London Inspiration: BBE 20 Years Later

Joel Biswas talks to BBE Records founder Pete Adarkwah about how a party turned into one of the U.K.'s best indie labels.
By    September 8, 2016

Welcome To Detroit Album Art

Joel Biswas knows there would be no BBK without BBE

Pete Adarkwah, legendary founder and head of London’s BBE Records describes himself as “more of a doer than a talker”. Summer ’16 marks BBE’s twentieth anniversary and Pete is currently holding it down from a leather banquet in the label’s pop-up store at Hackney’s Institute of Light. Seated under photos of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, he exhibits a quiet excitement as he talks about the future.

“It’s about getting music out there. If something is interesting enough, we’ll make it happen. I would like to be the one telling story of our dance music as best I can. Because if I don’t tell the story, someone else will. That’s the whole point of running a label and ideally life – you want to experience things that weren’t previously accessible. The more people know, the more a scene can grow. Simple as that.”

Pete knows a thing or two about growing scenes. Over the last two decades BBE has made fruitful and joyful work of charting eclectic dance floor latitudes from London to Lagos to Berlin to Detroit to New York. From humble beginnings in Pete’s apartment, BBE is now synonymous with consistently rarified feet moving grooves that sparkle, swing and sweat with gleeful disregard for notions of genre.

Pete draws inspiration from the inclusive spirit of the early 90’s London club scene, a moment of extraordinary musical variety. “We called ’88’ in London the second summer of love. The house and acid thing had started, rare groove was in overdrive and it was a classic era of hip hop with EPMD, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest in their prime.

Then you had the classic house of Marshall Jefferson, Todd Terry and deeper techier acid stuff. James Brown, Maceo Parker… Donald Blackman’s “Blues for Warrior Spirit” all over the dance floor.” Pete was at the heart of it, throwing parties in London’s West End first under the moniker “Shake It Loose” and then with a name inspired by his favourite disco twelve – the Universal Robot Band’s “Barely Breaking Even.”

Pete lays out a kaleidoscopic list of influences that make go some way to explaining how BBE is so adept at releasing seminal hip hop, jazz, funk, house and disco selections – invariably with involvement of a who’s who of musical luminaries from Masters At Work to Roy Ayers to Madlib.

“It was a time in London where there was just this constant stream of music, music blaring out of every car. My dad was into Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk and my mom was into Teddy Pendergrass. My uncle was into the Gap Band and Cameo. I heard David Bowie and Talking Heads, Cream and Led Zeppelin on the radio. I listened to Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge and learnt about Brazilian music and folk – Ellen McIlwaine, for example. Norman Jay’s Musiquarium radio show before Abu Shanti-I took over… Patrick Forge, Chris Phillips…. It felt like we had more music out loud,” he muses.

BBE’s evolution from party to label occurred almost by chance in 1996 when a close friend sold the family’ bodega and asked Pete if he want to put out some records. Happily, Pete had lots of ideas.

From the start, a BBE release was designed with the dance floor in mind. “I wanted our music to be like an encyclopedia – a great starting place to be understand our music. Putting out songs that dancers wanted to groove to, trying to be more inclusive. Giving you compilations good enough for a club sound system so you could leave your originals at home.”

Luckily Pete quickly found kindred spirits among some of dance music’s more important artists, starting with a fortuitous meeting with house legend Kenny Dope. “Kenny was London with Masters at Work promoting the Nuyorican Soul album. I introduced myself when they (he and “Little” Louie Vega) literally walked past a club I was doing. We hung out. I asked them how much they charged for a remix and it was obviously a lot. I was like ‘I’ll get back to you’ but I knew I had to find a way to work with them.”

In due course, the association blossomed with Louie Vega and Kenny providing two seminal early BBE comps “Mad Styles and Crazy Visions” and “Hip Hop Forever”, and introductions to future BBE artists likes of J Dilla and Jazzy Jeff. Jeff in turn opened more doors and before long BBE was releasing a steady stream of record bag rarities as well as original music from the likes of Rza, Premier, Dimitri from Paris, Joey Negro, Osunlade, Bilal, DJ Spinna, Mr. Thing, Jazzanova, Laurent Garnier. Marc Mac, Carl Craig, Larry Gold and John Morales.

But it was the Beat Generation series that would become one BBE’s most memorable coups – namely getting a stable of Hip hop producers including Pete Rock, Madlib, J Dilla and Marley Marl to each release wildly experimental albums on a London-based indie. And it would be the start of a legendary association between Pete and J Dilla.

“I had been on enough shopping trips with Kenny and Mr. Thing to know that those guys don’t just listen to hip-hop. They buy jazz, rock, funk, reggae – they’re into everything. So Beat Generation wasn’t just about people who make beats. It was about that Beat spirit of Allen Ginsberg and jazz poetry. My brief to them was ‘Do what you feel. Try and express what your influences are on record.’ Of everyone involved in that series, Dilla and Spinna of everyone involved in that series nailed it the best.”

Dilla’s Welcome to Detroit would become the first of a number seminal Dilla releases on BBE while Pete Rock’s sublime Petestrumentals likewise yield string of classic Pete Rock releases on BBE. And that’s before we even get to releases from Madlib, Marley Marl and Spinna. And even if other artists in the series stuck to a slightly more straightforward blueprint of instrumental hip hop music, the influence of the series on future generations of beatmakers from Flylo, to 9th Wonder to the Soulection crew cannot be underestimated. Largely thanks to Pete, the beat-tape became a legitimate album medium in its own right. It also put BBE on the map in the States. “That series made a big difference for BBE in the US,” he acknowledges.

Then there was the celebrated Strange Games and Funky Things by Kenny Dope, which thanks to an incredible triple 180g vinyl gatefold and the uniquely intoxicating blend of soul, disco and jazz contained therein “took it to another level” It was classic BBE – a compilation of unexpected influences, exquisite musicality and undeniable groove that seemed to exist in a genre all its own by virtue of sheer good taste.

More recent releases include deep cuts from Kon and Amir, an exclusive re-issue of the complete catalogue of NYC’s seminal label Henry Street records, one of a series of projects by Henry Street boss Johnny D, as well as exclusive albums from Rich Medina and DJ Spinna. The end of August sees a three day 20th anniversary celebration of BBE’s awesome musical legacy in Hackney where well-wishers / party starters will include Phil Asher, Mr. Thing, Al Kent, Marc Mac and a surprise guest or two.

Pete remains buoyant. “I see BBE as swimming in the same waters as Strut, Tru Thoughts, Souljazz,” he says. “If there are more of you in the pool, you can create bigger waves. They all do amazing stuff. As for us, I would still love to put out some unreleased Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock or Parliament stuff. There must be tons of material waiting to be discovered. I could die happy.”

BBE at 20:

Stop and Listen
BBE’s first release, a simmering collection of jazz and house that is a vivid snapshot of the London 90’s jazz dance scene.

“We reached out to Gilles Peterson and started with a comp by legendary soul, dance and jazz DJ, Dr. Bob Jones called “Stop and Listen”. We had to track down license holders in the phone book. I bought an Apple, a fax machine, opened a business account and that was it.”

Legendary Deep Funk
A series of blistering ultra rare funk 45s from Scottish curator Keb Darge

“At the time, nobody was doing funk and soul like Keb Darge. DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist were doing Brainfreeze but you couldn’t go out and by it.” Legendary funk and soul DJ Keb Darge would go on to release more than a dozen full lengths on BBE mining treasure after treasure from his deep funk crates alongside selections from Rza and Cut Chemist.

Strange Games and Funky Things

Exquisitely curated soul, disco and jazz that together sound like a genre of their own from the crates of DJ Spinna, Mr. Thing and Kenny Dope

“To the day I die, every week someone is gonna come up to me and say they love that compilation. I get asked about it all the time. It was one of the first releases to make a big difference to the label. It was something I did in just a few minutes and it’s something that has a life of its own.

It was about making rare groove classics accessible for every one else – Roy Ayers, Leon Haywood, Jose Feliciano, Ned Doheny, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, RAMP, Sylvester, Herbie Hancock. It was 101 stuff for the hardcore collectors but these were the songs that people would consistently ask DJ’s about when they got played so people clearly wanted to know more.

So then we would add a few obscurities to draw in that hardcore collector or for DJ’s who needed a clean copy of one of those classics. I compiled the first two. The third one was Kenny Dope’s and basically was based on a tape that he had playing in his car so we licensed what we could. We had the first rare groove mix, triple heavy weight vinyl, that lovely packaging and that really made an impression upon people.”

Welcome 2 Detroit
Dilla’s first BBE release from 2001, released as his reputation at a producer’s producer was first bubbling

“Kenny Dope called me up and said go meet Dilla when he was playing at what was then Subterranea in Notting Hill with Slum Village. So I went and gave him a bunch of records and spoke to him and his manager and said I’d like to do an album. So we agreed a fee right then and there and four months later I had “Welcome 2 Detroit”. We spent a fair amount of money to promote it in NY, Philly, LA, Detroit, Miami, Atlanta and it really launched us in the states.

I also really pushed the design. It was probably a bit two European for some people’s tastes but now people think that BBE had funding from a major label when it was something that I was literally doing from my bedroom.

The way it happened, the way it really captured the spirit of what I wanted for the Beat Generation series and way it captured our friendship – just hanging out and record shopping when he came to London and then seeing him later when he was having difficulties with Lupus was really bittersweet.”

Disco Forever, the Kings of Disco, Al Kent Presents Disco Demands, John Morales: the M&M Mixes. Just a few of BBE’s legendary disco re-issues

“Disco is my favourite type of music – I love it all – slow, fast, mid-tempo. Those records, that instrumentation – it’s just the best stuff in the world, all day every day – smiling, happy music in the best kind of way. You don’t have to be off your face to hear a disco record and feel the need to dance.

For us, the first big one was Disco Forever with Dimitri From Paris who I met at Mr. Bongo’s record shop when he was in London and I kept harassing him until he succumbed and did a compilation. And I think that is the biggest selling compilation of all time for BBE. Then we did the Disco Spectrum series with him and Joey Negro all around ’99 to 2000 and that led to Kings of Disco and we did several parties in London that everyone just knocked out of the park.

The love it stems from my uncle and my Mom and the stuff they were into and we’re still doing it. Disco Demands was our best seller of recent times but that might have to do with the naked woman on the cover. The John Morales mixes were even more important. We met him through Johnny D. With those classic standards, we helped a real legend get a second life in the industry.”

Roy Ayers, Virgin Ubiquity 1 and 2 (unreleased recordings 1976-81)
A stunning selection of rare and unreleased Roy Ayers tracks

“When we were doing the Marley Marl Beat Generation, we wanted to have more live instrumentation and we thought it would be great to get Roy Ayers to play on a record. Marley was good friends with Roy Ayers’ long-time collaborator Edwin Birdsong. I got Roy’s number from Louie Vega and called him up and they got together and did a version of “Hummin’” from his first Polydor album for the Marley Marl Beat Generation release which I really, really loved.

When we were hiring the vibes, I said to Roy, ‘You did twenty albums from 1970 to 1980 on Polydor, so there must have been extra material’ and he was like ‘yeah.’ When I asked ‘well how come it’s never come out?’ and he jus said ‘Well, no one really ever asked me.’

So we went to his storage unit in Harlem and got the tapes, transferred them and released them. This was at the same time that we were doing Soul Survivor 2 with Pete Rock so we’re bouncing in and out of the studio and Talib Kweli and all this rappers are coming through to record…

For me that was the pinnacle. To find the music of someone I absolutely love that nobody had ever heard and put it out. I called Gilles Peterson (we lived around the corner from each other) and he agreed to do the premiere on his show… It was really a wonderful time.”

Masters at Work: The Tenth Anniversary Collection (1996- 2006)
The definitive collection of the work of seminal house producers Masters At Work

“Kenny and Louie are house legends so for them to come through and do an 80 to 100 track compilation with us was big for us. It was fraught with challenges but we got there in the end. In terms of the demand, it was the perfect project for us.”

Private Wax Super Rare Disco and Boogie
An inspired selection of the kind of boogie records you might find in the crates of Dam Funk or on the platters at Funkmosphere, compiled by Zaf Chowdry

“When people talk about disco they usually mean the high energy stuff. And the boogie stuff is actually what people used to dance to in some of the more credible clubs. So it was important to get it out there along through albums like Private Wax. It was our dance music.”

Kon and Amir Present Off-Track
Ultra rare dance floor gems from the crates of Kon and Amir, finding sweaty dance floor parallels between Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Lagos

“Kon and Amir had these “on-track” tapes so this was a natural extension.
It was our first dive into obscurities whether it was Nigerian Disco or jazz and that next level of material beneath the ‘must-haves’. Unless you grew up in a specific place and time you wouldn’t ordinarily come across that stuff. I think it was the beginning of a lot of people digging deeper in terms of disco. Amazingly it became collectible in its own-right – second-hand copies were going for like 120 quid.”

J Dilla, The Shining
Dilla’s first official post-humous release and arguably one of his finest moments featuring Common, Pharaohe Monch, D’Angelo and Black Thought which enjoys its own tenth anniversary this summer

“I’d like to think we helped Dilla find his voice as a solo artist and MC,” says Pete.Ed: When Dilla passed on, long-time collaborator Karriem Riggins posthumously finished his album “The Shining” as a labour of love and made sure it dropped on BBE. Tracks like “E=MC2” and “Won’t do” show a genius in full flow while paying homage to his influences and his earlier BBE release “Welcome 2 Detroit” through jazzy instrumental interludes. “I’d like to think we helped Dilla find his voice as a solo artist and MC,” says Pete.

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