|Label of the month: Token
The Belgian label has been quietly pushing some of the most compelling techno around. RA's Todd L. Burns give them their close-up.
"Passion for music is all very well, but without focus and professionalism you're not going anywhere," writes Phase. "I developed a good dialogue with Kr!z and felt confident he was committed to doing things professionally, and the label was being set up on solid foundations." A simple explanation for someone's involvement with an imprint, but one that speaks volumes about both Kr!z—the founder of Token Records—and Phase—one of UK techno's oft-overlooked talents.
Token began life in 2007, at the exact moment that certain things were peaking (minimal) and other things were just beginning (Ostgut Ton). A moment when certain artists and labels were left behind as distributors tried to adjust business plans to deal with the brave new digital world. "I went through my collection of records, and there were maybe ten people that I felt like weren't putting out new stuff at the time," explains Kr!z.
One of those artists was Inigo Kennedy. Due to distribution problems with his label Asymmetric, the UK producer had started to release his work freely as mp3s in 2004. It was a decision that gave Kennedy the ability to explore different sides of his musical personality—but he never wanted to leave the vinyl format for long. More importantly, though, it just felt right.
"The proposal for Token from the start was to be a vinyl label and it felt like the perfect way for me to focus on substantial releases on vinyl again. There's definitely a different psychology to working for vinyl," writes Kennedy. "I also felt quite strongly that it would be good to work with a label with a plan for the future and not just pop out a one-off release; be part of a developing brand in a way."
The brand side of things had always been part of the philosophy of Token, even if Kr!z would likely never use that word per se. Nonetheless, his long-term relationships with Kennedy and Phase have defined the label's output—especially so given that Kr!z himself doesn't produce music. Their names appear on about half of Token's releases, and the hard-edged techno sound they make has obviously influenced the other half. Kennedy's Identify Yourself was the label's first release, Phase's Mass was Token's third.
Mass came about in a similar way to Identify Yourself, with Kr!z getting in touch after things were winding down for Phase with Inceptive. "I think maybe if Inceptive had kept on running, he probably wouldn't have signed with me," admits Kr!z. And, looking over Phase's discography, it's clear that loyalty is an important part of his professional life. "I think it's important to stick with people where possible," writes Phase. "He's visited London on many occasions with the express purpose of strengthening the relationship between himself and the Token artists. Because of this we've developed a good relationship over the years. I'm now entirely entwined in the Token story and have no real desire or need to go elsewhere at present."
Kennedy, Phase and others that have released on the label have been associated with darkness in the past. (Token's early graphic design didn't help this perception much, the first 20 or so 12-inches depicting corroded metal surfaces.) As time has gone on, however, you can hear other sounds percolating. Like many of the most fascinating techno labels around—Semantica, Stroboscopic Artefacts—the genre is a core around which many different influences orbit. Recent releases from Xhin, Ctrls and Go Hiyama have gone some way in broadening the sound, and some are probably still trying to find the downbeat in Kennedy's "Scatter" from last year.
Kennedy, who is perhaps best known for his battering techno sets, has released an intriguing variety of sounds over the past few years. "Obsidian," from late 2010, is a positively sedate 120 BPM, its eerie melody reminiscent of Polygon Window's Surfing on Sine Waves. His unique talent, though, is finding ways to keep a groove in even the fastest of tracks—check 2009's "Filaments" for proof. That feel is largely achieved through breakbeats or offbeats, and rarely does a Token release go by without at least one. The aforementioned Xhin and Go Hiyama 12-inches featured them almost exclusively. It's one of the things that the label does best.
Last year saw new UK techno hope Blawan enlisted for remix duties on an Inigo Kennedy 12-inch. Few probably knew, however, at the time that Blawan counts Kennedy as a major influence, and that it was simply a natural meeting of the minds. Unlike many other labels in the same sphere, Token has never relied on getting in remixers to help boost the label's profile. Of the first ten releases, only two had them; the recent Phase compilation which featured a bevy of reworks was an anomaly, not the norm. (That said, the artists that have agreed to work with Token read like a who's who of techno royalty in 2012: Planetary Assault Systems, Surgeon, James Ruskin, Marcel Dettmann, Ben Sims, Ben Klock.)
Indeed, the remix package came about largely as a by-product of the success of the original track—"Binary Opposition"—and the eagerness of some to try to make their own version from the parts. That, and Kr!z's dedication to bringing recognition to the artists on his label: "Phase should have been way bigger by now, Inigo as well. I felt this package would probably wake some people up, and I think it worked in the end, because there are people catching on to Phase every day. I see now that the following is growing," he says, hinting at a bigger project next year.
What won't be coming anytime soon is production from Kr!z. There was a time when he felt pressure to put out records—like any DJ does in a marketplace where popularity is often judged by how many releases they've had out—but he no longer feels it so much. "For me, it’s [about] the label, I really put a lot of time into thinking about the label, listening to music, I just listen to music all the time…and I want to develop my own idea of doing music, because last time I started making it, it sounded like a Phase record, and the time before that it sounded like Inigo, and I don't really want to put out a track like that. I want to do my own stuff but it's hard to find your own stuff when you're just listening to this music all the time."
With the biggest release of the label's history just behind him, all that listening seems to be paying off. Kr!z will keep things in the family, however, for the forseeable future. Singles will be coming from some of the usual suspects—Go Hiyama, Phase, Inigo Kennedy—before the year is over, as well as a project that can't quite be revealed yet. It's a long way from his humble beginnings as a Belgian DJ in love with the sound of some producers that were in danger of being forgotten by the wider techno community. But that's generally how all successful ventures in techno begin—find a gap in the market, work extremely hard, dance in nightclubs all night long to the result.