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Nicky Blackmarket Interview: Retail therapy

Marko Kutlesa caught up with drum n' bass legend Nicky Blackmarket to relive life as a record shop owner, the birth of drum n' bass and leaving London.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 12th Aug 2016

Nicky Blackmarket, born Nicholas Andersson-Gylden, has done as much as anyone to keep the torch lit for the British music known as drum n' bass.

He's not done that like others, via a longstanding career in music production, although he has made a few tunes. No, Nicky Blackmarket has championed the genre and galvanised the scene as a vendor of music across a record store counter and by DJing constantly since the genre emerged. 

Nicky and business partner Dave Piccioni (later of premier UK house label Azuli) took on the lease of the already established Blackmarket Records in Soho in 1990 when its original founder left. Nicky ended up staying in the shop, which has now sadly closed, for almost 24 years.

In that time he witnessed the birth of British breakbeat rave music, the precursor to jungle and drum n' bass and, wildly enthusiastic about the new sounds, it was at Nicky's suggestion that the Blackmarket Records basement became devoted to the sound and its descendent musical strains. 

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As the pioneering shop of the genre Blackmarket records became internationally famous as the place to go to get jungle and drum n' bass (listen to his 1Nation jungle set above). The shop held many exclusives from day one, always received promos, dubplates and records before any other store and was frequented by almost every drum n' bass DJ worth their salt (even the ones who couldn't visit it physically would buy via their mail order).

It was also a meeting place for the biggest contributors and fans of the music, an inspirational place. Bringing in fellow specialists Ray Keith and Nicky's sometime DJ partner Clarky to man the counter with him. Nicky's smiling face and unparalleled enthusiasm for the music meant he became synonymous with the Mecca of drum n' bass and ended up taking it to form the latter part of his DJ name.

He has entertained legions and generations of jungle and drum n' bass fans, sometimes in collaboration with the best MCs in the business including Ragga Twins (see below) and the groundbreaking Stevie Hyper D, who he worked with regularly for many years before the MC's sad passing. 

Nicky has entered the studio relatively few times through his long career, but his introduction in doing so came early. In 1992 he was invited to record at 4Hero's studio, the resultant EPs containing brilliant examples of that era's breakbeat hardcore and were released on 4Hero's own Reinforced Records (under the alias of Nick OD).

Marko Kutlesa caught up with Nicky at his home in Gloucestershire, prior to a typically long list of UK dates, as they chatted about his career in the music.

How did you and Dave Piccioni come to run Blackmarket Records?

First of all it was Rene Gelston and Steve Jervier that had the shop. You could say that me and Dave took it in another direction. In the early days, the music that I'm still doing now was really new. When the music split, you had the early breakbeats, what you could call pre jungle and the house and garage.

The hip hop that the shop had done previously, well, it wasn't carrying the swing any more and so I suggested putting this new music in the basement. That's the direction I was going in musically anyway. We never looked back after that.

Dave had worked in the shop previously, I came into the fold and then Dave bought into it in 1990 when Rene left and we went on from that.

In 1990 when you took it on there weren't any of those breakbeat records around at that time. What you were selling was hip hop? R&B? Not American house imports?

Oh yeah, we sold that. Upstairs was house and garage. The hip hop was downstairs, where I eventually suggested the breakbeat music should go. Not taking anything away from it, the hip hop was great, mainly US imports, great early 90s stuff, but it just wasn't making the numbers in 1992. When the early rave, breakbeat thing came in, it just started to grow. I was 100% behind it, I really wanted it to have its own space. 

What kind of records started appearing in 1992 that made you decide that this music needed its own space, that it was going to get big enough and that it was going to endure?

Oh, flippin 'eck, you've got me now! 

If not records then perhaps what labels?

Well, you had some major labels, like you had XL, and you'd have smaller independent ones like Awesome Records (run by Slipmatt and Lime), but then a lot of the people at the time were just slinging them out on white labels, bringing them down to me and asking “do you think you can sell these?”

In 92 we brought in Ray Keith, who'd been working at City Sounds and we had Clarky, who went on to be a resident for Goldie at Metalheadz. If the track sounded like it was worth it to us, we'd take a gamble and say “Give us the lot”. And they'd usually go, they'd have to do a repress. It got to the point where all the DJs would come in because they knew we had stuff you just couldn't get anywhere else. We'd even do the mail outs from the shop. 

It must have been something on the dancefloors that you'd seen that gave you faith in this newer music. Do you remember anything in particular that was happening on the scene at that time that had indicated you should have so much faith in it?

Well, we were making it up as we went along, really. Obviously the shop's closed down now, I was in there nearly 24 years, but I'm still playing out almost every weekend, which is a blessing. Back then we didn't know so much about what was happening and what would happen, but there was a core of us and we were just happy to be playing music, just like I am today. 

Back then was the era of DAT tapes. We'd take them down to Music House, which was the place in Holloway Road where we used to get the dubplates cut, and it was another world. You'd be there all day waiting. All the youngsters today don't know how lucky they are just being able to send it on a computer, download and boomf, it's done.

Back then it would take all day, but you'd meet all the different producers or label runners coming down to the same place. You'd get your plates then immediately test it out on the dancefloor or on the radio. Pirate radio at that time was incredibly powerful. Everyone would tune in, wanting to hear the new music, wanting to hear what raves were going on and where they were.  

You said that kids don't know how lucky they are today. Would you agree that it's a lot more of a level playing field nowadays in that everybody has access to so much music whereas back then there were a finite number of plates available?

Well, maybe I take it back saying they are lucky, because I feel blessed to have gone through that, that we all went through that. That whole record culture, I'd never take that away and we'll never see that again. The whole thing was a learning process. 

What are the best parts and what are the worst parts of working in a record shop?

I loved supplying the people, seeing the satisfaction on their faces when a new tune comes in. Especially a record shop like ours, because we had everything first. We had all the plates first, we had all the white labels first, we got loads of promos whereas other shops might only get one or two. Everything. 

To supply the kinds of people we did, you're really helping the scene. You're promoting the fuck out of it, you're making the cogs turn. That's so much a satisfaction.

Also, over the years, so many people have come in and come through there. I feel blessed that I've helped lots of people get on, even if it was just me introducing someone to someone else and they went on to do a project and it becomes big. You've linked them together. You're helping the scene all the time when you're in the shop. That's what it's all about. Helping. That's my satisfaction, that's my real reward, helping people out.

There doesn't seem to be that kind of social hub in buying music these days, there's no meeting place.

No. I don't want to say “those were the days”, but you could say that maybe they were, ha!

Were there any aspects of working in a record shop that you perhaps didn't like so much?

Well, at one point I was working in the shop all the time and sometimes I'd have to bring the car in, go to work, then go and DJ and then go to work straight after having done three gigs in a night. That was seriously hardcore.

How did you first come into contact with the Reinforced/4Hero guys?

Dego is the ultimate sound engineer and music man. When I first heard 'Mr Kirk's Nightmare' I was blown away by it. All of them, Marc, Gus, Ian and Dego used to come in the shop, bringing the tunes in and I just told them that I wanted to put a tune out. They just told me to come up to the 4 Hero studios and do something. I was like a kid being told that and going there. That's when I did my first tune, the 'Spam EP' on Reinforced. Wicked times.

Could you just as easily have ended up DJing under the name Nick OD? 

Yeah, I probably could've. Only it's 24 years ago haha.

Were you already established as Nicky Blackmarket at that time?

Yeah, I was.

What did the OD stand for?

[long pause] Overdose.

Well, you were a young man. Did the success of Dave's label Azuli and the labels you ran yourself affect how the shop ran?

No, not really. They really came as part and parcel of doing it really. When I set up Gyroscope that was because of the shop, really. When jungle came in I set up Kartoons. They were both done in parallel with the shop. So many people used to come in who made music.

As drum n' bass moved through so many sounds in different eras, like jump up, tech, liquid and some of the jazzier stuff, which sounds and eras were your particular favourite?

I can't really say, because every era has its own little thing, every era has a certain tune. I'm quite lucky in that sometimes I get asked to play a classics set or an old school set or something else specific and I can do. It's nice to be able to do that, because I like the whole thing. I could go out in a night and play three different sets of jungle or drum n' bass.

 It's nice to be able to play a variation and to respond to what a promoter and a crowd want.

Do you ever miss that jungle era and travelling with a regular MC whose styles you both got to know and appreciate? You worked quite a lot with Stevie Hyper D.

Stevie was so ahead of his time. Way ahead of his time as a drum n' bass MC. When we first got together we hit it off straight away. He could read me and I could read him.

A good MC works with the DJ and together they can lift it to where it's something really special. He did that all the time. The crowd would respond to him so well, sing his lyrics back to him. His style, he was so far ahead and obviously I miss him. I know he's there in spirit though. 

Not only have you left the shop now but you've also left London, you live in Gloucestershire. Was it difficult to adjust to a different pace and rhythm of life?

No. I don't think so. I think the old saying “wherever you leave your hat is home” is pretty true. I'm still travelling all the time for work, so I don't think it really matters where you are. I must say I do miss the shop. I must admit that. I miss the hustle and the bustle, meeting people.

Like you said before there isn't that hub anymore, there isn't that interaction anymore. Everything's on the internet now. I was in that shop nearly 24 years. It's not five minutes. 

What are the best parts of living out there, nearer the countryside, away from the congestion and the commute of London?

It's nice for the kids to be out in the countryside. And I've got animals. It's like the old saying, a breath of fresh air. 

What animals have you got?

Haha! I've got fish, I've got two cats and a dog.

Nothing exotic then. You don't live on a farm with a goat, sheep and pigs, nothing like that?

Hahahahaha! No, not yet.

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