For Jason Grimes, the process of recording an album starts with graphic design.
“The artwork has to match the music,” says Grimes, founder of Cincinnati-based Chiefdom Records. “I’m going back to stuff from the ’60s and ’70s. Stuff like Gold Key Comics — sci-fi, fantasy, paperback books you might see in Barnes & Noble for 50 cents. I’m looking for analog illustration.”
A longtime devotee of Soul Jazz and ’90s Hip Hop, Grimes curates a discography that oozes nostalgia. The Chiefdom imprint has pressed six vinyl records (out of a total of about a dozen releases overall) since early 2017, each adorned with cover artwork that’s as densely illustrated and time-worn as any comic book you’d find gathering dust in an old shoebox.
The music itself is as retro as the visuals suggest. Each Chiefdom release is packed with genre-mashing jams that apply rattling breakbeats to Dub Reggae rhythm guitar and meandering Funk instrumentation. Most importantly, at least in Grimes’ opinion, it’s all recorded live to tape and printed on wax, creating a listening experience unadulterated by the digital world.
“Vinyl’s been a huge part of my musical journey ever since I was a kid,” he says. “I spent the late ’70s and early ’80s collecting records. In the ’90s, I collected them to sample. We were always looking for good sounds and drum breaks. By the early 2000s, vinyl fell off in a sense once music became more digital.
“Digital’s convenient, but a vinyl record is tangible — it’s always gonna be there.”
Grimes’ music career began in 1988, when he was still attending Milford High School. A recent transplant from Florida, he purchased his first Technics 1200, a turntable popular for its precision and scratchability. At that point, he was more into DJing, spinning Miami Bass cuts from his home state alongside tracks by Run-DMC and LL Cool J.
By the time he’d saved up enough for two 1200s and a mixer, Grimes spent much of his free time holed up inside, practicing scratching and playing DMC tapes.
“From there, I haven’t stopped since, really,” he says. “I went the hard route. In hindsight, I wish I went to school to learn engineering or music theory or something, but I was hard-headed.”
In 1992, Grimes began producing under the alias Jahson and formed a trio called Mood with local MCs Main Flow and Donte. After garnering buzz on the strength of their single “Hustle on the Side”, the group signed to New York-based label TVT Records and released Doom, a 1997 LP that earned a cult following thanks to its tripped-out aesthetic and a few early Talib Kweli features.
That record also included instrumentals by fellow Cincinnatian Hi-Tek, who’d later go on to produce for acts like Black Star, Anderson .Paak and Snoop Dogg.
“I did feel like I had my own sound,” Grimes says looking back. “At the same time, though, I felt limited making beats on a sampler. To me, it felt like my instrument, but not 100 percent so.
“Now that I’m making music with live musicians, I’ve seen those limitations. I used to collect records to find these samples, and now I’m making that music.”
At the turn of the millennium, Grimes’ enthusiasm for production waned. A slated collaboration with 50 Cent was lost in development hell. The sound of Hip Hop began to change.
So Grimes took a hiatus — one that lasted for about five years.
A bike ride through Loveland changed that.
“My wife and I were on the Loveland Bike Trail and got some lunch,” he says. “We passed by this record store that had a sign in the window that said something about Funk, so I had to go in and see what these dudes were talking about. I mean, this is Loveland. But then, Terry (Cole) busted my head. I couldn’t believe how knowledgeable he was.”
Cole and his brother Bob co-founded Loveland’s Plaid Room Records store, an extension of their successful Colemine Records, a label dedicated to current practitioners of vintage Soul and Funk that has a growing international following. Cole’s vision inspired Grimes to start making records of his own again. He revisited the stash of recording equipment he’d acquired over the years and began building a home studio as he reached out to a team of session musicians — friends and acquaintances he’d met over the years.
Chiefdom’s core house band currently consists of drummer Marvin Hawkins, keyboardist J-Skillz, guitarists Cameron Brown and Kevaughn Byers and bassist Terrell Montgomery. Grimes acts as the director of sorts, arranging the tracks in the studio and scratching records during live performances. Though different band names are scattered throughout the Chiefdom discography — Grimez, Nomadic Warriors, Doctor Bionic — they’re all essentially an extension of Jason Grimes’ work.
“We currently have so many releases planned for the future that we can’t get the artwork done fast enough,” he says.
Grimes is a stickler for Chiefdom’s signature cover art. It has to be believably vintage — so much so that he prefers his sleeves to appear worn from years of use. Acquiring the artwork can be an international affair.
Chiefdom’s latest, the just-released Tip of the Spear (credited to Grimez), features a snapshot taken by a photographer Grimes met in Mexico City. Whereas the psychedelic portraiture gracing the cover of last year’s The Holy Realm comes courtesy of the Netherlands. The artwork for one of the label’s first releases, SubTerrain, was inked by world traveler and Cincinnati native Stephen Bischoff.
“I have four of (Bischoff’s) original pieces like that just sitting around right now,” Grimes says, contemplating their use for future releases. “I’ve got to write music to them. What we’re doing now just doesn’t fit yet.”
In the meantime, Grimes is gearing up for a Doctor Bionic show on March 2 at the Woodward Theater with nine-piece Funk/Afrobeat outfit Ernie Johnson From Detroit, a Cincinnati band that fits perfectly with Chiefdom’s timeless grooves and analog mindset.
“They came down to our studio in Northside and recorded some music with us,” he says. “They offered us the chance to open up for them — I’m like, ‘Definitely,’ that’s a no-brainer. They’re doing really cool stuff.”
Catch Doctor Bionic live Saturday, March 2 at The Woodward Theater (tickets/more info: woodwardtheater.com). For more on Chiefdom Records’ vinyl releases, visit chiefdomrecords.com or stream them at chiefdomrecords.bandcamp.com.