Forward motion drives Chocolate Industries. "Because people were so attached to the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, no one got to do anything new," complains Seven, the owner-operator of the Chicago-based label, as he looks back on the past decade. "When bands like Oasis come out, the first thing people say is, It's the Beatles.' Or Erykah Badu comes out: Billie Holiday.' Jeez, stop. There needs to be new music now that gives our kids something to talk about."
Guided by the new, Seven built one of the few boutique indies out there that can't be reduced to a single descriptor. Chocolate Industries isn't an electronic music or a hip-hop imprint; it's not even quite that electronic-hip-hop hybrid some are calling tech-hop or experimental electro. Most Chocolate artists have roots in both traditions, but it's not sticking to specific genre rules that unites the roster so much as a commitment to innovation. Not purity but propulsion.
Chocolate Industries endorsed genre-straddling from its very first release in 1998, the Post.Art EP by German duo Funkstörung recorded to be played at either 33 or 45 rpm. Switching the speed switched up the vibe from head-nodding hip-hop grooves to kinetic jungle stutters. Likewise Miami's Push Button Objects (a.k.a. Edgar Farinas) released one of his well-regarded early EPs on the label in 1999, refusing to settle on any recognizable musical style: Industrial, Goth, house, electro, hip-hop, and the abstract soundscapes of British luminaries Autechre all informed his Unauthorized record, a stark, repetitious study of the breakbeat. Chocolate also debuted Atlanta beatsmith Prefuse 73, whose first LP for England's Warp label last year garnered rave reviews for injecting rap rhythms with the odd melodic shifts and swirly effects of cutting-edge electronic musicians.
So it's not a particular sound Seven is curating but, he says, "a vibe, an attitude, or a lifestyle -- although lifestyle' sounds kind of corny." Seven's musical wanderlust may be rooted in his somewhat nomadic childhood. Born in the Bronx to Haitian parents, he lived through a few tumultuous post-Duvalier years in Haiti before settling briefly in West Kendall. While in high school he shuttled back and forth between Miami and New York City.
During these formative years, his five sisters largely shaped his listening habits. "They were rude girls, going to ska shows," he recounts, "and played everything from Bad Brains to Gorilla Biscuits to the Go-Go's to Michael Jackson to Kraftwerk to Herbie Hancock. And growing up in the Bronx, hip-hop was an in-your-face thing -- you can't escape it living there. I also heard a lot of Haitian music and gospel because of my parents. All of this music translated into what Chocolate Industries has become, most definitely."
Seven's exposure to electronic music came mostly by way of experimental composers such as Iannis Xenakis and John Cage, rather than its popularized dance-floor forms, though he did resonate with a little Detroit techno. "Mostly the stuff that came after Detroit's white flight," he says. "The techno that had a hint of struggle behind it."
In Miami he got involved with various local labels, including Schematic, but he doesn't like talking much about that time. "There are reasons why I left those labels," he offers evasively. "I guess I wasn't able to do what I'm doing now, which is put out any music I was feeling, instead of music that was not only genre-specific but a certain specific style within a genre. I wanted to have my own identity, my own aesthetic, my own vibe, my own feeling, my own everything. And that was what I was able to do with Chocolate Industries."
Seven's everything-goes aesthetic grew out of his refusal to make mix tapes for friends with separate sides for electronic music and hip-hop. With his own label, he first dropped a series of four-song EPs in the vocal-less, fringy post-hip-hop vein. The breakthrough, though, came when Seven decided to re-release a fairly obscure rap song, "Tried by 12," recorded under the name East Flatbush Project. The track was a favorite among underground hip-hop radio DJs -- definitely not something on the radars of most fans of cutting-edge electronic producers. But it was exactly from this class of boundary-pushers that Seven requested remixes of the single--Autechre and Funkstörung reworked it, as did breakbeat schizoid Squarepusher and local heroes Phoenecia and Ko-Wreck Technique, a collaboration between Push Button Objects and DJ Craze.
What made the album-length collection of remixes revolutionary was that many of the artists altered not just the beats but the vocals, a long-standing no-no in hip-hop. So not only did these left-field producers, all hailing from well outside that straightforward milieu, have the gall to touch a rap classic, but they decided to write their own rules to do it. The compilation put Chocolate Industries on the map, selling extremely well for a one-man-run indie and tracing a blueprint for really-fucked-up hip-hop beat-making that is still being followed by many leading figures.
"Knowing what I know about the business side of things now," Seven says, "I would have released that record very differently than I did then. But the acclaim it brought us was definitely worth it. Would I be doing this interview right now if that release hadn't come out? Probably not. Would I have new records coming out if that hadn't done what it's done? No way. I have to admit, that record got a lot of heads turned on to new possibilities with electronic music or hip-hop music, whichever side of the fence you were on."
The momentum made possible a spate of releases from Washington, D.C., artist While and a Chocolate Industries retrospective compilation in 2000 called Rapid Transit. During this period Seven made what was supposed to be a temporary move to Chicago, where his girlfriend had been accepted to the Art Institute. But finding in the city many more resources for a do-it-yourself labelhead without a car, he stayed.
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"There's a really good transit system here -- in Miami there's not," he notes. "There's so much isolation there if you don't have much money, which I didn't. Plus, Miami had so many distractions for me: friends and good weather and stuff. Being in Chicago is all about work for me and getting shit done."
And he's done just that. In addition to signing a number of Chicago acts (MC Diverse, producer-vocalist Via-Tania, and freeform sampler Caural), Seven will put out six LPs this year, an amazing number considering there hasn't been one proper Chocolate Industries full-length yet. Push Button Objects, Diverse, Via-Tania, and Caural will all see debut albums. There also will be a genre-disintegrating compilation titled Urban Renewal Project, with tracks from label regulars, along with Tortoise and former Company Flow member El-P, and an artist or two so big that Seven says he can't talk about them yet. "And I mean big, not just independently -- really, really big," he hints. The other album also is from an artist too high-profile to mention now.
Chocolate Industries' eclectic sound has solidified into something dangerously close to a genre of its own, so Seven feels the need to stir things up. "It's weird to us because a lot of other labels sound like Chocolate," he says, "so it's all about keeping not steps ahead but fucking blocks ahead. And the Chocolate [that] people knew then and the Chocolate they're going to see this year are completely different.
"I'm just trying to create a niche for people whose tastes are sort of all scrambled together," says Seven of Chocolate's constant evolution. "We're trying to amplify that voice from this generation. We're into taking chances and trying things out. So maybe that's something Chocolate is the soundtrack for, you know?"