it all happen and payed a very minor role in it and all I can say is that it DID NOT happen in the way the History books tell you! There were plenty of pioneering DJ’s playing electronic music, 4-on-the-floor DANCE music from the mid-80’s and even before that. I was a regular at Heaven in Charing Cross Road WAY before ‘88 and was dancing to 4:4 beats with lasers and strobes and smoke machines YEARS before Acid House. Call it Hi NRG, call it electro disco, call it Industrial, it was all there. I was also a regular at The Wag Club and at The Dirtbox roving warehouse parties, long before House, so when Acid House did eventually arrive, we all found it a bit lame to be honest. All these ex-football hooligans doing E and suddenly discovering dance music and hugging each other! They were late to the party for many of us. As for the important figures, I have to give props to Dave Pearce. He may not be the most fashionable name to drop these days but he was playing the early House records on his BBC GLR ‘Nite FM’ shows way before anyone else on legal radio. He also gave me a big break when (through my wife Janet who worked full-time at GLR) he asked me to present the club guide on his show. It opened a lot of doors for me. Others who deserve props in London in the early days were people like Jazzy M, Dave Piccioni, Noel and Maurice Watson, Princess Julia, Trevor Fung, promoters like Patrick Lilley, Nicky Holloway and Steve Swindells, Fridge owner Andrew Czezowski, Mark Moore, Tim Simonen, Simon Harris. Bobbi & Steve, Paul Anderson of course, Matt & Jon of Coldcut, Tony Thorpe…also A&R people like Eddie Gordon, Steve Wolfe, Tim Rudling and Simon Dunmore. They were all doing different things in different places, often for very different reasons, but it all came together in this weird mosaic, and it laid the foundation for everything that has followed.

Some of the tracks started life over six years ago. I’ve revisited and changed them over time and they all started coming together as an album last year. The fact that it’s all done in a home studio here in Antigua does feed into the tracks as it’s a relaxed space that I can work in at any time. And having Janet on hand to give feedback and being around lots of good weather and nice sunshine and tropical plants and my dogs and the cat……yeah it all helps. But other than the odd steel pan or marimba on Herberts Vibe (Herberts is the name of the village I live in) and the dubby bass on a couple of tracks, it’s not particularly influenced by what most people may perceive as “Caribbean” music. I wanted to avoid being too clichéd on that front, just because I happen to live here.

Another important part of your musical history was as a radio producer for Kiss FM. What can you tell us about that time and about the significance of the station at that time?

I had some proper BBC training so Kiss recruited me nine months after they had launched. Along with the great Colin Faver I produced all the ‘specialist’ shows in the evenings and at weekends. My main job really was to try and turn club DJ’s and pirate radio jocks into proper Radio Presenters. I’m not sure I succeeded but it was a lot of fun!

You also wrote for the influential UK music paper ECHOES. What was your role there? How would you describe the importance of music journalisms back then?

This was something else that I kind of stumbled into. I was doing stuff at GLR and meeting these artists and often doing the interviews with them so I often had lots of unused material. One of the first of these was Loleatta Holloway, so I wrote up all the extra stuff I had into an article and submitted it to ECHOES. They printed it and soon I was doing regular interviews and reviews for them. That then developed into my own column and for a while there was a separate pull-out section called Inside Trax. For me, the thing I really wanted to do at ECHOES (and at Kiss too) was to get the “old heads”, the Soul purists, the Northern Soul guys and those “black music’’ lovers who dismissed early House as an irrelevance, to understand and appreciate that real House, the good stuff, was a direct descendant of the stuff they claimed to love and worthy of acknowledgement as such. It all comes from Philly and Disco and Funk and Soul. So getting them to listen to the great Soulful House that was around at the time was my mission.

What are your thoughts on House Music currently and how it has evolved since beginning Black Vinyl? Likewise with the quality of song writing?

I am going to dodge this one, not because I don’t want to upset anyone (ha!) but because I genuinely don’t listen to much of it these days. I know it’s a cliché but since I retired from DJ’ing I’ve had no need to keep up with new releases from a ‘work’ perspective. I graze the Traxsource charts now and then but rarely find anything that moves me if I’m honest. I imagine if I was still ‘in the game’ that I’d find plenty to keep a floor busy, but for home listening…..I tend to stick with reggae and dub and old stuff.

And finally. What are you future plans for music?

I plan to have no plans! Whatever comes along ya know? Since finalising this album I have finished about 5 new tracks, so I will be looking to place them. I’m learning more every day and really enjoying it. I’ve done a remix of a track called ‘Back 2 Love’ for Ken Johnston’s 488 Records label that should be out very soon and have also remixed ‘Watching You’ by Jazzmina for Willy Washington. That’s a collaboration with Todd Gardner that should see the light of day soon. As for Black Vinyl, we’ll see what comes along. I really like the stuff we put out by young SA producer Sphereble and am hoping on getting some more of that. Most artists prefer to start their own labels these days, and I don’t really blame them, so we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m under no pressure to stick to a schedule or to release a certain number every year, so really I’ll just continue to go with the flow.

Alan Russell – Tracks From The Tropics is released February 18 on IRMA records

Black Vinyl releases at Traxsource
IRMA at Traxsource

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