Amir Abdullah is currently in the process of relaunching Detroit’s Strata Records with reissues and never-before-heard records from the historic artists who recorded on Strata. The Strata Records catalog contains some of the most exciting music that has never been released from artists who later went on to obtain legendary statuses. Moreover, Strata was a community of artists who never ceased to amaze both in personality and material. We brought in Amir to tell his story, the story of Strata, and the ongoing journey to bring this incredible music to the our ears. Read up and be ready for a steady stream of exclusive content in the coming months!

Chapter 1: A Full Life of Music

Where I initially got started in music was as a child growing up. My father was a jazz record collector and he played jazz every weekend. My mom would play her gospel and soul records and stuff like that. My brothers and sisters were into their disco and everything else. So in my formative years that music was all around me and I grew up wanting to have those records myself because my brothers and sisters were like, “Nah man, you’ve got to go get your own.” So that started me on my path of record collecting because I couldn’t borrow their records, so I would have to go out and buy my own with my allowance money and everything else that I could do.

I came to New York City in 1994 because I got accepted to graduate school. I stayed there for about a year and then I left because I didn’t want to be a PhD student in sociology, you know what I mean? I was living with some roommates who were both semi-well known producers in underground hip-hop. They had known someone at Fat Beats, which had just started doing their thing. They needed someone to be a sales rep and I needed a job. So I started working in the music industry 16-years ago at Fat Beats. I started working as a music sales rep and went on to become the VP at Fat Beats. I ran Wax Poetics Records later on too. And along this whole time, I met my partner Kon in 1996 after I had left Boston. I met him at a record store and we became friends. So that’s when I began my whole career with him. We were doing mixtape compilations, break mixtapes, and eventually we went on to do The Kings of Diggin’ at BBE. We had an LP actually before that on Seven Heads. We also did a whole series at BBE called Off Track and that’s when I began my career as a DJ as well. I’ve had a full life of music.

Chapter 2: Becoming a Tastemaker

I was always the type of person that was into not the usual records, lots of indie labels and music. The thing is, when I started off record collecting, a lot of people were into your Stevie Wonders and your Marvin Gayes and that’s great; I had those too. But it was like a competition for me. I always wanted to be able to establish myself different from everybody else. I would go after the oddball records, labels you’ve never heard of, artists you’ve never heard of. It’s not just because you’ve never heard of them, but also they were great records that were just sitting in the dollar bin. Now a lot of those records are worth hundreds of dollars, but back then they were just sitting in the dollar bin – 50 cents, 25 cents, sometimes even free. I just learned from twenty-odd-something years ago when I first started collecting those types of records that I was onto something and I just stuck with it.

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When I met my partner Kon, he kind of followed the same process. I finally met someone else who was thinking alike. We went out there and found the slept-on records. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Stevie Wonders, I love my Marvin Gayes and Miles Davis and stuff like that. I love those records and I have plenty of those records in my collection. I also have plenty of records that most people have never seen or heard of before.

Chapter 3: Finding Strata

The process that got me started with Strata was really about 20-years ago when a friend of mine from San Francisco and I used to trade records over the phone. He was like, “Yo man, I’ve got this record Lyman Woodard Saturday Night Special.” I had never heard of Strata; I had never heard of Lyman. He was just like, “Trust me on this one.” I forget what record I gave him in the trade, but I don’t care because the record I got from him was a really incredible trade for me.

I tried to find all of the other records on the back. I got most of the Strata records, but there were other ones on the back that never came out. There were all of these urban legends that it did come out or it didn’t come out. Lyman’s dead or he’s not dead. The master’s don’t exist or they do. So fast-forward when I got the position to run Wax poetics Records, I said to myself that if I could get a chance to get a hold of Lyman, I want to reissue that record. It took me about a year-and-a-half. My man DJ House Shoes and a bunch of other people in Detroit connected me with certain people who connected me with Leni Sinclair who took most of the photographs for Strata Records. She put me in touch with Lyman.

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I was ecstatic that I spoke to Lyman, but at the same time, I also did a bunch of research where I contacted this museum in Detroit –the Charles H. Wright Museum – which is one of the oldest African-American museums in the country and where John Sinclair (Leni’s former husband) had donated his personal belongings to, a lot of which was Strata-related. This museum did not know that this existed. It took me several months of, “Yo, you have this in your museum. Please go down into the archives and check.” So one person finally did and they were like, “Holy shit! You’re right.” I told them I was going to come there and go through the collection. I wanted to see if this Ron English record existed and I wanted to see this, that, and the third.

I told Lyman that I would take him to his favorite restaurant in Detroit. He and I and Ron English sat down to dinner and I just heard the most incredible stories. I was asking them, “Well who actually owns Strata?” He was like, “Kenny Cox, but I lost the number on him. I don’t know how to get a hold of him.” I was like, “We need to figure out how to get a hold of him.” At the time I had presented to Wax Poetics that we should try and do a deal for the whole Strata catalog. Unfortunately for them, they weren’t interested in that. I never let go of the idea though.

Chapter 4: Really Finding Strata

A couple of months after that, Scion came out of nowhere and was like, “We want you to present a proposal based on lost years of culture for this museum that we’re doing.” So I submitted something on Strata and they accepted. I finally found where Kenny was living, but he had actually passed away in 2008, but his wife was alive and she owned the catalog. Before I even came there I said to her, “Barbara, we’re coming over to interview you. By the way, do you have any masters or any unreleased material?” She was like, “Oh yeah, I have all of that stuff in the basement. I’ll fix some up for when you come by.” I came by man and their whole living room was full of masters. Then I was like, “Holy shit!” The first thing that she said to me was, “Man, I wish you had a U-Haul truck so you could just take all of this stuff.” I didn’t’ want to do that to her though. So what I did was I created a deal where she still owned the catalog, but exclusively license everything to me. So that’s how I got to this point of doing something with Strata.

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What I didn’t talk about during this whole thing is why I fell in love with Strata and why I even chose it for this Scion project.

Not only was Strata a label, they were also community organizers. They used to hand out food and do community drives doing a lot of things that would help with education, early childhood advantages, and so on. They would hold rallies and would have shows. One of the things that Barbara told me is that they used to have a small café called the Strata Gallery where they would have these shows that were the first to bring people like Herbie Hancock to Detroit. He would play in this small café where little kids would be sitting under the piano listening to him play. People would be like, “How the hell did these guys have Herbie Hancock come play at this small gallery?” She said even the mob visited the Strata guys and were like, “Ok, what’s going on with you guys? How are you able to do this?” They did a lot of things like that. They brought Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones, and all of these people whenever they would come through Detroit. Sometimes they would even record some of these jam sessions with these guys. Strata was multi-pronged. They tried to do a lot of things in terms of education, feeding people, and just trying to help the community.

Chapter 5: Re-Building and Re-Educating

I picked the first release to be Kenny Cox’s Clap Clap! (The Joyful Noise) because he was the original owner of Strata. He was a Detroit legend. The guy was a prolific composer. He had his own group, Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet with whom he recorded two records on Blue Note. He had a lot going on. He had another band called Kenny Cox and the Guerrilla Jam Band, and some others that became pretty well known.

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Arista Records was really interested in putting this record out, his wife told me, but Kenny said no. The whole purpose for starting Strata Records was that it be artist-owned and artist-run. They had a bad situation with Blue Note. Particularly Kenny said that the reason why they left Blue Note was because Duke Pierson (who is a jazz legend himself) was their A&R. They didn’t get along with him because he was trying to get them to do what the standard view of jazz was at that time. They just wanted to be free; they wanted to make music how they wanted to make music. It just wasn’t jiving. So they decided to go off and start Strata. At first it was a community thing and then it became a label.

Kenny was going to put his own album, this album, out on Strata, but he never got around to it. He put everybody else’s records out that he could, except for his own. I felt like this was a really poignant way for me to start this label again. I’m giving a dedication to him because he put a lot of hard work into this label. They lost their house when the label had to shut down. He lost a lot. I just felt it would be a great dedication to him. It’s also an amazing album though. People who know me know that one of my favorite music genres is Latin music. I love Latin jazz and this is a very Latin-tinged fusion album. It’s a great album. So that was another reason I wanted to put it out. I wanted to put my best foot forward. There are a lot of incredible releases to come, but starting it off giving the whole story of why Kenny started this label and why it’s important really begins with this record for me.

Chapter 6: The Future of Strata Records

Because I come from a distribution background, I was able to make a deal for the CDs and digital releases in Japan for three releases at the same time. Along with Kenny Cox they’re also doing Larry Nozero. Larry Nozero recorded a solo album on Strata. It did come out, but the guys over in Japan really love that album. Larry Nozero is the guy who played horn on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” He was a studio session guy for Motown, but he recorded this solo album too. The third release is a record that never came out to the point where there was only the names of the songs and the name of the artist. That’s from Sam Sanders and it’s called Envision. He was also a prolific alto saxophonist from Detroit. He also taught at Oakland University in Michigan. I had to do a lot of research on this record because it didn’t even say who played on the record. I eventually found one of his former students and he was able to give me all of this information on the record and he also wrote the liner notes for the album. So those three releases are coming out in Japan.

For the rest of the world, Kenny Cox is coming out first, then the Larry Nozero and Sam Sanders records. We’re going to do a CJQ album called Locations that did come out as well as another that didn’t called Black Hole. Then also the Ron English Fish Feet with the original cover that was done by Overton Loyd who did all of the Parliament-Funkadelic animation covers. The first cover that he ever did was the Ron English one. There is so much history.

Words by Amir Abdullah with Eric Sandler

Kenny Cox’s ‘Clap Clap! (The Joyful Noise)’ drops 12/4/12. Be on the lookout at 180 Proof Records.


1 Replies to "Amir Abdullah: Rebuilding Strata Records"
November 20, 2012 at 6:31 pm

this is a great interview. my mentor Kamau Kenyatta grew up and played with Kenny Cox in Detroit. it’s so amazing to hear these stories as well as how there’s a new life streaming into it. i especially didn’t know of and deeply enjoyed the part about how the label was also a community organizing space. that is moving to me, and a testament to the lifeblood of the music. thank you again for sharing.

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