“If you want to get a grasp on what was happening musically in the early ’70s in New York City, especially in the soul arena, Perception Records is one of the prime labels to be checked out.” So says respected DJ, producer and record collector DJ Spinna, who handily happens to have compiled the best of Perception Records, plus its sister label Today Records, for Best of Perception & Today Records, a new compilation released last week.
Perception Records amassed a roster and release schedule that dipped into a range of genres with glee—Dizzy Gillespie, the Fat Back Band and Astrud Gilberto all recorded for the label—but there was a unified production sound that kept the vibe consistent and relevant to New York City at the time. Having grown up with the label sound-tracking his early years, here’s Spinna’s guide to the venture’s most valuable vinyl releases, the mystery surrounding the label’s missing masters, and his favorite hip-hop samples from the Perception and Today vaults.
Before compiling this project, did you know much about Perception and Today Records?
I knew quite a bit because Perception slash Today is a label that I pretty much grew up with. It’s been a part of my childhood, especially with the Fat Back Band and Black Ivory; those were artists and groups that were played in my household as a kid. And one of those songs, the Fat Back Band’s “Street Dance” is probably one of my favorite disco-funk tracks of all time. Also, being a record collector and a producer looking for samples over the years, my Perception Records catalogue pretty much catapulted into probably having a majority of the soul slash funk stuff they’ve released.
Can you remember the first Perception Records release you bought yourself?
Like I said, I grew up with a lot of their stuff, but when I started getting into collecting beats and samples and digging for rare records, the Dizzy Gillespie album Matrix was the first one I came across.
The label put out a really varied roster of artists, right?
Yeah, it was quite varied. I’d say the focus was soul but they definitely had their share of folk, rock, spoken word and a lot of jazz records. There’s a few things that didn’t make the compilation that I have, but it’s really a jazz, soul and funk label for the most part.
What are some of the songs that didn’t make the compilation?
There’s a seven-inch that I have—I think it may have been a one-off and there’s no albums attached to the group—but it’s this group called Velvet that I happened to have a copy of. Then there’s a Lena Horne record, and another person who I think his name was Otis Clay who had a very expense rare seven-inch. Let me check that. [Spinna goes off to check the artist’s name.] Otis Smith is the artist. Wow, this goes for crazy money! It’s called “Let Her Go.”
Is the label’s catalogue an accurate snapshot of what was going on in New York City at the time?
I’d say so. A group like Black Ivory—they were a Harlem-based group and Leroy Burgess got his start with that group. He went on to be a big disco-boogie producer and songwriter, which you can tell by the music Black Ivory were making. They were definitely part of the New York soul scene and probably had a major influence on a lot of male groups from that period.
RZA sampled Black Ivory’s “I Keep Asking You Questions” for Raekwon’s “Criminology.” How did you feel when you first heard that?
Well, that record was pretty rowdy when it came out! It was one of those tracks where you threw it on in the club and everybody went crazy ’cause it had a lot of energy. Ironically, I knew that song and the sample because before I got the Black Ivory version I had the Wanda Robinson version. Black Ivory and Patrick Adams, the producer, their music was used on [Wanda Robinson’s] spoken word album first; she did spoken word over the song. Then once the Raekwon and Ghostface record came out, that’s when I heard the Black Ivory version and I ended up scoring a seven-inch of it at around that time.
Tyrone Washington’s “Submission” has also been sampled by a lot of hip-hop artists. Which is your favorite use of it?
I would say A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It.” There’s a version that a lot of DJs used to rock back in the days. It wasn’t the main vocal version—it was like the bonus beats. It wasn’t prominent in the track, it was very subliminal, which for that style of production that was happening back then was quite common. My other favorite one was by Pete Rock. Let me check the track name…
While you’re doing that, are there any songs on the compilation that you’re really surprised no one has sampled yet?
Yeah, tons, definitely!
Can you mention some specific tracks?
Ha ha, I don’t even know if I should give that information out because there’s a couple of things that I want to get into myself! But I’ll say Astrud Gilberto’s “Take It Easy My Brother Charlie” and Bartel has a track on there too that has a break in it…
Over the years, have you heard many stories about the label and who ran it?
Not really—they weren’t a label that I can say people really knew much about. There’s definitely a lot of mystery surrounding the label because there’s no tapes, no multi-tracks or masters. Everything on the compilation for the most part came off of records, so something happened somewhere. I don’t know if the [pressing] plant burnt down or something like that, but something happened.
What’s your favorite song on the label?
I’d say Fat Back Band’s “Goin’ To See My Baby.” That’s probably the most played record that I have played out in a club.
How would you sum up the importance of Perception and Today Records to someone who might not have heard of them before?
I would say that if you want to get a grasp on what was happening musically in the early ’70s in New York City, especially in the soul arena, Perception Records is one of the prime labels to be checked out. They’re definitely underrated and not usually credited like a Motown or a Stax in having had a particular sound, but they did. Their releases had a continual soundscape when you listen to each record, particularly the ones produced by Patrick Adams, who worked with a lot of the artists signed to the label. It was a part of New York’s sound at the time, definitely.
[Spinna pauses, then adds] The Pete Rock song is “Can’t Front On Me.” I like how he filtered out a lot of the other elements and really isolated the saxophone. It’s a great song and a great sample.