Jamie S23 avoids detention and picks up where he left off with Nicky Blackmarket for the second installment in our exclusive look at the history of Drum & Bass. This time around, the record label Kartoons.
Launched in 1997, Kartoons hit independent record stores at a busy time in the world of Drum & Bass. Was this your first label? What was the driving force behind setting this one up?
“Originally, Dave Piccioni and I set up Gyroscope Records in 1992 which dealt with the breakbeat hardcore side of things. Fans of this genre may well remember the ‘D’Bounce’ EP which was probably the biggest tune from that label.
Moving forward some years Kartoons was born out of the jump up drum & bass scene. I think at the time music was so forward thinking and fresh we just wanted to be part of everything to do with it. I was constantly playing out at all kinds of events, selling 1,000’s of records a week and hosting my weekly radio show on Kool. Kartoons was just another piece to the puzzle.
Dave was still part of the Kartoons brand, he just let me get on with it as he enjoyed the business side of things and I was obviously heavily involved in the music side”
How did you decide on the label’s name, logo and artwork?
“The name Kartoons was just pulled from a conversation about label names, I thought it fitted well with my personality and the vibe of the music we we wanted to sign. It was a fun label that didn’t take itself seriously yet was aimed solely at the dancefloor. The original logo may well have been a take on Bugs Bunny, although we blatantly knew this would involve copyright problems so scrapped that straight away!
The Kartoons brand was based on everything that came with a promo run – mystery, suspense and excitement.”
“We wanted to create something official that still kept the DJ’s guessing and back then, vinyl promos were treated like gold dust.”
“That’s also where the stamp style logo came from, we didn’t want full colour artwork and flashy sleeve design, this would have gone against what we were trying to achieve.”
Talking of artwork, during the mid to late 90s, artwork design on record sleeves was a big thing. What was the reason for Kartoons releases only being shipped in plain black sleeves? Do you think artwork helps to boost sales?
“Shrink wrapping was a major deal for certain genres in the record shop, people seemed to go nuts for it, the same could also be said for picture discs. I remember ‘Wild Geese’ (also known as ‘Geese Tune’) picture disc we did on Lucky Spin in ‘94 – that was a major success.
House and garage vinyl buyers would favour releases from America so when producers picked up on this I saw certain labels pretending to have US divisions when really their small office was probably in Romford or Brixton! I wasn’t fooled in the slightest.
Kartoons on the other hand was representing the other side of the market, we had the label and sleeve as plain and simple as we could – all because the brand was based on a promo run. That was the other side of the buying public, real DJs who wanted the freshest tunes who didn’t care for limited edition artwork or pink and purple slabs of overweight vinyl.
That isn’t to say either custom was shunned, we just loved the music and always wanted to cater for everyone.”
Kartoons volume 1 was released by an unknown producer and both tracks were also left untitled, was there a reason for doing so? Who was the producer?
“I really can’t remember who it was to be honest, maybe the whole suspense thing got the better of me. If I could go back in time I would write down all the releases and their credits, that way I wouldn’t have to rely on my memory!”
Many of the tunes released on Kartoons also fitted with a typical Blackmarket set. Was this one of the driving factors in signing releases from your producers or just coincidence?
“Yeah totally! The Kartoons label was a direct offshoot, so to speak, of the Blackmarket style. I really wanted to sign tunes that fitted with my sets, if I thought the tune sounded good on DAT I would press up a dubplate and test it on my radio show, in the shop and at events. I knew that fans of my DJ sets appreciated the style of tunes I played so owning a record label that fitted with my musical style was a perfect combination.”
The seconds release on the label was probably the most iconic, can you remember where you were when Trend played the iconic intro to ‘2 Degrees’?
“I remember Profile introducing me to Trend and DJ Target, they had made something really special with ‘2 Degrees’ and I instantly fell in love with that great 60’s style Hammond organ bassline. It was a basic but very effective dancefloor weapon.
Ask anyone who knows jungle or drum & bass and they will be able to hum the intro or the bassline! It was an instant anthem and without a doubt Kartoon’s biggest selling release.”
Vinyl was still a big thing back in 1997, what kind of units were you shipping per release? How did you make the decision between running a promo plus official release to just putting the official release straight out there?
“Probably around 1,000 to 3,000 per release although some of the bigger tunes did much more and had to be restocked. We had to fit in with the distribution companies schedule as well as fitting in with what else was pending at the time from every other label. Not to say it was a case of following the crowd and doing what everyone else was doing, far from it, but if we had a track that we thought could be massive, it would have been silly to sit on it and let other labels take the limelight.
The route of test press to promo to full release would have been ideal for every single one of the tunes on Kartoons but sometimes it wasn’t feasible and every release had a separate set of circumstances.”
Artist wise, Kartoons was signing tracks from Ray Keith under various guises. Did he choose an alias to suit the mood of the tune?
“I would sometimes listen to a tune Ray had finished that was designated for another label and pester him to release it on Kartoons. He has a very unique production style that really suited the Kartoons brand and all of his releases on the label sold really well. I remember sometimes really badgering him for a track because I really believed in what he was doing, that special Ray Keith sound will always be a favourite of mine.
Aliases are sometimes used to not flood the market with the same producers name, other times it’s due to the style and feel of the track. The other aspect of using an alias was that of an air of mystery, something we loved to associate with Kartoons.”
Other unknown artists such as Fade, Jonnie Blaze, The Outlaw and Trigger Happy were all releasing music via Kartoons. Who were these guys? Punters at the shop trying their hand at music production, friends or just people trying to break into the scene?
“Kartoons was a great way of getting new talent out to the masses, some of the artists we used were up and coming but one was a massive producer who’s still blowing up today. Let’s just say his alias has never been made public but if you listen to release 15 I’m sure you can guess.”
Many similar labels to Kartoons were also releasing on sub-labels in the attempt to either promote different styles or simply because they had too much music to put out. Did you ever consider this?
“We did but we also wanted to keep it simple and effective. All of the music that was put out on Kartoons had a similar style and although I was really into what other labels were putting out I was also concentrating on our brand.”
Kartoons ceased at release 34 in the year 2000, what was the reason for this? Did you not fancy finishing on 35 or 40?
“It was all a bit of a blur to be honest, we didn’t stop on 34 for a reason, it was just how it happened. My busy work schedule, both as a DJ and in the record shop made it difficult to fully focus on the label in 2000. Looking back I should have perhaps asked someone else to take on Kartoons but I’m happy with the output we achieved”
If Kartoons reappeared in 2014 what would you do differently?
“Sadly it would be a digital only label unless specialist releases came out as collectable picture discs. I’m not ruling anything out though, especially since the ‘2 Degrees’ remix by Social Security has been mashing up dancefloors recently! I don’t think I would do anything drastically different to be honest, I enjoyed running Kartoons and playing out everything we released on the label, it’s a great feeling.”
DJ Stretch released ‘The Spesh’ on Kartoons in 1998 which was met by huge support from both DJ’s and ravers alike. He took 5 minutes out of his busy schedule to talk to Jamie about the release and the memories surrounding the tune.
“I was once a massive promo hunter and I can still remember picking up ‘Enforces Volume 01’ on Reinforced Records from Nicky back in 1992. That’s really how our relationship started and for a long time I was a regular at his record shop.
Moving forward to the release of both ‘Worries In The Dance’ and ‘Hungry Tiger’ in the mid 90’s, Nicky was always one of the first to support my music and I was really keen to get a dubplate to him as soon as possible. I remember when he first heard ‘Hungry Tiger’ – his instant reaction was “I want it!”.
“I ended up being somewhat of a rival at one point though as I was running the Drum & Bass section at Unity.”
“This wasn’t a difficult situation though and I always made sure Nicky, alongside Randall and Kenny Ken, were the first to receive the latest A-KO releases.”
“The Spesh was originally produced as just that, a one off DJ special for my sets. Samples taken from KRS 1 and Diddy’s ‘All About The Benjamins’ just seemed to fit so well and the Tina Moore vocal was added because I was really keen to add some UK Garage flavour to it.”
“When I was on tour in America I dropped ‘The Spesh’ into one of my DJ sets and the place went mad, even the well respected King Britt went crazy. It’s a shame that Diddy had left the club before my set as I would have loved to have seen his reaction. This was before anyone had even considered releasing it on a label but after the reaction abroad I knew it was destined for bigger things.”
“When I returned from my tour there was already a lot of interest, especially from Nicky who was constantly hounding me!”
“That’s what a producer strives for though you know, to have a label understanding their passion about their work and really believing in them.”
“Both Mark Reinforced and Dego taught me how to really push analogue units. We tried 4 or 5 different baselines including a typical reese sound which didn’t really fit with the Diddy sample. After some trial and error we eventually found the perfect fit.”