One of the hip-hop genre’s pioneers, New York City native Aaron Fuchs took his understanding of doo-wop and r&b to indie label success when he launched his Tuff City Records hip-hop label in 1981. But he’s stayed in business by branching out into obscure r&b reissue labels.
“If you’re on Wall Street, you call it ‘buying low,’” says Fuchs, smothered in his 100-sq. ft. office by thousands of vinyl recordings, most of them 45 r.p.m. singles.
Like buying Swing Time Records, the eclectic Los Angeles r&b label that was home at one time or another for the Ray Charles, Charles Brown, guitarist Lowell Fulson and pianist Lloyd Glenn. Fuchs acquired Swing Time long after Tuff City had established itself with pioneering “old school” rappers like Cold Crush Brothers and Spoonie Gee and DJs like the 45 King and Davey DMX.
“It had this whole emerging postwar r&b roster that was almost as important a precursor of rock ‘n’ roll as Chess or Modern Records, but just too far off on the other side of the generation gap,” says Fuchs. “That, in conjunction with the owner’s gambling problems, just killed it in the r&b run-up to rock ‘n’ roll and the 78 r.p.m. [disc’s] run-up to the 45.”
Fuchs would eventually identify other such labels, including such small Louisiana lines as Nola, Drew-Blan, Sapphire, and Hermitage, and reissue their recordings via his Tuff City sister labels Night Train International (releases include obscure blues, jazz, and r&b recordings), Funky Delicacies (specializing in under-appreciated funk records) and soul-centered Soul-Tay-Shus.
“I formed Tuff City as much to put out records as to run a record company,” says Fuchs, lovingly referring to the now archaic black vinyl discs as “these beautiful magic bullets.”
Continuing to wax poetic, Fuchs, who served as East Coast editor of the now-defunct music tradepaper Cash Box prior to launching Tuff City, adds, “Records are those vehicles that permit you to fly high through the friendly skies. I can read a discography book and it’s drama to me, flip through 100 pages and see labels like Swing Time that were the kings during the era of 78s and 45s that are like the lost continent of Atlantis.”
But throughout recorded music history, he notes, “every genre has had four times as many labels as those that were well-known and 10 times as many artists as good as those that became popular—for reasons that were political or whatever. Today these labels and artists have a second life.”
Fuchs points to Motown and the lesser-known labels that drifted in its orbit.
“What happened in Detroit in the ‘60s is the equivalent of 10 local cola manufacturers surrounding Coke and approximating its formula,” he says. “If you wanted The Temptations, say, you had to pay Motown’s stratospheric price. So people wrangled Motown’s legendary house musicians and engineers at the end of their work day and plied them with money and other offerings to get that same sound for their records. And they had fabulous artists that had the same vibe—like D-Town Records, which I picked up.”
This “reissue component” of the music business has helped ease the transition—at Tuff City, at least—from “nearly extinct” physical audio product like CDs to digital, says Fuchs, who obsessively scoured New York’s r&b venues in securing the rap and hip-hop artists he sensed were on the cusp of a new music movement in the early 1980s.
“When hip-hop started, I already knew the lay of the land,” he says. “If you look at Tuff City in the ‘80s, not only was I betting that rap would happen and endure but also betting that it would eventually be catalog: I was the first guy out with an album of old school classics, and I did the same with New Orleans music. When you invest in music genres, good things can happen.”
For Fuchs, then, “It’s like electing to be a singles hitter in the midst of everybody else swinging for the fences,” he concludes.
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