Singapore might not be an epicentre for underground electronic music, but with Darker Than Wax, Dean Chew AKA Funk Bast*rd and his label co-founder Kaye have built a platform that’s influence and output has spread far beyond South East Asia.
Specialising in, but not restricted to, strains of jazz, soul, broken beat and house – the sounds that brought Dean and Kaye together in the first place – the label has always been centred around family values. There’s many artists who’ve returned to Darker Than Wax over the last decade, mainly down to Dean and Kaye’s approach to nurturing and fostering long-lasting relationships; as Dean puts it, the label will always prioritise ‘people first, skills second’.
Alongside an interview about the beginnings of the label and its philosophy and ethos, Dean has put together a mix for us, which represents where the label is currently at. Chock full of exclusive forthcoming material from the likes of Cain, Kansado, Tape Hiss and LAZA, it cruises through the sounds at the core of the imprint, from jazz and broken beat to downtempo and house.
Can you tell us a bit about where the idea to start Darker Than Wax came from?
I met Kaye (co-founder) back in the early 2000s, and that was when I was still pursuing my architectural degree in Australia. I was already dabbling quite a bit with DJing and he was just starting out as a musician who was keen to delve deeper into the realm of electronic music. We started to keep in touch and a strong friendship was born out of the same love for jazz, soul, house and broken beat.
When I returned back to Singapore, we started playing as a duo together – him on the sax and me improvising on the decks. Incidentally, we also dabbled with productions, while simultaneously building a robust network through the various parties we threw. Perhaps one of our most definitive moments was running a rather primitive pirate radio platform called Dance and Soul, which hosted a global list of radio shows, featuring the likes of Ennio Styles, Recloose, Raggy’s legendary Off Limits show, Zeljko Kerleta and many others. Through that platform, we started to build a small global community based on the mutual love for the music – all of these pre-social media days I might add.
We also realised there was a huge void, particularly in South East Asia where there just weren’t enough platforms to release music and showcase the underbelly that was brewing in this part of the world. So in a nutshell, it was really organic how it all happened – we just decided to give it a go and it has been more than a decade ever since!
What’s the philosophy behind it? How has that evolved since you launched?
The name Darker Than Wax simply means to search deeper. To defy categories, classifications and genres, and simply immerse yourself in the spirit of the groove. The label has evolved organically since its infancy, and quite frankly, it has been amazing to witness that growth across numerous aspects from running radio shows to curating events globally. Most importantly, we have established strong ties with our fans and family, and that community has been growing steadily on a daily basis.
Is the label more of a family affair or are you looking far and wide for potential releases? What’s your approach to A&R?
The label is first and foremost a family affair. That’s the ethos Kaye and I have always upheld from day one. People first, skills second – I think its very crucial to be able to connect with the artist as a person. Otherwise the process becomes very transactional, and I am not interested in that at all. In terms of the approach to A&R – it’s actually pretty simple – the music has got to have that groove, that raw ability to hit you right in the low end and make you move!
Are there any labels that you look up to or have inspired you along the way?
Tons! Compost was one of the first few labels that influenced me in a big way – the music, the artwork and photography, the brand narrative; everything was on point. Developing an ecosystem and a holistic view is crucial in ensuring the longevity of a label, which is why labels like Rhythm Section, Brownswood, Dark Entries, L.I.E.S, just to name a few, continue to inspire and push me.
Since starting the label what has been the greatest difficulty you’ve had to overcome?
I think the greatest difficulty has been a mental one – that is to bestow ourselves with the belief that we, as a label coming out of South East Asia can stand alongside other contemporaries and peers alike, that we have a particular point of view to share with the world.
And the greatest achievement?
There have been a few: Our collaboration with cult watch maker G-shock to design a limited GD-100 timepiece complete with a USB stick containing a curated DTW soundtrack; our first ever block party in conjunction with the local planning authority in Singapore, where we closed off a section of a heritage street to almost a thousand strong turnout. Clinching a press and distribution deal with !K7 a few years back was also an important milestone in our little journey – this may not mean much to labels operating with more accessibility and options in Europe for instance, but for a small imprint coming out of Singapore (a city that has never really been considered as a musical hub), it says a lot!
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about starting a label with a similar ethos to yours?
Develop sound work ethics first and foremost – that will always take you further. Enjoy the process and don’t get too caught up with goals or expectations – those things only add more unnecessary pressure and take you away sometimes from the notion of just having fun with what you do. In the words of Shawn Stussy: “the journey is the prize.”
This mix is comprised of 100% original Darker Than Wax material. Could you tell us a bit about it? Any tracks that are particularly special to you?
Yes, 100% DTW material – all forthcoming exclusives! Mixes should always convey a certain narrative and with this, it’s a reflection of where DTW is at musically. Shades of jazz, downbeat, electronica, house, broken beats and beyond. All the tracks resonate in a personal way and are special in their own ways.
What’s coming up on the label? Any releases we should know about?
We have a pretty busy schedule in the next few months or so. Kansado’s Futuro Tumbao 2, a sequel to his first EP, comes out on the 11th of March – it’s a sonic journey exploring the space between his dominican roots and experimental beats.
I’m also especially excited about the forthcoming EP from Guohan, an extremely talented Chinese producer who’s based in the UK. Moving across to the Phillippines, we are working with the Hernandez Brothers and Lustbass (an exciting trio who’s pushing the envelope of hip-hop and funk), Tape Hiss with his deep and dreamy 808 state-inspired cuts, Dutch producer Laza’s energetic broken beat and house debut, UK producer Cain’s tribal rhythms, Belgian’s UNOS with her club-oriented sounds and not forgetting Australia’s Tamil Rogeon!
Kansado – El Neo Songo
Guohan – Across the Stream
Jasper Staal – Untitled
Cain – Gecko
Guohan – Night at the Sky Palace
Kansado – Astral Yambú
Jozu Oto – Kustard (With You)
Guohan – Misty
Tape Hiss – Glass Voice
Jasper Staal – Untitled
Tamil Rogeon – Ben With Nets
Tape Hiss – W 4th Street [ACE]
Cain – Argon
LAZA – Working All Day
Hernandez Brothers & Lustbass – The Stallion
B.Visible – Marble
Tamil Rogeon – Innocent You
Malik Hendricks – Untitled
UNOS – Flavourtown
LAZA – Ferrum
Hernandez Brothers & Lustbass – Intergalactic Outlaw Disco
Malik Hendricks – Untitled
UNOS – Anger Management
Hernandez Brothers & Lustbass – The Void
Kansado – Suave Como Va