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The De Wolfe Sound Library is a fifty-year-old business, headquartered in London, that provides soundtrack material to film, video and television commercials. Their name crops on Monty Python records for having provided incidental music, and their website boasts that they have a track on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack. And these days, in the spirit of sustaining a great multi-generational business, they license out material to hip-hop producers looking for great, unknown beats and sounds. But I like to imagine the de Wolfe offices in the heady days of the late 60s and early 70s. Picture them: a constant flow of entertainment industry types in reflective aviators, patterny neckerchiefs and loafers (and maybe the handy, little leather-bound coke kits - the kind with gold-plated straws and razors), mouths full of name-dropping industry yacketing and nice lines of corperate-backed credit, pulling up in Alfa Romeos and MGs. They're young or wishing to be young, swinging or on the lookout, and making their business rounds to the de Wolfe offices to get hot new sounds for their film projects or car commercials or nation-wide radio spots. The almost-as-groovy de Wolfe staff guides them to the stacks of small-run, in-house-only LPs with psychedelic, if somewhat industrial covers, and the hipsters begin listening to evocatively named tracks like "Silver Thrust," "Heavy Gravy," and "Sweet Destruction," while scanning the little back-covers blurbs ("contemporary blues-rock with flute," "swinging piano with solid rock beat and electronic flourishes," or some such) looking for just the right background to their television special or whatever. Did any track on this disc of music from the de Wolfe library from that era ever make into some forgotten car-chase or nightclub scene? Were any of them the lead-in track to a sports program or chat show? Was a nightclub opening or home stereo hawked over the radio to the sound of any of these tunes. Who knows... And if so, how did the clearly brilliant, boldly creative and genuinely hip musicians whose work was used annonymously feel about the fit of their ideas to the contexts? Did musicians like Nick Ingman, Keith Papworth, Alan Parker,or Roger Webb (to name a few notables) who played, composed and/or produced these tracks even give a damn what happened to the tracks which they sold, rights and all, to de Wolfe, so long as the check cleared? We don't know. None of it mattered to Baltimore DJ Jason Willett when he heard this collection's opening track, "Hard Hitter." That dramatically flashing boogie sent him quickly down a rabbithole of research, resulting in this monsterous, little piece of vintage, European instrumental soul. Since Willett first started spinning it, I have seen many dance floors light up with crazy moves to "Hard Hitter," and I am sure "Down Home," "Sweet Lace," "Stomp," and more of these bad boys will loosen a few necks (and underthings.) All of it is dazzlingly constructed and performed, with subtle care given to the warmth of sounds and the vigor of the rhythms. And, most likely, virtually all of it would have remained the exclusive intellectual domain of a tiny elite of obsessive Sound Library fanatics. It is not music which needs to recontextualized to be seen as beautiful or funky. It just is.

(ian nagoski)


Cracking the Vault
DJ Jason Willett Brings Forgotten Funk Back Alive With Music De Wolfe, Vol. 1

by Bret McCabe


Something about Jason Willett says cravat and smoking jacket. Not that he wears either of them, mind you--just that he would strike a rather courtly figure if he did. Perhaps it's the manly close-cut dark hair, always parted on one side and draped to the other atop his aquiline face. Perhaps it's the insouciant way he rolls his cigarettes, keenly attentive to the distribution of tobacco while never ignoring his interlocutor, then keeping the finished item between his fingers, behind his ear, or even in his mouth for 10 minutes or half an hour. No reason to rush but also no reason not to be prepared. Everything in its place and at its time.

Dapper though he may be, the 38-year-old local musician/DJ/record junkie/label owner/creative multitool wasn't entirely sure what he was getting himself into when he went up to British-based music library De Wolfe Music's New York offices two years ago to cull through its collection for Music De Wolfe, Vol. 1, the recently released compilation on his label's new offshoot, Megaphone Unlimited. He would eventually spend approximately four hours in a little office at 25 W. 45th St. in midtown Manhattan poring through their LPs for his 15-track compilation, but first he would have to get inside.

"When I got in they sat me down in one of these waiting areas with chairs, like a nice doctor's waiting room--but better," Willett says from behind the counter at Hampden's True Vine record store, which he co-owns with Ian Nagoski and Stewart Mostofsky. "Doctor's offices usually make me feel ewww, but this one made me feel alright. And then you have the big desk with glass around it, and then a door that's almost like a door to a vault that you have to get buzzed into."

The spry Willett can come across as a casual perpetual-motion machine--always seeming to be doing something, even if sitting apparently still. He radiates a mental busyness, like a supercranked gerbil is spinning his brain's wheels even though his voice sounds like a calm, jocose, and reedy instrument that could probably score a later career in comedy movie trailer voice-over work. The very thought of him deadpanning "from the people who brought you Grandma's Boy" is enough to send you into snorting giggles.

"It was all a bit James Bond," he says. "I knew of them and I knew [they released] a lot of good music, and one day I looked them up [online] and saw a New York phone number, even though they're British. So I just called it and I asked the details and went, `Yep--just as I thought. This is out of my league financially.'"

With the financial backing of friends John Standiford and Bob Wagner, though, Willett was able to gain entry to the sanctified land. "Eventually the woman says, `Mr. Willett, they're ready to see you now'--buzzzzz," he continues. "They gave me my own office with a stereo with a view overlooking the city and then access--you just go through that door, and that's where all the vinyl is. So I could just spend hours listening to things. And have you seen books of library music covers? They're just really out there. Alien covers. And so every single cover you're just like, What does this sound like? Often you're disappointed, but a lot of surprises."

The term "library music" does and doesn't explain itself. It refers quite literally to music libraries, but not in the sense of a normal public lending institution. Use of these holdings are available only for a licensing fee, and the holdings themselves are typically music made by commercial studio musicians working almost entirely instrumental and for short running times--a few minutes, max. These songs are then sold to movie and television music and sound-effects editors, producers--whoever needs incidental instrumental music. Anyone who's watched foreign commercials or a B-grade 1960s or '70s European movie has heard somebody's library music.

What are most coveted by contemporary DJs and producers are tracks from the 1960s and '70s that range from hypercharged rock-funk to spaced-out amorphous electronic sounds. And the past decade, especially in Europe, has been littered with compilations from various music libraries, be they British, French, Germany, or Italian. Luke Vibert's 2002 Further Nuggets is one producer's creative stroll through the Chappell, Bruton, IM, PIL, and Southern music libraries. London's De Wolfe Studios is one of the oldest and best known. Founded in 1909, it now has offices worldwide in 36 countries, including New York. Its holdings have been compiled before--see 1999's out-of-print Bite Hard: The Music De Wolfe Studio Sampler 1972-80 on London's BBE.

Willett takes a much more catholic approach--his De Wolfe is almost all about the funk. Nick Ingman's "Down Home" duck-walks along a white-shoes strut backed by trilling keys and a belching synth. P. Milray's "Skinhead" piles high-hat, piano, and tambourine atop each other until the whole shimmying ribbon blossoms into alternating horn swells and guitar petals. You probably have heard Hugh Cortley and Musi Silvio's "Export" percolating through the background as some turtleneck- and trench coat-rocking fuzzy sideburn man stepped into his Alfa Romeo with a leggy gal in a mini. And Roger Webb's "Heavy Lace" is one minute and 32 seconds of hip-hop ready breakbeat just waiting for a game producer.

And it's music that is ideally suited for DJ and producer recombination. One, it's predominantly instrumental and short. More importantly, it's music without a built-in context. You might be able to place the era from the sound and instrumentation, but unlike a 1972 Bobbi Humphrey track or a 1965 Supremes song--or anything else you've heard sometime in your life--it doesn't hit the ears like a memory flash card.

Willett himself received his music library education from DJs--both behind and in front of the decks. He first heard the sternum-punching propulsion of Music De Wolfe's lead-off track, Keith Papworth's "Hard Hitter," in a club. And as this longtime experimental music veteran--who has played alongside Jad Fair and Ruins and with such ecstatically in-the-moment groups as the Pleasant Livers, the Can Openers, and Leprechaun Catering--discovered he liked to get people to "completely lose it" on the dance floor, he started mining the virtually bottomless depths of soundtrack and library music. Of course, since Willett doesn't do anything in a straightforward manner, he had to travel some 10,000 miles to figure all this out.

Luckily, a good friend and go-go dancers were able to help him out. While touring Australia in 1997 with Jad Fair, in Sydney they played with a boundary-pushing Australian band called the Mu-Mesons, which is made up of entirely of clinical schizophrenics--save the singer, a psychiatric nurse/musician named Jamie Leonarder. He and Willett hit it off so well from the first time they met that when Willett found himself miserable and brokenhearted in Baltimore, he called Leonarder, who invited Willett to Sydney in 1998.

Leonarder, who today is part of Australian TV's immensely popular The Movie Show, also put on a now-legendary Saturday night party at the Lansdowne Hotel. Called the Sounds of Seduction, it was an audio-visual playground of exotic dance rhythms and their accompanying exotic go-go dancers, and it opened Willett's eyes and ears to the idea of DJs saving people's lives.

"It was very inspiring, just this sort of--there's something sinister about it, I'll say that," he says. "But there's also something beautiful and dreamlike and ass-kicking as well, people just sweating and really going for it for that long--which is really what I try to do when I DJ, is just to get people to lose it, getting to the point where all inhibitions are gone. If you want to fall on the floor and have an epileptic spazz and scream at the top of your lungs, have an exorcism, good. That's good stuff."

Since Willett moved back to Baltimore in 2000, he has be stirring up such good stuff as a DJ, with library music an essential part of his sets. The more he DJs and the more he searches out more and more obscure and untapped source albums and songs, the more he suspects various music libraries have undiscovered gems lurking in their vaults. Perhaps the Vol. 1 on this release suggests he's considering traveling to London to scour De Wolfe's offices, or any of the other European music libraries still in operation.

"You just read my mind," he says. "The only problem is I've been hating planes more than I ever have in my life, to the point where if somebody said, `You can never get on a plane again, you have to stay in Baltimore for the rest of your life,' I would be happy."

(baltimore city paper (11/08/06)


Chatting with Jason Willett,
Compiler of Music De Wolfe, Vol. 1

Score, Baby! recently spoke with Jason Willett, compiler of the excellent new CD Music De Wolfe, Vol. 1. Jason is best known for his work in the noise rock group Half Japanese and other avant-garde projects.

SB: What should library music fans know about this compilation?

JW: There’s a lot of passion behind it.

SB: How long have you been collecting library music?

JW: Well, I don’t have the money to collect original LPs. I've been collecting the comps since 2000. And I have rips of full albums. Soulseek has a lot of original library albums.

SB: When did you first develop a taste for library music?

JW: I got involved with library music when I went to Australia 10 years ago. When I stepped off the airplane I was swept up by this ‘60s style go-go dancer who took me to the Sounds of Seduction, the most-happening get together in Australia. It takes place in an old hotel in Sydney every Saturday night. About 500 to 600 people pack in. It's a magical experience. That’s where I first heard “Hard Hitter,” seeing my go-go girlfriend dance to that song. It was like discovering a part of my personality that I didn’t know I had. It's almost 10 years and I’m still trying to figure it out. And that’s where I first heard the term “library music.” I became good friends with DJ Jamie Leonarder (aka Jay Katz) who’d previously had an industrial noise band of schizophrenics called Mu-Mesons. Now, he’s the host of a popular “Entertainment Tonight”-type TV program called “The Movie Show”. Sound of Seduction came out of Mu-Mesons, started as a cabaret show that mushroomed into an insane all-night experience. There was a Sounds of Seduction compilation on Shock Records as well, featuring tracks by Syd Dale, Ennio Morricone and others.

SB: So, what happened when you came back to the States?

JW: When I came back to Baltimore I wanted to DJ and get a lot more library music. Now, when I DJ in Baltimore, it’s a lot wilder and crazier than Sounds of Seduction. It’s no inhibitions. It’s like a joyful exorcism. I prefer doing big open spaces that are private more than clubs. When I say wild and crazy, I don’t mean that it’s a drug scene. It’s almost like having a preacher conduct an exorcism. Baltimore is a different experience. It’s one of the most down to earth cities I’ve been to. People are very real here.

SB: So, how did you put this comp together?

JW: The process started with an epiphany to call De Wolfe and inquire about the cost of putting a comp together. They told me it is $3,000 for 10 songs. I ended up purchasing the licensing fees for 15 tracks to the tune of $4,500 for a maximum of 3,000 pressed CDs.

I went to De Wolfe in New York. You sit in a waiting room until they call your name. I met my contact and was shown to “my office” with a stereo system and directed to another room for the records. I just went back and forth for about five hours, moving as fast as possible. I went through a lot of records with fascinating covers that proved uneventful as a listening experience. I probably went through about a 1,000 tracks between the DeWolfe office and other research to select the final 15 tracks. When you listen to so much in search of something special it’s easy to start thinking that the cool stuff isn’t in abundance after all. In most cases, you know in 20 seconds or less whether you want the track or not. Some tracks keep you listening longer. They'll sound promising but are missing a critical element and fall short of sending you over the top. Other times, I was thinking “this is good,” but after listening to it several times it wouldn’t hold up. The songs that are on the CD I listened to about 100 times over the course of a year and some of the songs that didn’t make the cut simply didn’t hold up as well as the others. They could end up on a future volume depending on what else I find.

I have a hunch that there’s more at the De Wolfe office in London that they don't have New York. One track I sought, “Heavy Lace,” they didn’t even know that they had. A week later they called me back and said they found it, and thanked me for mentioning it because it has a break in it that would interest the hip-hop producers who come to libraries like De Wolfe to “crate dig” for fresh beats. They make most of their money from hip-hop producers. Anyway, the fact that they couldn’t find the track at first makes me think that there’s other stuff out there that the New York office doesn’t know about. I'd like to think there’s enough for additional strong volumes.

SB: What struck you the most when plowing through track after track and what kinds of things were you listening for when selecting tracks?

JW: The thing I encountered is that a lot of library tracks lack personality or strong melodic statement; there’s a sterility to a lot of it. There are funky workouts, sure, but a lot of them have no big hook. I set out to select tracks that have a strong theme, distinctive rhythms and odd arrange-ments. I was hot for Nick Ingman’s Big Beat, which is stunning. He plays instruments he invented on that album. That’s the greatest full library album I’ve heard. I included three tracks from it. And Keith Papworth’s "Hard Hitter," which is featured as well, is the best library song I’ve heard.

SB: Was De Wolfe surprised that you wanted to compile tracks from their back catalogue?

JW: When I told my De Wolfe contact what I wanted to do, I got the impression that they’re not familiar with the concept of making library compilations commercially available. He seemed a little perplexed by the notion. When I first mentioned “Hard Hitter” the guy put it on and said, “Oh, okay, break dance music.” I guess you could say it’s a prototype for break dance music because the rhythm is so busy and frenetic. It’s from 1972. To a certain extent the library employees are out of touch with the older recordings. The majority of what they deal with are new library recordings. If you go to their Web site it’s hard to find the old stuff. Even when you search someone like Ingman or Papworth you only get listings of their later more recent recordings. It’s like they’ve got these recordings off in a corner with cobwebs growing over them, and it took hip-hop producers to call attention to them. Even so, they seem really secretive about what they have, as if they want to make it hard to access.

SB: Why do you think that era of library music is so appealing?

JW: That was a great era for music, period. At the end of the ‘60s you got the groovy side, but the heavy back beats started kicking in ’70. Any time
you have a lot of people opening their minds up great things come from it. But ’75 seems to be a landmark drop in quality for music. Library music after ’75 also reflects that drop in quality. Library music is odd because it’s created for mass consumption but at the same time it’s an underground
thing because so few people know about it. I had a customer (at my store the True Vine Record Shop in Baltimore) who asked me to play Music De Wolfe for him. He didn’t buy it because he thought it would be more commercial. I thought that was funny, because music couldn't be more commercial than library music — it’s made for commercial use. That didn’t change his mind. This is one of the most accessible records I sell in my shop. Nine out of 10 of my customers dig it. It makes me happy. I don’t want to be a snob about this music. I want to get it out there, and turn people on to it.

SB: The cover art is spot on. Did you handle the art as well?

JW: My friend Jen Kirby did the design based on my idea that it be minimal, sterile-yet-flashy and vibrational. I wanted it to be very clean looking, which is unlike anything I’ve ever done before, because most of the music I’ve made has been very raw and experimental, so the covers have looked very thrown together. Over the course of a year I must have made 50 different covers for the CD before I lent Jen the library record cover book (The Music Library, Fuel 2005) from which to draw inspiration. I simply chose the colors.

SB: So, what's next?

JW: If I can sell all of these CDs I’ll pursue another De Wolfe compilation, and maybe some other labels as well. There might be library companies that I don’t even know about that have amazing stuff.

{score, baby (nov. 2006)}



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