Labels We Love: Werk Discs

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Every day this month we're rolling out a new feature on XLR8R's Labels We Love of 2009. Whether it's the eye-catching aesthetics of Type or the model-for-the-future approach of Interdependent Media, these cut-making selections of the best in underground electronic, indie, hip-hop, and experimental imprints punch way above their weight. Feast your eyes on the features and then download many of the labels' related podcasts here.

London producer Actress builds a nest for the best in experimental bass.

It’s nearly impossible to talk about what kind of label Werk Discs is. The inscrutable Brixton-based house has released the loping, loopy, some might say “wonky” electronics of London’s Lukid, the retro-rave-loving crowd-pleaser that was Zomby’s Where Were You in ’92 album, and Jahtari’s mind-boggling 8-bit dancehall, not to mention label head Darren Cunningham's own mind-melted house album Hazyville, recorded as Actress.

The 29-year-old Cunningham hints that Werk’s aesthetic was probably informed by the tracks his cousin Crocodile would DJ at family weddings: a selection that spanned the full spectrum of reggae, plus disco, New Jack Swing, R&B, power ballads, and electro boogie. The well-rounded Cunningham doesn’t stop there, though, also name-checking John Carpenter movies, Detroit’s pioneering Underground Resistance, Rinse FM, Liverpool FC, Prince, and his cat Hiro in the course of the interview.

This ability to take in so many influences, draw important connections between them, and then present them lovingly to the public is certainly one of Werk’s strong points. It’s a talent Cunningham was able to hone between 2002 and 2006, when he and Gavin Weale promoted a series of unconventional club nights in Southeast London (some in conjunction with Matthew Herbert’s Accidental Records); the Werk parties became known for drawing unannounced guests including Modeselektor, Dabrye, and Anthony “Shake” Shakir.

“We didn’t believe in creating false hype, and stubbornly did everything to break the conventional method of promoting,” explains Cunningham of the nights. “Some of the rules we set were not publicizing the acts, and booking producers who had never played in the U.K. We always wanted the flow of information to be less giving to the public. If we gave less away, then you would only get the people who really made an effort—in doing that, we managed to create a vibe which I’ve never really felt anywhere else. It’s something that is still applied to the label. If you make the effort to find out what we’re up to, then it’s our intention to give you something special.”

If you’re getting the impression that Werk’s releases are well thought-out, you’d be right. While rooted in the bass-heavy sounds of the British “urban” underground, their releases—from the early Grim Dubs series (experimental dubstep 12”s) through to albums from Lone and Stacs of Stamina—are designed for a shelf-life way longer than the DJ- vinyl standard of two months.

“We don’t release music to suit consumption,” states Cunningham. “Every project we work on is treated like a movie production.” So what’s next to Werk out? “We’ve got something that involves extreme escapism, almost on a Neverending Story tip—so it’s perfect for the kids of slightly eccentric parents.”