The Making of an Anti-Scenester
Jamie Hodge’s career in the music industry started in 1992, when his mom was driving him home from a round of east-coast college visits. As a junior at the University of Chicago’s Lab School, he’d recorded some music at the on-campus electronic-music studio, and as a fan of Detroit minimalist techno artist Richie Hawtin, aka Plastikman, he hoped Hawtin’s +8 label might be interested in releasing it. But he didn’t want to mail it to Hawtin–he wanted to hand it to him.
He called the label, thinking a secretary would answer, and got Hawtin himself, who gave him permission to drop by sometime. “I convinced my mother to drive back through Canada,” says Hodge, now 25. She waited in front of Hawtin’s house in suburban Windsor, Ontario, for about ten minutes while her son ran inside and played his recording. Hawtin released it on a 12-inch, as “Analogue: Heaven” by Born Under a Rhyming Planet, in 1993.
It caused a minor stir on the British and German underground scenes, but Hodge didn’t capitalize on it like he could’ve: since then he’s released several more singles for the label, produced a handful of remixes for artists like DJ Vadim and Spacetime Continuum, and released two albums under the name Conjoint, a collaboration with German producer David Moufang, jazz vibraphonist Karl Berger, and guitarist Gunther Ruit Kraus. In part he was busy with school–he has a film degree from Vassar–but he had also grown disillusioned. As techno flowed into the mainstream, he felt that the attendant culture subsumed the music. “I’m not very good at dealing with the noise of a scene,” he says. “When things pick up I tend to walk away. I’m really attracted to…I guess the annoying term would be noncontextualized spaces.”
He found what he was looking for in his collection of obscure soul and funk 45s from the late 60s and early 70s. Chicago, of course, is well-known for the rich legacy of its major soul labels and artists, but Hodge is more interested in the acts that slipped through the cracks than in the Curtis Mayfields and Jackie Wilsons. In the late 90s, he began to seek out the stories behind the singles, tracking down the musicians and producers.
“I found this amazing world of music that was uncluttered and lacked all of the signifiers that mess up the other stuff for me,” he says. “It was me going to find older men who were more than happy to talk about what they had done, but often didn’t take what they had done seriously or think it was overly important. The beautiful thing about 45s is that more often than not there’d be less than three releases on a given label, so there’s hundreds and hundreds of records out there. They were all run by individuals, so that makes it more interesting to me…each label was really personal.”
In the process of this research Hodge became fascinated with the Affro-Arts Theater, an abandoned movie palace at 38th and Drexel that in 1967 became a local incubator for the black arts movement–a sort of aesthetic sister to the black power movement from the mid-60s through the mid-70s. The theater’s regular attractions included a Temptations-style vocal group called the Conservatives, the Spencer Jackson Family gospel singers, Sounds of Blackness–which included a teenage Chaka Khan–and a James Brown impersonator known as Bobby “Get Down” Brown. Hodge considered shooting a documentary about it, but realized it “wasn’t a project I had the resources to do myself.” A more feasible project was to reissue the long out-of-print debut album by another Affro-Arts Theater staple: Philip Cohran & the Artistic Heritage Ensemble, an important but largely forgotten Chicago jazz group with strong soul leanings. Its recent release marks the debut of Hodge’s new label, Aestuarium.
Cohran, who primarily played trumpet, worked with the Sun Ra Arkestra from the late 50s until the bandleader left town in 1961, and a few years later helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. His Artistic Heritage Ensemble mixed African roots, funk, and soul grooves to make an unshakable foundation for extended, highly lyric improvisation. The group included blues drummer Bob Crowder Jr., future Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey, and horn players Donald Myrick and Louis Satterfield, who went on to the more accessible soul-jazz outfit the Pharaohs and later Earth, Wind & Fire.
Though Cohran’s continued to perform, he’s nowhere near as well-known as he should be. The lovingly packaged CD reissue confirms that there’s no excuse for this oversight. Cohran’s main instrument on the album is the “Frankiphone,” an amplified thumb piano of his own design, and the patterns he plays on it are the bones of the compositions. After hearing just once how the trombone and saxophone solos cascade over his mesmerizing riffs on “On the Beach,” it becomes obvious how much influence his work must have had on percussionist and composer Kahil El’Zabar.
Hodge stresses that Aestuarium is not a rare groove label–that is, his releases aren’t intended as fodder for sample-hungry DJs. “It’s not a coincidence that I’m only doing CDs now,” he says. His next release will most likely be an early-70s album by Boscoe, a heavily political Chicago funk band that featured drummer Steve Cobb.
The two latest releases from Erstwhile Records, the New York label specializing in international electroacoustic improv, feature Chicago musicians. We Are Everyone in the Room is a collaboration by local laptop maestros TV Pow and the Icelandic electronic group Stilluppsteypa. Recorded during a joint U.S. tour last fall, it’s a fragile stream of microscopic hums, crunches, crackles, and static. The other title is Axel Dorner-Kevin Drumm, a joint effort by the German trumpeter and local tabletop guitarist. It’s generally very quiet–so its occasional outbursts can scare the crap out of you.
Two of Wicker Park’s most unusual record stores have expanded their limited hours of operation: Dusty Groove is now open seven days a week instead of Thursday through Sunday, and Weekend Records & Soap, the electronic music and handmade soap shop operated by Marlon Magas and his wife, Bridgette Wilson, is open Tuesday through Sunday instead of just weekends.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at email@example.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.