Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reworking A Classic Piece of 12-inch History

In 1975, when 4/4 beats were pumping from massive speakers and discothèques were gaining momentum, groundbreaking DJs were coming into their own, mixing and manipulating records to keep their dancers in a state of constant euphoria. The term “disco” was just beginning to be used to describe the music – and the scene – that had started a few years earlier in underground scenes led by places like the Loft in New York City. Montuno Records, the little Latin label that stood up to the major salsa companies, entered this slowly emerging demi-monde and quietly put out a 7-inch 45 RPM disco single from one of their salsa acts. The group was called Yambú, named after a style of Afro-Cuban folkloric rumba, and started by two music teachers, Nuyorican bassist Ramón Rodríguez and African-American piano-man Milton Hamilton. “Sunny” was an old, dusty jazz standard that had been popular with Latin musicians in bygone days, and Hamilton decided to do a Latin hustle-style arrangement for the song, probably one of the first of its kind. Little did Montuno and Yambú know they were going to be part of starting something bigger than any of them would have believed at the time.

 AL Santiago

Ramón Rodríguez

As Montuno Records boss Jesse Moskowitz recalled, Hamilton’s “girlfriend and another girl [Lisette Wilson and Caty Sevilla] were there in the studio with him, and they said, ‘Let’s record a version of ‘Sunny’’ – just like that! So as a favour to Milton, the band let them do it and put it on the record.” Moskowitz goes on to point out that the song really had nothing to do with the original concept of the album. “Of course, ironically, that was the one track that really took off! There are so many funny stories like that,” he laughed.

Moskowitz, his business partner Bob Stack, producer Al Santiago, and the band members decided to put it out on 45 because they felt it had crossover appeal. The feeling, according to Moskowitz, was that “Donna Summer had hit in the clubs, the Latin Hustle was happening, so we pressed 200 singles. And we gave 100 to the Record Pool.” The Pool was a non-profit DJ record sharing service that had just gotten started up by David Mancuso, Steve D’Aquisto and Vince Aletti in 1975; some of the original members included François Kevorkian, Larry Levan, Francis Grasso, Michael Capello, David Rodríguez and Nicky Siano. 

David Mancuso

These trail-blazing DJs had devoted followings in the gay and downtown subculture, and were the precursor to today’s superstar international DJ/producers, though they never hit it big the way the scene is today with stadium-sized rave crowds. Moskowitz described the Pool as it was in the very beginning, stating: “There were these cubby holes they used to put all the records in for each DJ, as a way to distribute stuff for the clubs and keep the DJs in contact with the record business. We wanted them to have this 45 because we thought it could be a hit. Much later I bought up all David Rodríguez’s vinyl stock, because he didn’t want to pay the storage fees on it any more! That’s whole other story…”

Sure enough, this little 45 started taking off: “So they started playing it!” an amused Moskowitz exclaimed. “Guy calls me up from France, ‘Do you have that record’, and I laughed, said ‘How do you know about that??’ He says ‘They’re playing it all over here in Paris in the discothèques.’ Then a guy calls me from London, I says, ‘This is a great business!’ It was unbelievable how it took off.” Continuing with the strange and entertaining story, Moskowitz went on to say that the real irony was, Alex Masucci, Fania boss Jerry Masucci’s brother, then called Moskowitz up and asked him how did he promote that song so it got international exposure so fast. Masucci went on to say, “Everybody’s playin’ it, we’d like to find out how ya did it!”, which was amusing to Moskowitz because Fania had a lot more marketing muscle behind its product than Montuno, and to have the tables turned was a new one indeed. “I said it was nothin’,” recounted Moskowitz with a shrug, explaining, “I just gave the Record Pool guys a hundred 45s and at 10 cents a piece the total investment was only 10 dollars! And for that I got people calling me from all over. It was so funny that Fania was calling me to find out how to promote a record. It wasn’t payola at all, we did ‘em a favour, because at that time the DJs were hungry. Some of them worked seven nights a week and didn’t get paid, well barely anything, so they needed [free promo] records. I wasn’t sure if I should even invest nine or ten bucks! I did zero promotion – there wasn’t any way I was going to do that, I’m not a night person, I don’t go to clubs.”

French 45

 Original test press for 12"

Moskowitz eventually licensed the single to RCA in France, where it sold quite well. After the domestic 45 sold out, Moskowitz decided to put out a limed run 12-inch version of the record to satisfy DJ demand for higher fidelity and volume, and many of the copies went over to the Record Pool straight out of the box. Surely one of the first of its kind, the “Sunny” 12-inch did not however feature a remixed or extended version of the song, a phenomenon pioneered by Tom Moulton a few years earlier. When the 12-inch dance single soon became a staple during the 80s, penetrating the rock market as well, Montuno even re-released the “Sunny” 12-inch to capitalize on this trend.

C'mon everybody, let's do the Hustle!

Interestingly, the original test pressing of the 12-inch was still in Moskowtiz’s apartment 35 years later. If you look closely, it has a note on it from Jesse Moskowitz to Al Santiago saying “Al: Save it, dammit! —Jesse,” which points to the fact that the 12-inch single was a new concept at the time and Moskowtiz was afraid Santiago might throw the test press into the trash because it seemed defective to only have one song on a side (the B-side was the Latin/Brazilian funk workout humorously called “Hippopotamus”). If it hadn’t been preserved for posterity in Jesse’s apartment, the story might never have been told of how a salsa band put out one of the first disco 12-inch singles!

Ironically, as Moskowitz tells it, the actual long-playing Yambú album didn’t sell all that well for the disco crowd “because the rest of it was just salsa or jazz, it was a kind of a mixed thing, so the fact that ‘Sunny’ was on it didn’t necessarily help the LP sell to Hispanics either. I tried to convince the band to cut a whole album of disco material next but they didn’t want to.” Hamilton did indeed go on to do just that, after leaving Yambú. In retrospect, however, none of that matters; today’s collectors and fans love the record precisely because of its diversity of sound, and the story of how one of the songs became one of the first crossover 12-inch means it can claim its own credit in the story of international DJ culture.

Jesse Moskowitz in the Record mart Store, 1980s

Part of today’s burgeoning international DJ culture, the Whiskey Barons (consisting of Bosq & The Bogart) are a production and disc jockey team based in Boston, Massachusetts. They hail from Brewster, MA and Chapel Hill, NC respectively, and began the partnership when both studied music at Northeastern University in Boston. In addition to their own solo ventures, Bosq has also produced as part of the “Kon & The Gang” collective and is half of the group Nitetime (Future Classic). 

Whiskey Barons

According to the Whiskey Barons, the cornerstone of their approach is to tastefully integrate classic funky sounds from around the world into modern sounding productions geared towards today’s dance floors. This has resulted in a wide variety of well received originals, reworks, and edits that span the styles of Latin, African, funk, soul, disco, house, reggae, and rock. The term “rework” generally means the tune has just been slightly altered (rhythm track beefed up, some effects on a particular phrase) or lengthened with some loops or bonus beats, whereas when they remix, the Whiskey Barons usually use the multi-track master tapes and replace actual instrumental or vocal tracks, change the rhythm, etc. Their four vinyl releases have held top sales spots at record stores on three continents, and their continuous flow of digital offerings have been getting play by top DJs around the world including Gilles Peterson, Tommie Sunshine, Numark, Cosmo Baker, Sinden and many more. 

When fellow DJ/producer Pablo Yglesias aka DJ Bongohead put together the Subway Salsa compilation for Vampisoul, he researched Montuno Records and interviewed label owner Jesse Moskowitz. As related above, in the course of his investigation he stumbled upon a test pressing for the 12-inch single of  “Sunny” (and the original mixed-down reel-to reel for the single) and became intrigued with the thought of recreating the historic single as a separate but related item to be released after the compilation came out. Realizing that the 12-inch release of “Sunny” was exactly the same recording as that on the album and the 7-inch 45, and that Montuno had never made an extended disco mix for the 12-inch, Yglesias decided instead to produce a new remix of the track to bring something fresh to the table. The one drawback was that the original multi-tracks could not be located, so any real, radical remixing was out of the question. With that in mind he contacted the Whiskey Barons who he knew would “get it” – they would have just the right feel and sensitivity needed to respect the original but update it for today’s dancers, making it stronger and more dynamic. And he knew they could do it with just the regular commercially available cut from the album, too.

DJ Bongohead

After listening to the initial rough mixes, Yglesias gave a few suggestions, and Ben and Sam worked some more magic with their software and deep knowledge of what a DJ needs. The fact that the end result was a pair of reworked tracks that could have fit in with any of the other dance floor oriented hits of 1975 seemed to vindicate the Bongohead/Whiskey Barons partnership in everybody’s mind. When the new test pressing came in the mail, it brought Yglesias back to that fateful day in Manhattan a few years earlier when the project began. Thank the gods of dance that it was Jesse Moskowitz who decided to preserve that first 12-inch test press himself and not Al Santiago (may he rest in peace), and many thanks to Ben, Sam, and Vampisoul Records, or none of this would have happened.