A decade after they announced the shutdown of their Portland-based dubwise label BSI Records, Ezra Ereckson and his visual-artist wife Tracy Harrison are back in the record game, having just put out “Freedom Fighter” by the Disciples, the tenth release on their recently activated artisan-dub label ZamZam Sounds.
ZamZam finds its roots in the way BSI forged the American dub milieu, starting in 1998. As the 21st century dawned, dub music was largely the domain of relatively small scenes in the UK and Europe, and found little presence in the US.
BSI proved a major exception. Run by Ereckson (along with Harrison and Portland dub master Josh Derry a.k.a. Alter Echo) out of his basement, BSI boasted a catalog that includes genre-defining releases by Muslimgauze, DJ Spooky, Rootsman, Ereckson’s band Systemwide, and many more.
But the iTunes era brought on the crash in vinyl and CD sales, BSI’s European distribution flamed out, and lots of money owed to the label vaporized. Says Ereckson, “The dream of sustaining a living on our releases pretty much became impossible.”
Now that dubstep and the revived global roots-reggae movement has brought new life to the dub virus, it’s obvious that BSI was ahead of its time. After careful consideration, Ereckson and Harrison made their move. Named after the self-regenerating well of Muslim legend that slaked Abraham’s thirst in Mecca, ZamZam Sounds was designed by the couple as a limited edition series of 7″ vinyl 45s released monthly and packaged in covers with original hand-screened designs that are inspired by the exclusive tracks they receive. These records see release both through stalwart reggae distributors like the UK’s Dub Vendor and Ernie B’s in the US, and via a Sub Pop-inspired subscription service that gets subscribers the discs in advance.
Though dealing on a smaller scale and different format, ZamZam Sounds continues the BSI mission of both saluting and tweaking the dub approach. It’s commitment to 7″ vinyl recalls the low-cost format that’s been predominant in reggae music since the 1960s. And yes, the label features traditional UK digital steppers tunes, from the likes of Alpha & Omega, Jah Warrior and Disciples.
However, it also includes more outré takes on the dub aesthetic, like the minimalist African Head Charge-ish stylings of Denmark’s Xoki & Hieronymus, or the bass-heavy anti-dubstep notions of New York’s Badawi. Even Ereckson himself has gotten into the lineup, collaborating with former BSI partner Josh Derry (a.k.a. Alter Echo) to unleash a distinctively string-scorched Arabic jam Kufic Dub as ZamZam07.
“I think we’re aiming to sequence ZamZam as a sum of its parts,” Ereckson says. “They’re pretty distinctive tracks that could fit together well as playlist, or even a compilation album.”
That modular idea extends to each single’s cover art, which Harrison sources from vintage book prints, her own photography, and various other places. Motifs range from African masks, distorted abstracts, and ancient cartography, with a couple of surprises, like the lovely blue-on-black flower tableau on Deadbeat’s remix of the Gregory Isaacs roots classic Claudette. “We definitely want to bring a dub feel into each design, whether it’s through textures or contrasts or repetition,” notes Harrison.
“[When we closed up BSI], we were pretty much determined to never get into the label business again,” says Ereckson. “But I think ZamZam Sounds kinda reflects a more decentralized way of doing the music business that benefits the art of it.”
Images courtesy of ZamZam Sounds. All rights reserved.