Label of the Month: Hospital Records
Label of the Month: Hospital RecordsMarch 1, 2021
With the 25th anniversary of Hospital Records, Jake Hirst speaks with label co-founder Chris Goss to learn about the rise of one of the most influential labels in drum & bass.
Mondays are never an enjoyable day at the best of times, let alone in the midst of a pandemic rife with restrictions. It’s something Hospital Records co-founder Chris Goss knows all too well right now. “I have a daughter doing her GCSEs, and that’s difficult.” As we chat about lockdown woes over our Zoom call, it becomes evident Chris is feeling the brunt of working from home. “I miss the spontaneity of working in one big space. I miss being able to shout to someone asking them things, or walking over to see a t-shirt being designed.”
It’s a feeling of disconnection many of us can resonate with, but one that is particularly strange for Chris considering his office should be a hive of activity right now in preparation for a special milestone this year – the 25th anniversary of Hospital Records. It’s frustrating, but it’s not enough to prevent Chris from recognising the sentiment of the occasion.
“If I stop and think about the things we’ve managed to achieve, then it makes me feel proud. It’s quite breathtaking.” After such a lengthy career, you’d expect some of the passion to wither, but Chris is quick to point out that for him and fellow co-founder Tony Colman, “this is still a genuinely exciting world to work in. That passion for music will never diminish.”
It’s a love of music stemming back to the mid-‘70s as a seven-year-old obsessed with playing vinyl on his family record player. “The first things I remember playing were TV theme tunes like Star Trek and Bonanza,” he reminisces. His infatuation with records is still strong today, and Chris tells me he’s never happier than when he has a record in his hands. You only have to look at his home office to see this. Unlike the politicians on the news with their bookcase backdrops, Chris sits in a room stacked with vinyl. Later this month, he will need to make room for a particularly historic record, H25PITAL – a mega compilation celebrating Hospital’s 25th anniversary, with remixes of the label’s back catalogue.
“We wanted the project to describe our 25-year journey,” he says. “I didn’t want it to just be the names you’d usually associate with us.” Hospital are known for their superstar roster, but it’s easy to forget just how many emerging artists they’ve supported – an achievement Chris is eager to recognise. “I wanted to paint a colourful picture describing everything we do,” he says. “We’re known for albums from High Contrast and Netsky, but we’ve also developed multiple compilation series like Plastic Surgery and Sick Music, which have been important for supporting up-and-coming artists.”
Uncovering new talent is something Hospital has long been committed to. But the label was initially launched in the mid-‘90s as a vehicle for London Elektricity, which was the alias Tony and Chris produced under. The pair had already been working together on an acid jazz label called Tongue and Groove, but the landscape of music in the mid ‘90s was dramatically shifting – moving away from live music to trip-hop and the burgeoning jungle/drum & bass scene. “The scene we were in splintered and began reinventing itself,” Chris recalls. “The world of jungle and drum & bass was exploding in London and Bristol, so we found ourselves taking a moment to consider what we wanted to do next.”
Both proud Londoners excited by the growing rave scene, they decided to start making music together as London Elektricity. At the time they launched three imprints: Hospital Records, a house label called Galactic Disco Music, and a trip-hop label called Casualty. Only one of them stood the test of time, but Chris can’t help but grin as he recounts the way “our house music was actually performing better than the D&B.” Starting any label is difficult, but Chris and Tony found it especially tough to gain recognition. This was largely due to the liquid funk sound they were championing – a more melodic style of D&B contrasting the darker tones of other imprints at the time, such as Metalheadz.
“We knew we were outsiders, we were just jazz gits,” Chris jokes. “It took us until our seventh release in ‘98 before anyone in D&B recognised our music.” But the real pivotal moment was the release of London Elektricity’s debut album Pull The Plug in ‘99, which featured a single that would change everything. “When Fabio first played ‘Song In The Key Of Knife’ on Radio 1 it was the proudest moment,” Chris says. He pauses before remembering how “that moment felt like the door slightly opened into this other world. It felt like the start of something.” As the pioneer who coined the term liquid funk, Fabio’s support meant everything to Chris. “It was like having the single most important person in your world playing your record on air.”
From that moment onwards Hospital Records started to grow, but Chris and Tony knew they needed to change the label’s operation. No longer could they be a two-person band. First, Chris left London Elektricity to focus on label duties. But by far the biggest development was the signing of two emerging talents at the turn of the millennium – High Contrast and Danny Byrd – whose additions had Chris feeling “like the possibilities were endless.” When asked about the moment they discovered High Contrast, he can’t help but smile at the bizarre encounter.
“Tony and I were DJing at the Welsh Club in Cardiff. There was this skinny kid at the side of the stage who came up to me asking if he could MC. I said no and he walked off.” But the following day, the duo visited Cardiff record store Catapult, and Lincoln Barrett (High Contrast) was behind the counter. “We chatted and he gave me a Minidisc of tunes,” Chris says. “They were good, but way too fast, so I rang him up and told him to slow down the BPM.” Lincoln sent over a new disc and the duo signed him.
Hospital released two of the tracks on the disc called “What’s The Story” and “Suddenly,” but “no one paid any notice at all,” Chris jokes. “Then we released ‘Make It Tonight’ and all of a sudden everyone was ringing us!” Before they knew it, High Contrast was releasing the iconic True Colours LP featuring “Return of Forever” – a release Chris identifies as the turning point for Hospital. Between Chris, Tony, Danny, Lincoln, and Tom Kelsey (who headed label promotion), they managed to put Hospital on the map. Though Chris chuckles to himself as he points out that High Contrast is “probably still a terrible MC.”
It’s a moment in time High Contrast himself looks back on as a bit of whirlwind. He recounts “feeling like I was on the new frontier of the scene, getting mentioned alongside heroes of mine. I had no idea how big Hospital or myself would get, I was just happy being a part of it. My only goal was to get a tune played by Fabio & Grooverider on Radio 1, and achieving that is still one of my fondest memories of that era.” When asked about his MCing, High Contrast admits he did try to MC for Chris and Tony, “but they wisely declined.”
Along with the early progress of the label, the introduction of Hospital’s events arm, Hospitality, was crucial to the imprint’s rise. Introduced in 2001 as a weekly residency at London’s Herbal nightclub, the brand has since gone on to reach fans across the world. But Chris is quick to draw attention to the fact that they “only got into promoting because no one would book us…” Hospital were viewed as underdogs. They were constantly asked to play the back room, but continued to believe they should be hosting the main stage. So they approached London’s Heaven nightclub in 2005.
At the time, event posters were filled with artist names. But for the second edition of Hospitality at Heaven, the label launched a massive and mysteriously minimal street poster campaign. Each poster featured only a large “H” in a circle along with the word Hospitality, the date, the name of the nightclub, and the postal area. No artists were listed. “We literally sold out shows based on that information,” Chris says. “We were communicating that it was our party. Don’t worry who’s playing, it will be a great show.”
Chris used to run the events himself, however, he says he “wouldn’t have had the lunacy or courage to take Hospitality to Brixton Academy, let alone Finsbury Park” — two venues Hospital took their events brand to in 2010 and 2016, respectively. But with events director Josh Robinson at the helm, Hospital has gone from strength to strength, even hosting its own five-night festival in Tisno, Croatia in 2018 dubbed Hospitality on The Beach. Representing one of the first label-run D&B festivals to be hosted overseas, it was a significant milestone for the genre.
As important as a successful events arm has been, the evolution of Hospital’s roster has seen the imprint build a world-renowned music catalogue featuring artists such as Netsky, Camo & Krooked, Etherwood, Fred V & Grafix, Logistics, Nu:Tone, and Metrik. Throughout this expansion, Hospital’s focus on the album as an art form has been critical. It’s a motivation Chris is keen to recognise as a way Hospital has differentiated itself in D&B. “We were one of the first labels to commit to artist albums and have conviction in telling stories with them. It has become a calling card for the company.”
Whether it was Netsky’s iconic self-titled debut album in 2010, Etherwood’s second album Blue Leaves in 2014, or Danny Byrd’s fourth album Atomic Funk in 2018, Hospital has continually shown dedication to albums and the ongoing narrative each one feeds into. It’s one of the reasons why Netsky returned to Hospital in 2020 to release Second Nature after years away from the imprint. “That’s hopefully an example of Hospital being a collective nurturing ongoing dialogue with artists,” Chris says. “I’m really proud that the likes of Logistics has made eight albums, High Contrast has made five, Tony has made seven. It’s a pleasure being able to grow our roster with all these different artists.”
This relationship with the roster is undoubtedly one of the reasons why many artists have stuck around over the years. But Chris is eager to highlight that the label has only managed to stay fresh after 25 years due Hospital’s ability to spot new opportunities. The signing of Flava D in 2020 was a particularly special one. Renowned for her work in UKG and bassline, Flava D’s ability to seamlessly produce and mix D&B took everyone by surprise — but not Hospital. They recognised her long-standing ambition to work in the genre, and she has since gone on to impress with singles like “Mesmerise” and “Return to Me,” as well as her three-track EP, Desert Lights.
But arguably the most significant opportunity Hospital has identified in recent years is the potential to delve into uncharted territories signing vocalists such as Degs, Inja, DRS, and Dynamite. “They were key signings broadening what we can do stylistically,” he says. “When we signed Degs, we’d never signed a vocalist before – because it’s D&B.” For years MCs have been battling a negative stigma questioning their ability as artists, but Hospital signing Degs sent a powerful message to the scene.
It’s a moment Degs himself hopes “gives up-and-comers a boost in terms of what’s possible.” Reflecting on the signing, he says “it feels surreal to have the backing of Hospital, especially in a genre that’s traditionally weighted towards producers and DJs. They don’t pull me into any sort of conformity, they encourage me to express myself.”
“Sometimes you have those moments in life where you see a special opportunity,” Chris says. “With Degs, it was the opportunity of signing someone with untapped talent as a writer, singer, and performer. To be able to bring artists onto the roster people wouldn’t expect is a real pleasure.”
This drive to keep the label at the forefront of the scene is something Chris takes great pride in. Even after 25 years, he acknowledges that “it’s important to understand you’ll never be the finished article. You have to be a keen reader and listener of everything around you.” He highlights the historic events of last year with Black Lives Matter, describing it as “an urgent and necessary global moment that needs to be woven into our daily lives.” From a label perspective, Chris recognises there’s so much to learn on a daily basis, but “it’s essential we understand how we can improve as individuals and as a team.”
There’s no question the last 25 years have been momentous for a Hospital Records brand rising to dizzying heights, but it’s clear Chris’ focus is firmly on the future and the label’s continued growth. “Over 25 years we’ve had great moments and are tremendously proud of them, but it’s essential we keep our eyes open, continue learning, and always strive to do better. I’d like to think during this anniversary year we can find time to consider what we would like to do in the next 25 years.”
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.