Ok, let's start at the beginning. Have you always been really into music? Was there music around the house when you were growing up?
Oh yeah, for sure man. It was like... how do I explain it? My parents didn't believe in having TVs, so we didn't have one. And they played us awesome music, you know? They brought us into the garden and did the hippie thing, taught us how to plant vegetables, and then we would go in and listen to the Hair Soundtrack or the Z Soundtrack or Sly & the Family Stone or Tom Paxton or Tom Waits. It was one of those things. Music was always there. I just threw myself into it whole hog...and by the time I was, like, 11 years old I was collecting records.
Do you remember a single record that really meant a lot to you or sparked your interest?
There sure was. I remember there was a big debate in the house as to what the first record I was going to personally buy was. And this was around the time that [the Tom Waits LP] Rain Dogs came out, and I remember Rain Dogs because it was my favorite record at the time. I just adored it. My dad loved it, and I loved the record cover; I just loved everything about it. And I had to have my own record.
By the time I started really getting into record collecting, I was like, 11 or 12. I remember I went to New York and I had to have Mr. Scarface Is Back on 12". I HAD to have it. My dad took me to a record store–and I bought Mr. Scarface Is Back.
I'm not kidding—this is the craziest story—my records had been stolen from my house by these rival DJs when I was 15. They stole my records, stole my turntables, and I had just gotten 1200s. Years later, my dad was in a thrift store and he bought a copy of Mr. Scarface Is Back and brought it home. And it had my initial on it, so I knew it was my copy...
It was your actual record?!
It was my actual record. He found it in a thrift store.
That's crazy! So, you got into hip-hop pretty quickly then?
Yep, that was my first thing. I told my mom, "No more piano lessons, Mom–I need turntables!" So I got turntables. I figured out how to make money being a DJ and I was making mixtapes and making enough to buy two 12"s every Tuesday. That just took me further down the rabbit hole, ‘cause I wanted to know how hip-hop music was made. I started buying used records and trying to figure out where to get all these "break beats" that people were using to make hip-hop tracks.
It seems to me that there's kind of a crate digger perspective coursing through the catalog for Now-Again. Like, if you could make up a label that would have every crazy obscure funk record—and world record—on pristine vinyl, you'd have something like Now-Again. Is that what you had in mind?
Certainly. I'm not like one of those guys that reissues an album because there's one good song on it and it's rare. I'm the kind of guy who would've bought a record like that, fixated on one song—maybe even at a certain point in the past, fixated on 20 seconds of that song—but now I realize, ok, there's more to it than that. Let me widen my perspective and scope, but at the same time remember that the beauty of the crate digger record collector in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is that nothing was off limits—it only had to be GOOD. So let me try, as best I can, as objectively as I can, to go through and focus on what I think might be objectively good. What other people might think is good, not just me, and try to put it all out. And that's basically what I've done.
So what originally inspired you to start Now-Again? You were working at [legendary hip-hop label] Stones Throw Records at the time...
It was funny, you know, 'cause I had moved out to California to work for Stones Throw, but I had this idea that I wanted to do reissues. I was about to go work for another company compiling a box set, and [Stones Throw founder] Peanut Butter Wolf was like, "We should just do this ourselves. I'll let you do a comp on Stones Throw." And that was the [highly-regarded funk compilation] The Funky 16 Corners. And I was just like, "Great," you know? I didn't ever want to take my attention from [Stones Throw artists like] Madlib or MF DOOM or even J Dilla. I just wanted to be able to tell the story of, say, [Omaha funk ensemble] L.A. Carnival, or [the one-time-only regional funk event] the South Dallas Pop Festival. And that was it.
So yeah, the early releases tended to be obscure funk/soul records—undiscovered American music. At what point did your attention shift to music from other parts of the world?
It was always something that I was interested in. Like I said, I came from this hip-hop crate digger background, so, my thing was buying music from all over the world because who knew where the perfect beat was gonna come from? But I was scared to reissue it because I was like, "The people who like my stuff like American funk and soul music." But it was after I started issuing records by, like, The Heliocentrics that I started figuring out, "Ok, I'm putting out new music which is pushing some boundaries. People seem to be ok with it. You know what? I'm just gonna give it a shot. Fuck it." And I did. I did that psychedelic comp Forge Your Own Chains and I did a comp of Fela Kuti covers called Black Man's Cry. And I was tremendously surprised.
What is it like to track down these musicians? Like, the guys from WITCH, for example.
Well it's this weird thing, man. There's a network of people; some of them are record collectors, some of them are people who run record labels, and sometimes there are just bands (or old-time managers) and you develop a network. You piece it together and you figure out who is around and how to get them. And that's what happened with WITCH. That was a classic example of me finding one guy from Zambia, Rikki Ililonga. I loved his music and I made him a deal. I was like, "Dude, I love your music. I want to reissue it and I'm gonna put a lot behind it. But I don't want this to be one-off, I wanna do more. Here are the bands that I want to find. Please tell me if you can help me." And he was like, "You know what? I'll help you find all of them."
And so he just becomes your guy in Zambia?
He helped me find Jagari Chanda, the bandleader for WITCH, Keith from Amanaz... and it becomes a network. At this point I have people from the newspapers in Zambia helping me, and it just started with Rikki. That's a perfect example. There are other examples, of course, but the Zambia one is a great one because it was an isolated pocket of people creating music FOR Zambia. So it's also that much more important, for a person like me, in the absence of having anything else, to go in there and say, "I'm gonna try to do this and I'm gonna do it right."
I'm trying to get my head around what it must've been like at the time—in the ‘70s, when these guys were essentially playing for themselves.
You gotta remember, ‘musician' is not the kind of profession that you want your kid to have if you're a Zambian mom or dad in the late ‘60s. You want your kid to do something else. So it wasn't like, "Oh my God, they're gonna be superstars." But these guys, after independence, were filled with this boundless enthusiasm and a superb knowledge of British and American rock and soul and funk.
How was that stuff getting there? Where did it come from?
Well, it was a British protectorate and there were a lot of records, it seems, brought or purchased by expats. And it was just one of those things. There were a lot of British people there, and they were rocking out to Deep Purple and fucking Grand Funk Railroad and Led Zeppelin. And these guys were like, "Well fuck it. Who cares if this was the music of our oppressors? This music is awesome. Let's do it ourselves and call it Zamrock!"
Did they actually call it that?
They did. It was a term coined by this guy Manasseh Phiri. I heard him on a radio broadcast doing a review of WITCH's Lazy Bones!! after we reissued it and he coined the term Zamrock. It was a point of national pride. You are Zambians, you are rocking out, you have platform boots that you made in Kenya for you and your bandmates, and you're touring the country, man. That was the fucking vibe, and they did it super hardcore.
And now you're connected to it. Trying to bring it back.
Well, I'm trying to do my best because I love the music. It needs to be heard. I just believe it—it's just awesome music.
It seems deeper than just exposing the music – selling records. The extensive background materials that come with every release – it feels like you're really trying to tell the story behind the music.
Well thank you, man. That's one of the biggest things that I've tried to do. And it's really affected my bottom line, because spending the time for me to personally research this stuff and write these things... it means that a project that I could probably get out in three to six months might take me three to six years. I was on the phone with my distributor the other day and he was like, "Dude, the cost of those booklets is driving your bottom line down. You'd make so much more if you just didn't make those booklets." But I was like, "But that's half of the point!"
What's coming up for Now-Again?
I've always spread Now-Again out between new artists and albums and reissues, and I've always tried to keep my finger on the hip-hop or beat maker pulse. So right now, as I enter into the second quarter, I have two really amazing new artists out. There's The Heliocentrics' second album, which took them five years to make. And there's a record by this guy Mr. Chop as well, who is a super-talented multi-instrumentalist composer and producer, and he's finally put together what he thinks is the best amalgamation of, like, late ‘70s krautrock, early ‘80s electro and what you would call musique concrete—it's super funky and awesome.
Then there's me working with Oh No and producers like Cook Classics and allowing them access to the [Now-Again] catalog to create sample-based music.
Also, I'm reissuing stuff like the second Musi-O-Tunya record...and that Damon Song of a Gypsy album— a landmark late ‘60s psychedelic record from here in Los Angeles. I'm doing a deluxe reissue of it with all of his pre-Song of a Gypsy recordings. I'm trying to tell his story because I felt like even though people knew the album, even though it's been like, a $2500-$3500 original artifact since 1994, no one knew the story.
And this anthology of privately-pressed American recordings that goes along with this book that my partner Johan Kugelberg just launched called Enjoy the Experience: Homemade American Records 1958-1992. This is all the stuff that's coming out just in the second quarter!
Insane. Do you have any parting advice for adventurous music fans out there?
I do. If you see something that looks interesting, or somebody tells you something that sounds interesting, or of course, if you hear something [and] you're just like, "I've got to know more about that..." you've gotta follow the lead. If you get lazy and you don't, and you give up on chasing those sparks of inspiration, you're gonna miss something great. I can't think of how many times I've envisioned, "What would my life be like if I never heard James Brown when I was 16? Or if I hadn't heard WITCH when I was 27?" Like, I don't know what my life would be like, but I'll tell you what... it would be a lot less interesting.
Photos from Dust & Grooves by Eilon Paz.
(Check out Dust & Grooves to see more of Egon's amazing record collection, plus more interviews, pics and mixes for vinyl addicts.)
Listen to our exclusive Now-Again playlist