Cliff Simms is quietly sipping a pint at city tavern in downtown Dallas, the very model of a British expat. He has lived in Dallas since 2009, after first visiting the year before on a business trip. Simms may be sitting across from me on this October night, but I know he isn’t here right now. At least his mind isn’t. It’s in Manhattan, where singer-rapper Sam Lao is performing at the legendary SoHo club SOB’s, as part of the Who’s Next? Live showcase put on by taste-making hip-hop radio station HOT 97. He keeps tabs on Lao’s performance from afar, gleaning details from texts and tweets.
Lao is in New York to promote herself, of course, and to a lesser extent the long-slept-on Dallas hip-hop scene; she’s the first local rapper to be invited to the HOT 97 event. But Simms is so invested in what’s happening at SOB’s because she is also an ambassador of DEFDISCO, the Sheffield- and Dallas-based label he co-founded in 2014. While Lao is the most recent DEFDISCO signing, joining a burgeoning group of North Texas talent, if Simms had his way, she would have been the first. For whatever reason, the time wasn’t right then. It is now—for signing with Simms’ label, for breaking out of Dallas, for stardom, maybe.
“I think anybody who has worked in the music industry—and I don’t mean this condescendingly, but at a level like London, New York, and LA, a major musical hub, and has been around well-established artists and international-selling acts—anyone who has had that kind of exposure and sees Sam Lao, and doesn’t make those parallels, is either not very good at their job or an idiot,” Simms says.
But Lao is just part of Simms and DEFDISCO’s Dallas-centric strategy. She joins a stable that already included Kaela Sinclair, a singer-songwriter and touring member of French dream-pop act M83; soul singer Kirk Thurmond, who performs solo as well as fronting his band The Millennials; and Fort Worth rapper 88 Killa, who was a member of the popular local hip-hop collective Brain Gang, along with Lao, Blue, The Misfit, and Dr. Dre protégé Justin “Justus” Mohrle. Along with Lao, DEFDISCO also recently signed R&B vocalist Larry g(EE) and electro-pop singer LEV. And, in addition to a roster full of Dallas musicians possessing both marketability and stone-cold talent, the label is now armed with a worldwide distribution and marketing deal with ADA, the powerful, well-connected, independent-focused branch of the Warner Music Group.
At the heart of all of this is the savvy hand of the UK-born Simms. He worked with Sony and EMI, and overseas in Dubai, before coming back to the States to help the widow of Buddy Holly sell the catalogue of his music. While in Dallas, Simms began to freelance, assisting contacts from London with licensing and clearance contracts. Through his freelance gigs, he connected with future partner Barry Gilbey, founder of the influential house music label Choo Choo Records. Simms’ background in publishing made him a valuable asset when they started DEFDISCO in 2014, with other partners Justin Williams and Paul Herron.
“I don’t even look at it as a record company,” Simms says, over his pint. “We are an artist agency. Instead of the mechanism on the back end being how many albums can we sell, it’s who can we partner an artist with using this model? If you get the brand right, the record takes care of itself. We took a record label and an agency and welded it together. The face of it is a record label, but the engine is an ad agency.”
It makes sense in a modern landscape where traditional boundaries are disappearing, and everyone is vying for the same consumer dollar. Lao, LEV, Larry g(EE), and the rest of Simms’ Dallas signings need the massive awareness major brands bring, and brands need the immediacy that a song like Lao’s feminist anthem “Pineapple” provides.
“There’s no other medium like music that gets straight through that white noise and directly engages,” Simms says. “Without getting corny, music is the universal language.”
For a few years now, after storming on the scene with her West Pantego EP, there has been no artist more destined to break out of Dallas’ area code than Sam Lao. Her newest album, SPCTRM, will be officially released through DEFDISCO and distributed by ADA/Warner, with marketing support from Warner Music and Black Box LA (who have worked with Andra Day and Gary Clark Jr.). With a visual arts background, Lao understands the intersectionality of aesthetics and message, art and commerce, creating a polished sound that transcends the hip-hop framework of her music. Songs like the anti-catcalling anthem “Pineapple,” “Fool’s Gold,” and “Kaleidoscope” (which features a hype, descriptive verse from 88 Killa, who encouraged her early musical pursuits) all shimmy with ’90s summertime leisure while never losing Lao’s innate authenticity. But it’s the expansive track “Higher,” which allows Lao the room to explore the full breadth of her vocals and emotive content, that showcases the real potential of what she can be—an artist capable of limitless appeal.
Holly Peyton, who performs under the name LEV, caught Simms’ attention when she released her debut EP, Fear No Evil, in 2015. Blending influences from ’80s art-pop stars such as Gary Numan, Human League, and Depeche Mode, Fear No Evil was confident and strange, a tapestry of dark, literary, synth-heavy pop songs. Maybe more than anyone, LEV represents the archetype DEFDISCO is interested in cultivating and growing, an artist with defined character, talent, and layered appeal. In fact, her sound is so polished and crisp, it’s kind of hard to believe she hasn’t already caught on in a big way. Peyton will release her first full-length, Glass Ceiling, midyear with marketing support from Warner Music and The Syndicate, who have worked with CHVRCHES and Spoon.
When Larry g(ee) released his recent single “Don’t Talk” (featuring Sam Lao and produced by DJ A1, who works with Erykah Badu), there was a noticeable shift from the classic sound g(EE) was known for, an amalgam of ’60s soul and big band standards. The darker, moodier sound of “Don’t Talk” was a departure, more resembling The Weeknd and FKA Twigs, showing a new inspiration from alternative soul and pop. But one thing that hasn’t changed is his stage presence. g(EE)—born Larry Gayao—has always been known for his live performances, catching so much notice from his shows in Dallas that he appeared as the featured musical act on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2012. Since then, he has been working on finding the right label deal that works for his evolving sound. Now that he’s found that with DEFDISCO (he’ll release something later this year), g(EE) provides a valuable veteran presence on the roster.