MALDEN — Designing the cover art for Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Return to the 36 Chambers” back in 1995, the art department at Elektra Records was probably hoping for something like the reaction Rob Reilly had when he first laid eyes on it.
“When I saw that album as a kid, I wanted to take that card right off the cover. I wanted to hold it and show my friends,” says Reilly, creative director at online music boutique-label Get on Down, sitting inside his second-floor office in a modest business park. Seventeen years later, his vision has been realized: An oversize copy of the iconic New York Department of Social Services photo ID card featured on the cover of “Return” is perched on a nearby windowsill, ODB’s vacant expression nerve-jangling as ever.
The rest of the office is filled with items steeped in a similar spirit of creative nostalgia: a box of T-shirts with the logo of 1980s indie New York imprint Sleeping Bag Records; a series of 100-piece puzzles featuring old-school hip-hop legends such as Biz Markie and KRS-One; a rare Lee “Scratch” Perry record in a shiny new vinyl pressing. At Get on Down, listening to records is still an experience too immersive to be streamed or downloaded.
“My favorite record of all time is Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,’ ” says Matt Welch, a creative consultant with the label. “I can’t listen to that record without seeing the cover in my head. For me, it conveys the music the best out of any cover for any kind of music, ever. When you look at that record, before you even hear the music, you know what you are going to hear. The fact that that’s been minimized to a tiny thumbnail JPEG on iTunes is terrible to me. There’s no connection there.”
For Reilly and Welch, connecting with records has always been about more than just the music. Reilly began his career in the industry as a manager at Sam Goody in his native Connecticut before moving to Boston in 2004 and helping build UndergroundHipHop.com (UGHH) into a major independent Internet-based retailer. After his job was eliminated in 2008, Reilly was enlisted by Welch, then a sales associate at distributor Traffic Entertainment, to assist in the creation of a new online store aimed at catering to hard-core collectors and music nerds.
But before it could open for business, the store needed something to sell. That was their opportunity to use the records that inspired their love of music to revive a lost art. The first release, a double-CD and vinyl reissue of Common’s 1995 album “Resurrection,” set the tone for the company’s aesthetic: Take classic records that may not have gotten their due, add a wealth of extra audio material and goodies — in Common’s case, a large poster and detailed liner notes from the artist — and present them in style.
“A lot of times it involved creating a package that didn’t previously exist,” explains Trevor “Karma” Gendron, who served as art director on several Get on Down releases. On the CD version of “Return to the 36 Chambers,” for example, he designed and constructed from scratch the full-size custom wallet that housed both discs and accompanying ID card. “I don’t have any industrial design or engineering background, so it was a challenge. But you do it because you are trying to give people a reason to buy the physical product and connect with a record outside of just the music.”
From there, the concepts have become increasingly creative and ambitious: innovative New York dance producer Arthur Russell’s “24—>24 Music” repackaged in a four-LP vinyl set featuring rare test-pressing-only cuts, or all seven 7-inch vinyl singles from Pharcyde’s landmark release “Bizarre Ride II Pharcyde” housed inside a music box with a poster and 120-piece puzzle of the record’s iconic cover art. The label has also taken advantage of a robust vinyl market to reissue influential albums from cult artists such as David McCallum and Tom Scott, as well as underappreciated records from household names, such as Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Howlin’ Wolf Album.”
“We try to make every reissue complement the aesthetic, branding, sound, and music of the original,” says Reilly. “Anything we put the logo on, we want people to pick up off the strength of that. We are obviously reissuing this for a reason; you may not know the artist on the cover or may not know the history, but trust us, you’ll enjoy it.”
But while the label’s approach may be rooted in the pre-iTunes era, it’s not intended as a protest against digital music. The website, which launched this month, includes an MP3 store and all the requisite interactive elements expected of a modern Web-based business, and Reilly is confident the products can appeal to a young audience that grew up with iPods. It’s not about fighting technology but offering an alternative.
“There’s a generation of kids who probably don’t really respect what part the artwork played in a record, or how there was a give-and-take between the art director and the artist in trying to come up with a concept for the record,” says Joe Mansfield, who serves as another creative consultant alongside Welch and George Andrinopoulos (a.k.a. DJ 7L). “Maybe people felt like it wasn’t worth the effort to do these reissues. But obviously we think it’s worth the effort. It’s something that definitely needed to be done.”
Southie’s own Slaine reunites with his La Coka Nostra crew for their sophomore album, “Masters of the Dark Arts,” released this Tuesday. . . . Boston Music Award winner Moe Pope releases his newest mix tape, “Stampeding Elephants,” today through AnnieMulz.com, followed by a listening party Friday night at the Green Street Jungle at 252 Newbury St. . . . Long-running hip-hop party Fresh Produce celebrates its sixth anniversary on July 28 with special guest DJ 9th Wonder.