ALL MIXED UP
Y'know, back in the day when that David guy knocked out that big ol' Goliath dude, it was hardly an even match. Yet David ended up kickin' ass. Why? He believed in what he was doing. He was committed. He was righteous.
Not to get all "bornagain" on ya folks, but the tale is fitting when we talk about the music biz circa 2003. "Music" is out, "product" is in. Incredibly, there are only four major labels in the United States. That doesn't bode well for creative, vibrant music-making. The "Big Four" are more than content to keep giving us way more Britneys, Ja Rules, and Matchbox 27s than could ever possibly be needed in this world. So, kids, like in that groovy parable, the long-suffering villagers (that's you, the intelligent, epiphany-seeking music listeners) gotta hope for a miracle.
L.A.'s Mush Records to the rescue. Playing David to the Goliath of mega-merger major-label blandness, it's hurling rocks of cool, refreshing musical innovation at the tone-deaf giant. (Okay, I'm done with all the fancy metaphor shit.)
Our story begins in Cincinnati, Ohio, when this guy, Robert (Curcio), and this lady, Lulu Mushi (a.k.a. Cindy Roche), had a conversation about music. Not product, but actual music. "I was running a recording studio in Cincinnati," Curcio recalls, "and I rented out some time to artists like [her]. One day we were talking about her music - I liked it a lot - and how there wasn't really an outlet for more challenging downtempo electronic music. So we decided, the two of us, to start something small - put out some EPs."
In 2000, after getting a much better response for the EPs than expected, the duo expanded the business to include full-length releases, got a publicist, designed full artwork, and put things out on CD. "It built up from there," Curcio says. In 2002, after a stint in NYC, the Mush operation moved to Los Angeles, drawn by the city's vibrant underground music scene and, um, the yummy weather.
With basic logistics locked, Mush proceeded to make a name for itself by spawning some of the most eyebrow-raising electro/free/hip-trip-hop/jazzclash tuneage ever burned onto plastic. The launching pad for many of these audio excursions is the sample/ cut & paste methodology. The DIY democracy of sample-based output has often produced questionable results, but in the hands of a button-pusher with Vision, previously unimaginable aural juxtapositions can really flip your wig - which is frequently the case with Mush acts such as Daedelus, Omid, Clue to Kalo, and many others.
Does the label purposely seek out brave new artists that consciously crush genre grapes into hard-to-identify sonic mush? "We've always been most interested in the music that crosses genre boundaries, that's a little bit hard to classify," Curcio affirms. "Stuff with really strong lyrics, but maybe a little more challenging and not quite so poppy. We try to put out stuff that fits between genres."
But fear not, good people. Mush doesn't serve up faddish triple-genre masturbatory excesses for trainspotty next-trend geeks. It actually produces singular albums with artistic integrity and distinct identities, operating much like the innovative jazz labels of the '50s. The company seeks out artists with a particular sound and pedigree, sticks 'em in the lab, then lets loose with whatever they mix up. WellÉ there's a little structure to this risk-taking technique.
"We tend to look for an artist that is a little more fearless," Curcio explains. "They're willing to try something different, combinations that aren't necessarily the proven, established norm. So we'll end up with a record like The Weather, where [L.A. producer] Daedelus made the music. It's very quirky electronic music, but it's got MCs Busdriver and Radioinactive doing something more stream-of-consciousness on top of it - more-out-there."
This unique A&R policy was ideal for Daedelus, a.k.a. Alfred Weisberg-Roberts. "Many labels try to push the boundaries," he says. "Mush has a tendency to push back." His recent release is a genre-bending tour de force of deft rhyming and wacky humor, with an intermittent political bent, a la "pen's Oil": "Just because the world runs on oil, doesn't mean oil men should run the world."
Indeed, much of Mush's "hip-hop" offspring are descended from pioneering trip-hopper Tricky's early mutant audio ejaculations, only the Mush stuff is more avant, more outside. All pay tribute indirectly to the trailblazers of weird for weird's sake; freak-flag godfathers De La Soul (pre-label pressure to produce hits). An early breakout for the imprint was Boom Bip and Doseone's one-off collab Circle - a bugged-out phantasmagoria of druggy beats, atmospheric samples, and ornithology references. Then came the psycho-surreal Eno-esque soundscapes of cLOUDDEAD, an offshoot of San Fran's Anticon collective. The collective helped define the label's freeform aesthetic and drew tons of critical raves from the English music press.
One of the Mush's dopest new prospects is L.A. based hip-hop producer Omid. His new joint, Monolith, is a pulsating blend of bangin' beats, fluid flows, and exotic ethnic samples - a natural fit for the label. "This record kinda combines what he did with [his first two albums] Beneath the Surface and Distant Drummer into one package that really shows what he can do," Curcio says. "It's really good, strong work. He definitely has the respect of the MCs he works with. They seem to give him their best." No doubt. Monolith features several impressive instrumental tracks, but it's the vocal turns by quest MCs Hymnal, spoon, and Abstract Rude that really get the vibe hyped. The set's standout track, "Live from Tokyo," finds local legend Aceyalone (Freestyle Fellowship) ridin' the rhythm alongside Luckyiam. PSC, Slug, and Murs in a fast-and-furious dissfest.
Omid had released a lot of work over the years with small indie labels, but Mush made him an offer he couldn't refuse. He accepted the challenge. "They said, 'Do whatever you want to do,' which actually made me work harder and try to outdo myself," Omid says.
Another example of the label's "good ears" is Australia's Clue to Kalo (a.k.a. mark Mitchell). The shimmering glitch-hop-pop of Come Here When You Sleepwalk is proof that electronic music can be emotive and organic Mitchell's CD is a striking melange of blip, beats, and occasional airy vocals, but it's doubtful it would've found a home on any of the veteran U.S. indie electronic labels. On Mush, it's a modest stateside success.
"Mush actively encourages its artists to experiment and try new things, and that's a great way to be treated by a label," Mitchell says. "Their aesthetic isn't rigid. You can take risks." Clue's burgeoning fan base is deep enough to warrant a 28-day U.S. tour that jumped off last weekend at the Echo.
And, so, friends, armed only with an inventive creative approach and a true love of music, Mush Records lives another day to fight against the merciless, MOR major monolith with 50-plus releases to date and a slew of new albums dropping soon (including Listener, Thavius Beck, and Villain Accelerate). The serious devotee, the slightly curious, and the merely bored now have tasty rations of Mush music to give them a chance of surviving the Shock and Awe campaign of soulless Teenybop, AOR Lite, and Diddy-Hop.
"I think people will want to hear from a label that's restless," Mitchell concludes. "It's cool that you might love some of their records and miss the boat on others. It's exciting that you don't really know what's coming next."