Herstory 12: Kym Mazelle's Journey from UK Pirate Radios to Record Deals
Meet The First Lady of House Music
In an interview, Kym Mazelle mentions that music was always her calling. She grew up in Gary, Indiana which is known as a hotbed for musical talent. She actually lived a few doors down for the Jackson 5 studio.
The US-born singer-songwriter is known as “The First Lady of House Music.” We wanted to look at what that title really means to the history of house music
But first, what exactly is house music?
House is Short for “Warehouse” Music
House is one of the earlier forms of EDM - some say its an alternative to disco, which was dominating at the time. Others say that it started off as an extension or distortion of disco. In either case, Chicago is the genre’s birthplace and it was developed and popularized by DJ Freddie Knuckles. He was the Resident DJ at a nightclub called The Warehouse. The nightclub served as a safe space for queer people of colour - the audience of early house music (before it even had a name), were mostly black and latino gay men. House music is actually named after the nightclub - over time, “warehouse music” was shortened to “house music.” As its popularity grew, house music was introduced to newer (whiter) crowds. Freddie Knuckles is considered the godfather of house music - here’s a DJ set he did for Boiler Room, just one year before his unexpected death in 2014:
Kym Mazelle’s Introduction to House
Kym Mazelle went to university for entertainment law - after class, she would perform in reggae bands to help pay for school. During this time, she heard about The Warehouse club scene that was developing. That’s how she met DJ Frankie Knuckles and others that were shaping the sound.
While completing an internship in NYC, she was working with house-producer Marshal Jefferson on a new song. Kym was providing backing vocals for a song called Taste my Love but the lead singer couldn’t sing. The team decided to drop the original artist and have Kym on the record. The song was released in 1987 and that’s how Kym got her first song credit. The song was released under Kym’s own record label.
In the late ‘80s, UK DJs would pick up records from New York and Chicago - that’s likely how Taste my Love made it’s way across the pond. Taste my Love didn’t get much airplay in the US, but it did in the UK, thanks to pirate radios.
The Power of Pirate Radio Stations
Pirate radios stations have been around since the 1930’s - they’re unlicensed (aka illegal) radio stations. It’s called “pirating” because it involves using someone else’s transmitter to broadcast your content. In the ‘60s, pirate radios were broadcasting on boats off the East coast of England. by the ‘90s (when Kym released Taste my Love), pirate radio stations were broadcasting off of high-rise tower blocks. Stations would invest in technology that made it difficult for the government to trace the station’s location.
So why were people going to such lengths to broadcast? Because mainstream stations weren’t playing their sound. The concept was born out of necessity. Across decades, most pirate radios were broadcasting black club music. One of the most notable stations is Kiss FM - they were broadcasting a mix of soul, reggae, and funk during their early days. When the UK government started to crack down on pirate radios in the ‘90s, they chose to license and now they broadcast UK-wide.
Pirate radios were playing what mainstream stations wouldn’t. During the release of Kym’s first track, the UK rave scene was just started to blossom and pirate radios had a large part in this. In fact, mainstream stations like BBC Radio 1 were denouncing rave culture. When mainstream radio stations weren’t broadcasting a particular sound, the community would come together and space for it. Because BBC had a monopoly on the airwaves, London quickly became a hotbed for these pirate radios.
Taste my Love Becomes a UK Fan Favourite
Considering how new house music was, there was no chance of Taste my Love getting mainstream airplay. Luckily, UK DJs were picking up records like Taste my Love during their trips to America and would play them on pirate radio stations. Before long, Kym Mazelle’s first track became a hit.
Kym and her team didn’t know what pirate radios were, but they heard that she was getting airplay in the UK. She decided to do a showcase in London and connect with her UK fans. The success of the showcase led to a bidding war among record labels - EMI came out on top and signed Kym Mazelle.
Kym Mazelle: From Pirate Radios to Record Deals
Kym’s record deal with EMI is what makes her historic. It showed the industry that this new sound (and the culture that came with it) was worth investing in. Kym released a number of singles with EMI and established her place in the UK music scene. Her song Wait! became one of the first international hits for house music.
Over time, house music evolved to become the global force that we are familiar with today.
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for unlearning music misogyny.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series - we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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