Looking back on 20 years of Glasgow Underground: an interview with Kevin Mckay

House | Wednesday 29th November 2017 | Cristina

On the eve of the label's 20th anniversary, Guestlist were lucky enough to chat to Glasgow Underground founder Kevin Mckay. His new compilation features tracks from the likes of Kevin himself, JD Twitch, Hammer, Jasper James, and Dominic from Sub Club.

Over 20 years the label has seen releases from everyone from Romanthony and DJ Q  to Dixon and Motor City Drum Ensemble more recently - back in the day they were featured by Dazed, i-D and the Face as leaders of a completely new scene, unlike anything happening in London or the rest of the UK, paving the way for artists like Jackmaster. Read below for our in-depth discussion with the man himself on twenty years in the business.

Congratulations on Glasgow Underground’s 20th anniversary. How does it feel?

Thank you! It feels amazing to be honest. When I started the label in 1997 I had no idea that I would be able to make such a long career out of it. I have seen lots of friends give up or be cut out of the industry in challenging times so I feel very lucky to still be doing something that I love every day.

You’re celebrating with a new compilation album release. Being a representation of 20 years, what pressures, if any, did you feel when curating the track list?

It was a little bit tricky until I decided that I wanted to showcase music from the past that was still relevant today. That meant that some tracks, while being well respected in their own time, just wouldn’t make it. A lot of our early releases are on a similar tip to what artists like Black Loops or labels Toy Tonics are doing now and so I wanted to say to DJs that play those records that – if they were looking for something out of the ordinary – they could dive into Glasgow Underground’s back catalogue.

That said, it was probably easier for me than it is for most label A&Rs to do this because I’ve been the only person signing music to the label since it began. I’ve had help over the years with fellow DJs tipping tracks in my direction and now I have a brilliant A&R, Sam Dexter, who works with me but the final decision on signing music has always been mine so I can look at the list of tracks in the back catalogue and they all play in my mental jukebox.

Features include yourself, Hammer, JD Twitch, and Jasper James to name a few. When it came to asking your favourite producers for tracks, how was the selection process for you?

I don’t live in Glasgow any more so I needed some help on this one! The people you mention I was in touch with but a lot of the people on the album I came to via Colin Brownbill and his brilliant (and sadly no longer running) blog. Colin has his ear to the ground up there and I doubt there is anyone making any kind of dance & electronic music of note that he hasn’t written about. He put me on to the more up and coming producers on the compilation. There was of course some people who I asked who weren’t available for this one so if Harri, Denis Sulta, Slam, Harvey McKay, KC Lights, Mia Dora, Leftwing & Kody or The Revenge are reading, I still want a track for the next volume!

What is it about those producers selected that stand out for you?

I think all the artists I selected are 100% focussed on doing their own thing, creating a sound that is their own and clearly different from the dance music world around them. I think this is generally true of artists from Glasgow. I might not like what people are doing but I hardly ever listen to a producer or an act from Glasgow and think, “Oh, that’s just a rip-off of X or they are just trying to be Y”. The of importance in being original is so acute up there that even when people in Glasgow think they are obviously ripping someone off, they rarely are!

Speaking of spotting qualities in artists, you also saw something in Mylo and Grum in their early days. What was it that you saw in them after hearing their demos?

I saw something similar in both of them. To me they are like best-selling authors. They have an undeniable talent for communicating their emotional ideas with music in such a way that it speaks to a huge range of people. Because of this they are the kind of artists that people really fall in love with. Their music speaks to them on such a primal emotional level that they take them deeply into their hearts. Well, at least, that’s how it was for me and Mylo & Grum and how I have seen them affect their fans! I’m incredibly proud of Grum. The way he has kept developing while being true to himself at all times and all in the constant glare of the internet is testament to what a strong and brilliant artist he is.

How important is it to you to include newcomers in projects and not solely more established names?

I think it is always important to include newcomers. You can learn and be entertained just as much from a 20-something’s perspective as you can from a 40-something’s. For example, on this compilation you have an artist like Big Miz who is an obvious house music fan but – on “The Great Pyramids of Geezer” – he is taking himself a lot less seriously than a lot of older house producers do and that injection of change can only be a good thing in my opinion.

Glasgow has remained inspiration for your start in House music. How does it feel to still be representing for the city 20 years on?

I‘m not sure to be honest. As I said before I don’t live in Glasgow any more (I live in London). Despite this I do feel an incredibly strong connection to the city (I think most people feel strongest about the music that surrounded them as they entered adulthood) and so I am passionate about promoting it. I do try and get up there as often as possible and spent 9 months up on the West Coast of Scotland last year so while I’m maybe not the best qualified to represent exactly what is going on I hope that my love of the city, its scene and its producers outweighs any geographical shortcomings I may have!

We love that you originally set the label up to release music from yourselves, fellow friends and Glaswegian DJ’s. What made you put this idea in action?

My first label was called Muzique Tropique. I set that up in 1994 and for the next two years I just released music that I made with my then studio partner Andy Carrick. After the first release I got a distribution deal with Vital/PIAS which was a pretty big deal. They were one of the biggest indie distributors at the time and – although I didn’t know it – I was being given a big leg up! At the end of 1996 my label manager said that my Muzique Tropique label was becoming boring and I needed to sign some other artists. By this time there were a few of us in Glasgow all making tunes. I wish I could say I had some visionary strategy but no, I just looked around me and asked who was there! A key artist I wanted on board was DJ Q. I loved his Chicago style house grooves. He said he would make a record for me but not for Muzique Tropique (all the music I made was too deep for him). So I asked him if I created a new label would he be in and he said yes. I had used the name Glasgow Underground on a 1995 EP I had made for Junior Boys Own and I thought it made a great label name and so that was that.

You were credited for producing and mixing Mylo’s album, which went on to be platinum selling. What was your reaction on hearing the news?

To be honest, we kind of limped over the line of 300K sales right at the end of the campaign. It was something that we had set out to do but it took so long (2 years) and we had been looking forward to it for so long that it was somewhat of an anti-climax. A bit like trying to enjoy a night out you’ve been planning of months; it never seems as amazing as you want it to be.

What was more exciting was when we scored our first top 5 hit. I knew that the Mylo vs Miami Sound Machine “Dr. Pressure” record was the most commercial thing we had released and I was convinced it would be a hit. Before we released it, Glasgow Underground’s distributor had rather sneakily done me out of £40,000 and I was flat broke Djing in a commercial club in Glasgow. “Dr. Pressure” was the only Mylo tune that had the whole place jumping and so it felt like the only one that would get played across all the commercial radio stations. Radio 1 weren’t convinced though and only B-listed the record. It was pretty much our last roll of the dice singles wise from the album and we were only at 200k sales. It was pretty disappointing news. They had been our key supporters to date. In the end it didn’t matter, after it was released, the record was selling like mad we were vying with Coldplay all week for the #3 spot. I got the news we had beaten them to #3 just as I was leaving Bestival having seen Mylo headline the night before. What an incredible feeling that was! To have signed him, produced his album and directed the whole campaign and finish with a top 5 record that would push the album platinum, go on to the next “Now” album and a gazillion other compilations was an amazing result.

One of your career firsts included a residency at The Tunnel. Looking back, what would the present day Kevin, tell the Kevin back then, going into his first night?

Haha, that’s a great question, I’ve thought about that a lot. I think the best advice in the music business is just to be yourself. And for me personally, it would be to stop worrying about what other people think! Just do what you love and live by your own standards.

No doubt you have plenty high points when it comes to your career. For you personally, what are some of your stand out moments?

I think while the work I did with Mylo is up there for sure, I get much more pleasure from running Glasgow Underground just now. For me, the whole reason to be in the music business is because it music makes people happy and, to me, that’s what life’s about. So the pleasure I get from seeing people lose their shit on the dancefloor to a set I am playing or a track I have made, or signed or in some way wouldn’t have existed without my involvement is second to none professionally. Second to that is seeing the same thing happen for artists who I have helped develop.

What changes in the scene have you noticed over the years and in what ways have you adapted?

Obviously the internet has been the game-changer for the music business. Before it, there were multiple barriers to entry to the music business. You had to have the funds & the knowledge to buy and operate studio equipment good enough to make a record. You then had to have the money and contacts to press up vinyl and finally you had to have a distributor and a knowledge of sales and marketing to sell your product. Nowadays you can download a sample pack, cut & paste yourself a track and have it up on Beatport/iTunes/Spotify almost immediately.

That democratisation of dance music has been great in some ways. In the 90s, some styles of dance music wouldn’t get past the front door at Radio 1. Now we have Youtube and a load of other platforms to help get your music out there so that if you have a really great record, you don’t necessarily need radio.

The downside is that there is now too much music out there. Too many labels adopt a throw-shit-at-a-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to releasing music. You can’t listen to all the music that is released and so – as an artist – it is much harder to get noticed above the sea of noise. I have been lucky that I started in ’97 so the label carried a certain reputation into modern times. I have no idea how I would start out now. In terms of what I do differently, I stick to releasing only the music I love and would play as a DJ. If I like it and would use it, I figure there’s going to be others too. On top of that I have spent a lot of time thinking about how the label looks on the download & streaming stores and concentrated on a look that would be bold and easily recognisable for people.

What have you learnt about yourself/the business as a DJ and producer over the years and what advice would you give to someone starting out?

The only thing I can do is echo the advice that I would have given the younger me. Be yourself, find what you truly love and dedicate yourself to being the best at that you can be. You might not become famous but you have way more chance of doing so than someone who is playing the cool game. And you will be much happier!

Underground Sound of Glasgow 2017 is out now