Now the director of Funk the Format & Funk the Family Festival, as a journalist in London Elle J Small wrote for some of the world’s most influential publications in the heyday of music journalism – Blues & Soul, Rwd, Mixmag, Dazed and Confused – before the internet sent many of them tumbling. As well as earning a reputation for tipping unknown bands, she was instrumental in importing the sounds of Brazil to London in the early noughties. Now a mother of two living in Hove, Brightonsfinest sat down with her for a lesson in recent musical history, to hear about the origins of the festival, and to learn how her identity in the music industry has evolved over time.
I have this image of you in the 90s going to meet lots of bands, interviewing exciting people, reviewing and promoting gigs, making radio. Now you’re a mother with kids are things different?
Yeah, I had to completely readjust. If you look around the room, there’s a signed autograph from Russell Simmons, who co-founded Def-Jam records, over there. I was very lucky, for ten years I had a great career as a freelance journalist, living in London without kids – so I had the opportunity to fly all over the world and interview amazing people, from Janet Jackson to Little John, Jamiroquai, Dizzee Rascal, Gwen Stefani – the list is really long. I started writing about garage, which has since morphed into grime, before it was really known, so I had a bit of a niche and became known for writing about artists before they were signed, that was my thing, and predominantly black music. I wrote about Dizzee Rascal, Lady Sovereign, Miss Dynamite, before they were signed, for the Face, Blues & Soul, Rewind, Deuce, etc. Then I started to get more into soul and hip-hop, and I started to write features, mainly. Before moving towards features it was mostly gig and album reviews and interviews, so I’d get phoned up and they’d say ‘Can you go to LA tomorrow and interview whoever’ and I’d say ‘yeah cool, I’ll get on the plane.’ When you’ve got two kids, you can’t do that… unless you’re super rich and have a full time nanny. And when the kids were little, my partner worked in London. We’d moved to Hove when I was pregnant from Hackney, nearly ten years ago and, for me personally, as a music journalist, to do it properly you need to live in a big city, and if you want to be the best you have to live in London. And you can’t have kids, or any responsibilities, really, and you can’t have anyone to answer to, if you want to do it the best you can do it.
How did you move from journalism into promotion?
I have a poster in here from the Rio Rox events. That was in 2006, which I call the end of my written journalism career, when I started to write a lot about the underground music of Brazil, and went to Brazil several times and wrote about baile funk, which is a bit like Miami bass. It’s the ghetto music of Brazil, so like how hip-hop is to America and how grime is to the UK, baile funk is to Brazil. So I went to the favelas – have you seen the film City of God? It’s just like that, really crazy – and wrote about all these parties. I came back to London and one of the DJ’s managers called and said ‘Do you know any promoters in London, because I’m flying two DJs and an MC over to Germany and France for two bookings, and we want to come to England too. All they’d have to pay is the travel from France.’ I didn’t know anyone who would put it on, because it was so unknown and so niche, but she kept on and on, a very persuasive lady, and eventually suggested I do it. I told her I wasn’t a promoter, I was a journalist, but she said ‘look, you can do it, come on!’ When I still refused, she offered to pay for the flights too, but I said ‘I don’t know anything about promoting! I’ve still got to get hotels, how much do I pay you, how much do I pay the venue?’ – I was completely clueless. She goes ‘Right, you don’t have to pay us, and can we sleep on your floor?’ So I said yeah, alright. So I had an MC and one of the DJs on my floor, plus the manager. And I got a venue for free in Soho, on a Wednesday night. To promote it I did a grime meets baile funk event, because nobody had heard it, and I had some underground MCs, and we did a clash. It ended up attracting loads of people, including people from MTV. I used all my contacts from journalism, so loads of people came, and it went really well, and I later got a phone call from a PR rep, saying Sagatiba, which is a brand of Cachaça from Brazil, a bit like Bacardi, were launching in the UK – this is when there was a lot of money around for sponsorship, not like now – and they wanted a promoter to put on these underground Brazilian nights at Proud Camden. I used to get given two and a half grand every Wednesday to fly people in from Rio, so that’s how those nights came around. And they were free entry, so I had Brazilian people coming in from Brazil, and Brazilians based in London who would play. People like Diplo and M.I.A would come to my nights. If you listen to the early MIA – because Diplo produced her first album – it’s all baile funk-influenced. Basement Jaxx used to come down. The whole thing became really big and really popular, and while I was doing it I didn’t really realise. It’s only now that I’m a full-time promoter that I realise ‘wow, that was a right result!’ I had 2.5k to play with every week, all these amazing artists, 4Hero, Dego, Bembe Segue, Mark De Clive-lowe, plus loads of Capoiera artists and stuff, and it was free, so it was busy, and cool, and loads of fun. I was working by that point for The Observer, writing about things like Amy Winehouse’s first album – and then suddenly I got pregnant, and I was like ‘I don’t want to raise a baby in Hackney as I can’t afford to move anywhere bigger’. So we moved to Hove.
How did that impact on your career?
I had to rethink everything. I thought, ‘I can still do album reviews, and phone interviews’ but I’d lost the buzz. My ear was always to the underground, but when you’ve got a baby that needs you, is breastfeeding from you, and your partner’s working full-time in London, leaving at 7am and getting back at 9pm, I couldn’t sustain that career. I did one Rio Rocks down here as part of the Fringe, which went really well, made a bit of money. The next one, I made the biggest mistake any promoter can ever make and rested on my laurels, and lost a lot of money. I lost a couple of grand (which, now that I’m running a festival, doesn’t seem like much! But at the time), that was a huge amount of money and it knocked me for six. I lost all my confidence and quit promoting, and writing, since I couldn’t go for interviews, and concentrated on being a full-time mum. I had another child quite quick, but after a few months I got bored of being a full-time mum, and started asking myself what else I could do.
So this is when the festival was born?
It was born as something else, actually, and became Funk the Format in a roundabout way. Stoneham Park is nearby, and at that point it was pretty crap. The cafe was always closed, there were no toilets. So I started to campaign to make the park better. I researched it, became slightly obsessed, and applied to take over the cafe. In the interim, I set up a group called ‘Friends of Stoneham Park’. We ended up doing an event, a little festival. It was nice, because there was no stress regarding money. We got a fund from the council, a couple of grand, and put on a fundraiser to get some new equipment. I still had a few contacts, so the Gyratory Allstars played for free. We had a few stalls, a few pitches, one little gazebo, 3×3, as the stage, and a couple of speakers lent to us by a local resident. Another guy, Roy, who still works with me, did all the sound. It went really well, so we did another one. This was five or six years ago,and it’s when I got the bug back for promoting. Meanwhile, I was being shortlisted for the cafe, which in my mind would’ve been a great community space that also made money. I got shortilsted, and was going for interviews with the council, and organising a centenary festival for Stoneham Park – a bigger event, with more people, more artists, more DJs. I started DJing too at this point, which I hadn’t really done before. I started my radio show on Reverb, I’d always wanted to do my own since I’d run one with my friend Emma Feline in London. I had a lot on, but no plan. My partner said to me ‘what are you doing? You’re doing all this for the community, for nothing, for the love.’ And I said ‘well the cafe might happen, I’ll get money from that’ – it didn’t happen though, and I was devastated. I found out the day before the centenary festival. It turns out the council in charge of the cafe decision though hadn’t realised that I was the person running the festival. So the next day it was the festival, and 800 people came, the food pitches sold out. My partner goes to me ‘so what are you doing now? The cafe’s dead. Are you going to keep doing this Stoneham Park thing?’ And I was like ‘don’t you talk to me about what I’m doing! I know what I’m doing, I’m doing this because I’m doing my own festival!’ It almost came out of nowhere, spontaneously. Not like I hadn’t thought about it, it was one of my bucket list career goals, along with writing a book and hosting a radio show. I’d written about festivals that had come and gone, and had written copy for numerous festivals, like Beachdown, I wrote the first copy for their programme. I saw festivals like that grow too quickly, although I thought it was amazing what they were doing. As an independent festival, unless you’ve got a massive backer behind you, or you’re a hugely established promoter like SJM at Wild Life who can afford to lose millions in your first year, you have to be really careful. So I’d been learning those lessons. But when I said it to my partner, I was like ‘fuck, now I’ve got to put on a festival, what have I done?’ But when I say something, I do it – so I did it, and the first was in 2014 at Hove Lagoon.
And what was the basis for this one, now it was your festival, and not a small community event?
Again it was pretty low key, a small space, about 1,000 people, but we sold out two months in advance. This was a family thing, and this is where I was coming from now. I wanted to apply what I’d learned at Stoneham Park. I thought ‘right, I’m a mum, I used to go out clubbing and raving, used to go to The Big Chill, but now I’ve got kids’. I’d been to camp Bestival, written about it for a magazine. I got what they’d done but knew not everyone likes camping, especially if they’ve got kids, who hardly sleep and will wake up with the bright sun at 5am. So I thought ‘let’s do a daytime family festival but with really good music, for the local community of Brighton & Hove, which is kind of nappy valley around here’. There’s a lot of people like me around here, almost a stereotype, the ex-media type Londoner who moves to Brighton to have kids. There’s so many of us who love music, that doesn’t change when you become a mum – so I started from that basis and used it as a strength.
It strikes me how organically it’s grown, and how it’s obviously been shaped partly through necessity, but partly through your own experience – and that’s probably where its success comes from.
I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose it has been quite organic. When I told friends a lot of them couldn’t believe it, but I do have the skills to make it work. I did a bit of PR when I first moved here, promoting a small festival, and I had kept all my journalism contacts. All these skills, you’d normally need to pay a lot of different people to do, but I’ve been able to do them myself. I work like a nutter, writing all the website copy, doing a lot of the promotion. Now the festival’s bigger I employ more freelancers to lighten the load, which is becoming more crushing as the festival grows. The first one was really low key, a couple of activities like storytelling and yoga, plus the circus project who have been with us since the beginning. We couldn’t go any bigger on that site without getting a floating stage, which was ridiculously expensive, so we went to Hove Park. Everyone else does their festivals in Stanmer Park and Preston Park, but I don’t like just doing things because everyone else does it like that. I think part of the success actually is that everything musical happens in Brighton, but there’s plenty of people who live in Hove who love music. And Hove Park is beautiful. Initially the council wanted us to do it on the big flat bit of land, but that’s a really boring site. That doesn’t feel like you’re at a festival, it feels like you’re at an event in a park, and I wanted the festival atmosphere. That’s why we’re on the hilly part, which is a logistical nightmare, but it really creates a festival vibe, with all the hills and trees. And it’s all about the vibe for me.
So the festival was originally a one-day, family event. How did Funk the Format become a part of it?
2015 was the first year in Hove Park, we sold out, big success. The next year, I started to get quotes in again. Suppliers did me a lot of favours that first year at Hove Park, because although it was the second one, it was the first that needed the full works: fencing, security, big stage, tents, everything. They all wanted it to work so they gave me great deals – but that wasn’t gonna happen the next year. To get all that infrastructure there and set up for just one day, it didn’t make sense. So I had to do two days and, I didn’t feel at that point in 2016, that I could’ve sold enough tickets for a two-day family festival. I looked at lots of different things, including subletting the site to a different promoter for an entirely different festival. But eventually I thought ‘let’s just do a second day’. I was already doing Funk the Format, the radio show, which is where the name came from, and a club night, the Club Tropicana events, plus DJing every Friday down at the George Payne. So I thought we’d do a second day for over 18s, no kids, and make it a different vibe. And again, it worked, it was a big success last year.
What are we looking at for 2017? Any changes? And what’s the lineup?
This year, I had to think ‘OK calm down – you’ve gone from a little community festival at Stoneland Park, to one at the lagoon, to a huge 5,000 people event at Hove Park, and now a two-dayer – so can we just slow down’. We don’t want to grow any more this year because for me we’ve already grown too much too fast, in some ways, particularly for money and stress levels. Having said that, we’ve put a lot more money into artists this year. First of all, we’re switching it, and Funk the Format will be on the Saturday, 17th June. For that we’ve got Goldie headlining as a UK festival exclusive ahead of his first album release in a decade, which is absolutely huge. Also Alice Russell, who is an absolute legend and an amazing artist. I’ve seen her several times at The Big Chill, which for me was always the best festival – in its heyday. That, and Notting Hill Carnival, they were staples in my calendar, whether I was working them as a journalist or going as a punter. So I take inspiration from those scenes. But Alice Russell, I think she is one of the best singers in the world, and massively underrated. I used to say this about SIA, and now look at her. And Amy Winehouse, too. I wrote about Alice Russell in The Observer as an unknown soul artist. She’s a great person and great fun, I get on with her on a level. Live, her set of lungs – for me, she’s outstanding, and she’s with a full band. I feel really blessed that she’s doing it, because she’s got two small kids, like me, so she’s taken a lot of time out. She only did Glastonbury and a couple of others, last year, and she’s chosen Funk the Format and a couple of others this year, because she’s trying to look after her kids and do the right thing by them, which I admire.
Norman Jaye’s back this year, he’s a legend, he just gets it. He’s brilliant, and the crowd just love it. There’s a lot of people here who used to go to his Good Times, which doesn’t exist any more at Carnival. You can go and see Norman Jay in a club but, for me, Norman Jay outside is a whole other thing. He’s all about that big crowd, outside vibe, and he just hits it, whether it’s funk, soul or disco, house or jungle. Rodney P & Skitz are coming, I know them from years ago at The Big Chill. Skitz lives in Hastings, Rodney P is part of the London Posse, but a pioneering hip-hop MC in the UK. Then we’ve got the Neon Saints Brass Band, just feel-good and incredibly funky. Russ Dewbury, he’s a legend, I used to write about him when he was with Jazz Rooms and Mr. Bongo. Darrison as well is coming in on Rodney P & Skitz’s set, he’s a wicked MC from down here. Mr Bongo Sound System as well.
We’ve got Kudu Blue, they’re amazing and I think they’re gonna be massive. They’re spine-tinglers, for me – I had the same feeling about Amy Winehouse when I received her Back to Black promo, which I still have here somewhere. I think they’re doing something nobody else is doing at the moment, they’re playing the main stage. It’s the same as Lebeaux last year, I think this is the journalist in me who’s always looking for the new one, taking a risk. When we put Lebeaux on the main stage last year it paid off so much – Soul II Soul’s manager was like ‘wow’, and that was the first festival they’d ever done. So I like to take a risk, and Kudu Blue are my risk this year who I think will pay off. Sophie Callis, she’s a really cool DJ who plays on Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM, and Soho Radio, two stations I’m always listening to. King Tafari Love Music Soundsystem, they’re wicked, they’ll bring a vibe. Mr. Shiver is a brilliant DJ. He’s really eclectic, a lot of dugout 7”s. Nick Maxwell, who’s come out of retirement in recent years. His son’s in my son’s class, someone said to me ‘you know that guy’s a great DJ’, and I’m looking at this guy in a suit picking up his son, thinking ‘really?’ But then look at me, when I’m in school mode. But he sent me a mix, and when I listened to it, it was fucking amazing, makes me as a DJ look dreadful. He’s a real beat-juggler, scratcher, working with jungle and hip-hop, an excellent DJ. There’s a couple more who I can’t announce yet.
That’s Funk the Format. For Funk the Family we’ve got Jazzie B DJing a special two hour set. We’ve got Professor Elemental as well, he and Mr. B The Gentlemen Rhymer have their own niche genre, chap-hop. We spend a lot of money on the workshops and activities for the kids, but also a lot on the music. We’ve got Soul Casserole, and Rolf the Dog, who you’ve probably seen around The Lanes. He’s a classically-trained jazz pianist and multi-instrumentalist, he’s been with us since the beginning. Joss Peach, Love Is the Message, Hannah Sherlock, King Nommo. Stick it On, who are a Brighton institution. They’re great, they get the kids on to play. The Brighton School of Samba – there’s always been that current of Latin music running through. Basically this year we’re doing two things. First, we’ve made sure the headliners on the family day are just as good as the over-18s. Second, we’re putting even more money into the activities. We get a lot of great feedback, but one of the big things we’re listening to is that particularly for families, if you’re a big family and you pay a lot to get in, while most of the activities are free there’s always been a few where we allow the activity to charge, because we literally couldn’t afford to pay them. We always kept it low but, even then, the people are unhappy – so we’ve readdressed that this year and everything is free, unless you come away with something like your face painted. We’ve got a lot of strong stuff for the kids this year. We’ve got a massive circus tent with all day shows, the circus project doing their trapeze shows and getting people up, alongside workshops, tree of life yoga, we’ve got fencing this year, and football, plus an amazing art cart, storytelling, bushcraft from axe and paddle, live graffiti. Professor Elemental, after he comes offstage, is doing a rap workshop with the kids. So the fun part is as big as the music, but good music is the foundation of the whole thing. Our theme for both days this year is mythical creatures, and we’re encouraging people to dress up.
Finally, can we talk about Omar? He’d been quiet on the scene for a while, you promoted the gig at the church and suddenly he’s the talk of Brighton. I can’t help but feel you played a big part in bringing him to the fore.
I’ve been a big fan of Omar for a very long time, and he is another very underrated artist. People just think of him as ‘There’s Nothing Like This’, because of that hit, but he’s a grafter. I don’t know how many albums he’s on, I think maybe 12 studio albums, maybe more, and he produces his own stuff, he sings, he plays a bunch of instruments. He’s an incredibly talented guy that works full-time as a musician. He might not necessarily get the kudos he deserves in England, but he’s always travelling, he’s in France a lot, in Japan and America. He’s got a huge worldwide fanbase. I interviewed him a long time ago, a front cover interview for Blues & Soul. He moved down here and had kids, about the same time as me. I bumped into him and was like ‘you’re Omar.’ I’ve always followed his music, and reviewed his albums, even if they never made it anywhere near the charts, because he’s so talented and such an important part of the underground soul scene. For the second festival it hit me that we had to get Omar – so we got him. And then there was the gig at the church. I’d wanted to do a gig at a church for a long time. I used to go down to union chapel in Islington, which was probably my favourite venue in England for a gig – so he seemed like the perfect person to do a gig in a church, and it sold out. We’ll definitely have him back again, but maybe wait a year. But yeah, his album’s doing great too. There’s certain people in the industry you look at, and just think they work hard and deserve it. Like John Legend, or Jazzy Jeff, before they blew up, were grafting for decades. A lot of people don’t realise it, but Jazzy Jeff produced Jill Scott’s first album, he’s produced tons of great albums. And John Legend used to write and produce for loads of people, just prolific. Omar’s one of them, he’s a grafter, working full-time as a musician.
So he fits right in at Funk the Format.
Yeah, he’s exactly my kind of artist. I’ve always been passionate about what they for a while called urban music – a term that made me want to vomit. Soul, funk, hip-hop, then Latin music, but it all stems from the same music really, anything with rhythm and soul, and that’s what I’m always trying to bring to my festival. Perhaps that’s why Funk the Format is so successful down here, because rock and indie and electronic are so well catered for by other festivals, but not many people are really championing that kind of soulful music you can dance to.
Funk the Format (18+) is on 17th June 2017 and Funk the Family (family friendly) festival on 18th June 2017 with tickets available here funkthefamily.co.uk/festival-2017-tickets.