Drum 'n' bass isn't the easiest music to digest or to market. Between its rapid-fire snares and breakbeats; rolling, deep bass tones, metallic textures, and dense arrangements, its sole purpose seems to simply knock you off your ass. House music, more commercial-friendly, simply wants that ass to wiggle. Yet drum 'n' bass found a comfortable niche here after arriving from the UK in the mid-'90s, and the Bay Area played a key role in the development of the burgeoning genre in the United States.
In 1996, weekly club nights sponsored by drum 'n' bass collectives such as Phunckateck and BASS Kru spread the new sound, and it was around this same time in the East Bay that Merit Toutjian (aka DJ Sifu) began hosting DJ nights with Brianna Pope (aka Honey B) at the club they co-owned in Oakland, the now defunct Yo Mama's Cafe. In '98 Toutjian and Pope decided to form a record label to help promote their own material as well as that of other musicians, believing that there weren't enough avenues for the burgeoning recording careers of local drum 'n' bass artists.
Thermal Recordings -- so named for its energy-related theme -- was the third drum 'n' bass label to emerge from the Bay Area, and the first in Oakland. Now, two and a half years and seventeen releases later, Thermal continues to thrive. The label is poised to release new full-length CDs by UFO!, Oakland artist Canis, and a mix CD by Toutjian's alter-ego, DJ Sifu. But building a record label certainly isn't easy. The pair has logged thousands of hours, with Toutjian handling the bulk of the A&R and design work, while Pope -- who also works for Amalgam Media (XLR8R and Flyer magazines) -- is in charge of marketing, promotions and advertising. Toutjian says his and Pope's foremost goal was to build a label that would command respect. "I realized there was a lot of talent in the area," he says. "At the time, people were really struggling to get their stuff out, so we decided to concentrate our efforts on building a specialized label built around one genre."
Soon after Thermal's East Bay launch, music magazines unfortunately began touting the great new "San Francisco" label. "Oakland just doesn't have the same popularity and name recognition around the world -- people are so SF-oriented," he says. "Jesus, there's a ton of shit going on in Oakland. There are so many artists here. And it just gets so overlooked."
Thermal made its official debut in the spring of 1999 via two vinyl singles: UFO!'s "Enemy Infiltration" and Undercover Agent's "Aphex Scanna." The artists were known for their frenetic hard step styles, helping the label quickly attain "cool" status among the global drum 'n' bass community. "That single came out of some other place," says Thermal recording artist Pieter K. "It came to be seen as a kind of landmark in American drum 'n' bass. It really did take a very bold stance and kind of introduced a new aesthetic into the music."
UK artist Undercover Agent said he knew he was going to record for Toutjian as soon as he met him at a party in San Francisco. "We got along straight away," he says. "As soon as I got back to the UK, I jumped into the lab and made my first release for Thermal. The thing that got me hooked was his karma -- cool as ice."
Despite their good karma, the two have seen some murky moments -- especially in the intensely critical drum 'n' bass scene. Recently they were dropped from a large UK distribution deal. "It's a really hard scene to thrive in," says Pope. "We're scratching to get to the top. Basically you just throw yourself into this pit and hope you don't get eaten alive."
The label claims that it averages 2,000 to 3,000 records sold each release, though it needs to be selling 5,000 copies to really get moving. Still, 2,500 copies sold is really good for an independent label. "It's not like I'm a big baller off of this," says Toutjian. "It's not about that. I'm doing this because I want to put out quality music." He believes it's more important to share the wealth rather than worry about other labels. "I don't see other labels as competition. There's always going to be new labels popping up. If they're people you know, you should share the knowledge and help them get started."
But the question remains: Is drum 'n' bass a marketable music genre? Sure, there are specialty club nights still in existence (the most popular being Phunckateck's long-running "Eklektic" at the Cat Club), but many say drum 'n' bass isn't as popular as it was a few years ago. "There're always people that are going to say that drum 'n' bass is dead," says Pope. "But drum 'n' bass is still strong. Even with the whole two-step thing taking over, drum 'n' bass people are still there, weathering the storm. It's never going to be mainstream -- which is fine because it's giving us a lot more freedom to go where we want to go."
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