Sometimes saying no is the right thing to do. In late 2012, LuckyMe’s Dominic Flannigan and Martyn Flyn were invited into the offices of some of the world’s biggest record labels and offered a deal that most would find irresistible. The pair had recently released TNGHT’s debut EP via the independent collective-turned-label that they'd first envisioned while at school in Scotland a decade before. A collaboration between two of their flagship artists—Glasgow's Ross Birchard, aka Hudson Mohawke, and Montreal's Lunice—TNGHT had gone viral since its premiere at SXSW festival in the spring. The pair's stripped-down, instrumental take on trap, the ‘90s Southern strand of hip-hop, had helped further popularize the term and become a worldwide summer soundtrack. Sat in front of aging A&Rs, surrounded by collectible Japanese toys, Mo'Wax posters, and Phase 2 graffiti pieces, the pair were repeatedly invited to sign LuckyMe over and let it become “a major's brand name for trap music.” It was an easy decision. “We want to define a generation of music,” says Flannigan. That would have been impossible had they said yes.
By sticking to their guns and banking on the belief that the artist should come first, while the label purely provides a guiding hand, Flannigan and Flyn have hit on a formula for breeding countless—and wildly diverse—individual successes. In the years since those meetings, LuckyMe has graduated from putting out music made in Glasgow bedrooms to its artists getting nods at the Grammys. Some of the more established LuckyMe family members—namely Hudson Mohawke and Cashmere Cat—are working with A-listers like Kanye West and Ariana Grande. Yet even as they're infiltrating the upper echelons of pop, they still continue to shine a light on new talent. Recent signings include NAKED, an experimental trio from Edinburgh who’ve worked with Mykki Blanco; S-Type, an Edinburgh producer who is following in HudMo's footsteps by bringing his own take on hip-hop and collaborating with underground legends like Roc Marciano; and Obey City, a Brooklyn-based dance music producer who joined the label in 2013 and sees LuckyMe as entity focused on “breaking new artists and innovating, which is rare in an industry still slow to react to change.”
The idea for LuckyMe was born back in 2002 as a joke of sorts between Flannigan and Flyn, two lifelong friends with a shared love of music. Flyn had left for a short stint in Ireland, but on his way out he emailed Flannigan, who was attending the Glasgow School of Art, to say that they should start a label and call it LuckyMe. The name came from a song Flyn now forgets, but it would be a long time before the pair would make it a reality. Over the next few years, LuckyMe gestated in various states of creative endeavor around a core nucleus consisting of Flannigan, Flyn, Birchard, and Irish musician Mike Slott. At first it was the name of a club night in Glasgow. In 2005 it was the title of an EP by Surface Emp, an early rap project with Birchard on production and Flannigan on vocals. Then in late 2006 LuckyMe the label was born with Ooops, a four track EP of R&B bootlegs by Birchard—his first official release as Hudson Mohawke.
While LuckyMe is often summarized as a hip-hop label and referenced as a key part of the worldwide beat scene that rose to prominence in the late 2000s, a closer look at the Glasgow-born label's DNA reveals a more complex blueprint. Hip-hop forms the central double helix in the label’s inspiration, thanks to ‘90s indie labels like Rawkus and Fondle 'Em and Southern powerhouses like No Limit and Cash Money. Attached to it are more diverse strands of influence such as rock, folk, and Scotland's vibrant dance music scenes—most notably, Optimo, the lauded genre-spanning DJ duo and weekly club night that ran at Glasgow's Sub Club for over ten years.
Rather than letting themselves be limited by genre constrictions, “LuckyMe as an idea is the genre,” says Flannigan. Or as Baauer puts it, “LuckyMe is a kind of music that makes everyone in the room stop talking.” It's an attitude that's enabled the crew to establish a cult-like following—and the two founders believe their fans are onboard with whatever the label throws at them, from stadium-sized trap to ambient tunes, and techno and house to frenetic juke.
Just as important to LuckyMe's makeup is its clean yet striking visual aesthetic, a by-product of Flannigan’s studies at the Glasgow School of Art where the collective congregated during their formative years. The label's logo is spelt in monochrome in the Helvetica font, but you don’t often find it on their records. Instead they use their sort-of logo: a graphic open eye, a riff on the inscription on their first record that read “all seeing aye” in reference to the Scottish word for "yes." For Flannigan, the eye acts as an anti-brand, “a mark that can be placed on records by our artists to let fans know that LuckyMe is involved.” Discussing the label's subtle branding, the way it effaces itself rather than attaches to its artists, Flannigan brings it back to modernism and makes the case that LuckyMe is in essence like a museum identity. It's a mark that sits at the bottom right of every artist's release as a signifier for people who care.
More than anything, though, LuckyMe is the product of a shared vision between its founders, a subjective entity driven by their friendship. Referring to the pair's never ending quest to find music that excites them, Flyn summarizes the label's ethos very simply: “This is amazing, listen to it.”
After LuckyMe became a label it needed a way to be heard, and in the late 2000s there was only one way to do that. “We first gained a level of worldwide awareness thanks to MySpace,” Flyn admits. Able to discard their geographical outsider status, LuckyMe quickly established a global network of connections. They channeled that energy through a regular club night, the Ballers $ocial Club in Glasgow, where residents and guests would mix up genres, styles and eras in a way that presaged hip-hop’s reunion with its electronic roots in the following years. Much like Low End Theory, their club night counterpoint in Los Angeles at the time, LuckyMe is a MySpace success story that has lasted. But while Los Angeles has remained attached to the beat scene long after the hype around it died off, LuckyMe has pushed forward into the unknown. Looking back on those early years, Flannigan notes that it “felt like we made it through a gate.” As long as it excited the two founders, they'd do it.
In 2008, Birchard was picked up by Warp, followed a year later by another LuckyMe cornerstone, Russel Whyte, known as Rustie. With two of their biggest names now co-signed by a prestigious English independent label, they began to expand and diversify, starting in 2010 with their fifth release, the Many Faces EP from American electronic maverick Machinedrum. Over the following years, they broadened their artist stable with a cast that spans countries and genres—from Montreal house and R&B blurring producer Jacques Greene to New York dancefloor experimentalist Baauer and Austrian jazz drummer Cid Rim.
One of the biggest payoffs to date for LuckyMe’s approach to letting their artists lead came in 2013. Following his move to Warp, Birchard parlayed his unique approach to hip-hop into a sonic formula that soon proved irresistible to the giants of American rap. Following credits on the Cruel Summer compilation in 2012, Hudson Mohawke officially signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D Music imprint as a producer in 2013 (he is still signed to Warp for artist releases). Then that December he picked up two nominations for the 2014 Grammys for his work on Yeezus and Drake's Nothing Was The Same. Despite the apparent gap between Birchard’s current situation and his roots with the Glasgow crew, the two are still close. LuckyMe is still involved in HudMo's visual identity and live shows and he remains an integral part of the LuckyMe family. As such, the Grammy nominations were both a win for Birchard and an affirmation of the collective’s approach and nurturing potentials.
Hot on the heels of Birchard’s mainstream success came Norwegian producer Magnus Høiberg, known as Cashmere Cat. The secretive producer first appeared on LuckyMe in 2013 before releasing a four-track EP in February 2014. Within a year he’d go on to conquer the world with finely crafted pop sensibilities, link with Ludacris and Jeremih, collaborate with Arianna Grande, and land a deal with Universal. But rewind to the summer of 2014 for a minute: when Apple unveiled their new advert for its MacBook Air, it featured music from Hudson Mohawke’s "Chime" single on Warp, as well LuckyMe's logo for his Ooops release as part of the visual montage.
But how exactly did a small label from Glasgow make such an impact on the mainstream? According to Flannigan it was a case of waiting for “them to come to us.” From their inception LuckyMe had placed themselves at the intersection of electronic and hip-hop. Back in Glasgow, Birchard was trying to imitate the sounds of traditional hip-hop machines like the SP–1200 with the software FruityLoops (now FL Studio). Today it's FL Studio that drives hip-hop's innovation. For Flannigan, hip-hop remains unique in its ability to constantly keep moving. “It's why mainstream producers can make substantial music from experimental starting points, like crafting melodies using modulation instead of more traditional chord progression," he notes. "Hip-hop feels eternally younger than house music even though it's absolutely not." Smart and fresh, its remained a credible source of inspiration for the collective—and there's a reason for that: “It's defined by the youth of the time,” says Flyn.
By the early 2010s the dominance of electronic music across the industry could no longer be debated. With a majority of music today created using the sort of Digital Audio Workstations and tools long associated with bedroom producers, such as FL Studio, aesthetic differences between the mainstream and underground have almost disappeared. ”You have producers making pop records of the hip-hop variety that are indebted to cult indie aesthetics, even if they don't know it,” Flannigan says. “It's like the palette has changed.” He points to Kanye West's 2012 hit “Mercy”, on which HudMo has a writing credit. “The pace of hip-hop is so fast and the audience so massive that three years later no one would point back to Ross [Birchard] and give him credit for his music influencing the sound of mainstream hip-hop," says Flannigan. "It all feels way bigger than us.” For the founders, it’s also a continuation of pop's regular forays into avant-garde, those rare moments when the mainstream collides with the underground by accident. Like when Jimi Hendrix played his distorted take on rock to mass audiences. “That's what I mean by pop, with no stigma," continues Flannigan. "I love the idea that you can speak to a huge audience while progressing something." And while LuckyMe has remained cynical about what pop means, Flyn and Flannigan have always wanted an audience. They don't want to be purists. “Pop is a monster that eats everything," says the latter. "As long as you stay ahead of it, it'll find you.”
When I ask the pair why they think some of their artists have managed to make such impressive gains they both reply that it's simply down to the talent they seek. “We sign people we think are virtuosic to a degree," Flannigan explains. "The currency we have in terms of signing people is innovating." It was obvious to them that Høiberg would be courted by majors because “he is miles ahead of everyone in terms of arrangement and melody.” Flyn agrees, saying that LuckyMe artists aren't just one trick ponies, they're always growing. A perfect case is point is longstanding LuckyMe family member and resident DJ Eclair Fifi, who has grown into her own over the past couple of years—she's now an internationally-celebrated DJ and visual artist who is about to begin her recording career.
Everyday Flyn and Flannigan check a private Dropbox account to find new ideas from their talent pool. Despite grueling touring schedules and other commitments, Flannigan believes that LuckyMe's artists are still motivated to “sit by the computer and express themselves.” The label is a laboratory for creativity and its fumes often float over the mainstream.
Despite their focus on artists, LuckyMe itself has also grown in the past decade. Today they have offices and studios in Edinburgh and London, and they'll be expanding to New York City this summer. Following the attempt by major labels to co-opt their name, they set up an independent worldwide distribution deal and continue to rely on close connections, like Glasgow's Rub A Dub, to push out specific records. They also set up LuckyMe Studio as a separate arts company that looks after the label's products, but can continue to handle the artists' visual identities once they graduate to bigger planes of musical existence. The studio designs live shows for many of the label's acts including Cashmere Cat, TNGHT and Hudson Mohawke. It allows LuckyMe to grow with its acts, an invisible safety net that prevents them from falling off.
It's exactly this multi-faceted and versatile approach that Montreal’s Lunice points to when asked what the collective means to him: “LuckyMe is a group of creatives who have all worked on visuals, sounds and installation with the simple objective of wanting to experiment with different cultures and subcultures," he says simply. "We appreciate everything because everything does matter. With that mindset, there’s no room for ego, only room for collaboration.”