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Black Excellence and the story of Pick N Mix

 

This week sees the release of one of the most important V/A albums in drum & bass this year: The Black Excellence LP.

Following a hefty slew of releases this year from the likes of Hexa, Parallel, DJ Gaw, Neman and more, The Black Excellence LP is 15 tracks heavy and comprises cuts from the likes of BLCKHRY, Kyst Cortez, Dilligent Fingers, Enta, Fatman D, R3dx and Lost Child to name a few. Every aspect of the album was created by artists of colour from design to dispatch on Pick N Mix, run by DJ and renown positive vibe spreader TJ.

A showcase of black talent and a statement, the album was curated and created over an intense two months since the Black Lives Matter movement held a mirror up to the world and showed how racism, inequalities, prejudice, misrepresentation and bias still run rife in all aspects of western life. Sonically the album runs across the board from soulful to tear-up and, from a label point of view, it’s the biggest Pick N Mix release to date. For TJ, however, it’s much more than that. A personal mission to sow seeds and ensure black artists are always represented and are able to set an example for a more diverse scene in the future. It comes complete with a short documentary made by TJ and his father that’s coming up later this week.

Read on to find out more about The Black Excellence LP, TJ and the Pick N Mix story…

Let’s go back to the start to the start of Pick N Mix. You started with free downloads, right?

Well I’m just a DJ. I’ve never released a tune! I started the label November 2018 and thought ‘right, how can we start? Everyone loves a free download!’ So we kicked off with a few downloads then started properly February last year. Free things are always good, I recommend artists and labels do it – keep people happy, build a following. Who doesn’t love a free download?

It’s definitely better for things to be out in the world rather than sitting on a hard drive!

This is the thing. The biggest opportunity for producers right now is that they have time to sit down and write and write and write. When all this is over, and people are out to play again, you’ll know the guys who’ve smashed the lockdown because they’ll be raising the bars with stacks of fresh stuff. The even more organised will have a proper plan drawn on up on how they’re going to do it. I think that bit puts off some artists because they don’t know how to do that. I’m always saying ‘just write a list of your favourite labels and start hitting them up.’ I’m constantly linking up people with different labels. It’s 2020, it’s very easy to get people’s attention or make a link. But you’ve got to have a plan, haven’t you? Thankfully I had all this year planned before Corona and now I’m all sorted until mid-2022.

Mid 2022! What!?

Yeah June 2022 is the last release I have planned. The good thing is that I can go fully hard on promo but the bad thing is I get sent something from someone new and I go ‘oooooooooh’ but I got no spaces to release it.

That’s how you end up with a multi-label empire!

I do want a sister label as it goes. I know everyone knows the Pick N Mix sound but if I was to set up another one then it would be on more of a deeper tip. I got a big love for real love for listeners music. I want more chilled stuff, breakbeat, deeper things. A label you can listen to all the time, whatever you’re doing.

I’d say The Black Excellence LP is in that field. The Heavies, for example…

That tune caught me off guard, you know! All the tunes sit in their own category. Some are from artists I’ve known and worked with for ages but others are from guys I’ve got to know a lot better during the process. The Heavies, T64, 10-AD and Breakout – all of them, it’s their first release and they all fit a different sound. I wanted this album to showcase much more than just one sound and represent drum & bass across the board. All the producers had their own creative freedom and the main aim is to get black talent out there and make people know how many producers there are out there who are of colour.

As a black label owner it was a very special release for me full stop. But I’m also proud at how it came together. This wasn’t a scheduled release, it was a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement and the funny thing is that my little bio on my socials has always said ‘are you here for the movement or are you here for the moment?’ Then this happened. I’ve had so many conversations with my family members, my parents, my grandparents about the inequalities people of colour suffer over the years and now I can try and do something about that. And this is just the start of it. This is the foundation – I’ve got so many ideas and plans and want to involve more artists of colour and collaborating with labels run by people of colour.

The reality of this is that there aren’t many other new labels run by black artists are there?

There’s me, there’s Invicta Audio run by Anton Bailey, there’s Faded Audio run by Remi and Kanobie, Dubz run by Guv. There are probably more that I don’t know about. That’s the issue. Lack of knowledge or access. There are black artists doing things, but I think lack of representation stops them from stepping up. That’s why I feel I can do something. My end goal that would make me so happy  would be if a younger music fan of colour, a girl or boy or whoever, sees this album, sees what I’m doing they’re like ‘I want to do something in drum & bass’. All it takes is one seed to plant and it’ll blossom.

We just need to shed light on the fact that amazing music is coming from all different communities, backgrounds, colours. It’s not an anti-white thing, it’s a case of being pro-black because as we need to have a bit more care for the community. Just like that metaphor about houses on being on fire; of course all houses matter but you don’t call the fire brigade when a house isn’t on fire. Years are going to pass until we see the true benefit of this, but if we work together we’ll look back and see this as the turning point. It has to be done together and my role in this to help bring people together and be there for the music massive. My job is solely to give out banging music to the people whether you’re black, white, red, green.

Yes! You said that when you posted about trying to get the Hexa and Parallel releases at number one and number two on Juno Download a few months back. You’re here to serve the people.

As a label owner you have to be! That one was cheeky. All of our releases hit number one on Juno so I thought ‘let’s try and get number one and two.’ All the team said ‘nah that won’t work, don’t do it’. I said ‘I love you but I’m not listening on this one.’ The artwork would only work if we got number one and two. That was fun for myself. Me being myself reflects through the releases. Being personal with your brand is essential for me. Musically I have nothing to hide. I get to be myself, don’t feel like I’m being fake, if something feels fun, I do it. That’s advice I give to anyone – be yourself, never change yourself to fit any moulds. Just be you – it will always work out.

I spoke to Gyrofield about this a few weeks ago; less worry, more action!

You have to be self-aware as well. The label works for me in two main ways. One – I hate working for people. And I prefer helping people more than helping myself. With the label you work for everyone, they don’t work for you, you work for them. I’m much more comfortable with that.

In terms of comments and worrying, it’s hard. Social media allows everyone to share their opinion and you really don’t need that info in your life. It’s too much. I always say ignore the really negative feedback and ignore the most positive feedback too. If you put the positive comments on a pedestal, it leaves you vulnerable to the negative ones. You get one ‘this is shit’ comment and it sends you right off track. So I ignore the bad and the most positive stuff. Don’t get high off your own supply and surround yourself with honest people who care. And don’t take advice off strangers.

You posted something that I took something from recently. A comment from Hedex about it being okay to not be at 100 but never let things get all the way to zero…

Yeah a lot of people have felt that one. When you’re creative you put pressure on yourself. Too much.  Especially what’s going on right now more than ever. We need to stay together and support each other. Subscribe to a Patreon, share a link, send some love. Look after each other.

Massively!

I feel sorry for the guys who went freelance last year and haven’t got the accounts to show they need support. DJs have taken up warehouse jobs. I left my job a few weeks ago and I’m looking for a new job. I’m so passionate about this subject and the pursuit of doing something you enjoy. How many opportunities have people given up to chase their dream? People commit their whole lives to this.

Yes! It’s about the sacrifices people make. Not the occasional moments of what seems like glamour…

I remember my mum wondering if DJing was the right path. I’d be traveling miles to gigs and she’d ask if was getting paid. I’d say ‘nno, I’m not at that level yet – but I will be.’ And I’m so glad I’ve been able to do that. Some people might not realise but I’ve been DJing since I was 14/15. I started getting paid after about six or seven years. It was nice to tell my mum that and see how proud she was.

Yeah. On a persy one, I’m really proud of having a creative freelance job on my own terms so I can set the example to my kids that they can do that too…

That’s such a good example to set. Role models are so important. Just what I was saying before about hopefully influencing other people with the label. It’s like what they say – if someone looks like you is doing what you love, then you can do it too. Adversity builds you. Just like corona. It’s about innovation that people show during this time. Ways to overcome things.

Yeah that’s what the Anti-Virus series was about. Like the raffle you did. Like Stay At Home Festival.

Definitely! We wanted to motivate people. DJs have a responsibility. Labels have a responsibility. Anyone with a voice or position of power has a responsibility to help upkeep spirits, keep people sane, raise money for important things, bring people together.

Amen. The Black Excellence album is another example of that…

Best project I’ve done all year, no question. Not because I’m black but because it has such a positive message – it proves how we can come together and make things happen. It took us two months and another thing I’m proud of is that every single thing on the album was done by a person of colour. Obviously the music, the artwork was done by my dad, mastering, all the label stuff. I can’t stop smiling when I think about it.

Nice. Is your dad an artist? Did he set the example for you like I mentioned with my kids?

Yeah actually! My dad is a massive inspiration. He’s always done photography, he’s done short films about knife and gun crime, he’s directed things. He’s writing a book right now about BLM. It’s incredible. But drawing is his hobby. He was a drummer, too. It was when I decided not to go to uni, I thought ‘hold on, my dad’s a drummer, I play piano and drums, my sister plays violin, my other sister DJs, my other brother draws – we’re a creative family, why am I thinking about studying economics?’ So yeah my dad has been an inspiration and he’s never stopped, he’s always found a way to be creative with his life and he’s one of the first people to believe in me and the music. I’ve got massive love for him. I actually want to pay him for the work he’s done for me but he’ll never take it.

Having your dad on a project as important as this must be a really awesome feeling. How about the artists on the album, were you already in touch or did you have to reach out?

I’d worked with most of them. I started a big group chat on Facebook with label owners, different artists, talking about collaborations or things we could do but decided on the album and it was a first come first served thing. A few artists I hadn’t really spoken to before but we call connected and that’s why it’s amazing this project came about. Everyone else I’ve worked with or knew. Obviously guys like BLCKHRY.

Ahhhh thank you, I’ve never been too sure on how to pronounce his name!

Haha! Harry’s my boy! He’s a legend. He’s released the most on the label. He’s blown up and he doesn’t need me anymore but he’s always up for being involved in the label. R3dx is another long-time mate, Kyst Cortez is a good mate, Kanobie… It’s great. For us, a few boys I’ve known for years, we’ve always been together and close in the scene. We’ve always stuck together and supported each other. Hanging with them was inspiring because they’re such a good producer I was like ‘right, let’s start a label. You guys are sick producers, I’ll be the label guy.’ It’s great for them to have a platform. Like ‘Don’t stress about getting the music out, I’ll do that, you focus on doing the best music.

That’s how all the best labels started. And this album is the start of something much bigger…

Yeah absolutely. I’m not sure on how I’ll brand it, whether it’ll be The Black Excellence LP Vol 2 or something else, but it feels like the start of something bigger than one album. I got tunes that missed the cut-off point which will be the start of the new project.

And with clubs still closed, people have much more time to work on it and fans have more time to digest it properly…  

It’s now or never, right? We’ve got great music, people have ears on the music. Our sales have done really well over the lockdown, which has been incredible, so now more than ever I want to put a spotlight on the album, remind people why that album exists and make as much noise as possible. People do listen when you make noise – especially when you’ve got something as important as this to make noise about. That’s why we’ve done the documentary. Music lives forever, videos live forever, I want this to be part of history so in a few years time we can look back at that and go ‘yeah, look how far we’ve come…’

The Black Excellence LP is out October 30 on  Pick N Mix

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