Even given the nostalgic biases of different generations of music lovers, most of us can agree that there's something almost mystical about the creative era that ran from 1968 to 1975. Something happened: It was a time when musicians felt free to explore, smear rules and freak out, often with the encouragement of their major and minor record companies — labels that eventually were bought up and strangled by corporate octopuses that demanded higher returns for their CEOs and shareholders.
The sound of that era has long fascinated Eothen Alapatt — better known as Egon — who, as a partner at the righteous L.A. hip-hop–and-beyond label Stones Throw, has been involved in its reissuing of numerous obscure funk, soul, hip-hop and other delights over the years, including The Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael's Music Shop; 1969; and The Third Unheard: Connecticut Hip-Hop 1979-1983.
A few years ago, Egon started his own imprint, Now-Again, to spread word of his most far-reaching finds in the globe-spanning sphere of funk and its cousins.
It's those related things — from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Thailand, Zambia, Nigeria, Iran, America — that move his brain, Egon says. He's on a roll lately, with a sterling new batch of old stuff out on Now-Again that tells an unusual story about a kind of funk that glues together some of the most disparate music spewed out by that era, which, now resurrected, sounds weirdly fresh and relevant.
Part of the allure of this kind of narrative is the search itself, and how the results have influenced a previously indifferent culture. Here, that would be one man's obsession with all things funky and musically free, and the ingenious lengths to which he went to get them heard.
Egon has been running Now-Again for about eight years. The imprint came about when he got some seed dough and the blessings of Stones Throw boss Peanut Butter Wolf to kick-start the imprint. "I'd just started at Stones Throw, and we had just put out the Funky 16 Corners compilation, which had gotten a good amount of coverage. NPR did a big feature on it, and all the right magazines were reviewing it, and we were actually selling really well for a funk compilation. We were licensing the hell out of it for TV shows — it was the one thing in the Stones Throw catalog that people were licensing. Back then I didn't realize how important that was, because we were still making money selling records, and we all thought that if we had the right hip-hop record, we'd sell 100,000 units."
Not quite. But Egon did have a lot of old records he wanted to put out, so he had a little talk with Wolf. "I said, 'I have a bunch of records I want to reissue, and the shit that I like, you don't necessarily like. So what am I gonna do?' "
Egon answered his own question by coming up with a plan with Wolf to start Now-Again, which would be distributed through Stones Throw. Since Egon didn't have the money to fund the enterprise, Wolf gave him a little start-up cash from one of the licenses Stones Throw had coming in, and Egon agreed that if Now-Again ever went into the black, he'd write Stones Throw a check — all he needed was a little time to get the label off the ground.
When Now-Again scored some license money off a placement in Sex and the City (a track by New Orleans funk band Ernie & the Top Notes from The Funky 16 Corners), Wolf cut Egon in on the Stones Throw side and told him to go do his thing. Within a year Egon had it going strong enough that he wasn't losing money, and within a couple of years Now-Again was doing quite well. "I was not making money-money," he says, "but I was getting to the point where I was dealing with things like the L.A. Carnival getting sampled by Janet Jackson."
So how did Jackson get hold of this obscure track by the Midwest funk crew of the mid-'70s, from Now-Again's The L.A. Carnival Would Like to Pose a Question album?
"For the life of us, none of us could figure it out," says Egon. "We had made only 2,000 copies of that CD, fewer of the LP, and we had done the time line, and they would've had to buy the CD as soon as it came out, sample it and make a beat and then turn it around." As it turns out, he notes, "It was some third party that [Jackson's producers] Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were subbing out work to who actually made the beat and then gave it to them, and they gave it to Janet."
The upshot was that Jackson's people had not cleared the sample with Now-Again, and Egon, with the aid of a sympathetic pro bono lawyer, was able to negotiate a settlement after the fact — a good one — enough for him to pay some bills and get things rolling for the label.
That's some of the bare-bones biz background, and we all can take much inspiration from the picture of a man who recognizes that there's interesting archaeology to be unearthed from moldy crypts worldwide. Like the Kashmere Stage Band, for example, a high school group from Houston circa late '60s to mid-'70s; their Texas Thunder Soul did great numbers for Now-Again.
Sometimes Egon has had to go to extreme lengths to convince the original musicians that a reissue of their music would be a good thing. "There's a moment with all these musicians where they give up," he says, "or they move on to something else, or they otherwise shelve whatever it was that they had put their heart and soul into. It's not like I can call up a guy or show up at his doorstep — although I've done that many times, too — and say, 'Hey, I love your music, let me reissue it.' Sometimes it takes years."
Somewhere along the line, Egon began feeling that there was a link between the hip-hop, soul and classic funk of that magical '68-'75 time and the obscure psychedelia of its garage bands and musicians. In the last couple months, Now-Again has come out with some amazing finds, including the multinational psychedelia of Forge Your Own Chains: Heavy Psychedelic Ballads and Dirges 1968-1974; Black Man's Cry: The Inspiration of Fela Kuti; the Whitefield Brothers' extraordinary Earthology; and Oh No's Ethiopium (hip-hop tracks inspired by rare '60s and '70s Ethiopian funk, jazz and psychedelic rock). With each release, Egon seems to be drawing closer to cracking the funk code. It's a lifelong search, and he's only just begun.
"This last week," he says, "I had a license go to a '70s Zambian psychedelic-rock band, Witch. In the early '70s, they did a song called 'We Intend to Cause Havoc'; a license going to a guy in Vegas; a license going to a guy in Texas; finalizing a deal with Kourosh Yaghmaei in Iran; three or four licenses in Nigeria, and a couple of things going on in Indonesia."
Just what is he looking for? What is it that ties all these things together?
"I always had a focus on a certain era of music that I liked, which was this '68 through '75 or '76 thing, when funk first came in. James Brown was of course the godfather of it all — that shit just spread like wildfire and it hit everybody, and everybody did their own take on it. I just wanted to go in and figure out what happened when funk hit, and when funk hit psychedelic rock; what happened when funk hit jazz, what happened in Ethiopia?
"I wanted to find the answers to all that. And I wasn't limiting myself to the independent side of the spectrum. I was really interested in the major-label side, too. Like David Axelrod's shit out here, for instance, which is some of the pinnacle: A guy who loved funk, loved classical music, loved 'third-stream' music, loved jazz, was tripping out on William Blake and decided to do a couple of records based on his poetry. Masterpieces and iconic records for Los Angeles sprung, in a lot of ways, from funk music."