Prototype Records: unquestionably one of the most influential labels in drum & bass’s development, direction and dedicated studio science.
Founded and run by Grooverider between 1993-2004, Prototype is acknowledged alongside Metalheadz, Moving Shadow and Renegade Hardware as a key label that helped to initiate and galvanising the genre’s highly technical mindset and bleak futuristic aesthetic.
The label’s sound still resonates with everything that’s exciting about drum & bass today: sci-fi sonics, vast shades and contrast from jazzy pads to ugly alien basslines. Prominent innovative artists delivering these sounds included Dillinja, Bad Company, Photek, Ed Rush & Optical, Matrix, John B, Drumsound & Bassline Smith and Grooverider himself under a variety of aliases including Codename John.
For a sense-snapping jolt of 1997 realism, dig out The Prototype Years, the label’s only v/a album that was signed and supported by major label Sony. From the deep barbed soul of Optical’s Grey Odyssey to John B’s unnerving, paranoid stepper Secrets, it’s an album that keeps on giving 20 years later and is cited by acts such as Calyx & Teebee as a key inspiration in their own studio studies.
For a sense-snapping jolt of future realism, mark your calendars for May 26 when Prototype relaunches with Drumsound & Bassline Smith’s VIP of Odyssey. Rasping with an insane bass riff, Odyssey saw Prototype going out on a high. The last track Grooverider ever released on the label, Odyssey was a pivotal track that captured the early to mid 2000s sound perfect as tech and jump up sounds began merging and influencing each other to create a brutally beautiful and ultimately physical sound that was supported across all quarters of the scene. Now flexing serious VIP stripes, once again Odyssey captures a similarly exciting development in drum & bass as tech and jump up continue to crosspollinate.
Odysssey VIP. and its equally deadly b-side The Illiad, is just the beginning of Prototype’s new chapter. Still championing development, direction and dedicated studio science, we rang Grooverider about the label’s relaunch, what we can expect to hear next and his early days as a safety pin wearing punk!?
What’s going on?
Busy in the studio mate, getting the gang back together, just doing what we do!
Who’s in the gang?
All the right people. I got Modified Motion coming in. I got a single coming from Serum, hopefully something from Voltage, Drumsound & Bassline Smith, loads of the original dons… Matrix, Optical, Dillinja’s back in the studio, I got a single from Bad Company from back in the day which never got released. Loads of really great music…
How long have been plotting this then?
It’s all down to a friend of mine. I haven’t got the time to dedicate to running the label. Not properly in the way it needs to be done. So yeah it’s all down to him. I just get the tunes!
It’s a different game now to how it was when Prototype began, right?
A completely different game! Back then we’d get an acetate done, try it, master it, press a load up and away you go. Now there’s so many different elements at play – all the marketing and digital distribution and so many more things. It’s a proper full time job.
Who’s doing this job, then? Who is this magical man who’s convinced you to bring back Prototype?
An old mate of mine Rob Smiley who I used to do parties for. He’s my partner in all this; I’m getting the music, which I love. He’s doing the business, which he loves. Seems to be going alright… And if it isn’t I’ll sack him hahah!
Getting the music… That sums up Prototype. Along with Shadow and Headz, your label informed one of the most critical stages of drum & bass.
I didn’t know how many people thought that until recently! When you’re inside the game you don’t realise what people are thinking outside of it. I was in too deep to appreciate any long-lasting impact of the label. The response to this return of the label has been overwhelming. I try and keep humble and stay true to what I like in this music. Just like a DJ set or a radio show – it’s about expressing my own tastes and supporting people who make it.
The first few releases were yours under Codename John. Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t Dillinja the first act you signed tracks from for Prototype? And how definitive was that moment for you?
Yeah he was. And yeah that was massive for the label! He’s been hot for 25 years but back then was his time. He was killing it. So to get a tune from him at that stage was just incredible. But for me the most defining moment of that era was the album The Prototype Years. I just wanted a little label to represent what I love and test tunes out – I never thought we’d have an album on Sony. It was mental.
That album was a blueprint for a whole generation of producers!
Yeah, I keep going back to it 10, 15, 20 years later and I’m happy with how it’s aged. There were so many important names on that album – Dillinja, Lemon D, Dom & Roland, John B, Boymerang, Optical, Matrix, Ed Rush…
I heard a great story about when you all went to Sony and sign contracts. You were all bored left for ages in a boardroom so some of you started to roll a few cheeky jazz cigarettes…
Ha! You heard about that? Yeah they were different times. Smoking in the building would be a big no-no now, right? Ha!
How did they react to a bunch of junglists smoking weed in the office?
Nothing they could do was there? We were the black sheep of music back then and they couldn’t tell us nothing. They wanted us to sign contracts, they had to deal with it. Most people in that building just avoided us and kept out of our way. They thought because the music was dark then we must have been bad people. They couldn’t see beyond the baseball caps. Or the weed smoke that day haha.
How did you all feel about majors, though? By that stage Goldie had obviously set a blueprint on how the underground can work with majors but were you all a little cagey or reticent to share what you’d been building with a big commercial label?
Not really because we were only signing this particular project. We weren’t signing our lives away – just the tunes on the album. With a major pushing a lot harder and all of us making a little extra change from it, what’s the problem? That’s what majors are for. Or what they were for anyway. Like we said – the game has changed now. You can make a tune in your bedroom one afternoon and have it played over the other side of the world that night.
How does that affect you as a label owner now? Back when things were on dub it was easier to keep music locked off but now it’s pretty much impossible.
It is impossible. This has affected me in the way that there’s no way I can promise any one will make money releasing on the label. I’ve noticed many times you can hear your tune on the dancefloor hundreds of times but still not sell any units… It’s not like people run out and buy the vinyl straight off. It’s all about promotion for their DJ career. And hopefully Prototype is a decent enough promotion for people to consider releasing with me.
Let’s go over a few names who released with you back in the day… Bad Company, Optical, Matrix.
Ed Rush, Fresh, John B… Quite a few. I’m really proud of that because those guys have continued in the game since and made some incredible and influential music. Hopefully they see their releases on Prototype as part of their journey. It was all about finding the right sound. Back then you had Headz and Moving Shadow donning it, you had Ram killing it with every release. You had True Playaz just coming through. It was a really exciting time with everyone doing what they do and really shaping a sound and a signature – so we had the Prototype sound. We were setting up blueprints for the future. All of us were.
There’s a sense of that now with a lot of artists setting up their own labels. Are you feeling that, too?
I am – it’s happening all over again. People are feeling let down by labels and that they’re missing their chance at progressing. They can see other guys doing it and can see all the resources to do it themselves are there so they’re doing it DIY. It’s exactly what happened before but with different tools and ways of doing it. Of course you don’t have to set up a label… You can always send music to me and I’ll put it out if it’s any good!
You mentioned guys like Serum and Voltage are sending you music. Proof you’re not on a nostalgia trip here!
Mate, I have to release some things from them. What they’re doing now really resonates with what I love about drum & bass – just raw rolling grooves with emphasis on the drums and the bass. They get the Prototype formula. They know exactly what it’s all about. I was chatting to Serum the other day and he was telling me about Prototype releases I’d completely forgotten about! When someone knows the history like that I have to listen to what they’re sending me. And because it’s Serum I already know it’s going to be good.
Amen. So you mentioned the unreleased Bad Company track. What other unreleased tracks do you have stashed away?
I got a few bits. I got this incredible tune from Photek back in the day and I’ve been trying to get his blessing on releasing that. That’s something very very special. I’m the only guy who’s got that… So Photek if you’re reading, you know where I am! And there might be a few other bits from that era but to be honest I want that new stuff – this isn’t about looking back, although we are digitising all the back catalogue so people who weren’t around at the time can understand where we were back then.
How quick is all of this going to happen?
I don’t want to saturate the market. There’s too much of that going on. Maybe four or five releases a year I reckon. Keep it special – we’re not doing this to pay the bills, it’s about what I like and hopefully what I like is something you’ll like too.
Cliché, but it’s for the love!
It really is. If it wasn’t then I’d still be playing house music. I could have earned a lot more from that than I ever did from drum & bass. But it’s never been about that – it’s about the love of the music and culture. I love a lot of fields of music, I got a wider tastes than people think….
What do you listen to when you’re not being Grooverider?
Everything man. Dancehall, a little reggae, a little R&B, soul, whatever I feel like. I don’t listen to it much now, but I came up as a punk. That was the first thing in music that really hit me and motivated me. I think that’s why I’ve always loved the harder, more confrontational sounds of drum & bass – because it strikes that same chord as punk. I was full-on punk for years. Bondage trousers and safety pins and all that.
Photos or it didn’t happen!
Hahah. Don’t be silly! But punk truly did change my life, just like hardcore, just like early rave and just like drum & bass. It’s that rebel music feeling that has never left me. I hope it never does…
Prototype relaunches on May 26 with Drumsound & Bassline Smith – Odyssey VIP / The Illiad: