Cover Story: Whole Lotta Shake It Goin' on

Shake It Records' cultural outreach and label activity makes it more than just another storefront

David Sorcher

Jim (left) and Darren Blase are turning a wall of Shake It Records over to graffiti artists.

"Just tell everybody I'm the Sam Phillips of Cincinnati." Although that quote from Shake It Records entrepreneur Darren Blase is delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, it's not so far off the mark when one thinks about it. His involvement with the Contemporary Art Center's Beautiful Losers exhibit — as facilitator of a portion of the musical presentation and as a host to some of the world's most renowned graffiti artists who will adorn Shake It's back wall with a collaborative graffiti mural — is merely the latest cross-cultural community project bearing Blase's signature.

Blase has long been an integral part of Cincinnati's music scene. Well before he and older brother Jim opened Shake It Records as a retail establishment in Northside's business district (first in a rented space and then in their current permanent home at 4156 Hamilton Ave.), Blase had resurrected former Mole's Records owner Jess Hirbe's Shake It record label as an outlet for cool local and regional releases.

Under Blase's direction, there's been only one criterion for releasing music under the Shake It banner.

"Right now, it's just all about shit that I like," Blase says. "From a marketing standpoint, it's a nightmare. From a business standpoint of how a label should be run, it's a nightmare. I'm set up to sell Garage records, but selling a turntable Hip Hop record is completely different.

It's a whole new set of reviewers and publicity people, and you have to break open a whole new Rolodex for that shit.

"The great thing about the Shake It label is that it does turn a profit, which not a lot of small labels can say. I couldn't live on it, no way, but it's more about putting out stuff that I think is cool and fun and should be heard."

The Sam Phillips model breaks down in the discussion of money. Phillips was most definitely looking for a big payday; his most famous observation was that if he could find a white singer who sang like a black singer he'd make a fortune. Blase is clearly not in it for the money.

"Shake It doesn't have to make money because the store makes money," he says. "We spend on it what we make on it. That's why we're putting out as much as we are, because we're selling a lot of stuff and I just dump it back in."

Blase's philosophy of benignly schizophrenic marketing is borne out by the range of projects that he's releasing on Shake It this year. Already out are new discs by The Not (bassist Taryn Manning is a Shake It employee) and The Cowslingers (a longtime regional fave from Cleveland who are breaking up after a 15-year run); new releases on the drawing board are a reissue of the legendary Hogscraper disc (with bonus tracks, animation and video included), a new album and 12-inch from Hip Hop/Rock outfit Glue, a compilation of the Ass Ponys' Okra recordings and an exclusive 7-inch from locals Thee Shams, as well as a six-song vinyl 10-inch from nationally renowned band Enon.

"It's cool that there's so much great local shit on it and that we're creating this document of what's going on," Blase says. "But I don't want it to be just a local label. That's why we're doing all these other things, like the Enon 10-inch. Some kid who's into Enon will check out the Web site and maybe buy The Not CD. And down the road, if (Chicago indie label) Touch and Go says to The Not, 'Hey we wanna do a CD with you,' then my work is done."

One of Blase's most intriguing local projects is a proposed multiple disc reissue of David Lewis' Hospital Records output (including some cable access video footage) from the late '70s to the mid-'80s, including such long-forgotten art-damaged entities like BPA, Dementia Precox, 11,000 Switches and Teddy and the Frat Girls. Although the original pressings from these bands were extremely limited and not hugely popular at the time, interest has built to a fever pitch over the mere suggestion that this material will see the light of day again in the digital age.

"There are those early QIZZ singles produced by Bob Mothersbaugh from Devo that are so good, they're amazing, but they only made 200 copies of them and you can't get them anywhere," Blase says. "It was all recorded at Group Effort (in Crescent Springs) and they still had all the tapes. They never threw them away. It ended up they had some unreleased stuff and they had six songs from Auto Glamour that never came out. That's when it started going from doing this one CD thing to 'You know what, let's create this complete document and just do it.' (Distributors) Triage and Forced Exposure are just going apeshit over it."

With Blase, the "apeshit" factor seems to be of primary importance. He estimates that the label ultimately will lose money on the Hospital release, but for him the loss is secondary to the fact that the material will be simultaneously introduced to a new audience and restored to its original audience.

There's a similar mindset at work in the Blases' approach to Shake It as a record store. The brothers have grown the business from a simple music shop to a diverse cultural emporium offering a broad range of creative expression, from music unavailable at more conventional stores to quirky art films on video and DVD to books and magazines on every conceivable mainstream and counterculture subject to a dazzling new array of toys and other unique cultural artifacts.

These are the wants of a new demographic that's been largely ignored by the major music retailers who now find themselves on the brink.

"My view of it more and more is that it's all the same," Blase says. "The ephemera that comes out of music is just as relevant — and in some cases, more so — as the music that creates it, whether it's the obvious connection between Hip Hop culture and graffiti or whatever.

"I'm amazed at who buys this stuff. It can be high school kids who are buying Dalek Space Monkey Japanese toys or it can be a graphic design student at UC or it could be a 40-year-old guy who just likes cool shit. And there's really nowhere else in Cincinnati where you're going to find that combination of people."

Truly spoken like a Sam Phillips for the 21st Century.

SHAKE IT RECORDS hosts an informal signing by several of the Beautiful Losers artists at 5-8 p.m. Thursday.

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