Ralph Rivera is a pretty unassuming-looking dude. Clean-cut, lean, and amiable, it’s hard to imagine him feverishly roaming humid, dank basements and ramshackle DIY spaces while screaming bloody murder into a microphone. But as the front man for now-defunct Chicago hardcore-punk champs Raw Nerve, Rivera has torn through countless sets filled with minute-long, thrashed-out ragers and sweaty-gross kids climbing over and bashing into one another. The added bonus following each set? Rivera hawked tapes (and a little vinyl) that capture the region’s alive-and-well hardcore-punk scene.
Not Normal Tapes began in 2008 as a way for Rivera, 23, to rerelease a couple of demos by his old band, Cold Shoulder. Along with his girlfriend, Raven DiMichele, 22, Rivera has since dropped 15 releases—the seventh being his zine, Dead Possession. The pair has an admitted bias toward the midwest, repping not-so-household names like RazorXFade, Pukeoid, Guinea Kid, the Outs, and Poison Planet, which Rivera plays bass in.
It’s hardly a shock to see a young label support a friend’s project and feed off an immediate network of locals—I wonder how many labels haven’t explained their first release with “They were buddies of mine, and no one else wanted to put it out”—but Rivera explains that in Not Normal’s case, that has its perks. “There are a ton of great labels in the city, but I will say that Not Normal’s catalog has more closely documented the midwest, and Chicago specifically.”
Not Normal deals mostly in tapes, a revitalized (and hyped) medium that allows labels to release material by artists hell-bent on harsh feedback and grime rather than sellable indie-pop fare. Cheap and easy to dub, tapes made the most sense for Rivera’s unembellished approach. “We’re never going to do CDs. We’re never going to be a digital label,” he professes.
A self-proclaimed weirdo from Lansing, Illinois, Rivera has probably spun the Flex Your Head and Cleanse the Bacteria old-school hardcore-punk comps more times than you’ve blinked. It’s the diehard DIY-ness of bands from the comps like Minor Threat, Teen Idles, and 7 Seconds that he ultimately infuses into Not Normal—a label whose name is not only a blatant sneer at conformity but also the title of an SSD song.
Though Rivera and DiMichele are both straight-edge, only one-fifth of the label’s releases carry the same philosophy—Rivera says that one of his goals is forever looking for good straight-edge bands that are punk bands first and foremost. Luckily, Not Normal has a friend in the local all-edge label Third X Party Records, which has released material by Coke Bust and Sick Fix, among others (the two labels recently did a split release of Poison Planet’s Boycott Everything).
The communal vibe of DIY labels, rallying around their own obscurity, is one of the main draws for Rivera. “You meet all these other people running DIY labels and they’ve got shit they need to get out too. So it’s like, ‘Here’s my stuff, I’ll take yours.'”
The little money Rivera and DiMichele do make off the label gets invested back into it. Neither expects to ever be able to live off the proceeds, and it doesn’t seem like either would want to; becoming profitable enough to have the option to stop stuffing tapes and records yourself doesn’t quite fly with Not Normal’s mission statement.
But as long as the kids keep showing interest in the label, Rivera’s going to keep hauling his catalog of releases from show to show. “I feel like I have excellent taste,” he says. “And there is a certain level of quality people expect from Not Normal. As long as the people who have been ordering from NNT-001 think that what I’m doing is still good, that’s what I care about.”
Basically, they expect hardcore punk for the hardcore punk—and no racist, sexist, or homophobic bullshit.