The high point of an artistic career can bring mixed emotions. On the one hand, you have a wonderful testament to their creativity, one that you can cherish and will surely stand the test of time. On the other, with the benefit of hindsight, you have the sadness of accepting that nothing further will come to better it. And so it was with “Off Track Volume III”, the final blistering compilation put together by DJ duo Kon & Amir.
Originally hailing from Boston, Massachusetts, the pair had come to international recognition through their self released On Track mix series, which saw the duo compiling rare breaks within the classic hip hop aesthetic of which they were heavy enthusiasts. They followed this up with an edition of the Kings Of Digging series for BBE Records and with a wildly divergent twist to their On Track series. The three editions of Off Track, again commissioned by BBE Records, saw Kon & Amir delve deeper into a much wider spectrum of music, all of it emanating from New York City, including rare funk, soul, disco and Latin. Each of the editions were unique, towering achievements, loved by the music buying masses and industry insiders alike. The compilations would cement Kon & Amir’s international reputation as selectors and DJs belonging to a rare, dusty fingered breed. They would also herald the end of their work together. The three editions of Off Track were to be the last time Kon & Amir’s names would appear on a joint project.
Sown within their Off Track selections were the telling signs of why the partnership had run its course. Kon’s choices were moving more into the disco vein and he was increasingly being drawn into the direction of studio, his acclaimed re-edits of some of the tracks propelling him into original music production. Amir’s selections meanwhile had veered off in other directions, including the DJ being drawn towards jazz and Latin inclusions. Though their selections signalled the sad parting of their musical paths, they were also the optimistic roots of their independent futures. Kon’s studio development would lead to many more productions, not least two albums of original music, again for BBE Records, one released and one imminent. Amir’s odyssey into Latin and jazz would also ensure the continuation of his relationship with BBE, firstly with the release of the Latin compilation “Buena Música Y Cultura”, secondly with BBE set to issue, via Amir’s180 Proof Records label, the rare catalogue of jazz and spiritual offerings contained on Detroit’s revered but sadly short lived, mid 1970s label Strata.
“Buena Música Y Cultura” has the subtitle Good Music and Culture: Rare Latin Sounds From Across the Americas, but this may be somewhat deceptive. Although many of the sounds contained on the compilation come from across the Americas, like the inclusions on the Off Track series almost all of the salsa it holds was actually recorded in New York City. “I’m originally from Boston, which has a big Latino community,” says Amir, “so this compilation is really the result of my childhood and my years spent digging on the east coast.”
Having now spent 22 years living in NYC, “Buena Música Y Cultura” is the product of Amir’s digging the city’s Latin vinyl. And he has unearthed some real gems.
“I wouldn’t say this was a connoisseurs collection,” he says, perhaps some what modestly. “There’s definitely some songs on there that the uber rare collectors would say “Oh, wow, I have that”, but it’s not just for them. A lot of what’s on here is just good salsa music whether it’s rare or not.” Though curated by someone clearly invested within the genre, “Buena Música Y Cultura” is one of the most accessible collections of vintage Latin music in years, its selections standing up to if not rivalling the benchmark releases of NYC’s Fania stable. It’s a frequently wild and exuberant ride, full of expert, impassioned musicianship, glorious, expansive arrangements, dizzying rhythms and truly memorable songs, a compilation you could easily play again from the start as soon as its last bars have finished. “It’s infectious,” says Amir, not only of the grooves on Buena Música Y Cultura but of salsa in general, “it just gets you, it soaks into your skin, you can’t help but move to it or feel something positive coming from this music.”
Following the release of “Buena Música Y Cultura”, Amir is also set to embark on an ambitious and highly anticipated reissue schedule with BBE Records.
“Almost 10 years ago I used to run Wax Poetics Records, the magazine’s label,” he explains. “We were reissuing records and one that I always wanted to reissue was from the Strata catalogue. It was an artist named Lyman Woodard and after about a year I found him. I was able to license the record directly from him and through that I was able to meet the owner of Strata. Around the same time an American company called Scion, who are a car manufacturer but who also do lots of cultural events, asked me and a bunch of other people to contribute to an online culture museum and I submitted an exhibition idea for a history of Strata. They accepted it, so they paid for me and a film crew to come to Detroit, interview the owner and all the surviving members, giving a detailed history of the label including all the stuff they did outside the label. While I was there I broached the subject with her. ‘Barbara, would you be interested in doing a license deal with me for this catalogue? Do you have any of the masters? Do you have anything that’s never been issued?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I got a whole basement full of stuff.’ I couldn’t believe it when she said yes and I also couldn’t believe it that nobody had approached her before.”
This fortuitous meeting has resulted in the US reissue of the released Strata catalogue on Amir’s 180 Proof Records. But the story doesn’t end there. BBE will give the catalogue a European release and follow it up by issuing music never previously released by the highly collectible label. First up was an EP by the unknown TJ, a soulful, acoustic singer songwriter with a free flowing style well suited to a label primarily know for jazz. His never previously heard recordings sound like the missing link between soulful, psychedelic, multi instrumentalist Shuggie Otis and the sparse, heartfelt emotive qualities of Skip Spence’s “Oar”. The forthcoming catalogue is just as exciting and highly anticipated.
Though we may never again see the combined efforts of Kon & Amir produce such stand out collections as their Off Track and Kings Of Digging compilations, we are now thankfully aware that their individual stories are far from over. Forthcoming solo projects from the duo are yet more landmarks set to join the esteemed catalogue of BBE Records and are testament to that label’s nurturing of its artists through the continuing, exciting developments in their careers.
Words by Marc Rowlands
Pictures by Nathalie Gordon