It’s a sweaty Wednesday night in the rammed confines of the Notting Hill Arts Club, a venue which has helped launch the careers of The Libertines and Lily Allen. Early 2000s hip hop upstarts So Solid Crew have just sent a bolt of energy through the underground venue and are dragging an abashed-looking guy in thick specs on to the stage. It’s Relentless Records founder Shabs Jobanputra and garage’s original troublemakers spend the next few minutes lauding his faith in them.
Its 19 years since Jobanputra risked £165,000 on a video for 21 Seconds which would help the song reach number one and gain awards and notoriety for the Battersea crew. Their story – which spans jail, Westminster and mainstream success – is, slowly, being made into a film. The tale behind the enigmatic label head – a refugee who rose to one of the most powerful positions in music – is lesser known.
A few weeks later we meet in the calmer surrounds of Relentless’ offices, within Sony’s High Street Kensington UK headquarters. The major label is Relentless’ latest partner after a string of ownership changes. “We are best when we’re a boutique arm of a major store,” explains Jobanputra. “We offer something more bespoke. It’s about taking an artist that would not normally get signed. If everyone’s trying to sign something we will definitely not try and sign it because it’s buzzy.”
It’s a strategy which has given Relentless an offbeat collection of artists over two decades: from its first number one – Artful Dodger feat Craig David’s Re-Rewind – to soul singer Joss Stone, crooner KT Tunstall and rapper Nadia Rose. Jobanputra readily admits he’s “made lots and lost lots” taking gambles on artists, but the company is profitable and on track for sales of £10 million this financial year as streaming has helped reverse the fortunes of music companies. So marked is the change, that giant Universal and Warner are preparing IPOs.
But what place does a label have in a world where artists can reach a huge fanbase on YouTube?
“Streaming has become so saturated. You need the nous and the power of a label to get your voice heard,” he says, pointing out that the new industry model means independent labels have low overheads and decent income, from streaming, tickets and merchandise.
For Relentless, he believes gravelly singer Tom Walker, a winner at last year’s Brits, typifies his approach. “When we signed him, he didn’t even have a Facebook page, we helped to build his repertoire, his live and a brand.”
It doesn’t take long to cut to the heart of Jobanputra’s drive, at 52, as he admits he’s working “harder than ever”. He arrived in the UK aged five, a refugee from Idi Amin’s horror-strewn Uganda with no English. His nine year old brother witnessed a shooting outside their house and the family fled, first to tranquil West Malling in Kent, then to St John’s Wood. A “tough” comprehensive schooling and an economics and politics degree at the University of East Anglia followed, while he immersed himself in the London club scene. He then worked on artist management and set up a PR company [and, in 1995, he set up Outcaste Records out of Denmark Street specialising in Asian music before forming Relentless when that ran out of steam. “As a refugee I’m thankful for the opportunity this country has given me but there’s that perpetual fear. You can’t look back because there’s nothing there so you have to look forward, there’s no safety.”
He retains a hands-on attitude, working closely with musicians on the music, as well as handling marketing and finances. “This is the shop that I run, if you want the Asian shopkeeper analogy it’s there. I haven’t left the till.”
He has set up shop in various majors since Relentless’ inception as a joint venture with compilation wizards Ministry of Sound and then later became part of EMI under private equity kingpin Guy Hands’ troubled ownership. Jobanputra was asked to run Virgin Records, which Relentless became a part of, and set about rebranding and restructuring the label birthed by Richard Branson. He says relations with Hand’s Terra Firma were “strained” at times and that he’d never do a big job again. “You’re effectively a caretaker for a title. Here I’m the sole proprietor, my name’s above it for better or for worse.” He’s coy on the details of the joint venture, save to say Sony funds it and the profits are shared.
Jobanputra also writes songs himself and readily admits he’s hit rough patches trying to find a hit. But, he says, the most difficult point was the death of his father. “I think I definitely lost my way when my father died in 2005. I wasn’t making great judgement calls, I wasn’t seeing clearly. I thought I was but I wasn’t.”
Lately, he’s had a headache which harked back to So Solid’s heyday. Headie One, one of Relentless’ flagship artists and a leading figure on London’s drill scene, was jailed for six months for carrying a knife. How does he handle such situations? “Your duties are to your artist to make sure they’re ok. There’s always a thing in this business or any creative business is about morals and ethics and where you stand but I’m in the business of entertainment. People aren’t coming to us for morals and ethics they’re coming to be entertained… we doing this because we love the music and we love the artists. We are not trying to do anything that’s awful or bad, just put out the music that the artist want to express.”
As if running the label weren’t enough, Jobanputra co-owns the Notting Hill Arts Club itself. The local resident has put the focus on showcasing young local talent and launched an accompany label, Notting Hill Arts Club Recordings, and academy. The latter spawned Stormzy’s A&R man Glenn Sanko, now with Atlantic Records.
Here’s an entrepreneur with his hands full, and determined not to look back.