It’s February 2009 and the record racks look like the cold and empty streets of Geneva with the music industry crisis in full swing. It’s precisely at this time that DJ Thibault Eigenmann and musician/sound engineer Théo Lacroix decide to set up the rap label, Colors Records. The name is inspired by the lyrics of Genevan rapper, BraccoBrax, that go "I repaint the world in Neocolor". "Neo" is also slang for the Onex area where Thibault comes from, "I thought it was a cool name since it refers to a neighbourhood dynamic". At this stage, the label is only in its embryonic state but is already gathering momentum.
Black magic and coincidences
At the start, there’s only one colour happening here - black. "Black Magic Team", the name of the rap group set up by Basengo, BraccoBrax, Enok Sainkel and DJ Nevahdie – aka Thibault. In the 2000s, the quartet releases some mixtapes recorded at Thibault’s home studio. "I'd always been interested in setting up something of my own ever since I started DJing". This initial homemade group is enough to whet his appetite.
In 2008, rapper Basengo gets asked to collaborate with a young artist called "Otage", aka Theo Lacroix. The latter astonishes Basengo: "This Otage guy was talented, I spontaneously suggested that Thibault meet him". Luck is on their side. Thibault sets up a professional studio but has no sound engineer. Theo, in the meantine, has to leave his studio. A location, a DJ looking for structure, an artist with proven engineering skills, a name, a vision and the financial means. The dream is complete.
Thibault signs BraccoBrax, Basengo, Williman (another Onex rapper and friend) and Shaka (Basengo’s rapper cousin). The very first Colors production is released in 2010. "Ne m’regarde pas comme ça" by Shaka, a track that deconstructs the prejudices based on appearance. It quickly reaches 100,000 views on Youtube despite a mistake. "We released a version where the audio wasn’t mixed. But as it was so doing well that we didn’t want to lose the accumulated views, so we then released it on another channel. It was our first try, we were still very much amateurs", remembers Thibault.
Meanwhile, Basengo releases the label’s first main project: his album Ground Zero is a hidden gem of Swiss rap with rich, dark lyrics, contrasting with most of the productions that Theo was working on at the time.
Above and beyond rap, Colors strives to become more and more soulful, an impulse born from the desire to work with proper musicians. Between 2012 and 2014, live gigs are played with a band and projects include more organic music and singing, as with the composer Classik Luvanga and groups like CaramelBrown (then Kami Awori) and The SugaZz. "We wanted to develop a nu-soul scene and we put a lot of emphasis on playing live, including jam sessions at the Chat Noir club in Geneva." says Thibault. The bet proves interesting and the records are often of quality.
Between a rock and a hard place
But this choice comes at a price that Colors can ill afford. Being an emerging label, surrounded constantly by musicians is a luxury that involves having to pay their fees, transporting groups and equipment, scheduling more production time and keeping everyone motivated. In order to continue, Colors has to scale down its ambitions.
Internal frictions begin to ferment and artistic disagreements arise. Some artists blame the label for not respecting its commitments, (co-purchased material apparently blocked and the studio unavailable to all artists with the same flexibility). For Thibault, "everything started because of communication problems. With regard to the equipment, we needed it at a given time but we never wanted to hold onto it indefinitely. As for the differences of treatment, we had signed pacts of editorial preference with some composers, so it was normal. That said, I recognize our mistakes. We should have been more precise in the contracts". Distances continue to grow. "It became harder and harder to communicate. During this sensitive period, we may have over-prioritized the projects we were working on."
These projects are mainly those of rapper Makala and producer Pink Flamingo, (subsequently Varnish La Piscine). Makala has talent and is extremely sure of himself; where some see it as inappropriate arrogance, Thibault sees it as vision. Pink Flamingo, meanwhile, has madness in his head and fingers. As of 2013, their mixtapes, EP and albums gradually suck up the majority of the label’s available means. The rap imprint takes them back to the roots, but it’s a rap style that retains a soulful touch thanks to Pink Flamingo's compositions. Colors has finally found its identity.
The label’s identity develops in line with the codes of the time: Trap rhythms, egotripping lyrics drenched in Auto-tune and a constant social media presence. Combined with the intrinsic talent of the various protagonists, this identity sets off a quick, keen interest - from the first sold out concerts in Geneva to the collaborations with established French rappers, not to mention the video clips that accumulate hundreds of thousands of views. All this in keeping with the realistic means of Colors. The investment is more profitable, at least in terms of visibility.
SuperWack rap and a little killer soul
Why change a formula that works? In the years that follow, the label repeats, develops and magnifies it. In 2014, Makala forms the SuperWak Clique with friends, bringing some of them into the Colors’ fold, (Di-Meh, Slimka, Daejmiy, Maïro and Dewolph). The team harnesses all the millenial codes while also stating its differences. Thibault summarises their philosophy: «If being cool means standing the back of the room during your mates’ concert, then we agree, we’re going to pogo in the middle of the pit because we are super wacks".
Listen up ‘super wacks’. Indeed, SWK’s greatest asset is playing live. They sell out venues and festivals in all Francophone corners: Paris, Lyon and Brussels. Stage performances lead onto world-class achievements, such as Varnish's remix for Dita Von Teese or the recent appearance of Di-Meh on the cover of the French Inrocks music magazine.
SWK and Colors mutually nourish each other. SWK regularly injects new blood into Colors, while Colors provides the experience and framework. Starting with their studio, always a nerve center: "The sound is really good quality! It's a place where I can sit, isolate myself and write without anyone bothering me", says Slimka. This relationship is not only professional, as Makala declared on the Antigel Festival stage during the label’s 10 year anniversary, "Colors is a family! These are the people who made me believe in all of this!".
Today, this "family" wants to continue growing, but not at any price. Several subsidiaries of French majors - such as Arista, Barclay and Def Jam - have shown interest in the entire label or certain artists, but no agreement has ever been reached. "We do not want a deal based on advances that could lead to big cuts - which is what the majors are proposing. If we continue to tighten our belts and generate sales while remaining independent with a distributor, we can better control our finances. If it works, we make a lot more!" explains Thibault.
For the time being, finances are balanced but the label does not make any profit. Many artists manage to live from their music but Colors still relies on volunteers (trainees, production assistants, etc...) to help out especially with the Colors Live events. It’s thanks to this live venture that Oumar Touré joined the label. The former programmer of Undertown, who also works for the Geneva Music Festival, is now an integral and daily part of company.
The coming months are set to be busy. Colors would like to develop a media sector and prepare for the label’s next releases (including a joint project between Slimka and Di-Meh, and Makala’s first album). But as reflected in this decade of existence, Colors Records does not count its hours and continues to deploy its forces to adapt onwards and upwards!