Rewind and Come Again!

Tomas Palermo is a San Francisco-based DJ and music curator, and has written for XLR8R, SF Weekly, United Reggae, and other publications. He loves playing reggae vinyl, 10-mile runs in Golden Gate Park, and Papalote’s prawn tacos.

Dub Store Records

“…we have to be like a rub-a-dub soldiers, fighting to keep the rockers’ music alive.”

From a Little Reggae Shop in Tokyo…

At Naoki Ienaga’s Dub Store reggae specialty shop in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, no detail in preserving reggae music history goes unnoticed. Even their in-house sound system is pure vintage: an Altec amplifier, mixer and speakers, a Studer 2-track tape deck and an RCA dubplate cutting machine. It’s physical proof of Dub Store’s serious respect for Jamaican music. The same level of attention to crucial aesthetics has informed Dub Store’s extremely active reissue series, which has seen close to one hundred rare and out-of-print titles brought back into circulation on both vinyl and digital formats.

The music Dub Store chooses to present is exquisite. From psychedelic, soulful sides on Derrick Harriott’s Crystal label, to ram-jam dancehall scorchers from King Jammy$ label, Dub Store has tapped into the deepest diamond mines of vintage Jamaican music. The sleeves and artwork are also above par. Thick cardboard jackets, vivid inks and original label art adorn their releases. It’s as you’ve discovered a mint copy of your most sought-after tune in a dusty Kingston basement. Imagine the thrill of hearing Lynn Taitt’s sparkling, rocksteady guitar licks for the first time, or obscure 1980s dancehall jams from Robert Lee or Carl Meeks. Dub Store releases definitely induce goosebumps for the devoted reggae fan.

Dub Store has really changed the game for collectors and Jamaican music enthusiasts alike by forging deals with institutions like Federal Recording Company, home to the Kentone, Federal and Merritone imprints, which delivered countless hits in the ska and rocksteady era. Then there’s Dub Store’s collection of hard-to-find titles on King Tubby’s Firehouse label, deep cuts from Bunny Wailer’s Solomonic label, sublime roots by Kiddus I and Glen Brown, and the list goes on.

So how did this obsession with releasing rare reggae music from respected Jamaican imprints like Studio One, Merritone, and Redman International arise? We chatted via email with a very busy Mr. Ienaga on Dub Store’s origins and motivations, and their experiences in Jamaica unearthing the island’s finest recordings.

Dub Store Records, Naoki IenagaNaoki Ienaga

Thanks to Gregory Gouty for his assistance with this interview.

Bandcamp: Japan and Jamaica are both island nations, and the Japanese have always shown a great interest in Jamaican music, from bands like Mute Beat in the ’80s, to the World Clash-winning Mighty Crown sound system, and Japanese women being crowned dancehall queens. Why do you think there is a special respect and relationship between these two nations?

Naoki Ienaga: Jamaican people like and trust Japanese people; they’re always very nice to us. I really give thanks for it. What I’ve heard from many Jamaican [friends] is that the Japanese are solid people living in the Far East; we’re different from other advanced nations. [The support we get] in Jamaica makes it much easier to do things [there]. 
The Japanese culture is so different from any major western mindset; the Japanese always get deep into other cultures from an early stage, and do top-level [projects] with them. 
We don’t have any limits in our beliefs; we are free in what we trust. There’s no oppression from the government, unlike some other Asian countries. I give thanks to our ancestors; Japan is a good country.

BC: What was the very first Dub Store reissued vintage Jamaican 45 and why was that particular title chosen?

NI: The first reissued 45 on Dub Store Records was “Graduation In Zion” by Kiddus I, backed with the unreleased track “Salvation.” I had known Kiddus for a long time from my visits to (Soul Syndicate guitarist) Earl “Chinna” Smith’s house. I had all of [Kiddus I’s] released vinyl, so I offered to work together, but I was thinking only those released tracks were available. Later, I went to [British reggae band] Matumbi’s Studio in London and Inner Circle’s studio in Miami to pick up Kiddus’s master tapes and I found plenty of killer unreleased tracks–top-notch recordings with top musicians. Around the same time, we released two Jennifer Lara 45s that I produced in Jamaica using the Studio One recording venue. I got kind support by the late, great Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, and we used original 1970s Studio One rhythm tracks from their multitrack tape vaults. [Dodd] was a true gentleman.

Kiddus I

BC: What are your five current favorites from the Dub Store reissue catalog—the songs that really have captured your interest and love for the music?

NI: I have been handling high-end rare vinyl for over 20 years now. I know the majority of those tunes, but what surprises me are unreleased tracks, alternative takes and dubplates. There are many unreleased top recordings that appear on Dub Store Records, such as Kiddus I, Kentone, Merritone and Studio One, all taken from the master tapes. I was really shocked when I found and played “Freedom Sounds”, “Soul Brothers” and all those alternative takes and unreleased tracks of Don Drummond’s recordings at Studio One, where this music was originally recorded in the ’60s. For me it was almost like discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt in 1922!

BC: The re-releases of Derrick Harriott’s Crystal label are especially potent and enjoyable. From Keith & Tex’s “Stop That Train” to the Chosen Few’s “People Make the World Go Round,” these are some of the very finest moments in Jamaican music. Tell us more about meeting Derrick, and how you came to be issuing these important recordings.

NI: Those Derrick Harriott tracks are certain people’s favorites, big hits, everybody loves them.
 I have known Derrick Harriott for over 15 years and he is always a very nice person. A lot of artists and musicians are always hanging out at his store [in Kingston].
 Derrick asked me to do an exclusive reissue distribution deal in early 2000, but it failed to materialize. But a partial payment had already been made, so I proposed to him that I do a reissue project by myself. He was very helpful, and went to the vaults and found tracks from the master tapes that sounded fantastic.

King Jammys

BC: Obviously another huge label for Dub Store is King Jammy$. I am sincerely impressed and amazed by some of the crucial titles you have chosen to reissue such as Tonto Irie’s “Life Story” or Robert Lee’s “Come Now,” not to mention Dennis Brown’s all-time classic, “The Exit.” Tell us about meeting King Jammy. Also, why do you think the digital dancehall sounds he helped create are seeing such a strong resurgence in today’s “digi-dub” scene in Europe and elsewhere?

NI: Jammy$ studio is in the notorious Waterhouse neighborhood in west Kingston, so I did not go there much in my early days. But I started to go there in the early 2000s. King Jammy is a very hardworking man and a good family man, too. I really want him to keep doing what he is doing, as he is really one of the last big [studio] men from the 1970s still making music. Jammy$ catalog is really big. He had his own studio (located in his actual house), so he didn’t have to worry about the studio time, and he had all the best [engineers and studio musicians]—men like Bobby Digital or Steely & Clevie.
 He did a lot of recordings intended to be big hits, yet at the same time, he did many recordings with a traditional roots element that were far from commercial successes. Everybody bought his hit tunes, but only a minority showed interest in those unusual, obscure tracks in those days. Now listeners in underground music culture have embraced those minor-chord, heavy steppers rhythms; and those tracks deserve it.

BC: Many of the Merritone and Kentone titles you have reissued I had never heard before. Tell us about these gems–were they truly lost items existing only on reel-to-reel tapes and stampers? What effort did you have to go through to put these out?

NI: The majority of the Kentone 45s are some of the rarest ska singles. Merritone had many more releases, and some were hits, like the Hopeton Lewis tunes, but the rest are rare and priceless 45s.
 Federal Recording in Jamaica was a big company, but their 45s were pressed in smaller quantities than other labels, and probably didn’t sell too well. Federal had a recording studio, pressing plant, photo studio, label-printing factory–everything they needed was in the same place. They didn’t have to worry about recording costs, so they had quite a good amount of unreleased tracks. 
Working with original master tapes is not an easy thing; some of them don’t have proper documentation on their covers. We have to get a clue from what is written there to guess as to the contents. When you play old reel-to-reel master tapes you have to be very careful because they break easily, and spliced edited tapes always get separated, so they need to be spliced again and again for every track, which takes ages. But it’s a lot of fun too.

BC: Did you work directly with any Jamaican record pressing plants, such as Dynamic, to find some of the original artwork? Or did you find the artwork via the original producers and label owners? 

NI: I love Dynamic Sounds, good old Byron Lee’s place (of Byron Lee & the Dragonaires), but they have their own stuff in their catalog, which is not my favorite music. But I like all the employees there and Mr. Lee. Most of the artwork we use comes from the Dub Store archives, or sometimes a producer supplies us with photos and flyers, but it does not happen all the time. I also have friends who have helped our label with their own records and memorabilia.

BC: Jamaica is a place of danger and beauty. Do you have any special stories of being in Kingston, looking for records, meeting artists, or having to watch out when things “a run hot”?

NI: Jamaica is, like locals say, “no problem.” At least for me and for my friends. The early ’90s were more rough, but it’s 2014 now. There is some low-level petty crime and people are always in search of something, but they don’t bother solid people who have self-confidence. The police harass us more often. I have so many funny stories in Jamaica, but I don’t know what to tell now!

Dub Store Records

BC: Finally, when you first opened Dub Store in Japan, what was the public’s immediate reaction and how are things now?

NI: I first started as a mail-order service selling high-end collectors’ items. I put an ad in a magazine and people called me for my mailing list. Each time I sent my monthly mailing list to customers, the phone didn’t stop ringing for two days. The [majority] of the listed items were sold out after a couple of days. A few years later, I opened Dub Store. There were many people waiting for me on the opening day, lots of hard-core reggae specialists.
 Originally we catered mainly to the serious reggae customer, up until the late ’90s, when we started to do distribution. I do not know what people think now, but we have to be like a rub-a-dub soldiers, fighting to keep the rockers’ music alive.

15 Recommended Dub Store Titles…

Chosen Few – People Make the World Go Round

Covering the Stylistics’ Philly soul classic, vocal quartet Chosen Few keep the song’s melancholic feel intact via pitch-perfect falsetto vocals and “bop-bop” backing choruses. Meanwhile, backing group Now Generation’s Mikey Chung, nearly steals the show with his jazzy guitar solo in the track’s waning minutes.

Gladstone Anderson, Lynn Taitt & The Jets – Glad Sounds

With pianist Gladstone Anderson sharing the lead with the equally capable guitarist Lynn Taitt, this supremely enjoyable rocksteady set includes covers of Desmond Dekker’s “Intensified,” the Gaylad’s “A.B.C. Rocksteady” and Carlton & The Shoes’ “Love Me Forever.” Taitt’s solid ensemble, The Jets, ably handle rhythms popularized by Studio One, Treasure Isle studios and labels.

Glen Brown – Forward the Good

South Kingston-born vocalist, melodica player and producer Glen Brown has been active since the 1960s. He’s recorded and released tunes by Prince Jazzbo, Sylford Walker and Gregory Isaacs, to name a few, on his South East Music, Pantomine and Dwyer labels. His own solo material is particularly penetrating, illustrated by his searing “Forward The Good,” saturated with Brown’s soulful wails and steadfast timber. Don’t miss the stupendous King Tubby-engineered dub version “A Way With the Bad,” featuring The Skatalite’s Tommy McCook’s haunting flute riffs.

Derrick Harriott – Do I Worry

Dub Store Records, Derrick Hariott

Derrick Harriott’s terrific cover of the Ink Spots’ 1941 hit dramatically reconfigures the song into a minor-key rocksteady scorcher, and for our money, betters the original song’s gentile presentation. Harriott delivers a rich, heartfelt performance that bears a similar conviction to his equally important tracks “The Loser” and “Solomon.”

Dennis Brown – The Exit

To collectors of rare digital reggae music, this anguished performance by Dennis Brown counts as one of the genre’s strongest-ever vocal performances. The fact that Brown is accompanied by the sparsest of Casio melodies doesn’t diminish this song’s impact. This is digital dancehall at its most elemental and emotive. The backing riddim is the same used for Courtney Melody’s “Screechie Across the Border.”

Nitty Gritty – Play Round the World

This King Jammy dubplate was intended for play in battle on his Super Power sound system. The digital dancehall track features Nitty Gritty, who was one of several Waterhouse (a Kingston neighborhood) singers who proffered a distinctive off-key vocal delivery. Like his cohorts Tenor Saw, King Kong or Anthony Red Rose, Nitty uses his unusual technique to draw the listener in, and convince you that King Jammy$ will be flexing his mighty international prowess in the clash. Sound boys beware!

Keith & Tex – Hypnotizing Eyes

Singing duo Keith Rowe and Texas Dixon’s best-known hit is “Stop That Train,” a song used as the backing track for Scotty’s “Draw Your Breaks,” featured on The Harder They Come soundtrack. But “Hypnotizing Eyes” is an equally amazing side where the singers convey both sadness and ire at the “little girl” with the “eyes of an angel.” Released in 1968, near the end of the rocksteady era, the tune features a haunting electric piano riff that provides a soft counterpoint to Keith & Tex’s wistful harmonizing.

Lynn Taitt & The Jets – Batman

Released on Merritone Records, a division of Federal Records, this soulful rocksteady version of the 1960s Batman television theme song faithfully includes female choruses singing the title, just like the original. But the roiling brass ensemble and a tasteful trumpet solo make this a distinctly Jamaican rendition. The flip, “Joker,” is a danceable rocksteady instrumental that hints at the shuffling reggae beat that was soon to come.

Roland Alphonso – Sai Pan

Federal Records head Ken Khouri relied on sound system owner Winston Blake to be his ear for new talent and music trends for releases on Merritone Records. It was perhaps Blake’s recommendations that led them to release some of The Skatalites’s saxophone player Roland Alphonso’s best works. “Sai Pan” is a hard-to-find tune released in 1966, and features a rueful Far East melody atop its swinging ska rhythm. Musicians like Alphonso excelled at serious jazz improvisation, and this track proves it.

Kiddus I – Crying Wolf

Kiddus I

Kiddus I is known for his appearance in the respected reggae film Rockers. He also worked with Ras Michael’s Sons Of Negus and recorded at Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio, but has remained very much an enigma. Like fellow devoted Rastafarian singers, such as Burning Spear or Ijahman Levi, Kiddus’s music explores spiritual and socially conscious material. Although his best-known song may be “Graduation In Zion,” tunes like “Crying Wolf” reveal an artist full of depth and poetic introspection.

Henry Buckley – Beware of All Those Rude Boys

Like Alton Ellis’s famous rude boy warning “Dance Crasher,” Henry Buckley appeals to Kingston’s young thugs to cool it down, while advising others to “beware of all those rude boys going around with their guns, spoiling everybody’s fun.” What’s remarkable is that Buckley name-checks a number of the competing gangs at the time in the song, probably at some risk to his life. The song’s lazy tempo also provided dancers a nice break from a typical ska dance’s frenzied pace.

Eric “Monty” Morris – Blackman Ska

Another Federal Recordings sub-label, named for founder Ken Khouri, Kentone also released songs by Stranger Cole, The Sharks and Ernest Ranglin. This previously unreleased protest song, mastered from the original tapes, features an ardent Eric “Monty” Morris unleashing a strong condemnation of the economic trials faced by the island’s majority. “The rich shall be richer, the poor shall be poorer, something must be done,” sings Morris, over a taut ska beat. This is a quintessentially Jamaican moment–music that’s musically rich (horn solos, brilliant melodies), but also conveys a conscious social message. From Morris to Marley, these sentiments have remained popular and important.

Johnny Osbourne – Line Up

Singer Johnny Osbourne’s ”Line Up” is a rare recording on dubmaster King Tubby’s Firehouse label that features a superb spoken introduction by Fuzzy Jones, the distinctive voice sampled recently for Kanye West’s “Mercy.” This 1980s dancehall-era tune was intended for use in sound clash competitions, and calls for crowds to “line up to come in a the dance.” Trevor Levy’s potent “Nah Run From No Clash” is the second selection of this set, with Levy adapting Burning Spear’s “Swell Headed” to run off competitor sound crews.

Carl Meeks – Danger

Hugh “Redman” James can rightly claim a spot along the great producers during the dancehall era’s ’80s and ’90s peak. Like releases by Lloyd “King Jammy” James, and Bobby “Digital B” Dixon, tunes on the Redman International label were usually chart-bound. Redman productions are noted for their heavy, crisp musical arrangements, with drum machines and synths tuned to perfection. It was the ideal backdrop for innovative, falsetto-yodeling vocalist Carl Meeks to unleash his unique singing approach. Due to his underground profile, Meeks has become a collectors’ favorite with modern digital dancehall aficionados. “Danger” is Meeks at his sublime best, lashing out at those who would try and fight his progress. Check the track’s killer dub b-side.

Prince Junior – Crucial Boy

This track from 1986 originally appeared on the dancehall compilation Prince Jammy Presents, Volume 2. Prince Junior never achieved great acclaim, but it’s rare reissues like these that validate Dub Store’s mission to preserve the “heritage of reggae music.” Junior rides this minimal Casio-style beat to the fullest with a wailing delivery that recalls Junior Reid, Yammie Bolo or Carl Meeks.

Dub Store Records, Naoki ienaga

New in Bandcamp Pro: Video!

If you’re a Bandcamp Pro subscriber, you can now present unlimited HD videos side-by-side with your music, with nary a lick of integrity-destroying advertising in sight. You can feature a video at the top of your album page, like so:

Featured Video

Or just display your videos inline, like this:

Inline Video

Videos are also organized in a new video tab, and look great on mobile (where they’re automatically optimized for lower-bandwidth delivery):

Video Page

You add video from the album or track editor, here:

where to find video upload

And there’s even a new embedded player that lets you and your fans share your videos with cover art and direct links to purchase:

Video Embeds

We will now make sure it works really, really well by embedding several videos that you should watch immediately:

Quantic

Red Fang

Kandle

Shabazz Palaces

Alphabets Heaven & Deft

American Football

Iron Reagan

Some things you may be wondering:

Why can’t I just embed a YouTube video? That would be so much easier, and then video could be free instead of Pro-only! True, but then you risk having commercials for Olive Garden at the top of your site. Bandcamp is a service by and for people who care deeply about music, and part of that is not wanting to see every last piece of art in the world co-opted as “content” against which to sell ads for stuff you don’t need. We also didn’t find this to be all that reassuring.

Vimeo Vimeo Vimeo! Better, but we also don’t want to rely on/require an account at a third party service.

That’s all fine and good but I don’t want to dilute my YouTube view counts because there are human beings who actually decide what to make popular by looking to see what is already popular. By all means, if you’re view-count-sensitive, continue to direct fans to your YouTube videos! You might consider adding your videos to Bandcamp as well, because they’re a great way to round out your identity and boost sales from the fans already checking you out here (me, I went from Red Fang ambivalence to money-throwing-fan as soon as I saw the above video for Wires).

Unexpected Inspiration

Shakey Graves by Josh VerduzcoPhoto by Josh Verduzco

“The music I intend to make, the music I actually make, and the music I have made are three different things. It’s up to me to define it.”

When Alejandro Rose-Garcia—aka Shakey Graves—played Washington, D.C. this summer, he didn’t expect to find the scope of his forthcoming sophomore record and the title of the work itself laid out before him on the walls of a national monument.

It was the last night of his first true headlining tour, a successful run of sold-out shows that concluded at The Hamilton, the Capital’s ritzy music hall that sits just steps from the White House. Rose-Garcia was touring with little more than his guitar and the kick-drum he’d fashioned from an old suitcase, and he somehow wound up taking in the illuminated, alabaster walls beyond the fences guarding the emerald lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from a balcony somewhere above the stage he’d played, shortly after his bare set. The admiration for his surroundings didn’t quit, and the next day he and his manager took the venue up on an offer to ditch the band van in the loading dock and sightsee for a bit before heading out.

What followed was a whirlwind trip through the Smithsonian Institute, that sprawling collection of artifacts and treasures that catalogs everything from unearthed dinosaur bones to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Their stroll brought them from the dawn of man to the achievements of modern society. Right before they were getting ready to check out the astronaut suits, the Smithsonian closed for the day, and they found themselves making their way toward the Lincoln Memorial as the first timid drops of an impending storm fell.

“It’s really majestic, and it has this ‘Roof for Everyone’ kind of feel to it,” recalls Rose-Garcia of the visit to Lincoln’s stony seat. Making a beeline for the words carved into the walls near the massive statue, he found himself faced with two of the President’s most iconic speeches: the Gettysburg Address, delivered in the midst of the Civil War on the grounds of its bloodiest battle, and the Second Inaugural Address, a solemn oratory that mourned losses felt in the wake of a conflict that nearly tore the country apart.

“I took a knee, and I’m soaking wet, and I read the whole thing out loud,” he says. “The Second Inaugural is written really, really well; it’s one of my favorite speeches. I just really paid attention to it, and flowing around in my brain is everything I just saw [at the Smithsonian]—dinosaurs, insects, amazing gemstones—the majesty of the earth, right? And then you go to this place that’s all about this horrible war. We had just toured all the Civil War states, so it was just compounding things.”

Shakey Graves by Kirk StewartPhoto by Kirk Stewart

That’s when he found it: “And The War Came.” Dripping, slightly delirious from the wild night before and completely by accident, Rose-Garcia encountered the title for his official label debut with Dualtone—and the perfect statement that framed each and every one of its songs as prologues and parting thoughts—in the words of a President who somehow forged a future from a shattered past.

“The statement, ‘And the war came,’ it stands alone,” he says. “This war had already come, but it sounds like it’s impending at the same time, like something’s about to happen while we’re looking back in retrospect. The title means a lot in the sense that this is uncharted territory for me, but at the same time it’s very familiar. It feels looming, releasing an album on a full scale and my first time working with a label. It’s essentially one of my first times really collaborating with other people. It’s a pretty big departure from my previous work, and the onslaught of things going well and being able to tour with a ton of crazy bands all felt very dramatic in a good way.”

Given the lyrical and stylistic breadth of the record, it’s easy to see why. Unlike the experimental, solo explorations of 2011’s Roll The Bones, And The War Came is concentrated, deliberately varied, and the product of pushed artistic limits. The bereft, heartbroken “The Perfect Parts” and frenzied breakdowns of “If Not For You” may revisit the discordant and unhinged sensibilities of the man who played in open tuning and favored a shoddy suitcase to an actual drum for percussion, but the quality of regret and rage echoing long after Rose-Garcia delivers the final note feels totally new, and we’re not sure if he’s mourning a relationship or on the cusp of ending one.

“I don’t think any of the songs run off too deep into things that have happened to me,” he says. “I think that talking about death is a metaphor for any sort of death—emotional death, losing a friend to drugs or to another city, to losing a loved one. Just having general change in your life. It’s very much an album about things changing in your life, and it feeling as dramatic as if it were a battle, because sometimes everything hits at once.”

His collaborations with singer-songwriter Esme Patterson are arguably the most approachable on the record. The cheeky “Big Time Nashville Star” throws a slight side-eye to his indie success, and the triumphant “Dearly Departed,” the album’s immediately likeable single, has already garnered a smattering of YouTube covers.

Rose-Garcia still writes and records the majority of his work with a home studio setup in Austin, but And The War Came is polished in all the right places and the fortified foundation from which he can continue to craft the next chapter of Shakey Graves’ story. (The tonsil-ripping screams of “The Perfect Parts” were laid to tape on a whim in a basement in Seattle while he was in town for the Sasquatch! Festival, but that’s an exception, not the rule.)

Shakey Graves by Nina WesterveltPhoto by Nina Westervelt

“I hope And The War Came points in a direction that people might not expect,” he says. “The music I intend to make, the music I actually make, and the music I have made are three different things. It’s up to me to define it.” He doesn’t feel tethered to the acoustic guitar and suitcase drum, and despite the fact that And The War Came was pulled from a page of American history, his ties to Americana and folk are as mercurial as the weather that met him at the Lincoln Memorial.

“I imagine my records in the future will be a little less themed,” he says. “No matter how crazy I try to make it sound with a guitar and a suitcase, there are only so many things I can do. I like that it’s taken more of a Western, American side to it, but that wasn’t my intention. I might make a rap or folk or country or really weird mixed-bag album or a garage album. Get used to having no idea what I’m doing, because I don’t. I know where it’s coming from and where the songs come out. And sh-t is getting weird.”

Portland: Where Young People Go to Make Music

Laurent Fintoni is a DJ, label owner, writer for FACT magazine, and likes music from Portland (among many other places).

Portland, Oregon photo by Ian RansleyPhoto by Ian Ransley

“This town is a great place to move at a slow pace and let your creative ideas germinate and stretch out. Aside from being very much a rock town, there has always been a thriving scene of makers and lovers of experimental music, and there continues to be a willing group of folks excited to hear something different.”— Jesse Munro Johnson, Boomarm Nation Records

Even if you’ve never been to Portland, you’ve probably got an idea of what this northwestern American city has to offer. With a unique mix of urban living and abundant nature, Portland has, in recent years, been stereotyped as a haven for the hip and creative. While nobody likes to have their city reduced to the amusing vignettes that the TV series Portlandia peddles, it’s brought Portland the sort of worldwide attention that any tourist board would die for. In one Portlandia sketch, a character declares Portland to be “where young people go to retire,” and a recent New York Times article, looking at just how long the city can maintain this aura, quotes a resident as saying that while people move to New York for finance, or L.A. for show business, “people move to Portland to move to Portland.” Beyond the jokes, people move to Portland because it affords opportunities to those who want to follow their creative ambitions, in ways that bigger cities like New York or London are increasingly unable to do.

Portland has a thriving music community that stretches across scenes, genres, and styles. Bubbles of nerdy obsession and interest coexist, collaborate and, in certain cases, thrive. For David Greenwald, music critic for The Oregonian and a transplant from Los Angeles, “Portland is known for its indie rock but it’s also an excellent home to folk and roots music, metal and hard rock, jazz, blues, electronic, hip-hop, and all types of musicians.” The city’s creatives have embraced the digital revolution that has engulfed the music industry in the past decade. They create and often manufacture locally and use the internet to broadcast their music and sell their goods from the comfort of their hometown. For Aaron Meola, who looks after the local Dropping Gems label, the city’s “mix of abundant nature and technology” is what keeps things interesting.

In a 2013 feature for the New York Times, Dan Kois explored Portland as the American capital of karaoke. As Kois realized that the city was, in fact, “the capital of America’s small ponds,” he also recognized that a DIY, entrepreneurial ethos has driven a lot of the local music scene and created ripples that can be felt from afar: “It’s a city devoted to chasing that feeling — the feeling of doing something you love, just for a moment, and being recognized for it, no matter how obscure or unnecessary or ludicrous it might seem to the straight world.”

Portland offers plenty of venues for artists, traditional or cutting edge, to hone their craft, and for fans to put their money where their mouth is. The decade-old Holocene, for example, is a hub for electronic music. The hip-hop scene caught the headlines in the past year after tension arose between artists and city officials at live shows. The latter have claimed security concerns, while artists and fans point to bias in a city that’s not known for racial diversity, and where hip-hop has remained, in the words of Kipp Kruger, aka the artist Northern Draw, “small and unable to foster a fluid community.” While hip-hop artists may bemoan the lack of opportunities others are afforded, Greenwald points out that “rock-focused venues, such as Mississippi Studios and the Crystal Ballroom, have been making an effort to book more hip-hop, so maybe the tide will turn.” He added, “the cool thing about Portland is that the community is really small and really close. Everyone knows each other — they probably played basketball together in the yearly Rigsketball tournament. They all play the same local venues and festivals. People here do this because they love it, and it really shows in the music.”

Here is just a quick taste of some of the amazing labels, artists, and releases emanating from Portland (and if you’re wondering why we didn’t feature the Portland stalwarts Kill Rock Stars, it’s because we already did so here)…

Tender Loving Empire

Tender Loving Empire

The versatile Tender Loving Empire label was created in 2006 by husband-and-wife team Jared and Brianne Mees. They had relocated to Portland from Los Angeles the year before and set up TLE as a way to release Jared’s Mees & The Grown Children project, as well as music from friends. From the very beginning, TLE also focused on more than just music, with comics and fiction thrown into the mix. “We had no business model,” Jared explains. “Our ethos was to save all our friends’ creative endeavours from disappearing. We wanted the world to know about us and to know about them.” Taking inspiration from other local collectives like Kill Rock Stars and the late Boy Gorilla, the pair used their small home space to screen print and manufacture. In 2007 they opened their first shop and it’s been holding strong since, selling a selection of their own wares and that of friends — everything from music to paintings, jewelry to t-shirts.

This year will see the opening of a second store and their 50th release. They have collaborated with a long list of local collectives, businesses, and labels, and their fondest joint project was a tasty one. “Our greatest hit has been the beer collaboration with Fort George Brewing in 2013, which yielded 55,000 cans of the delicious TLE NWPA (North West Pale Ale). Our connection with them came through their live-music booker having booked pretty much every TLE band to play their brewpub. We were able to make some really cool videos to support that series, too.”

The Mees’ move to Portland was driven by the affordable space and an attraction to the city’s mix of old and new that they witnessed in the Pearl District at the time. “The music scene was super vibrant and accessible and we just dove in headfirst. Portland has an amazingly inclusive vibe and a ton of really excited people throwing shows, festivals, events, etc. And not just music, but also fine art, design, tech, and fashion. There’s all sorts of stuff going on in Portland and that’s what’s kept us here.”

Dropping Gems

Aaron Meola

Dropping Gems was born in 2009 up the coast from Portland in Olympia, Washington. “Core members met while DJing parties, hanging at our college radio station and going to shows,” recalls Aaron Meola. “We began Dropping Gems because we felt there was no platform to showcase anyone’s work or a scene to fit in.” Meola migrated down the coast to Portland in 2010, taking the label with him and expanding to include a promotion company. Dropping Gems picked up more artists, including Seattle’s DJAO and local acts Philip Grass and Natasha Kmeto, and began the Gem Drops compilation series.

“It’s been gratifying to see the scene in Portland foster a solid community around experimental electronic music over the past several years,” Meola explains. “When Dropping Gems first took up operations in Portland, the dubstep label Lo Dubs, now defunct Anthem Records store, and associated club nights were a big inspiration. Fast-forward four years, and there are at least a dozen active collectives or labels. Most of the artists know each other and often play shows together and collaborate. Things like the Magnetic open deck and cassette DJ night are very much community-building events that cross-pollinate the scene.”

Beyond location and affordability, Meola points to “a supportive network of independent record stores, gear shops, material supplies stores, rental houses, warehouse spaces and venues” as enablers of the scenes. Add to that network the city’s creative population and liberal arts school and Meola reckons Portland to be “pretty special.”

Sahel Sounds

Sahel Sounds is the natural result of our information age, a bridge between the Western world and the musical wonders of the Sahel region of West Africa — the area south of the Sahara and above the tropics. It began life as a blog in the 2000s, documenting music that its founder, Christopher Kirkley, encountered and recorded while traveling the region. By 2009 it evolved to include commercial recordings of new music and lost gems on vinyl and digital formats. “Portland is my hometown, and after years of traveling I put down roots,” Kirkley tells me when I ask how Sahel Sounds came to be. “It’s far from the Sahel, but the city is very supportive of the music, and I think it’s created some interesting connections.”

The label is driven by Kirkley’s own curiosity, his desire to seek out and unravel musical mystery. One of the label’s most fascinating releases is the Music From Saharan Cellphones compilation series, a collection of “music from memory cards of cellular phones in the Saharan desert.” The first volume was remixed by a selection of local Portland and West Coast artists, including Leaving Record’s Matthewdavid, and released via another local label, Boomarm Nation. “When I look back at how I heard Mdou Moctar’s track “Tahoultine” playing on cellphone and had no idea who he was, it’s surreal to think that four years later we’ve made a movie and are traveling around Europe together.” Kirkley credits local label Mississippi Records as being responsible for putting him on the path to releasing records and turning it into a viable, morally sustainable adventure. He still co-releases with them on occasion, as well as with Little Axe Records, with whom he produced Harafin So.

Kirkley points to Oregon’s pioneer heritage as a potential reason for the city’s left-leaning and independent vibe. “I think that’s what has attracted all the young kids over the past 15 years to come out here, live cheaply, form bands and make art. It’s a city that’s easy to live in, and people have lots of time on their hands. So if you have something you want to share with people, it’s ideal. There are lots of savvy listeners.”

Ewe Of Now / Montgomery Word

Montgomery Word

A few years back, Jon Simon dropped out of college, bought a tape duplicator, and started the Ewe Of Now cassette label, which has focused on hip-hop and its modern evolutions, with releases from Simon (as Montgomery Word) and a handful of local acts like Tough Fuzz, Northern Draw and Ehouie. This year’s Cassette Store Day will mark the label’s 21st and 22nd cassette release. “The community in Portland has been a wonderful thing. I’ve met an insane amount of creative people from all over the world just by putting out some tapes.”

One local label in particular has been fundamental to Simon in his endeavors: Oligopolist Records. “Those guys run shit. We’ve done so many things together. Everyone I’ve met through them has become a friend and they’re inspiring and hilarious. Dropping Gems have also been very supportive, and they’ve brought a lot of hype to the table here in Portland.” Purr Tapes was another cassette-focused label that was supportive of Simon’s endeavours, and even though they’re now on a hiatus, one of its founders will appear on a forthcoming Ewe Of Now release alongside other local acts.

“Portland’s a funny little town with a really supportive scene that’s pretty tight-knit, yet not too cliquey.” Originally from Minnesota, where he was involved with the local hip-hop and electronic scenes, Simon sees Portland’s hip-hop potential as substantial. “It’s grown of late; artists like Grape God, Snitches and Maze Koroma are popping up and doing it. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Northern Draw

Northern Draw

Kipp Kruger was born and bred in Portland. Five years ago he began releasing music under the Northern Draw alias, painting vivid pictures of life through instrumental hip-hop. Kruger has collaborated with several local labels, including Dropping Gems, Ewe Of Now, and Ausland, “mainly because they are my friends and I dig what they’re doing.” His interest lies in bringing out the local in music in an attempt to recapture the personal and nostalgic aspects that art affords — “the most important vibe” — which he sees as sometimes lost in the larger, international, digital sphere.

“I love Portland and the Northwest,” Kruger explains, referring to his family’s roots in the area, which stretch back generations. “I grew up really attracted to hip-hop culture, and the scene here has always been small, though I feel it’s growing and I’m optimistic about future artists. In the past decade the population of Portland has grown tremendously allowing for smaller subcultures of art and music to survive. Musically, Portland has something to offer everyone; there are so many creative people out here it’s almost overwhelming at times. From Skweee to noise, you can head out every night and have a unique experience of whatever style you’re into.”

Fresh Selects

Fresh Selects was born in 2008 from the same simple proposition that drove most of the music blogosphere throughout that decade: covering the artists that founder Kenny Fresh felt were being overlooked. Last year he retired the blog and relaunched Fresh Selects as a label. With a taste for classic and new-breed hip-hop and soul, Fresh Selects has released music from artists often tied to the emergence of the beat scene in the late 2000s. Among these were Knxwledge and Mndsgn, two L.A. residents that are now signed to Stones Throw. Most recently, Fresh Selects released the fourth album from Low Leaf, a female singer, harpist and producer whose unique take on beats, folk and electronic music has won her plaudits around the world.

“I really appreciate Dropping Gems and what Aaron Meola is doing with that,” Kenny explains, when asked about local connections and collaborations. “We’ve had some good conversations exchanging stories and mutual advice over the last few years. I also really look up to Tender Loving Empire and their whole business model — how they’ve been able to expand their label into a brick-and-mortar store and now an online charitable platform.”

As for what keeps him in Portland, it’s “the people, the creative culture, and to be real, the cost of living.” He’s realistic about the city’s infatuation with indie rock and how that affects the prospects of labels like his. He sees Fresh Selects as based in Portland, but catering to the world. “It allows for the work to exist on its own in a way that’s not bound to any one region.”

Sun Hammer

Sun Hammer is the alias of Jay Bodley, a Michigan-born musician who now resides in Portland. Bodley has been writing and producing electronic music since 1999, with his first official releases coming via the Moodgadget label under the name A Setting Sun. He created the Sun Hammer alias in the late 2000s as a way to “combine all the styles that had been informing what I’ve done since I started. It’s a way to take my music in whatever direction it wants to go.” His releases on the Futuresequence and Inam labels have covered drone, noise and more experimental takes on instrumental, electronic music and hip-hop, while the self-released Repurpose series collects remixes from the past four years for artists such as Laurel Halo, Shigeto, Sepalcure, Lakker and Ben Frost. Most recently, Bodley formed Yung100 with Andrew Weathers; it’s a project that explores the ever-shifting grounds between hip-hop and electronic music.

“The Lifelike Collective have been supportive of my work here in Portland,” Bodley tells me. “I’ve had a couple positive experiences performing beat-driven music too, but I’ve found it hard to fit what I do into existing contexts.” With his work seemingly stuck between the experimental and club scenes — “my music is more ‘experimental’ than typical club music but more ‘club’ than the stuff the experimental shows showcase” — Bodley has found that at least Bandcamp affords him the most artistic freedom, even if it can be hard to pierce through the online noise.

“I was attracted to the natural beauty, progressive mindset, and size of the city,” Bodley explains when discussing his move. “I can have a life in which I’m free to pursue my interests in a way that’s sustainable.” He is, however, a little skeptical of how much Portland can really foster what he calls compelling creative expression. “It seems that often, struggle and difficulty bring about some of the best works of art, and there’s not a lot of struggle and difficulty here. I should point out that this has been my personal experience, and that it doesn’t impact on how great this city can be for artists. I love it here.”

Lefse Records

The Lefse Records label was born of a chance encounter on MySpace, back when the website was the default social media experience for music fans. Matt Halverson, founder of Lefse, was working in artist management when one day he came across the band Neon Indian. “I was blown away by this sound that would later come to be called chill wave.” Halverson created Lefse Records to put out their music. Neon Indian’s first album, Psychic Chasms, was released in 2009 and earned accolades from Pitchfork and Spin. “We had no idea he would be so well received and, in turn, make Lefse a real label.” Since then the label has grown its roster in a similar fashion, notably picking up How To Dress Well for an early release in 2010, and in 2012 the label relocated from its New York City home to Portland.

Since their move to Portland, Halverson points out that Lefse has been slow to immerse themselves in the scene, though they’ve fruitfully connected with the Kill Rock Stars label. “Before Portland, we had a small office in Brooklyn and it just felt completely claustrophobic. I love traveling to NYC for shows, but operating a label there was disenchanting. Portland is a great place to live if you want the city feel, but also have access to nature. You can escape the city in five minutes. Portland’s music scene does not seem to follow any trends, and folks here seem to just make music that makes them feel good.”

Audio Dregs

Eric Mast, Audio Dregs

“Learning was a big part of the process,” says Eric Mast, aka E*Rock, founder of Audio Dregs. The label was born in the early 1990s as a way for the music Mast and friends were making to be put into the hands of other friends via cassette. “I was just duplicating limited runs at home and making covers so that friends could have the music, selling some here and there.” Eventually, Mast made his record label official and moved to producing records and CDs, hoping to provide musicians a platform to develop their styles, grow their audience, and achieve a sustainable lifestyle. Today, Audio Dregs defines itself as a purveyor of “experimental music made by people equally in love with melody and invention,” which Mast admits is simply the music he and others were making and interested in hearing. “It was very hands-on when we started,” Mast remembers. “Setting up shows before there were any venues for it in town, releasing, creating a dialogue. Sadly, some labels have come and gone, like Collective Jyrk or Slender Means Society, and then you have venues like Holocene that are still putting on great shows and evolving.”

Boomarm Nation

Boomarm Nation was born in 2009 as a way for its founder, Jesse Munro Johnson, to release the music he was making as Gulls. Since then, the label has grown into “an open-ended spectrum of international music with sound system pressure and experimentation always at the core.” Their roster of 10 artists spreads from Istanbul back to Portland. “We started on a shoestring budget, and have been able to maintain for five years. I’m very grateful for that. This is the job I come home to after all the other jobs are done and the family is fed.”

Johnson is keen to underline the “family affair” vibe he feels with other Portland labels, such as Sahel Sounds, Zam Zam Sounds, Community Library and PDXINDUB, with whom he works in various ways. “We push each other forward and have a lot of mutual respect for our distinct styles and visions. Chris from Sahel Sounds and I have collaborated on several releases and remixes, and I’m currently doing some mixing for the forthcoming Mdou Moctar feature film.” For Johnson, the local access to such talent, from artwork to mixing and providing feedback, is instrumental in what he’s achieved with the label. The rest is, of course, thanks to all the listeners and buyers who brave the sometimes insane shipping fees.

Portland has been home for Johnson his whole life, and he wouldn’t change it for the world. “This town is a great place to move at a slow pace and let your creative ideas germinate and stretch out. Aside from being very much a rock town, there has always been a thriving scene of makers and lovers of experimental music, and there continues to be a willing group of folks excited to hear something different. I feel strongly that music is a way of life, and there are a lot of amazing artists in Portland that share this value as well. This yields a very open-minded and collaborative environment.”

Circle Into Square

Tom Filepp, Circle Into Square

Circle Into Square was born in 2006 in Boston out of an interesting premise. Founder Tom Filepp set it up as a “fake label” to fool vendors into picking up his project, Cars & Trains. The subterfuge worked as doors opened once Filepp had a small website running and a label name on his CDs. Filepp eventually teamed up with Ceschi Ramos and the Fake Four label, at which point he says Circle Into Square “became a real label.” Since moving to Portland, Filepp has slowly been getting involved with the local scenes, acts and other labels, though admittedly “not as much as we would like to be.” There was a joint showcase with Apes Tapes, now defunct, but Filepp is keen to work collaboratively. “We would love to work with great labels like Audio Dregs or Dropping Gems. There are so many excellent outfits in town.”

As with others, Filepp notes that proximity to nature and cheap rents were the biggest reasons he switched coasts. “On the music front, there is always something going on in town. It’s kind of difficult to establish yourself as an artist, though, because there’s so much to contend with. Unfortunately quite a few of the medium- to small-sized clubs have closed in recent years as well, so it’s gotten harder to set up gigs. We lost one of the only all-ages venues recently, which was a huge blow. It’ll be interesting to see where Portland moves going forward.”

Blankstairs

Blankstairs

The relatively young Blankstairs label was set up by locals Nathaniel Young and Warren Mattox in 2013 as a direct result of their bonding over “adventurous music and challenging modes of creativity.” Seeking ways to promote what they saw as “disparate forms of individuality,” they created Blankstairs as an art-focused party in late 2012, held in alternative spaces due to their young age and licensing laws. This subsequently grew into a label with a focus on ambient, and gritty house and techno, from both local and international artists. Beyond the music, the pair oversee the visual aesthetic of the label. Blankstairs launched in July 2013 with a compilation featuring over 20 artists, including local acts like Philip Grass and Montgomery Word. Today the label is split between the two coasts, with Young relocated to NYC.

Dropping Gems provided the pair with a “large influence on how we operate and function as a label. Aaron helped us tremendously with getting on our feet and learning how to put out a proper release.” The majority of Blankstairs’ collaborations, however, have been with the spaces in which they held their events. “Our interest in DIY party culture and the initial limitations imposed upon us by the drinking laws pushed us more toward these alternative spaces.” In 2013 the pair put together a month-long, pop-up club at the Recess gallery with musical and visual acts, and followed that with a show in the basement of a shopping complex. “Every space has operated differently and it’s been interesting to see the varying levels of involvement in the process.”

As for what Portland brings to the mix, Young points to the city’s well-known open attitude as “essential for developing artists to have an unrestricted forum to present their work in, and I think that the free and open space that Portland offers its inhabitants is what draws people to the city.”

Oligopolist

Inspired by the ecosystem of small labels putting out a consistent stream of “quality lo-fi and experimental music” that sprung up in the 2000s, local kids Quinn, Parker, Garren and Zakee decided to do the same by setting up the Oligopolist collective. At the core of their approach is a desire to cut out middlemen in order to bring as much of the money back to the artists as possible. “Despite sometimes seeing limitations,” Quinn explains, “it’s exciting to find more and more people joining the collective and pushing the mission forward. We all take our crafts seriously and give each other feedback, but we also just hang out when we can.”

As with Blankstairs, the majority of those involved in Oligopolist are under 21, making it difficult to integrate into the local music scene, thanks to the liquor laws. However this hasn’t stopped them from finding willing spaces, like the defunct backspace or Laughing Horse Books. Quinn met Dropping Gems early on in the life of Oligopolist and, through them, connected with Jon Simon of Ewe Of Now. “Seeing someone older doing things the way you are, but better, is really encouraging. Jon has a pretty similar methodology to ours, keeping everything DIY.” Quinn also points to Blankstairs’ beatogether events in 2013 as a catalyst for “pulling together people from all different crews to play a regular, all-ages, beat/electronic night.”

A Portland native, Quinn has also spent time in England, affording him a different view on the city. “I think Portland has enough culture and European sensibility for me to not move for a while. It’s got tons of music, especially outside of the electronic sphere, and a healthy all-ages/DIY undercurrent, while being small enough to bike from one side of town to the other.”

Omega Supreme

Representing the funky side of the musical spectrum in Portland is Omega Supreme, a label dedicated to modern funk. Founder James Vance moved from San Francisco to Portland in 2001, and the label has received healthy support from the DJ community. He has a roster of worldwide artists, but Vance is keen to keep things simple “so we can be sustainable and continue to put up music regularly.”

Despite having spent more than 10 years in the city, Vance has kept the label out of the local mix. He is, however, quick to extol the virtues of Portland when it comes to quality of life and physical pursuits. “What attracted me the most was all of the record stores. There are so many here in Portland, and there’s no tax so whatever the dollar amount is, that’s what you really pay, which is a nice incentive to buy more music.”

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