Strata was independent, run and owned by artists, released less than ten records and was established an art gallery-come-live venue that started the first university Jazz music program to educate and create awareness following the Detroit riots of '67 and ’68. In 2010, DJ Amir Abdullah, known as one half of the DJ duo Kon & Amir was commissioned to create a lost youth culture exhibit for a Detroit online museum. He chose to celebrate Strata's huge impact by re-issuing their catalogue through his own label 180 Proof Records. Carhartt WIP has teamed up with him to create a little Strata clothing collection that plays with graphics and poster motives of the label. To accompany the release we asked DJ Amir to prepare a personal journey through the goldmine of Strata records that features music by artists like Maulawi, The Lyman Woodard Organization, Kenny Cox and The Soulmates.
Legendary Detroit-based Strata Records was launched by pianist Kenny Cox and trumpeter Charles Moore in the late 1960s. It became the charismatic centre for Detroit’s Jazz scene in the late sixties and early seventies and it was a destination for heavyweight musicians like Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones and Herbie Hancock whenever they were in town. Strata’s principles are focused on artistic freedom, a philosophy that is still going strong to this day. Their albums embody a wonderfully expansive approach to music-making that is truly distinct, and although they were pressed in small quantities, their cult following continues to expand. Beside releasing music they also did a lot of social work in Detroit. Like Detroit Jazz Renaissance that was a public project that started at the end of the 1970s to support the crumbling Detroit Jazz scene with the aim of finding new music venues. Furthermore they also ran an art gallery. Today the New York City based DJ, record collector and label runner DJ Amir takes care about the Strata catalogue and re-released not only some of their greatest records. He also found lots of un-released treasures in the Strata archives that he continues to reveal to the world. For Carhartt WIP Radio DJ Amir prepared a very personal journey to the Strata catalogue. To find out what is special about Strata, why he is re-releasing their catalogue and what is adventurous in doing so, we spoke to the man from Brooklyn, NYC.
(DJ Amir, photo by TONE)
Hey Amir – can you introduce yourself for us a bit? Where are you coming from, what is your occupation, what did you do in the past as a vinyl enthusiast, soul archivar, crate digger, remixer and label runner?
DJ Amir: I first got into music through the influence of my family. My father was/is a heavy jazz music fan and collector. My mom always listened to her gospel records every weekend and my siblings were into everything from Disco to Jazz. I had to start collecting my own records because none of them would let me have their stuff; so at nine years old I bought my first record with my allowance. That record was Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. I also originally moved to NYC in 1995 for graduation school. However, I felt that wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore and I dropped out. There upon, my roommate at the time told me about a job working in the music industry for a company called Fat Beats. I was hired as a low level sales person but later went on to become the VP of Sales. I decide to become a DJ because when Kon and myself were offered to tour for our first album, I had to stop being a bedroom DJ and start doing it for a living.
You administrate the Strata Records catalogue. Can you tell us a bit how how it came about?
DJ Amir: How I came about administrating the Strata catalog was through my work with Scion. Back in 2010, Scion commissioned me to produce and curate an online museum exhibit. I choose the label Strata Records, Inc. as my exhibition topic. Through this I was able to meet the owner of Strata and discuss the project. However, me being a super record nerd, I had to ask about the Strata masters and the possibility of reissuing the masters. I also asked about unreleased stuff. From there, we negotiated a deal that has allowed to administrate the catalog.
What makes Strata Records special in particular as a label from Detroit and at large compared to other Jazz labels from the seventies?
DJ Amir: What makes Strata so special in mind is their story of community outreach and sense of teaching the value of education. They were definitely involved in a lot social activism in Detroit especially after the 1967 and 1968 riots that virtually destroyed Detroit. In addition, they started the first Jazz music program at Oberlin College and at Wayne State University in 1970. They ran an art gallery in Detroit that would have free or virtually free concerts shows with the likes Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, etc. for the youth in Detroit. Lastly, they were artist run and owned label which was very unique at the time. All of these things made me love Strata even more than just their music. I mean other indie Jazz labels made great music but Strata was one of the few that made every effort to give back to their community.
How would you describe the music of Strata Records to someone that hasn’t heard of it?
DJ Amir: I would describe the music of Strata as very spiritual but also they tried to create what they thought was creative out of the ordinary Jazz music. Although, they officially only released six years, they recorded over 30 unreleased albums. They wanted to make Jazz music not so formal and stiff as it had become in the late 1960s.
When people think of Detroit and music in the 1960s and 1970s the first thing that comes into their mind is Motown. If you have to compare Motown with Strata, what would you say?
DJ Amir: The only way I would compare Motown and Strata is that they both had a strong work ethic and also were independently black owned businesses. In addition, some of the artist that recorded for Strata were sessions guys for Motown. For example, Larry Nozero played the horn on the Marvin Gaye classic What’s Goin On?. Lyman Woodard was the music director Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and Sam Sanders played with Stevie Wonder in the early days.
Would you say that a label like Strata could have only emerged out of a town like Detroit? And if so: why?
DJ Amir: I would not say a label like Strata could only have emerged out of Detroit because there were so many other independently owned Jazz labels that tried to accomplice some of the same goals. For example, Black Jazz Records from Chicago or even Strata-East Records in NYC. By the way, Strata and Strata-East were related in small way. Both were championed by Kenny Cox but Strata-East was incorporated by Charles Tollivier and Stanley Cowell.
How do you see Strata Records in context to the large music history of Detroit?
DJ Amir: I see Strata in the larger music history of Detroit as being the epitome of self-reliance at a time of much of upheaval in America and around the world. The free nature in which their artist (themselves) recorded and created is very special. Plus, their music activism was rather unique and should be noted in the history Detroit music. And not for nothing, they were outstanding musicians!
Strata Records has had a very distinctive black and white record cover design. Who was in charge for it and what makes the designs special in your eyes compared to other labels graphic appearance?
DJ Amir: The very distinct black and white cover design was out necessity because they didn’t have a lot of money. Therefore, the simple black and white design was really to keep budgets down but also to keep things simple. Without knowing, they created a very unique and distinct design for the albums. The person in charge of the album designs was really John Sinclair. The same John Sinclair that was arrested in the 1960s for walking down the street smoking a joint and who John Lennon wrote a song about. He was also the manager for the legendary Detroit rock group MC5.
As you re-release the music of Strata how important is the design for you today and do you think it is still fresh?
DJ Amir: The design is very important to me when re-releasing the catalog. Not only do I want to stay true to the original design as much as possible but also want to brand every release. So even when you look at the record jacket from afar you will definitely be to say that’s a Strata/180 Proof release. I really do still think the original is very fresh!
Did you find stuff in the Strata archives that till today nobody has heard? And if so: what is special about it?
DJ Amir: I definitely have found previously unheard of or unreleased stuff in the Strata catalog. What is so special about this unreleased stuff that Strata definitely tried to ‘push the envelope’ in terms of how music is created and recorded. For example, there is a 45 single I just released from Strata that was recorded with Latin vocals on top but English vocals underneath. This has never been done as far as I know. Also because they could not afford a real string section they recorded the strings with a mellotron that makes ‘string like’ sounds but it is very much cheaper.
What do you want to accomplish with the music you re-release?
DJ Amir: What I would like to accomplish with the music I re-release is to educate people about the other side of the history of Jazz and black music. Many people believe they know just about everything about Jazz music but there is so much more below the surface. The same with the history of black music; there needs to be more light shined on the art and its creative movements below the surface. Most importantly, I want to expose the world to this great but virtually unknown catalog of music.
On what future projects are you working on? Any new special releases coming from the Strata Records archives soon?
DJ Amir: Right now, I am working on releasing the previously unreleased album by Ron English, Fish Feet. This album is such an urban legend. So many collectors have said they have the original when, in fact, it was NEVER released. Additionally, the cover design was done by the same artist that did all the Parliament/Funkadelic cartoon cover, Overton Lloyd. I am also working on releasing a Latin/Salsa record that was recorded on Strata but was never released.
How did you select the tracks for your Carhartt WIP Strata Records Radio show?
DJ Amir: I selected the tracks for the Carhartt WIP Radio Show mix based off the mood I was in that day. I was in a sort sad mood because I was leaving my girl for a six week DJ tour and I was already missing her. Music mixes for me are all about the mood I am in.
What’s the best thing about your DJ job?
DJ Amir: The best thing about my job as a DJ is that I get to play music I like for people. Whether people are sad, angry, depressed I get to help them be in a better place mood wise. Being a DJ has allowed me to travel the world a lot and learn so much more about music and people. Also how many people can say they get paid to do what they love!
What’s the worst thing about your job?
DJ Amir: The worst thing about my job is shady promoters who try to cheat you out of money. Also I can’t stand rude audience that think they can DJ so they ask totally stupid shit that they hear on the radio every day. Also everyone because of technology thinks they’re a DJ so they try to tell your job lol!
What was the first record you bought?
DJ Amir: The first record I bought was Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. I loved this record but my brother wouldn’t let my have it so I went and bought my own copy at age nine.
What was the last record you bought?
DJ Amir: The last record I bought was Kendrick Lamar and D’ Angelo new albums. Loved them both a lot!
What are three Strata Records albums that you'll absolutely never get tired of listening to?
DJ Amir: The first three strata albums that I would never get tired of listening to would be Kenny Cox: Clap Clap! The Joyful Noise, The Lyman Woodard Organization: Saturday Night Special and Maulawi’s self-titled albums.
Do you have any idols when it comes to music?
DJ Amir: One of my biggest idols when it comes to music would be Herbie Hancock. I just love his music so much. This man used technology and didn’t let it use him. He was genius enough to keep reinventing himself and pushing the envelope with music. His knowledge of music just floors me too.
What is your favorite place outside of a bar / club / record shop?
DJ Amir: My favorite outside of a bar, a club or a record shop is an art museum. I love to go with my girlfriend to museums and just explore the world of art.
If you could be in any band, living or dead, for a day which band would it be?
DJ Amir: I would love to have been apart of Kool and the Gang when they recorded their first two albums. To me, they are one of the funkiest bands ever besides the J.B.'s.
Strata Records discography