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SONIC REDUCER Conventional wisdom chew before swallowing, hang on to your nine-to-five, the safety of the passengers depends on keeping conversation with the driver to a minimum usually suffices eight days a week. But along march catastrophic events, and the rules fly out the window. Luckily, agile industry vets such as Six Degrees founders Bob Duskis and Pat Berry know how to respond to fate's highs and lows. For instance, the label was universally warned not to release its Arabian Travels comp postSept. 11.
"Everybody told us, 'You are crazy if you put this record out. People are going to be angry. Retailers aren't going to carry it,' " Duskis recalls at Six Degrees' sizable Mission District office. "And we thought, you know, this is the perfect time to put this record out! More than ever people need things that transcend stereotypes a positive representation of what comes from the Middle East." That, on top of evidence that Americans were suddenly ravenous for any information about a world they had once largely ignored, convinced them to go ahead. Turns out "it's one of our best-selling compilations!" Duskis delivers the kicker, chuckling. "And we got a lot of mail from people of Middle Eastern descent who live in this country saying, 'Thank you very much!' Obviously, we feel like music is a great connector."
On the cusp of Six Degrees' 10th anniversary celebration, sitting in a conference room atop some 20,000 CDs in the company's downstairs warehouse with his 14-year-old hound Scout by his side, Duskis, 47, is feeling ever more optimistic about the future. On April 18 the label head will be joining the imprint's Bombay Dub Orchestra, Jef Stott, and r:sphere of Zaman 8 on the steelers' wheels as he often does online via the label's monthly radio show and occasionally does at one of many nights sponsored by Six Degrees at Supperclub, Madrone Lounge, and elsewhere. Part of the party: Backspin: A Six Degrees 10 Year Anniversary Project, which finds roster artists covering their faves (Karsh Kale takes a tabla to the Police's "Spirits in the Material World").
Six Degrees has plenty to toast, while providing a lesson in indie survival techniques. After hitting it big with licensed bossa nova royalty Bebel Gilberto's Tanto Tempo (2000) and subsequently downsizing amid the industry's early '00s doldrums, the imprint has been busily undertaking new projects, expected for a company that has always looked forward: a digital-only Emerging Artists series including Bay Area artists Stout and Zaman 8 as a way of breaking new performers with lower overhead, and a new partnership with Starbucks Entertainment to play and promote the debut by the silky-voiced, groove-obsessed, and cute-as-a-bug Brazilian singer-songwriter CeU, the first non-English-language artist to break into the chain's Hear Music Debut series and find exposure to java junkies everywhere. "Hitting that consumer that's outside the traditional pathways, which have been closed to us or just aren't working anymore, it's the kind of thing we need to do," Duskis explains. "All signs are pointing for this to be a big breakout."
Breaks and smarts have gotten Duskis and Berry this far: the two met at Palo Alto new age independent Windham Hill. Duskis had worked his way up to become the head of A&R; Berry, VP of sales and marketing. Both were united in their belief that the label should explore more global sounds, and they eventually departed to create Six Degrees under the umbrella of then-Polygram-owned Island at the behest of their genre-crossing hero Chris Blackwell, who asked the two to market the "weird stuff, all the nonpop stuff."
After Blackwell left, Duskis and Berry got out of Island with their masters in the nick of time before being entangled in yet another monstrous merger. With an infusion of venture capital, they relaunched the label as a true independent in '98 before hitting it massive with Tanto Tempo. "From the start we treated it not like this was going to be some weird, little world-electronica record but as something for a wide range of people, from young club audiences and electronica fans to older people who had hit the first bossa nova wave to pop and Sade fans. Sure enough, it became the coffee-table world music record of that year," Duskis says. (Gilberto's latest, Momento, comes out April 24).
The success of that album pegged Six Degrees as a world fusion label, but the founders always saw the imprint as more than that, releasing artists as varied as Michael Franti, Cheb i Sabbah, and the Real Tuesday Weld more a global content provider with a highly eclectic palate and fingers dipped in digital distribution; podcasts; music blogs; and licensing to film, TV, and commercials before anyone else. "One thing I'd say we've never tried, as a label," Dukais quips, "is to be so hip it hurts." *
Fri/13, 9 p.m., $15
628 Divisadero, SF
SIX DEGREES' 10TH ANNIVERSARY
April 18, 10 p.m., $10
657 Harrison, SF
NO STOPPING HIM NOW
Gone are the days when Jeff Chang churned out columns for the Guardian, but my Hawaii bud can be excused for burying himself in books such as his award-winning Can't Stop Won't Stop and his compelling new volume, Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop (Basic, $18.95). Total Chaos emerged from discussions on the future of demographics and aesthetics in the arts about three years ago and found Chang editing playwright Danny Hoch, artist Doze, and DJ Spooky, as well as essays on hip-hop and queerness. It's a wide-angle take on hip-hop's impact on the arts, triggering what Chang calls "crosscutting debates within the book." And without: "I've seen a review in the National Review complaining that there's no center to this," Chang says on the road. "But hip-hop is about call-and-response. It's not necessarily about people having a consensus." Expect a hot back-and-forth when Chang gathers Marcyliena Morgan of Stanford's Hip-Hop Archive and contributors such as Adam Mansbach for a hip-hop aesthetics talk April 17 (and later on May 8).
TOTAL CHAOS HIP-HOP FORUM
Tues/17, 6:30 p.m., free
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF