West Side Latino Records, Reborn
It's 10 a.m. on a weekday, and Wax Poetics editor-in-chief Andre Torres is simultaneously piloting us through the Holland Tunnel, wolfing down a ham-and-cheese bagel, and waxing on about our final destination in Jersey City: the warehouse and soon-to-be-former home of West Side Latino Records. The imprint, one of a handful of labels that defined the largely New York–centric Latin music sound that ruled airwaves and dance floors in the 1960s and '70s, has recently been acquired by the Miami-based company Codigo Music, which aims to reissue many of the era's long-forgotten gems.
But the first step is to archive, catalog, and remaster everything Codigo now owns, and for that task, they've contracted Wax Poetics to sift through an estimated 1,600-plus master tapes (from West Side and several other label acquisitions), many of which have been sitting, sometimes unlabeled, on warehouse shelves for decades now. "They never took the time to do what we're doing—archiving, even just figuring out what they have," Torres explains. "It turns out, nobody does this."
The warehouse isn't much to see: The tapes have long since been carted off, the mastering studio upstairs dismantled and sold. Hector Varona and Arturo Saiz, the two Cuban-American owners of West Side since the 1960s, pad around the nearly empty space, watching as the last remnants of an empire that once released albums by Latin icons like Ray Barretto and La Lupe are dismantled. As Torres and fellow Wax Poetics staffer Linh Truong cram boxes stuffed with publishing documents, photos, letters, and other minutiae into Torres's SUV, Varona recounts West Side's decline: no new records since the late '70s, no new CDs for the past several years. When Codigo came calling, they jumped at the chance to get out of the business and retire. As we leave, I ask Varona if I can call him in a few days to follow up. "Oh, no," he says, brightening. "I'm going fishing!"
West Side's mid-'60s-and-beyond heyday, encompassing classic salsa, boogaloo, and hard Latin funk, is now obscure to all but the most devoted followers—meaning it's exactly the kind of music Brooklyn-based Wax Poetics was created to document. Torres started the mag in 2001 as an intended one-off after realizing there were precious few resources for hip-hop heads like himself interested in researching their favorite drum breaks and samples. But the magazine lit a brushfire in its own little niche. Nearly 10 years later, the lovingly printed bimonthly is as likely to line the bookshelves of a crate-digging fanatic as are worn copies of National Geographic to clutter your grandparents' house. Torres says he's long intended to expand beyond the printed page; the mag's reputation for painstaking, music-obsessed detail paid off when the venture-capital-funded Codigo was looking for a way to maximize their multimillion-dollar investment in Latin music labels a few years ago.
"I had it in my head that here's some guys who can research and catalog music better than everyone," says Michael Rucker, Codigo's Chief Marketing Officer. "And if you don't archive and database all your assets right away, you regret it." Rucker knew of Wax Poetics from his time at eMusica, which for a time owned Fania, another of the labels recently acquired by Codigo. The magazine did an article on Fania that impressed Rucker with its quality and depth of research, and so Codigo contracted Torres and Wax Poetics to do what they do best: document, in obsessive detail, this enormous, newly acquired music collection.
Unfortunately, that's only part of the story. Morphing from writing about music to being a player in the business itself (Wax Poetics has had its own imprint since 2007, juggling both reissues and a handful of new artists) means getting your hands dirty in the often messy world that record labels inhabit. This is particularly true in the case of Fania, the jewel in the crown of Codigo's recent acquisitions. The home of such icons as Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, and dozens of other Latin legends, Fania virtually defined Latin music in the '60s and '70s as smart, tough, New York–bred salsa, catapulting many artists to legendary status in the process. But label head Jerry Masucci's hard-nosed business methods left a trail of embittered musicians in their wake. (Not incidentally, they also doomed the label itself, as Fania declined amid a series of artist departures and royalty-related lawsuits in the early '80s.) Some of this bitterness is resurfacing as the label's reissues begin to see the light of day—due to bad contracts signed long ago, many will offer no direct benefit to the artists emblazoned on the newly lavish packaging.
"To this day, they must owe me hundreds of thousands of dollars that were never paid to me, for royalties," says Joe Bataan, whose 1966-to-'73 Fania tenure included hit albums like 1968's classic Riot!, widely credited with crafting a "Latin Soul" sound that merged salsa with funk and r&b. His story is sadly typical: Fania musicians were pressured to forgo publishing and royalty rights in favor of up-front cash payments, an arrangement that suited many of the young artists at first but understandably stung when the label's catalog began selling millions of records. "Don't get me wrong," Bataan continues. "He had some very good ideas, Jerry Masucci, but they were good ideas for him alone. As far as the musician was concerned, there was nothing in there for the future—they were told to forget about residuals, and they'll make their money playing."
As Bataan tells it, Masucci ran the label like a cross between a CEO and a mob boss. "They were relied upon when you needed something. As far as paying the rent, or if you needed some quick cash to take care of bills, you could go to Papa Masucci at Fania Records."
Rucker says Codigo has honored all of Fania's royalty agreements, and of course, the artists themselves bear some of the blame for signing away their rights in the first place. "We were stupid and naïve and didn't have any representation," says pianist and producer Larry Harlow, who played on and produced dozens of Fania's releases, including its flagship salsa supergroup, the Fania All-Stars. But while Harlow acknowledges that he won't see a nickel from his own reissued albums, he's clearly focused on moving forward, noting that he settled his claims against Fania a month before Masucci died in 1997 ("for way less than they owed me"), which may make it easier for him to let go of the past. But whatever the case, he may point to a future that addresses both Bataan's grievances and Torres' expansive ambitions.
Starting this month, Codigo will release a batch of long-out-of-print gems from its newly acquired vaults: April releases include West Side Latino classics from Joe Cuba and Beny Moré, among others, while in May they'll unleash a handful of Tito Rodríguez titles. In turn, this flurry of activity will make it easier for still-active salsa artists to highlight their new projects: On August 14, Harlow will present a performance of his shamefully overlooked 1978 work La Raza Latina, an ambitious concept album for salsa band and string orchestra that received a terrible audio remastering job when first reissued on CD and fell out of print thereafter. The free outdoor concert at Lincoln Center will be partly sponsored by Codigo to coincide with the album's rerelease, with new packaging and thankfully restored audio.
"Some of these guys are still kicking ass!" says Torres, mentioning future projects tied to original Fania and West Side artists—shows, remixes, possibly even new recordings. Bataan, too, sees opportunity. For him, his bitterness over Fania is partly about money, but also tied to the label's shortsightedness in properly documenting what he rightfully calls a momentous period in Latin music and New York City history both—a time when a Filipino-Afro-American like himself mingled with New York-born Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and at least one Jewish-American (Harlow, whose nickname was "El Judio Maravilloso") in creating popular music unlike anything before or since. "If Codigo has the ability and insight to see what Wax Poetics can do," he says, "then maybe there's not only hope for the company and the musicians—maybe there's a vital part of history that can be turned, and maybe this time it can be documented properly."
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