My conversations with Josh Brent about his work as Schatrax begin in mid-March 2020, as the COVID-19 outbreak is sweeping through the UK. "I'm the last person to be blowing my own trumpet at the best of times, but to be going out online talking about my label when all this is going on…"
Throughout our conversations about his music, Brent stresses how uncalculated everything related to Schatrax has been. And yet, looking back over a modest but significant catalogue founded in 1994, it seems so perfectly considered. The stark minimalism of the hand-stamped 12-inches, the crucial run of records up to 2001, the clutch of reissues and new productions that have followed since. If a lack of aesthetic is also an aesthetic choice, Brent perfected it with his pared down approach to Schatrax.
Intrinsically linked to the currents coursing through mid-'90s house and techno culture, yet operating according to its own internal logic, Brent's music is consummate club material. It ranks alongside artists like Gemini, Callisto and Mr G., those who have understood how to merge mechanical dance floor dynamics and innate funkiness with space to get a little weird when the track calls for it.
Brent's path into electronic music is not especially unusual. If anything, his tale is emblematic of his generation, coming of age through the '80s as the first waves of hip-hop started to break across the UK. Given how divergent the genres seem now, it's easy to forget that hip-hop and house music existed in tandem in many places, from soundsystems and warehouse parties to pirate radio. What set Brent apart was the education he received early on via access to his parent's extensive record collection, where Kraftwerk's Computer World sat next to Tonto's Expanding Head Band and Rupert Hyne as well as the more commonplace rock, funk and soul of the '60s and '70s.
"I'd be the weirdo up the park with the tape machine in my bag, playing music with my mates while we were mucking about," says Brent, who grew up (and still lives) on the Isle Of Wight, an island off England's southern coast. "I can remember having a little red-sleeved 7-inch of Gustav Holst's The Planets when I was around five years old."
He adds: "I'd already been scouring my parents' collection, then as I got older it moved on to the to the secondhand shops. I started going to Southampton and then up to London to places like Groove Records and Bluebird. When I was 18 or 19, there was this little secondhand shop that opened in town and I'd spend my whole wage packet on a Friday lunchtime. That was an education."
After saving up enough money to buy two Technics turntables and a Numark mixer in 1987, Brent was able to build on his skills as a DJ. His approach was rooted in hip-hop culture at its genesis—finding breaks and working up the technique to mix, juggle and scratch over the top. At the same time he and a handful of likeminded souls on the Isle Of Wight got together to put on parties in a local club, where they were able to play their hip-hop and early house records over a system instead of in their bedrooms.