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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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"Yeah, it should be," says Andrew Jervis, Ubiquity's vice president and A&R man, "but it's not always the case, is it? We're not the kind of label that sniffs around to try and find the next Fatboy Slim. That's why we'll put out a Black Renaissance reissue and still sell 7000 records, but we'll also do something like [L.A. funk act] Breakestra, which has a wider appeal." Ubiquity has been around since 1990, when San Francisco crate-diggers Jody and Michael McFadin began releasing records under an imprint partly inspired by Roy Ayers's classic funk-jazz band. Though the couple moved their offices to Newport Beach ten years later, their lust for finding good music hasn't waned. Ubiquity now includes three sublabels -- jazz and funk on Luv N' Haight, assorted hip-hop and electronica on Ubiquity, and Latin jazz on Cubop -- and recently won the Gilles Peterson (renowned DJ/tastemaker from BBC Radio One's Worldwide Radio Show) Label of the Year award at last year's Worldwide Music Awards in London. No doubt this imprint has mass appeal over in Europe.
These days Ubiquity receives tons of demos each week. Although its staff members search for music that pushes the limits, it's all about what they like to hear.
"As an indie, we make our own decisions, in which case we also dig our own grave," says Jervis from his office in Berkeley. Unlike Ubiquity's owners, Jervis still lives in the Bay Area; he's also a DJ who, with Tomas Palermo, managing editor of XLR8R magazine, hosts Friday Night Session on college radio station KUSF-FM (90.3) in San Francisco. "We can't take a record and sleep on it," says Jervis. "Whatever we sign, we're into it 100-and-more percent."
Yes, Ubiquity does sell records. It has been particularly good at helping esoteric artists such as Greyboy -- a San Diego producer who mixes California funk, classic deep house, and Nineties hip-hop -- move tens of thousands of albums. Image isn't necessarily a concern, although companies such as Scion, Puma, and adidas often approach Ubiquity to cosponsor events and promote a particular hipster lifestyle (note that Ubiquity, like most boutique companies, sells promotional T-shirts). Still the label shuns formulas and carves out a distinctive niche. Its surprisingly large international following has led to some unusual success stories like Black Renaissance's Mind, Body, and Spirit, a 1976 soul-jazz curio created by pianist Harry Whitaker that sold 7000 copies when Ubiquity reissued it in 2003.
Ubiquity promotes da next shit in hip-hop, funk, jazz, and electronica, turning to peers such as Jazzanova in Germany, Bugz in the Attic in the UK, and DJ Mitsu the Beats in Japan for acceptance and club play. Meanwhile it constantly seeks out forgotten but still precious tracks to reissue and remix (check the Rewind series, where producers such as Madlib and John Beltran interpret pieces by greats such as Gil Scott-Heron and Herbie Hancock); and breaks both cutting-edge producers (Quantic and P'taah) and revered jazz legends (the Afro-Cuban flex of percussionist Bobby Matos and the much-overlooked guitarist George Freeman).
Two groups in particular on Ubiquity's roster are poised to possibly garner commercial success. First, there's SA-RA Creative Partners, an L.A. trio that has produced tracks for Heavy D ("Can't Help") and Pharoahe Monch ("Agent Orange"), among many others; released a hot twelve-inch ("Double Dutch [Co Co Pop]/Death of a Star") in November; and snagged the John Peel "Play More Jazz" prize at the aforementioned Worldwide Music Awards.
Taz Arnold, Om'Mas Keith, and Shafiq Husayn live, sing, and produce music together in their self-described "compound" in Silver Lake, California. In addition to their work for Ubiquity -- which will release SA-RA Creative Partners' debut LP sometime this year -- they have also signed a four-record contract with Kanye West's new Good Music imprint. Making moves into the limelight, the trio is developing an image as a little out there, but über-cool, shades-rockin' music mavens ideal for the glossy pages of culture mags such as Dazed & Confused.
"We're very conscious of our image," says SA-RA's Taz Arnold, "and how powerful that is in making one's career these days. Image comes into play to differentiate us from others -- being fly, articulate, freaky, funny, or serious, but always astute and socially conscious businessmen."
SA-RA isn't an acronym but refers to, in their words, some sort of "central energy" in their music. These guys puckishly enjoy referring to their sound as "the new exquisite shit," "cosmic dust," and "Afro-magnetic electronic spiritualism." Wha? "It's the many terms that describe our energy," says Arnold. "We're here to bring forth our vision of where music should be going. It's a mash-up, so to speak." Truth be told, they do have a knack for sprinkling just enough spaced-out flair into their neosoul hits but at the same time remaining off-kilter enough to keep the headphone junkies interested.
Soulful production duo Platinum Pied Pipers, who will release their debut, Triple P, on Ubiquity in May, are also gaining momentum. Waajeed, who in addition to being half of the group is a producer for hip-hop group Slum Village, thinks it's long overdue for musicians to step up their game. "People want to be entertained now," Waajeed explains from home in New York. "They don't just want a jukebox in front of them. When we perform, we have projections with three screens, [Platinum Pied Piper's] Saadiq's on guitar and bass, and I'm working the MPC, and we'll occasionally include a drummer and trumpet player."
Jervis concurs that it's boring and sometimes tedious to watch someone just push buttons. He's always on the lookout for electronic artists who are making an effort to adapt their work into dynamic live performances. He points to Detroit electro-fusion DJ and producer Jeremy Ellis (a.k.a. Ayro), who released his second album, The Lotus Blooms, on Ubiquity in February. "Ellis is amazing live," says Jervis. "He programs beats and percussion on the PC, then he's working the bass and keys, and then he starts singing, jumping around, and getting the crowd into it."
"Yeah, I'm even playing with my elbows and my chin," adds Ellis, laughing, "and I'm slapping the drum pads with my hands like it's a booty."
Obviously Ayro and Ubiquity probably won't be ubiquitous like, say, Fatboy Slim and Astralwerks or even Kanye West and Def Jam. But, as Ayro puts it, "the [Ubiquity] name actually carries some weight." He notes that he sees Ubiquity product wherever he travels, especially in Europe, so the label appears to be successfully getting the music out there. At the same time, the label gives the artists the opportunity to indulge in the one thing that makes it all worthwhile: freedom.
"They sign you for who you are, not for who you have the ability to be," says Waajeed. "With other labels, motherfuckers are trying to tell you what your art is or what it can be, but Ubiquity would never do that."