To hear Mark Morales and Wally Caro talk is the sound of teamwork — everything is, "Wally and me thought this," or "When Mark and I decided that." Their unified vision, love of the old school and familial attitude spawned Angel City Records, a 4-year-old label and production company dedicated to L.A.’s soul and ska/reggae subcultures.
Although the two traveled in the same circles for decades — Morales has DJed and collected records for more than 20 years, founding vinyl DJ night Angel City Soul Club, while Caro founded ska band Mobtown in the late ’80s — the two didn’t meet until a show by Northern soul legend Gwen Owens in 2003, where Caro was the bandleader and Morales spun records. They became fast friends, took a two-family trip to Europe, became godparents to each other’s kids and, along the way, began merging their musical worlds.
“We were hanging out at Mark’s house, sitting on the couch, and Mark said, ‘You wanna bring [Jamaican rocksteady legends] The Gaylads over?’” Caro says, laughing. The two would produce shows for years, hosting Motown singer Brenda Holloway, rocksteady singer Derrick Harriott and a weekender with reggae band Sound Dimension, where Morales DJed and Caro backed the bands, which "really set the stage for Angel City Records.”
Since establishing ACR in 2013, the two have turned their label into a Motown-esque production house with a ska bent, complete with house band Thee Hurricanes. Despite also holding down full-time day jobs, Caro and Morales find themselves working every aspect of the business — from artwork production, writing and playing in bands to booking rehearsals and shows for the label’s acts. “We want to have our hands in everything and make sure everything runs smoothly,” Morales says.
Angel City Records has released 13 singles, several compilations and half a dozen CDs for local and international acts including East L.A. ska/reggae stalwarts The Delirians and Jamaican singers Keith & Tex. The label’s first single came from Xiantoni Ari, a Los Angeles–based singer who came to the attention of Angel City as a backup singer for her mother, Gwen Owens.
“The last thing we wanted to do was regurgitate the same people over and over again,” Morales says of the label’s artist roster. “There is a new wave of ska [and soul], it’s happening now and it hasn’t really been pushed that way. Our goal is to be [in] on it.”
Ari’s single, a catchy, Northern soul–influenced crooner called “What’s It Gonna Be,” sold out within about two days and has since been re-pressed three times. It also happened to be the first song Caro wrote for the label. “You have limited creativity when you’re working for the first time," Ari says. "Most big labels wouldn’t care. Because we were both new at it, I think we had more space [to grow].”
Live performances are a big part of Angel City’s plan and are bolstered by Caro and Morales’ years playing at or DJing shows. ACR artists have performed locally at Spike’s in Rosemead and in Europe, often as a revue for the label. Like the soul and ska groups before them, artists on Angel City have to look sharp onstage.
“We want to be sophisticated, classy," Morales says. "The artists from the ’60s were put together. We’re making sure haircuts and clothes are right, the whole image of what these artists are doing. Some of them aren’t really into that scene or that era as much as Wally and I are.” Caro adds that the two of them do a lot of critiquing. “Too much,” Morales says, chuckling.
The pair's attention to detail is a direct result of their devotion to the scenes they grew up in and want to continue to see thrive. “When I was younger, there was an excitement to the scene," says Caro of the ska/reggae scene in the ’80s and early ’90s. "You’d go to the shows and it was a subculture. The bands were great, they looked good, and there were scooters outside. With Angel City Records we want to bring that back."
“There’s just really nothing like [Angel City] around L.A. that I know of. That old-school style of ska/reggae gets pushed aside,” says singer Jackie Mendez, the label's second signed artist. “All the musicians that they were working with are musicians from bands I know of. It’s a lot of work to find people, and when you do find them, they stick with you. That’s what makes the magic. Everyone who’s involved in Angel City has a passion for that music.”
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Caro's and Morales' L.A. roots run deep, and they want to reflect that in their label's music as well. “My grandma is going to be 91 and she’s from Watts," says Caro, who lives outside of Downey but grew up in Whittier. "My dad grew up in Compton and my mom is from East Los Angeles, and my dad would cruise Whittier Boulevard. With Angel City Records, it felt like it was a natural progression into the music. I don’t think about what everybody else is doing; I just think we have this legacy to continue of music in Los Angeles.”
Angel City plans to release new, full-length records from Ari, Mendez and singer/multi-instrumentalist Scott Abels (known as Stahl on the label) as well as another label compilation that features local and international groups. Spanish reggae band The Hypocondriacs will have a slew of singles and is one of several international groups linked up with ACR.
Despite natural butting of heads, creative differences with artists and the general stress of running a small business, Morales and Caro seem tailor-made for the revival records business. “I eat and breathe this stuff, man. I like all kinds of music but this is my stuff,” Morales says. “We've been so immersed in it more than half our lives, I feel like we’ve earned our stake amongst indie labels that are moving along.”
But, he adds, “In a perfect world Wally and I would live down the street from each other.”