Twenty years ago, Philadelphia native Andy Hurwitz started a record label filled with eclectic jazzy and funky music that didn’t fit anywhere else. Twenty years later, another local, Louis Marks, holds the note on the same label, releasing a similarly odd lot of records with surprising frequency, volume and, now, production partnerships.
That’s Ropeadope, the Haddon Heights-based label.
“Andy believed fully in what the artist was doing, wholeheartedly, and never interfered,” said Aaron Luis Levinson, the Philadelphia producer who worked under both administrations. “Louis is largely the same. Maybe he has more questions about structure and cost, but Ropeadope’s philosophy of unvarnished, real music made by people without constraint stayed true.”
For Ropeadope, Levinson produced the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, and the local iteration of the Experiment series, in which genre-diverse musicians collaborated on a jazz album. Questlove, avant-classical pianist Uri Caine, jazz bassist Christian McBride, and guitarist Pat Martino inaugurated things with the Philadelphia Experiment (2001), while notables such as Bowie stalwart Carlos Alomar and house music DJ/producer Carl Craig, top-lined, respectively, the Harlem (2007) and Detroit (2003) versions.
“Philly Experiment, as well as our first album — DJ Logic Presents Project Logic — put us on the map,” says Hurwitz, a onetime label executive with the experimental jazz label Knitting Factory Records before starting Ropeadope. “My loves were hip hop and jazz without limits. The jam band thing was also just getting started in a big way, as we were. All that is what Ropeadope had to be. Everything new.”
Marks, who works with partner Fabian Brown, agrees, but added artists closer to his tastes in weird rock with Colonel Bruce Hampton, and fusion-funk with Snarky Puppy. “To most, Ropeadope was DJ Logic and Philadelphia Experiment, jazzy stuff from the early years,” says Marks of the label’s reputation before Snarky Puppy’s "Something,” won 2014’s Grammy for Best R&B Performance. “Suddenly, Ropeadope was also something else. That was nice. We do rap with Terrace Martin and jazz with Christian Scott, but we’re more.”
Equally famous artists who have put work out on Ropeadope include Philly DJ King Britt; Medeski, Martin and Wood; Antibalas; Phish’s Mike Gordon and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
“I had had enough of artists relegated to the labor class of this business simply because they were artists, tired of every resource that came into this music being out of reach to those actually making the music,” says Scott aTunde, regarding his work with Ropeadope. “No waiting on approval for masters or a thumbs-up to make a recording. We build when we want, how we want, and figure out the best way to present it.”
Hurwitz stresses the individuality of his initial artists (“A DJ interacting with jazz musicians?” he said of Logic. “Unheard of then.”) before rhapsodizing about Ropeadope as the start of a genre-blended sound that made it impossible to display in record stores.
“It was also the beginning of the end of the record biz as we knew it, as I clearly remember signing the Atlantic contract with legendary label CEO Ahmet Ertegun and seeing a Time magazine cover with Napster’s Shawn Fanning’s face, and the question ‘Does this change the game?' Like global warming, you knew the world was going to burn soon, so enjoy the earth while you can. We put out bunches of cool records before the industry changed, and the world ended.”
If Hurwitz’s Ropeadope heightened individuality as its signature, Marks stresses the collective, as his mission’s guiding light. Ropeadope the label and Ropeadope the clothing company, which closed in 2008 but is set for revival this fall, were two separate entities but Marks took a majority interest in 2007 and merged the two. “Andy was at the helm until 2011-12, when I stepped in to move things forward,” said Marks. By 2010, Marks says, Ropeadope had around 180 titles in its catalog. Now, its total is 512.
“There should be a better term for record label — we’re content curators looking to capture people’s entertainment time,” Marks says. Ropeadope pushes aside old business models, and looks at artists who can walk a truly independent path, or at least financially responsible and collaborative one, he says, by finding unique ways to market music that is often free, or eschewing the funding of expensive recording sessions. “We’re in the mix financially with the artist.”