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Balcony Beats: Ubiquity VP Andrew Jervis and founders Michael and Jody McFadin celebrate their label's 10th birthday.

Dedicated to the Groove

Ubiquity Records celebrates 10 years of bringing out the music

By Dara Colwell

In this dark age of heavily marketed, MTV-inspired pop, the shelf life of new music rarely exceeds the usual 15 minutes of fame. So it's refreshing that Ubiquity Recordings, like a fine and mature wine, only gets better with age. Much to the pleasure of well-versed vinyl junkies, international groove vultures and jazz heads, the San Francisco-based label is celebrating its 10th anniversary of producing quality music.

Ubiquity evolved out of the hullabaloo generated at DJs Jody and Michael McFadin's record store, the Groove Merchant. Located in the lower Haight, the narrow store was central to the then small-but-tight retro-groove scene, where obscure and long-forgotten tracks were pursued by DJs and soul aficionados. Within the backdrop of San Francisco's burgeoning house scene, the Groove Merchant initially garnered more attention elsewhere than at home--Japanese and German tourists and savvy gringos like Beastie Boy Mike D. often made pilgrimages to its aisles. (Mike D. gave the McFadins a special thanks in "Professor Booty," rapping "This one goes out to my man the Groove Merchant/Comin' through with the beats that I've been searchin'.")

"I like to modestly attribute our success to good luck," says co-founder Mike McFadin, energetically twisting in his chair. "The rare-groove scene was really starting to bubble and we were right on time--it carried us along. There were only a few places to go get this kind of music and we were one of them."

Within a few months of opening the Groove Merchant, the McFadins created the Luv N' Haight label. Their second release, a 12-inch by Vibes Alive, made history as the first "acid jazz" record from an American label. Paying homage to the old-school greats kept customers streaming in, and within a few years the McFadins had sold the shop (but the Groove Merchant lives on) and expanded into Ubiquity Recordings. Ubiquity is a three-label operation which includes the jazz and funk gems of Luv N' Haight, mother label Ubiquity's eclectic mix of contemporary music, and the steamy Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz rifts on CuBop.

The climb from a mom-and-pop venture to an established independent label, of course, didn't happen overnight. Of the early days, Mike McFadin recalls pressing singles in white paper sleeves "because the jackets cost 35 cents each," and driving across the Bay Bridge to a warehouse where he could buy 20 jackets at a time, wholesale. "At one point, I remember going for 500--our first big order--and the guy saying 'God, you're really starting to sell records.' " Shortly afterwards, Ubiquity put out the Home Cookin' compilation, which became an instant classic. "That's when it went from being a hobby to a business!" McFadin says. The Cookin' series (Home Cookin', Mo' Cookin' and Still Cookin') combined a unique flavor of soul, instrumentation, jazz and hip-hop, and drove the American acid-jazz scene. Since then, the scene has fizzled out and the ever forward-looking Ubiquity has shifted direction.

Ubiquity's success is partly due to its "big-small" attitude of taking developing artists and nurturing their careers. "I want people to know about the artists, not us personally," Jody McFadin says emphatically. Mike McFadin expands on the couple's "grass-roots" vision. "We attract good but developing artists--they enhance us and we enhance them," he says. "Our mission is to take great music and make it ubiquitous." This philosophy also extends to fanning the careers of old-school veterans. When re-releasing a tune, the McFadins always make a point to contact the original artists, who often are surprised that their songs have taken on new life as international club hits. The recent release of Oakland's Sons and Daughters of Lite on the Luv N' Haight label characterizes that vision, bringing good archival sound to a new generation of listeners.

While Ubiquity continues bringing on the raw, deep energy of small and big artists alike, the label is doing so well it doesn't plan on signing any new acts for the rest of the year. "We're lucky," says fellow DJ and Ubiquity vice president Andrew Jervis. "Right now we have the luxury of people coming to us. We have a name already." Couple that with the Internet explosion, which any homegrown Bay Area start-up knows is the best way to get the word out, and the label has hit a few milestones. According to McFadin, one track from Ubiquity's New Latinaires compilation received over 49,000 hits in the last few months. "We could never afford to spend advertising dollars on underground magazines," she says. "We've always relied on people just knowing." Now, she says, the Internet has taken its music outside major metropolitan areas. When the label started getting bounce-back cards from Midwest suburbs, her husband jokes, they knew business was good.

As to celebrating Ubiquity's 10th anniversary, the McFadins and Jervis excitedly say the daily feedback they get from listeners almost seems celebration enough. "People write comments on the bounce-back cards from CDs, putting personal notes on the bottom. That always touches us," Mike says. Some of the responses are posted on Ubiquity's website. One, which sums up the enthusiastic love listeners have for the label, likens the mood of one album to "unfiltered Jaegermeister and a pipeful of Moroccan hashish ... Nice!" For Jervis, who regularly hosts a Friday radio show on KUSF, that kind of response makes him realize how things have come full circle. "I went to KUSF meetings and I would play the records but there was nothing they could relate it to," he says. "Now they listen to it, they love us and I've got a two-hour radio show."

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From the April 3, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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