Greetings from California
- Thursday, June 24, 2004
Though the artists tended to sing light, sunny fare when they started, the decade closed with them tackling deeper, personal issues and concerns, a step that again produced revolutionary growth from the Pacific coast. The Lifesavers, changing its name to Lifesavers Underground, shocked the industry with the dark, brutally honest album "Shaded Pain." Similarly, Undercover took a more introspective turn with "Branded" and the Altar Boys with "Forever Mercy." The most controversial album, however, was Leslie Philips’ "The Turning" [produced by her then husband-to-be, T Bone Burnett), a breathtaking album loaded with songs about doubt, hurt and pain. Philips encountered such opposition to this album that she eventually left Christian music, changed her first name to Sam and started releasing a string of acclaimed albums on Virgin Records.
As these artists took such bold steps, the changes won over new fans and alienated others but collectively marked a shift in faith-based music. More artists started expressing emotions and deeper thoughts while elevating the overall quality and breadth of their music, changes that eventually birthed California’s current musical climate.
From Blonde Vinyl to Tooth & Nail
Though short-lived, Michael Knott’s Blonde Vinyl Records played a major role in creating an indie scene within Christian music. Based in Orange County, the record label released numerous albums in what were then underground genres like punk, house and industrial with such local groups as Fluffy, Breakfast With Amy, Black and White World, Plague of Ethyls, Dance House Children (which later splintered off into Starflyer 59 and Joy Electric) and, of course, Knott’s own band, Lifesavers Underground (a.k.a. L.S.U.). Distribution problems eventually led to the label’s demise but not before Blonde Vinyl showed that Christian music fans were, indeed, interested in “college radio” type music.
In the wake of Blonde Vinyl’s closure, Knott started releasing albums on various labels, including his former label home, Frontline Records. There he got to know the label’s radio/publicity guy, Brandon Ebel, who had been a big fan of Blonde Vinyl. With a vision for his own indie-centered label, Ebel left Frontline in 1994 and started Tooth & Nail Records with inaugural artists Wish For Eden, Focused and Starflyer 59. Making great strides in building a national base for Christian artists previously considered too fringe, the label eventually hit the big time with the ska-punk hit O.C. Supertones and the pop-punk outfit MxPx.
Starflyer 59 front man Jason Martin recalls, “During that early scene, 90 percent of Brandon’s bands were from California. He was living in California back then, and he was going to see bands there that weren’t getting record deals at that time. He took a chance on those bands, and it actually worked. I don’t know if he would have been able to do the same thing in Nebraska, but there were some cool bands in those days; and they were all from California.”
In the ’90s, California helped developed a great scene for indie rock, punk and ska; but the state also played a pivotal role in urban music. Brainstorm Records, which broke into hip-hop with JC & the Boyz, enjoyed further success with the Chris Cooper-led rap collective SFC. The label later released albums by SFC cohorts the Dynamic Twins and Freedom of Soul. Today, Cooper goes by Sup the Chemist and has started his own label, Beesyde Records, with a new album through Uprock. Likewise, Sup’s old turntable master DJ Dove developed and broke another L.A. rap group, the Gospel Gangstaz. T-Bone, one of California’s top breakout emcees, actually paid homage to West Coast rappers like SFC, Freedom of Soul and Poetic Lee on his recent track “Our History.”
Entering the New Era
Today’s West Coast labels, which include Floodgate, Northern, Marathon, N*Soul, Metro One and Velvet Blue, among others, feature dual market mindsets and a vision for free artistic expression. Inglewood’s B-Rite and Gospo Centric Records, for example, enjoy significant cross-market success with Kirk Franklin and “American Idol’s” R.J. Helton. With its mix of opportunity and challenge, the left coast remains a progressive hub and oftentimes an artistic magnet, drawing in the likes of dc talk’s Kevin Max, a recent L.A. transplant, and Indiana native Jeremy Camp.
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