Recreating a Jazz Scene with Amir Abdullah of 180 Proof Records

Abdullah digs deep to bring listeners the real story behind a whole catalog of progressive and somewhat-forgotten jazz from 1960s Detroit-based label Strata Records.

Feb 21 2013, 8:30pm

The art of the reissue is something that seems to be becoming more and more appreciated these days. Maybe it’s due to the fact that most of the music we have is in the form of ones and zeros that live on our computers and phones. But the resurgence of beautifully packaged vinyl is gaining momentum, and Amir Abdullah is at the forefront of that movement.

Amir has taken it upon himself to create his own imprint, 180 Proof Records, and rerelease a whole catalog of progressive and somewhat-forgotten jazz from 1960s Detroit-based label Strata Records.

Noisey: Can you tell me about your background?
Amir: I've been a record collector for more than 30 years, so that's a big part of why I do what I do and I am who I am. I grew up in a household like a lot of other people that listened to music, but my father was a heavy, heavy jazz record collector. Jazz was always my first love. My sisters and brothers were into disco and all that other stuff, so I heard all of that as well.

In '94, when I came to New York City for graduate school, I ended up [becoming] disillusion, so I dropped out and I started working in the music industry at this company called Fat Beats, which people know from the store. I worked there for eight years. I started off as a sales person, but became a VP. It further extended my passion with music, and at the same time, my partner and I started putting out mix tapes with samples and breaks. It kind of blew up to the point where we were putting out albums.

The natural progression for me after leaving Fat Beats was to start running Wax Poetics Records. The magazine is like the National Geographic of music. They decided to start a label and I was brought in to set it up and run it. I ran that for three and a half years and felt like the next step for me was to do my own thing to further continue this journey of archiving and curating this kind of music—this lost music that people haven't really heard of before. I felt like that was something that I needed to do just for my own spiritual growth, you know what I mean?

Yeah for sure. I think that brings us to 180 Proof Records. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
[The name] comes from the highest quality of vinyl, which is 180 grams. I kind of wanted people to know you're going to get high quality releases with my records. Every record is going to be at 180 grams with great packaging, heavy stock jackets, great liner notes, and great photographs of the artists you've never seen before. I’m just trying to be imaginative and create a great package to go along with the great music. There's a lot of labels out there doing reissues, so you have to separate yourself from the pack. For me, I just wanted to be able to present my stuff in a higher quality than most.

On your site, you mentioned that in the marketplace of reissues, the music is often presented in a void. Can you explain that a little more what you mean by that?
When I first started off, I would read the back of the record and see—I don't know, let's say—Kenny Burrell played guitar on the record. I would ask myself, "Who is this guy? I really loved the way he played." I would then go research it. For me, I'm always trying to provide all my releases with a term I like to use: music with context. There's a story that goes along with it so that you get really into the record more so than just , "Oh this is a great package and the music is great." I don't want to leave any questions for you. I want to be able to answer as many questions for you as much as possible and educate the consumer. You really get into the releases, but also, the label as well. That's why I say [there are] a few labels out there who do great reissues, but it's a void for me. I have so many questions, like "What's this guy's story?" or "Where did they find him?" I want to be able to answer that stuff.

How did you first come across Strata Records?
I came across Strata through a friend from the bay area about 20 years ago. We did a record trade. I forgot the record I gave him, but I got a record from him—The Lyman Woodard Organization on Strata Records. I knew Strata East Records, but I had never seen the imprint Strata.

I'm glad you brought up that, because some people would think that it's the same thing. But the two are different?
They are definitely related, but they are also two separate companies. (I'll explain that in a minute.) I got this record and it was amazing. I was really blown away. I had never heard of Strata, so naturally, I wanted to do some research and, on the back of the record, there are records that are listed: two that came out and two that never came out. There were all these urban legends that the records are super rare and that they never that came out. I had a guy was saying that he had an acetate one and it was all bullshit. Nobody had a copy because they never made it anywhere. When I became the label manager for Wax Poetics Records, the first thing I thought was that I needed to find Lyman, because I wanted to reissue the record I got through the trade.The only problem with the record was due to budget constraints and everything else, it was not recorded that well and was produced on really bad quality vinyl. I thought, "If I can find this guy and find the masters, I could reissue the record."

There were all these urban rumors, like "He's dead" or "The masters are gone, they are destroyed." It took me two years, but I found them. I flew to Detroit and I took him out to his favorite restaurant and talked to him about why I loved his record so much. I wanted to know so much about Strata and he was blown away. He couldn't believe a young man from Boston even knew the record, let alone who he was. He gave me the rights to put that record out. From there, we issued the record and it quickly sold out. Around late 2010, Scion decided to make the ScionIQ Museum, and they asked me and a few other people to submit a proposal on an exhibit based on lost youth culture from the past. I submitted an exhibit on Strata. They accepted, and now I have a Strata Records exhibit in this museum online. Throughout that whole research, they paid me to go to Detroit. When I went to Detroit, I found the actual owner, Barbara Cox. Her husband was the owner, but he passed away in 2008 and so everything was willed to her.

That’s Kenny Cox’s Wife?
Yeah, and the first thing I asked her was, "Do you have any masters?" We had that discussion on the phone and when I came she had a whole living room of masters. I was like, "we need to do a deal." She said, "I can't believe you even want to do this. I wanted to throw these out." So, we did a deal and it took me a couple of years to get it right because I wanted to make sure I had the mechanical rights, the publishing rights, and also the rights to administer the publishing rights, using my music industry knowledge and experience, that's how I came about Strata.

The fact that she had all of these masters laying around is so crazy.
Oh yeah, they were sitting in her linen closet and in the basement too.

How do you go about bringing these master tapes back to life?
I have a guy that I use at Wax Poetics. They said this guy Alex Abrash is the best, and turns out he was the best. We both no longer work for the Wax Poetics so I brought him along. He has every reel to reel machine you can think of in his house. He's bought them online or had them from years ago. He actually built a lot of them and added stuff to them. He's all this expensive equipment to be able to transfer directly from the analog tapes to digital and then master from there. That's really 75% of the battle right there.

Why is that the case?
Transferring tapes is a really, really long process. Not only because of the fact that they're old tapes, but a lot of the chemicals that they used back then to bind the tape is actually is working against the tape. That's why a lot of people bake the tapes because that chemical makes the tape watery. To bake a tape have to put it in the oven to dry it out. So far, I haven't had to do that because he's so good. He can look at a master and almost smell the condition. He's be doing it for so long that it's kind of like a second nature for him.

To take it back a little bit, can you explain the relationship between Strata and Strata East?
Oh, yes. The relationship between Strata and Strata East is that Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver are the actual owners of Strata East and they are still alive. They were all friends with Kenny Cox and Charles Moore and all of the Detroit guys. They were all in the same scene in the midwest. Both Charles and Stanley are from the midwest, Ohio. When Kenny decided to start Strata Collective, even before it was a label, both Stanley and Charles were set on going out to New York to make it as musicians so they started. They started Strata East as their own company even though they are still related. Barbra, Kenny's wife, was telling me that Kenny had plans to start Strata West, Strata Japan, and Strata Europe. They ran out of money before they could even attempt to try to do that.

Do you feel like now almost responsible for preserving the legacy of these artists that you're slowly becoming more connected with through their art?
I definitely feel that there's a big weight on my shoulder, yes. As soon as I started realizing that I had the Strata catalog, a lot of people from Detroit, especially musicians that used to play with Kenny and a lot of the other musicians on Strata, they were like, "Wow this is an amazing accomplishment. We're so glad you're doing this, but you know this is a big legacy that you need to properly pay homage to." It's a big task and it's just me running this label by myself and I have two assistants. I've worked in the music industry for 16 years so a lot of it I'm very used to, but it is a big challenge trying to think of everything. It's a lot of research involved in this too because some of the masters don't have names, don't have song names, don't have proper musician credit, there's not artwork for some of them because they never even made it to that point. I have to get with a designer and we have to listen to the music and he has to use his imagination or we have to find someone who has old photographs and that's just that part. Then I have to the research on who played on the record, and what’s the publishing under.

It seems like the work you're doing here is not only presenting a snap shot of a time or scene in Detroit, but it's also depicting a snap shot that people may have never seen before about African American music. Is this one of your goals with the whole label?
Yeah, it is. When I was in college I was an African American studies major. This is very important to me because my father grew up with jazz musician named Jaki Byard. My father is from western Massachusetts and so is Jackie. He grew up around jazz. It has deeply influenced me. Kenny and Charles of Strata started the first jazz music program that opened in Olberlin University and Michigan State University. They also did a lot of things in the community like a newsletter that was trying to educate people. That really attracted me to them as well. These guys were really about it. They were really about trying to create something for their community and create music for themselves and everyone else around them. I'm trying to rescue or revive a part of African American history that seems to be pushed to the waist side.

When I was thinking of Strata in its context, I was trying to figure out how it would fit in the modern landscape of record labels. The way that I made sense of it would be sort of a boutique indie label. Is that an accurate claim? Do you know the inner workings of how the label worked?
Well, I would say it was something like that. The main purpose for them starting the label was that Kenny Cox had a group called Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet and they had two records on Blue Note. Their A&R for both those records was another jazz legend named Duke Pearson. They never got a long with him because Duke was trying to get them more mainstream jazz and they wanted to be way out. They decided they were going to leave Blue Note and that's when they decided as a bunch of musicians to start their own label. Kenny was the owner, but it was an all artist run.

Was it more of a collective?
Yeah, it was like a collective more than anything else. That's why they were able to do a lot of things for the community and such. If I had to say it, they would probably be considered more of a boutique label, but more so of a community collective as well. They did do a lot of community things. I don't know of any boutique labels now that are that involved in their community or any community.

Do you think that's something that is lacking in todays industry?
Yeah, I definitely feel that something is lacking especially with a lot of these indie labels that come out. Let's say they come out of Chicago, or even in New York, it seems as if once they become that boutique status, they kind of forgot about where they have come from. I'm not saying that for all, but it seems that there's no homage to the roots of where they came from. I think with Strata they were definitely one of the few out there that were doing that.

Can you just describe a little bit of the vibe of the Kenny Cox record?
It's definitely a latin jazz fusion record. Apparently at the time there weren't many like it, even though this record never came out. He was very influenced by Brazil and Latin America. That's why he had that kind of vibe to his record.

I'm excited to hear the full record, in listening to the snippets and it sounds like a party.
(Laughs) Yeah!

What do you have coming up?
Let me start with Strata and 180 Proof. The next release is Larry Nozero whose record did come out on the original Strata. He played horn on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and did a lot of Motown sessions. After Larry, I’m putting out Sam Sanders who was another session guy in Detroit. I have over thirty masters that I’m trying to choose from so it’s kind of crazy picking and choosing these great pieces of work. I also have the multi-tracks for all the sessions so I’m planning on going to people like Theo Parrish and some other Detroit cats to get them to do an homage to the Strata guys they group up on, which would blessing.

For more info on 180 Proof Records and to order Kenny Cox’s Clap Clap! The Joyful Noise check out 180 Proof's site and soundcloud.