Over the past few years a quiet music revolution has been brewing in south London. At its center is a handful of artists whose work encompasses a kaleidoscopic patchwork of hip-hop, house, and groove investigations bound by one thread: a timeless belief in rhythm as a universal language. In late 2013, a label calling itself 22a emerged from this creative pool to catalogue its musical output. That obscure-sounding name has a domestic source: 22a is named after the house that its founder, Tenderlonious, lived during his formative years because, he explains, "music is a homely thing; it's meant to be home, you know?” The first releases were vinyl-only: limited runs housed in nondescript sleeves with hand-stamped labels. When I call Tenderlonious, he's packing records to ship to Germany. “Anyone of us could have done it,” he says of setting up the label. “Me, I love the hustle of the record game, it makes the energy of the music more exciting. This is right now.”
Tenderlonious talks about 22a as a family, and of his work as a duty. “I was inspired by the music everyone was making—I'm just trying to document their legacy,” he admits in a gritty London accent. The “they” in question is a cluster of five artists: Mo Kolours, Jeen Bassa, and Reginald Omas Mamode IV—incidentally, three brothers—alongside Al Dobson Jr. and Henry Wu. Mo Kolours is perhaps the best-known member, having risen to attention in the past few years through One Handed Music, the same London label that fostered Paul White, the London producer who's collaborated with Detroit rapper Danny Brown. White is actually somewhat responsible for bringing 22a together: he introduced Tender to Mo, who in turn invited him to the house the brothers shared with Al. Henry Wu, whom Tenderlonious had known since 2010, had also met Mo in passing and “it all gravitated together.” 22a was a logical next step. “I orchestrated it but the talent was all there,” Tender says. “In front of me. My family.”
“Music is a feeling and expression. It’s not about making it a commodity or some bullshit. It’s something no one can take away and control.”—Tenderlonious, 22a
Tenderlonious' path to 22a—and to musicianship—was long and tortuous. Beginning in his late teens, it involved stints as a house DJ, with his own rap crew, tutelage under drum & bass producer Equinox, and making grime productions before a moment of madness forced him to “figure out what I really wanted to be doing in life.” He emerged, at 23, with the conviction that learning to play saxophone—an instrument he'd come to love through sampling—was a way to find purpose. A brass band followed and then a turn on the live circuit playing back-up for a pop singer he declined to name. “That's when I met Wu,” he recalls. They toured the world—Tenderlonious on sax and Wu on keys—but found nothing of interest in the industry, only “idiots” he says with a laugh. That exposure to the machine left him wary of “giving my music to anyone.” Instead, he resolved that ownership of the art was key. “This music is precious,” Tender says of 22a’s output, “it needs to be offered in a correct, honest way.” He might be idealistic but I've come to realize—having spent the last couple of years observing the label's crew—that 22a's focus lies squarely on creating, rather than any mundane belief in presenting or selling themselves.
Electronic music is a nebulous term, its definition often dependent upon the beliefs of its creators and listeners. “For some people,” says Tender, “electronic is anything above 120bpm, but I hear stuff that's electronic and has no defining tempo.” He points out that effects units and the Fender Rhodes electrified acoustic music back in the 1970s. 22a’s take on electronic music is more about how they physically build their tracks. They're just as likely to sample records and bang pads on an MPC as they are to sing, clap their hands, or lay some instrumentation down. “I’m merging electronic and acoustic, we all do,” he says. “It's a hybrid.”
The first five releases on the label saw the various members team up for excursions in house and hip-hop—beats smeared with colorful melodies, deft samples, and nods to London, Detroit, and Kingston. Then came Ruby Rushton, Tenderlonious' quartet, with an album that fused a love of jazz legends John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef with underground hip-hop heroes Slum Village and neo-soul cadets SA-RA. The idea behind it was to pay homage but to also “remain current, in its compositional style.” The next release, out this month, veers in another direction with one side featuring Do£ Boy, a rapper, and the other Shepherd, a soul singer. Both are south London artists introduced to Tender through Wu. The record is produced by all of the members and there are plans for a rap album next year, among other things. “We're expanding,” he enthuses. “It's not just beat heads; it's collaborative.”
Part of 22a’s expansion also means a move to releasing music digitally. “I thought I was keeping it real with the vinyl but keeping it real is about being current as well,” he admits. Whichever way the music arrives, 22a’s commitment to its art and surroundings has a touch of the spirit of Detroit pioneers like Underground Resistance. “Music is a feeling and expression,” says Tenderlonious. “It’s not about making it a commodity or some bullshit. It’s something no one can take away and control.”