Hot Chocolate

In late 1998 the popular British electronica label Ninja Tune released one of the most effective and creative fusions of hip-hop and abstract electronic music to date: a collection of remixes of the underground hip-hop single “Tried by 12,” by a New York collective called the East Flatbush Project. The original cut, a survivalist examination of violence laconically delivered over spare beats and a haunting sample of the 13-stringed Japanese zither called the koto, got the remix treatment from an impressive list of experimental electronic music artists, including Autechre, Squarepusher, Funkstörung, and the Herbaliser, who accented the verbal flow of the original with a mind-boggling array of off-kilter beats.

Although many fans now identify it as a Ninja Tune creation, the groundbreaking collection was originally released by a tiny year-old Miami label called Chocolate Industries, run by a 20-year-old named Seven. “I hate to say it was my ‘idea,'” Seven says now. “It’s just what I was always into. I wasn’t trying to fuse anything. I would just play this and then I’d play that.”

In September 1999, Seven followed a girlfriend to Chicago, and although the relationship didn’t work out, he fell in love with the city, attracted in part by the increasingly open dialogue between the jazz, rock, hip-hop, and electronic-music scenes. Like a growing number of young music fans, he’s developed an aesthetic without borders–among his faves as a teen were Bad Brains, KRS-One, Fishbone, Run-DMC, the Smiths, Diamanda Galas, Iannis Xenakis, and Ken Nordine–and it’s reflected in the output of his label. “I think having an all-hip-hop or an all-electronic label would bore me,” he says. “I just want to do whatever makes me happy.”

Everything on the recent Chocolate Industries compilation Rapid Transit revolves around beats, but they still diverge pretty radically, ranging from the splintery rhythms of Funkstorung to the mad scratch collages of Ko-Wreck Technique to the schmaltzy retro melodicism of Sluta Leta to the moody ambience of While. In the near future, several Chicago musicians will turn up on some of the imprint’s releases. Push Button Objects, the main project of Miami producer Edgar Farinas, recently cut an album track in Chicago with John McEntire, Rob Mazurek, and Douglas McCombs, and Atlanta producer Scott Herren has been working with transplanted Australian thrush Tania Bowers.

When he started Chocolate Industries, Seven already had experience in the music business, having been a partner in Isophlux and Schematic, two of the most important labels in the Miami underground electronica scene. But he found the prevailing aesthetics at both places too limiting–the former is slavishly modeled on Aphex Twin’s Rephlex label, the latter obsessed with the sort of stark, fractal beat patterns Autechre has popularized. “I had big ideas,” he says. “If this was going to be the third label I was involved with, I wanted to make sure it was also the last one. I wanted to make sure everything was tight; as good as it gets, top quality from the get-go.” Accordingly, he says, “I had to come up with a lot of money.”

At the time he was working nine to five in the mail room of a law firm, and to raise additional funds he took on a second mail-room job at another law firm, where the second shift often stretched into the wee hours of the morning. He was living with his mother in West Kendall, a two-hour commute from downtown, so he rented floor space from a friend for $200 a month, cramming in a few hours of rest between jobs each morning. “On weekends I’d go home and literally crash the whole time,” he says. He kept up this regimen for a year, generating enough cash to release EPs by Push Button Objects and Funkstörung in 1997. Both pressings sold out immediately.

It took him another year to get out the label’s next couple releases–a single by Funkstörung’s Chris De Luca and the East Flatbush Project record. But in 1999 he worked out a manufacturing and distribution deal with Forced Exposure, and with the luxury of a stable cash flow, he got busy.

The Chocolate Industries catalog now features more than a dozen titles, half of which are already sold out. (In the electronic-music underground, letting certain releases go out of print enhances the desirability of a label’s output and lets a label focus limited resources on its latest, hottest material.) Despite this relative success, Seven still works days at a law firm–though he’s moved up into duplication and clerical work. “Things are getting better,” he says, “but as I turn a profit I keep putting it back into the label for the most part.”

If all goes well, this year should be the label’s most productive yet, with ten releases slated, including a recently released Push Button Objects single, “360*,” featuring Del the Funky Homosapien and up-and-coming MC Mr. Lif, and a forthcoming Ko-Wreck Technique remix EP that includes dicing and splicing by Luke Vibert and former Company Flow mainstay El-P. Also in the works is “Urban Renewal,” a multimedia project pairing 17 graffiti artists with 17 music acts, including Tortoise and Autechre. A label showcase is planned for May at the Empty Bottle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marty Perez.