Every Base Covered: An interview with Local Action’s Tom Lea

Son Raw talks with Tom Lea about turning his record picks into a label, his thoughts on release schedules, and what getting verified on Twitter can do for your business.
By    October 5, 2015


Photo Credit: Arianna Power

Local Action was my favorite label of 2014 thanks to a lineup of releases that covered every base in UK music last year – from weird instrumental long players (Slackk, Yamaneko) to emerging Boxed affiliated club bangers (Inkke, Finn, Shriekin) to up-tempo house mutations (DJ Q, Lil Jabba). Since then, they’ve continued growing along with the UK’s latest generation, throwing emcees into the mix, collaborating across genres and supporting a production roster eager to stretch its wings. Ahead of the label’s Corsica Studios takeover with Clock Strikes 13, I caught up with label head Tom Lea to discuss the label’s origins, evolution, and the importance of Dipset. — Son Raw

What was the original impetus for the label? I know it was originally done through [London record store] Phonica before separating entirely to become your own thing, but what was your goal when you started it?

Tom Lea: Because Fact’s Offices were in the same building as Phonica, I would buy a lot of records there and I’d advise the store on purchases – particularly UKFunky since they were more of a house, disco, and techno store. They wanted to know which ones would sell. After a while, out of the blue they asked if I wanted to do a label to which I obviously said yes. I wanted to do a label for a while but I didn’t know how to do it. They covered the costs and they had the links to make it really easy.

In terms of the impetus, it was the classic desire to start a label without having any clue what to put out. I spoke to a few people about releases, including [current Local Action artist] Deadboy, funny enough, who all agreed to releases, but I quickly realized I wouldn’t get their best material. Deadboy, for example, would have given his best stuff to NUMBERS and so on. And I didn’t want to be one of those labels that gets big off other people’s artists. There are these labels that release material by artists who made it big on other labels, but it never feels like a home for them – and I realized I didn’t want to do that.

Anyways, I was playing out a lot of [London House producer] T Williams’ tunes at the time, as were a lot of other people like Bok Bok and Slackk. He had these 4 tracks that he was going to release through his own label Deep Teknologi, which would be digital only. I asked if he’d be interested in releasing on wax through us and he ended up becoming the early driving force of the label with 4 of our first 10 records.

At that point the UK was really shifting back towards house.

TL: All of those great UKFunky records were coming out and a lot of people surrounding dubstep dropped the tempo in their sets to play them. It was simple as that.

In terms of your own background in music – was that type of UK house mutation what you grew up on?

TL: I was really into garage. I was into loads of stuff – hip-hop, weirder stuff like Swans, but you couldn’t grow up in London without either being really into garage or hating it. That was when Kiss overtook Virgin and Capital as the biggest radio station on the FM dial. they were the station really pushing garage. They were playing loads of garage on the breakfast show and not just the hits by MJ Cole or the Streets. You’d hear records by say, Tuff Jam. I’d have been in secondary school then so I was way too young to go to garage nights but I’d download sets on Kazaa. I didn’t even realize they were sets – I didn’t know that’s how it worked. I’d download 45-minute Heartless Crew files and I thought they were concerts.

From then, it turned into grime, but I didn’t consciously know it was getting called that. I knew it when the Wiley and Roll Deep stuff was popping off but around So Solid everyone was still calling it garage. That’s what got me into the whole music writing thing because I took a year out of school and I was looking at websites like Pitchfork and Stylus and you had a couple of articles on grime there, and on blogs by guys like Woebot and I thought that was really cool. It was interesting that there was this niche intellectual discourse about this music, that there was a community where you could talk about Ruff Squad in what was in hindsight, an overly analytical way. That’s when I started writing a blog about some of that stuff in early 2005 and when I started buying records as well, to play this college radio show. Before that it was just Kazaa and Limewire.

Being able to access music is such a crucial thing. My development mirrored what you were saying about Limewire, except with say Ruff Ryders and Rocafella. That’s just what you listened to if you were 13-24.

TL: To be fair, we were listening to that at school as well – Lox, Memphis Bleek, Big Pun, Freeway. That did translate to London a little bit.

It’s not that far when you look at the fashion. Roll Deep definitely looked at those East Coast labels. It was black popular music that was street but still went for a commercial audience.

TL: Yeah, I think if you look at – for lack of a better word – “hood” rap concerts in London, people like The Lox and Cam’ron will still sell out venues in London in a way that I don’t think they might in a lot US cities. There’s a slight reverence to that period in New York. I mean, you can’t underestimate how big Dipset was. Dipset was a huge influence on grime. You talk about R&G? Dipset seemed like the coolest thing in the world around then. That first Roll Deep album was half Dipset tributes, and UKrecordshop.com, which was the main outlet for grime, still stocked G-Unit and Dipset mixtapes.

Backtracking a bit to the label, you had several T Williams releases, some Supreme Fiend, and Damu, but Slackk’s Raw Mission was the first thing I heard from you that felt like it nailed your identity. It felt like a shift in focus.

TL: 100%. With anything like that, you’re learning on the job. I feel we put out some good releases in the first 2 years and those are still some of our best selling releases. But I think DJ Q’s “Brandy and Coke” and Slackk’s Raw Mission EP were the start of our “phase II,” Q and Slackk would go on to release 10 records between each other on Local Action so they really became the core of the label.

That was around 2012, which is a bit of a transition year in the UK – going from slow funky to straight up house on one end, and guys like Logos releasing “Kowloon” or Gobstopper putting out their weirder records. Was it a conscious shift to move in these directions?

TL: They were quite different relationships and records. DJ Q is one of the only people I hit up about a release without ever speaking to before. I owned loads of his records but didn’t have a relationship with the guy at all. I guess we were in a bit of a rut because there wasn’t a T Williams release in the pipeline because he was working with PMR, and I hadn’t heard much I’d wanted to release. Then I heard “Brandy and Coke” on YouTube and I thought it was such a statement, because at that time there were so many bad, weak, R&B sampling…. like garage parodies. Future garage or whatever.

So “Brandy and Coke” was this great classic 2-step record in the vein of what I used to listen to, and I thought “this is how it should be done, I have to try to release this.” I got his email off Elijah [of Butterz fame] since Q had done their “Wooo” remix and I just hit him up. It turned out he owned a couple of our T Williams 12’s and was playing them out, so he said let’s do it. After that, it sold really well – 750 copies which is way more vinyl than I’ve done on any other release. So we thought, why not do it with an original vocalist, and the relationship and album sprung from there.

With Paul [Slackk] it was very different. He’s someone I’ve known since before Local Action started. I always thought he was a guy with amazing ideas musically but he wasn’t a good enough producer to pull them off at the time. He’d send me stuff that had great ideas but I couldn’t see myself playing it in a club. Eventually though, it became clear that he was putting a lot more effort into his music – taking piano lessons, learning the basics of music theory and all that. That’s why those tunes on Raw Mission are so far ahead of the earlier stuff he’d done. He sent me a tune called “Sleet Riddim” which was basically the first 64 bars of “Blue Sleet” and I thought “right, we have to build an EP around this.”

That’s why I made Raw Mission the first full sleeve release on Local Action. I wanted to make a statement even though I knew it’d never sell as much as one of the T. Williams 12’s. I wanted to go “look, this 12′ is completely unfashionable at the moment because it’s a straight up, beautifully constructed but hard and melodic grime record when everyone else is releasing fucking bass music.” Then there was this nice coincidence where quite a lot of people like me and Paul had gotten bored of the way UK clubbing had gone – guys like Logos and Bloom – and I think all of their records were slept on at the time but have proven to be influential, at least for a niche group.

It’s fun to go back and listen to mixes from that camp in 2013 with the context of what they’d go on to do. They’ve covered a lot of ground since then, it’s almost like listening to a jungle tape from ‘93 compared to one from ’95-’96.

TL: I’m not a jungle fan at all but I get what you mean. Me and Paul were playing a lot of rap in our sets at the time as well so it kind of made sense that way. I was playing Atlanta hip-hop.

Were you part of [pre-Boxed club night mixing hip-hop and grime] Maybach?

TL: Yeah exactly. So it was cool to then have a bunch of 140BPM instrumentals to play with these big tunes. Slackk’s stuff, Oil Gang releases, Logos… Samename’s early dubs too. He had a load of tunes kicking around that were quite influential as well. Before he even had a release, there was a small group of us playing his tunes in every set. Then there was [Bloom’s] “Quartz,” which was quite a big moment as well. Because Logos’ “Kowloon” was accessible in a way that Brackles, Bok Bok and Ben UFO would play it, but I don’t know if any of those guys rated Bloom. It was something else.

It’s interesting to me, ’cause you do have that thing where the “experimental electronic music crowd” will connect to some tunes, and then you have another side that’s more “urban” that will connect to others, but only people who’re really into grime will see how those two sides relate. It’s hard if grime’s not your top musical priority as a listener.

TL: I guess it’s natural, you can’t expect people to see or like all sides of something. I do find it a little frustrating sometimes when you see people – with good intentions, mind you – talk about this stuff but only really listen to Mumdance and Rabit. To me, what makes the whole Boxed movement, or whatever you want to call it, work is that there is a real variety. And the residents are a microcosm of that – they’re all really different DJs. I feel some people sometimes really hone in on this idea that it’s an incredibly experimental thing when a huge part of what makes Boxed work is people like Trends, Pixalot, and Spooky. People who’re really carrying on a legacy of straight up grime bangers and doing them incredibly well. It does seem like those guys get white-washed from the picture sometimes and that’s not right.

Backtracking slightly to that idea of variety. Local Action’s releases last year seemed to hit every key point in terms of what was exciting in dance music. It really was a year where you guys seemed to own the discourse. How did that come together?

TL: I saw it happening in 2013. I didn’t release nearly as much then as in 2014, but I knew there was clearly something happening. Before I was struggling to find stuff I wanted to release but midway through 2013 the floodgates opened. Inkke sent me loads of tunes, Finn sent me those 3 tracks which were the perfect EP, Shriekin was sending me stuff. I was also meant to release Q’s album in 2013, but there was such a huge amount of work put into it because there were so many vocals and samples we couldn’t clear. It took forever, but ultimately I was glad. Because once we moved it to the first release of 2014, we could also put out the remix 12’’ featuring Major Grave, Rabit, Inkke, and Compa, and that set up the year. I also knew Slackk was working on his album so I figured if I upped my organization – I switched pressing plants – I could really kill that year. Most of those releases were ready at the start of the year and it was just about scheduling them. Shriekin’s came together throughout the year and then Yamaneko was just the cherry on top.

But yeah, I did see 2014 as the moment where I could release this great pop garage record, this experimental grime album, a Finn record that’s somewhere between that and Dipset, Shriekin’s super melodic stuff, and have every base covered. Even the vocal side of things because the Q album was 6-7 vocal tracks. The plan came together really well.

That even crept into 2015 with the Finn remix EP and Jammz doing a vocal.

TL: That was all Jammz’ idea. I can’t take any credit for that. I’d listened to Jammz on a couple of sets and really wanted to work with him, I sent him some stuff but he said he really wanted to vocal the Fallow remix of Finn’s record. I actually didn’t think it would work — I thought it was way too busy to add more vocals but he just did it and he was completely right. The Finn stuff evolved in a really natural way, overall. Even the remixes, I never asked for remixes – those guys just did them on their own. There were no stems, they just chopped up the original. It also gave Finn the opportunity to take his time with his new EP, which is great.

It’s great when that stuff happens naturally.

TL: Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. With DJ Q there was a lot of back and forth – a lot of time on the album, tons of material to break down. For Slackk’s album, me and Slackk argued a bit over the tracklist. But the Yamaneko album just fell in my lap, he said “hey, I basically made an album, you should listen to it.”

Now it feels like the label has this clear identity across genres as well.

TL: Last year was my chance to build that. To have this roster where even if the artists release on other labels, they’re seen as Local Action artists. I think a big part of that is artist interaction as well. When I started the label I was the only thing that connected the artists. But now everyone on the label plays each other’s tunes. Deadboy and Yamaneko do stuff together, Q’s done tracks with Finn – everyone’s fans of each other and is good friends.

It even branches beyond that with the Boxed x Local Action, Clock Strikes 13 rave at Corsica. That you guys are splitting rooms is interesting because despite some overlap, there’s a clear distinction between the Boxed aesthetic and what Local Action does.

TL: Me, Oil Gang, Danny Native and Slackk did Maybach which ended up being a de facto instrumental grime night prior to Boxed. The last two, one of them Chronik played and the other one Spooky played so it was obviously grime. So there’s a link there, I’ve played Boxed 4 times … I speak to all four of them all the time. So I think it’s just a very natural link. Plus Local Action artists like Shriekin, Finn, Inkke all get played there. It’s also the club night I go to the most, really.

What happened with the Corsica rave, I hit up the Hydra, this big techno series in London. I asked if they’d be interested in a Local Action one and, by now, Boxed had done their birthday which had 400 people and I’d been speaking to Slackk about how you move that up – how do you throw a 700 person rave? So teaming up with them for this Clock Strikes 13 party made total sense. And you’re right, when we were doing the lineup, it was quite important to have both rooms be quite separate. On the Oil Gang side of it you have Spooky, Simon, Darq E Freaker, and even Kahn and Neek to an extent. So if you’re doing a 2-room night of that size you need something to counteract that – Q, Deadboy, Yamaneko, Inkke, Finn… although the Finn and Grandmixxer set will be quite intense.

And it’s not like the Boxed room is going to bash your head in all night. There’s Logos and Mr. Mitch as well. There’s just always two different options.

TL: It’s important because the rave goes on ’til 6, so you need to give people that balance. If I went to a night, I’d want variety.

You’ve dropped hints about work with more emcees. How and when did you decide to go in that direction? And has it been a challenge, because working with emcees, at least in America, adds a whole other layer of complexity.

TL: Well, we want to work with vocalists beyond grime as well. There was a track on the DJ Q album that we tried to get Rome Fortune on and that was the classic “yeah gimme two weeks” emcee thing that just went onto ages and never came together. Right now we’re putting out a lot of grime but on Finn’s record two of the tracks are 130BPM, Deadboy’s stuff is often house tempo. Yamaneko’s working on stuff that’s quite technoish, but he’s also working on stuff with Mr. Mitch, which is weird 100BPM funeral music…

The mix Mitch just put out is bloody incredible. It was a really strong statement.

TL: Definitely – him and Yamaneko did 3 tracks together and only 1 of them is 140BPM, the other two are weird, dark, fucked up music basically. [Laughs] So there’s a lot of stuff we’re doing that isn’t grime.

That’s always been the case though, even when you guys put out grime, it’s not “German Whip.”

TL: Exactly, I mean, our next records are by DJ Q who’s dropping two bassline bangers, and then Dread D, which is straight up grime. It’s nice to drop something and follow it up with something completely different.

With the emcee thing, the label having a bit more stature makes it easier – they might know who we are now. Before I’d hit up emcees and just not get a response half the time. The fact that I managed to get us verified on Twitter helps – emcees pay more attention when you’re verified. But the thing is, there were very few emcees coming through in the time period when the label was coming up apart from say – P-Money and a few others. But now I’m a huge Jammz fan, a huge AJ Tracey Fan. I love Big Zuu, I love YGG so I want to work with these guys.

What I’m quite excited about in terms of projects that are emcee based is this: there’s been loads of incredible vocal grime projects but I’d LOVE to do a couple which really push the boundaries of what you can do with a grime EP. To do it in the same way as Kanye approached Yeezus. You have 4 tracks knowing they’re all one project, weird pitch shifted vocals, instrumental passages… shit like that, a release that really feels cohesive, makes a statement and that does more than the usual “6 beats, 6 vocals.” I’d love to do a couple of projects that really push people’s expectations of what a grime vocal EP could be and have it centered around a vocalist, but with Slackk, Finn, Fallow, Yamaneko on production. I’d love to do a couple of those next year.

That’s really interesting because if there’s one thing that makes grime a tougher “sell” (in terms of interest anyways) in North America is that it isn’t properly represented in that sphere. The best stuff is radio sets and that’s hard to convince people to tune into.

TL: We’ve got the producers to do it. I think you need a leap of faith from the emcee to do it but the new generation is way more likely to give it a shot than the old one. It’s exciting.

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