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Thinking Outside the Beatbox 

Local label Nu Gruv retools its octopuslike approach to underground hip hop

Wednesday, May 16 2001
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For the past few years, San Francisco's biggest underground rumblings haven't had anything to do with tectonic plates. Instead they have stemmed from the South San Francisco offices of Nu Gruv Alliance, one of the Bay Area's epicenters for independent hip hop. Between its own Ground Control label and a wide variety of partners, Nu Gruv has established itself as a force to be reckoned with.

Nu Gruv's road to success, however, has been as uneven as the layers of the Earth's crust. Early hits like the Summer Junkies' "I'm Gonna Luv You" and the two Return of the DJ albums were followed by instant obscurities and unheard records. And Nu Gruv's partnering pattern -- in which it attached its name to everything from electronica to indie rock to breakbeat labels -- proved unwieldy, weakening its promotional abilities and diluting its name recognition. Now, the label is attempting to refocus its approach, concentrating solely on hip hop in the hopes of consolidating its accomplishments.

Fortunately, the label's current arsenal bristles with some of the finest microphone fiends in the game, from the thought-provoking Oakland group Zion I to Boston veteran EdO.G. to L.A.'s eclectic act Freestyle Fellowship. In fact, Nu Gruv's roster has left some people wondering how one label can strike pay dirt so often. According to Nu Gruv founder and President Bill Baren, the formula is deceptively simple: Believe in who you're selling and the rest will follow.


"Our Number 1 criteria is good music," Baren says. "Everything else is a bonus." It's a theme that permeates conversations with Baren and the rest of the Nu Gruv staff. Even the label's competitors -- who might be better described as allies -- concede that Nu Gruv's recordings maintain a high level of excellence.

Of course, as anyone who's ever tried to organize a birthday party will tell you, even the simplest ideas can be complex in execution. Baren readily concedes that talent alone doesn't guarantee sales -- the very notion that pushed him to found Nu Gruv.

"I saw things that even labels with good music were doing wrong," Baren says. "To expect a record to sell just because it's good is just wrong." Fed up with the inefficiencies he witnessed in the music distribution business, Baren formed Nu Gruv in July 1995. Working with a skeleton crew, he quickly realized the benefits of a small, versatile label.

"My tastes vary, so I didn't want to be labeled," Baren says. "My first record was on one label, my second record was on another label, but Nu Gruv Alliance was always the parent label."

"Nothing is released under just Nu Gruv," says Jed Koslow, director of A&R and new media. "The way Nu Gruv started was as a partnership of indie labels."

At times this wide-ranging approach can be mystifying. Nu Gruv Alliance puts out all of its own artists under the sublabel Ground Control, but also releases an arsenal of records under partner labels such as Funky Ass, Good Vibe, and Stereo-Type. The list of Nu Gruv's partners is almost as eyebrow-raising as its own roster.

Former Nu Gruv Vice President of Sales and Distribution Cory Brown is the owner of indie rock label Absolutely Kosher, which was a Nu Gruv partner until recently. He points to the pivotal role Nu Gruv played in the success of turntablist releases from local labels Stones Throw and Bomb. While the lion's share of the credit may have gone to the partner label, Brown says Nu Gruv was a key player in getting artists on those labels into stores.

When asked how much Nu Gruv chaperones its partner labels, Baren appears repulsed. To tamper with his colleagues' product, he says, would entirely defeat the point. However, Nu Gruv does take care of manufacturing, marketing, and distribution for its partners. What's more, Nu Gruv often becomes involved in the details of production, helping find cover illustrators and art directors for releases.

Brown points out that a number of major labels have tried to tap into Nu Gruv's market by inflating smaller hip hop labels with money and then waiting in vain for the golden eggs. At Nu Gruv, he maintains, the investment is in time as much as money.

"Nu Gruv's attitude [toward partner labels] was different," Brown says. "They didn't pump things full of money. They became actual partners with their labels."

MC Zion, of Bay Area act Zion I, confirms this distinction. When he was a member of the Atlanta-based crew Metaphor, Zion endured the gold record- minded machinations of his then-label, Tommy Boy. When he and fellow Metaphor member Amp Live moved to the Bay Area and signed with Ground Control, they were looking for a change.

"Creatively speaking, [Nu Gruv] did exactly what we wanted to do," Zion says. "We decided we needed to have control because it was a nightmare dealing with Tommy Boy."

Still, Amp Live feels that the distribution of the duo's debut album, Mind Over Matter, could have been better. Mostly, he wishes it had been easily available outside of California and New York.

Amp Live may soon get his wish, thanks to Baren's conscious effort to downsize the Nu Gruv roster and concentrate its efforts. Gone are the more peripheral hip hoppers, along with many of the house, drum 'n' bass, and indie rock partner labels. For now, the collective will focus on promoting a handful of hip hop hopefuls -- Zion I, Freestyle Fellowship, EdO.G., Cali Agents, Milwaukee's Juice, Philadelphia's the Mountain Brothers, and the New York-based Mastermindz.

"I really want to concentrate on hip hop," Baren says. "When we were doing everything, it was too much and things were getting lost even here. With underground music, you can't have one foot in and one foot out. You have to be the music."

Nu Gruv's approach appears to be working. The recent Ground Control All-Stars tour, featuring Aceyalone, EdO.G., and the Mastermindz, sold out every show from Santa Cruz to New York and back. Accepted Eclectic, the recent album by Freestyle Fellowship member Aceyalone, is on the brink of mainstream success, while Cali Agents have been popping up in the pages of The Source, the bible of mainstream hip hop.

All of this success begs the question: Now that Nu Gruv can be seen above ground, how big will the reverberations be?

Baren pauses while he ponders an answer. "It's difficult for a label to do what they do well without wanting to change." Still, Baren seems a little baffled by the idea of tampering with the Nu Gruv formula. If it ain't broke, he intimates, why fix it? After all, Nu Gruv embraces a number of acts and labels, each with its own style. If Nu Gruv pitched itself in one direction it might hurt some of its artists.

Baren's cautiousness underscores Nu Gruv's importance to the local hip hop scene. Not only is Ground Control doing well, but Nu Gruv has become a rallying point for fledgling hip hop ventures. As Cory Brown points out, the path to success is never easy, but it sure helps to have a savvy business partner as a guide.

"The biggest problem in underground music is that people have vision and no money," Brown says. "Nu Gruv Alliance has really created an outlet for other labels to do something."

About The Author

Thomas Connors

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