New York has never been a city lacking in imaginative musical ideas. From pioneering hip-hop to being one of house music’s most welcoming cities, it’s long left a global mark when it comes to music. In spite of rampant gentrification, the city continues to leave its mark, and it seems as though its conveyor belt of talent shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. J Gabriel’s Onysia is a case in point. A label of some repute, its barely a couple years old but has already hosted originals and remixes from some of the scene’s leading lights, with the likes of Pierre Codarin, Tommy Vicari Jr, Akufen, Mike Shannon & Deadbeat all part of the story so far. And that’s far from all, with Dorian Paic and Audio Werner among those who’ll be working alongside J Gabriel over the coming months. So what’s it take to run a successful label in 2022? We checked in with J Gabriel recently to find out the answer to this question, and to quiz him on New York, his Chuffing Buffy alias and his future plans…
You’ve quite an eclectic sound, and have been associated with everyone from Rick Wade to Delano Smith to more microhouse acts such as Akufen. So I wanted to ask, what motivates and influences your sound?
For sure the J Gabriel related projects are eclectic, a reflection of my own interests and desire to explore a variety of styles in the studio. I like that notion you suggest: something motivating a sound, there’s influence but there’s something more which drives and inspires, motivates – love it ! Hmm it would have to be a combination of mainly 1970s sonic aesthetics married with today’s electronic dance sensibilities, that energy of the modern world (and ideas about the future, or past for that matter) represented in the music. Yeah I’m kind of obsessed with achieving a certain sound, and might argue it’s a quest which will continue on and on, there’s always a lot of room to learn and grow… It’s crazy that 50 years ago they were capturing a sound which is still so influential today, a testament to the power of timelessness in art. But it’s interesting, there is a common thread, a pervasive feeling which can span across music, no matter the era, whether it’s deep house, minimal, dub, breaks, or any genre of music. It’s always been artists who are achieving some special sound which inspires and interests me the most. At Onysia the vibe is quite specific: the simplest way to say it is daytime friendly tracks. Edgier stuff we are putting in the pipeline for our sister label Convent. But whether it’s a classic Detroit deep house artist or someone known for microhouse there is a soulfulness, a certain sensibility, a feeling which exists in the releases. And of course the quality of the productions is very important. It has to be a combination first of the ideas, and also the execution in the studio to achieve a special sound in this craft… And then there’s this question always, “does this sound cool right now, for xyz reasons, but in a few years it might not be quite so appealing”? So you want to frame these choices in that context as well, ideally we’ll be drawn to sounds which can stand the test of time, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with something crafted just for the moment either, if it has an impact, is there? New styles and trends are also important…
You generally call on an esteemed remixer. Aside from the aforementioned names, you’ve also hosted Tommy Vicari Jr (who hosted his own awesome EP) and remixers such as Pierre Codarin. You’ve also released on your own on the label as Chuffing Buffy on Convent and on Onysia under your Mojo District alias. Is the ultimate aim with the label to push yourself? And is bringing in outside remixers as much a labour of love as a way to perhaps shine a spotlight on the label?
It’s both, certainly the labels are going to be a major outlet for my own work, as the amount of material coming out of Onysia studios is significant. An important thing about remixes is that it’s a way to pay homage to an artist you love, you’re commissioning them for their work, collaborating with them in an intimate capacity, aiming to achieve something special. To release music of the highest quality possible, it does tend to be folks who’ve built a name for themself already – otherwise how would we be aware of their work? Actually I had this conversation with someone recently, and would love to be sent a demo from an artist who hasn’t broken through quite yet but has achieved a fully formed sound which fits the label’s aesthetic… I’m hoping that will happen sooner than later, but for now we reach out to the producers who are crafting the sound we resonate with most. Also, who is esteemed, or a known recognized name is quite relative, this is underground music after all. Here in NYC for example, which has by far the strongest stateside scene for minimal , it’s more the DJ focused artists who are known, not as much the producers… of course the diggers and DJs here will recognize some of the names but the larger community you can’t be sure are aware, even if they’ve been exposed to their work on the dancefloor. Many people here aren’t familiar with who I’d consider the top up and coming producers. So in that sense it’s a bit of both, the spotlight is being shone on the label far as the community of people who are following that artist, and as we know and appreciate about the minimal community, we tend to be quite hardcore about the releases from these artists we love! And then the label is bringing attention to an artist who doesn’t necessarily have as much recognition in other scenes, as we do proper PR campaigns for most releases and do our best to get the word out to a whole range of DJs and outlets. We do go out of our way to push releases and get them to big room DJs, people who might be considered a bit more mainstream – you might not expect to get the support, but they often do. This is why I’m publishing this info on Facebook and sometimes Instagram. I feel it’s really important to show that there’s more overlap and commonality within the larger electronic music world than is generally acknowledged, we tend to pigeonhole or feel stratified…. This can sometimes be true especially where minimal is concerned. So to traverse scenes, to put out music which has one leg in the minimal world and the other in maybe deep house or shall I use the naughty word “tech house” haha. Because part of our job, I think, is to show the world how great the quality of music can be, and that it doesn’t need to be confined to any specific community or genre. We’re seeing it now, with a lot more exposure and recognition for underground producers, it’s becoming a big melting pot, which I do see as advantageous for everyone…
With remixers, do you generally ask the producers to put their own spin on things? Or do you direct them and give them some pointers?
Yes, naturally the reason they’ve been asked to do the remix is they have a special sound and perspective they can bring to a track. So more than anything we want their signature sound, but within the context of the EP, and ideally making the release more versatile by expanding the appeal to DJs. Especially for a vinyl release, from a functional standpoint you would be doing a great service to DJs by addressing different situations on the slab, ok here’s the warmup cut, the peak time, and the after hours options – you’re covered. On the amount of direction it depends, generally there is some mention of it, as we want the remix to fit in the realm of the label’s sound of course. Sometimes it can get really specific, a draft will come in for review and it feels almost finished but could use for example an added percussion, or some small arrangement detail, and I’ll share this idea with them. And then they can decide if this is working for their remix or not. It’s important to have a dialogue when appropriate, this type of feedback, as at the end of the day we all want the same thing, which is the best possible music for the artist, label and remixer. And for me personally, I don’t mind when a remixer chooses to use very little of the original material – as long as the quality they’re known for and loved for is there. I like it when a remix brings a completely different perspective, and maybe only utilises the vocal sample, which is a major identifying characteristic for most listeners. This happened with Rick Wade’s take on “Pretty Girls Don’t Dance” he goes into this whole other room with it, and the results are really beautiful and special. Or I’ve done this with Mr C “Radical Inclusion” where I really only used the vocal sample. But knowing what he loves and represents musically, and using that as the main motivator and influence. So you can channel what you know about an artist, how they made you feel with their music, how the track being remixed makes you feel, and morph it into something completely different. I’m very much down with that approach…
What would you say is the most definitive Onysia release so far — what did you so love about it?
Hmm well as for definitive I think they all are in some way, as the label is still quite young with just 6 releases… so we’re in the formative stage and each release is shaping what sound Onysia is known for. And it’s quite specific, what’s fitting in the concept and with the output so far. But I can say Akufen – We Shall Not Surrender EP is very significant, and special for me personally. In my mind he is one of the great producers, innovators and inventors of a singular sound – and am so in love with this EP which can transport you to another world of feeling, the level of detail in his work is astounding. But you can’t expect anything else to sound like Akufen really, haha – we could say that the label endeavours to deliver these types of really special musical moments. The J Gabriel – Vice EP coming this summer really sums up the vibe we’re going for at Onysia, as far as daytime friendly minimal house that isn’t the typical sound, if that makes sense… That EP is a real labour of love, it took some years to complete to my satisfaction, and it felt finally appropriate to reach out to one of my production heros Audio Werner for the remix, in which he did a wonderful interpretation of the B side cut.
Does releasing music from outsiders come with its own issues? Do you always listen to it first before signing it? Do the producers get in touch with you first or what’s the process?
Every release and remixer involved has come from some sort of prior existing relationship, so far, and I anticipate it will continue this way. Even if some artists who would be considered of the highest calibre do sometimes reply to cold emails or messages on socials expressing their interest in doing a remix, just based on the quality of the music … they are not knowing who you are or anything about the label yet, in my experience it takes a bit more as these artists are very busy and receive a large amount of inbound requests. And getting a full EP signed is even more difficult. So being involved in the scene, in the community, people get to know you and these types of references are really important. You can have a mutual friend connect you, and say, this is a good person, they’re doing this for the right reasons and are trustworthy and have a right vision for this project and the future. That goes both ways, at the end of the day energy attracts like energy, we all want to be around and work with inspiring and quality people who do amazing things, right?
I wanted also to ask about NYC right now. How are things over there? And what are the crews and parties that are really inspiring you right now?
NYC is amazing as always, it’s really several cities in one if you think about it. There’s the Manhattan scene and vibe, which is of course quite distinct from the Brooklyn scene. But there is a commonality as well, as there’s so much diversity and history which affects everything here in a beautiful way. Far as the recent music and clubbing trends, the past years we’ve seen Brooklyn become the nightlife capital of NYC, and the whole country really. Many new clubs are opening here, crews forming. Overall there is a very strong current of parties, emerging artists, really every different type of thing you could imagine going on. Although as things are evolving and getting more established, there feels to be less gritty semi illegal parties, which we all know are the best kind;) And the scene in Manhattan is suffering, it seems there isn’t a new club established which has the potential to become anything close to resembling an institution yet, and that’s too bad. But it will happen, people are continuing to try, its just a matter of time till someone figures out how to make that work here. I really like what they’re doing at Nowadays, run by the Mister Sunday crew who’ve been throwing legendary daytime parties for many years. They’ve opened this club, its a fantastically laid out indoor and huge outdoor space. What I like is they are trying very hard to offer something high quality, a special experience – an extensive menu of nicely curated craft beer on tap, for example, and overall great beverage selection, to gourmet Japanese food, to doing 24 hours parties – which is unfortunately quite rare here. Personally I love waking up fresh and entering the club mid afternoon, and partying till midnight. That’s my preferred way of doing things actually, staying up all night is certainly a special feeling from time to time, but I feel it’s quite unhealthy and not really necessary if you think about it. It just feels so much better hitting the club after a full nights rest, your brain is in a different place than trying to force yourself, your mind and body to stay up, after they’ve already worked a full day. So I really appreciate these types of things that they’re offering there at that club. For minimal you have Resolute and Golden Records being the major crews these days, both showcasing exceptional bookings and an unpredictable element which is always exciting.
Has gentrification played its role in the demise of the NYC recently? How has the dance music scene in NY struggled with this? I noticed Output closed, as have a bunch of record stores such as Halycon for example… I’m guessing it’s playing a big role, especially in the movement of so much nightlife from Manhattan to Brooklyn. For underground parties not hosted in established nightclubs here, there is a lot of ebb and flow, it seems there are periods where issues with the authorities are more difficult to deal with than at other times, so it dictates what’s possible far as throwing an underground event. If the police are being more difficult and shutting down events, obviously promoters can’t take those same types of risks and throw events which facilitate the vibes and all out debauchery which ensues, that a night club can’t really play host to in the same way. There’s something about a raw, industrial space with a pop up sound system that for me can’t really be topped.It appears the city is trying to be more friendly for nightlife and there’s a special department of the mayor’s office, even a “Nightlife Mayor”, whose job it is to represent the industry. They’re pushing for new policies, some interesting proposals including 24 hour licensed districts which don’t need to abide by the regular 4am curfew for alcohol sales. I’m not betting on it happens in the short term, but if the city is smart they’ll start really embracing better policies ,we shall see ! But at the end of the day easier is not always better. Right now you have to be pretty passionate and dedicated to make a successful club or party here, who knows, if it becomes too easy a lot of low quality stuff might start popping up… But at the end of the day I hold a strong belief that music venues, nightlife businesses, artist communities, are critical and invaluable parts of the cultural fabric of society – but are not treated as such, especially here in the USA. They should be supported by society, in every way possible – not just dependent on alcohol sales to stay afloat. The government should be giving grants for nightclub openings and artists, laws should be in favor for supporting the growth and health of these communities. There should be resources and systems in place to help them thrive and evolve. My view.
Parties such as Resolute seem to adopt a sound that’s similar to yours. Is this somewhere you visit often? And what do you think makes it so great ?
Yes absolutely, I have been a regular at Resolute for going on 10 years now, and it’s still my favorite event in NYC. It’s of course largely informed by the types of artists they bring in, definitely minimal leaning, which brings in people who have a certain degree of knowledge and enthusiasm about the music, who come out to see a more niche, lesser known sound for this part of the world. But also the style of their parties varies quite a bit, which brings in overall a real diverse crowd, depending on the particular event – its great. When the parties are a bit more gritty and unpredictable, that attracts certain people – me and my friends for sure haha – it sets a real atmosphere that is quite unique. You feel an amount of freedom and excitement which is hard to match. I remember after spending a few weeks in Berlin, going to some amazing parties, attending Get Perlonized at Panoramabar and hearing some of the best music (Ricardo played one of the best most focused set’s I’ve ever witnessed that night), then returning to New York. And there was a Resolute party with Dan Bell all night, in the most insane raw basement space, and being totally blown away by the whole experience… A real special crowd seemed to come out that night as well, and just thinking wow Brooklyn can provide something which is very much on a high world class level, even relative to a major European central hub like Berlin. That’s not trying to compare these cities as they’re quite different, but just acknowledging what is possible here when all the elements line up, it’s not every weekend but it does happen. And Resolute has been going to great lengths to provide these types of experiences in NYC for over a decade.
Back to the label, and when you did you come up with the idea to run one? Was there one moment were you just felt like it was something you had to do?
It was actually a friend, Kev O’brien, who’s run several great labels over the years, who suggested it and showed me the ropes. And it quickly became clear this was the right path, a very natural feeling process so far… There was no big plan or idea to pursue this with a specific direction or purpose, but it came together quite organically. And it’s exciting, because I love the way Onysia is turning out. We’ll be reaching 10 releases by the end of next year and I think we’ll be able to look at the discography and feel it’s something special and well defined. And spinning off Convent, for the twilight hour sounds, there are some real cool releases already in the pipeline there – the potential is interesting too, will start doing some A&R and actively sign more material starting soon.
What’s been your high point so far? Is there one release or moment you’re more proud of compared to others?
Have to say there have been quite a few high points, which I’m very grateful for . Working with Chez Damier and Thomas Melchior for the release on DisDat coming this summer, “The One” EP. I wrote, performed and produced the vocals together with Chez, and contributed the ambient mix for the release. Collaborating with Mike Shannon on a very fun slab of wax coming out on his label Cynosure…
And it’s finally time to start announcing the Scientist vs J Gabriel – Too Far Gone EP coming out this summer on Onysia’s sister label Convent. It features roots reggae singer Vaughn Benjamin of Midnite and Tony Chin on guitar. It’s still a bit crazy to me how that project has come together, and most importantly I am very happy with the finished music.
Do you make yourself goals in terms of where you’d like the label to be, who you’d love to work with etc?
Yes I think it’s important to hold yourself to the highest standard and endeavour to work with your dream artists, if that’s truly what you want – no matter how long it takes to get there. I started this journey in making electronic music around 20 years ago, and slowly but surely it’s become a larger and more serious part of life, in terms of the amount of energy invested and the bigger achievements are just beginning. Again the goal is of course to create and find and release music which can help create a special moment, and which is also able to do so in the future, that it can stand the test of time to some degree. I’m very grateful to be able to work with my favourite artists, and will continue to do so. I do see Onysia growing into a brand which can host it’s own parties and create experiences for people beyond just a release catalogue…
Tell us more about your sun dub reggae project coming up – why is this such an inspiring sound to you? Are there many other electronic acts you know who are similarly into dub reggae?
Well dub is a foundational element of all modern popular music, especially contemporary electronic styles like hip hop and techno, its influence is quite undeniable if you look at the history and evolution of sound since the 1960s. This is especially true of drums and basslines. But what those artists achieved in the 1970s with pioneering dub are in my view some of the greatest musical recordings in history, and on a production level there is quite a bar set which still stands to this day. So any producer is influenced by this whether they know it or not, but personally it’s something very important and lovely to experience, to study these recordings and take inspiration as well. Similarities with house and techno music are well known, especially in the exploration of more cosmic and outer space themes – you might say most genres of music stick to more earthly pursuits haha. But yes this project with Scientist came together quite organically, it started with a recording I’d done in this Jamaican dub style, 63BPM, quite “live ” sound the way the beats and Rhodes electric piano and moog bassline were programmed. I’d shared this with my mom who’s a humongous roots reggae fan, and been involved in that scene for many decades, active as a journalist and radio host. Her feedback was that it could really work well with vocals, and asked if I’d be interested to share it with Vaughn Benjamin of Midnite band, who turned out was really feeling the music and interested in collaborating. At the same time I’d reached out to Scientist to get his thoughts, this was just through a friendly message online, we hadn’t been in touch before. He liked the track enough to want to get involved, and said he had a vision of live guitar and additional keyboards which he felt would really take things to the next level. He got his studio band together, and what you hear on the track is Tony Chin, one of the legendary Jamaican guitarists. So I could tell Vaughn, hey we got Scientist on board for the song, and vice-versa Scientist was happy to have such a seminal singer as well. They had actually worked together way back in the late 80s or early 90s I believe, so that mutual respect added some good momentum and energy to the project. As far as how Dub plays a role in dance music, I’m guessing there are many electronic acts which would cite the genre as a huge influence and inspiration. I once saw Craig Richards play a 3 hour strictly dub set at a Visionquest party, way back in the day, in Miami. And you have huge acts like Thievery Corporation or Massive Attack where the sound is quite evidently a part of what they do. The list goes on, and I think one of the interesting things to note is the minimalism in dub, where things get stripped down to the bare bones essentials, I think it’s a masterclass in minimalism in music… It’s a kind of serious existential funk that oozes with confidence and swagger, but simultaneously real spiritual gravity and timeless themes.
I also wanted to ask re your many aliases, such as J Gabriel, Chuffing Buffy and Mojo District. What’s in a name? And how are they different?
Haha well in my case, and I think as is fairly common, it’s different sounds that fit with each moniker. J Gabriel is the main production alias and incorporates a deep house sound, groovier side of minimal, jazz influences. Chuffing Buffy is for the more edgy or heavy stuff, and since a lot of recent productions have fallen somewhere in-between, it made sense to say J Gabriel & Chuffing Buffy. It’s also a good way to get the CB name out even if there hasn’t been a solo release yet, but it’s coming. Mojo District is more classic house driven, with more congas and percussion, a bit more housey stuff.
Who beat sums up ‘quirky’ house music in your eyes then?
For me it means something a bit unusual, a bit eccentric maybe, which has something that is distinctive in a slightly unusual or maybe playful way even. I would use it for just some of my own music, Pretty Girls Don’t Dance is an example. It has this kind of cheeky spoken word going on, and starts out with a relatively straightforward deep house jazz type riff, but then twists into something more menacing. Tommy Vicari Jnr has a lot of music which i’d say is quite quirky, the B2 on his Onysia EP “Needs of You” – it’s got this juxtaposition of feelings, on the one hand happy and friendly and then it gets quite mysterious and starts throwing zappy lasers at you. Speaking for myself, it’s not something deliberate but happens naturally if you have a quirky personality and are making music ! haha
What’s the next stage for you guys and what else can we look forward to from you guys?
The imminent releases on Onysia are J Gabriel – Vice EP, followed by a fantastic 4 tracker from Dorian Paic & Felipe Valenzuela, super loving it, very special. We just got Youandewan on board for a remix on that one. On Convent we have the Scientist vs J Gabriel featuring Vaughn Benjamin EP, which is more oriented toward the dub and reggae market, though it does have two dance remixes for the B side. Then a VA with tracks from Tommy Vicari Jnr’s Czevski alias, Jay Tripwire, Audio Werner and more. We’ll also do some label showcases at some point, Onysia events which I imagine will be daytime parties with some quirky elements. The next stage for me is creating the J Gabriel vs Chuffing Buffy Live show, which will incorporate a bit from existing productions but also accommodate a fair amount of improvisation and new ideas. The concept is nearly fully formed, it’s just a matter of getting in the studio and crafting the foundation, then experimenting. I’ll always love digging and DJing, but somehow there’s a calling towards performing live, feels befitting somehow. Bring something a bit different to the table, hopefully… There’s certainly a lot going on, the ball is rolling with both Onysia and Convent, new productions and remixes, and new artists joining the label !
Keep up with Onysia on Facebook and with J Gabriel on Instagram