Mr Bongo is a rarity in independent music, having managed to remain at the forefront of its scene for almost 30 years.
The now Brighton-based record shop and label was founded in 1989 on Berwick Street, London, underneath Daddy Kool’s Reggae Store. There, the devoted diggers behind it peddled hard-to-find Latin music, particularly Brazilian, and became the first shop to sell vinyl releases from independent hip-hop labels such as Def Jam, Rawkus, Nervous and Big Beat outside of the U.S..
“David [Buttle] started bringing in records from Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil in the ‘80s and needed a name for his mail-order record company,” Mr Bongo’s Graham Luckhurst explains when he catches up with DJ Mag in the middle of a hectic summer. He named it after Jack Costanzo, aka Mr Bongo, who played percussion for Elvis and Nat King Cole and taught celebrities and film stars, including Marlon Brando, how to play. “He was a real character by all accounts too,” Luckhurst enthuses. “In the late ‘80s Latin music started to become pop in the UK and Dave began his digging trips across South America trying to find the new, unknown classics.”
Mr Bongo quickly grew from a very small, modest store in Soho selling Latin music into a two-floor emporium selling indie, hip-hop, funk, electronica, Latin and Brazilian sounds during the ‘90s. As a label, Mr Bongo has since unearthed, licensed, released and reissued seminal music from a recording roster featuring some of the best Brazilian, Latin, reggae, African and jazz artists. They include the Incredible Bongo Band, Protoje, Masters at Work, Hollie Cook, Ebo Taylor, Karol Conka, Arthur Verocai, Prince Fatty, Tim Maia, Gal Costa and scores more.
“They must have strong songs, stand-out as a true artist, be able to really smash it live on a longer term basis and have potential to develop over the course of several albums,” Luckhurst explains of artists circulating Mr Bongo.
But how has the label managed to remain so vital after almost 30 years?
“We have always stuck to our guns when it comes to quality and originality,” David ‘Mr Bongo’ Buttle explains. “Maybe we earn respect from the various scenes that come and go around us? We have never stuck to a single genre, although we are more well-known for some. We try to showcase the talent of musicians that we find genuinely interesting and inspiring and only release music that we really feel.