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Danny Dominguez loves to talk. As we have drinks at the Tides Hotel, the man behind Counterflow Recordings is chatting freely about his latest project, Plant Life. Since the L.A.-based group released its debut twelve-inch single "The Last Song," it has created a huge buzz in Europe and begun to garner attention in the U.S.
"There are a bunch of huge people loving the group: Kanye West, Kelis, Pharrell," he tells me as he sips from a vodka tonic with a splash of lemon. "I mean, these are all my homies that I've met, that I know, and they love the label. They love what I do."
I have come to learn that it is sometimes better to listen quietly as someone gabs away. Who knows where the conversation may lead? But the sharply intelligent Dominguez, who sometimes refers to himself as "Danny Dollars," is too smart to reveal any secrets he doesn't want to give away or trap himself in damaging contradictions. He just likes to drop names. Lots of them. "I know a lot of people," he says confidently.
I've known Dominguez since 2001, when he first got noticed in the hip-hop world for putting out solid twelve-inch singles by new Miami rap acts such as Algorithm in stunning record sleeves designed by La Mano Fria. Later Counterflow issued Kool Motor, an album by one of my favorite acts, Cincinnati's Five Deez, as well as electro producers Secret Frequency Crew's brilliant EP, The Underwater Hop Secret Adventure.
When I moved to Miami at the beginning of 2003, I made a point of looking Dominguez up. But the man was too busy. In a little more than a year he has started up three weekly hip-hop parties, including Beat Club, an event he currently runs with Crazy Hood Productions on Tuesdays at Marlin Bar. For a time he co-owned a magazine, Tablist, before turntablist DJ Infamous took it over last year. He spins records at Revolver on Fridays under the name Muet. He even does freelance studio work with big-name producers such as Scott Storch (Fat Joe's "Lean Back").
Did I mention that Danny Dominguez is a baby-faced 21-year-old? After graduating from high school, he interned at Rawkus, which was then one of the hottest rap labels in the industry and riding a wave of buzz generated by Mos Def's Black on Both Sides and Pharoahe Monche's "Simon Says."
Rawkus would go on to famously flame out and be liquidated by its distributor, EMI, earlier this year. But its emphasis on quality control reverberated and informed Counterflow when Dominguez started it in late 1999 with his own money (and investors such as resident Poplife DJ/producer Induce, whom Dominguez paid back after scoring his first distribution deal). For example, on the sleeve of Plant Life's "The Last Song," acclaimed Miami designers typeStereo created a lime-green cover on which Plant Life's name is inlaid into the paper like a woodcut. The powerful visual image complements the music.
In 2001 Dominguez secured a distribution deal with EMI subsidiary Caroline, which puts small labels into record stores across the country. But when royalties on Counterflow's record sales were too slow in coming, the deal went sour.
"I ended my contract with Caroline because of breach of contract and all that shit," says Dominguez, who adds that his settlement with the distributor allowed him to finally pay his artists. He couldn't afford to put out any records in the interim, though. Counterflow's inactivity, which lasted from late 2002 well into 2003, caused him to lose much of his original roster, including Five Deez (who went to Studio Distribution) and Secret Frequency Crew (who signed with Schematic Music Company).
More damaging were accusations leveled at him by onetime Counterflow stars Algorithm. In a New Timesarticle ("Indie As Fuck," May 20), the group, which has since formed its own label called GuerillaARC, charged Dominguez with shunning the local hip-hop scene in favor of famous out-of-towners. They alleged he censored one of their songs, "Suffer Great Nation," because it was written from the perspective of a terrorist. Though the track was written before 9/11, Dominguez balked at putting it out after the tragedy occurred, leading to Algorithm's acrimonious departure from the label.
"I decided not to put out that record cause it was the right [decision] for the time," says Dominguez. "It was a business move and I wasn't down to release it, and I probably still wouldn't." Dominguez says that when he severed his ties with the trio, he paid them their back royalties and even gave them their unsold stock.
"I think people are not realizing how important it was for people like me, Steven Castro at Botanica del Jibaro, and even Luke [Campbell]," says Dominguez animatedly. "This scene is small, you know that. Miami is young. If I didn't decide to start a label, Induce, Algorithm, Seven Star ... I mean, these cats would never have fuckin' records out.
"There was a lot of shit-talking, a lot of people not happy with things. So I just wanted to see who was really down to make shit happen," he continues. While putting a halt on production, Dominguez networked through the record industry, stoking his company's reputation as an up-and-coming brand.
As he worked out the Caroline dispute, Dominguez finalized a deal with Studio Distribution in November 2002. Last fall, Counterflow quietly began issuing twelve-inch singles again. In addition to Plant Life's "Appreciate," there was "Bob James Boogie" by Fantab, a new group led by local producer Tony Galvin (Trick Daddy). There was also Induce's "Retribution." My Mother and Father Were Astronauts, the debut album from the thoughtful and progressive Miami MC Seven Star, is dropping at the end of the month, followed by records from Dynas, Dave Ghetto, and others.
"The two biggest differences are experience and resources," says Dominguez. "I have way more experience and I have a shitload more resources available to me, and that changes how you view and handle things."
Dominguez's careful navigation of last year's controversies has given him depth and maturity, and their resolution has allowed the prodigy to dream big again. He eagerly talks up Plant Life, whose The Return of Jack Splashis scheduled to drop on October 5. He believes the band will bring his label international recognition that is long overdue. "That's going to be the first record by far," he says. "Plant Life, it's blowing up. We're making crazy moves. We're making crazy things happen."