“I’m about to go fry some rabbits,” trumpeter Kermit Ruffins explains. He’s on the phone from New Orleans, where he was born, raised and now lives in a place above his own bar, Kermit’s Mother-In-Law Lounge. The bar, the fruit of almost three decades as one of the city’s most-beloved musicians, is inside a Treme building covered with bright murals of local legends past and present (many are inspired by the lounge’s former proprietor, late musician Ernie K. Doe -- he billed himself as “The Emperor of the Universe”).
On Sundays, you should be prepared to watch the Saints; the rest of the time, you’re as likely to find Kermit riffing as you are to find some homemade delicacy offered gratis when you walk in. “I walk downstairs, start cooking and getting ready for the gig, and then when I get tired I just walk back upstairs to go to sleep,” says Ruffins -- local validation in case you ever felt like a tourist for making live music and great, deeply unhealthy food your top priorities during a visit to the Big Easy.
Music and food are also cornerstones of his first album for Basin Street Records, which was recorded 20 years ago today (Nov. 14). The Barbecue Swingers Live, taped at Tipitina’s on Nov. 14, 1997, begins with “Chicken and Dumplings” and continues with “Smokin’ With Some Barbecue.” By the time you get to “What Is New Orleans,” a few songs later, Ruffins is just listing different local delicacies over a slow blues to resounding whoops and whistles. Eventually he starts reciting the city’s restaurants, neighborhoods, bands and legendary social aid and pleasure clubs.
It’s a beautiful record that makes you wish you could somehow be in a New Orleans club and a New Orleans kitchen at the exact same time, listening to a hip-hop-aware version of the lilting jazz that’s shaped the city’s music since Louis Armstrong’s day. There is nothing about the project that doesn’t scream “Only in New Orleans.” It also marked the founding effort for the Basin Street label, a then-side project that -- with local marquee acts like Ruffins at the forefront -- would become one of the fiercest advocates for the city’s music over the past two decades.
Nothing about Basin Street Records’ success makes much sense -- or, at least, it’s as surprising as walking into a bar and being handed a piece of fried rabbit. In 2017, an independent label devoted to the music of New Orleans -- a beloved part of American culture, to be sure, but still centered on jazz, the mere mention of which can be a death knell for any artist’s commercial aspirations -- should not exist, much less be thriving. A small-scale operation founded in the height of the CD era should not be able to endure the industry’s switch to streaming.
And yet, the label’s latest release, an anniversary project starring Ruffins and fellow Basin Street artist and New Orleans trumpet stalwart Irvin Mayfield called A Beautiful World debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Albums Chart last month. As the label celebrates 20 years of music, the unabashedly retro-leaning operation also provides a model for the independent record business of the future: distinctively local, globally impactful.
There’s no doubt that its music-rich birthplace has made Basin Street’s unlikely path a little easier. Mark Samuels, the company’s co-founder and president, grew up playing in his high school band with none other than NOLA music royalty Wynton and Delfeayo Marsalis. "Wynton was first chair trumpet, and I was never more than second chair on saxophone," Samuels recalls, laughing. But their friendship blossomed through pick-up games and concerts while Samuels was living in New York after college, and by the time he returned to New Orleans, he realized he was not just an avid fan of the city’s iconic musical community, but a potential asset to it.
Unhappy at his day job, Samuels started experimenting with producing showcases and inviting some of the people he’d met through Wynton and Delfeayo. Before long he was talking to Ruffins’ manager, Tom Thompson, about producing an album -- strictly as a side project that might one day allow Samuels to get into music full time. “For four years, I always thought I was six months from getting out of my day job,” he says now.
Samuels and Thompson decided that the best way to put an album out would be to start a label together. In September 1997, they registered Basin Street as an LLC, booked Tipitina’s and then started promoting the old-fashioned way. “For six weeks, I spent three to four hours every day putting flyers on car windows and posters on telephone poles, standing outside of every major music venue,” Samuels says of the project, which Basin Street is releasing for the first time on vinyl to celebrate the label’s anniversary. “We ended up with a full house, people lined up down the block. It was an amazing night.”
The decision to begin with a live album -- where Kermit’s authority as not just a remarkable musician but a tireless entertainer shines through -- was intentional. “Recording is like trying to capture a sunset in a photograph,” he adds. “It's the live experience of our artists that's important. We just try to give people a version of that to take home.”
The following year, the label signed Mayfield, Bill Summers and Jason Marsalis’ band Los Hombres Calientes. “That just put in perspective what the label was going to be about with jazz, for one, and with New Orleans music,” says Ruffins. He’s since released 11 albums on the label; Mayfield has released 12. Three Basin Street artists have won Grammys. The label now has 14 artists on its roster, most of which have had consistent success on the jazz charts, despite serious competition from major labels.
But Samuels still had to overcome a number of hurdles, even beyond standard 2017 music industry gripes. In 2000, his wife was killed in a tragic car accident, leaving him to run the company alone (he’d bought out Thompson, his co-founder, in 1998) with three young children. "We never shut our doors, not for one day,” he says. “We've always filled every order on our website within 24 hours. I've always felt like I have an obligation to the artists we represent." That ethos helped the company grow dramatically during the early 2000s, to the tune of six full-time employees in a 3,000 square foot office. The company released six projects in one day and soundtracked a Lifetime movie -- as Samuels puts it now, “Things were rolling along in an amazing way, but we were also hemorrhaging money. Spending in crazy ways that today I wouldn't even think about.”
When Hurricane Katrina -- or, as the locals call it, “when the levees broke” (blame where blame is due) -- devastated the city in 2005, that momentum evaporated. “I went from six people and an office to operating a record label from a computer in a coffee shop,” Samuels says. He moved his family to Austin and started commuting back and forth to New Orleans, making the trip 29 times in nine months. It was then that the evolving music industry’s benefits became more clear: he could process web orders and do other business from just about anywhere, without having to store and handle so much physical product.
“Twenty years ago, we had to count on Borders and Virgin and Tower, shipping large supplies of CDs to them usually to have a third, half or more returned,” he remembers. “It was a very inefficient means of distributing what even then was digital music. Today, I don't have 200 Borders locations and five Tower locations to work with, but I do have a phone or other music consumption device in almost everybody's pocket. We still focus on making quality music, because one way or the other people are consuming it.”
Samuels and his family have long since rebuilt and returned to New Orleans. He employs two full-time staff members who work out of an office in his home, along with a slew of contractors for production management, distribution, PR and radio promotion, among other things. “I no longer need thousands of CDs in inventory; our reorder quantity is generally 1,000 at a time,” Samuels says, explaining that a storage unit is sufficient. The label also has a partnership with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (the city has since banned putting posters on telephone poles, which makes his life easier), and licensing fees help out the company’s bottom line. No surprise that David Simon’s NOLA-set HBO series Treme featured Kermit in its premiere, and the soundtrack starred a number of Basin Street artists -- after all, as the company site puts it, “We know New Orleans music; we are New Orleans music.”
“Nobody here in the city is doing it but Mark Samuels,” Ruffins says. “The big companies aren't really looking at New Orleans jazz, so thank God Mark Samuels knows this is some of the best music in the world and keeps putting it out there. Otherwise, it wouldn't get out there. We'd have to just put it on iTunes ourselves -- which a lot of kids are doing now, anyway. But he's the cream of the crop.”
Samuels acknowledges that in 2017, the relevance of any label -- much less one that might not have the clout of a major -- is very much in question. For any potential signee, he sits down to figure out if a label contract would actually be the best fit for them. “I always ask: ‘What do you need from a label? What are you able to do yourself? What are you giving up?’” he explains. “You're going to dilute the percentage you would earn. We hope that we're bringing enough to the table that you'll do far better with us than without us. But you can get your music up on all these platforms just like we can. The problem is, everybody else can also get their music up on all those platforms just like we can.”
What sets Basin Street apart, to him, is a reputation for quality that can hopefully convert even the most passive listener. “I never consider any other music [as] competition,” Samuels says. “It's the other things that people are spending their time doing that's our competition. Our competition is trying to get a person off their couch.” (It is, for what it’s worth, very difficult to remain sedentary while listening to many of Basin Street’s highly danceable records.)
Ideally, the new New Orleans music fan will make it out to a show -- or even to the city itself, with its constant tourist turnover a reliable source of new listeners for many Basin Street artists. "If Kermit is playing at the Little Gem Saloon every Saturday, there's a new batch of people going to see him every time he plays,” Samuels says. “It's as if our artists were on the road all the time."
For Ruffins, there’s a different benefit to new blood in the audience every set, where he’s bound to perform at least a few of New Orleans’ most well-worn classics; on The Barbecue Swingers Live, it’s “St. James Infirmary,” a blues that’s been a local go-to for at least a century. Ruffins has probably performed it at least a thousand times. Does he ever get sick of it? “It's always new because the audience is always new,” he says. "I play every Thursday at Vaughn’s, every Friday at Blue Nile and every Saturday at Little Gem Saloon -- it’s always different people. And with different people, the song is brand new each and every time. That makes those songs stay fresh -- we'll never get tired of them.”
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