As with so many early 90s labels, Tone Def Records kicked off with a starburst of riotous creative energy, that burnt bright and quick. Unlike many of their contemporaries they were able to sustain this potency for the length of a golden age. Existing from 1990 – 1995 Tone Def signposted rave futurism; over at least forty releases they charted the technology driven genre evolutions that saw the euphoric Balearic rhythms of label opener Thank God mutate into the dark junglist pressure of their minimalist mid-90s DnB rollers.
The label was characterised by a carefree approach to the business of releasing music, with catalogue numbers all over the place (or being repeated), some records showing up as single sided releases, some being pressed with random tunes or mixes on the b side, and at least one never coming out at all. All this looseness is part of the Tone Def charm – unlike a number of the major rave labels (names removed for political reasons!), Tone Def wasn’t run by a non-producing boss signing up artists specifically to make money. Instead it was helmed by DJ/ Producer Yomi Ayeni- DJ Yomi - originally as an outlet for his own bedroom productions, then later as a space to release the music he wanted to play. Tone Def was a passion project first and foremost, and right to the end it’s clear that making music was more important to the label than maximising profits – and perhaps it’s for this reason that a number of the label’s releases ended up being seminal; in the process of releasing the music they wanted, rather than the music they thought would appease the rave scene, they ended up releasing proto-jungle records when others were still dropping happy hardcore sound-alikes.
Yomi was kind enough to take some time to talk to me, so here, possibly for the first time, is something of the story of Tone Def records…
Talk me through how you first got Tone Def started
It started with a trip to Ibiza years ago – Why Ibiza? I don’t know! Lots of people were going.. I went out with a friend of mine. I’d been hanging out with Nicky Holloway, and I met an old friend of mine who I used to DJ with – Carl Cox – Carl and I used to be on pirate radio years beforehand.
Which pirate was that?
That was such a foundational station!
Yeah I was a program controller on LWR for a while when I was at school. I was a very big soul boy. Soul moved into hip hop – I used to DJ out with Tim Westwood – then it morphed into house. I had a big interest in disco, in Chic, Sylvester, the Salsoul label output, it was all kinda dancey, and that’s more or less how Carl and myself gravitated towards LWR. Tone Def to a certain degree was an extension of that.
So I went to Ibiza in ’89. I came back with a rhythm going on in my head. It was a breakbeat rhythm that was programmed on a 909. I was working with a guy called Alex Gold and we came up with a track called Thank God, under the name Morse Code which, y’know, it did extremely well…
This was during the second summer of love – it got picked up by lots of DJs who loved the vibe.
Thank God wasn’t house, it wasn’t breakbeats, it wasn’t drum n bass it was something different. It had no sample loops, it was all programmed drums.
And that was the first release on Tone Def – did you get the money together to put it out yourself?
Yes, at that point if you said you wanted to make a record, people would say, well you can’t make a record – but I got my money together. It was a funny way of doing things – we recorded the track, we sent it off to get cut, and we got the test presses made, then I went to Barclays in the morning and got a loan of £500, went to the test pressing plant and picked up the test presses, went straight into the west end and delivered them to all the shops. Then before 3.30 I went back to the bank and repaid the loan! [laughs] and that was what I started doing…!
How many were you pressing?
When we did the test presses we only did 30 or 40 and we were selling them for four, five pounds each and people took em. People like Alfredo and some of the other Ibiza jocks were playing them – they got into the hands of Weatherall, Holloway – they were the early opinion formers when it came to music, and they played a lot of the stuff, so we were able to get the records out and they did really, really well.
Who designed the logo?
A friend of mine, Bettina Green, designed it, and it was solely because at that point I was growing my dreadlocks
So the logo is you?
It is more or less me. She designed it, and the funny thing is I still have the original little drawing that she did. It just looked raw and very different, and that was what we were looking for, it just worked.
You’ve name checked people from the early house scene – and they all broadly stayed in the house scene or maybe went to techno, but Tone Def took a different path.
Tone Def took a different path. That was partially because of my background – a combination of soul, disco and hip hop – hip hop at that point wasn’t quite hip hop – hip hop came out of electro, and when you look at the early electro like Jam on It by Newcleus, they all had hard beats, very synth based. I was shopping down in Catford and I went into a record shop and I bumped into Darren Jay, Darren and I had a long talk about stuff – at that point I’d just released a record on another label, Raw Bass, and Darren and I got together, reworked the whole thing and came up with a 4 track EP released on Tone Def under the name French Underground. After that we formed SLM together, which stood for South London Massive
Were Sound Corp you as well?
No I was out DJing and met two guys from Slough. They gave me their music and I loved it – it had such a hard, industrial sound to it, like nothing else being made. So I started releasing their music, which I love to this day.
With the Sound Corp and SLM records doing so well, at this stage had running Tone Def become a full time job?
I got it up and running, but I also had a job producing news for the BBC, and somewhere between I did a Masters in graphic multimedia.
Ha! That’s quite a different CV to most of the hardcore label bosses…
Well I just wanted to make the music. We had a 24 channel desk in my bedroom, drum machine, keyboards, all there. We did the programming at home then mastered it outside. Our cuts were being done by Nilesh. He was a legend – he passed a few years ago- there’s hardly a decent dance record from The Shaman downwards that Nils didn’t cut. If he wasn’t there, we weren’t going in to get our stuff cut. Sound Corp did all their stuff in Slough, we did all the stuff for SLM and all the remixes in London, and the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse stuff we did in Milton Keynes.
So I’m right in thinking that the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse group was you with Foul Play?
Yes, John and myself, Steve and Brad. I was playing some of the Foul Play stuff, and both my tracks and there’s were picked up for a compilation album. We met through that and decided to form a new group, which we called 4 Horsemen.
There’s been a lot of debate online about the release Drowning Her / We Are the Future – on some copies there’s a reprise of the track which has no drums on it – was that a pressing fault?
It was a pressing fault..! It was a bit of fun we were having in the studio – we stripped the beats and tinkered with it, I liked the strings and piano, which had a haunting effect, and we couldn’t get the piano high enough in the mix. There are actually one or two other versions out there. We didn’t know about it – we were pressing with a company in either Archway or Hayes, and somewhere in between they got things mixed up, There’s one version of the record that has some Sound Corp on it, and one version with that beatless version. All we were doing was picking up the records and delivering them to shops to sell, it wasn’t until later on that someone says, well my copy has got this, and you say, no it hasn’t ... There’s one I found out about last year, where people told me there was a totally different track on one of our discs and I swore blind it wasn’t, and they said it was. It was Tone Def music but I had no idea..! We just picked up the discs and delivered them to shops. We were cutting this stuff, and I don’t know if they put the wrong version on. In hindsight maybe a bit more attention should have been paid, but it was music! We were in it for the music!
There was a time we were being courted by Maverick, Madonna’s label, and we weren’t particularly bothered, we weren’t going chasing. You had Golden Boy- Goldie- who was being chased around and we said, look, we’re not in it for that. And that ran through everything we did, from the FX releases towards the end, to SLM to the Two Dreds Inna Dub stuff, it was all just us doing what we wanted to do.
Two Dreds inna Dub was you with Steve Gurley who went on to be a big garage artist
Yes – I think it was one of the last DnB things he did – I think Rogue Unit was the only drum n bass he did after. It was almost dub drum n bass what we were doing, it had that deep depth with rolling drums, it was very sparse. Do you know, I got a phone call from someone in Hong Kong telling me they heard that track being played out just before Christmas this year…!
There’s definitely still an appreciation of the Tone Def releases… some stuff on the label is getting sold for crazy money.
There are things like Dance Intelligence that wasn’t properly released – there were less than 2-300 copies put out as a white label. I had someone offer me £500 for one and I nearly sold it to him, then I said, let me check… Four Horsemen is being sold for £200 which is just bonkers. But y’know, it’s a monetary thing for some people, a collectors thing for others, and for some people it’s something to play. I’ve just taken a copy of it into my local library – I’d gone in there and they told me they had a £200 gas bill. I asked them if they sell records, they said yes, so I bought them a mint condition copy of the Four Horseman record to cover the bill… so whatever way you look at it, it still does have some value!
I like reading online what people say about the label – many people swear blind that 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse is Four Hero, and I read these things and laugh – or once in a while I’ll jump online and tell people the truth, other times I’ll just leave it.
What bought Tone Def to an end?
The BBC! They commanded so much of my frigging time…! I did a whole album of alternative stuff that was meant to support a visual project I was working on, and I got too deep into that at the expense of other things and I just pulled it all. It was drum n bass, house, ambient, it was a soundtrack – there was one track that ran for about 25 minutes . It was dark and deep, and really good, and I just got too deep into it. The BBC was commanding a lot of my time because I was in the news room. And at that point, even as much as we had done, people were asking us to do more, it was like ‘Ibiza Records are releasing something almost every week, Goldie’s got this, Suburban Base are doing that’ – I thought, this isn’t us! People were saying ‘if you release this many records, people will see your name’ and I thought no! No no no! You guys have got the total wrong idea of what we’re about – we weren’t there just to keep the wheels turning and keep our name up there. So it became something we couldn’t sustain. You’d go into shops and you’d have something from Suburban Base or one of the other labels that would cover the whole top shelf of the shop. In, say Blackmarket Records, it would cover the whole top shelf, and I felt…. Yeah maybe people were right that if we’d released something every two weeks it would have been different, but that wasn’t our gig, that wasn’t our label. We dealt with quality as opposed to handing things over on sale or return in the hope that people would be whatever. At that point people were just buying things without really listening to them.
Finally, looking back now, what are the label highlights?
If I’m looking at the energy of the label, I’d say the Sound Corp stuff. If I’m looking at the musicality and the composition of stuff I’d say Four Horsemen or Dred, if I’m looking at the programming there’s other tracks I’d look into – if I’m looking for the sheer rawness of two young people looking to make music, I’ll look to the SLM stuff – Nice n Slow is still an anthem, it’s different – I don’t think we’ve fully remixed it as it should have been, and it’s still on my mind. I’ve started putting a studio back together again because I don’t feel like we’ve finished telling this story yet…
Massive thanks to Yomi for providing the images to go with this piece!