Self-proclaimed the ‘little label with big plans,’ Context Audio have been flying the flag for the UK South Coast drum & bass scene since 2016. Not one to follow the crowd, they have always done things their way. With a diverse appreciation for drum and bass and a thorough understanding of the possibilities it holds as a genre, they have built up a strong release history and a devoted fan base. As a smaller label, they do everything right; regular and extremely consistent releases, a clear visual concept in their artwork and a good mix of homegrown talent and established artists from around the world. Startin
g as a wild idea amongst friends, it has quickly grown to be one of the most highly respected drum and bass brands, all down to the hard work and perseverance of the small team behind the music.
They’ve also provided foundations in the scene for newcomers such as Kusp and Composite, as well as sourcing some of the finest global artists. Australian Gran Calavera, Italians Invadhertz and Belgium’s Lavance are just some of the producers that have contributed to their distinctive sonic direction, which holds a particular focus on deep beats that lend for a more personal listening experience, as well as still doing the business on the dancefloor.
While 2020 may be one of the most challenging years for the music industry, Context have made some serious movements so far. EPs from OaT, Changer and Wingz made a statement of intent, whilst their VA project Per Adura moved across subgenre boundaries, exploring the rich strata that makes up 170 bpm music. Away from their release schedule, they have also played a significant role in ensuring that our community stays connected throughout lockdown. With the label releasing Eps from Wingz, Confusious and Kusp all hitting us hard over the last three months, we spoke to Ben (Cyan), the label’s Managing Director, to tell us about the label’s year so far…..
2020 seems to have been a big year for Context Audio so far, despite all the madness that’s been going on! How do you think it’s gone?
Well personally and, I guess generally for the whole world, it’s been a bit of a shambles but for Context, we’ve had a really great year! Working as a smaller digital label without a huge amount of overhead or need to run events, we’ve adapted well (I think!) to everything, and from a label manager’s perspective, it’s been really useful to have a bit more time indoors to focus on the strategy and the fiddly little things. I still have a day job working in SEO, but lockdown has been good in that it’s stripped away a lot of the distractions.
You call yourself ‘the little label with the big plans.’ When you first started back in 2016, what was your vision for the label?
Ha! So, full disclosure, back in 2016 I didn’t have a lot in the way of a vision. The label came about from something called the Phaze2 Soundsystem who I was a resident for, and Graeme, our technical expert, owned. That came to quite an abrupt end but we knew we wanted to keep going in the scene, so we pooled our resources, invited some friends who we thought would be good for it and started Context! We grew quite organically after that, and rather than having a defined sound from the off, it kind of found us after we put out the first few releases. I learned a lot in the years that followed, grew a lot as a person too, and my vision for the label developed along with me.
You mention your sound, how would you describe it? There’s a big stylistic range in your releases, is your ethos as a label boss, if you like it personally, you’ll sign it?
Gosh, that’s such a cliche isn’t it? haha ‘I’ll sign anything as long as the quality’s there.’ I don’t see it like that at all actually… I think we have quite a defined core sound really, it’s quite melodic and thoughtful and hopefully, something that lends itself to a more involved listening experience and a longer shelf life than usual. I’m painfully aware that I could probably have achieved a bit more visible success by opting for a more aggressive, darker sound, but I’m such a chin stroking deep-head at heart!
Looking at this year alone, you started with OaT’s Marbles release. I heard he was thinking of quitting drum and bass not long ago. What did you say to change his mind?
That’s actually a funny story and I hope that Johann doesn’t mind me telling it here. He used to do these little mailshots to a select group of heads like producers, label heads and DJs, and the last one he did was, a) a very angry ‘I’M QUITTING SO HAVE ALL THESE TUNES’ statement, and b) full of absolute heaters! I’ve always got along with him, as he is an outstanding human being, so we chatted and talked over some of his totally legitimate gripes with the scene, and in the natural course of things, we ended up with the EP as it is today.
He channeled some major ‘Perez’ vibes on the EP- you must have been happy with the result!
Oh absolutely, it was a dream to work on. We got some great support from a lot of corners of the scene and it was a privilege to put out to the world. Special mention must go to OaT himself. He is both a very talented producer and a diligent, kind and thoughtful human being. Big up OaT if you’re reading this, you are a rose amongst thorns!
What was your goal with the Per Ardua project?
Initially it started as a way to house tunes that I liked, but weren’t really upfront enough for the label. I remember sitting on Brusten and Dyl’s Stuck On You for a while (this actually happens quite a lot!) and we couldn’t find a B side that worked so we ended up hitting up the legend that is Homemade Weapons for a remix and damn, did he deliver! From that it’s grown into a series for showcasing some alternative sonic landscapes from our usual output and we have signed some incredible music for some of the coming releases, including our first vinyl release. We really plan to dive deep with these releases, so watch out for those!
It’s also a point of personal pride that I don’t think there’s anything in drum and bass that parallels Per Ardua. There are of course other labels that put out more considered 170 (Microfunk, Repertoire, Locked Concept and Constrict’s Incidental Sonics, I see ya!) and there are labels with series that cater to halftime (Lost Recordings and Flexout spring to mind), but there isn’t anything with the depth and scope of Per Ardua, and I’m excited to show the world more.
The recent second part of the project was the Various Artists’ LP- how long did it take to put together?
We actually signed the first tune of that LP before Context even had a name. It was one of those projects that we kept adding to but also kept pushing back as other things cropped up. Eventually I had to draw a line and just get it out, albeit with the same care and reverence we treat all our releases. I was super happy with the result though, and while it was a struggle releasing music that niche in the foghorn-saturated 2020, I think sonically it is some of our finest work. It’s also the release that I listen to myself the most, and I’d like to thank everybody who worked on that release for letting us put out such outstanding music.
Changer who just brought out his Sunrise EP back in April is Portsmouth-based, like the label. How important is it for you to bring through and showcase South-Coast talent?
To be honest with you, I look at this the other way. I think it’s really important to build up a core stable of artists that work with the label and create a family almost. It serves two purposes really, 1) it gives you a close-knit talent pool to form releases out of and 2) it creates an exclusive atmosphere that people want to be on the inside of. As with most things Context, it’s all very organic and has just developed over time.
If you pushed me, I’d tell you that our core artists are Composite, Kusp, Changer and Constrict, and I consider myself lucky to be able to work with such talented people and such good friends. Their names also all begin with the same C sound haha- I don’t know how that happened, it really wasn’t deliberate!
Signing a remix from Phil Tangent for the Sunrise EP must have felt like a huge step in the development of the label…
What was really staggering was he came to us! We had originally made contact with him to remix something else but that didn’t work out for myriad reasons. Fast forward a year and we’re putting together the Changer EP, which is all happening in the aftermath of his single on Lunar Records, which Phil runs. Phil ends up hearing Sit & Watch The Sunrise (also big up to Leo Wood, a truly outstanding vocalist who the world needs to know about), and then says he’s keen to have a crack at a remix. You can hear the result for yourselves, it is something that I’m so happy to have on the label.
You recently put out a release from Wingz with a slamming remix from Creatures featuring as well. How was the response to that?
It’s been amazing! It’s really nice to work with people like Wingz and Creatures, as they both have nice followings in and of themselves and they’re pro at releasing music themselves, which makes the whole process easier all-round.
I realise I’ve done a lot of big ups in this interview, but big up Markus Wingz as well. He’s an outstanding producer dedicated to his craft and I sincerely hope he’s headed for big things.
He first featured back on the label back in 2017. Is your plan to continue building these long term relationships with artists and having a regular roster releasing music? Or do you find it exciting bringing lots of different names onto the label?
So it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. I think there is a balance to be struck between the two where sometimes you’re releasing music from your core crew and you both grow together, and then sometimes you’re bringing in new names. I always look at every release as a chance to either bring someone into the fold, or to held someone along their journey. I really try to make each release feel cared about and important so that everyone comes away from it feeling like something has been achieved. So far, so good really!
You featured at the first Stay At Home Festival as well as hosting your own personal streams- how important is this online presence in building new audiences throughout the lockdown?
In that respect the lockdown has been a golden goose! All those heads tucked up at home with nothing to do but scroll has resulted in a massive uptake in online engagement which has been a real bonus for a lot of platforms. Also for us, it has enabled us not to just reach new audiences, but to engage a bit more with our existing audience too. If you’re reading this and you’re a new fan or have been with us since the beginning, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, you are all what makes this happen!
Moving forward, you hinted you’ve got an album planned from one of the most exciting young producers….any clues?
Ah well, that would be telling wouldn’t it? Haha I will say for now, that they are a he, that he is from London and that he’s had past releases on Shogun, Lifestyle and Prestige. Y’all can join the dots!
What other big plans have you got set for the rest of the year?
We have so much in the pipeline it’s unreal! We have a wicked stream of releases, which I’ve mapped out way into 2021, we just had a sick EP from Perth’s Confusious that came out at the end of June, and we’re following that up with something very special from Kusp (which you can, and totally should, buy here) and just rolling out from there.
I’m really stoked about both our first jump up release (it’s tasteful though, I swear) and our first vinyl release, which will be on the Per Ardua series as I mentioned earlier.
We’re also looking at throwing some parties, situation permitting of course, so if we’re in your city then come say hi and throw some shapes with us!
I’m very excited about the future for Context, it’s all looking very positive at the moment.
Finally I’d like to take this opportunity to throw some props to the following: my team of James (who has been key in creating our visual identity), Ryan, Graeme and newest recruit Laura, everyone who’s pushed and uploaded our music, especially Maja at Drum&BassArena, Seb and the gang at SkankAndBass and Shelley at Data Transmission, everyone who has given me advice along the way (notably Peter from Overview and Conor AKA Constrict), all the promoters who’ve booked us and lastly, everyone that’s bought, listened to and vibed along to our music!