Face it: We love labels. Whether you’re a deejay, a tastemaker, or an aficionado, at some point you recognize the power of a dependable record label. Even before the first listen, a company logo can mean the difference between a mind-bottling smash and small-press rubbish. Better still are the rare labels that transcend the joy of good music and represent an entire zeitgeist. They are large enough to represent a geographic region or cultural body, yet still in touch with their constituency.
Between the ’60s and ’80s, two labels became synonymous not just with hot records but also with entire regions and cultures. In New York, Fania Records spoke to the Latino/Afro-Caribbean experience in America in a uniquely nuyorican tongue. Down in Memphis, Stax Records represented a down-home southern counterpart to Motown’s uptown northern-soul aesthetic, further expanding public conceptions of African-American music. Though this may not have been the intent, Fania and Stax reflected their distinct yet diverse audiences by encompassing a vast number of sounds; appropriately, they pioneered the introduction and dissemination of hybrid music like salsa and soul.
Unsurprisingly, Fania and Stax came and went with the passing of their respective generations, but these companies’ impact has remained inescapable. The recent acquisition of Stax by the Concord Music Group and Emusica’s resuscitation of the Fania catalog represent two of the industry’s more notable preservative acts. Concord kicks off its effort by reissuing Stax’s back catalog, the centerpiece of which is the mini-boxed set Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration. The compilation is lovingly packaged with a colorful booklet of the company’s history and artist profiles. Two discs of the label’s hits — from the early easy grooves of the Mar-Keys and Booker T & the MG’s to the heyday of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave on to the velvet touch of Isaac Hayes and the Dramatics — offer a comprehensive look at the label’s numerous talents and presence on American radio. Unfortunately, this collection does little to further the label’s legacy. The vastly superior The Complete Stax/Volt Singles (1959-1968) collected these same hits, plus far more, more than a decade ago. Though the set’s nine discs (as well as the more recent four-disc Stax Story box) offered an arguably overindulgent look, it also set itself apart from the numerous greatest-hits compilations that had and continue to be repressed (at far more economical prices, too).
While Concord takes the typical approach to maintain Stax’s legacy (which is in no way a slouch effort), Emusica follows a more contemporary one. The company initiated a deejay-mix series that pairs today’s mixers with its newly acquired catalog. For its first installment, young buck DJ Rumor (Brendan McCormack) takes the mixing reins. Considering Fania’s enormous breadth of styles and history, a comprehensive blend would take multiple hours. Appropriately, Rumor focuses on tracks with a heavy black American undercurrent. He quickly moves from Mongo Santamaria’s mood-jazz excursions to Joe Cuba’s soul-inspired “Gimmie Some Love” and finally to a heaping of boogaloo gems (such as Louie Ramirez’ “I Dig Rhythm”) and assorted odds and ends (Premier fans will appreciate the inclusion of Dave Cortez and the Moon People’s “Happy Soul”). Though a constantly swinging four-count beat throughout the tracks — which, at times, comes off more go-go than nuyorican — may seem an unusual representation of the Fania sound, it is filled with a subtle variety of ideas and approaches that keeps the mix fresh-sounding and distinctly New York City uptownesque. Rumor establishes an estimable bar not just for mixers who follow, but for preservationists across the board: dig deep to find their distinct take on a once ubiquitous sound.