Each month, we are focusing on a record label founded by an active digger. We are stopping with Robert Luis, co-owner and A&R of Tru Thoughts, based in Brighton. DJ known as «Sonic Switch», he also has a weekly radio show called Unfold where he plays new tunes as well as nuggets from his record collection. Time to talk to him…
When did you start digging records?
I did not really have much money when I was young. But I asked my Mum to buy me The B Boys 2-3 Break 12” when I was around 12 years old as a birthday present. My mum worked in Tottenham in London and bought it from Body Music (which I think still exists today). I used to ask for records for presents. When I was around 16 I could work during the holidays so started a bit more seriously buying music then and also started getting DJ gigs then too, which gave me a bit more money. My digging was buying cheap records. I used to shop at a place in Romford in Essex that had lots of Soul, Disco, House and Hip Hop and a bit of Reggae around 17 and 18. I would wait for Hip Hop that charted to go in the bargain bins and would buy 7″s as could not afford to buy 12”s as it meant only getting one record. I have Public Enemy and Ultramagnetic MC’s 7”s that I bought for cheap when I was around 15-16 and waited a few years to buy the 12″s which is what I actually wanted. I also shopped at City Sounds in Holborn around 18-19 years old.
What LPs did you buy at first? Do you still listen to them?
I was more into getting 12”s as they were louder pressings for DJing with. I remember ringing up lots of shops from a payphone near my school to get De La Soul – ‘Three Feet High And Rising’ when it was released on import. It was actually hard to get on import back then if you were not a connected DJ. I ended up getting a copy in Ilford, Essex.
My four years old son currently likes Eye Know and Me, Myself and I, which he saw on YouTube, so currently I am listening to the album.
Did you have a particular style or favourite period?
I enjoy searching for music but was always about trying to get more obscure and interesting new music. I have always felt it was important to support new artists releasing music now. I used to love shopping at Mr Bongo in the 90’s for the Indie Hip Hop and Beats stuff that they would stock and If Music in the late 90’s and 00’s was a great place for me to pick up quality music across all genres.
I used to run a club night on Wednesdays in Brighton in the 90’s called Shake Yer Wig. I would play all the current Hip Hip (Big up Mr Bongo) and then also be searching for the original samples if I did not know them already, then playing those Funk, Soul, Jazz tunes too alongside the new Hip Hop releases.
Are you still digging’, buying vinyl, visiting record shops?
Not visiting record shops as much as I used to. I do buy a lot online. I buy music every week and still buy vinyl.
What was your first release on Tru Thoughts?
It was by Steady. An instrumental Hip Hop thing that a few Big Beat DJ’s played at 45rpm instead of 33rpm! First artist album was Bonobo, ‘Animal Magic’.
Why did you choose this name: Tru Thoughts? Because there are too much liars in music business?
In a way that is part of the story behind the name. Before starting Tru Thoughts I made a tune and did some bad deals with that. Sold it to an advert for 10% of what I should have done and also signed the track exclusively in the USA to someone for less than I should have done.
I knew I wanted Thoughts in the name and then saw Pete Rock’s ‘Tru Master’ release sticking out of my best friend’s record collection one day. I did feel it would be a good reminder to me to make sure I do not put any Tru Thoughts artists through the experience I went through.
You have to move on when conned in the industry (Quincy Jones and Dr Dre have shown that lesson) but it is still hard to go through. Without sounding too much of a hippy I hope the name is good for us as a label and for our artists to remember why we do this. I want our artists to make a living from music and earn money but I do not want us to con people in order to do that.
Who was your model in music producing story, record labels ?
When I was young I followed Def Jam and tried to always read about what was going on behind the scenes there. Mo Wax and Ninja Tune have a big influence too. I think Skint having the success in Brighton they did with Fatboy Slim influenced a lot of people in Brighton to actually go and do a label rather than talk about it. I liked Talkin Loud a lot too.
Blue Note is a label that I reference a lot. They seemed to just be a home for artists to put out their music without too much heavy A&R. They had distinctive designs too.
What could be the label’s leitmotif?
Soul is how I would describe what we do whether it is Grime or Tropical. All the music is made by people who believe in what they do.
Your editorial/esthetic line?
Artists who make music they are into and try and make the best music they can within the budgets they have to record.
You had divided your record label on 3 parts : Tru Thoughts 7 seven, Unfold Records and Zebra Traffics. Was it an aesthetic decision? Or rather an economical choice?
Unfold was for compilations and we only did a few as it was time consuming licensing music compared to signing music to release. Zebra Traffic was for Hip Hop specifically. We stopped the label at the time Grime was making its first impact, as sales seemed to be dipping at that time for what we did. The 7”s was just to highlight the 7″s we were doing at the time. It was mainly to help distributors and buyers differentiate between the music we were putting out.
Quantic (c) Christina Jorro
How do you decide on the choice of issues?
I have to be into the music we release. I want variety on the label, so try and make sure that we have a few different genres in the schedule every year.
When and how did you meet Quantic?
Natural Self booked him to DJ in Brighton in 2000 and Will came to the office after the gig. He had just released his ‘Breakin Bread’ 7” then and I had bought it, but he gave me a copy anyway. He came with a CD of what became The 5th Exotic. I was very excited when I played that demo at home and called him straight away. I think he was surprised I was not asking him to change anything. As I recall he said he had been sending demos out but people were asking him to change tunes quite a bit. He had downtempo, breakbeats and even a Drum and Bass style track on the demo. He was definitely someone making forward thinking music I loved and still delivers that quality today.
What is your relationship with him ? How do you work together?
Hopefully he would say we have a good relationship. He was a big part in helping us building up the label. I know he would recommend me to lots of promoters to book me to DJ as he travelled across the world gigging. He was also patient. Each year as we chatted I would talk about what I think we could achieve with his music and we seemed to hit those goals every year. He was not after overnight success but definitely up for building up real fans by gigging and releasing good albums.
I am not someone who A&R’s too heavily. He pretty much sends me music and ideas and I pretty much just go with what he wants. I make some suggestions, some of which he takes and some of which he ignores! When he moved to Columbia he had to get me up to date with that influence and bought me loads of vinyl to check…I liked that.
I am genuinelly a fan of his. I rate him alongside Quincy Jones, Pharrell, Rick Rubin, Wiley, Soul II Soul / Massive Attack. Genius producers.
Quantic’s music is in perpetual evolution. He goes from deep funk to cumbia, downtempo of more club material. Did you give your artists total freedom of choice or do they have to follow the label’s esthetic line?
I just ask artists to make music they like. No artist on Tru Thoughts should be making music for an A&R. I think artists should be making music they believe in and then hope that we are into the music too. I have a wide taste in music so there is plenty of scope.
You released a Hot 8 Brass Band record… Why this choice ? And why you did not have continued to dig that style of music, meaning NOLA ?
I loved the music and to work with an authentic New Orleans band is great. I like to have variety on the label so to date that is why we have not worked with anyone more. But who knows what the future holds.
Just like your label, Bonobo remains a cult project for all lovers of some electronic music…
I am not sure if there is a scene around Bonobo. All his albums sound significantly different to me but all are quality. He is an artist just following his own musical path and seems to be taking lots of people on that journey with him.
Tru Thoughts does not do reissues. Do you plan to do any or do you leave that to other labels and focus on artists’s development?
Reissues can be quite time consuming. I feel for Tru Thoughts our platform should be used to try and make new artists have some light on their music. I think the labels out there doing re-issues alongside new music like Soundway, BBE and Soul Jazz do a fantastic job.
We did the London Posse album but that was due to us signing Rodney P and me being a super fan of the London Posse!
Do you consider production and reissues as two different trades?
Practically it is. We have found re-issuing a lot of hard work compared to A&R’ing current artists. But when labels do relatively obscure music they are still doing the same job as labels releasing new music….getting good music out and shining some light on it.
For twenty years, the music market has totally changed. Is it now more difficult to publish new artists?
It is definitely harder for new artists today. Digital stream sales have definitely effected download and physical albums sales. For new artists this can make a difference. But this is the way it is. In indie terms we have to adapt as a label and so do artists. But I feel positive still that we can help artists make a living from music. They may not be able to buy a mansion with swimming pool but they can potentially earn a decent wage.
More and more record labels sell themselves their own records, skipping not only distributors but also record shops. Do you think it’s a model for the future?
I think there will always be record shops. In Brighton Resident is always packed when I go to it and has taken over the shop next door too. Buying vinyl or CD’s still seems to be a social thing….it is very dry buying music online and not being able to examine what you are buying.
Liv Fast Die Young
The « vinyl revival » has side effects. Some of your previous releases became collectibles items (think of Quantic Soul Orchestra’s LP for example). Do you plan to repress those?
We do not deliberately not repress anything we wait till there is demand. We have re-pressed Quantic, Bonobo, and Alice albums quite a few times.
There are more and more reissues of old LPs, and more and more record labels (major or indie) now release their new artists on LP, or EP. Do you think that the LP reissue market could ever reach saturation point?
Vinyl seems to go in cycles. When the CD first came out everyone said vinyl would die, then that happened a few years ago too. Turntables seems to be selling so as long as that happens I am sure there will be a market.
What are your next releases?
We have a great album from The Seshen (from the Bay Area USA). Future Soul style, with a lovely white vinyl release. There is a new experimental release from Hidden Orchestra called Wing Beats out on vinyl. We have a Psychedlic R&B project from Harleighblu & Starkiller. Plus we are looking to put the Flowdan album out on vinyl as there seems to be demand for that… quality Grime music.
What is the LP you could dream of reissuing?
Not an LP but currently ‘Rhythm and Gash’ by Rebound X is a tune I would like to re-issue. Rebound X self released the track on vinyl in 2006 and the last 2-3 years the track is just getting bigger and bigger. He has disappeared and no one seems to know much about him or where he is. But he has a big club tune.
And the artist you dream producing?
I am not a producer but Quantic producing someone like Michael Kiwanuka would be interesting to me. It would not be pop but I think it would be popular.