Interview: Still kicking like a mule… 909originals catches up with Nick Halkes

As music industry execs go, Nick Halkes certainly has a story or two to tell.

As one of the co-founders of XL Recordings in 1989, Halkes helped soundtrack the nascent rave scene – it was he who signed The Prodigy to the label, while also enjoying chart success with SL2, Liquid, House of Pain and others – before departing for EMI in the early 90s.

In 1993, he founded Positiva Records, repeating his success at XL, as artists such as Reel 2 Real, Alice Deejay, Binary Finary, The Bucketheads and many more stormed the charts, before setting up Incentive at the tail end of the 90s, which would prove one of the key trance labels in the early 2000s.

As one half of Kicks Like A Mule (alongside XL’s Richard Russell), Halkes has also occasionally demonstrated his production nous – he’s currently working alongside artists such as Birdee and Barbara Tucker, and has also worked with the likes of Caspa and Wiley.

In recent years, Halkes has forged a successful club brand, Reach Up, alongside longstanding friend (and Portishead member) Andy Smith, which seeks to capture the spirit of the boogie, disco and proto-house scenes of the 80s; as well as developing a fantastic Deezer Originals podcast series, Trailblazers, with Eddy Temple-Morris, which has just launched its third series.

909originals is proud to announce that it will be hosting each new edition of Trailblazers as it is published, check back here every week for the latest episode.

With that in mind, as the new series launches, we’re delighted to chat to him.

Hi Nick, thanks for talking to us. Let’s go back to the beginning. Am I right in saying that your association with the music industry started long before you launched XL Recordings – you were a mobile disco DJ while still in school?

Early experiences are often so important! Yes, my best mate Andy Smith and I ran a mobile disco setup together, and we used to play at kids’ parties as teenagers. We loved it then and we still love it when we get to play together now, at the Reach Up – Disco Wonderland events.

Those very early gigs, when I was still at school, gave me a taste for it, and when I left university, I knew I either wanted to work in records or radio.

When and where was your first proper clubbing experience?

That would be at Cinderellas, on Park Street in Bristol. Andy and I had no idea that clubs might have some busy nights and some quiet nights, so we just turned up on a random Tuesday evening during a school holiday, expecting it to be jumping. There were only about six people there. We still enjoyed it, though!

How did you come to work for City Beat, the forerunner for XL Recordings?

Tim palmer, who ran City Beat, needed a club promo person. I met him at Groove Records in Soho, which he also ran at the time. I offered my services, and I was in.

Do you remember the conversation that led to the formation of XL Recordings?

I just felt that there was greater potential to release records that didn’t sound like ‘hits’ – to put out great records even though there may be a very limited chance of them getting on the radio. Tim and i discussed it, and launching a new label was the obvious move.

You worked with XL’s Richard Russell on a couple of musical projects, as Kicks Like A Mule and the Valentine Boys. Why was this such a short-lived thing?

After some good success with The Bouncer and our Awesome 3 – Don’t Go remix, things just slowed down. The follow up to The Bouncer [Number One, released in 1992] didn’t really connect, and musically, things had moved on. If things had continued to fly, I imagine we’d have continued.

We worked together again some years later, though, remixing Major Lazer, Kid Sister and others. That was fun.

At what point with XL Recordings did you think “f**k me, we’ve hit the nail on the head here”?

Maybe when we were sat at number one in the midweek charts, with SL2 On A Ragga Tip. It got pipped to the post in the end of week chart [by KWS’s Please Don’t Go], but that was a bit of a ‘f**k me’ moment!

From their early singles, particularly Charly, could you sense that The Prodigy were going to be as big as they were? Where did you first encounter them?

I could sense that they were big and would be bigger, but I wouldn’t have bet on ‘seven UK number one albums’ big.

Liam called me up and asked if he could come in and play me some tunes, and I said ‘yeah, pop in’. I liked what he played me, and I offered him a deal a couple of days later. Pretty simple, really!

You went on to EMI and set up Positiva in 1993 – probably the most successful mainstream dance label of the 90s. What was the experience like going to a major label, having cut your teeth with an independent?

There were some key differences – more resources, more money – and some key similarities – the need to sign the right artists and put out the right records. I enjoyed both phases.

In the same way that The Prodigy helped take XL to the next level, did Positiva have any artist or artists that performed a similar role, in your eyes?

I think the success of Reel 2 Real’s I Like To Move It was really important for Positiva. It was a global smash that showed that the label could really deliver. Going gold with the Reel 2 Real album also proved that we could sell albums as well as singles.

In the late 90s, you decided to go it alone again, and set up the Incentive label, just as trance hit its commercial peak. Would you say that your career has more than a few of these serendipitous moments?

My whole life has had many serendipitous moments! I’ve been very fortunate.

What led to creation of the Reach Up brand?

Andy Smith has been supporting great music from across the decades all throughout his DJ career. For a while I was much more interested in only playing new music in my DJ sets .

What really got Reach Up moving was when Andy and I both fully committed to it and started playing together regularly. A guy called Crissy Kybosh helped push things forwards too.

I loved the music and the vibe – the more energy we put in, the more opportunities popped up. Whether that was the compilation album series with BBE, playing three summers on the bounce for Carl Cox at Space Ibiza, UK festivals like Bestival, Blue Dot and Festival Number 6, or international shows in places like Berlin and Lisbon.

Along with Eddy Temple-Morris, you launched the Trailblazers podcast in 2018. Why is it important to you to catalogue the ‘definitive history of electronica’ as you call it?

The pioneers of electronic music wont be around forever. It’s vital that we document their stories while we can.

If you had the chance again, would you have done anything differently in your career?

In life, you can only do what seems right at the time, with the information available at the time.

With the benefit of hindsight, obviously there will always be artists or records that you think ‘man, I should have signed that, rather than passed on it’. But you cant drive a car looking through the rearview mirror all the time. I have no complaints.

What current projects are you working on?

I made a record with Birdee and Barbara Tucker called Free Yourself, which is out now, as well as a remix of the classic Hideaway by De’Lacy. Both are getting some good support, and there’ll be more stuff under the Nick Reach Up moniker.

Making records that we can play at our Reach Up club nights is such an obvious thing to do, and it’s really enjoyable!

The new series of the Trailblazers podcast has also just launched; I’m excited to get those stories out into the world. We’ve met some inspiring people for this series.

Unearthing stories from Trevor Horn, Xavier from Justice, Norman Jay and more is a great way to spend a bit of time. 🙂

I’m continuing to work with some great artists on the management side and also doing more one-to-one coaching for developing artists. In fact, if any artists are interested in that they can message me to find out more. I’m on Instagram and Twitter, at @nickhalkes, as well as Facebook and LinkedIn.

[Thanks to Nick for the interview. Main pic: Tim Schnetgoeke. You can check out the Deezer Originals series Trailblazers every week on 909originals, simply click here for more information]

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