One of the issues dominating the dance music conversation at large is that of originality – or, rather, the lack of it on the frontlines. Where festival main stages are filled to the brim with interchangeable melodies, aspiring producers seeking to fast-forward to fame are flooding the entry gates – Mark Knight, however, prefers to sit back, pause and Reset.
But before we can start anew, we must first rewind. 10 years ago, the London DJ and producer founded Toolroom Records, which has grown into one of dance music’s biggest and most consistent veins of house music, with a roster spanning a range of artists from the up-and-coming to the revered, with releases on the label by Amtrac, Prince Club, Fatboy Slim, Funkagenda, Pete Tong, Todd Terry, Underworld and more. In 2009, the label was recognized by digital music retailer Beatport as its “best-selling label of all time” – a true testament to its stronghold on the dancefloor.
Earlier this year, Toolroom had reason to celebrate when Beatport recognized Knight’s 2011 remix of Florence & the Machine’s “You Got the Love” as one of the digital music retailer’s “best-selling tracks of all time” (and Knight as one of its top producers, to boot). But despite the label’s shining reputation in its tenth anniversary year, it is looking to undergo vital reconstruction as the house identity crisis rages on, and the boss has recruited two label talents to join him for the task at hand. VIBE spoke with Knight and the crew to gain some insight into Toolroom’s new look.
Laying the foundation
Toolroom was created initially to serve as a personal platform for Knight’s own productions, but as time progressed, a keen ear helped to mold the label into an international launching pad. “The business grew huge and we branched out into events, radio and TV,” he recalled, “but the core focus has always been on credible music.”
The recent explosion in dance music around the world laid out an obstacle course as house music slowly drifted from its traditional model into uncharted waters. Finally, the label head decided to take action. “Our answer was to bring a focus back onto our musical space alongside a new concept and fresh imagery – really redefine what we want Toolroom to stand for within the industry,” he says of the initial game plan. “For me, [Reset] was about remembering where it all began and reminding the world what that can mean in the modern industry,” he says.
While the genre’s popularization has resulted in some polarizing effects, there is a silver lining to the growing legion of dance fans. “At the moment, it feels like we have an opportune moment to shout about what we stand for to more people than ever before,” Knight begins.
“We aren’t ‘underground’; we aren’t ‘commercial’ – no one talks about that bit in the middle. That middle ground is one of the most fascinating parts of the industry… Everyone is caught up in this made-up battle between the mainstream and the underground. We don’t profess to be any of that.
“I want people to know that we are the best in the world at dominating that space in between [the mainstream and the underground],” he declares. “Like football, once you’ve won the league so many times and your team needs to be refreshed: you collect yourselves, work out the strengths and weaknesses and then refocus on another winning run. This is about reigniting the collective team.”
The three pillars
The mission wasn’t to be done alone. As a nod to the emerging new generation of dance music, he hand-picked two label affiliates and rising producers, Weiss and Adrian Hour, to join him.
The former released his debut EP, ‘Old School Bizz,’ on the label just last year, but has been a longtime fan. Weiss has more to offer than his production prowess to the Toolroom crew. Despite his status as a relative newcomer, his many years of experience as a studio engineer benefits both parties, as he possesses production know-how in addition to vital skills like mastering tracks.
“[I] have always respected them,” Weiss says. “The whole team is really supportive, and they really look after their artists. There’s always fresh ideas, and you feel revived and more determined about what you’re doing.”
The second man to join Knight was Argentinian techno producer Adrian Hour, who still recalls the day Knight reached out to him three years ago to say how taken he was with Hour’s then-latest single, “Did The Earth Move.” A year later, Hour was releasing on Toolroom itself, signing track “Shoot to Thrill” to one of the label’s famed Toolroom Knights compilation albums. While he’s since expanded his reach with releases on numerous labels like Suara and Stereo Productions, he is determined to help realize a new era of Toolroom Records. “I’ve always been a fan of Mark,” he says. “I’m excited to get more involved.”
Like Knight, both Weiss and Hour agree that dance music is in a state worth taking action, so altogether, they make up the three pillars – credible house, underground house music and versatile techno – holding up the re-vamped platform.
“For the new generation of dance music fans, this is something fresh and new for them to discover,” says Weiss, “and for the older generation, this is a genre of music to connect to. Everything comes round in circles and it’s updated with new sounds. For me, it’s always been about house music, something people can groove to, and it’s nice that Toolroom are embracing that at the perfect time.”
Earlier this month, the new era officially commenced with the unveiling of Toolroom Live, a new album series which aims to return quality music to the spotlight while also showcasing the label’s new material and key artists. This inaugural edition sees the three pillars collectively stamp their vision on the project by each creating a mix featuring artists such as Hot Since 82, Tube & Berger, MK, Green Velvet, Maceo Plex, Harvey McKay and more.
“Toolroom Live is a vehicle for us to connect with the public,” says Knight. “It’s not only about giving our artists the chance to play fantastic shows, but a real public portrayal of what we are about as a brand and a business. It’s more than just records to DJs.”
Since the Reset launch, the first couple of Toolroom releases have come courtesy of rising artists Amtrac and Piemont, both of whom make their label debuts with dancefloor-ready singles “Those Days” and “Crowned,” respectively.
Knight lays out the strategy of the situation: “They fulfill exactly the musical manifesto we want moving forward: they have commercial potential in that they can sell records, but their sound lands right within the middle ground remit that we look to dominate. You can be commercially successful without being ‘commercial,’” he asserts.
But what lies ahead for the label as they commence another decade in the industry? According to Knight, he envisions Toolroom being a solid vessel more than anything. “Our goal is to join the dots throughout the business,” he said. “What we have done is grab an incredible wealth of knowledge and business acumen over the past ten years. We want to pass down the full 360-degrees of business knowledge to the artists we have to really empower these creative people and offer them full fledged careers.” In order to achieve that, however, Toolroom faces a rigid, but potentially rewarding path; Knight zeroes in on key traits like strategy, respect and longevity as “key drivers” to stay the course.
On his hopes for Toolroom’s impact in dance music, Hour says, “The industry has become so big, and sometimes it feels like people are just chasing quick money; I think that this is going to reassure both the fans and the business that Toolroom is still really out to do the right thing for the music. I am honored to be a part of this new chapter for Toolroom, and I can’t wait to see how both the fans and the industry respond.”
“It’s something new,” Weiss adds. “It keeps the industry on its toes and shows that labels and artists are always developing.”
“Dance music is in an amazing place right now, and the reverberation of that internationally is incredible,” Knight concludes. “Things are only going to get bigger and bigger to my mind. Now is an exciting time to be a part of it, and I hope that the world can identify with what we are bringing to the party moving forward.”