Eothen Alapatt (known also as Egon), the former General Manager for Stonesthrow who veered off and started his own record label Now Again, is more of a storyteller than a label executive. His 11-year tenure with Stonesthrow started with a deep love affair with independent hip-hop in the early 2000s. Now he’s more fascinated with articulating the journeys of obscure Iranian psychedelic legends, Brazilian crooners, and military funk bands during the Vietnam War. Egon never ceases to be wide-eyed and eager to unravel what he calls the 40-year music continuum that connects Now Again reissues with their roster of new musicians. What’s important is that they all deeply understand the universality of the work, whether through hip-hop, jazz, funk or soul.
You recently officially left Stonesthrow right?
Friday was my last day. 11 years—a long time. I’m thirty-three now, and I started there when I was twenty-two. I had just turned twenty-two. Friday was my 11th year. It’s just with all this stuff that’s been going on with Now Again, and the stuff I do with Madlib, I basically had my hands full. And to deal with it at that point, I was just like, what am I going to focus on, you know? I just did the Aloe Blacc record over there, which is a really great record. I was really proud of that, and it did really well. It was just a good time to leave I guess.
What was your background with Stonesthrow?
Early on when Stonesthrow first started in ’96, I was a college radio DJ in Nashville, where I was going to school. I’m from the North East (from Connecticut), but I went to school down in Nashville, and back then it was sort of the independent hip-hop revival that was going on in New York, starting in around ’94 there were just a bunch of cool independents were popping up around. By ’96—there were just a whole bunch of them. If you guys remember, there was a record store called Rock and Soul on 34th and 7th Avenue or something like that. Rock and Soul was a great store. It was the first one that I noticed—prior to Fat Beats really blowing up—to have just an independent section. And then of course, Fat Beats blew up and I was just intrigued by the independent hip-hop scene and really wanted to try to focus on it on my radio station, which was rather large—all things considered—it was one of the biggest ones in Tennessee. I was able to twist it into something. I got all of these independent labels to send me music. Stonesthrow was one of the first from the West Coast that I was really interested in, and after 4-5 releases on the label, I was like, “Oh man this is a great label, I really liked everything that they are doing. You know, I should try to work for Stonesthrow someday.” And in about 2000 I had just made that a reality, and moved out to Los Angeles to work with [Peanut Butter] Wolf, the founder of the label, Jeff Jank who had moved out from being the Art Director in San Francisco where the label was based, and Madlib who had just released the Quasimoto album, The Unseen, which was the first album I worked on there, and was getting ready to move to Los Angeles from Santa Barbara where he was living.
That was really my first gig, but prior to that I had of course done the internships. I interned at Loud in New York when they were doing the Big Pun and Mobb Deep albums and all that. I had really taken it on myself because I was a DJ, so I figured I should just do what I can to meet DJs. I would get on a bus and take White Label to a Bahamadia show in Philly—literally get on a Peter Pan bus, paying for it myself, just so that I would have something to do. I only had as much to do as they wanted, but the Loud Records thing—as cool as it was, and as fun as it was working under Chris Lamonica, who brought me on the Pete Rock record, and a couple of other cool records too, and they were doing radio promotions and the Big Pun record was a big deal back then. It was cool to watch that all happen, and Chris Lamonica himself was actually really an interesting guy who taught me a lot, but I was like “I can’t see myself working in a corporate environment like this,” and even though Loud was indie, it was still a really corporate vibe. They had the old man accountant sitting there, and then they had the accountant’s son working there. Steve Rifkind was there with the really attractive Puerto Rican secretary. It’s such a cliché. I couldn’t really fuck with it. I was really bummed out after that summer, even though I really learned a lot.
I was meeting a whole bunch of these dope musicians, and one of them was Galt MacDermot, who did the “Hair” soundtrack, sampled by lots of cats. I met him and his son, and I knew they had an independent record label, which was what I was more interested in than stuff that they had done on the majors. When I went back to school, his son called me up and said, “Next summer rather than you going to work for another hip-hop label, or trying to get another internship, we’ll pay you to work for us. Why don’t you just come out, spend four months where you can either live in Staten Island, or get an apartment somewhere and we’ll just pay you to work for us on Staten Island.”
That’s how you got the connect for the Oh No project?
Yeah. It was literally through that. That was during the time that I was throwing shows in Nashville and bringing guys from Stonesthrow down there. That was wonderful, but I didn’t really put out any records, I was just really messing around doing bootlegs and silly shit to make money. I was working with a bunch of hip-hop guys. The Galt stuff was a mess. He had just tons of reels to reels to master tapes. I went through and put together a couple of anthologies that I started to get out when I was in college.
Wolf would see me doing that stuff. When I was at Loud, it was right when Wolf was putting his “My Vinyl Weighs a Ton” record. I was there at Loud, and I was mailing out promos from Loud, with the Loud label on it. People paid more attention to it than they did Stonesthrow at the time.
There was a transitional period by the time I got to California. I had met the intervening year of careers tracking down all of these musicians, and basically pitching them the same thing that I had ultimately pitched to Galt, who brought me out there to catalogue his music rather than reissue it. But I was like, “I can do quite a bit here, just give me an opportunity. I’ll reissue this stuff, and I’ll bet you over time we’ll find a way to make some music out of it,” which was the case with Galt’s stuff. Not only from Oh No sampling it, but like [MF] Doom sampled some of it on one of his last records, and there were a bunch of placements on film and T.V. shows, but I pitched all of these funk and soul musicians that I met on the same thing. One of the people during that period was Lee Anthony from True Soul—and if you knew—that record literally came out last month, 11 years after it all started. Long story man.
It’s amazing because I see your projects still all evolving right now. I’m certain that it’s been a dope ride for you.
Oh man, it’s been a lot of fun. I’m not going to lie, there’s been a lot of down points too. I mean, the fact is working in a declining industry, the music industry just seems to get worse and worse every year. It doesn’t get worse for me personally, it doesn’t get worse for Madlib. It doesn’t get worse for people who are paying attention and trying to find new ways to make money, but as a whole, it seems to get worse and harder to make money, so I’ve kind of combated that on my own side, and I’ve got to give a lot of thanks to people like Jeff Jank and Stonesthrow who’ve showed me how to do this early on, to pay attention to how music is packaged and presented and presents the music as more than just a commodity. If you buy the True Soul album in a hardbound 2 CD booklet, or Koroush, which is the Iranian psychedelic record that we put up on Stonesthrow. You are really buying into, not a luxury item, but you are buying a deluxe piece of history that you are going to hold onto, or at least that’s my idea.
It’s almost like a textbook, or a piece of instruction, right?
That’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. You are supposed to be able to deal with it on your own terms. You maybe never heard of Iran being mentioned in the news, but you sit down and you read Koroush’s story, and you listen to his music, and you take from it what you will. The whole point for me at least, is to try to be as objective about this stuff as possible, while remaining involved in it. I know that my viewpoint has something to do with the way that it’s presented because I’m the one putting the package together, but still, with that bias, I try to remove myself a little bit, and allow it to kind of go through and let people take from it what they will.
How do you research artists? What is the entire process?
A lot of that actually came from when I went to school. I went to school for philosophy, basically because I knew I wanted to do music, but I needed to pick a major, and I always was into philosophy. I gravitated towards the aesthetic side of philosophy. Luckily I went to a university that encouraged an open-minded dialogue between students and the professors. I was able to chart my own course and do a bunch of really interesting things—meetings of music and aesthetics—and go back to the people who did score based annotation and the implications of what happens when you create a score, or the artists and the age of mechanical reproduction, and relate all that to sampling and hip-hop. And I was always really into that.
One of the things that I realized at my school was, they had a good music school. There was a young professor, he was an associate professor at the time but he was an ethnomusicologist who traveled around Africa, and basically tried to figure out how music was used as a cause for social change. He was very interested in how music was used to combat AIDS in Africa, and actually the summer that I ended up taking the gig with Galt MacDermot, I had the opportunity to travel with him around Lake Victoria.
Those were the two competing ideas. I was either going to go with him to Lake Victoria to figure out what was going on there, and how these people were using this music to affect social change, this was all folk music basically, or to go work with Galt. I took the gig with Galt because it was more in line with what I wanted to do at that moment, which was to put out records, but his approach, which was an ethnomusicologist’s approach, was the one that stuck with me the most. Let’s just say you hear something as a person or lover of music, and it intrigues you and you think about it, and you listen to it, and you try to distill what it is that intrigues or fascinates you the most. You go searching for the root of that. That’s really the way that I approach it with. The Stonesthrow stuff, what intrigued me was the quality of the music. Digging further and being in a different thread that came together to create this enterprise, which allowed musicians to forge the story of Lee Anthony: the background that he came from being a sharecropper’s son, and what he was able to do. It’s kind of the untold side story of what made Memphis so great. That was equally as important. So that’s what the project focuses on. It’s very American “from the bootstraps” story, alongside this cutting edge, rather quirky, rather reverent music that he and his compatriots made.
Or in the case of Koroush, it was the idea that in the face of great adversity, the person, a musician specifically who believes enough in himself, can maintain a fire burning for very many years, and witness a third act if you will, play out towards the end of his life. Koroush, he’s in his 70s, he still lives in Tehran where he’s been since he was 1 years old. For the past thirty-two years, he’s suffered a performance and recording ban for twenty-two of them, yet right now he’s seeing all of the music which he saved after the revolution, and the Islamic fundamentalists really went and sought out and destroyed almost everything that he and his pre-revolution musicians created. He saved it and he is now seeing it released through the world, in a way that back in the day, even the largest Iranian star would not have seen. Maybe he’s not selling thousands and thousands of copies, but anybody who cares, can now find out what his music sounds like, and ultimately the reward trickles down to him. That to me is equally as important as the music. That’s the way that I approach all this kind of stuff. I try to really figure out exactly what the narrative is going to be, and put that forth with the music that I can find, and that’s that.
Stay Tuned for Part II of the Interview
Interview by Malik Abdul-Rahmaan