Label of the Month: Classic Music Company
Label of the Month: Classic Music CompanyMarch 3, 2020
“When we came up with the idea of starting a record label, we didn’t have any music lined up for it, only a few schemes,” Luke Solomon explains from a noisy room in London. “We were trying to think of a name, and ‘Classic’ was something that we came up with while driving from a gig somewhere. That turned quite a few heads of the people we know well. They were just like, ‘You can’t call your record label that!’ They thought it was very ego driven. But we were young kids without a care in the world, and we figured we could rule the world, so we were just like, ‘Whatever, we’re not listening, this is what we’re going to call the label’.” Attempting to find some quiet, Solomon retreats to a stairwell, and we delve into the history of the label he founded in 1995 with Chicago luminary Derrick Carter.
When it first emerged, Classic Music Company became a focal point in the essential trans-Atlantic exchange of dance music between the two cities. Between Carter and Solomon’s friendship and musical tastes, Classic would become one of the world’s most admired house music imprints. From its meteoric rise in the ‘90s to its tumultuous backslide in the mid-2000s with the rise of digital and its subsequent revitalisation with Defected Records, Classic’s 25-year history is a clubland tale of dancefloor stardom, economic turmoil and musical perseverance.
After attending illegal raves in the UK countryside in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Solomon began DJing at the age of 21 while at University in London. He started working at a record store named Stop On By, where he first met DJ Ty Holden, who began handing him off-kilter cassettes and rare, DIY cuts of “less obvious” dance music. “That’s the point when I immediately started to find my sound and understand where my preferences lay,” Solomon says.
Soon after he started working for Freetown Inc, an essential UK label that was an early home to house music giants like Roy Davis Jr, Felix Da Housecat, Robert Owens, Louie Vega, and more. Working promotion while stuffing records into envelopes all day, Solomon was learning how the business side of dance music operated. “It was around this time that I began to meet more people in the industry and make more friends,” Solomon explains.
Befriending people like Ron Trent after he was signed to Freetown’s sister label, Subwoofer, and linking up with Rob Mello at Zoom Records, who began teaching Solomon the ins and outs of production, Luke was quickly bolstering his network. As his DJ ambitions grew, Freetown boss and friend, the late Sangki Yeo, decided to let Solomon go from his job with the label — parting with the encouraging words, “you need to go be a DJ now.”
Even as Solomon’s status as a DJ continually grew, he still needed extra income. He was playing regular shows on pirate radio station Girls FM, when fellow DJ and friend Heidi Lawden got him an internship working promotion for Roger Sanchez and Marts Andrups’ label, Narcotic Records. There he met Trevor Jackson, Kenny Dope, and a slew of other creatives who would go on to become mammoths in the world of dance music. In 1995, tragedy struck when Narcotic’s label manager Marts Andrups died from a cerebral illness, and shortly after that, his other label mentor, Sangki Yeo, was tragically killed in a car crash.
Check out Classic Music Company’s latest Beatport chart.
“There was this tragedy that followed along the lines of my initial journey,” Solomon says. “But all the while, I just watched how labels were run and took it all in, but with no master plan in mind. I just soaked it up, and all these things were catalysts that led to my initial trips to Chicago and building long lasting friendships with Derrick Carter and Chez Damier. And that’s where the next chapter of the story begins.”
During his time at Freetown Inc, Solomon received an early record of Derrick Carter’s with a phone number scribbled on the back of the sleeve. A cold call from one house music specialist to another would soon blossom into a long lasting friendship. But first, Solomon would make his way to Chicago to check out the scene for himself. “I went out there flying the flag of Freetown in ’93 or ’94, and that was the first time I met Chez Damier,” Solomon says. “I released a record with Rob Mello on his and Ron Trent’s Prescription imprint, and it was there in Chicago that I first met Derrick Carter in person. He and Chez were very close friends.”
As the UK’s appetite for Chicago house grew, Solomon started inviting Chez, Derrick, and Ron to London to play his and Kenny Hawkes‘ new weekly Wednesday party series, Space, at Bar Rumba. The mid-week club night would go down in dance music history as one of the longest-running and most fondly remembered underground events in the UK capital. Running from 1995 to 2002, Space brought US artists like Jeff Mills, Theo Parrish, Mark Farina, and Carl Craig, as well as UK staples like Andrew Weatherall, Carl Cox, and DJ Harvey. “It was a Wednesday night, and everyone would go out,” Solomon says. “There was nothing like it, and there was nowhere else you could hear music like that. It was pretty incredible how it just became the place to be.”
As Derrick Carter found himself embedded in the English capital’s bustling music scene more often, he packed a bag, took a leap of faith, and moved to London. He shacked up with Solomon, renting a room in the flat where he was living with his future wife. “That was where a lot of these ideas for Classic were born,” Solomon explains. “Classic Music Company’s conception was dreamed up between Derrick, Chez, and me. That was in ’94.”
Applying the promotional experience he learned at Freetown and Narcotic, Solomon and Carter excelled at creating excitement around the label — even before its first release. “We created a lot of hype,” Solomon says. “Chez, being the underground legend that he is, never really liked the limelight and wanted to operate in the shadows. So he stepped away and left us to it. Derrick and I had higher aspirations for the label. We actually started touring the imprint’s name before we put any records out. We did it all back to front, including the numbers on the releases, which counted backward from 100 to zero.”
Classic Music Company’s first record, a VA compilation titled Seasons, was pressed in 1995 — sporting the catalog number CMC100. Over the next ten years, Solomon and Carter would work their way down to zero by gifting the world some of the most prominent house productions of its time. With early works from Carter and Solomon, as well as acts like DJ Sneak, Nail, Iz & Diz, Freeform Five, Isolée, Matthew Herbert, and Tiefschwarz, Classic Music Company’s momentum and credibility skyrocketed.
When it came time to expand the label’s operation, Solomon recruited the help of his old friend and schoolmate Leon Oakey. An essential addition to the team, Leon proved an invaluable asset who would later go on to manage labels such as Crosstown Rebels, Hottrax, Hot Creations, Fuse London, Phantasy Sound, Repopulate Mars, and more. Soon after, Ian Clifford went into business with Solomon and Carter and helped Classic Music Company “take things up a notch.”
“We set up offices in West London. That’s where we kind of became a bit more grown-up and started to run a bigger operation,” Solomon explains. “When the output increased, it really began to turn into something more than just a hobby, which was what the label always was up until that point.”
All the while, Carter and Solomon were hitting dancefloors over the head with ambitious artistic ventures of their own, with Carter dropping iconic records like his Where You At single and Squaredancing In A Roundhouse LP while Solomon joined forces with Justin Harris to form the instrumental dance music duo, Freaks. This lasting musical partnership resulted in a second label, MFF (Music For Freaks) — an imprint that Luke Solomon ran in tandem with Classic Music Company. “Music For Freaks was like the quirky little brother or sister that kind of ran parallel to Classic,” Solomon says. “It was a little more leftfield and had a life of its own, so there was never any interference.”
By 2005, the label’s catalog numbers were fast approaching zero, a move that was meant to act as a fixed expiration date for Classic Music Company. By then, the imprint had a surplus of championed records under its belt, including: DJ Sneak’s You Can’t Hide From Your Bud, Iz & Diz’s Mouth, Chicago Dancefloor Voodoo’s You Ain’t Dancin, Freeform Five’s Break Me, Isolée’s Brazil.com, Brett Johnson’s Bounce!, Nail’s A Kitten, and many more. CMC000, the intended conclusion of the imprint, was a 12-inch by Solomon’s production mentor Rob Mello, titled Critical.
Despite reaching the benchmark of its intended termination, Classic Music Company had grown well beyond anything Carter and Solomon could have first imagined. With numerous jobs on the line and significant capital at stake, Classic pushed forward and began working its way back up from zero. However, the dawn of the digital age brought its own trouble, and the future of Classic Music Company suddenly found itself in dire straits.
“We felt that wrapping things up with 100 releases would be an excellent way for the label to reach a natural conclusion,” Solomon explains. “And actually, it kind of did, inadvertently. When we got to zero, we were in the throes of company liquidation, losing our distributor, and trends in music had started to move on. We had to tend to several situations that were out of our control, and I think the fact that we hit zero at the time we did had a sort of synergy to it that felt like a natural conclusion. Regardless, we felt we had an obligation to do what we could to save our brand. It was quite a traumatic time.”
The label was haemorrhaging money, and Solomon had to break the news to the labels’s artists, most of whom were his close and trusted friends. Although he continued releasing music on Classic to try and pay the label’s debts, Solomon shouldered the brunt of the burden, selling his home around the time of his first son’s birth.
“There were all these different things that were just kind of throwing me into a spiral,” Solomon explains. “My DJ gigs were drying up because I was no longer the new kid, Freaks accidentally put out a pop record that I wasn’t comfortable with, and despite trying to jumpstart my solo career, I still felt like I was in the wilderness. It made me fall out of love with the industry for quite a long time. With Classic, I guess my loyalty to people in the scene overcame my business acumen. I think because most of our business was built out of benevolence and handshakes, my sense of commitment was more important than me going, ‘You know what, I think we need to do this, we need to be here, and we need to be doing this to save the business.’ Some decisions could have been made at that point that would have helped resolve the knock-on effect of the amount of money that we’d lost. But I mean, hindsight is a beautiful thing, you know? It was what it was. I mean, I probably wouldn’t be here now if it didn’t happen. I’d be in a very different place. So it happened, and it happens, and everything kind of works itself out in some way.”
In the years that followed, Classic Music Company sat in a strange limbo, eventually going out of business. But in 2010, Simon Dunmore, the head of Defected Records, acquired the rights to buy Classic’s back catalogue, and struck up a deal with Solomon to help revive the label under Defected’s immense dancefloor banner.
Dunmore first met Luke years earlier when he was working under Marts Andrups at Narcotic Recordings. After learning that Classic had gone out of business, he jumped at the opportunity to acquire the imprint, and called up Solomon with a proposal. That was when Solomon’s “luck kind of changed,” as he puts it.
“Classic was always a label that I loved, and Luke was a guy that I knew, so rather than have it go to someone who really didn’t care, we decided we were going to pick up the rights to the label,” Dunmore explains. “The moment we secured that, I called Luke and said we’d acquired Classic, but told him, ‘It’s not my label, it’s your label. Will you come and run it for us?’ He knew all the nuances of the label, the specifics of the records, and he had relationships with the artists. Plus, we got along really well, so it was just a logical decision. I had no concerns really because I felt we’d be able to manage and run his business properly and we had sufficient enough cash-flow for us not to be affected by the transitions that the music industry were going through.”
With its precious back catalogue and intrepid leader in tow, Classic Music Company was accepted with open arms by the Defected family. However, up to this point, Solomon had total control over his label. Suddenly he faced oversight, and initially, the transition went through its rough patches.
“I’d been flying solo for quite a long time,” Solomon explains. “I’d been locked up in the studio trying to throw things at a wall, hoping something would stick and trying to figure out what was going on. I was in quite an isolated space, mentally. So coming in to work with someone, or for someone, was quite a difficult thing for me to navigate. So it took me quite a long time to find my feet at Defected, because I had to kind of get familiar with how Simon operated his business, and I had to understand the sort of things that were at stake here. I think I baffled quite a lot early on. At first, I didn’t always understand the implications of it being a very different world than we had started when we could just release a record by an unknown without much consequence.”
While Solomon was learning the ropes of this new business model and trying to navigate the music industry’s modern landscape, his longtime partner, Derrick Carter, was more ambivalent about the oversight. “The fact that we couldn’t release records without Defected’s approval is when Derrick kind of decided to step away from the business,” Solomon says. “Our hands were tied due to not having the money just to freewheel it as we’d always done. But Derrick had the luxury of being Derrick Carter, and he could go off and make a living as a DJ while not having to answer to anyone, and I, unfortunately, didn’t have that luxury.”
Solomon settled into his role as an A&R for Defected Records while running Classic’s new operation with varying degrees of autonomy. The label bounced back, delivering a steady stream of solid releases, which included records such as Seven Davis Jr.’s Friends EP, Krankbrother’s One Eyed Jack’s EP, as well as various Luke Solomon singles and compilations. However, he and Dunmore would often butt heads over creative control. Feeling protective over his brand, Solomon thought that the label “wasn’t doing what it deserved,” and was considering moving on from the company.
Despite these frustrations, Solomon and Dunmore’s friendship endured, and they continued building a solid working rapport. “I think there have been times when we’ve been stressed due to the business or there have been personal issues going on for each of us,” Dunmore says. It’s just a natural human relationship where you can get a bit testy with each other, but it’s safe to say that we have never had a falling out.”
“At the time that I signed those records, I was ready to just walk into the office and quit,” Solomon exclaims. “All of a sudden, ‘Final Credits’ started to blow up, and then ‘Wonky Bassline Disco Banger’ blew up, and everything changed. It was then that my relationship with Simon clicked. I think he realised that I was a different fish to a lot of the fish that he dealt with and had been dealing with for a long time in regards to my musical taste, the things I do, and the things I choose. I’ve always played the long game, and without warning, it all started to pay off.”
Simon Dunmore emphatically echoes this sentiment. With its vast catalogue and roster of talented acts, he touts Classic as “an amazing label that Defected is really proud to be involved with,” which is also “starting to have a real reputation in the events space.”
Another prime example of the “long game” to which Solomon refers is his relationship with dance music superstar Honey Dijon, who has been releasing the vast majority of her music on Classic Music Company since 2015. Nurturing a relationship with the Chicago artist over the past 20 years, Solomon has always made himself available to offer encouragement, advice, or simply shoot the breeze. Honey Dijon’s soaring success over the past five years has been “a big factor in the growth of the label,” Solomon says.
“I think what’s really important as an A&R is that you can really connect with the people that you are working with,” Dunmore says. You need to be able to encourage them, give them the confidence to be better producers, better DJs, and be there to support them when things aren’t going so well. Luke is generally known as that guy throughout the industry. He is just a really good egg, and everybody loves him. Partnering with Classic has undoubtedly paid off. It’s an amazing label for Defected to be involved with. We constantly get sent music where people specifically want to sign to Classic, so it is something that we are really proud of at the company.”
In recent years, Classic’s legacy and output continues to inspire DJs like Seth Troxler, The Martinez Brothers, Jamie Jones, and exciting newcomers like Elliot Adamson and Jaden Thompson, who “worship the record label” and cite it as one of their “all time favorites” Solomon claims. The imprint’s ability to span the dance music spectrum with a foot in the past and an eye on the future is evident.
With a tried and tested A&R style, Luke Solomon has tapped veteran artists like Juan MacLean, Eli Escobar, Mike Dunn, Soul Clap, and Oliver Dollar — whose Another Day Another Dollar Remixed EP just dropped via Classic — to release on the label in recent years.
“It’s great to work with Luke. I really dig the way he communicates with artists and his taste for quality music,” Oliver says. “He’s still pushing it after all these years. A true music lover through and through.”Looking forward, Solomon has zeroed in on new and exciting producers like Loods, Dave + Sam, and Sophie Lloyd to lead Classic Music Company’s charge into the future.
“Classic is a label I had always loved because I feel they release music for all the right reasons,” Sophie Lloyd says. “I was a bit nervous when I first met Luke as he’s such a substantial musical tastemaker — both as an A&R and a DJ, but I knew I was in safe hands working with him. I implicitly trust his musical opinion, and I am constantly learning so much from him.”
A rollercoaster of passion, loss, innovation, triumph, fame, financial ruin, and resurrection, Classic Music Company and its founders have been through a lot to get here. But, Solomon says, “I think it’s the first time in my entire career where I am completely content and happy with my place in the culture of it all.”
With that in mind, is Solomon planning anything huge for the label’s 25-year-anniversary this year? With his answer, it’s clear the thought never even crossed his mind. “I mean, I’m not a fan of celebrating those kinds of things,” he states. “But I can certainly sit back quietly and smile.”