Call it a glimpse of nirvana, the Holy Grail or just the forces of sheer mad luck, but anyone who has ever taken it upon himself to commit to the art of hunting for records knows the feeling. Whether it's an obscure '70s cartoon theme that no one else has or a pristine shrink-wrapped copy of an album your mom grew up with, when you finally have it in your hands, a quasi-conspiratorial wave of ecstasy washes over you.
They aren't called “rare grooves” for nothing, and with all the hours of self-sacrifice and borderline unhealthy obsessions that go into digging for them, it's understandable why many DJs and producers are so fiercely protective of their sources. For a growing number, though, the standard routine of dropping an unknown break into a live set just to sit back and watch the trainspotters scratch their heads is no longer the point. These days, the real challenge is in tracking down the original creators of these vinyl relics in the hopes of saving their music for future generations.
It's an undertaking that Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, general manager at Peanut Butter Wolf's Stones Throw label in L.A. and founder of its Now-Again imprint, first pondered back in the late 1990s when he was making a name for himself as a deeply knowledgeable DJ with a passion for obscure funk sides. “I think that in a lot of cases — mine included — we all started just as collectors for one reason or another,” he observes. “But to me, it was obvious real early on that the only way that I was going to achieve my ultimate goal was to put forward the music and let these artists see some light again. The people like me who are out there sifting through the mire trying to find the good music, we're just filters, but these guys are the true progenitors so they deserve to get all the accolades.”
DJ Food's Strictly Kev (né Kevin Foakes), who has been involved in curating some of Ninja Tune's more adventurous reissue and remix projects through the label's Solid Steel series, reached a similar conclusion after years of DJing on London's hypercompetitive club scene. “It's one of those great rushes when you do find that golden nugget in the crates,” he says. “You almost want to run around telling people, but you know there's virtually no one in the whole world who's even gonna give a shit about what you're talking about. [Laughs]. But when you know that it's something old, and you know there's not a chance in hell of anyone else having it, you're thinking, ‘What do I do with this now?’ It means something to so few people, but given time and a bit of energy you can bring it out for the world to hear.”
Motivated to draw attention to one forgotten Texas funk band in particular, DJ Shadow founded the Cali-Tex imprint (a subset of Quannum Projects) as a vehicle for Mickey and the Soul Generation's Iron Leg compilation (Cali-Tex/Quannum, 2003), but the label's vision soon grew in scope. “As [Shadow] and I began tracking down more artists,” recalls Cali-Tex partner and Chicago-based archivist Dante Carfagna, “a wealth of unreleased material began piling up, so we decided to stick with Cali-Tex as a label and use it as an outlet to issue previously unheard sounds that we felt needed to be magnified beyond their footnote status.”
For these and other like-minded indie operations (see sidebar “Rescue Missions”), it isn't always easy, but it's a labor of love that keeps on giving. With the reissue market today still providing a steady flow of repackaged or rediscovered material for hungry fans — as well as a not-insubstantial source of revenue for labels and artists — what was once the single-minded and solitary pursuit of crate digging has morphed into a full-blown A&R enterprise.
Naturally, assuming you have a label to back you or at least the finances to get one airborne, the first step — once you've found that elusive wax classic that no one has thought to reissue — is to begin searching for the original artist. Ten years ago, this would have meant making a guess as to where the person was from (based on the label address, if there was one printed) or calling the BMI or ASCAP performing rights societies to find out where their publishing was located. Chances are most of these addresses would be a dead end, but it might narrow it down to a region, which meant ordering local telephone books and then cold-calling whoever could be found listed — a real nightmare if their last name happened to be “Smith” or “Jones.”
With such a grueling process ahead of them, many labels would have chosen to bootleg the material rather than go the extra mile. Today, the Internet makes the search much easier, and although there's still plenty of illegal biting going on (especially online), it's in a label's best interests to go legit rather than invite a potential lawsuit — not to mention the ire of serious collectors.
The real fun begins when your search finally yields results. “This is a totally different kettle of fish than releasing new music,” Egon explains. “Nine times out of 10, the records that people like myself are trying to discover and reissue weren't huge commercial successes. So you have to be psychologically equipped to deal with the person on the other end of the phone who might believe that they recorded an incredible piece of music and might be carrying an incredible amount of baggage along with it. This is someone who thought that they could be successful, or maybe they were fucked over on the way, so you just have to put everything on the table. But I'm not trying to lay it on thick. I'd like to give the guy a chance to check out some CDs and LPs that I've reissued and maybe realize that there's an attention to detail here if nothing else, and a genuine passion and love for the music.”
As an example of an initial contact that went about as smoothly as could ever be expected, Strictly Kev refers to the recently released Dragons album, Blue Forces Intelligence (Solid Steel/Ninja Tune, 2007), a long-shelved gem of psychedelic surf rock originally recorded in 1970 that would have disappeared into the void if not for a track called “Food for My Soul,” which had seen the light of day on a limited pressing for the soundtrack of a '70s surf film called A Sea for Yourself. Kev came across the album at a record fair, and he was hooked immediately.
“I really wanted the track for a Solid Steel album,” he says, citing the mix compilation Now, Listen Again! released earlier this year. “I was really lucky in that Dennis Dragon, the drummer from The Dragons, actually had his own site, which wasn't completely up-to-date, but there was a contact there, and I got in touch with him and he e-mailed me back reasonably quickly.”
What Kev didn't know was that “Food for My Soul” had been the centerpiece to an entire session that had never been released. “Dennis asked if I'd be interested in hearing it,” he recalls. “He sent me some MP3s, and it was just knockout stuff, so we went from there, really. It had been sitting on a shelf for 30-odd years, but Ninja was ready to put it out.”
MASTER OF YOUR DOMAIN
When most major labels consider the prospect of reissuing a portion of their back catalog, they usually enjoy the luxury of having access to a tape vault where most or all of the original master reels have been kept intact. When it comes to a Now-Again release like The Funky 16 Corners (Now-Again/Stones Throw, 2001), very often the only artifact that even closely resembles a master is whatever piece of vinyl turns out to be the cleanest.
“In a lot of cases, the records that we've reissued all came off of vinyl,” Egon reveals. “But you have to make sure you have something you can work from first before you approach a person, and then if they have a master tape, even better. I never go into it assuming that they're gonna have master tapes. Or let me put it this way: I've never let somebody telling me they don't have their masters ever discourage me from reissuing their music.”
Fortunately, thanks to his relationship with Stones Throw, Egon has access to state-of-the-art mastering facilities at the studio of engineer Dave Cooley, who has worked on numerous projects with Madlib, Jay Dee, Peanut Butter Wolf and more, and has remastered virtually all of the Now-Again catalog. “Things have worked out really well with Dave,” Egon says. “A lot of mastering engineers who clean up these records using Pro Tools plug-ins just do a horrible job. There's a certain finesse that comes with using these plug-ins, and if you just crank them on automatic so that the thresholds are all maxed out, you end up with a record that doesn't sound like a record anymore. It's like hearing a bad MP3 through computer speakers. We would rather leave in some of the imperfections. We want the sound that was recorded on that piece of wax or that master tape — not something that sounds like all the high end was thrown into a blender.”
As is the case with crate digging, luck can play a critical role in the mastering phase, as well. Dante Carfagna found this out when he learned of an unreleased diamond from Chicago's post-psychedelic soul era. The self-titled Pieces of Peace (Cali-Tex/Quannum, 2007) chronicles a tightly wound funk band at the height of its youthful powers; sadly, in 1972, the group would unravel before their debut saw an official release, but producer Willie Woods had kept a watchful eye over the results.
“The miraculous thing about this project,” Carfagna explains, “is that he had the original ¼-inch stereo mixdown reels, which by themselves were in pretty good shape. Being the sonic perfectionists that we are, we decided to do a complete remix of the album with Count [aka Mikael Eldridge of the group Halou] at his studio in San Francisco. [Shadow] and Count cleaned up any small inconsistencies in the playback, which gave us a superior product than what was coming off the reels. And not only was the music still in working order, but the original album art had been preserved, and we were able to reconstruct it from the existing color separations.”
Most reissue labels of the caliber of Now-Again, Solid Steel and Cali-Tex are also natural proponents of the medium that inspired them in the first place, which means that most if not all of their catalog, whenever possible, comes out on vinyl and on CD. “Once we get past the music stage,” Kev explains, “that's the second most important phase for me because I'm a graphic designer, as well. I mean, with a record like The Dragons, if it wasn't done on vinyl, I'd be asking why — really because of the timeframe it comes from. Vinyl is a limited niche thing, and it's becoming more niche every year, but it's what Ninja started with and loves, so we'll always do it up until a point where it doesn't become such a loss leader that it's not viable anymore, which would be a shame.”
In an age when digital media are supplanting their analog counterparts with the swiftness of a brushfire, the dedication of the latter-day archivist to the purity of the art form is being sorely tested. Even the tactile sensation of actually holding a record has become something of a quaint anachronism, with newly pressed vinyl becoming as rare as the genuine article from the '60s and '70s.
“The thing that irks me most about the digital revolution is the lack of a package,” Egon says. “You can have a gatefold LP with all the information about what's inside — even the CD, which is almost archaic at this point, can still have a booklet packaged with it. With the digital stuff, you can make a downloadable PDF available and you can put up a photo gallery at your Website, but it's just not the same — not even close.”
Egon continues to stay busy with a Madlib/David Axelrod remix project that he's helping to executive produce; he also has new releases planned well into 2008 (including a funk compilation representing Indiana and several new sides for the Soul-Cal disco/soul imprint that has been spun off from Now-Again). Cali-Tex is preparing an EP from a Dayton, Ohio-based psychedelic funk band called Stone Coal White, while Solid Steel has more in the works with Ninja Tune even as The Dragons album begins its rollout. If anyone is worried that the reissue well might be running dry, they're not letting on.
“The stack I have to listen to is just an avalanche at the moment,” Kev quips, “and I don't see it stopping or slowing down anytime soon. Everyone's doing it, but it's when something comes in the door that's so amazing that you have to put it on twice in a row that you really sit up and take notice. That's what I think you're always hoping for.”
There's a small but stalwart coterie of reissue labels that have established themselves as experts in their chosen genre, whether it involves funk 45s, film soundtracks, avant-garde jazz, psychedelic rock, experimental electronics or the roots of dub reggae. Here is a few that — like Now-Again, Solid Steel and Cali-Tex — hover above the fray for their singular attention to sonic quality, packaging and above all, their artists' invaluable legacy.
Created and overseen by UK iconoclast Jonny Trunk, this quirky imprint offers a diverse mix of left-field soundtracks (such as Paul Giovanni's bizarre score for British cult film The Wicker Man) and electronic ephemera (the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's score for The Tomorrow People television series). As Trunk told The Milk Factory magazine in 2006, “The only common theme is me and my daft taste. These days major labels own most things, so the only way I can survive is by unearthing what they don't own, and this is invariably work by the underdog — the eccentric underdog, too. So it's a bit like a musical twilight zone.”
London DJs Gerald Short and Malcolm Catto — the latter known in part for his work on DJ Shadow's The Outsider (Universal/Motown, 2006) and as drummer and producer for The Heliocentrics, whose debut Out There (Now-Again/Stones Throw, 2007) has turned cosmic funk heads on their collective ear — are the collaborative force behind the London-based Jazzman imprint. Founded in 1998 by Short, the label focuses on rereleasing hard-to-find jazz, funk and soul records, with its Florida Funk, Texas Funk and Midwest Funk compilations being three of the strongest.
BLOOD AND FIRE
Headed by reggae scholar Steve Barrow and founded with the blessing of Simply Red's Mick Hucknall, Blood and Fire has made waves among collectors of '70s dub from Jamaica — particularly fans of King Tubby, Lee Perry, Bunny Lee, Prince Jammy, Scientist and dozens more from the island's pantheon of groundbreaking producers. Always exhaustively annotated and reverently packaged, the label's output remains distinctive most of all for its high standards during the mastering phase — often done in consultation with the original producers. Highlights include The Congos' legendary Heart of the Congos (produced by Lee Perry and presented in a two-disc box set) and the King Tubby compilation Dub Gone Crazy, which inaugurated the label in 1993.