Label of the Month: Glasgow Underground
Label of the Month: Glasgow UndergroundDecember 1, 2020
Over the past 23 years, Scottish imprint Glasgow Underground has gone from niche ’90s UK deep house to regularly topping the charts with house music of every kind. With founder Kevin McKay, we explore the label’s history, transformation, and current sonic trajectory.
The Scottish rave scene is and will always be an essential part of UK electronic music culture and history. Characterized in works like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Acid House, and more recently in cinema through Brian Welsh’s coming-of-age film, Beats, Scottish youths brought an unapologetic rawness to the British counterculture movement of the early ’90s which lives on today. From veterans like Slam and Harri to contemporary acts like Kode9, Calvin Harris, Denis Sulta, Hudson Mohawke, Eclair Fifi, and much more, Scotland’s dance music output is thoroughly eclectic and as large and imposing as The Highlands themselves.
From Ultragroove in Edinburgh to the famed Sub Club in Glasgow, these venues were hedonistic epicenters for, as the ’90s tabloids put it, “the evils of ecstasy” — infecting its patrons with love, a fresh way of thinking, and a newfound obsession: house music. For Kevin McKay, revered DJ/producer and founder of the seminal Scottish imprint Glasgow Underground, that moment of inception didn’t come right away. But when it did, there was no going back.
“The first time I tried to go [to Sub Club], I didn’t get in,” McKay says. “I come from this really scholarly and square background, so I was wearing these clothes, and the doorstop just turned me away. At 18, with this newfound freedom, I was just starting to rethink what I was wearing. Later, when we got in, it was the first time I’d gone to a music venue, and I knew nothing. I don’t know any tunes at all. And I was like, ‘What even is this?’ Eventually, I’d got more into it and had been there like maybe ten times when I took my first half a pill. I can still feel the tingles now on the back of my neck when “Last Rhythm” by Last Rhythm opened up a whole new world. And that was that for me. House music forever.”
Growing up in a small town 40 minutes outside of Glasgow with a minister for a father and a teacher for a mother, who “actively dislikes music,” Kevin says, McKay grew up in a household where “no music played, and everything was red-dead serious.” Despite this, McKay’s voracious obsession with music started at a young age. He collected cassettes where he could, worked a paper route to pay for music subscription services, and rummaged through his local library for new sounds. When it was time to head off to Glasgow University to pursue a career in engineering in the early ’90s, McKay’s keen ear, astute work ethic, and his newfound love of house paid off immensely. Not only for him but for the growing underground dance music movement as a whole.
After working a bar one summer to save for two Technics and a mixer, McKay’s mixes started making their way around the city, and gigs gradually began to roll in. The advantageous meeting between McKay and his classmate Andy Carrick spurred the next step in his musical evolution. Linking up after school at Carrick’s home to play around on samplers and a Roland Keyboard to emulate some of their favorite records, McKay was soon incorporating his own productions into his mixes.
Photo: Kevin McKay
The emerging deep house scene in New York City served as a massive inspiration for the pair — it was a sound that had not entirely made its way into the UK scene at that time. McKay set out to change that, moving from more mainstream gigs at clubs like The Tunnel to underground shows at locations like The Voodoo Room and Sub Club. He also took steps to organize his own nights and introduce Glasgow to artists like Deep Dish and François Kevorkian. “The more popular stuff around that time was kind of that high energy euro house sound, so that deeper, US style of house music really wasn’t common in the UK,” McKay says. “Regardless, we knew that there were DJs that might want to play it if we made it, so we just did it anyway to see what would happen.”
In 1994, Carrick and McKay started their first record label, Muzique Tropique — a vehicle for the deep house productions they created under a slew of monikers, such as 4 AM, West Coast Connection, Urban Revolution, Mystic Soul, American Intrigue, and Communication X. With their debut record as 4 AM, Prelude To The Storm (a fitting title), which sold 2,000 copies right off the bat, McKay was off to a running start with his label venture. Future productions gained support from some of his favorite selectors, including Andrew Weatherall, Terry Farley, and NYC house legend Danny Tenaglia. “It was New Year’s Eve, and I was back home in my small town just waiting to go out and have a few drinks with my pals when Danny Tenaglia phoned me up. He told me, ‘I just wanted to know that this track you made on Muzique Tropique is going to be one of my biggest tracks tonight.’ That was such an unusual thing to do at that time but was also so nice and reaffirming.”
Three years after establishing Muzique Tropique, McKay was ready to take things up a notch with his imprint pursuits. Teaming up with his dance floor friends and musical cohorts Omid 16B, Kenny Inglis (one half of Studio Blue with Kevin McKay), DJ Q, and local legend Harri, the Scottish squad established Glasgow Underground, with McKay at the head. Pressing a fervent blend of funk-imbued and soul-charged wax, early records included DJ Q’s Porn King EP and Sixteen Souls’ “Late Night Jam.” Though it didn’t take long for Glasgow Underground’s output to reach beyond the city borders. “The way that I wanted to grow the label, there wasn’t going to be any money to pay myself a salary,” explains McKay. “So I had to find some other stuff to do alongside DJing that would also be like, flexible, but ideally within music. Also, I needed to fuel my record habit. I had a weekly all-night Saturday gig in Glasgow that paid £150, but I would easily spend that on records every week.”
To supplement his income and further grow his imprint, McKay found a gig that could do both simultaneously — working as a music journalist for publications like Muzik Magazine, Jockey Slut, and Mixmag Update. With an avid curiosity and refined sonic palate, the articles he pitched landed him in numerous cities worldwide to report on a spectrum of different dance music scenes. He flew to places like Berlin to seek out Manuel Göettsching about his latest record, Chicago to link with Ron Trent and Chez Damier for a chat about their Prescription imprint, and NYC where he’d been sent on assignment to sit down with the Godfather of house music himself, Frankie Knuckles. He recruited acts like Idjut Boys, Jersey Street, Mateo & Matos, and more for releases on Glasgow Underground through his travels and interactions, serving up intuitive royalty deals and nurturing the A&R skills that still serve him to this day.
Amongst his most successful scores for Glasgow Underground is the long-lasting friendship that he struck up with the late and legendary DJ, producer, and singer, Romanthony. While most people the world over remember the artist for his work with Daft Punk on the track “One More Time,” Romanthony’s prolific house music catalog dates back to 1993. “It started off with me trying to get him to do an interview because he’d never done one. And so it became like a challenge,” says McKay. “I tried to send him a fax, and his phone number was the same as his fax number, so he picked up the phone and said hello. He was very cagey at first, but I don’t know, we just got on. After a few phone calls, we just naturally got into a place where we developed that trust, and he would listen to me. Whatever it is about people’s personalities that allow them to hit it off straight away… that’s what made Glasgow Underground.”
Romanthony would go on to release two albums and a multitude of singles and EPs through Glasgow Underground, featuring tracks like “Do You Think You Can Love Me,” “Hold On,” and “Bring U Up.” Following the untimely passing of the house music legend from New Jersey in 2013, McKay took steps to ensure that his legacy would live on and that his children would continue to receive royalties from his music. He put together a remix project of Romanthony’s catalog with Dixon, Claptone, Solomun, Motor City Drum Ensemble, Deetron, Dam Swindle, Gerd, Jasper James (the son of his Glasgow Underground collaborator, Harri), and others to commemorate Romanthony’s work.
After releasing hundreds of singles, EPs, albums, and compilations via the label, Glasgow Underground suddenly ceased operations in 2004. “In the beginning of Glasgow Underground, I did a lot of things right, but I made some mistakes in terms of pitching the label at quite a niche audience, and so by 2002, that niche audience was essentially the deep house crowd. At that point, certainly in the UK, that kind of sound just became ridiculed and sort of unfashionable. People called it ‘dad house’ and associated it with coffee table dinner parties.” When the label’s distributor went bust, McKay put the imprint on hiatus and decided to concentrate on one artist only: Mylo. “There were some dance albums which I loved and felt hadn’t really had the kind of global commercial success that groups such as Daft Punk, Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, and similar acts had had,” says McKay. “Then I met Mylo and was like, ‘This is the kind of thing I’m talking about!'”
Meeting Myles MacInnes (AKA Mylo) in 2002, McKay started producing for the artist and set up a new label, Breastfed Recordings, for Mylo’s music. The end product was Destroy Rock & Roll — an eclectic 14-track LP of accessible and brilliantly executed electronic music that took the UK by storm. In 2007, McKay would help another Scottish artist, Grum, rise to stardom through his music business and production expertise to create yet another hit album, Heartbeats. Despite the success of these artists, who he had helped bring into the limelight, McKay was feeling unfulfilled by where his path had taken him.
“For someone who’s not the most confident about striking out on their own, those opportunities became what I did with my life for like ten years. I thought I was just lucky to be a sort of conduit for these talented people. A lot of the reason why I did the Mylo record was that I didn’t feel I could ever make a good record without people like him. I don’t think that so much anymore. I’ve come to realize that I’ve done loads of things that loads of people think are hard to do, like take a record from nothing and put it into the charts, so I can certainly learn how to make my own records. I stopped taking the easy way out because I knew I was capable of doing this.”
With his confidence restored and a house music revival ringing in his ears, Glasgow Underground resumed operations in 2011. Along with the Romanthony remixes’ success, the label would introduce the world to acts like Daniel Trim, Brett Gould, Mia Dora, and Illyus & Barrientos while reinvigorating the works of veteran producers such as Lee Cabrera and Moreno Pezzolato. The latter, whose dropped an immense amount of collaborative singles with McKay this year, credits the label’s success to its founder’s “focussed, hard-working, and professional approach,” and was kind enough to provide us with an exclusive mix to help commemorate this special occasion.
“Around 2015, we were hitting the charts, and the label started to become a commercial thing,” McKay says. “The money from Mylo was going down, and I was earning a bit of money from DJing, but Glasgow Underground started taking off and I was like, “Oh, I can make a living out of this. This is cool!’” With its new, typography focused aesthetic, and with A&R help from Sam Dexter and Tom Caruso, the label started releasing a slew of Beatport chart-topping tracks and edits, including Andrew Mellers’ “Born Slippy (Reincarnation Mix),” PAX’s “Electric Feel,” CASSIMM’s “Shined On Me,” and Mike Vale’s “Music Is The Answer.”
Photo: Tom Caruso
Photo: Moreno Pezzolato
Photo: Sam Dexter
Now receiving over 1000 demos a month, Glasgow Underground has established itself as one of the most prominent launching pads for fresh young house-oriented artists. According to McKay, the key to their affluence and growth is listening to everything that lands in their inbox. “People think you have to know the A&R, but I never wanted it to be a label like that,” McKay says. “If you email a great track in, you can get signed.”
In addition, McKay has taken steps to ensure his label includes not only deep house, but all the genres that McKay holds close to his heart. “I try and cover everything that I love, and so sometimes there’ll be more house records in a year, sometimes more tech house records, and so on,” McKay says. “This year, for example, we’ve had more deep house records than we’ve ever had before, along with some more melodic stuff. The label is able to move around those many genres within house music because when I went back to it, I was like, ‘I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to get pigeonholed again, I want the label to be open.'”
When it comes to McKay’s productions, he’s been more prolific than ever, teaming up with artists like Nader Razdar and Milos Pesovic for the Missy Elliot inspired tech house slammers “Get Ur Freak On” and “Work It,” letting his disco flag fly with “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and getting deep with his most recent single “Nothing Can Come Between Us” — a stylish new version of the Sade classic with vocalist Rozie Gyems.
Recently, Glasgow Underground hit a milestone with Kevin McKay’s album Summer Of Love — the imprint’s 500th official release, which features original tracks and remixes from Earth N Days, Qubiko, Odyssey Inc, and more. “It feels amazing to hit 500,” McKay says. I remember hitting 100, and what an incredible milestone that felt like, but then to be here still 23 years later and doing 500? Awesome! It’s just nice to have that as a body of work, and I’m fortunate to be doing something that I love as much as when I started at 26 years old.”