The Deep Root of House Music: A Conversation with Label Boss Francis Mercier
Like other genres, house music has experienced multiple peaks and valleys since its inception in the ‘80s. However, the Chicago-born sound’s revival in popularity within the last decade has been among the hot topics of discussion due to the absence of Black voices within the electronic music industry in which the genre has roots. Fortunately, imprints such as New York City-based Deep Root Records are leading the charge in promoting DJ-producers in marginalized groups, especially within the Black community.
Founded by DJ-producer Francis Mercier and entrepreneur Ajamu Kambon, as one of the handfuls of 100% Black-owned electronic music labels, Deep Root shines a spotlight on house music and its many subgenres, including Afro house, tech house, deep house, and more. “After the Black Lives Matter movement, people started to pay attention. There’s no way of escaping the presence of the Black community. You have artists like Black Coffee – you cannot replicate that. You cannot replicate what comes from Africa,” Mercier tells EDITION. “So, I'm very happy to see that there's a resurgence and relevance because it does get tricky because, in electronic music, there’s a lot of opportunities being given to the majority. So, we try to embrace Black artists whenever we can.”
Recently, Mercier hosted four shows during Miami Music Week, toured Africa, and released singles with house music stars Roland Clark, Tom & Collins, and Blond:ish. His new track, “Sete,” a rework of a classic from Grammy-nominated Malian blues legends Amadou & Mariam, is his most successful record yet, amassing over a million streams in less than a month! EDITION had the opportunity to Zoom with Mercier to discuss the vision behind Deep Root, his inspiring journey as a DJ-producer and label head, plus the advice he gives rising BIPOC artists in electronic music.
When I think of the Deep Root label, it makes me think of the origins or roots of house music. When did the imprint launch, and what was the initial vision?
The name was started about eight years ago. That's when I really developed as a music producer. I had my first release and an entire label. I was working with a few different artists. Even back then, I had a background in writing. We wanted to start a collective for artists made by artists to support artists with a similar vision in house music.
Back in 2014 – that's the era when there was a lot of EDM and big room – I wanted to do something different. I wanted to have a group and music team built around me to be able to pursue and produce shows true to the sound that I really wanted to write and that I was passionate about. S,o we started Deep Root as a collective to throw showcases, and we had some amazing events. It just became a greater proportion to the point where we started managing a couple of artists. We said, ‘Okay, we should release records.’ The vision behind the label has always been to empower artists to give them a dimension with performance and a creative, safe haven.
Yeah, absolutely. So, when you say a safe haven, in what way?
We give artists opportunities versus other management companies or other collectives that may box artists in. We give them the freedom to explore different genres and see their career where they want. Deep Root is a true house music record label, but we have different interests. So, I think I like to say that where we give this freedom, we try to encourage artists and give them the right environment to be successful.
That's wonderful. Considering the label started in 2014, do you feel that the original mission has morphed, or has it remained the same?
It has remained the same. We're still for the artists, and we're still here to create the right environment to succeed. It's actually grown where we now have different arms. We have an Afro house imprint called Deep Root Tribe. We have a more melodic, underground label called Deep Root Underground and a pop imprint called WYN. So, that gives us more room to allow artists to express themselves.
Currently, we manage exclusively about six artists, and we represent 150 artists, between our licensing and synchronization department and between the masters we release and all the booking we do. The others are artists we work with frequently in the New York market because we produce shows almost every weekend. So, we book a lot of different artists. What's unique about Deep Root is we give a platform to up-and-coming artists. That's really what makes us very big. We try not to just focus on the big headliners because you never know who's going to be who.
Nice. And you mentioned that you got your start in event planning. So, how did you transition into becoming a DJ-producer and label boss?
I initially came to the U.S. from Haiti. So, I used to live in Haiti, and I studied mathematics. I was passionate about music and my studies. Even when I was much younger, I was lucky enough to see some electronic music concerts in New York because I came to study in Providence, three hours away. I think there are some concerts that really inspired me. So, I said, ‘Maybe I should try and look into what these artists are doing and what this is all about,’ because it really intrigued me. I didn't really know what DJing was until I saw it. I knew they were producers and performers on that level.
Fast forward, I purchased some equipment, and I started playing on campus. I always had a very ambitious kind of personality. I went to New York, and it was nearly impossible in the beginning because I'm not from New York. So, a lot of venues were like, “We're sorry. We don't really want to book you, but if you want to do your own show on a Sunday….” So, I said, ‘okay,’ and I started organizing my own shows. The venues were not very nice, but slowly I became more established, and people started to know about me.
The event planning side really developed to the point where it started making quite some revenue. After graduating, I was like, ‘I need a job in finance.’ Although I studied mathematics, I'd been able to organize shows. A lot of venues were persistent about either hip-hop or EDM. So, it was difficult to play house music shows. So, I was like, ‘You know what? Let me just start my own thing.’ I started from scratch the same way when I started to DJ – I started from scratch playing small shows for 150 people, and our group became more relevant. After successfully doing quite some shows, I wanted to develop my DJ career and take it to the next level. So, I said, ‘Let me look into producing and try to push my brand.’ I went to some seminars at this institution called Dubspot. It clicked. I had to take a break – a year and a half sabbatical – off the radar to understand and be a proficient producer.
Yeah, that makes sense. I’m sure it was potentially overwhelming going from event planning to then becoming this DJ-producer all in one swoop.
I was always a DJ, but becoming a producer was the second step. I did that right before starting the label because I was doing all these events, and it was a lot of hip-hop and a lot of EDM. I was like, ‘I don't really want to do this. I want to be able to travel. I want people to know me as an artist and club promoters to come to me.’ So, I took a break from my event planning, learned how to produce, and that's how it started.
One thing I've noticed – compared to the EDM scene eight years ago to now – there's a lot more awareness of the culture behind house music and the erasure of Black voices. How do you feel the visibility is now brought to the fore?
The Black community has always been at the forefront of house music. You have artists like Frankie Knuckles. They're really the pioneers. And Marshall Jefferson – he’s done so much for the community with his records. This guy's like a legend. They've done so much for the music, and they open so many doors, and they’re basically the founders of the genre – it's often forgotten. A lot of festivals book 95% Caucasian, even though there are many African American or Black artists. Slowly, there's recognition. We work with a lot of minorities in general.
That’s awesome! And speaking of which, what advice would you give BIPOC artists trying to make it in the electronic music scene?
Present yourself in your culture. That's the most important thing. Come with something different. You’re supposed to stand out. Bring your roots. Bring your presence. Bring your Afro house. Bring your soul. Bring your energy. Do not try to fit in because fitting in is giving up. Be as creative and unique as possible – whether it be your looks, the way you present yourself, or the music.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.