With an artist roster and aesthetic that makes major labels salivate, this collective faces an enviable challenge: how to grow without getting too big? Ray Philp traces the rise of an inspired Glasgow label.
"We had this idea," says Terence Teh, LuckyMe's US label manager. "How do you have a producer do a live show on late-night television? The camera cuts to Harry, and he opens his laptop and presses the spacebar, and that's it. It's not like Fatboy Slim at the Olympics, where it's fake CDJs, bouncing up and down. It's basically a live version of the music video that we'd already commissioned. The idea was to imagine what Harry's hearing, or the music video that's playing in his head. There's no doubt that he's produced the whole thing, but he's not going to be up there fake DJing or scratching or anything."
This little piece of theatre seems more like the work of a creative agency than an electronic music label. LuckyMe released three albums this year—from Baauer, Parc En Ciel and Bwana—that collectively demonstrate a transition from one to the other. Where Aa leveraged Baauer's popularity as a double platinum-selling artist, the Parc En Ciel album, Path Integral, arrived with a documentary inspired by the film Samsara that complemented the austere wonder of the album's synth-woven post-rock.
A much smaller project by comparison, Bwana's Capsule's Pride was released as a free download on the dark web, and is now hosted on a subsite where, as you scroll down, illustrated characters from the anime classic Akira fade in and out of view. (The album is made entirely of samples from the film's original soundtrack and English dubbing.) From the manner of its release to Bwana's bootleggish deconstruction of a cult classic, Capsule's Pride feels contemporary in the sense that the internet is its most natural habitat. It's also nostalgic—not so much for the film, but more for the subcultural frontiers of the web that, through Myspace, LuckyMe had occupied as early digital settlers.
The label's day-to-day operation is run by a "black ops crew" of four people split across three cities. The label's co-founder Dominic Flannigan moved to London from Edinburgh a few years ago; Martyn Flyn, the other co-founder, remains in the Scottish capital. Peter Marsden, also in Edinburgh, runs LuckyMe Studio, the filmmaking arm established in 2013. Terence Teh was brought in around 18 months ago to give the label "more capacity" and a physical presence in The States. From an office in New York he shares with Warp, Teh can work closely with artists like experimental R&B vocalist and producer Littlebabyangel, the latest addition to an ever-growing roster of North American and Canadian artists. "Terence is the first person that Dom has ever delegated to, ever," says Clair Stirling, AKA Eclair Fifi, who does illustrations as well as A&R for the label.
Now that it works across two timezones, referring to LuckyMe as Scottish might only be true to the extent that IBM is American, or Lego is Danish. As the catalogue grows, calling it a club label also becomes harder. Early EPs by artists like Hudson Mohawke and Machinedrum pivoted LuckyMe squarely to dance floors, but the math rock of American Men's Cool World, from 2010, made them a less specific entity. Two members of that group, Steven Shade and Stuart Turner, AKA Sevendeaths and Claude Speeed, have since turned in full-lengths that occupied solitary synth and drone landscapes. Last year, the Edinburgh trio N A K E D released an EP of reverb-swaddled guitar lullabies, somewhere between Beach House and Angelo Badalamenti.
The intimacy of these records is, inevitably, sometimes lost amidst the label's more high-profile releases. When Flannigan brings up, in passing, his and Flyn's work with DONDA, the creative consultancy run by Kanye West, I press him for more detail. (The duo spent three to four months in Paris working on ideas for Yeezus.) "This is what it's all gonna become about now," he says, in mock exasperation. "This keeps fucking happening."
As defensive responses go, it feels well-rehearsed. Addressing misconceptions of what LuckyMe represents has been a constant process. There was a period when terms like "wonky," "aquacrunk" and "future-bass" regularly orbited the label. Their connection to West, Flannigan's answer suggests, pigeonholes them again. "In the age of the internet, with so much information and so much music, people don't have the capacity to give you credit for being more than one thing," he says. "They want to catalogue you much quicker. And that's quite frustrating. I get it. I definitely do it myself. People fit neatly into one little shelf, and I guess we're constantly railing against that."
Teh is more laissez-faire. "I see the positive aspect [of it]. If people want to try and badge you with something, it's because you've created something." The music of one of LuckyMe's key artists, Hudson Mohawke, AKA Ross Birchard, has occasionally made the existing vocabulary for describing music seem inadequate. More importantly, it's disrupted consensus on what club music can be. The year after releasing Ooops!, a glitchy collection of hip-hop and R&B edits that launched LuckyMe in 2008, Warp released Butter, a debut album as calorically dense as its title implied—The Guardian compared it to "eating candyfloss and helium on a speeding rollercoaster." From that record, discussions began to emerge about "maximalism," a term attributed to a loose band of artists—including Rustie, another LuckyMe associate signed to Warp—rendering electronic music in fluorescent and brassy MIDI textures.
A couple of years later, Birchard got together with Lunice Fermin Pierre II, AKA Lunice, and made tracks for what became TNGHT. The concept was straightforward. "How do we make the sort of beat that you would hear on a Busta Rhymes record, or a Ja Rule record?" says Flannigan, who sat in on studio sessions with the duo. The project was a laugh, basically. In March 2012, Birchard and Pierre made an auspicious debut at SXSW, which preceded a critically-acclaimed five-track EP that summer. Helped by a touring schedule that saw them cross the Atlantic regularly, things seemed to accelerate from there. As an intersection of modern UK dance music and southern rap that spoke to crowds in The States, TNGHT was an irresistible proposition for major labels, who sensed an opportunity to insinuate themselves into a young, emerging trap scene. (TNGHT had also produced "Blood On The Leaves" for Yeezus, raising their profile even further.) The duo were offered album deals, and—according to a profile by Laurent Fintoni—majors wanted to buy the LuckyMe name. Birchard and Pierre, anxious about being pinned to something they'd helped create yet couldn't identify with, mothballed TNGHT in late 2013.
I ask Flannigan to describe the point at which he and Flyn realised TNGHT was overtaking itself. "I go to SXSW and there's a DJ academy. We're passing, and this guy's cutting and scratching over the TNGHT record on Serato, but you could hear it was the YouTube rip. Because I'd put—deliberately—a bunch of different sound idents on YouTube. I remember going, 'He doesn't even know who we are. It's just an essential song.'"
These songs are often the result of exhaustive conversations about the music and the ideas that wrap it together, though Flannigan insists that the A&R itself is "minimal." "We are quite slow at putting out records," he says. "Part of that is because we sign artists, not records. If you pitch us a complete, fully-formed record, we're very unlikely to go near it. I think it needs to have a longer commitment than that." The artists and the label share a Dropbox account where demo tracks are uploaded, discussed, dissected and embellished. It's a process that can take months, sometimes much longer. An album from Lunice, Flannigan and Flyn say, has been four years in the making.
"It's an ongoing dialogue with the artist," says Flyn. "And then the music appears when it's supposed to. We're talking about the project all the time. Some of these things take a long time to be wrapped up, to be finished, to be mastered. We're investing in people who we're just excited by and we want to see how they develop."
Flannigan and Flyn met in 1998 as teenagers working at an outdoor clothing and equipment shop in Edinburgh, selling "camping shit to people." "Everyone else in the job would go hiking at the weekend," remembers Flannigan, "but we were there to cop cheap North Face to dress hip-hop!"
"Everyone would be like, 'Hey, whatcha do last night?'" says Flyn, who'd recently moved to Edinburgh from Inverness. "'I went to The Venue last night; I haven't been to bed yet.'"
They were both hip-hop heads, but Flyn was a bit more clued up—he introduced Flannigan to records like Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus and Rawkus Records' Soundbombing Vol. 1 compilation. When Flannigan turned 18, he moved to Glasgow to attend art school and established a hip-hop night, the first thing to ever bear the LuckyMe name (it came from a stream-of-consciousness email Flannigan had received from Flyn). The flyer for the night advertised its music policy as "hip-hop, hip-hop and hip-hop". That singular focus didn't last long. Flannigan has spoken often about the city's catalysing effect on LuckyMe, particularly the regular nights that Optimo and Numbers ran.
"There was something in the fucking air in that city. There's a bit of mythology about the spirit of Glasgow, perhaps, and we're probably responsible for spreading it to an extent, but you could just fucking feel it. People were into a lot of shit, and people were really supportive of us, even though we were rank outsiders and definitely the wee guys. And they didn't have to be. And I notice that everyone that wore the clothes, and skated, and was involved in cool shit that I liked, they went to Optimo. They didn't go to hip-hop nights."
Flannigan's four years at Glasgow School Of Art were a big part of his education, too. Each LuckyMe release has a particular personality, which is apparent in both the music and the visuals that surround it. Art school taught Flannigan to eschew personal design biases, and favour "what's appropriate for the brief."
"That's a very different thing to just being able to make things look good," he says. "Because sometimes we very deliberately make things look bad. Making things look good is extremely easy."
Some LuckyMe sleeves—in the traditional sense, at least—are easy on the eye. The Grecian busts on Jacques Greene's early records dovetailed easily with the Canadian's polished house and garage hybrids; the photography on records by Cid Rim and Cashmere Cat resembled a fashion spread in a glossy magazine. But they often parody this aesthetic, too. On the video for Cashmere Cat's "Wedding Bells," romcom-esque scenes of a young couple hanging out are interspersed with SoundCloud and YouTube comments styled as approving quotes from film critics. ("Life changing," reads one attributed to Funny Death; a less flattering assessment appears later: "Cashmere Cat is a girl.") "The Joseph Marinetti cover looks like a disgusting, plastic thing," Flannigan says of PDA's artwork, a takeaway hamburger on a plush black leather seat. "It's deliberately not even nice music. It's saccharine to the point of being disgusting, and so is the cover."
Earlier this month, I went to The Rum Shack, a bar and club in Glasgow's Southside, to see Eclair Fifi play. In the basement, whose dark wood furniture and aquamarine walls reminded me of a ship's cabin, Rustie, AKA Russell White, an unannounced guest, was DJing to around 60 people. Most of them sat on banquettes opposite the bar, drinking and chatting. It was nearly 10:30 PM. Surrounded by friends and playing records in a casual atmosphere, it might've felt like a throwback to ten years ago, when Rustie and Eclair Fifi shared the bill for LuckyMe's first dance music night in a small Edinburgh club called Octopus Diamond. Stirling was onstage soon after, and strung together "No More Talking," by Tiger & Woods, a new wave-ish acid track and a hip-hop edit as easily as daisies in a chain. Sometime later, I could hear fragments of Corona's "Rhythm Of The Night," shattered into moody polyrhythmic tones. In these colourful contrasts, Stirling was making sense of music in the same way that the label does—interrogating established notions of taste, genre and sequencing, and finding that her own answers were far more interesting.
"Dom will hear me playing something and he'll immediately be into it, because I've talked about it or I've been drip-feeding it to him," she says, describing her ad-hoc A&R role for the label. "All of it's natural. It's not me trying to infiltrate LuckyMe with my taste. It's just playing stuff that I love." A new series of drumapellas and synthapellas on LuckyMe, helmed by Stirling, gives her a more central role on the label, and offers a tangible artefact for her style of DJing. The first EP, released earlier this month, is a reissue of the 1988 Chicago house record Never Let Go by Mickey Oliver and Shanna Jae. "I've always been playing Latin freestyle and very 808-style Chicago house and Italo," she says. "One of my signature styles is playing quite skeletal tracks mixed into a very melodic, colourful track. I've been using them to mix into hip-hop instrumentals or bigger, more maximalist-sounding stuff. I've always wanted to have some sort of release—and I have been making music. [For now], it just makes more sense to do reissues and curate remixes and put together a series."
In 2010, Flannigan and Flyn released an EP as The Blessings called Galaxy High. It's an experimental beat record with fragments that can be traced back to Hudson Mohawke, Brainfeeder and Rush Hour's Beat Dimensions compilations. They'd embarked on the project with a degree of ambition, but they came to see Galaxy High as an obstacle. "Because it gave people a really quick gauge of our taste," explains Flannigan, "it felt like it had made the label smaller, somehow, because you could quickly identify the A&R decisions behind the label."
LuckyMe has since grappled with two opposing ambitions: how does it grow without getting too big? Moments most labels would embrace as touchstones on an upward curve presented, for LuckyMe, hazards of overexposure. A label showcase at Sónar festival in 2010, Flannigan says, "defined us so successfully that it kicked us in the ass in the years that followed."
Piggybacking on TNGHT's popularity was even less appealing. To understand the degree of visibility LuckyMe wants, you should imagine their logo—an eye encased in a circle—as a discreet mark of quality engraved on the underside of the work, recognisable only by the sort of people who, as Flannigan once did, read the liner notes on rap CDs. (During Baauer and Leikeli47's appearance on Colbert, it was projected on the stage for three seconds, a breadcrumb for committed fans.) Flannigan and Flyn assimilate success into the scale of each project—a giveaway on Tor can be as gratifying as a Baauer single that is streamed hundreds of thousands of times. There's one metric, however abstract, that does matter: whether their audience cares, or—to use a phrase the crew employs regularly—"gets it."
"We don't want to dominate," says Flannigan. "I'm very proud of the legacy of the label and what it represents: the breaking down of taste and the breaking down of boundaries, and the breaking down of exclusivity, and it representing a new way for DIY music to build into a career for people. That's what I want LuckyMe to represent. And I think we've done that, and I think our music has influenced more people than we actually know. That's really important. And those people who ride or die for us, that's really what we're doing it for, now."
It leans heavily on exclusives and forthcoming material, but Martyn Flyn's mix perfectly captures the freewheeling ethos LuckyMe has been building since 2008.
Sevendeaths - Subordinate Claudes
Baba Stiltz - Stranger
NAKED - Skinlessly
Claude Speeed - An Imperial Message
Lunice - Gasp
Mike Slott - Simple Dreams of Simple Days
Bwana - I Thank U
Mickey Oliver ft Shana Jae- Never Let Go (Aden RMX)
Baauer - Body VIP
Sam O.B ft Anthony Flammia - Velvet Sky
Cid Rim - ASDW demo
TStewart - The Image Generation 1
Suicideyear - Musicbox
Inkke - Chores
Littlebabyangel - ?