rara chats with: Darker than Wax

“With Darker Than Wax, the music has been reduced to its most concentrated form. It’s pretty pure and simple, really. Founded by Funk Bast*rd and Kaye (Cosa Nostra), the label is basically a statement and a collection of like-minded musicans, artists and the like.
A statement on the pervasiveness of black music and the influence it has had oncountless genres and sub genres. A statement that it’s all about bringing it into the future. A statement that music should have depth, and that your racial/genetic/cultural make-up is irrelevant – only your soul is”.

With a blurb as strong as the tracks they’re putting out Darker Than Wax are an outfit worth taking note of – these guys are currently riding on a wave of great releases which shows no sign of letting up soon. We decided to have a chat with the two founders about the direction of the label, their new decision to put out physical releases & the rawness that they look for in new artists. 

Can you guys give me a brief rundown about yourselves?  How did Darker than Wax get started?

Kaye: We set up the label at the end of 2010. I think one of the reasons we set it up in the first place was because we weren’t making any headway in terms of our own productions  getting hooked up to the scene in Europe or America. So it got to the point where we thought we might as well do it ourselves. That was one of the main reasons to start the label. After that, there were people who came to us, especially in the Asian region, who weren’t very well represented and we thought that Darker than Wax could be a vehicle to push and promote Asian artists. Of course not exclusively Asian artist, but we did get a big population of Asian artists approaching us because there’s just nobody in this part of the world doing this kind of stuff as a label.

Funk Bast*rd: That was one of the main drivers. I think prior to that Kaye and I have always been involved in music, either producing, DJing or performing together for a long time, so I guess it’s an accumulation of various experiences, collectively and individually. But also, we were running this online radio platform called danceandsoul.com, which was a collection and curation of radio shows from around the world. We’ve always sort of fostered this whole sort of global connection with all these different communities around the world, so that was really one of the drivers as well. Why we wanted to create this whole label: to reinforce ties with people we are connected with, musically and spiritually. Slowly, Darker Than Wax grew organically into this. We don’t really like to use the world label, though. I like to say it closer to being a ‘movement of ideas. It has attracted a lot of artists from all over the world. From Brazil, from the UK, from America, from Japan.  We are 25 strong now, actually.

How would you describe the Darker Than Wax sound?

Funk Bast*rd: It’s essentially rooted in black American music, and all of its diaspora. Kaye comes strictly from a jazz background, Blue Note, Impulse! Where I come more from the soul, boogie, and jazz funk background. So those were our roots. With that came a lot of electronic music: hip-hop, deep house. Also Brazilian music. You can say it’s a hybrid of all sorts of African-American music and its cousins and influences.

Kaye:  I think as a label we are very conscious of the fact that music needs to have that punch, that huge dose of soul. Whether it is hip-hop, or electro funk, or a boogie track, or a house track. It’s got to have that element of “blackness” in it.

Funk Bast*rd: The rawness…

Kaye: That very gut wrenching thing that hits you. The down-home bluesy vibe. Not even a sound, but more a vibe. That is what usually pricks our ears first and say “Okay, There’s something there.” There’s always that which we look out for. At the same time, we don’t want to just repeat what this rich tradition has given us, but we want to consciously bring it forward and make it relevant to modern day ears and the modern day sound.

Funk Bast*rd: But also it’s so easy to just jump on certain musical trends, especially right now with social media, and become this huge monster. Darker Than Wax has always tried to shy away from that and really just promote actual diversity in music, and just really try to break down categories of how people define music. And that’s really worked, I guess for and against us. For in the sense that it’s really hard to pin us down; against because it’s really hard to define us at the same time. It’s been an interesting journey for us and the label.

You mentioned that “rawness” is a quality you you guys look for to fit the Darker Than Wax vibe, but how do you end up signing artists who say aren’t in Singapore? Is there a method of recruitment you use?

Funk Bast*rd: Kaye and I have very specific roles in the label. I handle about 80 percent of the A&R.And like what Kaye said, it’s usually that feeling. I just use my gut, my instinct. If whatever that person is producing hits me and I think it’s progressive and fresh, it doesn’t matter what genre it is, most likely I’ll get in touch with him and her and let that process unfold.

Darker Than Wax has a pretty International stable. Can you elaborate on why you choose to search far and wide for talent as opposed to focusing more on say, South East Asia, or even Singapore specifically, for example? What inspired this Internationalist sentiment?

Kaye: I think for us, it really doesn’t really matter where you’re from. Your genetic makeup shouldn’t put you in a hole. If it’s good music, it’s good music. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what age you are, what gender you are, or what country you come from.

Funk Bast*rd: That’s what we really try to do with the label: Break down all these boundaries that don’t really matter. And I guess there is also a certain type of maturity in a musician that we also look out for to be on the label. So we also look across international waters for that. But really, I don’t think the whole international vs homegrown category is that important to us. At all.

What do you think the role of being a record label in an age where basically anyone can post something for free on one of these self-publishing music websites and have it heard by millions of people, if any?

Funk Bast*rd: I think it’s essentially a curation of everything: from the music, to the artwork, to the narrative, to the language that you use. It’s a very basic sort of thing people subscribe to. It’s almost like a brand you create with certain values and if people can connect with those values, then you really start to create this whole demographic and a niche for yourself. That how I think Kaye and I really see Darker Than Wax, which is why we never really like to use the word label, but a movement of ideas.

Kaye: I would agree with that. I don’t look at Darker Than Wax as a label like how a typical label is run. For me, I am just recruiting soldiers to our cause, like a band of brothers.

So you guys are trying to approach the concept of a label as more of a collective really…

Kaye: You could say that.

Funk Bast*rd: It’s almost like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, to use an analogy. You have Toshiro Mifune who is just collecting this band of thugs and enlisting them to fight against the shogun. In a way, it’s as basic and primal as that. The loyalty thing is really quite important. And you find a lot of our artists really stick together like brothers in a way. It’s quite fascinating.

In that past, Darker Than Wax has been a digital based ‘movement of ideas,’ but you guys are now moving into the territory of physical releases, right?. Are there any specific reasons for this?

Kaye: Yeah, we are working on our first vinyl compilation this year I think one reason why a physical release is still important, especially something like vinyl, is because it gives you street cred. Because there’s so many digital labels, everyone is doing their own stuff. But when you have something to show for it in a physical product, I think it demands to be taken a lot more seriously. We realize the importance to have something like that. That’s why we went ahead to plan this compilations. Even though the studies have shown that music sales are down, there are still some intangible benefits from actually saying we have a physical product. And I think the street cred is definitely important in this day and age, because you can say what you want, but if people don’t believe your hype, they’re not going to bother following you.

Funk Bast*rd: At the same time, you could say we started out digitally because like a lot of other labels, we don’t want to fall into the trap of just having the pressure to release on vinyl. A lot of labels fall into that trap. And financially, it’s always a bit of a risk. Kaye and I like to take every step carefully, and plan and strategise, and get to a point where we know we are ready. And I think we are now. It’s about timing, really.

Kaye: We had to play our cards right, because we run a very, very tight ship. People that may not know Darker Than Wax may think we have an office or whatever, but we are really barebones. So we have to be smart with our finances so we are not suffering and paying for it in the long run. Everything has to be pretty well planned.

Funk Bast*rd: Precise and calculated. And we have been quite blessed because so far it’s been like self-sustainable machine, and we’d like to keep it that way actually (laughs)

Tell me more about the compilation coming out.

Funk Bast*rd: It’s actually a compilation in collaboration with another family label from Paris called Cascade Records. I’ve know the guy that runs the label from way back in Myspace days and we’ve always kept in touch. I’ve always pushed his label’s music and they’ve always supported ours. We share the same love for hip-hop and experimental beats and house music. He took his time to grow his labels like us. Eventually we just came together and said ‘I think it’s time to gather all of our artists from our labels and really curate this special double 12“compilations. It should be coming out in May.

Darker Than Wax is based in Singapore: Are you guy’s natives to Singapore?

Kaye: Yeah, we’re both native Singaporeans. I’m born and bred here. D was studying in Australia for a while, and then he came back. It’s really just because we happen to be physically here.

Funk Bast*rd: Also, I really feel that pulse in this part of the world is really centered around Singapore, where everything seems to happen a lot quicker, a lot faster, and a lot more efficiently. So it makes a lot of sense strategically to be based here, aside from the fact that we are natives. To be honest, I have a pride that at least we have a label from Singapore. Singapore has never really been identified as a musical stronghold. But right now, I’m really quite proud and happy to say that Darker Than Wax comes out as one of the first things from Singapore that people will talk about. I think that was secretly driving me and Kaye. 

And I imagine the fact that Singapore is the ‘Tech Hub’ of Southeast Asia doesn’t hurt…

Kaye: Yeah. The infrastructure is all here, if you want to get something set up, it’s pretty easy compared to other Southeast Asian countries.

Funk Bast*rd: We had that advantage. Low corporate taxes and regulations make it easy for small companies like that to get started, basically.

Kaye: And on top of that, it’s funny that even though we’re from Singapore and we’re quite far removed from American and Europe scenes, we actually get a lot of the artists because we have a pretty vibrant night life scene and we have international DJs and live performers coming in almost every week to perform at a club, or at some festival. And we’ve been based here long enough that we get a bit of backdoor accesses to meet these guys and grow our own network which is much more effective here than if we were to go there and start handing out flyers or hook up meetings or whatever. So in a sense, they are coming to us. And we already have access to them because we know the promoters, the organizers, the club owners…

Funk Bast*rd:  And we then organize how to bring these guys back again, so the relationship is continuous.

Kaye: Actually being in Singapore has turned out to be quite strategic for us because we get to build an international network without setting foot out of the country.

Funk Bast*rd: And also interestingly enough, I’m a stats kind of guy, so I like to look at where our listeners are from, and our biggest fan base is from America! And in Europe, especially France.

Kaye: Singapore counts for less than 10 percent, actually. Which is strange, but that’s how it is.

Funk Bast*rd: We actually have an artist from New York named Koetry. Really talented guy. He’s one of the artists we’re going to be promoting a lot this year.

Who in the Darker Than Wax stable are you most excited about right now?

Kaye: Definitely Maxx Mortimer from New Zealand.

Funk Bast*rd: A couple of guys. Max Mortimer. This other really young and talented artist Samuel Truth, also from New Zealand.  He’s been blowing up in a really big way the last few months, gaining massive likes and hits and play from so many different channels. There are also a few Dutch beat artists of ours like Trian Kayhau, Jael. This Parisianguy named Monk’. Interestingly enough he’s getting featured in in the next Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings compilation. That’s a really big step. We have huge respect for Brownswood, so getting one of our artists on their next compilation was one of our biggest moves this year.

Kaye: That was quite a big thing for us when they dropped his name. And this other producer from Vienna named Milo Mill$. He’s been on the radar for a while now and he’s starting to get noticed. Yeah, there’s definitely a couple of guys that we know are going to blow up sooner or later, we just have to curate them properly and push them in the right direction.

Well, thanks for talking to us here at rara. We’ve really enjoyed it and are looking forward to hearing more from DTW in the future. Any last words you want to leave us with?

Funk Bast*rd: You can be sure we’re going to stick around for a long time to come. We’ve seen a lot of labels come strong and fizzle, but I think we’re just going to be the annoying little ants that are crawling over your kitchen table for the next 20 years.

Kaye: Yeah, because I think one of the mains reasons why we have been around for so long, not just as Darker Than Wax, but as us. We’ve been in the scene for more than a decade. We’ve seen other labels come and go; we’ve seen other collectives come and go, and we’re still here. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we aren’t trying so desperately to try and jump on a trend bandwagon. We’re not trendy people. And strangely enough, even though we’re not trying to follow trends, or set trends, we do it naturally because we’re not thinking about. It just translates as more depth because we have a deep understanding of music from the 1940s to now. Where a new label that wants to come out and release nothing but trap is going to fizzle out and die in two or three because they don’t have anything to go backward to. And we always have the strong roots in music from the classic eras for the 1950s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s and I think once you have that backing you up, you really don’t need to be afraid. You just keep moving forward, and you don’t have to be afraid of what’s coming next, how genres are going to change, how trends are going to change, because we understand the music.

Funk Bast*rd: And we will be there anyway. We will arrive at that point naturally.

Kaye: I think the big thing that differentiates us from quite a few others is that we have that the depth, and we have the knowledge, and we know we have the knowledge.  So it’s how do we take this knowledge and make it last as long as possible.

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