Over the past three years, Rhythm Section International has established a reputation as a reliable source for soulful releases that meander through genres and styles, while managing to maintain a unique and recognizable sound. Record labels act as curators, musical custodians who determine which songs will reach an audience, and ideally, this audience will trust their judgement. Of course, this trust is hard to build, it demands time and consistency. Rhythm Section, however, has been able to form this relationship in a remarkably short period of time; the records seem to fly off the shelves.
Based in the South London borough of Peckham, Rhythm Section was founded as a radio show in 2009 by Bradley Zero. In 2011 Bradley hosted the first Rhythm Section party at Canavan’s, a local pool hall. In the intervening years it has developed into one of London’s most-loved biweekly parties. While there have been innumerable guest DJs, the dances are known primarily for their diverse musical selections and inclusive atmosphere, focusing on the party and the people as opposed to a specific headliner.
Peckham itself has played an important role in the development of Rhythm Section, evident in the tagline, “Peckham Strong.” The first Rhythm Section International release, «Rye Lane Volume One,» by Al Dobson Jr., is a collage of short, kaleidoscopic beats that reflect on the Peckham high street. Subsequent releases, such as Henry Wu’s «Good Morning Peckham» and Chaos In The CBD’s «Midnight In Peckham» offer alternative perspectives on the locale. For the most part, the Rhythm Section catalogue consists of relaxed dance tracks united by their use of jazzy chords and melodies, however, records like Retiree’s pop-inflected «This Place» also feel at home.
Could you talk a bit about the organic growth of Rhythm Section? From where it started as a party series with you running the show by yourself to now, where it’s outgrown being a one-man operation with a small team involved in the day-to-day operations.
One thing i’ve realized over the years is that i’m a do-er, not a planner. I think when rigid plans are made, you set yourself up for failure. When a project is born out of a desire to make something happen in the moment, I think it’s development is naturally organic and by definition is open ended – allowing it to become something you could never have imagined. In maintaining a very here and now approach and not projecting too much into the future, every twist and turn can be exciting and unexpected and failure is ( in the larger sense) impossible!
Rhythm Section started when I was offered a Radio Show. It became an event when I walked past a pool hall and booked one night in. It became a record label when I had some unreleased music I wanted to release. Now there’s a team of 4 of us ( and counting), we’ve hosted events at all 4 corners of the globe, released over 20 records, produced film, artwork, clothing and collaborated with some extraordinary minds… and hopefully touched and inspired people along the way. And all with absolutely no plan other than making the most out of every opportunity and following our hearts.
It’s been so fulfilling ( and sanity saving!) to work find and work with a team, and it’s such a nice feeling to see them grow and prosper as individuals within our organisation. Anu is making a big impression with her approach to music and community, both within RS and the wider network of women of colour involved in music in London – she’s on the verge of making a real impact over here. Mali aka Z Lovecraft has released 3 incredible records now, on YAM, No Bad Days and Cognitiva and is proving to be a real pillar of the community with regards to our Rhythm Section HQ in house studio – which he has become de facto Manager / Engineer / Tutor of – he only graduated from Goldsmiths this summer. Emily aka MLE – our youngest and latest team member has just began working at sounds of the universe whilst still studying at UCL and is finding her feet as a DJ in the most incredible, understated style. She’s already getting a few bookings in across the UK and if her opening set at Rhythm Section last week was anything to go by she’ll be moving up the ranks quickly.
Rhythm Section International has become quite popular in a short amount of time. What do you think attracts people to the label and its sound?
I think the ‘ sound’ is incredibly hard to define – but so are people, right?! Gone are are the days when the youth associate with one sound or movement. Nobodies a junglist anymore, or a house head or a rocker or a B-Boy…Intersectionality is the generational buzzword for a very good reason: we are far more than the sum of our parts and not willing to be forced into, or defined through one identity.
There’s some ethereal thread which joins the releases together but it escapes definition and speaks to people who can enjoy a multiplicity of styles and genres: RnB in the morning, electro Pop in the afternoon and Techno at night time. We’re not being eclectic for the sake of it – we are just complex people who enjoy many forms of expression and in turn I guess we are appealing to people like us. Maybe It’s a generational thing…
In terms of the relatively fast rise of the label, I think this is down to the enthusiasm with which we go about bringing the music into the world. I do put a lot of hours in – if I were to count how much time I spent on the Rhythm Section project I’d probably scare myself; but to me, it isn’t work – i’m lucky enough to have found a role where my outer purpose and inner purpose are aligned, and despite the occasional overload of emails, I love every minute of it and I guess this has resonated with a few people.
You have signed a few friends on the label but beyond that you’ve gone on to discover other artists beyond the borders of Peckham. Is there a certain process for you to find new artists or is it just a natural occurrence, be it through browsing for new music or recommendations from friends, etc?
There hasn’t really been a set process – it’s more a case of what I’ve come across on the never-ending search for the perfect beat. Some releases have stemmed from recommendations, a couple from demos, but most through the ever growing international network of underground musicians and DJ’s. However, now we have a team and a new studio, we are working towards having regular A&R meetings where the whole team brings in something that’s getting them excited each week. – whether it was a live performance they saw, a DJ whose productions they heard, or a demo they got sent and we all have a clear time to listen, discuss and make decisions together. We mustn’t be complacent, or allow homogeneity to creep in anymore than it already has – so everyone’s input is increasingly essential.
Can you describe the Peckham vibe for us a bit from your perspective? It seems like it’s a very diverse yet close-knit community of like-minded individuals, artists, labels, record shops, radio stations & more.
Hmmm, that’s what you’d see from the outside, but of course there’s life beyond this, people live there before this wave and people will continue to after it has passed. I’ve lived in the area since 2008 and seen an awful lot of change. It went from a small, genuinely close knit community of artistic, like minded individuals living and working within a largely working class area, to a growing influx of these ‘like-minded individuals’ forcing out those who came before them and eventually, and paradoxically- themselves. It’s a sorry pattern that’s repeating across london – with ethnic minority working class people being the first and worst affected.
I don’t mean to paint a dreary picture – everything you said is true -but as luxury flats pop up at an alarming rate, there’s just an increasingly uncomfortable truth behind it.
Rhythm Section’s sound, like Peckham, is cohesive yet distinct. 30/70 seem to fit right in despite being quite different from previous releases. How do you personally see their sound fitting within the context of the label?
Well, much like our first release from Al Dobson Jr, the sound of 30/70 contains all the distinctive elements that inspire and inform us from the get go….jazz, hip hop, funk, soul, solid basslines and driving percussion (aka the Rhythm Section) – so despite us not having released a record quite like it before, when you deconstruct it – it fits like a charm – plus if you ever listen to my radio show or come to our live concerts the alignment is clear.
How and when did you come across the 30/70 collective and did their sound instantly resonate with you?
Via one of the best record shops in the world: Northside records, Melbourne. The owner Chris Gil is such a champion of the local soul scene over there – every time I’m in the city I’ll head straight to him and ask ‘ what’s new & local?’ His enthusiasm is unparalleled and his selections will always be inspiring and mind expanding. He introduced me to Jordan Rakei, 30/70 and countless others.
When I first discovered their self released debut Album “ Cold Raddish Coma” the effect was immediate – although the recording was a little DIY in places – the beauty shone through to blinding effect. The Album pretty much soundtracked my whole 2016, and when I finally got to see them live they exceeded my wildest expectations – I’d come across a group of true artists in the peak of their creativity. I wanted to help spread this message, further their reach and do what i could to allow this incredible potential to blossom. I’m happy to say I think we did it – the new record sounds absolutely incredible and each listen reveals a new meaning, a hidden layer, a cryptic message. It’s one of those rare works of art where the poetry is in harmony with the musicality – it’s one hell of a statement.
You yourself are not a producer. In today’s world where most touring DJs are generally recognized for their original music, it’s hard to break through solely as a selector. What do you think has helped lead to your personal success as a DJ?
Success is relative and often misunderstood – I try to dismiss the dualistic nature of success and failure. If my mind is in the present and focused on what i’m doing right now, rather than worrying where I have to be or what I might become in the future, then that – to me, is a success. If I can enjoy the journey rather than be concerned with where I’m going- I’m successful. If I never set myself a target or viewed this path in the context of a ‘career’ so I can’t fail – I’m just doing me and if some people pick up on that then that’s fantastic!
I think the nature of being a non producing DJ has hidden benefits – we can’t have a hit single that’s going to catapult us to fame and attention – it’s a slow, organic rise that’s a lot more aligned with our personal development and I think this makes it a bit easier to handle. The spotlight can be a hard one to deal with, and stories of young DJs catapulted into fame with no grounding and thus suffering the side effects of an overly nourished ego are all too common, and it’s not their fault – I imagine it must be a terribly difficult thing to have to deal with overnight.
When it comes down to it though, if you’re creating something truthful, whether it’s a larger body of work, a series of performances or broadcasts, or productions in a studio -if it’s done with a positive energy and high quality, those vibrations are going to resonate with people at some point – whether you’re a DJ, producer, painter, broadcaster, writer, musician -whatever – it’s all coming from the same pot.
What’s next for you personally? What about the label and the party? Do you see yourself venturing into any other projects in the near future?
As you may have guessed, no fixed long term plans at RS HQ, but we look forward to discovering more new talent and continuing to nurture those already close to us. We’re moving towards a label management deal which means less time can be spent on admin and more time on creation. We have the studio now next to the office and we’ll continue to expand it’s reach, getting more people in from an as wide array of backgrounds as possible, enabling the next generation of producers and providing an in house platform for our existing roster.
The parties are at the core of what we do and will continue throughout 2018, alongside a series of concerts at the Jazz cafe. Now that we’ve established our aesthetic we’re more and more keen to work with different artists and designers to expand the vision. Recent collaborations with Patrick Saville and Mason London really added something special to the events.
We already have a few really exciting records lined up for next year with some really strong visual identities – we’re working with some great filmmakers to expand the scope of each release.
With the label management deal around the corner which should swallow up a large amount of day to day admin, I want to expand and rediscover my own creativity – I’m diving back into painting ( I graduated from the slade school of fine art in 2010 but have had little time to maintain an art practice up until now), and It’s about time I had a little play around in the studio!
I enjoy touring and playing gigs so much, but I think there’s a fine balance and in 2018 I want to be careful not to do too much and burn out – dates can all too easily stack up – and the paradox of doing too much of what you love (and getting paid for it!) is one to be aware of. Sometimes it’s good to say no. Space to do nothing is really important, and that’s something I’ll be taking into account going into next year. Allowing for that gap in mind for the creativity to flow from.
Interview by Igor & JJ