As the driving force behind Toolroom Records, Mark Knight has been one of the key players in electronic music since the turn of the Millennium, and is the second highest-selling Beatport artist of all time, thanks to tracks such as Alright, Downpipe, All 4 Love, and his celebrated rework of Man With The Red Face.
While the coronavirus pandemic has led to a temporary halt in his touring schedule, the year to date has already proven a fruitful one, as he was recently invited to host his own Friday night show on Kiss FM (while also continuing his successful Toolroom Radio broadcasts). Toolroom has also had a busy year, with recent releases from Nervo, Qubiko & Denis Ago, Rene Amesz (with the Ragga Twins on MC duties, no less), Kristone and Illyus & Barrientos, as well as the House Party Vol. 6 compilation.
This week sees the release of his latest long player, Untold Business (released Friday 25 June), which sees the Grammy-nominated producer going back to his roots and paying tribute to the funk, soul, house and disco sounds that influenced him on his musical journey.
Lead single Everything’s Gonna Be Alright features the London Community Gospel Choir and Beverley Knight on vocals, while other artists featured on the album include Michael Gray, D. Ramirez and Gene Farris, among others. You can pre-order the album here.
909originals caught up with him.
Hi Mark, thanks for talking to us. From speaking to lots of DJs and producers over the past year, the general consensus was that while the pandemic has been challenging, it has also presented opportunities, and enabled them to catch their breath. Was that the same for you?
Yes absolutely, I’ve always been of the mindset that as one door shuts another opens – that’s the mantra, and at times like this its doubly important. I’ve always enjoyed facing the challenge thats put in front of me, so it’s actually been quite a positive time.
I’ve spent loads of time at home with the family, and having a bit of a breather from the relentless touring has given me the headspace I needed to write the album.
The new Untold Business album is said to be inspired by funk, soul and disco from the 70s and 80s, as well as early house records. Was that a particularly influential period on your sound? Which artists in particular?
100%. When I first started listening to music in those days I was like a sponge, absorbing anything and everything I could get my hands on. One of the potential problems with turning professional is that it can sometimes be tempting and easy to just stay in your lane and not be quite as open to different styles, certainly not in the same way I was listening to stuff when I was growing up.
As a nine or 10 year old I was just burning through my pocked money buying records every week. In terms of specific artists, it was people like Gamble and Huff from the 70s, Jam and Lewis in the 80s and Masters At Work in the 90s. Obviously so many more than them, but they were definitely all massively influential.
‘Untold Business’ 🎥— DJ Mark Knight (@djmarkknight) June 22, 2021
Writing an album is about digging deep as a producer. The whole process of making Untold Business allowed me to have more creative freedom. I can’t wait for you all to hear it 🙏 Pre-save the album here: https://t.co/Y8bpwSo2D1 pic.twitter.com/GMLhlwm6Wv
Is there an element of ‘going back to your roots’ with the album?
Exactly that. It’s really the first time in my career I’ve had the opportunity to put together an album that explores all of the music and influences that got me into music in the first place.
The album is quite upbeat – while no doubt having been recorded during lockdown. When recording the album, you must have had the post-lockdown period in mind?
I suppose I did, yeah, but the main driver was just wanting to create a proper old-school album, something you’d sit down and listen to from start to finish. Actually, I think that over the last year or so, people have mad more time to do that, they’ve not out clubbing, there has been loads more time to sit and home and properly engage with a piece of music.
So I don’t think this is necessarily an album aimed at celebrating the end of lockdown or anything as much as it is just focussing on the craft of the album, made in the same way as those touchstone artists I mentioned before.
The album features a broad array of collaborations – Beverley Knight, London Gospel Community Choir, Michael Gray, Robert Owens, Gene Farris and a myriad of others. What do these artists bring to the mix?
As a producer your job is to assemble the right cast of collaborators around the idea you have, and make sure it’s executed as you imagined it. You start with the idea, and the hard part is getting the right team together – then if you’ve done your job properly it should all come together from there.
Obviously everyone brings their own unique flavour or vibe to the project, and that’s what makes it exciting and unique.
Toolroom had a hugely prolific year last year, despite everything that was going on – close to 50 releases by our count. Was it more challenging to run the label during the pandemic, and was it important to you to keep the ‘show on the road’ throughout what was no doubt a challenging year?
It’s actually been our most successful year to date, which, considering the pandemic, is not bad going at all. We had three records on the Radio 1 A-list, and our radio strategy was something we were really focussed on coming into 2020, so to see it paying off was hugely gratifying.
Of course it’s been amazing that the fans have stuck with us, even though we haven’t been able to get on a dancefloor in more than a year, so yes we definitely owed it to them to make sure we kept putting out music that they could connect with.
Toolroom is closing in on 20 years of operation in the next couple of years – what was your approach when you launched the label and how has that changed over time?
When we started Toolroom we were aspiring to be like the Subliminals and Strictly Rhythms of the world – that’s where we were aiming for sure, but to start with I just wanted somewhere to put our my own records and other artists I liked.
The company is pretty unrecognisable from where it was back then, we do so much more than release music, but that absolutely remains at the heart of what we do.
A few years ago, you announced a #RESET of the label. Looking back, was this as successful as you had hoped?
Absolutely. To be fair it was an incredible job by our brand director, Miles, who spearheaded the campaign. We’d gotten to a place where we were signing records for short-term gains, and had lost sight of what Toolroom was, and what we represented. We made a conscious decision to surround ourselves with a core roster of talent, and have never looked back.
You have long sought to foster the next generation of producers through the Toolroom Academy and live A&R sessions. What is the core piece of advice that you give to new artists that are looking to break through?
To know what you stand for – that is the most important piece of advice. Of course that might change or at least develop over the years, but you need to keep checking in with yourself that what you’re doing comes from the heart, and for the right reasons.
Then, regardless of what happens, you’ll be a success and content with what you do.
I read a recent interview of yours in which you criticised the fact that so many big tracks these days are just re-hashes of old classics – that “producers have become lazy, as everything is on hand”. What needs to be done to bring some originality back into the scene?
I think we need a return to the basic principles of writing music, which is to get talented people into a room together with a good idea, and come up with something really special.
It’s about making music that moves beyond the merely functional towards something with heart and soul, that will stand the test of time. Aim to make records that people will be covering in a decade’s time.
You have a few gigs scheduled for this summer. What sort of dance scene will emerge from the pandemic – what will have changed, and what will stay the same, either good or bad?
I think one of the many lessons we’ve all learned over the past year or so is that life is very unpredictable! So it’s hard to say. I’d definitely like to see more vocals coming back in, more songs, more music that people can sing along to. Let’s give people something to smile about.
[Thanks Mark for talking to us. Untold Business is released on Friday 25 June]
Mark Knight – Untold Business tracklisting
1. Mark Knight & Beverley Knight (feat London Community Gospel Choir) –
Everything’s Gonna Be Alright
2. Mark Knight (feat Chenai) – Bit By Bit
3. Mark Knight (feat Shingai) – Feel The Pressure
4. Mark Knight & Michael Gray (feat Gia) – Love Is All We’re Living For
5. Mark Knight (feat Damon Trueitt) – You Saw Me
6. Mark Knight (feat Alex Mills) – It’s a Wonder
7. Mark Knight (feat Clementine Douglas) – 10,000
8. Mark Knight (feat Gene Farris & Jafunk) – Untold Business
9. Mark Knight & James F Reynolds (feat Mike City) – Fire Burning
10. Mark Knight & D.Ramirez (feat Robert Owens) – Pass It Up
11. Mark Knight & Rene Amesz – All 4 Love (feat Tasty Lopez)
12. Mark Knight (feat Laura Davie & The Melody Men) – If It’s Love
13. Mark Knight (feat Chenai & Mr V) – Tonight