For more than a few years I’ve known Josh MacPhee as a badass graphic designer, activist, artist, and founding member of both the Just Seeds print-making collective, and the Interference Archive in Brooklyn. I like talking with Josh about politics and art, and while we’ve certainly had many wide-ranging conversations, we never got to talking about his obsessive relationship to vinyl, particularly to records pressed by labels that take a political stand. He recently published the third edition of his Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels, which he admits is not really encyclopedic, but rather a personal, deep dive into political, left-leaning records created (for the most part) between 1970 and 1990, in geographies across the globe: the Americas, across Africa, throughout Europe, to Asia and Oceana. He’s driven by both a love of the labels’ graphics as well as the music they distribute, not to mention the political intent behind records created to distribute a set of ideas.
I crack open this little book, which clocks in 789 label entries, to enter a whole world of political storytelling. Each entry provides the label’s logo, the label’s name, where it originated, followed by some details about the recording and what social movement with which it was or is affiliated. Some labels only pressed one record. Take for example, Ethiopian Tourist Organization, which came out of Ethiopia in the mid-70s. This entry, which I opened to at random, explains:
One of the stranger entries in this book, the Ethiopian Tourist Organization pressed a 7” (produced in Kenya) titled Revolution Song in honor of the 194 Ethiopian Revolution. Although undated, it was most likely produced in the late seventies in celebration of the Derg (the military junta that governed Ethiopia at the time) and of Mengitsu Haile Mariam, who would rule Ethiopia as the head of the Communist state from 1975–91. He was the architect of the “Red Terror,” Stalin-like purges of those he saw as enemies or even potential enemies. The writing credit to the music on one of the songs on the 7” is attributed to Mariam (page 86).
This not a book to read cover to cover, but rather one that is best dipped into for a choose-your-own-adventure experience. Fascinating to me are the international solidarities that come up in reading certain entries — from Swedish, Palestine-solidarity group Kofia, to the Dutch KKLA which focused exclusively on Latin American music, to the Jamaican label Music is Life which released a record to benefit victims of the Ethiopian famine. There are so many different cross sections of the information embedded in each entry, including the types of music featured and their respective political affinities that the possibilities for constructing narratives from this work are staggering — from Angolan merengue and Irish anarcho-punk to Thai folk music. There is truly something for everyone.
MacPhee also helpfully provides several indexes to support your meanderings, including a glossary of musical styles which explain relationships to social movements, such as the ways in which bossa nova, and its offspring, música popular brasiliera (MPB) featured veiled political lyrics so as to evade censorship during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the mid- to late 1960s. Further appendices provide sorting via geography, musical style, and label type (i.e., traditional label, union- or labor-related, or identity-based focus) to aid in your adventure.
Certainly, I could point to things that are missing from this volume, or to the decisions made that necessarily exclude certain projects. For example, sticking only to vinyl necessarily means that a lot of the protest music coming out of the late 1990s (much of which was distributed digitally) is not included. MacPhee argues that these labels, while certainly political, were “more about politics than of it,” which I buy, but the same might also be said of certain releases included on vinyl as well. Undue focus on what is missing by virtue of MacPhee’s decision making, or his vinyl-purchasing budget, however, misses the point entirely. This collection, and its importance to a larger social and political history, is more about the alternative storytelling that is possible through a dive into the labels, the music they distribute, and the politics they espouse. And, more than just a walk down the memory lane of far-left resistance politics, they also might even provide some clues about how we might navigate through our contemporary morass.
After reading the book, I had a handful of questions for MacPhee, about his process of collecting and compiling:
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Hyperallergic: How did you find out about most of these record labels?
Josh MacPhee: It was a large combination of channels, including asking friends, hunting in record stores, reading books about folk music around the world, and online searching, particularly in places like Discogs and eBay. It has often been a process of tugging at strings, finding one record, seeing who released it, and then seeing if that musician released records on any other labels, then tracking back to the start, finding another musical act on the same initial label, and then tracking down other labels that second band also released music on. And so on and so on. It’s relatively tedious research, but the internet helps (when it doesn’t hurt, by lulling us into forgetting that there is as much that is not online as there is up in the cloud), as does my tendency towards OCD-light obsessiveness.
H: Do you own recordings by them?
JM: Yes, for most of the labels, I tracked down actual records, both to be able to get a high-res image of the logo for the book, but also to be able to scour the object for clues about other labels, records, and performers to track down. For better or for worse, much political music is not highly sought after, so it is relatively easy to acquire if you know how to look for it. There are some exceptions, and some great records that I simply can’t afford. I tried to limit myself to not spending more than $20 on a single piece of vinyl, but I didn’t always follow my own rules and even if I did, with 800 labels, that’s still a lot of money to spend on records!
The vinyl collection at Interference Archive helped a lot, and towards the end of working on the book version of the project, we received a huge donation of records by the New Song Library, a folk-music focused collection that had been housed in Western Mass. That was a treasure trove of politicized folk micro-labels that really helped my research.
H: Did some of these labels only press one record?
JM: Yes, many! I would guess 1/4 of the labels in the book only pressed a single record, largely because they were only organized as “labels” when they pressed the record, otherwise they were solidarity committees, citizens groups, labor unions, and NGOs. As much as anything else, the existence of so many ad-hoc labels proves my thesis that the vinyl record was seen as a potentially powerful tool in political organizing. Otherwise, why bother marshaling so many resources into it by groups not otherwise organized to do it. While ultimately not that difficult, the skills and resources necessary to press a vinyl record were certainly far greater than putting out a poster, publishing a pamphlet, etc.
H: Can you point me to some of your very favorite logos/graphics?
JM: I like so many of them, for different reasons. I love the strange creature used by the small Belgian label Agitat — it’s like a militant mole, but so furry and blind it’s totally lovable. It’s just unexpected. The logo of the anti-apartheid Beweging Nederland is simply gorgeous from a design perspective, the bold, crisp spear head underlined by the more detailed string tying it to its pole, circled with the groups initials in a perfectly weighted, heavy sans serif. The rocking falcon in the Falkenscheiben logo is really cool, and the circled couple and flag in red used for Demos somehow seems perfect, the social joy emanating from the little people happily marching under their flag. Although so far the design aspect of this project has been overshadowed by the music part, I do think it is interesting and important, and so many of the logos are great examples of applied design, especially since so few of them were created by professional designers.
H: What was the most difficult set of decisions you had to make in organizing this iteration of the encyclopedia? Why?
I’ve had to make a couple big decisions that focused the project, but inevitably meant that many things would be left out. First, focusing on the vinyl record specifically led to two major zones of exclusion — first, one based around time. Because the vinyl record was the dominant form of physical sound distribution for roughly only three decades (1960–1990), there is a lot — both musically and politically — before and after that gets left out. This meant important political punk, rock, and hip-hop labels from the late 90s are missing, early very political Caribbean music that was pre-vinyl isn’t here, etc. Second, there are a number of important and interesting political movements that used recorded sound as agit-prop, but not on vinyl. For example, the Tamil Tigers released dozens of cassettes and cds, but either (a) didn’t have access to a vinyl pressing plant, or (b) knew their constituents didn’t have record players anyway.
Also, I decided to only include labels that are situated on the left of the political spectrum. This was done more out of my capacity limits (time, money, etc.) than anything particularly ideological. I’m obviously coming at this from the left, but I do believe we need to study how the right operates, and recorded sound is a really good way to do that. I’m hoping if the book is a real success, and I get an opportunity to do another edition, I’ll add an appendix of a hundred or so of the key right-wing labels …