William T. Burnett, a bespectacled thirtysomething with parted blond hair and a shoulder slouch befitting a drummer, pushes a handcart stacked four boxes high with vinyl records toward the back of the Thing, the monstrous Manhattan Avenue thrift store where he works part-time, dumping them in a corner already overloaded with such stacks and heading out to grab another load. Burnett is a busy man: He releases idiosyncratic analog dance music under names like Grackle, Speculator, and Galaxy Toobin’; DJs on Internet station Newtown Radio; and runs the Pentatonic Guitars shop in Greenpoint. He also operates his own record label, appropriately titled WT. Not all of these activities are making him money right now.
“Right now, I think I am a couple thousand in debt,” Burnett estimates of his label endeavor, in a drawl reflecting his South Texas upbringing. “But one day I will get back to even.” Lucrative business plan or not, like many local DJs and dance-music producers in New York City, he opted to release the music of friends and acquaintances, and in turn get them to release his own productions, rather than waiting for someone else to do it all for them.
It’s not quite the halcyon days when NYC was the center of the dance-music universe, spanning the ’70s through the ’90s, with disco labels like Salsoul, West End, and Prelude giving way to house imprints like Nu Groove and Strictly Rhythm. In the 21st century, the focus has shifted to epicenters like Berlin and London, despite the output of Gotham imprints like Environ and DFA. But slowly, a crop of smaller labels have appeared: In addition to WT, there’s Wolf + Lamb’s eponymous endeavor, Anthony Parasole and Levon Vincent’s Deconstruct Music, DJ Roy Dank’s Wurst imprint, the MP3-site-turned-label Black Disco (run by Andrew “Lovefingers” Hogge), and a slew of others housed in the outer boroughs, many still in their infancy.
In a photo-management company’s South Williamsburg office, Phil South sits at a desk surrounded by, of course, boxes of records. The U.K. native has thrown the underground dance party No Ordinary Monkey for seven years and counting, though his own label, Golf Channel, has only been around for three, with under a dozen releases focusing on left-field dance music that never quite coheres into a predictable pattern. The first release, a reworking of a Janet Jackson deep cut by producer Mark E called “R+B Drunkie,” put the label on the map; South has since followed it up with 2010 singles by the likes of original Wild Bunch member Milo Johnson, Portugal’s buzzed-about band Gala Drop, and former Outhud/!!! bassist/producer Justin Vandervolgen. He “likes the family vibe” between him and his artists, though he admits that such relationships can get tricky: “It’s hard not to take business personally.” His next release, a dark dance-floor number that take its cues more from Ennio Morricone than modern electronic music, is produced by South’s fellow No Ordinary Monkey DJ partner, Anton Esteban.
Similarly, Burnett started WT to support his friends, “but I don’t want to release my own tracks, ’cause I think that’s tacky.” His first releases span from German house producer Hunee to the Hague’s DJ Overdose to Connecticut’s Entro Senestre, each record dissimilar to the one previous, save a general foundation of vintage synthesizers and sequencers, whether the result embraces house, electro, ambient, or techno. His latest projects include New Orleans producer “Sir” Stephen Breaux and a single by Chicago-based producer Alex Israel, who does “Golf Channel–style nu-disco, but better,” as Burnett explains with a chuckle.
Burnett’s own next single, under the alias Willy Burns, is set for release on Long Island Electrical Systems (L.I.E.S.), an upstart electronic label run out of the Greenpoint apartment of Ron Morelli, a clerk at A-1 Records in the East Village who, like everyone else, is in it for the love of it. “You just want to get your music out there in a timely fashion and have control over doing it,” he tells me at a nearby Mexican restaurant. “If we do something that we dig, it could potentially be out two months after we finish it up. There’s no waiting.”
Morelli, clad in all black, looks like he just hopped out of an Econoline tour van, so it’s not surprising to hear that he came up playing hardcore shows at ABC No Rio and DIY spaces in the late ’90s, and released a few punk seven-inches. But he soon gravitated toward electronic music, especially the street-tough strain released by imprints like Bunker Records (from the Netherlands) and Underground Resistance (out of Detroit). “Getting into electronic music, that was what I latched onto, as their attitude was real ‘Fuck you,’ ” he explains. “Not flashy, just super raw. To me, there was no difference between that and playing in a grindcore band.”
Morelli’s label matches that aesthetic across its first three releases, specializing in coarse and gritty house music indebted both to Chicago and Detroit. L.I.E.S.’ first two singles have already sold out: “It’s gratifying to know people like something that you’ve done, but other than that, you just keep making music on your own,” he explains. The label’s upcoming release, an EP from Zombi member Steve Moore, veers into icy synthscapes that split the difference between Detroit producer Juan Atkins and the soundtracks of John Carpenter.
Logistically, being in New York City gives such labels access to both distribution (often via Downtown 161) and shops of renown like Dope Jams, but otherwise, “the heyday for deejaying here is long gone and over,” Morelli says of the city that he calls home. “It just makes more sense to stay home and try to work on music than go play records at a bar. If you don’t do anything, it’s on you. If you succeed, it’s because of you. Being your own label, you don’t have to rely on anyone else.”