In its 25 years of business, Easy Star Records has made its mark within the independent reggae community. Starting in New York City, the label has now grown to a global operation unifying music lovers from all corners of the world. Rooted in a passion for reggae, the musical output portrays a wide array of talent, often lending to new and inventive sounds. Top artists and groundbreakers featured on the Easy Star roster include Rebelution, Protoje, The Skints, New Kingston, The Expanders, Bedouin Soundclash, Jesse Royal and many more.
The Orchard, in conversation with two of the four Easy Star founders, Eric Smith and Lem Oppenheimer, discuss the early years of Easy Star, their love for reggae, artist discovery and more. Read on and learn about the ins and outs of running a label below.
Founded in 1996, tell us about Easy Star Records’ early years.
We hatched the idea of starting a record label while at a reggae show in NYC at Tramps in late 1994. We spent the next year educating ourselves on what it actually meant to run a label, incorporate, figure out some basics. Our initial plan was to put out our own productions – focused on bringing back elements that we loved about the golden age of reggae that we felt were missing in the current releases at the time. But once we began making connections within the scene, we quickly began licensing work from artists like The Meditations, Sugar Minott, and Sister Carol. We all worked day jobs and would hustle whenever we could to build things up. We’d walk the Caribbean neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx going store to store selling consignments of 7” records. We were making cold calls to stores and distributors in Europe to sell over there as well. We also started a weekly party in the East Village at The Black Star Bar, on Tuesday nights, which ran for over 7 years, as a way for us to have “office hours” to meet artists, fans, colleagues, and to grow the label’s brand and support the local NY reggae scene we had all grown up in.
Easy Star is known for releasing popular reggae music such as Protoje, New Kingston, Rebelution, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad and more. How did you first get introduced to the genre?
LEM: I was very aware of it growing up, thanks to my older brother, who introduced me to Bob Marley, Yellowman, Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, and many more, by the time I was 10 or 11. Add in around that time being very drawn to The Clash, The Police, the whole 2Tone movement in the UK, and it was very foundational to my listening. But I was a New Yorker, so we are born to listen to a wide range – it mixed in with classic rock, early hip-hop, funk and r&b, punk and new wave on a regular basis. When I got back from college in ‘93, I moved in with our partner Michael Goldwasser who produces our original releases. He had an amazingly large collection of reggae, so I was able to really deep dive then. Plus, Eric made me some incredible mix tapes (this still being the ‘90s after all) that cemented some of my tastes within the genre, like early dancehall, dub, and apocalyptic harmonies.
ERIC: My parents always had a few reggae albums in the mix during parties growing up (my dad was Caribbean-American) and those albums stood out as favorites for me. I would also visit England often since my mother is from Yorkshire and I loved the music I would discover over there and was struck by the amount of reggae that was played on the radio. At the same time, my favorite rock bands seemed to always be influenced by reggae: The Clash, The Police, etc. By my teens hip-hop was taking over borough by borough, in NY at first and then city by city up and down the East Coast. During this musical revolution I again found myself most interested in tracks that had a reggae influence and from there I worked my way to reggae dancehall immersing myself in it, never really looking back.
What was the precursor to creating your own record label?
LEM: For me, it was being in a band in college, but realizing I did not have the talent to actually go anywhere with that. So I was figuring out how I could be involved without being the “talent.” I had already put out a 7” with my band, and had helped to publish a magazine in college, so I had plenty of DIY knowledge towards the nuts and bolts of putting out records. Or so I thought! I had so much to learn (and still do).
ERIC: I had always planned to get involved in social justice work in some way. My father had been very involved in the civil rights movement and I figured I would take up the fight one way or another. But by the time I graduated college with a BA in Sociology, I did not see a clear next step to take, the one thing I know for sure is that I loved music and specifically reggae. When we began seriously talking about starting a label, I reconciled this pivot in my life with the idea that music played an essential part in all the great social movements and reggae music was the unofficial global communicator for the struggles of the oppressed. So I convinced myself that my choice was a noble one!
Reggae is not just a genre but a culture. What does reggae mean to you?
ERIC: To me reggae at its core is the perfect amalgamation of African beats and rhythms – which are the essence of so much of our global music and the popular music of the last half of the 20th century onward.
LEM: I agree with Eric, and especially with his earlier point that reggae is the voice of the oppressed throughout the world. So much of the history of the genre is tied up in the socio-economic and political battles that raged in post-colonial Jamaica in the 60s to today. But that said, it’s also been fascinating to see how it has evolved in different cultures during this time – and we, as a label, have seen first hand what this means in places like the UK, New Zealand, Hawaii, South Africa, South America, and so on, where the music develops its own style and culture. But the source of Jamaican culture still exerts its influence.
Your label represents artists from all over the world. How do you discover new talent from afar?
We began the label just when the internet started to really take off with the public. While we did not have the finances to compete with bigger labels we quickly developed a destination website for reggae and the label and reached out to the global reggae community to complement the work we were doing in our local NY scene. From there, we have just always worked hard on what we have before us and hope that the results and the relationships we make will lead to good referrals (and, thankfully, they have). It also helped that when Dub SIde of the Moon became a global hit, we were able to use that success to make a lot of contacts in other countries, especially the UK, and that led to connections with local bands and managers. In the end it was a conscious choice to not just release music from US bands or just from NYC. We always wanted to have a diverse roster, both musically and geographically.
How does reggae differ from country to country?
ERIC: Every country, city and town has a reggae scene. It may be just a few people in some spots, but there is at least one band and a few devoted fans to play to in every market, whether they are just doing Bob Marley covers or creating their own original music. While traditionally most artists tried to closely stick to what was coming out of Jamaica, over the last 15 years or so we see more local influences working its way into the music. So, for example, on our roster, acts like The Skints and Gentleman’s Dub Club represent reggae from a London perspective much more than a Jamaican one, while The Green represent Honolulu more than Kingston.
LEM: The geographic difference can have an effect on the music, but often it is as much about the musical tastes of the people making the music – whether someone is more into a specific time period of reggae – like ska versus golden age 70’s roots harmonies versus early dancehall versus digital dancehall and so on. Therefore, you might have a whole group of people scattered across different countries and cities all dabbling in digital style dub with Atari sound effects, but elsewhere in those same cities and countries, you have a whole different group of folks all messing with modern interpretations of roots harmonies.
What do you look for when signing a new artist/band?
Obviously, the music is important. However, all of us at the label have different tastes so we look for artists that we can find consensus on. Beyond that, we are looking for artists and (managers) who are serious about their work and – just as importantly – are willing to work with us as part of their team. Finally, we look for artists who can complement rather than compete with the rest of the roster. They have to make sense as a new addition to the Easy Star musical family.
Tell us about the team behind Easy Star Records. How would you describe the work culture? What do you look for when building out your team?
We’re still the four friends who started the company 25 years ago. We consider ourselves a boutique label for that reason and we are selective about what albums and music we release or what bands we add to the roster. That said, we do put lots of thought into the people we hire for outside partners when it comes to distribution, marketing, and other things. We always want to find people who are like us – ready to work hard, think creatively, speak the truth without bullsh*t, and follow through. When we find partners we like, who we can work with, we stay loyal to them. For example, we’ve been with Missi Callazzo and MRI since approximately 2004.
Any new music or artists from Easy Star Records we should check out?
Of course! We started working with a young artist out of Jamaica last year, named Fyah Roiall, who is at the forefront of a new mix of genres called GrimeHall or TrapHall. He’s on the cutting edge of what’s happening.
We’ve been the label partner for the UK band Gentleman’s Dub Club for their past four albums, and we have a great new one coming out March 19. They are huge in the UK scene, but haven’t had a chance to properly tour there yet. We’re hoping we can get them over once the pandemic is done, because when people see their live show, they become loyal fans.
We recently put out the latest album by Double Tiger which has been building on the success of his debut release and a new EP from the hip-hop/reggae upstarts, The Late Ones. This is a lead into their debut full length album coming this spring. We also are excited about our newest singing Indubious, whose debut album on Easy Star comes out this spring as well as the highly anticipated sophomore release from Jesse Royal. And much more to come as well.
What advice would you give to someone trying to start their own record label?
You have to love what you are doing and respect the artists you are working with. It takes an incredible amount of talent, commitment, conviction, and motivation to make a business out of your talent. As a label, you have to be there to support and celebrate the beauty that the artist is creating. You are signing on to be a part in their professional musical journey, it’s a precious and wonderful opportunity that should never be taken lightly or for granted. If you can always keep this in mind, you should be good. And be prepared to work your ass off and have the best time of your life.
Is there anything else we should know about Easy Star Records?
We love music! Even after all of these years, you can still often find us sitting at 2 AM listening intently to loud music and discussing it.