Musical Revival: Digging for Treasure with Kon and Amir
For DJ duo and vinyl zealots Kon and Amir, what began as a friendship born from a mutual passion has become a fourteen-year collaborative labor of love. They not only collect records, they rescue and restore the legacy of forgotten musicians. Their deep knowledge of music is something they are eager to share on compilations and dance floors.
Born into homes filled with music, it was the samples of hip hop that cemented their need to uncover the music that sounded so fresh yet so familiar. And it was the On Track series that saw Kon and Amir trace hip hop’s connection with jazz, funk, soul and disco showcasing the more obscure breaks and samples used by producers.Starting in 2007, the Off Track series, following the On Track series which began in 1997, gives the duo an opportunity and the freedom to restore forgotten music and feature unknown artists.
In celebration of the release of Off Track Volume III: Brooklyn, a mix straight from Africa made for sunshine, barbecues and short skirts, Kon and Amir talked to Okayplayer about samples, the pains of copyright, keeping great music relevant and the future of vinyl.
OKP: I’ll start at the beginning – how did you get into music and what made you get into buying records?
Amir: Well I got into music because of my parents and my brothers and sisters. My father was a very big jazz collector and my mom was really into gospel and soul records. My brothers and sisters are quite a lot older than I am and were really into their disco and boogie and everything. So it was always around me in the house. When I became older, like 11 or 12, because I couldn’t have their records, they wouldn’t let me touch them, I had to go out and buy my own, if I wanted the same kind of music to enjoy on my own.So that’s kinda what got me into music and collecting music.
Kon: My father was a drummer. I was about 4 years old when I started to play, 4 or 5, and he had a mini, little set up. He had two turn tables, he didn’t have a mixer, but he just had the whole set up and he had a lot of records. My mother had records and I was just exposed to a lot of different music at a very young.
My mother took me to the records store really early. The first records I bought were Chic records and that was probably in like ‘78 or ’79.
My parents split around when I was four or five. But I ended up going with my mother and she would actually take me on Saturday nights, I would be the only little boy at the club, back in the 70s things were a little different. She had a lot of pull and this was a very big rolling skating club. It was a really good time and I have a lot of fond memories.
OKP:Do you remember the first records you bought?
Amir: Vaguely. I wanna say it was…. I was really into hip hop. So it was either Sugar Hill Gang or Spoony G, or something like that, I can’t remember. I’m 40 now so that was a long time ago.
Kon: The first record that I bought…. There were three. There was Chic, Kiss and Disco Superman 12”.
OKP: How did it affect you hearing hip hop rework the music of your youth through sampling?
Amir: It was fucking mind blowing dude. To hear “Peter Piper,” or any of the Run DMC songs with Bob James and all that stuff that my brother was playing. Or Grover Washington and stuff like that. To hear a lot of the disco rap and these disco riffs, I was like, “Wait a minute, my brother used to play that record all the time,” or, “I know that!”
It was crazy. I couldn’t believe it. It set me on a path that I will never turn back from.
Kon: With the passing of one of the greats recently, Guru, who was also from Boston, I feel like in the era when Gangstarr was very important, not to say that they are not now, but when they were current let’s say, the climate of hip hop and rap music and the instrumentals and the beats that were being made, everything was sample based, and had been for quite some time. It just came into play that way, listening to stuff that people were using and you were like, “Oh I know what this is,” or, “I don’t know what this is and I want to find out what this is.” And it lead me to discover more about music with a different context, with a different ear if you will.
OKP: How did you two first link up and what lead you to music as a profession?
Kon: We met in a record store, in Boston. He was working promotions for this other label, it had something to do with Ed OG. We all knew the same people unknowingly. It kinda kicked off from there.
I guess I could say I have been DJing with two turntables and a mixer since about 1985 at home in the sense of what a DJ is to DJ culture. But I started doing clubs about 1990. That was my senior year in high school and at the time, Amir was never a DJ. He just collected records and had a great ear for music and the two of us just kinda put our heads together and decided to make the On Track stuff.
Amir: I had always been into record collecting but in terms of professional DJing and working in the music industry it wasn’t until I started working at Fat Beats in late 1996, and I went later on in 1999 to co-run the company with the owner until 2005, that I really go into working in music.
And also in 1997 is when Kon and I started the On Track Series.
Kon: It initially wasn’t even much of a concept it was just “Here’s a bunch of stuff people are sampling,” and a friend of ours, actually one of Amir’s old roommates, is DJ Shame. And he is actually the first person that I have ever heard assemble a mix based on what people are sampling. So I guess we just did our own thing from there.
OKP: And how did you score your deal with BBE?
Kon: Well Amir and Peter (Peter Adarkwah, BBE label boss) had been friends, they did some distribution deals when Amir was working at Fat Beats. I think the idea was just tossed around and BBE decided that they wanted to do more of the “Kings of,” series. And Peter had tapped Amir and myself as well as Muro to do the “Kings of Digging.”
Amir: When I first approached BBE after we did the “Kings of Digging,” I was like, “Hey, we still got a lot left in us, we would love to do something with you.” So in 2007 I met with Lee Bright from the label, and he sat me down and was like “I have this idea, On Track is a specific genre, breaks and samples, lets do something a little “Off Track,” a little play on it. As something more of some strict legit compilations, you can do edits, you can do what ever you want.”
OKP: What is the relationship between the On Track and Off Track series?
Amir: The Off Track allows us to breath a little more, it really allows us to let the music be heard a little more. On the On Track, it was just quick 30-second, 10-second samples then onto the next. People would always get pissed, “I want to hear that song, I want to hear what it sounds like.” Trust me that song sucks, it’s just the one break.
Kon: I guess really just exposing obscure music that I think for the most part, in the song’s entirety is just really good music across the board. It’s all independent, some of its private press, and a lot of what I have been playing for a long time falls under the umbrella of dance music. Whatever phrase, whatever term is attached to it, it is still dance music. It could be boogie, disco, house, whatever it’s called that’s what I have been focusing on with this project. Also some edits and on the new one there is remix from the multi tracks from Donny McCullough.
OKP: The new album, Off Track Volume III: Brooklyn is out now. What are you looking to achieve with the sounds that you are bringing with this record?
Kon: The title “Brooklyn” is just a way to tie things into the 5 boroughs, 5 LPS, 5 volumes. It’s just a “tie in” if you will.
The timing of it is warm weather, summer is around the corner, and I feel the vibe on my side is very warm, summery. And it is definitely about: “love is the message.”
Amir: We knew that this record would be coming out in the summertime. So we purposely tried to make a record that would produce some good summertime vibes. Good danceable music, warm music that will get a party going. That’s what we were trying to achieve.
We looked to try to move beyond some of the moodier stuff that we did with the previous compilations. I did jazz on the first one, and I did African, but more of a moodier African vibe. But on this one I am displaying more, just really good dance music and having people exposed to the idea that Africa wasn’t just Fela or Hugh Masekela. That was great music as well, but there is a whole other side to Africa.
Kon: The elements of disco, the roots of disco, are very prominent right now in modern dance music. I think for me and for some others, lucky for us to be somewhat ahead of the curve in terms of the trend of it, because I have been pushing for it for a while. Actually since the first compilation we did in 2004. Most of my selections were disco records.
It’s just a matter of timing. What’s new is old. “There is nothing new under the sun,” they say. It’s just come full circle again. I think the cool thing is a lot of kids who were younger a few years ago, are now obviously older and I think that they have now got to the point where they are seeking where it is all coming from. There is enough information online, there is also enough other compilations and mixes where the surface is scratched. And I think with the Off Track stuff I think we get a little deeper than the “Paradise Garage,” “Loft Classics” angle.
OKP: What are the copyright issues surrounding a release like this? And what sort of politics surround the commercial release of re-edits and remixes?
Amir: There is an ongoing copyright issue right now with one of the records on my side. It’s big news on the Internet right now. What the problem is, a lot of the time for BBE, I submitted the track listing and they went out and did their due diligence to try to find all the artists. For this particular artist they found the label but they weren’t able to find the artist, and the got the license rights from the label. But the producer of the record said that the label doesn’t own it, so it’s this whole big thing.
So it can get very tricky, because a lot of records back in the day, especially in Africa (and this is no slight to Africa at all) but a lot of records in Africa were done with hand shakes, or the masters were misplaced, or there is no proper paperwork of who actually owns the record, so it is really, really hard to prove at the end of the day who owns said record.
Kon: Basically the way it works is like this. I’m not even supposed to have these parts, technically. But when you do something to music that exists already not only do you have to go through the people that own the copyright, which nine times out of ten is not the artist, on top of that you have to have at least one member of the band to sign off on it. So, first you have to get the interest and the green light of the powers that be, then you have to get the artist to cosign.
So there is a lot of politics involved. In fact it seems like it might be best, for lack of a better term, to bootleg it. If its successful enough the label comes looking for you in a more positive light because they got wind that people were into it, and then they put it out. That happened with Pilooski and the Frankie Valli thing. There are a lot of examples of that, so I am just on the fence of it right now just deciding how to go about some of this stuff.
OKP: So it can be a long and tedious process.
Amir: Yeah and it can also be a very expensive one.
OKP: When you are digging what are you looking for and how has this changed as your tastes have matured?
Kon: Well now I am very particular. More so than I have ever been. Obviously I still like breaks but I just really like things that I can play out completely. Whether or not there is only one good song on a record doesn’t matter to me, I’ll still buy it. I just try to find some things that are unique, being unique they might not even be the best music in terms of the best musicianship, it could be some oddball kind of thing. But I like that. I like weirdo, independent, off-key singing stuff like that I feel like that is part of the charm as well.
But for the most part I look for things I can play the entire track through. And even I’d say the best digging I have been doing recently is in my own collection. Because I have had records for years where my go-to cut was something completely different than the cut I am going to now on the same LP because my tastes have changed and matured.
Amir: Oh it’s changed a lot. And I have a specific strategy now. For instance when I’m digging, I’m digging for four or five different things. One, is to dig for the new compilation that we are doing, two is to also dig for stuff to play out, whether that is 45’s or 12”s. Because I still DJ with vinyl – I don’t have Serato yet. And three I also dig for maybe doing another On Track.
We are also talking about doing something with DJ Cashmoney, he is a good friend of mine, and we have been talking about doing a B-Boy tape of breaks together. And I also really, really enjoy Latin music. I grew up around it, so I collect Latin music a lot and when I am out I am always trying to look for something I have never seen or just something that is really good and pleasing to the ear.
And the fifth, I am always looking for something I have never seen before, no matter what genre it is. It is very specific now, before I would just go into the record store and look at records not knowing what the hell I was looking for. Trial and error.
OKP: Amir, the Wax Poetics record label is a very interesting project, can you explain exactly what you are doing?
Amir: I came in, in June 2007 to run the label, to properly set it up before there were any releases. What I have tried to do, although not always successfully, is provide music with context. Most of our releases come with some contextual value, with unknown pictures, or text, or something offered to give you a fuller story of the group.
Anyone can put out records or compilations of any group but I like to know the history and story behind the groups because it makes me get more into their music and more into their minds of how they made such genius music. I wanted to apply that to how I run the label. And that’s kinda how it is. We have ventured into some newer music because I don’t want to pigeon hole this as some reissue label, putting out old records label, because I like new and old music alike.
OKP: What is the process you have to go through in securing permission to re-release a record?
Amir: Well I will give you a perfect example. One of the records I always wanted to put out, one of my favorite records is Lyman Woodard, Saturday Night Special, on Strata records. I said to myself when I first got to Wax Poetics that my mission would be to find Lyman and reissue that record properly, because the original pressing of the record is horrible. It sounded like shit.
There were all these rumors, “Ohhh there’s no masters, they were destroyed, he’s dead.” It took me about a year, but I found him. A close friend of mine Houseshoes from Detroit was able to get me a call with somebody who was able to get a hold of him. I flew out to Detroit and I met with him and I took him to dinner, and I made my case with him why he should go to Wax Poetics and let us reissue the record. I also checked and referenced that he still owned the record and that he had the masters. I gave him an advance and did the paperwork and put out the record.
That was one of the easier ones basically. The only unfortunate thing about it was he passed away before the record could come out.
He was real cool man, he used to call me all the time. It was incredible man, from listening and talking to him he had such an incredible history of music. What he did and what he accomplished, from finding and putting on Dennis Coffey to working with Martha Reeves as her music director. There is a lot of stuff like that that people don’t even know that people should know.
OKP: Kon, You have mentioned the reedits, remixes and some production – what are you up to musically outside of your stuff with Amir?
Kon: Well, I have been working on some original stuff. Some dance music, some new stuff and as well as the remix stuff. I haven’t really let out some of the remix stuff because of the politics surrounding it, but there are a couple of places that you can here some of it. There are a couple of mixes up online and there are some videos someone took in Paris where you can hear it. I did “Pleasures Joyous,” I did a remix from the multis of that, I did Chic “Good Times,” Slave “Just a Touch.” I’m just trying to figure out the best way to get these out.
But the other stuff I have been working on, I guess you would call it Latin house. Kinda salsa with big beats. I guess it’s all under the umbrella of dance music, some people are telling me its techno –ish, but I guess if you would it would be kind of a Detroit sound, some soulful stuff.
Then I have some of the disco stuff I got going on. Where basically what I have been doing is having friends of mine that play instruments just sitting down with them and really producing. Just going in and I’ll have some drums up and we will just go. Figure out a base line, start with some chords, maybe build around a vocal sample. Stuff like that. And I’m just going to build up some tracks until I can get a hole for a project, a fitting hole.
OKP: Where do you see the future of vinyl heading?
Amir: The future for vinyl, I honestly still think there is definitely a great future for vinyl. Not like what it was in the 90’s when I was at Fat Beats, and we were shipping and selling 50,000 in a day. I don’t think that ever is going to happen again. However, I think the more that releases like a Wax Poetics or Jazzman or Stonesthrow, or people like that put out albums that are more like collectors items, it adds more value and more love for vinyl.
There is nothing like that warm sound. There is so much missing from an iPod or MP3s or even WAVs, there is still no bottom, no warmth in any of that music. I still like picking up something that has a cover. That is part of the love for me in terms of vinyl, you get a peek into the persons soul.
Kon: I firmly believe that vinyl is the best medium for storing and releasing music. I learned that when I was very young. I would tape everything, or I would watch my father tape his records for the car. I learned that having the vinyl is like having the master reel. It’s permanent. It doesn’t diminish. If you treat it properly it doesn’t diminish in sound quality. Files corrupt, CDs don’t work after X amount of years, the information gets lost.
I don’t think vinyl will ever die so to say. I think there are enough records that have been released through time that generations will… You know its always cute and trendy to be retro, so I think for the young kids that never knew what it was like to go to school where there were no computers or internet or cell phones, and these kids now days have everything at the touch of a button. But I still think that there are enough seekers born that they will go to vinyl. Hopefully I think it will continue to, not necessarily grow to be any big special thing, but sustain itself.
I know several people around the world who do strictly vinyl parties, Amir being one of them. As well as friends like Bobitto, Spinna play vinyl as well at some of his parties. Also a lot of guys in the UK in Japan keep it going strong. Even in Detroit, I was just at Winter Music Conference at the Detroit party, all the guys from Detroit were playing vinyl. And I don’t really view it as something they are trying to prove, I just think that it is the tried, tested and true method of where music sounds best. And I’m not trying to debate that you can attain these things digitally now.
But I just think that vinyl is the shit, period.
– Simon Day