Label of the Month: Toy Tonics
Label of the Month: Toy TonicsOctober 4, 2021
Since its 2012 inception, Toy Tonics has gained a reputation for a certain type of high-quality house music: organic, musical, full of melody and harmony, strongly flavoured with jazz and funk, and heavily influenced by the music of Black America and West London broken beat. Toy Tonics releases get plays from a broad spectrum of DJs — from Moodymann to DJ Harvey to Disclosure — because, within their pristinely produced grooves, there is genuine funk and true dance floor sensibility. These are jams that work.
There’s a certain irony that Toy Tonics have pioneered their organic, live house aesthetic while based in Europe’s techno capital, Berlin, home to countless nights of thundering, dystopian techno. But as Toy Tonics label boss Mathias Modica (AKA Kapote and Munk) points out, Berlin wasn’t always just about the sound of raw warehouse techno echoing around disused industrial spaces. “15 years ago it was Peaches, Gonzales and Kitty-Yo and so on,” he says. “With the popular rise of techno, Berlin became its capital, but Toy Tonics is there too, and we do things completely differently. We see this new generation of 20-year-olds who come to the Toy Tonics Jams, they have a different knowledge and vibe — it’s a new Berlin!”
To get to the roots of this new Berlin, we need to backtrack a little. Modica’s father, a classical composer, took his son to concerts all around the world. “As a kid, I traveled to Israel, Mexico, Spain and met all kinds of musicians — jazz, classical,” Modica, “and I learned to embrace and be curious about everything new. I get bored fast, I need quality! I love meeting people who know something good, I’m always curious, always want new things all the time, so I’m very focused on finding cultural stuff that’s new to me.” Label mates COEO agree, describing Modica as “a great musician and an insanely creative guy. He’s restless and always looking for the next thing, which keeps us awake and always on our toes.” This ceaseless musical curiosity is a trait that has clearly contributed to the success of Toy Tonics, and Modica runs his label as though it were a continuing mission, constantly searching for musical excellence.
Photo: Mathias Modica (AKA Munk and KAPOTE)
After originally training as a jazz pianist, Modica moved to promoting parties “with mainly English DJs most of the time,” and in 1999 he started the Gomma label. Gomma was extremely successful, resulting in a period that Modica describes as “a bit crazy.” “It was about alternative dance music ideas and we tried to invent a new style with every record, which made us quite big for a few years.” He went on to produce albums with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, LCD Soundsystem singer Nancy Whang, Peaches, Franz Ferdinand’s Nick McCarthy, and was touring all over the world every week. Modica says that Gomma was his “first attempt to bring a different approach to the dance music world,” but he eventually closed it and launched Toy Tonics in 2012 because he felt like he could “add something new to the scenario of techno and house.”
In 2012, the scene was defined by ruthlessly efficient tech house tracks like wAFF’s “Jo Johnson,” Huxley’s smooth “Let It Go” and Julio Bashmore’s metallic dance floor clarion call “Au Seve”. The initial Toy Tonics release, a six-track disco-acid EP called Not Again from Hard Ton, was like a glitterball-tinted breeze blowing through clubland. Over their next few EPs, Toy Tonics quickly showed that they weren’t a label tied to a particular genre. Instead, they developed an ethos of creating house music with musicality, of records born from musicians playing live rather than from assembling samples and loops.
Modica has no problem with the rigid grooves, mechanical rhythms and the dark repetition of techno. Rather, Toy Tonics simply employ a different approach to the original 4/4 template that drove the machine-funk of Detroit and Chicago. Toy Tonics releases house records, but records that draw explicitly on soul, funk, jazz and that ineffable magic that occurs when musicians play together and really lock in.
“It’s not about saying one is better than the other, but our label is far away from many labels of the last few years. We do dance music, and lots of house, but we are musicians and DJs, so we see house and dance music from a musician’s perspective. You can feel this in every record: a few are sample-based, but most are now played with real instruments. We don’t need samples because we are all musicians, we play chord progressions coming from jazz and soul. It’s an American way of house music, or a London way, based on musicianship.”
It’s an approach that has proven extremely successful, and Toy Tonics now boast an enviable back catalogue of sophisticated, dancefloor-friendly jams, from COEO’s seemingly endless stock of fresh disco-flavoured grooves on records like Music For Friends to Cody Currie’s jazz-funk/house hybrids, Modica’s own records as Kapote and Munk, like “Nigerian Jam” and “Get Down Brother 2020,” to Italy’s Black Loops and Munich’s Rhode & Brown. Other artists like Luke Solomon, PBR Streetgang and The Phenomenal Handclap Band have all released on Toy Tonics too, with the latter’s transcendent Ray Mang remix of “Judge Not” standing as one of the label’s biggest records.
“It’s very soul orientated,” continues Modica. “All our producers come from soul, funk, hip hop and jazz. Our grooves are very soulful and always have this live element in them. Most of the records have live basses, chords from Rhodes pianos, melodic elements that come more from Italio or Afro American musical heritage, and this creates a certain, very musical vibe.”
Modica is enthusiastic and animated when it comes to talking about his label, his German-accented English serving him very well, and the only pause in our lively conversation comes when I ask about any challenges he’s encountered running the label. “It’s always been great” he eventually says after several moments. “We’ve never had a challenging time in terms of stress because it just seems to grow naturally!” When it comes to defining the Toy Tonics sound, Modica is passionate about his mission to produce organic dance music, and to remain at the edge of new sonic territory; to be discovering new artists and new musical hybrids.
UK producer and DJ Cody Currie has released a handful of highly-rated Toy Tonics EPs and defines the Toy Tonics identity as “an eclectic mix of different styles with a focus on making people move.”
“The mix of unique styles is almost the label’s hallmark in a way,” he continues, “which I think gives the artists more of a personal feel, with each having their own very distinct characteristics.”
This musical eclecticism isn’t an accident. It’s a specific policy, related to Modica’s view of his young audience. Their legendary parties, the Toy Tonics Jams, which began at Berlin’s now-closed Griessmuehle club before expanding to other European cities, were attracting thousands of young clubbers pre lockdown, and they’re not the same techno fans who are content with slamming kick drums for hours on end. Instead, the Toy Tonics DJs are helming this new Berlin, rooted in a more eclectic, more musical sound. “The kids call it organic, but for me it’s just Afro, disco and house all mixed together in a modern, edit-culture way,” Modica says. “I see so many 20-year-olds in Berlin now that don’t need strobe lights and certain things that have been big in the techno scene. That was great, but the new generation, they get bored if you play the same repetitive vibe for an hour, they want music on the dance floor.”
For Modica, his DJing style is directly linked to his production ethos. “As a musician, I also love DJing, and if you see me or Cody DJ, it’s like full-body involvement — we feel the music. Toy Tonics DJ sets are always a trip, a voyage, travelling through different vibes, similar to a jazz concert — an evolution — and people get taken in the beginning and you get energetic or ecstatic moments.”The Toy Tonics Jams are still taking place, although with limited numbers due to coronavirus restrictions, and again, the party ethos exactly mirrors that of the label. “Toy Tonics DJ sets are colourful, they go through different times and shapes and moods and it’s the same as how a 20-year-old consumes music now,” Modica enthuses. “They go to a house playlist then discover Cody Currie, who plays house and funky stuff and they discover Black Focus records and Yusef Kamal and then Fela Kuti and onto crazy African stuff of the ‘70s; that’s the world of a 20-year-old now and it’s what Toy Tonics is — it’s house, but full of different shades of music.”
2020 saw the label release their Mushroom House compilations which feature Afro, indie dance, psychedelic disco and all sorts of interesting and slightly leftfield dance tracks, and which is a reflection of the genre-spanning listening habits of the label’s young fans. Volume 1 included electronic music and remixes from artists as varied as Daniel Avery, Ponty Mython and Baldelli alongside guitar-and-sax beach jams like Rebolledo and Munk’s “Surf Smurf”, confidently pushing at the boundaries of what can be considered dance music.
Volume 2 was released in 2021, and there are plans for Toy Tonics to continue pursuing their search for new, organic dance music with some fresh signings. Modica is focused on this next step for his label, saying, “We are a DJ label and we’re going to continue to bring DJ vibes and records, but we’ve also signed a couple of great artists too. Two of them are bands, one is a singer, and they get produced by our team. We’re going to see a big change here in Berlin and Toy Tonics fits into that new mood. I think we’re going to see more and more hybrid live things going on, with different things happening on stage, maybe a DJ with a keyboard or more live musicians. So we’ve signed and developed dance music live acts who are also bands.”
The label hit their 100th EP release in 2020 and has continued its run of quality this year, with EPs from Currie, GOME, Athlete Whippet, Fenyan x Kosmo Kint and Joel Homes, as well as the second Mushroom House comp. Modica and crew have also been busy collecting the best of their impressive back-catalogue for the next Top Tracks compilation.
For Modica, the Toy Tonics mission is ongoing: to continue to work with new artists and develop great music with longevity without being tied down to a particular style or genre. “I just want to use my knowledge to help young people who aren’t being hyped to find their sound. The label should evolve, so if someone asks what the sound of Toy Tonics is, I just say it’s an evolving sound.” Here’s to a continuing successful evolution, and the birth of a new Berlin.
Harold Heath is an author/freelance journalist and DJ living in Brighton. Follow him on Twitter.