The Rise & Rise Of High Focus Records

“I see the label as a brain and everyone in it is their own special different character”

This is a story that’s been way overdue. Since 2010 the rise and rise of High Focus Records has meant quietly reimagining traditional 90’s era boom bap Hip-Hop, touring the world and racking up views in their millions. Flicking through the names on the High Focus roster is like calling the school register in a nightmare class of degenerates: Dirty Dike, Verb T, Leafdog, Fliptrix, Jam Baxter, Dabbla, Illinformed, Ed Scissor, Ocean Wisdom, Strange U and until very recently Rag ‘N’ Bone Man all come together to make up one of the most exciting independent label in UK music right now. A jumble of left field creatives and extrovert personalities that would leave any substitute teacher in a sweat.

This year, High Focus Records turned seven, and the story of this imprint is one that has been characterised by annual power moves. From working with the renowned DJ Premier, to first signing an artist who would later go on to become one of the leading male vocalists of the decade, High Focus Records is a label that is focused only on elevation: “I always knew since I was a kid that I wanted to be my own independent boss and do my own thing.” I meet High Focus CEO Fliptrix at a pub in South London to get the High Focus story stans have been catting for: “that was just from going up into the city and seeing all the commuters on the train and stuff not looking too happy and I knew for myself that I didn’t want any of that, which was the beginning of wanting that freedom for myself.”

UK Hip-Hop has always been a scene as distinct as any other whether it’s Jungle or Grime. The release of ‘Talkin’ The Hardest’ in ‘07 by Giggs is often cited as a monumental moment for UK Rap music on a street level. But while the authorities wasted no time in policing Grime events with the infamous Form 696, UK Hip-Hop went unmolested. Live shows went ahead as usual, allowing Hip-Hop rappers and producers to meet, mingle and coexist without interference, growing a scene and community in the process. “Back then I was at Speaker’s Corner in Brixton – which is like the open mic – that’s where all the UK Hip-Hop people like your Jehst, Klashnekoff, Taskforce were all performing. I put out my debut album, ‘Force Fed Imagery’, by myself. I was just hitting up all the open mics, killing it on the street, hustling my CD’s and going to as many open mic nights as I can, just to try and get my name out there and get a foot in the door. I was just about me as a solo artist at that point.”

A long time lover of American Hip-Hop, Fliptrix was initially inspired to write rhymes by those established rappers who laid the foundations for an uncompromising UK voice within the Hip-Hop genre. Rappers in the mould of Taskforce, Skinnyman and Jehst, in the early noughties were then, and remain now respected statesmanlike figures in UK Hip-Hop, “when I first heard them that’s what inspired me to start writing lyrics, when I heard people from our country rapping about stuff I could relate to.” It was the era of Low Life Records – a label many aspired to being involved in, but the scene shifted dramatically in 2010 when Low Life Records collapsed, “I needed to put out my own solo album, Low Life had crumbled at the time and the only label was Jehst’s label YNR but he was too busy, I would have had to wait a year or year and a half to get my album out and he said to me then, ‘the best advice I can give you would be just to do it yourself’ and I was like ‘cool, I’m going to start my own label then’ and that’s what sparked me initially to do it.”

That piece of advice from Jehst proved to be the catalyst, “I learnt everything really as I went along, so I just knew first it was going to be the name. I was thinking of all the names – most of them were taken, I thought ‘High Focus, that’s perfect’ checked – no one had it, hit up my boy he made the logo for us and then yeah, I put out my own album [Theory Of Rhyme] successfully.”

As a lyricist, Fliptrix has been in love with complex rhyming patterns from the jump, his content lies firmly in the spiritual – the result of a life affirming psychedelic experience that was to change his life forever. The 2012 LP release ‘The Road To The Interdimensional Piff Highway’ tells the story of how Fliptrix’s perspective changed, and how he came to be renewed from the experience: ‘Premonitions in my dream, detoxin’ all the gin and livin’ life pure with a spiritual dedication’ he raps on ‘Star Beings’. Although not an endorsement of any traditional ‘God’ or religion, Fliptrix believes it was this otherworldly experience that gave him a thirst for knowledge and the self belief to make his label a success; it was the defining ‘own your world’ moment often spoken of by Skepta – a realisation that cannot be dismissed.

The collapse of Low Life Records proved pivotal in many ways, “I was surrounded by people like Jam Baxter, Dirty Dike, Leafdog – I think I met Jam Baxter freestyling in a rave somewhere, that’s kind of how we all connected through the festival circuit. Jam Baxter thought I did a good job with my album, so I was like: ‘I can offer this to you and put it out’ and he was like ‘yeah sounds good’.”

There’s been no A&R-ing really in the sense of me sitting looking like ‘who’s sick? Who’s sick? I’m gonna sign them’ it’s all been natural so it’s kind of like grown like that.

Where did he begin when it came to rates and negotiation, I ask, was it simply a case of pulling a number out of thin air? “I looked into what record labels had done before me, what’s the sort of standard record label deal? Purely researching, and growing and learning as I went along. Asking people around me who had record labels before. It’s just been so organic it’s mad, since the beginning when it was just me. I met Jam Baxter freestyling, Bax is friends with Dike, I meet Dike. We then meet Leaf and I’ve known Verbs from like around South London. I used to look up to Verb T when I was younger ‘cause he was an older MC who was on Low Life – I was a fan of the music. He sort of took me under his wing, took me out on shows, showed me the ropes. Then basically, when Low Life crumbled I saw there was a gap in the market, I saw Hip-Hop was kind of dead but I had all these talented people around me and I knew something excellent could be built and like, I just happened to be the most organised, ‘on it’ one out of the guys, do you know what I mean?”

The thing that most sets High Focus apart is the genuine bond the artists share, “every single signing on the label has been a friend of a friend, or someone who we’ve met through musical association. So there’s been no A&R-ing really in the sense of me sitting looking like ‘who’s sick? Who’s sick? I’m gonna sign them’ it’s all been natural so it’s kind of like grown like that. It’s got the whole family aspect together and I think people see that, and see we’re friends, see we collab and see the unity and that creates a movement.”

There’s an optimism about Fliptrix that’s infectious, he smiles and laughs often during our conversation, there’s a kind of concentration and a laid back stillness in the way he sits and as we talk that hints at his focus. Fliptrix regularly plays down his role, choosing instead to talk about the talent at his disposal, “because High Focus is an artist run label, I understand what an artist wants and I always trust in my artists to deliver their best thing. So I never fuck with their creative control. They make their album how they want to make their album. I’ll set their budget, but we give free reign on the creative angle and we’re really open to any wild ideas which they may have because I think that’s what makes it original.”

My first run in with the kind of originality that High Focus always love to embrace came back in the Channel U days, ‘Lips 2 Da Floor’ was my introduction to Dabbla’s outlandish content before I even knew who Dabbla was, “that blew up” Fliptrix agrees when I bring it up. “That was mad init, that’s funny as well ’cause that tune they all made for like, a joke – they [Dabbla, Mention and Dubbledge] didn’t write any of their bars, they just freestyled them in the studio for fun and it ended up being like one of the biggest tunes.”

At times it seems like the High Focus roster could be turned into a comic, like Preacher, only English –  and with more drugs: “that’s the thing, I see the label as like a brain and everyone in it is their own special, different character and everyone is unique in their own way. That’s why it works because when we come together you have like the deep poetry of Scissortongue or the psychedelic, off-the-wall lyrics of Jam Baxter and the bravado and stuff of Dirty Dike and it all makes this one powerful unit when we come together. I think there’s power in numbers.”

Recently, High Focus made yet another piece of UK Hip-Hop history when Leafdog dropped ‘The Legacy’; a monumental cypher, crammed with damn near every heavy hitter in the scene. A prelude to his ‘Dyslexic Disciple’ LP, Leafdog drew together the best known strands for a one-off special that featured: Phi Life Cypher, Smellington Piff, BVA, Cracker Jon, Jehst, Jack Jetson, Dirty Dike, Verb T, Sonnyjim, Mysdiggi, Klashnekoff, Fliptrix, Bill Shakes, Eric The Red, King Kashmere, Remus, Task Force & DJ Sammy B-Side. Leafdog produced the track and, as one of the most revered in the game, he’s another musician in the High Focus family that is concerned only with elevation.

Leafdog has proven instrumental in countless ways – a literal forward thinker it was his album meeting that ended in the formation of the Four Owls as a group. Fliptrix tells the story – it was the first in a chain of events that would eventually lead to the DJ Premier produced ‘Think Twice’. “Leaf came down for a meeting about his first solo album – From A Scarecrow’s Perspective – and just joking around we made a few tracks, ended up calling ourselves the Four Owls, made a whole album in two weeks, put that out and then that like, kind of blew up.”

If there was to be a High Focus mantra, it would surely be dedication and work rate. The work is never done, and the ambition of everyone involved is sky high, as the producer for the Four Owls, Leafdog was the driving force behind the collaboration with DJ Premier, “he’s always on his hustle on Twitter. Like, he’s worked with so many guys in America to make contacts, he’s worked with a lot of greats, like Kool G Rap, Wu Tang, Jedi Mind Tricks and stuff like that so he’s basically had it in his head that he’s going to work with DJ Premier – he was working with a rapper called Apathy, saw he had Premier’s contact, got through to Premier’s manager – they already knew about us. [Premier] name dropped me as like one of his favourite MC’s alongside Klashnekoff from the UK, so we knew he was a fan of what we were doing. And then yeah, we spoke about the business, we got it all locked in. Premier called Leafdog on the phone – and [Leafdog] was obviously gassed ‘cause he’s a massive fan of [DJ Premier], they spoke all about the beats, the type of style we wanted. [Premier] sent one, it wasn’t quite right, sent a next one and it was perfect. He laid down all the cuts for it and yeah, it was kind of like UK Hip-Hop history was made when we done that tune.”

In 2011 the High Focus family started touring and their international fanbase is just as adoring as those in the UK. Greece, Australia, Switzerland, France and Austria are all well versed in the High Focus movement. Last year, the Four Owls performed at Austrian festival Donauinselfest in Vienna and the guys were surprised by the welcome they received from the 25,000 strong crowd. “So many people there knew our words and were like shouting them back it was crazy!” At the time, Brexit was a major talking point on the continent, and the guys found themselves being invited on to Tribe Vibes, a show on a national radio station (FM 4) to share their opinions on the constitutional change, “we were brought on to national radio, FM, daytime – primetime, the Four Owls, to talk politics on the radio which is fucking mad!” Fliptrix laughs, still in disbelief.

It’s mad sometimes I look at it and think it’s crazy how it all happened, it seems a bit – there’s something magic about it, something unique about it and something very special about it.

The fact that international support for High Focus is in lots of ways stronger than any mainstream support in the UK is not much of a surprise. Independent solo Hip-Hop artists in this country like Little Simz have been left wondering what they need to achieve to get domestic recognition for a while now. Between them, High Focus and Little Simz have received backing from Nas, Lauryn Hill and DJ Premier and worked with still more Hip-Hop greats, so I ask whether the deafening industry silence on their achievements is something Fliptrix has noticed? “Sometimes I feel like, what’s going on?” frustration creeps into his voice for the first time during our conversation, “are [they] not aware of what’s going on because by looking at our YouTube and our shows and our sales there’s very clearly a big movement going on, but the mainstream media as a whole, in terms of the daytime radio front isn’t really pulling it into acceptance right now, know what I’m saying? I put a tweet out a couple of months ago about it and then after that Dirty Dike got on 1xtra and that, and had like a triple wheel up online by Mistajam, which was sick. A triple wheel up on radio!”

I agree, UK Hip-Hop and High Focus in particular remain a sleeping giant. Selectors like Mistajam are crucial, but at the moment he is proving to be the exception. In reality, I wonder what the real likelihood is of mainstream gatekeepers championing an imprint as self-sufficient as High Focus? They book their own artists for their own shows, internationally and domestically, they produce all their own material in-house, beats, visuals, arranging distribution with companies they trust, merchandise, they handle all their own press. So you have to wonder why mainstream gatekeepers would champion a label that has proven so definitively that you do not need backing from the industry itself in order to create an international buzz and sell out shows. “It’s something I’d like to change, I’m hopeful it will change.” Fliptrix tells me, unable to fixate on the negative for more than a moment. He’s come a long way from doing everything himself, “I was doing orders, customer service, packing up orders. It’s literally gone from working in a tiny flat, on the end of my bed, on a laptop with like, stock all the way through the house and nowhere for me to move. It’s mad sometimes I look at it and think it’s crazy how it all happened, it seems a bit – there’s something magic about it, something unique about it and something very special about it.”

The rapid rise of Rag’N’Bone man adds yet another dimension to the High Focus story, “we were the first label to release his music, we put out his first two projects – Dog N Bone, produced by Leafdog and Put That Soul On Me produced by Dirty Dike – he’s got number one solo male album. From him getting signed it was a year, year and a half. For us, it was interesting. Leafdog was like ‘I met this amazing singer! I swear man, he’s the future’ and just fully believed in him. Anyone that hears his voice is just like ‘wow’. I didn’t care that it wasn’t rap, the beats were sick and his voice is amazing. We believed in it, and put it out.”

Before we finish I ask about his vision for the future, with Rag ‘N’ Bone Man and Ocean Wisdom drawing in more attention for the label will we finally see their boom bap rap aesthetic mingle with road rap and grime? “There’s guys on the label like Jam Baxter, Deadplayers who are all on that double time stuff – I think what would be good is like some cross genre collaborations, would be sick to see some people merging like, Ocean Wisdom and Dizzee Rascal. Obviously, it’s a big one, but something like that would be so sick.”