It’s because of Relentless Records that we know the real answer to “two multiplied by 10 plus one” is “Romeo done” (via So Solid Crew’s UK number one single “21 Seconds”). By signing UK garage figureheads like Ms Dynamite and So Solid, to newer rap groundbreakers such as Headie One and Not3s, the label’s place in British music history is firmly canonical.
Their debut release – Artful Dodger and Craig David’s “Re-Rewind” – shone a light on the thriving underground subculture of UK garage and changed the trajectory of mainstream British music forever. Released on the 29th of November 1999, it introduced a 2-stepping, champagne sipping, off-key Moschino and white-jeans wearing energy to the wider British public, helping shake things up.
Next came So Solid Crew and their slightly darker, bassline driven sound in the 2000s, arriving first with singles “Oh No (Sentimental Things) / Dilemma”. The pioneering crew topped the UK singles chart in August 2001 with the iconic “21 Seconds” and their debut album They Don’t Know peaked at number six that same year, winning them a BRIT Award for Best British Video in the process. Suffice to say, Relentless has played a significant role in bringing Black British music into the mainstream arena ever since.
Grime classic “POW”, by Lethal Bizzle, came out on the label. Same goes for Headie One’s ice cold collection of UK drill bangers and Roll Deep’s debut album. You’ll recognise their poppiest releases being played in clubs and radio stations still today, like 3 of a Kind’s “Babycakes”, Daniel Bedingfield’s “Gotta Get Thru This” and DJ Pied Piper’s “Do You Really Like It”, while the label’s deeper cuts are best saved for late-night/early-morning congregations when all you want is to keep the party going (like Phaze One’s “Nicole’s Groove”).
Along the way they’ve also released a few curveballs. Mum-rock fave KT Tunstall, feisty US psych rockers Cage The Elephant and that damn “Babyshark” song that turned into a meme all spring to mind. But what are the label’s most essential releases?
As Relentless Records gears up to celebrate their 21st birthday this November, VICE caught up with label founder Shabs and current manager Ben Coates, to talk through the 10 releases which define the impactful, if left-field, Brit label.
Artful Dodger feat. Craig David - “Re-Rewind” (1999)
VICE: What was the landscape of British music like when “Re-Rewind” was released?
Shabs: The reason I started Relentless was I felt what was going on when I was growing up in London – DJing on a pirate station called LWR and picking up British R&B and hip hop vinyl – had just stopped happening. I'd been around the Acid Jazz, Talkin’ Loud scene and worked with all the guys. And it just stopped. I was trying to pick up some of that stuff – which I felt needed more love – because I’d worked in that area for so long. I’d had my British Asian label Outcaste since 1995 and I’d seen how we developed that. Then garage came along and took British R&B, hip hop and everything else, then mixed it all up and created this culturally relevant period. Drum’n’bass had gone quite dark and people were looking for melody and fun.
Maybe the UK had already realised New Labour was not what we hoped it might be, and needed uplifting?
Shabs: Indeed. I think it was also a time when people were looking to be happy. They wanted to find something. All of our music that we love, is born out of a sense of trying to find something – a cultural shift, a desire to express. Clearly what garage offered was a movement really, that gave people a way of living where they could express the clothes, the champagne, and the lifestyle. People wanted to celebrate that they could show off what they had and be expressive and feel proud of it.
So Solid Crew - “Dilemma / 21 Seconds” (2000 / 2001)
How do you feel about “Dilemma”?
Shabs: It’s why we signed So Solid in the first place. The minute we heard it, I was like what is this? You listen to that record and you go this is something else, right? This is something else! Then you meet the guys – particularly Mega Man who definitely deserves a big mention because rarely did you meet a person coming from such a difficult place with such commandership and a real vision. You listen to that record, and you meet him and you go, I've gotta back this. I don’t know where it’s going but I gotta back this.
Signing So Solid must have been quite complex.
Shabs: It was so complicated. The deal was really done with Mega, because he had the authority of all of them. I go down on a Sunday evening when they used to do meets on the estate and talk to people. It was a smoke-filled haze of people who were in difficult places with difficult lives, but who wanted to make it. It was extraordinary to watch Mega’s command over them. They just wanted to get out, they wanted to do their thing, they wanted to make it through music. Thankfully for them, it came true. But, you know, members came and went, people disappeared and new people turned up. It was the usual flow of a crew. People like Ashley Walters came in and then disappeared and came back. You just went with the flow.
How significant were the restrictions put on So Solid by the authorities, and how did Relentless support them with that?
Shabs: They were always in trouble. It was difficult to handle in terms of being responsible, understanding the difficulties, erratic behaviour. But ultimately when difficult decisions had to be made, they listened and we listened. There was an understanding that things were going to happen and people would get into trouble. Not just externally but between them as well. But Mega and Albert Samuel, who was their manager, did a brilliant job, brilliant job. Even though things would go on around them and between them that were crazy, we were all going in the direction that we needed to go. Everyone kind of believed in it.
How did “21 Seconds” come about?
Shabs: It got to the point where So Solid were so big culturally that we said you need a big tune now – you need an anthem on top the ones you've got. The reason “21 Seconds” happened is I basically said to everyone “Look, we’re doing this, turn up at this time” and everyone was late. [With the amount of time left], the engineer divided that by the amount of people in the room. That meant everyone got “21 Seconds”. The chorus was just a verse. We put it out on a white label vinyl, but the scene didn’t get it at first.
Shabs: I think as people they were quite fractious – they'd be up to all sorts with all sorts of people. All the crews – More Fire, Heartless – there was a bit of aggro between people. Ayia Napa didn't help because it fuelled the antipathy. When So Solid came, their stuff was quite bassline lead, and the scene hadn't quite got to that point – people were looking for happy songs like “Flowers” and all that stuff. But as the weeks and months went on, DJs played “21 Seconds” and it kept working. The scene then moved to like them and love them and feel the music.
Phaze One (Wiley) & Nesha - “Nicole’s Groove” (2001)
This might be one that listeners are unfamiliar with.
Shabs: This is Wiley’s first record. This was when Wiley was coming through and it was a weird time. We knew it was underground and it wasn’t gonna crossover. It’s funny what happens when you find these records and the consequences of signing these records. We then tried to sign Dizzee but couldn’t because of how Wiley and him didn’t get on. So there we were with this underground single with Wiley. The guy’s amazing but hard to get on with, and hard to find!
What makes it a definitive Relentless release?
Shabs: The track itself always felt like a proper underground classic to me, because he was on it. And he just sounded like … bang, who is this guy? That moment when you hear someone's voice. We all know Wiley’s travails and I've done lots of stuff with him over the years, including Roll Deep. That song has always held a special place for me, and the reason he’ll still keep texting me regardless of all his stuff, he’ll always say you picked up my first record. I suppose whether you like or dislike Wiley now, the history is there and it’s his first piece of music with us, which makes it special for that reason. You cannot doubt the guy’s talent.
Ben: The track also didn’t come out under the name Wiley. It came out under the alias Phase One. Wiley also produced it. And I think Danny C was involved – he did some additional production. He was also involved in a lot of the earlier garage stuff as well. I’m a big fan of this record. And it’s one of those records that if you were to say to a lot of people, you know Wiley made this? They wouldn't know.
K2 Family - “Bouncing Flow” (2001)
Now this one would still go off in the dance.
Shabs: I would watch DJ EZ drop this tune in clubs and the place would just go off. I always felt like this is a tune that had a pump – it had a move. I don’t think people understood it at the time. But people like EZ – who’s a major pioneer – understood and dropped it in sets and made people understand what it was. So for us, it's really important and it's a bit of an underground classic. That's why we wanted to include it, because it’s something that has historical value.
Jay Sean - “Eyes on You” (2004)
What’s the story behind this one?
Shabs: We were always looking to the next thing. I'd always felt as a British Asian person that what we'd done with Outcaste and what we’d then do with Relentless is bring through the next young British Asian star. We’d signed Jay Sean along with Rishi Rich at the time, coming from a scene out of west London, Southall, Perivale. It was just coming through. It was really exciting watching the confidence and the energy of these guys. It was genuine, it was hot and it was selling. It gave young Asian kids, culturally, someone to believe in. I think this was his biggest record. It just elevated the sound of British Asian music and culture at a time where it felt right. For us as a label, this kind of idea that we're always doing culturally interesting records was really important. It naturally felt right for me, and it means a lot because I co-wrote it.
Did you expect it to have such a wide impact?
Shabs: It was global. In South Asia and North America, Jay Sean turned up and it was like “who’s this guy?” In the US, Jay went on to get a deal with Cash Money after that. I think that it's really great because he did it on his terms. Him and Rishi were great together, a great partnership that felt like kids from the streets who’d grown up together and then suddenly became superstars in their own right, making music that they loved and culturally listened to. They managed to fuse it all together to create something new.
KT Tunstall - “Other Side of the World” (2005)
This feels like a departure from the scenes you’d been involved in.
Shabs: She was this 30-year old busker from Edinburgh. No-one really wanted to sign her, no-one really wanted to sign what would be classed as an ‘older woman’. But we loved this song. Even though it wasn't her biggest song, it was why we signed her. It also showed another side to Relentless whereby we were now beginning as a label to take risks in really different areas, that we wouldn't normally take.
Where did you find KT?
Shabs: Bizarrely enough, on Outcaste, we had a Jewish band called Oi Va Voi. We’d come across KT and they’d come across her as well and we used her on their album. She was a really, really important act in terms of when people said all we do is garage, she forged the path for us to do more. It changed what we were about and what people thought we could do.
Seth Lakeman - Kitty Jay (2006)
Another left field signing for the label. How did that come about?
Shabs: We felt the English folk scene at the time was big – it really sold tickets and was having a real cultural moment, with artists coming through. Then we bumped into this guy – a young fiddle player from Devon, Dartmoor. It was exciting to go from champagne 2-step to Cambridge Folk Festival. But culturally, it's still all Britain, you know? It’s still part of something that’s here. “Kitty Jay” was a big one for Seth. I don't think there's been a young folk artist like him since and there wasn't one like him for many years before that. It was really important to the English folk scene and really important for us because we learned something completely new. And we sold a lot of records.
Did it feel like a risk at the time for the label?
Shabs: Yeah, it was. But I’ve come to understand and really get into how deep and important the roots of this music is.
Cage the Elephant - “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” (2008)
So now we’re crossing the pond?
Shabs: Well, they’ve just won a Grammy as US Rock act of the year. No-one would have signed these guys at the beginning. They’re from Bowling Green, Kentucky. We signed them around 2007, 2008, and brought them over and they lived in Leytonstone. They smashed up one of the houses they were staying in, just constantly in trouble. They were in hospital a lot. But they were an unbelievably exciting act to work with. I think it was a pioneering move by the label in the sense that we picked up on something that people in the US hadn’t at the time. Within a year and a bit, Dave Grohl was playing drums with them.
What about them resonated with UK listeners?
Shabs: When I went to see them for the first time in Camden with our scout, Matt comes on stage and he hasn't sung a note for the first minute. He’s just going around stage dancing to the music. I was like “we’re done”. The presence of this guy was unbelievable. He had that rock and roll magic that you want from people.
Fono - “Real Joy” (2015)
How did Relentless land this one?
Ben: What’s funny is the track was actually sent to us by another producer who has done a lot of great things and Shabs has worked with in the past, and we continue to work with. We played it in an A&R meeting, it was literally like nothing else – it was this future electronic music. We all sat there thinking we didn’t really know where it sits, but it's really fucking exciting. It was shifting to this time where it’s all about how many followers someone's got, what's the algorithms gonna say? This guy literally had no following, but it was so exciting we couldn’t not be a part of it.
As we rolled out the release, I was still trying to figure out exactly where to place it. People that were hearing it were finding it a bit difficult to mix – not knowing which DJs were gonna play it. Then serendipitously, what we wanted to happen, happened to like the maximum level. Somehow Zane Lowe got his hands on it This was when he was still on Radio 1. He played the record. And talked for five minutes about how incredible this record was, how important it was, and he reloaded it. The rip is actually still up on YouTube – he sells it so well! Then Calvin Harris found out about it and reached out to the guy who managed Fono like, “I need to do an edit for my club sets”. You also had super underground DJs like Machine Drum going nuts for it. It was just one of those beautiful records that touches the commercial side but is also super underground.
Why do you think it popped off like that?
Shabs: It just sounds like nothing else. Even today, you can't put your finger on what it is. It’s just a wonderful piece of electronic music that contained all the elements of great electronic British music in there. It’s like: how did he manage to get all this into here? He managed to fuse it all together and did a brilliant job.
Headie One & RV - “Know Better”
The story behind this song is canonical UK drill history.
Shabs: We’d signed Headie two days before. He was doing a show at the University of Bedford and – as you know – someone came for him. Obviously, he didn't like it. We get a call on the Saturday or Sunday after this incident, saying that he’s made a tune and wants it out straight away. The ink [on our deal] hasn’t even dried yet. It’s like: how have you managed to get yourself into a scrape already?
This track is pure Headie One, the flow, the energy, what he's saying. With all that’s come to pass with Headie One, this record sums the guy up, his lyrical skill, the authenticity and the purity of the lyrics. It’s one of those records, you always listen back and go “no wonder this is an anthem”. It’s a guy saying what he needed to say in the immediacy of what had just happened to him. We all have things that happen to us, but not many of us could put it together into something as brilliant as that.
Were there any doubts about putting it out, knowing it was born out of a very recent, real situation?
Shabs: No. This is why you sign people like this. You’ve got to go with them, back them, believe in them. I always say to the artist – if you feel like you need to put a piece of music out, put it out.
How have Relentless supported Headie as he’s transitioned from the roads to music?
Shabs: I think him, the management team and the label have done a great job in terms of making sure that Headie’s been able to do what he wants to do, when he's wanted to do it. He’s been inside, various things have happened. But he’s been patient. We've been patient. You can see from Drillers & Trappers onwards he’s developed into a really great artist whose confidence has grown. All we've done is helped him by just giving him the resources. When the Drake thing came, we made sure it happened. His willingness to say yes and do stuff – like we did on the GANG project – has shown his dexterity as an artist, I don't know anyone in drill who’s done what he's done, really in terms of all the aspects and styles that he's covered. The guy’s phenomenal and the best is still to come.
Did you expect “Know Better” to have such a big commercial impact?
Shabs: Not really, and I think when Stormzy used it a year ago that showed its strength and power. Any scene has maybe five or ten tracks that sums them up, and this is one of them. “Know Better” is a seminal moment for the scene, summing up one of the best artists in it, which is no surprise because it’s a real expression of what he felt.
That’s what art is meant to be about, isn’t it?
Ben: In a way it’s become more iconic as Headie’s gone on in his career and done different things and achieved more success. You'd look back at that and go “that was amazing”. It was the perfect sound at that moment and the perfect reaction to something. I think that's the sign of such a culturally important record. It will no doubt be referenced for years to come.