“I like to think that Sneaker Social Club has the ‘hardcore continuum’ at its core,” says producer and DJ Jamie Russell aka Low End Activist, who launched the independent record label in 2011. Its original headquarters were Brighton and Hove, but it currently operates out of Berlin, where Russell is based.
Although the label’s name comes from Russell’s love of sneakers, its output is much more aligned with sounds like UK bass, jungle and breaks, as well as early 2000s grime and dubstep. “Most of what we put out will reference something from these,” says Russell. “It seems like the continuum will keep on rolling on, so I'll keep mining this until I feel like we've got nothing more to give.”
Sneaker Social Club’s releases have come from the likes of jungle producer and DJ Tim Reaper, Brighton-based producer Etch, and rave pioneer Neil Landstrumm, as well as from Russell himself under the moniker Low End Activist. It also hosts label showcases in Berlin’s Fitzroy and OHM spaces, often collaborating with local imprint Awkwardly Social. Previous lineups have featured Appleblim, Shackleton, and Judaah.
For this episode of Carhartt WIP Radio, Russell has gone through Sneaker Social Club’s back catalogs, putting together a mix with his favorite tracks released on the imprint so far. It also features some forthcoming material, including a track taken from a video game OST for Wolverine: Adamantium Rage, dubbed the “world’s first grime track” by FADER magazine.
As ever, the mix is accompanied by an interview, where Russell discusses his many different imprints and aliases, why he relishes the process of production over DJing, and being inspired by the rhythm of a washing machine.
How and when did Sneaker Social Club come about?
Jamie Russell: It started in 2011, and the name comes from my lifelong obsession with sneakers! In hindsight it's quite shallow, but the name seems to have a life of its own now and I'm still obsessed with sneakers. Prior to this, I was running the label Hypercolour with my friend Alex since 2006. Creative decisions between us were challenging at times and I also found that there were strains of UK-rooted club music I was rediscovering. A lot of the artists I was bowled over by didn't seem like they fit Hypercolour at the time, which was known more for its house and techno output. Now it seems like there’s a crossover between the two labels, but I like to think that Sneaker Social Club has the ‘hardcore continuum’ at its core.
You still co-run Hypercolour, and have established a number of other labels like BRUK, Low End Activism and Art-E-Fax. What distinguishes these from each other, and how does Sneaker Social Club compare?
Jamie Russell: There are quite a few labels! There’s even more than what’s been mentioned here, it was getting silly at one point. Overall, the desire to set these up was due to the sheer amount of music I was wanting to put out from the many artists I was working with. I tend to get obsessed with trying to understand where stuff fits, perhaps to my own detriment sometimes. But similarly to how fashion brands have their identity and tags, this is how I like to think about the labels I set up. Identity and style are super important to me.
BRUK is the newest project. I think there’s a more esoteric style of club music forming with the releases there. It's still dance music, perhaps with more of a sound design or Hi-Tek approach. Low End Activism was just set up to put out my own Low End Activist tracks. Art-E-Fax definitely crosses over with Sneaker, so we can call it Sneaker's little sibling.
Hypercolour is the grandfather. It taught me how to run a record label and is still going 17 years strong now. We're just about to put out our 100th release there from KiNK.
Sneaker Social Club’s output has been very versatile. Are you cautious about being put into a box?
Jamie Russell: I definitely think we fit in to the bigger ‘hardcore continuum,' box which stems back as far as UK soundsystem culture of the 70 and 80s, into early 90s hardcore breakbeat, jungle, mid 90s UK garage, and early 2000s grime and dubstep, so I think most of what we put out will reference something from these. It seems like the continuum will keep on rolling on, so I'll keep mining this until I feel like we've got nothing more to give. I'm into all sorts of music though, so this isn't the be-all and end-all for me.
"I definitely think we fit in to the bigger ‘hardcore continuum,' box which stems back as far as UK soundsystem culture of the 70 and 80s, into early 90s hardcore breakbeat, jungle, mid 90s UK garage, and early 2000s grime and dubstep."
What projects do you currently have in the pipeline?
Jamie Russell: So many to mention, I've licensed the videogame OST for Wolverine: Adamantium Rage, which was produced by a guy called Dylan Beale. He made countless jungle records back in the 90s. He also runs his own video game company these days, but he made that entire soundtrack on only 2mb of RAM. Fader cited it as being the “world's first grime instrumental.” The lead track is simple but deadly – it’s also in the mix I've created for the show. There's also another album from Etch, which is almost finished. And more 12's from Trends, Boyland and Grime legend Slimzee, as well as Neil Landstrumm, Alan Johnson, Mantra, Silas, Christoph De Babalon, ZULI and the kings, Horsepower Productions.
As a producer, you release music under several names, including Low End Activist, Patrick Conway, Pat Ca$h, Paranorman, and Helium III. You’re also part of Trinity Carbon together with producer Appleblim. How do you separate all of these projects? And is there one that you’re currently more focused on?
Jamie Russell: Low End Activist, Patrick Conway and Trinity Carbon are the ones that are most active, the rest were just one-off studio sessions. I make music for fun and what I make isn't dictated by who I think will play it, or what it needs to sound like to get me a gig at a club. So, I've just been having fun sneaking some records out anonymously up until now.
I would say Low End Activist is my main focus currently – that style of pre-dubstep, dark grime, UKG seems to be a comfortable spot for me. Now that I know what I'm doing in the studio, the music I make, and naturally gravitate towards, is dark. I'm a happy chap though, honest! I do enjoy DJing, but I relish the solemn process of making music far more these days. The last few gigs I’ve done have felt very strange – being so close to the crowd and just watched. I didn't know where to look at times.
Do you have any role models or inspirations for the creative work you do?
Jamie Russell: I'm still a big hip hop head, so Wu Tang will always be a big inspiration for me. I love all the Westside Gunn and Griselda stuff that's coming through at the moment. Autechre constantly amazes me. Bristol and the amount of quality and forward thinking music that comes out of the city always influences me. I lived there before moving to Berlin.
Where I grew up is a source of inspiration to me too, themes of this featured quite heavily on my album Hostile Utopia. Also the time I grew up – I was a teenager in the mid to late 90s, which was without doubt the best time for pop music within the last 40 years. The amount of change that accelerated from 1990-2000 blows my mind when I think of it. So, to be influenced and live through all of that has been a privilege.
Do you have any new records on the way?
Jamie Russell: Yes! quite a few... SNKR050 – Dry Chat, Wet Rag should be out at the end of June. Then two records for LA's ESP Institute, one as LEA and the other as Patrick Conway. I’ve also got three finished albums that I’m still figuring out what to do with. The most recent one, made in the last three weeks thanks to a serious bout of insomnia, is a good follow-up to my Hostile Utopia album.
What kind of music were you exposed to growing up?
Jamie Russell: My mum would play Whitney Houston on full blast at home and my father was going to raves at weekends. I would 'borrow' his tapes to take home and play on my HiFi system. We also had shows like Dance Energy on the TV every Tuesday! And I was buying 7" records from De La Soul, Neneh Cherry, Bell Biv Devoe, Tribe Called Quest, and Salt-N-Pepa.
Can you name three perfect tracks to start a party and three to finish one?
Jamie Russell: Well, to me the start of the party is an empty dance floor, so these would be my choices:
Christoph De Babalon – Opium
John Hassell – Last Night The Moon Came
Hype Williams – Your Girl Smells Chung When She Wears Dior
And the last tunes of the night have got to be UK hardcore:
Sonz Of A Loop Da Loop Era – Peace & Loveism
Blame – “Music Takes You
Internal Affairs (4 Hero & Goldie) – Find A Way
A notable mention is Benga & Coki – Night. Always goes off!
How do you stay on top of all the new music being made right now?
Jamie Russell: My day job is running a PR company, so I discover lots of new music through this. But I check all the new releases on Boomkat and Hardwax once a week. I also have my alerts set on Bandcamp for all my favorite artists and labels.
What old albums have you rediscovered lately, and what makes them special?
Jamie Russell: I listened to Burial’s Untrue for the first time in ages while out on a long run earlier this year – it still sounds like nothing else, still like the future. It will never be touched. We took a mini-speaker to the hospital when my daughter Naina was born, as we knew we'd be there for a few days. Archangel came on a playlist I set up while I was just watching her and I cried my eyes out. Still happens every time that track comes on.
Also Boards of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children. I often stick this on in the background while playing with my daughter. It's immersive music, even at a low volume and it sets a scene. One that you imagine comes with memories already, but perhaps I'm trying to embed new memories in my brain and hers too. She seems to enjoy it!
Lastly, Marvin Gaye – Marvin Gaye. It’s classic stuff, gets everyone at home singing along. I have fond memories of my parents playing this at home when I was young.
If you could be in any band, living or dead, for a day, which one would it be?
Jamie Russell: The Prodigy, easy. I idolized them in my teens. Experience is an album which I go back to, to stoke memories.
Can you take us through a day in your life and tell us how music is part of it?
Jamie Russell: Most mornings, I’ll wake up at 6am, sometimes earlier, and get Naina her breakfast. Once my wife is up, I'll stick some music on in the background. I've got a few playlists, but Naina is a big fan of Duval Timothy, so that's often on repeat. On my cycle to work, I listen to music on my headphones, sometimes demos, sometimes my own music that I made the night before, sometimes a new radio show or mix from an artist I follow.
My listening activity throughout the day is probably like no other. I'm constantly skimming through music to decide if it would work for my PR company, or if I’m sending it out to writers, radio hosts, or DJs. This can often cause fatigue, which is why I don't listen to much new club music at home. The music I make is mostly sample-based, and my ideas can sometimes stem from a single sample I've seen or heard, so I'm constantly in that state of subconsciously listening for that purpose. It doesn't encroach on my listening habits but it makes me jump to attention if I hear something. In the past, that’s been anything from the rhythm of the washing machine to the music playing during the end credits of a shitty documentary I've seen on Youtube about aliens.
What has been the best thing about 2023?
Jamie Russell: Getting to see my daughter develop with each day that passes.