During the late 1990s, few UK rap acts were heard on the radio airwaves as much as East London’s Funky DL. His early tracks – ‘Da Individual’ and ‘1-2-2-1’ – were supported by the likes of Westwood, Max ‘n’ Dave and DJ 279, helping Funky DL to quickly build up a strong following. Critics were quick to disparage DL for rapping in an American accent but few could question the quality of his producing skills. His use of mellow jazz samples led to comparisons being made between his style and that of respected US artists like A Tribe Called Quest and Pete Rock.
In 1996 DL got his first main break when he won a competition for unsigned artists run by London’s Kiss FM radio station with a track called ‘Breath Hip Hop’. “Winning that meant I was able to cut a record, and do some more tracks like ‘20-20-8-8’ and ‘Classic Moves’,” DL explains as we chill out in his Stratford flat. “Then from that I was able to get [a lot of] radio play and features in certain journals. The buzz from the street was there, so I was able to land myself a two-single deal with Almo Sounds and that turned into an album deal.”
Unfortunately, things never worked out properly between Funky DL and Almo. In 1997, following the release of the creditable singles ‘Soul Silhouette’ and ‘Circles’, DL moved to Utmost Records and released his debut LP ‘Classic Was The Day’. He remained at Utmost for two years, dropping albums annually and regularly releasing 12”s in between. In 1999, DL made the decision to leave Utmost and began releasing material independently through his own label – Washington Classics.
“Up until late last year, I wouldn’t even have called Washington Classics a label cos it was only my music that was coming out,” DL states. “But last year, we took on Sienna, a female singer. We’ve already done one 12” – ‘Let it Rain’ backed with ‘Leave me Behind’. Then we’ve got a girl group called J’Leish that I’ve been working with. We’ve just put out a single abroad [“Ain’t Got The Time”] and it’s doing alright. We have an American rapper as well called Seks. We released one of his 12”s [‘Understand’] abroad a few months back and we’ve just finished his next release. The A-side is produced by DJ Parris, it’s called ‘Jump to This’. The B-side is called ‘Fire’ and it’s produced by me.”
Funky DL plans to expand further the roster of new artists on Washington Classics as well as do more production work for established artists in the UK. However, since DL is responsible for overseeing all the projects that he and his label’s acts are involved in, he finds that he is more busy now than when he was a signed artist. "Now it’s a lot more stress,” DL admits, “but I think it’s better running your own label than being signed.” He adds “I get to decide what tracks I release, when I release them, how it’s packaged, how it’s promoted, who I work with and then I’m able to see 100% of the revenue afterwards. It’s hard work and I’m not saying I recommend that other people do exactly what I’m doing because it depends on how you are as an individual. Some people just wanna be creative and they don’t want to do paperwork, make phone calls or arrange this and that. It’s not something that I like to do, but I know that these are the moves I have to make to get myself in a position where I wanna be."
DL’s goal of becoming financially secure through his music-making activities, means that not only has he had to look outside rap music and move into r&b production, but he has also had to set his sights beyond the domestic market in order to maximise record sales for his label. “God put the whole world here for us. I’m not gonna limit myself to London or the UK cos we’re just an island,” he says. “It’s a lot harder to try and get distribution out here, so a lot of the stuff that I’ve released hasn’t even come out in the UK. There are places like France, Germany and Croatia that are kind of into what I’m doing and some DJs in America really want what I do but Japan is where 90% of my music goes.” He continues, “I never once targeted Japan. I just made music and gave the shit out to record export companies and the Japanese started calling up. It’s unbelievable. Japan is a tiny country and when I think of how many records I’ve sold to Japan, if I could lock down the same sort of market in Europe and in America, I’d be laughing!”
The popularity of DL’s music in Japan has meant that he has been able to tour the nation every year since 1999. “It’s amazing,” says DL of the response he gets when out there. “They think ‘well, it’s Funky DL, we’ve seen his records in the stores, we hear his tunes on the radio, we have to take the opportunity to go and see him; cos we don’t know when he’s next coming back’. They don’t even understand what I’m talking about, but they’re able to show me more support than any UK crowd I’ve ever stood in front of has. So when I go over there, it’s on the next level. It makes me not want to come back home!”
Clearly Funky DL is disappointed with the current state of the UK’s homegrown rap scene. “Hip hop in this country is dead,” he states matter-of-factly. “I don’t even like to say the words ‘United Kingdom’, cos we’re not very united. I think we’ve got a long way to go. I don’t think we can name one person from the UK who has been signed to a label, stayed at that label, made a consistent amount of albums, has been successful at it and has international status, while staying in the UK. So, to me, when I look at that I think ‘where are we going wrong in the UK?’ When you look at America, you can find so many artists that have been on the same label [for years]: Gang Starr, De La Soul, KRS One. A Tribe Called Quest were on Jive for about ten years. With UK mans, no-one even survives a year at the moment. My first deal lasted about four months!
“There needs to be more airplay [for UK artists] and more acts getting signed. But first of all, it starts with respect. It starts with respecting yourself as an artist, respecting what you wanna do and respecting other artists. I did a show with Eminem and Dr Dre in front of two and a half thousand people at the Brixton Academy and they offered me £100. And in fact, they couldn’t even pay me that. Where’s the level of respect for what I do? I think a lot of things need to be changed to show acts that they are valued.”
DL also believes that it is up to artists to prove to promoters, DJs and other industry insiders that they material is of a quality that deserves to be valued. DL is continuously looking to improve the standard of his work and he is pleased that he is able to see clearly the results of his own efforts.
“As an artist, I think I’ve developed a hell of a lot,” he says proudly. “When I started it was more about the passion of doing it. It was about the hunger and the will to succeed and just to make the best music I possibly could. That hasn’t changed, but what I think more about now is the business side of it, the nature of what I’m doing and where I wanna get to with it. Therefore, that affects the type of music I make, what I’m talking about and the way that I say it. I really think about the countries I’m selling in, the type of vibe that they’re into so I can make my music accessible to them.
“As a rapper I feel that I’ve progressed a lot. I think my flow is a lot tighter. The content that I now have behind songs has grown. It’s not about just rhyming on a song and trying to be the hottest lyricist out there or trying to make the best beat out there. It’s a combination of sounding good as a rhymer, having a good beat, and bringing a vibe to a track.”
It won’t be long before we will be able judge for ourselves how much Funky DL has enhanced his music-making formula. He is currently putting the final touches to his fifth opus. “My next album, entitled ‘Blackcurrant Jazz’ is due to be released in Japan in October and in the UK probably in November,” he declares. “With this album, I just felt ‘let me take it back to what I originally was all about’. Cos I think since I did ‘Classic Was The Day’, with every album I’ve done, I’ve kind of lost a bit of a jazzy feel. So this album – it’s very, very jazzy.
“Lyrically, I’ve tried to be a bit more on-point with what I’m saying. Also on a couple of tracks, I’ve just decided to say stuff that I wouldn’t have said before about the way I feel about rap over here [in the UK] and where our music is going. So, to me, this album is kinda fresh. Every time I listen to it, I think I just wanna get this out and get people to hear it.”
Though his solo work has often been praised – in 1997 it garnered him a MOBO Award for Best Hip Hop Act – DL ultimately sees his biggest accomplishment as simply being able to consistently release albums. “I’ve released an album every year since 1997,” he reflects. “I will always be the first man ever to commercially release five [hip hop] albums from this country.” He concludes, “Some can start their career tomorrow and release twenty, but I will always be the first. That will never be taken away from me.”
‘Blackcurrant Jazz’ LP released on Washington Classics