Barely Breaking Even just about sums it all up. Of course, for those in the know, it also happens to be the name of one of the finest disco records of all time (by the Universal Robot Band). Funnily enough, it’s where our story starts.
Sometime after the Universal Robot Band and sometime before where we are now, a pair of DJ/promoter/whatevers, Pete Adarkwah and Ben Jolly, ran a successful club night named after our eponymous song, playing a joyful mix of all they considered good. ‘Wouldn’t it be fun,’ they mused, ‘To release some of these tunes?’ And so BBE was born.
Its first release was Stop & Listen Volume 1, compiled by venerable fellow traveller, Dr Bob Jones, with a selection that could have been a calling card for the nascent label, including jazz funk classics like Eddie Russ’s ‘Zaius’, next to house killers like Soho’s ‘Hot Music’ and Sarah Vaughan’s big band rendition of ‘Inner City Blues’. That’s a recipe, right there.
Series were born, one after another. There were further chapters in the story of Stop & Listen; there were Keb Darge’s Legendary Deep Funk compilations, the Spectrum genre runs like a Model T-Ford, as well as the Barry White-referencing Strange Games & Things that, as Pete noted, “was a fans’ fave with a lot of the BBE faithful. I compiled the first one in 15 minutes and it became an instant favourite.”
All these were, of course, reissues of older music. A few years after those first early successes it seemed a natural progression to instigate artist-led albums, with the classics they’d been hungrily devouring being a collective reference point for this new venture. “Welcome 2 Detroit was the first artist record on BBE and really was a turning point for the label,” explains Pete. “BBE may have stayed a compilation label without the noise it made.” And what noise!
“I was driving with Kenny Dope one day” recalls Pete, “and he said he would do an album for me. So I said, ‘You mean like a comp or something?’ and he said, ‘No, an artist album.’ At that point I had only being doing compilations because it was an easier thing to do, suddenly we were talking about money and in reality it was not far away from the cost of doing some of the more expensive compilations that it would be feasible. If we’re talking that kind of budget from someone like him then maybe if I can approach other producers and get some albums out of them, then it would be nice venture into artist albums.” That album, sadly, never came to fruition, but it was Kenny who introduced BBE to Jazzy Jeff and the auteur behind that brilliant opening salvo Welcome 2 Detroit, J Dilla (aka Jay Dee).
Over the past ten years, they have continued to release multi-genre compilations, mixed with some killer artist contributions while still finding time to introduce the occasional new series (The Kings Of…) and always, always working with venerable veterans of the finest stripe, among them Roy Ayers and John Morales.
And with a label name Barely Breaking Even, little would be right with the world if they didn’t have to occasionally dice with financial Armageddon, as they did when one of their distributors went bankrupt leaving them owed many thousands of pounds. “It changes your perspective on life: what’s important and what’s not,” reflects Pete. “Plus it just reminds you that can’t always have what you want out of life. It’s not good to feel vulnerable, but it can help you figure out your priorities in life.” Wise words from a disco warrior.
These days, BBE concentrates mainly on its compilation series, while the artist series take a back seat for a while. In the meantime, Pete Adarkwah, having spent a few years in Berlin, is currently in Ghana, where his parents originate, with vague thoughts of an African outpost for the label, among many other plans. “My thinking is that Africa is the future,” he states. “I don’t want to focus purely on music, but for people to understand the music they need to understand the past culturally and then the vast diversity.” May he live in interesting times.
The main key to the success of BBE is quality. Their disco albums have been curated by some of the most respected collectors and DJs around (Dimitri From Paris, Joey Negro and Sean P), their funk albums have been compiled by Keb Darge, Pete Rock and Kenny Dope, their jazz collated by Bob Jones, hip hop tended to by DJ Premier and their house aided by Terry Farley and Masters at Work. If they needed something doing, they consulted the best.
They have always been swift off the mark, releasing music by Madlib, Will I Am or Jay Dee that frankly would have been beyond many bigger labels had they not approached them at the right time and with the correct amount of chutzpah. Plus, some beautiful artwork and a nice spot of packaging never harms things. “There is a reason why BBE has been tagged with the label ‘legendary’,” claims Amir (of Kon & Amir infamy). “Their consistency, integrity, and tastemaker status have all contributed to their success.”
As the label fast moves towards an incredible 20th anniversary, it’s managed to morph and change to accommodate the way the music industry has changed, yet always with the same ethos they carried with them into those early BBE parties: polymaths with attitude. Long may they break even.