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Glomming Onto the Om

San Francisco's top underground dance label brings a big chunk of its stable to town

Like all touring musical artists, DJ Chris Smith, better known as DJ Fluid, will be pitching himself to his fans and, he hopes, to some who don't know that much about his work. But the 30-year-old San Franciscan will be selling more than that on this particular tour. Smith will also be trying to sell folks on Om Records, the San Francisco label that not only releases his albums but also happens to be a label he founded and still runs.

Operating his business while doing a live set in a big city over a thousand miles away sounds like a major headache, but Smith enjoys being not only the president of a music label but also a client. "I wouldn't say it's a hassle at all," he says, calling from Om central in San Fran. "It's just a lot of extra work. I'm here at the label from basically nine to six. And then, for music, it starts at the evenings and weekends."

And ultimately, who better to convince skeptical audiences on the Om sound than the man who created it all? Back in the mid-'90s, Smith sought a label that had durability, as well as an appreciation for the type of grooves he spun. Since he couldn't find one, Smith eventually started Om as an alternative -- his alternative. After a few tottering baby steps -- setting up shop, getting a bit of funding, cutting a few 12-inches -- Om finally released two full-length albums in 1998. Om announced its mission -- to deliver the broadest, most soulful dance music out of San Fran, genres be damned -- with Deep Concentration, a volume of progressive hip-hop from such DJs as Cut Chemist, Prince Paul, Peanut Butter Wolf, the Angel and the X-ecutioners, and Pulled Apart, the debut from chilled-out vocalist Terra Deva.

Chris Smith's Om mantra: Keep things varied, and always be closing.
Chris Smith's Om mantra: Keep things varied, and always be closing.

Says Smith, "We wanted to try to start a funky, underground label that did everything from house to hip-hop."

Mission accomplished. Today, Om boasts a slew of DJs: deep house (DJ Mark Farina, Mark Grant, Marques Wyatt), techno (Juan Atkins) and breakbeat (Ming & FS). Producers, remixers and anyone else who's really good at crafting an underground dance album are also in the stable.

Om offers freedom to its artists. Established decknicians can break away from their old sound and dabble in a new one. Last year, for example, Philadelphia musical mischief maker King Britt joined the label and dropped a trippy platter of deep house under the alias SCUBA. Work from electronic dance collectives, like the sweeping music of "electronic soul orchestra" Soulstice, has also found a home at Om, and the label even has its own in-house hip-hop group, the happy-go-lucky People Under the Stairs. As for Smith, he belongs to another one of those electronic beat collectives, an Afro-Brazilian/techno percussion ensemble known as Afro-Mystik, whose new album, Morphology, boasts a nod to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew on the cover and an Afro-house sound that's as smart as it is spirited in the grooves.

Since many of these artists share the same musical tastes, they often appear on each other's albums, further strengthening the label's "United Nations of Future Music" ethos. The just-dropped J Boogie's Dubtronic Science features guest shots from People Under the Stairs, Soulstice's Gina Rene and Afro-Mystik's Omega and Capital A.

"Basically, we have kind of a small family of artists here, and everyone knows each other," Smith says. "And when you have musical artists that are working in the same circle, they all tend to wanna collaborate with each other, and that's definitely working to everyone's advantage."

For Smith, finding new talent isn't as much of an issue as it was back in the day. Sometimes you end up finding it right under your nose. Take the case of his current tourmate Kaskade. Before he was Kaskade, native Chicagoan Ryan Raddon was a production assistant. When Raddon moved to San Francisco in 1999, Smith hired him as an office lackey, unaware that the man had been immersed in the legendary Chicago house scene since 1985, and was already a well-versed house DJ. Raddon was too shy to hand his boss a demo and tell him to listen to it, but he cut a few under the Kaskade handle and piled them on the stacks in Smith's office. Smith liked what he heard, and Raddon had to find out how to break the news to Smith that his next signed artist was the guy that makes the coffee.

Kaskade's full-length debut, It's You, It's Me, dropped earlier this year, and Raddon is thoroughly proud of it because it encompasses more than just programmed house grooves.

"There's a lot of live, organic elements on the album: a lot of Rhodes, a lot of keyboards, a lot of live bass, percussion," Raddon says. "I knew [that] in order to go to the next level, I was gonna have to become more melodic and get more lyrical and involve more musicians."

And now, Raddon and Smith are touring a showcase to spotlight the kind of, well, fluid music Om Records excels at. Frisco has long been a fertile breeding ground for independent labels that specialize in distinctive and energetic artists -- Asphodel, Six Degrees and the hip-hop heavy Quannum come to mind -- but Om sticks out because it stands by the quality of its product. Om is confident about its stuff, and finding a record label that believes wholeheartedly in its every release is damn near migraine-inducing.

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