One of the earliest exponents of the currrent deeper, stripped-back style of drum and bass is celebrating their ten-year anniversary this year.
Founded back in 2011, Flexout Audio has carved themselves a formidable reputation with a signature sound and penchant for finding the very best in underground talent.
Headed by Bassi, the label has been built around a core group of artists including Amoss, Arkaik, Philth, Charli Brix and Data 3.
Perhaps once regarded as a stepping-stone label, Flexout Audio has proven in recent years that they are more than capable of going toe to toe with the seminal names.
What’s their secret? “Authenticity,” says Bassi.
Guided by his masterful A&Ring, Flexout has continually added fresh talent to the label, but most importantly, has got them coming back as well.
Last time we spoke with Bassi in 2017, he was providing early platforms for the likes of Bredren, Monty and QZB. Now, four years on, a new batch of artists are ready to step up to the plate.
Their ten-year anniversary will be marked by a series of releases, celebrating the past, present and future of the Flexout Sound.
The Flexout X project will welcome back names who haven’t released on the label in years, some who have never released before, and of course the core group who have helped grow Flexout to what it is today.
The four (maybe five) EP releases embody where Flexout are with their sound right now; still pushing the deeper, rolling beats that they are synonymous for but laced with an inherent groove and soulful emotion.
Due to the pandemic that has enveloped the world, Flexout has lost their renowned party presence over the past year. However, at the end of June they will be returning with a very special party at The Steel Yard, London, to celebrate ten years in the game.
Ahead of their birthday party, we gave Bassi a call to discuss what it takes to run an independent drum and bass label of Flexout’s calibre in this day and age…
You’re just coming up to ten years of Flexout, achieving longevity in an industry where it’s hard to do so. You must be very proud.
They say it takes ten years to become an overnight success and I’m not necessarily saying Flexout is an overnight success, but I think whatever industry you’re in, it takes ten years of hard work to really get anywhere with it. I honestly feel like we’ve only just started to gain some good momentum and are now in a good position. For the first few years I was making it up as I went along to be honest and its only recently that I’ve got to the point where I’m really happy with all of the releases, proud of the artwork and everything else that goes into running a label. It’s been a journey, that’s for sure.
The progression the label has undergone since those early days in Lincoln as a student is so impressive. There must be so much work that has gone into it all behind the scenes…
I do live and breathe it every waking moment and, for the first six years or so, I felt like we weren’t really getting anywhere. It’s hard not to compare yourself to some of these new labels that have started so strongly and done so much so quickly. With Flexout, it’s always been a massive learning curve for me. There were times I thought about starting a new label from scratch just so I could have a fresh start and learn from the mistakes I made in the early days. There are things on Flexout I look back on and wish I had done differently, bad artwork for example. However, the label has always been very authentic and honest which is something I’m really proud of.
What would you put down to Flexout’s success? As an outsider it seems there’s this overwhelming sense of family…
I hate using the word family as it is sometimes cringy and overused, but with Flexout that’s definitely the case. I find it really important to get to know the people that we’re working with before we do a project. I’ve known the core artists of the label for over ten years and between us we were one of the first collectives pushing that stripped-back, minimal, rolling sound we’re now known for. We all get on really well together and have a lot of fun when it comes to the releases and events. A label is all about enjoying each other’s company and sharing the successes together.
With artists such as Philth, Amoss and Arkaik, you gave them early platforms and they’ve repaid that trust by continuing to work with the label.
It’s funny you say that because I was having a similar conversation the other day. I sometimes feel a bit disheartened when artists move on after I’ve tried to nurture them and give them a good platform to progress. It’s almost like artists are collecting their scout badges and want to release on as many labels as possible and just jump from one to another, I’ve released on Flexout now I want to release on this label sort of thing. The names you mentioned are good examples of loyal artists, as are Bredren. They keep coming back to us which is nice to see. They did a big EP last year with 1985 but are coming back to us with a big EP next month. I try to repay their loyalty by getting them on as many Flexout line-ups as possible.
If we’re looking at the number of labels there are in drum and bass at the moment, there’s so many more than when you would have started. How do you stand out from the crowd?
It’s really oversaturated which definitely makes it difficult to stand out, but that can also be seen as a positive as you have to push yourself more. I thrive on it and I think drum and bass has always had that competitive edge. Its more competitive than ever so I feel you can’t be disheartened and see it as a negative that there is so much competition, especially with all these new labels popping up. You definitely have to be doing something a bit special or be raising the bar so with Flexout we’ve always tried to explore that experimental side of drum and bass as well. It’s all about encouraging the artists to try something new and go out of their comfort zone.
A feature of the label has also been providing artists with early platforms in their career. Last time you spoke with us you were mentioning QZB, Bredren and Monty- now all top artists in the scene…
Yeah, which is great and tells me to have more confidence trusting my ears and instinct. It kind of reminds me of the Shogun/Critical dynamic about ten years ago actually. It seemed like Kasra would discover exciting new artists and then they moved on to Shogun. They’d release an EP from Rockwell for example and then soon after he signed to Shogun. It’s obviously a little different nowadays as Critical are arguably the biggest drum and bass label in the world but I think it’s important to have these smaller labels like Flexout to help artists progress. I think we’re nearly at a stage now where artists like to stay with us or at least come back regularly to continue their affiliation with the label which is great.
In the early years of the label, you were very London-based in terms of the artists, before branching out into Europe. Where did this ear for finding talent come from?
I’d like to think I’ve always had an ear for finding cool new music and some of the most exciting artists were from Europe so I would just book them to come and DJ at our events and it grew from there. When artists came over to play shows in London they would often stay at mine because we couldn’t afford hotels and I used to live in a house with Amoss and a few other producers, so we’d all get in the studio. Back then there was also a lot less people making that stripped back, rolling sound we love so the community was quite close. We all shared each other’s tunes, and it was easy to stay in contact and collaborate over the internet. It was all very organic, we all had so much in common and they could all speak English luckily!
When you last spoke with us four years ago, you listed a number of artists who were coming through on Flexout who are now at the top of the scene. Who are the next generation of Flexout you are tipping for the future?
Circumference are two young lads from Bristol that I think have a really bright future. I can probably see them finding a long-term home on Vision. Objectiv has just sent me some wicked tunes. They’re that sort of borderline jump up sound which I’m loving. I think this might be his best batch yet. There’s also a guy called SiLi who’s been working on something for us that I’m really excited about. En:vy is also definitely another artist to keep an eye out for!
You mentioned how you’re always looking to explore different sounds. When you’re deciding what you want for the label, what are you looking for?
It’s all down to emotion. It doesn’t matter what emotion it is, but it has to make me feel something. If it does that, I’ll probably sign it. The feedback I often give back to producers is I want to hear something with more soul or more groove. We have rinsed that whole stripped back roller sound so if someone sends me something in that vein it has to be amazing. At the moment I just really want to hear soul in a tune. It doesn’t mean it has to be liquid or anything like that; someone like Arkaik makes stuff that’s emotional and soulful but still dark and moody. At the same time, drum and bass is always looking to reinvent itself and do something new so if we see someone doing something different in the studio or coming with a fresh idea, I’ve always wanted to support them and give them a platform.
Did you find it difficult progressing the label and moving away from the minimal, stripped back sound that you’d become synonymous for?
I never really try and put too much thought into it all. I just try and sign what I like. I’ve always been a fan of a catchy bassline that gets stuck in your head. That’s what got me into drum and bass originally. Maybe we were guilty of rinsing that moody, one-note roller in F minor for too long but now I am definitely more interested in music with more groove and musicality. I think lately I’ve got better at A&R and more confident in my decision making. That’s meant that the overall standard of the releases we have put out has improved and that’s led to us releasing more styles. It’s still all a continuous learning curve for me, a really organic thing where I just lean towards signing the music that I’m interested in at that time and that makes me feel something.
I’ve never wanted to be known for just one kind of drum and bass. The flexibility of drum and bass is the best thing about it. It keeps me excited to work with different artists who bring different palettes. I do think it’s important for a label to have their sound. However, I think there’s always enough scope within our sound to do a bit of everything.
Looking at the label more recently, how has running it during the pandemic been? You’ve obviously lost a big part of your promotional side with events. Has there been any other operational differences or changes to the style of music you’ve looked to release?
I think the producers that I’ve worked with have really gone back to the fundamentals of why they’re making music and that’s because they enjoy it and it makes them happy. It’s quite refreshing as those ideas about having certain tunes just because they’ll work on a dance floor have gone. That’s important for me as a lot of the more experimental and soulful stuff doesn’t get written for the dancefloor. I think the music as a consequence has been a lot more honest. The people I’m working with don’t really mind if others don’t like what they’re doing which I think is brilliant. I was speaking with Ben from QZB yesterday and he was saying he isn’t even sending the music he is making to anyone because he is just making it for himself. That’s when the magic happens because your ego isn’t getting in the way and you’re not overthinking. It’ll be interesting to see how all this music is received in the next 12-18 months when it starts to come out.
The first part of your ten-year celebrations is out now. Tell us a little bit about the Flexout X release…
I didn’t want to release something like a greatest hits compilation, I wanted to do something special. I think sometimes if there’s a thirty-track compilation it can be a bit overwhelming, so I decided to split up the release over four EPs. The first came out on Friday and it’s a bit of a snapshot into where we are as a label at the moment. There are people on there who haven’t released on the label in years, some who have never released with us, as well as the usual suspects. I put a lot of effort into A&Ring this one so I’m really happy with how it turned out.
After the four EPs come out, there will be a really special limited-edition vinyl run at the end of the year. We wanted it sooner but there’s a six-month backlog with vinyl at the moment. I think this can sometimes kill the buzz around music and for me personally as I’ve always looked to get stuff out as quickly as possible instead of holding onto it. This was another reason why we’re looking to release the EPs over the course of the year and have the vinyl at the end.
It’s also not too far away until your event at Steel Yard. That’s going to be so special being the first proper night back and the ten-year anniversary as well!
I’m trying not to get too excited about it yet but as you say, I think it’s going to be one of the first drum and bass events outside of New Zealand since Covid which is mad. I feel so lucky that the guys from Free From Sleep are letting us do it. Anything can happen between now and then but at the moment it’s looking good. I’m really glad that we’re going to get the chance for one big party to celebrate 10 years in the scene.
Looking at the lineup my eyes were really drawn to the return of Fathom Audio…
I think if you want Sense and Codebreaker now, you have to book them to come and play as Fathom which is cool. They said they were doing a Fathom reunion and I also wanted to have Codebreaker on Amoss’ set and Sense on Klinical’s so it worked out perfectly. I’m really happy to have those guys involved and to help bring them back. We also have some very special guests with Halogenix and DLR on the line-up. We decided to do UK-based artists only as we didn’t know what was going to happen in terms of the whole quarantining thing. Hopefully when borders open up again properly, we can get around the world and have some of the other guys on the label involved.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year along with the anniversary stuff?
There’s a fantastic new Amoss EP. That’ll be coming out on vinyl though so unfortunately, we’re in the long queue waiting for that. Bredren will be returning next month after a brief hiatus from the label. Data 3’s album which will be the three Matter releases and some additional bits will be out in September. QZB will have some more stuff out as well, but a majority of the year will be dedicated to the anniversary releases. Early next year we will be putting out Charli Brix’s album. That’s been in the making for a while now, she’s been working with a load of different musicians and producers, so it’s all been quite work intensive especially through Covid but it’s going to be a really special one.
To finish, if you could go back and give yourself some advice when you were starting out with the label, what would it be?
If someone can do a job better than you can, get them to do it, stop being such a control freak! Take your time, don’t be so impulsive and enjoy the journey!