Luke Solomon: The House That Luke Built

His contributions to Beyoncé’s Grammy-winning ‘Renaissance’ album may have finally given Luke Solomon the recognition he believes he’s always deserved, but among the global house nation he’s long been cherished. Jacob Munday hears about the highs and lows of a 30-year-plus career chasing that Classic groove. “It hasn’t all been roses,” says Solomon. “It’s been tough…”


Luke Solomon has been a pioneer of underground dance music for four decades and counting. As a DJ, producer, remixer, club promoter, record label founder and A&R, he has played a part in so many seminal moments in club culture that Andrew Weatherall, no less, once dubbed him house music’s “unsung hero”.

Solomon co-founded one of 90s’ London’s legendary club nights, Space, and two of the UK’s leading deep house labels, Music for Freaks and Classic – the latter of which is still going strong releasing records by Honey Dijon, Sophie Lloyd, Crazy P and Horse Meat Disco. He has DJed in clubs all around the world and been involved in making more than 600 records – at least according to Discogs; Solomon himself lost count years ago. And this year he reached a very different sort of milestone: his first Grammy Awards.

On 6 February at the Crypto.com Arena in downtown Los Angeles, he sat at a VIP table and watched Beyoncé Knowles win the gong for best dance/electronic music album for her disco and house-centric LP, ‘Renaissance’ – for which Solomon had co-produced two songs with his regular collaborators superstar DJ Honey Dijon and the multi-instrumentalist Chris Penny. Beyoncé subsequently won three more awards and ended the evening the most garlanded artist in Grammy history, with 32 wins.

“The whole thing felt so surreal, almost out of body,” he reflects a month later at home in north-west London, still looking equal parts open-mouthed and overjoyed. “It was almost like I was watching myself celebrate. It took me three or four days to just come down off it all [Not like that – he’s been sober for 11 years]. That moment was just… holy shit. What. The. Fuck. Just. Happened? Even now it doesn’t feel real.”

So how do you celebrate a Grammy win? If you are Honey Dijon, you go for dinner afterwards with Madonna and Sam Smith: “She did the whole celebrity thing.” Meanwhile, Solomon was jetlagged after flying from London for two DJ gigs in consecutive days in New York and San Francisco, and then on to LA with hardly any sleep. “So me, Chris and Sam (Holt, their manager) went to the In-N-Out Burger in Hollywood and just hung out. It was exactly what we wanted to do.”

Beyoncé had been gracious in her acceptance speech, thanking the Queer community ‘for your love, and for inventing the genre [of dance music]’ – but some felt the award should have gone to a dance or electronic music act. “I tried to stay away from any drama,” he says, although he alludes to “weird conversations” in house music circles that “have kind of taken me by surprise. I mean, we’ve grown up with amazing vocalists – Martha Wash, Whitney… and there aren’t many people like that left who have come from church. So, the idea of making house records with Beyoncé… it’s like Loleatta Holloway still being alive. But we’re having these conversations and it’s, like: ‘I’m not really a Beyoncé fan.’ And I’m, like: ‘How can you not be a fan?’ That shit really threw me.”

He’s just started: “The brief we were given was that she wanted to take Black dance music back to its roots, where it was coming from disco, or soul, or funk, or house. So it wasn’t definitively: ‘I’m making a house album.’ The first thing we did was build them a playlist – and then we presented a whole world of samples, ideas and concepts to people who had never experienced a lot of those records. And she properly did her homework. That’s the reality of what happened – she went all the way in. If you listen to the album, that’s very much our DNA in those songs.”

The unlikely collaboration was first mooted in March 2021 with the UK still in lockdown, when Holt received an email out of the blue from a company whose name he couldn’t quite place: Parkwood. He had to Google it before realising that it was Beyoncé’s label. Almost immediately there was a Zoom call then non-disclosure agreements three days later. “We were all just freaking out at home – but we couldn’t tell anyone else.”

There was no direct contact with Queen Bee herself. “It was very cloak and dagger, like, she’s the producer but she works closely with her engineer, Stuart White, and the producer Mike Dean.” But there was a lot of “back and forth” with her A&R and her creative director. Over the course of 2021, Team Dijon submitted more than 20 tracks to Team Knowles. “It was sort of like the ‘X Factor’,” he says, laughing. “Ok, this track has got through to the next round… But interestingly the two she eventually chose were the very first thing we sent and the very last thing.”

These tracks became the musical framework for the songs ‘Alien Superstar’ and ‘Cozy’. “We knew they needed to work in stadiums in front of huge audiences, so we had to slow them down to allow things more space. But really, it was like making house records and then just bringing the tempo down – and the final productions are not that far away from our versions, which is actually amazing.”

So, what’s the significance of a Grammy win? His answer might surprise some. “On a personal level, I’ve spent a lot of my life being in the shadows and trying to prove myself while I’ve watched a lot of my peers go past me. For a long time I definitely didn’t get the recognition I felt I deserved.”

From the outside it looks as though he’s had an incredible career. “Ah, but I’ve always lived my life in smoke and mirrors. People don’t really get to look at what my life is really like. I’ve been very closed and guarded about that. It hasn’t all been roses. It’s been tough.”

Originally from the West Country, Luke spent part of his childhood and early teens in Cyprus – his Greek-Cypriot father moved the family there for a few years to escape the UK recession in the 80s; Luke’s mum had died when he was a baby, which, he has said, “disrupted me for a long time... I just rebelled against everything”. His career in dance music began in 1993 when he dropped out of a degree at Middlesex University – in Psychology, Spanish and Third World Studies – for a job at a record shop in nearby Barnet called Stop on By. Even though Barnet is in Zone Five – the sticks to Londoners – the shop’s reputation for stocking hard-to-find records reeled in DJs from across the capital. Among them was a young DJ from Brighton, Kenny Hawkes. “We just hit it off,” says Luke. “And after a few months Kenny said: ‘Look, I’ve been approached to run this pirate radio station that’s moving from Brighton to London called Girls FM – would you be interested in a show?’”

Launching in the capital that same year, Girls FM’s impact was huge. At the time it was competing directly with the former pirate station turned legal broadcaster, Kiss FM, which, although grappling with the programming constraints of being a commercial station that would eventually render it unrecognisable from its former self, was still championing a lot of underground dance music. But Girls was pushing sounds rarely heard on Kiss, from textured, rolling deep house grooves to bolshy, skittery, proto UK garage. And for Luke and Kenny, it gave them a platform to showcase the music that excited them the most – in particular the wildly experimental, wigged-out disco-dub records made by an emerging ‘second generation’ of Chicago house producers including Ron Trent, Chez Damier, Iz & Diz, Glenn Underground, DJ Sneak and Gemini on labels such as Prescription, Guidance, Cajual and Relief. 

Soon, he would get to meet his heroes in person after he began working in promotions for the UK house label Freetown, which began licensing tracks from Chicago. In 1994 he flew out to the Windy City to DJ and distribute vinyl promos, and during an “epic night out” befriended another of its rising stars, Derrick Carter. “He’s a freak. He’s a weirdo. We’re peas in a pod in that way. We were just immediately on the same wavelength,” he says. The following year, Carter relocated to London because he was getting so many bookings in Europe and moved into a room at Solomon’s house, setting up a home studio for them to get creative in. “It was never a case of ‘Oh, let’s work together,’ we were just kids in our 20s who decided we wanted to have this record label, and it was going to be the best shit you’d ever heard – so we called it Classic.”  

Things were moving fast. In 1995 he and Hawkes launched their club night, Space, in a West End basement club called Bar Rumba. And even though Space was on Wednesday nights, it was soon pulling in hundreds of people every week.

Part of its appeal was a starry roster of guest DJs that included Ron Trent and Chez Damier making their UK debuts, as well as sparkling sets by Derrick Carter, Gemini, John Acquaviva, François Kevorkian, Andrew Weatherall, Harvey and many more. Space was also the only London club of its time dedicated entirely to deep house. You could hear the music at other clubs, but rarely all night and never the way Solomon and Hawkes played it, throwing in Detroit techno records pitched down to a house tempo, UK and European productions by the likes of Matthew Herbert, Rob Mello, Isolée and the Idjut Boys, a smattering of New York vocals, even straight-up party records such as Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’ or Hamilton Bohannon’s ‘Let’s Start the Dance’.

One of his treasured memories is the night Derrick Carter got so vexed that there was an instrumental version of ‘Let’s Start the Dance’ playing instead of the vocal mix, he grabbed a microphone and sung the missing lyrics himself. It sums Space up: the music was revered but the atmosphere was irreverent; equal parts dance music industry hub and messy house party where nobody took themselves too seriously. Many of the records that filled the dancefloor back then still stand up today too – as proven by the deftly curated new two-part Space compilation on the Above Board label.

By the turn of the millennium Space was still packing them in; Classic had lived up to its name, becoming one of the world’s premier labels; and he had formed another fruitful creative partnership with a mate from university, Justin Harris, recording as Freaks and launching the Music for Freaks label. Derrick was a superstar DJ; Luke and Kenny were gigging around the world too. Living the deep house dream. And then it all began to unravel.

For the acid house generation who came of age in the 80s and 90s, the decade that followed often felt like the worst possible hangover after the mother of all parties. The musical landscape began to change with the rise of minimal and electro house, and by 2002 Space had come to an end. But even more devastating was the collapse of vinyl culture as the digital age took over. The surge in downloading led that same year to the liquidation of Ideal, the company that distributed both Classic and Music for Freaks, leaving the labels with a combined debt of £250,000. And as Luke was coming to terms with all of this, there came an unexpected plot twist: Freaks had a Top Ten hit.

“It was a complete accident. We’d made a track called ‘The Creeps’ that got signed by Azuli, and unbeknown to us they’d got this electro-house remix done and put it on DJ Download, which was the first big digital website before Beatport. And it just blew up, the most downloaded track they’d ever had. So me and Justin were in a bit of a quandary because we hadn’t even approved the remix but then Ministry stepped in to sign it, so we just went: ‘OK, let’s go with it but we want to put a new vocal on it,’ and that’s the version that went Top Ten. And it was such a weird time for it to happen because we’d lost Classic, we’d lost Space, we were in a lot of debt, trying to figure out where we all belonged… and then I became a dad (he has two sons, both now in their teens, with his wife, Kris), so you’re not going out as much, and then all of a sudden the gigs aren’t there anymore. I was playing catch-up for a long, long time after that.”

In 2011 came the nadir. Hawkes died at the age of just 42 from liver failure as a result of alcohol abuse. “It was a reflection of everything a lot of us were going through in different ways,” he says. “It could have been me. So many times, it could have been me. Whether it was rooted in addiction or just being a fucking idiot. Those moments when I could have crashed that car or fallen off that roof, all the stupid things I’ve done because I was high. There were parties where I would fall over when I was DJing, and the promoters were talking to my agent the next day and saying: ‘Is Luke OK? What’s going on?’”

He continues: “The whole culture revolved around enabling people. The drinks are on your rider. You drink on the plane, going out for dinner. ‘Are you sure you don’t want a quick livener?’ That whole thing of looking at you when you say no and they go: ‘What? Really?’ That stuff. I think kids today are more educated about being able to say yes or no; but I grew up at a time when if you weren’t hanging out with the promoter at the after-afterparty, you probably weren’t going to get booked again. By the end of it I was getting travel anxiety and I couldn’t get on a plane without drinking; I couldn’t DJ without drinking.

“My moment of epiphany came after going to BPM in Mexico and being up for three or four days and having a panic attack on the plane home. And I got off the plane and I thought: ‘That’s it. I don’t want to be the embarrassing old drunk or high man at the party anymore.’”

He has been sober ever since: “I’m an all or nothing guy.” With sobriety has come renewed focus, regained confidence and an exciting new chapter in his career, which began in the dark days of 2011 when he was thrown a lifeline in the form of an A&R job at Defected by its CEO, Simon Dunmore. Defected had bought Classic and planned to relaunch the label. Who better to helm that operation than one of its founders?

“I was at a point where it was either throw in the towel and do something completely different, which I don’t know how to do, or take the job and work my way up from the bottom all over again – which is what I did. And it was the best thing I could have done, because as an A&R (across all Defected’s labels including DFTD, Classic, Strictly Rhythm, Faith, Nu Groove and Glitterbox), I have to go out and meet all these new kids and understand new culture. We’re in a young person’s world, so it’s important to embrace change. The minute you become bitter and resentful, it’s game over.”

At the same time, his experience has helped Defected to maintain a level of authenticity and connection with underground music, even as it has grown into a megabrand. “Every time we’ve picked up a [heritage] label like Nu Groove, we’ve gone: ‘OK, what should this feel like now?’ The originators still help in the background, whether it’s Rheji and Ronnie Burrell with Nu Groove or Stu (Patterson) and Terry (Farley) with Faith. I think early on a lot of my peers were saying: ‘Oh, you’ve sold out,’ – but I’m great at having something to prove and now I think people understand it’s still about the music, not about exploiting it.”

Before relaunching Classic, there was an “emotional” conversation with Derrick Carter – who ultimately decided not to re-join the label. “I think he just wanted to go off and be a wandering minstrel on his own terms with no one to worry or think about. It was sad, but he kind of passed the baton and entrusted me with it, and I think he’s happy with the way it’s panned out.”

Solomon’s creative output has blossomed again too, a highlight coming in 2017 with Powerdance, a collective he assembled with the German producer Nick Maurer featuring musicians from LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and Metro Area. Their debut album, ‘The Lost Art of Getting Down’, an homage to 1970s New York disco and post-punk, won a five-star review from The Guardian, who deemed it “an object lesson in how to take inspiration from the past and apply it to the present”.

There is another Powerdance album in the works. But “the problem now, post-Beyoncé, is suddenly all these crazy opportunities are happening and I’ve got to put it to one side because so-and-so’s just called…”

Who’s that, then? A Cheshire Cat grin. “Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to say anything…”

Tantalising, but whatever lies in store this much is already abundantly clear: Luke Solomon has nothing left to prove.

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