Tag Archives: Rich Medina

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


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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