I believe 1997 will be remembered as the year the jungle album concept finally came of age. Ram’s ‘Speed of Sound’ got the year off to a good start, and with V Recordings picking up the baton now with ‘V Classic’ the momentum is building. Created in 1993 by Jumping Jack Frost and Bryan Gee, I recently visited South London to speak to Bryan about the label. However, you can’t talk about V without first talking about Bryan’s career as a DJ.
Originally from Gloucester, Bryan Gee developed a taste for the musical lifestyle from involvement in a reggae sound system. He eventually began to crave for more, so when his sister moved to London, he went with her. He began playing soul, funk and rare groove at small parties and pirate radio. He met Jumping Jack Frost and through their shared love of funk, and formed a partnership on the radio.
This was around 1987, and the direction of their show was about to change dramatically. Always interested in new music, Bryan Gee went to an acid house warehouse party and was struck by the music and ‘togetherness’ vibe which he immediately wanted to be a part of. So, they began changing their style, and despite initial hostility, continued believing in it and soon built a serious reputation through the radio. Their three hour morning show was on Passion five days a week and lasted for four years.
They eventually got to know a lot of people in the A&R and promotional departments of record companies, which meant upfront records, gossip and interviews for the show. When Rhythm King decided to launch an underground subsidiary called Outer Rhythm, Bryan Gee was brought in to do club promotion by a contact he had made. Things went well for a couple of years, but Rhythm King eventually decided to cut the label.
Just before, he had signed a Bath-based act called Absolute who knew Bryan was into breakbeat and played him some friends demo tape. ‘What I heard, I liked,” he remembers. “I didn’t jump up and say this is ‘wicked, wicked, wicked!’ – some of the tracks still had squeaky vocals and that – but the drum patterns were so funky and the breaks were hitting you, and no-one was doing them like that.”
The artists were Roni Size and Krust of course, so Bryan took the tape home with him when the label closed and began to approach other labels with the view to putting it out. His motivation for this was simply so that he could play them out as a DJ. However, nobody seemed interested (I bet there are a few people kicking themselves now) and eventually they decided to just release it themselves.
“When I went down to Bristol to meet Roni and Krust the music was running for them,” recalls Bryan Gee, “but it didn’t seem like it was the priority thing in their life – maybe I was wrong. It seemed like more of a hobby because at the time they were under no pressure to get their things released. I’m not saying they weren’t taking it seriously, because the music was good, but it gave them a boost when they saw us showing interest. So, they were down with us releasing them, and went back into the studio and made better stuff than what was on the tape. They’ve just kept on making better stuff – you know what they’re like – and we’ve just built up a good relationship based on trust and respect.”
Full Cycle was set up not long after V, and the two labels have grown side by side. All the main Full Cycle artists have had a V release: Roni Size, Krust, Die, Suv and Bill Riley. V has a very tight artist roster, and the others are Dillinja, Lemon D and Ray Keith. One thing I’ve always noticed about V is that their relationship with their artists seems more personal than most, and I wonder whether this has contributed to their success?
“The label has grown big now and we’ve got to accept what we’ve got here,” says Bryan, “but I wasn’t looking to start a label and welcome all demos. I know all the artists we’re working with and that’s just the way we want to keep it. If someone does send in a tape and it’s wicked, I’m not saying I’m not going to put it out, but I’m trying to work around people I know and can have a good relationship with. All the artists are my friends as well, which is really important to me.”
“Plus, these producers all have the same thing in common I’m looking for,” he continues. “They’ve all got a soulfulness and a hardness, that when blended together is running. Lemon D has got a soulfulness that I just dig because he’s got a way of making his music sound like you just want to chill out with your girl tonight. Roni is just so simple – he can use a simple little thing and just make it sound rolling and wicked. Krust gets into my deep, inner soul and parts where I didn’t think music could touch me. Die’s got a rolling style that no-one else can touch. What I like about Bill Riley is the way he’ll keep using little things and makes it sound trancey and hypnotical. Dillinja is just a monster! He can just do it any different way he wants to – hard, mellow, rolling – you can’t even say he’s got a style because he just does his own thing on the day.”
None of your artists are exclusive to V, so how do you decide what’s a V track with all their other commitments? “They don’t usually go into the studio and say ‘I’m going to do a V track’, but when the track is made there are certain things we look for and decide where it will go. Sometimes I hear a tune and say ‘that is V’ and get them to make a B-side. A V track will do damage to the dancefloor but doesn’t have to be angry, Amen, cut-up to smash the place. It’s just the whole vibe – the way the bass is rolling and breaks are stepping.”
V now has the sort of status where you could release almost anything and expect to sell a certain amount, how has this been built? “We try to keep things real and give the people what they really want. We never short change people, giving them two sides of quality. We’ve been in this business for a long time, so we know good music. There are a lot of things we don’t put out. Myself, for instance, I’ve been working in the studio and I haven’t done anything yet that I think is up to standard. I’m so critical it’s not coming out on V unless it’s up to the high standards that have been set. When you see our logo on a record, it’s a safety mark – you know you’re going to get something good.”
What gives you satisfaction? “DJing. I’m not producing, producing, producing, so when I’m DJing that’s my way of expressing myself creatively. Nothing gives me a better buzz. That’s why I’m a bit pissed off just now, ‘cos since the work for this album started I haven’t had time to cut any dubplates or practice as much as I would like. Things will slow down again soon though. I don’t think I’ll let myself get in this situation of getting snowed under with paperwork again.”
It’s ironic that the phenomenal success of the label has almost been in conflict with Bryan’s career as a DJ, but he’s in control and will take care of this situation. You need to be dedicated to be a successful DJ, but Bryan has such extreme dedication it has affected his personal life. “DJing has always put me in a situation where it has always caused problems between myself and partners, family and friends because I’ve always put my music first,” he admits. “There have been hard times when I’ve felt like giving in, but you need to be strong and not give in.”
It’s a good job for the rest of us he never. As far as what it takes to be a DJ these days, Bryan agrees that it’s harder than it has ever been and being a stand-alone DJ isn’t enough. “Most DJs that get through now are producing music. In my day it was different, but it was still hard. I also think that promoters are quicker to book crews and labels, and even the MCs are in groups now. It’s hard to break through if you’re by yourself. I’m not sure what it takes to be a DJ now, but I don’t leave it alone. I practise whenever I can and listen to the radio and information – the whole thing. Some DJs always stand by the box or in the celebrity corner, but sometimes I like to go bang in the middle of the crowd,ˇ get into it and suck up the vibe. Sometimes people see me and say “what are you doing hiding in there?” but it’s important to see it from their perspective because you’re going to be playing to them soon.”
So what does the future hold? One thing you can be sure of is that more vocals will be featured on V and, like most subjects, Bryan Gee has strong opinions about this: “To me, there are no anthems any more and you go out now and there isn’t much you can come home and remember. The scene needs vocals and faces to develop because the scene is kind of faceless at the moment. Alright, you’ve got Goldie and Roni Size, but what other faces do the public know? I wasn’t all for that General Levy thing, but it was a face and the kids and everyone could see and relate to. I’m not saying water it down, because I’m dead against commercialising it, but there are ways of putting vocals with the music and keeping it real as well.”
More specifically, V and Full Cycle (and their respective sister labels, Philly Blunt and Dope Dragon) will be joining even closer together to release not only singles but also artist albums. We can look forward to the first Bryan Gee track on V later this year on some special double packs that will feature four artists. “It won’t just be V artists either,” explains Bryan, “there will be people outside who we respect and like what they do. Plus I want to start linking up some artists together for collaboration projects. Who knows what would happen if Goldie and Shy FX were to go in the studio together? They’re doing shit like that in hip hop all the time, and they’re coming up with results. We’ve got a lot of talent, but each clique seems to be just keeping in their little corner doing their own thing, and I think that when you’ve got someone big over here and someone big over there when they join forces it just makes it bigger.”
Bryan Gee can come across as quite an intense character sometimes, but I think that’s a sign of how deeply he cares about the music and culture. All that’s left for me to say is check him out DJing if you get a chance, especially at Movement, his new residency in London.