A New York Times article from Dec. 5, 2008 about Gabriel Roth, co-owner of one of the coolest soul labels on the planet — Daptone Records…
In the early 1990s, while the cool kids in the New York University dorms were listening to Nirvana and Pavement and P. J. Harvey, Gabriel Roth, a Jewish teenager from California, sat in his dorm room, night after night, listening to one obscure James Brown record after another. He listened to “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs,” a 45 that Brown cut in honor of a college-football team. He listened to Brown’s esoteric rock version of “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.” He listened to “Gettin’ Down to It,” a collaboration between Brown and, as Roth puts it, “these white jazz guys — but it was really actually a cool record.” Mostly he listened to Hot Pants, an album that largely consisted of just one chord. It was like “some kind of strange calculus,” Roth told me recently. “Everybody playing one little note or one little beat. But the whole thing worked together.” Roth and a friend would sit in his dorm room and listen to Hot Pants for hours on end. They’d listen to one side of the album several times in a row, and then they’d turn it over and listen to the other side. “We would smoke weed and listen to the album,” he told me, “or not smoke weed and listen to the album.”
Fifteen years later, Roth is a 34-year-old songwriter, bassist and sound engineer, as well as the somewhat-reluctant co-owner of Daptone Records, a small record label in Brooklyn. He is still a musical outsider: he says he strongly dislikes almost every pop song recorded since 1974, including one or two that bear his own imprint. What appeals to him — what consumes him — are dusty soul and funk records from the 1960s and early ’70s. By studiously emulating these recordings, he has gained a reputation as a devoted, even obsessive, musical purist. In an age of MP3s and computer-generated sounds, he has distinguished himself by making vinyl records featuring actual musicians manipulating real-life instruments. He has rejected the music industry, and in doing so, he has aroused its interest. Stars like Jay-Z and Kanye West and corporations like JP Morgan Chase have exploited his distinctive sound to lucrative effect. The smash hit “Rehab,” along with five other songs from Back to Black, Amy Winehouse’s top-selling album from 2007, were recorded in Roth’s studio, and for a stretch of several months last year, you could hear a pumped-up version of Roth’s signature style nearly everywhere you went — your car, the deli, your nephew’s bar mitzvah — even if you had never heard of Roth.
The defining project of Roth’s career is Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, a nine-piece band with a horn section, an extensive wardrobe of crisp suits and a 52-year-old lead singer (Jones) who once worked as a prison guard on Riker’s Island. Like all the 30-odd artists who make up what Roth likes to call the “Daptone family,” the Dap-Kings are a varied bunch: black, white, Latino, young, not so young, downright seasoned. Jones, the band’s dazzling frontwoman, is the most widely recognized Dap-King, but Roth is the group’s undisputed leader; he writes most of their songs, plays bass and produces all their records. When he convened the group a decade ago, few people could have anticipated that an outfit of meticulous soul revivalists with an astonishingly energetic, smack-talking, 4-foot-11 middle-aged black woman for a lead singer would become one of the more celebrated indie acts in the country — or that Roth’s continuing passion for the music of James Brown would result in critical adulation, a platinum record and a Grammy Award. But mainstream success, Roth insists, was never the point. “Our goal is simple,” he told me. “We want to make the kinds of records we want to hear.”
Roth’s unusual journey on the margins of the music industry began shortly before he graduated from N.Y.U., when he and Phillip Lehman, a wealthy record collector, started Desco, a small label specializing in what was sometimes referred to as retro funk. Playing with a collection of friends and session hands, Roth and Lehman recorded a single, an original composition titled “Let a Man Do What He Wanna Do.” It was pretty good, in Roth’s estimation, but it lacked one essential element: a singer. James Brown, Roth figured, was probably unavailable, so he and Lehman tracked down the next best thing: a fellow named Lee Fields. To most Americans, his name would have meant nothing; to Roth and his coterie of purists, Fields was a “legend of the old soul 45s” whose straight-from-the-heart singing and penchant for flamboyant men’s wear had earned him a place in the annals of soul history.
Fields joined Roth’s outfit, and Sharon Jones, then an occasional session singer, was hired to sing backup vocals. The record was released, and a few more vinyl 45s followed. Sales were decent, but not enough to recoup the thousands of dollars Roth borrowed from credit-card companies and his sister to pay the musicians and press the records. Lehman and Roth fought over money. The company disbanded. Then a distributor vanished, owing $30,000 in royalties, and Roth’s debts grew to more than $45,000, not counting student loans. Barely able to pay the rent, he took a job as a temp in the distribution unit of Sony Records. “It was the last place in the world I wanted to be,” he told me. “They would have these meetings where they would say: ‘Hey, what do you think about this new Maroon 5 song? What about the video?’ And they would joke about how awful the songs were, and how the guys were singing out of tune and how formulaic it was and blah, blah, blah, and when they were finished joking they’d put together a two-, three-million-dollar budget to promote the next video.”
Roth says he spent most of his time at Sony working on his own projects, sketching logos on the company stationery and making long-distance phone calls from his desk. One day, someone from personnel called him into the office. Roth was sure he’d be fired. When he sat down, the executive complimented him on his productivity and offered him a full-time position. “I was just floored,” Roth told me. “I couldn’t imagine anybody doing less than I was doing.” Not only did Roth turn down the promotion, he quit his job.
In 2002, Roth started a new label, Daptone, with Neal Sugarman, a talented saxophonist fromBostonwho had recorded with Roth on Desco. Roth and Sugarman were determined to avoid what they saw as the major labels’ mistakes. They would spend conservatively, pay artists fairly and never put out a record they didn’t like. That fall, on the strength of royalties owed to them by a distribution broker, they signed a seven-year lease for a two-story row house in the middle of Bushwick, one of the poorest neighborhoods inBrooklyn, across the street from a weed-strangled lot where destitute men camped in the summer.
Almost immediately, the broker went bankrupt, and the new label was out $40,000. “It was rough,” said Roth. He and a few other Daptone musicians renovated the company’s headquarters by hand, converting the first floor into a recording studio. Charles Bradley, a local handyman who moonlighted as a James Brown impersonator, helped install the plumbing. Roth worked all hours — tearing down walls, devising money-saving schemes — and when he got home late, he says, his new wife shouted and threw records at him. Life, in Roth’s view, was shaping up to be “pretty dark,” like “a Jewish history lesson” or something out of the well-thumbed pages of one of his Chaim Potok novels.
The Daptone family, meanwhile, was growing. With the Dap-Kings serving as a house band, Roth recorded several singles and albums featuring various members of the original soul generation, gifted artists who, for one reason or another, had never crossed over into the mainstream. Among them were Naomi Shelton, a gospel singer in her late 50s who cleaned houses for a living; Charles Bradley, the James Brown impersonator; and Johnny Griggs, an erstwhile James Brown sideman who lived in a single-room-occupancy hotel in Harlem. Roth wrote songs for them and got them gigs and engineered and released their records.
One evening, on his way home from the studio, the car Roth was riding in went over a pothole and the airbag exploded in his face, lacerating his eyeballs. He was in the hospital for about 10 days, temporarily blinded. “I couldn’t get around by myself for a couple of months,” he told me. Then he and his wife split up, and Roth moved into the studio and slept on the couch.
That winter, Daptone released Sharon Jones’s second album with the Dap-Kings, Naturally, and the crowds at Jones’s shows started to grow steadily. Producers in the mainstream pop world began taking notice of the Daptone sound. Kanye West sampled Jones’s voice and a Dap-Kings riff for a song by a rapper named Rhymefest, and Hank Shocklee, a veteran of the 1980s rap scene, hired the band for the soundtrack of the movie “American Gangster.” And then Mark Ronson called.
Ronson, an acclaimed British-born music producer and D.J., had been hired by Island Records to produce a pop record for Amy Winehouse, then a 22-year-old white British jazz-club performer. He had been striving for a classic soul sound, with little success. “We were using every computer trick in the book to make it sound old,” he later told The New York Times. When he heard the Dap-Kings’ cover version of the Stevie Wonder song “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” he knew he’d found the sound he’d been looking for. He asked the band to play behind Amy Winehouse in the studio.
Roth had reservations. He didn’t particularly love Winehouse’s music, which, he says, was too angsty and self-involved for his taste. Still, he didn’t want to deprive his band of a payday. By this time, Roth and the musicians he had gathered — second-generation soul men like Binky Griptite, Fernando (Boogaloo) Velez and Homer (Funkyfoot) Steinweiss — had spent hundreds of hours riding around the country together in rented Econoline vans, listening to Sam Cooke and the Isley Brothers, “living and sweating the rhythm and blues,” as Roth put it. In comparison, this was an easy gig; the record company was offering $350 per musician per song.
The album the Dap-Kings played on, Back to Black, sold 10 million copies. Roth won a Grammy Award for engineering and received a framed platinum record. He displayed the platinum record in the studio’s decrepit downstairs bathroom, propped up against the wall, a few inches from the toilet.
Except for a piano-shaped mezuza on the doorpost and a small, transparent Daptone sticker on the door, the exterior of Daptone Records is unmarked, which has the somewhat contradictory effect of advertising Roth’s disdain for self-promotion. One rainy evening, I joined Roth in the studio control room, where he sat hunched over a vintage mixing console studded with a million buttons and dials. Roth has a small-featured face, dark curls and a composed, confident manner. Ever since his eye injury, a pair of wraparound sunglasses has perpetually shielded his pupils from the light. It’s as if fate has compelled him to look cool.
Behind him, in a badly frayed armchair, sat a round-bellied black man with a tuft of white beard growing under his lip. This was Cliff Driver, the leader of Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens of Brooklyn, a local group with a record coming out early next year on Daptone. Driver, like Roth, had on dark glasses; he lost his sight at the age of 9 in a rabbit-hunting accident. Roth brought him into the studio that day to review the latest mix of the Gospel Queens’ album.
Roth met Driver a decade ago. A friend of Roth’s who worked at a major label had mentioned that he’d received a demo tape in the mail from someone named Fred Thomas. Roth knew the name well: Thomas was the bassist on Hot Pants, the album that Roth repeatedly listened to after having smoked weed or after having not smoked weed in college. Roth called Thomas’s manager and a few weeks later went to see Thomas perform at a dive bar in the Village. He found Driver sitting behind the organ. Driver played, Roth told me, as if he were “putting up a brick wall”: in a sturdy style, completely devoid of the self-conscious artiness that Roth disliked in indie rock. Roth introduced himself and over the next few years served as Driver’s occasional apprentice, playing bass for Driver’s gospel band in black churches aroundNew York.
A few years into his apprenticeship, Roth presented the Gospel Queens with a handful of songs he had written. Roth is not a man of the Gospel, and so writing gospel lyrics posed a novel challenge: how to adhere to the gospel tradition without betraying his own beliefs? The solution, he found, was to write “message songs” — songs “about lifting people up and doing the right thing,” in which God or Jesus wasn’t explicitly mentioned. Such is Roth’s skill at creating a sense — or, some would say, an illusion — of authenticity, that Driver, a consummate perfectionist, has incorporated the songs into his church repertory, regularly trotting them out before some of the more discriminating and faithful gospel audiences in the world.
During the months that Driver spent working on the Gospel Queens album with Roth, he watched with interest and a measure of disbelief as Sharon Jones, the lead singer of the Dap-Kings, continued to surge in popularity, thanks in part to the buzz generated by Amy Winehouse. The latest Sharon Jones record, 100 Days, 100 Nights, had sold more than 100,000 copies (including 4,000 vinyl LPs) since its release in October 2007, a genuine feat by independent-label standards. Driver, unsurprisingly, had begun to hope that his own collaboration with Roth might produce similar results. As Roth played him some selections in the studio, Driver picked out a series of infinitesimal flaws — a mispronounced word here, a slightly flat note there. Roth and Driver often “argue and fuss,” Driver told me. Roth, for example, had to go to great lengths to persuade Driver to surrender his pricey Roland keyboard and revert to playing on an old upright piano. As the 75-year-old Driver explained to me, without irony, Roth is “an old, traditional type,” a stickler for a sound that Driver and his peers would just as well leave in the past with their Afros and bell-bottoms.
Older artists like Driver, many of whom are struggling to scrounge together enough money to retire, are often mystified by Roth’s devotion to antiquated, time-consuming methods. Roth shuns digital devices, stubbornly insisting on the superiority of unwieldy, old-fashioned analog equipment, like a reel-to-reel eight-track tape machine manufactured by Ampex, a company that last produced that particular model around 1971. And he spends an extra dollar on the manufacturing of each record just so that the covers are made in the style popular before 1967 — that is, with the art printed not on the cardboard sleeve but on a paste-on jacket. Although he has conceded to the modern world’s demand for CDs (fans who buy them from his Web site are offered the gracious assurance, “It’s O.K., we won’t tell”), he has also released dozens of vinyl singles, a format that was considered out of date 20 years ago. During the studio session, I asked Driver what he thought about Roth’s decision to issue a pair of Gospel Queens songs as a 45. “I told him I don’t know too many people who buy no 45s,” he said, “and he told me he’ll be laughing his way to the bank.”
The events of the past few years have made Roth look almost prophetic. While his label has grown, generating enough money for Jones, the lead singer of the Dap-Kings, to start a savings account so that she can move out of the projects, the mainstream music business has teetered on the brink of collapse. Roth says he believes the industry had it coming. Over the past three decades, he argues, a series of technological innovations — the synthesizer, the CD, the laptop — have emboldened major labels like Sony and Atlantic to replace skilled musicians with microchips, resulting in an inferior product for which the labels have foolishly tried to compensate by dumping more and more money into cynical marketing schemes — in Roth’s words, “Faster ways to get it, cheaper ways to get it, ways to give you more of it, ways to give it to you with a can of Coke, ways to give it to you with artificial breasts and a blond hair-job.” The one sector of the industry that has grown in recent years is vinyl manufacturing. In 2007, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, shipments of 12-inch LPs and EPs increased about 37 percent from 2006, to nearly 1.3 million records. To Roth, it makes perfect sense. Vinyl records, in his opinion, sound good, look good, smell good and are delightful to hold. They appeal to four of the five senses, and if you share Roth’s idea of a relaxing evening, they can even help with the fifth — to quote Roth, you can’t roll a joint on an MP3.
Toward the end of the session, Roth collapsed into the couch and burned a CD for Driver on his laptop. While waiting for the job to finish, he tore open an envelope containing a shiny black lacquer platter, a template for the label’s next vinyl release. He then raised it to his face and inhaled deeply, as if he’d just arrived in the country after a long car ride. As he sat and picked at his dinner (a sliced apple and some peanut butter), I took the opportunity to ask Driver a few questions. Didn’t he ever worry that Roth’s ability to write and produce gospel songs might be compromised by the fact that Roth was, well, a Jewish atheist?
“What he knew about gospel never concerned me,” Driver said.
And how about Roth’s race? Some people, I suggested, might question whether a white man could capably write and produce songs in any “black” genre, whether gospel or R&B.
Roth interrupted me. “Don’t tell Cliff I’m white,” he said.
To a greater extent than any other form of music, including jazz and hip-hop, soul reflects a broad spectrum of the African-American experience — the plantation roots and middle-class aspirations and inner-city disappointments, the sparkle and the sweat, the spirituality and sensuality, the joy and the pain, the rhythm and the blues. It was born in the black churches of the South, came of age in the Civil Rights era, embraced its African heritage during the rise of the Black Power movement and declined when nightclub owners realized it was cheaper to hire a disco D.J. than a band. Along the way, it was molded by such immortals as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner and Otis Redding, as well as by Berry Gordy of Motown, the first African-American to own a mainstream record label, and by the superstars Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, not to mention Michael Jackson. It gave us “(To Be) Young, Gifted, and Black” and “Miss Black America,” the album “Black Moses” and the unofficial anthem of the African-American liberation movement, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” And it gave us the indelible image of James Brown on a Boston stage the night after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, instructing his young black fans to stay calm and uphold the dignity of their race.
So where does Gabriel Roth fit in? Is he a fetishist of black culture? A musicologist in the mold of Alan Lomax? An heir to an old and often rancorous legacy of dealings between white label owners and black musicians? One critic, Siddhartha Mitter, wrote in a review of a Dap-Kings concert for The Boston Globe that “an odor of exploitation” seemed to hover in the nightclub where they played. Later, when I spoke with Mitter, he went even further, suggesting that Roth’s wholesale appropriation of black tradition amounted to an act of “colonialism.”
Roth, for his part, sees himself as just one link in a long and diverse chain of people (blacks, whites, musicians, producers) who have contributed to the world’s precious supply of soul music. The issue of race, he said, rarely comes up in his work. Whenever I asked him to explain his fondness for a record by Al Green or Bobby (Blue) Bland or Jesse Boone and the Astros, he gave me the same answer: “Because it sounds good.” In one conversation, he compared soul music to the prose of Isaac Bashevis Singer. “There’s something visceral and real about it,” he said, “and at the same time something very high and spiritual.” The great soul singers, much like the great Yiddish writer, he said, succeeded in simultaneously evoking love’s mystical quality and its “raw,” inescapably biological nature; soul, in other words, is universal.
Roth’s parents are lawyers who have worked on civil rights and discrimination cases, and when I met them last summer at their rambling house inRiverside,Calif., they told me that they exposed Gabe and his sister, Samra, to a wide swath of humanity as they were growing up. “They would meet people who were judges,” said Andy Roth, Gabe’s father. “They would meet people who were lawyers. They would meet people who were robbers and drug people.” Andy would sometimes bring Gabe along on client-attorney visits. One client, a charismatic man named Jack Daniels, who was, Andy told me, “shot in the back running from the police” and was later “prosecuted for killing a couple of cops,” appears as a character in one of Roth’s songs.
One evening when Gabe was 13, his parents sat down with him and Samra and asked how they’d feel about accepting someone new into the family. A friend was dying of cancer, and her adopted daughter, Gina, a 14-year-old girl fromGuatemala, needed a home. “Our family has a lot of love,” Gabe’s parents said, “and Gina needs a lot of love.” The children said yes.
About two years later, the Roths gathered for another talk. Gabe and Samra’s friend, Terreno, or T. T., a black kid from a troubled home, had been sleeping over almost every night, and Gabe’s parents were concerned about him. They presented the kids with another choice: “We either need to kick him out or take him in for good.” Again, Gabe and his sister chose to expand their family.
After Gabe left home, his family continued to take people in, and the racial makeup of the household grew increasingly complex. A Dominican girl Samra met inNew Yorkthrough the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program came to visit and later decided to move in with Samra. Then T. T.’s ex-girlfriend, who was Mexican-American, moved into the Roths’ spare bedroom with her and T. T.’s daughter.
When I first learned about Roth’s adolescence, I suspected that there might be some connection between the racial diversity of his household and his interest in soul music. There isn’t, he told me. T. T., his black foster brother, “was a Phil Collins fan.” Roth speaks passionately and thoughtfully about racism and says he keeps an eye on his own prejudices to make sure that they don’t get the better of him, but generally, he considers race an unimportant part of his own narrative. When Sharon Jones finally met T. T., several years after she began working with Gabe, she was stunned. Roth had never bothered to mention that his brother was black.
One cool day at the end of a show-packed summer, Jones sat in an office on the second-floor of the Daptone building, wearing a Café Bustelo T-shirt she received free from a pop festival. She also had on a fanny pack, which she used to use, she informed me, to carry her handgun. Jones has a full figure, strong arms and a head that looks as if it were carved out of stone. She does not resemble most people’s idea of a pop star, a fact in which she takes obvious pride. Onstage and in interviews, she likes to declare that she was rejected by the mainstream music industry because she was deemed “too short, too fat, too black” and, after she turned 25, “too old.”
Jones was born inAugusta,Ga.— James Brown’s hometown — and moved toBrooklynat a young age. For the past nine years she has lived in the housing projects of Far Rockaway,Queens, with her mother. When I met Jones at the studio, she had the evening to herself, and she wanted to eat crabs. We jumped in her Honda Civic, and she drove us to a Red Lobster off theBelt Parkway, onBrooklyn’s eastern shore. On the way there she talked incessantly, interrupting herself at intervals to mimic, with impressive accuracy, the tinkle of a piano, the hiss of a high-hat and the steady thud of a bass. I checked my seatbelt. Some of the Dap-Kings have a code phrase, “Crazy Time,” for Jones’s frequent explosions of energy. Tour vehicles do not always survive these episodes intact. “There’s been a lot of chair-throwing in our band in the last few years,” Roth told me.
Roth and Jones have what Roth has described as a “co-dependent relationship.” To borrow Roth’s analogy, they form an Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, with Roth as the poised, rational architect and Jones as the animating spirit — the chief source of energy, passion and occasional descents into madness. Onstage, this dynamic plays out to great effect. Jones commands the room, unleashing her booming, authoritative alto while strutting back and forth in her three-inch heels, doing the Mashed Potato and the Funky Chicken, summoning wide-eyed young men from the audience to dance with her. Roth is a far less dramatic presence. As Jones sings, he slowly roams the stage with his bass, flashing subtle hand signals to his bandmates. Each signal corresponds either to a song or to what Roth refers to as “shtick” — a flare of brass, a cascade of cymbal and guitar: glittery bits of show-biz gimmickry whose effect is to transform what would otherwise be a mere collection of songs into a scintillating and cohesive show. Roth rejects the tyranny of the set list. The structure of each set depends on a variety of factors that he monitors throughout the performance — the crowd’s response, Jones’s mood, the strength of her voice. As soon as he issues a command, the band springs into action, exploding into a frenzy of bright noise or collapsing into a ballad or swiftly scaling the peaks of an ascending chord pattern.
In recent years, a relentless schedule has taken its toll on the band’s morale. At one point this summer, Jones and Roth clashed over money — just as Roth and his first partner, Phillip Lehman, did nearly a decade before, bringing about an end to Roth’s first venture. Jones asked Roth for publishing royalties for songs that, technically speaking, she didn’t write. (Her argument was that in interpreting Roth’s songs, she was doing as much to create them as he was.) After much deliberation over what would constitute the most ethical course of action, Roth dismissed the advice of his lawyers and agreed to pay her a percentage of all the publishing income those songs had generated over the past 12 years. When I asked Roth how much this would cost him, he gave me a dour look and said, “A lot.”
It had been an exasperating summer for Roth. His calendar was crammed with big music festivals, and he was forever deflecting journalists’ questions about Amy Winehouse’s struggles with addiction. With commercial concerns consuming so much of his time, he scarcely had any time for making music. He became irritable. At a sound check before the band’s appearance on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, he argued with a soundman over the best way to mike the drums. At a ritzy hotel inHollywood, or as he liked to call it, “Hollyweird,” I watched him stroll out to the pool, take one look at the surgically enhanced bodies darkening in the sun and ponder, dryly, “Where’s the pool with the ugly people?”
Still, there were moments when the clouds parted, revealing the unabashed enthusiasm of the teenage music nerd who fell in love with the songs of James Brown. That side of him was never more apparent than when he was listening to records, or even just looking at them. One afternoon, while we were waiting for Syl Johnson, a 72-year-old singer and guitarist from Chicago, to arrive at the studio for a recording date, Roth sat down on the floor with a case of old 45s and began going through them. He had set out to find a record for Johnson to autograph, but in his enthusiasm for each record that he unearthed he seemed to forget his original purpose.
“This is good,” he said, placing a record on a growing pile beside him. He held up a record with a pristine red and black label and glanced at Nydia Davila, his label manager, who was sitting nearby. “You know this version of ‘Come Closer to Me’?” he asked.
“Yeah!” she said.
“So good!” he said.
“So good,” she agreed.
“So good!” he said again. Davila started to say something else, but Roth’s ship was already sailing away. “So good!” he declared again. The pile grew taller and taller.
A bell rang. Roth rose and opened the door. Johnson stood in the threshold, by the mezuza, a tall and wiry black man wearing a chain around his neck with a gold pendant shaped like Jesus’s head. Roth’s face lit up. “Come in,” he said. “I know you had a long trip, man.”