The creative landscape is changing. Technologies like Pro Tools, the iPod, and peer-to-peer networks have become mainstream in the digital age, creating a wild frontier of sorts in music. Independent artists can reach mass audiences once forbidden to them. These technologies are fostering the rise of “semiotic democracy”—where more and more people are no longer passive consumers of mass media, but active participants in creating culture. Cops vs Lawyers, Issue 3

الاثنين، أيار ٠٢، ٢٠٠٥

Beni B

By Jesse Ducker

Beni B came to the Bay Area with plans of getting a degree at UC Berkeley. He ended up creating ABB Records, a label that has helped spur the rise of the new independent hip-hop sound through the late 1990s and into the 21st Century.

Beni B, a Los Angeles native, moved to the Bay Area in 1983, just as hip-hop was heating up on the West Coast. “This is a time when Too Short was pioneering with his brand of street marketing,” Beni B said. “At the time, no one had an inkling that it would grow to what it’s become. It was just a way of life: get out there and hustle your tapes. We never had that whole entertainment industry here. So when artists put their music out, they just used a different approach.”

Though Beni says this Bay Area spirit of independence didn’t directly inspire him to create ABB Records, the label has certainly followed the same blueprint as many Bay Area pioneers: find your core audience and tailor the product to meet their needs. ABB Records began as a straight-up hip-hop vinyl label. When the first ABB 12” dropped in 1996, the general consensus was that vinyl was on its way out. Still, ABB has produced vinyl almost exclusively since its creation, releasing over 50 titles on wax to date.

And even though it’s based in the Bay Area, ABB has put out music originating from all over. Their roster includes artists like Dilated Peoples, Defari, the Sound Providers, and Joey Chavez (all from Los Angeles), Little Brother (South Carolina), Foreign Legion (San Jose), Superstar Quamallah and 427 (Oakland), Planet Asia (Fresno), Consequence (New York), Jay Dee and Frank N Dank (Detroit), and Arcee (Toronto). They’ve also expanded beyond hip-hop, even adding a few R&B artists for the ABB Soul off-shoot, including crooner Peven Everett.

Beni says ABB puts out whatever he’s feeling. “I just look for the potential, do I feel it, and can I work with it,” he says. “It’s like: your shit is hot or your shit is not hot.”

Beni B’s involvement with college radio sparked his desire to run a record label. In 1987, he started his first show on KALX, the radio station for UC Berkeley, and stayed rocking on the radio for the next decade. “I had always been into the music, and the involvement in the radio show was just an outgrowth of the music. My whole philosophy to doing my show was that I wanted to expose people to different music.”

Being a deejay also helped Beni learn the ins and outs of the music biz. Over the years he was able to track the career path of the average artist who came through to hype their shit. “I was seeing the big picture,” he said. “I would watch them come when they were little, come through and be big, then fall off and come through again.”

Beni said he first created ABB in order to help his fellow Cal graduate/homeboy MC Defari get his shit out there. Beni had known Defari for years; he co-hosted many of Beni’s shows at KALX. The two stayed cool even after Defari went to Columbia University for graduate school.

In 1997, after years of watching Defari put in work to get his music out there, Beni took matters in his own hands and pressed-up Defari’s first single “Bionic,” b/w “Change and Switch.”

Defari then told Beni that his producer, Evidence, also had his own group, Dilated Peoples, which was also struggling to get their record out. Beni B heard the material, and decided to release the Dilated’s single “Third Degree,” b/w “Confidence,” and “Global Dynamics.” The rest is history.

Beni has had the uncanny ability to put out records that become underground classics. Take ABB’s two most successful 12”s, “Work the Angles” and “Rework the Angles” by Dilated Peoples. Now, six years after releasing the records, Beni B still sends copies of the record to places as far away as Switzerland and South Korea. He’s lost track of how many different pressing he’s done of the records.

Both of ABB’s first artists have remained loyal to the label. Even though Dilated has released three CDs on Capitol Records, they still release all of their vinyl through ABB Records. Defari also remains tight with the label; he recently released an album as part of the Likwit Junkies (featuring him and DJ Babu) through ABB in March. So what is it about ABB that keep artists them coming back?

“We stand behind our artists,” Beni says. “We get in there and we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty. I’m not afraid to carry records in my bag and pass them out to people. And it gets to the point where we’re putting out better and better records. It may get to the point where we’re the premier label and distributor here on the West Coast.”

Beni also predicted great things when Little Brother’s tape came across his desk. Beni was so confident in the group that he chose their first album, The Listening, to begin ABB’s foray into CD distribution. Before, ABB had dealt exclusively in vinyl. It turned out to be a sound investment, as the album picked up a serious underground following and was soon being championed by the likes of Pete Rock and ?uestlove.

However, Beni said doing CDs was difficult at times. “CDs are a whole different market,” he said. “Really, it’s about your plan and how you go and turn over every stone and put that together. It’s the type of learning curve where you spend money to learn. So that can be hard. The music business is not very margin-friendly, so you can kind of screw yourself too. [Working with the Little Brother CD,] there were some things in hindsight we could have done differently, but [considering] where it’s going to end up, I’m not mad.”

Beni took what he learned and applied it the label’s next CD release, The Sound Providers’ An Evening With the Sound Providers. Beni sees big things for the production crew. “I think those guys have the potential to really, really do a whole lot,” he said. “This album, in less than a week, shipped 10,000 units.”

There’s a lot more on ABB’s plate. Beni signed Liz Fields, a Philly-born, Los Angeles-based singer to ABB Soul and Big Tone, a Detroit-based MC. Beni hopes they’ll all reach the same levels of fame attained by artists like Dilated, Defari, and Little Brother

Though Beni would eventually like to get back to his radio roots, he’s more than happy with the way things have gone for ABB. “I wouldn’t trade this for anything. Being able to watch groups like Little Brother, and see where they started and [where] they’re going to end up [is great]. To see their ability to touch people, that to me is worth more than anything.”