Interview: Morgan Khan

Morgan Khan was a titanic figure in the UK music industry. From the ‘70s through to the early ‘90s he was at the center of almost every big dance trend. His list of achievements is long but some of the highlights might include breaking hip hop, electro and house in the UK, helping to invent the dance music compilation and releasing the first commercially available DJ mix albums in Britain. He has his critics. And there’s no denying the ego, once described as “bordering on the manic,” which is perhaps part of the reason his influence is often criminally overlooked. But let’s get to the heart of the matter, few people have done more to promote and sell black music in the UK. To quote Greg Wilson: “If you know nothing about [Morgan Khan’s] Street Sounds label, your knowledge of how dance culture developed in this country is terminally flawed – it’s as simple as that.”

When did you first get into black music?

At around the time I was finishing my A-levels, I remember one night accidentally tuning into Capital Radio. “Soul Spectrum,” a show by a DJ called Greg Edwards was on. Hearing this black music and hearing these songs that I’d never heard before – this was ’77 or ’78 – I was just completely… Imagine having an apparition with Jesus standing in front of you, or the Holy Grail or Burning Bush.

Greg actually helped me get my first job. He knew a small company, Calendar Records. They couldn’t pay me much, maybe lunch and a few pounds here and there. I remember working my first record. It was Sarr Band’s “Magic Mandrake.” Then I eventually met a guy named Dave McAleer, who was one of the A&R directors at Pye Records. I kept pestering him until I got a job as Disco Promotions Post Boy, but I was in!

Unbeknownst to them, for about five months, I lived at Pye!

It was an incredible time at Pye Records. At that time in 1978, they had Casablanca Records, Buddha Records, 20th Century, Roulette. Incredibly successful labels... People like Barry White, Gene Chandler, Donna Summer, Parliament, Norman Connors, Gladys Knight, Al Green. So here was a label handling all this music and they didn’t know what to do with it. Until Street Sounds, the monetary [value] of music of black origin was very fringe. “A disco artist will never sell albums.” Yes, there was the exception of Donna Summer. [But a] disco single would never be taken seriously; the Black Music division was never the AOR department who were given all the finances. We literally had shoe-strings to work on. But we had the ability to work these records and define our own labels.

That was (my first experience) at a proper record company. I had Dave who was A&R, and I had Madeline Hawkyard who was the most incredible contractual negotiator. She would let me sit in her office after I finished my day job and listen to her negotiate for four or five hours. Then after she went home I would go down to the studio and sit with the engineers down in the studio and watch and help them as tea boy. I had three jobs, and I would be so exhausted come two or three in the morning I would go back to my office, back to the Director’s Office. Use their shower, use their restroom, sleep there, wake up about 5:30 AM, clean up and make sure no evidence was there and start my day at Pye. When the secretaries came in at 8 AM there was Morgan. Unbeknownst to them, for about five months, I lived at Pye!

One record I want to talk to you about from your time at Pye is “Rapper’s Delight.” You promoted that in the UK?

Correct. With Sugar Hill Gang I got a call from the Managing Director, Derrick Honey, who said, “We have a label in America. We want to evaluate if you think it’s worth picking them up.” So here I am, a naïve kid sent out to New York in a pair of jeans and a jean jacket in October with a chill factor of about minus 22. I remember everyone was dressed as they were about to go to Siberia. I was given the worst hotel, full of winos and junkies. I remember meeting Joe Robinson who was the head of Sugar Hill and his wife, Sylvia, and listening to this new – it sounds bizarre [now] – but this new music form. Watching three guys rapping over a record, this was unheard of at the time. Within a second you knew that something was about to happen. Not because what you saw was so fresh, but because of what you saw around it.

Sugar Hill, which is an area of Harlem, was really run down at the time. Joe Robinson used to say to me, “You can’t go walking outside, let the brothers walk you around.” But what was really funny, I’m mixed race, I’m Anglo-Indian, so when I was out there I was always considered a “brother” when I was with the Latinos, and a few years later when I went out to New York to work Latin records, I was always considered a Latino. I would kind of fit into all of the camps.

I thought, “Never again. I’m never going to be an employee again.” That was the last day I was an employee and I’ve never been since.

Before I went any further I was vetted. Joe Robinson took me up to a penthouse flat and I was introduced to Morris Levy and Phil Kahl. It was very early in the morning in London. And I remember them calling up one of the executives in the UK. Here were three incredibly powerful men, and I really mean that. I was on the phone with my executive in the UK. He said, “What do you think, Morgan?” I said, “You’ve got to run with this. It’s a hit!” He said, “Are you sure?” It’s a huge deal…” I’d also heard the demo of Positive Force “We Got the Funk,” which was going to be the second release. I heard both these records and said, “Trust me. It’ll be absolutely monstrous.”

So you took the record back to the UK, and it was a huge success.

It was huge. The first record to sell over a million 12-inch singles. Joe Robinson was an incredibly astute man; he wouldn’t allow us to put out a commercial 7-inch. He kept doing the calculations, and a 12-inch made almost double the money. We said to him, “No, you’ve got to have a 7-inch. You can’t have a hit without a 7-inch.” He said, “No, trust me. I’ll allow you to do a 7-inch for radio. I’ll allow you to do a seven minute version because the original is 15 minutes but you’ve only got to do certain copies and give it to so many radio stations.” And he was right. Everything started going right afterward. I started a label called Caliber by signing hot import records at Pye. Every record had success, one after the after. Everything was charting.

It seems like you were in a good place, so why did you leave Pye?

It’s a real simple reason, no convoluted story. I had an act, a group I signed called Osibisa. Osibisa were working at Pye studios. There was an incident where I wanted to bring the group back in (to the main Pye building). Everyone knew Morgan was there 24/7. We had a fracas at security (Osibisa and I) and it was definitely because they were black. I remember the next day going to one of the Directors and saying, “this is wrong, they need an apology.” The bizarre thing was they said, “No, we can’t go against this. No group should be here in the evening.”

These labels had never even contemplated releasing a record outside of the States.

It wasn’t that. If I’d have brought in three blond, blue eyed girls there wouldn’t have been an issue. I know, I’d done that many times before. I remember saying, “I can’t do this.” I remember walking out with a carton of my stuff and thinking, “Fuck! What have I done?! I have nothing.” I had £6 in my pocket and that was my life savings. But because of my reputation I was getting calls with people wanting to work with me. I thought, “Never again. I’m never going to be an employee again.” That was the last day I was an employee and I’ve never been since.

All the success at Pye could have been ten-fold, not because I knew better, but I saw the limitations. Limitations of prejudice, limitations of the realization that black music could be a pop music form in its own right. They saw it all as fringe. Even with all the success – one week we had eight records in the top 40 – they still gave their budgets to the AOR departments. Many people (at Pye) I did respect but many I didn’t. It’s very difficult working in that environment, so I decided that I was my own man.

Can you tell me about the Streetwave label and the Street Sounds albums?

I was constantly buying records and I was constantly going clubbing. I’d hear all these imports and I would be spending my own money going to stores and picking up what I’d heard on a Friday night. All these imports were costing a fortune. Maybe 20 of one record would be coming in from New York and maybe 15 coming in from Philly and I thought, “Hang on, this is ridiculous. It’s so expensive and these records will never see the light of day. These need to be hit records! But they’re never going to be a hit if 15 only come in from America.” I decided to start approaching these labels. All we had in those days was the phone and the telex. I thought, “Let me fly to the States, let me introduce myself.”

I went to the little production houses, met all these DJs, met all these record owners and said, “I want to license your material.” They’d never even contemplated releasing a record outside of the States. So for an Anglo-Indian to turn up, saying, “I think this is going to be a hit,” giving them the Morgan shuffle, it was like being bowled over by this whirling dervish of energy. They would go, “Yeah, great. If we don’t sell anything how much worse are we? If we do, fantastic.” I did deal after deal.

It wasn’t just the records. It was a mood of a nation that was playing catch up to what was going on in the States.

People told me it would never work, people told me there would be no market (for the Street Sounds albums). When I first presented the first albums to the Pye sales people they believed in Morgan Khan, not the concept. I remember standing at the first sales conference and I said, “Trust me, this is going to be a motherfucker.” I used every Morgan-ism possible. They trusted me. Street Sounds 1 did OK. 2 tripled. In ’83 we dropped a new series, the Electro series, to coincide with the main series. Album one suddenly went silver, the next one silver too, because we captured a mood. It wasn’t just the records. It was a mood of a nation that was playing catch up to what was going on in the States.

The funny thing was our albums started shipping back to the States and selling more than the original 12-inch singles. What we always tried to do with Street Sounds was see what the next trend was going to be. The fault, if there was a fault, we sometimes were two or three years ahead. To give you one example, Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore.” Columbia saw no potential in it. I knew it would be a Top 20 record. I licensed it and the rest is history. It was such a huge record that the board of Columbia called me and said, “If it goes any higher it will jeopardize our relationship because you’re embarrassing us.”

Then I saw what was going on in terms of the jazz scene and rare grooves. There were so many different movements. I just wanted to tap into them. My key was finding the right people; I got Gilles Peterson to put together the Jazz Juice compilations. I will never take credit that I was responsible. Yes, I oversaw it but it was his suggestions and his intuition. I also wanted to do my own artist development. So we built our own studio and started putting out releases (by UK acts). One of the first was Masquerade and the lead singer of the first record was a little known 15 year-old girl named Dina Caroll.

You also put out the first Chicago house records in the UK.

I wanted to follow what the trend was. Up to ’84 it was still definitely electro and jazz funk was still happening. But then I met Rocky Jones at the New Music seminar in New York. He had a label, but had only put out cassettes at that point. That label became DJ International. I met with Larry Sherman, who ran Trax Records. For a year-and-a-half I represented both, it was a phenomenal period. We had to create a new compilation series called Jackmaster because there were so many releases.

We put out a record by Humanoid, creating something from the UK to match the Chicago acid sound. It became a top 10 record. We always saw the niche, but tried to take it in a different direction. Unfortunately our success was also part of our failure. We’d have a group with a hit and they’d be headhunted. We couldn’t meet with a half million-dollar offer, and they were those kind of deals. We had DJ International for two-and-a-half years before they asked to buy out of the deal because they were being offered X million by Sony. How do you compete?

You also released the first commercially available mixed DJ mix albums via the electro series.

Mick Jagger said, “We don’t get this at a Rolling Stones concert.”

I wanted the kids to be able to take the album home, as I did, and get in the mood, get in the vibe. The kid could be in New York, London, Barcelona, Paris and they’d be clubbing (at home). But the mix had to be flawless, it can’t just be one into the other, it would have to be creative. Remember this is pre any form of digital mixing. This was done with two or three – sometimes four – turntables and splicing with a razor blade. That was the birth of the mixed CDs, mixed albums. Something we take for granted. Something that’s become folklore and, unfortunately, the people that where there at the time they know the truth, but you have a small group of people that have credited other DJs or other labels of pioneering certain things. Those history books are completely wrong. Who was first to hip hop, who was first to electro? They’re absolutely wrong! “Oh, there was no hip hop in England till Tim Westwood came along.” That’s a common perception.

And Ministry Of Sound starting the mix compilation…

Exactly! People ask me were those R&B records yours? Was Excalibur yours? Were the Jackmaster albums yours? Was Joe Smooth’s “Promised Land” yours? Was Humanoid? They’re such different genres. When I put out the first house Jackmaster album, I remember someone saying, “Morgan, you’ve sold out! You’re ‘King Of Electro.’” A couple of people couldn’t digest that I was putting out the “faggoty music” of house.

Another first we can talk about is in ’86. We had the UK Fresh concert at Wembley. We had 10,000 people at both shows. UK Fresh is still the biggest hip hop event ever in Europe. Here was Streetwave putting all these guys together: Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, all totally unknown. There’s an incredible story. I was behind the booth and my press guy he came and said to me, “There’s Mick Jagger in the audience and he wants to come backstage.” Of course, Jagger comes backstage and he’s standing beside me looking at the audience and he says to me, “Why?” I said, “Mick, why what?”

“Why? I’ve never heard of any of these artists, none of them have albums out in England. How have you got this?” He couldn’t believe the vibe in the room. He said, “We don’t get this at a Rolling Stones concert.” The management of the venue twice said to me, “If you don’t calm the crowd down, we’re going to pull the plug.” Not because of violence or anything, but because of the intensity and the electricity in the room.

It seems like this was a great period of expansion. You had the label, the studio, the events and a magazine. But perhaps this was also you’re undoing, the fact you grew too fast too quickly.

We did. I used the resources of the label and put it into a magazine. But I’m still incredibly proud. The Street Scene magazine achieved a lot in six months. We had a bigger circulation than Blues & Soul or Echoes. But we failed for one simple reason, no one advertised with us. We didn’t get the support of the majors because everyone thought it was a vehicle for Morgan and his releases. I wish history would recognize this: We were the first to give the people [information like], “What does Five Star wear, what do they drive, what do they eat for breakfast?” We gave the first Hello! lifestyle to pop music. Everyone takes that for granted now. You buy a paper and you read about what Rihanna is doing. There was nothing at the time. The serious music papers laughed their heads off at us. The very first edition we had a fashion spread. We brought the lifestyle as well as the serious interviews and music. Even though the circulation was incredibly good, advertisers didn’t support us. We spent over a million and it folded, bringing down the Streetwave Empire.

But you’re back in the music business now, working on an event?

We have a Summer Ball event 22nd June and in an ideal world it would be rammed. But here’s Morgan trying to get exposure in the mainstream. I’ve got the black papers, I’ve got Blues & Soul but try and get mainstream? No! It’s not mainstream, but it’s the roots. Crown Heights Affair (who are playing at the event) bridged the gap from disco to funk. Incredible legacy, but this is not told to the mainstream. What we’re doing for events is almost what we’re doing for albums. There’s not just one headliner we have Rose Royce, with her band, Crown Heights, Sugar Hill Gang and Fonda Rae.

There are many things I want to do. I don’t feel I’ve come close to achieving what I want to achieve as a person, as a record man or as an individual. I want to carry on and grow the label. I have an idea for a musical. When there’s enough money, I want to do a lot more with community.

Header image: Blues & Soul, 1987

By Stephen Titmus on June 11, 2013

On a different note