Holy Sh*t, I Started a Hip-Hop Label

“I don’t see a time where my passion for music ever runs out.”
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Life comes at us fast. One minute we’re young in the punk scene on Long Island. We’re talking people’s ears off about music. We’re booking gigs with friends. We’re taking the leap and writing for Tiny Mix Tapes. And then life sneaks up on us. Websites go on hiatus. Bands dissolve. Priorities shift. Partners enter the fold; there are day jobs. But the music, the music sticks with us. That’s what drove Samuel Diamond, 34, former Tiny Mix Tapes writer, to turn his Long Island rap blog into a Long Island rap label. That’s what drove his best friend, artist Andy Koufax, 34, to put out his debut album, I’m From A Little Place, on Sam’s very label.

Andy and Sam are a likely duo. As Sam tells it, they met in elementary school. They became fast friends in middle school—friends for life. As Sam watched Andy have the time of his life with music, he encouraged him to give his all to every venture that Andy undertook. Even when Andy felt like the music had fallen apart, when he was working part-time at a gym at 26 with no musical prospects to speak of, Sam stood by him and supported him. As did Andy’s family, of course, but this story is about a partnership, is about how two music lovers can come together and make something bigger than themselves.

“Music’s always been a fixture,” Andy tells me over the phone. His tone is hypnotic as he spools out his music history. “I was fortunate enough to grow up in a musical household. I’ve been listening to [Pink Floyd’s] Wish You Were Here since birth. I had a cool pops, and one of his co-workers made him a VHS of all the hot music videos at the time. He came back and played it for me, and Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Been Caught Stealing’ was on it, and I don’t think anything’s been the same for me. I always wanted to do this.”

“Hip-hop was always huge,” Andy continues. “My dad loved Tone Loc, Public Enemy—and we were trying to sell our house in Brooklyn. We bought the house on the Island first. And the family that bought [the Brooklyn house] was the Medina family. Tone Loc had this song called ‘Funky Cold Medina.’ So right after we closed, we got back to the house, and my dad put the song on as loud as the speakers went! I was starting to get older, seven, eight, and it was grunge. Obsessed. While that was going on, [Dr. Dre’s] The Chronic came out and took over.”

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For Sam, the writing came as naturally as the music came to Andy. He went to Emerson College for writing, literature, and publishing. All his salaried positions have had to do with writing. He began his writing-about-music-venture because he couldn’t stop talking about music. His friends pushed him to find a gig or two writing about his passion. “The first place I wrote for was this website dedicated to old school hip-hop called The T.R.O.Y. Blog, and from there,” Sam recalls, “Clifford Morrissey, was a colleague of mine IRL, and he was writing for Tiny Mix Tapes and brought me into the fold over there.”

During Sam Diamond’s tenure at Tiny Mix Tapes, Andy Koufax released his EP, Chin Music. This was 2013. The music was wanton and abrasive, and Sam fucking loved it. He penned the premiere piece for the EP on Tiny Mix Tapes, writing: “An exercise in exorcism (of both personal demons and artistic inhibitions), Chin Music eschews giving a fuck about subtlety and sensitivity in favor of just plain going for it.” What Sam doesn’t know at the time of writing, is nearly seven years from putting together this apt description of Chin Music, Andy would be releasing something far greater, with the same eschewing sensibilities.

“I did everything myself,” Andy tells me of the making of Chin Music. “No one’s ever shown me anything. I sang every note, every rap, cut up every sample, played every synth. Picked apart every sound—hours and hours of listening and retakes. I did it all in a spare room in my mom’s house. I got it mixed and mastered by Willie Green, who makes music with billy woods and Elucid. I love that guy.”

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From booking shows at clubs and bars with his friends at 14—shows his mom had to drive him to, mind you—Andy evolved distinctly on Chin Music. The punk ethos was there, but the hip-hop pull was there, too. The EP sounds like Andy is on a very particular mission to blend his influences into one salient thing for music lovers to fall into. Rejoice, punk-hip-hop-heads, for Andy Koufax is here to guide you, he seems to say. Or, not at all. Andy Koufax is precious, but not snooty. He’s not the sole leader of a movement. He’s from a little place, with a big heart, and a penchant for making bursting tunes with an unprecedented viscera. That should be enough, but for a long time, it wasn’t.

“At 26, I had a part-time job at a gym,” Andy remembers. “I wasn’t in a band. It all fell apart. It wasn’t going so well. I got an opportunity to get a job in an office—after dropping out of college three times—I got an English degree, and a job opened up. That was the day my childhood ended. I’ve been doing the day job grind ever since, but as a consequence of that, and the pit in my stomach, and waking up at 5:30 every morning… Constant torment made me realize I gotta try doing music again. I couldn’t let [music] go.

“After [the EP], I committed myself to make a full-length. By myself, again. This time, it was a spare room in my apartment that my girlfriend and I moved into together. It sucked, and it was grueling, and I had no idea what I was doing. I was feeling insane at some points: Why am I doing this? Why am I torturing myself? You’re supposed to love this. Every time I’d finish a song, that’s what would give me life. [I’m From A Little Place] took a few years. I had an honest-to-God, full-length album, sitting on my desktop. A nuclear bomb that only me, Green, and my best friends knew about. I tried getting attention for it, but I was by myself—no label, no connections. It didn’t work out, so I said, ‘Fuck it! It’s over. I’m not putting it out.’”

“I was fine with it, Donna. I’m so burnt out. It took so long, so many hours… Negotiating with my wife now, my girlfriend at the time: ‘I need the apartment.’ Tracking everything myself. Just looking back at what went into it, it’s still a marvel. I wanted it to get the treatment it deserved. My biggest fear was I’d put it out and it’d be like throwing a pebble into the ocean, and then me just being crushed, because I know what went into it. That would be that. I think I just rationalized with myself that I’d rather not go through that.”

Enter: Samuel Diamond. Enter: The crazy notion to start a hip-hop label. “Then… Sam, that motherfucker called me and said, ‘Just do it! Just put it out,’” Andy says. “He’s like, ‘How about this? I’ll do it. We’ll put a tape out! We’ll press 100!’ I was like, ‘Listen to me, let’s be clear: I want nothing to do with this.’ I said: ‘I’ll send you the music; I’ll send you the artwork, and you can have a ball. You can do whatever the fuck you want.’ He got all excited, and that made me happy—he loves this shit.”

And so, as all great art ventures are, Long Island Rap Records was born from a need and a passion. Andy needed a home for his music, and Sam had a deep-running passion for Long Island hip-hop. It felt like, after all these years, the perfect storm had swirled above the pair.

“A lot of stars aligned would be the cliche for it,” Sam tells me of starting the label. “So, Tiny Mix Tapes was going on a hiatus, which I knew about. At the same time, Andy had this tape [I’m From A Little Place] he was sitting on—all mixed and mastered. He was ready to throw it up online for free, and I thought it would be a real shame if it were thrown out there without the attention it deserves. So that’s one impetus for it. I knew I didn’t wanna stop writing LongIslandRap; I figured it was a platform I already had to use to help put Andrew’s stuff out there. I wished there was some type of platform that was covering music I was listening to from around the way. I figured: Why not just make it? So I did!”

At this point, I have to ask Sam Diamond if he has, at any point, felt crazy. I mean, starting a blog in this era? Starting a label during this era? “I always feel like a crazy person!” Sam shouts with glee. “Whether it’s writing about music for websites, or starting my website to cover Long Island rap, or starting a label… There’s a possibility, always, that I’m a crazy person just talking to myself. Like I said: The act of doing it is satisfying enough for me, where I wouldn’t consider myself a crazy person for that, per se. “

“I think it’s important to note neither Andy nor I am in this for financial gain or relying on this for income,” Sam clarifies. “This is all something we do on the side, for fun. As a music writer, I was never relying on that for financial income. I’ve always worked a full-time job. My grandpa dropped this jewel on me late in life. He was a piano tuner and played piano all the time as a hobby. He told me the virtues of being able to keep music separate from what you do professionally. It allows one not ever to have to compromise; it’s a purer pursuit in that regard. I don’t see a time where my passion for music ever runs out.”

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Passion in surplus, music unique and unprecedented, one could argue LIRR is no risk at all. But the pair have been struggling with the best of them. Sam reveals the biggest hurdle they’ve faced so far has been getting attention, getting people to buy the tape and appreciate the music for what it is. This interview helps, he tells me. They’ve gotten the tape stocked in a few stores on LI, though, with more orders coming. And before you wonder: Yes, Sam has a box of 100 tapes in his apartment. The cats guard them. This is a very serious grassroots operation.

Long Island Rap Records is as much about history as it is about Andy and Sam. “I would still maintain I’m primarily doing it for myself, more than for Long Island,” Sam begins. “In terms of just LI hip-hop… The roots run crazy deep. I’ve been a huge fan of so many different acts from Rakim, Public Enemy, De La Soul, MF DOOM, Busta Rhymes, Roc Marciano, Aesop Rock, and so many artists who are out now, as well. It’s a fountain of creativity and innovation for hip-hop music. Making sure there was a platform to give it its proper due has always been important to me.”

“It’s everything, and it’s nothing,” Andy adds. “It’s everything because the album is called I’m From A Little Place. This album is the biopic. I talk about formative experiences; all those things happened here. I met my wife here; my best friends are here. We went through so much together. It all was here. [Long Island] informs a lot.”

That’s the sum of it: Andy went from his mother recording music videos of his second-grade punk band, Black Cloud White Death, in their childhood basement—with a promise to send the video to MTV to secure a record deal—to being the bellwether artist on a crazy venture. Sam went from writer to label head. It all sounds a little absurd, a little amazing, and it is. These guys are the real deal. Their passion runs bone-deep. You can hear it in the first notes of Andy Koufax’s album opener, “I’m From A Little Place,” can listen to him surgically opening himself up for this music shit. You can hear it in the way Sam talks about LI, about Andy.

“I’d like to give more music a platform for people to hold and treasure like I have,” Sam tells me as we wrap up our call. That’s what LIRR is all about: having and holding, cherishing. We all come together on the page, or at the streaming waterhole, because we love this shit. That’s the sum of it, and I don’t think either gentleman would trade their experiences for the world.

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