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Rudimental, Gorgon City, and the Rise of Black Butter Records
English groups have been storming the American pop charts for more than half a century, and a recent show at Central Park Summerstage offered a chance to catch another a pair of acts in the early stages of that Atlantic crossing.
Gorgon City and Rudimental each battled a light rain to showcase their take on a mash of ‘90s dance sub-genres, including house, garage, and drum and bass. Gorgon City incorporated a version of Drake’s “One Dance” into the set list, subtly reminding listeners of the English dance music sample that bolsters the hit, while Rudimental existed somewhere between knob-twiddlers and boisterous funk ensemble, led by the energetic DJ Locksmith (Leon Rolle).
“Playing in Central Park to a sold out audience was quite a moment for us,” Henry Village told Billboard over Skype this week. Village manages Rudimental, and Black Butter Records, the label he co-founded with Olly Wood and Joe Gossa, released crucial early tracks from that group and Gorgon City. “Two U.K. acts coming over and doing that felt like a good thing.”
Recently Black Butter-affiliated artists have started to enjoy success in the U.S. Last year, Gorgon City reached the top of the Dance Club Songs chart with “Go All Night,” featuring vocals from Jennifer Hudson, and Rudimental climbed to No. 17 on the Pop Songs chart behind “Lay It All On Me,” a single that sported a contribution from Ed Sheeran and strummed holes in the walls between folk and dance music. “Never Forget You,” a collaboration between Black Butter-managed Zara Larsson and MNEK, is currently sitting at No. 13 on the Hot 100.
Though these acts have only appeared on most American listeners’ radar in the last few years, the label’s roots extend back decades: Village remembers meeting Rudimental’s Piers Agget as a teen. “I knew Henry from school days,” Rudimental’s Kesi Dryden explains in a separate conversation at the Manhattan office of Atlantic Records. Dryden and Village took a media studies class together. “We used to sit next each other getting in trouble at the back of the classroom.”
The club bug caught Village early, and he became a promoter, throwing events that he describes as “very varied,” which featured a mixture of garage, jungle, hip-hop, and grime. Back when he was a drum and bass DJ, Gorgon City’s Matt Robson-Scott played at nights thrown by Village. Later Village got an assistant management job working for Adam Tudhope, whose clients included Mumford & Sons and Laura Marling. “I just watched [Tudhope] and found it really fascinating,” Village says.
Soon he ventured into the business himself, and with the late night experience of a promoter, Village was happy to look for clients at all hours. “One year at Glastonbury we met up at Stone Circle,” Robson-Scott recalls. “[It’s] kind of the 6 a.m. place where everyone does crazy shit. [Village] was like, ‘have you ever thought about management?’”
Starting a label represented a logical next step. (Black Butter also maintains management and publishing wings.) “We put the label together, if I’m honest, because we didn’t know the majors,” Village suggests. “We didn’t have any big connections there. We didn’t feel like we could get our artists signed there.” He pooled money with Olly Wood and Joe Gossa to form Black Butter. Another London-based label, XL, served as an early model. Village praises XL for its “way of being able to genre hop [from] Dizzee Rascal to Adele. They manage to do everything and get away it. It’s really classy.”
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Black Butter’s initial attempts to mirror XL’s eclecticism made it difficult to determine the fledgling label’s identity. Village acknowledges that release schedule “came across [as] quite schizophrenic.” But Gorgon City’s Kye Gibbon found the variation invigorating – “it was such an exciting new label that was releasing all kinds of really fresh stuff.”
To build Black Butter’s roster, Village and co. leaned on artists they were close to, including Rudimental. “We always kept him in the loop,” Dryden says. “He was interested in the sound that we had, [which] was quite different from what most of the type of music he was getting sent.” “There was a lot of quite brazen, tough music coming out of London at that time,” Village notes. “[Rudimental’s music] felt really refreshing to the ear – they weren’t afraid to be different, they weren’t coming with the heavy duty dubstep sound, they weren’t coming with anything breakbeat.”
Robson-Scott refers to the crew around Black Butter as “a scene without knowing it was a scene.” “Not a scene with movers and shakers and that shit,” he clarifies. “Everyone was a music producer or a singer. Black Butter didn’t even have to search hard to find someone – they were just standing there.”
Financing proved to be an early obstacle for the label, but outside sources with connections to majors soon came to the rescue. “We developed and acquired interesting backing with people that believed in what we were doing,” Village explains. “Nick Worthington was one of them. He was then working at Warner. Shortly after that, Roger Ames came along. We’re just very lucky.” (Ames, a longtime record executive, now runs Black Butter with Village and Gossa.) The label subsequently formed a relationship with Polydor/Universal, and when that ended, with Sony.
Village is adamant that the label’s experience of international success will not lead to any change in the principles that first allowed an upstart to gain the notice of the majors. “Our head of A&R comes from a very indie background,” he says. “Most of our marketing people come from indie labels. I’ve tried to keep the ethos of the label to what it used to be. I’m not afraid to sign an artist who’s gonna break on album two, album three. We don’t compromise just to meet the year-end.”
According to Village, his major label partners are aligned with him on this. “We’ve got people like Jason Iley, who’s the president of Sony here in the U.K.,” he says. “[He] champions what we do. He understands that we’re better off when we’ve got space and the time.”
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That time allowed Black Butter acts to gradually build enough momentum to cross the Atlantic and establish a foothold in the U.S. They’re well-positioned for the move: the backlash in America to the popularity of dance music’s beefier, more abrasive wing has led to a search for less vigorous sounds that can still encourage movement. With a loose link to ‘90s R&B and a nostalgic attachment to the glory days of vocal house, Black Butter affiliates offer an easy alternative to the more punishing, high-octane tracks that you find at a festival like EDC.
And American listeners routinely look overseas for a soft musical touch. In addition to the Black Butter roster, England has furnished Disclosure – whose crossover success pre-dated that of Gorgon City and Rudimental – and AlunaGeorge, while German DJs pump gentle remixes onto the upper reaches of the pop charts and Kygo attracts millions of streamers.
Still, Rudimental remains significantly bigger in the U.K., where it has multiple top 15 singles on the mainstream charts. The same is true of Gorgon City. And one success does not guarantee another – Disclosure’s “Latch” climbed inside the top ten hit on the Hot 100 in 2014, but the group’s last album did not spawn a hit single in America.
Village concedes this reality, asserting “we’ve got a lot of work to do.” Reflecting on the popularity of “Lay It All On Me,” Rudimental’s DJ Locksmith echoes his manager’s language. “They know the name Rudimental now,” he says, referring to the American audience. “That literally opened up the door massively for us. But we still need to smash it through.”