The Ubiquitousness of Ubiquity Records

Damon Aaron

Ubiquity (noun): Presence everywhere or in many places especially simultaneously.

Last week while going through one of those unavoidable clean-out-the-studio moments, I continued my digitizing and filing process to clear the clutter of over a decade of music journalism. And while the chaos cannot be contained in any sort of recognizable order, I have been good about separating certain labels during the process. It is to one of those processes that we turn to this month.

One of the most ubiquitous packages to arrive in my mailbox every few weeks over the last six years has also been one of the most welcomed: those thin brown press packages from Berkeley-based Ubiquity Records. Size does matter, but not necessarily in terms of largeness. The size of quality is more relevant than the number of albums a label pumps out. And while they have certainly been proficient, these listening ears over in Northern California serve a unique and important function in modern music, even if half of their albums take us back a few decades.

Ubiquity is to record labels what Wax Poetics is to magazines: small and stubbornly focused, with a diehard allegiance of fans that collect the albums as much as listen to them. There is no clear-cut definition of what the label produces, unless we go for universal terms like “good” and “dope”. Not to say all of their albums are the golden fleece. Yet somehow even their mediocrity is understandable and forgivable. And, thankfully, rare.

So now the last six years of Ubiquity Records are in one place, simultaneously, in a brand new CD booklet. And while a comprehensive overview would take many columns to produce, I’d rather focus, however briefly, on some of my favorites.

Undoubtedly near the top of my top ten favorite albums of 2008, Damon Aaron’s soft and sweet Highlands hasn’t left my iPod since making its way inside earlier this year. There is a very scarce contingent of artists who understand that acoustic and electronic can play along nicely, and he is among them. There is a folksy, songwriter aspect — his beautiful voice, the thoughtful lyrics, the gentle guitars — while it is tempered perfectly by a sweeping undertone of spacious beats. It is an album for drifting, reflecting, feeling good and human.

Admittedly, Aaron is not the usual face of Ubiquity, yet somehow he does fit into the label’s “sound”. More appropriate to their funk/soul and electronic projects is 2007’s The Killion Floor by Orgone. In the 1930s, Wilhelm Reich believed orgone to be a sort of monadic structure — a force that lies underneath all observable phenomena. The songs “Do Your Thing” and “Who Knows Who” achieve a similar underlying foundation of the phenomenon of funk music. In an age when Sharon Jones (deservedly) became a juggernaut of soul, Orgone’s Fanny Franklin could be her godmother, or goddaughter, or maybe really good friend.

Speaking of soul, let me give a quick head nod to impromptu Ubiquity super-group the Lions’ excellent cover of “Think (About It)” (and their dub-soaked soul Jungle Struttin’), before mentioning the Quantic Soul Orchestra. Colombia’s Will Holland is a prolific producer — one of his more known efforts of late was the co-production of “Me Swing Es Tropical” alongside Turntables on the Hudson’s Nickodemus, which landed a coveted iPod commercial placement. His work with his orchestra, especially alongside soul singer Spanky Wilson, is where I turn to when I need some inner healing. I’m Thankful is where to start, though you won’t go wrong with either An Announcement to Answer or Pushin On.

On the soulful Nigerian tip is NOMO, whose two albums — New Tones and Ghost Rock — are exceptional representations of what happens when you’re influenced by Afrobeat (and a whole lot of other things) but not confined to it. Their track “Hand and Mouth” remains one of my favorites to warm up the dance floor with, and when the drums, bass, and guitars drop out and the thick layers of saxophone clear out the last 30 seconds, magic can (and does) happen.

I admit, at first I didn’t “get” Shawn Lee, or his Ping-Pong Orchestra. There was too much going on for me to put it all into perspective; some of his songs sounded more like calculus equations than music. Then when I received Miles of Styles and heard “Punjabi Lullaby”, I was hooked. I revisited Voices and Choices and was saddened by my lack of foresight. (To be fair, still not too big on Hits the Hits.)

I had no problems immediately identifying the lush textures of Breakrastra’s immense and loud sound on the aptly-titled Hit the Floor, nor was I anything less than astonished at the creativity of Nino Moschella. If it sounds like The Fix was recorded at home using a four-track and broomsticks, and that he played all the instruments, that’s because both are true. He sounds like what would have happened to Prince if the Purple God didn’t have any money but still had the enduring passion to perform music, by any means necessary.

Rounding out the funk, though on a harder electronic tip, Radio Citizen’s Berlin Serengeti offers an affirmative statement regarding the use of heavy guitars in a soulful mix. “The Hop” remains one of my top choices for any Ubiquity song. Right alongside that is TM Juke’s “So Good”, which features the inimitable Alice Russell on Forward. (“Damn”, featuring Kinny, makes a close runner-up on that record.)

Both those records make use of solid hip-hop beats, but when discussing Ubiuity and rap, we need look no further than Ohmega Watts. The man rhymes like he’s on a mission, and perhaps he is. Both The Find and Watts Happening throw down with the best of Tribe, Q-Tip, Mos Def, or any other rapper worth his weight in words. And while not specifically hip-hop, Freddie Cruger (aka Red Astaire) broke ground on the ridiculously repeatable Soul Search. ADL’s guest spot on the reggae-tinged “Running from Love” is a top choice, and any producer that uses Anthony David for two songs on a record is fine by me.

Which brings us back, in a sense, to Ubiquity’s other claim to fame. While bands like Orgone and the Lions create a vintage sound, the label excels at crate digging. BBC DJ Gilles Peterson cherry-picked the jazz and soul on his Digs America, which now has two installments, and are both excellent compilations. Their Rewind series is four volumes deep, and introduced me to two unbelievable tracks: Rockers Hi-Fi meeting Ella Fitzgerald on “Sunshine of Your Love”, and Beatless’s timeless “Hercules”. Speaking of enduring time, digging up Darondo’s Let My People Go from the dustbin of West Coast history was a brave and appreciated move.

The label does well with the Bay Area Funk and California Soul series, not to mention the Inner City Sounds and Searching for Soul one-offs, though all those albums require a bit of nitpicking.

The last collection I have to pay homage to isn’t exactly vintage, though it’s damn hot: Now-Again Re: Sounds, Vol One, which kicks off with Percee P destroying the mic on Koushik’s “Cold Beats”, never really stops. And that is a good thing. But perhaps I saved the best thing, to my ears at least, in mentioning Nostalgia 77. Since 2002 Ben Lamdin has been making some of the most inspiring jazz-based electronica around, and with his orchestra he is not confined to the digital world at all. But on his two Ubiquity releases, The Garden and Everything Under the Sun, he masters the genre. That last album title is a fitting closure for a brief tribute of a label that has created a niche inside of this journalist’s head that looks forwarding to expanding it month by month, release by release.