Rumbles From the Underground
Jeff Kuglich moved from Chicago to Seattle in late 1996 pretty much on a whim. A pal was headed out there, and Kuglich, who'd just unenthusiastically endured a few semesters at UIC, had nothing better to do. It was a lucky move. The temp agency he hooked up with there shipped him out to a fledgling business called Amazon.com, which later hired him full-time in shipping and receiving. In May 1997 the company went public, and as an early employee Kuglich landed an attractive stock option package. When he sold his stock in 1999, he found himself with more than 50 grand, and he had a plan.
While in Seattle Kuglich remained in close contact with his friend Ryan Fernandez back in Chicago. They'd met growing up in Bloomington, Illinois, when Kuglich was four and Fernandez was three, and stayed in touch after Fernandez's family moved to Springfield in 1986. They formed a hip-hop act called Chromium while in high school, and came to Chicago together to attend UIC. Though Kuglich had lost interest in performing, Fernandez kept at it--the Filipino-American MC worked the local open-mike circuit, rapping and reading his poetry under the name Offwhyte. He'd also hooked up with some other talented hip-hop outsiders, like producer Justus Roe (aka DJ White Lightning) and graffiti artist Josh Grotto. They'd been discussing ideas for a compilation of unrecorded local acts, but they lacked the resources to make it happen.
Years earlier Kuglich and Fernandez had tossed around the idea of starting a record label. "All of our lives we always talked about doing something, but we had no idea about what it would take," says Kuglich, now 27. "We weren't working toward it. We were just hoping that some day in the future we would figure something out." But now he had the money to realize his ambitions. By the end of 1998, Kuglich, still living in Seattle, was ready to go into business. Today, Galapagos4 Records showcases a fascinating collection of innovators often too odd to fit in elsewhere in the Chicago hip-hop world.
Fernandez named the label after one of his songs, inspired by the Kurt Vonnegut novel Galapagos. "The islands have a number of plant and animal species that don't exist anywhere else in the world, so the song related our music to something that was unique," explains Fernandez. By the time the label released The Blackbook Sessions, its long-discussed compilation of local acts, in the summer of 1999, Kuglich had decided to come back to Chicago, since most of the talent he planned on working with lived here. He moved into a three-bedroom Andersonville apartment owned by Roe's parents; its back room, outfitted with Roe's recording gear and additional equipment purchased by Kuglich, became Galapagos4 Island Resort Retreat Recording Recreation Center, where the bulk of the imprint's albums have been recorded.
Blackbook didn't take off right away. "We just figured we'd put it out and see what happens," says Kuglich. "We had no distribution at first, no idea how much we could sell, or if people were going to be into it. We just had faith in the music." Time has proven their instincts right. Most of the once obscure artists that appeared on the seven-track comp--including Anacron, Pugslee Atomz, the PACIFICS, and Offwhyte, who recently put out his superb second album, The Fifth Sun, on Galapagos4--have become key players on the local scene.
Kuglich says he invested most of his Amazon stock proceeds in the label. With 16 releases under its belt, the company is in the black--some of the artists are even making money. And while Kuglich so far has put his modest profits back into the label, he hasn't yet had to sink fresh capital into it.
The label's biggest release, selling more than 5,000 copies so far, is the eponymous 2001 debut of Typical Cats, a crew composed of Qwel (Adam Schreiber), Denizen Kane (Dennis Kim), and Qwazaar (Marty Brown), all of whom have other albums on the label, the last as a member of the Netherworlds, a group featuring LA underground notable Murs. Nearly all of the music on Galapagos4 is delightfully warped, and the MCs are unabashedly brainy and indulge in wild wordplay. But unlike some fellow envelope pushers in the underground, notably the Bay Area-based Anticon crew, the Chicago artists never forget their hip-hop fundamentals--their beats are occasionally off-kilter but never herky-jerky, and the MCs all maintain an inherently musical flow.
There's a clubhouse mentality to Galapagos4, with each member of the tight-knit crew pitching in to help the label however he can. Still, no one works harder than Kuglich. "Jeff is constantly breaking his nuts," says Qwel, who joined the crew shortly after The Blackbook Sessions and has released two fine solo albums, including the new Rubber Duckie Experiment. "He's always on the phone working this shit out. These guys went through not being felt, being out in the sticks, but they kept doing it. At first it didn't make sense to me, but now I see it." So far Kuglich has managed to maintain his enthusiasm and sense of equilibrium despite minimal returns. For the last year and a half he's held a day job too, heading the hip-hop department at local distributor Crosstalk.
The guys at Galapagos4 are aware of the pitfalls of working with friends. "It's hard because it's art, business, and friendship, all with the same people," says Fernandez. "Sometimes you realize you never talk to anyone casually without bringing up business. We were just talking about going bowling, something we can do without having the business side enter into it."
Galapagos4 artists will perform at HotHouse on the second Tuesday of each month, beginning January 14. The first show features solo performances from Qwel, Qwazaar, and Denizen Kane (in from Oakland, where he now lives), as well as DJ Meaty Ogre, and Roe's funk band, Royce.
Last September the five major record companies agreed to dole out $143 million in cash and CDs to settle a lawsuit that accused them of price-fixing; about a third of that money is reserved for folks who bought CDs between 1995 and 2000. Depending on the number of people to file claims, the payout per claimant will range between $5 and $20--but according to a recent AP story, only about 30,000 people have so far shown any interest. To stake your claim go to: www.musiccdsettlement.com. No receipt is necessary.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.