July 15, 2014

Son Raw’s lamping with the World Cup

Before MoMA approved conceptual Sino-Grime, before transnational club tunes, and before producers started working at 130BPM, there was Oil Gang. Kicking off a string of no-holds bared releases in 2010 as Grime’s second act was just beginning, the London-based label has been a key factor in drawing attention to producers including Spooky, Darq E Freaker, Splurt Diablo, and JT The Goon. Bridging the gap between Grime’s old and new schools through his residency at Boxed, and passionately advocating Grime at his rawest, the man behind the label (also referred to as Oil Gang for simplicity’s sake) has seen it all, from nightmares in vinyl manufacturing to runaway success in the club scene. I caught up with him via Skype for an extended look at the label’s history, future, and place in a rapidly expanding musical universe. – Son Raw

First up, why don’t you introduce yourself – who are you and what in the world possessed you to start a record label in this day and age?

My name is Simon and I run a Grime label called Oil Gang. I’m originally from a small village in the West Midlands and I’ve always been totally obsessed by music. My dad has got a great record collection, so I grew up around that – funk and soul really. I really liked Hip-Hop when I was young, Mobb Deep, Wu Tang, Capone & Noreaga, stuff like that but then the first genre that really grabbed me to be honest was Drum & Bass around 95. I became fully obsessed, I was just about to take a sound engineering course around Cambridge for Uni at the time and I found a record shop around there with loads of drum and bass records and flyers and that was it. I met loads of people, started DJing around Uni and that. All my mates were fully into it, so we’d go down to London for Bluenote [the legendary Metalheadz night at the club of the same name] for nights or a local one called Warning. That’s all I listened to for years and years. Then Garage kicked off and I liked it… but it wasn’t something I was fully into. It was something my friends bought and we’d listen to it after coming back from Drum & Bass raves, just chilling around the house.

A few years later, So Solid and Mo Fire came out and it got more interesting but it wasn’t until I started hearing Big$hot and Wiley records that I was like, yep – this is it. BBC 1Xtra at the time was pretty much on it with Richie Vibe Vee, Femme Fatale & Ja Da Flex so I could hear some interesting new music there, and I also rated Slimzee’s Street Beats mix, which was massive. Eventually I moved down to London to do some work with Arsenal, started going to the clubs and meeting people at labels like No Hats No Hoods, and other people who were just starting like Elijah and it sort of went from there, really!

You mentioned BBC 1Xtra, were you also listening to pirates at the time?

Nah, not out in the countryside. You couldn’t get it at all out there at the time. There was a magazine called RWD and at the back, they had a list of all the big tunes. I’d just write out lists and go on the Internet to see what I could order from shops, or see what I could pick up in Birmingham. Just hoovering up as much Grime as I possibly could.

When did you start DJing? Was that already going down?

A lot of my friends back home were Hip Hop DJs and I’d just ask them how they did it. Hip-Hop and Drum & Bass really. I tried to mix Hip-Hop, they were all scratch DJs, doubling up and everything. I’d have a go – I wasn’t amazing but then I got into it properly through Drum & Bass. That’s why my mixing now, it’s more sort of blends – finding two tunes that work together. I don’t really do the chopping stuff. I love listening to it – particularly guys like Spooky and Grandmixxer but I’m more into blends really.

That’s always interesting that there isn’t that one fixed style of mixing in Grime like you get in other styles. Some people came through it from Dancehall, others Drum & Bass or Garage.

Definitely, I think that adds to it. Down at Boxed, we don’t have the same style all night. I might do more blends and then Spooky will come on and chop the fuck out of everything. I like the variety.

You mentioned that when you started the label, you met No Hats No Hoods and Elijah from Butterz, but there weren’t very many instrumentals coming out at the time. Other than the odd Maniac CD…

Not really. Logan Sama was putting stuff out on Adamantium and Earth 616, he had two different labels, but No Hats No Hoods were the main ones. Butterz was just starting. When I met Elijah he was just kicking it off and I thought – yeah, if he can do it, I can! It was a bit of a risk but you never really know until you give it a go.

How did those first few releases come together? What was the learning curve?

The first record we put out with Spooky, that one was pretty straightforward. When I picked up the test presses I was really excited and I went straight to Hackney to meet him. He pulled one out and went… “Yep – the A-Side’s on both sides”. Fuck knows how they did that, but that got sorted, the release came out and it did really well actually. The second one, those were just mad tunes I was really into. The Splurt Diablo The Return VIP is fucking insane, you know? Then Mr Mitch put me in touch with Darq E Freaker who did his Rhythm n Slags bit. It was just a collection of tunes that I really liked. It didn’t sell well that one, I think it’s still in stock if anyone wants a copy. but for me that was a perfect Grime record that had everything I really liked. I mean, Over Capacity – I stopped playing that for a while and Slackk played it recently and I was like “Fucking hell! It sounds amazing, still!” I love that tune.

Murderer and Over Capacity are the two off those early records that I’m still up on. I remember Butterz when they were still bloggers, they put out a mix for some website and Murderer was the first instrumental Grime tune I heard that blew my mind.

Elijah’s always been really helpful and positive – putting tunes in mixes and getting me down at Butterz. Him and Skilliam both.

From there, the label’s gone on to put out a lot of people who’ve had strong careers. Darq E Freaker in particular, he’d had some success as part of Nu Brand Flexxx but things really picked up after Next Hype, and the Cherryade EP that you put out kept that momentum going.

I’d heard of him from Next Hype, which a lot of people weren’t too aware he produced. Then he did an EP with Avalanche and the guys who used to run Rhythm Division. From there, I just became obsessed with his music and got to know him a little bit. He didn’t live too far from me. Then one day I was watching some Youtube videos and there was one with a group of MC’s, they were just about to go perform at a night in Shoreditch. They were just hanging around and freestyling over Darq E Freaker tunes on a car stereo and Cherryade came on. I was like “WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?” you know? I had to have that, spoke to him, got it sorted and it sold out really quickly. That was our best seller, it was really cool with the red vinyl and the label looked like a bottle of fizzy drink. I probably should have repressed that one, it would have sold again but I wasn’t really that organized. 300 copies, they all went.

Do you do all the graphic design work yourself?

Yeah, that’s something I always did. The first Spooky one was really basic. It’s because I was doing a lot of corporate design at the time so I decided to keep it simple. And then the second one, because it was called the Quadrant EP I decided to split it into four. If you look at that, do you remember an old game called Simon Says? a toy…


Yeah, because my name’s Simon… I’ve never actually told anyone that. And then, with Cherryade, I thought “Fuck it – let me showcase some of my art here.” I started bugging out from there, really.

The labels gotten a lot more complex, from the original 8 bit character to the latest JT pitbull drawing, which has pretty much become his defacto visual identity.

The original Oil Gang logo is from an old handheld computer game. I robbed their character and redrew it in illustrator but then, around the Darq E Freaker release I started phasing it out – I realized I didn’t want to steal someone’s logo, as a graphic designer. I’ve recently redrawn a new design, which I’ll probably be bringing in after Oilgang010. I’ve been looking at a lot of designs from Casablanca Records which is an old disco label, my dad owns loads of their stuff. That’s been inspiring me and giving me ideas. I’ll probably start using that idea around record #11.

Anyways, after Cherryade there was a massive gap. Everything was going wrong really. I had a Spooky EP called Darkside, which had 4 sick tunes but then Spooky had a computer failure and lost EVERYTHING. Then I was supposed to do another one with Darq E Freaker, we had the main tune sorted but it never went anywhere in the end. At that point I figured the label was over. I was alright with that, I mean, I put out of couple of records and had a go at it, but there was one tune Spooky wrote called Coolie Joyride that was just amazing. I just wouldn’t shut up about it – every time me and Slackk would go out we’d get drunk and ask Spooky to give us the tune… he must have thought we were idiots. But then one day he said that he’d remade Coolie Joyride and I knew I just had to put it out. So I don’t think the label would have gone on if it hadn’t been for Spooky.

What do you mean by “remaking” it?

Back when producers were originally writing in the old days, they weren’t really thinking about sound quality too much. Tunes were made from Youtube rips or low quality MP3s – that’s why a lot of Grime tunes online are in shit quality. I think 160KBPS was the default output for Reason or Fruityloops? I’m not sure. No one was thinking about bouncing things out to WAV anyway. It was Grime! That’s why lots of tunes got lost with old computers and there’s only shit quality versions around.

The funny thing is, the place where I get records pressed is a big Reggae cutting-house. On Oilgang001, there was a massive sample [Murderer] and I was chatting to the engineer on the phone when he jumped in and asked me if I had permission to use it. I hadn’t given it any thought and said I figured it wouldn’t be a problem… turns out his boss owns the rights to the tune we sampled! I had literally gone to the guy who owned the bloody copyright. Thankfully, they didn’t care, I was pressing up 300 records and I wasn’t making a fortune. He was just winding me up. A few years later, Spooky got the original samples Coolie Joyride was made from, rebuilt it, changed one thing in the intro and that was it… and it was the same thing, they knew the people who owned the sample! Again, it didn’t matter but that’s why the remix EP we put out afterwards is white label only, I didn’t want to push my luck.

I was wondering why that one never came out digitally!

We probably could have got away with it but you know what? I was really taking the piss there. I don’t really mind, it’s part of Grime, do what you want but… some people do own that copyright and they may not look at it the same way as me. And I liked that it was vinyl-only anyways, it made it quite special. I still get a lot of grief from people because everyone wants the Murlo remix in digital.

I’m guilty of trying to get a really clean vinyl-rip of that one.

I mean, I could keep the whole label vinyl-only but there’s no point. The amount of people who buy vinyl is really small and I don’t want to narrow the market for the producers. Most people these days want MP3s for their phones or WAVs to play out. I use WAVs when I play out myself. That one had to stay on vinyl though.

That’s the funny thing with vinyl-only music. Even the big DJs I see playing out are rarely dragging out records. It’s only the Bristol lot that are really on it from what I can tell.

Yeah, that’s cool if that’s what they want to do. They sell out instantly and it’s great for them but for me, I want to put it out for however many people want to buy it.

You mentioned some challenging releases… what was the hardest one? The hardest part of running the label.

The Splurt Diablo release, J3. Everything went wrong. We had a great plan to do orange vinyl and I loved the tunes but it was just cursed. First the record was phasing which means the needle wouldn’t stay in the groove if we pressed it to wax, so we had to redo the mixdown. Then the printer messed up the labels by using the wrong paper… twice. Then we finally get the records back and all 300 records jump, basically. What happened was a cutting tool at the plant wasn’t sharp and added a little bump at the edge of each record. Everything going through Music House at the time, I think 6 releases, was a dud. The actual pressing plant had to fix the equipment and re do it all, but I’m only pressing 300 records so I’m not at the front of the queue. Then finally we did it again and some black ink had got in with the orange so it was just an ugly, dirty pressing. I’d had enough at this point, but finally we got it right and it came out. It’s still a sick record and I still play it out, but that was not a good experience.

Wow. And here I was complaining that it wasn’t coming out because there was such a huge delay in between hearing it on Rinse and the release.

Nothing’s instant. Sure you’ve got the A-side tune but then you need a B-side, you need to mix everything down, getting it mastered… it’s a long process. But that one was just mistake after mistake after mistake and there’s nothing you can do. There’s no urgency in it unfortunately. It just took so long.

On a more positive tip, that was a bit of a rough time but today Boxed has been going on for a year now. In terms of press and attention, it’s been a success to say the least. Has launching the night affected the label in any way?

No not really. I really like what I like and there’s a specific style that I’m into personally. But the reason Boxed works is that it’s not just my style of music. It’s the whole spectrum and everyone’s different. We don’t try to book one style.

The reason we started Boxed was that Slackk and I were doing a night called Maybach with Altered Natives and Tom Lea. We were playing a lot Grime tunes but there were no real vocals to play. You’d get the odd tune and then another one six months later, so instead we were playing a lot American Hip-Hop that was around the same tempo. It went down quite well in the club, but then London went Trap mental and it got flooded. We just went “fuck this” – everyone was doing Trap nights. But then Slackk was really enthusiastic about doing one that was all Grime, just at a standard bar that would give us a budget, and maybe we could make a little bit of money if the bar did well.

We did the first one in Peckham and it did OK… there was like 40 people there or whatever. Thing is, the club was BIG so it looked empty. Actually I was quite happy – like “Oh, wicked! 40 people came to listen to stuff that we like.” Let’s just say they didn’t want us back there. A waitress actually told me that it was the worst music she’d ever heard in her life! They hated it, didn’t make much money so that was whatever. But then Wiley was supposed to do a night at Plastic People and he canceled it on the day, we were joking around like “we should do it!” But then, Slackk, who is very motivated, actually got on the phone and made it happen. So we did our second one at Plastic People, which was insane. It wasn’t full but it did better than the first so there was momentum. Then I think we did one in Brixton in South London cause that’s close to where we live but it was pretty dead to be honest with you, so we realized we needed to go to East London where the people are. We did our 4th one at Birthdays in Dalston and that did REALLY well and it’s been on a roll from there.

That was around when we did Boxed Volume 1, the compilation. We sorted it out in one night, did a bit of artwork for it and it just went mental. People all over the world were writing about it, which is nuts to me to be honest. Now the nights are rammed, the people hear it and they like it. They actually come back, I see the same faces and people are loving it.

I’m still convinced that if you pressed Boxed Volume 1 as a limited edition CD, it would sell out. In terms of presenting the music to people as a whole, that was genius. That was the first package where I was able to tell people “Check this out. This is a whole scene.”

A lot of the Grime compilations are shit. Some of the tunes aren’t even Grime, so we thought – “right, we know all of these producers who have amazing music, let’s put an email out”. Thankfully everyone was really generous. Everyone gave a top quality tune. We didn’t want any filler. It doesn’t have to be your very best but it has to be high grade. Same with the second compilation: no filler! No shit tunes! It has to be good all the way through. Sure, not everything on there I play personally but I’m quite happy to sit down and listen to it.

I think it definitely works on that level. There’s always 4-5 on each one that I want to play. It’s actually hard sometimes because I want to use so many of them but don’t want my mixes to draw so much from one compilation!

That’s what we wanted. You might not like all 20 tracks but there’s gonna be 5-6-7 that you’re going to love depending on your tastes. Everyone’s got little connections. I can talk to JT, talk to Dullah and Slackk’s got his label, so does Mitch. That’s how it works really.

What do you have coming up next?

We’ve got Boxed coming up every month! By the time this is printed we’ll have had an edition with JT The Goon. He’s one of the most positive people I know and he’s just on it. I’ll be playing back to back with him. As far as the label, Novelist’s Sniper EP was out on the 7th of July on digital and vinyl. Both at the same time, which is a first for me! Then we’ve got a Murlo/JT split EP at the pressing plant so that should be good to go soon. It’s got Garden of Eden, which will forever be one of my favorite Grime tunes, an un-named collaboration, Murlo’s Twin Warriors remix and a Murlo tune called Cold Strike. Then after that, it’s JT’s album… I’m testing the tunes out in the clubs right now. He’s just got so much good music. No one had ever released any of his stuff before but this guy’s a genius. I’ve picked out 12 tracks, which I think are his very best, and I really look forward to people hearing that. Finally, to end the year, we’ll be releasing an incredible EP by Dullah Beatz who’s become another good friend of mine. One of the tracks for the EP is called Oil Gang, which he wrote specifically for me, so that’ll be nice!

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