DJ Shepdog interview – Nice Up! records
DJ Shepdog is a producer, DJ and head of Nice Up! records, a label which encompasses forward-thinking reggae, hip-hop, dancehall, drum and bass, dub-step and more. He took a break from his hectic schedule to chat to 25ThC about the label, DJing and more:
In the past you used to work for PR companies promoting, amongst others, The Gorillaz and Radiohead. Do you have any stories you can tell us from that time and what was the most useful thing you learnt?
That’s right – I’ve done a variety of jobs to be fair – I think the job you mean is doing press advertising for EMI when I first moved to London. It was a bit of a mental time to be honest – there was a lot more money being spent back then, so it was a real eye opener for me, having worked with only independent labels and very limited or non-existent marketing budgets previously. Not only were the majors throwing crazy money everywhere, but the media owners were too. It was just before MP3s really took off – things are a lot different now. Campaigns like Radiohead were pretty straightforward, they just wanted complete coverage in every magazine, which meant spending big bucks, whereas with Gorillaz I helped with the launch, so budget wasn’t as vast and we had to get a bit more creative. It was really interesting to see how the big machine works – for every two or three bands that were massive there must have been 10 or 20 that disappeared after just one release. Also, for all the cool and interesting projects I got to work on, there were also some shameful ones…remember The Vengaboys? Terrible!
I learnt a lot pretty quickly, but I guess the thing that stuck with me is how wrong major labels can get it. I once had a product manager call me up to discuss a new remix of The Wurzels “I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester” which was a pretty terrible 70s novelty pop hit. They wanted to relaunch it with a godawful dance remix and asked me to look into advertising options in farming press – I mean, are the people who read the Farmer’s Guardian really the people who are going to buy this single (if anyone!!)?
You used to run a night called Nice Up! which progressed into your label Nice-Up! records. How did that all come about and what does the label promote?
The night came about as I imagine most other nights do – I thought there was a bit of a gap in the market or that my tastes weren’t really being catered for so wanted to do something that suited that, purely so I could enjoy it. From memory, most clubs were playing a lot of broken beat/house/jazz, etc at the time – all very serious and quite chin strokey. There weren’t many places in London that had the fun and electic party vibe I’d been used to whilst DJing at clubs whilst at university, where you can play a well known commercial tune next to an obscure new track and get the same response. In a lot of places you’d get the gasface for playing anything too well known! I started pretty big with a Saturday night at 93 Feet East in East London, which was a hugely popular venue at the time (circa 2003) and held approx 600 people, so I had bitten off quite a bit to chew. The first night I just booked a load of friends who I thought were great DJs and we packed it out – I still remember the first night very fondly (nothing to do with a troupe of Japanese Playbunnies invading the DJ booth/stage).
From then on, the pressure was on to book bigger artists each month, which I did for about 3 years before moving venues. Remember, back then reggae music wasn’t really as popular in bigger clubs as it is now – I think there were only a handful of proper reggae nights in London at the time, whereas now there are tons. We were mixing up reggae with many other styles such as hip hop, breaks, drum & bass, etc so we kinda got away with it in such a big venue. I still promote the night, just not as regularly – we only do big one off parties, album launches, special events, etc now. I did nigh on 10 years of monthly nights, which kinda takes it out of you a bit! The label came about initially as just a means to promote the nights – I thought if there were a load of records around with my logo on more people would hear about the night, but now it’s kind of the other way around – I focus much more on the label and the night is there to help promote that. From day one, I used the phrase “righteous party vibes” to promote the night, which is how I still try to run the label – good, uplifting dancefloor music that doesn’t necessarily take itself too seriously – there is way too much of that in music thesedays!
There are a lot of great artists on the label, and it may be difficult to say, but who are you most proud to have on the label and why?
Thank you very much! Although I really couldn’t pinpoint one particular artist that I am most proud of – I try to run the label as one big happy family, so picking out a “favourite kid” isn’t really what we’re about – I am proud of all of my artists! One thing I am very excited about is our collaboration with Fashion Records – one of my favourite reggae labels, which you’ll be hearing a lot more about this year. To be releasing tracks with legendary artists such as Cutty Ranks, General Levy, etc personally gives me an immense amount of satisfaction.
Almost all of your releases are on vinyl and download. Have you noticed a recent increase in vinyl sales and any change in the demographic of buyers?
I’d say vinyl sales are very buoyant at the moment, I can’t really say I’ve noticed an increase to be honest. There seems to be a lot of press reports saying that vinyl has made a comeback, but for labels like mine it has never gone away. We have a very loyal and supportive following of fans who buy our releases and for that I am very thankful – I said from the very beginning when setting up the label that I wanted to continue pressing vinyl as long as there is a demand for it and so far that seems to be the case. We sell very well in the UK and Europe. France, Germany, Italy all seem to be good markets for us. Also Japan, the US and Australia seem to do quite well. All have very strong reggae scenes and a culture of DJs, clubs and so on. I think part of the reason is that reggae is very much a physical genre – the care and attention that goes into building soundsytems and a lot of DJs still use vinyl, so that helps keep the market alive. I think the increase in vinyl sales that you hear about are in the indie/rock/pop market where the CD and subsequently MP3s took over – CDs are now a dying format and some people still want something they can physically own and touch, and vinyl fits that bill perfectly. It’s a great feeling to hold and buy a piece of vinyl so I think a small amount of people are returning to that emotional connection. Who knows if it will last?
You’re also a producer and have given away a lot of my favourite reggae/hip hop mash-up tracks, which always work well on the dancefloor. Can you tell me about your current production set up and what inspires you to produce?
Thanks again – I only ever tried to make big dancefloor tunes with my mashups, so that’s good to hear. All of those tracks were made in Ableton, which I still use, but have added a bit more hardware to my set up. I’m still getting to grips with Maschine which I bought last year and trying to find time to teach myself more about other software and plug-ins. It makes you appreciate tunes in a whole new way when you realize the amount of time and effort spent producing them! I guess it’s that what inspires me now – trying to find my own style and sound and learning new tricks. It’s a slow road though, I just never seem to have the time!
Why is it that reggae and hip hop work so well together in mash-ups?
I’m not sure. I think the off-beat skank of reggae fits in the gaps of the boom bap of hip hop very well and depending on the tracks, the vocal register is similar a lot of the time, so there’s a lot of crossover I guess. That said, just plonking an acapella over a beat is not going to always work – I’ve heard some terrible attempts where the vocal flow jars completely with the rhythm and in a lot of cases, not even placed correctly in time with the music. Painful!
Do you think that mash-ups are still relevant or has that period passed now that everyone seems to be at it?
Personally I don’t play or make too many any more. It’s not that it’s not relevant as I think reappropriation can always throw up interesting things, but its just that the well seems to have been drank a bit dry – all of the big vocals have been rinsed to death, all the big rhythms used and there’s not much new being brought to the table. There are obviously a lot of people still making them, but I think the quality or perhaps innovation is not really there. I’ve just been sent a new one with Q-Tip’s “Breathe & Stop” used – it’s like “really?? Is there really no other vocal you could have used??”. As I mentioned earlier, there are also a lot of really bad attempts being posted on Soundcloud, etc these days. I guess it’s the same as the old punk ethic – just because anyone can be in a band and make music doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good! Again though, there are some brilliant examples of people taking old vocals and producing a whole brand new track around them, which I think is a lot more interesting and creative.
You are also a DJ resident at London’s Big Chill Bar. How long have you been playing there and what type of music do you play?
I’ve been a resident there since they first opened their doors nearly nine years ago! In fact I think I was one of the first DJs to ever play there. It’s a great little spot that always has a great party atmosphere. The whole area of Brick Lane has seen a lot of change in those nine years and the venue has changed with that, but its still one of my favourite places to play in London. Musically I try to play different stuff to what I do with Nice Up! so I get to indulge my love of jazz, soul, funk, rap, disco, house and garage – pretty much anything goes! The crowd seem to like it mixed up, so I can get away with dropping some Aretha Franklin in the middle of a house set for example.
What does the label have in store for 2014?
Plenty!! We’ve got releases planned from a couple of new producers that we’ve signed, as well as more from Mr Benn, who is releasing another track from his album called “Stand Up”, featuring the vocals of Nanci Correia who does a lot of work with Congo Natty. We’ve got remixes from Skitz and Aries & Gold for that one, which are sounding great. Then we’ve got the Fashion remixes album coming – loads of amazing producers involved in that, and some classic timeless tunes. Albums planned from Blend Mishkin and Turntable Dubbers at some point and we’re also planning something very special for Record Store Day again.
You’ve recently started a new podcast. How often will this be released, what content will you be providing and do you feel that this is a useful method of reaching your audience?
Yes – only three episodes in so far, but I’m aiming to do it every month. The plan is to play brand new music that I’m feeling that fit the Nice Up! vibe – so plenty of reggae, dancehall, dub, drum & bass, garage, etc, etc – anything with a righteous vibe! A lot of radio DJs tend to play the same stuff every week, or whatever their playlist demands, so it’s a great opportunity to support the kind of releases you might not necessarily hear elsewhere and also to air forthcoming releases from the label. The plan was to push it through iTunes, but we encountered a few problems, so decided to go with Mixcloud, which seems a more direct way of hitting people via social networks, etc. The results so far have been great, which is very encouraging!
What advice do you have for any budding DJ/producer/label owners?
Believe in what you play/make/release and stick to your guns. – even if it makes you an outsider. There are so many DJs and producers that play the same kind of stuff in their sets, or use the same kind of sounds, etc in their music, just to fit the mould so to speak. Be yourself and be original and be prepared to put the hours in. A lot of young DJs make that mistake these days I think – load up their laptop with a load of the biggest current tunes and expect overnight success, where I think most big names have slogged away doing their own thing for years before making it – the good ones at least. From a label perspective I’d say quality control is paramount too – don’t release anything you wouldn’t buy yourself and don’t just release stuff that you would buy yourself – think of your customers and what they want. Again, be unique – it’s important to carve out your own niche, even if that makes you an outsider. I’ve been running Nice Up! for years with very little press coverage or media hype, but the sales speak for themselves as I think our fans trust us.
Also, be wary of giving your music away for free – it’s OK to sneak a few things out every now and then as treats or to establish a profile, etc, but you risk cheapening your profile to the point where people expect your music for nothing. It’s kind of expected in this day and age, but saying “this music is worth nothing” is not a very good look in my opinion. Lastly, get a professional to do the artwork – I see so many releases that look like they were made in paintshop or something – spending money on your product will mean other people might want to too!