Mark Doyle – The bumps in the road have only made us stronger

Mark Doyle created Hed Kandi in 1997 which has gone on to become one of the most recognisable and profitable music labels in the history of dance music. Jason Brooks iconic “Kandi Girl” style artwork started with the release of Nu Cool 2 in 1999 (the first volume of Nu Cool were re-released with new artwork). Mark had noticed Brooks’ work on flyers for London club night Pushca, and through a little detective work Mark contacted him and their story began. While at Hed Kandi Mark also created and compiled a number of other labels which had a style of their own.These ranged from the sublime Stereo Sushi compilations to the more chilled Acid Lounge series

In July 2005 Mark launched TOKYO PROJECT alongside some of the original members of his team at Hed Kandi and the Illustrator Jason Broooks. The period June 2005 – February 2006 was a very difficult time for the new company. Immediately after his departure Hed Kandi launched a prolonged legal action contesting the new labels right to use Jason Brooks art. The entire case was covered in depth on a variety of legal sites a quick search of the internet will turn up all the details for those interested. Although Mark successfully fought the court case it left the label in a difficult financial position. Tokyo Project was then beset with further funding problems and the label had to be closed in February 2006. Later that year Mark launched Fierce Angel Records & Fierce Angel Events. Once again he was joined by Jason Brooks who supplied the artwork for the first 9 releases. The office team was further strengthened by Marks fiancee’ Kate Penny who manages marketing and PR, Nadia Rifaat who manages all the Fierce Angel Events and Dave Armstrong who produces the Fierce Angel radio show.

“It’s been an amazing ride so far,” Says Mark “and the bumps in the road have only made us stronger. I’m so pleased to have Jason Cook on board for the next exciting chapter in the story of Fierce Angel and would like the thank everyone for all their support over the last 10 years.” Kinky Malinki resident Grant Richards caught up with Mark to discuss his career to date, that legal battle and the value of residents in todays superstar DJ world.

We have actually had a career paths that have run slightly in parallel and I kinda feel like I know quite a bit about you, although we’ve actually not met in the flesh. A large chunk of your career was written about in the music press from you building Hed Kandi and then heading off to do your own thing, Are you glad the spotlight isn’t focused on you quite so much these days?

I think for people involved in the business a lot was known about me. However, I’m not sure that was true for the general public. When I set up Hed Kandi it was all about the brand itself and not one specific individual. If you look at a lot of the music press stories from the Kandi days it was much more brand focused and to be truthful we didn’t get an awful lot of press coverage as we were not deemed as “cool” enough.

It was only when I set up the new company and we had all our issues, that it becomes necessary to focus on me as an individual, to promote the business. These days I’d love a bit more spotlight, if only to highlight what great music we are releasing. 

Although Hed Kandi was a concept you created and helped shape, it wasn’t actually owned by you, but by Jazz FM your employers back then (and subsequently by the Guardian Media Group). I think most people think you did own it and was sitting at home having a bath in used bank notes off the back of the success of the Hed Kandi Albums. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but do you wish you’d had ownership in some way?

Hed Kandi was a 24 hour 7 day a week business for me. When we first started there was me and two other people in the department. I had responsibility for the entire concept, from coming up with the initial idea, directing the artwork, compiling the tracks, marketing and everything in between. I don’t think there was one single part of Hed Kandi that didn’t have a little bit of me in there somewhere. I was lucky that Jazz FM gave me the support and trust to come up with some crazy ideas, including the Stereo Sushi and Acid Lounge concepts. So could I have done it on my own as my own company? I’m very doubtful. Jazzfm provided the ideal platform and support structure for my creativity. However by the third year when our label has put the whole radio station into profit for the first time in 10 years, I began to wonder whether I needed a larger stake.

This period of time has never really been discussed publicly, but I was actually in the process of negotiating a new contract with Jazzfm and there were discussions about either separating Hed Kandi as a company and giving me some ownership, or giving me a stake in Jazzfm itself. However, as these discussions were happening, we were purchased by the Guardian Media Group, who wanted a London Radio license and got the brand as part of the package. That contract and idea, was quickly thrown out by them and a far stricter, less favourable contract was presented to me. They also decided to employ someone to manage both me and the rest of the department, which was really where things started to change.

The fallout from the legal case and also the premature end to your initial venture post-HK – Tokyo Project – must’ve been very hard to deal with for you personally. Seeing something that you had genuinely built up from a labour of love, to then get embroiled in legal matters, surely had a big impact on you mentally? I remember thinking at the time (and quite naively so) ‘He’ll bounce back’ but it’s really not as simple as that is it?

Absolutely not. To put it lightly, it was absolutely f*ck*ng traumatic. I’d taken a group of people out of their regular jobs to work with me, involved investors and all of sudden we couldn’t start our business and were embroiled in a 6 month legal case. The whole case was un-winnable. They were basically claiming the rights to Jason Brooks’ art style as part of their copyright. Hed Kandi called on professional witnesses who were people I’d worked with in the industry, spent thousands interviewing clubbers about our new brand (which hadn’t even launched yet) and got some so called friends I’d given jobs to at Hed Kandi to give evidence against me.

What you quickly learn about legal cases, is it’s not a case of who is right and who is wrong. It’s ultimately a staring contest, where the person with the deepest pockets wins. What many do not know, is that once Hed Kandi lost they began an appeal in the high court. At this point you have to send the opposition all the evidence you’ve collected. Trust me it makes very interesting and sad reading. The ultimate fall-out from the court case was losers on all sides. Legal bills, overheads and lack of business drained our company and our investors lost interest. Everyone that joined me in the new venture was out of a job and on the other side GMG were left with massive losses and legal costs, they made everyone redundant from Hed Kandi and sold it to Ministry Of Sound.

You come across as a really fun and positive guy. Having worked in the scene for over twenty years and obviously having your fair share of downs, as well as the ups, what do you put that disposition down to?

I have no idea? I’ve always been like this. Hyperactive and demanding as a child and it’s continued into adulthood. I’ve also got to do something I absolutely loved for 25 years. I’ve been extremely successful at it, travelled the world and generally had a bloody good time. In spite of all the bad times there’s always something that puts a smile on my face and during the worst of it, I found out that the more you hold onto and dwell on the utter shit that happens, ultimately you’ve got to let it go and move on, or you end up bitter and twisted.

Fierce Angel kept quite a lot of the ethos of Hed Kandi, are there parts of you that wish you’d totally spun off and done something totally different?

Absolutely nothing at all. I’ve always believed that if you do something and do it well, you should stick to it. Hed Kandi was a natural extension of myself – the music, the feeling behind it and the way we did business, were all defined by my tastes and personal values, It seemed natural that Fierce Angel then took those ideals on, albeit in a smaller, more controlled format.

What about in the present day with Fierce Angel. Now that you’re not that far off running for a decade, would you like to branch off and diversify? Or do you feel much more comfortable having all the eggs in one basket?

I don’t want to spin things off, but I’d definitely like to look at more eggs in the same basket. Definitely looking at some consultancy work in the coming years and I want to develop some artists, as opposed to just releasing compilations and travelling around the world non stop. We’ve just signed two very exciting artists for an album concept and I’m in talks with another. Plus, I want to develop our DJ’s and performers in the studio, which we’ve started to do with our Fierce Collective project. So as yet no plans to start a trap label, but definitely a few more disco house eggs in the basket..

All of the brands you’ve worked with, have never been considered particularly cool by the cool crew. They were/are albums and events that were adopted by the masses. Do you ever wish the brands were considered cooler? And do you feel that in, say 20-30 years, Hed Kandi and/or Fierce Angel will be looked upon as credible and very important for their time?

It’s weird because as soon as we got really successful at Hed Kandi, we were deemed uncool. It’s the curse with all things. The more obscure and unpopular they are the cooler they are. Never really understood that? If you look at the Beach House series we were doing Deep House about 14 years before it got seriously cool. I already feel Hed Kandi is seen as important. Not necessarily by the media, but by the actual people that matter  – those that bought it, listened to it, danced to it and grew up with it. I regularly have conversations with people that talk about the compilations or club nights as important parts of their life. So in terms of that, I think it is seen as important and hopefully we are heading that way with Fierce. You’ve only got to look at records like “Fade,” ,“Put Em High”, “Higher Place” and “Empty Streets” as true club classics. I signed all of those.

One thing we’ve always valued and instilled as a core part of Kinky Malinki, is our team of residents. Sometimes it strikes me that there isn’t as much focus or importance put on residents these days, but it’s a very important thing for Fierce Angel too, right?

Absolutely! The same philosophy ran though Hed Kandi (in the early days) as it does in Fierce Angel. A tight team of residents and performers, who appear at the events and on the compilations. I’ve never relied on big names and always focussed on our own artists. Ultimately it’s the music and the atmosphere that are most important. The best people to deliver that are those that are personally invested in it. We do occasionally call in a few bigger names, but they are friends who play amazing music, that sits with the brand first and foremost.

Do you feel that spending all the time in clubs with ravers that could, pretty much be young enough to be your grandchildren, give you more energy and keep you young of heart? Or do you sometimes think ‘I’d much prefer to be home on a Sunday Morning  reading the broad sheets, with a cup of green tea in my smoking jacket, than in a club’?

It’s a little of both at the moment as I’ve just moved out to the country and am currently enjoying long walks, in wellies with a large puppy we’ve just acquired. However I can’t imagine being anywhere else except in a DJ booth. It’s where I get my ideas and inspiration. I’ve always said at some point, that DJ booths will be needing wheelchair access. So it’s about keeping a balance these days. I tend to take the gigs I know I’m going to enjoy and ensure I have the odd weekend off.

There are things you’ve achieved as a DJ that many could only dream about, what drives you on still and do you have any DJ ambitions that are yet to be fulfilled?

I’ve still got a couple of clubs on my wish list I’d love to play at, and most of all it’s the music that drives me on. Just when I think I’ve had enough of it all, I’ll hear a brilliant new track and want to play it to people. Obviously I’d also like to produce a number one record as well. Oh and I’d love to finally get round to having that bath of cash …

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About the Author

Resident DJ for Kinky Malinki for over 15 years. Trainer enthusiast, goalkeeper and collector of too much stuff. Have been dipping my toe in to the world of writing for quite some time having written for Azuli Records in the past, along with doing Kinky Malinki’s press work and writing a sneaker spread for an urban lifestyle magazine called 24/7 Live Listings. I’ve always go too much to say, especially when it comes to the dance industry, so what better way than to channel it in to articles for Decoded Magazine.