August 21, 2002

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Keep on keepin' Om

After seven years and 100 releases,
Om Records is still spinning.

By Peter Nicholson

SAN FRANCISCO CLUB culture was still going strong in 1995. The dot-com explosion had yet to force creative people out of the warehouses, and there was a diversity of club nights that rivaled any other city in North America – and not just on the weekends. Monday night had some of the best energy of the week, and I remember squeezing in lunchtime naps so I'd have fuel for the evening, which I'd spend dancing to jazzy beats by Freestyle Fellowship, DJ Smash, and obscure Italian disco-house DJs. The Monday-night party was Mushroom Jazz, the biggest-drawing DJ was Mark Farina, and the first label to capture it was Om Records.

Om had originally hoped to couple Farina's blend of funky tracks from artists like Chicago's Paul Johnson and San Jose's Julius Papp with visual elements created in San Francisco's burgeoning multimedia scene. Mushroom Jazz Volume 1 was an enhanced CD that featured Farina's mix and video interviews with people from established acid jazz labels Mo' Wax and Talkin' Loud, along with Mushroom Beats, a section where listeners could mix their own sounds. It was well-received and got frequent play on college radio, but the multimedia element proved too costly, so the label decided to focus on diverse, funky music as championed by Farina. Seven years down the road, Farina is a much-renowned DJ, whose Mushroom Jazz Volume 4 is due in November. And Om, which has five acts currently touring the United States, is just about to drop Om 100, a double-CD compilation, in celebration of its 100th release.

"We've always kinda had big plans for Om," label cofounder and president Chris Smith says. "The music scene in San Francisco is really diverse, and we've been feeding off that from day one, doing downtempo, a little hip-hop, house." This refusal to focus on one narrow aspect of electronic music has been a double-edged sword. Om's broad-based musical tastes have allowed it to weather fickle shifts in the interests of the listening public. But as one of its artists (who didn't want to be quoted, for obvious reasons) quipped, "Maybe it's a little jack-of-all-trades, master of none."

I'll admit that, like many people who are on the lookout for the newest labels, I'm a tad ambivalent on the arrival of a new Om CD. The fact that many people know and like Om Records undermines the cool factor automatically awarded to the obscure. On the other hand, most of its releases yield excellent tracks – in fact Indian Summer, the forthcoming album from the English group Kooba, has taken up permanent residence in my CD player. Though Om may not generate the same excitement as specialized labels like Laws of Motion does for heads into broken beat or Certificate 18 does for drum 'n' bass freaks, it's possible to find one of Om's releases in Omaha, Neb., and see one of their acts in Boulder, Colo.

Key to the label's survival has been the various series of compilations. With Mushroom Jazz at installment number four, Om Lounge at six, and others such as the housier San Francisco Sessions, Snd Dsn, and Sounds of Om moving along, the label has had a steady source of income. "Our plan all along has been to do a mix of compilations and then to develop the artists," Smith says. "Because compilations, at least in the past, have been something where you can put it together, brand it and market it in a certain way, and you can sell a reasonable amount of it without having to start from ground zero, like with an artist." Compilations are a logical choice for sounds are aimed at the dance floor and the 12-inch singles that fill the crates of DJs. But the people at Om aren't the only ones to figure out the compilation game, and in recent years the pathetically small electronica/dance sections at chain retailers have become packed with garbage like 20 Trance Smashes, Still More Happy Hardcore, and enough chill-out mixes for every penguin in Antarctica.

Luckily for Om, this comes at a time when the label is switching its emphasis away from compilations to artists and albums. King Kooba, Ming and FS, and Smith's own project aFRO-mYSTIC have new full-lengths coming out this year, and People under the Stairs already released theirs, which is doing very well, thank you.

People under the Stairs, underground hip-hop upstarts from Los Angeles, may not be seem like the typical Om artist, but there's not much typical about the group in the first place. Their first self-released 12-inch, all 250 copies of it, made lots of noise – in London, where 200 copies had ended up at tastemaker Mr. Bongo's Record Shop. After selling out almost immediately, the owner rang up his friend Smith and told him to sign PUTS as fast as he could.

Chris Portugal, a.k.a. Thes 1, who along with Double K is PUTS, says they weren't exactly overeager to sign up. "A few people had tried to sign us," he says, "but we were like, 'We don't care,' you know?" What finally sold them was the promise of complete artistic control coupled with the ability to reach new audiences. "I had known that they were respected in their fields, and there definitely have been advantages as opposed to going with a hip-hop label," Portugal says. "One advantage is that they're about as legit a company as you can get ... [and] they've been open to pushing our record in different directions, which is cool because we don't want to be pigeonholed as musicians that just do underground hip-hop."

The latest result is O.S.T., 20 tracks of funky, inventive good-times sounds culled from almost four hours of songs PUTS originally handed over to Om. Though the beats are seriously fat, the awesome variety of samples and the rolling, rollicking lyrical flow keep the emphasis on kicking back and having fun. You won't find any bragging about Bentleys or drinking Dom, but there's plenty of the straight-up ridiculous, like on the disco-fied "Hang Loose" with its "leather Cadillac" and "gold-plated pit bull made out of ice." O.S.T. reminds me of sunny afternoons spent lounging to the Pharcyde or A Tribe Called Quest back when hip-hop was about beats and not bling-bling. After a somewhat uneven debut, PUTS have hit their stride – and they enjoy the hands-off approach of Om. "They're like a dad with money – they pay for it; we sit back," Thes 1 says chuckling.

Though Om is strongly associated with San Francisco, it has other L.A.-based artists besides PUTS: 22-year-old phenom Etienne Stehelin, who DJs and records as Rithma, is currently secluded in his Topanga Canyon cabin working on a debut full-length, which he promises will include more than just the lush house tracks he has become known for. And veteran L.A. DJ, promoter, and producer Marques Wyatt put together the first installment of the Snd Dsn series and this past spring's For Those Who Like to Get Down, both featuring his trademark sound, lots of live instrumentation and soulful vocals paired with flawless production.

While there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about Wyatt's Snd Dsn mix, I frequently pull it out when I find myself yearning for the smooth, fluid magic of tracks like Marcus Begg's "Let It Ride" or the stunning Latin workout of "Elements of Life" from Little Louie Vega featuring Blaze. Pure house class, Snd Dsn Volume 1 is the kind of mix that takes the four-on-the-floor beat and explores the glittering possibilities when talented instrumentalists take the lead. As a producer who has worked for seminal labels such as Nervous, Yoshitoshi, and Strictly Rhythm, Wyatt is in demand.

"But I'm a really loyal person," Wyatt says over the thump of a percussion track running in the background. In San Francisco at Moulton Street Studios working on the follow-up single to his recently released Don't Look Back EP for Om, he jokes that he better not let Louie Vega hear the new stuff, because Vega would want it for his MAW label. "What I've decided to do is to give Om the first option on things I'm producing.... I really like Chris [Smith], I like Kiri [Eschelle, Om's vice president] – it's a great relationship."

His respect for Om management is echoed not only by the label's artists but also by others in the music industry. In search of a critical opinion of Om, I pressed Tomas Palermo, editor of highly respected electronic music chronicle XLR8R magazine, for a quote, setting him up with questions aimed at eliciting a less than flattering response. I thought Palermo, as a DJ running a magazine and a new record label (Voltage Music) in the same city as Om, would have been a good source of dirt. Nothing doing. Palermo says, "The reason Om has been able to have long-term success and stability is due to the fact that the core figures at the label ... are as hard working as they are passionate about music. They're really quite up on emerging talent and music styles and let their own tastes dictate their releases, rather than following a predictable course."

Like any label, it's possible to find someone who'll bitch (off the record) about not getting signed or not getting booked at one of the parties Om promotes. But it's not these complaints that worry the people at the label, as I discovered while talking with Eschelle, who focuses on sales and marketing.

"At this point," she says, getting to the heart of the matter, "with our branding and the amount of records that we put out and our presence at retail and on the streets, we should be selling a lot more than what we were three years ago. And that's not necessarily the case."

She attributes that to the proliferation of inexpensive CD burners: "People complain about the CD pricing, but if I showed them a breakdown of what the CD unit price is, what it costs me to make it, what it costs me to market it ... then the royalties, the mechanicals, a reasonable overhead ... if I showed them the profit margin on that, they would feel a lot differently." If the trend toward stealing art by burning CDs has deep-pocket major labels running scared, it can only hit independents like Om harder. Eschelle says, "If that phenomenon [CD burning] continues to increase at the rate it's going now, we'll have to completely change our business model or we will go away." Those are dark words for a label that has managed to turn a buck while keeping the good shit coming.

Nevertheless, if the future has challenges, the past is a matter of fact. For seven years, Om Records has maintained a steady presence in San Francisco, supporting homegrown talent through its records and at parties like those at 111 Minna and its current monthly at the DNA. While there's no denying the attraction of obscure, surprising new sounds, we're fortunate to be able to take Om's consistently strong presence for granted.

Om Records celebrates its 100th release Sat/24 with Mark Farina, Marques Wyatt, aFRO-mYSTIK, J Boogie, Rithma, and others, DNA Lounge, 375 11th St., S.F. $20. 10 p.m.-after hours.