J.R. Fritsch, wearing a black shirt
and black jeans like a good and proper experimental music enthusiast, sits in his Remington home and ponders the music biz's past decade, defined by constant change and cratering record sales. All of it can be a bit daunting for this head of a D.I.Y. record label, who previously ran the noise label Public Guilt and established an avant-garde dance/hip-hop label dealing exclusively in 45s, ARACA RECS, at the end of 2013.
"I feel like everything I've known in the past 10 years doesn't make any sense anymore," he admits. "Five years into [Public Guilt] it was a different ballgame, and two years after that a different ballgame again." The 40-year-old is more bemused than frustrated by these changes, though, and quickly concedes that this no-rules system is great for music fans, even if it is a bummer on the business and distribution end.
"The stuff that I'm hearing is amazing," he exclaims, "but in terms of how you get it to people and how you sell it? Who the fuck knows?"
Raised in Linthicum, Fritsch has spent most of his life in Baltimore, dedicating his spare time to music, contributing crucial visuals to the live show of late '90s local metal heroes Meatjack, and as a tastemaker via Public Guilt. His main source of income for 17 years now has been painting houses, and he also does work constructing exhibitions for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American Culture and History ("everything from building walls and painting them, to installing art") and doing carpentry for Center Stage, all of which gives him the opportunity to, for the most part, maintain his own schedule-ideal for running a record label motivated by music nerd passion.
With ARACA RECS, Fritsch indulges the contingencies of the right now, where physical copies are purchased by a sturdy though ultimately small contingent of vinyl heads, and everybody else with their ears open expects to get this stuff for free at the click of a button. The music housed on every ARACA RECS 45 can also be downloaded on the label's Bandcamp page for free (listed at "name your price" if you feel like kicking in a few shekels out of the kindness of your heart), and the 45s themselves are priced at a reasonable seven bucks.
The first two ARACA releases arrived on Dec. 10: "Feel Me" from Indonesian rapper Antzkilla, who somehow sounds old school and futuristic at the same time, backed with a remix of the song from Harlem-based duo MRC Riddims; and MRC's own "You Know How" / "Internet and Weed," mixing hard-edged house and bass-heavy dancehall. In support of MRC's 45, Fritsch reached out to Bmore club producers Mighty Mark and Schwarz to remix the tracks and put those remixes up exclusively for free download. In late January, "Yeah" / "Home" from Baltimore party music improvisers Little Flowers (imagine a dub reggae-tinged rave in a dungeon) arrived.
Each ARACA release is in a dark mustard sleeve with a maroon and black label. This modest design stands in stark contrast to how a Public Guilt release usually looked. During that label's nine-year existence, from 2004-2013, Public Guilt gained a reputation for not only putting out difficult music-such as Krautrock black metal band Aluk Todolo, and Italian free jazzers traveling at the speed of thrash, Zu-but for an uncompromising visual aesthetic and an admirably hardheaded dedication to delivering the highest-quality product.
For example, "Anna / annA," a Public Guilt-released 7-inch from Swedish experimental turntablist Strotter Inst., featured 4 tracks-two on each side- with one playing from the outside in and the other from the inside out, and meeting at a locked groove in the middle. Over time, though, Public Guilt releases in that vein became rather costly, at a time when underground music's free culture was burgeoning.
"To do a product I was happy with, I'd always upgrade to thicker vinyl and nicer paper stock, and that's what killed [Public Guilt] for me," Fritsch admits. "By the time I marked [a release] up and the distributor marked it up, I would see my record in stores for 25 bucks. Like, I wouldn't buy that. I basically outpriced my audience by putting together a nice package." With a refreshing lack of sentimentality, Fritsch adds, "[Public Guilt] felt like a moment in time, and that moment had ended."
Out of the ambition that powered Public Guilt, and ultimately did the label in, came the more sustainable though equally open-minded ARACA RECS. Taking its name from Caetano Veloso's 1973 album,
, a Tropicalia touchstone and the Brazilian musician's strangest record-imagine folk music wandering around on mushrooms-the goal of ARACA RECS is to put out the 2014 equivalent of "genre-crossing," game-changing records like
, Fritsch declares.
Fritsch hears the future of music in, "for lack of a better word, [the] beat-oriented" music of club and hip-hop. Following party rocking Indonesian rap, trippy house out of Harlem, and blunted Baltimore grooves, there is a 45 from crazy-eyed Bmore clubber, Abdu Ali, out June 24.
"In Baltimore, Abdu's that guy," Fritsch says excitedly. "He's equal parts Keith Morris and Nina Simone on-stage." Abdu Ali's "Infinity Epiphanies" 45 is more like an EP, containing two songs on the b-side ("Say Something" and "Shiva") with production from Schwarz and Houston noise-rapper B L A C K I E. The 45 moves Abdu's sound even further into the confrontational territory of Ali's
Push + Slay
free download album from last year.
Following the Abdu Ali release, Fritsch plans on returning to Indonesia, whose gestating rap scene fascinates him ("It's like the South Bronx in 1978 there") with the intention of moving ARACA into curatorial territory, by pairing producers from the area with those in the States. Fritsch is expecting tracks featuring TT the Artist from club producer Mighty Mark, prepping ARACA's fifth release.
With a few releases out there, the big "how?" question when it comes to getting this stuff out to the right ears remains unanswered. He'll reach out to contacts from the Public Guilt days, and hit up the distributors that are still around and the record stores that haven't closed their doors yet. Meanwhile, musicians are turning free-download mixtapes into gigs and sometimes even record deals and radio airplay, and in a sense going viral, marking the moment Fritsch observes, where music is but one part of "a P.R. game," which seems dicey at best and cynical at worst.
"I'm not trying to be cool and calculated," Fritsch says. "I'm trying to throw some music into the world, and I hope people like it."