A well-received Radio 1 Essential Mix, 2011’s best-selling track on Beatport and a globe-spanning schedule of non-stop bookings, not to mention a coveted DJ Mag Best Of British award — it’s easy to see why Miguel Campbell is beaming when we meet him in a covert Hackney bar that overlooks London’s iconic skyline. The past year has seen these and many other accolades come the way of the Leeds-based DJ and producer, all sparked by the signing and release of his ‘Something Special’ single by Jamie Jones’ much-lauded Hot Creations label.
While on the surface Miguel seemed to have been a huge overnight success, the truth is that his breakthrough was in fact the result of not just clear and obvious talent but years of tenacity, sacrifice and sheer perseverance. Having started DJing at a local youth club around the age of 11, music has always been in his blood, but a life-changing decision taken eight or nine years ago formed Miguel’s statement of intent to make music and DJing his life.
“I sold my property and moved back to my mum’s house,” he says. “The fact that I did that and the money that I made I spent on equipment and built my studio, I knew at that point that it’s all on black, I was in it for the long run, so I wasn’t really that bothered about trying to have great success in a short period of time.”
Having started out releasing tracks on net labels, ‘Habiter Le Jour’ was released under his and partner Tru Luque’s Halfcast Bastards (or HCB) name by Swiss label Rockville Music in 2005. Miguel then decided to take control. “I set up Outcross Records in 2006, pressed my first record [HCB’s ‘The Rock Ya Feelin’’ EP] and it went from there,” he explains. “It cost me a lot of money to set up my own independent label and press vinyl at a time when nobody was really buying vinyl and, yeah, it was a bold move.”
It was also at the time the dance scene had fully embraced minimal techno, far and away from the soulful, funk-led productions Miguel produced individually or alongside long-term production partner Matt Hughes as MAM, that were more inspired by Italo house and the whole disco-edged French Touch scene that dominated the mid-to-late '90s.
“I always had people saying, ‘You should try and make some techno, you make music for girls and that’s why you’re not successful in what you do’,” he says. “I suppose I was always aware that one day there would come a time when what I did became popular again. It wasn’t hard to stick to my guns at all because I thoroughly enjoy what I do, and I was determined to keep doing that.”
While he even went back briefly to his old job in insurance to bring some more money in, Miguel says his sights never shifted from the overall goal. “I could taste I was getting closer. I decided I needed to throw everything I could at this, because I realised that with a little bit more of a push and concentration, I could probably earn just about enough to live on from the label. That’s when the spark happened with Richy Ahmed and Rob James playing my music in Miami and boom, there it went.”
It was during a phone call from Richey, who was at WMC in 2010, that Miguel was offered the deal with Jamie Jones’ Hot Creations. “About a week later Jamie contacted me and asked me if I wanted to write an album for Hot Creations, and it became apparent to me just how serious this was.”
And so ‘Back In Flight School’ came into being, Miguel’s debut album for Hot Creations, but actually his second solo effort and fifth album in total. With the hard work finally paying off, did Miguel feel that he was finally getting the rewards he deserved?
“Yeah,” he answers. “Whilst it was really exciting, it did feel like it was a natural progression and because I’d worked so hard at it, it was like, about bloody time! I knew that one day things would go well, I just didn’t expect them to go as well as they have done.”
That surge of success included scooping DJ Mag’s Best Of British Best Single award for ‘Something Special’. “There were already a lot of bookings coming through on the back of the release, but it was a massive accolade,” says Miguel. “Winning awards changes people’s perceptions and also brings kudos.”
The album builds upon this foundation and, like every track he has released to date, has funk surging through its veins. “More than the element of funk, it’s the emotion that I like to impose on my tracks,” explains Miguel. “It 100 percent has to be there. What really inspired the sound that I make now is the old Italo house sound from the early '90s, like pianos, arms-in-the-air and it was all based on love. That’s the main reason I always need some sort of emotive content in my music.”
The album oozes emotion throughout, from the funk-heavy '80s bassline and disco stylings of ‘Flight School’, to the pop hooks and sweet vocals of ‘Not That Kind Of Girl’, to the deep and driving ‘Into Your High’ with its snatched guitar samples and the soar-away anthem that is ‘The Avenger’. Meanwhile ‘Something Special’ and ‘Beams Of Light’ have lost none of their appeal or immediacy. The key to the album is how each track’s seeming simplicity contains such emotional depth and soul.
“My intention was simply to showcase my style and sound in various different ways,” says Miguel. “I just wanted to display various different styles that I’ve come up with over the years and produce a solid package. It's always really important that everything correlates and that it almost tells a tale from the start to the end. The theme is also something that’s very important in an album. If you don’t have a theme and the tracks don’t work within that theme then you’ve got an extended play more than an album.”
Sampling has always formed a major part of his production techniques, with much inspiration drawn from his late father’s extensive record collection, though Miguel’s increased profile has put paid to that slightly. “In the early days, we heavily sampled things,” he says. “The French Touch sound was heavily based on a cool sample and it’s amazing how something will change with repetition. A lot of what we do was based on that repetition, it's kind of what Daft Punk pioneered. That is an art form in itself.
“So many people are hearing our music, we have to be careful what we’re doing, so samples have kind of gone out the window now. You still do the odd bootleg for the DJ set, but as far as releases go, the samples have got to go now, really.”
These legal considerations mean that the album is pretty much sample-free. “We write the music ourselves, get a singer to sing the parts ourselves and do whatever we need to do and keep the sample out of the business, that’s the best way to do it,” says Miguel.
Despite Outcross Records releasing 31 EPs, or around 230 tracks, according to Miguel, the majority of which have been created by him and Matt themselves, they are still sitting on a huge catalogue of unreleased material.
“What people are hearing is literally just what’s on the crust of the bread as it were, and all of the dough is still at home on my machine,” laughs Miguel, adding that the next album is already in the pipeline. “I’ve got three unreleased albums at home on my machine as well. The first-ever album I made [working title: ‘Intergalactic Radio’] is amazing. I didn’t have the dynamics down, the production quality wasn’t there, so I used to try my hardest with the musical and the emotive content. The next mission is to make this thing sound right. I feel that will do well in its own right.”
There are more HCB releases in the pipeline too, showcasing a more aggressive sound, but it’s not all about his own material. In line with his past work teaching music production in schools and teaching DJ skills to youth offenders, and the fact that he has waited and worked for his opportunity, Miguel knows how important getting a break is.
“The same way I got a break from the guys at Hot Creations, I like to give people around me breaks on Outcross Records,” he explains. “Over the next couple of years the label will be my main focus. I still want to continue gigging, but I think the industry is going to get shaken up by the style of music that people are listening to and the production quality is going to have to improve somewhat if it’s going to be maintained at this level.
“It’s great because a lot of it’s turning into pop music these days. While some people will turn their nose up at that, I just want as many people as possible to enjoy the music, so if it turns into pop music, it's absolutely cool.”
Whether you call it pop, Italo, disco, house or a French Touch revival, the release of ‘Back In Flight School’ should see his following swell further, and there’s no one more deserving of the attention than Miguel Campbell.
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