"In the summer of 1997 Brighton hosted the Essential festival, the sea-side town's own eclectic take on the perennial rock festival. Up and coming local dance label, Skint records had, their own tent on site. A smallish affair, it featured their perfectly formed roster of bands and DJs, including idiosyncratic Brummies, Bentley Rhythm Ace, ragged tearaways Lo Fidelity All-stars and Norman Cook, the former Housemartin turned dance floor king now operating as Fatboy Slim. Label head Damian Harris watched his marquee fill so rapidly that the queue to enjoy Skint's spread of breakbeats, samples and dance floor ne'er do wells snaked across the site. He'd started the label two years earlier, out of dissatisfaction with a dance scene then driven by glib house anthems and needlessly obscure experiments in techno. Harris, through Skint, sought a balance between amusement and innovation. a self-effacing figure, he'd initially been content merely to hear John Peel play his records. Now, at the Essential, he could see they were much more significant and was overwhelmed.
'I could feel myself well up,' he says. 'i became very emotional.'
Harris was similarly overcome after Fatboy Slim achieved a number one single, Praise You' and number one album, You've Come A Long Way Baby, in consecutive weeks. The latter has now sold over four million copies worldwide. Remarkably, Skint records is only five years old. In that time it's also produced landmark albums from Bentley Rhythm Ace, Lo Fidelity All-Stars and the Midfield General himself and propelled dance music forward by being fun but not moronic and interesting without being inaccessible. The funny thing is, Skint, which started out as an offshoot of Brighton House label Loaded, almost never happened at all. Prior to his recent success, Harris was Loaded's office manager. After a fashion. 'I was on the verge of being sacked', whose prospects were rescued by the plan to start up Skint. 'I was crap and kept coming in really late. I'd stroll in about 12. I can be motivated when I want to be, but I need to be inspired on a creative level.'
Like all great, taste-making independent labels, Factory, Creation, Mo'Wax
, Skint Records simply consumes and reflects the life of its boss. The Harris approach is best explained by the fact that he also records for Skint under the alias Midfield General, thus combining his twin passions, football and music, in a single stroke. There's further evidence in his office, with its three Arsenal clocks (adjusted to Greenwich Mean, New York and Tokyo time) and boxed scale models of Highbury's finest. Dennis Bergkamp has pride of place. Skint's more rough and ready off-shoot is even called Under 5s, after the notorious hooligan gang.
'It's just my fascination with football culture' says Harris. 'When I was younger I probably wished I was more of a hooligan than I was. It sounded quite romantic but actually scared the shit out of me. I'm still very much an outsider looking in.'
Harris grew up in Whitstable, leaving in 1989 to pursue a love of hip-hop and house in Brighton, although a fine art degree kept getting in the way.
'There were three parts to my degree show,' he says. 'One was performance- I had three turntables stuck on the same grooves, playing increasingly dramatic music that finished with the themes from Dambusters, Star Wars and Superman. Then there were two record players on the wall in the corridor outside my room that kept playing Chariots of Fire. The final part, the piece de resistance, was nine record players in a room all playing the run out groove to The Sound of Music. Really loud. I got a third.'
His infiltration of the local music scene was more successful. Working behind the counter at Rounder Records introduced him to local DJ dignitaries like Dave Clarke and Norman Cook. A friendship with Cook blossomed and Harris designed a sleeve for one of his many pre-Fatboy Slim incarnations, Beats International. When Harris began Skint, in March 1995, its first release was Cook's chugging Santa Cruz.
It was also the debut of Cook's Fatboy Slim alias, which was initially intended as an outlet for music he wanted to make, rather than sounds he was contractually bound to produce elsewhere. It allowed him to pursue anything that fired his enthusiasm. Something that binds the label's diverse back catalogue, which includes eccentrics like noted Brighton graffiti artist Req, tabla-fiend Indian Rope Man and Middlesborough glam freaks Space Raiders alongside more commercial propositions. It's a head-strong, self-indulgent approach that's allowed the label to shake off the big beat' tag with which it was saddled with early on, largely as a result of Brighton's unwisely named, Skint affiliated club, the Big Beat Boutique. The label, and its artists, have outlasted the trend.
'Big Beat was misinterpreted and people missed the subtleties of what we did,' says Harris. 'They'd think it was about making Chemical Brothers ripoffs and everyone drinking lager and sniffing amyl nitrate. I never liked the idea that you had to be bonkers to like this music. How do we avoid that? (laughs) Just by being sophisticated.'Harris believes Skint's elusive, trend dodging profile is also down to being based in Brighton, not the compulsory centre of operations, London.'Here we can be ourselves,' he says, 'Without anyone watching.'
Hooking up with Sony
helped too. In January 1998 Skint signed a deal allowing the major label a substantial, but not controlling investment, in turn for its considerable international firepower. It's turned Skint from promising newcomers into major players on the dance scene. Creation and Nude records, home to Suede, have similar agreements. 'It also meant we could continue as we wanted,' says Harris. 'Every act on Skint had at least two other
labels after them. It meant I could keep people like the Lo-Fis who were getting offered ridiculous money from everywhere. And we've gained muscle. The kind that's enabled us to do what we've done with Norman.' Norman Cook's chart topping success rubber stamped Skint's increasing importance.
Despite corporate deals and mainstream success Skint's own future will be based on the same faith, enthusiasm and self-belief that's taken them so far already. The future looks bright with new signing like Freq Nasty, Dave Clarke and Xpress 2. Harris has even considered signing an all girl indie band.
'We've got a full squad of white blokes making cut-up records,' he says. 'If you want to make your mark there's no point just latching onto something and sticking with it. You have to keep moving the goal posts.' "Record Label