Jeff Craven (Large Music) Interview & Exclusive Guest Mix
There are some labels that are part of legend. Not many of those are still around today, but Large Music and the man that started it all back in the Windy City are, and going strong! When I first discovered house music, Large was a buy everything label, these days I’m lucky enough to be on their promo list. The label has pioneered so many big names and given them that platform and all the time Jeff Craven has had a low profile, immense reputation and the vision of where the music is going - if I’m honest when I started UM Records back in 2011, I wanted to be as respected as Jeff and Large - so having the chance to throw questions at him was not to be missed!
This all began back in 1992 for me. I had moved into Chicago from St. Louis and got involved with the underground party scene here that at the time was very strong. Every weekend you could hear DJs such as Derrick Carter, Mark Farina, DJ Sneak and Cajmere before they became superstars. Most of them even worked at our local record store, Grammaphone. During this time both Trax Records and DJ International had ceased operations and there was a real need for a label presence in the city. I convinced my best friend at the time to be the initial investor and we hit the ground running.
Our first official Large release was “I’m Leaving You” by Lil John Coleman which immediately began to build quite a buzz due to Louie Vega playing it consistently. Releases from Kerri Chandler, DJ Sneak, Johnny Fiasco soon followed with critical and commercial success. In 1996 we released Roy Davis Jr & Peven Everett’s classic Gabriel and that pushed us into the stratosphere.
Even though our label was based in Chicago I was much more influenced early on by some of the great East Coast labels such as Emotive, Nu Groove, Madhouse, 8 Ball and of course Strictly Rhythm. Kerri Chandler was always one of my favorite producers and the moment he created his first project for Large is one of our greatest moments. I have always had a special connection to the underground sound (and nightlife) of NYC.
Honestly, I love both. There is nothing like having a beautiful set with a beautiful crowd in a beautiful space. However, I find so much satisfaction watching a release become successful. Another aspect that I love about being a label owner is watching artists grow both in skill and popularity. I take great pride in the realty that many House superstars have gotten their start with Large.
I think they do differ slightly to be honest. Large always leans a little more towards the deeper and soulful side of house and when I DJ my Chicago roots usually show; I tend to play a little more Jackin’ and Disco House than might be expected.
I have been so blessed to have been a feature DJ in some of the best clubs in the world. It is hard to pick a favorite but currently I absolutely love 18th Street Lounge in the heart of Washington DC. I have played there for many years and I really understand and click with the crowd in what is a lovely venue. DC is a city with a rich musical history and there has always been a solid House scene and culture. I have had some incredible sets in the what is known as the Gold Room there and have so many memories.
Again, another tough question! I think that like most DJs who have been doing this a long time I tend to get quite picky about who moves me personally. I think I would probably have to go with Harvey, who always surprises me with obscure and spectacular programming. Watching him play is the one time when I have no shame in pulling out Shazam with almost ever track he plays. I have also had a special place in my heart for Tony Humphries – the way he can weave together many different styles and it always sounds so soulful.
I tend to spend hours of preparation for even the smallest of gigs, mainly experimenting with different blends and mixes. For a digital set I use Rekord Box for setting up playlists and I have found it to be an invaluable tool.
I think my best advice is to discover your own sound. While we all have DJs that influence us and that we often emulate, I think it is very important to have a special identity. I think this is proven with some of the great DJs – we can often hear a recording and know exactly who it is just by their style and selections. Also I would say just play what you feel. Music is an extremely subjective artform and if you truly love what you are playing the crowd will respond.
I have always been influenced by “the underground” which seems to be almost a dichotomy in 2020. I sometimes wonder if there is any “underground” left in House Music. I don’t think anyone can argue that commercialism has taken over our scene in the last few years and that does make me sad. If there can be any positive outcome from this horrible pandemic, I hope that one change could be our music moving back into the clubs and after hour parties and out of the “festival” circuit. I don’t think that pure House fits in that context anyway, but maybe that is the minority opinion.
I always wanted Large to have an artistic ethos and a high-quality aesthetic not just in our music but also in our artwork and press releases, etc. I take all of this very seriously; this is art. Our music is very powerful when it is done well. It can change lives! I hope that people don’t forget that. I sometimes see labels playing to the lowest common denominator and I hope this can change. I want Large to stand firm and show that you don’t have to sacrifice artistic integrity and that music lovers will always respond positively to authentic deep house.
Deep, dubby, bass heavy, moody, soulful, authentic, vintage, and pure are all adjectives I have heard to describe the Large sound and I agree with all of them.
I would hope that it has something to do with my authenticity. When I approach certain artists, I am very clear from the beginning that I value their artistry over their brand value or hype. I have been told that this can be very refreshing and is rare in our industry.
Without a doubt it has been Gabriel by Roy Davis Jr and Peven Everett. It has become a legendary classic – especially in the UK where it is played on BBC radio even now.
I get asked this question often and it is always one that I hesitate to answer. I am so grateful for every release and every artist that I have ever worked with and I don’t want to single out a single release. With that said, I do have my favorites and usually they are releases that have flown under the radar and aren’t necessarily top sellers.
We still press some of the Large classics consistently on wax and we are planning a relaunch of our vinyl division to feature new releases later in 2020 so stay tuned.
Definitely it has been the rise of social media and the internet for promotions and even sales. Keep in mind that when I started Large in 1992 email was barely used if at all and internet access was based around a dial up modem. All of our promotions and sales tracking was done at that time by phone calls and yes…even the fax machine! To succeed as a label, you had to build relationships with record stores and buyers all over the world. It was incredibly complex and time consuming. At that time, we only dreamed of a channel like Facebook or Instagram where we could promote our releases in real time.
I think people are always surprised that I have always been the sole A&R for all 27 years of the label’s history. It is still my favorite part of owning a label. I have always had a rule that I never sign anything unless it is something that I would personally play as a DJ. I can only think of ONE time that I signed something based on the hype factor of an artist alone and I regret it even to this day. I won’t mention which record it is to protect my reputation!
I think the overwhelming number of labels and releases makes it very difficult to promote releases. Every month it seems that a new label pops up out of nowhere. The average retail buyer logging onto their favorite digital storefront like Traxsource or Beatport simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to listen to every release. It is more critical than ever to build a broad and loyal fan base that will make your label a top priority. Every label should have a compelling story to tell just like an artist.
It is still the music that excites me and motivates me. I had an experience two years ago when one of our younger artists revealed that he first found out about Large because of his dad’s record collection. I just thought that was a defining moment: that Large Music has lasted through several generations of music lovers and a young artist found one of our vinyl releases. I love it when younger listeners discover us for the first time. I still think we have so much more fabulous music to give to the world as a label.
It is an essential tool, obviously. I think labels have to be careful and thoughtful on when and what to post on social media. I often see labels constantly posting their sales chart positions. I think this can create fatigue with a label fanbase. At the end of the day how many fans really want to know how well a track is charting? I think it is much more effective to post about other topics. Once again, it comes down to telling a story about your company.
Where can people follow you?