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One letter of the alphabet reigns supreme tonight. It can be seen on the Oyster card of a girl in fluorescent sunglasses, leaping up the steps of Brixton tube station. It’s emblazoned across the T-shirts of groups heading purposefully down from Stockwell Road and Brixton Hill; different colours, different styles, but always the same letter. Fly-posters daubed onto closed-down shops display it in geometric lines. Look closer and you might spot one as a freshly inked tattoo on the back of a sunburned neck. And inside the cavernous Brixton Academy, in front of the four and a half thousand revellers that have come to worship at its altar, centre-stage and throbbing with synchronized flashes, is the biggest example of all. The letter is H, and it’s the calling card for the biggest juggernaut in drum ’n’ bass: Hospital Records.
This year the label started by Tony Colman and Chris Goss from a poky corner of Barons Court, west London, celebrates 15 years in business. From shopping their tunes to record stores in the back of a Morris Mariva to selling branded tea towels in their online shop and having their artists collaborate with Tiësto, Hospital is one of d’n’b’s greatest success stories. A week after their Brixton bashment we ask Colman, aka London Elektricity, a question: if that
old car had been a DeLorean and he’d been able to travel into the future, what would the Tony of 1996 have thought of his little baby all grown up?
“I’d be absolutely gobsmacked, of course,” he replies from Hospital HQ in south-east London, in between attacks of violent coughing. “The fact it’s been so good for so long is incredible.” Throughout the noughties, Hospital was the go-to-label for musical drum ’n’ bass. High Contrast, Nu:tone, Logistics, Cyantific and London Elektricity amassed a rich back catalogue that epitomised classic liquid funk, a sound Colman called ‘fast soul music’. Initially the label grew gradually, but like a snowball down a mountain it has grown and grown, accellerating ever since, so that you could now argue it’s the biggest label in d’n’b.
“To be honest, I’ve never ever looked on it in those terms,” Colman says. “It isn’t some school-yard competition. And besides, I’ve always considered Ram to be the biggest, and I probably always will’.
Whether they are top dogs is a moot point. But the truth of the matter is they’ve become an incredibly powerful presence on the d’n’b landscape, equally impressive when you consider their large-scale contemporaries – Ram, Metalheadz, Tru Playaz – were started before them by bona fide legends of the rave scene. Hospital came from nowhere, and they came promoting very melodic, musical drum ’n’ bass, an area of the genre that hasn’t always been received with open arms. One of the early feedback sheets that was returned to them from a record shop simply stated, ‘We don’t sell gay jungle’.
At times a very insular scene, d’n’b has always been slow to follow the trends of other genres, and its embrace of the digital revolution was more gradual than that of house or techno. But in 2004 Hospital became the first established label in d’n’b to make their whole back catalogue available for download. The Hospital Podcast, hosted by Colman, was the first of its kind in d’n’b and now has over 50,000 listeners every month. When it comes to utilising the power of the internet, Hospital has done it miles better than the competition. As well as the usual website, Facebook and Twitter pages and YouTube channel, each major artist on the label now has a separate blog. The London Elektricity feed is constantly updated with messages and pictures from fans across the world, from customised motorcycle helmets and Hospital tattoos to pictures of people recreating Tony’s most recent album cover. It’s this connection and interaction with the fans which surely contributes to their fervent, devoted and growing fan-base. Hospital lovers feel like they’re part of a big family.
“We have a fantastic following, and it does seem to be almost religious for some,” Colman says. The Hospital co-boss recently celebrated his 50th birthday, and one of their biggest supporters – Divyesh, a London cabbie who has installed a 200 watt sub-bass system into his taxi – delivered a box of chocolates and a zimmer frame to the Hospital offices. Then there is ‘Swanvest’, who allegedly owns over 200 items of Hospital merchandise, has bought tickets for every night in their upcoming tour (10 UK dates, from Newcastle to Portsmouth), and keeps such a close eye on their website that if they’ve updated it and there’s a spelling mistake, he’ll be on the phone immediately. “We were also sent a spider made out of jewels by someone,” Tony says. “It came with a massive 10-page letter and it was all a bit odd. It’s hanging in the office toilet.”
This total devotion to the label is never more apparent than at their live gigs. In Brixton, behind a bank of old cathode ray televisions that display his set in crackly real time, Danny Byrd launches into his first track of the night, ‘Ill Behaviour’. The front row, most of whom are sporting official label apparel, go ballistic, and a couple in matching Hospital T-shirts hug each other and chant along with vocalist I-Kay, heads back, as though their lives depended on it.
Hospitality, the live incarnation of the label, all started in October 2001 at Herbal, East London: the kind of intimate, sometimes claustrophobic venue for 300 ravers where sweat drips from the ceiling. After Herbal closed, the parties moved into the 1,800-capacity Heaven for four years. Then came Matter: six sold-out events and 2,500 people. When Matter shut down, the Hospital crew took the venue’s events manager along with them and took a punt on the 4,500-capacity Brixton Academy, where they have sold out every party they’ve done, weeks, sometimes months in advance. This incremental increase in venue capacity gives you a good indication of the label’s ambition. While many are happy to stay with what they’ve got, Hospital always seems to be looking to grow, to become bigger than in the past.
And there’s one reason why, when it comes to parties these days, bigger is definitely better: money. The sad fact is, the revenue from music sales alone can no longer keep a label with the size and ambition of Hospital Records afloat. People buy less music, so live gigs are where it’s at. Head to any major city in the UK and chances are you’ll find a Hospital-branded night at some stage during the year. European nights are a regular fixture. And on this year’s summer festival circuit, Hospitality was an omnipresent force, providing the drum ’n’ bass option at Parklife, Lounge On The Farm, Lovebox and Global Gathering. “It’s not as simple as putting on more parties because sales are down, though,” Tony says. “One feeds the other. Events will help to sell records, and selling records will help to fuel events.” Get the two working well together and you have a blueprint for success.
But with success inevitably comes criticism, and Hospital, for so long a label that could seemingly do no wrong with hardcore fans, has come under fire, accused of that bête noire of drum ’n’ bass: selling out. High Contrast’s recent collaboration with Tiësto and Underworld has unsurprisingly drawn flak, with one online critic declaring, “The tragedy is, [Hospital] could’ve been the next Ninja Tune or Warp if they’d invested some imagination, but instead they’ve become the musical equivalent of Topshop”. Colman is bullish in his response: “There has never been a master plan,” he says. “The label is led completely by what our artists make. We’ve never said to anyone, ‘You have to make this more commercial’. And to be honest, as soon as anyone attains any level of commercial success in drum ’n’ bass you’re immediately accused of having sold out. So we look on it as a badge of honour. If you haven’t been hated on on YouTube or Dogs On Acid, you haven’t really made it!’
By the passionate way Colman talks, you definitely get the feeling the label has been stung by some of the criticism – and as elder statesman of the imprint, it falls to him to be a kind of father figure in the camp. “It can be very psychologically destructive,” he admits. “You have to remember, some of these young artists have grown through the internet; they’ve built up their confidence online, and received so much support, so when people suddenly turn on them it must be very hard to take.”
The truth is, Hospital’s sound has become more mainstream, with the likes of Danny Byrd, Camo & Krooked and High Contrast all making tunes that sit comfortably on the daytime Radio 1 playlist. But the label also releases some of the most leftfield, cutting-edge d’n’b out there through its Med School offshoot, and plenty in between. “And if we didn’t have the big tunes, we wouldn’t be able to put out stuff like Bop [Med School’s bearded purveyor of ‘existentialist electronica’]”, Tony says. The days of being able to fling out a vinyl single and sell 10,000 copies without much promotion are well and truly over. Some labels in d’n’b’s history weren’t able to adapt; sometimes through greed, but mostly through a lack of vision, planning and effort. Hospital has always attempted to stay ahead of the curve, and its current popularity tells you that it’s doing the big things right. “We do try and keep our eye on the ball at all times,” Tony says. ‘But I think the main reason we’re at the stage we are now, fifteen years down the line, is effort. Some people think running a label is simple, and get into the music industry for an easy ride. Let me tell you: it’s not. It’s a lot of hard work.”
As a result of that hard work Hospital Records is bigger, brasher and further reaching than ever before. Some may not like what they’ve become. But they’ve done it through a combination of bloody-minded determination, big thinking and, critically, a catalogue of quality drum ’n’ bass. In a world where music has seemingly lost value for many and businesses are failing daily, the fact that an esoteric dance label from such humble origins has managed to become so successful should be celebrated.
And that’s exactly what the crowd at the Brixton Academy do, into the early hours of a crisp London morning. Up on the stage, inside a cylinder made of shafts of blue glowing light, new signings Camo & Krooked launch into ‘Breezeblock’, and in front of them, a thousand fists punch the in the air in metronomic unison. The people keep on dancing. And the big H keeps on flashing.
15 YEARS OF HITS
The Peter Nice Trio ‘Harp Of Gold’
The original ‘gay jungle’ riddim
London Elektricity ‘NHS Funk’
A wah-wah bass and wailing brass jungle gem
London Elektricity ‘Pull The Plug’
Moody espionage-jazz splasher
London Elektricity ‘Rewind’
Classic from LE’s first album, brought back to life during his live incarnation
Danny Byrd ‘Do It Again’
The Byrdman debuts with trademark choppy soul
High Contrast ‘Make It Tonight’
Lincoln Barrett’s second single – and it still sounds amazing
High Contrast 'Return Of Forever’
Cinematic monster jam
Black Sun ‘Spread Love (Nu:tone remix)’
A huge vocal remix that got played anywhere and everywhere
High Contrast ‘Racing Green’
Arguably Contrast’s finest moment. A classic
London Elektricity ‘Hanging Rock’
An epic string number that sounded even better live
Cyantific ‘Ghetto Blaster’
This wiggly 80s monster came straight out of left-field
High Contrast ‘If We Ever’
Anthem from the label’s big dog
Gresham Senior with a trancey spine-tingler
Logistics ‘Jungle Music’
Gresham Jnr with a straight-up, rumbling speaker-shaker
Netsky ‘Iron Heart’
Newbie brings the wall of synth
Nu:tone feat Ben Westbeech ‘The Feeling’
The best d’n’b song in years
‘15 Years Of Hospital Records’ is out this month
Pictures: Marc de Groot, Andrew Attah