Label of the Month: Scuffed Recordings
Label of the Month: Scuffed RecordingsJanuary 13, 2022
Launched by Wager and Ian DPM in 2017, the UK’s Scuffed Recordings has become one of the most forward-thinking and celebrated outlets for club music. Katie Thomas hears their story.
Consuming club music during lockdown was a strange experience. Dance music is meant for dance floors, so how do you appreciate it when dancing is off-limits? For Ian (Ian DPM) and Will (Wager FKA High Class Filter), who released16 club-ready EPs on their label Scuffed Recordings between March 2020 and July 2021, radio helped soften the dance floor hiatus. Friday nights still felt like Friday nights, Will tells me, because of his show on Reprezent. It was an excuse to keep digging for great club tunes, and a way to get new Scuffed releases heard.
But once clubs reopened in the UK, radio plays couldn’t quite compete with the thrill of seeing new Scuffed tunes light up dance floors. “We were getting sent some unbelievable videos,” Will says. At one of The Warehouse Project’s first parties in 2021, the vast Manchester space that welcomes 10,000 ravers through its doors every weekend for 12 weeks a year, Bklava dropped Ayesha’s track “Dark Matter,” ricocheting the tune’s shuddering synths and weighty drums across the cavernous dance floor.
Ian and Will first met thanks to the former’s YouTube channel, Definite Party Material (hence, DPM). Motivated by many pre-drinks spent sharing tunes back and forth, Ian started Definite Party Material to share music he loved that he couldn’t otherwise find online. Growing up in Portsmouth and ending up in High Wycombe for university, Ian didn’t exactly grow up surrounded by club culture. He went from being an Eminem fan to a Foals fan before going to Bestival the summer he started uni, which is where he first really discovered dance music — finding an entry point through artists like Magnetic Man and Jamie xx.
Will grew up in Croydon, but rather than being a dubstep fan as you might expect, he was, as he describes himself, a metalhead, learning guitar and listening to the likes of Metallica and Municipal Waste. He then went to Nottingham to study, where venues like Stealth and parties like Dollop ignited his interest in club music. His starting point was, he says chuckling, “all the cheeky hits,” by which he means the early 2010s fever for the Disclosures and Julio Bashmores of dance music. Even now, as a practiced presenter and DJ who has co-founded one of the UK’s most exciting club music labels, Will says he still feels new to dance music. “Every so often I’ll dig into this whole other side of things I’ve never really listened to,” he explains. “I feel like I got into it quite late.” But that’s the wonderful thing about music — there’s no such thing as being late, there’s always more pockets to explore and more to learn.
Ian and Will first met with a DM; Will slid into Ian’s to say something like, “all the stuff you upload [to Definite Party Material] is sick!” Ever since, the majority of their friendship, and now their business, is conducted over Facebook Messenger. The pair initially bonded over a shared appreciation for DJ Haus’s London-based label Unknown To The Unknown. A few years down the line, and that label’s quickfire schedule has continued to inspire them to keep things busy and moving with Scuffed.
When it came to the idea of starting a label, there wasn’t a “big bang moment,” they explain. Over the course of their Internet friendship (they met once before starting Scuffed) they’d both toyed with the idea of starting a label individually, before settling on the fact that since they both had little idea what they were doing, they’d probably be better off doing it together. Part of Will’s motivation came from the fact he kept finding great music on SoundCloud that was being given away for free. “I remember coming across some free downloads from Stones Taro,” he explains, “I thought, ‘This stuff is sick, why is no one releasing this?’” The Kyoto producer was the second artist to release music on Scuffed — a jubilant and colourful three-track EP titled Spiral Staircase that wiggles and bounds it’s way through propulsive house, acid and spacious breaks. Three records later, Stones Taro is one of Scuffed’s defining producers.
Scuffed never had a particular musical M.O. At the beginning, releases came together in a way that felt natural and serendipitous; Ian and Will would be drawn to music informed by how they DJ, and they’d often find artists organically: chatting in a Facebook group (DJ Ronald Reagan) or meeting in a pub (95Bones). When I ask how they each define what Scuffed is about, Will says: “We know what we like when we hear it.” And Ian says: “It’s music that can get you from one genre to another.” Scuffed releases stretch across the spectrum of punchy and bass-heavy club music, with a particular common thread — Ian and Will don’t want to sign anything straightforward, they like a left turn. Sometimes that’s as glaring as a track that begins one way and then abruptly pivots, like Nikki Nair’s “Justtryingto,” which morphs from breezy filter house to moody breaks.
Since launching with DJ Ronald Reagan’s Cold War Funk EP in October 2017, Scuffed have racked up over 50 releases. They’ve introduced new artists into the fold regularly, maintaining relationships with their original roster, and released music of their own too: High Class Filter’s Elemental EP and the more recent Vector EP as Wager, and Ian DPM’s Visions. On May 1st, 2020, they released Loose Cuts, a Scuffed family compilation that raised over £1,000 for The Trussell Trust. “That’s one of the things I’ve proudest of,” Ian says. “It came together in a week. To turn everything from demos to a full release in five days, it was pretty wild.”
Along with releasing artist EPs (they plan their release schedule about six months in advance), Will and Ian also run a compilation series, Scuffed Presents. “It’s when we want to introduce [a new artist] into Scuffed, when we’ve heard something from them that we like, but they might not have enough for a full release,” Ian explains. As well as offering a platform for emerging artists that have caught their eye, the pair also used Scuffed Presents as a precursor for the year ahead.
One such example is South London producer An Avrin, whose track “Cave People” appeared on Scuffed Presents 003, before the Clodhopper EP landed in July 2020. “Scuffed is a powerhouse,” An Avrin tells me. “Ian and Will are organised and driven with razor-sharp taste. They’ve supported me from the start and embraced the eccentricity in my music whilst helping to translate it externally.”
This year, Scuffed will launch a sub label called Scuffed Bits, which will release music that doesn’t fit into an EP. “It’s a standard format in dance music,” Will says, “and that comes from vinyl, but if we’re not so tied to that then we can release individual tunes that we really like, and do things quickly.” They’ve reached a point where one EP a month isn’t enough, Ian says. “Sometimes we want to whack something out.” At this, Will lets out a big belly laugh.
Will and Ian often finish each other’s sentences, sometimes excitedly talking over each other the way you do when you’re catching up with your best pals and there’s just too much to say. When we meet for drinks on a December afternoon in London, I observe Ian’s tendency to come out with candid one-liners that make Will laugh out loud, Will then following up on Ian’s candor by digging a little deeper into the subject in question. It’s easy to see how they work well together; they are pals with great synergy and aligned tastes, as excited about their joint venture now as they were when they started. “There’s no ego,” says Ian about their partnership. “There’s that level of trust. Scuffed is our little baby. It’s not either person’s label, we’re doing what is best for our label.”
With the end of each year comes conversation about achievements, resolutions and aspirations, and Will makes sure to keep a record of his. For each year since Scuffed began, he has a note in his phone where he writes down the label’s definitive moments. “We’ve come a long way,” he says gratefully. “These notes show how we’ve grown, and it helps us keep getting excited for what’s to come.”
Despite being another challenging year, 2021 was one full of highlights for Scuffed. A mini-tour with Nikki Nair and Farsight saw label showcases in London, Bristol, Leeds and Aberdeen, and a Room 3 takeover at fabric proved a marker for the duo in their progress so far. “It was 100 percent Scuffed and the room was bouncing,” says Ian. “It was a proper emotional moment. We didn’t have any perspective on how well we were doing until fabric invited us to do that.”
In January, 2021, Scuffed announced their artist development scheme for women and non-binary producers. The scheme guided five artists through six months of industry training and production workshops. Feena, one of the participants in the scheme, released her first track on Scuffed Presents 007 in December. “I’ve admired the consistently different and exciting club music from Scuffed ever since I began DJing,” Feena told me over email. “I never imagined I would be able to take part in [the scheme], which has been invaluable for developing my own production.”
The idea for the artist development scheme came from the fact that, despite having an inbox full of demos, Will and Ian could count on one hand how many of those emails were not sent from men. And yet, when applications for the scheme opened, the number of applicants exceeded 500. The issue, it quickly transpired, is confidence. “Some men will be like, ‘You’re going to really like this,’ and I listen to it and it’s a pad with a break underneath,” Ian says bluntly, sparking another belly laugh from Will. In contrast, Will says, “so many of the people who applied for the scheme were sick. We thought, ‘Why aren’t you putting this out?’”
In the application forms, the pair explain, many of the budding producers cited the fact the scene is so male-dominated, as well as a lack of confidence in their own ability, as reasons why they felt they’d benefit from the scheme. While the scheme worked with five producers closely, Scuffed also shared the production sessions in a Discord, which has formed into a community of artists that are still using the space to network.
As the Scuffed artist development scheme shows, Will and Ian want to use their role in dance music to help create positive change. They’re inspired by artists like SHERELLE and Yung Singh, who use their platforms to speak about representation and diversity (or the lack of) within the scene. “There’s a greater consciousness now,” Ian says. “It’s taken a few people speaking out to get others to feel they can do the same, and that is a good starting point.” As a Black man, Ian says he never felt scared about jumping into dance music. “I was already going into this world,” he explains, “I didn’t care.” However, he recognises younger music fans could fear an industry in which they cannot see themselves represented, which is why it’s vital that progress continues. “There is more visibility now,” he says, “There is still so much work to do, but it is shifting.”
Will feels that steps forward are minor, reflecting on the fact that so often at house and techno parties, dance music’s origin in Black culture is not represented in the booth, nor on the dance floor. The conversations are happening, but the parties still look the same, particularly in the upper echelons of techno. “It’s the divide between corporate business and culture,” says Ian, “but the people who are really in the culture know that [those parties and festivals] don’t reflect what we’re into.”
Will and Ian admit that when they first started Scuffed, they didn’t consider the diversity of the label’s roster enough. “It’s [been] a huge learning experience,” Will says, “but increasingly, as time has gone on, we’re giving people a platform. We’re not just sharing tunes with mates anymore. We can really think about these things.” The pair are committed to making sure their release schedule is balanced and inclusive. “We’re not perfect,” Ian says, “but we’re not doing it badly, either. We’re getting better as we go.”
What started as a passion project has blossomed into a growing hub for forward-thinking and exciting club music. Though Will and Ian say that despite the expansion, it is still a passion project for them both.
As we wind things down, Will effects on the Scuffed show in Leeds, where a group of young ravers came up to him and Nikki Nair in the smoking area, excitedly complimenting the label. “Hopefully it doesn’t sound like I’m gassing myself up too much,” he says hesitantly, “but I feel as though maybe someone who is 18 or 19 could think of us in the same way that, for example, we looked at Hessle Audio. If Hessle had a family tree, I think we could be a part of that.” Much of the energy to start Scuffed came from being inspired by the labels that came before them, Ian says. “It was our motivation,” he explains, “because other labels did that for us.”
Clubbing in a pandemic means, now more than ever, Scuffed parties and tunes will play a role in some young dance music fans’ formative clubbing memories. “We’re just doing our thing and having fun with it,” says Will with a grin.