Widespread critical acclaim on releases from Yazmin Lacey, Kaidi Tatham, and Children of Zeus made underground and mainstream heads around the world acknowledge First Word Records in 2018. For 16 years this London-based imprint has steadily provided an IRL version of where urban music is at. If that means bass-heavy beats meet jazz, soul, and hip-hop in the most austere British club culture way, then that’s what’s up. Talent changes trends. Ask First Word. That’s how they became named Label of the Year by the highly influential Gilles Peterson Worldwide Awards in 2019.

Tom Leah records and performs under the moniker Werkha and hails from Manchester originally. After releasing his début EP back in 2012, he followed it up with a series of records for Brighton-imprint Tru Thoughts, including an album in 2015, Colours Of A Red Brick Raft, and co-writing/producing Bryony Jarman-Pinto’s début album in 2019.

Leah has rounded out his many-sided blend of electronics, broken beat, soul and jazz into The Rigour. Ever the consummate keyboard player, his début on First Word epitomizes quality British club music. This tight and loose red cupper of a house party is produced with careful signs that Werkha is quite comfortable getting his fingers innit, constantly refining his craft. No matter the context, grooves move without regurgitated duplication.

All five tracks hit on point, with sole identity. DJs know, some EPs will pack on throwaways to fill things out. On The Rigour, not one bammer track resides in the lot. More than just a new school futuristic bruk producer ( you can hear sprinkles of those West London seeds planted by Dego, Kaidi Tatham, IG Culture and so on), he’s established himself as an in-demand working musician, producer, remixer and arranger who retains a firm grasp on numerous sub-genres of dance music.

From deep house swing, forward-mashing boogie or hip-hop presentation that evokes a head-nod procedural, this is know-how coming from a revisionist jazz perspective. Being plucked to tour with Bonobo at age 22—while receiving praise from Peterson early—fueled his drive.

Werkha’s 2014 hit “Lapwing” displayed great promise. Rearranged sax tones, gurgled bass lines, assorted guitar chords, lyrical Fender Rhodes stretches and chopped up vocal patterns made this a heavyweight jam…That hit someplace between James Blake dance productions and early Sam Shepard aka Floating Points compositions.

Dope… but not singular. Even the charming “Yoga Teacher Gone Rogue” music video could not take attention away from the similarities.

Fast-forward to “Generation X”—the bouncy opener to The Rigour—and it seems Leahʻs concentration is on energy first, dance floor second. The synth attack remains plentiful, bass tones land like space ships and kick drum snare combos stay present in your middle ear. Flush with strings from Simran Singh, joy becomes the movement. “The Key” a disco smasher according to Leah, has proper cowbell, “low-slung head-nodding funkʻ and proper Emcee accompaniment from Berry Blacc.

Both “Swing Thru” and “In Sunny Gʻ give a proper neck-snapping from the bass-weight, but “Favourite Corner” a humid bag of swag, cracks on with accented guitar licks, ephemeral strings, and punched-up breakbeats designed for two-stepping all nite long.

Such a playful listen. Hear more Werkha here.