When he arrived a couple of minutes later, Scholefield took the names of everyone in the crowd and made sure they all got what they were after: Woman / Midnight, a 12-inch with two legendary Loefah tunes that hadn't been released on vinyl until now. For Scholefield, who's worked at Honest Jon's for 27 years, the morning was "one of those weird little events that sums up the time we're in as record sellers." He's not just talking about the level of excitement but its provenance. People were simultaneously clamouring for Woman / Midnight online, over the phone and inside the shop. Scholefield fielded calls from as far afield as Australia and Canada, and the allocation on the Honest Jon's website sold out within minutes.
"We're suddenly in a period where it's de rigueur to buy records," says Scholefield. "We still never seem to make any money, but we certainly sell a lot of vinyl and we pay our bills. It feels like yesterday, but it was probably ten years ago, when there were no deadlines, you just came and hoped for some action. But now, you're under pressure to get the stuff in, to get it out, to arrange this, arrange that. It's genuinely perky."
Scholefield and his friend Mark Ainley have been running Honest Jon's since 1992, when they took over from its founder, Jon Clare (who now spells his name "John"). Scholefield is the practical brain, the anchor—thin, animated and bookish. Ainley is the creative force. There aren't many serious musical genres for which he doesn't at least own the main recordings, and what he doesn't know about reggae, jazz and rare groove probably isn't worth knowing. He also has a reputation for being a bit intimidating. ("He doesn't fuck about," one person who knows him well told me.) Together, Scholefield and Ainley probably rank among the finest musicologists in the UK. "We complement each other," Scholefield says. "You need somebody with ideas and determination to change, and you need somebody to keep things running day-to-day."
Honest Jon's hides in plain sight at 278 Portobello Road, one of the world's most famous market streets. It's tucked away at the Ladbroke Grove end of a long sweep of colourful antique shops, independent boutiques, chains, pubs and food stalls. There's a faded red sign out the front. Inside, the walls are painted yellow and red and green. The shelves are stocked with records and CDs spanning techno, blues, jazz, soul, disco, reggae and music from across the globe. In 2014 the shop's 40th anniversary passed without celebration. It's that kind of place.
The original Honest Jon's was located at 76 Golborne Road, about 200 yards away from its current home. Clare, the founder, had taken over the Golborne Road premises in 1974 from his friend Geoff Francis, who was taking his own record business to a new spot on Baker Street. The shop had once been a butcher's, and remnants of this previous life remained. Records were displayed like slabs of meat on a marble counter. There were bloodstains on the walls. Meat hooks hung out back.
Before he started Honest Jon's, Clare taught sociology at a London university and worked on the streets of Paddington as a research criminologist, studying the behaviour of gangs. He had also spent a year living in Jamaica after he finished school and played clarinet in a ska band while he was there. The first thing he did in his new shop was to put a big sign in the window that read "We Pay Cash For Records." He went out and bought a radiogram—"an old-fashioned radiogram, the size of sofa," he tells me—stuck it in the window, and played music on it. Then he put his own collection on the racks: around 300 records, mostly jazz, many of them rare.
All kinds of people came into the shop. The clientele was mostly poor. It was also culturally mixed—Honest Jon's was particularly popular with the area's Afro-Caribbean community. Clare's stash of rare jazz quickly sold and they were replaced with other records. "People who liked jazz started coming in," he says. "And on Golborne Road in 1974, those were mainly older, Caribbean or African guys who were amazingly knowledgeable. They taught me everything—how to tell different tenor players from one another, the history of it. And younger people came in who wanted me to get reggae and ska, which I didn't know very much about. I only knew about jazz. They were into Big Youth, The Heptones, things like that."
This part of West London in the '70s was volatile, both musically and politically. It was here that Notting Hill Carnival was established during the mid-'60s, and it was here that tensions spilled over during the race riots of 1958. Multi-occupation houses were still commonplace, and one of the worst slums in London—on Colville Terrace, owned by the infamous landlord Peter Rachman—was less than a mile away.
"People needed something to keep them going," Clare says. "And apart from alcohol and drugs, it was music. Music was terribly important. It saved lives."
An inclusive atmosphere was established from day one. "Inside the shop it was safe," Clare says. "It was black and white people together." When more riots hit the area, during the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, Honest Jon's was one of the only shops on Golborne Road whose windows remained unbroken. Clare paid everybody, including himself, the same wage. Looking back he admits it was naïve: "A ridiculous idea. It doesn't work. People don't respect you." Still, things started brightly, and Clare always had a wad of cash in his back pocket.
Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols' manager and one of the punk scene's chief rabble-rousers, was a frequent visitor in these early days. ("He used to stand at the back of the shop and sneer—a really unpleasant bloke," Clare recalls.) Often McLaren would be with Sex Pistols singer John Lydon, then known as Johnny Rotten, a man Clare says had "immaculate taste in music." Joe Strummer of The Clash was another regular, and he and Clare became friends. "Joe was a very likeable, decent, rather vulnerable bloke." Jamaican DJ Dr. Alimantado, best known for his 1978 album Best Dressed Chicken In Town, was a good customer; jazz musician Courtney Pine started coming in at the age of nine; apparently Declan MacManus wrote his first cheque as Elvis Costello in the shop; and reggae legends Horace Andy and Augustus Pablo would buy and sell records with Clare from the boot of their car.
Another one of the shop's characters was Leroy Anderson, who started coming to Honest Jon's as a teenager. Anderson, who would go on to start Dread Broadcasting Corporation, a pioneering pirate radio station, had found himself on the wrong side of the law from a young age. He asked Clare for help. "The police were going to send him to prison unless he could prove he was on the straight and narrow," says Clare, whose work in criminology meant he was familiar with these situations. "I offered Leroy a job as shop cleaner and spoke for him in court. He went back to prison quite a lot, but he was very knowledgeable about reggae, and his sister was married to Bob Marley. So Leroy was an introduction to all sorts of mysteries in the area."
After running the shop on his own for a year or so, Clare asked a friend, Dave Ryner, to run the business with him. A rapid spell of expansion followed. First they opened a branch on Chalk Farm Road in Camden Town, opposite Compendium Books. The alternative bookstore had two shops in Camden, located across the road from each other—when one of the shops closed, Honest Jon's moved in.
"We jumped at the chance to open opposite Compendium because they stood for the same kind of countercultural values that we did," says Clare. In 1975 Camden was yet to take off—"there was nothing, it was a desert," Clare recalls—but soon enough it was buzzing. Punk took root in London, and Camden became the place to be. "There was a lot of money flowing into Camden Town. The market began to develop. Dingwalls opened. Everything blossomed in the space of about two years."
Clare and Ryner started to employ more experts, like Anthony Wood, an avant-garde jazz specialist who later started The Wire magazine. Another was Steve Barrow, now a noted reggae historian. Punk bands with names like The Desperate Bicycles, The Snot Gobblers and Ivor Biggun & The Red Nosed Burglars would visit the Camden Town shop, drop off records and tell staff which pub they'd be playing at that night.
Emboldened by their success, Clare and Ryner opened an outlet in a market on Oxford Street in 1976. This location was a regular haunt for NME writers and other West End music journalists looking to shift unwanted review records. They continued picking up specialists too, including Kevin Allerton, who had just left the Royal Navy and possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of West Coast American psychedelic, garage rock and bubblegum music. Allerton quickly became an asset. "Lots of people liked that kind of music," Clare says, "and we were selling lots of it, but I knew nothing about it."
In 1977 they opened a shop on Monmouth Street in Covent Garden, near Ray's Jazz, a serious jazz outlet. "I remember them being very indignant," Clare says. "'How dare we open opposite them? Honest Jon's—a joke shop! It sells jazz and soul music and reggae. How disgusting.' But to me, this mix was the whole thing, that's what we were about." Clare and Ryner sold the Monmouth Street shop in 1981 for £3000.
In 1979 Honest Jon's moved out of Golborne Road (the shop later became a mosque) and into 278 Portobello Road. That same year another shop was opened, on King's Road in Chelsea, which lasted less than 12 months. "We'd overstretched ourselves by this time," Clare admits. The Camden Town shop made a profit and Portobello Road broke even—every other shop lost money. But they pressed on, opening Maroon's Tunes, a specialist reggae outlet on Greek Street in Soho. It only lasted a couple of years. Clare describes the two men who ran the shop—Leroy, the former cleaner from the Golborne Road branch, and fellow reggae expert Rae Cheddie—as "lovely guys but a terrible combination. They'd open the shop at 3 PM and be drunk by 4 PM."
At the start of the 1980s Britain was hit by a recession. Honest Jon's felt the pinch. Clare was increasingly spending his time talking to bank managers and solicitors and "trying to cope with members of staff who were politically further to the left than I was, which was quite extreme."
"The more shops we opened, the less money we made," Clare says. "Every week the bank manager phoned up to say, 'Have you sold that building on Greek Street yet? Do you know how much your overdraft is?'"
Clare says going into business with Ryner was a mistake. "Dave was interested in the cultural mix of the shop like I was, but he was also much more intent on building an empire. We just didn't see eye to eye. We had different ideas. I should have stood up against it, but I didn't." Clare and Ryner eventually decided to split. Clare kept the Portobello Road shop and Ryner kept Camden Town, which was renamed Rhythm Records. It was now 1982 and Honest Jon's had been through seven shops in eight years. "We learned the hard way that opening more shops does not make you more money. I found out that small is beautiful."
Though the Camden Town shop was more profitable, Clare says he returned to Portobello Road because it felt more "real" to him. "I feel safe around here," he says. "I like the mixture of people and languages and colour on the streets. It's authentic, this area. And Camden Town was very much an invention. It suddenly happened. It became very trendy."
The consolidation of 278 Portobello Road came during a difficult time in Clare's life. He started seeing a psychotherapist three times a week and sought a creative outlet at the Camden Arts Centre's life drawing classes. "I thought I had failed. I had lost a very close friend to a business," he says. "I found the only thing I could do, which I seemed to be good at, was drawing. And through psychotherapy, I discovered it was possible for me to do what I wanted rather than spend all my time trying to please others. Up to that point I'd run a business based on altruism, but it didn't work. So I decided I would only sell music that I liked. I got rid of most records. Because why sell music you don't like?"
Clare took the jazz records from the failed shops and put them all in Portobello Road. He also stocked R&B, soul, reggae, blues, African and Latin music, setting a blueprint for the Honest Jon's of today. He started holding a regular night at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, hosting many of his heroes, including Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Art Farmer and Slim Gaillard. He launched his own label, Boplicity, a division of Ace Records, which reissued records by jazz greats like Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane.
Another important decision was taken around this time: Clare decided he'd only hire people he felt intuitively good about. "It was the best decision I made, because everyone I employed after that turned out to be fantastic, helpful and loyal," he says. In 1988 he converted the space below the shop, then an earthen cellar, into a jazz basement, which was opened by the singer Betty Carter while she was in town to perform at Ronnie Scott's. It was a prescient move. The '80s saw the genre become fashionable again, as young Londoners embraced jazz-funk and acid-jazz. "Jazz was no longer just for the esoteric, aging beatnik," says Clare. "Instead of identifying with US soul, or back-to-Africa reggae, many young Afro-Caribbean people were listening to—and playing—jazz. It was a statement. They knew about the jazz tradition and they became part of it. They were British and they were here to stay."
Saxophone player Steve Edwards, a regular in the jazz basement in the '80s, describes the shop's atmosphere as similar to a hair salon—a place where people socialised and connected. "When I started getting into fusion and Latin and jazz, it was the top shop," he says. "A lot of jazz musicians would be there. You'd find out about gigs, parties, things that were happening. You went into Honest Jon's to get some energy."
With the downstairs devoted to jazz, and the upstairs devoted to everything else, a specialist reggae store called Reggae Revive, run by Bob Brooks, took up residence in the back of Honest Jon's. Scholefield describes Reggae Revive as "a complete and utter world of its own. Full of heads who could talk at such a rarefied level about reggae records that it had to be seen to be believed. It had a door and they would get in there and they'd shout and scream and roar, and Bob would play records and then take them off after two seconds to get everyone revved up."
More than ever, Honest Jon's offered an escape from the bleak realities of daily life. The 1980s in Britain was a decade of strikes, social unrest, Margaret Thatcher and the City boom. Smouldering racial tensions came to the fore during the Brixton riots of 1981. "It was the time Britain got greedy," says Clare. "But on the street, people were coming together." Clare's successors bought into this ethos. In 2008 Ainley told The Independent: "We're not just a shop, we're an idea. There's something countercultural about Honest Jon's, something utopian, and if we were just a business trying to make a profit we'd have gone."
Clare's hiring policy led to the arrival of Ainley and Scholefield. Other staff at this time included Neil Barnes from Leftfield and Nick Gold, the man behind the World Circuit label and the hugely popular Buena Vista Social Club album. Ainley started working at Honest Jon's in 1986. He had been a member of Big Flame, a leftwing anarchist organisation, was quietly amassing a huge record collection and, as Scholefield puts it, "doing all kinds of interesting things in a slightly invisible way." A couple of years after joining, he recommended Scholefield for a job.
Scholefield, who was born in Vancouver, fell in love with "confusingly huge" London on a trip with his mother in 1968. He returned to live in the UK in the mid-'80s. He became involved with avant-garde theatre—"lots of sexual politics and clowning," he says—and met Ainley during the summer of 1980 in Edinburgh. The pair bonded over Hugh Mundell and Burning Spear cassettes. After briefly returning to Vancouver, Scholefield settled back in the UK with his wife and child. In the summer of 1988, he started working Fridays at Honest Jon's.
After working at the shop for four years, Scholefield became Honest Jon's co-owner with Ainley. Towards the end of the '80s Clare was growing increasingly focused on a new passion—psychotherapy—inspired by his own sessions and his daily interactions in Honest Jon's. A joke went round the shop that Clare should have been wearing a white coat while dishing out advice from behind the counter. But Clare was serious. He started training to become a psychotherapist, leaving Ainley and Scholefield to run the shop.
Things came to a head after the Notting Hill Carnival in August 1992. Scholefield and Ainley returned to the shop on the Tuesday morning to find that a nearby soundsystem had caused the ceiling to cave in. Chunks of plaster littered the floor and the records were coated in dust. "It was like a bomb had gone off," says Scholefield, who describes the scene as "highly symbolic." That night, at a pub on Portobello Road, Clare told Scholefield and Ainley that, after 18 years, he was leaving Honest Jon's. Arrangements were swiftly made. Clare would remain the owner of the building—he still is to this day—and charge Ainley and Scholefield relatively low rent. A handover date was set for the end of October 1992, leaving Ainley and Scholefield only a couple of months to make their plans. While Clare sold as many records as possible before he moved on, Ainley went to North America to dig for music they could stock.
"We borrowed money from everyone we could," Scholefield recalls. "I borrowed from my sister—three sisters, actually, they all got the call." It was financially daunting, but Scholefield says the pair excitedly set about "creating this new shop in our minds." Ainley went on five or six North American trips in the space of a few weeks, each time returning with suitcases bulging with vinyl. Scholefield says they compiled an "absolutely killer" stockpile of several thousand records. The shop was then closed for a week and overhauled: the whole place was painted, the ceiling was fixed, new lights were fitted and the new stock was added to the shelves.
The painted red floor wasn't fully dry when Honest Jon's reopened on October 31st, 1992. It was raining heavily that morning, and there was a queue outside the shop before it opened, in a pre-internet parallel to the scene Scholefield confronted 22 years later. "I remember opening the door to let people in and my feet were sticking to the floor," Scholefield says. "Everyone went home with red on their shoes." That aside, the reopening was a huge success. It remains Scholefield and Ainley's most profitable day.
A new era began at Honest Jon's. In the early '90s London was all about rare groove. "The interesting thing was the canon was forever changing, with new tracks being added into the 'database' on an almost daily basis," Scholefield says. "So it was both fluid and fixed. The main thing was the sense of a shared pursuit of 'the tune.' And you had this fantastically passionate audience. It was a mixture of West London house parties, children of West Indian parents, a very rooted scene of musically adept and expert, totally plugged-in, self-taught freaks and heads." Ainley and Scholefield made regular transatlantic trips, scouring basements and private collections for gems. This music formed the bedrock of the shop, but new records were also starting to play a bigger role. The person who spearheaded this evolution was James Lavelle, the founder of Mo Wax, one of the most important UK labels of the past two decades.
Lavelle started visiting Honest Jon's when he was 15, travelling down from his home in Oxford. "He had this thing he wanted to work at Honest Jon's," Scholefield says. "It was quite a hard, noisy kind of atmosphere, and quite boisterous—very loud, records being played at high volume all the time, lots of shouting just to be heard." Scholefield says some people, especially the regulars at Reggae Revive, gave the young Lavelle a tough time. "They ate him for breakfast. They absolutely hammered him. And James, to his credit, took it on the chin."
Clare, who was coming towards the end of his time at Honest Jon's when Lavelle started, also put him through his paces. At the time Clare was known to give prospective employees a exacting questionnaire to judge their level of jazz appreciation—what instrument does Sonny Criss play? What label was Jackie McLean on before Blue Note? For his part, Lavelle remembers "a very strange interview with Jon about what I knew about jazz and what my feelings were towards my father." He blagged his way through the jazz questions and held his own on the others because his mother was a therapist.
Bringing new music into Honest Jon's was a simple but crucial decision. Lavelle helped the shop embrace hip-hop, breakbeat, trip-hop and other contemporary music. There was an obvious connection between hip-hop and the old records stocked at Honest Jon's—many of the former sampled the latter, and for lots of people hip-hop was an entry point to classic soul, funk and jazz. At the time, the only way to get sought-after US records on wax was on vinyl promo, and Lavelle developed connections in America. "We were the kings of promo hip-hop," Lavelle says. "If you wanted a Diamond D record or a Pete Rock record or A Tribe Called Quest record, you had to get it on a promo."
Scholefield says he was initially suspicious of Lavelle's wheeling and dealing. "He'd be squirreled away somewhere, trying to sort out a gig in Leeds for some band from somewhere or other," he says. "But Mark was much more relaxed about it than I was. For him it was like, 'You fucking idiot, don't you realise that's the only reason we're busy? Figure it out. He's on the phone to New York and Leeds, making these connections. That's why we're having a really good weekend, not because you want him to sweep up the floor.' With James here, the shop was suddenly alive in all sorts of ways."
The new records brought contemporary DJ culture to the shop. Decks were set up and on Saturdays the queue would be four or five deep. "Saturday at Portobello Road was the place to be," Lavelle says. "In those days, getting a record was a very important status symbol. If you didn't get the 12-inch, you didn't get to play it as a DJ. So there would be this mad energy in the shop. You would play records and hands would go up and you'd be throwing records across to people and they'd get angry when they couldn't have one.
"DJ culture in those days wasn't what it is now," adds Lavelle. "It was working class, it was hardcore. On the white front it was tied to football and on the black front it was the yardie and soundsystem lot. It wasn't as refined and intellectualised as it is now." As tough as it was, the overarching mood in the shop was one of acceptance. "The environment was socialist and anarchic and spiritual," Lavelle says. "It was beautiful and strange. You had people of different sexual orientations, people with different religious and social and ethnic backgrounds. The thing with Mark and Alan is they are incredibly intellectual but the music was never intellectualised. It was just music for listening to."
Eventually Lavelle told Ainley he wanted to start a record label. Having seen Lavelle's various talents first-hand, Ainley lent him £1000 to get started. The pair flew to New York and signed Repercussions' Promise, which in 1992 became the first release on Mo Wax. Things took off for Lavelle. He moved the Mo Wax enterprise into an office and parted ways with Honest Jon's. But he doesn't forget the influence of the shop, and Ainley in particular. "He was the most amazing man in my life at that time," Lavelle says. "He was the person who supported me. Without Mark's belief and that £1000, nothing I've done would have been possible."
Lavelle is by no means the only person who feels this way. Ainley is the kind of guy who's revered by those in the know. Scholefield calls him a "great enabler." "He sees things—with someone like James Lavelle, he'll have figured it out way before anyone else what his trajectory is." He's also elusive. He declined to be interviewed for this piece, though he provided information and helped off-the-record. The last time I visited Honest Jon's, on a quiet afternoon in April, I was in the shop for several hours but I only saw Ainley once, for a few seconds. He emerged from the basement, said something to Scholefield, then disappeared again.
Despite embracing contemporary music, Honest Jon's wasn't immune to the late '90s downturn that saw many distributors go under and record shops across the UK close in droves. "Suddenly, the kind of clientele that was coming in to buy jazz CDs and stuff—they stopped doing it," Scholefield says. "As a sort of cultural phenomenon, whole behavioural patterns changed overnight." In 1995 Ainley and Scholefield had taken on the lease of the shop next door and closed the jazz basement, which became a storage space. It allowed Honest Jon's to further expand its jazz offering and give a proper home to their growing sections of African and Brazilian music. For a couple of years it worked, but as the end of the '90s approached and sales slowed, the additional lease became a millstone around the shop's neck. To make matters worse, there was a protracted, complex legal battle over expensive refurbishments needed at number 276. In 2005, after ten years, they gave up the second lease.
Part of the recipe for survival during these lean years was to foster relationships with likeminded shops and small, hardworking record labels. Howard Williams began working at Honest Jon's in the late '90s and, Scholefield says, "gradually morphed into our one-man wholesale department." Williams helped build allegiances with boutique US outlets like Numero Group and Mississippi Records. This meant Honest Jon's was the first or only place in London stocking certain records, an important selling point in what was becoming an increasingly competitive market.
Another key connection was Basic Channel, the legendary Berlin dub techno label run by Mark Ernestus and Moritz Von Oswald. The dialogue extended to Ernestus's record shop, Hard Wax. The two outlets continue to share a warm relationship. They have a similar spirit, which sees dub, reggae and dancehall sharing shelf space with house and techno. As well as being close friends, Ainley and Ernestus have worked on many projects together down the years. They oversaw the Shangaan Electro compilation in 2010, and they've run a couple of labels, Dug Out and Basic Replay.
Honest Jon's had long been a fertile environment for record labels, from Clare's Boplicity to Lavelle's Mo Wax, so it felt natural when in 2001 they started one themselves. The impetus came from Damon Albarn, who'd achieved global fame as the lead singer of Blur and the founder of other projects like Gorillaz and Rocket Juice And The Moon. Albarn, who lives close to Portobello Road and has been shopping in Honest Jon's since the early '90s, says his early visits to the shop were pivotal to his own musical development. "It was one of those places I would go into and keep a very low profile for quite a few years," he tells me. "There was always interesting music playing, but I was too timid to actually buy a record, you know, in case I bought the wrong record."
Albarn grew bolder, and in the late '90s he struck up a friendship with Ainley and Scholefield. "This all sort of happened at the same time I went to Africa," Albarn says. "And having listened to these amazing records from Africa at Honest Jon's, I ended up playing with some of those same musicians. And then the idea of making a record emerged. Taking it to Honest Jon's and starting a label was a logical development." As Scholefield tells it: "Damon gave me a cassette when he came back from Mali and said, 'I'm making a record and I think we should put it out.' So I called Mark and said, 'I've got this record, we could start a label.' And that was that."
Those recordings became Mali Music, the first release on Honest Jon's Records, in 2002. Two of the musicians Albarn had met on his travels, Kokanko Sata and Afel Bocoum, came to London to launch Mali Music and the label at the Barbican. In 2008 Honest Jon's held Chop Ups (Nigerian slang for a feast or get together) at the Barbican, in a Roman amphitheatre in Lyon and New York's Lincoln Center. Though Albarn doesn't have much to do with the nuts-and-bolts of the label, he's integral when it comes to organising these large-scale events. The most recent Chop Ups, which happened in 2011 in Cork, Dublin, Marseille and again at the Barbican, featured Albarn with Rocket Juice And The Moon, as well as Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, Shangaan electro artists and Theo Parrish.
Albarn's involvement brought with it a partnership deal with EMI. "The deal was hugely beneficial when we started the label," Scholefield explains, "because we had a major record company giving us a modest amount of money every month." The deal saw the label's records manufactured and distributed by EMI, who would then keep the money made from sales. This investment allowed Albarn, Scholefield and Ainley to travel to places like Nigeria, Algeria and Trinidad and release records of a breadth and quality well beyond the reach of most independent labels.
Scholefield counts these trips as among his best experiences in life. He speaks in vivid detail about his trip with Albarn to Mali, where they finalised the Mali Music album. "I had never been to Africa, I had never been outside of North America and Europe," he says. "So to fly to Mali, arrive in the night, get on a bus and go through Bamako… the smell of the city, the spices, the smoke, the sounds, the quietness, the people out in the street—just hearing people's voices, animals, hearing people playing the kora as we drove through the town, music was in the air. It was like a Shakespearean dream."
Naturally, the EMI deal came with strings attached. "It was quite a big deal, in business terms, with someone like Damon involved," says Scholefield. "There was a lot of baggage in terms of management. But we went to talk to EMI, and quite quickly we had a structure, a modus operandi for getting projects out, and that's what mattered to us."
The EMI deal ended in 2008 after six years. Three years later, EMI collapsed, its remains bought by Universal Music Group. "When we didn't receive a renewal letter it was obvious the company was in no shape to keep us going," Scholefield says. "They had bigger problems." Though EMI's patronage was vital in getting Honest Jon's Records off the ground, it's Ainley and Scholefield who have driven the label forward. Albarn speaks proudly of their work: "The label has done for a lot of people what the record shop did for me."
Though Albarn and Scholefield both bring projects to Honest Jon's Records, Ainley acts as the main A&R. He calls the shots in terms of what's released and how it's presented, both intellectually, in terms of notes and background detail, and visually. He has a keen sense of how much to give the listener, while holding back just enough to encourage them to dig deeper. Since day one the label's artwork has been the domain of Will Bankhead. Modest to a fault but hugely talented, Bankhead is Honest Jon's through and through. (He was also one of Mo Wax's main visual directors.) Thanks to Bankhead, Honest Jon's releases—not to mention the output on his own label, The Trilogy Tapes—feature some of the best design you'll find on record sleeves.
The past 15 years have seen Honest Jon's Records release an overwhelmingly wide range of music. They've put out records by electronic artists like Kassem Mosse, Shackleton, Ricardo Villalobos, T++, Pepé Bradock, Actress, Morphosis and Carl Craig; dub and reggae from Wareika Hill Sounds and Lee "Scratch" Perry; a wonderful Moondog retrospective; two albums from Chicago eight-piece Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, one boisterous street funk, the other a collaboration with their father, the legendary Philip Cohran; and a Tony Allen album made in Lagos. Every release by the Moritz Von Oswald Trio has come through Honest Jon's. There's been music from Albarn's various projects, including The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Rocket Juice And The Moon. They introduced the world to Shangaan electro, whose main purveyor, Nozinja, has since been signed by Warp Records. They've also released compilations exploring raucous Trinidadian soca music; '70s British folk; Afro-Cuban music from the Congo and the Bronx; West African boogaloo and calypso; Algerian folk and early British dancehall. The label also helped re-ignite the career of Candi Staton. A 2004 compilation of the US soul artist's early work was followed by a new album, His Hands, released in 2006 and produced by Mark Nevers of Lambchop. Through Nevers, West Coast singer-songwriter Simone White came onto the radar of Honest Jon's. White, who was recently remixed by Kassem Mosse, added yet another facet to the label's catalogue.
On top of this, Ainley's visits to the EMI archive in Hayes, where he's spent countless hours sifting through forgotten 78rpm recordings, reaped a fascinating run of compilations. A precursor to EMI was the Gramophone Company, which went to considerable lengths to record local music in an attempt to tap into overseas markets. Ainley's archaeology has led the label to release early 20th century recordings from Iran and Turkey, East African music from the '30s, '40s and '50s and love songs from 1920s Baghdad.
But the most striking series on Honest Jon's Records is London Is The Place For Me. Compiled by Ainley and collectors Richard Noblett and Duncan Brooker, the series captures the joys and struggles of post-war immigrants (mostly from the Caribbean) in the UK. The first compilation is dedicated to Trinidadian calypso; further editions touch on kwela, highlife, jazz and reggae. These records capture the essence and soul of Honest Jon's. Denis Preston's studio, where some of the compilations' songs were recorded, was located in Holland Park, not far from Portobello Road. Many of the post-war Afro-Caribbean immigrants in London settled in West London—it was cheap enough back then and they joined an existing bohemian population living in the area.
In 2015 only the super-rich can afford to buy property around Portobello Road, and much of the area's vibrant immigrant population has been pushed out. But the streets around Honest Jon's haven't lost their local charm. "As well as being a record label and going off to Nigeria, and, putting it really crudely, doing shows with Damon in the Lincoln Center and stuff—which is all good fun, and spices one's life up—it's just really great that Honest Jon's is still a neighbourhood shop," says Scholefield. "It doesn't have that zippy Soho feeling of suits running around grabbing a sandwich for lunch. People think of Portobello Road on market days, but Monday to Thursday it is just very regular. People come in with their bags of shopping."
The shop has continued to attract some famous faces—the novelist Martin Amis was known to drop in and buy jazz records, while Nigella Lawson, the UK television chef, came in regularly a few years back. But for every well-known customer, there are a dozen everyday people who make the shop special. There's Tony, the overcoat collector and Portobello Road local who's been visiting Honest Jon's more or less since it opened. And there's Dr. John the GP, who's in at least three times a week—"we're his NHS," Scholefield says. There's Ivan who buys everything and Biko, who has a sharp car and a baby—he also buys everything. Michael from Stussy stops by every Friday on his Brompton bike, and there's a Nigerian PhD student who cycles from Goldsmiths to buy records for her thesis. There's the bird-watching world music buff who's has been dubbed 'Real Ale Man' and seems to own every record ever made. And then there's "Head Banger," who seems normal until someone plays a dub record, at which point he plants his feet and shakes violently.
Scholefield has made Honest Jon's a family affair, too. His son, Ben, who records music as Budgie, worked behind the counter until his recent move to LA. These days the old jazz basement serves as a kind of control bunker from which Honest Jon's Records is run. Stock from that label plus the various other labels they distribute—Berceuse Heroique, The Trilogy Tapes, Trunk, In Paradisum, Japan's Em, Theo Parrish's Wildheart Recordings—almost reach the basement's low ceiling. They distribute more esoteric labels too, like Renair ("they do incredible comps of early Jewish music from places like Mumbai and Baghdad," says Scholefield), Savannahphone ("where our buddy Craig works the ore of Africa") and Keyman, the label run by Dr. Alimantado, who still brings in copies of Best Dressed Chicken In Town.
Honest Jon's has embraced the digital world, albeit grudgingly at first. "In 2002, the internet seemed to be everything that was wrong with the world for a little record shop on Portobello Road," Scholefield says. "But actually, the internet is just a way to be a shop for the world. It's certainly not a question of draining business from the shop, because if anything it brings more business. There are people from Australia, they're great online customers, and then once every couple of years they'll come in person."
The mood at the shop in 2015 is one of cautious optimism. The label has gotten off to a flying start, with records from DJ Sotofett, Tapes and those Kassem Mosse remixes of Simone White, plus there's a new Moritz Von Oswald Trio album on the way. "These days in the record business, all the buzz and all the economy, it's in places like this," Scholefield says. "There's a real excitement and openness in the air for music from wherever and whenever. There are all these little labels making fascinating records. It feels like it's on our terms now."
As for Clare, he left Honest Jon's, but Honest Jon's never left him. He recently retired from a 20-year career as a psychotherapist and now spends his days painting. Though he doesn't miss the daily grind of running a record shop, he feels a sense of loss whenever he returns to Portobello Road. He says few weeks have passed since 1992 when he hasn't dreamt of the shop. "I'll dream about customers or I'll dream about Mark or Alan," he says. "I'll dream about being in that world. You know, I was known as 'Honest Jon,' and I am very sentimental. That name meant a lot to me. When I walked down the street, lots of people would say, 'Alright, Jon.' The Caribbean women, they used to call me 'Mr. Jon.' And sometimes now I meet old men on the street, and I realise that I sold them records when they were young."