“We look for artists who have something different”: Relentless Records turns 21

The influential label has been home to So Solid Crew, Ms. Dynamite, Headie One and, erm, Baby Shark. Its co-founder and stars tell Caitlin O'Reilly how they have continued to ride the wave

21 years ago, on November 29 1999, Craig David and Artful Dodger released their hit single ‘Re-Rewind’. Blending smooth R&B vocals and glass-smash sound effects, its “Bo Selecta” chorus synonymous with the golden days of UK garage, the song still gets a rapturous reception in clubs two decades on. The two-step tune not only propelled a young Craig David into the global limelight, but also marked the debut of Relentless Records, one of Britain’s most pioneering music labels.

Part of the Sony Music family, Relentless run a small, and often eclectic, roster of artists. Previous signees include ’00s pop favourites Daniel Bedingfield and Joss Stone, as well as Colombian reggaetón superstars Maluma and Nicky Jam. In the past few years, they’ve nurtured the Tottenham MC Headie One, who has gone from drug-running to being called “the best drill artist in the world” by Drake, and have most recently taken on the riotous Bradford rap ensemble Bad Boy Chiller Crew.

The label also holds the distribution rights to Baby Shark, the South Korean beloved kids’ anthem, which is currently YouTube’s most viewed video of all time. But the most exciting part of the Relentless story lies with the UK underground; from garage, to grime and drill, this is a record label that has consistently supported sub-cultures and black British talent, leaving an indelible mark on the musical mainstream along the way.

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Shabs Jobanputra, managing director and co-founder of Relentless Records, has been there from the very beginning. After fleeing Idi Amin’s terror-stricken Uganda with his family as a young child, Shabs grew up in London before starting his career in music at Outcaste, a label dedicated to promoting British-Asian artists.

“I set up Outcaste to discover and be confident about my British-Asian identity, and Relentless came about from me noticing a gap in the market for British hip hop and R&B vinyl”, he tells NME over a Zoom call.  “Today, it’s become a truly diverse record label. Our recent collaboration on the ‘Baby Shark’ song, for example, shows just how unpredictable our roster is – the journey of discovery is never-ending, so who knows what will come next”.

Back in the ’90s, establishing a name in UK garage ultimately came down to serendipity for Shabs. “We sort of stumbled onto [the genre] which was really growing and resonating in the clubs then. At the time we had our hearts set on signing one particular garage act, but we weren’t successful, and were really upset about it. The next day, though, we got a call about the Artful Dodger track, and the rest is history.

“21 years on and we’re so proud that ‘Re-Rewind’ was our first release. There are songs that sum up scenes, and that track captures a particular cultural movement in British history, when the UK garage underground was really taking over the mainstream. Its sound was so innovative while being distinctly British, and Artful Dodger’s production still stands out today”.

From that lucky tip, Relentless began an illustrious relationship with the UK garage scene.  In 1999, garage’s bubbly amalgamation of jungle rhythm and R&B melodies was the sound of British youth, dominating DJ sets and creating a lucrative clubbing resort in the Cypriot town of Ayia Napa. Back in Battersea, south London, this heyday of MCs, champagne-partying and pirate radio laid the foundation for one of Relentless’ most ground-breaking acts to date: So Solid Crew.

“It all started on the pirate radio station, Supreme FM”, the group’s founding member Megaman explains to NME.  “It was just the three of us doing a show to begin with, but that’s what gave me the motivation to go from vinyl to the clubs, and forge our own lane within UK garage. Sound-wise, we were rooted in the British underground, but I was really looking overseas for inspiration. We wanted to create a movement that equaled [that of] my idols in America – the Def Jam and Aftermath Records of this world”.

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In the space of 24 months, So Solid Crew and its stars Lisa Maffia, Romeo and the now acclaimed Top Boy actor Asher D (aka Ashley Walters), had become household names, putting out instantly catchy dancefloor fillers such as ‘Oh No (Sentimental Things)’ and ‘They Don’t Know’. A pop culture sensation and a first in British music, So Solid melded bass-heavy hip-hop verses about south London estate life into UK garage chart success, flaunting an aspirational lifestyle of Audi TTs and designer outfits whilst proudly repping their ends.

“I remember hearing one of their early tracks, ‘Dilemma’, for the first time”, Shabs recalls, “there was just this incredible in-built confidence and from the moment I met Mega, I knew he was a visionary. I think my background of coming to this country, my schooling in London meant that I understood what they had come from, and where they wanted to go. Making it in music wasn’t just about the money: it was a way to be legitimised and feel like you’ve achieved in society.”

Working with Relentless resulted in a number one single, ’21 seconds’, and a sweep of BRIT and MOBO awards for its accompanying blockbuster video, which now holds cult-classic status. “Shabs and the guys at Relentless always tried to evolve our mindset, and were very supportive of our dreams – they still do that with their artists today, and I salute them for that”, says Mega. “They were the ones who said we had to put a hook on ’21 seconds’, they saw its potential.  When we dropped the video, the label put on a premiere for its release at a major cinema in London. It felt like such a breakthrough when we received a standing ovation at the end”.

So Solid’s visual and sonic aesthetic was a defining moment of the new millennium, but their success was mired by political backlash and a series of high-profile court cases for several crew members. Nevertheless, the south London collective paved new ground for a whole generation of black British artists, and have an enduring legacy that can still be heard in modern-day UK garage tributes such as AJ Tracey’s 2019 mega-hit ‘Ladbroke Grove’.

Relentless Records MD and co-founder Shabs Jobanputra

“We encountered problems back then”, says Mega. “The media only seemed to want to feature the lighter-skinned members of the group, and ’21 seconds’ was divisive in the garage community because it wasn’t a straight-up UK garage record. We were similar to producers like Wookie who were trying to experiment with the sound, but the UK wasn’t really ready to embrace a garage crew that was playing with the 16 lines and storytelling of hip-hop.

“On our second album, we had a different label and that’s when we lost creative control. I had recorded UK garage tracks with Kelis and Beenie Man – collaborations that would have been ground-breaking for British music at the time, but our A&R shut it down”.

When one door closes, another opens, and so the limitations of UK G made way for the beginnings of grime’s grittier, DIY edge in East London. Wiley, the godfather of grime, famously claimed that So Solid Crew’s ‘Oh No (Sentimental Things)’ inspired his original eskibeats production on instrumental tracks like ‘Eskimo’ and ‘Igloo’, which were released on white vinyl in the early 2000s and ushered in the nascent genre’s distinctively icy, distorted sound.

Once again, Relentless played a key role in shaking up the musical zeitgeist during this period, signing the trail-blazing east London collective Roll Deep. “I had previously worked with Wiley on his seminal track ‘Nicole’s Groove’, and Roll Deep were just such an exciting new act”, remembers Shabs. “They were audacious with grime – their 2005 album ‘In At The Deep End’ was a really important, melodic take on the genre”.

“Ms. Dynamite had to work twice as hard as a female MC” – Relentless Records MD and co-founder Shabs Jobanputra

While first-wave grime acts such as Roll Deep bowed to pop convention, Relentless’ signee Lethal Bizzle exuded the raw and explosive 140bpm energy on the genre’s so-called national anthem, ‘Pow’. “The fight to sign [him] was incredible”, recalls Shabs, “you could really feel we were on the cusp of something special; he was trying to do something new, and so were we.”

When ‘Pow’ was released in 2004, the public reaction was extreme, he explains: “I remember getting a letter from the Essex Constabulary saying that the song was banned in clubs across the country because they thought it would incite violence. I just thought that was great – it was a real mark of success if it was generating such an intense energy from young people”.

In the hyper-masculine world of UK rap, Relentless have also made a point over the years of supporting maverick female MCs, such as Ms. Dynamite and Nadia Rose. “They both had that indescribable it-factor”, says Shabs, “Ms. Dynamite definitely had to work twice as hard to get through the barriers as a female MC, and I was delighted that society and culture celebrated her talent, because she’s such a gifted musician”.

Ms Dynamite onstage in 2002. Credit: Getty

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decade later, and Relentless’ early involvement with grime arguably helped the likes of Stormzy and Skepta to take the genre to international, experimental new heights without compromising its original sound. In recent years, the label has also been at the forefront of another game-changing sub-culture: UK drill.  Relentless signed ‘the king of drill’, Headie One, at the start of his career, and the uncompromising brand of rap has since become become a mainstay in UK music, culminating in his recent Number One, global smash debut album ‘Edna’.

In the lead-up to the record’s release, statues of Headie One in prayer popped up around London, symbolising the rapper’s journey from a tough upbringing in Tottenham to mainstream rapper status. It marked a major milestone for the Relentless team, and for black British music.

“I’m so proud of Headie and what he’s achieved”, says Shabs. “Coming from north London’s Broadwater Estate to seeing statues of himself all over the capital for the ‘Edna’ album campaign must have been an extraordinary experience. Headie’s much more than just a drill rapper – he has a real sense of understanding and wit, and an incredible versatility.” How many other MCs, the MD asks, can do a remix like ‘Back to Basics’ featuring Skepta with the alternative electronic musician Floating Points, or collaborate with experimental dance producer Fred again on 2020’s ‘GANG’ mixtape, and then put out caviar rap records with Stormzy or Dave?

Running a revolutionary record label, though, comes with its challenges. This year Relentless’ star signee Headie One served a six-month jail sentence for carrying a knife.  “It’s an all-consuming job, and there have been plenty of sleepless nights”, admits Shabs. “We always look for artists who have something different, but that often comes with a unique and sometimes difficult set of circumstances. With Headie One, for example, we weren’t expecting him to go to prison earlier this year. You never know what’s around the corner, and it can be an intense process”.

New-gen Relentless talent Bad Boy Chiller Crew. Credit: press

Relentless Records are certainly in for a wild ride with the latest addition to their roster, Bad Boy Chiller Crew. The Bradford trio, otherwise known as Clive, Kane and Gareth, have gained a notorious reputation online for their crazy stunts and UK garage-influenced bassline bangers. “We don’t think people have really heard a Northern bassline sound like ours before”, the jokey group told NME over email. “Now that we’re signed to Relentless, we’re aiming for world domination.”

Shabs, meanwhile, is excited about this new chapter in the Relentless Records journey. “They’re unpredictable, yes, but Bad Boy Chiller Crew intrigued me. 21 years down the line and my passion for discovering one-of-a-kind acts like them remains undimmed”.

(Main image of So Solid Crew in 2001 via Getty)

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