Label manager Shaun Koplow is hunkered down in the Anticon Records war room. His phone is silent, but his desk is occupied by a mountain of to-do’s and a MacBook that never stops asking for attention. In quieter moments, he’ll feed the koi in the pond outside, but those are rare, and his boss looms behind him: a wall stacked high with some of the last decade’s most inspired forays into hip-hop-tinged left-field music. Among some bona fide classics (Sole’s Bottle of Humans, Themselves’ Them, for two) and an occasional miss are a whole lot of brilliant bits whose sum is a significant whole indeed.
“My father tried to push me away from music, but I always wanted to be involved,” Koplow says. “He thought I should do what I want after I’ve done what I should … have something to fall back on. At some point I’ll probably realize that’s true.”
But he can’t really believe that — it’s been an exceptionally good year for his label.
Flagship band Why? has been on the road since March supporting its new album, Alopecia. The record has not only already outsold its 2005 predecessor, Elephant Eyelash, but its addictively odd amalgam of pop, folk and rap also seems capable of bending buzz to its will. Last November, in a review of the album’s first single, “The Hollows,” a snarky Pitchforker derided front man (and label co-founder) Yoni Wolf’s lyrics as “verbal diarrhea.” By June, the site had given Alopecia a firm recommendation and was issuing breaking news about the case of the mumps Wolf had come down with in Holland.
The new talent didn’t hurt, either. Koplow found a rising star in Son Lux, an electronics maestro who was unknown until Anticon released his autumnal opus, At War with Walls & Mazes. Hella drummer Zach Hill sought out his “dream label” (says Koplow) for the vinyl edition of his solo debut, Astrological Straits. Black Moth Super Rainbow mastermind Tobacco releases his new full-length via Anticon this week (the BMSR MySpace page emphasizes that Fucked Up Friends is not a side project), and last month, the label announced the signing of Anathallo, the Chicago baroque pop ensemble that sold some 17,000 copies of their last record, Floating World, sans label.
Add to that a new Dosh record that brought Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Andrew Bird into the fold (via collaboration); a compilation from audio collagist (and Anticon co-founder) Odd Nosdam, which included work with Boards of Canada; and a forthcoming Ghengis Tron remix EP that wrangles Lucky Dragons and Subtle (the Lex Records sextet anchored by Anticon core duo Themselves — Doseone and Jel), and, well, it seems things have gone smashingly since Anticon moved its HQ from the Bay Area to L.A.
But there are two unlikely elements at work here. First, the office’s current location isn’t exactly Los Angeles proper. Although Anticon’s recent developments would ostensibly befit a label come to roost in the home of the music industry, all of this was accomplished from a back house in Tarzana, separated by a Valley-issue pool from the Koplow family abode.
“It was a personal decision,” Koplow says. He’s understandably wary of this point. “I was thinking about moving to New York, but I couldn’t save money living on Haight Street. I was talking to my father, and he says, ‘Why not move down, run Anticon from the house?’ I was like, ‘Yeah fucking right.’ But two weeks later, I’m thinking, ‘That’s kind of a great idea.’ If I stay for a full year, I’ll move to the Eastside.”
The second unlikely element is Koplow himself, who is 24 (making him 15 when Anticon was incorporated), though he doesn’t look a day past drinking age. He majored in art at UC Berkeley, has a fetish for rare vinyl and sneakers, is an enthusiastic showgoer, and grew up in a clique of “West L.A. Jewish backpacker kids.” Contrast this with the scowling gray-hairs of record label yesteryear. (“I don’t even have any chest hair,” Koplow jokes. “I get three that grow really long, and then I trim them.”) Appropriately, Koplow’s approach to reinvigorating Anticon has earned him the nickname Lil Suge (as in Knight). He was a fan first, an intern in 2001, and in 2006 was hired to help then-label-manager Baillie Parker through a tight spot. “If we were going to continue to be taken seriously as a label,” Koplow says, “we had to be a label — not a group of artists putting out each other’s records in a repeating cycle. Press treated it like any old hip-hop posse: Why?’s music would get compared to Sole’s, and it’s not remotely the same. We started to hear, ‘Well, I just covered Anticon.’”
Anticon was founded by seven outwardly white rap-makers (plus Parker) on self-imposed exile from the prevailing underground. The collective’s first release was designed to polarize — an EP of heady sonics and rhymes titled Hip-Hop Music for the Advanced Listener. If you agreed, it was just that: a truism made good by seminal projects like Deep Puddle Dynamics and cLOUDDEAD. If you didn’t, Anticon was the embodiment of racial and artistic co-optation (which, in fact, it was the opposite of). Either way, its artists were alone, together.
Starting in 2006, the word “collective” disappeared from Anticon’s press releases, Koplow began to actively petition record stores to evacuate their blanket “Anticon” sections, and all involved worked on finding new acts (the eight co-owners function as a somewhat terrifying gauntlet of A&R men). According to Koplow, press was slow to react — the label’s issue of an unreleased mid-’90s would-be boom-bap classic (Darc Mind’s Symptomatic of a Greater Ill) amounted to a whiff — but the wheels were greased.
Parker handed Koplow the keys in May 2007, and his youthful enthusiasm may very well be Anticon’s new guiding light. He views his job more as curator than manager, relishing the details of remixes, colored vinyl, mail-order bonus discs and viral video campaigns (Why?’s climb didn’t come without a few well-placed rungs, after all). Coincidence or no, the wrong-headed comparisons are lessening, the vitriolic e-Hate is fading (their message board was famously brutal), and any aural expansion goes mostly unquestioned. It seems the concept of Anticon as record label has finally taken hold.
“Interestingly, it’s actually becoming easier to celebrate the past now,” Koplow says. “One way I hope that will come about is by putting out unreleased material from the original core, but I don’t want to just cash in our chips. It would have to be worthwhile.”
Anticon fans are a particularly ravenous cult. A 2001 tour disc from the Object Beings (Dose, Pedestrian, Why?) recently eBay’d for around $185 — and it was a second edition. But as tempting a thought as a rarities compilation is, new ground has always been Anticon’s terra firma. Koplow is clearly excited for 2009, his label’s 10th year. He confirms that there’s a second Why? album “in the holster,” recorded during the Alopecia sessions, which could see daylight as soon as next spring. And there are a few rumors worth entertaining as well:
• In January, Chicago’s baritoned rap role player Serengeti (think MF DOOM meets Randy Newman) let slip via MySpace that his next album would be released by Koplow and co. He quickly rescinded, with blogs reporting it had all been a big joke. The punch line was conspicuously absent.
• A year earlier, old friend and Canadian legend Buck 65 advised LAist that he’s “tighter with Anticon than most people realize,” and promised “more work in the future.” His new Bike For Three! collaboration with Belgian producer Greetings From Tuskan is reportedly due out in January — (insert ominous scoring here) — label TBA.
• Six years on, since their last proper album, Themselves have been popping up (a September gig at the Knitting Factory New York featured Buck too), and Dose has acknowledged new material. In July, with characteristic vim and vigor, he told Tiny Mix Tapes: “I’m getting the Rambo knife of honesty sharp as can be … I deeply resent the ‘hair-metalling’ of rap … [It] makes me wanna serve some justice.”
Naturally, Koplow is silent on all counts, but he offers this much: “We have a few signings on the table that are established — people with releases under their belts. Things are kinda coming full circle.” He stops himself, and it’s hard to tell just who is talking — Koplow, the “kid” who still downloads the occasional lost Sole bootleg, or Lil Suge, the happy hustler.