Next month, northern deep house label 3am Recordings mark their 15th birthday with a rare vinyl release. We sent Matt Anniss up to Leeds to find out more…
3am Recordings co-founder Al Bradley bounds into the Doghouse, one of Leeds' most intimate venues, in the company of Jeff, his popular and now elderly canine companion. Beaming with pride, Bradley lets Jeff off the lead so that the staff and regulars gathered in the downstairs bar can make a fuss of him. They do this with relish.
"I bring him along because he's a lot more popular than me," he jokes after ambling over to the table where iDJ is sitting. "I got him just before we started the label in Manchester in 2003, so he's been a constant part of the story."
Bradley takes a seat and slaps down his record bag, a now slightly faded and moth-bitten reminder of his one and only trip to the Winter Music Conference in Miami in 2003. Funnily enough, this was when he and label co-founder Guy Williams first met iDJ. "I seem to remember being thrown into a pool by someone at one of the daytime parties, but I was a bit drunk by that point," he reminisces. "I can't really remember much after that, so you'll need to remind me what happened."
Since iDJ's memories of that steaming hot day in Miami are similarly limited, the conversation moves on to the label's story to date. It was established in Manchester at a time when the city's deep house producers and labels - the likes of Alex Moran, Si Bradshaw and the extended Paper Recordings crew - were at the top of their game, delivering heady, intoxicating fare built around chunky basslines and equally stocky grooves.
"It was mainly the UK deeper side of things which got us going musically at the time - 2020Vision, Paper, Toko, Glasgow Underground and Pagan," Bradley remembers. "That was the main catalyst. We used to go to Back to Basics in Leeds and Robodisco in Manchester a lot. To begin with we did look at Manc-based producers as part of it, like Liam LHK, Alex Moran, Atomphunk, Ben Dean and so on. So we did definitely try to keep it local, in a kind of League Of Gentlemen fashion."
It wasn't long before the label's outlook became a bit more widescreen, offering up early releases from Argentine duo Ciudad Feliz (an alter ego of 2020Vision-signed duo Julian Sanza and Fernando Pulichino, AKA Silver City), Glaswegian Ross Couch and Finnish project A.M Collective. These helped spread the label's reputation far and wide, but business was not what it was. By 2008, the label was on an indefinite hiatus.
"It was just at a point where I wanted to really look at things," Bradley reflects. "Loads of money had been lost, it had gone to digital and I wasn't quite sure if I was doing it just for the sake of it. I'll be honest, it did feel a bit like that. The reason I carried it on was because I started making some tracks - shit ones, but tracks all the same!"
He laughs at the memory, safe in the knowledge that 3am Recordings is now on the rise once more. Taking a slightly more varied and tweaked approach to the label's release schedule - think purist tech-house and more rugged cuts as well as the deep house for which the imprint first became famous - Bradley rebooted 3am in 2011 and has never looked back.
The same can also be said of Bradley's own production career. Since 2012, he's released a wealth of original material on a wide variety of labels, becoming a sought-after remixer for those who like their house music deep, rugged and club-ready. "To begin with I just put a few of my own things out on the label, then those guys in Italy, Presslaboys, got in touch about one of them and I did something for them," he says. "Then I thought, 'Why not carry it on?' so I went full tilt again with the label and just kept producing."
Perhaps the most significant recent development was the label's return to vinyl in 2016 with 3am Wax Volume 1, a fine EP that offered vinyl debuts to a string of fast-rising producers. "I was just sick of digital, to be honest," Bradley admits. "It took a while but eventually I got distribution for the first one and it went into the Juno Top 10, with no big names. My record, which followed the next year, also charted highly and had great feedback. It really feels like 3am is what it was originally."
In June, 3am Recordings will celebrate its 15th birthday by delivering the follow-up to the EP, 3am Wax Volume 2. Featuring tracks from long-time associated Danny 'Dubble D' Ward (AKA Moodymanc), Ceri, Michael Lovatt and Twisted Puppies, it feels like a fitting way to celebrate reaching 90 releases. Bradley, of course, has no intention of stopping now, having fallen back in love with the label again after some mid-noughties wobbles and financial struggles (something that hits most independent labels at some point, given the difficulty in making money from music sales).
"There's plenty more to come," he enthuses. "Following the 12-inch will be Remixed At 3am Volume 2, a digital compilation of remixes I've done for other artists over the last few years, then after that I'll be getting the next 12" ready. I've got artists lined up for that one, but I'm not telling you who's on it just yet."
Fair enough. Before iDJ departs to make the long drive back down to Bristol, we ask about his future plans as a producer. He reels off a long list of forthcoming tracks and remixes, before focusing on a cut he's made for Dissident Records.
"It's a nod to Jeff – it's called Nova Beck and references a bridge we go over on our walks," he says, stroking the aforementioned hound at the same time. "When my other dog died I made a track called Beats For Doris, so I thought I'd do a reference for Jeff now while he's alive and kicking. Plus, as you can see, everyone in here knows him. I should be sending him out to do gigs - maybe he could DJ at Crufts."
Words: Matt Anniss
3am Wax Volume 2 is out on 3am Recordings on 4 June
Tags: 3am Recordings, Al Bradley, deep house, Back To Basics, Robodisco, Ciudad Feliz, Ross Couch, A.M Collective, Liam LHK, Alex Moran, Atomphunk, Ben Dean, Presslaboys, Dubble D, Moodymanc, Ceri, Michael Lovatt, Twisted Puppies, Dissident Records