The Outsiders

Will Schematic have to compromise to get its avant-garde music heard?

If Tone Capsule didn't make much of a national impact, it and the "DJ Tokyo" single soon developed a cult following in Miami, turning Soul Oddity into a highly touted act in the city's then-thriving rave scene. Though it was still signed to Astralwerks, the group's local status came in handy when it launched the Schematic Music Company in 1996. It was something of a happy coincidence that the company's debut led to a quick, tempestuous romance between it and the electronic world, which celebrated the label as the leaders of "the Miami sound."

During the turn of the century, everyone -- journalists, fans, record labels and distributors, DJs and producers -- seemed briefly fascinated by the idea that Autechre, an obscure British act whose own albums had sold in the low thousands, had become a primary influence in a revolution that blended IDM, electro, and hip-hop into something novel yet melodic and accessible. Well-known British music critic Simon Reynolds summed up the industry's passing fancy when his 2000 "faves" list singled out Schematic's Lily of the Valley compilation as "the missing link between 2 Live Crew and Autechre, booty and brain." The next year, Phoenecia's debut album, Brownout, earned a place on the New York Times's "Best of the Obscure Among 2001's Albums," praising it as "often eerie and occasionally droll."

Schematic's Romulo del Castillo (left) and Josh Kay inside the lab
Jonathan Postal
Schematic's Romulo del Castillo (left) and Josh Kay inside the lab

Soon after Schematic was launched, Marvin "Seven" Bedard, whom del Castillo had met at a Supersoul party, jumped onboard. The eighteen-year-old had a controversial reputation around town as someone preternaturally driven and occasionally high-strung. "I'm glad we worked with Marvin," says del Castillo.

Edgar "Push Button Objects" Farinas was a brash, burly Brooklyn transplant whose tastes inexplicably ran from hardcore hip-hop and salsa to Chicago house and British New Wave. He became one of the label's first artists. "I met Edgar when he came to my high school one day," laughs del Castillo. "I could tell he was thuggin' even back then."

In 1997 Schematic released Push Button Objects' Cash EP, a dark, moody mix of hip-hop rhythms, strange keyboard melodies, and electronic soul. Push Button Objects and Seven left that year to start their own venture, Chocolate Industries, though the two labels agreed to co-release PBO's full-length debut Dirty Dozen in 1999. Seven moved the new label to Chicago in 2000; PBO left Chocolate Industries earlier this year and is working on a new album for British imprint Skam.

Then there was Otto von Schirach, an eccentric with a wild mop of hair and a taste for B movies and splatter flicks. His 2001 album, 8000 B.C., was full of brutally visceral, super-fast cuts with more beats per minute than a drum and bass track, intentionally hyperactive and disturbingly chaotic.

Two more artists arrived from Atlanta: Richard Devine and Scott Herren. Devine used his interests in esoteric multimedia artists like graphic designer John Maeda to craft equally complex compositions like 2001's Lipswitch, which flitted between harsh, grating sheets of white noise and blissfully sweet ambient electronics.

Herren was also an early fan of Schematic. But while Push Button Objects clearly inspired his first project for the label -- as Delarosa and Asora, Backsome EP -- the full-length Agony Pt. 1 experimented with cut-up vocals chopped into staccato bits and pieces laid over dreamy, melancholy instrumental suites.

After signing to the much larger Warp in 2000, Herren would reach the mainstream as the hip-hop-themed Prefuse 73, becoming one of the most popular instrumental artists of this decade. Prefuse 73's debut for Warp, Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives, would find a place on Rolling Stone and Spin magazines' lists of the best albums of 2001, and Herren would go on to make soundtracks for Coca-Cola and Lady Foot Locker ads.

Over the past seven years, Schematic has matured from a fly-by-night outpost for beat-oriented headphone fare into a respected purveyor of the avant-garde. Unfortunately its fan base is decreasing. Unlike Phoenecia's Brownout, Schematic's recent efforts aren't crossing over to a larger, dance-friendly audience. Meanwhile the label continues to challenge and sometimes confuse listeners with records like Glen Velez's Internal Combustion, which it hailed in publicity material as a demonstration of "phenomenal hand-drum improvisation."

Kay laughs at the idea that an artist can just make a record on demand that is both aesthetically and commercially viable. "It's surprising how many times you hear that out of an intelligent person's mouth, 'Just make one song, one hit,'" he says. "First of all, it doesn't work that way. Second, people don't realize that you're doing something for art's sake. You're not really doing it for the money."

To distribute their records, the duo turned to Forced Exposure, a Boston-based company that distributes dozens of small indie labels in the United States and Europe. Since 1999, Forced Exposure has played a key role in getting Schematic's product out to the small boutiques, DJ stores, and specialty shops that form the backbone of the underground music scene.

In an e-mail, Forced Exposure production manager Kristin Anderson characterizes the label as "one of our bigger clients, in terms of their demands on us and the amount of effort that we have had to put into each of their releases." But the relationship has cooled since the music industry fell out of love with the label's brand of experimental electronic music and sales began to decline. "Jimmy Johnson, the owner of Forced Exposure, is way into Italo-disco. It's like a fetish," says del Castillo dismissively. He claims that the distributor, which still controls much of Schematic's product, is giving the label less priority as a result, taking longer to manufacture its records and ship them out to shops. "He's having doubts about pushing the kind of music we're selling," del Castillo adds. "He's not as into it as he used to be."

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