After-dark inquiry: Michael Weiss
The Nervous Records honcho marks 20 years of his seminal NYC house-music label with a big birthday blowout at Cielo.
Tue Jul 19 2011
Photograph: Courtesy Nervous Records
I've been buying Nervous records for two decades, but I've never known what the name referred to. What's the story?
Before I got heavily into club music, I was working in hip-hop. I basically would go to the hip-hop DJs and promote my records to them, and I suppose I was a bit of a novice at that, pushing things a bit too hard maybe. I think because of the way I acted around them, they all decided to call me Captain Nervous. For some reason, it stuck.
The name has served you well. The Nervous logo, a cartoon of a record slicing a guy's hair off, is quite distinctive too.
Back then, no one was using logos, and I thought it would be an easy way to make it stand out. I can't remember the original source of inspiration, but as a child, I was a fan of Krazy Kat, so I was looking for something that reminded me of that.
Nervous, along with a handful of other labels—like Strictly Rhythm, Emotive, Nu Groove and Maxi—not only helped to define New York house music in the early '90s, but also served to spread the New York sound throughout the world. Was that something that you had set out to accomplish?
Of course that was the dream, but again, I think the logo helped a lot. It caught on really quickly in Europe. And even though our first couple of releases had some impact, but the merchandise, which all had the logo, caught on even quicker. I can remember going over there for one of [London superclub] Ministry of Sound's opening parties. I walked in and saw this huge Nervous New York flag hanging in the front, and I knew that something interesting was going on.
Did you have much of a competition going on with Strictly Rhythm and the other labels?
It was a very friendly competition. When we all started, there wasn't so much corporate heat on us. We were all doing well overseas, and we were all just glad that we had this thing going on. If you think back, the events in New York at the time were all very industry oriented, like the Wednesday nights at Sound Factory Bar. We'd all be there—Strictly, Emotive, Maxi—and it was a great time. Louie Vega would be there, playing all of our new records, and then they would play the song the next day on [BBC's] Radio 1, and we were all just very happy. Tony Humphries's Saturday nights at Zanzibar were the same way. Tony would play one of our tracks, and then next week, Pete Tong would be playing it in London. It was crazy!
What was the very first Nervous release?
Well, Nervous 002 was "Feel It," by Niceguy Soulman, who was actually Roger Sanchez. But here's a little-known fact: Nervous 001 was a hip-hop track! It was a shelved track; it wasn't really released. I was seeing how house was progressing in New York and quickly decided to go a different direction instead.
Do you remember who the artist was?
It was...oh, it doesn't really matter. We don't want to have every trainspotter in the world searching for it!
What was the release that made you realize that Nervous was really going to be something?
That would have been Nervous 005, which was the Swing Kids, produced by Kenny Dope. And the other guys involved with that release were Louie Vega and Todd Terry! Those were the three kings of the house scene back in '91, and having them on the label brought a lot of heat. Every single DJ in the world was like, "What's next, what's next, what's next?" It was a pretty amazing time.
You mentioned your hip-hop background, and I think that one thing that people tend to forget was that Nervous, for a time, was a fairly influential hip-hop label as well as a house label. You had releases from Black Moon, EPMD, Funkmaster Flex....
We were actually the first to release any music from Funkmaster Flex. He wasn't on Hot 97 yet, but after we put out some of his 12-inches, he was. I do feel that we had something to do with that; he had been Chuck Chillout's DJ, but having his name on a piece of wax solidified him as a presence.
Nervous was never on hiatus, was it? You've been in operation for the full 20 years?
That's right. When digital downloading platforms came it, dance-music labels were hit particularly hard, probably because dance-music fans are pretty tech-savvy. There was a quick reduction of sales, so I did slow down around that time. I needed to see what was going to happen. But that only lasted for a couple of months; things like [digital retailers] Beatport and Traxsource came in pretty quickly, so we got right back on it.
Even before the advent of digital, it seemed like Nervous was changing with the times. You had started releasing lots of compilations, for instance, and teaming up with various corporate entities.
Yeah, we were the first ones to do an A/X Exchange party at the Winter Music Conference years ago, and we did a Playboy tour. No one else in this genre t was doing anything like that. I've always gone out a lot, so I've always had a pretty good idea of what the trends were, and what we would have to do to take advantage of them.
You still go out a lot nowadays, don't you? Strictly to keep up with the trends, I'm sure.
Yeah, you got it. The guys who always were on top of the game were the ones who were going out. Like [influential WBLS DJ] Frankie Crocker—even after he was the king of radio, he'd be at the Paradise Garage, finding out what the good records were. That's how you stay on top.
So going out to clubs helps you to decide what kind of music to put out?
Yeah, that firsthand kind of tangible evidence is very impactful. People can tell you what's working at the clubs, but you can't really get it as well, unless you're actually there, hearing the DJ play the music and seeing the reaction of the crowd. It's not that easy, especially with big-room house—you can go for three hours and the music is essentially all the same thing. But then there will be that one track, and if you are lucky enough to be there, then you'll know that's the one. And if you step away for a few weeks, you'll miss what people are reacting to.
Would you describe what Nervous is releasing nowadays as big-room, somewhat tribal-leaning house?
I would say that's what Nervous is, yeah.
You've also launched a new sublabel called Nurvous. What's that about?
I would say the easiest way to describe it is "new disco," the kind of music that's emerged out of Brooklyn and is so popular in England. Throughout the years, we've always been able to move in the direction of new trends. When American producers started making their own version of trance and techno back in the mid-'90s, we did the Sorted sublabel, for instance. That was actually where Josh Wink put out his first solo record. And Paul van Dyk's first American release was on Sorted too.
Yes, really! It was a remix of a Joe T. Vannelli track [1994's "Voices in Harmony"]. I remember the response we got was so abominable. People were really angry at us for that one—but it sold a ton! But back to Nurvous, that sound has such great potential because the people who are involved with it have no preconceived notion of what they have to do. We work with a lot of guys who have been doing this for 25 years, and they're all pros, but you eventually fall into a certain mold, like, "Now I have to make a record that will play well at Pacha at 5am." Which is great because we need that, but it's exciting to be involved with people who don't really think that way. They put a very creative spin with Change "with" to "on"?that music. The sales haven't been huge yet, but we have a lot of passion for it.
You have your 20th—anniversary party coming up with a killer lineup of veterans, including Kenny Dope, CJ Mackintosh and DJ Pierre.
They're all perfect for the event. They've been around forever, just like we have—and they're still all active, just like we are.
I'm guessing back in 1991, you wouldn't have thought you'd still be talking about Nervous in 2011.
I can distinctly remember four or five times where I was thinking, Wow, this is a really dry period. If we don't get something soon, it's gonna stop happening. But every time I think that, that's when things kick back in.
is at Cielo Thu 21.