“… At Basement Records we also wanted the artists to sample as little as possible, to create pioneering and original material, hence the label title ‘Precious Material’. Some of the releases are produced in the studio and some are recorded live performances…”- Phil Wells reflects on the label’s ethos and purpose
After a long hiatus, the blog’s “Whatever happened to …?” series return with the 9th installment. This time into the limelight is Precious Material; one of the most exhilarating and pioneering drum & bass labels of the mid-90s. Though short-lived, Precious Material has been one of the finest outlets of experimental drum and bass, integrating elements from various musical genres into the drum & bass template, defying stereotypes, constraints and agendas.
Established by Phil Wells in 1994 as a Basement Records’ subsidiary, during a time when drum & bass was still in its infancy, the main driver had been to foster a creative environment for established, as well as up-and-coming artists, free from dance-floor reactions and limitations. Following the huge success of the parent label Basement Records during the early rave years and the jungle/drum & bass evolution, Phil’s aspiration and incentive had always been to spearhead a new musical direction and introduce drum & bass to wider audiences.
“… When we released something that was more musical, which wasn’t dominated by a big drop or riff and you had to wait for the track to grow, the djs were not so keen. So I decided to launch a sub-label, where the brief for the artists was to be more experimental and not constrained by dance-floor reactions. This is why a lot of Basement artists featured on the early releases … the label name was meant to be ‘Precious Material’, but due to an error, when the information was sent to the art department, it ended up as ‘Precious Materials’. The label name was corrected on the later releases…” – Phil Wells
“… ‘Precious Material’ was one of those labels whereby you could record whatever you liked. We had never conformed to any rules within drum and bass ever, so we felt right at home. We were always pushing the boundaries and doing the total opposite to what everyone else was doing, to stand out, be different and experiment. I had been down to Vinyl Distribution with a friend, KC, who was running Deep & Dark Recordings. There was an imprint I wanted to pitch to them, which was the label Flavour Trax. This was when I first met Phil and the relationship started. We did a few Flavour Trax releases and during this time Phil started to tell us about his plans for Precious Material. Conrad (Blame) and I really just wanted to get on and record music…” – Tony Bowes
The endeavour obviously succeeded, garnering praise and support from a wide array of djs and radio producers, receiving great reviews from the music press and fans alike and being touted as the label to watch out for in 1997.
Ironically enough, 1997 was the last year of the label’s activity, mainly due to political reasons associated with Vinyl Distribution. Phil left Vinyl Distribution, a company he had built since 1990 and therefore stopped releasing music on all of his labels. It was an inevitable decision beyond Phil’s desire or control, despite the label’s success. As a result, some wonderful projects had to be shelved. Three years later, Phil launched Pivotal Entertainment in an attempt to emulate the same musical approach, agenda and ethos with Precious Material.
Artists and discography highlights
A diverse variety of artists and acts has graced the Precious Material back catalogue with 19 singles during the label’s activity. Supported by electronic music luminaries such as John Peel, Pete Tong, Giles Peterson, Laurent Garnier, Mixmaster Morris, Judge Jules, LTJ Bukem, Grooverider, Fabio, Doc Scott to name but a few, the label’s catalogue has been an injection of freshness and originality, before the wave of noir swept the scene in the second half of the 90s.
Mayhem (Martin Ikin)
Mayhem – Do You Want It b/w Why Can’t We See – PM001 – 1994
The first Precious Material record was released in 1994 by the rave/hardcore producer Dj Mayhem; widely known for his earlier releases on parent label Basement and the ultra-classic ‘Inesse’ on Face Records. Capturing the ’94 mood with euphoric vocals, piano riffs and tight drum editing, the first release serves as a seamless transition from hardcore and jungle to the emerging drum and bass sound.
Jazz Juice (Alex Reece, Paul Sanders aka Wax Doctor)
Jazz Juice – Jazz Juice b/w Move Your Body – PM002 – 1995
Jazz Juice – Detroit b/w Back To Back – PM008 – 1995
Jazz Juice – Detroit Remixes – PM016
Jazz Juice is one of the recording aliases of Alex Reece & Wax Doctor; two of the most talented and influential producers in the history of drum & bass, with an enviable back catalogue for some of the most prestigious labels and among the first drum & bass producers to sign major record deals with Island and R&S Records respectively. Both releases are considered the label’s highlights to this day, effortlessly injecting electro and techno into drum & bass, receiving wide radio and dj support across the electronic music spectrum.
“… Without doubt this is my favourite release on my Precious Material label. Paul & Alex excelled when producing this blinding fusion of techno and drum & bass. Still now, it has a freshness about it, which will always ensure it’s never forgotten. The EP also had two wonderful remixes from long-term friend and magical producer Justice.
A little story that you may find amusing, regarding the Laurent Garnier remix, which also featured on the EP. I have always been a massive fan of Laurent & his F Communications label. He had been supporting my label since its first release, which is why I asked him to remix this for me. At that time he had just made ‘Crispy Bacon’, so when the first remix of ‘Detroit’ landed on my desk I was very excited to hear it. However, after listening to it I was disappointed, as it reflected the ‘Crispy Bacon’ tune, which was not what I wanted or expected, so I rang Laurent to ask if he would mind going in on it again. He reluctantly did so, a week or so passed before the mix turned up, but again I wasn’t feeling it, so I had to ask him again and I can assure you he wasn’t happy about it. After a long session on the phone, where I explained what I really wanted was a mix that reflected the lush and deep sound that was the trademark of F Com and that I felt this style would work so great with the parts from the original tune, he agreed to do it once again.
Two weeks later, he rang me out of the blue and told me he was at Heathrow, so could I come and pick him up and he said “Let’s see, you tell me to my face that this mix isn’t good enough …”, so I got him, drove him back to Reading and played the mix. This time it was exactly how I had always imagined it to be, simply wonderful. Laurent left that evening with loads of free tunes and a smile on his face. A few weeks later when the EP was released at the same time as ‘Crispy Bacon’, Muzik Magazine put both tracks in their essential buys, stating that these two tracks showed the two sides of Mr. Garnier. He was chuffed to pieces and rang me to say he was so pleased I had pushed him to get what I wanted. The result was a stunning 4 track EP for Precious Material that deserves its place in drum & bass history…” – Phil Wells on ‘Detroit’
“… My final outing for the label was the now seminal ‘Detroit’ remixes for Jazz Juice. Obviously, this is a tune that is synonymous with the label and both the mixes that I did were used alongside the mighty Laurent Garnier. Phil has recounted the story about Laurent having to remix it 3 times; well after appearing on this 12″ with him, myself and Laurent would exchange a couple of phone calls and Laurent asked me to remix something from his ‘Club Traxx EP’ on F Com, which I did, twice, neither of which he used! So there is some kind of symmetry to the story of Laurent and multiple remixes…” – Tony Bowes on ‘Detroit’
A Touch Of Jazz (Ron Wells aka Jack Smooth, Robert Richardson aka Floorfiller)
A Touch Of Jazz – Respected Not Accepted b/w Taz – PM003 – 1995
A Touch Of Jazz – Between The Lines b/w Stepz – PM010 – 1996
A Touch Of Jazz – Didn’t I Show You Love EP – PM018 – 1997
A Touch Of Jazz is a side-project, exclusive to Precious Material, with members Ron Wells and Robert Richardson. Ron Wells is a one of the most prolific, pioneering and influential producers and engineers, with countless early classics under his belt, across a wide array of musical genres, with a distinctive production signature, relying mainly on his own compositions rather than formulaic work and sampling. Often credited as the father of ‘jungle techno’ a musical hybrid fusing techno and jungle structures, Ron has been responsible for the engineering and co-producing of the majority of the first Basement releases, before the transition from hardcore to drum & bass. Under the ‘A Touch Of Jazz’ moniker he teamed up with Robert Richardson, a fellow producer and collaborator at Sound Entity, applying their studio wizardry to deliver their own interpretation of modern jazz in a drum and bass context. Especially the first two releases are perfect examples of the new sound Precious Material was representing.
Icons (Blame & Justice)
Icons – Aspects b/w Inspirations – PM004 – 1995
Icons – Time Undefined b/w Walking On – PM007 – 1995
The members of the Icons project are Tony Bowes (aka Justice) and Conrad Shafie (aka Blame). The two met while studying media at college in Dunstable, and went into the studio in 1991 to try their hand at producing hip-hop tracks. Instead, they emerged with ‘Death Row’ – one of the earliest examples of hardcore breakbeat – on Chill Records, a UK bass, bleeps and breakbeat label which was based in Tony’s home town of Luton.
While the rave scene progressed into a self-parodic fluff, Blame and Justice continued producing, both together and on their own. Pushed into new directions by the emergence of a mellower, atmospheric sound in the drum and bass spectrum, the duo released a string of seminal singles on the legendary Moving Shadow. In late ’95 the duo formed Modern Urban Jazz Records (re-branded and re-launched as MJAZZ by Justice 12 years later). On Modern Urban Jazz, Blame and Justice released the label’s first two singles, under the Glider-State sobriquet, as well as the critically acclaimed Icons LP ‘Emotions With Intellect’, that is still highly praised to this day.
“… I had the whole ‘Icons’ concept in my head and we started recording tracks under this moniker. The first of these was called ‘Aspects and Aspirations’ but obviously fell afoul of the art department and came out as ‘Aspects and Inspirations’. The release allowed us to explore all the ideas we were having and was the starting point for all that was to follow and cemented the ‘Icons’. We followed this up with ‘Time Undefined’, which was a tune I had started to write with a friend of mine Miles Copeland and was engineered by Ben from Nautilus, who would later release on Precious also. I bought it back and it was reworked into the version that was released backed with ‘Walking On’. This release I felt really started to galvanize all we were doing and we had already decided we were doing an ‘Icons’ LP and had tracks on DATs ready to go. The guys in the scene, who we regarded, such as Bukem and Fabio, were playing our stuff on Precious, along with Mixmaster Morris, Patrick Forge and Ross Allen, which really validated what we were doing. There was lots of press going on and features in Muzik Magazine that I remember, which featured a photo of Blame and myself, which we had done I think for some press for the ‘Icons’ LP. It was headed up ‘Crown Caught’ and went on to explain the ethos of what Precious was…” – Tony Bowes on ‘Icons’
“… When I decided to use my company Vinyl Distribution to promote the new emerging sound of drum & bass, I was looking for artists, who I felt could move into this new sound. I had been a big fan of the Blame & Justice projects that had been coming out, since those early rave years on the superb Moving Shadow label. So after listening to the last Blame & Justice release on Shadow and not feeling it, as I had all their previous releases I decided to ring Tony. We talked on the phone about how the rave/jungle scene was coming to an end. (Remember the article by Pete Tong ‘Raving Is Dead’, the writing was on the wall, however in a documentary interview at the time, I said within a few years Tong would come to realize that a new scene would be emerging in late ’93-early ’94 and that he, like many others, would once again embrace the underground scene that we all came from).
So after a long chat I invited Tony and Conrad down to my company Vinyl Distribution in Reading to have a chat about an idea I had. I played them a bunch of releases I had planned for Basement and some of the early d&b records coming out through Vinyl Distribution. I got the response I expected from these two talented artists, so I asked them if they would produce some projects for my new Basement Records sub-label Precious Material. I asked them to not worry about dj reactions, to simply draw on their musical backgrounds and put that into the music; no restrictions, no formula, just pure heartfelt music. I wanted music that could be listened to anywhere, in a club, a bar at home with your friends, so the ‘Icons’ project was born. The guys drew on all their musical influences and produced the stunning ‘Aspects & Inspirations’ projects. Even though at the time very few djs supported the releases, the growing interest in the burgeoning d&b scene from the mainstream, was enough to get the release some great reviews in magazines such as Mixmag, Muzik & DJ. The growing buzz around the club night ‘Speed’ hosted by Fabio & Bukem all added to the success of the release. The guys continued with the project and this awesome album was the result. To help build up a catalogue of labels for my company, the Modern Urban Jazz label was born…” – Phil Wells on ‘Icons’
Brothers With Soul (LTJ Bukem, Phil Wells & Ron Wells)
Brothers With Soul – Music Is So Special – PM005
Perhaps the most sought after release on Precious Material; the title encapsulates the very essence of the label’s purpose. Originally written in 1994 by an all-star collaboration (LTJ Bukem, Phil Wells & Jack Smooth) the release was delayed for various reasons. Limited only to 50 test press copies (hence its rarity in the record market), it officially saw the light of day two years later on ‘Mystic Moods – The Journey EP – MMOODS006’.
“… This record came about after I remixed ‘Flying’ with Jack Smooth, but we weren’t able to get the exact sound that we wanted. LTJ Bukem liked the remix, but agreed it needed another mix. So I suggested I remix it at his studio, which Danny was more than happy to do. I took the samples to Danny’s studio and I remixed it again with his help …” – Phil Wells on ‘Music Is So Special’
X-Pansions (Paul Frazer Clarke & Ron Wells – aka Earl Grey)
X-Pansions – That’s How Music Should Sound – PM006 – 1995
X-Pansions is one of the numerous Ron Wells’ drum and bass/jazz crossover projects with long-time collaborator Paul Clarke (the others being Advanced Vector Synthesis, Cyba Space, Fast Floor, Free Hand and Earl Grey; the latter has been perhaps the most recognizable and successful one, with releases on Rugged Vinyl. In 1996 they signed as Earl Grey to MCA Music Publishing, a record deal that regrettably failed). The record has two versions of a piano-driven roller with marvelous chord progressions and a hypnotizing male vocal hook proclaiming: ‘That’s how music should sound!’
Head Hunter (Tony Bowes aka Justice)
Head Hunter – Escape b/w Razor Shock & Soundtrack – PM009 – 1995
Head Hunter is another one-off alias of Justice. With a history that goes hand in glove with that of the development of drum & bass and jungle itself, Tony Bowes, aka Justice, has consistently spearheaded new musical forms. He is very much instrumental in the birth of drum & bass and is heralded as one of the true pioneers. Shortly before launching his own imprint Modern Urban Jazz, Justice showcases his artistic versatility with a 3-track ep that escapes from the silky jazz realm of the label’s previous releases, entering a darker, moody and tech-oriented territory.
“… After the two ‘Icons’ EPs I went on to record the ‘Headhunter ‘ EP and also started ‘Headhunter 2’, which is still unreleased…” – Tony Bowes on ‘Headhunter’
Astralvibes (Noel Newton & Donovan ‘Bad Boy’ Smith)
Astralvibes – Deep Groove b/w We Will Never – PM011 – 1995
Astralvibes has been a dnb outfit with members Donovan Smith and Noel Newton. Donovan ‘Badboy’ Smith is a veteran dj, whose career exploded ca. ’94 playing in massive raves throughout UK. Working at Basement Records and producing the Ruff With The Smooth releases for the Basement label in Reading proved pivotal for his career. In 1995 he took over A&R duties for Street Beats; another iconic Basement subsidiary and creative habitat for some of the genre’s luminaries like Photek, Source Direct and Peshay. The Street Beats label was essentially established, alongside Precious Material, in order to promote the emerging dnb sound and in 1995 essentially re-launched with new catalogue numbering. Donovan Smith and Noel Newton found a platform for their recording project and Astralvibes were born.
‘Deep Groove’ encompasses its very title with beautiful pads and a captivating, catchy bassline, whereas ‘We Will Never’ is an Ibiza-inspired house track with piano riffs and female vocals.
Nautilus (Ben McColl and Matthew Brookes of Appaloosa/Skin Divers, Mat Small)
Nautilus – The Ghetto b/w Small Adventures – PM012 – 1996
Nautilus – The Channel Blue EP – PM014/PM017 – 1996
In 1996, the atmospheric and mellower side of drum and bass was reaching its pinnacle. A representative example of that sound has been the Nautilus project, with members Ben McColl, Matthew Brookes and Mat Small (aka Dj Orbit). McColl and Brookes had already released the classic ‘Unplugged’ under the Appaloosa guise on Mark Pritchard’s Recoil Records and were signed in 1997 by Bukem’s Good Looking Records. McColl had also formed Skin Divers with two members from Aquasky (Brent Newitt and Kieron Bailey) to record for R&S d&b offshoot All Good Vinyl.
Both releases are brilliant, with characteristic, remarkable guitar riffs. Highlights from both records are ‘Small Adventures’, ‘Dope Moves’ and ‘Channel Blue’.
Electric Blue (Danny Curtis and Mike Pears)
Electric Blue – Away b/w Deepness – PM013 – 1996
One of the most versatile and intriguing d&b acts during their period of recording activity has been the duo of Curtis & Pears. Oscillating between the rough and the smooth, they started their prolific recording career as Motive One/One Motive for the fine Ipswich labels Certificate 18 and Fresh 86. In the next years, releases for Street Beats, Creative Source, Certificate 18, Penny Black, Good Looking and Dread followed suit under a variety of monikers (Killer Motive, Primary Motive, Twisted Anger and Decoy).
The Electric Blue project was the last Precious Material release for 1996. Both tracks of the record, as well as their Creative Source debut (Primary Motive – Electric Blue b/w True Voice – CRSE006) are in full accordance with the less streamlined side of the jazzy drum and bass spectrum; deep breakdowns, jazz snippets and a skillful arrangement of the apache break.
4MAT4 (Andy Kremer & Jim Hawkins)
4MAT4 – Where Two Worlds Collide EP – PM015 – 1997
4MAT4 consisted of Jim Hawkins (Drums, Keyboards), Andy Kremer (Bass) and Dave Lewis (Saxophone). Jim had written and produced for the hit Blue Note act ‘US3‘ and had contributed tracks for the film ‘Get Shorty’. On remix duties are Justice and Blame. Both remix versions of ‘Cult View’ retain the musicality of the original. Blame’s interpretation uses heavily a catchy, saxophone riff over a masterfully programmed 2-step break, whereas Justice makes a more extensive use of the synth, saxophone and bass parts.
“… Blame and I remixed 4MAT4, which was one or more of the guys from ‘US3’, we were provided with DATs full of sax and synth and let loose…” – Tony Bowes on ‘Cult View’
Textiles (Zac Chapman, Giles Mensah and Jake Williams)
Textiles – Themes EP – PM018 – 1997
As per the label’s usual practice, Textiles is the recording alias of the Basements artists The Architex. Following the success of their trilogy on the parent label and shortly before Giles (aka DJ Ink) launched his own label Architecture, Textiles contributed the label’s 17th release. ‘Themes’ is experimentation on a slower tempo, with a drum & bass version on the flipside, whereas ‘Ranges’ could easily fit in any of the group’s previous records.
Hydraflow (Alan Gubby)
Hydraflow – Shabaz EP – PM019
The last Precious Material release and a rather obscure one is a 4-track ep by Hydraflow, which epitomizes the artistic freedom the label was striving to foster. The highlight is of the EP is ‘Ode To Lonnie’ an implicit reference to Lonnie Liston Smith, who has apparently been a profound influence to Hydraflow’s work.
Epilogue and fast forward to the present
After almost 20 years of inactivity, a Precious Material re-launch is finally on the cards. The entire back catalogue will be available digitally for the first time, as well as a brand-new album and the elusive last part of Justice’s outstanding ‘Pseudo Jazz’ trilogy (the first two parts were released on Basement).
Phil summarizes how he had envisaged the label and shares his future plans:
“… After all these years, the amount of comments I have received has been staggering and the fans of the label out there have grown massively, so I have now actually decided to re-launch the label. I will be releasing the entire back catalogue digitally for the first time and there will be a brand new album called ‘Precious Material – A New Beginning‘.
I have asked a lot of the original artists and other artists who I personally love, including some top producers we all know and love, to produce some new tracks in the same fashion as the releases all those years ago. The original brief was to produce drum & bass that was not formulated for the dancefloor, just music with a beginning, a middle and an end; music from the heart. I just asked the artists to think back to what influenced them musically at the beginning of their musical journeys, whether they were into jazz, soul, funk, electronica etc. Hopefully we will get some stunning tracks to match the productions released back in the day.
I am really excited about the new album and have some great people lined up, but I want to keep it really quiet for now as the tracks are being made, but I can tell you when I release the info later this year, I know it’s going to cause quite a stir 🙂 …”
Additional information and links:
If you have ever wondered whatever happened also to Hidden Agenda, Creative Wax, Partisan Recordings, Endemic Void, Voyager, Essence Of Aura, Foul Play and Mouly & Lucida, visit the blog’s archive here