Where house finds a home – Kid Fonque stays true to the musical ‘unknown’
Despite the huge market for house music in South Africa, there are very few independent deep house music labels that prioritise young, up-and-coming house producers. Tireless record label boss Allan Nicoll is one of them.
Stay True Sounds has released at least seven good-quality deep house albums and EPs – from China Charmeleon’s album The Third to Chronical Deep’s EP Kumo – in the past four months, all thanks to indefatigable record label boss Kid Fonque, whose real name is Allan Nicoll.
Nicoll, who was born in Scotland and raised in South Africa, is an award-winning deep house producer and DJ. He runs one of the few independent deep house record labels in the country.
Speaking to DM168 about how he juggles running a record label with having his own weekly radio show and deejaying, Nicoll emphasised the importance of the work that he does: “We have a relentless release schedule and it’s not relentless because I want to be busy. It’s relentless because there are no other platforms doing what I’m doing in South Africa. All the other platforms are focusing on radio music. There are a handful of some small guys doing what I am doing, but not at the volume and intensity that I’m doing it. House Afrika is gone, Soul Candi is gone.”
Why are there so few independent deep house music labels that prioritise young, up-and-coming house producers? Although there is a huge market for the music, other factors come into play.
“A lot of the guys who run the small labels have full-time jobs and when you look at the return on investment, getting money back from streams takes a while. Also, not many people are paying for music – the physical CD market has disappeared,” explained Nicoll, who has been in the music industry for two decades.
For Nicoll, promoting deep house music is his life’s mission. “I worked at Soul Candi as the label manager and, generally speaking, if I liked a song, it meant it wouldn’t do well on radio,” he said with a chuckle.
At the time, his job required him to find “the next big radio hit”, which meant overlooking some of the good deep house music for which he had an affinity.
In the early 2000s, Soul Candi was a pioneer in South African house music and Nicoll was at the helm of shaping that.
“I grew so much and learnt so much at Soul Candi when it came to being a business owner, but it was very stressful and it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had to be a hit-making machine to be able to pay all the bills.”
Speaking about his music taste, Nicoll said: “I’ve always liked independent underground music – that’s what I gravitated towards even as a child. I leaned towards the unknown and the more experimental side of music.”
Nicoll grew up in Johannesburg and “music was a huge part of the household”. A weekly family routine involved him and his father going to buy CDs in Rosebank. The rest of his life would be marked by working in a music store – which he did in his early twenties – to owning an acclaimed record label in his thirties, which he started in 2016 after he was retrenched from Soul Candi.
But none of that was easy to achieve. “I had to push a lot of doors to be where I am,” said Nicoll. His determination led to winning three awards at the 2019 Dance Music Awards – one for him and two for his signed artists: Fka Mash won the Best Remix of the Year award for his remix of Sculptured Music’s Sad to Think; Dwson won the Best Music Video award for Nobody Else, which featured vocalist Sio; and Nicoll won the Best Radio Dance Show award for his weekly show on 5FM, Selective Styles.
That year, Stay True Sounds was also nominated for the Best Record Label award.
Despite these accolades, Nicoll admits that running a record label hasn’t always been easy.
Stay True Sounds turns six this year “and it’s only in the past two years or so that we’ve been making money”.
When Covid-19 led to the closure of entertainment venues across the world and upended many people’s work, Stay True Sounds wasn’t spared. Before lockdown, Nicoll’s deejaying “was the cash cow that helped maintain me. As soon as Covid-19 hit, I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I put all my energy into the label and now the label is in a beautiful place and is running well.”
To celebrate the label’s 100th release in 2021, Remix Stay True Sounds was released. It is a compilation of the label’s catalogue remixed by China Charmeleon. Most of the songs on the album are by male producers, which is unsurprising as the industry is dominated by men.
“Although it is a male-dominated space, it does lean on many female vocalists,” Nicoll said. One of the most respected house vocalists is Sio, who is signed to Stay True Sounds. Her album Features was among Apple Music’s Albums of the Year in 2021 – a testament to how good her work is, said Nicoll.
As to how he finds many of the “bedroom producers” he has signed, Nicoll points to his huge brand on various music platforms, such as 5FM. “I usually find producers through my ecosystem. I never reach out [for music], it’s always found its way through my networks.”
In the interview, Nicoll admitted that it’s been a difficult journey to get to where he is, but he also sounded grateful.
When asked what it’s like running a record label in the middle of a pandemic and financial challenges, he simply replied: “It’s amazing. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted. I had to go through the trenches to get to where I am now.”
And what are his plans for the rest of the year? “My main objective is to put out incredible music and connect the music that I am so entrenched in and the artists to the overseas market.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.