When Berwick Street was known as 'The Golden Mile of Vinyl', record shops adorned the pavement, vibrant album art decorated windows and the hum of bass leaked out the bottom of the doors. Sister Ray, Phonica, Sounds of the Universe, and a humble hip-hop specialist shop known as Mr Bongo's, all called the old market street its home.
Opening in 1989, Mr Bongo's was the first shop in the UK to stock artists from American hip-hop labels Def Jam, Rawkus, Nervous and Big Beat but it was their passion for unearthing hidden gems that got them the reputation as the place to go for the realest and rarest Latin music in Britain.
In 1995, Mr Bongo began re-releasing some of their favourite recordings from Brazil and beyond, on their own label. Os Ipanemas, Marcos Valle and Waltel Branco were the start of things to come. This year alone we have been treated to reissues from two Brazilian legends, Celia and Tom Ze, Togolese folk from Akofa Akoussa and Beninese sex-funk from Rob. If you ever doubt the powers of Mr Bongo, they have released an Afro-funk inspired, 70s cover album from Japanese jazz drummer Akira Ishikawa this year too.
By 2003, all the shops had shut and the label took centre stage. Mr Bongo's name has since become synonymous with reissues from around the world and also making a name for themselves as truly original compilationists. Mr Bongo's Record Club and Brazilian Beats are their best known compilation series but The Original Sounds of Mali and The Original Sounds of Burkina Faso have opened us up to a world of dusty clubs and scorching hot house-parties that would have gone forever ignored in the UK.
Mr Bongo's spirit is their sound. Their insatiable appetite is their drive. See it not only in their gold mining but the artist on their roster creating new music. Prince Fatty, Kit Sebastian, Hollie Cook, Protoje share the same global outlook. You know you're in safe hands, when you're in Mr Bongo's hands.
5 Minutes with David Buttle
Congratulations on reaching decade number 4! If I could take you back to day one, where does the name Mr Bongo come from? Did you consider any other names?
I acquired it from legendary bongo player Jack 'MR BONGO’ Costanzo. I considered other names like 'UNCLE FUNKY', but the 'Bongo' name stuck and has worked ever since. Jack [Costanzo] called me up one time and was delighted we were carrying on his legacy. Sadly he passed away recently, but his name lives on.
You are famous for unearthing fantastic, often forgotten, records from all over the world. How do you discover these hidden gems? Is there a massive Mr Bongo scout network around the globe? What areas of music or the world would you like to do more digging in?
The whole Mr Bongo team are always on the look out for new musical inspirations. Sometimes friends from around the world drop in ideas for reissue albums and compilations too. We want to do more digging in South Africa as there is so much amazing music that we are still discovering there. As always, Brazil has many hidden treasures that we have yet to discover too.
You have released records with Prince Fatty, The Skints, Protoje and now there are exciting projects from Kit Sebastian and Jungle Brown. What do you look for in new artists?
We look for originality, great songwriting / production, hard-working live acts, songs that can crossover to different audiences and perform on radio, and sometimes songs that can work on film soundtracks. There is nothing like the feeling of discovering new acts that are raw and unknown and then helping them develop and find their unique voice. For example, Hollie Cook was a singer with Prince Fatty and we worked with her to get her solo career going. We got involved with helping her to set up touring, management, and then helping her plan a release strategy. All acts are at different stages in their careers; Kit Sebastian sent us a complete finished album which is unusual for a new artist so then we can focus on artist development, creating a fanbase, touring strategy, etc. Whereas The Skints are a 14 years established great live act, so we needed to develop their radio and PR presence to reach a wider audience as they already won over a rock solid fanbase.
Which reissue has surpassed your expectations in capturing the public’s imagination, and which one has sadly slipped through the net? Is there a record that defines Mr Bongo?
Recently the A Tribe Called Quest ’Scenario' 7" reissue surpassed all our expectations. Looking over our catalogue the ones that have really captured everyones imagination were Lula Cortes Paebiru, and Arthur Verocai’s self-titled masterpiece. These two in a way define Mr Bongo's musical style, stretching from psych-rock to high-end jazz, but for many people the Incredible Bongo Band Bongo Rock reissue is the record that we will be most associated with.
You have re-opened a Mr Bongo shop in Brighton, re-issued films and regularly put on some of the best parties this side of Salvador. What surprising stuff can we expect from MrBongo next?
We are releasing a new album with Bedouin Soundclash in October. It’s an astonishing creative rebirth after a 9 year hiatus. They have worked with the the legendary New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band and producer King Britt to make something very special. Kit Sebastian has a new album in the pipeline and hopefully some of the fresh new UK jazz talent that is blowing up will be seeing a Mr Bongo release. We also have the next edition of our Record Club Series that is proving to be very popular, our Brazil 45 series is being revamped too. We also want to get involved in conservation projects, planting trees, and delivering physical products that are the least environmentally damaging as possible.