‘I give artists my history, I give them what I’m made of.’

Marc Williams

MBW’s partnership with the Did Ya Know? podcast continues with Adrian Sykes interviewing Marc Williams, a musical pioneer in his own right, who went on to discover Labrinth and found OddChild Music…

Growing up on North London’s Caledonian Road in the 1970s, Marc Williams spent a lot of time in church.

Not an Every-Sunday-really-mum-do-we-have-to lot of time. No, this was a Not-even-Ned-Flanders-is-signing-up-for-this-crap lot of time.

“All I remember is going to church. My mum would do five hours on a Saturday, six hours on a Sunday, five hours on a Wednesday, clean the church on a Thursday, then members’ meetings on a Friday… Honestly, I was at the church four days a week, for four or five hours a time, sometimes even more.

“But the beauty of church, especially when you go to those spiritual Baptist churches that my mum brought us to, it’s just the rhythms. All you’re hearing is beats, beats, rhythms, rhythms. And I’m sitting there tapping away, taking it all in.”

It’s ironic then – or perhaps it was inevitable – that when he first heard music from Labrinth, the prodigiously talented artist he discovered in 2004, his firs reaction was, “It’s good, but a bit churchy”.

Williams first met the teenage writer/performer/producer when he was teaching a music business course (having already had several UK hit singles and helped create a couple of genres – hard house and jungle – by the way).

One of his pupils had taken the course in order to accrue the knowledge and contacts to help with the careers of her musical offspring – one of whom was Timothy Lee McKenzie, soon to be known more widely as Labrinth.

“She wanted me to meet her son, because she thought I could help out. She told me he was obsessed with music, and it was true – his hunger was incredible.”

Williams became a mentor and manager, kick-starting and guiding a career that has encompassed No.1 records, multiple awards, critical acclaim and, most recently, success in TV and film composing, including an Emmy for his work
on Euphoria.

Williams is also the founder of OddChild Music – a management, records and, as of this year, distribution company. He runs it out of The Chocolate Factory in Wood Green, where he also owns seven studios.

In fact, he has recently been booking some time for himself as he returns to his recording career. “Drum and bass is back at the moment, so I’m back! I’m making beats again. It’s time to make some hay while the sun’s shining on me for a little minute.”

Having more than one job is nothing new for Williams. He’s been doing it pretty much all his life – although not always driven by passion. “I used to clean offices with my mum at five o’clock in the morning, then a paper round, then go to school, then a shift at a supermarket in the evenings.

“When I left school, I worked in McDonald’s, I worked in Virgin Records (retail, not label), I worked in a leather belt factory, I cleaned cars, I worked in an accountant’s office… all before I was 18.

“My last job was as an apprentice carpenter. The company were supposed to send me to do a City & Guilds qualification after a year’s work, but they didn’t. So I quit and decided to just go for it. I had to chase my dreams and pursue music.

“We had a sound system in my family, so it was always written for me. Like I say, I tried everything else first, but then my cousin Mike, who passed away a few years back, he was my driving force. He’s the guy that just said, ‘You can sleep on my floor, you’re fine, just do your music mate; don’t do anything else.’ He gave me the backbone to go for it.”

His first step was to join the family business. “When my cousins eventually let me touch the decks, for some reason, I could just naturally mix. Without anyone showing me, I could put two records together and mix them. As soon as they saw me do that, I became the main DJ for the sound system. Across the whole North London area, if you were having a house party, we were playing it, and I was the DJ.”

Across North London, if you were having a house party, we were playing it.”

The meeting that changed Williams’ life – and had a pretty big impact on the direction of UK dance music – came soon after.

“I’m living in a spare room in a shared house in Hornsey, literally sleeping on the floor, and I hear a tap on the door. This tall white guy sticks his head through the door, and he goes, ‘I hear you do music, I’m looking for a writer, can you write?’ I just said, ‘Yes, of course, let’s go’.

“This kid, he was the same age as me, his name was Caspar Pound, and I learned so much from him. I’d never been in a studio in my life. And the thing is, this one had a Fairlight system in it, and so we started sampling everything.

“You can’t do now what we did then. You’d need 500% of the publishing to give away! We had Roy Ayers, Afrika Bambaataa, Public Enemy, Billy Idol, James…

“We finished two tracks that first night and one of them was Total Confusion, which ended up being one of the biggest house tracks of all time. Carl Cox played it (almost) every set he did for 30 years, and was one of his final 10 tracks played at the closing of the legendary club Space in Ibiza.

“That was the track [released under the name A Homeboy, A Hippie & A Funki Dredd] that got me into the business. And I thank Caspar Pound – RIP. He passed away of cancer in 2005, but that serendipitous knock on the door, that was the universe knocking on my door saying, ‘Here’s your ticket’.”

“That serendipitous knock on my door, that was the universe knocking.”

Soon afterwards, Williams created another cornerstone track for another emerging genre. “I’d done this tune which kind of started the hardcore scene. But I had all of this church, reggae and soul stuff bubbling inside me.

“So one night, when me and Caspar did a remix of A Moment in Time by 4 For Money, a proper house remix, there was two hours left, it was six or seven in the morning, and I put this bassline on it, a pure dub bassline. And that turned out to be the one that tore the clubs to pieces.

“I think I was just lucky. You know, 1990 was the start of the decade of the most prolific genre production era that the UK has ever had. And we started by helping create two genres: hardcore house and jungle.”

It wasn’t, of course, just luck, and, in terms of Williams’ story, it wasn’t just two records or even ‘just’ two genres…

How much do you think the music that you’ve created is a product of your environment?

I’ve been in a rock band. I’ve been in a metal band. I’ve done dancehall. I’ve done disco. The white side of living in the UK versus the Jamaican side of living in the UK – both of them run right through me. That’s what I infuse into the artists that I worked with. I was trying to give them the broadest palette, all of my influences.

You’d have to listen to David Bowie, you’d have to listen to Nat King Cole, you’d have to listen to the Sex Pistols, you’d have to listen to Dennis Brown, you’d have to listen to James Brown: from the deepest funk to the deepest punk – ooh I like that, I’m gonna lock that one down! [Laughs]. I give the artists my history, I give them what I’m made of.

Do you think artists are less adventurous and more genre-specific now?

Like attracts like. I attract people who are willing to be influenced by a very broad range of music.

You stroke the C-string on one guitar, the C-string on the guitar sitting next to it vibrates. And I think the vibration I give out comes back to me, because I’m very lucky to work with an eclectic bunch of artists who have a broad palette.

I’m lucky to be surrounded by like-minded people – and those who aren’t soon end up leaving. Because we ask for so much more here, musically, creatively; that’s what I believe in.

After those seminal tracks, where did you go from there?

I wanted a studio, and I got one, I went at it and I made it happen. And then I wanted a Top 20 record. I started a group, The Three Amigos, and we got a Top 20 with Louie Louie [1999], and then we did 25 Miles with Edwin Starr.

I sampled 25 Miles and did a Big Beat job on it, I did a bit of a Fatboy Slim. And then Kiss FM want to sign it and they wanted to shoot a video with Edwin. I’m like, ok, but first we have to find him and clear the sample – thinking he lives just outside Vegas, somewhere exotic, right? Turns out he was living just outside Nottingham! And he was just the most amiable, lovely, supportive character. 

So I ended up doing The Three Amigos, I had a record label – Thumping Vinyl, I had the studio, I basically got everything I asked for, but I was still broke.

It was so weird. I’d made over 100 records, I’d done Top of the Pops, I’d done The Word and Dance Energy, I’d got all sorts of accolades from the dance industry. For someone who grew up broke in the Caledonian Road, it was way beyond what I ever thought I would do, but I was
still broke.

When you look back at that period, were there any people that you were able to turn to for advice and mentorship?

The young kids I look after now, they don’t know how lucky they have it. Because the dance music industry was the Wild West when I got into it. I had no manager, no tour manager, no accountant, no lawyer; I was on my own. Actually, for a while I had David Glick as my lawyer, and he has gone on to do amazing things, but that was when he was a young pup.

I learned quite quickly, but only by getting burned many times. Like by spending my whole advance in record time; not realising that your advance is supposed to last you. Then going back to ask for more and them looking at me across the table, like, ‘What?!’ All of these things, if I had had a manager when I was 19, I would have learned. But no, I learned the hard way.

The strongest early influence I had in music was Trenton Harris, who was my first manager. Trenton shared management of me with Tony Gordon, who managed Boy George and Curiosity Killed The Cat, They managed me from 1991-1993.

Tony Gordon had a chauffeur-driven Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce. The highlight of my life was to go to record companies from his office. 

I will never forget driving up Park Lane, and in the lane next to me a convertible pulls up and it’s Chris Eubank. He does a double take, because he sees this young 19-year-old kid sitting in the back of this Rolls-Royce, with two old white guys in the front.

So I wind the window down, I give him a spud and he looks at me with so much admiration. But after all that, I had to borrow a fiver from Tony when we got back to the office to get home.

But yes, Trenton was a very strong influence for me, and taught me so many lessons.

I remember turning down a drum and bass remix that Goldie was supposed to do. By now Trenton’s managing Goldie. Me being the one of the originators of jungle, Goldie coming in later getting all the honey. He’s flying, I’m stewing. I was one of the architects

Anyway, Trenton says, ‘Marc, I’ve got this tune. Goldie was supposed to remix it but he doesn’t want to do it – Do you want it?’

Of course, I’m on my high horse: why am I getting his leftovers? I mean, I’m getting tense now. Also, I didn’t like the tune. It was corny, very pop.

Trenton was like, ‘Are you sure? I’ll give you one more chance…’ I just kept saying no. I was salty; nah, I’m not doing it, no way.They release the record, it was Baby, Come Back, by Pato Banton with [Robin & Ali Campbell of] UB40, and it goes to No. 1 for four weeks. 

Every day, Trenton would call my house and say to me, ‘You know what I’d be doing now, if you’d taken that remix, I’d be batting people away, I’d be hanging up on record companies, my answering machine would be rammed, I’d be turning down this and that…’

He had a way of teaching you in the harshest way. But I learned that lesson: don’t let your ego get in the way of your decisions.

At the end of the 1990s, into the 2000s, you’re actually doing library music, a completely different role. Was that from a sense of restlessness?

I was actually exhausted, musically. I’d done every genre and I’d got to the place where I’d sit in the studio and not know what to make, because I actually didn’t know what I wanted to make. 

And at that time a friend of mine came to me and said that his neighbour owned a library company. I didn’t know what a library company was, but it turned out to be Extreme Music, which is the best library company out there. 

At the time, they were causing a massive upset, because library music beforehand had been very muzak, you know, lift music and soundalikes, whereas they wanted authentic sounds. 

So when they came to me, the first thing they said is ‘We’re doing this opera remix album, can you do a garage remix?’ I’m like, send it over!

It basically saved me. At a time when I had kind of run out of juice, they came in said, ‘Look, now you can put all of that time you’ve had making music to use over here’. 

I ended up making more money doing library than in the 10 years of putting records out. It saved my life. And it helped me build the next stage of my career. It helped me fund the development of Labrinth.

So this is 2004, you’re teaching a music production course, and you come across this incredible talent. Is it fair to say that changed your life?

Looking back, it did; but at the time it didn’t. At the time, it was just a kid I met that I was going to help by giving some studio time. 

I had a studio in Walthamstow and one day someone knocks on the door, asks us what we do here, how long we’ve been here etc. A week after that I get a phone call from the council saying I owe business rates? What do you mean business rates? What are business rates?!

They said I owed £17,000. I’m broke. I’ve got some equipment, scratching away, signing on, but still in the studio every day. 

I said, ‘Can I make payments?’ ‘No, you have to pay now’. But thankfully, this guy said to me, ‘If you’re not there, they can’t get the money’. The penny dropped and I put everything I had in Big Yellow Self Storage the next day.

That evening, it was a Friday, I used to DJ on a pirate radio station called Unknown FM. I went down to do my show and there’s a guy DJ-ing before I go on, and he’s got a guy with him playing saxophone. I really like it, so I go up to him and start talking to him.

“I’d been in the business for 12 years and I didn’t know where my money was.”

And this is where I really believe that if you stay focused, stay confident, keep your head down, keep grafting, the universe will move stuff around for you. Because without me telling this guy about moving my stuff into storage, he says to me, ‘It just so happens, on Monday, I’m going to this place in Wood Green, it’s called The Chocolate Factory, and it’s a charity, so you don’t have to pay business rates’.

This is the second time I’ve heard the words ‘business rates’ in 24 hours! The first time I owed £17K, the second time I don’t have to pay a penny!

But what happened was, the guy who owned the space, he saw me doing my thing, being lively, and he asked me if I’d thought about teaching a course on the music business ­– before just checking, ‘I take it you know the music business’?

I said ‘Yes, of course I know the music business!’ I was lying through my teeth. I didn’t even know what business rates were two weeks ago!

Plus, I’d been in the business 12 years and I didn’t know where my money was. So, what was really beautiful about that was that I had to cram the music industry before I could teach it. That proved so useful and I began to see where I’d gone wrong!

Labrinth’s mum ended up coming into my class, and that was the next chapter.

And if anyone ever vibrated back at you, it was Lab, right?

The strange thing with Lab is, when I met him, he knew nothing about what he called secular music. He said to me, ‘In my house, we don’t listen to secular music, just church music’. Ok… 

But, to go back, his mom walks into my class and I end up getting on with her really well. She came up to me and said, ‘You remind me of my brother, and I love my brother. And I want you to meet my son, because I think you could really help him out. He doesn’t go to school. And when he is in school he won’t go into the playground; he’s just addicted to music. That’s all he wants to do, all day every day, nothing else matters to him. I need someone to help him out.’ 

She brought down a cassette of some of the music he was making. I played it in the class, and it was good. It was a bit churchy, a bit swingy, some nice chords.

All this time, I’m still building the studio. There’s tarpaulin on the floor, there’s bare wires hanging from the ceiling, there’s rubble everywhere. 

But Lab is so desperate to get into the studio, I would literally, on the days when I was teaching, tell him to come down and I would lock him in the room. I don’t know what I was doing [Laughs]. It was Health & Safety madness. 

What I quickly learned about him though, was that he cared about my room more than I did. He’d leave it tidier than I left it. 

He’d leave the equipment in immaculate condition. And his hunger, he was just like ‘Please, please, please, please let me in, please, I don’t want to leave yet’. He’d stay overnight. Like I say, he was hungry. 

But he didn’t have a bed of music at all. It was very narrow. It was church/hip-hop/soul; that was it. That was the most fun thing for me, knowing that he was this sponge. 

He had this habit of regurgitating whatever he heard on his next beat, but in a way that was different. One of the earliest things I did with Lab was get him to do library music, because I wanted him to understand the different styles of production.

But he was not good at library, he was terrible. Because in library you’ve got to be good at emulating a certain genre. And Lab is genre defying, not genre defined. 

I said to him, ‘You’re not the guy who makes library, you’re the guy who sets the pace that library companies will then copy. We will know that you’ve made it when we get a library brief that has your song on it.’ 

And that happened when we did [Tinie Tempah’s] Pass Out. We got a brief that said, ‘We want songs that sound like Pass Out’. I ran straight into the studio and we laughed: ‘There you go, mate, that’s what we were grafting for’.

But yeah, the early years, from 15 to 18, was all studying. My big rule for him was: you have to learn to play the instrument properly. Having just a rudimental knowledge of keys and chords is what held me back. If I’d had a deeper knowledge and could discuss things properly, in musical terms, I’d have done a lot better.

I told him you need to learn what you’re playing, so that you can converse musically, because if you do that then you’ll have a job for life. I think that’s been the biggest part of the success story for Lab: before he broke out, he studied his instrument properly, and he studied production properly.

I called it the 360 technique. He reminded me of this the other day. I’d completely forgotten, but he said, ‘You taught me that you need to learn the whole thing.’ 

You can’t just play the keys; you want to learn everything, all aspects, so that you can talk at the highest levels with people. And now he’s working in Hollywood, doing film scores and all sorts.

You’ve always stayed on the outside of the business, but has there ever been a desire for you to sit within those walls, be a part of the establishment?

I like being independent. But, to blow my own trumpet, I do think I have great taste. I wouldn’t have been in the game for this long if I didn’t. I wouldn’t have found Labrinth, Ashnikko and Avelino if I didn’t have good taste.

But I would love the opportunity to help steer a major in their creative choices, because there’s just nothing coming down the pipe. They’re not nurturing, and that’s what we do: we nurture, we develop from the ground.

If a major was brave enough to have a department just for nurturing, looking for new talent and developing, and then if they graduate… that would be ideal for me, being like a feeder to them.

But I’m happy to be outside. I’ve always been a loner. I’ve never even really had a partner, I’ve just gone it alone.

What are the hard lessons that you learned along the way that you’d wish you’d known back at the start?

I always say to all my artists now: dream in detail, dream in colour and think holistically. Because like I said, I got everything I asked for, but I was broke. Because what I never asked for was money, what I never asked for was to look after my family. It was all music-driven. And all of those desires were fulfilled, but I was
still broke.

And what I did was change it to, ‘I want to be able to feed my family, I want to be able to provide a retirement for myself. I deserve to get that from the music that I’ve made, and what I’ve delivered to this business’.

“I say to all my artists: dream in detail, dream in colour and think holistically.”

I basically started saying, I need to get paid for what I do now. I got into a whole new way of thinking, and not having a poverty mindset.

So that’s the thing I teach my kids: to manifest, to dream-weave, to really focus on the goal. Most of the time you’re off-track. Ninety percent of the time, you’re not going in the direction you want to go in, but 100 percent of the time you have to keep your destination in your mind’s eye.

A plane that goes from London to New York is never on course, it’s constantly off course, but it repeatedly auto-corrects and it’s only by those corrections that it gets to its destination. You literally get there by a series of mistakes. So that’s what I teach my guys – don’t fear making mistakes.

What are you up to now?

I’m still at The Chocolate Factory in Wood Green, I’ve been here for coming up 20 years now. In the time since me and Lab broke up, which was 2015, I’ve been working with Avelino (pictured, inset. We just got a No.1 independent album, No.12 in the official album chart.

I developed a young artist named Ashnikko, I developed Raf Riley, Moon Willis and soul queen Etta Bond. I’ve got seven studios now, all bustling with producers and writers. That’s where I’m at.

Plus, drum and bass is back at the moment, so I’m back! I’ve been in the studio for the last couple of months making beats again. Drum and bass comes back every 10 years, so now it’s time for me to make some hay while the sun’s shining on me for a little minute.

We’re just about to start OddChild Distro, our own little distribution company, we’re doing some NFT runs. We’re going to be pushing the OddChild brand a whole lot more over the next couple of years.

What ambitions do you have left?

I’ve had the BRIT, I’ve had the MOBO, I’ve had the Ivor Novello. I’d love a Mercury, but the Grammy is the thing that gets me up in the morning now. That’s the focus that will keep me moving in the right direction. I want that Grammy. I see myself on that red carpet. I see myself in the audience with some artist collecting their Grammy and saying, ‘Thank you, Marc’.  Always grateful, never satisfied; that’s my rule.

This interview is taken from a brilliant podcast series, Did Ya Know?, which tells the often unheard stories of key figures in the British music industry, focusing initially on pioneering executives of colour. The team behind the pod includes Stellar Songs co-founder Danny D and Decisive Management co-founder Adrian Sykes. Music Business Worldwide is proud to be partners and supporters of Did Ya Know? You can listen to it wherever you find your favourite podcasts.

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