How Freerange, launched with a loan from Jamie Odell's mother-in-law, became one of the UK's most respected house labels
As recent events have shown, a week is a long time in politics. While the world of electronic music isn't quite as frenetic or eventful as the political realm, the pace of change is almost as rapid. DJs, producers and labels often rise to prominence over weeks and months, only to fade from view just as fast. Quality is no guarantee of longevity, either.
It's for this very reason that Freerange Records' 20th anniversary is something to cheer about. To still be in business after two decades in dance music is an impressive achievement in itself, but if anything Freerange has been getting better with age. Certainly, few contemporary deep house labels can boast the same level of consistency, and even fewer can match the imprint's impressive longevity.
"It feels like a real achievement, to be honest," says Tom Roberts, who co-founded the label with childhood friend Jamie 'Jimpster' Odell way back in 1996. "There were many times when it felt like the deep house gods were against us."
Certainly, the duo have been through the mill on numerous occasions over the last 20 years, with the label's very existence hanging by a thread. In 2003, in the midst of Freerange's rise from eclectic imprint to tried-and-tested deep house hub, the fall of Ideal Distribution almost put them under. Two further distributors, Goya and Amato, also went to the wall while Freerange was on their books. If that wasn't enough misfortune, much of the label's back catalogue stock was destroyed in a fire at the Sony warehouse during the infamous London riots of 2011.
"There's no denying there have been frustrating times," Roberts says. "Not only when distributors have gone bust, but also when we've put our heart and soul into a release and it's not had the success or credit we feel it deserved. We're both pretty resilient, though, and our coping method - realistic expectations, a healthy dose of cynicism and a lifetime subscription to Leffe - continues to get us through."
The duo could not have foreseen this level of sustained success – critically and commercially – when they borrowed money off Odell's mother-in-law to fund Freerange's first release. Like many 12-inch singles that followed over the first few years, the aptly titled Initial EP came from Odell under the now familiar Jimpster guise, and joined the dots between downtempo, future jazz and drum & bass.
Until the release of Switch's groundbreaking - and still mighty - Get Ya Dub On in 2003, house music was only a small portion of the Freerange sound. It was the runaway success of this single, coupled with Odell's rediscovery of his dancefloor roots (his earliest releases, under obscure aliases, explored breakbeat hardcore and techno) that steered Freerange towards the deep house sound with which it is now associated.
"I think it's fair to say that it took us a while to find our feet," Odell admits. "Until the early 2000s we were possibly a bit too random in our A&R selection, and yet to home in on our strengths and forge our own identity."
As Roberts is keen to point out, the label's early releases appeared sporadically, were willfully eclectic, and reflected the music they were listening to at the time. "Around 2002 we made a conscious effort to up the ante in terms of the amount of releases we put out, while not comprising on quality," he says. "At the time we also rediscovered raving, and the label began to reflect what we were listening to in clubs, and what Jamie was playing when he deejayed".
Over the years that followed, the duo – still running the label in the evenings and at weekends – began to work with a regular roster of artists, including Shur-I-Kan, Trevor Loveys, Kirk Degiorgio, Milton Jackson, Manuel Tur and Tony Lionni. In the process, Freerange began to settle on a sound that touched on the best of British, European and American deep house, simultaneously reflecting current trends while forging their own unique take on the sound. They've been doing it ever since, with consistently impressive results.
"The fact that we've been around so long, and have a loyal fanbase from all over the world, has given us the confidence to carry on, knowing we must be doing something right," Odell says. "The label has a fairly definable sound now, so people have a good idea of our sound, even when we put out singles from new artists".
Look to the future
The full breadth of that sound can be heard on 20 Years Of Freerange, a sumptuous five-vinyl box set containing previously unheard material from label artists old and new. The collection's 20 tracks veer from wide-eyed Chicago retro-futurism (Bring Ring) and Chez Damier-style chunkiness (Jimpster), via warehouse-friendly hypnotism (Milton Jackson), to deep and jazzy dreaminess (Kuniyuki) . Throw in contributions from big hitters old and new (KiNK, Detroit Swindle, Shur-I-Kan, Kito Jempere, Andre Lodemann) and you have a fitting celebration of one of British house music's most enduring labels.
"We would never have been satisfied with making a compilation of previously released tracks, and always knew we'd have to put in the extra effort for the milestone birthday," Odell says. "I'm really happy with it, as I think all the music sounds fresh and current. I love it all and it's hard to pick a favourite, but Square's Sparks Entry is a proper treat."
The compilation may mark the end of one chapter in Freerange's history, but Roberts and Odell are naturally excited about what lies ahead. "I feel like we still have relevance and something to offer, so would love to carry on for as long as possible," Odell enthuses. "The scene feels really vibrant right now, with lots of really talented and knowledgeable young producers and labels springing up. I've got my eye on a few people like E Meyers and Savile, but would also love to work with the Pender Street Steppers, House of Doors and the other members of the Mood Hut crew - in my opinion, they're making some of the best deep house around right now."
Words: Matt Anniss
20 Years Of Freerange is out now on vinyl and digital
Tags: Freerange Records, Jimpster, Jamie Odell, Tom Roberts, deep house, Milton Jackson, Shur-I-Kan, Dave Taylor, Switch, Trevor Loveys, Manuel Tur, Kirk Degiorgio, Detroit Swindle, Kito Jempere, Andre Lodemann, Tony Lionni