Hard Leaders is one of those labels that anyone who rifles through record racks regularly will have got very used to seeing over the last five or so years. Their position among a select group of the most respected drum & bass labels is unquestionable. However, in many ways, they stand alone, not exactly outsiders but definitely a label with a will all of its own.
All the other heavyweights rely on a renowned DJ or producer as their figurehead, with one particular sound or approach becoming synonymous with the label. Hard Leaders, on the other hand, have achieved their reputation without the benefit of a celebrity jock fighting their cause every weekend.
What’s more, they have no tight musical dogma to follow, with an output veering from unashamed floor damagers to head frying experimental and smoothed down jazz-tinged tunes without warning. Meeting Carl Collins in the label’s very professional looking headquarters in Ladbroke Grove, West London, it becomes clear he is no ordinary label boss either.
With a background working for Rhythm King and Soul II Soul through acid house and beyond and the kind of calm confidence that such experience brings, he cuts a very different figure to the big-talking, BMW-flashing stereotype of drum & bass movers.
We’ve met to discuss this issue’s mix CD, a sort of ‘Best of…’ the Hardleaders story so far. The names, unless you’re a bit of a spotter, you may not recognise. But listen and you’ll realise there here are some of the scene’s best-known producers making some of their most unrestrained music. It’s become somewhat of a tradition for Hard Leaders to release certain premier league producers’ efforts under anonymous nom de tunes like Capone and Souljah.
“Obviously it’s because of the artists,” explains Carl, “if they have other legally binding deals it can be quite hard for them to do different things. Half the time people know who it is anyway, I think. øBut I’ve always tried to maintain an air of mystery about exactly who’s doing what. I think you need that. It’s like our records. They just arrive in the shops without too much warning.”
And when a track as distinctive as ‘Tudor Rose’, the Capone single that became Hardleaders’ all-time bestseller and arguably the biggest drum & bass tune of last year, maintaining that mystery is damn near impossible. Even now, the sinister, Shakespeare-sampling tones stand out a mile from anything else – definitely Hardleaders logic.
“I wasn’t even sure I was going to get it,” Carl admits now, “because absolutely everyone wanted to get their hands on it. But it was just one of those classics that moved drum & bass forward. I mean, the whole idea of sampling ‘Othello’ on a drum & bass track…”
The very idea puts a naughty smile on Collins’ lips. “You see people dancing to it and it’s funny because you know lots of them will never know they were listening to Shakespeare. And with the duck quacking in the background, you can almost see the mist hanging over a lake. But the other thing is that it was a record that was created in the underground, it happened the old way.”
Carl admits that in a scene obsessed with clocking the very latest tunes, it was refreshing to dig through the vaults for the mix and look back on its legacy with hindsight. “It’s interesting,” he adds, “that a lot of older jungle stuff is being reissued now and people are buying it.”
There’s certainly a sense that with their 50th release planned for late summer, like drum & bass itself, Hardleaders has reached the end of one era and is gearing up for the next. That’s why, after the crushing dancefloor killers of last year’s ‘Genetically Unmodified’ compilation, he’s planning to commemorate their half-century with a trend-bucking jazz-flavoured album. And while he says the second part of the year will bring yet more vinyl from the likes of Capone and that other longtime Hard Leaders contributor Decoder, he’ll be looking to bring on a new generation of producers yet to fully receive their props.
He sees the key to the music’s evolution in the technology – especially the Emu samplers which he says are becoming more and more available and are beginning to bring new capabilities and, ultimately, new sounds to the table. At the same time, he recognises that welcome change is already happening in underground clubland.
“The moody overtones have definitely disappeared now,” he reckons. “The club scene is stronger and stronger because a lot of DJs have gone and travelled the world and seen a lot of what’s going on elsewhere. That’s opened their minds up. But somewhere along the line we lost a lot of women to the garage scene and we’ve got to do something about that.”
It’s just a case of balance, Carl insists, between raw, fresh talent and more experienced producers. As he points out... “we could get the chequebook out and buy tunes in from whoever, but really, what’s the point?”
It’s sticking with and developing artists like Decoder that independent figures like Collins can do best, especially in drum & bass where major labels have been known to pressure acts into short term decisions based on little knowledge of the music’s unique framework. So, while the majors flounder in recession, the hard work put in by smaller labels and their refusal to sell up to the majors throughout the 90s is finally paying long term dividends.
“Basically, it’s still a dancehall culture,” he concludes, explaining why he asked UK rapper MC Stamina to add his individual touch to the CD. What he modestly declines to add, of course, is that it’s also a culture that Hardleaders will rule for a long time to come.
Here’s the tracklisting in full with comments by Carl Collins:
1. Capone – Soldier
“Debut release on Hardleaders back in early ’96, a hardstep anthem that set the pace for a thousand rewinds.”
2. Souljah – Fade 2 Black
“This gem was taken from Souljah’s ‘Urbanology’ album, it’s the Amen classic loved by DJ Hype and Andy C, still smashing up the place three years on.”
3. Capone – Tudor Rose
“Absolute dancefloor smash, Shakespeare meets drum & bass and the rest is history.”
4. Digital feat. MC YT – Critical Situation
“Digital with the raw sounds of jungle turns out this modern day sounding dancehall killer.”
5. Capone – Massive
“Debut release on Hardleaders back in the day, this anthem was way ahead of its time.”
6. TechLevel2 – Hardtimes
“A new name to the world of drum & bass, developed at the school of hardbeats.”
7. Decoder – Turnover
“Released earlier this year to critical acclaim, the Hardleaders Bristol connection is still delivering the beats.”
8. Capone – Fusion
“A gem from last year, Fabio called this sheer class.”
9. Souljah – Come On
“The trademark rolling beats of the Souljah never stop.”
10. Capone – The Growler
“We tested many sound systems with this bassline, a monster from last summer.”
11. Digital – Jester
“Futuristic drum & bass from Digital – a monster bassline workout.”
12. Decoder – Tag
“A class production from Decoder, as only he knows how.”
13. Capone – Feelings
“A move away from the sinister snarling basslines, a sexy soulful roll-out from the bassline king.”
14. Manifest – Firin’ Squad
“Phat beats that never stop.”
15. Decoder – Stash
“Taken from Decoder’s debut album, ‘Dissection’, a very large set of beats that crunch away at you.”
16. Capone – Friday
“Another classic from Hardleaders’ finest producer, a bassline to kill for.”
17. Souljah – Down With The Lights
“We started with a classic and we shall end with a classic currently being played out. The debut from Souljah.”