Over the last four years, Souped Up Records has reshaped the contours of drum & bass. With a rough- and-ready, technically advanced and yet distinctly approachable sound, Serum and Benny V’s label has been instrumental in driving jump-up’s ongoing renaissance. By moving away from the sub-genre’s mechanised format, they’ve injected a once-tired formula with a frantic clubland energy that’s instantly addictive. Both young and old heads alike can become hooked on the soup, a heaving broth that’s based on jump-up but also tinged with jungle and neurofunk flavours. The label’s tight yet relaxed sonic approach is matched by a visual aesthetic that’s bright and in-your-face, with funky cartoon curves that set Souped Up apart from an overly serious drum & bass scene saturated with moody shadows and bland palettes. This lighthearted, almost comedic angle belies the A&R machine which lies beneath, however, and it’s one which has turned new talent — most notably the Mancunians Bou and Dutta — into the stars of drum & bass’ new generation.
Serum and Benny V, the mechanics behind this machine, aren’t exactly new kids on the block. Serum has been releasing music since 2004 on a wide range of labels, from Doc Scott’s 31 Recordings to Jumpin' Jack Frost and Bryan Gee’s V Recordings. He says that working with Voltage was the catalyst for launching Souped Up, because they’d come up with “more of a rolling jump-up sound, which was doing really well, but there wasn’t a consistent home for it. It was a unique sound that a lot of labels seemed to want a piece of, but it wasn’t necessarily what they had been doing before. That was that really, the style came along at the right time, and the right people came along.”
Benny V was the right person. What Serum perhaps lacked in label experience, Benny had in bucketloads, having founded promotional outfit Dance Concept in the late 1990s before branching the brand out into a label in 2003. The pair were a perfect match because, as Benny remembers, “I had all these ideas and I had the energy, but I didn’t have enough material. Serum told me that he had loads of material, so I focused the energy on that.”
The pair are affable and have a natural chemistry, but what sealed the deal for Serum was that “Benny had been a promoter for a long time and so squeezed every single DJ in drum & bass, yet everybody still seemed to like him”.
The label’s early releases originated from Serum, Voltage and Bladerunner, who together form Hospital Records-signed mega-trio Kings Of The Rollers. The title is a regal nod towards the rolling jump-up twist so influential in the creation of Souped Up, a polarising sound but one which shapes all of the label’s output. Serum describes this output as “stuff that’s not too serious, weird music with a bit of madness to it or something that’s just fun to listen to”.
This ethos allows for a broad church. Bou, a young producer whose catchy hooks and infectiously bouncy basslines have enabled a stratospheric rise, represents a stripped-back, less-is-more approach to carving jagged jump-up beats. His early music inspired Current Value, a hyper-technical neurofunk producer historically connected with Noisia’s labels, to blend his hard European style with Souped Up’s UK-centric jump-up sound.
Benny believes that it’s this melting pot which “sets us apart from what perhaps other people would consider to be jump-up labels”. In a genre which is often pigeonholed, being unique is important for Serum simply because “there has to be a point to what you do”. The Souped Up artwork is a case in point, and every release comes packaged with colourful cartoon visuals that have a tendency to poke fun at whichever unfortunate artist is behind the music. It’s part of the label’s broader social media culture, something Benny describes as “just taking the piss the whole time, having a laugh, ridiculing ourselves and ridiculing our artists. I think people just buy into it, they get the humour side of things and I think it’s refreshing to have a label which doesn’t take itself too seriously.”
This tongue-in-cheek approach has been rewarded by drum & bass fans, and Souped Up won Best Newcomer Label at the 2018 Drum & Bass Arena Awards, before going on to make the shortlist for Best Label in 2019. It means they are, as Benny describes, “rubbing shoulders with those top-level labels”, an unprecedented achievement for such a new outfit. Perhaps the bigger prize, however, is that Souped Up’s rolling jump-up style has taken over the wider scene sonically. “The kinds of people nominated for awards has really shifted,” Serum says. “For years and years it was acts like Sub Focus or Camo & Krooked, it was much more of a commercial sound. Now, there’s a lot of artists associated with the sound that we’ve brought through, who for a lot of years weren’t getting anywhere near a look in.”
It’s undeniable that the success of Souped Up as an individual label has created momentum for a broader stylistic movement. Serum sees that almost as a personal responsibility, telling DJ Mag that “one thing I do for any artist coming onto the label is to share my personal audience with them, not keeping my Instagram and Facebook and all this stuff purely about me, but pushing my artists on there as well. I’m very keen on throwing my following behind everybody that I work with and it’s become a big driving force behind the label.”
For Benny, artists enjoying their time with the label is “just as good as the music being successful”. When the water rises everybody is lifted up together, and the result has been a paradigm shift within drum & bass, away from the commercial and into the soup. For a label to have longevity, however, the recipe has to evolve. The rolling jump-up sound may have dominated drum & bass for the last few years, but for Serum, the main goal now is to find a new focus: “I’m always asking myself, can I do it again? The person I will always look up to for being able to just do it again and again is Shy FX — so I’m always thinking, can I do a ShyFX?”
Serum’s long-term goal is for Souped Up to become a “proper powerhouse that can take any artist and massively build them up, to have the manpower to really just do things better than what we can right now”.
With events finally back on the horizon, Benny’s promotional wizardry looks set to kick back into gear and he wants to “incorporate the quirkiness of the label into the actual parties, we don’t want anything generic”. At the label’s first standalone gig at Studio 338 last year, clips from old Kung Fu movies and flying cricket bats were projected onto the wall, and Benny wants “to see just how far we can push it”.
It’s a phrase that perfectly summarises a label where jovial dancefloor destruction is the name of the game and with plenty of forthcoming music from artists old and new, the fun only looks likely to intensify.