Label of the Month: Born On Road
Label of the Month: Born On RoadFebruary 5, 2024
The start of a new year is a time for music labels to plan ahead, devising strategies to make their output stand out in a noisy world. Especially as an independent dance label vying for space in a corner of the industry that continues to grow larger with the interest of majors, this time of year is crucial for getting ahead. Drum & bass imprint Born On Road know this well, and that’s exactly why label heads Aries and Kelvin 373 have barely taken their foot off the accelerator since 2023. “We had a little time off over Christmas, but we ramped it up at the end of last year,” Aries says with a shrewd grin. “We did a flash day here at the office where we got everyone in and started setting things up for this year.”
The three of us are sat in the Born On Road office in the heart of Bristol – a city the label is synonymous with through its events, artists and releases. As a D&B imprint that prides itself on always being on road, it comes as little surprise to hear Aries and Kelvin used the winter break as an opportunity to get the label motoring ahead of 2024. We’re talking about the same label that had their busiest year yet in 2023 – playing over 100 events while putting out their most ambitious release schedule to date. While you’d think any growing indie label would love to reflect on such a feat, Aries and Kelvin have spent little time dwelling on milestones. “We did more releases and events than ever last year, but it’s hard to focus on that when you’re working away,” Kelvin admits.
But they should reflect on it. 2023 was a huge year for the label’s growth, in amongst a seminal year for D&B exposure globally. From touring New Zealand and Australia to a huge UK tour hitting eight cities before finally culminating this March with a finale at London’s Drumsheds. It all comes as part of Born On Road’s ten-year-anniversary celebrations, where the label has been toasting a decade of longevity. Despite the milestone, Aries is quick to highlight Born On Road’s focus on pushing the label further. “We’ve always been about progressing forwards, that’s the way we work” he says. “If we’d stayed in the same place with what we’re doing, or our sound, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
It’s a statement that rings true when scanning over the label’s ever-growing roster and discography. From championing artists including GRAY, A Little Sound, Crossy, Napes, Euphonique, Mandidextrous, Bish, and Selecta J-Man, to putting out releases as gully in the dance as Disrupta’s “The Night,” as delicate as the liquid of 4K’s “Peace Of Mind”, and as out there as Mandidextrous’s speed bass creation “Every Night,” variety is the spice of life for the label’s output. While some may see this as a sense of uncertainty towards what sticks in a constantly changing world, Aries recognises their aim is not to release music with the intention of seeking a hit, but to instead release music they connect with. “It’s not always about the bang for the buck. It’s about having a great piece of music we love,” he says honestly. “We look for music with a bit of spice. It doesn’t matter if it’s a completely different style. Our latest release from Refracta has a half tempo track, ‘You Make Me Feel Alive’, which is amazing.”
It’s an A&R direction that can be traced back to the pair’s upbringings cutting their teeth in the free party, traveller movement where barriers and genres were replaced by a free-spirited outlook to life – a foundation the label proudly sits upon today. But despite coming from similar outlooks, the pair bring different music influences to the label, from jungle to rave. “We both have different roots, but we’re still connected,” Kelvin says. “Free party culture and sound system culture run deep in our veins. That’s our identity. While we explore other corners of the scene, we make sure to retain those values.” By drawing inspiration from different points in time, it gives the label “a sound” Aries believes. But it’s not necessarily a sound you can easily define. It’s more of an energy to the music that can be linked back to the pair’s love for dubplate culture – a key ingredient in the label’s recipe for success, lovingly cultivated from years spent on the free party circuit. Whether it’s dubs of unreleased productions or dubs of released tracks with a twist, Born On Road have built a reputation as purveyors of dubplate culture.
Their sound clash appearance at the Clash In The Capital, Printworks in 2019 was testament to this vision, and the moment Born On Road began turning heads. As a relatively unknown entity at the time teaming up with Serial Killaz, the label went up against historic outfits, including Jungle Warriors with Kenny Ken, Remarc, Potential Badboy and the Ragga Twins, and Shadow Demon Coalition featuring Voltage, MC Bassman and Trigga. With Fabio & Grooverider orchestrating the proceedings, it was the biggest platform Born On Road had been on yet – and one the label rose to with a year of planning brought to life by the label gang of Aries, Kelvin, GOLD Dubs, Stivs, Gardna, Carasel and JMan.
“It was an important part of our journey, and a key moment for the whole gang,” Aries says before taking a moment to remember the occasion. “It involved going to London for the first time as a label and being surrounded by artists we had respected for years. Guys like Shy FX. We gained a lot of respect that night. It made the scene look at what we do and take it seriously.” The label’s passion for dubplate culture was clear to see at the show (their sound clash spin on Wilkinson and Becky Hill’s “Afterglow” being a standout moment). That was just a teaser of what they could do. It symbolised a deeper mantra the label has always stayed true to – “testing tracks out early in the rave – seeing how they translate before deciding to release them,” Aries says. It’s a laissez-fair approach to releasing music that not all independent labels are able to implement, but for Born On Road – a label driven by dubplate culture – it’s the perfect strategy.
It’s arguably the reason why their discography is littered with hits. From Selecta J-Man and Suku’s “Couple Guinness” to DJ Gaw and A Little Sound’s “Rum & Lime” to GRAY’s “Rubbadub,” some of D&B’s most hammered underground anthems originate from this Bristol hub. It’s the latter of those releases Kelvin identifies as a defining occasion for the label, with GRAY’s Rubbadub EP representing “one of our biggest releases that opened our eyes to the potential of what music could do.” It’s a trail of thought prompting Kelvin to pause before recognising the label’s successes, which have only been possible due to the artists’ work ethic. “If you’ve got an artist who is proactive on their socials, is producing great music, and is actively promoting themselves at events, then there’s already a sense of excitement around them. This makes it much easier for us to assist their journey.”
Building a strong ethos geared towards the artists has been crucial to Born On Road’s rise. It’s the reason why the label and its artists have blossomed at the same time. Artists working together towards a shared vision for D&B. Maybe it’s the Bristol connection that bonds the roster, or maybe it’s the fact Aries and Kelvin are selective with the artists they take on – treating it like building a “football team” of players filling the “right positions,” as Kelvin describes. “When deciding if to work with an artist, the first thing we look at is how they fit in with the gang,” he says. “The music comes second. They could have the best music in the world, but if they’ve got the wrong attitude or energy, then It’s not for us.”
While some people could view this as a ‘clicky’ approach to building a roster, it’s enabled Born On Road to form a deeply connected music family where all artists “support the others around them, not just musically,” Aries says. Looking around the office where we’re sat, this sentiment is clear as day. Whether it’s pictures of the label family at socials or event outings such as their seminal Origin stage takeover at Boomtown in 2022, or the decks that hosted the Boxing Day Blend Off over Christmas where members of the roster went head to head in the mix while wearing boxing gloves, there’s a strong sense of comradery at the core of the imprint. It’s the reason why artists like GRAY and A Little Sound return to the label even after their successes releasing music with majors.
This sense of loyalty between the label and its artists, combined with a yearly touring schedule filled with takeovers at events including Glastonbury, Boomtown and Hospitality On The Beach, has helped cement Born On Road’s name as a key label in the current trajectory of D&B. It’s part of the reason why the imprint took home Best Label in the DrumandBassArena Awards in 2022 – the first label to do so in years outside of Hospital and RAM Records. It was an achievement Kelvin considered “a massive win for the underground, and a turning point for the scene.”
With these accolades behind them, it’s hard to believe Aries and Kelvin have only had an official office for the last year. For the most part, Born On Road has quite literally operated on the road, as Kelvin explains. “The majority of the label’s years have been run out of Aries’s bedroom,” he says before Aries continues. “It was meant to just be my studio, but Kelvin ended up getting keys, setting up a desk, and treating it as the Born On Road office,” he says with a chuckle.
The pair were winging it in the early days, “testing things out blindly” as Aries describes. But now, the label now has an official base, a studio for its artists to work, a flowing release schedule, and consistent event bookings. Surely they’re not winging it anymore? Kelvin disagrees. “We’re still winging it in a way man,” he says with a grin. “There will always be an element of that because there isn’t a rulebook to follow. The difference now is we operate more efficiently by planning ahead and keeping the quality levels consistent.”
Rolling into 2024, Born On Road have no intention to slow down their underground machine. If anything, they’re ready to take the label up another gear with major plans for the year leading towards the release of a 10 Years On Road album rounding off their anniversary celebrations with 10 tracks. But that’s only part of the excitement on the release front. “We’ve taken on a new wave of artists including Oko, Donae’O, Brodie, Scuffed, Jenks, 4K and Diagnostix,” Kelvin reveals. “We’ve also signed Mandidextrous to the label, so we’re trying to broaden the music we release.” While Born On Road may be injecting new blood into its offering to help secure the label’s future, continuing to support its existing group of artists who’ve been around since the early days is vital. Family values are woven deep into the fabric of the label, something Kelvin is keen to reinforce.
“We want to grow Born on Road as big as it can be while still having a family vibe where we can be on the end of the phone to the artists, giving them the support they need. It comes back to the ethos of the label. It’s not about the music being made, it’s about pushing our friends to be the best versions of themselves possible. I don’t see us as the reason the artists do well, they’re the reason we do well. We want all of the artists to win. If one person wins then we all win. It goes further than that though. If anyone in the scene wins, then we all win.”
Jake Hirst is a freelance writer living in Bristol, UK, who has previously been published in UKF, DJ Mag, Data Transmission and Ticket Arena. A certified drum & bass head, you can keep up to date with his writing on Instagram.