Who Is Toyin Agbetu? A Conversation With The Godfather Of Street Soul
Producer. Label owner. Scholar. Activist. Community organiser. Theo Fabunmi-Stone speaks to a man whose musical history is just one part of his extraordinary contribution to British culture and life.
Who is Toyin Agbetu? It's a question I began asking myself in 2017. The first breadcrumb was a track called "Heartbreaker," credited to Nemesis, which was the second track on Joy O's 2017 Dekmantel compilation. It had an undeniable groove, an acid baseline and a hilarious monologue. To my ears, there was an immediate familiarity to those rough-and-ready drums. After a quick look on Discogs, I found that Nemesis was made by Toyin Agbetu, the same producer behind the 1989 Deluxe album Just A Little More, a record I'd heard on repeat at family functions down the years.
A month later, I was attending an exhibition called Portraits From A Hackney Autobiography, highlighting the work of Centerprise, the radical bookshop, publisher, café, legal advice centre and community space that opened in Dalston in 1971. As I browsed through some of the local heroes being celebrated for their work, I spotted a photo of Toyin and his wife, Oleander, sat proudly at an oak table at the All Nations restaurant, as their contributions to their community were recognised.
My interest was reignited. This time, I went all the way down the rabbit hole. As I searched through Toyin's discography, I became amazed by his multiple aliases, all with their own unique sound: soul, acid, house, garage, breakbeat. It became clear Toyin pioneered a sound with a distinctive DIY ethos, gritty 808 drums and playful romance. This sound was called street soul, a subgenre of UK soul music that rose to prominence in the underground between the late '80s and early '90s. Toyin did it all: a producer, composer, programmer, song writer, keys player, studio engineer—as he puts it, "everything but singing and playing sax." A young talent who rebelled against existing music industry structures, he started his own labels, each with its own specific sound to cater for different audiences.
A Google search yielded some surprising revelations. There's a video from 2007 of Toyin rebuking the Queen and Tony Blair at Westminster Abbey, where he protested against the celebration of William Willberforce as an abolitionist and the refusal of Britain to apologise for its significant role in slavery. (It's an incident referred to as "Wilberfest" in Akala's Natives: Race And Class In The Ruins Of Empire).
I decided to reach out to Toyin last year, initially for an informal fanboy chat over coffee, and then again at the beginning of lockdown for an official RA interview. We agreed to sit down and talk on June 1st, the week after the murder of George Floyd. We started by addressing the heaviness of recent events and discussed how we'd both been coping. I told Toyin that I'd been reading Between The World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a book written as a letter to his son about the false constructs of race in the US that historically relies on the destruction of the Black body.
"It's part of the work that we all have to do to be able to make sense of the world and function," Toyin said to me. "It's a difficult world, some paths are traumatic and some paths offer hope. Reading and taking it all in and creating a map in your head for how to survive what's going on—that's something we all have to do. It's just a shame our young people are losing their innocence, that's the thing that's not fair."
Toyin's story is an important one, especially as we observe and discuss systemic racial issues in society and the music industry. In this interview, we not only get an answer to the question "Who is Toyin Agbetu?," we find out why his voice is more important now than ever before.
Listen to a mix of Toyin Agbetu's productions, put together by 404 eros (Theo Fabunmi-Stone & Alex Dique).
Toyin Agbetu and Earl Myers as Soul Connection
Let's start with you introducing yourself—who you are and how you define yourself?
I'm a Pan-Africanist, a scholar, an activist. I set up an organisation called Ligali, where I'm a community educator. I'm a father, a husband, a brother, a son and all kinds of things, including an Ogun spirit. I'm a Yoruba man.
I'm also a Yoruba man! I wanted to understand your musical background a bit more. Paint us a picture of what was going on musically in your early years.
Both me and my sister were raised by my father. Being raised by a loving, lone father was one of those things that didn't happen back in the day, or people were unaware that it happened. He was quite eclectic with his music. So we heard a lot of reggae, we heard a lot of funk. He liked pop, so I'm a fan of The Beatles. One of the greatest things he did though, which set me up for life, was every Sunday—I don't know why he picked Sunday, he was a Muslim, he didn't go to church—he would play Afrobeat. I'd hear King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti. These words of empowerment, of pride and culture, just seeped into my consciousness throughout my whole childhood.
As a child I didn't know Afrobeat was political, it was just Fela, it was awesome and I loved it. As a young adult, I suppose I was always a soul head, that's what we used to call ourselves back in the day. So even though I liked my reggae and boof-boof [soundsystem/dub], it was always soul that drew me more than anything else.
Back then, it was impossible to hear the kind of music I wanted to listen to on mainstream radio, so we had to go to pirate radio stations. I was looking for a station called London Wide Radio (LWR), it was a soul station, I wanted to hear music like "Buttercup." And so I hit the FM dial trying to find it, and I heard this bassline. I was just transfixed, thinking, "What on earth is that!" I had found a jazz-funk station, Invicta. And that tune was was Level 42's "Star Child." So I took this detour from soul through to funk. My father already had introduced me to funk, I'm talking stuff like Bootsy Collins, Isaac Hayes, Earth, Wind & Fire and The Brothers Johnson, he'd kind of already grounded me in that, but then there was Brit-funk. And that kind of helped a lot. It wasn't so political, but then I had a love of hip-hop, and the political stuff came through there.
I think the first ever 12-inch I bought was "Skip To My Lou" by Finis Henderson, which was a little party soul tune. Very nice old tune. My next vinyl purchase was from a group called Newcleus, they were a hip-hop group that played as a band. So this hybrid idea of music, where hip-hop could be mixed with funk, and that could be mixed with Fela and Afrobeat, it all started to kick off in my head.
Iain and Rodney as Mykrophone featuring Rosaline Joyce on their debut 12-inch
Your first explorations into making music include house, soul and what would later be defined as street soul. How would you define your first productions?
The first release I ever put out was on my own label, a hip-hop record, under the guise of MC.IB (Ian Burton) and T The Beatmaker. Most people don't know that. It was a British hip-hop EP called Word. After that it was Mykrophone, and that's what I risked all my money on, because I believed that UK hip-hop wasn't being respected. Everything was coming from America, so I wanted to do something. I'm not going to go over the whole history of being signed to a label, being ripped off by the label and forming my own label—that's a classic trope for many artists.
I started to look through my collection of records, and maybe 80 percent of my records had these words written on them: produced by [Jimmy] Jam & [Terry] Lewis. I didn't know what that meant. I started to look into what a producer was, because I was signed to my label as an artist. I only ended up being a producer for the label because I was too shy to be upfront. I don't really like the limelight, so I preferred to be behind the scenes. I found out that Jam & Lewis were record producers in Minneapolis. I found out the story about how they used to be part of The Time, and this whole thing about being fired by Prince, and I said to myself, "That's what I want to do." I'm happy to be the nerd working in the studio, putting the beats together, writing lyrics for the singers, and they can do all the press and have all the fans screaming over them. I'm not interested in that stuff. I knew from a young age that I wanted to do something like Jam & Lewis.
I was also greatly inspired by UK soul group Loose Ends, and I had the first ever Loose Ends drop, In The Sky. If you look at that 12-inch, it's actually got the picture of a European boy with blonde hair and blue eyes, and they ain't on the cover. That's because the politics of the time—record companies didn't want to show our faces on the merchandise because it wouldn't sell. So I kind of looked at it and thought, "Rah," but that Loose Ends album, A Little Spice, became an instant classic. And people started to say, "You know what? We're starting to show our faces, we're starting to say that this is who we are and we're proud of it, and whether you like our music or not, this is what we're gonna do." But they were signed to a major label, they were signed to Virgin.
Loose Ends was a group that got quite a lot of mainstream success around that time, as did Soul II Soul. Was there a sense of community? Or did you see it in a more competitive way? I just want to understand how you saw yourself fitting into that space at the time, because there were a lot of musicians making soul music in the UK.
It was funny, on one level you had Brit-funk from Heatwave, Hi Tension, Light Of The World and Atmosfear, and you also had soul pop from Imagination and Hot Chocolate all doing well and having chart success, but where I was positioned was a part of the underground soul community. Initially there lots of us in the street soul camp living under the mainstream radar—groups like Sahara, Rick Clarke, Sinclair, Vanessa Simon, Projection, Tongue N Cheek, The Affair, Bryan Powell, Keni Stevens, Fifth Of Heaven, Kruez, Everis, Lennox, Mary Pearce, Jill Fancis, Wayne Marshall, Thomas Esterine, Robyn, Beverly Skeete, Jenny Belle, Innocence, Smith & Mighty, Maxine and Mary Rose to name a few, all written out of official UK music history, despite the hundred of thousands of records we sold. I still don't even think we have a Wikipedia page. Later on, groups like the Young Disciples with Carleen Anderson, Brand New Heavies with N'Dea Davenport and one of my favourites, 4Hero, came along and set new trends.
When I had my crush on Loose Ends, they were my favourite group of all time. From a production point of view, Jam & Lewis were my role models, alongside the brilliant James Mtume, he had an album called You, Me And He and songs like "Prime Time" and "Juicy Fruit." I later found out he was very political.
But Loose Ends, I had a crush on them. I was just out of school, I was working in a HiFi shop in Tottenham Court Road, and Loose Ends came into the shop. It was Jane [Eugene], and I was like, "This is a perfect Walkman Sony WM D6C, it's called a Sony Professional," doing all my stuff. But I had to say something. I was like, "I just love your stuff by the way, I know who you guys are, it's amazing." And she said, "That's cool, so what do you do?" And I said, "Well I dabble in music, I've got some beats." I had a tape on me—in them days you always had your tape on you, it was like in Hollywood where you always had your showreel or your script on you. I played a tape and I remember Carl [McIntosh] and Jane were like [nods], "Yeah man, you've got something there man, you're pretty good."
What happened next?
Carl gave me this number and said, "This is the name of an A&R guy who was involved in signing us, his name's Sam Spade. What I want you to do is take a tape to him and tell him you got these details from us." So you know, the end of the day went, day closed, I was speaking to my bredrin, like, "My god, you'll never guess who I met!" So we made the appointment, I can't remember if it was Virgin or Arista, wherever he was at the time. I remember going into this big office, massive office, big chair. I walked in, gave him the tape. He plays the tape, nods his head and stops the tape, takes it out and puts it on the table and is like, "You know what, you've got something man. You've got something there." And in my head I'm thinking, "I've arrived! This is it!"
Like, "It's gonna blow up, I'm gonna be signed to a major label." And then this is where, if you're into sci-fi, the alternative reality shifted into play. He said, "You've got something there, so I want you to go into a professional studio and re-record these tracks, and then come back and let me hear it again, because you've definitely got something." Now even in my head, something did not compute, I was like, "Hold on, isn't that your job?" You hear the talent, I don't have the money to go to a big studio, which is why I did it in my bedroom. You're telling me to go and come back?
I left the meeting and it took me a few to seconds to feel like it was a waste of time, and I remember feeling down. And I've got a Spongebob attitude at times—I'm like, "Well you know what, I won't swear, that's your opinion, and I'm just gonna run." They're saying it can't be done, and I'm gonna run. So I decided to create this industry we call street soul. We're gonna run with the equipment that we have, because that's what we can afford. It's gonna be rough, it's gonna be rough and ready to go, and we'll just make it work.
I was quite young, I wasn't as politicized as I am now. But I still had that fire, and my dad supported me which coming from a Nigerian background, was unheard of. Especially as my dad knew I had a promising career in computer programming. I was working on Nintendo games and on Sinclair Research software, stuff like that. When I told my dad, "Dad, I want to be a musician," I know his heart, and as a dad myself, I know his heart must have stopped. But he said, "Toyin, are you sure?" and I go, "Dad, I can do this," and he says, "OK, you know I believe in you, I support you," and he did. And because of that support, in our little council estate flat, I just jammed it out with keyboards, drum machines, anything I could afford. In fact that's not true, at that time, I couldn't even afford to buy them. I initially hired all the equipment in, to record the MC I.B. & The Beatcreator 12-inch in a weekend.
We had the saxophonist come down, we had the neighbours banging on the door: "Why is this guy's sax coming out the bedroom?!" We recorded the whole thing in a weekend, and on Monday morning they came to collect all the equipment. And I looked at my girlfriend then, you know, Rosaline Joyce, I couldn't have done it without her, and we just thought, "Woi, this had better work." And so, we released it, and we were lucky.
How did your studio setup evolve?
Alongside my beloved TR808 Drum Machine, our studio had a Fostex
E16, Seck 1882 mixer, Yamaha DX100. I had a Yamaha TX7, Yamaha TX802, Akai S950, Roland SH101, Roland Juno 106, Roland D70, Emu Proformance Plus, Roland TR909, Casio CZ101 and a BBC Micro running a custom UMI sequencer. There were loads more bits and pieces such as a TB303 and much, much later an MPC 2000 and Fender Rhodes. These would have been used on all of my works, from the street soul of Deluxe to the house and garage of Nemesis and Shades Of Black.
Not sure where to start with Toyin Agbetu's catalogue? Here's a short playlist of tunes to get you started. You can also check out a playlist of UK street soul tunes here.
Toyin's bedroom in Hewling House, Hackney, AKA Slick Studios
How did you approach things after those early musical experiments?
MC I.B. & The Beatcreator became a rap duo called Mykrophone but despite the great press the Mykrophone didn't do as well as I'd hoped. as well as I'd hoped. As an amateur computer programmer-cum-musician I was really out of my depth when it came to producing artists, I was just making stuff up as I went along. Fortunately in my early days I was lucky to have tracks released on Earl and Dora's (Boatemah) Angel Town records, Morgan Khan's Streetsounds albums and even had my homage to Thunderbirds released on Mix Master Mac's DTI Records. This all enabled me to practise my craft by working with amazing artists like Rosaline, Deluxe, Thomas Esterine and even jamming with Roots Manuva in my bedroom.
After the success of the first Deluxe 12-inch, all the equipment I had hired, I just bought. And then it was in my bedroom again that I developed a business strategy. Every record had to pay for itself. We had the simple rule: we have to live to fight another day. Simple as that.
It's the same reason why I do activism, the same reason why I do everything. I'm not really concerned or deterred from trying because of barriers to success—I do things I love, what I feel, where my spirit takes me. And all I ask is that whatever I've done recoups itself, so I can live to fight another day. And then some days, something I do that's got a good buzz will make enough change so I can eat off it. And if I can eat off it, then the whole Unyque family can eat off it.
The key thing was to never release something that made a loss. So, initially it started off as putting out a tune, that kind of one-off vibe. But as the organisation got bigger, I had to get an office. We were putting out a record every month at one stage. I was going into the studio every week, and it becomes difficult. You have pressure to make a tune—not only am I looking after my family but I'm looking after everyone who's employed by the organisation, and their families. Every record has to break even and you kinda want it to do well.
I started this system where 12-inches would have one track [on the A-side], which was the main track, but on the other side would be something I really loved. It might not be commercial, it would be something crazy, something I just had fun with. And what would often happen, is that Record Mirror and the mainstream press would pick up on the A-side. People who knew would flip it, and see what else was on the B-side. And those tracks become club classics. And that enabled us as a label to keep going.
Two of the labels I'm quite fond of are Intrigue and Unyque. How did you decide to take that step of making your own labels, and also differentiating several into what seemed like their own sounds?
I learned much from watching Loose Ends and Soul II Soul, I got to meet Beresford [Jazzy B] as I had I worked with Rick Clarke, and those two were friends. I'd done mixes on his album, so I knew a few people in circles. I was really young and arrogant. I was quite rebellious. I was breaking the rules, I was recording out of bedrooms. I wasn't using professional engineers, I was just doing things on a whim. And so I wasn't quite "proper." There were the acts you saw on Top Of The Pops and in magazines like Blues & Soul, and they would write about them. And then in the other columns of specialist journalists, they would write about the stuff that I did. So the Alan Russells, the Simon Goffes, the Kwakus, they were the kind of journalists that looked for indie stuff. So the community was quite low key. And funnily enough that's where I made connections with artists like Omar. Back in the day, when we'd be doing our PAs, we'd keep meeting in clubs, on the motorway, in service stations, we'd chat, and all kinds of stuff would happen.
There was a two-tier system. The street soul movement was very underground—Orlando, with Maxeen, J Halliday, Zushi—we were all in this together. Those ahead of us, who we loved, the Soul II Souls, The Loose Ends, were the ones on the major labels. They were on a different level. The marketing they had, we couldn't compete with. Radio 1 wouldn't play us. All the community stations would. So it's a different system. My various labels with different musical identities came about because audiences were very fickle back in the day.
How did the fickleness play out?
There was a group called The Cool Notes, who were a lovers rock group. They did some beautiful tunes. And then they had a crossover hit called "You're Never Too Young." It was still lovers, but it was also soul. They instantly made a hit with that track, and crossed over to both audiences. They merged with people who loved reggae, the boof-boof crowd and the soul head crowds. And we all watched them like, "Yeah, go on!," it was such a leap. They did a tune called "Spend The Night," which was a boogie tune. So the soul heads were like "Yes!" The Cool Notes are our people. But the lovers crowd, and boof-boof people are, "Wait, what's this kind of nonsense?" And so this group who had had commercial success lost their core audience, and people just went, "Nah, we ain't listening to The Cool Notes anymore."
But The Cool Notes were riding high because they had soul, but then they made their fatal mistake, which was their next track, which was called "In Your Car." Now "In Your Car" was straight-out pop. And so, not only did they lose the lovers audience, they lost the soul audience. This is a group that had been around for years, so pop audiences were "I wanna love you…(sings)," and we were like, "What kind of foolishness is this?" After that their credibility on the underground scene never really recovered, which wasn't right.
I knew from watching that this was not a mistake we ever wanted to happen. I knew that I had this eclectic mix of tracks and identities, but I knew people were very loyal to their artists, and they didn't like it when you did things slightly different. And that's not fair, I still don't think it's fair. But because I was shy, it made sense to have a pseudonym. I thought, "If there's Toyin, there's Nemesis,"—this other side of me that no one's ever gonna know about, because I love house, and soul heads can't deal with house music. They think house music is "boom boom boom boom," it's noise. And I'm saying there is good house. Detroit, the inner-city stuff you need to listen to. But I knew as a man making mellow-mellow soul tunes, that's kind of bop and 2-step and stuff like that, my audience weren't gonna go for that! So I split the two.
And then, we started to have a decent turnover. I had staff who were my friends, like Juliette who helped run the labels and Sean "DaRudeboy" who became our studio engineer, and I had to make sure they got paid. So we had to make money. It changed something in me. I knew that when I went to the studio. For one person having to come up with a good tune, a tune good enough to release, every two weeks, it's a lot of pressure, and that's what I was under.
So I started to listen, analyse. I'm also a nerd. And I could see that the rave scene was kicking off. I wasn't a big fan of the rave scene, because at the time it started off being called jungle. And it was only until groups like Shut Up And Dance came about and they kind of ragga'd it up. And you started seeing it change. Now it's grime…
Is that the label Shut Up And Dance?
PJ and Smiley, yeah. They're just down the road in Stoke Newington. I'm in Hackney, they're in Stoke Newington.
Exactly, Nicolette was the soul, jazz, but what people kinda call dubstep now. But back in the day, rave went through a slow progression, and there was a period of it where it was rubbish. And I knew it sold. So, because I had to make money, I had to create another label. This was how "Mutant" came about, which would make stuff that I didn't really want to put my name to, but I knew I could actually sell, which would pay our salaries.
And then there was Nuyorican Soul style of house, which was a mix of not-quite-Detroit or techno, it was in the middle, and that's how EP Records came about. To preserve the different markets and different vibes that I had, because they were all me, but people didn't know that, I kind of created all these different identities. I actually regret that now. If there's one thing I regret, I wish I forced people to accept the idea that one person can actually do these crazy different genres and it's OK. There's actually nothing wrong with this eclectic stamp. It was also business and making sure my people could eat.
Who inspired your early sounds? Can you talk to me about your early Elite Records days?
Elite Records were plugged into the underground soul movement but it wasn't an African-owned label. It was two two guys, Dick Miller and Andy Sojka. Level 42 was initially signed to Elite Records, but it wasn't called Elite at the time. So I had a connection to them. Then at a time when I was out of school and quite young, there was a tune called "Love So Fine" by Sahara. It was a massive tune, it blew up. Elite had Max and Dave the Hard Rock Soul Movement. They were kinda hip-hop, I wouldn't say funk, but it was a strange, softer hip-hop. They had a reputation of doing underground soul music.
And then you signed to Elite.
I can't remember how the connection happened but someone told me I should check them out. They loved my tape and wanted to work with me. I wasn't prepared to be in a group at that time—we had a group name, Kew-T, it was a silly name. We had a kind of a Prince scenario where our lead singer lost his mind in the studio. He dropped his girlfriend, I won't shame him by saying his name, but he just lost it. I decided I didn't want to work with temperamental artists like that. I'm certainly not going to have a band with some like that. While we were signed as a band, I ended up doing my dream job of producing while we were trying to work out that mess. I started working with their other artists like Marcia Johnson. That's how I started mixing and writing things. Rosaline was my girlfriend at the time and she'd already released records before I met her. I loved those records so I got involved in doing her album as a producer. So that's how the Elite thing came about.
What kind of experiences did you have at Elite?
There's a tune called "Lovestruck" by Projection, who came from Birmingham. It was a huge tune, it blew up. The group did a great job with the tune. I didn't write it or even produce it, but I went into the studio and I mixed it. It had an 808 and they wanted that "Toyin vibe" on it, so I put my little magic on it. The group has to take credit for it but I was involved in that track.
Tune went massive. This was the first time a tune I was involved in started to pique interest in the US in a big way. All my subsequent tunes when I was an independent label started moving in the US, but initially it was a different world. Atlantic Records picked up the option to license this tune. For me that was huge, it was a major label, it was UK street soul about to go on a major label in the states. Andy, who ran the label, said, "This deal is looking great, what do you want?" I said, "I'm just really happy for the group, all I want is to be credited on the record, I don't even want any money, just put my name on the credits."
For me it was a privilege just to mix the tune and for the tune to blow up. I went into Groove Records on Greek Street, which is one of the shops where we used to buy our vinyl. The import came in on 7-inch first, I picked up the record and it had the Atlantic Records logo and my name wasn't on there. It just said "produced by Andy Sojka." I was just like, "What!?" That was the catalyst that started our separation. I was so incensed, it had nothing to do with the money, they had ripped me off for years, not paying all the royalties that were due, being late on payments, but because they gave me a break, because they were the first to put me into a 24-track studio, I had a level of loyalty towards them.
I was working with some great people, and I was learning the industry through them. So I was like, if I don't get paid, I can get it [money] through the PAs. Most artists will have this kind of story, doing what you have to do to cut your teeth in the music industry. But there was an opportunity for my name to be recognised for my work, and they took my name off and put his name on it. I was in my 20s and I thought, "Nah, forget this!" And so I was a bit of a ragga and I did go round with a baseball bat—the stories are true. And I left, I severed the contract and they made a threat, they said, "If you leave, we'll sue you! Anything you put out, we'll sue you, you're still signed to us. You can't release anything without us."
So what did you do?
That's how Unyque Artists started, that was the genesis of it all. We knew we couldn't put out a Rosaline Joyce record straight away because she was also signed to them and her contract was a lot tighter than mine. But they couldn't do anything about me. What people didn't realise at the time, even though there were all these artist names, I was behind everything. I wrote the lyrics, I produced, I mixed, I played the keys, I programmed. I did everything. Everything apart from singing and playing sax.
So I started Unyque Artists and they still threatened to sue us but I didn't care. Elite Records gave me a break, they went bankrupt and restarted calling themselves Jam Today, and even now I'm still in fights for my royalties. They sold them to someone else, they are sitting on YouTube collectively attracting thousands of views worldwide and I don't get any cash from that. I write to PRS and I don't get paid for that. Times like now, as an artist and a man with a family, I kinda wanna eat off that. That's the work I did 30 years ago, but the problem being an activist is that my time is no longer the same, I can't focus on that, I could but it's not in my spirit.
When something happens that's a social injustice, it takes priority over my artistic endeavours. I wish and I hope that I will one day have the time to resolve those issues because I never forget. And get everything that's due. Those royalties should be going to my children when I become an ancestor and it burns me. It's a real pain for me to think someone who is the child of someone who ripped me off is getting something that my children and my family should be getting. That's something I have to fix at some stage. But right now I'm an older man. I don't go round with my baseball bat as often as I used to. I try to do things peacefully. Elite Records, there was a good side to them, some amazing talent went through that label. A lot of people got ripped off, but they gave us the opportunity. I learned how to run a label from watching them and not making the same mistakes.
An article in the Voice newspaper covering Toyin's split from his record label
On the label aspect of things, research suggests that were some issues with distributors had gone bankrupt or had some financial issues.
Initially there was a distributor called G&M Records, they were really cool—they understood soul music and understood independent labels. But the revolution in technology kinda changed things for us. There was a time where I was pumping out thousands of units around the world without any problem.
I remember doing a piece for [US hip-hop magazine] Vibe, they came around and saw my studio in my bedroom and were like, "Oh my god you got a studio in your bedroom!?" And I was like, "Yeah that's how we record it, we can't afford to go to studios." They wrote a piece about it, and Vibe was blowing up at the time as a magazine. They wrote, "There's a guy in the UK projects and he makes all his stuff in his bedroom, and there's police sirens in the background," and all that stuff.
This whole idea of not needing a studio started to spread and I'm happy about that, but it also meant that distributors started to get swarmed with more releases than ever because everyone was releasing records. Now I'm not a person who has a problem with that, but financially it did cause a problem for our label. You've got to think of it in a sense that when everyone is making music and the tools are making it possible for everyone to make competent music. And when I say competent I'm not being disparaging, I'm just saying it's acceptable. Nothing over the top, no brilliance, no creativity. Kind of like using a pre-sample pack that's already put inside the programme.
Before, the distributor was taking 5,000 units straight off the top, but then they'd say they can only take 1,000 because they've got to take 250 of this one, 150 of that one, 400 of that one. And that started to hit us, that started to hurt. We moved to a larger distributor called Spartan and that was a shame. They tried, they took a risk, they didn't understand our music, they wanted to break into the industry.
Was it lovers rock specialists Spartan?
No, back in the day the only distributor who did lovers and stuff was Jet Star and Greensleeves. They were almost like a mafia in that industry, no one could touch them. When it came to street soul, we could have sold through Jet Star but I didn't want to. I respected them but it was a different audience. I'd heard rumours about the way they did business and I just didn't like it and I'm quite a straight-up guy. And even though that's my people I'm just gonna tell the truth on that.
Spartan, I've got accounts and got detailed records from them. But in the end they also did damage. Because when they started to lose sales in other sectors they used the money they made from my label, because I had such a lackadaisical attitude with finance. For me, as long as I could eat, as long as my family could eat, and my friends could eat, I was kinda cool. It was kinda like a party, we hung out in the studio. I would call a friend, "Hey, I've got an idea for a b-line, meet me in the studio." We'd go down, we'd have fun. I might be at a club and hear a funky drummer riff, and it's, "Ah I got an idea, meet me in the studio." It was a very chill thing, every month we'd pay cheques out to all our team. I didn't care if they were claiming unemployment benefits or whatever, everyone could just eat.
It was a simple system, it wasn't quite official, no doubt the tax man one day would do an audit and say I was the Al Capone of the street soul movement. But the people who were around me could eat.
There was one small distribution company run by two brothers with a van and no one would give them a chance. And I remember saying, "Guys, cum'nah," so I gave them exclusives. They were able to go to London shops and sell my stuff and that's kinda how we run. But Spartan was kind of a big thing, they had a bigger network, they could get you into all the outlets that could get you into the charts and that kind of stuff. But when they had financial problems, they dipped into the one pot of money that wasn't chasing them every ten seconds and that's my naivety. Being anti-capitalist—I didn't know I was anti-capitalist back then but that's clearly what it is. Money has never been my focus, I just want things to be right. I'm an activist and believe in justice. It's only being a father now that I realised I've made a lot of mistakes. Things I could have done that would have set up my children for life, so I have some regrets about those things.
Foreground L-R Earl Myers, Master Tee
Background L-R: Errol Henry, Mc 'Super Jam'IB from Deluxe, Jacqueline Jones, Rosaline Joyce, Decores 'Deluxe' Springer, Thomas Esterine
I appreciate you talking about it. It sounds like it was a contributing factor to why music wasn't coming out not so long after that.
It hurt, I'm not gonna lie, when you find out you've lost £0.25 million and this community-based company has taken your last £5,000 of profit from you. We had a tune called "Jazz Thang," and there was a distributor, run by the guys who called themselves Total Contrast, Delroy and Robin. They set up this distribution network and they were struggling badly. They were gonna go broke. They came up to me and said, "Toyin, everyone wants 'Jazz Thang' but we haven't got the money to pay cash upfront." I used to be quite ruthless: no sale on return. Just take a smaller number, I don't do sale on return. I was quite firm on those principles. And they said, "We don't have the money." But because of my politics, and because they were struggling and they asked politely, I gave them like 2 or 3,000 units of the tune. And they sold them all.
When we came for the money, they vanished. And that hurt. They hurt us as a label. It was a bad business decision. But it was more than that—it wounded me personally. I was livid, and I did go down there with the bat. I did take a couple of reverb units out of their studio. I was so hurt because I had exposed all of us on a principle. And that's what happens.
The brothers with the vans were selling a couple of hundred a week, money didn't matter to us at that stage. They were honest, hardworking and I could trust them. So I would always deal with them. And here are two guys, who are on London Records, they had pop hits, producing some beautiful tunes that I really loved, and I got ripped off by them.
The whole music industry rips you off. It's a big issue. I met up with a guy called Jason Halliday, who ran a group called Zushi on Red Fly Records. And we became best friends, we started to work together and we just had each other's back. He taught me how to be mellow and how to be a bit more calm when certain situations come up. It's like The Godfather, he was Michael Corleone and I was always like Sonny and I didn't wanna be. He'd say, "And what happened to Sonny?" I was very easy to trigger, when people took the mick, I would get angry. I had a generous heart but that's how Sonny lost his life, when his rage over his sister's pain caused him to act and mess up strategically, sadly I was very predictable in my impulsiveness back then.
Let's get back to the music aspect of things. On the note of street soul, was that a term that you had defined at the time? Or was it retrospectively named?
It was named at the time. That's why the Soul Connection stuff had that name. It just kept coming up. It was just "soul from the street." I can't remember exactly when or how it was coined. But I knew there was soul and I knew there was what we were making. We started off on an 8-track [multitrack recorder]—you've got to remember the first Deluxe tracks were 8-track recordings, back in the day that was impossible. And then when we had some success, I bought a 16-track unit. So for most of our stuff I've still got the multitracks, because they were recorded on 16-track. The professional standard was 24-track and above. We were always street soul. It's kind of like HD—everything is supposed to be HD now but we were still running on 720p pretending to be HD. And people were saying, I don't care, it's still good. And that's the attitude the whole industry had. We had people who had access to 24-track studios come into our studio to do a mix. When I was doing house stuff, we had Dave Lee coming in and doing remixes for us. And he was used to these posh 24-track studios.
Yeah Dave Lee, yeah he called himself Joey Negro, although I've heard he's finally getting rid of that name. He was with Rough Trade, I met him through a connection with that distributor and he was alright. He remixed a couple of Nemesis tracks. Cleveland Anderson had a label called Tom Tom Club, and I released a track called "2 B Conscious," which was when I became more political with my work. I used to regret that most of my material was party stuff or "boy meets girl, falls in love" and I didn't have political stuff. I was a bit sad about that for a long time. I do have some weak political stuff like Mary Pearce's "Legacy," but there's not enough hard-hitting material as sadly I was a bit naive back then. So while in "2 B Conscious" I address the need for self-empowerment, to my shame I don't mention or address structural racism or Afriphobia even once.
At every turn there is a rebellious nature to your approach. I wonder if you didn't have that clarity to what you were going to put your energy into at that time, and you were putting that same rebellious nature into your music. After that you redefined that rebellious energy into social activism, it seems to me.
No you're right. Running a record label in that way prepares you to take on the institutions like the police and governments, because you learn you have to act and just do something. All industries have this. I don't know what to call it, maybe "equipi-titus"—I'm making up a new word. It's where you want to become an artist but you can't do it unless you have that drum machine. You wanna be a photographer but unless you have that particular lens you can't. You wanna be a filmmaker but you need to have that camera. We always want the next thing before we do it and we always blame the fact we don't have that thing before we do it. The way my label ran, I had a lot of gear and there were a lot of things I wanted, but I could do what I had to with what I had. And if I did well enough, that would make the money to buy the thing I wanted, and that was the rule. So that approach really has shaped who I am.
When sampling came in, people were petrified, they were frightened that if you sampled someone's records, all those major labels were gonna squash you. And it was true—they were coming down on you like a tonne of bricks. But our label, it was a radical approach we took. We thought, if a major label is coming to squash us, that means what we've released is already big and we'll have the money to deal with it. If they come for us when we have nothing there is nothing they can take.
So you took some risks?
I remember there was summer  when there were two tunes that just blew up, En Vogue's "Hold On" and Family Stand's "Ghetto Heaven." They were amazing tunes, I loved them to death. Our house labels were doing OK, but the soul stuff was slowing down. The house labels were starting to become our bread and butter. That's a shame because I loved the soul stuff, but house and garage really started to dominate. I remember thinking, I just wanna be mischievous. I sampled the bassline from "Hold On," and I sampled the riff of "Ghetto Heaven." I mixed it into a mess and I know I can't rap, so just like the Soul Connection thing I narrated on the mic. And I say that on the tune, "This is T narrating the mic."
What track is that?
It's "Slow Down," a 2 Tuff record. And the tune went massive. We must have sold 5,000 units, which for us was massive. That would basically be like £10,000, and we could cut it up into pieces—we could cover manufacturing, everyone was happy and we could make more records the next day.
Then I got a call from the head of the legal department at Warner. And I'm like, "Warner!?" They said, "Well you just sampled two of our biggest hits and you've put out these tunes and you've profited from them. So these are your options: you can either get sued or you can license it to us." I said, "Really? OK." So I licensed it to them and they paid me more money and gave us another advance. I was friends with the guy who was a head of department [at Warner] so he was telling me all the inside information. So you're right. That taught me you just go to do it. And I wouldn't call that activism but that kind of level of disobedience, that level of being creative and how to interpret the rules, that's the way we get things done.
Toyin the Beatcreator and rapper Iain Burton as 2Tuff
How did being second generation Black British shape your musical output? Did you put that in your work in a conscious way?
Initially it was at the back of my mind. I was a product of my environment. I lived on an estate, we were working class so the music, the street soul was just a reflection of what we were and where we came from. The fusion was culturally a reflection of everything I'd experienced; all different genres, all different messages.
But over time, there were a few catalysts. One was when I went to Los Angeles, myself and Jason [Halliday] were thinking about setting up a label in LA. We went out there to live for a while to find out if it was safe enough for us to take our families over and set up a label there. That's when we met with Jive. That's when I found out R.Kelly was a child rapist—the whole Aaliyah thing. I came back telling people this years before and no one would believe us, but we'd seen him with her and we knew it was wrong because she was so young but that's another story.
I was living in Los Angeles, living in a place called Westwood, and I was walking down the street. You know when they say, "You must always drive in LA," but I love cycling, I love walking. So I would go for a walk around LA. It's a middle-class area. The label was quite successful; we were living in a suite. We had a jacuzzi at the top of the building and we were there every night. I'm not pretending it was anything else but for someone out of Hackney living life that, it was kind of cool—the music was looking after us.
And then all of a sudden there were police all around me. They were like, "What are you doing here?" with guns and the whole thing. I said, "What's going on?" The moment I speak and they hear my British accent, they relax, they cool down, and I'm like, "What's that all about?"
I remember going back and being quite angry. We'd been in this kinda posh, suburban area, using the jacuzzi each night, meeting all these kinds of people. I need to go down LA and see where our people are at. I remember saying, "I'm going to go down to the southside." And everyone looked at me as if I said I was going to Mars. Nobody wanted to go with me so I went by myself. And as I went, it was bizarre. There's a scene from a film I saw recently where the guy is driving through a neighbourhood and you can see the transformation, and that's exactly what it was. You start off in a rich part of LA and it just slowly degrades. I go into the shop and the guy goes for his shotgun or some kind of weapon. He looked at me as if I was a threat. What the hell? There's bullet holes inside the walls.
I came back [to London] and I remember speaking to my partner at the time, saying, "Look we're not going there, we're not bringing up our children there, we're not taking them to school there, that's not happening." The same thing that happened with the journalist Gary Younge, he did that. He left the UK, went to the US and was there for ten years and was like, "Nah, it's not happening." So we said, "We're not doing that, we know the UK, America's not for us."
Did that specific experience make its way into your music?
Well, I said to myself I need to say something about this. I wrote a song called "2 B Conscious," and it was the first time I explicitly wrote about the plight of African people in my music. A friend of mine called Cleveland Anderson, who ran a label called Tom Tom, released the record. And it's really strange. I'm not trying to blow my own trumpet, but I had quite a reputation, so when I put out a record you could normally sell a few thousand on pre-sale—people didn't even need to hear it, they knew they could export it to certain territories, to the indie shops, and that's before they even know if it was a good record or not.
So he released it on his label and he struggled. The magazines wouldn't do reviews. I felt really puzzled. It's a party house/garage tune, it's got a hardcore mix, a kind of mellow hit. I couldn't figure it out. The only thing that's different is the lyrics. It had words like "I see my people dying on the street." It was explicitly political and I realised at that moment, if I talk about these issues the people that say they love my music won't support it.
I'm talking about the industry, not the people on the streets. And that was the start of me having this double stream, where on one level I was an artist, making music, having fun and looking after my family and my friends, and on another level I was an African in the UK and I was a Pan-Africanist without even knowing I was a Pan-Africanist.
And I knew my work had to help my people. Because of the way the industry was, we were very much a cottage industry, in the sense that we had our own labels, our own magazines. We were even talking about buying a pressing plant to make our own vinyl. We were looking at it in a long-term way.
We didn't realise those were political things. We were challenged on them, but that political idea of being completely self-sufficient was seen as a threat. I don't think it was just a threat to the industry, I think it was a threat to wider society because our community was a bit rebellious. We just came out of riots and uprising, and all of a sudden now I wanted to do with soul music with what hip-hop was doing in America. And that is something that I haven't really reconciled. I've got a friend called Akala, he's a hip-hop artist and we chat, he's pretty cool. He's such a gifted artist and such a beautiful human being; his passion and spirit. But even though he is relatively successful, it doesn't mirror what it should be. And the only reason is because of what he says. And so it's still something I haven't resolved.
Iain and Rodney as Mykrophone
Where do you stand on that now?
I still champion artists to actually use their work politically but there's another side of me, the nerdy side of me, which says that every artist has a right to make art for art's sake. I may not be interested in it but they have a right. I feel artists do have a responsibility to help but they shouldn't be pressured to do that. If an artist just wants to win the Turner Prize, do a poo and smear it on the wall and get £100,000 and it goes up in the Tate, hey, that's art. Just because I don't understand it, it doesn't mean it should be censored. I'm not a fan of censorship, but if you ask me, what can the artist do? They have the ability to articulate the concerns of the people. And that's the gift that the creator, that the ancestors, whatever deity they worship, that's what's invested in all of us. We have different ways of expressing our art.
I just happen to do it through words, sometimes through music. Other people do it through food, cooking, knitting, DJing, acting—there are so many different ways of expressing your creative spirit. I think if we utilise that we can change the world and make it a better place.
How does that line of thought play out in this present moment?
I think there is a direct link to how artists are shut down even though now we have African-American artists who are among some of the richest people in the world. They have more influence but I still think they aren't doing enough. Groups like Dead Prez should be in the space that Public Enemy were at the time. The more radical you are, there's still a barrier. And now we have people like Kamasi Washington doing things like "Fist Of Fury," but he's jazz and his music is so amazing, but I know unfortunately it doesn't talk to the masses of our people. And I'm not going to dictate at all how anyone does their craft. But we need all artists from bashment to grime doing what Stormzy does when he advocates for Grenfell, or George The Poet, we need all of it, everything.
Now's a good moment to ask about what you're working on now. I went to an exhibition that was around an organisation called Centerprise and saw you and your wife's names listed there. And it would be really nice if you could discuss the work you're doing with Ligali.
My first son is the genesis of Ligali in many ways. Children don't get asked to be born. We bring them into this world. And if we're going to leave them in this world, as parents we have a responsibility to do our best to make it a better place before we leave. That's my thing. So he and the rest of my children, nieces, nephews and community young ones are the catalyst for the organisation happening and dealing with the negatives that affect African people all around the world.
And Centerprise was just an amazing space; it had a bookshop, a cafe. They supported the work of the Ligali organisation and I was just honoured that I was able to work with them and to help the development. Every Sunday we would have a Kubatana event, so I'd put on my rucksack and go down there with my oware kit. I'd pick up a copy of The Observer because it was on a Sunday. I'd go in and sit down at a table where we'd have dominoes.
Emma, the brilliant Ligali head of media affairs who co-organised the session with me, would bring a selection of DVDs for the screening and I'd open the paper. It was like a community political surgery, everyone knew I was going to be there because we had the newsletter. Anyone could turn up, anyone could chat, that was the deal. We'd go through the paper and we'd chat about whatever was in the paper. We'd talk about how it affects us and what could be done. Then we'd play chess or oware. I can't play dominoes still. People would play games. We'd pick up a film, go upstairs and have something to eat. That was it. On a Sunday you'd be all charged up, spiritually filled. Feeling cool, feeling relaxed. Feeling ready for the world. Then Monday would start and come Sunday we'd do it all again. And it was very beautiful.
When I finish my PhD I hope to do something like that again; where we can just sit and cotch and chill and laugh and eat. Where we can just chat and play games and then deal with the world. We really need that and we don't have that. And Ligali was a very good time in my life, it still runs but it runs on a skeleton. We don't have the same network, we had 10,000-plus subscribed to us and involved.
A scene from Toyin's documentary The Walk (2007) showing him supported by the UK's Pan-African community
Can you explain Ligali for those who might not know.
Ligali was an organisation set up to just to challenge the misrepresentation of African people in the British media. My son kept hearing people say he was Black, he was confused and he'd be like, "Daddy we're not Black, we're brown." And I remember thinking, "Yeah you're right, why do we say we're Black?" And I had to research it and when I researched it, I came back and said "Actually we're not Black, you're right."
"So what should we call ourselves?" he asked. I told him, "We're Africans," "Africans, what's that?" So I had to get the Atlas out and show him Africa. Show him his grandparents and show him where they came from. That started the process. I stopped using the word Black completely as I didn't want to perpetuate anything that I felt was wrong. And he went to school and he would go round and he'd say, "You're African, you're European, You're Asian." He was telling the truth, but people started to complain in primary school. I thought that was really interesting.
A few years later I noticed in his speech he was saying he's proud to be African and loves his heritage and then say "as a Black boy." And I'd be like "When did that come back?" My son taught me that we're Africans, now he's saying "Black" and what I realised is that the media had a huge impact on us. So that's how Ligali started. If the media is continually shaping the way we see ourselves, it's defining what we are, who we are and what we name ourselves. We have to challenge that and even more on top of that we have to affirm those definitions ourselves.
That's how the organization started. We ended up being very successful. Soaps like Eastenders and all the programmes before, people don't remember, but back in the day, they were awful. The representation of African people was atrocious and as an organisation we challenged everybody. So we'd have people from the BBC coming out on their lunch breaks asking to speak to me. "Hey Toyin, there's a programme coming out on BBC 2 called Black Men Are The Scourge Of The Earth or whatever, "You need to do something about this." So I'd say "OK, what's your name bro?" They'd say, "Nah, you don't need to know my name, just deal with it," and so we'd deal with it and that was it. And we would contact the [BBC] director general, we were just ruthless. And so things started to change. As we became more successful and people saw that success.
Who else got in touch with you?
People started to see Ligali as a blanket for everything. [People working in] deaths in custody started to contact us. Stop-and-search people started to contact us. I've got to learn to say no sometimes, but we tried to do everything. And we got involved in everything. We started changing literature inside schools. There was Operation Trident, and how they would talk about gun crime. At the core of it there were ten of us. The people doing 90 percent of the work were myself and a sister called Emma Pierre Joseph. It was just too much work, we were not properly funded. We had donations coming in from the local community which was our lifeblood, like £5, £10 a month and that helped us to keep going.
We were set up to help deal with media misrepresentation and that was it. And it was only when the 2007 Wilberfest incident happened, when the government was doing this whole thing about abolition, that all a sudden my profile went international. We couldn't cope with all the work. Two people can't do it, even though we had a good core. The core of ten, we could do annual events, we could do things like the stuff at Centerprise. We could do education programmes. Short little films. But when you have everyone looking at you and you just don't have the money, don't have an office. The fractures became too tough and I just had to wind it down. I still miss the original Ligali team to this day. But every now and again I'd get an email like, "My son has been excluded from school, what can I do?" and then I'd write a letter or turn up to a meeting and help them. So even when I'm trying to take time to breathe and think, things keep happening.
Even now, I'm trying to write my thesis and I'm behind my deadline. And then the whole world blows up and people are like, "Toyin, what's your take?" Before that it was COVID 19, what can we do about this nonsense about BAME people being four times [more likely to die]. Ligali is supposed to have actually stopped, but I suppose as long as I'm alive it keeps going.
A 19-year-old Toyin producing in his bedroom studio
Where does the name Ligali come from?
It's actually my father's name. It was a spiritual thing, when he passed away. My father passed away unexpectedly, he was in his 50s, around the same age that I am now. We were completely unprepared, he was on the phone to his girlfriend and his heart gave way. It's something that affects West African males, it's hereditary. So for a year and a half I was just dead. Every time I'd try to play a keyboard it was the most depressing noise, it was just awful.
I just couldn't make music. I didn't know the process of making music was a spiritual act, I had no idea. I'd streamlined it so much into fun and business. So there was a fun element where I'm just jamming. Then there's a business element where I'm seeing what the people need. What I didn't know is I had to be happy, I had to be jamming, I had to be content. Or what happens is the chords are negative, and the words are too, and everything just went wrong.
How did you respond to that?
I had to stop making music. That's when the production stopped, when my father passed away. Ligali as an organisation was a way of keeping him alive. So every time people spoke about the organisation, my father was being re-invoked. The thing that is important to me, that people don't understand, is that I'll never ever compromise my principles, ever. Because the organisation was named after my father, it just made it doubly so. We had been let down by our leaders so many times, so often that we got used to it. We got used to being betrayed and I just wanted to do something different. I didn't think that we would have the impact that we had.
I'm not saying we've changed the world, but I know we influenced a lot of people and because of that you won't hear me on the BBC, you won't see me on the news, you won't see me in The Guardian, or not much. But when I get back to making music, I'm going to get up to mischief. When I finish my doctorate I'm going to get up to mischief on an academic level as well, and that's kind of the ambition: to create a university that is non-exclusive, that people without money can access. I want to create a way of learning for people who are maybe not so literate but they are ingenious and they are creative and they want to give something. I want to teach them how to use those talents and abilities to help other people. Because so far we're told we are useless unless we have productivity, unless we can generate cash we have no value. I just fundamentally disagree with that.
I'm with you. As a society, that being the measure of success is so rudimentary, it strips away any social concerts, anything spiritual, social is deprioritised for the purpose of making money so how can you or the people around you be happy if your main goal is that.
You mentioned earlier in this conversation about getting stopped by police in the US. Funnily enough the same thing happened to me. I got stopped by the police on two separate occasions while on my bicycle, and as soon as they heard my English accent they were just thrown, they didn't know what to do and the conversation just changed. I've just never heard anyone else have the same experience. It was a strange feeling and still getting followed home because they didn't believe I worked in that area. So a lot of what you're saying is hitting home very hard today.
Look where we are now, during a pandemic when we're at our most vulnerable. When we're losing jobs, when we're dying, police brutality still exists. People are being murdered. In fact we are actually now the entertainment; our deaths are serving the role of entertaining people around the world. We've got work to do.
By January, unless I have gotten too involved with what's going on in this world right now, I'll be formally a doctor. And then I'm not just a crazy activist saying these radical things. I'm actually a UCL-certified madman, and that's much harder for the establishment to fight back against. They will, but it's much harder for them to say "he's talking rubbish" when I say I've read all your theories and so many of them are crap.