(first printed in Plan B Magazine, 2007)
1997 was an odd moment of stasis and surge in hip hop, a crossroads year in which much of what’s happened since was prefigured and set in motion. In the US, the encouraging growth in underground rap that brought us labels like Rawkus and Stones Throw was finding itself dead-ended and neutered by the cliquishness and elitism of the Bay Area and Nuyorican scenes. In the UK, British rap music was undergoing yet another crisis of confidence, ignored by the industry, isolated into tiny provincial pockets of resistance without a voice – stymied, silenced and dispersed, fatally burying its head in the sand. At a time when, worldwide, hip hop had assumed a significance that suffused pop culture, underground hip hop occupied a curiously curator-like position of endlessly retreating within the genre’s borders, insisting protectively on an old skool reactionary vision of rap while the mainstream was on fire, blazing ahead.
Timbaland, Dre and Neptunes were all pushing sonic innovation to the fore by the late Nineties, but always within a strictly American, conventional context of name rappers and mostly conventional rapping. For a music that was having a worldwide impact, the monotony of Yank imperialism over the form was a drag. As a writer you realised how much was going on in the States that wasn’t getting heard, that deserved a wider audience. And in the UK you realised how a whole generation of kids into rap simply weren’t being encouraged by the industry to chase their visions – visions that occupied an entirely new space, open to music other than simply old skool hip hop, informed by the early Nineties explosion in electronica, rave, post-rock and jungle, and also the innovations of the late-Eighties to mid-Nineties cream of East Coast rap (Public Enemy, Native Tongues, Mobb Deep, Real Live, Blak Moon, Main Source, Beatnuts, etc). The only faith you could have, when the US seemed to be so on top, was that UK hip hop could quite easily just disappear off the map, get swallowed up by the scenes around it. Exhausted, beaten, you accepted this and looked for your own margin to die in. I flew my little white flag and waited.
And then a piece of plastic came through the door and changed everything. It was a ferocious slab of deranged hip hop noise from up north called ‘Electronic Bombardment’ by a crew called New Flesh For Old, and it was my first encounter with Big Dada, a label currently celebrating its 10th year dropping similar bombs on brainpads worldwide. Much of that magnificent mentalism can be found on Well Deep: 10 Years Of Big Dada Recordings, the double-disc comp/DVD that is this autumn’s essential hip hop purchase. For label founder Will Ashon it’s that crucial moment of mindfuck that’s been the guiding impulse behind his label’s continued survival.
“If I stopped getting moments like that I’d stop doing this,” he admits. “Hip hop, more than any other music, has done that to me so many times. You hear something and whoosh, your head just gets smashed apart; you’re left barely able to mouth the words, ‘What the FUCK was that?’ I can tell in about 10 seconds whether a demo is gonna do that. When it does, I try my hardest to release it.”
|". . . basically taught by anarchists, communists, Maoists. . . " - Will Ashon, head of Big Dada|
Born in 1969, Ashon grew up in Leicester, attending Countesthorpe Community College.
“Countesthorpe was attacked for taking the comprehensive ideal ‘too far’,” he says. “We were basically taught by anarchists, communists, Maoists – one of my earliest memories was a field trip we had that consisted of chasing [Conservative cabinet minister and Thatcher’s sidekick] Keith Joseph around Leicester in a minibus and rocking his car while he was still in it! Happy days. It hinted to me that a proper job wasn’t the be all and end all – when I left college I went through virtually every extra-10-quid-on-your-dole scheme they had in this effort to avoid work. It’s a shame kids don’t have that opportunity anymore."
It was as a teenager in the early Eighties that Ashon’s wastrel imagination was first fired by music. “The Thatcher years – pop was new and gleaming and aspirational. I gravitated towards the weirder side of jazz. I was a massive Miles Davis fan, into Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler. But I realised, watching Miles live in the mid-Eighties, that I’d missed out: that everyone I loved was either dying or dead or the living dead. The only music that held out the same possibilities as early- Seventies Miles or late Coltrane was hip hop. Public Enemy, the way they arranged sound and noise, the freedom and precision of what they did, it just blew me away. ”
Ashon found himself writing about this love for a variety of music mags in the early- to mid- Nineties but found it curiously frustrating.
“Well, I never thought that a writer could ‘make a difference’ to the wider hip hop scene, but it was hugely annoying to be sent amazing records, write about them, and then get letters from people saying they simply couldn’t buy the records, long stories about trips down to London to [now closed Latin and hip hop shop]
Mr Bongo and they still can’t find the 12-inch I’ve been banging on about. The seeds of starting my own label began there. I simply wanted a place where I could make sure the amazing things I was hearing could be heard by everyone. And when we started the label we were more concerned about press and promotion than other hip hop labels were."
”That paid off in the long run for sure, because when you start a label you only think about where the money for the next release is coming from, but we created sufficient buzz for us to start thinking about the label actually lasting longer than a year. ”
Setting up the label with Ninja Tune’s help in 1997, among Ashon’s first releases were two from left of leftfield – the vocal abstractions of Saul Williams incredible ‘1972 Elohim’ and Mike Ladd’s brainjangling ‘Blah Blah’, US talents criminally ignored in their native land but happy to find more open minds in Blighty.
“Will and I were room-mates in college!” says Mike Ladd, and I think he’s bullshitting. “I realised from the first time I worked with him musically that Big Dada was gonna be a different kind of label. With me they have been very patient. They let me crash at their house and leave me up to my own devices completely.
”Will never tried to interfere on the music side: when we were doing the Infesticons and Majesticons records he had ideas but he only ventured them if I needed help. He’s confident enough to trust those artists he signs to bring him something fresh. He upped the bar in terms of what a label can do, and I think his artists have responded in kind.”
Big Dada’s laser eye-like ability to pull the best from the US underground hasn’t let up in the past 10 years: as the only imprint to pick up epochal releases from MF Doom’s mighty King Geedorah, the brilliant and bewildering Busdriver, scene-shaker Diplo, Bay Area psych-rappers cLOUDDEAD (and more recently, being the first label smart enough to snap up Spank Rock’s livid lethal ghetto-tech aggravation).Ashon feels justly proud of Big Dada’s legacy in spotlighting US rap-talent the rest of the industry simply doesn’t know how to deal with.
“At all times I’ve used the same criteria I did when I was a writer,” insists Ashon. “Like, this has been on my deck for a minute now – do I feel different? Is it saying something new? Is it – here’s a word that was important at school – revolutionary? All the American artists you’ve mentioned have ticked all those boxes – I’ve no interest in hip hop if it doesn’t have that questing, forward-looking spirit. I think, as listeners, as fans, it’s what we should expect.”
Ask Mike Ladd who his favorite Big Dada artists are, though, and the answer is clear:
“The British ones! Juice Aleem is a genius. Roots Manuva let me sleep at his flat once and I love his records! Anything with ponies on it is good so Infinite Livez is a favourite. Ty, New Flesh – all incredible, even if I do sound like a fucking cheerleader!” he laughs.
Indeed, awesome though the American Big Dada releases are, it’s as a showcase for British talent that Big Dada becomes not just a cool importer of fresh tuneage, but a hugely important contributor to British cultural life for the past 10 years. Blame a guy called Rodney.
“If I get no rewind still I pay fools no mind” – Roots Manuva, Sinking Sand
Before we get to him, though, New Flesh For Old were Big Dada’s first UK signing. For Ashon it was crucial that the UK talent he signed had none of the self-pity and in-built defeatism that had characterised UK rap for so long.
“UK rap had been hidebound by so much scenesterism and bullshit. With New Flesh you immediately felt, these guys just don’t give a fuck. They’re making music that you can’t even place – is it dub? Dancehall? Hip hop? Techno? Noise? Who knew and who cared – it just sounded fantastic – the fact that they didn’t come from London [Toastie Taylor and Part 2 are from York; Juice Aleem, Birmingham], weren’t limited by any scene and had just developed this incredibly fresh sound by themselves was amazing.
“I always look for a genuine personality behind the demos and tracks I hear – if I can’t hear the fact that the person making the music is a complex, creative individual then I’m not interested. Crews and posses and connections are all well and good – I’m after uniqueness. With New Flesh I could hear Sonic Youth, Aphex, Sun Ra, avant-garde art…I could hear all these things within their sound but nothing could be isolated and explained. They simply didn’t fit any kind of remit that British hip hop music had ever fallen into before. It was the same with Roots Manuva.”
Rodney Smith, aka Roots Manuva, first recorded for Big Dada in 1999: the label has taken him from underground acclaim to overground success and one massive monster hit (the still-earthshaking ‘Witness (One Hope)’) and it’s never even occurred to him to go anywhere else.
“With the last albums [2005’s Awfully Deep and Alternately Deep] other labels were sniffing around, I think to try and get me to be ‘hip hop for people who don’t like hip hop’ or some such nonsense,” admits Rodney. “But there was no other label out there that had a history of taking challenging music to wider audiences, so Big Dada had to be the place. Money comes and goes, but a creative straitjacket would be soul-destroying. It would have changed the sound. Experimentation is what’s brought me to where I am now – what’s great about Big Dada is that you don’t feel limited, even by your own preconceptions about the label. I make pop music, or at least, I’m attempting to make pop music: the fact that people call it ‘weird’ and ‘arty’ doesn’t bother me, it’s my vision of pop music. And Big Dada have never tried to interfere with that. Big Dada have no interest in being the biggest or the baddest or the most extreme, they just want to be the best. They’re a music label first and a hip hop label coincidentally.”
|‘Will Ashon has upped the bar in terms of what a label can do, and I think his artists have responded in kind’ – Mike Ladd|
And here we get to what’s crucial, the reason Big Dada have lasted so long. Listening to their back catalogue, you get a picture of a nation, an alternative portrait of what living on this ruddy raw island means. Listen to, say. New Flesh’s Understanding, Ty’s Closer, Roots’ Run Come Save Me and Infinite Livez’ Bush Meat and you get not just a run of great albums but a devastating portrait of Nineties and Noughties British life unmatched by any other label, as complex and chaotic and compelling as the personae behind the beats and rhymes, and the changing environment around them. If Big Dada were saddled to a reductionist notion of what hip hop music can be they’d simply be an occasional provider of essential 12-inches; by signing a welter of artists who you feel couldn’t exist anywhere else, they’veprovided a vital outpouring of voices (let’s not forget Part 2, Gamma and newest UK recruit Wiley) that simply wouldn’t be afforded the same space or faith elsewhere.
“No other British label would’ve given us the time of day,” admits Para 1 of mindblowing French crew TTC. “We were so gloomy about sending anything to any label outside of France not just because of the language barrier but because our music can be so…confusing to some people. With Big Dada they got it instantly and it didn’t matter that they couldn’t understand what we were rapping about. In fact, Will told us he’d rather keep it that way!”
“When I was reminded that it was our 10-year anniversary I was like a sulky old fucker for weeks,” grins Ashon, who now splits his time between Big Dada and his own burgeoning writing career (check the stunning Clear Water novel soon as you can). “I actually shouted at people, ‘Fuck off, I don’t wanna do anything to celebrate the fact that I’m so fucking old’. But listening back to the old stuff persuaded me it was worth celebrating. There are things that sound dated, things that sound incredibly fresh still, but I can safely say I’ve never put a record out that makes me cringe now. I’m proud of every single artist and album and single we’ve ever put out.”
|New Flesh For Old|
What next for Big Dada?
“What’s been great about things so far is that what started as a hip hop label is starting to encompass so much more. I’d like to sign a singer, put out an album of songs – we’ve never done that! I’d like to basically keep myself interested by expanding and exploding the whole notion of what Big Dada can do. There’s been plenty of times in the past decade where I’ve practically chewed my own hands off in frustration at how many records we sell compared to some of the appalling shit that seems to make it, but eventually you realise it’s the body of work that matters, that lasts and endures. I see no reason Big Dada couldn’t continue for another 10 years because there are still people who want to push boundaries with their music and Big Dada will be their natural home.”
Crucially, this is a story that’s still going on – just ask Big Dada’s newest signing, Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon.
“As a fan, Big Dada just seems unmatched in keeping one step ahead and discovering cutting edge music,” he affirms. “They’re a totally open-ended entity now, but I think they do approach all their projects with a deep hip hop ethic instilled: freedom, freakiness, honesty. They seem to have their ear to the ground in a way that differentiates them from other indie labels. And just the sheer quality of what they’ve given us – I mean, those TTC and Spank Rock albums just kill me – made it a no-brainer for me as to signing or not.”
Onwards, upwards, inwards and outwards. No sign of stopping. If you haven’t explored Big Dada’s revolutionary roster yet I envy you the journey you’ll embark on. For those who’ve been listening, raise a glass to another 10 years at the top.
“We never underestimated the audience at Big Dada,” states Ashon, “because we always assumed we were the audience. I hope we can keep it that way.”