Saturday, April 14, 2012

Duff Interview with Stubborn Records' King Django on 20 Years of Ska and Reggae!

Editor's note: With Stubborn Records' 20th Anniversary Show coming up on May 12th at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn (see details on the poster below), we thought we'd better check in with musician, songwriter, engineer, producer, and label-head King Django (AKA Jeff Baker) and pick his mind regarding all that has gone down over the past two decades at Stubborn. (Thanks and respect to King Django for taking the time to answer all of our questions!)

The Duff Guide to Ska: When you created "Rude Awakening," the first skazine in NYC back in 1984, could you ever have imagined that you'd be here all of these years later, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Stubborn Records?

King Django: Actually, no! Looking back and realizing that at that time, I was not even a musician, I definitely could never have imagined the wild ride that was to come. I feel pretty lucky and blessed having been able to learn so much from some really great musicians including my contemporaries and many of the artists who were my heroes in my youth.

DGTS: The label's first release, "Tales of the Red," was from your own band Skinnerbox. So, part of your motivation to get the label up and running was to put out your own records, but what was the label's driving mission for its first decade of existence? What were your initial plans for the first few years and how many of them were you able to realize?

KD: To be honest, I never really had much of a long-range plan. The label was started because we had been jerked around so much trying to get the first Skinnerbox record out. We had a cool offer from a good label and were ready to go with it, but got stars in our eyes due to smoke blown up our collective proverbial orifice by some "industry" types and in the end wound up with nothing. Prince Buster and Coxsone had always been heroes of mine, so I decided we ought to just start putting the records out on our own. All of my "plans" really only involved what projects I wanted to release, and in that light, they were all realized. That being said, there's still a lot of irons in the fire, plenty of tunes here awaiting release.

DGTS: When I was at Moon, I have to admit we were definitely jealous--in an admiring way--of some of the releases that you were putting out. But we also viewed Stubborn's competition as healthy for the scene (and us)--and there were certainly more than enough good bands around to work with (and certainly no single ska label had the resources to put out records for all of them). At the time, how did you view Moon Records--and which of the label's successes did you emulate and which of their missteps did you learn from?

KD: I don't think I actually directly emulated any specific aspects of Moon Records, but I defiinitely do have to give props here to Rob "Bucket" Hingley, who was definitely a big inspiration and an early mentor of mine back in the days before he was called "Bucket." Having been around him from the inception of Moon Records when I was still very young, Rob was really a very direct inspiration for me. He was very helpful and forthcoming, sharing his knowledge of the business at that time.

By the time Stubborn Records was founded, I'd already been working with and around him for about six years. I have a deep respect for what Rob and you all were able to accomplish with Moon. My impression is that because of the rapid growth of the label and the realities of independent distribution at that time there arose a necessity to "fill the pipeline" with product. To meet the quantity requirements, I think the quality control became lax, which of course translated to lower sales at the end of the day, and possibly a ripple effect for the entire genre here in the States. I suppose the main things I took away from that situation were to take it slowly, keep a close watch on the scale of things, keep it real and realistic, and never to make records just for the sake of having more releases. I was really never motivated by trying to get "big" or make loads of money, I just wanted to make good records.

DGTS: What were some of the biggest challenges to running an independent label during the 90s (when people still bought recorded music in physical formats)?

KD: I think the single biggest challenge was navigating the independent distribution network, as mentioned above. Everyone who had an independent label at that time has essentially the same horror stories, just in different sizes. It was pretty easy to get your product into the distribution channels, but actually getting it sold through and collecting any money for it was impossible. It's too much for me to go into the sordid details here, but there were a load of classic tricks and scams perpetrated on the labels during that time.

DGTS: You and I have talked a bit in the past about the difficulties of trying to keep a label going in this era of rampant music piracy (i.e., music "file sharing"). Any thoughts about this that you want to share publicly? And what do you think might be the emerging business model, the way forward for independent record labels and bands to be paid for the fruits of their labor?

KD: I really don't know! I just hope people realize that if they want to continue hearing good, quality music, they should support artists they enjoy. If you have no need for a CD, buy a T-shirt, buy some stickers, anything, spend a few bucks. Heck, buy a CD and give it to someone. Buy an album download from iTunes or another legal outlet. It's so important, especially nowadays, that we support our arts communities! For some reason, it's very easy for people to spend $14 on two admittedly enjoyable pints which they drink down very quickly at the corner bar, or $10 to $15 for a crappy, indigestion-inducing, poison dinner at a horrid, corporate, national chain restaurant, yet it seems difficult to convince people to cough up a measly $10-12 for an album which will bring them joy and upliftment repeatedly for years to come.

DGTS: What were some of Stubborn Records' greatest achievements (and disappointments, such as bands that you wanted to work with, but who got away)?

KD: I think just sticking around this long and having maintained a pretty good level of quality in our catalog is probably the label's greatest achievement. They're not all the same or even similar, and they all have different strengths (and even weaknesses!), but I'm pretty proud of all of our releases in one way or another. Again, my goal was never to release loads of records, or be a huge label. I just want to put out good music that my friends and I enjoy making and listening to. At this point, I think I'm a musician, singer/songwriter, recording artist first, a producer and recording engineer second, and a label owner third. The single greatest sadness in the history of the label was the loss of my close friend and Jamaican music business mentor Mr. Bertram Brown. He was instrumental in the establishment and success of the Version City Jamaica vinyl label, and he will never be replaced. There was also a planned album with Derrick Morgan which had to be scrapped when Profile Records shut down. I was also really looking forward to doing some work with Cedric Brooks before his health took an ill turn.

DGTS: Which Stubborn Releases are your personal faves?

KD: I am working on music all the time, so I think whichever I am working on at the moment is my favorite. To be honest, I don't go back and listen to the catalog often. By the time the record goes out for reproduction, I usually know it more intimately than anyone else and have heard it more times and in more broken-down detail than most people ever will. I put the love and attention into the project at hand and try to do my best. The delicious enjoyment part is then for the listeners!

DGTS: Which ones were the best-sellers for the label?

KD: If you include all of our licensed or contracted output, Stubborn All-Stars Open Season is far and away the biggest record Stubborn's been involved in. The best-selling release on Stubborn label proper would hands-down be my own Roots & Culture album, which has been continually reprinted in CD and vinyl formats, more recently as a "Special Edition" version, remixed and remastered with bonus tracks. Following that, the other King Django material, the other Stubborn All-Stars stuff, Vic Ruggiero and Hub City Stompers would be our top performers. Even recently, all of the Version City 45s have sold very well, in fact I have sold out of multiple pressings of most of those titles as well.

DGTS: What's the latest on the Stubborn Records 20th anniversary show at The Knitting Factory Brooklyn? Can you give us any hints about unannounced "special guests"?

KD: I guess by now I have announced the full line-up, so I don't know if there will or will not be any special guests...

DGTS: Apart from the anniversary show, do you have other Stubborn Records 20th anniversary-related events/releases in store?

KD: We've just put out the King Django and Ari Up 45s in cooperation with Ska In The World Records from Tokyo, Japan. I'm sending Victor Rice's Dub Discoveries from Version City to print today! And I'm hoping to finish at least the next HCS album and at LEAST one new King Django album before the end of the year. We were cranking out loads of new titles in Kingston, JA when I was working with Mr. Brown, and I'd like to continue that line of 45s, too, so I am trying to re-establish a mechanism for steady 45 releases.

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