Eothen Alapatt (known also as Egon), the former General Manager for Stonesthrow, who veered off to start 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.
How has bringing artists from obscurity brought recognition and opportunities to these musicians?
The True Soul guys particularly. It’s not like a second chance. It’s not like many of these people actually went away—these people have been around making music, maybe not with the same intensity or same drive as the early 70s or the late 60s or whatever—but they’ve been making music still in the same exact way that they used to. The thing that the True Soul anthology did was kept these people, some of whom are in their late 60s and early and late 70s, some in their late 70s, together again; talking about what it was that they created, thinking about the past—and in this very instance—some of them got back together and started playing again and doing gigs, “The True Soul Revue,” which is something that I think they probably wouldn’t have anticipated happening in their wildest dreams.
When they were doing this music, it was immediate. It was the music of the clubs, it was the music of their communities. Of course now it’s a retro thing, which their community doesn’t immediately embrace. They are finding that, these True Soul guys, they are playing in front of white audiences more than they have in the past, because their white audiences are more interested in the legitimate beginnings of this American music, funk and soul thing. They are happy to do it, traveling around Arkansas doing charity gigs, doing this, and doing that, and playing at Morgan Freeman’s restaurant in Mississippi or whatever. These are the kinds of things that thrilled them, and it thrilled me. Shoot, I get to hear it in their voices when they talk to me about what it is that this anthology made possible. Part of it is this kind of soul revival that, like I said, I don’t think any of them imagined would have happened.
When you first approach these guys, what are the typical responses? Are they like, “How do you know about me?”
Oh yeah, certainly. It was different about 10-15 years ago, 14 years ago when I really started doing this. I was so young, people were just taken aback that somebody in their late teens, early twenties, would even possibly be interested in any of this stuff. The shock! But now, I’m a man, I’ve been doing this for a long time, I know what language to use. Although there’s a bit of disbelief I think when I, let’s just say, get in touch with musicians from Zambia, and say “Hey, I found you through this person,” they can vouch for me, and I can do this, this and this. I have come to find a, “What are you offering?” and “How can we take it from here?”—type approach.
Now we have a catalogue, and I’ve built up somewhat of a reputation so now even these people who maybe further and further removed— Koroush is a good example of that. I mean, I don’t speak his language. Everything that was done was relayed to him from his son who lives in Vancouver. That was an interesting scenario, but it was more like a—and I don’t say this lightly—there was a spiritual connection that he was searching for. And once he felt that he found it with me, which again is odd, considering that we’ve only ever communicated to each other in letters, he said “I want to do this, and I want to do this on my terms.”
Why do you think people are drawn to this obscure music? Are you surprised by the reaction?
Yeah, the way that I’ve looked at all of this kind of stuff, it’s supposed to be thrilling, and perplexing and intriguing. That’s really what music is supposed to be, at least for me it is. Ever since I was a kid, I gravitated towards the odder sound, I didn’t really—I mean shit—every kid likes pop music, and I listened to Paula Abdul and all that shit that was on Rick Dees weekly top 40 in the ’80s. We didn’t have a T.V, we listened to either my parent’s record collection or the radio. I listened to whatever was on the radio. After a small deviation from stuff that I grew up with when I was a kid, which was a bit esoteric and weird, I found myself doing the same thing, and lucky enough I fell into hip-hop at a really good time in hip-hop’s trajectory.
Hip-hop to me is kind of boring now, with the exception of what people like Madlib do. I’m pretty bored with pop side of hip-hop. I’m like, what is intriguing? What haven’t people heard nowadays? When I’m in a club and I’m lucky enough to play music, maybe 4 years ago there was a lot of Turkish psychedelic music, which at that time not that many people were playing. Now I play a lot of Angolan music from the 70s, because it’s not what people are playing but it’s beautiful, rhythmic music, which perplexes me in the same way that the Turkish stuff did. It’s not like there a lot of places where you can play this stuff.
There are clubs where you just have to play a prescribed form of music. It’s part of the reason why I got bored of DJing. Hey, I understand it. A club owner has to make money, but the kind of stuff that I play is not for modern people to consume, as readily as I would have liked them to be. With the dissemination of so much music and information you’d think that people are a little more open minded, but seems like it’s almost the exact opposite.
Now Again signs new artists like Breakestra and Seu Jorge. How do you find these groups to fit the mission for the label?
It comes down to this idea of, the Now Again stuff is supposed to be the past forty years of music, different paths converging. That may be in a reissue, or it might be new music, which attempts to address those different convergences and making new pop. That’s where the Heliocentrics come in. those guys are fully educated, very deep musicians. They wouldn’t have worked with Lloyd Miller, or Mulatu Astatke, or done that first record with Now Again if they weren’t uniquely aware of the disparate elements that were forged together 40 years ago.
Seu Jorge is a totally different thing. He is a Brazilian who is entranced by American music, Brazilian music, African music, European classical music, and he’s fusing it together in something unique, and literally helping lead a country to good music again. He’s perfect for Now Again. That to me can coexist very easily next to these reissues we’re doing because we all listen to the same stuff.
When Jorge was in LA, and we were driving from one place to another, he was playing me a CD of Lebanese music and Iranian stuff, and I was like “Of course you are listening to this. Of course you are a Black Brazilian from the Favela who understands music from all over the globe, and people pigeonhole you because you are a Black Brazilian from the Favela. I mean, Nike would like to shoot you shirtless playing football. You know what I mean? But you’re not that, you are a really deep person who understands this convergence that I’m talking about.” The problem is finding people like Jorge who have the ability to transcend a certain boundary. I mean a lot of these guys that I work with are amazing musicians, but they make very difficult to design music that is hard to translate to the masses. That’s definitely the challenge, and that’s why I sign them too.
These musicians seem to have a deeper connection to their craft, rather than the industry right?
My whole thing is that, I’m keenly interested in the music industry. I hope that it doesn’t disappear. I read obituaries nowadays more than I read anything else, which is tell of the tales of the time gone by. You read about these tremendous managers or lawyers, or label execs, or producers or whatever, and they all have amazing stories, and they all made really great pop records, or did iconic stuff that somehow resulted in quality, but I don’t know when my obituary will be written.
I don’t know who will write it, I don’t know if anyone will write it. I don’t know if it will just be something spoken about in my funeral, but I really hope no one is saying, “He always made incredible pop music that I don’t remember. He made so much money doing this, and he did this. And he was so successful when he orchestrated this deal, which made this for this.” No man. Really what I hope someone says is that “He lived his life trying to be good to people around him, including musicians he worked with, and he tried to find interesting music, and find a way to convey it to everybody who would listen. And he didn’t bother himself with whether that was one person or a million. He just tried to get the music out there.” And that’s what we’re all doing. It could be with a club, or it could be reissuing a CD, or it could be helping Seu Jorge get a record out and try to show a different side of him to an audience that wants him to be a caricature. That’s really what my mission is.
That’s a beautiful obituary. I’ve had mad respect for Stonesthrow and Now Again because you all are good people.
I really do feel like, I feel this with Madlib, and I feel it with Jeff [Jank], who I’ve worked with for 11 years. We’re all very different, but damn man, we love this shit! I loved Jay D, and the fact that he died at 32 tore open a hole in my soul that still hasn’t been filled because I thought he was somebody that I was going to work with for the rest of my life. There are certain people who I cross paths with. It’s like you said, you know that they love what they do, you know that they have quirks in their personality. Everyone does, but they are good people ultimately. Dilla proves that. He changed himself drastically towards the end of his life. I hope that we all go through our lives like that. Somehow there is a record made for all of his music, whether it’s new or old. You got to have a historical record etched as you are going along.
Can you talk about the East of Underground Army Bands album coming out?
That’s an interesting one. A friend of mine in Chicago, this record collector guy found this record sometime in the mid 90s. We were listening to it off of a cassette that he had made us for some years, this is before CDs were widely available, so that was a long time ago. It was such a great dark, soul/funk record by this band, The East of Underground, we knew that they were released by the U.S. army as a recruitment tool, but no one could find any information about it. Then a friend of his cracked the code, got the U.S. Army’s entertainment division to broker a license and did the reissue of one of the albums, two sides, through Wax Poetics, the magazine, and also the record company.
I talked with him, and was like “Man, I’m doing a comp of these ballads, and I really want to put “Smiling Faces” on.” “Well I’ll hook you up with my guy at the army, and he’ll hook you up with a license.” So we did that and then midway through that process, he said “You know, there’s that other record that the army did, which was a follow up to The East of Underground album, by a band called The Black Seeds, and a band called “The Soundtrack,” which was good. Not as good as The East of Underground. He was like “The army is completely cool with putting this out as well. Would you be interested in putting that out?” and I said “What I’m most interested in is truly presenting the story of these U.S. service men, trying to figure out a way to live out the last part of their tours, without having to go into active duty in Southeast Asia. Musicians get together and they win these battles of the bands, and they record music, which is meant to recruit more soldiers. But they themselves are trying to get out of active duty so that they can go home. And that to me is a powerful story.
Again it goes back to the narrative that you are trying to convey. The fact that so many of the musicians from those records—literally 99% of them—we can’t find them. We found one guy, the guitar player for The East of Underground. He had stories to tell. We found a tremendous amount of… from the time—the colors, the making of these records—but the soldiers, the musicians, they’re gone. No one knows where they are. Maybe they died, maybe they weren’t as lucky, maybe their tour had just started in 1971, they were able to tour for a year, and they had to go somewhere else. We don’t know. That to me kind of speaks to the power in which they recorded these records. That’s coming out in September as a box set that’s packaged with both albums, a box set with a booklet full of stories and essays.
I was in the Air Force for 9 years. There are some great musicians from the military like Bill Withers. In many cases it’s completely true that people released their stress by playing music together, and sometimes it’s just a fleeting moment that can’t be recreated.
You in a nutshell encapsulated half of the narrative of it. It’s one brief burning moment in time. It’s a way out. As the essayist who wrote the introduction said, it’s just like a way out from all of the shit that they were dealing with. Here we are, left to ponder. Look at where we are now, it’s not like what we are going through is as bad as Vietnam. In guess in some ways it’s worse, but I mean, people are thinking and worrying and stressing about the same thing. And people are still making music, and especially our generation.
The thing to me that also struck me was that these guys were quietly revolutionary. They were in the army, they were doing their thing, but their politics were different. You can tell by their music that they were choosing to cover, and what they talked about, like “If there’s a Hell Below” by Curtis Mayfield, “I’ll Bet You’ll Never Lose My Love”, and “California Dreamin’”, the Mommas and the Poppas by a black band. It comes across not as a novelty, but they are really trying to say something. “We left women back home that we are in love with, and we are dreaming about being there, but you know what? We’re here, and we’re making this music.” And it’s powerful music, really powerful music. I am very proud to see that out. My politics being what they are, I’m really American, I support the American military, but I think there is something to be said about the everyday soldier and what he’s doing, and his commanders and the decisions that they’re making. And these guys, they were there doing it rank-and-file, but they were commenting on what was going on all the while, and doing the best they could do to just go home.
Being a vet, it’s something that I’ve lived before. I’m looking forward to checking it out.
I hope that you and the service men will actually look at this and say, “These guys have tried to accurately portray this.” I’ve never been in the military. I support the American military. I am very much a patriotic happy American, but I think there is something to be said about the way that service men express what they are going through. A guy making a movie, or a guy writing a letter home to his mother, his girlfriend, his brother, wife or whoever, or creating a recorded document.
Being in the service, you can’t have an active voice of dissent, so music is sometimes the only vehicle.
I hope you get a chance to listen to the album when it comes out, it’s out in October actually. We are doing a presale in September, but it’s actually in stores in October. When it comes out, please check it out, and please let me know if you think we got it right. We’ve reached a long time, especially because we are licensing this music for the army. We spent a long time trying to—like I said back at the beginning of this conversation—be objective about it. But at the same time, we have our own personal opinions that we want to put forth too.
My last question is, my uncle is a musician from the 60s and 70s, will you put him out? He lives in Inglewood.
Well, did he put out any records?
His name is Toussaint McCall.
No way. Get out of here. Of course I know who he is. That’s funny because that Toussaint McCall 45 was rather easy to find when I was in Nashville. It was put out by that record label—what’s it called?
His family is from Monroe, Louisiana.
It was on Ronn Records. I went to Shreveport, I met with Sam the Man, who ran all of those labels, and I was in his office, and he has a copy of that record on the wall. I was like “I love that record man.” I didn’t realize that he had anything to do with it, but he did. And of course, I knew that record because it was a Third Bass song, which was my favorite Third Bass song. Man, I’m a big fan of his. A lot of his music has already been reissued right?
Some of it has. I’ll find out who has and get you his number. I try to collect his vinyl, but I go on Ebay and his stuff is $300-$400.
Oh geez man, I didn’t realize that that LP is kind of rare. Yeah, you should put me in touch with him. I’d love to talk to him. That’s crazy. It’s funny because I was just thinking of that song a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know why it popped into my head. “Shimmy,” that’s the classic man. Nothing Takes the Place of You is the album that is the classic.
That’s the one that Al Green, and a couple of others redid it.
I just remember that album because it didn’t make any sense that there were these two people on the front cover, and you flip it over and there’s a picture of him on the back, and you’re like “Who are these people on the front cover?”
I also didn’t understand why there were two random white people on the cover. It didn’t make any sense.
He’s awesome though. That’s crazy. Definitely email me his number.
Interview by Malik Abdul-Rahmaan