Label of the Month: Souped Up Records
Label of the Month: Souped Up RecordsDecember 7, 2022
For our final Label of the Month feature in 2022, Ben Jolley explores the award-winning jungle and drum & bass label from Serum and Benny V — Souped Up Records — an imprint doing global damage.
Serum and Benny V have been drum ‘n’ bass scene leaders for many years – and the output of their London-based Beatport-chart-topping label, Souped Up, has played a huge part in their on-going success. Having first met on the recommendation of fellow d’n’b DJ/producer Voltage, it wasn’t long before they were making tracks together and going to gigs. “I felt as though Serum was on the cusp of a wave and doing really well,” Benny says. Alongside the new friendship resulting in Serum remixing Benny’s songs, it was great timing as Serum had wanted to set a label up for several years.
“I’d just been really busy and didn’t have anyone to help me do it,” Serum says. “I knew what I wanted to do, how I wanted to run it and had worked with loads of the top d&b labels at the time.” Because he had experienced how different labels functioned, when it came to formulating his own vision Serum knew what he did and didn’t like. Understandably, he felt overwhelmed by the “practicalities of making it happen — because you’ve got to learn every single bit”, and then, “along came Ben.”
Feeling as though there wasn’t a home for the specific type of music he was making – despite releasing on labels Low Down Deep, V and 31 — Serum says, “people were gagging for the music when we started Souped Up. Everyone wanted a piece of what me, Voltage and Bladerunner were doing, and we started Kings Of The Rollers at the same time. It was this super high point.” And, although Serum wasn’t convinced (at first) that he could make a label that other people would want to be on, it happened quicker than expected. “I thought I would be releasing my own music for a couple of years,” Serum says. “With RAM and Playaz, it started as a small camp of artists releasing and took a few years before other people were getting brought on board.” That wasn’t the case with Souped Up, though.
In under a year, Current Value’s manager was getting in touch, Bou and Dutta came on board, and artists who were finishing their label contracts elsewhere, like Original Sin and D*Minds. “It got to the stage, pretty quick, where people were seeing it as something viable – and not just another label by an artist already signed to a big label… which was the last thing I wanted to do.” Benny expands on this ethos, saying that, right from the start, personality and accessibility were key. “We didn’t want to be faceless or corporate, so we’ve always made fun of ourselves – and, luckily, people have bought into it.” This approach was the antithesis to how he felt as a child; “I remember d’n’b as being super cool, but I had no chance so thought let’s just be silly and go a different way.”
Silliness isn’t always easily sonically conveyed in d’n’b, so that’s where Souped Up’s visual identity stands out. “Having very consistent visuals with a certain look, I wanted that thing of where you used to go to a record shop and there’d be lots of random artwork on the wall, but then there’d be a big Metalheadz logo and a RAM logo and you’d gravitate towards the ones you knew stood for quality,” Serum says. He also wanted something that would “make people’s eyes pop out.”
When Serum first explained this artistic concept to Benny, he referenced Andy Warhol. Instantly, Benny “got it.” As the label’s gone on, Benny says the 90s-skate-era-style art has evolved with the help of the label’s resident artist, Wolf Mask, who designed the Souped Up can. Later, a competition at one of the label’s parties resulted in the can being given a name: Vinnie Can Gough, slightly adapted from the winning entry, Vincent Can Gough. “In some ways, I think the fans love Vinnie more than they love us,” Benny laughs. With some labels, Serum suggests, “the art doesn’t sum up the music at all, so it all had to make sense with Souped Up.” He even wants to start bringing the characters and branding into the stage shows — think of Souped Up as the Gorillaz of drum ‘n’ bass.
Serum believes a “big draw” for new artists coming to the label is seeing how their music is aesthetically represented. “It’s like a badge of honour and, if you’ve got an artist with the right sense of humour you can go far with it.” Benny adds that, mostly, the artists get it – occasionally, though, they’ll say they don’t want to look silly. However, when it comes to listening to demos, although the music comes first Serum is also looking for artists who he thinks could add a bit of themselves to the release. “The ones who do well are willing to bring that extra bit of personality,” Serum says, citing Mozey as an example; “his sense of humour and how he markets himself — everything is perfect for the label. Bou is great on social media, too.” Put simply, Serum says “if you’re not fully behind your own music and really backing it and wanting to do things to drive it further, there’s going to be someone else who is willing to.”
When it comes to the sound of the label, Souped Up encompasses multiple types of drum ‘n’ bass; much like Serum’s track of the same name, which was the first time he fused jungle with jump-up. “We’ve done jump up artists, deeper artists and Euro artists,” Serum says, adding that there’s no specific criteria he’s listening out for. “It’s more if it fits the mood, then it works.” And it’s this variety within d’n’b that the pair love so much: “you’ve got the beats and the bass that are always going to be d’n’b-sounding. Even with jungle, you can take your breaks and the low sub bass and you can put anything in it. You could put a rock sample, a Rare Groove sample, a techno sample and a reggae sample all in one track. With d’n’b, you can mix it up a lot more if you want to,” Serum adds.
As well as the genre’s variety, Benny highlights the unrivalled longevity of drum’n’bass. “It’s been there all my adult life,” he says, having listened to jungle since he was at school. Mark agrees, saying that it’s always had a “strong scene; even before I met Ben, I would describe it as the Iron Maiden of dance music. There have been times where something has come along and people have said it’ll kill d’n’b; first it was speed garage, then two-step, then nu-school breaks, grime and dubstep”. Far from killing it off, Mark says the scene is just “pushed back underground for a little bit — but it’s still always there.”
He adds that d’n’b has been in a “strong position” for several years now; really big vocalists want a piece of d’n’b because they can see that they can chart, whereas maybe two years ago they wouldn’t have touched us with a shitty stick.” While he’s unsure how long that will last, he’s certain that d’n’b will still be here: “it just never goes away”. Similarly to the decade-spanning appeal of Iron Maiden concerts, d’n’b – and Souped Up in particular – appeals to a range of ages. “I have young fans saying ‘my mum went out and raved to you 15 years ago’, probably when I was starting to get somewhere. Or when I tell people I started writing music in 1995, they say ‘I wasn’t even born’. I don’t think they realise how long I’ve been in it,” Serum laughs.
Having been in the scene for more than a decade, Serum thinks the recent jungle and d’n’b revival is a full circle movement, having long made “raw-sounding, sample-y tracks that aren’t super polished. Artists now are doing a similar thing to what I was doing back in the mid-noughties around the time of Pendulum and Sub Focus, but as a rebellion against how overproduced music has got”. Largely because of TikTok’s algorithmic nature, Mark believes the playing field has been levelled and cites the viral success of newer d’n’b artists, including PinkPantheress, and Piri & Tommy as examples.
“They don’t really come from the grassroots rave scene at all, even though they obviously like d’n’b. They came up in a way that’s totally detached,” Mark says, contrasting their success with that of Nia Archives whose background is rooted in jungle music. “She came through a different door, which is the good thing with the internet — you can build up a fan base. It’s not like everybody trying to climb the same ladder like it was back in the day, when there were gatekeepers. Now, the public decides what they like.”
Right now, Serum says, “everyone is one tune away from blowing up massively — just one hit can send you into the pop world. People are coming out of nowhere and becoming huge.” While he’s staunchly far more underground than pop, Serum suggests, “you need a bit of everything and for things to get shook up every once in a while to offer new opportunities.” All this has helped increase the appeal of Souped Up, too. “I’ve done things I dreamed of as a schoolkid listening to my rave tapes on my Walkman, and now there’s things that are a million times bigger to do. But I’ve got no idea where it can go, there’s all sorts of crazy stuff going on…”
Perhaps surprisingly, lockdown was the label’s strongest time. With no gigs and seeing it as a good opportunity, Serum and Benny decided to put out more releases and really go at it. Having more time also meant he could “focus on all the weird musical ideas that I hadn’t had time to make, and to think more about the label’s marketing and the machine we’re putting together, and how we can improve it. We made a lot of progress,” he adds.
Helpfully, the big tracks Souped Up released in 2020 and 2021 (including chart-topper “Chop House”) had already been broken in the d’n’b rave scene pre-pandemic. Consequently, there was a huge appetite online. “If I didn’t release them people were cutting up clips and putting them on SoundCloud and TikTok,” Serum says, having “tried to have a go at TikTok” himself. “I realised all that was on there at the time was kids playing d’n’b tunes on their controllers. It gave me a good understanding of what younger d’n’b fans are into and what they do, but I didn’t really have a clue,” he laughs. Even so, seeing the demand for the tunes made him want to get involved. “I was like ‘ok, let’s get them out there’!” Serum says, adding that he now “quite enjoys TikTok. The interaction between the fan base is really good — it’s a good way to keep your presence and let people know what you’re about.”
Rather than struggling through lockdown, Benny says “weirdly, we came out the other end stronger than we went in it! But obviously we wouldn’t have been able to do that if there wasn’t already the foundations, and a bit of stability, and the ability to really crack on and keep working.” While Serum understands why people felt demotivated, it negated a “massive crisis of time before where I had all these things I wanted to do but no time to do them.” He believes that’s partly why Souped Up’s downloads sold so well during lockdown, as did its merch. But, truthfully, Serum says “we went at it as much as we could just to have something to do!”
Retrospectively, Benny looks at his lockdown involvement with the label as being “a lifesaver for my sanity. On a personal level, lockdown wasn’t great, but the label enabled me to refocus,” he says, adding that it was a case of – as he has always believed – “using the energy of that negativity and turning it into something positive”. One of those positives is the label’s upcoming compilation: fittingly-titled Can Of Whoop Ass, it’s packed with heavy-hitting rollers from Harriet Jaxxon (“we’re always looking for a completely different vibe to what we’ve had,” Serum says), many of Serum’s own remixes of his Souped Up favourites, and a collaboration between My Nu Leng and Magugu.
As for the label’s future, Benny wants to take Souped Up to Japan (“any d’n’b promoters in Tokyo, if you’re reading this… we’ll even dress up in inflatable gear!”). Serum, meanwhile, aims to build Souped Up into more of a club brand: “push for more big releases and also put out more of my own music.” He equally wants to “make it into something that can take an artist and build them into something really big in today’s market, because it is very different. It’s a lot more artist-focused now than label-focused, so I need to be able to provide something that can support the artist. So they can become even bigger than the label. I want to be able to help them and have something to offer.” Soup is served.
Souped Up’s V/A compilation Can Of Whoop Ass drops on December 15th. Buy it on Beatport.