Chicago Record Labels (Part One)

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Beyond the plethora of music venues, record stores and starving musicians looking to make more than a peep in this city, Chicago is one of the leading hubs for record labels as well. With an unsatiated desire to bring the best independent tunes to the city and beyond, Chicago labels continue to blanket the nation and world with new music as preceded by our rich cultural past related to blues and jazz. The following list is in no way considered to be comprehensive, but should be considered as an overview of the major labels that have helped shape the sound of the city, both historically and currently.

Chess Records

Chess Records is undoubtedly the most important record label to ever have its home base set in Chicago. The label was founded in 1950 by brothers Phil and Leonard Chess, set across various locations on the South Side. The first artist the brothers exposed to the world was McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. Soon after, Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, and John Lee Hooker were among some of the notables releasing under the Chess name. When Chuck Berry released ‘Maybellene’ in 1955, well, his story speaks for itself. The label originally had issues with white artists covering their original material to make the charts, but it was impossible with Berry. ‘Maybellene’ went on to become the first of Berry’s many top 40 hits. The Chess brothers would prove prolific in their formation of the cleverly named Checker Records so as not to overexpose Chess, as well as their jazz subsidiary Argo Records. Unfortunately, the label died almost as rapidly as it had risen. While the 60s continued to boom for the Chess brothers, the death of Leonard in 1969 signaled the shape of things to come. Soon after, recording studios and distribution centers closed, and a quarter million albums were destroyed when the building that housed them had been sold and renovated. Fortunately, the master tapes were transferred to MCA, who have re-released the material over the past couple decades. If there is any doubt to the legacy of the Chess brothers, they have already been bestowed the highest form of immortalization, the star-studded biopic, in the form of Cadillac Records.

Touch and Go Records

T&G is one of the greater success stories of DIY ethics. What started as a fan-zine in East Lansing, Michigan bloomed into a record label responsible for outputting some of the more subversive and creative independent rock music in the 80s and 90s. Formed in 1981, the label introduced the world to the Butthole Surfers, the Jesus Lizard, Negative Approach, as well as the polarizing Steve Albini-fronted and Chicago-based Big Black. The label continued to be fruitful throughout the early 2000s, but ran into the economic troubles that too many businesses have had to deal with lately. The label has been drastically downsized, but still considered in operation.

Bloodshot Records

Since 1994, Bloodshot has been home to artists who aren’t afraid to go left of the dial. Many of the artists take the Americana theme to a point where they “aren’t afraid to molest and caress these forms and take music into uncharted and exciting waters.” Refusing to be bound by genre, the label houses such diverse acts as former X frontlady Exene Cervenka, the chamber pop of Chicago’s Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, and art/punk pioneer Jon Langford. The label is another that supports the DIY lifestyle and opposed the “Wal-Martization of America,” placing importance on art over monetary gain.

Delmark Records

This just might be the most unknown prolific label. Specializing in jazz and blues, Delmark was founded in St. Louis in 1953 by Bob Koester and moved to Chicago five years later, its home ever since. Although it doesn’t carry the nationally recognized names that Chess became known for, the respect it has garnered comes from documenting an important era of Chicago jazz and skirting the temptations of commercialism. That’s not to say there aren’t true all-stars on the label: Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Fred Anderson, Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, among a throng of others were singled out by Koester as the cream of the crop. Read more about the entire history here (includes streaking!) and find everything released by the label at the Jazz Record Mart.

Drag City

This is a label that really can’t be qualified in terms of the sound of its bands. Started in 1990 by two guys, Dan Koretzky and Dan Osborn, the label has acquired unfathomable indie-rock success. Their first release was from Royal Trux, and they were quick to recognize the talent in Pavement, Will Oldham, and Bill Callahan. They were lauded by Spin for being one of the few remaining true indie labels of the time. Their eye forever on the avant-garde, more recent releases include the likes of literary harpist Joanna Newsome, Israeli noise makers Monotonix, and all-around weirdass comedy act Neil Hamburger. Stay up to date with the label’s latest news and releases on their website.

Trax Records

Before the bastardization that is contemporary dance/pop emerged, house music did have an underground relevancy. The genre was an offshoot of disco, a style of music famously disliked in this city. In the early 80s, the only place to still find this music was at the South Loop’s Warehouse (likewise the genre’s namesake). When resident DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle starting spinning and melding faster European tracks, a new sound was beginning to form. For a genre of music that’s meant to be played solely in clubs, the idea of a label seems like a bit of a misnomer. While in constant rivalry and scandal with the label DJ International, Trax grew exponentially in the mid-80s before the rest of the country began to take notice. Catch up on all the dirty singles on their bandcamp, and for a more in-depth history of house music, read on here. After that, pay your respects to Frankie Knuckles at S. Jefferson.

Thrill Jockey

Compliments to Thrill Jockey for keeping Chicago music weird. If you’re looking for something new, go here. The label was started in New York City in 1992, but relocated to Chicago in 1995. The label has been home to such local notables as Califone, Tortoise, and the Sea and Cake, but puts out music from national and international artists as well. It’s hard to pin down an exact sound the label goes for, as anything from noise-pop, avant-garde jazz, folktronica and the entirely vague genre of ‘world music’ fall under its grasp. The label continues to put out relevant and challenging albums for those not only willing to look away from top 40 charts, but who are trying to forget it all together.

Atavistic

Speaking of far out there and mind-expanding… Atavistic formed in 1985 in Columbus, Ohio, but made the move to Chicago in 1988 when founder Kurt Kellison’s wife began attending the Art Institute. The label primarily centers around free jazz and no wave, but has its roots documenting avant-rock artists like Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips. The label has put out many Ken Vandermark projects, a staple in Chicago’s experimental improv scene. Likewise, you can find releases by Glenn Branca, Lydia Lunch, Mars, and Swans. If none of these names mean anything to you, it may be time to take the first train out of squaresville, first stop: Atavistic Worldwide.

Alligator

I would be remiss to leave this label off this list. I’ve mentioned my embarrassment in lack of blues knowledge, but I at least know enough to acknowledge its existence and cultural relevancy, particularly in Chicago. Bruce Iglauer was originally a shipping clerk for Delmark Records. When Delmark rejected his request to release an album by his favorite band, he scrapped what little money he had to do it himself. That was 40 years ago, and the label is still kicking. In that time, the 15 employees that comprise the label have promoted jams from Koko Taylor, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, and Buddy Guy to name a few. In Iglauer’s own words: “I want the future of the blues and the future of Alligator Records to be one and the same.” Well said.

Andrew Hertzberg

About Andrew Hertzberg

If identity is an illusion, I’m a magician in training. And although Emerson was right in pointing out that “with consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do” the one constant I don’t mind in my life is Chicago. Yes, even the boredom of her suburbs couldn’t suppress the glow of the city, my attraction as a moth to flame. The future is unwritten, the characters are ever-expanding, and the plot is a perpetual foray through rising actions, conflicts and falling actions; the setting, however, remains the same.

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