It’s a long way from hosting sweaty hip-hop parties to celebrating your record company’s 18th birthday at Brighton & Hove’s most prestigious venue. For Tru Thoughts co-owner Robert Luis, it’s a journey packed with great music, passion and plenty of soul power. “For me, the best-case scenario when the label started was it’d still be there and I’d still be doing nights,” he tells me. “There wasn’t a perception of ‘18 years later’. Part of what we’ve done hasn’t been about looking back, we’re always looking forwards.” After building his Phonic Hoop night into a staple of the local clubbing scene, the next step was to release a few singles and compilations. The aim was to develop a new challenge, whilst releasing some music he could also play out. Then 2000 saw the release of Bonobo’s Animal Magic debut, which sparked a surge in the down-tempo scene. Suddenly, everything began to get serious.
This album, with its ethereal, funk-kissed electronica, was a distinct step away from the more B-boy orientated sounds Luis had broken through with. However, Bonobo’s enthusiastic, truthful, and innovative approach to music-making would set the blueprint for every artist the company later invested in. “Our belief does influence things. I saw that early on. People can tell if a label or an artist is believing in their own music. I’m always saying to artists: ‘Never make a record for me or Tru Thoughts. Make a record for yourself, then try and convince me.’” Now the label’s joyous eclecticism sees releases as diverse as Latino experimentation, funk, brushes with psychedelia, jazz fusion and grime.
Luis guides a roster of artists like Quantic, Hidden Orchestra, Space Captain, Anchorsong, Alice Russell and Lakuta. It’s a broad spectrum, which reflects musical tastes on a global scale. “My taste in music is quite broad. I like musical things; I like hip hop, jungle and all that hard style, but what we found early on with Quantic and Bonobo was that people liked the fact they used samplers but were also playing instruments.” It’s always about releasing interesting music. The signing of Quantic and his dancefloor-friendly jazz fusion enabled a bold evolution, which even Luis couldn’t prophesise. The subsequent embracing of Cumbia, a vibrant Latin dance style, might not have happened on another label. “I didn’t know anything about the Colombian scene. He was staying at my house after doing some gigs and he had an accordion. I was like: ‘What’s going on?’ Then he explained that scene to me.” By his own admission, when Luis signed Quantic, he wasn’t anticipating releasing accordion music. But passion and innovation from artists is what drives Tru Thoughts forwards. “With the world of streaming services people are a lot more open-minded. Doing the Green Door Store the other week, we had a death metal band on before. I thought no-one is going to stay for my night [Sonic Switch]. But about 30 or 40 people stayed on. It made me realise it’s not like it used to be with tribalism. That barrier has gone, and that’s a great thing.” He hopes there’s understanding with people, that whatever the label releases, from the leftfield to the party-starters, it will sit alongside the very best in its genre.
After a sell-out live show part of Brighton Festival this year, Tru Thoughts return to the Dome for a special party with some of their most important artists. “Paul (co-owner) said: ‘Let’s just do the Dome!’ We should do something in Brighton to celebrate. Also, it might be another 18 years before we can get all of those artists together at the same time.” The event brings together Quantic (DJ set), Hot 8 Brass Band (above) and Alice Russell, along with new signings Werkha and Bryony Jarman-Pinto, bolstered by DJ sets from Luis, Wrongtom and J-Felix.
For many in the industry the path to glory can be hard going. Overnight success is rare for musicians and producers. Many will still have a part time job to support themselves. Luis is aware of the need to widen participation. If the scene is reliant on parents funding musicians it might not get the best artists. “It’s maybe not as bad as that – Grime has got through from people who struggled. I feel there’s a lot of money in the music industry, so maybe there’s something that needs to be done help support those people who come from relatively poor backgrounds.” For all his artists, he endeavours to help them understand the business side. The industry can be “a minefield”. Sitting in on meetings or learning appreciate why certain strategies work is increasingly important.
For the talent, a big attraction of signing to Tru Thoughts is that it’s run by fellow musicians and music fans. “They have a certain passion for the artist’s vision and desires, and are fully devoted to working hand in hand with the artist to see it through.” Bennie from Hot 8 Brass Band tells me. Luis’ first US signing, these Grammy-nominees collide the exuberance of a New Orleans Mardi Gras party with funk and hip-hop. In the last few years, their songs have featured in several films and commercials, while the band now draw massive live audiences around the world. “I believe staying committed and focused to the strategy we both collectively put in place, has allowed us both to prosper throughout certain problems or issues that come with making it to the next level,” he continues. Hot 8 Brass Band are the epitome of Tru Thoughts’ less traditional
approach to generating success and cultural impact. But then this is more than just a record company. And its artists all feel proud to represent a family of likeminded individuals. Ostensibly the focus for everybody is on being creative. As a DJ, Luis is always looking for interesting music, and as a boss he simply gets excited by a challenge. “It’s about capturing the moment. Sometimes it will just click in. Everything’s a gamble. If there was a magic formula, there’d be one person who was very, very rich.”