Label of the Month: Z Records
Label of the Month: Z RecordsOctober 3, 2022
Since 1990, Dave Lee’s Z Records has been a loved and trusted source for some of the best soulful music worldwide. Harold Heath chats with Lee to explore the label’s legendary catalogue and learn how it has adapted, persevered, and excelled through the shifting tides of the music industry over the past three decades.
The story of Dave Lee’s Z Records could form the basis of a university course on the last thirty years of UK house music history. Setting up at the very beginning of the ’90s, Z Records pioneered the UK disco and soulful house sound, creating a catalogue of influential releases and remixes, most of it produced by Lee. The label was a defining influence in ’90s house and then successfully navigated the 21st-century digital landscape, diversifying into artist albums and diggers compilations. And at the centre of it all has been Dave Lee and his never-ending love affair with disco, jazz funk, and soul.
Back in the late ‘80s, at the start of his recording career, most of Lee’s early releases as Raven Maize and as a part of M-D-Emm came out on Republic, the label he ran for Rough Trade. His time at Republic was a perfect apprenticeship in producing, signing, releasing and distributing records and launching Z Records in 1990 was a natural next step. “It was just a vehicle for me to release my music, or if I wanted to sign something and remix it,” he tells us. “The first record on Z was “Do It, Believe It” which was basically the first record I made on my own.”
“Do It, Believe It” arrived on a scene which was obviously very different to today. With no digital and no internet, dance music was entirely vinyl based, with the potential for a 12” to sell thousands, even tens of thousands of copies. “It was a different era to now,” says Lee, “there were way fewer records, and those records used to sell a lot more.” The early ’90s also saw the beginning of a process of dance music fragmentation with the diversification of house music into subgenres like progressive, trance and more, and Z Records pioneered their own corner of the 4/4 landscape.“When the label started,” Lee says, “it was right at the beginning of UK disco house, and there were just a few acts like Disco Elements, Chocolate Fudge and me who were making those sorts of disco sample tracks.”
It was a sound that proved hugely popular and instant anthems like Doug Willis’ “Spread Love” or the Z Factor’s jubilant “Gotta Keep Pushin’” deftly combined disco samples, slick production and a dancefloor sensibility into tracks that were adored by clubbers and DJs alike. It also had crossover potential, with Lee’s “Do What You Feel” which was heard everywhere in 1991, reaching #36 in the UK national charts. Lee was also pushing the soulful house sound with early soulful tracks like Pacha’s seductive “One Kiss” and would occasionally release tougher tracks as well, like ’93’s “My Name Is Doug.” “We put out the odd thing which was a bit more banging every now and then, but not for commercial reasons, it was usually just because that’s how the track ended up turning out.”
And perhaps there’s a clue to Z Records’ success in that simple statement. Their sound, release schedule, and stylistic developments, were all steered by the music, rather than a quest for hits. “Success isn’t the driving force,” says Lee, “I’ve seen things that have done well, gone to number three on the charts or whatever and thought why don’t we get someone like that to remix one of our tracks… but generally we just tend to put out stuff we believe in.”
Aside from Lee’s steadfast musical compass, some key external factors shaped the sound of Z Records throughout the 90s. In ’96, Akai released their S3000 sampler, which came equipped with a low pass filter and this rapidly changed the sound of disco house. A low pass filter is a studio tool that makes a sample sound muffled and then gradually brighter as the filter opens up. It’s a technique much easier to explain via music and Z Record’s early disco-filter classic “Can’t Get High Without You” from ’97 is a great example.
Lee reckons that it took around three months after the S3000 arrived on the market — the amount of time it took producers to learn how to use it and to record and release a track — before a steady stream of filter-disco tunes appeared and over the next couple of years that stream turned into a flood. “’Can’t Get High…’ was the first of many songs I made with Taka Boom (Chaka Khan’s sister),” says Lee of his filter-disco anthem, “and I think it is probably my favourite… it’s one of the best samples I’ve ever discovered.”
The arrival of Taka Boom, who lived near Dave in the Kilburn district of London, was the second key element in the development of the Z Records sound, adding some serious soul pedigree to proceedings and upping the quality factor even further.“It was the first time I had a really good gospel-type “belter” vocalist,” Lee says, “who I had access to every time I wanted to,” and that accessibility proved extremely useful, with her soaring vocals gracing a clutch of ‘90s Z Records releases.
1997 was also the year of Lee’s first Sunburst Band release, which became a long-term label project with a full-length album the following year. Again, it was another music project that reflected Dave’s roots as a soul, funk and disco digger, linking directly back to the roots of house music culture, luxuriating in the sweeping strings and Latin percussion of disco and the elegant musical sophistication of ’70s jazz funk. “This was the first proper album on Z Records,” Lee says, “as well as the debut LP from my jazz funk alias The Sunburst Band, so it was an important release for the label. Though it features live musicians/vocals it’s a little more sample-based than the later Sunburst Band LPs. Making an album is a lot of work and I’m equally proud of all of the Sunburst Band albums.”
Throughout the 90s, Z Records continued to create a quality catalogue of shimmering disco-house, soulful 4/4 and jazz funk flavoured grooves, always following Lee’s musical vision rather than the vagaries of ‘scenes’ that came and went. “We never followed fashion too much,” says Lee, “there was never any progressive house or whatever on Z, we pretty much stuck to US house, soulful house and disco house.”
This was also the peak era of remixes: in the ’90s you might get twenty or thirty thousand pounds for a big remix (which, when adjusted for inflation, would be at least double that today) and throughout the decade Lee had turned out plenty of sleek, mirrorball-flecked re-rubs for major labels. But this era came to an end with the digital revolution, and the start of the new century saw huge changes in the industry that would rearrange the music business from top to bottom, creating plenty of casualties on the way.
By the early/mid-2000s, many major labels were dissolving their dance divisions while vinyl distributors and record shops were going bust seemingly every week, often leaving huge unpaid debts — and Z Records weren’t immune to the chaos. “Over the years, we’ve had a few people go out of business and lost quite a lot of money, sometimes enough to put you out of business yourself, and that’s happened twice,” he recalls. “I always think in those situations, though, it could be worse: the worst possible scenario would be they go out of business when you’ve just released an album project you’ve been working on for eighteen months. So it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it was still quite a lot of money. And I suppose what that taught me is I don’t put all my eggs in one basket anymore.”
Z Records rode through the storm, taking some hits, learning some lessons, and most importantly, spreading the business around various platforms so that “If somebody does go under, it’s gonna be bad, but it’s not gonna be everything. It’s a damage limitation exercise.” It’s a practical, down-to-earth approach, born from years of experience deep in the industry, and this willingness to change with the times has been key for the label. “There was definitely a point in the mid-2000s,” he continues, “where the music business had to reevaluate how much it was spending on remixes and things like that and that was around the time, we were stepping it up on the label, doing more albums and doing more signings.” Z Records entered a period of readjustment as Lee broadened out their activities to adapt to the changing landscape, as well as serving his own creative direction. “I prefer to spend time just making my own music,” he says, “and I just got fed up with doing the remixes. I’d done some compilation albums for BBE and others, and I thought I could do some of these compilation album ideas myself on our label. It just felt like the right time.”
Eschewing ‘big name’ DJ-led comps in favour of projects put together by some of the world’s most knowledgable and dedicated collectors, Z Records enlisted the likes of Colin Curtis, Nick The Record, Faze Action and Horse Meat Disco, with Rahaan putting together the latest edition of popular rare soul and disco comp Under The Influence.
DJ Red Greg, who compiled the first edition of Under The Influence (as well as coming up with the series name), has been a Z Records fan since the earliest releases. “I particularly like the Remixed With Love and Produced With Love output,” he told us, “because there’s always a few songs that stay in my play box for years. The most current one is the remix of the Kokomo classic “Use Your Imagination.” Thirty-something years later, and the label is still as strong as ever, and I’m still playing the new releases/promos, that continue to fill dance floors around the world.”
Z Records has since become home to a series of serious diggers compilations, covering disco, brit-funk, go go, Italo house, 90s garage, jazz dance, funk and more. “We also started getting more remixes,” Lee says, “and we started doing some albums with up-and-coming producers, making it more than just a vehicle for my music.” In such an extensive catalogue it’s hard to pick out high points, but remixes from this period like Dennis Ferrer’s futurist-discoid remix of The Sunburst Band’s “Journey To The Sun” certainly stand out. “As you’d expect,” Lee recalls, “it was nothing like my version and generally a very original piece of music and I don’t think anything before or since sounds quite like it.”
Likewise, Jimpster’s potent remix of Akabu’s “I’m Not Afraid Of The Future” or Andre Chom & Chi Thanh’s remix of Jakatta’s “American Dream” similarly showcased a deeper side to the Z Records sound. Then there are all the unabashed nighttime anthems from the label too, from the seven minutes of sun-kissed joy that is 2005’s “Make A Move On Me,” to the dreamy glitter ball stylings of The Sunburst Band’s “In The Thick of It”, ’90s classics like “Must Be The Music” or the contemporary soulfulturism of Dam Swindle’s “Garden of Love” remix.
Z Records have produced three decades of beautiful, uplifting, positive, soulful music, music that’s soundtracked countless moments on dance floors all around the world, lifting up listeners, engaging their souls, making their feet move and their arms rise towards the lasers or the sunset. DJ and compiler Colin Curtis sums up their last three decades well: “Dave has remained faithful to his jazz funk soul roots and his music continues to reflect the essence of that movement — Z Records has left a permanent mark on the development of club music over the last 30 years.” Indeed. But is there an ethos behind it all? ”Not really!” Lee laughs, ever down-to-earth, “I suppose I’ve just tried to maintain quality music.” Perhaps it’s as simple as that: if there’s a secret to label longevity, maybe it’s nothing more complicated than a genuine commitment to good music.