Ratskin Records

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Ratskin Records shines a light on the shadowy margins of the Bay Area experimental music scene.

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Michael Daddona | May 4, 2016

Oakland’s Ratskin Records is one of the most active and ambitious platforms for experimental music in the Bay Area, a vital part of the region’s subterranean ecosystem not only as a label but as a conduit for underground performances as well. Below, cofounder Michael Daddona recounts highlights of the label’s decade-long tenure and reflects on his increasingly heightened sensitivity to the importance of celebrating marginalized artists.

Ratskin Records

Ratskin Records, much like the Ninja Turtles, formed out of the conceptual ooze left behind by the city’s discarded bodies, philosophies, stories, images, and sounds. Like many labels that came before it and inspired it, Ratskin formed without any knowledge of how to run a successful business, or record label for that matter, but was slowly hammered, scraped, glued, and taped together out a of need to document sound, images and, dare we say it, art. The primitive beginnings of the label still inform its intent, aesthetics, and mission; it just has a slightly wider array of conceptual and sonic weapons to choose from these days.

It was the Sabreteeth demo CD-R stuffed in a spray painted manila envelope about ten years ago that started it all. The very first few Ratskin releases aren’t in our catalog and if you find one somewhere you should mail it to me and I’ll mail you back something much better, but first check if there’s any mushrooms inside. I’m pretty sure we put a mushroom cap in a few of them and didn’t tell anyone. If whoever ended up with these releases found it and knew what it was, then that is a fucking score right there! If not, it probably ended up in the trash, but at the time, it seemed necessary, funny, and slightly dark, which has been a constant theme of the label. As we looked at the back of the blank envelope, which held virtually no information, we thought it looked naked, and for posterity’s sake, slapped a label name and catalog number on the back, never realizing it would later take up such a large part of our lives.

At first Ratskin mostly restricted itself to musical experiments of the label’s founders Michael Daddona (Malocclusion) and Andre Stafford (Dirt Collar / Sabreteeth). After a handful of extremely low fidelity, home-brewed releases, Michael and dilatedears curated the Triskaidekaphobia: 13000 Milliseconds compilation. It featured over 200, thirteen-second songs created specifically for the project from just as many artists, including Matmos, Venetian Snares, White Mice, I Am Spoonbender, and countless others, ranging from harsh noise and prank phone calls to grindcore and EDM. “Triskaidekaphobia,” a Greek portmanteau meaning fear of the number thirteen, served as a springboard for releasing other people’s music, and proved to be  substantially more gratifying than anything the label had released up until that point. I met friends, girlfriends, enemies, and everything in between through that compilation, many lifelong connections. In that aspect, it will always be one of our favorite and most intimate  releases. It took nine months to sequence, only to later find out it was just as interesting, if not more interesting, in shuffle mode.

We’ve talked about doing a second edition, maybe on double LP, but that one is on the back burner, at least for now. I definitely get a cynical joy out of asking people to do absurd projects,  like record a thirteen second track, to see how far they will go, and to see their reaction. It tells me something about how they value  their own art, and art in general. In most of the art I like, there’s always a risk, but there’s also collaboration, which is equally as important. There is a certain gratification in working with people to help them realize their creative vision on a more nuanced, complicated  level, that I could never get from having creative control, or releasing my own project for example. In my opinion, collaboration should never derail the concept, water it down or take the edge off; it should act like a sharpening stone, strengthening the edges of its blade. If the artist is the sword, the record label is the stone. If a collaboration cannot make art more deadly than it was before, than maybe it shouldn’t happen.

Over the next four years the label continued to carefully present mostly cassette and occasional CD releases from dozens of other artists from the Bay Area and beyond, included but not limited to: conceptual-art harsh noise performance pieces formed into a “noise rock” album from Crank Sturgeon,  a 5’’ lathe cut record etched into a CD from the Bay Area’s Nerfbau; pure nihilism and alienation from Cleveland’s Skin Graft and Jerk projects; the tape-noise, proto-disco stylings of Bonus Beast; Terror’ish, the John Carpenter-esque hardware excursions of Chrome Genie; the minimalist compositions of Terror Apart; and a ten cassette boxset that housed in a shaker box that be plugged in and played as a noise instrument.

2012 saw the first proper vinyl release from the label with the Vertonen Fait a La Machine picture disc, as a split label released with the artist’s own C.I.P.. The result was a true “industrial  record,” boasting an LP’s worth of essentially raw, unmanipulated  field recordings of massive machines of industry: hydraulic presses, steel refineries, etc. The sounds are cold, alienating, punishing, and beautiful. We pressed a lot of these records, and they are still available, but I’ve  always thought of placing them in libraries around the country as both a prank and listening  experiment. Can the sights and sounds of everyday be taken as art, or at least a unique experience outside of its existence as didactic sound?

Which leads us to the official Ratskin house band, Styrofoam Sanchez (aka Coral Remains) and our Empire Underwater LP/DVD/Book, perhaps our most fully realized project to date. Empire Underwater, much as the title suggests, exists somewhere between science fiction, horror, and industrial music, creating a futuristic dystopian narrative through sound, film, and image where humanity and garbage are synthesized into a single sentient being. The LP was followed by a tour tape entitled Coastal Ruin. They were by far the label’s most successful projects, in terms of reaching a wide audience audience.

(After the second pressing of the LP and two US tours, Coral Remains is working toward a proper LP and film under our new name, as well planning several future tours.)

Recent releases and artists stay with the label’s aesthetic but branch out a bit in terms of genre.  New output includes the obscure Fleshlight project, which hybridizes hardware body music, noise, and  breakbeat; Flower Pattern’s Total Drip VHS, the psychedelic analog AV trips of Oakland’s own Adrian Saenz; the grind/thrash supergroup Black Dog, featuring members of A Minor forest, Coughs, and Stillsuit; and just about 2893930 other Bay Area projects.

Other recent highlights that I am thrilled and proud to release include the first offering in many years from Bay Area harsh noise/power electronics master David  Lim’s Tralphaz project; Black Interiors by Black Sprituals, who blend noise, improvisation, Black histories, and resonance in profound and powerful ways; cassette and soon-to-follow double LP from EBM/post-punk/post-industrial project Big Debbie; and our most recent release is from the noisy feminist reggaeton duo Las Sucias. This was their first released after playing locally for the last nine months, so we were pleased to be involved. In fact, I’m rather lucky in that I can look back on the entire back catalog of the label and say that I’m proud of every release. They all hold up in special and unique ways in which I never thought that they would.

Up next is many more cassette singles from the likes of Andy Way’s Thoabath project, which combines industrial, power electronics, and occult sensibilities; plus Echo Beds, Zanna Nera, Forbidden Colors, Terror Apart, and few more that we can’t mention yet, along with a reissue of a complicated and haunting tape music piece by Loachfillet.

Next year we plan to release a Big Debbie double LP; cassettes from Future Blondes, featuring members of Chrome, PTV, and more; How I Quit Crack, the dub/dancehall offerings of Oakland’s Rank Sound; Sharmi Basu’s Beast Nest project; a Slanted Square cassette; a Bastard Noise/Coral Remains collaboration LP; a cassette, zine, and LP package from the talented and radical Moor Mother Goddess, and more. After doing this label for ten years, I can say with 100%  honesty and integrity that the label is finally coming into its own, and some of the releases of this year and the following are some of the most radical and exciting sounds and art that we have to offer.

I think we are in a time period when anyone can start a label fairly easily and crank out a bunch of  releases by their friends, but what I am learning is that it’s important to be more than that: it’s important  or labels and artists to not take the boring, easy, safe route. Labels should not  represent an insular group of people or strategies; in my opinion, that’s too safe to be exciting, but more importantly it erases marginalized artists, queer, and trans artists, people of color and especially black artists and differently-abled artists. For me personally, art gets really stale when its  presented in a homogenous sort of scope, even down to the race, gender identity and strategies of its rosters. There’s a million record labels where, if you look at the bio pictures  of all the artists they all look the same: a bunch of disgruntled white dudes trying to look more  brutal, depressed, isolated, or transgressive as possible, and to me that’s boring, dangerous, and  erasing.

Experimental music, as I use that term more broadly to include forms of dance music, metal, heavy music in general, synth music, even aspects of jazz and classical music, is not owned, championed, or advanced by any one group, especially straight white males. So my question is  why is it often presented that way? And is that the history of experimental music that we want to leave for future generations? I think more labels need to be reaching out further into the unknown, the less obvious, the  esoteric, the personal, and the real corners of radical experimental music, and talking to those  artists and musicians and presenting their work in the way the artists themselves want the work to be presented. And the opportunity should be granted in an equal way, with all strategies and perspectives to be given prioritization, and often times I see that it isn’t. Some of the most popular labels in experimental music haven’t ever even thought about this, and that is a point of privilege that leads to erasure on so many different  levels, not  to mention bad art.

I still have a lot to learn running a label, and I am forever grateful for all of my friends, peers, colleagues, and artists. Thanks to them, I can learn about all of  these complex sides to a shape that we still cannot see; it’s constantly mutating, rotating, and destroying its own orientation of  itself, and that’s an okay thing, I think. Ratskin Records will exist until I die and hopefully much longer, as there is endless trauma, complexity, horror, and comedy to be processed through the musical and artistic lens. As long as that is happening, I want to do my part to preserve these untold stories, the esoteric strategies, and the marginalized and alienated artists who often create the best work, not out of boredom, or enjoyment, but out of necessity. Together we can be the  sharpest sword in the  box.

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