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Ruff Rockers

On the back of Japanic's new CD, Red Book, is in small typeface, "2000 Plethorazine. All Rights Reserved." No logo. No bold lettering. Just a record label name with the necessary legal notice.

Well, if Thomas Escalante gets his wish, that might change dramatically -- or at least figuratively. The president, CEO and sole employee of Plethorazine, which he founded between gigs as lead singer with the Suspects, wants to model his indie-rock imprint after contemporary rap labels. This doesn't mean he wants Japanic lead singer Tex Kerschen wearing gold chains and diamond-encrusted rings, but he would like Tex to feel the love for his Plethorazine labelmates.

Known more for their stables of artists than their individual stars, rap labels such as Ruff Ryders, No Limit, Cash Money and, here in Houston, Wreckshop, Dope House and Rap-A-Lot fashion themselves as families or cliques -- not as heartless office-studios where random artists pass in and out and hardly speak to one another. Escalante's reasons for creating such a rock label are, though highly idealistic, both practical and aesthetic.

Thomas Escalante (second from left, second row) has created a new record label that functions like a co-op and is inspired by rap family labels such as Dope House and Wreckshop.
Thomas Escalante (second from left, second row) has created a new record label that functions like a co-op and is inspired by rap family labels such as Dope House and Wreckshop.

Yet the label differs from those in rap -- and according to Southwest Wholesale's Greg Ellis, most labels in general -- in that it is, in Escalante's words, "like a co-op." Bands bring Escalante masters, camera-ready album artwork and a check. Southwest, where incidentally Escalante works as an account representative, presses CDs and agrees to distribute product where there is demand. "If there's demand in Nashville," says Escalante, whose Plethorazine "office" consists of little more than a single phone number, "[Southwest] can get it there." Escalante says he receives no payment, being sure to add he receives no preferential treatment from Southwest and that Plethorazine bands profit only after covering expenditures.

Therein lies the beauty of the deal: Bands take full responsibility for the promotion and sale of their records.

As part of the deal, bands informally agree to help promote and advertise other Plethorazine acts -- a trick straight outta Compton, where N.W.A. pushed not only N.W.A., but all of the individual artists (who were, not coincidentally, mostly members of N.W.A.) on its label, Ruthless. When Middlefinger's new album, Digitus Impudicus, is released this month, Escalante says, the members of other Plethorazine bands, such as Japanic, the Suspects, Janitor and Austin's Wannabes, will help distribute flyers, promote shows and do other assorted dirty deeds whenever possible. The practical hope, he says, is that Plethorazine bands will be able to share advertising and promotions costs. The artistic hope is that these groups, which Escalante handpicks, develop a supportive environment.

"There aren't any problems with rappers," says Escalante, who, as a worker bee at the company most Dirty South rap record companies employ, witnesses first-hand "the love" among rap artists under one label's roof. "They all help each other. And that's a big problem with the rock scene: not enough people helping each other."

In his highly idealized world, Escalante envisions a rock label similar to South Park Mexican's Dope House. "All the artists are on the label, and they all help out," he says. "It's more of a label. There's a lot of camaraderie. And that's something that's missing in rock or alternative rock or whatever you wanna call it."

Part of the reason tight-knit relationships are scarce among rockers is the culture. Rappers depend on familiars for survival in their urban surroundings; it's no coincidence rap record labels have begun filling the emotional voids left behind by gangs. In rock, there is an individualism mentality, as if there weren't enough spotlight to go around the room. How to reconcile rock's DIY spirit with rap's together-we-stand attitude is Escalante's challenge.

And Southwest's Ellis adds: "Rock bands would rather spend time dissin' each other than helping each other outŠ.Their street culture is not as active as rap's; things there spread by word of mouth."

Says Japanic's Kerschen of the deal: "It's working out well. And Thomas has a background in music and a commitmentŠ.We were shopping around, and we couldn't get anything hard-and-fast from anyone."

The idea of label families goes back to the 1960s and the Motown Revue ("featuring Stevie Wonder and the Jackson Five") and Hitsville in Detroit, where the same house band that played behind the Supremes also played behind the Temptations -- much like the way, say, Swizz Beatz produces all the beats for the Ruff Ryders, or Noke D and Double D (as Platinum Soul Productions) lay down tracks for all of Wreckshop's rappers.

Of course, unlike their predecessors, contemporary rap labels theoretically have territory to defend (e.g. Houston's south side or the Magnolia section of New Orleans, where Cash Money is based) and playa-haters to give the smackdown to. Keeping it really real is the fact that most of these rap labels are indeed, in Mafia argot, actual families. Cash Money was founded by brothers Ron and Brian Williams; Ruff Ryders by cousins Darrin Joaquin and Chivon Dean; Wreckshop by brothers DReck and Floyd Dixon; and Dope House by Carlos Coy and sister Sylvia Coy.

In the local indie scene, there is no turf. No blood bonds. The only things motivating Plethorazine acts are lost monies and a general sense of support for the local scene. They should fare well.

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