Label of the Month: Critical Music
If you wanted to find out what high-quality underground drum & bass sounded like, Critical Music would be an unavoidable first destination. It secretes sonics that have been unmistakably smeared in the flashy, modern palette of a genre which, to the slightly less educated onlooker, can often seem brash and behind the times. Drum & bass, however, is currently bucking its reputation within electronic music as the unseemly uncle of the family, and labels like Critical Music, amongst others, are doing the heavy lifting.
Founded by Kasra (both real name and stage name) in 2002, Critical Music represents the second generation of major drum & bass labels; one built after the bonanza of the 1990s, but prior to the revolution occurring by decade’s end. It’s not foundational, but has become seminal, releasing classic early records from Ivy Lab, Mefjus and Enei — a formidable spread of acts who portend the diversity Critical has shown such dedication towards. Its reputation for weaving textural threads, ranging from blackish techno to rambunctious hip-hop and solemn soul, has been painstakingly crafted, and the result is a label that defines much of what makes the genre so exciting.
We speak to Kasra as he self-isolates in the countryside, and the context of COVID-19 rules out a visit to the Critical office in Hackney Wick. Our conversation unexpectedly begins on the topic of Nirvana, who Kasra credits with “opening up exposure for a lot of obscure bands at the time, a lot more underground stuff” — music a then-teenaged Kasra submerged himself within. “Sonic Youth, especially the lead singer [Thurston Moore], were very much into the whole subculture of what was noise music. It’s very experimental and a lot of it doesn’t make any sense but it was a very interesting time”, he remembers, “a very creative time, with a lot of very exciting stuff going on.”
This passion for various musical subcultures helped ferment elements of a personality which define Critical Music today: an embrace of the different, a commitment to the physical and a passion for the self-made. “A lot of the experimental stuff was done on tapes then because there wasn’t much demand, it was very limited copies, and so I got wind of this and started making tapes of music that my friends were doing,” Kasra says. Critical is renowned for the quality and creativity of its physical products, and it becomes apparent that Kasra’s past interests fuelled this passion.
After four or five years of involvement in distributing experimental tapes, he remembers that “all my friends at the time were into going to record stores and buying tunes, whereas I’d be ordering stuff online from these weird little stores in America or Japan.” The trajectory changed when his friends offered him a spare ticket to World Dance, and he credits this night, with sets from Goldie, Randall and LTJ Bukem, for kickstarting his love of drum & bass. In drum & bass, he saw what he’d already developed a passion for. “A lot of people just making music in a bedroom and just getting it out there. That DIY ethics, where it’s not done for any reason other than this sounds cool, I like it and I’m going to do it”.
Critical came into being shortly after, when Kasra was working as a marketing manager at Rough Trade Records. “It took a long time to build up the momentum to release regularly,” he says, in part because “the scene was quite a closed thing. There were probably only twenty people who were really making a mark on the music,” he remembers. Early support for Critical releases came by way of Marcus Intalex and Hospital Records, but when asked about helpful connections in those early days, he laughs. “I’ll be honest — not a lot of people did help me out.” A turning point was CRIT009, a 12-inch courtesy of Calibre, who in 2003 was undoubtedly “on a bit of a roll” and, listening back in 2020, it’s not hard to hear how its deft, stuttering percussion and rustic, penetrating low frequencies constituted a “bit of a coup” for the fledgling imprint, as Kasra remembers.
Contrasting this early picture with Critical’s contemporary iteration, the journey has clearly been a long and winding one, with seemingly two main motors behind it. The first is Kasra’s business intellect, an oft remarked quality and one which he aptly displays. “If you’re going to put a lot of energy into something, why not ideally build it into something you can make a living from?” he asks. It makes sense, but contrasts with the squeamishness many in the underground feel towards associating business and music. But this quality facilitates his laser-like focus on the music, the second motor.
When I ask about his relationship with music, Kasra mentions a recent comment — that Critical is a fad label, it just follows trends. “I was thinking about it because it’s interesting and there’s some truth to it, but it’s not about fads, it’s like, what’s exciting? What’s happening? Other labels can put out stuff from the same gene pool, but I like to do different things. I don’t particularly like stuff that echoes back to twenty years ago, I don’t like stuff that looks backwards, I like things that look forwards. I’m always looking for artists that want to try different things. I want to put out records that lead rather than follow.”
When pressed for examples, he mentions “Oblique” by Stray, Sabre and Halogenix, the first release from a trio who would soon after become Ivy Lab. A sumptuously spacious, stepping slice of liquid drum & bass, “Oblique” foreshadowed an influential run of releases from Ivy Lab which did exactly that: lead, rather than follow. The two releases either side of “Oblique” — CRIT060 and CRIT062 — are techy and tough from Break, Enei and others, yet Oblique slides in seamlessly, with no hint of friction. “I don’t really care that my label bats all over the place,” Kasra says. “Record labels are an organism. They’re a living, breathing thing because people are involved in them. Not everything has to be pigeonholed. I like to think that you know you’re going to get a certain level of quality with us, but you might surprised.”
Kasra also mentions the 2014 debut album by Mefjus, Emulation, as a release that marked a threshold of stylistic evolution for the label. Kasra was tipped onto Mefjus by Phace after hearing him play “Far Too Close” at a show and, after realising that he’d missed the email from Mefjus months previously, went on to sign a slew of releases from the producer who did so much to define neurofunk during the last decade. Emulation was the pinnacle of Critical’s involvement in Mefjus’ story, and their role was foundational in a similar manner to that with Ivy Lab. Both acts were probably destined for big things, but Critical made it inevitable. How, exactly?
Speaking from his house in North London, Critical mainstay Halogenix says the secret to the label’s success is Kasra’s open approach to creativity. “He lets us do what we want to do,” he says. As an artist who admits he’s “quite precious” who he gets creatively involved with — he’s often involved in every stage of his releases, including artwork — this was a particular point of appeal. “Having a group of people that have faith in you and give you room to express yourself” is a “winning combo,” he says.
“As long as I write music to a quality that Kasra accepts, and then have the visual identity, the input from the label is more of an administrative one,” he continues. It’s a remarkably hands-off approach from Kasra, who describes himself to us as a “control freak,” but it speaks to the type of label that he’s built, a label where they “only do things when they come naturally to us.” When it works, it works, and Kasra is happy get out of the way.
It’s an ethos that’s put Critical in arguably the strongest place it’s ever been: it’s the second most popular drum & bass label on Beatport (behind Hospital), with a flourishing events brand and a steady drip of releases from talent old and new. For Halogenix, Critical “owns the underground.” For Kasra, it’s about having “a combination of good music, good people, people who want to work hard, people who have a vision for what you want to do, and you all share that vision.”
That vision is clear: underground drum & bass wrapped in a veneer of varnished hedonism. It does seem to be a winning formula, and a new crop of artists is just beginning to make waves on the imprint. Particle’s blend of jumpier sounds with techy depth and urban-edged grime influences have set him on a stratospheric path. His hotly anticipated Thermal EP is forthcoming over the summer, and Kasra remarks that he’s “probably for some people part of that foghorn, jump up generation, but his music isn’t really like that, one of his new ones sounds like an old dBridge tune. You don’t really know where it fits, and it’s amazing.”
Then there’s Fade Black, who formerly produced separately under Shyun & Cruk but have now reimagined themselves. Their futuristic project features abstract artwork and sweeping, almost-neurofunk. Their first EP on the label, Condemned, featured the brilliant “Sane,” a vocal-led and yet deeply heavy dancefloor weapon, which earned plaudits from Mixmag and beyond. For Kasra, “having people like Particle and Fade Black involved is really exciting, because they’re the newest two acts that we’re working with and they’re both coming from very different places, but they’re both doing something really exciting”.
The drum & bass scene is having a moment of reinvigoration, with waves of fresh innovation coming from more established labels like Critical and Metalheadz, but also from an emerging new guard. Artist-run labels like Serum’s Souped Up and Alix Perez’s 1985 Music are driving stylistic change with creative ways of approaching the genre’s tried and tested formulae, and a lot has changed since the days when Kasra found the scene relatively closed. This brings challenges too, of course, and Kasra says that were he to try and start Critical now, he’d “be a lot more cautious, which would make it not as exciting.” In his method of signing only that which excites, Kasra has become one of the principal actors in a genre-wide infusion of animation.
Our current coronavirus crisis has, of course, thrown the future nearly everything behind the shade of uncertainty. But we can at least know one thing — there’s sure to be forthcoming music from Critical, with EPs coming soon from Particle, Halogenix, Fade Black and Kasra’s collaborative project with Insideinfo. Kasra’s own foray into releasing music was, up until 2018, purely collaborative and he says that releasing music on his own has taught him a lot. “You understand a lot more about how it feels to be the artist when it’s you. You understand their fears and their excitement, and it makes you better at doing the label.” It’s an observation that underscores his willingness to let artists roam free creatively. With such a strong pool of music to continually draw from, Critical’s dominance of the underground looks set to continue.
Ben Hunter is a freelance journalist living in London. Find him on Twitter.