Cover Story: Bradley Zero’s “No Limits” Ethos
Has Carried Him to the Top
Cover Story: Bradley Zero’s “No Limits” Ethos
October 18, 2021
Has Carried Him to the Top
It’s just after midnight on a Friday in Corsica Studios and heat is emanating from the assembled dancers. Bathed in the crimson-purple glow of the club lights, a stuffed dance floor sways and grooves. Smiles light up the faces of a young crowd, as K-Lone plays everything from abstract, bass-heavy beats to dancehall and trap. After a blistering jungle track drops to cheers of approval, K-Lone rewinds it back. And standing on the club’s small stage, Bradley Zero leans over the house mic.
“That doesn’t happen very often at Rhythm Section,” he smiles. “Only when it’s absolutely called for!”
Taking to the decks afterwards, playing a back-to-back set with Manchester’s crate-digging Ruf Dug, Bradley Zero leads the dancers on an odyssey that encapsulates so much of his eclectic musical taste. Twisted, chugging acid melts into metallic New Beat; disco meets Roy Ayers-infused piano house. There’s even an appearance from the Happy Mondays, in the form of a stripped-down version of “Step On” — and the crowd is 100% here for it.
Rhythm Section is Bradley Zero’s club night, but it feels like more than that. When he talks to the crowd, announces the next DJ or thanks the previous one, there’s no artificial barriers up. We’re all along for the same ride: part of an extended musical family.
This family ethos applies to Bradley Zero’s Rhythm Section International label too. Born in Peckham in 2014 as an expansion of the events he ran at Rye Lane’s Canavan’s Pool Club, what started as a small localised imprint dedicated to showcasing the area’s creative talent has blossomed into one of the UK’s finest labels — a worldwide enterprise with releases from artists in Australia, America, Ecuador and Poland. Musically varied, encompassing everything from the left-field house of classics by Chaos In The CBD to the synth-driven indie rock of Retiree and the electronic jazz-funk of The Colours That Rise, there’s a through-line in the warmth, invention and emotion of the releases, and the way that each artist is nurtured as a part of the larger Rhythm Section collective. The eclecticism of Bradley Zero’s own sets — which he plays all around the world and on NTS Radio — and who he books for the parties, is reflected in the label’s wide-ranging, but always on-point sound.
The following Monday, I met Bradley at the Rhythm Section headquarters. The office has recently moved to a new location above a pub in Camberwell, and he greets us outside with a smile before a whistle-stop tour. There’s a breakout meeting area arrayed with freshly delivered boxes of vinyl, a sofa, a table, and chairs. A store room is stacked with records, and next door, a large space with a shiny wooden console accommodates record decks and CDJs. Behind are the beginnings of a small production suite, which will house modular synth gear in the near future. On the top floor, the main office space is flooded with light from the windows, with colourful art prints that look down from the walls onto the desks.
We take a seat in the meeting room, and Bradley treats us to lunch — sandwiches from the pub that he insists are the best in London (they’re pretty damn good). Sitting across from us dressed casually in a T-shirt with his long dreadlocks tied back, he’s a warm interviewee who answers our questions with consideration, occasional humorous asides, and at length, with an admission that he’s “a rambler!” He chats to the rest of the Rhythm Section team as they wander in and out, introducing us, and that sense of it being a family affair is again emphasised.
“Communication is a really key aspect,” Bradley says, as we ask about the convivial atmosphere at the Rhythm Section event. “It makes you feel at home — someone having a relaxed demeanour, introducing themselves and saying hello, having a little natter about whatever. It’s one of these… not a routine, but a ritual. I feel when I’ve broken down that barrier and removed that invisible line between me and the audience, things start to ease into more of a welcome place where you feel part of something, rather than just observing it.”
Rhythm Section has become a vital part of the UK clubbing landscape, and one much-missed during the pandemic. Since venues reopened after the Covid imposed lockdowns, Bradley has hosted six events, some of them on a large scale. On 25th July, he brought a huge lineup to London’s E1 club, with everyone from Tash LC to Adam Pits throwing down on a weighty sound system, just as government restrictions were lifted. After 18 months of closed clubs, it was an overwhelming experience for Bradley.
“That first gig back was pure joy,” he says. “It’s hard to describe it, because it’s not something everyone gets to do. What I realised having not performed for so long, is just what a privilege it is to have this sense of controlling hundreds, or thousands of people’s emotions. It’s such a buzz. Having that connection in a room… it’s like having people in the palm of your hand, but in a positive way. In order to elevate their mood, their consciousness, press their buttons — to make people feel joy. The feeling that gives you back is, not to sound cheesy, but it’s a drug. It’s incredible. You can take that for granted a bit when you’re doing that every week. But having that massive amount of time off, to get back in that room and feel the elation, that topped me up for weeks.”
Since his Rhythm Section events started in earnest in 2011, Bradley Zero has become much in-demand as a DJ across the world, famed for his rapport with crowds, encyclopaedic music knowledge, and skill at knitting together disparate styles from across the entire dance music spectrum (and beyond). Appearances on Boiler Room and a residency on Radio 1 have further broadened his appeal.
A sense of connection and positive feedback have always driven Bradley’s love of DJing, but he admits that the early events post-lockdown came with a sense of nervousness about what would happen with Covid transmissions. With the world of dance music split in its perspective towards the club closures, he didn’t want to appear partisan.
“People were scared. You could feel that,” he says. “The whole thing around vaccine passports, having to show proof of a test, it became quite political. It was stressing me out a bit, because it felt like you had to choose a side. Whichever side you chose, you were going to upset someone. You were either a puppet of the government, or you were a reckless capitalist endangering people’s lives for money. You try to find this balance, you want to do events, you want to restart the company, make up for lost time — but can you imagine knowing that you did an event that someone got ill from, and then went home to their granny and they died? That’s quite a heavy weight to think about, to bring people together.”
Though E1 didn’t mandate clubbers to show proof of vaccination or a negative test, Rhythm Section requested this from attendees, in an effort to protect clubbers and give them a feeling of safety in the venue (as they also did at Corsica Studios). Without putting blame on either side of the argument, Bradley feels that clubbers feet more confident in going out post-lockdown if there was more unity in the approach to rules.
“It’s very complicated, because you’ve got two or three conflicting viewpoints,” he says. “You have the nighttime industry, which is pushing for no clubbing passports, no checks, and no tests in order to prop up the night time economy — not to have draconian measures in place where other things don’t have to have it. Then you have another side of clubbing, which I guess is the corner of the industry we sit in, slightly left-of-centre, under the mainstream radar. There’s not a single voice. What would have been most effective is if there was a single voice that everyone aligned and agreed with, implemented that and fought for it, but it’s very fragmented.”
During those uncertain 18 months when everything was turned upside down, Bradley and the Rhythm Section International crew worried about the prospects of the label. But any concerns they had during the restrictions were unfounded, with sales tripling and fans signing up to the label’s Patreon, investing in the future of something they felt connected to and a part of. The label also ramped up its output in 2020, releasing new albums from The Colours That Rise, Dan Kye and Vels Trio, an EP from Hiatt Db, and two volumes of its new series of SHOUTS compilations.
“That was an unexpected consequence, because I was planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” Bradley says. “For the record label, it ended up being a really fruitful period, where not only did we get loads of music out, but made plans for the next couple of years, and found lots of new fans.”
Meanwhile, Bradley also busied himself with other things, like studying for an MBA. “As the label grows and as I have a bigger role in curating things, I’m getting involved in different aspects of the music industry — from an advisory perspective, sitting on boards, having an input into what goes on behind the scenes,” he says. “At the beginning of Rhythm Section, I started out doing my own thing with a bunch of friends in a very diverse environment, which was exciting, and I felt very much at home. But as you climb up the ladder, all that diversity disappears, and you’re very quickly the only Black person in the room. To be able to enter those rooms and not only hold my own but to open the doors as well, in the future, is something I thought would be of use to arm myself with during the downtime.”
Rhythm Section International’s latest release is SHOUTS 2021, a sprawling compilation that broadens the scope of the label’s already eclectic vision. The 20 tracks touch on everything from Liluzu’s downtempo acid and Sami‘s analogue house to Soso Tharpa’s metallic broken beat and Adam Pits’ techy UK garage, with an emphasis on mostly new artists from around the world, and plenty of surprises along the way.
“Being able to work on a compilation meant we could engage with a lot of these artists we wanted to work with in a much more immediate way,” Bradley says. “That’s why we called it SHOUTS. It was kind of a nod to the pirate and internet radio culture, giving out shouts, but also a platform to shout about what we’re excited about. Proclaiming it — that was the remit, really. We wanted to work with some relatively new artists, people who are bubbling up. There’s a couple of older names in there that we’ve known for longer, but haven’t had a chance to do something with. Me and Emily Hill, label manager, made a big list of people we’ve been playing on the radio, people who’ve been sending us promos that we really liked but couldn’t sign off and put out.”
In addition to the dance tracks, like the spacey electro of Guava & Breaka’s “Hand It Over” and the lush Detroit techno synths of Kareem Ali’s “Black Futures”, there are slower tunes more in line with the downtempo sounds Bradley sometimes plays on his NTS show, and even some completely new directions for the label. In particular, Pookie’s “Beast Mode” is startling: a slamming trap track with distorted raps, elephantine bass warps and Auto-Tune interludes.
“Pookie sent us two tracks, and the other one was a lot more upbeat, house vibes, with a Pinty, Channel Tres kind of feel,” Bradley says. “But then she sent us ‘Beast Mode’ and we were blown away by it.”
Similarly refreshing is James Massiah’s “2010 Again”, a poignant spoken word piece from the Joy O collaborator and grime-inspired poet, and the compilation’s opening track.
“James Massiah is an old friend, and he’s someone who used to come down to the party in the early days,” he adds. “I’d heard in his poetry allusions and references to Rhythm Section in the past. We hit him up for a tune, but he was working on a few projects, and didn’t have anything going. He said, ‘But I can record a poem for you’. He came and recorded it in the Rhythm Section studio, and it felt like a really nice way to introduce it. Much in the same way I discussed breaking that barrier and having a sense of introducing familiarity by saying hello on the mic, it’s having a spoken word piece to introduce the music. That’s why I put it on as the first track.”
The broad remit of SHOUTS 2021 reflects the expansive nature of Rhythm Section International. Like Bradley’s DJ sets, the label can go in any direction. And though it may have been pigeonholed as a deep house label early on, it’s actually been musically diverse from the very beginning, releasing everything from the space-age soul of Neue Grafik & Wayne Snow’s “Inner Vision” to the spiky 303 electro of London Modular Alliance’s “Acid Lab” on sub-label International Black.
“The first record on Rhythm Section literally had everything,” Bradley recalls. “Al Dobson Jr’s Rye Lane Volume One has peak-time cuts that you can drop at 130 BPM, it has a kind of electronic sample-based lullaby that is something you could fall asleep to, it has global rhythmical sounds and patterns, it has drum machines, guitars, voices. To me, it’s a work of art, and Al Dobson Jr is the J Dilla of London. It has all the elements that we then went on to explore. It was a great record to start with, in the sense that it set the scene for eclecticism with some kind of thread holding it all together.”
Whether he’s DJing or selecting music for the label, Bradley doesn’t want to stick to one thing. When you see Rhythm Section’s unmistakable logo, at the party or on a record sleeve, it’s a stamp of quality rather than being associated with a particular genre.
“As a DJ, sometimes I’d just love to have a sound that I can hone in on, and just nail every time,” he says. “But then I think that’s actually boring, and that would be so limiting in terms of how your taste really evolves and how you feel on a particular day. With the label, it exists as a mark of quality rather than a label that pigeonholes something.”
Bradley Phillip (Zero is his middle name) grew up just outside of Leeds. His mum worked for First Direct bank and his dad was a DJ, playing corporate gigs and functions, and he would sometimes bring Bradley along. Getting on the mic at parties, Bradley reckons, actually came from hearing his dad do it. When he was 12, he found his dad’s copy of The Prodigy’s first album, Experience, and listened to it obsessively with friends. “I knew every single break, every single sample, every single word. That was the mind-blowing, ‘what-the-hell-is-this’ moment.”
As he got a bit older, he’d go to Crash Records in Leeds, where Darius Syrossian would serve him up recommendations in the basement. Tunes on 20/20 Vision, Minus and the “minimal/electro-house sound that was dominant at that time” were his soundtrack for a while. Buying records, and playing them, became another obsession.
“Throughout my life, I’ve always been involved in these hobbies where you’re collecting things and building up,” he says. “Whether it’s building an army in Warhammer or putting stickers in a Premier League book when I was even younger, or I used to ride BMX, and you’re putting together your tricks and different runs. Records were another hobby. It’s like Pokemon cards. Gotta catch ’em all! It’s this never-ending game which is, at times, as infuriating as it is pleasurable.”
At the time, Bradley was also in love with reggae and dub, and at a certain point, had to choose his path as a DJ, finally making a decision to stick with uptempo sounds. Moving to London to study Fine Art at the Slade, he began to play at various house parties. When he got a job working at Bar Story in Peckham Rye, his life was changed forever.
“Peckham back then was very different to what it is now,” he recalls. “If you weren’t there, it’s hard to explain how it’s grown. There was nothing to do, it wasn’t a destination. Now, in terms of nightlife, it’s a rival to Shoreditch or Dalston or Hackney Wick. Back then, there was one bar that closed at 11 pm. This is before the Bussey Building, before Peckham Audio, before Canavans. You had a lot of creative people living in an area with pretty cheap rent, bad transport connections, there was no Overground. It was a bit of a pressure cooker, because people didn’t really leave, and people didn’t really come in very much from outside. It was a petri dish of creative talent. So many things were ready to happen on so many different scales.”
Moving there in 2008, he began to DJ more regularly, in the bar and at local shindigs, hugely inspired by the art, music and culture in the area.
“When I moved to Peckham, I felt what it was like to have a local community for the first time. It was great. That’s why this area is at the core; almost the tagline of what we do.”
Rhythm Section was the name of his first radio show alongside Rose Dagul, which broadcast for only two episodes on South City Radio in 2009, before the station shut down. But Bradley was undeterred, and began throwing his own parties before starting a regular event series at Canavan’s Pool Club in 2011. The party quickly became one of London’s hottest tickets. With Bradley at the helm, Rhythm Section booked a mixture of local DJs and likeminded artists, helping to put Peckham on the map. The district is so central to the label’s identity that Rhythm Section International has ‘Peckham Strong’ embedded in its artwork.
“When we put on the first party, it was just friends and family playing,” Bradley says. “But it was primed and ready to go. People were waiting for it. There was nothing regular at that point. I never made it about big headliners, or about stacked lineups, it was just stripped-back, one or maybe two guests, no frills, just focusing on the music. All the hard work had been put in by just being present in that space, and it was off to a running start.”
Since then, Rhythm Section has expanded exponentially. What was once hyper localised has become an international operation, and the party is a moveable feast, popping up in multiple locations. In that time, Bradley believes, Peckham has changed immeasurably, and its vibrant and creative scene is becoming stifled by ongoing gentrification.
“It’s sad that in London, an area can almost become a victim of its own success,” he says. “There’s just no safeguards in place for an area to maintain its soul, to maintain its original inhabitants, to an extent. There’s no rent control, and as soon as an area becomes popular because of its successes or movements that come out of the locale’s creativity, it gets commercialised, jumped on by estate agents, and becomes expensive. What that means is, the creative people who made that area interesting in the first place get forced out, and the area slowly becomes homogenous. And the people who were there before the creatives moved in are kind of left to struggle with not only increasing costs of accommodation, but a disappearing infrastructure, in terms of shops catering for immigrant communities and lower income families. They’re disappearing and being replaced by bougie organic stores and overpriced cafes. It’s sad to see this happen again and again, but it’s not the first time in London and it definitely won’t be the last time.”
While that shift is evidently a negative one, Bradley is trying to enact positive change. He says that recently he’s endeavoured to make the label artists and event bookings more diverse. While both have been ethnically diverse from the start, he wants to bring more women to the forefront.
“Really, you do need to look outside of your immediate circle, and start to think a bit more about inclusivity and visibility, and what that means. Inclusivity to me was being able to surround myself with creative Black people, or mixed race people, who I didn’t have around me growing up,” he says. “What visibility means to me is different to what it means to someone else, and that’s something that changed when we started working with [graphic designer/DJ] Anu and when [label manager/DJ] Emily came onboard. I was almost blinded to the gender disparity before, and that’s something that we have remedied in terms of the events, and it’s a longer form thing with the label.”
Balearic house from Paula Tape, electronic R&B from MMYYKK, lush jazz from Vels Trio and Jerome Thomas’s neo soul are all soon to come on Rhythm Section International, as Bradley continues to broaden notions of what the label can sound like. When we suggest that Rhythm Section could be another XL or Rough Trade, a name synonymous with excellence rather than any one style, he’s pleased by the comparison.
“XL and Young Records are labels that I hugely admire,” he says. “I recently read [XL founder] Richard Russell’s book Liberation Through Hearing, and I found it super inspiring, how they started out of the hardcore rave scene and ended up releasing the biggest-selling vocalist of all time. There are artists we’re working with now that I believe can appeal to a really large audience. I don’t mean it’s dumbed down or commercialised, it’s just incredible, relatable, and music that people will be able to connect with. There’s really no limits to it. I want to really push and promote the music we believe in as far and as wide as possible.”
As for his own creative drive, Bradley Zero has no desire to start making music just for the sake of it — “I’m not about to release some mediocre house music any time soon,” he grins.
Instead, he’s still electrified by DJing, still in pursuit of the best records, still trying to catch ’em all. “The thing is with music, you’ll never catch them all, and that’s why it’s an enduring chase,” he says. “You’re always searching for that perfect beat, the thing that no one else has that maybe you can introduce to people or have as this secret weapon. You’ll never get there, you’ll never know everything, but there’s something about building this repertoire, the community that comes along with it, that’s really exciting.”