December 2005 marks the fifteenth anniversary for Ubiquity Records, a fiercely independent record label physically based in California but which has sown seeds and reaped fruit all over the musical map.
Ubiquity Records is the musical lovechild of Jody and Michael McFadin, two DJs who shared the dream of starting their own record label. After they married, the pair so thoroughly enjoyed their honeymoon in San Francisco that they moved there. Combining their love of music with the need for financial support to fuel this dream, the McFadins opened the Groove Merchant record shop on Haight Street in 1990. Musically and financially energized by the local and international response to their new and newly uncovered sounds (praised, for example, by the Beastie Boys in "Professor Booty" from Check Your Head), the McFadins soon thereafter launched their own label, Luv n' Haight Records (named after a song by Bay City musical legends Sly & The Family Stone).
Interior of Ubiquity Records' new office location.
In 1993, they incorporated their fledgling company as Ubiquity Records, drawing "Ubiquity" from the word "ubiquitous": The label's catalog of new, restored, and re-done recordings aims to make what once was lost music available to everyone everywhere. Ubiquity's 1993 release of the debut album by DJ Greyboy (Freestylin') helped to not only put the music but the BUSINESS of acid-jazz on the industry map. The company has since grown into three different labels, each which its own distinct personality: Luv N' Haight for rare, re-issued soul-jazz, funk and groove-jazz treasures; CuBop for Latin jazz; and the main Ubiquity imprint.
Ubiquity received the 2004 Label of the Year award as voted by listeners of Gilles Peterson's Worldwide show on BBC Radio 1. These voters also awarded Om'mas Keith, of the Ubiquity collective SA-RA Creative Partners, the first annual John Peel "Play More Jazz" award, and several Ubiquity singles were nominated for Worldwide Track of the Year.
Ubiquity celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in 2005 by relocating into larger business space in California to accommodate its expanding business and creative operations. The personal involvement of Andrew Jervis, who began in the marketing department and is now Vice-President of A&R, sort of parallels the growth of the fledgling company. "I had just moved to San Francisco (literally got in that day) from London," he recalls. "I walked into the Groove Merchant record store and had nothing on me but a few records and a slightly tall tale about being a DJ from London. Within two weeks I was working at the store and recommending the occasional track for re-issue on the LuvN'Haight imprint."
Ubiquity Records' office interior.
"I had virtually no background in the music industry. In fact, none of us did," he allows. "We learned as we went on - in a way we still do, and that's perhaps what allows us to approach the business with a fresh face. We were just DJs and collectors who were very enthusiastic about music. We were in a great position to re-issue classic and rare American jazz, funk, and soul, which was going through a massive revival, and then later we began to release new music inspired by the old stuff, too."
Greyboy's Freestylin', Ubiquity's first release of new music, helped define the acid-jazz genre and put the label on the industry map.
Was there a "defining moment" when the McFadins, Jervis and company knew that the label would be a success? "We had great success right off the bat which might have been a case of being in the right place at the right time," suggests Jervis. "Nobody in the USA was re-issuing the music we were into, despite global demand. There were occasional bootleg compilations but no serious competition. So we were instantly able to make a name for ourselves as the US-label for quality jazz funk and soul re-issues."
"In addition, our first release of new music on the Ubiquity label by Greyboy was a huge hit without any marketing, and having been recorded on almost no budget. This time it was a case of his right sound at the right time as his record hit at the height of the acid jazz days."
Ubiquity's most recent crop of new, newly uncovered and restored, and newly redone classic soul, jazz, and funk sounds includes:
Hit the Floor
Their very name unifies two concepts behind the music of this ten-piece ensemble from LA: "Arkestra" from Sun Ra's intergalactic space-jazz ensemble, and "Break" from those drum and percussion breaks in the middle of funk songs that DJs splice and loop to form the rhythmic basis for rap and hip-hop. Hit the Floor is the first set of all-original material from one of contemporary music's funkiest live funk bands. Bassist, guitarist, cellist, composer, producer and frontman Miles Tackett explains, "While hip-hop DJ / medley-inspired covers are the foundation of Breakestra, it is only natural we'd want to express our own soulful proclamations."
Hit the Floor is a for real down-home belly wallop: A straight-up funk and hip-hop record that sounds cut live in a modern clean sound but still very warm, vibrant and direct. From the very start, the call-to-party "Stand Up," it is so very easy to close your eyes and imagine the sweat dripping of these musicians, hot in the studio, knee-deep in the funk. Tackett on bass and drummer Josh "Wallet" Cohen keep Breakestra thumping and bumping, drinking from the deep back(beat) waters of classic funk drummers such as Bernard Purdie, literally daring you to sit or stand still.
With his great soul voice, rough as gravel yet warm as a huggie bear, Tackett rocks the beat hard in "Don't Need a Dance" and "Keep on Playing," yet somewhat smoothes out the rock for the hip-hop groove "Family Rap," featuring the collective Jurassic 5.
(As an aside, I've always had a soft spot for a funk song with lyrics about how funky the song is. It IS stupid, you're right, I know. Still, I tend to admire a lyricist with the playful temerity to turn "stink" into "stank" and then make it a verb, as in this second verse to "Stand Up": " When you're losing yourself, you don't need no complications, baby/ Drums and rhythm guitars in funk conversations, baby/ Under the spell of this here nasty creation, baby/ Purifying your system, we be stanking the nation, baby..." I could sit in front of an empty sheet of paper for months and never come up with something as ludicrously funky as "stanking the nation." )
Searching for Soul: Soul, Funk & Jazz Rarities & Classics from Michigan 1968 - 1980
Luv N' Haight
Certain hallmarks of the musical glory days of the state of Michigan are obvious: Hard rockers such as the MC5, Ted Nugent, Grand Funk Railroad, and Iggy & The Stooges, and of course the Motown label, which dominated pop and R&B charts all around the world.
Searching for Soul is the first volume in a series planned to document "the other music" from this place and time - raw street music, crackling with urgency, in funk, jazz and soul forms - fifteen tracks, all but one presented for the first time on CD. The lone exception is "Rap it Together," a lost funk classic by the Detroit Sex Machines which moves like a Slinky on its rhythm guitar, recently re-edited and re-released on Stones Throw Records.
Soul music does not come much more primal or raw than Robert Jay's "Alcohol, Part 1," an up-tempo guitar blues so tortured in spirit that Jay merits comparison to the legendary tragic blues singer-guitarist from Chicago, Hound Dog Taylor. "This is a true song. I'm an alcoholic," confesses Jay in the liner notes. "I could play a variety of styles but I loved the blues. Detroit blues was an upbeat style, not like the Motown sound, for me it's just the way I felt it."
The sounds of period jazz fusion, such as Donald Byrd's BlackByrds, echo from "Back to Funk" by guitarist Robert Lowe (whose credits include organ groups led by Charles Earland and Dr. Lonnie Smith, and saxophonist Houston Person) and "Farewell to the Welfare" by Wendell Harrison, occasional saxophonist for Sun Ra, Grant Green, and Marvin Gaye.
Different vibrations radiate from the slinky funk instrumental "Searching for Soul Part 1" by Jake Wade & The Soul Searchers; El Riot's "Do It Right," a sexploitative groove that serves, so to speak, as cushion for the pushin'; and the full, lush ballad "Trust Me" by Aged in Harmony, swaddled in vocals, deep bass and strings, and recorded at the legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland (Motown) recording studio.
Gilles Peterson / Various Artists
Gilles Peterson Digs America: Brownswood USA
Luv N' Haight
Digs is the first in a planned series of compilations that illuminate the treasurers held by some of the world's leading record collectors. This first set spotlights DJ Gilles Peterson, who hosts a regular Worldwide show on BBC Radio 1 focused on rarely-heard music and syndicated all around the world. Peterson's record collection is so extensive that he maintains it in a separate house, known as "Brownsville"; longtime listeners will recognize the occasional "Brownsville Basement" selection on Worldwide, tracks never reissued on CD and available only on vinyl, pulled by Peterson from his personal collection.
Although the same sort of rarities compilation as Searching for Soul, Digs creates a much different effect. Individually, most tracks sound more musically adventurous and exploratory, which means that collectively the compilation moves through several different musical moods. Dorando's opening "Didn't I" is a soul ballad swaddled in acoustic guitar, strings and cooed vocals a la Curtis Mayfield or Ronnie Isley. "Tribute to Wes," a guitarist's ode to master Montgomery by Muscle Shoals studio session regular Moses Dillard, is an understated yet sparkling instrumental gem. Lonnie Hewitt, a Bay Area native who played piano on several Cal Tjader albums (including the classics Soul Sauce and Black Orchid) shimmies the dust off of Latin soul in "Ya Ya Cha Cha." "A Perfect Day" tells its tale through the rippling piano and vocals of Bobby Cole, who once led the house band at Frank Sinatra's legendary club The Watering Hole and also served as musical director for Judy Garland.
Digs is dominated by the fifteen-minute "The Prayer" by the World Experience Orchestra, the exploratory, inner-space / outer-space sound of Pharoah Sanders (on saxophone) and Yusef Lateef (on flute) sitting in with the Sun Ra Arkestra as, in the background, the band rows through the serpentine waters of an ancient Egyptian waltz.
Annual compilations of Ubiquity artists exploring and updating tracks by that influenced their music, Rewind! has become one of the label's flagship brands. This fourth volume stays the series' almost perversely wide-ranging course, thumping club and hip-hop updates of funk, Latin, rock and soul originals by Cameo, Joni Mitchell, Sly & The Family Stone, Woody Guthrie, Burt Bacharach and others.
SA-RA Creative Partners, electronic hip-hoppers based in Los Angeles, update Stone's "Just Like a Baby" into a jarring, harsh electronic sound, brittle with the psychosis and paranoia suggested by the title of the Family Stone album it comes from, There's A Riot Going On. Another band from LA, Orgone, dishes out a scalding spoonful of the great, lost island funk classic "Funky Nassau" (originally by The Beginning of the End, a mostly family band from the Bahamas).
Two artists from the UK score some of Rewind!4's highest marks. The production team Yam Who? polishes "The Star of the Story," a hit for Heatwave midst the 1978 height of disco, into twinkling love music both electronic and soulful, knitting together its gentle pulse from soft hip-hop beats and a lilting melody. Female vocalist Willis musically "goes the other way": Instead of further electrifying or beat-boxing "Word Up," she strips Cameo's macho electro-funk down to a droll acoustic country blues, sort of like Tracy Chapman, a combination of style and substance that most likely makes almost no sense when you READ it but almost perfect sense when you HEAR it.
"We're as excited about our 16th year as any other," Jervis says. "The music business may be going through some crazy stuff but we welcome the challenges and changes this may bring. We have a handful of brand new artists (Nino Moschella, Owusu and Hannibal, and Radio City) with releases that will drop next to music from some of the established Ubiquity acts like Greyboy and Breakestra, so it should be as interesting as always!"