The top 5 electronic labels that shaped Toronto
"Someone once told me, 'time is a flat circle'. Everything we've ever done or will do we're gonna do over and over and over again".
While it's likely that True Detective's Rustin Cohle was talking more about the futility of change than dance music, it's a sentiment that hold true for the latter as well. I recently profiled five contemporary attention-worthy dance labels in Toronto happening right now. But go back in time a few decades, and you'll see the seeds planted that allowed dance culture to blossom, expand and envision new ways of existing. Here are a few labels that set the groundwork for today's dance music scene.
With releases adorned by the label's distinctive stick figure model, Greg Zwarich and Paul Mintsoulis' specialized in equally bare bones house tracks for Canada's after hours crowds. Specializing in tracks that burrow into your consciousness, tunes like Stickmen's "The Drug" still sound contemporary and invigorating today, with Radio Slave including it in his Strictly Rhythm retrospective.
Also notable is how the label was an early adopter of a pro-queer sentiment - Toronto's own Denise Benson was a contributer to the label's "Obscene Underground" mix series, proudly displaying the word "Gay" in unmissable text on the front. For those interested in the intersection between queerness and dance music, Resident Advisor recently traced the history of LGBT disco and house, which you can read here.
Alien 8 Records
Following in the footsteps of New York's electroclash / dance punk vibe set in motion by DFA Records, Alien 8 was home to a thrashing number of releases that blurred the line between dance and noise. Though some might argue that it's tough to classify Think About Life's "Paul Cries" as a piece of dance music, there's a tension between the hoarse vocals and mechanical drum machine percussion that captures the same energy as The Rapture's breakout hit "House of Jealous Lovers".
Running the gamut from house-party staples like Montreal's Lesbians on Ecstasy, to "lay-in-bed-thinking-about-what-it-all-means" records from noise pioneers like Tim Hecker & Merzbow, Alien 8 captured some of the rampant energy that characterized the early 00's resistance to 4/4 house beats.
While those paying attention to pop music may have first taken note of the Montréal label around the time Chromeo's "Needy Girl" was blasting on campus radio, or around the time Tiga was recording acid house covers of Talking Heads songs, Turbo Recordings had been around for more than half a decade.
Starting in the late 90's as an outlet for Tiga's DJ mixes, full of edits that would end with phrases like "XTC X-Press Mix", big European names like Jesper Dahlbäck and Jori Hulkkonen eventually came on board. More recently, Turbo has been involved in championing several Toronto artists, such as the now-sadly-disbanded Azari & III and Gingy. Their reach still extends far beyond the Northern hemisphere, as evidence by snagging Helsinki architects Renaissance Man and Orekhovo-Zuevo-based nihilist electro producer Proxy for recent releases.
A sub-label of 90's house-churning monster Hi Bias Records, Jinxx is the type of label that snagged a number of dance superstars before they were in the international spotlight. Two decades before Kenny Glasgow would be known for his Art Department project, he was releasing vocal house on Jinxx, such as 93's "Pressing On", which also received a remix from DNH Records boss Nick Holder, whose label absolutely would've made this list if we hadn't just included him in our last one.
Jinxx was also known for releasing cuts by Chicago-based "house gangster" DJ Sneak, who would stop in at intimate Toronto house venue Element Bar from time to time (profiled wonderfully in the "Then & Now" series).
Plus 8 Records
The toughest thing about these lists are that often labels will jump around geographically to places where there's more support (cough, Berlin). Such is the case with Richie Hawtin & John Acquaviva's Plus 8 Record label, which began as a modest operation run out of a family studio in Windsor, and eventually catapulted to such an international stage that Hawtin was making techno compositions that were performed in the 2006 Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony.
Some have accused Hawtin of an Elvis Presley-ification the genre of Detroit techno; questioning his widespread success in a context when many other contemporaries are broke and unbooked. But Plus 8 also supported Detroit legends like Kenny Larkin, whose track "We Shall Overcome" transformed Martin Luther King's famous speech into the chorus of a jittery techno stomper. It also showcased Hawtin's own material under the Plastikman alias, whose track "Spastik" blew minds at the time for the way it solely featured whirring percussion overtop percussion - a near-naked earworm of a DJ tool that's still being mixed into sets today.