After focusing on Production House last week, it made sense to follow up by looking at that other titanic hardcore label – Suburban Base. 2014 saw the Suburban Base back catalogue finally get an offical digital revamp, with the label bringing out a box set revisiting a host of their greatest cuts – and what cuts…! Alongside undisputed classics such as Remarc's Mad Cobra sampling killer 'R.I.P.', there were a host of lesser known gems – the hard rave pop of Rachel Wallace's 'Tell Me Why', the crazy jump up of DJ SS's remix of Cutty Ranks, everything from Phuture Assassins – to be fair it's all good, and comes wrapped in the amazing Dave Nodz artwork that gives Sub Base it's iconic look.
Label owner Danny Donnelly has avoided doing press on Suburban Base for years, having several other projects that he's wanted to focus on – not least of which being his current job as a Hollywood based film producer. However, with the release of the Sub Base box set he's started to reflect on those early days, and I jumped at the chance to talk to him about setting up the label – what followed was a Skype interview that covered everything from nearly getting nicked with a young Andy C to discovering DJ Marky in Sao Paolo. Props to Donnelly for being so forthcoming …!
What was the impetus that got you to kick the label off in the first place?
Really it was because I opened a record store, not very long before I started the label. As a youngster I was always a keen record collector and I was doing a little bit of pirate radio and I was doing parties around East London.
What were the first records you were collecting?
I was into your soul funk, rare groove sort of stuff – I started collecting that sort of music and really getting into the breakbeats that were being used in hip-hop records, so I became a bit of a geeky collector who would try to identify where the breaks come from, finding the original source for all the hip-hop records that I loved. My sister, 3 years older than me, was into that jazz-funk scene in the 80s and there was that late 80s rare groove scene, just before the spark of the acid house era and that sort of thing. I was on the cusp of being a soul boy and being a raver. I opened my record store, Boogie Times, in Romford when I was 17 years old, and then the label came about because the only way of competing with the other dance music specialists was to have exclusive stock. So I was calling around trying to get copies of these records that I’m hearing on pirate radio stations and they’re like ‘oh no, we’ve sold that exclusively to Blue Bird or to City Sounds’ or one of those kind of stores,so I couldn’t get them. We converted my mum and dad’s garage into a studio and started making our own records, it was friends and customers that came through the store, we put them in there, giving them a bit of time in there and pressing up 500-1000 white labels, keeping them in the store exclusively and that’s where the label came from really, a need to have exclusive stock for the shop initially.
How did you afford to do that at 17?
I was a little bit of a ducker and diver, trading for a while. I was going round second hand shops, buying old records and selling them out of a record bag around town and various other things. My dad owned a small grocery store in Stratford, East London, and I’d go to the cash and carry with him and buy chocolate bars and bits and pieces and sell them at school. I was trading at a really young ages, undercutting the tuck shop at school. I was building up a little bit of money which was allowing me to buy records and I built up a big record collection and when I wanted to start the store I sold off quite a lot of those records. It was the era of the rare grooves. I could go to a charity shop, find a record, buy it for 10p and sell it for £10. Quite the trainspotter, finding those rare records and breakbeats.Obviously the breakbeats served me well later on as breakbeat raves became jungle and drum’n’bass, that’s how they developed really.
You had that foundation in the breakbeat scene already so you had a fairly solid knowledge right from the start.
I had the breakbeat knowledge from a trainspotter point of view – I knew which beats were being used in hip-hop records. I got a small bank loan and it was completely in my name but my dad had to sign as a guarantor, obviously due to my age, and I was able to start the store having sold off a load of my possessions. I got the store open and it did well and I managed to pay off that loan within the first year and I’ve never had to borrow money for business ever since.
What year was this?
Now you’re going to work out how old I am, that’s terrible… It opened in ’89, on the cusp of 1990 and the label was by 1991. Within a year I started doing a few white labels for the store and started handing them to friends of mine on pirate radio stations. The demand grew so that I then ended up selling them out of the back of my car to other stores around London. The next logical step was going to get some proper distribution so by 1991 the label was there, we had the first release on Suburban Bass by ’91.
The whites you were doing before then, was there a label for them or were they pre-Suburban Base?
A lot of them were just white label that I would hand-stamp. I’ve got one of those little stamp kits, you put your own letters in a line and stamp them up. It was a hand-drawn Boogie Times label that we did for a while and then when we got a distribution deal we realised we had to come up with a name and a logo and that was Suburban Base.
Was that with Dave Nodz doing the artwork?
Yes, he was just a customer coming in the store and he was just hanging out, we used to call them counter-groupies – the people who’d just be hanging around the counter. It was a real nice vibe at that time and in the scene generally. We’d make friends with people that were hanging out and Dave was one of those. He showed us some of his artwork and I asked if he’d do a couple of bits for us and then I gave him a full time position. He came on board and was working solely for us and he was in the office doing artwork and generally helping me run the office.
The artwork is such a fundamental kind of thing when you think about Suburban Base, the imagery was so strong with it… With the white labels, what sort of runs were you doing with these?
Well that’s why it became quite big, I wanted to just run my little shop and have some exclusive stock for my shop but as soon as these hit the pirate radio stations they became runaway successes so we’re putting out 5,000-8,000 on a run that I just thought was going to be 1,000 – sticking a couple of hundred in my shop and across town and that was it. But repressing and repressing, there were a few about. Some of them were very low numbers, some of the first ones as I was learning what I was doing. Very low numbers. The Son'z Of A Loop Da Loop Era track came out on Boogie Times and then we had to re-issue it on Suburban Base. That one we just kept repressing because it became big so we re- released it and then it became a top 40 record.
You were in this mad time in England in ’89 during the house explosion, if you look at the development of music there it’s super-fast how quick it’s changing. During this process did you ever think ‘this is mental’ or was it too quick to even notice?
It was too quick to notice, the thing you need to remember is that we were part of that -that was what was so exciting about it. It wasn’t following a trend or where it was going, we were an integral part of creating the pace at which it was changing. None of the people that came in the studio were necessarily trained musicians but they were all producers and DJs and they had an ear for what they wanted to rave to. Things evolved with us and a few other labels at such a rapid pace, that was what was exciting about it. That was what was so fresh. We’d all go in the studio and try and outdo each other, we’d all try to come out with a sound that would work. We’d be working during the week in the shop or in the studio and then we’d press up a dub plate and we’d hear the song that we made that weekend. it was that fast. Everyone was trying to find the new sound and develop it.
Raves were at a point where you would hear a hip-hop record, hip-house, Italio-rave to breakbeat and there wasn’t really a drum’n’bass scene, it was breakbeat raves and then it developed. It came from our influences, a lot of us were hip-hop fans so we were into that breakbeat sound but we were into going out to the rave parties so it was a combination of those two sounds.
Everyone was making stuff in your own studio then?
The majority of them were in the Sub Bass studio. At that time not everybody had a set-up at home, it wasn’t like it is now. A couple of people had some stuff but the kit was more expensive.
Do you remember what the set-up was?
Yeah, it was pretty basic. It was the Atari SD computer, Akai 950s, quite a few analogue keyboards – a Korg, an SH-101, a moog and very limited sample time on an S950, later upgraded to an S1000.
One of the things about Sub Bass is that the quality of production is really high, with a lot of old rave records you can hear that the ideas are wicked, but they haven’t necessarily got the mastering to them or the pressing – and then there are a few labels like yours where across the board it’s been high quality loud pressings, was there one guy doing it?
Yeah, I don’t know where I got it from. Obviously I was really young and just learning as I went along but instinctively I knew about the artwork and I knew about branding and I knew about quality and the thing that made us stand out was that I was doing things properly – I went from selling the records myself to getting a distribution deal, doing it properly, making sure I paid my taxes and it was all above board while a lot of people were trying to do things shady. Quality was a big part of that. I would always attend every single mastering session for every record we did. A lot of people would send off their DATs to the pressing plant and then from the DAT tape they’d get their 1,000 records back. I would attend whether it was Porky’s mastering or The Exchange up in Camden, I’d sit in with the mastering engineer when we’re actually cutting to press and I’d be like ‘we need to boost the bass a little bit’, we’d do a final EQ. We had the engineer in the studio and we’d try and push it as much as we can and we’d crank up the bass or level out the top and we’d do a flat version as well and see what they could do in the mastering house. I think it was crucial, attending every session rather than sending off your DATs. So I got to know all the mastering guys as well.
All the artists you were working with were coming from the rave scene- which in many ways was a rebel scene at the time. You seem quite a straight down the line kind of guy, from what you’re telling me you were this super-organised 17 year old running your own shop, but you’d be dealing with people who, I’m assuming, might edge to the side of flaky.
Is there anyone you remember as being a particularly difficult person to work with?
On my label or generally? I’m not going to name names but yeah, most people weren’t really businessmen. They were making records for fun. We didn’t know that we’d still be talking about it 25-30 years later. We were making records for fun because we wanted to go out and party to them. I would’ve worked in music or ran my record shop whether it made money or not because it was my life, I just had to. The fact that I had this very logical brain that can problem solve and see what needs to be done instinctively, that works for me in business now beyond Suburban Bass, having this instinct of ‘right, this is what you do’. I left school at 16 but I’ve run some very successful companies and brands.
It’s always been very instinctive to me, everything I did with Suburban Bass made it one of the strongest brands from that era. We launched the clothing thing, we were one of the first and biggest that really marketed record bags and jackets and everyone else followed suit but it was all a branding exercise. I wouldn’t have referred to it as that at the time but everything was instinct.
It’s interesting to me because in many ways what you represented was the Thatcherite dream of the 80s coming to fruition – you were young and building something.
Yeah, it’s funny that…
There was this whole Conservative dream of England at the time but the whole rave scene you were in was completely outside of that and was almost legislated against.
Yeah, I was building a business but I don’t think the Conservative government would have seen it like that and I’m not sure if I’d have wanted them to! You’ve got to remember that at the same time we were also DJing on pirate radio stations. I remember that government wanted to shut down raves and we had to break into venues to put on parties. There was a whole legislation about what time clubs should close and drink licenses and club licenses and the whole idea of all-night parties didn’t exist before that era – we had to fight for that. It was rebellious, it was very political because we had to fight to be able to put on all-night parties and have the scene that we’ve got now, to have dance music as huge as it is globally now – and as you know I’m over in LA now and EDM has blown up and ismainstream in the US now. That stems back to that period when we had to fight to even be able to put on these all-night parties. Now it’s just normal, everyone goes to 2-3 day raves but back then it was a big deal.
You even released a track by Smart E’s that’s called ‘Fuck The Law’. There’s no beating around the bush! Did you have many, or any, problems with the old bill when you were running the label and doing the raves?
Not with the label, not with the store, it was all very much a legitimate business – you have to run things properly – but in a more general sense, as a young man going out partying with the people that were coming through our store, we all got hassled for no good reason.Having parties shut down when there’s nothing but good vibes. I remember being taken into the back of a police van outside the Paradise Club in North London – I was with a very young Andy C, taking him to his first raves. We got taken to the back of a police van and we were searched, they threatened to strip search us and some of the guys amongst us did get stripped searched. They were just hassling us. The media had created this acid house monster idea that it was kids strung out on drugs and it was going to kill the nation, that isn’t what was happening from our perspective. It was more about unity and positivity. You saw the end of football violence and races and peoples coming together in more of an act of unity.
Going back to the Sub Base label, you got a lot of criticism for Sesame’s Treat but at the same time that was a massive crossover hit. Before you put it out, were you aware that it was going to be a big controversial thing or was it just business as usual?
No, what you have to remember is that everyone was playing it. There was a backlash because it became so big. Up until that point it was all happy, silly music that was being played. That record was originally on the Boogie Times label and it was the B side of a 4 track EP. It was never meant to blow up like that, it was one track amongst four and it was a B side. Radio picked up on it and started hammering it, the raves picked up on it and it was being played. Anyone that had anything negative to say about it, they all played it initially.
Absolute hypocrites! Prodigy did Charlie Says, they were big rave scene records. It was before the rave scene really started taking itself so serious and that’s where the backlash came because all of a sudden people were taking themselves very seriously. A few years later people took themselves so seriously it wasn’t fun any more. At that point it was a big record by accident, we released it as an A side and all of a sudden it’s number one in three or four countries. I’m not going to apologise for a record that takes on a life of its own. It was bigger than me and the label. After that, every record we made was very credible and cool and I don’t think it damaged us particularly.
Did you feel a little bit obliged to put out something next that was just showing the other side of you?
Yeah, but as you touched on in the first place the scene was moving so quickly and that was part of it. That became one big record that was a big happy record and then things changed and it went a bit darker and then it went more ragga, so it became the jungle kind of genre. At that point you saw a split, a lot of the guys that were in the scene with us went happy hardcore, a lot of them went jungle and we went jungle because we were always a bit more seriously and musically more into our hip-hop and those kind of sounds. From that point, you had the birth of the happy hardcore scene and the birth of the jungle scene.
Moving into 1993, was there a first tune you heard that sounded like ‘this is the new thing’? Was there one thing you could isolate as not being ‘hardcore’ any more?
No, not really. Our second release had ragga samples in it, it was always part of us – the rare groove samples, the ragga samples, the hip-hop breakbeats. It was just an evolution. You’ve got to remember that I wasn’t hearing this going ‘oh look, that’s jungle, let’s do that now’. We were part of its evolution. There were things coming out of my studio that were progressively becoming more and more like that sound until someone adopted a name and it became a genre in its own right. All of these things, for me, just naturally evolved. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to do that now, we were part of the evolution so it was all very natural, the way it came about.
Do you remember any particular producers who were pushing things forward?
On the Jungle side of things? On my label Remarc was exceptional and a very good friend, DJ Hype was very important to the label in those early days, we put out all of his first releases. He was important because he had the pirate radio show on Fantasy and introduced other acts to the label. With the time-stretching and all these innovative ideas, he was an integral part of that. He was actually one of the first people to use the time stretching technique.
You had such a prolific period from ’91-’95 but then it dropped off, what was the reasoning?
Well that was part of the scene taking itself so seriously, as I touched on earlier. For me, I got into it because it was fun, we were all going out raving together, working together. There was what a lot of people laughingly call ‘scene politics’ and for me it was, on a personal level, I couldn’t be bothered with it. I always said that I’d keep doing it as long as I was enjoying it. People thought it was a very odd decision to stop and close down the label when, at that point, we were still selling as many records as we ever had and getting lots of licensing and getting touring offers and all sorts. I had other challenges I wanted to face, I’d done it for all those years. The reason I loved the scene was because it was so innovative, fast-paced and fast moving and I like new challenges, I don’t rest on my laurels. That’s why I hadn’t re-released any of the catalogue in so many years, in ’97 we stopped pressing and that was it. There were other things that I wanted to do and I wanted to go on, I was doing the compilation albums on my own label – the Sub Base offshoot called Breakdown – and I had other ideas in other genres. I went on and created the Pure album brand with Pure Garage and Pure R’n’B which became the biggest selling urban album brands that the UK has ever had to this day, we just released Pure Deep House this year. More recently I moved into doing movies as well but in that period it was about setting myself new personal challenges rather than dragging it out. I could have kept the label going half-heartedly while I did other things but it was so loved and so well respected I thought we’d be doing it an injustice to have it limp along so I thought ‘OK, stop releasing, close that down’ and I moved on. The proof is in the pudding, I’ve created even more successful, bigger brands since then.
There’s often talk of a somewhat shadowy jungle committee who had an influence over the scene, was that something you were aware of?
Yeah, I attended some meetings. It definitely happened. It wasn’t really too serious, nothing was ever decided from a meeting like that but people would get together and discuss where the scene was going and how to maintain it. This was quite early on, during the jungle period, when people would try and get together.
Where would you meet up?
I remember meeting up over in Hackney somewhere, might have been JTS Pressing House or somewhere like that. It happened, there was nothing particularly sinister about it. People attended maybe 1 or 2 meetings and then it just fizzled out, people didn’t bother turning up to the next one because nothing constructive happened. That’s all part of people taking themselves too seriously- just make some records and have some fun! The meetings are always about the music and innovation and I continue to not look back. It’s only over the last year or so, not even that, that I’ve done interviews about Suburban Bass because we’ve digitalised the whole back catalogue. I didn’t do that until now because I just didn’t want to keep looking back, I’ve done so much else in my career as well as that and I want to keep moving forward because that’s what the music was about. When you get to the point where your stuff is being illegally downloaded, there’s no artist protection because people are ripping it off, then if you can’t beat them, join them. Let’s put out decent quality versions of this and then at least there’s a route for the artist getting paid and there are legitimate copies out there. That’s when I realised how much love for it there still is.
Interestingly, this column gets read by the guys in Chicago making Footwork music, one of my friends over here has a link with them, and loads of them are getting into the old UK hardcore stuff. It’s funny because obviously it was so influenced by American hip-hop and now it’s going on to influence American underground once again, it’s a never-ending cycle.
Yeah, it was influenced by that but honestly there were so many influences. For us, it felt like it was more influence by hip-hop than it was Chicago house but obviously that was there as a template for the house music scene, acid house, whatever they wanted to call it initially. It’s interesting that people are looking back, it was a big label – one of the big ones from the scene. You’ve got to remember that we brought it to America as well, Suburban Base was the first ever UK rave label with a distribution deal in the US. With EDM blowing up the way it is now, I’ve got a history here because I signed the first ever label deal in the US for any UK rave label, I signed the first ever deal in South America, I discovered DJ Marky in Sao Paolo.
Did you? I didn’t know – I saw his first gig in England, it was quite something.
I was in a record store in Sao Paolo and I met this kid that knew more about my label than I did and he released 3 albums on Suburban Bass Brazil, we had a distribution down there with BMG so we took the music there as well. I also had the first record deal for South East Asia and for the US and I signed the first US Drum’n’Bass artists, Diesel Boy and all those guys were working with us from very very early. I kind of globally exported drum’n’bass and helped spread it so bringing it back to the US now, the EDM scene being what it is, we played our part in breaking dance music here – along with a lot of other labels that came over and made their impact, we played a part.
I heard a rumour that you were involved at the moment in making the film of 'Kill Your Friends', is that true?
Erm, no. I don’t know where you heard that from! I know the writer, John Niven, he’s a guy that used to be an A&R man at London Records during the 90s, we went and partied and whatever. A lot of the stories in there are anecdotes that me and my friends would repeat, we were there at a lot of the stories, obviously it’s fictionalised but I was certainly involved in a lot of the shenanigans that went on. I’m not making the film. I do make movies now but that’s not one of them.
I don’t know where that’s come from then…
I think people make the assumption because they know that I know John and that I make movies. I’ve released 4 feature films in the UK, that’s another reason for being over here – I’ve got 2 feature films that are going to be shooting at the end of the year, it looks like I’m going to do a joint venture with Elijah Wood’s company to shoot something in Thailand which is very much music based and I’ve got another really big movie with an A-list actor that I can’t really talk about right now. Let’s do an interview 6 months from now and it’ll be a scoop!
I might hold you to that! Obviously the source material is rich from the raving days, would you ever consider making a film of it?
I’ve been asked to a lot, for my money films about music don’t really work. Films about the rave scene I can’t imagine working that well. With the next film I’m doing it’s a good film with a good script that has music as a backdrop to it so it’s in the setting of the film but it would work if the music element wasn’t in there. If we’re talking about a movie that uses the music of that period as a backdrop, then yes, but doing a film about it specifically, no – I think there needs to be a really solid script, real good character development and themes regardless of whether it is rock music, rave music or no music at all. The next one is really interesting, it’ll be set at a rave, it’s more of a thriller/horror but with the backdrop of music. We’ve got Paul Oakenfeld doing the scoring and writing some original music for it, doing the music supervision. There’ll be a great soundtrack and we’re meaning to release the album from it, Elijah Wood’s company is looking at doing the joint venture with us so that could be an interesting world.
What do you listen to these days?
Personally I’m listening to all sorts. If I’m listening to dance music it makes me think of work all the time so when I come home I’ll listen to jazz and soul because it’s completely away from what I do work-wise. In the car, I really like dubstep and I like deep house, soulful house and we’ve got quite a successful album this year with Pure Deep House. I really enjoyed the dubstep scene when it evolved from the UK but when it came over here and became something else, noisier, not so much. That’s taken off a little bit now. But I’m still an old soul boy, I listen to all the old classics.
So finally, what are your favourite Suburban Bass tracks?
Oh God… Putting me on the spot here! I wish I had the catalogue in front of me. It would be more the people I enjoyed working with. I loved the music from King Of The Jungle, which was DJ Dextrous, and Rude Boy Keith – they made some really great music. I liked the Remarc stuff, I toured with him a few times so we spent a lot of time together. Danny Breaks… All these guys were friends first and artists second. It was nice to see them and help them progress. I can’t think of one specific song…