— Zha —

On vinyl, dubstep, grime, Philosophy, Mathematics, Southampton, 1210s, business, White Peach, Fent Plates, freight, Brexit and building a legacy.

(All photos submitted by Zha)

“Ah mate, I hope I don’t come across as a bit of a boomer here”, says Zha as our chat window opens early on Wednesday night, “I’ve borrowed a laptop for this and I’ve not actually used Zoom before so you’ll have to bear with me.” DJ, producer and owner of White Peach Records — a 50-release strong record label, online store and manufacturing-distribution arm in one — as well as head at sister labels Fent Plates and Yellow Flower, it’d be easy to think that Zha’s life functions solely around music. Dig a little deeper however and there’s more to his story than meets the eye. A lifelong academic — he’s currently studying for a Masters and on course for a PhD later this year — his drive and thirst for knowledge comes through strongly in everything he says; even the most regulation of points are made with earnest conviction. 

Born in High Wycombe to parents of Indian and Pakistani heritage who grew up in different parts of Africa — his mum in Kenya, his dad in Uganda — Zha has fond memories of growing up. “I spent a lot of time just pissing around if I’m honest”, he says, breaking out into laughter. “I went to a grammar school, which was a weird place to go to school in the sense that it’s full of people who fall into this strange middle ground in both class and expectations … like it’s not cool to smoke, but it is cool to get 100% in your exams. Nobody was particularly well off but I remember everyone being super intelligent. Most people got 16 A*s so if you got like, 7, you were the loser, you know? I guess it made me switch off a bit but I still have some good memories, definitely. I was in the playground when I first heard FabricLive 37 (by Caspa & Rusko) and the earliest conceptions of DMZ, do you know what I mean? Thinking back, I actually remember logging onto Chemical Records one day and stumbling on this DMZ record after hearing something at school, playing a clip of it and being like, ‘woah, what is this?’. It was just instant conversation. I was hooked.”

Can he recall any other key early 12”s, I ask? “I’ve got a few of them here”, he says, shuffling through some records in a box behind him. “I’ve got over 25,000 records so there’s a lot to go through. The earliest I remember buying were the grime white labels and I don’t know why this sticks in my mind, but Bear Man – ‘Drinking Beer’ … do you remember that one? I got it for £6.99 from Slough Record Centre and I remember going home with it just obsessed. I bought Lethal B – ‘Forward Riddim’ (Pow!) from HMV when records were three for a tenner around that time, too. I remember I got ‘Welcome To Jamrock’ by Damian Marley as part of the same deal. They were two records I tried mixing into each other when I got turntables at 15, but I could never understand why I couldn’t do it. I remember somebody telling me it was because the BPMs were different and it blew my mind. Aside from records though, videos were important as well. You’d download them from Kazaa or Limewire, play the audio on your phone at school if you could and then everyone would go home, sit in front of their TVs and wait for the video to play on Channel U. I remember certain videos would have like a two second pause before they started, so sometimes I’d be like, ‘Yes, I know what it is, I know what it is!’. What a time, man.”

“…Bear Man – ‘Drinking Beer’ … do you remember that one? I got it for £6.99 from Slough Record Centre”

“I think the way we consume music now is so different”, he continues quizzically. “In one decade, we’ve gone from buying CDs to Shazam on our phones. There’s a conversation here about albums too … do they even matter anymore? I remember having a paper round and getting paid like £4.30 a week or some bullshit when I was a kid and I had one of those CD Walkmans that I’d take with me. I’d started to build up a small CD collection, maybe 40-50 CDs, and I remember before going out to do my round, I’d sit there and try and decide which CD was going with me for the two hours. It’d usually be a Dilated Peoples album, so I’d know I was gonna listen from track 1 to track 20, beginning to end. After a few listens, track 6, 12 and 13 I’d skip because I didn’t like the beat or whatever but after weeks of taking the CD out with me, I’d start to appreciate why tracks 6, 12 and 13 were on the album and understand it as a body of work, even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it. It meant I was able to appreciate albums as a kid, whereas now that process is totally different. Now, you’d scroll through an album on Spotify, pick out the bangers, add them to your playlist and forget the rest. That seems to be way we consume music these days.”

“I remember having a paper round and getting paid like £4.30 a week or some bullshit when I was a kid and I had one of those CD Walkmans that I’d take with me. I’d started to build up a small CD collection, maybe 40-50 CDs, and I remember before going out to do my round, I’d sit there and try and decide which CD was going with me for the two hours. It’d usually be a Dilated Peoples album, so I’d know I was gonna listen from track 1 to track 20, beginning to end.”

Indebted to the early 00s Napster-era of online piracy — “that’s just how everyone shared and consumed music back then” — Zha’s early tastes were formed through file-sharing, music TV channels and patchy segments of audio blasted out of phones and Walkmans on the school playground; if you wanted to hear more of something, you had to go the extra mile, you had to be invested. “I’m currently still trying to acknowledge my past guilt by buying everything”, he says. “Even shit I don’t like I’ll pay a fiver for on Bandcamp these days. But no, I’d find most of my music first on TV. I remember I had two friends who used to write down the name of tracks they’d heard on MTV Base or Channel U or whatever and then I’d come home and try and find them on Kazaa. The big thing back then was US gangsta rap … your 50 Cents, your G-Units … so I remember ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’ getting released and everyone just knew every lyric to every song. Even to this day, I’m still able to spout off every single bar of ‘Many Men’.” 

His gateway into buying records came at school, too. “I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this story before”, he says pensively. “So there was this kid at school and I remember Christmas coming around when we were 13, 14, so year nine it must have been. He came in one day and just said, ‘yo, for Christmas I’m getting decks’. At this point, I’d started messing around on a really early copy of Fruity Loops and I was taking my beats in on CD to show to people, but I’d never even thought about actual records before. I remember just looking at him and thinking, ‘shit, I really want decks now’. I came home and asked my parents that day and they were like ‘absolutely not, you’re not gonna study, you’re not gonna focus, it’s done, no way’. I reckon for about a year after that, I would ask my dad for turntables constantly. During that period, I’d get £10 a month pocket money from my parents and even back then, that’d only be enough for one record, the prices haven’t really changed. I realised that economy wasn’t working for me, I couldn’t get by on one record a month if I wanted to get turntables. So I invested my £10 in sherbet and sold sweets at school and basically became a bit more entrepreneurial to help get more money to buy records. Eventually, about a year and a half after first asking, I remember I was just totally obsessing over getting these decks. My dad finally gave in and said, ‘if you get 70 or above in all your exams then I’ll get you them’ so that was it. I got the results but he still said no. I was so annoyed but I wouldn’t let it go. Eventually, I pissed him off by asking so much that he agreed to get me some, but on the condition that I could only use them during the six week summer holiday and then they’d go back in the attic. I was like, ‘deal!’. So basically, from 15-18, I’d only have those turntables for six weeks of the year, even though I was still buying loads of records. To be fair, I didn’t actually mind too much because I got my head down for my A-Levels to make sure I could get to university. It was only when I got to university in Southampton that I took my turntables with me, unpacked them and sat them there like, ‘hey, I can use these decks whenever I want’. It was a great feeling.”

After finishing his A-Levels, Zha headed for Southampton University, where he first studied engineering but later went onto complete an undergraduate degree in Mathematics. “There was something much more fulfilling about it for me”, he says. “Maths is more about finding out where formulas came from and how we can refine them, which kinda takes things back to first principles. I specialised in Pure & Applied Maths. The pure stuff for me became very interesting so I actually ended up writing two dissertations and a paper in my final year. I can’t really talk about it without it sounding ridiculous but it’s what called the ‘discreet cosine transform’ and I used that with image compression. Basically, you’d run an image through my little bit of Maths and the image would still look the same but the file size would be much smaller. I ended up coming up with a second one for audio compression and creating a bit of my own software. Essentially, you’d run a WAV file through it and the file would come out at 15% of the size of the original file with virtually the same sound quality. I got it to 99.6% but you’d always find that you lost a bit of the high end … I couldn’t quite retain it.”

Zha later stumbled across Philosophy of Mathematics during his final year too, choosing to write a paper on transfinite infinites. “I was interested in one of the four provable sizes of infinity, which is the amount of numbers between zero and one”, he explains. “That eventually led me away from the pure stuff and into philosophy … Marxism and stuff like that, just normal philosophy I guess.” Up next? “I’m currently doing my Masters and hopefully my PhD course should start at the end of this year.”

Away from his studies, Southampton offered Zha little source of inspiration. He found it to be a city rife with generic student nights, cheap drinks and fancy dress — by his own admission, he’d overlooked the importance of being either part of or in proximity to a local music hub. “Maybe naively I’d thought that because everything was moving online, I’d be able to connect with likeminded people regardless of where I went”, he recalls, “but I was wrong. It was just Baywatch music everywhere. There was a club in Southampton called Jesters and that just embodied the music scene … absolute cheese and cheap drinks. There are honourable mentions, though. I remember Joe Raygun endlessly running dubstep, drum & bass, techno and house nights on his own for basically a decade. Only 60-70 people would turn up, but week in week out, he was doing it. I remember he booked Foreign Beggars one night and about 100 of us turned up and it was mental. Usually they’d be performing to 30,000 people and here they were in a pokey little club in Southampton but everyone went mad, it was brilliant. That aside, there wasn’t much of a scene at all. It was only when I came home to London that everything changed in the blink of an eye.”

That’s not to say Zha hadn’t been working on his own music at university, mind. After making “shitty Asian hybrid music” under an old moniker during his college days, he’d started producing grime under new alias, Zha. “I think I got to a place in 2012 where I felt I’d met enough producers and MCs and networked with enough people off my own back that it didn’t matter how I looked and my skin colour, my accent … I didn’t want to let it hold me back or feel like I didn’t belong anymore, so I just got busy. I’d started White Peach officially the year before, was running that in the background and noticed there weren’t many grime labels just pummelling shit out. I thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna try and fill that space’. That’s why the first 10 White Peach records are all white labels, it’s almost paying homage to how I first bought grime instrumentals. They were all just totally unapologetic grime instrumentals, those first 10.”

“I think I got to a place in 2012 where I felt I’d met enough producers and MCs and networked with enough people off my own back that how I looked, my skin colour, my accent … I didn’t want to let it hold me back or feel like I didn’t belong anymore”

Formed with money saved up after working at Sainsbury’s, White Peach’s first few years were relatively quiet. Zha released Culprate’s ‘Curious George VIP / B-Side’ in 2011 and Numa Crew’s ‘Infama’ in 2012 — “I’d save £1000 in a year and then press a record, that’s literally how I looked at it” — before two volumes of the label’s multi-artist compilation series, ‘Peach Bits’, heralded the start of White Peach proper in 2014. His grizzly debut EP, ‘Southampton Lengman’, released in 2015, was the first solo record to align the label with the wider grime community, too. “Regrettably, that was my first EP, yeah”, he says as I scroll through the White Peach catalogue on Discogs. “Again, that was more me taking the piss really. I got started on in Bristol for wearing Toms shortly before that EP came out. Some guy came up to me in the smoking area after I’d just played at this club night with JT The Goon and Spooky and said, ‘you’re not a lengman’. I was literally just standing there minding my own business so it made me laugh. Like, what was I supposed to do? Anyway, I ended up getting lamped in the face. I remember heading back to my hotel that night and then home to Southampton the next day just thinking, ‘that was really weird, man’. I called my sister when I got home and asked her to say a load of stuff like ‘can you pass me the leng’ in a posh accent down the phone so I could sample it. I thought I might as well have a bit of fun with it and call myself the lengman, purely in response to that.”

“I got started on in Bristol for wearing Toms shortly before that EP came out. Some guy came up to me in the smoking area after I’d just played at this club night with JT The Goon and Spooky and said, ‘you’re not a lengman’.”

“Away from just grime, I’ve always looked to India”, he continues. “I mean, just take Bollywood music. I’ve always looked at it as some of the craziest, most terrible, utter bottom pit of music I’ve ever heard, it’s so bad. It’s basically just, in a really bad form, an imitation of Hollywood. You’ve got to remember, India has some of the most amazing instruments … the sarangi, the sitar … like these instruments are hundreds of years old and western musicians came along and were like, ‘we’ll simplify all that and make the guitar’. The sarangi is one of the oldest, I mean I think it’s got about 38 strings, 35 sympathetic strings and 3 major bowing strings. These are really cool instruments that make incredible sounds but yet, the outcome is Bollywood?! So, in some of my tunes, I’ll literally sample Bollywood music to try and make it sound cool, where as on the other side of it, I do genuinely love the instruments. I’ve got my own sarangi, my own sitar … I’ll go into my studio, piss around with them, take what I’ve recorded, re-sample it and turn it into something. They’re very emotive instruments too, you can really write some good sad shit with those. You don’t really get that with Western instruments, I find.”

Following the release of ‘Southampton Lengman’, records from OG grime producer (and man behind ‘Pulse X’), Youngstar, OH91, Shudan and refix extraordinaire, Gundam, really started to turn heads, but White Peach was still far from a sure bet. “I remember it got to the stage at university where people started to talk about graduate jobs and obviously doing higher maths like I was, everyone goes into banking”, Zha recalls. “I just couldn’t be a banker, I just couldn’t do it, it felt soul destroying. A couple of months went by and I saw that Chemical Records had closed down, so I made an impulsive decision. I had £700 in my account and I just bought as much of their stock as I could. I had it all posted to my parents house. They were like, ‘what are you gonna do with all this?’, and obviously I had no idea. It basically forced me to setup my own record shop. I took all the stock, made a crap site and started using the White Peach name for the store as well and over time, people started to buy from me. It meant I had enough cash flow to start doing you know, four, maybe five records a year and things started to move a little bit. It was only once I graduated in 2016 that I realised I needed to go hard to turn it into something major, though. I remember one of the first things I did was email labels asking to buy stock to sell on the site but none of them replied to me. Here I was with this vision of a specialist grime and dubstep online record store but alas, nah. My first box of records I ordered in, separate from the Chemical Records stock I’d bought, came from Cargo Records.The minimum order was £75 back then. It’s crazy to think how things have changed since.” 

“…I saw that Chemical Records had closed down, so I made an impulsive decision. I had £700 in my account and I just bought as much of their stock as I could. I had it all posted to my parents house. They were like, ‘what are you gonna do with all this?’, and obviously I had no idea.”

After spending the best part of three years packing, labelling and posting White Peach stock from university himself, Zha was finally able to obtain a contract with Royal Mail — “you need to be spending literally thousands on postage to qualify” — and neither he or White Peach have looked back since. There’s also Fent Plates and Yellow Flower too, two labels that Zha established to house completely different sounds. “Fent Plates is a home for chilled, electronic music … literally anything, where as White Peach is for dubstep and grime, inspired by London-centric music, and Yellow Flower is for instrumental hip-hop … lo-fi, boom bap hip hop basically”, Zha clarifies. “I think there’s now 80-90 records across the three labels now. We’re at 51 with White Peach.”

Pumping out (and posting!) such a high volume of records over the last four years — not to mention a further four via Naan, an imprint established solely to house Zha’s Indian-inspired output — has helped fine-tune Zha’s ear, too. White Peach has become one of grime and dubstep’s premiere hubs for new music, taking in killer early records from trailblazers like EVA808, Bengal Sound and Opus and more recent big-hitters like Taiko and Rygby, while Fent Plates — originally established a year earlier in 2010 — has released music by everyone from Gantz to Asa and Sorrow, as well as a sumptuous, mind-bending trio of records by ambient producer, Aether. “In the beginning, it was near enough impossible because I didn’t really know anybody to speak to and ask for music”, Zha concedes. “Where as now, it’s totally different. I’d say from 2017 until where we are now, it’s been meeting people in smoking areas in clubs and meeting people on the radio. They’ve made the difference. A lot of the staples on the label, people like Mr. K, Taiko … they’ll often mention producers they’re feeling as well and that can be a way for me to discover new artists. I mean, we’re a bit of a family now and we do events and play stages and radio takeovers together quite often. When we do all of that, I think other artists see the scope of White Peach and sometimes they’ll want to get involved with us, so it all depends really. In the beginning, it was definitely a case of me trawling through Soundcloud but I don’t remember the last time I did that. Now it just feels very organic. I’m also a lot more conscious of who I bring in and how much I can offer the artists we already have.”

If the records weren’t enough, Zha also saw a gap to expand his White Peach operation to incorporate manufacture and distribution in 2017 too — a bold but calculated move that speaks volumes of his business sense. “I realised it was impossible to get by just running a record label, man”, he says, exasperated. “But also a lot of it came down to me just being passionate about records. The rule of business was just say yes and figure out how to do it afterwards … and that was it. Somebody asked me one day, ‘hey man, how do you press a record?’ and I was like, ‘I can do it for you’. So I jumped onto Google and found out how to press a record and that was it … and now we have a full-scale operation.”

With a staff of 11, 10 of whom are full-time — it was a higher number pre-COVID 19 — White Peach has become all-encompassing. “It’s constant, man … and now there’s Brexit”, Zha points out. “Luckily, I had the wisdom to bring our manufacturing into England about two years ago so we’re very lucky in that sense. I think we’re one of the only manufacturers still offering 4-6 week lead times, but that also means we can’t really take on any new customers at the moment. On all fronts, the cost of materials are up 10-15% since January, the cost of freight is absolutely disgusting … posting a 3kg box to Canada is now close to £50 where as it used to cost more or less £12. To make it worse, the postage prices have gone up astronomically but the records aren’t always getting through. We’ve had so many returns it’s untrue. Even today, I had two boxes returned by DHL with no explanation and there doesn’t seem to be a way of fixing it. It’s very worrying. I honestly just don’t understand how businesses can trade with Europe as it stands. I just can’t see it.”

“I honestly just don’t understand how businesses can trade with Europe as it stands. I just can’t see it.”

Brexit aside, Zha’s forward planning has guaranteed his various labels a busy 2021 regardless. Fent Plates continues to tick along — “I’m really enjoying the process of putting music out on Fent Plates, it’s a passion project I get a lot out of” — while through White Peach, he has a stack of new records already pressed and deals still in place with promoters that had originally booked a multi-date 2020 White Peach European Tour. “We also had a deal with some promoters in the US to fly out eight White Peach artists on rotation each month”, he adds, “so hopefully we’ll still get to roll out that events plan when it’s safe to do so as well. We’re focusing heavily on clothing going forward, especially now we custom make our moulds and our fabrics. The quality is so much better and we want to expand that into making more hoodies and jackets. There’s some music video ideas in the works but delays have prevented us moving forward on that. We’ve been trying to sort out a production crew for a video shoot originally planned for November but it’s been rescheduled twice already. Ideally, I’d like to put together a production team long-term, to allow us to build that visual part of our identity. Our plans are effectively still as they were a year ago in terms of taking things forward, they just might take a little while longer to execute.”

As for life away from music, Zha’s work in academia has come to the forefront over the last 12 months. Not content to let time pass him by, he’s thrown himself into study and read incessantly during his free time. “I’m now back in a place where I’m actively able to debate problems and think about solutions again. People will fund you to try and figure out these problems and if you do, you’re gonna get a book out of it, you’re gonna leave a mark, you’re gonna leave a legacy. I’m quite private online, as you probably know, and I think that’s because I’ve been waiting to be in a position to pass my opinion on things without feeling ignorant. I want to be measured and considerate about what I’m saying. So yeah, thesis writing and going forward into the academic world really excites me.” Where does he find the time I ask, just before we sign off. “Don’t watch TV”, he says with a smirk. “That and don’t scroll. Ever!”

You can keep up to date with Zha & White Peach Records here:

https://www.whitepeachrecords.com/

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