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Kevin McKay

Moving beyond the sample

2019 Nov 12     
2 Bit Thugs

The Glasgow Underground boss on why he's just released an entire album of cover versions

It's been a good eight years since iDJ last spoke to Glasgow Underground boss Kevin McKay.

Back then, he was busy relaunching the label, which – having been running since 1997 – hadn't put out anything since 2007. That was partly because of the doldrums the dance music industry generally found itself in during the mid-late 00s, but also because Kevin had been busy running his other label, Breastfed Recordings, which had just experienced huge success courtesy of Mylo and his Destroy Rock & Roll album.

That was in 2011, and iDJ itself left the building not long after. By the time iDJ re-emerged online in 2015, Glasgow Underground had re-established its position as one of the most respected house labels around, with releases from the likes of Ilyus & Barrientos, Raffa FL, Camelphat, Alaia & Gallo and CJ Jeff helping to keep the label's name a fixture on the download charts.

But we'll come to Glasgow Underground's successful rebirth in due course: what we're really here to talk about is Kevin's own new long-player, No Samples Were Harmed In The Making Of This Record, which features his covers of 14 dancefloor classics, from 70s disco and soul nuggets like Don't Leave Me This Way and I Feel Love, to 90s favourites like Move Your Body, Such A Good Feeling and A Deeper Love.

Covers albums are nothing new, of course: indeed, the likes of UB40 and Rod Stewart have turned the artform into what's essentially a second career. What's interesting about No Samples… though, are Kevin's reasons for making the album in the first place. As he explains below, it was born out of frustration with the time-consuming and costly process of clearing samples, particularly when the copyright in the original recording is held by a major label.

The days when dance music producers merrily lifted samples left, right and centre are long gone, and while re-edits have become a scene staple in recent years, most operate in a legal grey area at best: to do things legitimately would, in many if not most cases, render the entire project financially non-viable. Which is why, instead of making re-edits for his DJ sets, Kevin decided to remake the tracks in question entirely from scratch.

Read on to find out more about the No Samples… project, and about what it's been like running one of Scotland's most famous record labels second time around.

We'll start with the new album… where did the idea come from in the first place?

"Well, I started DJing again in the past few years, and doing some parties in London because I've got a friend who's the booker at Mick's Garage in Hackney. He's done a couple of things on Glasgow Underground, and he was saying he wanted to do a party that had that kind of nostalgia vibe as a theme, but not a night where it's 100% retro all the time… more like something like Secret Cinema, where it's a modern concept but referencing the past.

"And I really liked that idea, so I started thinking about things I could play from the 90s, and we started talking about records that I remembered, or records he's discovered on YouTube, because he's a bit younger than me. But a lot of them don't really stand up sonically by today's standards, so I started doing some re-edits.

"And then the problem is that, with a lot of those records, the copyright is owned by major labels, so you can't clear the samples. Well, you can, but you're looking at a minimum cost of about £2,000. To make that back, you pretty much need a Beatport Top 10 record. Now okay, we've had Beatport Top 10 records on Glasgow Underground, but the majority of what we do is aimed simply at DJs, people that play house music on a Saturday night. So I thought, forget the sample clearance, let's see if I can remake these tracks.

"The internet's brought on the ability to do that in leaps and bounds, because if you can't do something, you can get on the internet and find someone who can: you don't need a studio to invite people to, you can find people who can record vocals and send you the files, stuff like that. And I've got a vocal producer friend who's got a brilliant list of contacts, so between the two of us we started remaking these records.

"We started with an edit of Enjoy The Silence that I thought people would love, but when I played it out… flat as a pancake! Then I did an edit of I Feel Love, and that totally went off. It's interesting because the crowd I was playing to was younger, 20s to early 30s, so their appreciation is a bit different from mine: sometimes they connect with stuff I think they'll like, sometimes they don't.

"But yeah, that's how it started: me making records to play on a Saturday night, then remaking them. And then I decided that, rather than getting into the minutiae of it – what's a sample, what's an edit – I'd just call them all cover versions. If I've changed anything I've only changed it a bit, otherwise they've been remade pretty faithfully. It's been an interesting way of making music, and it kind of reminds me of the 90s."

How so?

"Because back then, if you were putting out records on an underground level, selling maybe two or three thousand copies, most people never bothered clearing samples. We were so low-level in the music industry that no one really bothered! If you made a record that sampled Michael Jackson and sold 20,000 copies then yes, someone would come after you. But at the level we were at, no one really cared, so you just did it, and on the off-chance that it got successful you could worry about clearing the samples later.

"This reminded me of that, except now it's perfectly legal, so I can make a track, put it up on YouTube straight away, and everyone's getting paid! And I got excited by that idea and thought, 'Right, what else can I do?'. So that was the start of it, really."

So at the point when you decided you were doing an album's worth of these tracks, how did you go about selecting the tracklist?

"Some it was just doing stuff and gauging the dancefloor reaction, but some of them were done specifically for the album, to make it all flow. Some of the tracks are very dancefloor-focused, so then you do some more to round out the album – to make it a more satisfying experience for people who are just listening on Spotify. It's got to work for them, too.

"I think I did six or seven of these covers just for the club, before I started thinking about an album. And then I've kind of drip-fed a few of them out via the download sites, and now they're all packaged as an album. To be honest, I'm not sure how important or valid a format the album really is these days, but that's how I wanted to do it."

I'd have thought the album was the ideal format, because a lot of the market for a project like this will presumably be slightly older listeners?

"Well, yeah… hopefully it'll work! I'm aware it's not a very fashionable approach, but you can't base all your decisions – creative decisions or business decisions – on what other people are doing. This works for me, so I'm doing it. And I've got my own label, so I can!" [laughs]

Moving on from the concept of the album to the process of actually making it – there are some much loved tunes on there. So you're piling a lot of expectation onto your own shoulders…

"Totally… and there've been some people who don't like what I'm doing, who say those classics shouldn't be touched. But the problem I have is, because the major labels were so active in dance music back then, they'd commission a load of different remixes, even of poppier acts, and that doesn't seem to happen so much now. Yet you can't do it yourself either, because of the sample clearance barrier.

"The remixes that do get done these days are mostly aimed at getting your record onto the specialist shows on Radio 1, which means you get a lot of remixes by certain producers just because Radio 1 plays a lot of their stuff. But having always been a working DJ who doesn't just play underground music… I used to love those records, like those Italian house mixes of Sister Sledge in the early 90s. You can't scratch that itch now, unless you do it illegally. and then the original artist doesn't get paid. I'm just trying to do this the right way, as much as possible."

Did the process of making the album change your relationship with any of these songs in any way?

"Not really, except it does make you appreciate them even more. And there were certainly some I tried to do and couldn't: my versions just didn't stand up compared to the original, so I ditched them.

"Whereas with the version of A Deeper Love on the album, for instance: for me that definitely stands up better sonically, in a modern house set, than the original. You can't really play the original alongside contemporary tunes – it'll suck all the energy out of the room. But you can play mine – even if someone on Twitter does think that the B3 would've sounded better if I'd recorded it to 1/4-inch tape. Like, yeah, whatever you say dude! 

"But yeah, there were a few I couldn't manage to emulate to my own satisfaction, and just gave up on. And there's a few that I'm still working on, so watch this space!"

Have you had any reactions from any of the original artists?

"Well, yes, there was one artist got a bit upset, because I did a version of their best-known track and they thought I'd sampled their vocal… but the thing is, I hadn't! And artists don't like finding out that perhaps they're not quite as unique and special as they thought. Writing a song is one thing, but performing it… some performers, sorry to say, just aren't that unique. Some you can't imitate, as I've found… but a lot you can!

"In fact that was really the benchmark when I was making these tunes: would I be happy to play my edit out rather than the original? And when I was, that's when I'd nailed it."

And as you said, it's on your own label, so you can do what you want! So let's talk about the label. When we spoke about you restarting it in 2011, did you think you'd still be doing it eight years on, or was it more a case of "do it and see what happens"?

"Well, I'd be lying if I said I didn't want the label to succeed! The good thing was, when I rebooted the label in 2011, compared to starting it up in the 90s, I obviously had that much more experience and knowledge of how the industry works. I wasn't as confident back then, because I was new at it. So for instance, there'd be someone I wanted to work with, back then, but I'd be too scared to ask them… I worried they'd just laugh at me.

"But this time, I just approached people I thought were making great dance music and asked if they wanted to work with Glasgow Underground. And obviously second time around the label had some history to it, so I could approach people like Artform or Matthas Tanzmann about doing stuff for us, and I'd get a response. These people were my contemporaries, and maybe now they're a lot more successful than I am, but we all came up at the same time, and they remember the label back in the 90s."

It all sounds a bit like when we relaunched iDJ online in 2015…

"Exactly! I mean, I honestly don't know how I'd have fared if I was trying to start a label from scratch in 2011, because I came at it with a history behind me, and people generally responded positively. By 2011, you had a lot of DJs who'd only ever used Beatport and Traxsource, rather than going in vinyl stores. So they wouldn't have known the label – with that younger generation, it was a case of getting their attention again by using the contacts I already had with the older generation.

"But yeah, I certainly hoped I'd still be doing it eight years later… I love working in my studio and I can't really imagine doing anything else, so I'm delighted to still be doing it, and that the label's been reasonably successful and that you see Glasgow Underground releases right up there in the download charts."

Would you have carried on doing it if it hadn't worked, though? If you hadn't had that commercial success?

"Probably not, to be very honest. There was a period when I wasn't making music very much because of what happened with Mylo: I'd become more involved in the management and business side of things, and I kind of lost touch with DJing and music production for a while. I was always tinkering but I never really finished anything!

"So no, I probably wouldn't, I'd have moved on. I mean, making music is one thing, that's very personal. But in terms of putting it out… if it's not connecting with anyone out there, why bother releasing it? Just make music for pleasure! I'd do that, I think, but all the bother of putting records out and promoting them… if it didn't earn me a living I wouldn't do it.

"Glasgow Underground was a very underground label back in the day, and commercial considerations didn't enter into things back then. In fact, I probably made some bad decisions, business-wise, just because I was such a deep house snob! I was still finding my way and caring more about being cool. And it was cool, kind of, but then I'd look at people like Masters At Work and they were on a whole other level of success. So second time around I wanted that success: I didn't want to sit on the sidelines watching, I wanted to be involved!"

Last couple of questions… is there anything else about the album we haven't touched on?

"Well, on a related note there's the whole issue of samples, and new European legislation that forces music platforms to take control over copyright protection for the music that's uploaded to them.

"As it stands right now, you can still upload a track to Beatport with an uncleared sample in it, and it's up to the copyright holder to spot it, contact Beatport and ask for it to be taken down. Now, with the new legislation, the onus is on the platform to prevent copyright infringement – and if they don't, the copyright holder can sue. So it'll be interesting to see what happens there: if the major labels really go on the warpath, then we will see a lot less sample-based tracks being released."

So this album could be pre-empting a wider phenomenon, you think?

"Well, I just think it's an interesting conversation to have, because dance and electronic music is often at the forefront of the creative side of music, and sampling has always been a huge part of that. Sampling is inherently important to dance music production, so if you take that away from people, we're going to be looking at a very different landscape. I think these conversations are important to have, from a creative point of view."

I suspect people will find a way, though! Look at 1920s America, when the record labels didn't want their records played on the radio – a whole parallel record industry sprang up, just to service radio stations. Or South Africa during the cultural boycott, when they couldn't get those early acid house records so they made their own bootlegged versions. The culture will adapt and survive, won't it?

"Well, yes, and of course it's not necessarily a bad thing, from a creative viewpoint, to work within certain restrictions in place – it can actually inspire you to be more creative.

"But here's another thing… see, I always thought that if you wanted to cover someone's song, no one could stop you, as long as the songwriters were credited and you were paying royalties and stuff. But it turns out, as I've learned recently, that's not true any more!

"Since Spotify, YouTube etc came along, the major publishers have done deals with these platforms, and now if they don't like your cover they can have it taken down. Before, all the major publishers handled rights through MCPS and PRS, so you bought a blanket licence from them and then you could record any song you liked, press it up on vinyl, no problem. But now, if you want to put it on YouTube and Spotify, you might not be able to.

"That's interesting, because a lot of bands and artists learn their trade doing covers. If you look at early Beatles or Rolling Stones albums, or even the first Chic album, there's loads of covers on there! So taking that ability away from people… I'm not sure that's a good idea. So far it's only happened to us once, but it's something I think artists and producers need to keep an eye on."

For sure. And now, finally, what else is going on for you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?

"I'm DJing quite regularly… I still do the party at Mick's Garage in Hackney Wick once a month, and I'm DJing all over the UK. Not abroad so much right now though, because I've got a new baby due any time soon!

"And label-wise we've had a great year and we've got some cool new stuff coming up from Cubiko, Alaia & Gallo, we've got a great rework of Junior Jack's E-Samba – that was all cleared very easily, so we didn't have to remake it – and Matt Sassari's done a remix of that as well. So yeah, lots of cool stuff going on, and I'm really happy!"

Words: Russell Deeks

No Samples Were Harmed In The Making Of This Record is out now on Glasgow Underground. Buy it here.

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Tags: Kevin McKay, Glasgow Underground, sampling, sample clearance, re-edits, cover versions