If you wanted a shorthand to the last 10 years of Daptone Records, the fiercely independent Brooklyn-based label that has been delivering the New Sound of Old Soul since the turn of this century, all you would need to know is this: their offices are based out of a rickety row house. Not a generic steel-and-glass façade in some anonymous office park or high rise — a bona-fide, honest-to-goodness house in Bushwick, Brooklyn, one where the label’s storied analog studio takes up the first floor, and the second floor hosts shelves packed with LPs and just a few desks from which to sell them. Founded by Dap-Kings bandmates Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman, Daptone has established itself over the last decade as a place where quality, heart and feeling trump convoluted six-point marketing strategies. To put it another way: some labels develop a brand – Daptone has built an identity.
The story of Daptone’s first decade is one of struggle and perseverance and, ultimately, one of family. Though it was formally launched in 2001, the foundation was laid by Roth’s previous label, the now infamous Desco Records, on which saxophonist Sugarman had released his first two LP’s under the name Sugarman Three. Roth and then-partner Philip Lehman had developed not only a reputation for gritty, idiosyncratic soul and funk records, but more importantly the beginnings of what would become the family of musicians at the core of the Daptone story. They released records by the Daktaris, which would later spur the creation of Antibalasand become a catalyst for the afrobeat renaissance to come. The Mighty Imperials, a sixteen year-old foursome who had to ditch school to cut their instrumental sessions, featured Homer Steinweiss on drums, who would later become the heartbeat of the Dap-Kings rhythm section. Sharon Jones, Lee Fields, and Naomi Shelton all recorded for Desco, backed by the Soul Providers, Desco’s house band featuring future Dap-Kings Binky Griptite on guitar, Bosco Mann on bass, and Fernando “Bugaloo” Velez on congas. “It was a great time, but Phillip and I got to a point where we couldn’t do business together anymore,” Roth explains. “We were growing very quickly and had a lot of doors opening for us at the time. It was hard for me when it ended. It left me personally in a lot of debt.” After Desco closed it’s doors in 2000, Roth bounced from one fruitless temp job to another, unsure of his next move but certain starting another label wasn’t it. “I knew that I liked making records – that was fun – but I’d had my fill of the record business.”
But an offer of a production-only imprint from a boutique label gave Roth reason to reconsider. Buoyed by a handshake deal and the expectation of an imminent advance, Roth borrowed money to buy recording equipment and set to work onDap-Dippin’, the first record by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, in a friend’s basement in Williamsburg. Needless to say, the company disappeared and the check never materialized. However, a serendipitous offer to do a month-long residency in Barcelona gave Jones and the band an opportunity to solidify as a unit, and a perfect excuse for Roth to press up some copies of the record. It was at this point that he first employed the Daptone name and logo, ironically dreamed and doodled up at a Sony Records Distribution desk he was temping at the time, and not intended to be anything more than something to look cool on a handful of record labels sitting on a merch table.
Meanwhile, Sugarman had come to Roth to produce a third Sugarman Three album, Pure Cane Sugar, and had been similarly frustrated by unfruitful negotiations with independent labels to release it. ”At some point Neal and I sat down and said, ‘Let’s just do this ourselves.’” The new partnership came with a caveat: “I told him, ‘Look man, I don’t like the record industry,’ Roth remembers. “‘I’m down to be partners with you, but it’ll have to be your job to actually sell the records, because I do not enjoy that.” Sugarman was hesitant initially, unsure of his ability to make the transition from musician to business owner, but eventually he assented, and the two steadily set about navigating the industry by following their own compass. Their first releases were proper issues of Dap-Dippin’ and Pure Cane Sugar, accompanied by a flurry of 45’s from the same sessions, all sold from the kitchen table of Sugarman’s Brooklyn apartment.
In the Fall of 2002, they received the first statement from their CD distributor showing a significant balance due. Anxious to invest their forthcoming capital into a proper recording studio, they found and rented the two-family house in Bushwick, started knocking down walls, and began charging up their credit cards on sheetrock runs to Home Depot. However, within weeks a middle-man went belly up, and the check “in the mail” – which was to cover the next few months’ rent, credit card bills, and the cost of labor and materials for the rest of the renovation – never materialized. Lease signed, deposit paid, walls tumbled, gas and electrical half-ripped out, radiators disassembled, they found themselves flat busted in the dead of winter.
With no other option but to move forward, they turned to friends and whatever resources they could scrape up to complete the work. Sharon Jones helped with electrical wiring; Charles Bradley showed them how to install radiators. Fan and friend Kenny “Dope” Gonzales bought construction supplies in exchange for a credit for a future recording session. Future members of The Budos Band helped knock down walls and jack up the sagging ceiling afterwards. They used old tires found on the street and fabric clippings from local sweatshop dumpsters to isolate recording booths and they re-purposed gas pipes as curtain rods. “One of the reasons this studio is so important to me is because we all worked so hard to build it,” Roth explains. “It wasn’t that I had some kind of manifest destiny in my head. In the thick of it, it was hard to believe we were gonna pull it off.” He somberly reflects, “That was the coldest winter I can remember.”
Their perseverance would pay off, as within a few months the studio soon became not only functional but the veritable epicenter of the soul explosion that was to come, as one of its t-shirts proudly proclaims, a House of Soul in every possible sense.
The next years would bring a golden age for the label. Subsequent releases bySharon Jones and the Dap-Kings would again and again blow away all sales expectations and pave the way for other Daptone acts to flourish. The Budos Bandjoined the stable in 2005 and hoisted their heavy new Staten Island Afro-Soul sound on the world with their first three self-titled albums. Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens’ What Have You Done My Brother? was a white-hot shot of gospel soul. Dap-Kings/Budos guitarist Thomas Brenneck produced the Menahan Street Band Make the Road by Walking album (the title track of which Jay-Z sampled for his summer smash ‘Roc Boyz’) in his bedroom on Menahan Street introducing the world to the cinama-delic Daptone subsidiary Dunham Records. Daptone used their newfound independent clout to relaunch earlier Desco releases like The Mighty Imperials’ Thunder Chicken, The Sugarman Three’s Sugar’s Bugaloo andSoul Donkey, and the Daktaris Soul Explosion. Reissues of largely undiscovered gems by The Poets of Rhythm, Bob & Gene, Pax Nicholas would incite the creation of another sub-label dedicated purely to re-issues Ever-Soul, which hosted 45’s by Eddie and Ernie, Hank “Soul Man” Mullens, and Darrell Banks.Throughout all of this, the bands were touring relentlessly and spreading the message. The pleas by distributors to blow large sums of money on ads for big box retailers were either mocked or ignored outright, as Roth and Sugarman kept their focus on the thing most important to them: the music. 45’s by Dirt Rifle and the Bullets, Lee Fields, Binky Griptite and the Mellomatics all rounded out the catalog, while Hank Shockley, Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse, Michael Bublé, and others began employing the studio and stable to try to capture the raw new soul energy for their major label projects. The rhythm didn’t let up in 2011which started with No Time for Dreaming, Charles Bradley’s strong, emotional debut album produced by Brenneck for Dunham.
In spite of its growing success, Daptone remains a tight family of musicians at its core. Dap-King Dave Guy, arguably the top soul trumpeter of all time, plays alongside Steinweiss and Brenneck in the Menahan Street Band, as well as stepping in on many a Budos session and anything else that requires his talents around the house. The Gospel Queens came in and sang backgrounds for Sharon Jones on Tell Me. Conga man Fernando Velez, Bosco Mann, and guitarist Joey Crispiano jumped off a recent Dap-Kings tour to fill out the line-up for a recent Sugarman Three session. Mikey Post, who by day is Daptone’s full time retail man, packing and shipping boxes off to record stores, is also the drummer for Naomi and the Queens. To decipher a comprehensive tree of who’s in what band and who played on what record would be near impossible at this point, but suffice it to say this is a true family of musicians.
That kind of camaraderie and collaboration is crucial to Daptone. It helps to create not just a specific aesthetic, but communicates the idea that Daptone is more than a mere business. They’re a group of like-minded musicians who care not only for the quality of the music they produce, but for the people they produce it with. “We want to preserve this unified sound,” Sugarman says. “We wanna do stuff our way. Having that family element is important to us.” It’s a rare bond – those people who helped build the house now help inhabit it, and are equally committed to making music that is pure, honest and soulful.
Beyond the artists, Daptone is staffed by adamant proponents of the sound and fierce protectors of their label mates. “What pulled me into the label and locked me in as a fan was the energy and showmanship of their live shows,” says Nydia Ines Davila, a Daptone vice-president and soul DJ who has helped run the label for the past six years. “We have a family of skilled musicians with a whole lot of soul who have been working together and making honest music for a long time and it’s what I think has carried us through more than any TV performance or high profile press coverage will.” Most of the roster share the management of Alex Kadvan, who has been quietly in the thick of the story for most of the decade, handling the endless and essential details that keep this army of musicians on course. If you’re looking for a sports metaphor, look no further than Daptone’s Chief Tape Operator and Miami native, Wayne Gordon who compares his beloved Daptone to the Dolphins in their undefeated 1972 season, a comparison that may not give much insight into the company’s strategy but illustrates the kind of passionate loyalty that abounds in the Bushwick house.
“For me a big part of the records is the idea of craftsmanship,” says Roth, who has either personally produced or overseen production on nearly all of the label’s releases. “It’s like building a rocking chair – there’s a difference between something you buy at IKEA, and something made by someone who has apprenticed and worked in their father’s shop all their life and has an intimate understanding of their tools. That kind of hands-on craftsmanship – whether it’s arranging strings or splicing tape, laying out type on a label, or getting a sound on your instrument and being able to blend with a section that you’ve played with for years – that’s the stuff that makes a great record. Not fancy gear or computer tricks.”
“I want people to know, when they buy a Daptone record, that it’s gonna be something that makes them feel good,” Sugarman says, “and have a certain feeling and a certain sincerity and a certain rawness you need to make good music. Roth continues Sugarman’s thought, saying, “For the people that like the records, I want them to love the next record. I want people to know the records will be soulful and honest and raw. We were never saying ‘Well, there’s a market for this, so let’s do it.’ We make records that we want to hear, and if nobody buys them, we’re still gonna make them.” That enthusiasm, natural and unbridled, radiates from the speakers every time a needle hits Daptone wax.
This is Daptone’s legacy: music made for love, not for market pressure or trend-hopping. But, by relentlessly operating outside a structure they saw as alternately absurd or corrupt, Roth and Sugarman have set a template for succeeding on one’s own terms. “I hope people get inspiration from the spirit of it — the idea of doing stuff independently and doing it on your own way, and not falling into any of the prescribed rules and formulas,” Roth says.
At the mark of a decade in business, Daptone Records has remained proudly independent: weathering financial hardships, industry pressures and fickle trends, and emerging stronger and more reliable than labels four times their size. To hear Roth tell it, the secret is simple: “We were able to stay rooted in this idea that people want to hear good music. And that’s our business plan: We’re gonna try to make really good records. Period.”