“We’ve found our groove again”: Friction on 15 Years Of Shogun Audio  

Image: Jason Newman

It’s the early 2000s. Moves are being made in drum & bass that continue to have tremors to this day. After the genre’s initial 90s explosion and its inexorable mission into some of the most innovative and technical production styles electronic music had seen so far, a whole range of styles flourished from liquid to deep to a new generation jump-up sound. Naturally with these sounds came a new wave of labels. Many of which are still dominant, relevant and influential to this day.

Soul:r, Commercial Suicide, Dispatch, Critical, Exit, Signature, Viper, Innerground, Spearhead, BBK and many more all emerged between 2001-2005… Including Shogun Audio. At the time it was a one-man army, hurling itself into mix with a broadsword range of tracks from the likes of Shock One, super-early Noisia and Friction himself. Landing a residency at fabled London rave den The End within a year of setting up shop was a sign the label was here to stay. By the time they’d developed a collective comprising the likes of Alix Perez, SpectraSoul and Icicle, no signs were necessary; Shogun were making tremors on the daily.

It’s now the late 2010s and moves are still being made. Friction’s the first to admit that, for a while, the tremors weren’t as consistently intense or scene-shattering as they were during the label’s first 10 years. But after a period of regrouping and developing a new generation collective of artists, there’s a strong sense that the label he set up out of pure DIY ambition and control freak persistence has returned to his original picture and the vibe and energy he wanted in the first place.

15 Years Of Shogun Audio is a great example of this. Celebrating the label’s broadest sound, its roots and its many contributors across the generations, it’s a full spectrum of the label’s sound with a predominantly deep twist to many of the tracks such as GLXY’s Gingerbread, Document One’s Vibration, Pola & Bryson & DJ Marky’s Into The Blue and Friction and Liam Bailey’s For This.

Meanwhile on the label’s darker, rougher underbelly you’ve got the likes of SP and Skeptical’s Smelly Button, Proxima’s Limestone, Joe Ford’s Sevens and Icicle’s wonderfully warped Exiled. There’s also a wealth of new generation names who are all making moves and tremors of their own; Kanine, Koherent, Monrroe and old label mates like Zero T and Gerra & Stone.

The result is an album that skilfully treads that elusive line between past, present and more then enough future for the tremors to persist for years to come. Talking to Friction, you get the same air of energy and enthusiasm you do from the album. Here’s where he and the label are at as we enter a new decade…

Let’s go back to the start of Shogun Audio. Those first few years of the 2000s there was a mad movement. So many labels launched. Critical, Exit, Vision, Symmetry, Spearhead. Loads more. You were part of that movement. It was a mad time wasn’t it?

It was. The early 2000s was a great era of drum & bass. It developed and changed and spread its wings and influences so much. It’s a great genre because there are so many styles within it. That period of time was when we had so many strings to the bow in drum & bass. It was an influential time for me because I was breaking through as a DJ and I was working with some great labels at the time and had a lot of exciting options presented to me. I was faced with the challenge of ‘do I go with any of these or do I do it myself and kinda DIY things?’ The rest is history.

I love DIY. Dance music and club culture encourages DIY. It attracts people who want to do things themselves in their own way, especially in drum & bass due to its often extreme nature in terms of tempo and production techniques.

100 percent. From my own personal point of view I’m also a huge control freak who wanted to make my own decisions. I’ve always loved DIY – not around the house, I’m useless! – but certainly with music; I’ve wanted to do things my way. To the dismay of my management and family I’m still like that now.

I think anyone who’s got the balls to run a label shares a similar control freaky personality type!

Definitely. Most successful people in music have an element of that, I think. You have a picture in your mind and you want to create that. Whether it’s the label, productions, or the radio show before, I have always had very clear mental image of where something needs to be or what I want it to do.

Has the Shogun picture changed in your mind over the years?

Many times. I started the label with the plan was to release whatever music I wanted to put out along with my own stuff. There was no real plan to it. But it developed over the years. One era was when I signed Alix Perez, Icicle and Spectrasoul and they developed a whole sound for the label which had a real movement going. Another era was when K-Tee (Keir) got on board with his own vision of the label as a business so that changed the picture. I was lucky to get The End residency within a year and that was incredible for the label. A real lifetime achievement thing for me as a DJ as well.

So all these things happen, none of them are planned. If I look at the way the label has gone musically now, I’m really happy. Setting up Elevate has let me take Shogun back to its original sound. It’s found its groove again. Pola & Bryson, GLXY, Technimatic, Document One… There is a deeper sound to the label again. Both labels know what they need to be and have clear cut visions and sounds. But the path to get here is kinda dictated through quite spur of the moment decisions.

Very naturally, as things should be

Yeah and there’s been some incredible highs over the years. But I’d say there’s been some times where the best decisions weren’t made. Over 15 years you’re going to have ups and downs and as I mentioned, I’m so happy with where Shogun is again. I’m happy with the sound and the artists we’re bringing through who are incredible. Monrroe for example, I was A&Ring his EP earlier, it’s a great hearing an artist develop and helping them get to a standard they want to be at. That’s a very satisfying feeling. Especially when you see what they’ve gone on to do.

Yeah I imagine that’s the biggest buzz of running a label

Totally. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career doing something I love. I feel blessed to do it. What’s beautiful about having a label is being able to help people have their own career and do what I did. It’s a dream job, if I can help other people have that career I will.

Nice. I think that’s interesting with the current Shogun artists is that – like you did before – they’re all versatile and flipping between light and dark.  

Yeah totally. Alix, Icicle, SpectraSoul all shaped that Shogun sound. I used to describe it as rolling funk. Icy was more on a techy tip, Alix’s sound was very sample-based, he was great at finding samples but then developed as a producer and become more technical which was fascinating to see him develop artistically. I wanted to give all of them, and every artist who’s ever been with us, the freedom to write what they wanted. Obviously that’s got to fit in with the label’s vision. I know I make decisions which mean they won’t want to talk to me for a few days, but I have to be strong and try and do what’s best for all; the track, the artist and the label. It’s a very fine line.

Any times where you felt you didn’t do that quite right?

Definitely. When I look back we experimented too much about five years ago. We deviated from what we were strong at. But you learn from these things and you think ‘that hasn’t worked’ But coming back from that has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in my career. We’d gone from releasing the likes of Alix, then they’d moved on and set up labels and it was time to find and support a new generation of artists. Technimatic, Pola & Bryson, GLXY… I’ve just been listening to the latest version of GLXY’s album and it’s incredible. It’s these guys that inspire me and I know we’ve got the label back to where it needs to be.

GLXY album eh?

Yes, I’m really excited about it. They’re a very talented pair. Pola & Bryson, too. They’re working on their second Shogun album – their third in total – and they came down and played me 40 demos. This year as well; both the Document One and Technimatic albums are nominated for Best Album in the Drum&BassArena Awards.

Let’s go back to the first ever artist album Shogun released…

Alix Perez’s 1984.

What a debut artist album. For Alix and Shogun. That was a good five years into running the label. You didn’t rush into releasing artist albums, did you?

No we didn’t. I couldn’t. It was only me running it! When Keir got involved and we got an office we could think about albums. Before that I was in my front room in a little office, we all used AIM, Dave SpectraSoul helped me out at the time and was the closest thing I had to a label manager. Keir got involved and the team built up.

When we released 1984, we realised just how big a job an album is. Obviously for the artist – I know this myself as a producer – but from a label perspective. The mechanics of it all are crazy. It’s a big job, I couldn’t have done that in my front room on AIM. I wasn’t that business savvy. So yeah, Alix set the standard and we’ve tried to keep that up and let the artists tell a story. Something you can listen to from start to finish. I try and encourage that as much as possible and luckily we always seem to attract artists who are into that type of album.

Speaking of albums.15 Years Of Shogun. You’ve got everyone on there from Kanine and Monrroe to Skeptical and Proxima. It’s a hefty piece of work.

That’s what I wanted it to be. I wanted to show the diversity of the label. For me it’s a modern reflection of the sound I want for it. 70% liquid, mixed with things tinged a bit harder or techier. The Skeptical and SP track was something I really wanted. SP was there with me and helped me put the logo together in the living room. It was important he was on the album so when I asked him he said why don’t I go in with Skeppy? I was just like ‘mate…’ So yeah, I’m obviously very happy with that. Personally I was very happy to work with Liam Bailey and write something a bit more chilled out. Basically I’m really happy with everyone’s tunes.

Big up SP. He was your MC when you launched Shogun, you rolled together for years.  

We did and he was a massive part of that era for me. We would be on tour together a lot and I’d talk to him about the label and he’d share his thoughts and help with things. We went different ways musically but we stayed very close to this day. He had to be on this album.

And they called the track Smelly Button too. What do you make of the new wave of DIY labels now? I think there’s a parallel with what was happening 20 – 15 years go and where we’re at now.

Definitely. There’s always been two ways artists can go; they can work with a label and get guidance and work with a team who can work on building them and promoting them and getting their music to places they wouldn’t be able to on their own. But I do think it’s good time to set up your own label if you’re enough of a control freak and have that clear picture. It’s down to timing of where they’re at in their career, how they want to release their music and what they want to do with it. There are definitely similarities in terms of the diversity in sound at the moment and the very distinctive individuals making the music. And this is great for everyone because there’s so much brilliant music around. I think Shogun 15 reflects that in a lot of ways. Musically and in terms of everyone involved. It’s a good time for the music.

By the sounds of things, it’s a good time to be a Friction. In your last interview on UKF you explained how you’d made some big changes in your life and perhaps where you’re at with the label is a direct pay-off from that?

Yeah I hope so. Radio 1 was a dream come true. But I was DJing, had Shogun, I was getting into production. I was doing so much, though and it was ridiculously full on. Leaving Radio1 was a hard decision but it was the right one and my life is a lot more simplified. I tour. I make music. I listen to other people’s music and I take my kid to football. It’s still flat-out, but I do have a cap on things and my life has benefited from this. Yeah the label has benefited from it too, I’m definitely more responsive to the team than I was before, but it’s the team and everyone who works on the label that have really helped me stick to the picture I had in my head and believe in it. When I look at the 15 years album, that’s what it reflects. I’ve not been as happy about the label and where it is, and who we’re working with in years.

15 Years Of Shogun is out now

Watch Shogun celebrate 15 years at i360 Brighton