Tag Archives: BBE Music

How U.K.’s BBE Music Broke Even After All These Years

BBE

For more than two decades, U.K. record label Barely Breaking Even has been a beacon of the dancefloor. Born out of the London rare groove scene of the 1990s, BBE began as an extension of the excitement DJ founders Peter Adarkwah and Ben Jolly mined from their eclectic mix sets. In the early days, the label released take-home compilations that corralled the type of obscure soul and funk tunes they played in local nightclubs, as well as one-off deep house and acid jazz 12-inch singles.

In the early 2000s, the label quickly evolved from a mostly compilation-based imprint to a forward-looking platform for original music. In 2001, BBE released producer J Dilla’s solo debut, Welcome 2 Detroit, a catalyst for a series of producer-driven albums under the Beat Generation umbrella that included seminal full-length records from Madlib, Pete Rock, will.i.am, King Britt, and more. Since then, BBE has never been purely one thing or the other; the label’s output—a discography that spans several releases of multiple genres—is still roughly split between their initial work of licensing rare gems for reissues and compilations, and as an outlet for a talent-magnetizing roster of producers and DJs.

After leaving his job at a London record store, longtime label manager Lee Bright joined BBE in 1999, when it was still a simmering idea and bootstrap operation. “Peter [Adarkwah] answered the door in his dressing gown—he’d probably been working ‘til 5 o’clock that morning,” Bright says of his first impression of Adarkwah in BBE’s original makeshift office, the DJ’s inconspicuous London apartment. “I think I was surprised because there was BBE, and under the stairs of this tiny ground floor flat was this computer. That was us. That was BBE. From that place came the Masters at Work albums, the Tenth Anniversary albums, the whole series of Beat Generation albums.” A few years later, when inquiring American businesses would call, Bright would put them on hold as he fetched an imaginary HR or PR department.

Last year, BBE celebrated its 20th anniversary. Among DJs and producers especially, the label has grown into an institution. Their catalogue boasts decades of original dance music and remixes, archivist-driven soul and funk releases, contemporary hip-hop and electronic, and world music and jazz of all types. It’s a voraciously eclectic approach. “Our adage is, ‘Real music for real people.’ Please don’t ask me what it actually means, it seems to make some sense,” Bright says with a laugh. “I think it means different things to different people.”

With inside commentary from Bright, we’ve gathered some of BBE’s essential releases, heavy on the early milestones that help tell its history. From releasing Dilla’s debut to the unearthing of much-coveted Roy Ayers tunes, Bright shares stories of how BBE has built and kept its reputation.

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Keeping the Flame Alive: The World of Deep Funk Archival Compilations

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“‘Deep funk’ was really just a name I came up with for my club night,” remembers Keb Darge, a DJ and devoted 45s collector. “The rare groove scene had played funk, but I wanted to get it across to the possible customers that we were digging much deeper than had been done in the past.” Though he might today view his off-the-cuff subgenre designation as arbitrary, he remains inextricably tied to it. Not only did he begin the famed Legendary Deep Funk night in 1994, moving it to Madame Jojo’s in London’s Soho district a year later, but, perhaps more impressively, he kept its bizarro flame lit for 20-plus years (later with the help of DJ Snowboy).

In the same vein as England’s northern soul movement of the late ’60s and ’70s, deep funk was forged from stacks of obscure 45s by little-known black American artists and long-gone, one-off labels (many of which were private press). Darge thought some of the nastier funk heat could be found on the flip side of a rare soul record, the side that back then wasn’t being paid much mind. “Because of my time in the northern soul scene, I could tell what a genuinely rare record was and what an ‘I’ve not seen it before, but it’s not really rare’ record was,” he says.

Whatever relic Darge spun during the Legendary Deep Funk heyday, chances were decent it represented the only living evidence of an artist or band’s existence. The more cryptic the record, the more exclusive value it had (as long as the music was worth a damn). Even more likely was that those who played on the cut had zero clue it was filling a dancefloor across the Atlantic, decades after it failed to make a ripple in the States.

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DJ Spinna Takes a Deep Dive into Stevie Wonder’s Catalog

DJ Spinna
Photo by Nathalie Gordon

In a 2013 YouTube video, DJ Spinna is seen hunched over his mixing console, grinning. When he shifts his weight to the left, you can see why: Behind him is Stevie Wonder, leading a singalong to his 1976 single, “I Wish.” By the early 2010s, Spinna had produced and remixed songs by Talib Kweli, Mos Def and De La Soul, and his vocal mix of Shaun Escoffrey’s “Days Like This” became a New York club essential in 2001. Yet that surprise appearance by Wonder confirmed what many people have known for 15 years: If anyone can do Stevie Wonder’s catalog justice, it’s Spinna.

The latest proof of this is The Wonder of Stevie Vol. 3, a compilation featuring songs Wonder wrote and produced throughout his career, as sung by past Motown signees, Latin soul-jazz collectives, mentor Quincy Jones and a Navy fleet band. Consider Vol. 3 only the latest album version of those same Wonder-Full parties that even the man himself can’t resist. Co-founded with Bobbito Garcia in 1999, Spinna’s Stevie-themed events launched in New York, before they took him to Japan and Berlin.

Ahead of Vol. 3‘s July 1 release, Spinna spoke with Bandcamp about how he has been called on—time and time again—to pay homage to his musical heroes.

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