When you think of world leading hip hop imprints, names like Sugarhill, Def Jam, Stones Throw and Death Row jump into your mind. You certainly wouldn’t sail across the Atlantic to London to find your hip hop fix. And while early pioneering UK-grown hip hop imprints like Street Sounds were primarily concerned with the US underground, Big Dada came about to meet the needs of a new breed of British hip hop.
Founded in 1997 as an offshoot of the infamous Ninja Tune label helmed by beat pioneers Coldcut, the label was a reaction to the blinged out excesses of mainstream hip hop and heavyweight players like Diddy (hence the pun, Dada and Daddy, geddit?). Drafting in hip hop writer Will Ashon, a veteran of mags like Trace, Hip Hop Connection and Raygun, to run the label, the aim was to establish it as a black music foil to the more abstract beat dominated Ninja.
That manifesto has seen Big Dada develop one of the most eclectic rosters in hip hop history. Specializing in the surreal offbeat rap of artists of acts like Infinite Livez and Busdriver, the label has also served as a breeding ground for new movements in the British scene. Releases like 2002’s influential but relatively obscure Understanding by New Flesh helped to set the template for the hardcore sounds of dubstep and grime now blasting around the UK’s streets.
The label has also provided a roof for some of US hip hop’s more oddball elements: artists like Saul Williams whose savage lyrical beat-poetry was never going to endear him to a mainstream US company; the esoteric cLOUDDEAD; and the alarmingly prolific and goofy MF Doom; and then there’s Diplo, whose favela-inspired take on the genre has propelled himself and girlfriend MIA into the orbit of hip hop’s royalty.
Big Dada has never been about the mainstream hip hop world of 50 Cent, nevertheless it has scored notable commercial success in the form of Roots Manuva, whose dense, gothic hip hop and downbeat lyrics have found a large fan base in the rock and indie fraternity. Not to mention TY or artist/producer combo Spank Rock whose 2006 debut Yoyoyoyoyo was one of that year’s biggest underground hits. Who’s your Dada now?
The anniversary double CD sampler Well Deep: Ten Years of Big Dada Recordings is currently available at all good record stores.
This article was first published in the February issue of JUICE.