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Key Songs In The Life Of… Glyn Aikins

MBW’s Key Songs In The Life Of… is a series in which we ask influential music industry figures about the tracks that have – so far – defined their journey and their existence. This time, we meet Glyn Aikins, Co-President of RCA UK. The Key Songs In The Life Of… series is supported by .

At this year’s BRITs, whilst Raye dominated the night and the headlines, RCA had a pretty good evening as well.

The label picked up the Alternative/Rock award for Bring Me The Horizon, while SZA was named International Artist.

Glyn Aikins, who became Co-President of the label with Stacey Tang just over a year ago and is also the co-founder of JV Since ‘93, reflects: “It was a good vibe. And the party afterwards was fantastic. We had sushi and UK garage – what more can you ask for?”

Aikins joined RCA in 2018. Prior to that he was A&R Director at Virgin Records, having first made his name at Relentless.

Along the way he has signed and worked with artists including Artful Dodger, So Solid Crew (more on them later), Roll Deep, Lethal Bizzle, Naughty Boy and Emeli Sandé.

Not surprisingly, then, like most victims of guests in MBWs Key Songs column, Aikins found narrowing his choices down to five difficult. Or, as he ruefully puts it: “If ever there was an assignment that was really fucking hard to do…”

In the end, he left it to obsession, alighting on the tracks that he has consistently played over and over, returned to again and again – and which he is happy to talk us through one more time…

1. Small Axe, Bob Marley and the Wailers, (1973)

Growing up in a West African household, the social gatherings at the time were always house parties. Nobody ever went to bars or clubs, we all just went around to each other’s houses for parties – and my dad fancied himself as a bit of a DJ. He definitely had a big record collection, which, of course, us children weren’t allowed to touch – which made it all the more intriguing and desirable.

My dad loved Bob Marley, and one of the records I remember him playing a lot is Small Axe. We would hear that one all the time, listening upstairs while these parties were going on. I would have been about seven at the time.

When I discovered what it was about, I liked it even more, because it was a dig at the big labels and big producers who ran Jamaican music at that time, people like Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Prince Buster. But Bob and the Wailers wanted to do it independently and even though they were a small axe, they could cut them down – which is kind of ironic now I’m heading up a major label [laughs].

2. Ain’t Nobody, Rufus and Chaka Khan (1983)

A little later, when I was maybe 10 years old, I started to discover hip-hop and hip-hop culture. It wasn’t just about the music. At that age I was just as into things like breakdancing, and there was also this string of hip-hop movies that I loved, like Wild Style, Beat Street and then Breakin’ (released as Breakdance in the UK).

There are two moments in that film that I just loved. One was when Turbo goes outside the shop to sweep up and starts dancing to Tour De France by Kraftwerk. And the other, which was my absolute favourite, was when all three of them dance to Ain’t Nobody by Rufus and Chaka Khan. I played that song to death – and still do.

Funnily enough she’s celebrating 50 years in the business this year and she’s doing the Meltdown Festival as part of that. So I’ll be there, front and centre.

I also think, and obviously I wouldn’t have been doing this consciously at the time, but that’s where I developed my love for voices, especially really great female voices. I had no idea I’d be doing what I do now, of course, but it definitely planted something.

3. Smooth Operator, Sade (1984)

An uncle of mine who lived with us for a bit and then moved to Chicago used to send us records and I remember him sending us Smooth Operator; we played that over and over again.

It was a tune I became obsessed with – and at the same time I was mesmerized by her voice. Funnily enough, she is signed to RCA, and she has a long, long relationship with Sony, but this has nothing to do with that; this is about hearing that record, and that album [Diamond Life] when I was very young and just falling in love with it. There was nothing else like it at the time.

The funny thing is, much later on, when I worked at Media Village doing club promotions, we did some work on her Lovers Rock album. I remember her doing a show at The Subterania as part of that and we just stood there in awe.

4. Rebel Without A Pause, Public Enemy (1988)

This goes forward to my teenage years. My cousin, God rest his soul, was MC Skibadee, and we all grew up together. There was a period when he went off to boarding school and I remember he came back one summer with this record, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy, and said, ‘You have to listen to this’. My mind was blown – especially by Rebel Without A Pause.

I was into rap music already, I used to beg my mum to buy me the Street Sounds compilations. But with this record, the way it was produced and the message in the music, it just deepened my love and appreciation of hip-hop.

5. 21 Seconds, So Solid Crew (2001)

I’m jumping forward quite a long way now, to the record that I think had the deepest impact on my career and is probably the proudest moment in my professional life.

This was the earliest days of working in A&R, at Relentless Records. I remember it was actually my brother who told me about the So Solid Crew when they had an underground song called Dilema. But that was essentially one really long bassline, no vocals. I remember saying, ‘I don’t know what I can do with this’. But he said, ‘Seriously, you need to be paying attention’.

I started listening to them on [pirate radio station] Delight and I heard another song, Oh No (That’s The Word), and I thought yeah, I could do something with that.

So I went down to Battersea to meet Megaman and he laid out the vision he had for the group. I’d never heard anybody speak with that kind of clarity and ambition. 

“I think that moment crystalised the idea of what was possible for British rap.”

He had this iron-clad belief in what they could do. He thought anything was possible, even things that had never been done before. He was
so sure.
I guess they also had that attitude of, we can break the rules – or we can certainly challenge the accepted wisdom. 

So, I signed them, we released Oh No (That’s The Word), but we ended up accidentally putting too many remixes on the CD single, which made it ineligible for the chart. It was a genuine mistake, but it also started this buzz about these guys being anti-establishment, breaking the rules etc.

For the next record, they said they wanted all of them to be on it. I said, ‘As long as you can do it in three-and-a-half minutes, fine’. Which was my polite way of saying, ‘Er, no’.

But they did the maths, came up with 21 Seconds, and that showed me. To this day I think it’s a genius idea and a genius record.

It went straight to No. 1 and I think that moment crystalised the idea of what was possible for British rap. It inspired a lot of people.