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Toolroom at 20: two decades of triumphant tech-house

It’s been 20 years since the Knight brothers, Mark and Stuart, started Toolroom Records to release 4/4 dancefloor detonators for DJs. Harold Heath talks to a selection of the current Toolroom team to pinpoint 20 significant moments in their long and storied history

Since brothers Mark and Stuart Knight first launched Toolroom in 2003 as a two-man operation run out of their parents’ shed, the label has developed into a slick, successful global brand, defining a particular strand of finely honed, dancefloor-targeted house music. Over the years they’ve diversified into events, radio, sample packs and plug-ins, as well as running genuinely useful initiatives like We Are Listening and developing new talent via the Toolroom Academy. This year Toolroom has been dropping hefty vocal-anthems-in-waiting from Eden Prince, future-funk tech-house from Martin Ikin, tense, taut stompers from Ellis Moss, straight-up dirty warehouse 4/4 from ESSEL — essentially, you could bust out a pretty decent peak-time set just using 2023 Toolroom releases.

It’s quite an achievement to grow — from a standing start — into one of the biggest, most prolific and widest reaching independent labels in the industry. To celebrate their 20 years in the biz, we sat down with key members of the Toolroom team and got them to talk us through 20 significant moments from the last two decades.

First release

Mark Knight: “I always knew what we stood for musically and the kind of acts that would reflect what we’re trying to convey musically. I didn’t want to launch the label with my record, I wanted it to feel like it was a genuine independent label set up to do the right things. And we just thought that Audio Drive’s ‘I Feel Good’ was really representative of what we were about as a sound and was a great way to come out of the traps.”

Receiving Dave Spoon’s demo

Mark: “So we got a CD demo from this guy ‘Dave Spoon’ in the post. Now I’m a big Monty Python fan and partial to silly names, so I was like ‘Wow, I cannot not listen to a demo from someone called Dave Spoon!’ The music was brilliant and it started a long fruitful relationship with Simon Neale, who went on to be Shadow Child, but Monty Python and the fact that I just love stupid names probably has a lot to do with it!”

The Making of ‘Downpipe’

Mark: “D.Ramirez and me had this instrumental and I said ‘Let’s give it to Underworld’. They’d never really worked with anyone outside of what they did but they loved the track, and Karl [Hyde] put a vocal on and Rick [Smith] added a few extra parts. Then, when I played it for the first time at Cream in Ibiza, it cleared the dancefloor! So I actually spent that whole year working on it, it was a real labour of love. Whenever I’m asked what’s your favourite record you’ve released, I say it’s this one.”

The First International Show

Mark: “Powerzone ​​at ADE in 2006 was our first big international night. A pre-‘Put Your Hands Up For Detroit’ Fedde Le Grand played for us, he was bottom of the bill doing the warm-up, and the event was one of those moments I’ll remember till the day I die. I turned around to Stuart and just said, ‘Fucking hell, look what we’ve done Stu’. In the space of three years, we’d gone from a little idea in a shed to selling out a 3,000-capacity venue in Holland; it was a really poignant moment.”

Playing ‘Man With The Red Face’ remix at Miami Music Week

Mark: “I was in the studio with Funkagenda the night before we were going to Miami and it was his idea for us to look at Laurent Garnier’s ‘Man With The Red Face’. It’s a brilliant piece of music that just never really translated into a club record, because the arrangement was fairly avant-grade, and we just wanted to make it into something more club-relatable. We were working on it on the plane over to Miami and I played it the very first time as my last record at the National — and it just went absolutely bananas. The idea was only conceived the day before, but if you land on a good idea and execute it well, then the magic can happen.”

Selling Out Brixton Academy in 2011

Mark: “It was a real moment in terms of the brand’s power to come out of the comfort zone. I did a live set, Skin from Skunk Anansie performed with me, as did Karl Hyde. Five and a half thousand hard tickets in Brixton: that wasn’t the norm at the time. We were just like, ‘Fucking hell, I think we’ve arrived’.”

Releasing Fedde Le Grand's remix of Coldplay

Mark: “Around the beginning of the 2010s there was so much heat on the brand, it was mad. You’d go into the office and you’d get a phone call from David Guetta or Dubfire wanting to get a release on the label, and we were getting people like Coldplay saying, ‘Can we put a record out through your label? We really need to talk to a dance audience’ — it was a real marker for a band’s credibility. We’d be on the phone like, ‘We’d love to be able to help you U2, but your numbers just ain’t there and we’ve got Coldplay on the other line!’”

Street Art Covers

George Ankrett, Music Director: “We were all influenced by hip-hop from an early age, and graffiti and street art have always been sewn into the DNA of the label. So it felt natural to celebrate some of our key releases with artwork from some of our favourite graffiti and street artists, alongside more traditional artists like Jamie Reid. “Goldie supplied some great artwork for Faithless featuring Cass Fox’s ‘Music Matters’, as did Nick Walker for ‘Downpipe’.

Further artworks included street artist K-Guy for Tiësto & Mark Knight’s ‘Beautiful World’, Inkie’s additional art for Die & Interface featuring William Cartwright’s ‘Bright Lights’, and The Prodigy’s Maxim AKA MM’s beautiful skull painting for Mark Knight, Sander Van Doorn and Underworld’s ‘Ten’. Our re-release of ‘It’s Alright’ by Sterling Void and Paris Brightledge had some awesome acid house-inspired design from Dave Little, and the ‘Toolroom Knights’ DJ mix compilations were created and stencilled around London by myself, as I still actively paint graffiti.”

That SW4 Line-Up

Mark: “This moment was a particular line-up at SW4 in 2013: Solomun and Dennis Ferrer, Cajmere, Fritz Kalkbrenner and me. I remember Solomun coming up to me afterwards, shaking my hand and saying ‘Thank you so much for having me, it’s a real honour to play in London for Toolroom’, and I was like ‘You keep doing the right thing mate, you can probably make a career in this game’ — and fair play to him, he’s done alright. It’s not for me to say that I set him on that trajectory... but this is how it happened!”


Miles Shackleton, Brand Director: “By the end of 2014, we felt the scene was changing. With the rise of EDM and the reaction to that with the return of deep house, we decided to rebrand the label to steer us back to where we were most passionate and most comfortable musically. It was a tightening of our musical vision, really focusing on house, tech-house and techno, with a visual relaunch of the label by artist Simon Moore, with Mark, Adrian Hour and Weiss as the three artists representing our new musical space, and with the new ‘big T’ logo. And I think when people see it they think ‘great music quality’, which is what we wanted; we wanted to stamp that identity, that meaning.”

Suga – Beatport’s Longest #1

Mark: “We had a Technasia and Green Velvet collaboration and we thought, ‘Well this is a nice record’ — but then when it was released it just went fucking bananas! It was two great producers but both doing something they’re not necessarily known for, but it just connected and went on to be one of our biggest selling records, beating my record for the longest No.1 on Beatport (‘The Man With The Red Face’)... [Pauses and stares wistfully into the middle distance] I was a bit gutted about that!”

Odyssey Documentary

Mikey Whyte, Head of Marketing and Events: “Toolroom is a DJ’s label, run by DJs for DJs, so we thought we would put together this documentary that really explored the art and the craft of DJing. We wanted to talk to some real stalwarts of the scene, so we got together with Andy C, Danny Tenaglia, Jonas Rathsman and Roger Sanchez and got them to break down the DNA of what makes them an artist and a DJ.”

Mark: “We wanted to do something that talks about the ethos, and what it’s really all about is the music and how you put that together as the perfect story. That’s why I got into DJing, not to stand on the decks and spray people with confetti.”

Toolroom Radio Hitting 15M Listeners

Mark: “Toolroom Radio is our chance to expose our release schedule over a longer period, as well as an opportunity for us to spotlight up-and-coming talent in house music. We’ve been going for nearly 700 episodes now, week on week, without fail, and I think the reason for its continued success is that it’s a window into the brand and personalities behind it. When we learned we’d hit the 15 million listeners mark it was a moment to realise how far the show has come and the impact it has worldwide.”

Weiss ‘Feel My Needs’

Matt Smallwood, Head of A&R: “‘Feel My Needs’ landed on my desk as a rough demo with piano, vocal and some simple drums. The goosebumps on my arms told me it was a big record, but I could never have predicted quite how big it would be! After a few months of editing, tweaking, mixing and mastering, the final record was complete and went on to achieve over 250 million streams worldwide and is certified gold in the UK. It really proved Toolroom’s appeal and reach as a global brand and put us on the map in terms of putting away big records.”

Toolroom Academy

Stuart: “The academy was something that came to me off the back of the number of demos that we were receiving, which at one point was around 500 to 600 a week. It’s just not physically possible to listen to them all, but we always thought we might be missing out on some gems and wanted to find a way to funnel those demos down into something manageable. We launched the Academy to help fashion people into the kind of artists that we were looking for, and for people to come out of it with a clear understanding of where they’re going — and hopefully be able to have a career, rather than a job, in dance music.”

The Launch of Amplified

Lou Cooper, Head Of Label Services, Amplified: “Amplified is Toolroom’s Label Services division and it powers some of the biggest labels in the industry, including Nic Fanciulli’s Saved, Danny Howard’s Nothing Else Matters, and Hannah Wants’ Etiquette. Having worked at Toolroom for 10 years, I jumped at the chance to head up this new area of the business and couldn’t wait to work more closely with some of my favourite artists and labels. Amplified is a culmination of all the things we’ve learned at Toolroom, in terms of running a successful record label in today’s landscape. We can plug into the extensive team here at the label, meaning that each label brand and artist have the required tools and understanding to successfully release their music directly to fans, offering a network of expertise, help and advice on the best practices in all areas of the music industry.”


Miles: “Developing our own plug-in, entirely independently and in-house, has to be one of our biggest achievements in the company’s history. Our aim was to help producers make world-class moments in their music via a unique multi-effect plug-in that creates dramatic, impactful transitions. It was built with Toolroom’s musical DNA in mind: we’re a label all about memorable club music, with hooks and moments, and we wanted Infinite to be the go-to tool to create that. Seeing it released was a hugely proud moment for the team.”

We Are Listening

Carly Newman, Project Manager, Toolroom Academy: “I have attended every single We Are Listening session [Toolroom’s mentoring platform aimed at helping female-identifying producers and DJs break through into the scene] since it first began. What really struck me was how empowering it was for a label of Toolroom’s size to physically open their doors, welcome us in, and show us a path to success and development in the industry. I’ve made some incredible creative connections with girls I’ve met at the events, which has resulted in international DJ bookings, nights out, holidays together, and not to mention I finally got a release on the label at the end of last year. You only have to see some of the success stories to show how much platforms like this matter. As I write this, ESSEL is No.1 on Beatport, Maxinne is DJing across the world — both of them came through the We Are Listening platform — and we have big plans to build it even further.”

Essel goes to #1 on Beatport

Matt Smallwood, Head of A&R: “Sophia’s talent was evident the day we met her via one of our We Are Listening days. We gave her live A&R feedback on one of her demos and signed ‘The Way’ to our ‘This Is Toolroom 2021’ compilation. Then we released ‘Love Vibration’, which is now on an impressive 10 million streams on Spotify, Sophia signed a big publishing deal with Ultra, a three-singles deal with 3Beat, her single ‘Lennon’ hit the Beatport #3 spot and her ‘Sweat’ release went all the way to overall #1 a few weeks ago. It was a huge moment, for Sophia and everyone at Toolroom, as it was proof that with talent, hard work, determination and a solid team behind you, anything is achievable, as well as giving credence to our We Are Listening platform.”

Where Music Matters

Mark: “What we wanted to do with this anniversary is really hone in on the core ethos of what this is all about: the music. It’s an opportunity to say ‘Let’s not get caught up on algorithms, let’s not get caught up in social media, let’s worry about music, get that right and all the rest will follow’.” Miles: “It’s celebrating what we really care about — it’s always music first, that’s why the label was set up, and that’s what we’re setting out for the next chapter: it’s all about the music.”

Want more? Read DJ Mag’s recent feature celebrating five decades of Roland, a company that changed electronic music forever

Harold Heath is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @HaroldHeathDJ