Peter Adarkwah is more than just a DJ. Along with Ben Jolly, he is a co-founder of Barely Breaking Even (BBE), a London-based record label focused around on funk, soul and hip hop but adept at branching out into new territories.
Because of our experiences and our love for all things boogie, the lyrics for Barely Breaking Even by the Universal Robot Band seemed very apt
As well as compilations and reissues, BBE releases new albums and mixes – notably including J Dilla’s Welcome to Detroit and The Shining. The label, which turns 20 this year, now has a record shop in east London creative space The Institute of Light.
Peter’s career began as a regular London club-goer in the mid-1980s. Eventually he was asked to play at one of his favourite nights, The Good The Bad and The Ugly at the Cask and Glass, next to Selfridges. His profile blossomed from there, and eventually he ran his own night, Barely Breaking Even, with Jolly. In 1996, he borrowed £10,000 from a friend and turned the night into the label.
More recently, Peter has lived in Germany and Ghana, where he created an extension of BBE Records, BBE Africa, as well as an organic farm. He is presently back in London.
What were your earliest musical influences?
My early musical influences came through my family around the mid to late-1970s. My mom listened to Quincy Jones, Teddy Pendergrass and Isaac Hayes, and saw James Brown Live at the Hammersmith Apollo in 1971. My dad is more of a jazz-head: Thelonious Monk, Miles, Chet Baker. Nothing electric. My uncle introduced me to Gap Band, Cameo, Prince, Grover Washington Jr, Parliament etc. And between 1975 and 1982 my mom moved me to Ghana so highlife was a part of my soundtrack.
Where and when were your first club outings and which clubs and DJs inspired you.?
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly [club night] at the Cask and Glass; Norman Jay was one of the residents. Dance Wicked in the arches at Vauxhall. Soul II Soul at the African Centre, and Notting Hill Carnival.
1988 was a great time to be buying records – DJ Wise, Coldcut, Norman Jay, Chris Philips, Robbie Vincent, Greg Edwards, Gilles Peterson, DJ Scratch, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Todd Terry, Masters at Work.
It is the label BBE's 20th anniversary this year, but it was originally a club night. Tell us about your first parties and times behind the decks.
I first built a sound system with some friends called Mothership Connection, around 1987. We did local parties and schools, and had fun. I became a regular attendee at The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and then the promoter, Mac, the promoter asked me to DJ. The bug grew from there.
I met Ben Jolly, who was an assistant engineer for the sound system. We got talking and decided to do our own events. We started out doing a night in Chinatown called Shake it Loose but quickly had to change the name. Because of our experiences and our love for all things boogie, the lyrics for ‘Barely Breaking Even’ by the Universal Robot Band seemed very apt.
Around about 1994, we started doing parties at Club 9 in Kensington and Velvet Underground on Charing Cross Road as BBE. We covered hip hop, house, funk, jazz, latin, rock and more.
This spawned the label. tell us about the early days and first few releases.
A friend lent me £10,000 to start the label in May 1996. I approached [the DJ] Bob Jones and he agreed to compile a tracklist for BBE. It was a steep learning curve. I had to buy a computer and fax machine then try locating people. It was the dial up days, before Google.
We eventually cleared everything then got the records and CDs pressed up. I drove to every shop I could find within the M25 with Ben. Luckily, we sold out in a week and repressed enough times to repay the loan and get a distribution deal after Mark Webster wrote a review in Blues and Soul magazine.
I met Keb Darge back in the early club night days and was blown away by what he played so we did a few comps with him. Then I became friends with Kenny Dope and Louie Vega. Kenny introduced me to Dilla and Jazzy Jeff, which led to albums with them. Dimitri from Paris was a regular at Mr Bongo's record store and I approached him about doing a comp. Disco Forever remains the biggest selling compilation on the label.
There was no master plan. Things just grew organically.
In the 20 years of the label, which London venues or parties have impressed you?
London sadly has suffered from a lack of great sound systems. It has been more about the people and the friendships made. Plastic People on Oxford Street had the best sound, but I didn’t care much for the newer space in Shoreditch. There was too much bass for my liking.
The label has taken you far and wide. Are there any international BBE adventures that bring back good memories?
A Miami winter music conference with Questlove, DJ Spinna, Jazzy Jeff, Dilla, Vikter Duplaix and many more. Record shopping with Kenny Dope, DJ Spinna and Sting International in upstate New York. Digging through two-inch master tapes to find unreleased Roy Ayers material. And hanging out with Kenny Gamble, Dexter Wansel, Bobby Eli and co. in Philadelphia.
More recently you have been busy working on a completely different project in Ghana. Tell us a little about that?
I started setting up a horticultural organic farm in Ghana, which has sadly hit the buffers due to technical issues. I started out full of optimism but the economy has taken a tumble since oil prices dropped, making production very very unsustainable at the moment.
What is in store for you and the label this year?
On 26 June, there’s our Ace Hotel takeover, then latter we’re having a 20th anniversary party at the Institute of Light – a cinema, restaurant and bookshop in hipsville London Fields where we’re opening a vinyl shop.
We’re issuing lots of great compilations and represses, plus a 10th anniversary box-set of J Dilla’s The Shining.
Echoes is a fairly laidback session. Can you give you us five tracks we might hear on Thursday?