The Detroit music scene has always had its share of coulda-woulda-shoulda stories. The artists with all the talent, the labels with all the right artists that, owing to a lack of funding, distribution, industry-savvy infrastructure or just bad luck never got off the ground.
Quality, of course, has never been an issue. From the bebop days to the '70s jazz underground of Griot Galaxy, from the proto-garage rumblings of Iggy and the MC5 to the rest of Jack White's old bands, from the Awesome Dres' to Obie Trice, and, of course, to the age-old dark-horse techno, Detroit's music-making community has been a little more, well, evolved perhaps, than its local market.
George Katsiris' Premier ("1er") Cru label is, in its own small way, sidestepping many of the pitfalls that plague local talent deserving wider recognition. For one, label founder and flagship artist Katsiris has based his real-time jazz beat label in New York, building an artist roster made up of such Detroit ex-pats as R&B session player Kenny Flav and jazz stalwarts Francisco Mora Catlett (a former Sun Ra percussionist) and Craig Taborn (a former James Carter pianist).
"The joke is that everybody in New York's secretly from Detroit anyway," Katsiris says, laughing.
These days, life for Harlem-based Katsiris is difficult but manageable; he's juggling married life as a new father while running his flourishing label. Right now, in fact, he's in Atlanta promoting Kenny Flav's kaleidoscopic Wayne Kounty album Fantasy World, "a smarter version of the Black Eyed Peas" as he calls it.
Raised in Eaton Rapids outside Jackson by his Greek immigrant parents, Katsiris played guitar in acid jazz ensembles at Michigan State University, opening shows for the likes of De La Soul, before moving to New York in 2000. There, he worked in a wine bar, and started playing out with former Detroiters who had moved to the grayer pastures of the city. He was immediately discouraged. "I got fed up with making 50 bucks a week," Katsiris says bluntly.
He soon discovered music-editing software. "This was like five, six years ago when everybody could get Logic or Reason or ProTools for free. I realized I could better serve all these New York musicians by recording them," he says. "I was a better producer than bandleader."
He had no idea what to do with his post-acid jazz tracks, but his then-girlfriend (now wife) Phoenix Roberts, who had music industry experience, sent a disc to Washington, D.C., downtempo duo Thievery Corporation. They invited Katsiris to come down and work out a deal with their Eighteenth Street Lounge label.
"They were really cool, but then I saw their studio setup, and it was exactly the same as mine. And I could play better than them. So I was like, 'I should just do this myself.'"
He rounded up tracks from other former Detroiters with home studios (Kenny Flav, Jason Hogans, vocalist Erv Green) and put out the Enjoy Detroit EP in 2002. He borrowed the minimal start-up cash from his boss at the wine shop and released the EP on vinyl. The record immediately struck a chord with DJs overseas keen on Detroit and Katsiris' more-jazz-than-acid take.
Then, like many techno guys a decade before, Katsiris got screwed on a UK distribution deal the label feigned bankruptcy when he went after advance money he was owed. Enjoy Detroit proceeded to sell 10,000 copies, a figure fact-checked by Forbes when the business magazine profiled Premier Cru last year. Financial fiasco aside, Premier Cru's name got out there. (Reggae royalty Sly and Robbie wound up licensing Katsiris' "Coming Up For Air" for their Late Night Tales mix compilation in late 2005.)
Flush with initial success, Katsiris found himself at the point that dooms most artist-run labels. See, such labels tend to serve their artist-owners more than their rosters: The artist-owners tend to use their label to satisfy some creative integrity more than, say, foster careers. The Neptunes' Star Trak label, the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label, even Led Zeppelin's Swan Song and the Beatles' Apple not too mention too many local labels to count never seemed to produce anything with the same merit and appeal of the founders.
Katsiris hopes Premier Cru successfully bucked this trend with its follow-up to Enjoy Detroit Wayne Kounty by Kenny Flav. Flav, for the uninitiated, began as a ghostwriter and session player for Juan Atkins' techno label, Metroplex, before moving to New York. He's been nominated for a Grammy for his work with Mary J Blige, Janet Jackson and Gerald Levert.
"The hardest decision to make was to work on Kenny's album and not mine," Katsiris continues. "But in a lot of ways, Thievery Corporation was my inspiration. I mean, how many other acts on their label can you name? Kenny's stuff came along, and I was telling everyone how Detroit is the epicenter of music, how all the great musicians are secretly from Detroit Paul Chambers from Cass Tech, Elvin Jones from Pontiac now I could put my money where my mouth was."
Trouble was, Katsiris didn't have much money. He sold shares in Premier Music to friends, paid debts and went about making Flav's proper R&B album. Flav upheld his end of the bargain, getting deals on studio time and enlisting cameos from George Clinton, Queen Latifah and Amp Fiddler. Fantasy World was mastered at Chung King studios in Manhattan at far below major label prices.
But Katsiris is learning. "'Progressive' and 'mainstream' those don't go together," he says, sighing. "You don't know how many times people told me, 'I heard Fantasy World for the fourth time and I got it.'"
Premier Cru's next batch of releases steers back to the label's jazz-beat roots (see article at metrotimes.com), including a jazz album from Outerzone Orchestra, the same lineup assembled by techno producer Carl Craig for his ambitious but short-lived Innerzone Orchestra band of 2000.
The album version is an odd-time of stop-start percussion gently lifted by Allen's mournful 5/4 horn line. An alternate version adds a wide-load hip-hop beat and turns the song into a downtempo track as solid as any coming out today and it's being played by real musicians.
Of using musicians instead of DJs for his projects, Katsiris says it "gives us an edge. We're looking at it in a dharmic sense. Music has been the vehicle for so long; it's like that quote in Spider-Man: 'With great power comes great responsibility.' I honestly feel like I can improve what the consumer's getting, the input, the message.
"Listen to music today it's totally cliché," he continues. "But you listen to 'What's Going On' and it still brings tears to your eyes. I think the musical nature of the people involved gives us edge and substance."
Beyond that, the idea is to make music that "helps transcend current restrictions, the monotony of genres. I think people are ready for it. I mean, why do you think Kanye West is doing so well?"
Premier Cru’s Next Big Things:
1. Brazil Compilation — Compiled by Jonathan Williams, this features ’60s and ’70s rare groove from Brazil. Its cover features the lovely Naima Mora, who’s 2005’ America’s Next Top Model winner and Francisco Mora’s daughter. premiercrumusic.com/index2.htm
2. Afra Behn — The Vibe Machine. Promising progressive Detroit hip hop in line with West Coast faves Sa Ra and Steve Spacek. myspace.com/afrabehn
3. Empyreal Coalition — Experimental jazz ensemble featuring Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Roy Ayers and Bobbi Humphrey. myspace.com/empyrealcoalition1
4. Auricle — Katsiris’ self-produced live downtempo project produced featuring Borahm Lee (keys). Borahm and Joe Tomino (drums) are the current rhythm section for the reunited Fugees. myspace.com/auriclesHobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]