Living in close proximity to the Alpine arc and being thus fully exposed to a form of music there is no English equivalent for but which is sometimes referred to by its German name schlager, record companies called Koch are liable to evoke a state of slight schizophrenia in this reviewer’s mind. In the German-speaking market, Koch Music (since 2002 owned by Universal Music International) is the home of countless singers who conspire to bring the world the most sappy, schmaltzy, pseudo-folk music ever conceived. Yet when I think of Koch Records, I think of the biggest independent music distributor in the United States and its growing rap music roster.
Not surprisingly, both labels are linked by family ties. Franz Koch established the Austrian company in 1976, his son Michael Koch emigrated to the US in 1987, where we founded the American branch. In 1991 Koch became the first national independent music distributor of domestic labels, revolutionalizing the traditional system of independent regional distributors and nationally operating majors. One of the first rap acts to work with Koch was Afu-Ra (via D&D). Artists who had lost their record deal or labels who had lost their distribution deal followed – Goodie Mob after LaFace, Duck Down after Priority, Onyx after Def Jam, Mobb Deep after Loud, KRS-One and B-Legit after Jive, BG after Cash Money, the Outlawz after Death Row, etc. Whether you just wanted to drop a side project (MOP, Snoop, Kweli, Face) or were looking for long-term distro (Master P with The New No Limit), Koch was there to pick up the pieces whenever an established act or label fell victim to record industry reconfigurations.
These days Koch Records’ rap department does a lot more than offering has-been hip-hoppers a second chance. The company realizes that it is partially identified as a hip-hop label and makes a first attempt to boost its respective profile. The format is the popular mixtape, and the man to bring it to you is DJ Kurupt, originally from Massachusetts and now one of the many participants in the mixtape circuit with three Justo nominations to his credit. Acting as the label’s spokesperson on “Summer Heat – The Mixtape,” Kurupt won’t hesitate to let you know that in his eyes “Koch Records is a muthafuckin’ problem,” if not “the most dangerous independent record label.” But to be honest, the name Koch doesn’t quite instill the public with the same respect the way Ruthless or Death Row once used to. It doesn’t quite inspire the same awe as legendary labels like Def Jam or Rap-A-Lot.
Ironically, its artists will probably have less bad things to say about Koch than your typical victim of label politics because Koch is much less inclined to intervene in daily operations and creative decisions. The downside of which is that Koch often merely acts as a technical mediator who makes sure the product is present in the market. Rappers don’t represent Koch, they represent their crew or sub-label. Also, Koch doesn’t solely target the urban market and as such is not identifiable as a black music representative and isn’t helmed by a charismatic figure of Russell Simmons or Suge Knight stature.
That’s why Koch Records still has a long way to go if it ever wants to join the league of labels whose releases get copped on the strength of name recognition. People don’t buy DipSet CD’s because they’re on Koch, they buy them because DipSet continue to hustle their asses off, thus creating the perfect partnership for Koch’s business model. With various releases (currently: JR Writer’s “History in the Making”), the colorful click is well represented on “Summer Heat.” Another organization that found a home at Koch is D-Block, who are slated to release some CD/DVD/mixtape combination. Then there’s Tha Dogg Pound with “Cali Iz Active” and wouldn’t you know, the Def Squad is poised to make a return thanks to Koch. (Though they might want to check if ‘Erick Sherman’ is spelled correctly first.)
KRS-One continues to be on Koch (“The Lost Album” being announced), and of course we’re all eagerly awaiting his full-length collaboration with Marley Marl, which is previewed here with “On Top of My Game.” Other appetizers of note include “Dirty New York” by Cormega, Lake and Fat Joe and Big Rich’s E-A Ski-produced “That’s the Business.” As if that wasn’t enough, Koch also has its ears pinned to the streets in local markets, as evidenced by DJ Kurupt playing DJ Unk’s “Walk it Out” and letting you know that “it’s one of the hottest records in the ATL right now. You don’t know? Guess what, now you know.”
Overall, however, “Summer Heat” is highly unspectacular, an unmixed, overly hyped 80 minute parade of tracks, the majority of which makes me suspect that never before in history has rap music been so aggressive, violent and negative. We’ve kind of run out of people to blame, but at the end of the day Koch will have to realize that rap music is more than just a lucrative business, and that the deeper you get involved in it, the higher the responsiblity. We’ll consider the distribution of M-1’s “Confidential” as a first step towards accepting some of that responsibility.