It was 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday at M-80, the tragically hip Design District boutique, when Phoenecia's Josh Kay and Romulo del Castillo finally stepped behind a makeshift stage -- actually, the store counter -- to perform their set. Hours earlier M-80 was bustling with life, powered by fashionistas, music geeks, DJs, and knuckleheads. They'd danced to the sounds generated by Salim Rafiq and Finesse and Runway, among others; they'd bounced around the small room like atoms, socializing and striking poses in thrift-shop threads coordinated into cutting-edge ensembles; they'd spilled out onto NE 36th Street, chugging two-dollar beers and sitting on the sidewalk. But by the time Phoenecia launched into a throbbing set of brusque, electronically textured beats, the store was nearly empty and the throng outside had dwindled to stragglers.
What happened? Did the crowd get so tired, it didn't bother to stick around for the night's headliner? Did it simply not like Phoenecia and decide to beat a hasty exit once the duo began performing? Several weeks afterward, del Castillo offers a blunt answer: "Everyone else wanted to play early," he says, "and we didn't care when we played." Less obvious is the possibility that even hipsters who think they understand weird and wonderful musical trends have trouble grasping what del Castillo and Kay are all about.
These observations come amid a crazy fall afternoon. The two DJs/producers are dashing around the Little Haiti warehouse that holds their Schematic Music Company; www.schematic.net they're selecting random items, from a pair of congas to a turntable mixer, to load into a motorboat for a typically wacky photo shoot. Shortly after this interview, DJ Aura will stop by to record a "mega-mix" CD of the label's best tracks as a promotional tool for Schematic's national Tour de los Guapos, featuring its star artists: Richard Devine, Otto von Schirach, Dino Felipe, Nick Forte, Hearts of Darkness, and Phoenecia.
Del Castillo and Kay make a striking pair. Kay thinks they resemble comedians Penn and Teller. "I'm the short, mute one," he jokes. Which is only partly true. Del Castillo, who keeps a phone wedded to his ear for much of the day, certainly appears to be more outgoing. But Kay's a talker, too, going on tangents that turn a basic wrap-up interview into a winding conversation.
Del Castillo and Kay are optimistic about the future. They're prepping a formidable slate of new recordings for release over the next several months, including an EP by acclaimed British sound anarchist Matthew Herbert (under the pseudonym Radio Boy), the debut album by Miami electro heroes Secret Frequency Crew, and Richard Devine's just-released Asect:Dsect.
But they also sound exhausted by the rigors of running a record label: dealing with distributors, managing overhead costs, designing and paying for ads to trumpet their new releases, and sundry other jobs essential to building a profitable business. They're annoyed that they have to publicize the label's complex, thought-provoking output to a trend-obsessed audience that usually doesn't get it anyway. They're frustrated that they haven't been able to work on their own music -- indeed, Phoenecia hasn't released an album in over two years -- because they spend all their time helping out other Schematic artists. Their conversation has a dark undertone to it, a stark change from the enthusiasm del Castillo displayed two years ago, when he proclaimed in an URB magazine profile, "I'm sittin' on a goldmine here!"
Maybe it's the result of a long day at the office, or a reaction to the two vegetarian pizzas they consumed in less than twenty minutes. Then again, both Kay and del Castillo can grow emotional at times. It's one of their endearing qualities, and it's what makes Schematic's records sound warm and human to those who understand the sometimes willful obscurity of experimental electronic music. After all, it was only several days earlier, in another interview, that del Castillo answered the same question -- Will Schematic ever become a major independent success? -- with a far different response. "I know our stuff is darker," he'd said. "Maybe it's not as kitschy or catchy, but I see endless potential for Schematic."
Del Castillo and Kay's pre-Schematic careers were marked by uncommonly good fortune and precocious, groundbreaking music. Born in Peru, the 29-year-old del Castillo has lived in Miami for most of his life. As a teen he hung out with Jamaican-born Omar Clemetson, a fellow music aficionado he'd met during summer school at Palmetto High School. "We'd dream like anyone else, like, 'We're going to play in an arena,'" he says. "Pure adolescent fantasy."
Mimicking their heroes, the two purchased a sampler to make their own beats. In 1993, a year after graduation, they created their first record label, Drone Musik, and released an EP, called OR for "organized revolution" (or Omar and Romulo). "We scanned this painting of a character with a gun," says del Castillo, "pressed up 500 copies, and went to [the now-defunct New York festival] New Music Seminar to push it. Technically I think we were the first electronic label in Miami." With tracks like "The Future of Eternity," the OR EP was a hodgepodge of influences, from miscellaneous industrial noises to early Aphex Twin, all jostling for attention.
Months later they joined forces with an old friend of Clemetson's, Paul Floyd, to launch a new group called Supersoul, a name del Castillo says was inspired by the trio's budding fascination with Krishna consciousness. Supersoul managed to land a pair of tracks on the first two volumes of The Trip-Hop Test, a best-selling compilation series released by L.A. imprint Moonshine in the mid-Nineties that featured early songs by other influential artists, such as the Dust Brothers and the Crystal Method. More labels clamored for Supersoul tracks, but the three blithely shrugged off those offers. "We were really young and clueless," chuckles Clemetson during a phone interview. Now freelancing as an engineer, he also runs his own label, Metatronix. "We thought that when you sent out a demo tape, labels were supposed to get back to you immediately. We didn't realize that it was a big deal."
While del Castillo was attending Miami-Dade Community College and taking classes in music engineering, Josh Kay (now 30 years old) arrived from Dallas in 1994 to reunite with his parents, who'd moved here several years before. He quickly attracted friends, thanks to a handful of progressive house records he and former partner Rob Vaughn had made in Dallas under the pseudonyms United Space and Soul Odyssey for their own Space Records label. Although Kay had earned accolades in Dallas, he grew bored with the city's rave scene, he says, and didn't intend to hang out with the same crowd in Miami.
He did, however, connect with del Castillo. The two bonded over their love of jazz-fusion legend Herbie Hancock and the progressive British electronic label Warp Records, internationally known for its propulgation of IDM, or intelligent dance music, and innovative artists like Aphex Twin, Plaid, and LFO. "Romulo started getting more into the Warp stuff," recalls Clemetson of those early years. "I didn't care for the Warp stuff at all. He and Josh found a common ground in all that." So in 1995, Clemetson and del Castillo broke up, with Clemetson keeping the Supersoul name.
That same year, as Soul Oddity, Kay and del Castillo recorded their first track, "DJ Tokyo," a fresh electro amalgamation that rendered standard breakbeats into something icily sleek and abstract, yet danceable all the same. They played it for various label representatives at the 1995 Winter Music Conference, attracting considerable interest from Peter Wohelski, then an A&R executive for L.A.-based Astralwerks Records, a dance-music imprint owned by Caroline/Virgin Records. "I bumped into Romulo, who gave me a tape," Wohelski recalls over the phone from the New York City office of underground music giant Studio Distribution. "I brought it back to New York, and we were really impressed."
Astralwerks signed Soul Oddity to a one-album deal, along with an $8000 advance, according to del Castillo. Unfortunately the ensuing recording sessions for what would become Tone Capsule found Wohelski clashing with the group's artistic vision. The business executive envisioned Soul Oddity as a futuristic breakbeat act in the vein of San Francisco's Hardkiss Brothers and L.A.'s Uberzone, "a marriage of Miami bass and West Coast tweekiness," while the group wanted to explore the outer reaches of electro and IDM.
Released in May 1996, Tone Capsule became a minor classic. But at the time, it was a commercial disappointment. Wohelski disputes del Castillo's claim that it sold around 10,000 copies, estimating that it only sold about 5000 worldwide. He notes sympathetically, however, that another hot new breakbeat act on the label led to major changes at Astralwerks. Buoyed by the Chemical Brothers' near-gold sales for Dig Your Own Hole, observers began referring to "electronica" as the next big thing, and in that climate, selling a couple thousand copies of a brilliantly eccentric dance album was no longer enough. "Sometimes records that are ahead of their time are not necessarily well received," says Wohelski of Tone Capsule.
Though the original one-album deal included an option for another record, Astralwerks demanded to hear new demos from Soul Oddity before signing a contract. "I'd come down to Miami to hear the new music," recalls Wohelski. "It wasn't even close to what I expected. I brought it back to New York to play it to my boss, and he wanted to drop them." (Those demos emerged on Phoenecia's Randa Roomet EP for Warp Records in 1997.) Nonetheless, he says, he persuaded his boss to give the group another chance: "I told him, 'No, I know these guys have it in them to really deliver this, if they want to.'"
Wohelski instructed Soul Oddity to come up with something more commercial; in turn, the pair offered "Get Fresh." (It was included on the 12-inch "Odd Job" single on Schematic in 1999.) Impressed, Wohelski tried to encourage them: "It was a really amazing, banging electro track. I was, like, 'Guys, this is more like it. This is what we're talking about. Give me two more tracks like this, and we can sign off on your option.'"
But by then, Soul Oddity had grown tired of industry politics and decided to walk away. The struggle to turn their art into a commercial product had left a bitter taste. "They were trying to tell us how to make our music," says del Castillo. "I guess back then we were too sensitive ... no one's really ready for that."
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."
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."
Anderson, for her part, bluntly sums up her company's perspective: "Music fans are fickle, and their interest is constantly changing and evolving. The evolution of music fans' taste is great for Forced Exposure and for music in general, but bad for labels like Schematic."
The impasse recently led Schematic to turn to Asphodel, a San Francisco-based multimedia company that had considerable success in the late Nineties with turntablist acts like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Beastie Boys DJ Mixmaster Mike, the X-ecutioners, and Miami's own Allies crew. It has since transformed itself into an advocate for bizarre acts like [The User], a Canadian group that makes music with dot matrix printing machines. Even better, it has been able to take advantage of -- and survive -- a hot industry trend like turntablism, making it a good potential model for Schematic to follow.
"We're in a sense an umbrella organization that will be coming to their assistance," says distribution and label coordinator Joel Schalit, who takes pains to clarify that Asphodel is not Schematic's new distributor but is giving the label access to its distribution network for certain projects, starting with Richard Devine's new album, Asect:Dsect. Ironically Forced Exposure is also part of that network. "We plan on making a very big investment in [Schematic's] future," Schalit promises.
But what does Schematic want to do in the future? Part of the problem lies in defining the territory: Do fans want the micro-house and minimal techno championed by Forced Exposure -- a sound Kay and del Castillo explored, then abandoned, as Soul Oddity -- or the IDM and experimental sound art that those same tastemakers claim to be passé? More important, is Schematic willing to change focus to meet market demand and thrive as a label, or does it want to downsize its business in order to follow its muse and satisfy a small, specialized audience?
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A few weeks after the studio interview and a day before the Tour de los Guapos would ship off for its first concert date in Vancouver, British Columbia, Kay and del Castillo play at an October 10 party called Elektro Base in downtown's I/O nightclub. Tonight they are headlining as Soul Oddity, the Magic City's beloved hometown heroes. The duo is scheduled to "re-create" Tone Capsule, and by the time they take the stage around 3:00 a.m., the dance floor is packed with old-school heads and young party kids eager to witness the return of the local champions. Instead the group fucks with the crowd's expectations, straining Tone Capsule's light bass blips through erratic jump cuts and abrasive, ear-bursting noise. "This stuff sounds more like Phoenecia than Soul Oddity," derides one audience member.
By the middle of the set, half the crowd begins to leave the room, and most don't return. The remaining audience is a split between Schematic fans and adventurous kids who struggle with what they're hearing, trying to absorb it. Finally their patience is rewarded when Soul Oddity gives a faithful version of "DJ Tokyo," its rumbling bass grooves rushing over the room like a cathartic shower.
The show proves to be a revelatory experience. For all its low points -- the moments when people pooh-poohed Soul Oddity's machinations and left the room in droves -- it proves that, yes, there is artistic and financial potential for Schematic and Kay and del Castillo's vision of a dynamic and musically progressive record label. But don't be surprised if they insist on tweaking people's expectations and doing things their way. "Who wants to play all the old songs that everyone knows?" Kay declared at the studio. "People will, but I think it's the corniest thing you could ever do."