"Hey, what's up?" says the familiar voice at the other end of the Yep Roc Records hotline in Haw River. "This is Chuck D, Public Enemy No. 1." The legendary rapper and activist has been working behind the scenes lately, but taking calls at Yep Roc is certainly an unexpected industry position.
Yep Roc co-founder Glenn Dicker laughs about his new answering service: "We distributed Public Enemy's last record and their upcoming record this fall, and, when Chuck visited us, we just asked him to do it."
Hip hop is one of the genres that Yep Roc doesn't work in, but their distribution arm, Redeye, works in almost every genre. Distribution companies like Redeye are responsible for getting artists' music in stores nationwide. Redeye works with bands from Little Feat and the Pernice Brothers to Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek and D's Enemy partner Flavor Flav.
They are an industry award winner, but that doesn't guarantee success for Redeye, let alone Yep Roc. As a separate company, the label needs to be behind its product, using its marketing tools to push a record. That's especially true since Yep Roc hopes to avoid serving exclusively niche markets. There are no set criteria for what the label may release. "We basically look for music we feel really passionate about and that we feel has a certain something that appeals to us individually," says Dickers, who founded Yep Roc and Redeye with partner Tor Hansen in 1996.
The roster has grown to include internationally respected veterans like Nick Lowe, Paul Weller and Dave Alvin, but Yep Roc still commits itself to emerging local bands like Cities and The Comas (who jumped to New York's Vagrant Records last year).
Many of Yep Roc's artists exist in connected circles. Chris Stamey, who has released three albums on Yep Roc, has produced Yep Roc releases for Thad Cockrell, Caitlin Cary and Chatham County Line. Labelmates Los Straitjackets recently recorded with Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys for an upcoming full-length produced by Los Lobos' Caesar Rosas. Dave Alvin, who produced Big Sandy's first records, now considers himself part of the Yep Roc stable.
Connections aside, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys would seem an unusual choice for Yep Roc at first glance. Sure, the California-based band certainly qualifies in the roots music category, with which Yep Roc is loosely associated, but their sound draws heavily from rockabilly, doo-wop, R&B, swing and blues, too.
But Dicker says it's a sensible relationship: "They represent the absolute best of what they do. It felt like it was a natural fit for us because of that."
Dicker believes the band's new album, Turntable Matinee, encapsulates everything that's influenced Big Sandy, showcasing a variety that wasn't visible on his earlier records. Understandably, it's been frustrating for Sandy Williams to read reviews stating that Turntable Matinee sounds like his previous work.
"I just really disagree with that," he says by phone from his Southern California home. "Sometimes bands like ourselves can be written off as a retro act or just rehashing old stuff, and I don't think that's the case."
But the music on Turntable doesn't sound old, at least not negatively: It's vibrant, as strong now as when vinyl grooves rattled tinny speakers five decades ago. His velvety voice sounds like Ricky Nelson, with traces of Elvis' bravado busting through in places. And these aren't rehashed covers: Williams wrote most of the songs, and Fly-Rite bassist Jeff West contributed the rest. Like Yep Roc, Big Sandy consciously avoids pigeonholes or easy definitions, and that's the way Big Sandy and the boys want to keep it. You can't co-opt the sound, either. Williams has been pressured by labels to update his sound. That bothers him for two reasons.
"One, we're resistant to being told what to do, and two, I don't know what that would mean," says Williams, who says that the lack of such forces at Yep Roc is a prime reason for staying with the label. "To add hip-hop rhythms or a heavier rock drum sound wouldn't be us. There's a place for that and I don't have a problem with that sort of thing, but it's just not us, we wouldn't be being true to ourselves."
In fact, Williams has only recently become comfortable with mixing different styles of music and adding new elements to the Big Sandy sound. He felt there were certain musical boundaries he shouldn't cross: "It seems like an obvious thing to say you can do whatever you want to do in music, but it's kind of a late revelation for me."
Dicker has no such qualms. He and the rest of Yep Roc look at their diverse catalogue as one body of work. "When we were growing up, we had all sorts of records in our collections, everything from blues to punk rock to country to bluegrass," he says. "To us, it all seems sort of connected, and that's the vision for the label."
The first years at Yep Roc were about building, but, since 2005, they've released 56 albums. Dicker wants the label to continue growing, yet he worries that too much expansion may remove attention from each artist. Yep Roc does want to expand its prospective clientele by releasing records from bands like Chapel Hill's Cities, young bands who are not involved in roots music. They want to be more than a latter-day hitching post for established acts.
"We do that for a John Doe or Robyn Hitchcock, but we also want to be at a place where up-and-coming artists--whether it be a bluegrass band like Chatham County Line or a more indie-rock band like Cities--have a great home," he says. "We're looking for artists who are very passionate about what they do."
Dicker wants Yep Roc to be known for artists people can connect with: "We're trying to find what we feel is best-quality music that is authentic, and people hopefully will feel the passion of the music coming out."
Sandy understands that sentiment entirely. "I know that when people come to our shows, they really have a great time--lots of dancing going on, lots of drinking," he says. "But it means so much more to me when somebody mentions the lyrics. I'd like someday to be looked at as being a great songwriter. That's what I strive for."
Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys play the Cat's Cradle on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles open. For more on Yep Roc Records, see www.yeproc.com. For more on Big Sandy, see www.myspace.com/bigsandy.