Photography: Chelone Wolf
There’s an infectious air of energy and positivity about the Spearhead bossman BCee. There always has been, but especially right now…
Fresh from lockdowns, last year saw him celebrate 20 years of BCee while the label ramped up in all directions from his podcasts to his new line of video interviews. Releases, meanwhile, have now become a weekly event and are flying out from a great range of names from established donnies to next level new generation talent.
Last week’s release was especially poignant for the Norfolk-based artist as he re-linked with Kubiks – an artist who played a key role in the earliest chapters of his artist career as they launched a label together – Rubik – back in 2001.
Back together in the studio for the first time in over 15 years, the release is entitled Evolution. Featuring the likes of Degs, Rebekah Fitch and long time Spearhead friend Lucy Kitchen, it sounds as if they never parted.
Ahead of his rescheduled 20 Years Of BCee event at Peckham Audio this weekend we called him up to look over some of the highlights of his career so far…
Let’s get some evolution. Everything started with you linking up with Kubiks didn’t it?
Yeah. I’d been DJing before, but nothing serious. This was when I started the BCee project and he and I launched Rubik. It was a great introduction into running a label, but Doug and I had slightly different views of what a label should do. He wanted a label that was very artistic; when we have something cool, we do a release and go with the flow. He loved the art of it.
For me I wanted to smash it, straight from the off. I remember saying, ‘I want to get Ed Rush & Optical on a remix! Let’s get London Elektricity, High Contrast, Calibre….’ All those guys. That’s what I was aiming at. We had Carlito do a remix, though. That was huge.
But you wanted more from the label?
I wanted something that would eventually have a long term place in drum & bass. Like Doug, I wanted something artful, but I also wanted it to be a proper label and run it like a business. So eventually, a few years into things, I launched Spearhead.
Can you remember your mindset or your ambitions for the label when you launched it?
For want of a better word, it kinda started as a ministry. Something I could do for the community. At the time drum & bass wasn’t quite as professional as it is now. People weren’t always paid and, artists got ripped off. I wanted to do something where people got paid and artists got respected and people weren’t dicks.
That’s where Spearhead was born. And the first release had a jump up remix on it by an artist named Nightwalker. There was a time when Spearhead could have gone jump up, but then I moved to Ibiza, officially walked away from Rubik and Spearhead was born.
You’ve told me some Ibiza stories. You ran the label from an internet café, right?
Totally. I was running the label from a USB stick. For months my computer had broken so I was in internet cafes emailing people, downloading tunes, sending them to be cut. Then I’d be off doing other jobs I was out there doing.
It was born out of an ethos of ‘If you want it, you can do it.’ You can throw loads of excuses at things, but there’s got to be a point where it’s like, ‘It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I can do now.’ If I was waiting until I was ready to release music I still wouldn’t have released anything today. I’ve met loads of talented people who’ve not released music because they’re still waiting for that moment of perfection that’s never going to happen.’
So during those early years you were releasing music by the likes of Alix Perez, Lenzman, Redeyes, Random Movement. Spearhead was quite international from the beginning.
Yeah it was. I remember Redeyes couldn’t speak English very much at the time. Bungle did an album for us very early on, too. A lot of it was through AIM. And maybe they might have released more on the label if they weren’t signed by other labels but I’ve never made people sign exclusivity contracts.
I was advised by a lot of label owners to lock people into agreements, but I had to always go back to why I set up the label in the first place and practice what I preach. Everyone I knew who was locked into an agreement was desperate to get off the label because they weren’t happy. I don’t want that!
Is that still the same today?
Yes it is. I have had to change things slightly to more solid conversations with artists about how we work together, but still no exclusivity contract (for now). If you want to work with me, work with me. If you don’t, no worries. Had I done contracts maybe I’d have worked with someone like Netsky for longer, but I have to be chilled and open about how we roll. I don’t want to tie people into situations that won’t be happy about in the long run.
I am. It runs through everything I do, my values and everything I’m part of. My commitment is to people and developing artists. I genuinely want to see people fly higher than me. Look at Hybrid Minds. They did two amazing albums with me, then went a whole other level.
I could have tied them into a contract and made them do another album with me, but they wanted to do their thing and they wouldn’t have been happy. So what’s the point in that? They went on to do what they did, we’re still very good mates and they invite me to play for them at incredible shows. Everyone wins.
Speaking of playing, when did the Spearhead events start?
I’d done some free events at Café 1001 off Brick Lane and the first big event was at Relay, which was part of Cable. It was organised by Alex who now runs Free From Sleep. We did two, but then Cable closed so I tried to work with other venues but we didn’t even get a response. Then Pack London got in touch and asked about doing events so we went to Plan B with Hybrid Minds, Matrix & Futurebound and myself.
I remember that one!
It was terrifying to suddenly do events where we had to sell so many tickets to break even. It was like, ‘Do that many people even like the label?’ But that was amazing, we did a few there, then we went to Village Underground and they were amazing parties, too. I remember having Calibre, Seba, Blu Mar Ten and me. That sold out so quickly, the club had never seen D&B sell so fast. I remember them saying their website had 80,000 page refreshes while people were waiting for tickets.
Following that we then moved to Egg, which was even more terrifying. Five rooms of D&B. It was a thrill. The budget was £25,000 so we had to sell the tickets or we’d have been in some bother because I don’t have that type of money lying around. Luckily it sold out three weeks before the event.
It was downhill after that one, but we did eight events there in total and each one was like a mini festival. They were great fun. We’re looking to bring events back. We’ve got an event at Peckham Audio coming up then the next big one is our stage takeover at Hospital In The Woods.
Yeah that looks huge. So how would you say the Spearhead sound has changed over the years?
I’ve always called it uplifting. I don’t like the term liquid. I want it musical, uplifting and for it to have grit. People often send me something and say, ‘I think this would be good for Spearhead’ and I’ll ask for all their demos because it’s not about what we’ve put on the label before.
It has to be something that sings to me and really pulls at my heartstrings and makes me think, ‘This is a bit of me’. There are 200 middle of the road liquid tunes in the demo box, so it has to have something special about it.
It has to be something I love. Because if it tanks and loses money, I’m still proud of it. It’s advice I give to labels to this day; sign the tracks you love. It’s not a business decision. The business decisions are made on how you market and advertise it but when it comes to signing, don’t stress about sales or performance as you’ll instantly compromise it.
A soulful way of doing things! So off the top of your head, what are your proudest accomplishments with the label?
Highlights that roll into my mind…. Spearhead 005 – Danny Byrd’s single. It’s hard to get hold of now but Rise Again and Control Freak were great tracks. He’d had Dog Hill out at the time, which was huge, and Tony Colman rang up and said he believed in the label and were happy for Danny to do a release with us. That was a moment.
The first LSB releases were a proud moment, too. We knew each other through a night in Norwich called Bounce. Me and Lomax would give Luke our tunes and he’d play them while he was warming up. A few years later he sent me tracks and immediately people got into him and the sound he was making. Having him on the label has been a big highlight.
Another one has to be Hybrid Minds. I didn’t like their name because I love the trance act Hybrid so I have to confess that I didn’t listen to their music for a while because of that! But I got over that and, the day we put their album up on pre-order is a day I’ll never forget. I had the norovirus and was being sick all the time and my phone just kept on dinging with orders. All 50 sold out quickly so I put another 100 on and they sold out. I was so surprised. There was no audio up but that was off the back of their singles. That was amazing.
Their rise has been phenomenal and Spearhead was responsible for that. Any other highlights?
The first Netsky releases are a proud achievement. S.P.Y’s By Your Side was a key release for us because I promoted Hospitality Ibiza when I was out there. Carlos came out, he was just signed to Med School and was sending me tracks. We actually left By Your Side for two years because the samples were so big but eventually we released it and it went mental.
Making Is Anybody Out There with him was a moment, too. We wrote that release as he was showing me how to use Ableton. I nearly gave the track away to another label! So yeah, that was a highlight. There have been so many, though…
Playing the first Hospitality On The Beach was mental. Playing La Cinta beach at Sun & Bass, too. Two of my best ever sets. At Hospitality I played before Calibre and DRS. There were so many people there, I was told that the mainstage was empty!
That was a moment for me. I don’t get many bookings; I’m a bit of a weird artist because I don’t have the same dancefloor energy as big guys like Sub Focus or Dimension but I don’t feel I fit in with that liquid mould either. I’m cool with that, but it is a surprise when loads of people seem to like what I do.
It’s great to not be categorised. That makes the music timeless too!
I always think I make commercial drum & bass that doesn’t sound too commercial. It’s accessible isn’t it? For me everything I try and make and everything I sign has to have some type of USP. It has to have something that’s identifiable that will still stand out as unique to that track years later and I do think I’ve achieved that.
What would you say the secret to that is?
In terms of signing, I’m looking for something that makes the song stand out. It could be a sample or a little vocal hook or something different. And in my own music, I’ve only really reached a point where I can bring an idea to life in that way. I’m a big sampler, I don’t play anything. I work with Dan Nu:Tone and Villem and ask them replay things, or help me mix things down.
I do loads of my own engineering, but they add the extra oomph. All the idea comes from my sounds and samples and I let them guide me. I use things that hit me in the heart, so I spend ages finding sounds that really give me the googlies!
Haha, love that term
You know the feeling! Then I get a collection of sounds and think, ‘Is there a way I can layer this with this?’ It’s all about layering.
How about when it comes to lyrics?
With lyrics I’m always looking for a deep story, something as personal and specific as possible, then I zoom out to blur the lines so its generic enough to be related to so many things, but also still completely relate to the original inspiration.
Wow that’s such a fine line! The dark art of song writing…
Totally. Lost & Found, for instance, is for a friend who died and I wrote it for his funeral but I’ve had people get in touch about how they’ve walked down the aisle to it. I have to credit Rocky Nti for taking my ‘brain dump’ and turning it into those lyrics.
That’s beautiful for it to touch and relate to two extremes. You’re quite provocative with things aren’t you? You can be very serious, but also poke a bit of fun and mischief..
Absolutely man. I was watching an interview with Dua Lipa and Stephen Colbert who is a comedian who also happens to be a Christian. She asked him, ‘How does your faith and your comedy mix?’ His answer was so powerful I’m not going to give it justice but the gist of it was this…
If we give into the darkness of the world and let that beat us, then the devil’s won. We have to see the fun in things. I loved his explanation and it resonated with how I do things. I treat everything with all the seriousness it deserves, but we’ll also have a lot of fun along the way. (Watch from 3.38)
Look, at the end of the day, I get to make music, piss about in the studio and see places in the world. It’s not millionaire money by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s definitely better than a lot of jobs that people hate. So let’s not see ourselves as too special… But at the same time I have a platform to give people inspiration, light, hope and opportunities. I embrace the seriousness and the playfulness of this in equal measure. It’s always been this way and hopefully it always will be!
BCee – The Evolution is out now
20 Years Of BCee takes place Peckham Audio Saturday April 9
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