It was one of those autumn days in October last year, where the leaves were still hurriedly falling from the trees. I had borrowed my mother’s car (shhh! don’t tell her) for a drive, first to Chicago and then Milwaukee. Though I had never been there, I had just written a rap scene report on the Wisconsin city for Noisey, so I had to see it for myself.
Milwaukee’s hip-hop community feels a lot like Chicago’s, only smaller. Everyone is friends. That day, I met Bliss & Alice, IshDARR, WebsterX, Siren and a few other members from their New Age Narcissism collective.
Yesterday (October 26), a year after my trip, Chicago-based indie darling Closed Sessions announced that they had brought WebsterX onto the team, in the form of a distribution deal for his debut album. To celebrate, they released the song “Blue Streak,” his first single of the year. For me, that kind of growth is a very real thing—both on Web’s part and that of Closed Sessions. I did not think Webster was in a position to be signed when I met him one year ago, and the indie label had yet to undergo the dazzling progress it's experienced in 2016.
Beyond growing with the acquisition of WebsterX, the Closed Sessions roster had already hit serious milestones over the past 10 months. DJBooth Top Prospect Kweku Collins released his debut album, Nat Love, went on a U.S. tour alongside NAO, and is now currently on a European tour. Singer and songwriter Jamila Woods also released her critically-acclaimed debut project, Heavn, an intricate album about black joy, black history, and Chicago, among other ideas.
A label was never the plan, though. After collaborating on a documentary series that they called Closed Sessions—recording rappers like Freddie Gibbs, Curren$y and Action Bronson’s first live shows in Chicago, and later in-studio sessions—Alex “RTC” Fruchter and Michael Kolar started the label in 2012. Since then, their roster has matured considerably, and now includes Chicago-based DJ/producer BoatHouse, Chicago-based DJ/producer oddCouple and Cleveland rapper Kipp Stone.
Closed Sessions has had quite the year—and the label’s success, I believe, is closely tied to how the music landscape has shifted away from major labels and toward indie upstarts and independent careers.
“I think labels are important because they are supposed to be an artist’s support system,” RTC said. “I think most independent labels at least—and to a certain extent, all the people I know who work at major labels—they’re all music heads. They eat, breathe, sleep music; they talk about music, they want people to care, they have this deep passion."
That’s what a good label does, and whether you call it a record label, or an artist’s team, or an entourage—whatever the word is, the core functions of a label have always remained the same, and the core purpose is to help the artist execute the ideas in their head. The label must provide another resource for strategy, for art direction, and for all the other things that don't actually involve writing songs and making music, but that need to happen and happen well in order to achieve success.
"That’s where [Closed Sessions] works, and I think that’s why we continue to have success and are growing, in a time when more and more artists are dissing labels."
For decades, artists were leaving Chicago to get a record deal elsewhere—but now, unlike before, the city has local infrastructure to support these musicians. A company like Closed Sessions provides the support of a label but are boutique-like and able to tailor their services to an artist’s needs. That is a vital trait, given that now, so many musicians choose to remain self-sufficient and work with small teams.
Closed Sessions is that small team, only behind the guise of a label, providing the necessary foundational support and perspective that many independent artists lack on their own, or lack when working with friends.
"It helps to have somebody that’s not as attached to the music, to just offer other viewpoints. Because an artist can do everything themselves, that doesn’t mean it’s the best decision for their art. One artist is emailing writers, is doing their photos, is doing their videos, is uploading their music to all the social networks, is figuring out production, is paying people, is determining splits of things, is clearing samples—when do they have time to actually make their music?"
Now armed with a handful of Chicago-based artists, along with one rapper based in Cleveland and another based in Milwaukee, Closed Sessions’ roster continues to grow its reach across the Midwest. But the way in which they choose candidates for their label is organic; they go strictly off of a vibe. For Webster, RTC noticed his work with Kweku, and with fellow Milwaukee native oddCouple. RTC also saw how Webster uplifts his own community by hosting a free event series called Free Space, a safe environment for the youth to experience music.
RTC compares the label’s relationship with all their artists to a Venn diagram. With Closed Sessions in one circle and the artist in the other, the narrow space where they meet in the middle is the overlap of shared beliefs and ideas—common ground.
“He’s a lot more than just a musician. [Webster] has a lot of shared philosophy and worldview that we have,” RTC said of their latest signee. “There wasn’t even really a search to sign anybody. It’s that these things organically took shape.”
By Tara Mahadevan. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Biz3