If you say the words “Zero Tolerance Recordings” to any progressive house and breakbeat loving DJ, producer, or punter active in the early 2000’s, you are likely to get a respectful nod of approval in return. A label and collective that started as a few likeminded friends creating an outlet for music they were not hearing anywhere else grew into a global force that influenced the progressive house and breakbeat scenes, launched the international careers of numerous Australian artists, and is still remembered fondly by the industry today.
It has now been just under 20 years since the last original release on Zero Tolerance, and while many of the artists associated with the label have moved on to other projects or stepped back from the music industry to focus on raising families, rumours have circulated over the last six months that the crew have been getting itchy feet. Surely enough, the need for dark, driving, heady music has become too great to ignore for them, and Zero Tolerance officially relaunched on April 1st, 2021. To mark the occasion, Decoded’s Andrew Wowk gives us a rundown on the label’s past, present, and future.
A Brief History of Zero Tolerance:
“You just had to be there” is an oft-repeated refrain whenever the “Melbourne sound” – the dark, stripped-down, and gritty progressive house and breakbeat that dominated the city’s dancefloors in the early 2000s – comes up in conversation. DJs, producers, and live acts like the late Phil K, Gab Olivier, Ivan Gough, NuBreed, Luke Chable, CJ Dolan, Jayson Digby, and Kaybee created and nurtured a sound that eschewed the big, bold, and brash sounds of the late 90’s in favour of a deeper, darker, and more hypnotic aesthetic, in the process shaping an entire movement that cemented Australia as a creative force in the global dance music scene and led to the rapid maturity of progressive house and breakbeat.
Digby & Oliver
The legendary party Sunny Side Up (often fondly referred to as Sunny) was the key Melbourne monthly event where punters could regularly hear these new sounds, thanks to the resident DJs being given free rein to experiment musically and the party having a strong emphasis on going against the grain. Without question, the driving force behind the uncompromisingly deep and dark focus of the event was Gab Olivier: “Road testing our tunes at Sunny was the biggest gift of all. That’s all that really mattered, people going off to our music – that was fucking amazing.”
Sunny Side Up
During daylight hours, punters and DJs alike would congregate at DMC records, with staff like Phil K and Gab pushing the most upfront, challenging music they could find to shoppers. A mutual love of dark, twisted sounds led to Phil and Gab bonding, and after a number of labels rejected demos of Gab’s original music for being “too deep and dark,” the pair decided the most effective way to release the music they and similar artists were making was to start their own label. DMC owner Stewart Hanna saw the potential in the idea, and with his financial aid, Zero Tolerance was born. Gab is always ready to note Stewart’s key role in the formation of the label: “Stewart was really the one who put his balls on the line with the label. My music kept getting knocked back by big progressive house labels for being too deep and dark, but thanks to Stewart we put out our first release as Narcotik, which was myself and CJ Dolan. DJs like Sasha and Anthony Pappa immediately loved the record, and Sasha even put it on his Global Underground San Francisco compilation. If it hadn’t been for all those knock-backs and Stewart’s vision, we wouldn’t have started Zero Tolerance.”
The DMC Records Crew
Although Zero Tolerance started as an outlet for the founders’ music that was not being picked up by other labels, Gab, Phil, and Stewart passionately believed in supporting anyone who was making music that was dark, deep, hypnotic, and rewarded patient listening. Over time, the roster expanded to include artists that became household names in Australian music such as Ivan Gough, Jayson Digby, Andy Page, Luke Chable, Kaybee, and NuBreed, all of whom received global success and recognition thanks to releases on Zero Tolerance. Tracks from the label were licensed to compilations from the likes of Renaissance, Global Underground, Bedrock, and Ministry of Sound, and hits such as “Subritual” by Deep Funk Project vs Austin Leeds and Luke Chable’s “Sealer’s Cove” became must-haves for just about every international progressive house DJ.
NuBreed’s Danny Bonnici credits the label’s sense of community as a primary reason for its success, noting that many of the artists who released on Zero Tolerance were also real-life friends who simply shared a passion for the music they were making. “It really was a unique time in history when musical tastes aligned and friendships forged together through that alignment unleashed an unbeatable force on the world,” says Bonnici, who has a particularly special place in his heart for Dark Alley’s (Ivan Gough, Phil K, & Luke Chable) remix of “Food For Thought” which “encapsulated everything about Zero Tolerance and Sunny at the time.”
The label’s influence was so great that it is widely credited as one of the key players in the formation and proliferation of the “Melbourne Sound”, a distinctly darker, moodier take on progressive house and breakbeat. Its artists were part of a core group of individuals that shifted the two genres toward murkier, headier territory in the early 2000s, influencing the global scene (including labels such as John Digweed’s Bedrock) to explore this often-overlooked side of the music. Ivan Gough (Deep Funk Project/Dark Alley/Digital Mind Control) fondly recalls the creative freedom afforded artists by the label thanks to its focus on music that wasn’t chasing trends: “Zero Tolerance really let us explore new things. The records we made didn’t need to be huge to work in a club, which meant we could focus on creating layers of deeper elements that flowed into each other, use cool pitched down sounds, and really let tracks breathe. It also encouraged us to look for alternative ways to lift a tune, like the chords in the Deep Funk Project track “2 Heavy”, or the constantly building drums used on my and Phil K’s “Food For Thought” remix.”
Ivan Gough & Phil K
The Record Every Self-Respecting Breakbeat DJ Has In Their Collection
The creative freedom Zero Tolerance’s artists enjoyed is no more apparent than on Phil K and Andy Page’s seminal progressive breakbeat monster “Lydian & The Dinosaur,” released under their Hi-Fi Bugs alias. Widely considered one of the very first progressive breakbeat tracks, it was the pinnacle of what Zero Tolerance was all about: pushing boundaries, embracing the unknown, and putting out the music other people were not. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this record. The spacious aesthetic, lush melodic layers, twisted soundscapes, and mind-bending effects were unheard of at the time in other breakbeat tracks, and it was these elements that became staples of the progressive breakbeat sound which boomed in popularity in the early 2000’s.
It seems fitting then that Zero Tolerance celebrated their relaunch with a re-release of “Lydian & The Dinosaur” on April 1st, 2021. The recent passing of Phil K left a huge hole in the hearts of many, so to honour his memory and thank him for his contribution to the label (and Melbourne’s music scene as a whole), the track was lovingly remastered and became the first release on the relaunched label. It also came packaged with a free copy of “Don’t Die, Don’t Kill Anyone,” another mind-bending cut from Phil and Andy which took their sound design skills and sonic experimentation to new heights.
Zero Tolerance has also made the “No Nonsense” compilation mixed by Gab Olivier available as a free download via their SoundCloud page. “No Nonsense” was a landmark release in Australian dance music history, showcasing the label’s catalogue of music to the world. It is regularly included in discussions of the best Australian dance music releases, progressive house DJ mixes, and genre-defining moments in electronic music as whole. It is a perfect hit of nostalgia for old school fans of the label, and a great introduction to its sound and ethos for newcomers.
The Game-Changing Mix Compilation
2021 and Beyond:
“Lydian & The Dinosaur” is just the beginning: The entire Zero Tolerance back catalogue has been remastered and is now available via their Bandcamp page (https://zerotolerancerecordings.bandcamp.com/), alongside previously unreleased tracks from NuBreed, Digby & Olivier, and Precision. Several members of the original artist roster are also working on brand new music, including Narcotik and Digby & Olivier who are writing together again for the first time in 20 years. Additionally, stalwarts of the Melbourne scene are remixing classic releases: Jamie Stevens is reworking Luke Chable’s “Sealer’s Cove,” and Darius Bassiray & Stuart McKeown have just completed a respectful reinterpretation of “Subritual” by Deep Funk Project vs Austin Leeds. The pair also have two EPs of original tracks signed to the label.
Mckeown & Bassiray are part of the second wave of DJs and producers who were inspired by the pioneers of the “Melbourne sound,” carrying the torch during the 2010s for darker, moodier sounds: “I have always been a massive fan of Zero Tolerance, and it was actually the label that Stu and I bonded over when our friendship started.” Both have been on hiatus from music for a few years, but Darius’ recent move to the Mornington Peninsula placed him closer to Stuart. This led to the pair writing new music together, initially just for fun, until Gab Olivier contacted them to produce some material for the relaunch.
Stuart McKeown & Darius Bassiray
Remixing “Subritual” was an easy choice for the pair: “It’s a huge honour for Stu and me to be the first new Zero Tolerance release since 2004 with our remix of “Subritual.” We’ve always loved that record. The idea behind our remix was to modernise the Zero Tolerance sound and add some contemporary aesthetic to it, while still paying respect to the roots of the label. The timing feels right, too. Even though we’ve both experimented with different sounds over the years, it feels like time to bring things full circle as progressive house is having a bit of a renaissance lately, but not many artists are focusing on that darker, deeper style that we love so much. I’m really excited to see Zero Tolerance coming back to help fill that gap and am honoured to be a part of it.”
In addition to introducing a new generation to the landmark releases from the label’s back catalogue, one of Zero Tolerance’s key mantras in its early days – supporting emerging talent – is also a big part of its plans going forward. “I want the relaunched Zero Tolerance to be like it was back when we started it − A place for new artists to make music other people aren’t making,” says Gab Olivier. “I’ve always had a passion for new music and supporting emerging artists, and I would love to see a new generation of producers given the kinds of opportunities we weren’t by other labels when we started out. If you’re making music that’s too deep and dark for other labels, we want to hear it.”
Follow Zero Tolerance on social media to keep up to date with news, releases:
SoundCloud – https://soundcloud.com/zerotolerancerecordings
Bandcamp – https://store.zerotolerance.com.au/
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