MBW’s Key Songs In The Life Of… is a series in which we ask influential music industry figures about the tracks that have – so far – defined their journey and their existence. To start 2024, Joe Kentish, President of Warner Records UK, and the man who signed Dua Lipa, takes his place in the hotseat. The Key Songs In The Life Of… series is supported by Sony Music Publishing.
Next year, Joe Kentish will celebrate 10 years at Warner Records UK. He first joined the label in 2014 as a Senior A&R and has subsequently been promoted, via a stint as Head of A&R, all the way to President, as of 2021.
2024 also sees him celebrate 25 years in the business. He got his start as co-founder of London-based indie, Middlerow Records, a tastemaker at the heart of the UK garage scene.
He then broke into the major ecosystem after being hired by Jamie Nelson to head up Parlophone’s Innocent imprint.
Following a spell at Mercury/Virgin EMI, one of his first signings at Warner Records was Dua Lipa – now a multi-Grammy-winning global superstar, with album number three due later this year. Not a bad calling card.
His Key Songs go back beyond his 25 years in the business, but also hint at where he’d like the next 25 to take him.
Reflecting on the process he says: “Like most people, I’m guessing, it was a mixed bag. Boiling your life down into seven tracks is… a challenge. But it’s also quite fun, remembering why you connected with certain songs.
“I think it’s interesting that so many of these songs – and loads more that didn’t quite make the cut – happened within quite a small window of time. It was actually harder to pick songs from the last 20 years. I think there’s a period where you experience everything more intensely.
“Plus, I was lucky enough to start listening to music at a time when circumstances and economics meant that you really absorbed the choices you made; you lived with them because they were all you had.”
Here, then, are Kentish’s picks, ranging from singer-songwriters and soul queens to pop superstars and classic jungle – all starting with some hip-hop that’s about as old-school as it gets…
1) Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew, The Show (1985)
This is the first record that I’ll admit to having bought. I think I was eight or nine when it came out. On the B-side was La Di Da Di, which was Slick Rick, with Doug E. Fresh just beatboxing.
It’s hard to believe, because hip-hop is so ubiquitous now, but I remember it all felt so exotic back then – especially for a kid growing up in Harlesden.
We hardly ever got to see these people, there was no mainstream media coverage, so there was that sense of mystery. It sounded like it was coming from another planet – but at the same time, because it was rapping and beatboxing, it was also something you could try for yourself. Luckily, for everyone, I soon realised it wasn’t for me.
“it was the start of a new culture and, for me, the start of a life-long love of hip-hop.”
It probably felt like a craze at the time. And, in fact, that’s what we were being told it was. But actually it was the start of a new culture and, for me, the start of a life-long love of hip-hop and rap music.
2) Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble (1987)
This is the first song on the Graceland album, and it could really have been the whole record for me. It was an album that my mum absolutely loved.
My mum and dad were very aware of the politics of Africa, of the black experience, apartheid was a massive issue in our house.
As a kid, Africa was a place that was talked about, but it didn’t necessarily mean so much. This music brought it viscerally into our house.
In hindsight, it was actually a very controversial record, with issues to do with the cultural boycott, but it’s one of those albums I’ve always gone back to. And the older I get, the more aware of production I get, the more amazing I think it is.
It’s sophisticated but fun, to the extent that a 10-year-old could get into it, but I can still listen to it now and hear new things, in the music and in the lyrics. It just gets better and better, and me and my daughter listen to You Can Call Me Al every Sunday morning together.
3) Michael Jackson, Bad (1987)
This is not his best record, but I remember the event of the video being played for the first time. We all went to my mum’s friend’s house, because she had loads of daughters who were really into Michael Jackson, and we all watched it together.
I could have picked something else from Michael Jackson, I could have picked something from Madonna from this same time, because they were pop records but they had so much groove in them. They felt massive and theatrical, which was so exciting as a kid.
“these artists and these landmark releases seemed to fill your life.”
These people were 20-feet tall. Each new record was an experience on all fronts. There were so few touchpoints in those days, but still these artists and these landmark releases seemed to fill your life.
And when I got my opportunity to work at a major label, I think I carried a bit of that level of ambition with me, to work with records that are at that scale. Those are the references I have when I think about what I want to achieve in my career.
To me, there is nothing better the major label system can do, or that I can be involved in, than records that have a groove and a soul to them – but that are absolutely huge around the world. Records like Bad and True Blue [Madonna, 1986] are maybe downplayed by people in favour of ‘cooler’ albums or artists, but these are the best of the best of the best.
There are so few artists who can pull that sort of success off. The older I get the more special and rare I realise those people are, the more I realise that success on that scale is not an accident and the more I realise how privileged you are to be in their orbit.
4) Conquering Lion, feat. Super Cat & Reggie Stepper, Code Red (1994)
This was one of the biggest jungle tunes around when jungle was getting big. It represents when I started going out with my friends in London, clubbing.
Every [artist] I’ve said so far has been American – apart from Slick Rick, who was born in London, I’m sure someone would have pointed that out! But jungle was UK. There were loads of influences, but the blend was very definitely British. It could only have happened in the UK at that time, possibly could only have happened in London at that time.
And it was fashion, it was lifestyle, it was driving round all different parts of the country. For 10 years after this, I guess I was a raver – which sounds comedic to say now, but that’s what the scene was. It also felt really personal, it felt like it belonged to us.
Even now, when I look at different audiences and fans, trying to properly understand them, I try and remember what jungle music meant to me and how much I identified with it. I didn’t want anything getting in between me and my relationship with the music, I wanted that connection to be as pure and direct as possible.
If anyone ended up on Top of the Pops, for instance, it was like someone in the family had died. Like, what are they doing sharing our music with all these people?! That was the ownership I felt. It was an incredible time in my life and I connected with music in a way I’m not sure I ever did before or since.
5) Amy Winehouse, Tears Dry on Their Own (2006)
This [pick] could easily have been a Lauryn Hill track. Whenever anyone asks me what would have been my dream signing from the past, or what is my North Star, I say either Amy Winehouse or Lauryn Hill.
They made records that dug into a soul legacy but also became part of it and did it in a way that could only have been done in the times that they were working in. They were classic sounds and at the same time completely contemporary.
I’m often working on albums where we’re referencing older sounds, but when we do I also very often reference these two artists, to make the point that when the greats did it, they made it their own.
“I remember thinking at the time, this is what I’m trying to do; this is it.”
I was at Universal when Back to Black came out, Darcus was upstairs making the record, and we were aware of some of the difficulties that were swirling around.
I heard Rehab, and I thought that was alright, but it sounded like a bit of a novelty to me. And then they came with the rest of the album and I was knocked out. I remember thinking at the time, this is what I’m trying to do; this is it.
6) Jay-Z, Kanye West, N***as in Paris (2011)
I could pick anything off this album (Watch The Throne).
I’m a huge Jay-Z fan, as a human being and as an artist. And this was the great Kanye, before all the nonsense.
The show I saw when they toured this record is still the best rap concert I’ve ever been to in my life. This track got rewound seven times [that night], because it’s a highlight on a record that’s full of highlights. It’s two greats at the top of their game.
I still smile when I even think of the experience of being in the room watching them perform this – a real privilege.
7) Aretha Franklin, The Dark End of the Street (1970)
I just think this is hands down the greatest voice that’s ever existed in the history of popular music.
You can pick any song from her – and you should, just to hear the full range of what she can do.
I get goosebumps when I listen to her, or when I watch her live performances.
It’s hard to describe just using words, but it’s a voice that has the power of loud even when it’s quiet.
You know when there’s a Porsche just idling, but you can still hear the power, you know that if the driver puts their foot down, it can fly? I just want to be around people like that.
My dad had lots of soul records, but actually there was this Irish kid I went to school with, his Dad was a landlord – but also a singer. I guess there was a bit of a The Commitments vibe.
Anyway, they had all these cassettes of soul music he would lend me. So I actually got introduced to Aretha and loads of other soul music through my friend’s dad, an Irish publican who sang in a covers band!
Key Songs In The Life Of... is supported by Sony Music Publishing. SMP represents classic catalogs including The Beatles, Queen, Motown, Carole King, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Leiber & Stoller, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones, as well as beloved contemporary songwriters such as Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Olivia Rodrigo, Calvin Harris, Daddy Yankee, Gabby Barrett, Jay-Z, Ye, Luke Bryan, Maluma, Marc Anthony, Miranda Lambert, Pharrell Williams, Rihanna, Sara Bareilles, Sean "Love" Combs, Travis Scott and many more.Music Business Worldwide