The unlikely occurrence of two of underground hip-hop’s most beloved figures pioneering a rock record label is more representative of modern underground music’s eclecticism than might be apparent. Such is the case of Women Records, parented by Atmosphere MC Slug and Def Jux’s Murs, whose first full-fledged release with Rhymesayers Entertainment at its back is Vox Vermillion’s Standing Still You Move, released May 10.
There have been obvious reactions, critics and fans virtually aghast to these hip-hop names promoting rock music as opposed to other hip-hop, but Slug has shrugged off these reactions with nonchalance.
“I’d been toying with the idea for a non-rap label for about five years now,” Slug commented in an e-mail interview. “Atmosphere, being from Minneapolis where there has been a lot of crossover in the scenes, I’d grown familiar with the jazz, punk, rock, dance, etc. communities. Lots of mixed bill shows early on, etc. I guess once you realize that everyone self-medicates the same, and/or has sex with each other, it’s not far fetched to start working on music together.
“But having become friends with so many non-rap musicians, it seemed natural to take some of my resources to try to help out some of these friends. Murs was down. He had similar thoughts. I think we sort of hatched the idea of working on it together while we were touring together. It didn’t get serious until we both decided to release a record from my (now ex) girlfriend’s band. After she bounced screaming, we figured we’d still do this, but we’d have to find a band that was still together. Or maybe I dreamt that. And that’s how the Swiss Army record came about.”
The Swiss Army’s Private Ambulance was released nearly a year ago but in a much different environment for Women Records. Vox Vermillion’s record is largely getting the push as the label’s first release because it marks the first with backing from Rhymesayers.
“Murs and I still wanted to push forward and do a record,” Slug said. “We were friends with the gentlemen in the Swiss Army, so we figured why not? But rather than get our feet wet in the deep end of the soup, we did it more like a loan or a co-op. Murs and I were both touring a lot, and we never wanted to be babysitters to whiny white boys, so we figured we’d front the dough and make them learn how to put out a record. They had the resources available (from us) to do press, radio, etc. Murs and I didn’t have the time to do it right ourselves.”
He continued: “Then the alien abduction, then the toothfairy, then the sunshine tragedy, and a couple of girlfriends later, we realized that we wanted to be better involved. Which is why we brought it to Rhymesayers. The best way for me to be better involved with anything is to let Siddiq handle it. That is and is not a very bad joke. The Swiss Army album is laced into every press release in spiritual essence, though.”
Vox Vermillion became associated with Women Records through involvement in the same Minneapolis-St. Paul scene. The band’s sound itself represents one of the crossovers Slug mentioned, and according to Emily Dantuma, Vox Vermillion’s cellist and pianist, the label’s interest in the band should be attributed to longtime scene friendship.
“Kelsey [Crawford], our vocalist, has been good friends with [Slug] for a while now,” Dantuma said. “She always gave him copies of our CDs and he really liked them, but we were self-releasing at that point with our own record label [Omatic Records]. We gave him an early copy of Standing Still You Move Forward before we decided if we were going to shop it around or release it ourselves and he immediately said he wanted to put it out on Women Records.”
That Standing Still You Move Forward became the label’s first release with distribution tied to it makes some sense. The record upholds Slug’s aforementioned goals of helping out friends while maintaining an ideal to promote the process of crossover relations. Vox Vermillion can be easily compared to acts such as PJ Harvey or Denali for their rock energy, Cat Power for its quirk, and Bjork or Blonde Redhead for their down-tempo backbone. Dantuma said that, though their ideal of self-releasing was to uphold an integrity, they felt Women Records would allow them that.
“We really admire Rhymesayers and what they’ve done for the hip-hop scene here and for so many artists,” she said. “And all the while they maintain their integrity as an honorable business. We felt really secure that working with [Slug] and with Murs it wouldn’t be an issue. Plus we get distribution and radio promotion out of it.
“And money is, of course, always a factor. We had an album done and we didn’t have money to manufacture it—we had to decide between taking out a giant loan or signing on with somebody. It was good timing.”
Standing Still You Move Forward is Vox Vermillion’s most collaboratively realized record yet, for the band. It also represents the band’s farthest reaching.
“[This record] is really interesting because for the first album, Well Read, it was mainly songs Kelsey had composed before coming together as a band and then we all wrote our parts,” Dantuma said. “Then July was kind of shifting. Kelsey and I started collaborating more and writing songs together more. For this album it’s really taking a kind of darker, more haunting feel on, and I think that’s come from our collaboration.
“This is definitely our most accomplished piece so far,” she added. “We all are pretty heavily influenced by hip-hop. We’ve got some classical background and some rock background. Our first album was pretty much folk-rock. We’re bringing a lot of different things to the table. So this is quite a bit different. I actually played mandolin and cello on the first album, so it’s come a ways. There was still a little of the dark stuff but I think that’s grown.
This is not Vox Vermillion’s first foray into the hip-hop scene, though. Aside from their experiences on home turf, sharing the stage with what is proving to be a blistering hip-hop scene, Vox was also part of Atmosphere’s “@ It Again” tour last winter. The band was the only rock act on the bill.
“That tour was totally amazing,” Dantuma said. “Hip-hop crowds are so receptive. We’d go up on stage and say ‘We’re basically a rock band, so bear with us.’ They would be like, ‘No way, we love you.’ They were so supportive. I think it was a good match, too. We kicked off the evening. Especially with Atmosphere touring with the live band, it sort of tied things together.”
Since then, Vox Vermillion has been on their first headlining tour. Atmosphere took an opening slot. The shows were crowded.
At the end of the day, Women Records is still a label in its infancy. Its goals, if there are any concrete goals, are not fully realized, and its proprietors are still learning what it means to helm the ship.
“We have no mission statement, really,” Slug said. “Maybe, ‘Women Records, helping friends make more friends’ ... but seriously, it’s all one day at a time. As far as projected output, same thing. One day at a time. Trial and error ... starting this label is to help friends. We only plan on fucking with people that we like. We don’t really care who is talented or attractive, we don’t even care if you’re in a band or play an instrument. If you’re a good person and a friend and you don’t kick puppies or beat your husband, we’ll put your record out. Yodel for me. Right now.”
Though the label has been largely centered on Slug’s home of Minneapolis-St. Paul so far, the goal is to tap the larger beast, Murs’ hometown of Los Angeles, next. Slug’s response was, um, priceless:
That’s the plan stan.
Tap that ass.
Tap that keg.
Tap that tree for maple syrup.
Cruisin’ down the street on my BMX.
Jockin’ the freaks. Writin’ fake checks.
Went to the park to look at girls.
Knuckleheads down there cold shootin’ at squirrels.
Women Records is by no means meant to be an out-door for Atmosphere or Murs, nor is it to be something that Slug thinks will eclipse their creativity. Ever the optimist, however, Slug hints that it might become yet another procrastination tool.
“I’m sure in the end it will make me as an artist even more worthless,” he said. “Not a complaint, just my projection.”