Running a record label is a tricky business—that’s no secret. Establishing a sound, identity, and audience; and managing release schedules, working with artists, and navigating the many pitfalls of the industry can test the patience and endurance of even the most hardened veterans of the scene. In a business where longevity is regarded as the white whale beneath a turbulent sea, many independent labels disappear as quickly as they arrive. Everyone wants to know the secret sauce when labels manage to weather the elements long enough to become a household name. Aly Gillani has managed to do exactly this.
Aly has run the revered First Word Records for seventeen years—releasing music from the likes of Kaidi Tatham, Children of Zeus, Yazmin Lacey, Eric Lau, Takuya Kuroda, Tawiah, 14KT, and many more. In 2017, they won the coveted Label of the Year Award at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards and have built a cult following, cementing themselves as one of the U.K.’s finest purveyors of modern soul music. The First Word team also includes other notable imprints such as CoOp Presents (run by IG Culture and Alex Phountzi), Dimensions Recordings, Total Refreshment Centre, and Extra Soul Perception. Alongside this, Aly also works as European Artist and Label Representative at Bandcamp, one of the music industry’s shining lights of 2020.
Originally from London, Aly discovered a love for hip-hop, soul, and electronic music while studying at University in Leeds, immersing himself in the vibrant nightlife on offer. Aly explains, “In my second year at uni, I met an MC called Testament who had a band called Homecut Directive [later shortened to Homecut]. We became really close friends and, because I had a car and a phone, he asked me to manage them. Managing the band led to running club nights and events—I joined the team at the legendary Funky Mule in 2000—taking over from DJ EASE [Nightmares on Wax] when he left town.”
After diving into the event promotion world, he met other soon-to-be collaborators including kidkanevil, Mr. Thing, and the Haggis Horns.
“It got to around 2003, and in Leeds there was loads of great music, loads of clubs, loads of live music, but no label,” Aly recalls. “Through some mutual friends, I was introduced to a guy called Andy H., who was a DJ in Sheffield. We didn’t really know each other very well, but we started the label, ostensibly to put out Homecut’s debut LP. Theirs was the first single on the label [in 2004], but the album didn’t come until 2009 in the end. By that stage, we were twenty-five or so releases in. We’d already released music from the Haggis Horns, kidkanevil, Mike-L, and others. You learn as you go. I remember the first 12-inch that we put out via our distributor Kudos (who we are still with today) was by a group called Today’s Mathematics. To this day, probably one of the best received releases we’ve ever put out. It was played by Trevor Nelson on BBC Radio One. Amazing reviews, people comparing it to Q-Tip mixed with Sun Ra. We were like, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ And we sold thirty-three copies of the vinyl, which was a kind of early wake-up call of how tricky things might be.”
Undeterred by these initial hurdles, Aly & Co. continued to release the first few First Word records, utilizing their immediate circle of talented friends. They also launched a hugely popular event series called New Bohemia.
“We ran a club night called New Bohemia as well,” Aly notes. “Which was me, a friend of ours called Barry, and Noah, who now runs Dimensions and Outlook Festival, as well as Soundwave, and We Out Here. And part of that was that we’d be booking the artists and DJs that we wanted to hear our music, and then they would come up to Leeds, we’d take them out to dinner, and get to know them. A lot of the people that I have connections with now, I met back then. I think actually it made it easier, because we weren’t just another label in London, we were the label in Leeds. So it helped our identity and separated us out.”
Eventually moving back to London in 2009, Aly and First Word began looking further afield for new artists to add to their roster. Parisian duo Souleance were to be the first act outside of the immediate First Word family to be released.
“We expanded beyond our immediate area,” says Aly. “We retained our Leeds status for quite a while; I think just because, again, that was the association that people made with us. And then it gradually expanded outside of our small circle, first with Souleance, and then the first Tall Black Guy release that we worked on. It’s hard when you’re trying to start something, but by then we were seven years in, not massively successful or anything, but we had a bit of presence and a bit of recognition with record buyers and music fans.”
A steady approach and release schedule saw the First Word clan continue to grow.
“I think a key release for us was the first Record Store Day 7-inch that we released in 2014. We did a series of three Record Store Day releases, the first was called Nothing Leaves the House. We got three producers—Tall Black Guy, Eric Lau, kidkanevil—and took them to Mr. Thing’s record collection. They could pick anything they want and sample it, but nothing leaves the house. That was the tagline for it,” Aly says. “We released that as a double 7-inch for Record Store Day in 2014. The year after, we did the same thing, but we picked a record for each of the artists and gave it to them to make something from. And then for the final of the trilogy in 2016, we got invited to the John Peel archive. We went round there, spent a day looking through his whole collection, which was insane, and the guys made beats from that. That project was so exciting to work on, but also a real milestone for us. We already had Tall Black Guy on the label. But we did another record with him not long after that. Eric Lau then released a record with us soon after. He introduced us to Kaidi Tatham, who we then released music from, and also Tawiah and then Olivier St. Louis (formerly Olivier DaySoul), who signed in 2020. So there was this natural thing where we expanded and the crew became a more international thing.”
Boasting an impressive roster of artists and producers, the label began to take on a more cohesive and stylistic outlook, which attracted new artists, fans, and media attention.
“There was a slightly more joined-up feeling to it, which happened quite organically. Signing Children of Zeus and then Yazmin Lacey set out our stall a bit more clearly,” Aly states. “In 2018, we had releases from them, Darkhouse Family, Kaidi Tatham, 14KT—there’s a continuity there. I then realized that we needed to understand not necessarily just what we were, but what we weren’t. There was a lot of stuff we released in the past that I liked, but it made no sense for us to release on First Word. We’ve released reggae records, electronica, bass-heavy breaks, and whilst I love them, in hindsight, they weren’t necessarily right for us. So I think there was a point of having that confidence to say, ‘Just because this is great doesn’t mean we’re the right place for it.’ And that really, really helps to define what we are. I think the fact that we released Children of Zeus and Yazmin Lacey meant that Tawiah and Olivier were more comfortable coming to us because they could see that that’s what we’re about.”
Looking back through history at some of the most iconic labels, it becomes apparent that a strategic approach to releases is of great importance in order to maintain some reliability and trust with your audience. This is something Aly began to fully take on board around this time.
“The tortured metaphor that I always use is that the schedule of the releases is like a very long DJ set, each track has to fit with the one before,” explains Aly. “You’re earning people’s trust as a selector. With a label, it’s about releases as opposed to just track after track. When you’re playing in a club, you build your audience’s trust, which earns you the right to occasionally throw in a curveball. But if you play three in a row, people might start thinking about moving to another spot. It’s the same with a label—you’re constantly having to reward that trust that people have put in you.”
However, with the landscape constantly changing, and with new trends shifting press and radio attention from year to year, staying the course isn’t as easy as it might seem. For First Word, taking stock and remaining true to their influences has been paramount in keeping to their path.
“We get offered music all the time. But I had a realization with the U.K. jazz explosion that there are other labels in place to do justice to that music better than we could,” says Aly. “I can be a fan, and that’s fine. And I love being a fan of it. But, you know, we wouldn’t necessarily be the right place for a lot of it. We do release jazz music with people like Myele Manzanza and Takuya Kuroda, and I think the stuff that Kaidi Tatham does has got that element to it as well. But we sit just to one side of what’s been going on with the British jazz scene. It’s modern soul music, in whatever form that might take. Broken beat, for example, is a derivation of soul music mixed with garage, house, and the sounds of West London. And it’s something very much of its own. I mean, I think Children of Zeus definitely see themselves as part of that U.K. soul lineage that goes back to Loose Ends and Omar, Mica Paris, and all of that amazing British soul music that’s been around for a long time, and is kind of underappreciated.”
The year 2020 saw First Word go from strength to strength, adding Japanese trumpeter Takuya Kuroda, Melbourne-based jazz artist Allysha Joy, and Manchester-based producer Werkha to their roster.
“The interesting thing with them is that they’re new artists,” says Aly, “but it wasn’t their first release. So it’s a different approach than if you’re breaking an artist from zero. It’s been great because they all fit in with what we do on the label but in different ways. For example, with Takuya Kuroda in particular, it was a bit of a repositioning; he’s obviously enormously successful, and he’s done some pretty big jazz records with Blue Note and Concord. And I think the change of sound really suited him coming to us. It was mutually beneficial to both of us.”
At present, the family feel that First Word strives to cultivate is (like many things) made very difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has thrown the world into disarray. Aly explains how it’s impacted label life.
“Takuya is one of the few artists on the label that I’ve unfortunately never met in person. He would have been over here in April 2020, but obviously, that couldn’t happen. It’s kind of a weird thing going from starting off the label and knowing everybody really well, to releasing music from someone you’ve never met. In terms of the wider impact of COVID, I actually feel personally pretty fortunate: I’ve had work, I’ve got my job at Bandcamp, the label is ticking on, and we’ve been able to keep people employed and busy. So, really, I have very little to complain about or be down about. The label staff work from home anyway, so it’s not like we’re missing that daily contact—we’ve never had an office. The artists have been far more affected than us. The loss of touring income is massive, and we’ve tried to help out where we can. It’s our aim to have events every year to get as many of the artists together as possible, and I have really missed that. Having that focus and having a party is good. But also, I just love seeing the artists hang out with one another, work together. You get that sense of community around what you’re doing rather than just a bunch of people sitting behind a computer emailing each other, you know? So, yeah, that’s been hard. But I guess we’ll have to make it extra, extra special next time.”
We are all praying that 2021 is a more positive year for everyone, and First Word is showing no signs of slowing down.
“Next year, I think it’s going to be about building on what we’ve got,” says Aly. “In the next twelve months, we’re going to have new records from Children of Zeus, Kaidi Tatham, Allysha Joy, and Olivier St. Louis, as well as Quiet Dawn, who’s not done something for us for a while. I think it’s a year of consolidation, for want of a better way of putting it. Really just focusing on the sound that we’ve got. Our team also works on aspects of various other labels; this year, we’ve managed projects from Dimensions Recordings, Total Refreshment Centre, and Extra Soul Perception. And also the CoOp Presents guys. We’ve worked with IG Culture and Alex Phountzi for a few years now and released their Plug One compilation that came out in November. They’ve got this huge crew of producers making music all the time, there’s lots of exciting stuff from them. There’ll be more from most of those labels soon too, so we’ll be busy for sure!”